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13 August 2018

Two Clashing Giants: Marxism and Darwinism

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To draft a theory of historical and dialectical materialism aimed at explaining and trying to change the history of Humankind, Karl Marx (1818-1883) “drank” from several sources and contacted different thinkers, economists, philosophers, politicians, etc. And because he wanted to create a “scientific” theory, he considered knowledge and advances in several natural sciences. Of particular interest to him were the theories of Darwin (1809-1882).

However, Marx and Darwin did not have a simple relationship. Two centuries after Marx’s birth, analyzing his interactions with Darwin is interesting both from the point of view of the history of science, and to perhaps help explain the agreements and, mostly, disagreements between Marxism and Darwinism.

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)
Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) / pixabay

Karl Marx’s interest in science: a historical process of changes

As it is widely known, Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 to major reaction in several sectors of society, from science to religion. Darwin’s ideas immediately attracted the interest of Karl Marx, who was also trying to bring a revolution to society with his own work.

His initial comments show that Marx agreed to take into great consideration Darwin’s thesis about the evolution of living beings. In a letter from December 19, 1860 addressed to his friend and colleague Friedrich Engels, Marx states that Darwin’s book contains “the basis in natural history for our view.” In a different letter to activist Ferdinand Lassalle (January 16, 1861), Marx concludes that “Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history.” As such, Marx agreed with Darwin that society, like the living beings on Earth, is the result of historical processes of change.

Portrait of Karl Marx, 1875. / International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Netherlands, John Jabez Edwin Mayall

However, on June 18 1862, in another letter to Engels, Marx directly attacked Darwin’s theory about biological evolution through natural individual selection since “it applies the social Victorian model to nature,” which was Malthusian-capitalist and against the class struggle Marx defended as having acted and still acting on society.

But Marx expressed his main disagreement with Darwin, for example, in a letter from August 1866 to Engels where he remarked that the work of the French evolutionist Pierre Tremaux represented a major development from Darwin’s. Tremaux’s book, “Origin et Transformations de l’Homme et des Autres Êtres” (1865), defended two aspects of evolution with which Darwin did not agree. Firstly, major changes were given an important role in the evolution of living beings. Secondly, Tremaux defended that progress had been increasing as living beings evolved. Marx had a positive view of the French thinker’s ideas since they were of more interest to him due to their historical and political application potential. On the contrary, Darwin, as most evolutionists then and now, thought that most changes in the evolution of living beings are gradual and that there is no net increase in progress.

Cover of the book “Descent of Man,” by Charles Darwin. (Descent of Man, 1871). / Image: wikimedia

Darwin and Marxism’s “wild ideas”

Darwin conveyed his opinion about Marx’s work at the time of their first and only demonstrated direct contact. When the second edition of the first volume of “Capital” by Karl Marx was published in 1873, Mark wrote the following to Darwin:

“To Charles Darwin from a true admirer, from Karl Marx.”

Naturally, Marx’s admiration stemmed from reading “On the Origin of Species”, published by Darwin in 1859. In fact, in the first volume of “Capital,” Marx cites Darwin twice. To argue his theory, he compared how living beings use organs (as explained by Darwin) with the use of instruments and technological tools by Humankind. Mark concluded that a history of technology had to be written, like Darwin wrote about the natural world and the formation of animal and plant organs.

“Capital” by Karl Marx in a 1867 edition from the Saitzew Collection in Zurich’s central library. / Image: Zentralbibliothek Zürich


In a letter dated October 1 1873, Darwin replied thanking Mark for the honor of receiving the book. However, he stated that the honor would have been greater if Marx knew more about the matter. At the end though, Darwin conceded that both their works tried to fight for the dissemination of knowledge. In reality, Darwin never opened Marx’s book and, as such, never read it. In short, Darwin was reluctant to start a connection with Marx and his economic and social ideas. He expressed as much, for example, in a letter dated December 26, 1879 to Austrian explorer, naturalist and diplomat Karl von Scherzer where he said that he considered it to be a wild idea to merge socialism and evolution through natural selection, as suggested by some German socialists. Also, Darwin did not support the movement “social Darwinism,” born after the publication of “Descent of Man”, which defended that the action of natural selection and nature’s fight for survival should be extended to human societies, going so far as to advocate drastic eugenic measures. On this matter, Darwin ended the last chapter of “Descent of Man” (1871, chapter 21) by saying that it was not necessary to employ any means to reduce the natural proportion in which the human species increases even if this increase brings a lot of suffering.

Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Darwin, interpreted natural selection in terms of “survival of the fittest” and transferred it to sociology in what is known as “social Darwinism.” / Image: pixabay


Religion: the point of contention

A particularly important disagreement between Marx and Darwin refers to religion. Marx clearly expressed his position against religion in the schematic but significant assertion that it is “the opium of the people.” Most Marxists would subsequently support this idea. In turn, Darwin expressed his opinion against attacks on religion in a letter that, for most of the 20th century, was seen as both addressed and not addressed to Marx.

Marx’s archive contained a letter from Darwin dated October 12, 1880 in which the naturalist rejected the offer made in a previous letter (supposedly) from Marx of mentioning him in the dedication of a work that has been thought to be the second volume of his masterpiece, Capital. The second volume had not yet been published in 1880 and, like the third volume, it would only be published posthumously. However, there is no trace of the letter from Marx to Darwin and the offer therein.

Research by several historians has shown that Darwin’s letter could have been in response to a letter that has actually been found and that had been written by Edward B. Aveling .

At the time, Aveling was preparing the publication of a book called The Student’s Darwin (London: Freethought Publishing Co., 1881), which included arguments against Christianism and theism. And he thought that if Darwin agreed to be mentioned in its dedication, his arguments would gain in strength. Darwin rejected this suggestion since, in his opinion, direct arguments against Christianism did not have much impact on the readers whereas freedom of expression gained more from purely scientific arguments. Consequently, his rejection could hardly be to the offer of the dedication in “Capital” since the second volume of this work does not contain attacks against religion.

In the end, the reason why Darwin’s letter was in Marx’s archive derives from the fact that Edward Aveling was the lover of Marx’s daughter, Eleonor (Jenny Julia Eleanor), and both Aveling and Eleonor were custodians of Marx’s archive where documents may have been mixed.

Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx and Marx’s daughters: Jenny Caroline (1844-1883), Jenny Julia Eleanor (1855-1898) and Jenny Laura (1845-1911)/ Image: Karl Marx und die Frauen

Darwin’s letter clearly states that he did not wish to be associated with direct attacks against religion. Since then, most Darwinists have leaned more toward Darwin’s than Marx’s opinion on this issue, with the significant exception of Richard Dawkins. However, this does not mean that Darwin was a believer. He was in fact not, as shown by a hand-written letter (November 24, 1880) to an American correspondent called F. McDermott where he states that “I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God. “This document was kept confidential for over 100 years at Darwin’s request and was recently auctioned (September 21, 2015) in New York by Bohams for a record price of almost USD 200,000.



Manuel Ruiz Rejón

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