The Fictitious Influence Of Darwin On Marx And Engels
A myth commonly circulating in some fundamentalist Christian and right wing political circles, mainly in the United States, is that the scientific findings of Charles Darwin acted as a primary precursor to the political and economic philosophy of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels ( i.e., Marxism, socialism and/or communism), but not only that; they were a necessary precursor. This is a particularly audacious stance. Certainly one that is much stronger (and newer) than any of the claims from various attempts to amalgamate Darwinian and Marxist theory. The intention is obvious. Christian fundamentalists (at least in the United States, not necessarily elsewhere) tend to be politically and economically right wing in addition to holding to a strong anti-evolution stance. Thus, it will be advantageous to their worldview if they can somehow ideologically link the two perceived ‘evils’ of biological evolution and left-wing political philosophy. Numerous authors have asserted the Darwin-communism connection over the years but the notion seems to have originated in the popular imagination with William Bell Riley, co-founder of both the World Christian Fundamentals Association and the Anti-Evolution League of America. Throughout the 1920s and 30s in his many pamphlets (see e.g., Riley, 1942) and on his highly influential nationally syndicated radio show, Riley often referred to:
".......an international Jewish-Bolshevik-Darwinist conspiracy."
Henry Morris, dubbed the ‘father of modern creationism’ (founder of the Institute for Creation Research) continued this theme by writing in 1963 (in ‘The Twilight of Evolution’; a failed prophecy indeed) that:
"Evolution is at the foundation of communism."
And a decade later (1974):
"Marxism, socialism, and communism.......are squarely based on evolutionism."
Similarly, creationist doyen Kent Hovind, in his so-called ‘doctoral thesis’ (1991; an untitled [sic] document of a very poor academic standard from a diploma mill, Patriot Bible University) tells us that:
"Communism is a direct offshoot of evolution."
Similar fare comes from Jerry Bergman (‘The Darwinian Foundation of Communism’, 2001; a poorly researched opinion piece masquerading as a scholarly work):
"Darwin.......opened the door to Marxism.......Marx was a doctrinaire evolutionist."
And then there is this gem, in which Bergman (2011) blames Darwin not only for communism, but for most social ills:
"Darwinism has made a major contribution to many social problems including racism, sexism, Laissez-faire capitalism, communism, and even Nazism."
Bergman offers no less than seven separate references for this second claim. All are authored by himself. Six of his seven references were published in a journal named ‘CEN Technical Journal’. This journal is not included on any of the mainstream scientific or social science online reference libraries because it is not a peer reviewed scientific journal. Its correct title is ‘Creation ex Nihilo Technical Journal’, and was published by Creation Ministries International. The name has since been changed to the ‘Journal of Creation’, the journal in which his first quote was published. Indeed, the publishers of the book in which Bergman's second quote appears, Master Books/New Leaf, also published Henry Morris. Master Books/New Leaf are not a serious academic publisher either, they specialise in publications for the fundamentalist Christian homeschooling curriculum. Surely, if Bergman’s claim enjoyed mainstream recognition in the social science and historical academia it would be discussed by far more authors, in far more diverse publishing platforms?
Darwin was not, of course, the originator of the concept of biological evolution, though he was the first to systematically collect data and present a plausible scientific model of evolution. However, it is perfectly clear from all these authors that they consider Darwin and biological evolution to be synonymous. In this way, they can paint him, not as an objective scientist, but as the personally responsible agent promoting a concept they consider as inherently immoral. All examples given above come from simple and unsophisticated works using the same basic strategy employed whenever they wish to denigrate anything of philosophical or scientific value. First, they identify two individuals or concepts they wish to denigrate, in this case, Darwin (and evolutionary theory) and Marx (Marxism, communism, socialism, in fact anything vaguely politically left wing). Next, they amass as much data as possible that is amenable to being misrepresented in such a way as to appear to show a necessary connection between the two, however vague. These data are invariably presented in a simplistic binary form, being either completely true or false, good or bad. Assertions are made, entirely devoid of discussion, context or nuance. Untruths are perfectly acceptable if disguised as such. Furthermore, in comparison with legitimate historical research, a noticeable lack of citations from primary source evidence is the case. Agreeable opinions of third parties (often writing many decades after the events) tend to be considered more valuable than any contrary evidence provided by relevant persons living at the time of events. Furthermore, claims tend to be made without proper citation and sometimes references are deliberately misrepresented. Examples of all these practices are given throughout this essay with Bergman’s (2001) article used as a template example.
•The Lack Of Evidence From The Timeline•
We can be certain that the gestation period and birth of Marxist political philosophy, first outlined in the pamphlets ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ (1848a) and 'Demands of the Communist Party in Germany' (1848b; both co-authored by Marx and Engels) occurred without any influence whatsoever from Darwin’s scientific findings. We know this because we have access to Darwin’s publication record, personal correspondence and notebooks as well as Marx and Engels’ publication record and personal correspondence and those of a number of people close to them. Neither Marx nor Engels mentioned Darwin in either their published work or private correspondence until 1859. Nevertheless, Bergman (2001) contends that Marx first:
".......encountered Darwin’s writings and ideas at the University of Berlin."
This is a non sequitur. Bergman provides no citation in support of this claim, and makes no attempt to discuss the influence that Darwin had on Marx after he allegedly read Darwin’s writings. Marx attended the University of Berlin between 1836-1841 and Darwin’s first published work did appear during that period. However, even if Marx had encountered Darwin’s writings in those years this would be no more than a trivial fact. Darwin’s entire publication record while Marx was studying in Berlin consisted of a number of abstracts presented at scientific meetings concerning geological structures, birds, plants and moulds and a travelogue of his time on H.M.S. Beagle (1839). In addition, he had begun editing the first of five volumes of a book ‘Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle’ (1838-1843; although he contributed no chapters of his own). Darwin made no mention of the concept of biological evolution in any of these early works and none has any content of political import. Prior to publication the ‘Manifesto’ and ‘Demands of the Communist Party’ in 1848, Darwin had additionally published ‘The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs’ (1842), followed by ‘Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle’ (1844). He then undertook an extensive revision of his 1839 travelogue, which was republished in 1845 as ‘Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World’. Finally, he wrote ‘Geological Observations on South America’ (1846). Again, none of these works is even vaguely political in nature.
Darwin’s embryonic thoughts regarding biological evolution are found only in his personal notebooks from 1836 onwards. An 270-page outline of his theory, based on his notebooks and a shorter essay of 1842 was completed in 1844, but Darwin had entrusted this to his wife Emma with instructions that she reveal its existence only on his death, and allocating £400 for publication. Although the concept of natural selection itself was already prominent in his mind, it appeared in a somewhat different form when he eventually published his first and seminal work on evolutionary theory, ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859). His 1836 notes on the Galapagos mocking birds (not to be confused with the famous finches) provide evidence of how Darwin’s ideas on evolution changed. According to Darwin, it was these birds which first alerted him to the possibility that species were not immutable. Nevertheless, they receive no mention at all in ‘On the Origin of Species’ (Partridge, 2018). Although the 1844 work mentions the earlier outline of his ideas, the 1842 essay was considered lost until 1896 when, after Emma had died, it was found in a cupboard under the stairs, which according to their son Francis Darwin (1909) was "not used for papers of any value." He further describes it as:
".......written on bad paper with a soft pencil, and is in many parts extremely difficult to read, many of the words ending in mere scrawls and being illegible without context. It is evidently written rapidly, and is in his most elliptical style, the articles being frequently omitted, and the sentences being loosely composed and often illogical in structure. There is much erasure and correction, apparently made at the moment of writing, and the MS. does not give the impression of having been re-read with any care. The whole is more like hasty memoranda of what was clear to himself, than material for the convincing of others."
To even suggest that Marx had access to either of these early works on Darwin's evolutionary theory is a truly preposterous claim. In his essay ‘On the History of the Communist League’ (1885), Engels himself refutes Bergman’s claim that Darwin influenced Marx and Engels’ base political philosophy when he writes:
"When I visited Marx in Paris in the summer of 1844, our complete agreement in all theoretical fields became evident and our joint work dates from that time. When, in the spring of 1845, we met again in Brussels, Marx had already fully developed his materialist theory of history in its main features form the above-mentioned basis and we now applied ourselves to the detailed elaboration of the newly-won mode of outlook in the most varied directions."
