Marx and the Ideology of Darwin

Marx admired Darwin’s work but was critical of some of the conclusions drawn from it. The second of our three-part article on Marx and Engels and Darwin .

In Marx’s initial enthusiastic reading of The Origin of Species he had written to both Engels (19 December 1860) and Lassalle (16 January 1861) that it “contains the natural-history foundation of our viewpoint” and that “it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle.” What could he have meant by these comments? He was certainly not saying that the Darwinian process applied to human society. After all, Marx had spent nigh on 20 years grappling with trying to understand social processes and arriving at the “guiding thread” of his materialist conception. It is unlikely that in the 18 months separating what he wrote in the famous 1859 Preface and his reading of Darwin’s Origin that he would have jettisoned his own hard won approach and replaced it with Darwin’s. So what was the connection with Darwin? It is unlikely to have been Darwin’s Malthusianism, as anything smacking of Malthus would have been contemptible to Marx. Perhaps a closer look at what Darwin meant by the phrase “struggle for existence” may help.

Darwin made clear in The Origin that he used this phrase in a metaphoric sense to cover a wide range of situations:

“I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphoric sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals in time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get the food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent on the moisture.”
(Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859; Penguin edition 1968, p.116.)

“Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life.” (ibid., p.117.)

This “large and metaphoric” meaning of the phrase “struggle for existence” includes more than the Hobbesian “war of all against all” or of “nature red in tooth and claw” of Tennyson, and refers to the necessity of all biological species to obtain their means of survival and reproduction from their interaction with the environment they inhabit, and that different biological forms have different kinds of interaction with their surroundings. Human beings, too, have to confront this problem of obtaining their conditions of existence. Indeed, in The German Ideology (1845) in which Marx and Engels first formulated their materialist conception, they state:

“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus, the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, oro-hydrographical, climatic and so on. All historical writing must set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.” (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, volume 5, p. 31.)

In this process of obtaining their conditions of existence humans in particular construct and use tools as instruments of production, but so too, to a lesser degree, do other animals. Far more important for animals in this was the specialised development of parts of their body. And it was this aspect of Darwin’s “epoch-making work” (Capital, volume 1, Penguin edition, 1976, p. 461, note 6) that Marx referred to in the only comments published during his lifetime, and then only as footnotes in Capital, volume 1:

“Darwin has directed attention to the history of natural technology, i.e., the formation of organs of plants and animals, which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man in society, of organs that are the material basis of every particular organisation of society, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in that we have made the former, but not the latter. Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations. . . . The weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, are immediately evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions expressed by their spokesmen whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.” (Capital, volume 1, Penguin edition, 1976, pp. 493-494, note 4.)

Throughout his work, Marx always made a distinction between natural history and human history, and the difference between animals and humans in their relationship to their conditions of existence. Again in the German Ideology, he and Engels had written of this:

“[Men] themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.” ( p. 31.)

As soon as human beings start to produce their means of subsistence they must enter into certain kinds of relations of production, and these are not nature-determined as they are with other species. The earliest humans may have started out with nature given conditions, but the evolution of their biological structures made it both possible and necessary for them to move beyond this. This aspect of human beings was beyond Darwin’s viewpoint; he could not move beyond natural history.

Although Marx appreciated the scientific significance of The Origin, his critical perspective brought to the fore some of Darwin’s ideological assumptions, especially when applied to human society and the use made to justify capitalism as “natural.” In one of his last letter in which he mentions Darwin, writing to Laura and Paul Lafargue (15 February 1869) he wrote:

“Darwin is led by the struggle for life in English society – the competition of all with all, bellum ominum contra omnes – to discover competition […] as the ruling law of ‘bestial’ and vegetative life. The Darwinian, conversely, considers this a conclusive reason for human society never to emancipate itself from its bestiality.”

Marx’s interest in Darwin did not extend beyond The Origin, and there is no evidence that he read The Descent of Man or any other of Darwin’s works. However, there is no doubt that he appreciated Darwin’s “epoch-making work” and held Darwin in high regard. This is made clear when he sent Darwin, on 25 September1873, an inscribed copy of the second German edition of Capital: “Mr Charles Darwin on the part of his sincere admirer Karl Marx.”

Darwin (1October 1873) sent a typically courteous but non-committal reply, and the majority of the pages remain uncut in Darwin’s library. And since the mid-1970s the myth that Marx wished to dedicate volume 2 of Capital to Darwin has been laid to rest.

On the same day he sent his inscribed copy to Darwin, Marx also sent one to Herbert Spencer, another giant of 19th century thought, perhaps even more widely read by others than even Darwin. But apart from the long forgotten Italian criminologist, Enrico Ferri, who wrote Socialism and Positivism (1894; English edition 1905), who else has attempted a Darwin-Spencer-Marx link up?


Next month (concluding article): Had Engels read Darwin’s The Descent of Man? The first part appeared in the June issue.

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