2000s >> 2003 >> no-1191-november-2003

Book Reviews

The First Darwinian Left. Socialism and Darwinism 1859-1914. By David Stack, New Clarion Press, 2003.

This book is in part a reply to Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Co-operation (reviewed in the April 2001 Socialist Standard) in which he agreed with those who have turned Darwinism into a theory of biological determinism and pleaded for reformists to become biological determinists too.

Stack points out that, when Darwin’s theory was first making headway at the end of the 19th century, amongst its prominent advocates were Socialists and leftwing reformists. Only, what they saw in Darwin was not a theory of biological determinism but a theory of evolution that could also be applied to human society.

Reformists, such as Ramsay MacDonald of the ILP in Britain and Edouard Bernstein in Germany, saw Darwin’s theory of evolution, when applied to society, as backing their case for a gradual reform of society. According to them, since society was a sort of organism it could not be changed mechanically or forcibly by a political revolution but could only change gradually, organically, through slow evolution. Hence Bernstein’s agreement to call the English translation of his 1899 criticism of Marxism, sponsored by MacDonald’s ILP in 1909, Evolutionary Socialism. All this is examined in detail by Stack.

But it wasn’t just reformists and gradualists who were influenced by the idea that society was an organism and that it, too, evolved. In fact, this did not come from Darwin himself at all but rather, in Britain, from the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). The early members of the Socialist Party were influenced by Spencer, as can be seen the volumes of his Principles of Sociology, inherited from an early member, lying unread today on the shelves of our party’s library. There were also favourable references to Spencer in the 1910 SPGB pamphlet on religion and in early articles in the Socialist Standard: e.g., the front-page article of the December 1906 issue was entitled “Is Society an Organism?”, to which the unequivocal answer was given: “Herbert Spencer and others have so firmly established the fact of the organic nature of Society that one is surprised to find it brought into question”.

How did the revolutionaries refute the gradualists’ arguments for evolution? Seeing society as an organism, they saw it too as having to survive by adapting to its environment (i.e., to the technological way in which its members got from the rest of nature what they needed to survive). Society in its capitalist form was based on the private ownership of the means of production, while the production process had become socialised or collective. This arrangement was ill-adapted to its environment and so society had to change, or rather had to be changed by the revolutionary action of the working class.

The view that Darwinian evolutionism did not rule out revolutionary change was given a boost, by a passage in his presidential address to the annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Cape Town in 1905, by one of Darwin’s sons, Professor George Darwin:

“The physicist, like the biologist and the historian, watched the effect of slowly varying external conditions; he saw the quality of persistence or stability gradually decaying until it vanished, when there ensued what was called in politics a revolution. These considerations led him to doubt whether biologists had been correct in looking for continuous transformation of species. Judging by analogy, they should rather expect to find slight continuous changes occurring during a long period of time, followed by a somewhat sudden transformation into a new species, or by rapid extinction”.

This passage was quoted on a number of occasions in the Socialist Standard. It has to added, though, that Professor Darwin was an astronomer and mathematician not a biologist himself (though he does seem to have anticipated Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’).

Stack makes the point that pre-WWI Marxism was hardly influenced by the ideas of Hegel. As the pun put it, it owed more to Haeckel (a German Darwinist) than to Hegel. He offers this as a criticism but it is open to question whether Hegel would have contributed anything more, or any less, useful than Spencer. (The only people in England at the time who read Hegel were a group of Idealist philosophers in Oxford.)

Stack’s book throws some interesting light on the intellectual life of the period during which our party was founded and which inevitably had some influence on it. One curious omission is any reference to Anton Pannekoek’s Marxism and Darwinism that was published in English by Charles Kerr in Chicago in 1908, so falling within the period.
Adam Buick

War No More: Eliminating Conflict in the Nuclear Age by Robert Hinde and Joseph Rotblat: Pluto Press £10.99.

World military expenditure for the year was estimated in 1999 at $850 billion, the kind of figure that just boggles the mind. Hardly anyone will disagree with what this book says about the evils and waste of war and the need to get rid of it. Unfortunately, while the authors’ hearts are in the right place, not much of their thinking is.

Any movement to do away with war must begin by examining the causes of war, so Hinde and Rotblat ask what makes wars happen. It is not human nature, they say: people are not naturally aggressive, and rather than aggressiveness causing war, it is warfare that makes people behave aggressively. Instead, they argue, there is no single cause of war, for wars occur when multiple factors come together. They accept that competition over resources is one possible contributing factor, and they discuss oil and other raw materials. Water, in particular, is likely to be an increasing cause of contention, e.g. in Southern Africa, though there has been no ‘Water War’ as yet.

It is argued that capitalism does not need war, but the emphasis on multiple causes of war is really a cop-out. This is because it downplays the ways that capitalist states need—not war itself exactly—but control over resources and the denial of such control to their rivals, and will be prepared to go to war if other avenues to achieve their aims fail. The part played by capitalist rivalry in causing war is not given sufficient attention. Instead it is suggested that “the maintenance of stability over the whole world is in the interests of businesses everywhere”. This is at best a half-truth, though, as the stability found in the status quo may be very much against the interests of some groups of capitalists.

Hinde and Rotblat then look at how to eliminate war, proposing a number of ideas. For instance, nationalist ideas (i.e. denigrating other countries and cultures) should not be tolerated, while patriotism (pride in one’s own culture) is fine. More interestingly, they advocate “a loyalty to humanity”, but have little beyond pious notions to offer as to how it can be brought about. They conclude by emphasising the need for “an equitable global community, to which we all belong as world citizens”. This might not be a bad way of describing Socialism, but that clearly isn’t what they have in mind. What they want instead is a nicer kind of capitalism, with the worst poverty removed, the role of the United Nations enhanced, and no national military forces, which is just a utopian vision. As a way of eliminating conflict, this is a non-starter.
Paul Bennett

The Ideas of Karl Marx: A beginner’s guide. By Aindrias O’Cathasaigh. Irish Socialist Network. €2.

This is the text of a talk given by the author to a meeting of an Irish reformist organisation who has published it as a short pamphlet. Naturally, in 16 pages Marx’s views can only be expressed in very succinct form. The parts concerning history and economics are basically OK,.

But it is the part on Marx’s political position that is confused. Marx argued that, to free themselves from capitalist exploitation, workers needed to win control of political power and that to do this they needed to organise into a political party; and that what socialists should be doing is everything they could to encourage the emergence of such a class political party.

In an understandable reaction against vanguardism—not that Marx had a vanguardist conception of the socialist party (he saw it rather as a mass democratic political movement)—O’Cathasaigh and the Irish Socialist Network recoil from the idea of a “party” and even from advocating socialism directly. This they see as socialists trying to impose their views on the working class; they favour going along with the day-to-day struggles of non-socialist-minded workers in the hope that these will somehow spontaneously evolve into a struggle for socialism.

Marx, who never hid his socialist light under a bushel, would have been appalled. Such timidity and drifting with the current will not advance the cause of socialism. It leads straight into the bog of reformism.
Adam Buick

New edition of News from Nowhere

Oxford University Press have just republished in their “World Classics” series a new edition of Morris’s News from Nowhere, with an introduction and notes by David Leopold (both of which are accurate and useful). Selling at £6.99, it is the cheapest edition currently available of this socialist classic. The ISBN is 0-19-280177-5.

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