Skip to Content


Darwin, Charles (1809-1882). Born and educated at Shrewsbury, passing on to Cambridge university to study theology. He sailed on a naturalist expedition in the Beagle (1831-1836), and on returning he spent over twenty years developing his hypothesis that species evolve by the process of natural selection. In 1859 his theories were published in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (usually abbreviated to Origin of Species). His theories created a major sensation, and their influence went far beyond the biological sciences, helping to create the scientific outlook of the late nineteenth century.

Marx thought very highly of Origin of Species and sent Darwin a presentation copy of Capital. But he did not, as sometimes claimed, offer to dedicate Capital to Darwin. Rather it was Marx's son-in-law, Edward Aveling, who offered to dedicate one of his own books to Darwin. Darwin never read Capital and he rejected Aveling’s offer. (See also DARWINISM.)


Janet Browne, Darwin’s Origin of Species, 2006

Darwin online:


Darwinism. Darwin’s theory of organic evolution through natural selection. Combined with gene theory as the ‘modern synthesis’, it is the ‘theory that evolution is guided in adaptively nonrandom directions by the nonrandom survival of small random hereditary changes’ (Richard Dawkins). However, Darwinism has become confused with the notions of ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘social Darwinism’.

In the fifth edition of Origin of Species (1869), at the suggestion his friend and colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin first introduced the notorious phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. Wallace had taken this phrase from the writings of Herbert Spencer, a well known champion of free market capitalism in late nineteenth century Britain. In Spencer’s social philosophy, which would later be called ‘Social Darwinism’, social organizations operate on exactly the same principles as biological organisms. But Darwin had never taken any of Spencer's ideas on social evolution seriously and the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ is at odds with Darwin’s own ideas about natural selection by adaptation.


Richard Dawkins, A Devil's Chaplain, 2003

Anton Pannekoek, Marxism And Darwinism, 1909

(online at:


De Leon, Daniel (1852-1914). De Leon joined the Socialist Labour Party in the United States in 1890. As editor of the SLP paper The People, De Leon was an outstanding advocate of Marxism until his death in 1914. In 1903 a Socialist Labour Party was formed in Britain, which broke away from the SDF a year before the SPGB, and modelled its ideas on the industrial unionist policy of De Leon and the American SLP. On the political front, De Leon firmly rejected reformism and argued for the capture of political power solely to establish socialism; and on the industrial unionist front he argued for a revolutionary trade unionism. In 1905 he joined in founding the Industrial Workers of the World (the ‘Wobblies’), a syndicalist organisation. (See also SYNDICALISM.)


Stephen Coleman, Daniel De Leon, 1990

De Leon online:


Democracy. A term which originated in ancient Greece where it meant rule by the citizens (which excluded the majority - foreigners, women and slaves). In the modern Western world, ‘liberal democracy’ means little more than regular elections in which competing political parties put up candidates for government office, offering voters the chance to choose between marginally different sets of policies. This is to be preferred to those conditions in countries where even these limited rights do not exist. However, ‘liberal democracy’ does not constitute a meaningful conception of democracy. Socialists argue that all governments, no matter how well-intentioned or enlightened, in trying to administer the capitalist system as a whole (‘the national interest’), usually pursue policies that favour the capitalist class. It is in this sense that the the United Nations has declared 15 September as the ‘International Day of Democracy’

In socialist society the machinery of government of the states of the world will have given way to democratic administration at local, regional and global levels. Real democracy will involve equality between all people with regard to the control of the use of the means of production. (See also COMMON OWNERSHIP; DICTATORSHIP; PARLIAMENT.)


Keith Graham, The Battle of Democracy, 1986


Depression (or Recession). Capitalist production goes through continuous cycles of boom, crisis and depression. In a boom some industries, encouraged by high profits, produce more than can be profitably sold in a particular market. A crisis then occurs. And, if the combined effect is large enough, it is followed by a depression as other industries get sucked into the downward spiral of unsold commodities and falling profits. Businesses then curtail production, or close down altogether, and lay off workers. Eventually the conditions for profitable production are restored (less competition as competitors go bust, an increased rate of exploitation, higher profits, etc.) and business booms … but only to repeat the cycle. (See also CRISES.)


Simon Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis, 1994


Dialectic. For Socrates it was teasing out the threads of an argument by asking questions. In Hegel's philosophy it was the development of the idea through history. With Marx and Engels, however, there is some dispute as to what their version of the dialectic means, or even if they were both talking about the same thing. This apparent confusion is compounded by Plekhanov's term ‘dialectical materialism’, a phrase not used by Marx or Engels, yet this was designated the official philosophy of state capitalist Russia in the years after the Bolshevik revolution.

For Marx it seems that his dialectic has two main features. Firstly, it is a philosophy of internal relations. Capitalism is a system constituted by its social relations of production, and a change to one relationship will have consequences for the whole system. This philosophical viewpoint tries to understand that process. Secondly, it is a method of abstraction. The key social relationships of capitalism (e.g. value, commodity, class) depend upon, but are not reducible to, material objects. They can only be comprehended as abstractions but they are nonetheless real and can affect our lives profoundly when they mean that profit-making takes priority over human needs. According to Bertell Ollman:

Dialectics is not a rock-ribbed triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis that serves as an all-purpose explanation; nor does it provide a formula that enables us to prove or predict anything; nor is it the motor force of history. The dialectic, as such, explains nothing, proves nothing, predicts nothing, and causes nothing to happen. Rather, dialectics is a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world.’

(See also HEGEL; MARXISM.)


Bertell Ollman, Dance of the Dialectic, 2003

(online at


Dictatorship. Under a dictatorship the traditional forms of working class political and economic organisation are denied the right of legal existence. Freedom of speech, assembly and the press is severely curtailed and made to conform to the needs of a single political party that has for the time being secured a monopoly in the administration of the state machine.

The concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has a central place in Leninist thought. The phrase was used by Marx and Engels to mean the working class conquest of political power. In State and Revolution (1917), however, Lenin wrote of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat under the guidance of the party’. The Leninist theory of the vanguard party leads inevitably to the dictatorship over the proletariat. (See also DEMOCRACY; LENINISM.)


Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: Dictatorship of the Proletariat, 1987

Draper on DOP:


Direct action. A form of civil disobedience in which people seek immediate remedies to political, social and environmental problems. Modern direct action movements, which can be violent or non-violent, often combines Green and anarchist strands of thought and urges people to organise at local level and avoid indirect electoral activity.

The direct action criticism of the socialist argument for gaining political power rests on disillusionment fostered by capitalism’s inability to solve its own problems, and a belief that the capitalist class would use the state to violently crush a majority decision to establish socialism. On the other hand, this is contradicted by their claim that the ruling class will give in to pressure from below from grass-roots groups who have not shown that they represent the majority view. (See also ANARCHISM; ECOLOGY; GREENS)


Earth First! Direct Action: