Marx and Engels on The Origin of Species

Engels bought a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species as soon as it was published.

Two books of importance were published in 1859, one in June and the other in November. Each one stands at the opposite pole of popularity at the time they were published. And this contrast has persisted up to the present day. One hundred and fifty years after their publication, one is being celebrated as one of the most significant and audacious books ever to be published; the other is virtually forgotten.

Both were written with some degree of reluctance by their authors, requiring pressure from theirs friends and supporters. Great things were expected of both. However, only one of them fulfilled them.

The first book, published in German, was by Karl Marx: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This was to be the first instalment of a series of pamphlets, presenting what was to be a withering assault on the ideological foundations of capitalist society. But the beginnings were not good. Marx even had to write to his publisher to find out whether it had been published or not. And then there were the reviews, or rather their absence. Writing to Lassalle on the 6th of November 1859, Marx wrote: “I expected to be attacked or criticised but not to be utterly ignored, which, moreover, is bound to have a serious effect on sales.” But even his followers were disappointed.

The contrast with the other book could not be greater. Charles Darwin, spurred into action by a letter he received the year before from fellow naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had produced what he called an abstract of his work of the past twenty years. He had brought before the public gaze what he would have preferred to keep hidden, anxious as to how it would be received. But Wallace’s letter had forced his hand, and he had to publish.

The Origin of Species was brought out on the 24 November in a print run of 1250 copies. Earlier that month, Marx had written of the total silence that his book had received. The reception for Darwin’s book could not have been different. Within 24 hours all the copies had been sold. The Darwinian Age had began. As the modest Darwin would not have said: Après moi, le deluge!”

First Response

It was Engels who was the first to respond to The Origin. He had always taken a keen interest in developments in the natural sciences and their relationship to his and Marx’s materialist conception (some commentators have seen this interest in science as an importation of positivism, and as incompatible with Marx’ view). Engels had bought one of the copies of the first edition, and within the month, he wrote to Marx on the 12 December:

“Darwin, by the way, whom I’m reading just now, is absolutely splendid. There was one aspect of teleology that has yet to be demolished, and that has how been done. Never before has so grandiose an attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in Nature, and certainly never to such good effect. One does, of course, have to put up with the crude English method.”

Darwin, Darwin, Darwin

On the publication of The Origin, Marx was involved in other work. But when he had a chance to read it a year later, his assessment of it was similar to that of Engels, to whom he wrote on the 19 December, 1860:

“In my times of trial [illness] during the last four weeks -I have read all sorts of things. Among others, Darwin’s book on Natural Selection. Although it is developed in a crude English way, this is the book that contains the natural-history foundation of our view point.”

A month later on the 16 January, 1861 he wrote to Lassalle in similar terms:

“Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle. One does, of course, have to put up with the clumsy English style of argument. Despite all its shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained.”

What is significant about the assessment of Marx on Darwin, compared to that of Engels, is that it is Marx who is the first to relate Darwin’s theory with his and Engels’ materialist conception. For Engels it is only the anti-teleological content of The Origin that is noted.
That Marx took more than a passing interest in the Darwin phenomenon is revealed in the recollections of his German supporter, Wilhelm Liebknecht. In his Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs (1896; English translation 1901, pp. 91-92) he wrote:

“Marx was one of the first to comprehend the importance of Darwin’s investigations. Even before 1859 … Marx had recognized the epochal importance of Darwin …. And when Darwin drew the consequences of his investigations and presented them to the public we spoke for months of nothing else but Darwin and the revolutionizing power of his scientific conquests. I emphasize this, because ‘radical enemies’ have spread the idea that Marx, from a certain jealousy, acknowledged the merit of Darwin very reluctantly and in a very limited degree.”

In addition, he states that Marx attended the Popular Lectures of Liebig, Moleschott and Huxley and that these “were names mentioned in our circle as often as Ricardo, Adam Smith, McCullock and the Scotch and Irish economists” (p.91). In the autumn of 1862, Marx also attended a series of six lectures on Darwin by T.H. Huxley.

Darwin’s OK, but….

For both Marx and Engels, the most significant feature of Darwin’s work was the way in which it dealt a death-blow to theFrederick Engels theological teleology which had blighted almost all forms of thinking about the human and non-human world. There was no divine plan which gave direction to human action and nature was not a set of fixed entities. There was a history of human development and a history of natural development, and neither was directed by a divine purpose.

But the rejection of religious teleology did not imply that there was no order or development in the human and natural domains, where everything was just a series of random accidents. Rather, the explanation of the order and development was now put down to processes within each domain, without the need to refer to the outside influence of a divine being. For Darwin, the explanation for the evolution of species was primarily, but not exclusively, to do with the process of natural selection.

While Marx was happy to accept the anti-theological implications of Darwin’s work, he could not fully accept everything. It must be remembered that Marx was thoroughly educated in the philosophy of Aristotle and the post-Aristotelians, and had completed his doctoral thesis in this area. The influence of naturalistic Greek philosophy was to remain with him, and he did not reject Aristotle in the way that the 17th century British atomistic materialists did in their rejection of medieval Aristotelianism (the adaptation of Aristotle to Christian theology).

