Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Darwin and socialism (1984)

From the November 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

The viewpoint that discerns and identifies an historic linkage between Charles Darwin and Karl Marx in regard to their respective, earthshaking theories seems not to be obvious to scientists, generally, in our times. Most scientific people, to the extent that they do attempt analysis of our social system, are no more cognisant of the traditional Marxist critique than is the bulk of the population. When it comes to political science, their thinking is dominated by the ruling class approach to the extent of permitting their political views to influence, or colour, their research efforts. In any case, a century and a quarter after the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species it would not be easy to find scientists, other than an occasional Marxist, who do see a connection between scientific evolution and scientific socialism.

This was not always the case and in the decades immediately following the publication of Darwin’s monumental work in 1859. there was frequent and heated debate among scientists over the question. For example in 1877, Ernest Haeckel, the famed German embryologist, delivered an eloquent address in which he defended and propagated Darwinism which was, at that time, under violent attack. A few days afterwards Virchow, the noted pathologist, assailed the Darwinian theory of organic evolution raising a terrible cry of alarm: “Darwinism leads directly to socialism".

The German Darwinians, headed by Haeckel and Oscar Schmidt, immediately protested, insisting that Darwinism is in direct, open and absolute opposition to socialism. In the words of Schmidt, writing in the Ausland of 27 November 1877
If the Socialists were prudent they would do their utmost to kill, by silent neglect, the theory of descent, for that theory most emphatically proclaims that the socialist ideas are impracticable.
And Haeckel wrote (in Les preuves du transformisme, Paris, 1879. p. 110 et seq):
. . . there is no scientific doctrine which proclaims more openly than the theory of descent that the equality of individuals, toward which socialism tends, is an impossibility; that this chimerical equality is in absolute contradiction with the necessary and, in fact, universal inequality of individuals . . .
In the ever popular misconception of Marxist goals. Haeckel portrayed socialism as a demand for “equal rights, equal duties, equal possessions and equal enjoyments". And having erected this straw man (one need not elaborate on the vast difference between the concept of equality in work and rewards on the one hand and a society based on from each according to one’s ability to each according to one’s needs, the societal goal of socialism, on the other) the scientist demolished it with an outpouring of words calculated to demonstrate that Darwin’s theory of descent proved that there can be no scientific validity to the “socialist goal" of equality in work or reward. In fact it proved, he argued. that the tendency of society is not even toward democracy — let alone socialism — that it can only be evolving in the direction of aristocracy!

But that was all argued out a long time ago and little if anything seems now to be said about a relationship between Darwinism and human societies. The Darwin theory has long since graduated to the status of an accepted fact by all but a minority of die-hard fundamentalists whose effect on the machinery of capitalist society is minimal at most. The capitalist class has long since accepted Natural Selection. To them, perhaps, it also provides a logical explanation for their own status; they, the "fittest", have survived the no-holds-barred struggle.

In point of fact, Darwinism has nothing to do with democracy, aristocracy, socialism, or any other sort of social system. The theory of Natural Selection, no doubt, was somewhat applicable to primitive humans but once they got organised into civilised societies (slavery, serfdom, capitalism) their survival depended more on human-made factors than natural. True, there is a ferocious competition among members of the same class — for profits or for jobs — as well as relentless contention between the classes (workers against capitalists) in capitalist society. But that is a by-product of this social order and will become non-existent in a society based on common ownership and free access to all wealth.

But aside from this factor, scientists for the most part have gone overboard on Natural Selection. As Darwin also pointed out, human beings have always been social animals with the propensity for mutual aid. At the end of Chapter 11 of The Descent of Man he wrote:
The small strength and speed of man, his want of natural weapons, etc are more than counterbalanced, firstly, by his intellectual powers, through which he has formed for himself weapons, tools, etc, though still remaining in a barbarous state, and. secondly by his social qualities which lead him to give and receive aid from his fellow-men. No country in the world abounds in a greater degree with dangerous beasts than Southern Africa; no country presents more fearful physical hardships than the Arctic regions; yet one of the puniest races, that of the Bushmen, maintains itself in Southern Africa. as do the dwarfed Esquimaux in the Arctic regions . . . (p.333, Modern Library ed.)
So much for what Haeckel had to say — especially on that “pitiless" struggle for existence that supposedly has always taken place among the human race. Even among the most primitive it was not that pitiless — according to Darwin and Mutual Aid naturalists such as Peter Kropotkin. Populations among the more primitive have always been small — whereas in civilised societies, despite the most horrible hardships, death-dealing implements and pollutants unimagined by primitives, populations have continued to multiply. Mutual aid does play an important role, even under advanced capitalism.

