1990s >> 1999 >> no-1142-october-1999

Book Reviews


    * The Darwin Wars
    * What is history?
    * Everything free

Gould v. Dawkins

The Darwin Wars by Andrew Brown. Simon and Schuster. £12.99.

This is a journalistic account of the arguments that have gone on recently amongst biologists in the Darwinian tradition, between those Brown calls the “Dawkinsians” and the “Gouldians”, so-called after Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1976) and Stephen Jay Gould, author of The Mismeasure of Man (1981) and of a series of collected essays on various aspects of evolution.

Although both sides have done original work in the field of biology and evolution, the argument is not really about the facts but about their interpretation. It is in fact a continuation of the old argument between the “Social Darwinists” and their opponents. The so-called Social Darwinists argued that the laws of biological evolution applied to humans in society and that in the social struggle for existence those who came out on top—the rich and the powerful—were entitled to their privileged social position as by achieving it they had proved to be “the fittest”.

Socialists were amongst those who opposed this apology for capitalist rule, arguing that Darwinian natural selection only applied in nature not to human society; because humans had acquired (as a result of course of their evolved biological make-up) the capacity to use tools their social development was driven not by biology but by technology, with social struggles not being a struggle of individuals against each other to survive but a struggle of classes over the control of the tools humans had developed.

Social Darwinism was revived in the 1970s under the name of “Sociobiology” which claimed, once again, that the laws of biological evolution applied to human society and that the behaviour of humans in society was governed by their biological nature; this, they said, was aggressive and anti-social as such traits had been necessary for human survival and so had evolved as part of the human biological make-up.

This was an attack on the up-to-then fairly widespread view amongst social anthropologists that there was no such thing as human nature in the sense of no such thing as biologically-determined human social behaviour since human behaviour in society was socially determined by the culture of the society they lived in. The findings of these anthropologists still stand but times had changed. The post-war boom had come to an end and, with states no longer able to sustain “altruistic” social reforms at previous levels, rugged individualism and no pity for the poor were back on the agenda.

Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene appeared in 1976. It was a brilliant title to capture the spirit of the coming period. His basic argument was that Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” takes place not between individual organisms but between their individual genes (a controversial proposition in itself) and that genes could therefore be metaphorically described as “selfish” in struggling to survive. The title, however, left itself to being interpreted as saying that humans were genetically selfish and that there was in fact a human gene for selfishness. As a biologist Dawkins knew this to be nonsense but he nevertheless let the title stand.

In the dispute between the “Dawkinsians” and the “Gouldians” it is clear on whose side Socialists don’t stand. Although Dawkins is a militant atheist who makes mince-meat of religion, he is wrong in so far as he lets it be suggested that human social behaviour is genetically determined. This argument has been refuted years ago and has only been revived recently for non-scientific, ideological reasons. This, however, does not make us uncritical “Gouldians”. Gould’s books contain valuable material, but we are not obliged to follow his view that evolution does not mean “progress”, nor his view that there is no inherent incompatibility between science and religion.



What is history?

Marxism and History. By S.H. Rigby, Manchester University Press, 1998.

This is a revised second edition of a book, first published in 1987, which is widely used at undergraduate level teaching. The focus of Rigby’s analysis is G. A. Cohen’s influential book, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, published in 1978. Cohen argued that Marx’s account of history is a form of “productive forces determinism” in which society’s productive forces (applied technology) bring into being specific class relations. As these productive forces develop throughout history, they periodically bring about new class relations of production. Thus the growth of the productive forces is said to be the dynamic which creates specific class relations and through them new forms of state and ideology.

Rigby admits that this is a legitimate reading of Marx, most notably found in Marx’s 1859 Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. Marx and Engels often asserted that the productive forces have an inherent tendency to develop throughout history but in practice, says Rigby, Marx was not consistent in applying such a thesis in his historical and contemporary analyses.

He argues that Cohen’s specific argument that society’s relations of production are functional for the productive forces is not an explanation of why the productive forces develop, nor is it consistently supported by historical evidence. Of course human history has seen a growth of productive power, but such developments have been specific to time and place. There have been periods of human history in which the productive forces stagnated or even regressed, other periods in which class relations have changed without any obvious development of the productive forces, and yet other periods where the growth of the productive forces bring no change in class relations. For Rigby, the growth of the productive forces does not explain the change from the Ancient world to feudalism and it was only after feudalism had ended and capitalist relations of property had been established that new productive forces were introduced.