The “detailed elaboration” referred to was to become ‘The German Ideology’, written by Marx in 1845-1846 but unpublished in its entirety until 1932. This is where Marx commits himself, not to the notion of a gradual biologically based evolution of human beings that Darwin would later confirm, but to spontaneous generation as the most plausible alternative to supernatural creation. By “his materialist theory of history”, Engels is referring to something intrinsic to Marxist philosophy that is not addressed, and is largely beyond the purview, of Darwin’s theory. This was Marx and Engels’ perennial postulate that the philosophical point of origin for human beings lies not in the natural world but in cultural and social history. Marx was rallying against the view of humans being driven primarily by biological imperatives in order to maintain life and the associated pursuit of happiness and avoidance of pain. He had concluded that humans were not mere passive victims and consumers of their environment but producers that actively shaped themselves as a species, in spite of our biological underpinnings.
It is obvious then that any attempt to claim that Marxist philosophy was originally based on Darwin’s scientific findings requires a complete reversal of the historical timeline. Nevertheless, this was what the German politician and journalist Wilhelm Liebknecht attempted (albeit for different reasons) when he published his biographical memoirs of Marx in 1896:
"Marx was one of the first who grasped the significance of Darwin’s investigations. Already prior to 1859, the year of the publication of the Origin of the Species - by a remarkable coincidence also the year Marx’s Critique of Political Economy appeared - Marx had recognised the epoch-making significance of Darwin."
Unsurprisingly, Bergman (2001) accepts Liebknecht’s quote as fact. During his exile in London between 1850 and 1862, Liebknecht certainly knew Marx personally. However, we have at least two very good reasons to doubt the veracity of Liebknecht’s claim "already prior to 1859." First, Liebknecht’s writing in general is littered with sycophantic comments about Marx. Indeed, in his preface to the first English translation of his memoirs (1901/1975; the version referenced here) the translator, Ernest Untermann notes, rather diplomatically, the "racy strength of Liebknecht’s style." In particular, Liebknecht was apt to consider Marx to be an actual scientist on par with any of the great biological and physical scientists of the Victorian era, including Darwin. For example, in the same essay as the quote above we also find:
"Marx is such a man of science as has not been produced a second time by this century, with the exception of Darwin; he has the renown, and the truly well-earned renown, of a great scholar.......Marx’s Capital dominates social and political science like Darwin’s works in the science of natural history.......On Capital he was at work forty years, and how he did work! Only a Marx can work so. And I am not exaggerating when I say: the worst-paid day labourer in Germany has received more wages in forty years than Marx did for a salary, as an honorary fee for one of the two greatest scientific creations of this century. The other one is represented by Darwin’s works."
Liebknecht’s claim is essentially the suggestion that prior to 1859 Marx was a confidante of Darwin. This was certainly not the case. Apart from the geologist, Charles Lyell and botanist, Joseph Dalton Hooker, none of Darwin’s inner scientific circle were aware of his plans to publish his findings on biological evolution and neither Marx nor Engels ever communicated with either. The earliest Marx could possibly have become aware of Darwin’s theory was the evening of 1st July 1858 when he and Alfred Wallace’s findings were first presented to the Linnean Society by Lyell, and Marx was certainly not in attendance at that event. Moreover, even if Marx had attended, he could not have done so especially to hear their paper as no advance agenda for the evening’s presentations was made available.
The Darwin-Wallace paper had no politically relevant element whatsoever. It consisted of a hypothesised mechanism for speciation, a subject completely alien to anything Marx had hitherto published or shown any interest. If this paper is what Liebknecht is referring to then, again, it is no more than a mundane fact. In any case, a letter from Engels to Marx in December 1859 was the first time either of them had committed Darwin’s name to writing. And so the question is raised; if Bergman and Liebknecht are right and the timeline really can be reversed, why did Marx make no mention of either Darwin or evolutionary theory in his ‘Critique of Political Economy’, published just five months before ‘On the Origin of Species’? After all, according to Bergman (2001), Marx considered Darwin’s work to be “epoch making” and according to Liebknecht, whose quote Bergman includes, such appreciation existed prior to ‘On the Origin of Species’.
•The Lack Of Evidence From Marx's Family•
In the first line of Bergman’s (2001) abstract, he refers to his paper as "a review of the writings of the founders of communism." It is no such thing. He offers not a single directly referenced quote from either Marx or Engels and of the 63 citations offered, only one is from Marx. This dates from 1844, several years before publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’. No citations from Engels are included. He is forced to scaffold his claim, then, by employing some distinctly unconvincing sources. For example, we would reasonably expect the bold and succinct claim that:
"Marx was infatuated with Darwin"
to be accompanied by a reference to some primary source, either a quote from Marx himself to that effect or perhaps from a family member or close associate. Instead, Bergman cites an unpublished PhD manuscript (Heyer, 1975). This is not even from a historian, but from a later professor of media studies born 66 years after Marx had died. One wonders why Bergman did not cite Heyer’s subsequently published book ‘Nature, Human Nature, and Society: Marx, Darwin, Biology and the Human Sciences’ (1982) which also attempts to argue that Marx gave unqualified support for Darwin. Perhaps it is because that quote does not occur in the book. Bergman’s preference to use a quote from an unpublished source is a typical attempt at misdirection. He must surely be aware that two of Marx’s sons in law, the biologist and playwright Edward Aveling and the French journalist Paul Lafargue, had published reminiscences of his life, thus providing Bergman with more immediate sources of information than Heyer’s doctoral thesis. Bergman chooses to ignore both these documents as neither come anywhere close to supporting his claim. The earliest memoir, by Lafargue (1890; married to his second daughter Laura for 33 years), contains a bland, single sentence mention of Darwin:
"From time to time he [Marx] would lie down on the sofa and read a novel; he sometimes read two or three at a time, alternating one with another. Like Darwin, he was a great reader of novels."
The second reminiscence is by Aveling (1897; common law partner of his youngest daughter, Eleanor for 14 years). As a trained biologist and former science teacher, he was convinced of the scientific merit of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, though like both Marx and Engels, he harboured serious doubts about the role played by natural selection in the evolution of human societies. Moreover, his reminiscence actually contrasts and compares the life and work of Darwin and Marx in a non-personal manner and so the memoir is devoid of any discussion of Marx’s attitude to Darwin (or vice-versa). The closest we get to any personal insight is the trivial fact that Marx had read Darwin:
"Marx, the most omnivorous of readers, knew the whole of the works of Darwin thoroughly. The converse did not hold.......He read deeply in all sciences; was thoroughly versed in the whole of the works of Darwin himself."
And that’s it. Marx and Darwin both enjoyed reading novels and Marx was a prolific reader who had read Darwin’s books. No mention whatsoever that Darwin had influenced him to formulate his political philosophy. Not even a hint of admiration, never mind "infatuation". No wonder Bergman chooses to ignore these historically important works.
For someone who was supposedly “infatuated” with Darwin it seems surprising that, despite living less than 25 km from each other for over 30 years, Marx and Darwin never actually met. This is despite Aveling being invited to lunch at Darwin’s home in September 1881. Aveling had written to Darwin requesting the visit on behalf of the German physiologist Ludwig Büchner who was in London attending a conference of freethinkers. He was co-author of ‘Force and Matter’ (1864; the book which popularised the notion of scientific materialism in Germany) and earlier in the year had founded ‘Deutscher Friedenker-Verbund’ or ‘German Freethinkers League’. This grew to become the then largest atheist organisation in the world until banned by Hitler in 1933 and the large building they owned in Berlin ironically transferred to a church organisation. Aveling considered their visit to Darwin’s home as such a momentous occasion that he published an article outlining what was discussed in the ‘National Reformer’ magazine (1882). If Marx was indeed "infatuated" with Darwin as Bergman (2001) and Heyer (1975) contend, it seems odd that he was not included in the visit. We know he was in London at the time. Perhaps it was his well-known dislike of Büchner (of which more later). Whatever the reason, the ‘infatuation’ claim is considerably weakened by this event occurring without him, yet so close to home.