But what of the socialists and their reaction to Darwinism? Beginning with Marx himself, there was tremendous enthusiasm. Darwin’s book was published in the same year as Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In the words of John Spargo of the old Socialist Party of America:
. . . Marx regarded it as a fortunate coincidence that his own book appeared in the same year as that of Darwin. He recognised at once the importance and merit of Darwin's work, and at once brought it to the attention of his fellow radicals at their meetings. Liebknecht has told us how for months the Marx circle spoke of nothing except the value of Darwin’s work. With great frankness Marx likened his own work in the sociological field to that of Darwin in the biological field, and he was always manifestly pleased when others made the comparison Once, in the late sixties, when it had become commonplace in Marxian circles. W. Harrison Riley, editor of the International Herald, made the now familiar comparison and Marx replied: "Nothing ever gives me greater pleasure than to have my name thus linked with Darwin’s. His wonderful work makes my own absolutely impregnable. Darwin may not know it, but he belongs to the Social Revolution”. (Karl Marx: His Life and Work, B. W Huebsche, NY. 1910. p 200)
It did not take long for Darwin to indicate that he was not anxious to be thought of as belonging to “the Social Revolution". Isaiah Berlin writes, in his Karl Marx, His Life and Environment:
(Marx) offered to dedicate his Capital to Darwin, for whom he had a greater intellectual admiration than for any other of his contemporaries. regarding him as having, by his theory of evolution and natural selection, done for the morphology of the natural sciences what he himself was striving to do for human history.
But Darwin was apparently not interested in being identified with a revolutionary socialist. He must have realised that his own book would give him more than enough troubles as it was, so:
(he) hastily declined the honour in a polite, cautiously phrased letter, saying that he was unhappily ignorant of economic science, but offered the author his good wishes in what he assumed to be their common end — the advancement of human knowledge. (A Galaxy Book, NY, Oxford University Press. 1959. p.232)
We should also have a brief look at what Engels had to say on the subject. In his Anti-Duhring, he devotes some eleven pages to a defence of Darwin against the attack by Herr Eugen Duhring, a German “reformer” of socialism:
The main reproach levelled against Darwin is that he transferred the Malthusian population theory from political economy to natural science, that he was held captive by the ideas of an animal breeder, that in his theory of the struggle for existence he pursued unscientific semi-poetry, and that the whole of Darwinism, after deducting what had been borrowed from Lamarck, is a piece of brutality against humanity. (Foreign Languages Publishing House. Moscow. 1954. p.97)
A little later Engels writes:
Now Darwin would not dream of saying that the origin of the idea of the struggle for existence is to be found in Malthus. He only says that his theory of the struggle for existence is the theory of Malthus applied to the animal and plant world as a whole. However great the blunder made by Darwin in accepting the Malthusian theory so naively and uncritically, nevertheless anyone can see at the first glance that no Malthusian spectacles arc required to perceive the struggle for existence in nature — the contradiction between the countless host of germs which nature so lavishly produces and the small number of those which ever reach maturity, a contradiction which in fact for the most part finds its solution in a struggle for existence — often of extreme cruelty . . . the struggle for existence can take place in nature, even without any Malthusian interpretation. For that matter, the organisms of nature also have their laws of population, which have been left practically uninvestigated, although their establishment would be of decisive importance for the theory of the evolution of species. But who was it that lent decisive impetus to work in this direction too? No other than Darwin, (page 99)
In retrospect one can understand the excitement of revolutionaries like Marx and Engels, in the latter half of the 19th Century, over a book such as Origin of the Species. The basic message of Darwinian evolution, they were certain, would sweep the world and with the spread of scientific information superstition would be forced into swift retreat. The superstition of religion had been, historically, a major pillar of capitalism. Origin of the Species knocked the very props from under it. And the general acceptance of biological evolution must, they thought, lead inexorably to an acceptance of social evolution and the principles of socialism.

To put it mildly, the pioneers of scientific socialism were over-optimistic. On the one hand, in these last two decades of the 20th Century, we have a battle still being waged between so-called Scientific Creationists and Evolutionists while religions such as Roman Catholicism and various Protestant denominations are able to teach Darwinian evolution in their Church-owned schools of higher learning with no apparent damage to the future stability of their adjoining temples of superstition. On the other hand, some nations of state capitalism such as Russia. China and North Korea, have demonstrated that they are able to carry on the basics of a capitalist economy with little more than a limited toleration of religion — or no apparent organised religion whatever.

So the general acceptance of Darwinism in modern biology, even in the “communist" and “socialist" worlds has added little to the basic political understanding of the workers.

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