Rigby asks how can the productive forces within capitalism bring about socialist relations of production without invoking some kind of determinist assertion? His contention is that productive forces do not determine class relations. Rather, that class relations determine the direction and rate of advance of the productive forces. Instead of determinism we have a conditional statement: “if the productive forces are to advance then certain relations of production must obtain”. According to him, “whether these relations of production do develop is historically contingent and can only be established through empirical research”; Marx’s theory of history is a guide in that research by supplying the framework for identifying societies and how they change.

A society is not identified merely by its class relations, it is rather a specific mode of appropriation of surplus labour. Feudalism was based on the appropriation of surplus labour as feudal tribute (whether in the form of money, produce or labour services) from the peasantry. Capitalism is a society where surplus labour takes the form of surplus value (ground rent, interest and profit) extracted from wage labour. However, class relations and the mode of appropriation of surplus labour do not always coincide. This can be seen in the Ancient world where the predominant relations of production were the master and slave of chattel slavery. Yet independent producers who were the forerunner of the medieval serf produced the surplus labour, appropriated as taxation. As the Roman Empire declined chattel slavery increased, but the increasing demands placed on the independent producers by an expanding and costly empire brought about (together with external invasion) internal collapse. There then followed four centuries of stagnation of the productive forces. A simple analysis of relations or forces of production would not reveal what was really going on.

Rigby argues that the development of the forces of production in feudalism had a tendency to stall and sometimes to recede, as in fourteenth-century England and seventeenth-century Poland; the process described by Marx as “the primitive accumulation of capital” was largely one of the establishment of capitalist relations of production prior to the “take off” with the productive forces in the industrial revolution. Hence his conclusion: “capitalism was not the result of the growth of the productive forces. On the contrary, capitalism was the cause of that growth.” From which it would follow that the case for socialism does not rest on the assertion that the productive forces have run up against the limits imposed by capitalist relations of production. Instead the argument would be how socialist relations of production will allow the forces of production to be used to meet human needs. If Rigby’s argument is correct, then this is not just a criticism of Cohen but also the theory of history in what is known as “classical Marxism”. You will need to read the book to decide.

Rigby also includes a useful account of state capitalism. At the same time he wrongly identifies Marx’s proposed first stage of communism as “socialism or the dictatorship of the proletariat”. Marx did not say that socialism was a first stage, nor did he equate it with working class political control of the state—which is what he meant by “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Rigby follows academic convention (as does Cohen) by wanting to keep Marx’s theory of history free from what he regards as Marx’s irredeemably false theory of value. But he cannot have it both ways. Rigby’s main contribution in this book is to emphasise how a society must be identified by its historically specific mode of appropriation of surplus labour. Capitalism is therefore identified as the extraction of surplus value through wage labour, and this clearly requires a theory of value as part of the identification process. Marx’s theory of history and his theory of value are dependent on each other.



Everything free

Nous qui désirons sans fin. By Raoul Vaneigem. Gallimard.

Vaneigem is a Belgian writer who was active along with another, Guy Debord, in an organisation called the Situationist International in Paris during the 1960s. The international bit was the triumph of hope over fact—there must have been all of a dozen of them.

Nevertheless a book he wrote at the time The Revolution of Everyday Life achieved a sizeable distribution and was translated into several other languages. It was well-received in the US which, like France, was going through a political upheaval at the time, caused mainly in the US by the Vietnam War and in France by the Algerian War. Britain at the time was contenting itself with the Beatles, Carnaby Street fashions, and the Mini, both the car and the skirt.

There are several problems for an English reader with this new book. Abstractions in English are derived from Franco-Latin but in French the same words are not necessarily abstractions, so the book will seem to be more abstract than it actually is. Add to this the author’s love of paradox, irony and wit and English readers could have a hard time. Nor are we helped by the way the book is put together. There is no sustained argument but, as the back cover puts it, only “brief analyses and theses which offer a critical examination of a market society in decline and of a living society called upon to replace it”.

Vaneigem is no reformist or derivative from Leninism. He is firmly on the libertarian socialist side of the line. His earlier book had a curious choice of heroes: blood and guts characters like the 19th century thief and murderer Lacenaire, who went to the guillotine, and was introduced to us as a character in the great classic film Les Enfants du Paradis. Another was the poet Lautréamont, who also lived and died violently. But that book was thirty years ago.

Now, after many other books, he writes:

Market civilisation is founded on forbidding anything for free. From this comes the blocks placed on our wants, on their refinement, on their harmonisation, and the on the fulfilment of a human future. This has been the first era to achieve this. It will be the last when, stimulated by the gifts of our natural energies, we have decided to no longer pay for anything at all in whatever way.



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