•The Lack Of Evidence From Marx And Engels' Publications And The Problem Of Malthus•
Given the impossibility that Darwin’s scientific findings acted as the precursor to Marxist political philosophy any reduced claim, i.e., that Darwin acted to further influence Marx and Engels, must provide evidence of this influence post-1859. However, there is only a single case of communication of any kind between Marx and Darwin (and none between Engels and Darwin) and that occurred 14 years after publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ (and some 25 years after publication of ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’). In late September 1873 Marx gifted Darwin a copy of the German language 2nd edition of his book ‘Das Kapital: Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie’ (what we now know in English as Volume I of ‘Capital’; the three subsequent volumes being published posthumously). As a further example of the personal distance between Marx and Darwin, Marx had intended to post the book on 16th June, but he was unable to find Darwin’s home address. It took him over three months to locate Darwin, when on 25th September, the chemist Carl Schorlemmer wrote to Marx with Darwin’s address. Marx included a handwritten note on the inner sleeve of the book. It read:
"Mr. Charles Darwin, On the part of his sincere admirer!"
Followed only by Marx’s address and no other communication. Marx probably did this in an attempt to gain wider acceptance for his work but also possibly out of publishing etiquette (albeit six years after first publication) as he had briefly mentioned Darwin in two footnotes. The first note is halfway through the book in Chapter 14. It reads:
"Darwin in his epoch-making work on the origin of species, remarks, with reference to the natural organs of plants and animals: "So long as one and the same organ has different kinds of work to perform, a ground for its changeability may possibly be found in this, that natural selection preserves or suppresses each small variation of form less carefully than if that organ were destined for one special purpose alone. Thus, knives that are adapted to cut all sorts of things, may, on the whole, be of one shape; but an implement destined to be used exclusively in one way must have a different shape for every different use.""
Obviously, the context is politically innocuous. Marx was briefly noting Darwin's comparison of specialised organs in plants and animals to that of specialised tools in manufacturing industry. Marx goes on to suggest that industrial output would benefit if tools were more specialised and designed specifically for the "separate functions of each kind of worker." The second footnote, in Chapter 15, and on the same theme, mentions Darwin in a single sentence:
“Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature’s Technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life."
The words ‘Darwin’, ‘Darwinist’ or ‘Darwinian’ occur nowhere else, either in the text or in any other footnotes. The word ‘evolution’ can be found once only in Chapter 16 and the reference has nothing to do with either biology (or economics for that matter). It is Marx directly quoting the anti-Darwinian palaeontologist Georges Cuvier discussing how the evolution of agricultural based communities was enabled by measuring and predicting the solstices.
The actual copy of 'Das Kapital' containing Marx's handwritten note still exists in the Darwin Museum at Down House in England and we can tell from its physical condition that it has never been read. Only the first 105 of its 822 pages are cut (tellingly, the contents section remains uncut) and, unusually for the books in Darwin’s library, there are no annotations in the margins. This is not surprising; Darwin had little interest in political economy and did not read very much German (though Camilla Ludwig, his children's governess for many years did; Darwin often had her translate letters from German correspondents) and the English translation of 'Das Kapital' was not published until 1886, several years after both Marx and Darwin had died. Darwin sent the following brief, polite note of thanks to Marx on 1st October 1873:
I thank you for the honour which you have done me by sending me your great work on Capital & I heartily wish that I was more worthy to receive it, by understanding more of the deep & important subject of political economy. Though our studies have been so different, I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge & this in the long run is sure to add to the happiness of Mankind.
I remain Dear Sir, Yours faithfully"
It has been suggested by some that this letter constitutes Darwin’s validation of Marx. More realistically, it is an example of Darwin’s indifference translated into Victorian middle-class politeness. Note that Darwin makes the point that his and Marx’s work are "so different." This remains the case in the next three volumes of ‘Capital and so we can discount the notion that subsequent volumes are where we can find Marx expounding on the alleged powerful influence Darwin had on him. The words ‘Darwin’, ‘Darwinist’, ‘Darwinian’ and evolution occur nowhere in ‘Volume II (1885). Similarly, those terms are not found in Volume III (1894; Marx’s most cited work and the most cited pre-1950 work in the social sciences). The term ‘evolution’ does occur twice in the Volume III but in neither case is the idea of biological evolution intended. From Chapter 10:
".......the evolution of products into commodities arises through exchange between different communities, not between the members of the same community."
Next, in Chapter 14 in a discussion of the increase in manufacture of luxury goods, Marx notes that they:
".......pass through the same evolution as the other lines of production."
There is a single mention of Darwin in Volume IV (1952). It comes in Chapter 21, in a discussion of worker’s transmission of skills across generations. Marx simply notes that Darwin’s theory also relied on transmission of traits across generations (or heritability):
"Darwin makes "accumulation" through inheritance the driving principle in the formation of all organic things, of plants and animals; thus the various organisms themselves are formed as a result of "accumulation" and are only "inventions", gradually accumulated inventions of living beings."
All four volumes of ‘Capital’ deal explicitly with economics, being a critical analysis of capitalism, in terms of its growth and inevitable collapse (and, of course, one can certainly critique capitalism without taking a Marxist stance). They are not a discussion of the political theory of communism. Therefore, we must surely accept that any alleged influence of Darwin on Marx did not extend to Marxist ideas on economics. In any case, Darwin belonged to a wealthy family. He was gifted a large sum of money on his marriage and inherited an even larger amount on the death of his father and subsequently quadrupled that fortune during his lifetime investing in land and railways. He certainly did not subscribe to Marxist views on economics.
The only other mentions of Darwin in the entirety of Marx’s publications come in the original manuscript of ‘Theories of Surplus Value’ (1863; which was re-edited to become ‘Capital’ Vol IV). The first mention is a paragraph length criticism of Darwin for having been influenced by Thomas Malthus. This is discussed in more detail below. In Part II of In the Supplementary Notes to Chapter 9 Marx begins with a two-sentence quote from Darwin:
"Charles Darwin, in the introduction to his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (5th thousand), London, 1860, says the following: “In the next chapter the Struggle for Existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from the high geometrical ratio of their increase, will be treated of. This is the doctrine of Malthus applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms."
A related myth is that Marx dedicated 'Das Kapital' to Darwin. This is obviously untrue. The only dedication was to Wilhelm Wolff who died in 1864 having left a sum of money to Marx in his will. A more common, watered down version, states that Marx asked Darwin if he could dedicate the book to him, but the offer was declined (various reasons are fabricated, including Darwin not wishing to offend Emma, his religious wife). For example, in the documentary ‘A Walk through History’ (Institute for Creation Research, 1994) there is a scene in which John Rajca, curator of the Museum of Creation and Earth History, holds up a picture of Marx telling an audience of children that Marx:
".......wanted to dedicate his book on communism, Das Kapital, to Darwin because he said this is where he got his ideas for a political system."
This particular claim appears to have originated with the Czech/Russian philosopher Ernst Kolman in an article in the Soviet Communist magazine, ‘Under the Banner of Marxism’ (1931). In November of that same year, an article in ‘Labour Monthly’, a journal associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain, told a slightly different story. Here the claim was that Marx had asked Darwin if he would accept the dedication for chapters 12 and 13 in the English language edition of ‘Das Kapital’, apparently unaware that the brief mentions of Darwin occur in Chapters 14 and 15 and that both men were dead by the time the English translation was released. Even Isaiah Berlin (1939) in his then influential biography of Marx fell for the same story, though not the obviously incorrect Communist Party version. A letter dated 13th October 1880 in which Darwin declined permission for a hitherto unknown book to be dedicated to him is the origin of the myth. He explains that as a scientist he did not address religious matters:
I am much obliged for your kind letter & the Enclosure.— The publication in any form of your remarks on my writing really requires no consent on my part, & it would be ridiculous in me to give consent to what requires none. I should prefer the Part or Volume not to be dedicated to me (though I thank you for the intended honour) as this implies to a certain extent my approval of the general publication, about which I know nothing.— Moreover though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follow from the advance of science. It has, therefore, always been my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family , if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.— I am sorry to refuse you any request, but I am old & have very little strength, and looking over proof-sheets (as I know by present experience) fatigues me much.
