Marx and Darwin

Two figures dominated the nineteenth century — Charles Darwin, the Englishman, and Karl Marx, the German. Both men achieved fame through the written word, although neither was a great public figure or great orator. They never addressed large public gatherings, except once when Marx spoke to the Congress of the International Working Men’s Association at The Hague. Darwin would have been horrified at the very thought.

Marx and Darwin were the original “back-room boys”, interested only in science and books. In The Origin of Species, Darwin disposed of all religion; in Das Kapital, Marx put paid to capitalism. These two books circulate today in more editions and more languages than ever before. Marx was the seer of the future whose writings explain the rise, evolution and destiny of human society; Darwin was the discoverer of Evolution — the process of tiny variations resulting in basic changes and new species. Revolution and Evolution are complementary, resulting in scientific socialism.

Both thinkers were the products of their own peculiar and very diverse social backgrounds. Darwin came from a prosperous family, his father being the most popular physician in Shrewsbury. Marx came from a long line of distinguished Rabbis and his father was the local recorder in the Rhineland town of Trier on the banks of the Moselle. Both men spent a care-free childhood and youth in the bosom of comfortable families and indulged in the usual student larks — Marx being gated for rowdiness in a pub, and Darwin declaring that he drank too much at Cambridge. They were of different builds. Marx, although described by his son-in-law Paul I.afargue as “of powerful build, with broad shoulders and a deep chest”, was no athlete. Darwin was tall, slim, and a crack shot and expert horseman. Both, however, were tireless walkers.

Both Marx and Darwin were at loose ends following their college careers. Darwin was reluctant to become a country parson. as his father wanted. Marx did not want to follow his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. Marx was forced into journalism and subsequently acquired the editorship of the Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne in 1842; Darwin became a naturalist. Both professions were somewhat precarious, but Darwin never had any money troubles while Marx never had anything else.

Both were dedicated family men. Marx married relatively early on leaving Berlin University. Jenny von Westphalen was a beauty with a remarkable intellect, a woman to whom the poet Heinrich Heine would submit his finest lines. She had a remarkable father, Ludwig von Westphalen. descended from the Dukes of Argyle. But this aristocratic upbringing was not the best qualification for the appalling deprivation that Marx’s family were to suffer in the slums of Soho and Kentish Town. Darwin married his cousin, Emma Wedgewood, grand-daughter of the famous potter, and settled at Downe House in Kent with ten servants.

Both men were inspired by previous writers: Marx by the German philosopher Hegel, Darwin by the geologist Charles Lyell. But Marx’s militant materialism proved too much for the German academic authorities and he was forced to emigrate to Paris. He had early acquired the habit of long spells of night work, copying out the classics by candlelight and teaching himself French, English and Italian with phrase books and dictionaries. Unfortunately Darwin never read the copy of Das Kapital sent to him by Marx. Instead he read Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population and swallowed it whole, writing “At last! I have a theory on which to work”. Malthus had ascribed a geometrical increase to human societies and an arithmetical one to food supply; Darwin transferred the first to the animal world to become “the survival of the fittest” — thus turning Malthus on his head.

Both men had their champions. Frederich Engels kept the Marx family alive and wrote a series of articles which Marx signed to earn one guinea a time from the New York Herald Tribune. He later even accepted the alleged paternity of Marx’s illegitimate son by Helene Demuth. Darwin was championed by Thomas Huxley, the ex-naval surgeon who had also made lengthy voyages aboard H.M.S. Rattlesnake. He was popularly known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”.

In their style of writing Marx and Darwin differed greatly. Darwin carefully built up an irrefutable weight of evidence, piling fact upon fact. He concluded The Descent of Man thus:

  For my part, I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey who bared his breast to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs, as from the savage, who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.

On the other hand. Marx has never been excelled as a political polemicist and creator of powerful and rich language. In The Civil War in France, for example, he writes:

  Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will forever be celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators History has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them.

And Isaiah Berlin says of the Communist Manifesto that much of it is written in “prose which has the lyrical quality of a great revolutionary hymn, whose effect, powerful even now, was probably greater at the time” (Karl Marx, 1964).

Darwin was the most conciliatory and accommodating controversialist, devoting whole chapters to recapping the attacks of his opponents and stating quite frankly that their refutation faced him with great difficulties; succeeding, nevertheless, in doing so brilliantly. Marx, however, was frequently exasperated by the absurdities of criticisms, most of all by those from people claiming to be his supporters. These included his sons-in-law Jean Longuet and Paul Lafargue, who he described sarcastically as “the last Proudhonist and the last Babeufist”.

Darwin’s ideas of the future never get beyond his dreams of a Eugenic Society and “the prosperity of the Arts by the Accumulation of Capital”. Important though his work was for the establishment of truth and the refutation of religious dogma, it was nevertheless Karl Marx who transcends all thinkers by the audacity and confidence of his prediction of socialist society.