Darwinism and Marxism

Darwinism and Marxism both reveal in their respective spheres an ordered pattern of evolutionary development. Because one deals with the world of organic nature and the other with the world of men organised in Society, we can say that Marxism begins where Darwinism leaves off, yet together they form two halves of a unified cosmic whole.

That both Marx and Engels were highly gratified with the publication of The Origin of Species there was no doubt. Marx said, “It provides the basis in Natural History for our own theory,” while Engels comments on “Darwin’s emphasis on struggle and the discomforting of the conventionally religious who believed in the harmonious co-operation of organic nature.” Yet both Marx and Engels were critically conscious of the limitations of Darwinism and its shortcomings.

What are the limitations of Darwinism? We may begin by saying that while Darwinism can account for the emergence of a biologically gifted creature from a simian ancestry, it cannot adequately explain man himself. By this is meant, man, not as a bare biological entity but as a social animal, capable of entering into definite relations with his kind via a form of economic organisation unprecedented in the animal kingdom.

It is true, animals adapt themselves to their environment and within narrow limits can change it. But the animal world is itself a largely unchanging one, certainly not a transformative one. On the other hand, humans live in a world which they change and which changes them in turn. Moreover, men do not alter the environment as the result of organic or instinctive activity. They do not confront it with their bodily organisation but through their social organisation. Their mode of adaptation is not one of tooth and claw but of tools, techniques and division of labour. Men never face nature as bare individuals, or directly, as a fish in water or a bird in the air, but always as socially organised productive units.

Because men act upon their environment not as biological units but social units their environmental adaptations are social ones, via the medium of economic production. Thus the launching of the “Queen Mary” or the test flight of a Viking aircraft are not adaptations to the elements by way of fins, gills or wings: they are society’s adaptation to the elements through a given division of labour.

It may be said that ants and bees are organised for production. But their organisation is the outcome of innate responses and will be reproduced ad infinitum. The economic organisation of men is not innate. It is not instinctively regulated, but consciously directed. This economic organisation is not “inside” an individual but outside of him. Simply, it is men entering into productive relations with other men. This does not presuppose some voluntary act, but the conditions in which men find themselves. For it is only by the necessity of economic organisation, in which men enter into such production relations with other men, that the production and reproduction of themselves becomes possible. So while human economic organism is external to each single man he is indissolubly connected with it by his relations with other men who are indispensable for his existence.

This interdependence of human beings expressed through their economic organisation reveals that the bond between man and man is not metaphysical or psychological, but practical. Men discover each other’s bodies and actions, before they discover each other’s minds. Men need one another in order to live before they need one another in order to converse. Consciousness is social before it is individual. The “us” is discovered prior to the “me.” Before there is a man there are men.

Humanised Environment

Men are born into a set of social relations which they do not determine although these relations provide a range of possibilities, which, if actualised by men, can change or modify these relations and thus initiate a new range of possibilities and set new limits. While men are environmentalised humans they are nevertheless able to humanise their environment, and this progressively so. And this humanised milieu is reflected in towns, cities, roads, canals, bridges, machines and power stations, etc. Thus men are able to change their environment and be changed by it in a way not possible to an animal economy. That is why different environments have produced different men, be it the Australian bushman, Athenian gentleman, the Roman centurion, the medieval knight, serf and guildsman, or wage worker and capitalist.

Man’s environment is not something over and above him, a set of natural conditions to which he must conform, not something against which he operates, but something through which he operates. Man’s environment is a humanised environment because it is the externalisation of human economic production. Human society is not something in which men stand in contrast to an externally imposed nature; human society is the interaction between nature on the one hand, and man and man united in economic production on the other. Nature, then, in that it becomes itself the subject matter of men’s productive activities, is social nature and historical nature. This is the essence of historical materialism.

It is the unity of this double interacting process between collective man, i.e., men socially organised in production and nature which constitutes the warp and woof of human society and marks it off from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The infant born as a biological entity into human society does not face a natural environment in which its growth and maturity are dependent on a pre-determined pattern of behaviour or innate responses. He is born into a social organisation and adapts himself to society. The biological unit born into a humanised environment becomes an environmentalised human with a humanised nature which comprises the characteristic human qualities—language, consciousness and self-consciousness, i.e., individuality. It is then socially organised men, organised through the instrumentality of economic production, who are able to act on and through their environment and, by changing it, change themselves. It is this interacting process of man and his environment and the changes which result which constitute the law of historical development. It is not, then, the history of man in isolation, of abstract man, it is the story of active man entering into concrete, productive relations with others of his kind. It is the story of associated man who in changing the world has changed himself. “By acting on the external and changing it, man changes his own nature.” (Capital, Vol. 1, p. 198) “All history,” proclaims Marx, “is the modification of human nature.” Human nature, far from being, as believed by many Darwinists, a constant in world history, is a variable which can within wide limits be modified by man’s social and historical development. It was for this reason that Marx and Engels saw the limitations of Darwinism when they were fitting in that other half of the cosmic picture. The story of man is, then, the story of associated man, the story of what makes his social organisation and what makes him.