I remain Dear Sir,
Because Marx had previously gifted Darwin a copy of ‘Das Kapital’, it was assumed by Kolman that Darwin was again addressing Marx. Nevertheless, there were two distinct clues as to why the letter was unlikely to have been addressed to Marx. First, it was written (and dated in Darwin’s own hand) some 13 years after publication of ‘Das Kapital’ and seven years after Marx had presented a copy to Darwin. Second, ‘Das Kapital’ does not concern itself with religion. The actual recipient of the letter was uncovered in 1975 when a letter from Edward Aveling to Darwin dated the previous day (i.e., 12th October 1880) was found at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam and that fact was subsequently widely published in academia (e.g., Fay, 1978; Fuer et al., 1976; see also Colp, 1982). Aveling had written a book about atheism and had sought Darwin's permission to dedicate the book to him. Darwin’s reply was obviously to Aveling not Marx. However, even without Darwin’s blessing, Aveling published his book with the title 'The Student's Darwin' (1881), the second in a series of books on atheism published by Freethought Press.
Following his death, Marx had appointed his daughter Eleanor and Engels as joint literary executors. Engels took charge of his correspondence, unpublished books and notebooks, most of which were handwritten (and Marx had notoriously poor handwriting – "there is not another living soul who can decipher that writing" as Engels quipped) and proceeded to edit and translate them. During Aveling and Eleanor Marx’s relationship, Aveling had been the English co-translator (with Samuel Moore) for what was to become Volume 1 of ‘Capital’ so he also possessed numerous papers pertaining to the book. Following Engels’ death in 1895 Eleanor then inherited all of her father’s personal papers, which included the reply from Darwin to Marx. Both she and Aveling died a few years later, within a few months of each other, and the correspondence in the two archives appears to have become mixed.
A Darwin-related thread runs all the way through Marx, and especially Engels’, published and private correspondence that emphasises why Darwin did not have had any important influence on them. It involves Malthusian theory, in particular Thomas Malthus’ mathematically based law regarding population growth, which states that while human populations tend to grow at an exponential rate, food supply usually grows at a linear rate. This scenario predicted an inevitable future shortage of food and either a catastrophic decline in the population of humans and/or the inevitability of a large underclass of people living in poverty (Malthus, 1798). Darwin theorised that, if Malthus’ views on population growth applied to the animal and plant domains also, then natural selection would have an even larger playing field. Marx (1863) responded:
"Darwin did not realise that by discovering the 'geometrical' progression in the animal and plant kingdom, he overthrew Malthus’ theory. Malthus’ theory is based on the fact that he set Wallace’s geometrical progression of man against the chimerical 'arithmetical' progression of animals and plants. In Darwin’s work, for instance on the extinction of species, we also find (quite apart from his fundamental principle) the detailed refutation, based on natural history, of the Malthusian theory."
Marx and Engels famously disagreed with Darwin for having applied Malthusian ideas to biology. This is entirely predictable. Malthus’ view assumed a laissez-faire, predator-prey style of relationship as normative within human societies, leading Engels (1845) to call Malthus' theory the:
".......keystone of the liberal system of free trade.......this vile, infamous theory, this hideous blasphemy against nature and mankind."
A casual reading of ‘On the Origin of Species’ effectively extended that view as normative to the living world at large and so, as Conway Zirkle (1959) notes:
"Any defense [by biologists] of the so-called 'Law of Population' was enough to stamp one, in the eyes of the orthodox Marxians, as a 'tool of the capitalistic class’"
making Darwin, as someone who enthusiastically employed Malthusian ideas, a "tool of the capitalist class", as Engels’ had no qualms in telling us in his ‘Dialectics of Nature’ (1883a, but unpublished until 1925):
"Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind, and especially on his countrymen, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom."
A point reiterated more recently by Blewitt (2009):
"Darwin's theory, then, was compromised by the importation of ideological capitalist theory.......[to be acceptable to Marx and Engels] the Malthusian justification had to be jettisoned. This was essential, as the Malthusian justification of the struggle for existence in nature could be used to justify the same principle in society as capitalist social relations."
Nevertheless, Marx’s claim that Darwin offered a "detailed refutation" of Malthusian theory is an idiosyncratic reading of both Malthus and Darwin. And both Marx and Engels appear to have placed far too much emphasis on this idiosyncratic approach to Darwin’s theory. What Darwin offered was not a wholesale validation of Malthus in the natural world but something additional and complementary. It is beyond the purview of this essay to delve into the nuances of Malthus-Darwin link in any detail, but briefly, Malthus was not saying that human populations would always grow at an exponential rate (they did not until the 19th century). He conceded that humans, uniquely among all the animals due to their capacity for reason, could potentially control both population and distribution of food and so avoid catastrophe and he strongly suggested they do so. Similarly, Darwin never claimed to have observed a "geometrical progression in the animal and plant kingdom." He emphasised that populations of species are often kept in check and reduced by food scarcity, disease and other environmental exigencies. Indeed, Darwin’s theory relied heavily on observations of life forms that had suffered extinction for reasons other than a shortage of food.
What Marx and Engels also appear to fail to have grasped across decades was that the Malthusian and Darwinian concepts of ‘struggle’ are different but not exclusive. While Malthus saw a ‘struggle for existence’ as a single natural law, Darwin identified multiple ways in which such struggles manifested. Malthus stressed the concept of struggle solely in a negative sense (i.e., at times causing decreases in population), while Darwin acknowledged this, he also identified positive aspects. For example, natural selection acting on the survivors of an environmental challenge to increase the frequency of traits that would make a species better equipped to survive in challenging environments and, sometimes, to eventually produce new species. Similarly, while both Malthus and Darwin acknowledged competition between individuals during scarcity of food in terms of predator-prey relationships, Darwin suggested other, non-competitive means of food distribution based on cooperative behaviour. Most importantly to the present discussion, however, Darwin’s work was purely descriptive and explanatory, and he never reached normative conclusions regarding human beings. Marx and Engels, of course, had a completely different view of the concept of struggle. While Malthus and Darwin based their concepts on the natural world, Marx and Engels referred only to economic models. For them, poverty was not inevitable. In addition, the social classes were deemed to be relatively fixed in any given economic environment unless consciously acted upon from within. Thus, the real struggle for existence for Marx and Engels was the struggle for proper compensation for labour performed.
The differences can be reduced to the relative strengths given to ‘natural laws’ vs ‘economic laws’ and ‘natural history’ and ‘human history’. A cornerstone tenet of Marxist political philosophy is that any natural laws derived from the natural sciences, such as espoused by Malthus and Darwin, are not fully applicable to human societies, being superseded by dialectical laws that are irreducible to physical and biological laws. This is not a matter for debate; it is unambiguously themed throughout their writings. The issue is complicated however by philosophical differences between Marx and Engels. For Marx, nature was always something that humans existed above, used through invention, technology and increasingly, industry. Engels, on the other hand, had a more mainstream scientific view of nature as existing independently to human beings. For Marx nature was subordinate to human beings but for Engels, humans were always subordinate to nature. Nevertheless, Engels’ ambiguous use of the term ‘natural law’ did not always effectively distinguish between natural laws derived from chemistry, biology and physics and natural laws as economic laws which applied only to human societies. From his earliest writings, he not only credited the discovery of economic and social laws to Marx but also referred to these economic and social laws as natural laws. For example, the economic law of supply and demand was for him (1845):
".......a pure natural law, not a law of the mind."
But Engels also suggested that, unlike natural laws emanating from chemistry, biology and physics, the so-called natural laws pertaining to the economic and social arena were not ineluctable. In common with Marx, however, he viewed them as eminently malleable by conscious mental effort translated into physical effort, or:
".......the leap of humanity out of the realm of necessity"
as he put it (1877). Colp (1982) puts the Marxist argument succinctly:
"Darwin’s theory of natural selection applies, at best, only to prehuman, preconscious natural history; it does not apply to the epoch of human history in which men consciously transform nature and therefore themselves."
Darwin, on the other hand, saw natural laws as being largely irreducible and applicable across the board, regardless of species and historical era. He saw human cultural and economic pursuits as an inevitable by-product of the playing out of biological laws. In other words, there is much less distinction between ‘natural history’ and ‘human history’ for Darwin than Engels and much less again for Darwin than Marx. It is important to remember, however, that Darwin's notion of evolution by natural selection is a scientific model and no scientific model concerns itself explicitly with moral theory (though they may, and should, inform moral deliberations). It is both descriptive and explanatory, but in no sense is it prescriptive. It is absurd, for example, to argue that people are motivated toward, or to be accepting of genocide, because Malthus identified a mathematical relationship between natural resources and population growth and then Darwin agreed as to its viability and applied it to plants and animals. Darwin himself (1871) had no difficulty recognising this:
"The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil."