The importance of Marx’s Aristotelianism is seen in what he saw as a limitation of Darwin’s work. On the 7 August 1866, Marx wrote to Engels:

“A very important work which I will send you (but on condition that you return it, as it is not my property) as soon as I have made the necessary notes, is: P. Tremaux, Origine et Transformations de l’Homme et des autres Etres (Paris, 1865). In spite all the shortcomings that I have noted, it represents a very significant advance over Darwin. . . . Progress, which Darwin regards as purely accidental, is essential here ….   In its historical and political applications far more significant and pregnant than Darwin.”

The relevant notion here is that of “essential”. For Marx, any scientific explanation had to include elements of both the “essential” and the “accidental”. But for the majority of scientists in the 19n century, any element of Aristotle was unacceptable.

Despite the fulsome praise which Marx heaped on Tremaux’s work, it did not have any impact on the scientific world, and it sank without trace (a reassessment of this work can be found at And Engels, too, tore it to shreds (Engels to Marx, 2 October 1866). Marx tried one more time to persuade Engels of the importance of Tremaux’s work: “an idea which needs only to be formulated to acquire permanent scientific status” (Marx to Engels, 3rd October 1866).

Malthus and Darwin
Although the initial response of both Marx and Engels to Darwin’s work was positive, further reading brought out criticisms. For Marx, Darwin relied too much on the “accidental” in his explanation (see above), but it is not clear whether Engels shared this Aristotelian criticism. Both, however, were in agreement when it came to Darwin’s use of the population theories of the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Both despised Malthus. As early as 1844, Engels had called Malthus’s theory, which he saw as the “keystone of the liberal system of free trade”, as “this vile, infamous theory, this hideous blasphemy against nature and mankind” (“Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy”, 1844).

Writing to Engels on 18 June 1862, Marx commented:

“I’m amused that Darwin, at whom I’ve been taking another look, should say that he also applies the ‘Malthusian’ theory to plants and animals, as though in Mr Malthus’s case the whole thing didn’t lie in its not being applied to plants and animals, but only – with its geometric progression – to humans as against plants and animals. It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.”

Darwin’s theory, then, was compromised by the importation of ideological capitalist theory. This did not imply that what Darwin said was wholly invalidated; only that the Malthusian justification had to be jettisoned. This was essential, as the Malthusian justification of the struggle for existence in nature could be used to justify the same principle in society as capitalist social relations. This was seen by Engels:

“When this conjurer’s trick has been performed.. .the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved. The puerility of this procedure is so obvious that not a word need be said about it. (Engels to Pyotr Lavrov, 12-17 November, 1875)

Engels went on to discuss the relationship of Malthus and Darwin to Marxism at greater length in Part 1 (especially section VII, Natural Philosophy. The Organic World) of Anti-Duhring (1878, English edition 1894), and to explore the evolution of the human species in the posthumously published Dialectics of Nature, in particular the section “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”, originally written in 1876.

In the work published during his lifetime, Marx refers to Darwin only in Capital, volume 1, and here only in two footnotes (Penguin edition, pages 461 and 493-494). He talks of the “epoch-making work” of Darwin and of how it directed his attention to the “history of natural technology, i.e., the formation of the organs of plants and animals which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life.”

Against Darwinian Marxism

For Marx and Engels, there is no doubt that they saw Darwin’s work as a significant step forward in the understanding of the natural world, especially in its eviction of theological teleology as a form of scientific explanation. But there was no plan to produce some grand Darwinian-Marxist synthesis, using natural selection as a justification for the Marxian analysis of society. Both nature and society were part of natural history. However, this did not mean that society could be reduced to nature. The attempt by German socialists in particular to ground socialism in natural selection was vehemently opposed by both Marx and Engels and by Darwin. Writing to Scherzer on 26 December, 1879, Darwin wrote:

“What foolish idea seems to prevail in Germany on the connection between Socialism and Evolution through Natural Selection.”

In a similar vein, but more sarcastically, Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelman on 27 June, 1870:

“Mr Lange [a German economist], you see has made a great discovery. All history may be subsumed in one single great natural law. This natural law is the phrase (- the Darwinian expression becomes, in this application, just a phrase -) ‘struggle for life’, and the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population, or rather over-population. Thus, instead of analysing this ‘struggle for life’ as it manifests itself historically in various forms of society, all that need be done is to transpose every given struggle into the phrase ‘struggle for life’, and then this phrase into the Malthusian ‘population fantasy’. It must be admitted that this is a very rewarding method – for stilted, mock-scientific, highfaluting ignorance and intellectual laziness.”

Marx is Marx and Darwin is Darwin. There is no Marx-Darwin. At his funeral in 1883, Engels was justified in comparing the importance of Marx with that of Darwin, but in doing so he recognised that their theories covered different terrains. There could be no marriage of Marx and Darwin any more than there could be with Marx and Newton. Many have tried to arrange the Marx-Darwin marriage over the last 150 years, but it always results in unhappiness.


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