It was this other half of the cosmic whole which showed how from the economic production of associated man grew ritual, convention, social authority, and from which there evolved art, ethics and law, and the State, called by Marx the social superstructure, and because, in the evolution of society, the superstructure has become more remote from the economic foundations of society, it is imagined by many to have a life of its own. It was Marx who showed how these “flowers of civilisation,” ethics, law and politics, could only grow and be nourished from the economic soil.

The Dynamic of History

It was historical materialism which showed that the starting point of history is the nature and intensity of man’s needs and how man in order to more adequately satisfy old needs improves his tools and productive techniques and in the process discovers new needs. The dynamic of history is the interaction of man’s needs, and the changes in productive and technological processes in order to meet them; and by needs Marx meant not the bare vulgarised formula of mere food, clothing and shelter, for these themselves undergo qualitative changes. He included the whole of social culture, art, aesthetics, philosophy, science, as constituting formative human needs. The change in the quality and character of human needs and the technological means of gratifying them is the keynote to changes in human society and human nature. In fact, part of Marx’s massive indictment of present society was that its class conditioned character was inadequate to satisfy human needs at any worthwhile human and cultural level.

But if human needs and the search for the means to gratify them have constituted the principle of historical evolution, then who have been the active carriers or agents of this change? Here Marx’s answer was, from the point of historical research, revolutionary and revealing. Out of the needs of men, he said, arose the division of labour and from it arose specific vocational activity which came to confer social and economic advantages on those who performed them, and from being organisers and custodians of tribal property there evolved a privileged section who acquired class control over the productive resources and who held the unprivileged rest to economic ransom via exploitation.

Since the breakdown of primitive society human needs have been conditioned and expressed in the form of class needs, and the drive for the expansion of fresh outlets to gratify needs has been via class interest and activity. An extant ruling class will seek to preserve the conditions in line with its class needs and interests. Another class will seek to actualise and extend in line with its own needs the possibilities of economic development inherent in the old set-up in line with its own class needs. There is thus a struggle between the old and new contending social factions which, as Marx says, either ends in the overthrow of the old class or in the common ruin of the contending factions.

Marx showed that class struggles have, since the breakdown of early tribalism, taken a line through slavery, feudalism and capitalism. He also showed how the evolution of class society had brought about the conditions for the abolition of classes and the possibilities for realising a classless order.

Perhaps without unduly straining the meaning of the term, the materialist conception of history, we could call it the labour theory of history. For it was Marx and Engels who showed the vital part played by the labour process in the formation of human society and hence man himself, and were thus able to shed light on a subject which the subject-matter and nature of Darwin’s investigation could not adequately deal with. That was the transition of a special kind of anthropoid ape to human organisation.

Dismissing the notion of a bare individual man, living apart from associated man or, what comes to the same thing, apart from society, we are forced to the conclusion that sub-human anthropoids were unwittingly forced to associate in some primitive form of economic organisation and it was this economic activity over vast periods of time which compelled them to become man in the making and finally men. It was this pre-labour process, because labour does not strictly begin until man has become a tool-producing animal, which co-ordinated their activities and by bringing them together increased their mutual support and widened these activities and multiplied their mutual efforts.

Social Evolution

“Natural selection”—”the survival of the fittest,” have no determination in the making of human society. Mutual co-operation certainly, though not in the biological sense, but by a primitive economic organisation of sub-humans interacting with its environment, which modified it and was modified by it in turn. Via social inheritance, cumulative changes were continuously transmitted and with the richer and more diverse and ever-growing experience, came ever-increasing ability to carry out productive acts to more complex levels. Finally, consciousness becomes the directing agent in production and man emerges. It is not man’s biological gifts which constitute social life, but social life which facilitates and gives them expression in a socially organised way.

It was in the formation of this labour process that articulation became increasingly necessary as a means of communication. It was this impulse that developed the larynx of our simian ancestry and by means of greater and greater modulation, it finally came about that man learned to speak to man. Speech thus became the expression of human consciousness and itself the practical outcome of the need of socially organised existence.

While Darwinism dealt with biological evolution which included man, Marxism dealt with the evolution of man himself, i.e., associated man or human society and in doing so filled in important gaps left by Darwinism.

It might be said Darwinism is accepted today and Marxism is not. Darwinism, however, appeared as a threat to religion, not private property. Marxism threatened the existence of both.

It would be an overstatement to say that Darwin’s theory is accepted in a real sense. A Society such as this, without real social direction and purpose, and whose economic forces work blindly and destructively, must reflect this in its social attitudes and theories. That is why magic, fetishism and religion remain the mirrors of a distorted reality. Even “science” retreats before “the higher truths.” To accept scientifically and objectively man’s link with the animal world presupposes a humanity and humility inconsistent with a set of social relations itself based on the domination of man over man, and which generates in its decline a vast malaise and a neurotic impulse to self-destruction.

Only a classless society will have the humanity to objectively proclaim its link with the animal world—only a socialist society will fully acknowledge both Marx’s and Darwin’s great contribution to the intellectual heritage of mankind.

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