This is a much misunderstood and too often under- and misrepresented aspect to Darwin’s scientific findings. As the historian of science Louis Rosenblatt (2018) writes:
"History has largely painted him as a ‘Darwinian’: Nature was red in tooth and claw, and marked by the indifference of the gods. But this is mistaken. There was a moral push to his work. He had uncovered a saving grace in life’s random coursing, one that placed sympathy for the plight of others deep within the human character. In short, Darwin believed evolution guaranteed that humans are innately good."
One can reasonably argue, therefore, that Marx had not read Darwin’s work particularly diligently if he saw it as a refutation of Malthus (at least as early as 1863; many of the more species-specific aspects of evolutionary theory came later). And what he did read was misunderstood due to being viewed through the prism of class struggle and what became known as dialectical materialism. Marx first reported reading ‘On the Origin of Species’ only a year after its publication (though we cannot be sure he read it all the way through), and Bergman (2001) claims that he was so enthused that he reread it two years later. If this is so, how is it that he (and Engels) could hold on to such a simplistic account of the basic tenets of Darwin’s theory? Marx and Engels rarely disagreed, but the case of the Malthus-Darwin link was a notable exception. Though Marx mistakenly thought that Darwin "overthrew Malthus’ theory", Engels considered Darwin to have accepted Malthus "naïvely and uncritically."
Bergman (2001) compounds the situation further by blatantly misrepresenting the position of both Marx and Engels with his own simplistic view:
"Marx saw the living world in terms of a Darwinian ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ struggle, involving the triumph of the strong and the subjugation of the weak."
Bergman’s (see also Feuer, 1978) claim as to Marx’s view is the polar opposite of what Marx and Engels actually thought. Both repeatedly made plain their abhorrence at attempts by other socialists to apply biological laws to human societies and often referred disparagingly to such attempts from "bourgeois Darwinians" (Stack, 2000). Again, from ‘Dialectics of Nature’ (1883a):
"Let us accept for a moment the phrase “struggle for existence,” for argument’s sake. The most that the animal can achieve is to collect; man produces, he prepares the means of subsistence, in the widest sense of the words, which without him nature would not have produced. This makes impossible any unqualified transference of the laws of life in animal societies to human society…………..even the most materialistic natural scientists of the Darwinian school are still unable to form any clear idea of the origin of man, because under this ideological influence they do not recognise the part that has been played therein by labour."
However, aside from Engels’ writings, Bergman’s claim is untrustworthy for numerous other reasons. First, Bergman offers no direct reference from Marx or any of his family or close associates to this effect. He cannot do so because none exists. There is no record of Marx ever employing the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ and nowhere in his written work does he state or even hint that he saw "the living world in terms of a Darwinian ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ struggle". In the absence of a legitimate reference, Bergman cites Antonie Pannekoek, a Dutch astronomer who was a child when Marx died, as the source of this quote. More on this later. Second, contrary to popular belief (which Bergman is surely banking on), ‘survival of the fittest’ is not even a Darwinian term. It originated with the British polymath Herbert Spencer in his book ‘The Principles of Biology’ (1864). He certainly intended that the term be synonymous with Darwinian natural selection, writing:
"This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’"
Yet, just as publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution was subsequent to publication of Marx’s concept of communism, so Spencer’s phrase post-dates ‘On the Origin of Species’. It does not occur in the original 1859 publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ where Darwin preferred the phrase ‘struggle for existence’. This was the version read by Engels and Marx and the phrase ‘struggle for existence’ continued to be used by Engels even after Spencer’s phrase became more popularly known. There were six versions of ‘On the Origin of Species’ published during Darwin’s lifetime and Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ does not even appear until the fifth version in 1869, a decade after the original volume and five years after Spencer first coined the phrase. It is more accurate, therefore, to refer to a ‘Spencerian’, rather than a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’. Such accuracy would, of course, dilute Bergman’s claim; ‘Darwinian’, like ‘Marxist’, being well-demonised terms in the fundamentalist Christian lexicon with ‘Spencerian’ far less likely to be known. Third, Bergman neglects to inform his readers that, as discussed, Darwin never viewed either ‘struggle for existence’ or ‘survival of the fittest’ in the adversarial or combative sense he is suggesting, i.e., "involving the triumph of the strong and the subjugation of the weak." From the original version (1859) of ‘On the Origin of Species’:
"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 death, 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. A plant which annually produces a thousand seeds of which only one of an average comes to maturity, may be more truly said to struggle with the plants of the same and other kinds which already clothe the ground. The mistletoe is dependant on the apple and a few other trees, but can only in a far fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees, for if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it languishes and dies. But several seedling mistletoes, growing close together on the same branch, may more truly be said to struggle with each other. As the mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on them; and it may methodically be said to struggle with other fruit bearing plants, in tempting the birds to devour, and thus disseminate its seeds. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence."
As Darwin acknowledges, there are undoubtedly struggles for existence within the natural world, but natural selection would not necessarily favour the physically strongest. By way of example, and in terms of Malthusian theory, should a food shortage occur and a population of some species is adversely affected, superior physical strength and psychological selfishness may be a detriment because it requires a higher energy input. Famine would more likely favour those organisms with a naturally slower metabolic rate. This was not what Spencer meant by his phrase and so he strongly disagreed with the evolutionary definition in which Darwin used his term ‘survival of the fittest’. Indeed, being a staunch Lamarckian, Spencer disagreed vehemently with Darwin on the whole notion of natural selection. A decade after Darwin’s death he even wrote an extended two-part paper entitled 'The Inadequacy of Natural Selection' (1893).
Fourth, it is ironic that authors like Bergman associate the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ with Marxist political and economic philosophy. Spencer actually employed the phrase to argue in support of the laissez-faire economic system of the very type hated by Marx and Engels and all subsequent Marxists worldwide yet seemingly beloved by right wing commentators like Bergman. Indeed, the political historian David Crook (2007) has described Spencer as the:
".......uncaring apostle of cut-throat capitalism."
Thus, the citing of Marx’s gift of ‘Das Kapital’ to Darwin as evidence of Darwin’s influence on Marx is considerably diminished when we consider that Marx also sent an autographed copy to Herbert Spencer. It may also be tempting to label Crook’s view as an example of left-wing bias in academia, but this charge hardly sticks here. The then richest American, John D. Rockefeller, understood and agreed with Spencer’s original meaning perfectly well (Hofstadter, 1944):
"The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest.......This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God."
Rockefeller is clearly referring to the Spencerian economic sense and not the Darwinian biological sense of ‘survival of the fittest’. It must be embarrassing to Bergman, then, that someone like Rockefeller, a devout daily Bible reading Christian, was publically championing (according to Bergman) the godless Marxist view of "triumph of the strong and the subjugation of the weak." No less astonishing, though, is Bergman citing the Dutch astronomer Antonie Pannekoek in support of his claim. Pannekoek was a Marxist to be sure, and as a scientist (though not a biologist), he fully accepted that Darwin had identified the means by which species diversify. However, it is telling that (once again) Bergman does not quote directly from Pannekoek. For good reason. Pannekoek’s book that Bergman cites, ‘Marxism and Darwinism’ (1912) does not actually say what Bergman claims it says. On the contrary, Pannekoek’s entire thesis (like that of Zirkle’s) is that Marxism and Darwinian evolution are wholly incompatible and are so, as Pannekoek puts it, because:
"Darwinism served as a tool to the bourgeoisie.......Darwinism and Marxism are two distinct theories, one of which applies to the animal world, while the other applies to society.......Arguments based on natural science, when applied to social questions, must almost always lead to wrong conclusions.......Marxism and Darwinism should remain in their own domains; they are independent of each other and there is no direct connection between them."
One of the chapters in Pannekoek’s book is titled ‘Darwinism versus Socialism’. It is the chapter which contains this passage, which demolishes wholesale the veracity of Bergman using him as a reference:
"In nature itself, in the animal world, we find that the weak are protected; that it is not by their own personal strength that they maintain themselves, and that they are not brushed aside on account of their personal weakness. This arrangement does not weaken the group, but gives to it new strength. The animal group in which mutual aid is best developed is best fit to maintain itself in the strife. That which, according to the narrow conception appeared as a cause of weakness, becomes just the reverse, a cause of strength."
