2000s >> 2003 >> no-1190-october-2003

Marxism and Darwinism by Anton Pannekoek

(The Socialist Party has just re-issued this pamphlet with the following new introduction)
It could be asked why the Socialist Party in 2003 should re-issue a pamphlet on Marxism and Darwinism written almost a century ago by the Dutch socialist, Anton Pannekoek? Written in 1905, it can hardly be expected to add anything new to the subject of Marxism. Also, since then, there has been a vast accumulation of evidence in support of Darwin’s evolutionist theories, with the result that they are almost universally accepted. This may be true but the continuing importance of this pamphlet is for different reasons. Pannekoek brought together the works of Darwin and Marx in a way that not only showed how each complemented the other but also provided vital lessons even for today.

What Pannekoek did was to present in a few simply written pages an integrated view of our human past which enables us to see in clear perspective our origins as an animal species and also our social nature which has been a key part of developing society. He shows how these two sides of our lives, the biological and the social, have not been entirely separate. Particularly in the section “Tools, Thought and Language”, he suggests that our physical attributes, the product of biological evolution, once pre-disposed a toolmaking tradition that stimulated abstract thought, language and an ability to develop socially by accumulating our experience from one generation to another. Eventually this dynamic interaction between the physical, mental and social with the natural environment was expressed as culture and then latterly, history.

What is also important in this pamphlet is its awareness of change. This is not just a reminder of the impermanence of things but also of our powers to create a society better able to provide for our needs. It was for this that Pannekoek recognised the importance of a scientific approach. Although he was trained as an astronomer and mathematician and made significant contributions in these fields, he also realised that it was in the study of human relationships and social problems where sound theory should lead most urgently to sound political action. It was this that took him into the fields of Darwinism and Marxism. “Thus, both teachings, the teachings of Darwin and Marx, the one in the domain of the organic world and the other upon the field of human society, raised the theory of evolution to a positive science.” (page 6)

With The Communist Manifesto issued in 1848, The Origin of Species in 1859 and the first volume of Capital in 1867, within a few years, Darwin and Marx placed our understanding of human origins and developing society on a scientific basis. This gave great strength to radical opinion which challenged supernatural ideas of creation and elitist views of history. Henceforward these lost much of their authority and were placed on the defence.

But the use of Darwinism was not only by those who were against creation and the political power of religion. Vulgarised as merely the “survival of the fittest” in the economic competition between individuals “social Darwinism” was used to justify class society. In this view capitalism was depicted as “the natural order of things”.

Pannekoek comments, “Strong as these arguments may appear at first sight they were not hard for socialists to overcome”. In countering these views he cited the social nature of humankind which meant that individuals draw their strength from co-operation with others. Indeed, human development would never have been possible without co-operation. Because it conferred vital survival advantages on the group co-operation can be said to be more in line with our natural inheritance.

This being the case, although strictly speaking, nothing humans can do can be said to be “unnatural”, it is evident that the class relationships of the capitalist system and the competitive economic individualism through which they operate are most destructive of the interests of the whole community. It was Pannekoek’s vision of our past and of our future possibilities inspired by the works of Darwin and Marx that still has the utmost relevance to the plight of humanity today. It sets out the political means by which we can bring our social nature and our needs as individuals into harmony with social relationships based on co-operation.

This is why we are re-issuing this classic pamphlet, not simply because it is a historical document but also because it still blends the science of our origins as a species with an understanding of social development, our problems and what needs to be done to solve them. Like many radical writers of his day, Pannekoek was greatly impressed by the development of science in all fields and especially its application in rapid technical innovation. He was optimistic that progress would lead to a great working class movement and political action to create a classless society in which all means of production and resources will be held in common by all people and used solely for needs.

The fact that this is still to be achieved only adds to the urgency of our need to realise Pannekoek’s vision. “With the abolition of classes the entire civilised world will become one great productive community . . . Here a new career opens for man; man’s rising from the animal world and carrying on his struggle for existence by the use of tools, ceases, and a new chapter of human history begins.”

The pamphlet can be obtained from:The Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High St, London SW4 7UN for £1.30 (postage included). Cheques and postal orders should be made payable to “The Socialist Party of Great Britain”.

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