•The Lack Of Evidence From The Personal Correspondence Of Marx And Engels•
If Marx and Engels did not laud Darwin in any of their formal publications might they have privately acknowledged Darwin's scientific findings as providing the basis for his political ideology? No, as we shall see, this avenue too is a historical cul-de-sac. Nevertheless, according to Bergman (2001):
"Marx and Engels ‘enthusiastically embraced’ Darwinism, kept up with Darwin’s writings, and often corresponded with each other (and others) about their reactions to Darwin’s conclusions."
This claim deserves to be examined in some detail because it is so far removed from the truth. First, as we have already seen from their publications it is simply not the case that either Marx or Engels "enthusiastically embraced" Darwinism and this lack of enthusiasm spills over into their correspondence. Bergman has worded himself cautiously here with the phrase "often corresponded". He has not quantified their degree of correspondence because he cannot do so without disclosing to the reader that these communications were exceedingly rare. Furthermore, "their reactions to Darwin’s conclusions" were rarely positive in tone, being, in the main, innocuous and more often negative.
The facts are these: The first mention of Darwin in their personal correspondences occurs in 11/12th December 1859 in a letter from Engels to Marx. Following the day of that letter to the day Engels died in 1895, there are 3,104 letters written by either Marx or Engels now archived (Marx & Engels Collected Works, 1931). A search through the archive for the term ‘Darwin’ or any variants using that term as a prefix (e.g., ‘Darwinism’, ‘Darwinian’ or ‘Darwinist’) reveals only 38 letters containing at least one instance of any of these words; 20 written by Marx and 18 by Engels. This represents 1.22% of all of their personal correspondence for that period. Furthermore, in the period 1860-1864, i.e., the first five full years following publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859) which Marx supposedly "enthusiastically embraced", he wrote 265 letters, yet only four contain the search terms (1.51%). In that same period, Engels wrote 98 letters and none include the search terms. Neither did their enthusiasm increase over time. An analysis of each man’s last decade of life reveals no increased prevalence for the search terms. Marx wrote 276 letters from the beginning of 1874 to his death in 1883 and the search terms occur on only three occasions (1.09%). Engels wrote 961 letters from the beginning of 1886 to his death in 1895, the search terms are found on only two occasions (0.21%). This rate of correspondence would surely not meet any reasonable criterion for "often corresponded." (Bergman, 2001); it would surely be more accurate to state that they very rarely corresponded about Darwin or evolutionary theory.
What follows is a discussion of each mention of the word Darwin or variants in these private letters, presented chronologically, when necessary with some discussion of context. The majority of the letters contain entirely mundane and innocuous comments pertaining to the search terms but they are included here because they patently demonstrate the relative lack of attention and respect Marx and Engels gave to Darwin and his scientific findings. There are very few with words of praise and some convey a distinct tone of negativity. Except where noted, all translations are from the Lawrence and Wishart version of Marx-Engels Collected Works (2010; Volumes 40-50). Quotes from Darwin’s personal correspondence are from the Darwin Correspondence Project (ongoing).
Letter 1: Engels to Marx. 11th/12th December 1859. Although always considered as the junior partner to Marx, Engels was nevertheless far more interested in the explosion in growth of the biological and physical sciences in the mid-19th century. He seems generally more knowledgeable on scientific matters than Marx. For example, in a letter to Marx the previous year (14th July 1858) Engels notes a number of recent discoveries in such diverse fields as chemistry, physiology, botany and physics and this discussion makes up the bulk of his letter. However, replying to Engels the next day, Marx completely ignores the discussion of science and concentrates on his current financial circumstances.
Engels was fortunate to have purchased one of the first 1,250 copy print run of ‘On the Origin of Species’ (which had sold out within 24 hours) on 24th November 1859, and almost three weeks later he wrote to Marx. There are two separate references to Darwin in this letter. In the first, the German poet Gottfried Kinkel incurs Engels’ wrath following his role in causing a split in the Communist League in 1850. Engels was incensed by this because he and Marx had written ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ (1848a) at the request of the League. Here, Engels employs a veiled criticism of natural selection in order to insult Kinkel and his followers:
"Whole generations of crippled moles having, by the Darwinian process of NATURAL SELECTION, evolved to the highest degree the faculty to live on dung, with shit for their chosen element."
After releasing his venom on Kinkel he then shifts to the more amenable topic of Darwin’s attitude to teleology:
"Darwin, by the way, whom I’m reading just now, is absolutely splendid. There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done. Never before has so grandiose an attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in Nature, and certainly never to such good effect. One does, of course, have to put up with the crude English method."
This is the first inkling we have as to what initially attracted Engels to Darwin. He commends Darwin to Marx, not for introducing the concept of natural selection to biology, but solely for discussion of a lack of teleology in nature, i.e., nature devoid of any supernatural or otherwise purposeful input. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Engels’ view of teleology was decidedly idiosyncratic and differed in an important way from Darwin. While Darwin (1859) described a non-teleological evolutionary process without apparent design, purpose or predetermined goals, Engels (1883a) considered that:
"The old teleology has gone to the devil, but the fact firmly stands that matter in its eternal cycle moves according to laws, which, at a certain stage – sometimes here and sometimes there – necessarily produces the thinking mind in organic beings.......we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it."
Thus, Engels did appear to harbour at least some notion of teleology. He simply attempted to replace supernatural teleology with a natural teleological mechanism that somehow had the pre-determined “internal necessity” of creating life and proceeding toward evolving complex, intelligent minds (Engels, 1883a; Paul, 1979). He certainly did not imply any conscious purpose; rather he considered that it was a natural tendency within nature that inevitably unfolded given fortuitous environmental conditions. One could conjecture this was a vestige of his upbringing in a strongly Calvinist family; Calvinism arguably being the Christian sect that most emphasises the notion of a divine teleology or strong determinism. That said, ‘On the Origin of Species’ did not seem to have appealed to Engels that greatly for he made no further mention of Darwin in his personal correspondence for another five years.
Letter 2: Marx to Engels. 19th December 1860. The first occasion in which Marx mentions Darwin occurs a full year after Engels had recommended ‘On the Origin of Species’ to him. He writes:
"In my times of trial [referring to an illness] during the last four weeks - I have read all sorts of things. Among others, Darwin's book on Natural Selection. Although it is developed in a crude English way, this is the book that contains the natural-history foundation of our view point."
Letter 3: Marx to the Prussian-German philosopher Ferdinand Lassalle. 16th January 1861. Although he never actually mentions the title, Marx makes an obvious reference to ‘On the Origin of Species’:
"One does, of course, have to put up with the clumsy English style of argument. Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained."
Notice how, in all letters so far, they both disparage Darwin’s theory by referring to the building of his case as "crude" and "clumsy". Like Engels, although Marx briefly mentions natural selection, in neither letter does he elaborate. It is the “mortal blow” to teleology that interests him. It was Darwin’s impact on the notion of teleology in the biological sciences that interested Aveling (1897) too:
"Is there one special doctrine that Darwin has taught by which he will be especially remembered in the after ages? I think there is.......Probably most of my readers will at first sight think that this is the theory of Natural Selection or the survival of the fittest.......But I do not select this as the most important of Darwin’s theories.......until the time of Charles Darwin the popular, and in truth the scientific, conception of Nature was that all things were ordered and designed by some great power or powers from without; that there was a beginning of things in which matter and motion were created ; that the various forms of matter and various forms of motion were superintended and interfered with from without, and that the final destructibility of matter and motion was conceivable. It was reserved for Darwin to tell us that these conceptions were inaccurate."
But there is a far more important comment in both Marx’s letter to Engels (Letter 2: 19th December 1860) and here to Lassalle that exercises certain anti-Darwinian authors so much. It the final sentence in Marx’s letter to Engels quoted above and it immediately precedes the quote given from the letter to Lassalle. The two sentences are similar but the Lassalle version is the smoking gun, being far more commonly cited and so is discussed here. In the original German the manuscript reads verbatim:
"Sehr bedeutend ist Darwin's Schrift u. paßt mir als naturwissenschaftliche Unterlage des geschichtlichen Klassenkampfes."
This is not a particularly difficult sentence to translate and it translates most simply as:
"Very significant is Darwin’s writing [which] suits me as a scientific document of the historical class struggle."
There are differences, however, in the various translations and some more than subtly alter its meaning. The following version seems to be the most commonly found in the American literature (e.g., Marx-Engels Collected Works, 1924):
".......this is the book that contains the natural historical foundation of our outlook."
The 1924 American version appears truncated compared to the 1931 translation from Progress Publishers, the official Soviet government publishers of Marx's writings. Their version reads:
".......suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle."
It seems obvious that the 1924 American version is a relatively poor translation compared to the 1931 Soviet version. It is closer to the version in Marx’s letter to Engels (Letter 2: 19th December 1860) than the one addressed to Lassalle. Most notable is the American substitution of the plural "our" for the first person "my", resulting in the vague (and incorrect) phrase "our outlook", echoing somewhat the version in the letter to Engels, "our viewpoint." Yet, in the original German, the sentence in the Lassalle letter clearly ends with the words "geschichtlichen Klassenkampfes" which has only one meaning: "historical class struggle." When Marx is writing to Engels, it appears likely that this is what he intended to convey but felt he didn’t need to expand as Engels would be aware that is what he meant. After all, the class struggle was and is at the very heart of Marxist political philosophy. The original Lassalle version also contains the word "naturwissenschaftliche" which is also missing from the 1924 American translation.
Nonetheless, these discrepancies pale in significance when compared with the version Morris (1963) and Bergman (2001) offer. This is surprising because when Bergman makes the claim that Marx and Engels’ personal correspondence is full of discussions about Darwin he quite reasonably references the respected 1934 translations of their correspondence performed by the British socialist historian, Dona Torr. She was fluent in German and had performed the translations, many from the original documents, at the Russian State Archive in Moscow and her final work was simultaneously published in the US and UK. However, when it comes to the only occasion in his article in which Bergman (purportedly) employs a quote from Marx he chooses and cites a translation from Zirkle (1959). It reads:
"Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a basis in natural selection for the class struggle in history."
Quite obviously, this quote has been doctored. It is one thing to translate the words "naturwissenschaftliche unterlage" (‘scientific document’) as "natural historical" (1924) and "natural science" (1931). It may be, strictly speaking inaccurate, but neither greatly alters Marx’s original sense and both were legitimate synonyms within the context, at the time Marx was writing. However, it is quite another to smuggle in a phrase that does not exist in the original at all. It is reprehensible for Morris and Bergman to use the quote to bolster their arguments while surely aware that it is bogus. The original German text does not contain the words 'natürliche selektion' and no widely accepted edition of translations (e.g., Marx-Engels Collected Works: International Publishers, 1924; Progress Publishers, 1931; Torre, 1934; International Publishers 1942; Progress Publishers 1975; Lawrence & Wishart, 2010) includes ‘natural selection’ in that sentence. Bergman is happy to cite Torr when he thinks it suits him, yet eschews Torr’s (and others’) translations when they don’t convey what he wants; only via Zirkle’s doctored version can he marry Darwinian natural selection to Marx.
However, there is more to this story and it backfires on Bergman in the same way as referencing Pannekoek (1912) does. Zirkle famously had no time for Marxist thought of any kind. He was a professional biologist, fully in accord with the neo-Darwinian science of the time and a vehement critic of the official Soviet anti-Darwinist attitude toward biology during the Stalin era, evidenced in his 1949 book, ‘The Death of Science in Russia’. The later 1959 book of Zirkle’s, the one Bergman cites, is a history of evolutionary theory that robustly criticises the infiltration of Marxist ideology within biology generally. As Zirkle straightforwardly wrote:
"Quackery has penetrated into our scholarly world.......the coexistence of our rapidly expanding sciences with stupid quack substitutes for science should surprise no one.......the biology embedded in the social sciences approaches closest to the biology of Marx and Engels.......sociologists postulate biological principles which have long been disproven and which are so far removed from the ignored recent discoveries that at present sociological biology has almost nothing in common with the biology of the biologists."
Zirkle’s analysis is not what Bergman wishes to convey to his readers. That evolutionary biology and Marxist political philosophy are wholly incompatible and amount to "the biology of the biologists" vs. "stupid quack substitutes for science" is certainly not Bergman’s view. After all, he has a lifetime’s publications in creationist magazines arguing that both evolutionary biology and Marxism have inextricable philosophical connections and are empirically and morally wrong. They are both "stupid" and "quack" in his view. Yet Zirkle clearly views Marx and 20th century Marxists generally as less than sincere than biologists and contends that Marx was simply fishing for some scientific street cred, hence "serves me as a basis."
Despite being lukewarm at best toward Darwin’s works in his own writings, Engels nevertheless saw fit to mention Darwin at Marx’s funeral on 17th March 1883 at Highgate Cemetery in London:
"Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.......[He] discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production, and the bourgeois society that this mode of production has created. Such was the man of science."
Engels’ published the eulogy a week later in the journal of the Socialist Workers Party of Germany ‘Der Sozialdemokrat’ (1883b) and this is also commonly touted as evidence that Darwin had influenced Marx and Engels. It is no such thing. There were only nine people at the funeral, including Engels. Two others, Aveling and Liebknecht, gave brief speeches and a single telegram was read out. None except Engels mentioned Darwin. Only two scientists attended and neither gave a eulogy or wrote of the funeral afterward. One was Carl Schorlemmer, the Professor of Chemistry who had given Marx Darwin’s address. The other, Ray Lankester, was a zoologist who fully accepted Darwinian biological evolution (though some consider that in later life he became semi-Darwinian) but who had no truck with Marx’s politics. He had befriended Marx a few years earlier after Marx had approached him to recommend someone for medical treatment for his wife’s cancer. Lankester appears to have later regretted his brief friendship with Marx. On the 50th anniversary of Marx’s death, he found himself the sole living person to have attended his funeral but despite many requests, refused to provide any reminiscences or allow any interviews.
Engels’ words at Marx’s graveside (and Liebknecht’s memoir) seem a somewhat sad attempt to hang Marx on the coat tails of the scientific and social success that Darwin had so obviously achieved and Marx so obviously not (Ali, 1944). Liebknecht’s memoir, Engels’ eulogy (along with a reiteration in Engels’ preface to the 1988 English reprint of the Communist Manifesto) are clearly attempts to equate the two men in intellectual stature. However, neither count as anywhere near sufficient evidence that Darwin had influenced Marx. More to the point, in neither case do either of these men actually state this. Engels may have had philosophical problems with Darwin’s theory but he was happy to use Darwin’s fame for propaganda purposes (Megill, 2002; Stack, 2003). As Stack (2003) puts it, Engels was simply:
".......keen for Marxism to bask in the reflected glory of Darwinism [with his] attempt to steal the Darwinian mantle."
Letter 4: Marx to Engels. 18th June 1862. We must wait almost a year and a half to pass for the next mention of Darwin in correspondence. Now, it becomes obvious that Marx did not follow Darwin’s work particularly closely as he writes:
"I am amused at Darwin, at whom I have been taking another look."
This short passage being the sole flimsy evidence that leads Bergman (2001) to claim that Marx:
".......was so enthusiastic that he re-read it [‘On the Origin of Species’] two years later."
Marx continues, gently chiding Darwin:
"[I] should say that he also applies the ‘Malthusian’ theory to plants and animals, as though in Mr Malthus’s case the whole thing didn’t lie in it’s not being applied to plants and animals, but only – with its geometric progression – to humans as against plants and animals. It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes [war of all against all] and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society."
Once again, Marx shows that he reads Darwin only through a Malthusian veil.
Letter 5. Marx to Dutch tobacco merchant, Lion Philips. 25th June 1864. We have to jump a full two years before either Marx or Engels again mention Darwin. Lion Philips was the husband of Marx’s maternal grandmother’s sister (he addresses him as ‘Uncle’), and one of Marx’s most generous financial benefactors. Here Marx is alluding to a controversial book by the Dutch orientalist Reinhart Dozy (1864) who argued that the Jewish religion and all of its patriarchs as described in the Pentateuch was all a deliberate fabrication to pave the way for strict monotheism, which has since led to Islam. Marx came from Jewish families on both sides. His father was originally named Hirschel Ha Levi and had Germanised his name to Heinrich Marx in order to practice law. His paternal grandfather was Rabbi Marx Ha Levi Mordechai. Marx's mother's family had included rabbis in each generation for at least the previous century before his birth. Marx, however, was atheist. This brief comment seems intended to portray his lack of kinship with Judaism:
"However, since Darwin demonstrated that we are all descended from the apes, there is scarcely ANY SHOCK WHATEVER that could shake 'our ancestral pride'."
Letter 6. Engels to Marx. 11th March 1865. This bland passage occurs nine months later. It concerns a short book written by the German philosopher and sociologist Friedrich Albert Lange, ‘Die Arbeiterfrage in ihrer Bedeutung für Gegenwart und Zukunft.’ (1965; ‘The Labour Question in its Present and Future Significance’):
"Siebel has sent me Lange's pamphlet. Confused, Malthusian with some Darwinian ingredients, flirting with all and sundry, but several good passages against Lassalle and the bourgeois consumers' co-op fellows. I'll send it to you in the next few days."
Letter 7. Engels to Friedrich Albert Lange. 29th March 1865. Later the same month Engels writes to Lange informing him that he has read his work and he makes a brief reference to Darwin, demonstrating that he too appears to lack an appreciation of the differences between Malthus and Darwin:
"I read it with great interest. I, too, was immediately struck on first reading Darwin by the remarkable similarity between his description of the vegetable and animal life and the Malthusian theory."
Engels then proceeds to accuse Malthus of plagiarism (a charge repeated by Marx in the first volume of ‘Das Kapital’):
"The parson Malthus filched this theory, like all his other ideas, directly from his predecessors."
Letter 8. Marx to Engels; 7th August 1866. Nearly a year and a half has passed and Marx recommends a recently published book by the French architect and photographer Pierre Trémaux (1865) outlining an alternative mechanism for speciation. It is obvious that Marx prefers Trémaux’s ideas to Darwin’s and he even makes several digs at Darwin’s expense:
"A very important work which I shall send on to you (but on condition that you send it back, as it is not my property) as soon as I have made the necessary notes, is: P. Trémaux, Origine et Transformations de l’Homme et des autres Êtres, Paris 1865. In spite of all the shortcomings that I have noted, it represents a very significant advance over Darwin."
This trend continues through the letter:
"The physical features of the earth, on the other hand, differentiate (they are the chief, though not the only basis). Progress, which Darwin regards as purely accidental, is essential here on the basis of the stages of the earth’s development, degeneration, which Darwin cannot explain, is straightforward here; ditto the rapid extinction of merely transitional forms, compared with the slow development of the type of the species, so that the gaps in palaeontology, which Darwin finds disturbing, are necessary here. Ditto the fixity of the species, once established, which is explained as a necessary law (apart from individual, etc., variations). Here hybridisation, which raises problems for Darwin, on the contrary supports the system, as it is shown that a species is in fact first established as soon as crossing with others ceases to produce offspring or to be possible, etc. In its historical and political applications far more significant and pregnant than Darwin."
Engels replies to Marx on the 2rd October 1866 leaving no doubt as to his differing opinion of Trémaux’s book:
"I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing to his whole theory because he knows nothing of geology, and is incapable of even the most common-or-garden literary-historical critique. That stuff about the nigger Santa Maria and the whites turning into Negroes is enough to make one die of laughing.......The book is utterly worthless, pure theorising in defiance of all the facts, and for each piece of evidence it cites it should itself first provide evidence in turn."
Letter 9. Marx to Engels; 3rd October 1866. Apparently undeterred by Engels’ view of Trémaux’s book being “worthless”, Marx further discusses Trémaux in a letter to Engels and, again, he shows that he is less than enamoured with Darwin:
"Your verdict that there is nothing to his whole theory because he knows nothing of geology, and is incapable of even the most common-or-garden literary historical critique recurs almost word for word in Cuvier’s ‘Discours sur les Révolutions du Globe in his attack on the doctrine of the variabilité des especes, in which he makes fun of German nature-worshippers, among others, who formulated Darwin’s basic idea in its entirety, however far they were from being able to prove it."
He further states that Trémaux’s work is:
".......an idea which needs only to be formulated to acquire permanent scientific status."
Letter 10. Engels to Marx; 5th October 1866. Although Engels starts by giving Darwin faint praise, he chides both Darwin and Trémaux for not identifying a mechanism for heredity:
"In one respect, Darwin is also right in his views on the effect crossing has in producing change, as Trémaux incidentally tacitly acknowledges.......Similarly, Darwin and others have never failed to appreciate the effect of the soil, and if they did not especially emphasise it, this was because they had no notion of how the soil exerts an influence — other than that fertility has a favourable and infertility an unfavourable effect. And Trémaux is little the wiser about that either."
Letter 11. Marx to German gynaecologist Ludwig Kugelmann; 9th October 1866. Four days later, despite Engels’ continuing poor opinion, we find Marx again championing Trémaux, reiterating his opinion that Trémaux’s work is superior to that of Darwin:
"I would also recommend to you Trémaux: ‘De 1’origine de tous les êtres, etc.’ Although written in a slovenly way, full of geological howlers and seriously deficient in literary-historical criticism, it represents — with all that, and all that — an advance over Darwin."
Marx’s enthusiasm for Trémaux’s ideas seems based on their shared notion that human beings are physiologically fundamentally malleable and not unduly constrained by any mechanisms of heritability. If so, this allows us another insight into his poor understanding of Darwin’s scientific findings in particular, and biology in general. Trémaux’s basic hypothesis was eccentric, even for his day. He suggested the chemical composition of the soil determined physiological and psychological traits, including cultural and even national characteristics. Soil formed during later geological periods was deemed to be more chemically complex and was thus responsible for more complex, higher civilisations than soil formed at earlier times. Engels, who had always demonstrated a superior understanding of the natural sciences relative to Marx, was better able to identify the numerous flaws and shoddy evidence used in support of Trémaux’s argument. Marx, however, considered Trémaux, despite his "geological howlers" (again echoing Engels) to be "a very significant advance over Darwin" and capable of achieving "permanent scientific status" with some tweaks to his hypothesis. Only someone who did not appreciate the scientific strength of Darwin’s theory could possibly be capable of such a ‘howler’ themselves. Engels never mentioned Trémaux in any of his published work and unsurprisingly, Trémaux’s work never achieved the status Marx wished for it and it soon disappeared from the scientific mind.
Letter 12. Marx to Engels; 7th December 1867. This letter comes more than a year later. Marx appears to be responding to an article in ‘Der Beobachter’ (‘The Observer’) newspaper by the editor Karl Mayer, who Marx clearly dislikes. Regarding Darwin, his comment is wholly inconsequential:
"Now as regards the tendency of the author, another distinction has to be drawn. When he demonstrates that present society, economically considered, is pregnant with a new, higher form, he is only showing in the social context the same gradual process of evolution that Darwin has demonstrated in natural history."
Letter 13. Marx to Engels; 25th March 1868. A similarly inconsequential mention of Darwin, three months later. The comment concerns the ideas of the German agronomist Karl Nikolaus Fraas:
"Very interesting is the book by Fraas (1847): Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit, eine Geschichte beider, namely as proving that climate and flora change in historical times. He is a Darwinist before Darwin, and admits even the species developing in historical times."
Marx continues to discuss Fraas and clearly admires him intellectually, despite labelling him "a bourgeois."
Letter 14. Engels to Marx; 22nd Oct 1868. Seven months later, Engels informs Marx that he has read Darwin’s latest book, ‘The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication’ (1868). His dismissal of the work is particularly succinct:
"I’ve read Darwin’s first volume on DOMESTICATION. Only details are new, and then not much of importance."
This was to be Engels’ last mention of Darwin in his private correspondence for seven years.
Letter 15. Marx to Engels; 14th November 1868. Marx makes a sarcastic remark regarding Ludwig Büchner and is dismissive of his recently published 'Sechs Vorlesungen’ (1868; ‘Six Lectures on Darwinian Theory’), accusing him of plagiarism:
"The great Büchner has sent me his 'Sechs Vorlesungen etc. über die Darwin'sche Theorie, etc'…………..Büchner, for instance (as everybody who has read Lange's balderdash knows anyway), states that his CHAPTER on materialist philosophy has been copied mainly from this very Lange."
In terms of evolutionary theory, there was little in the six lectures that Marx would have disagreed with. Büchner praised Darwin for reintroducing a philosophical element into biology and considered Darwin’s greatest contribution to science to be as a defeater of teleology, rather than the discoverer of natural selection. Marx’s dislike of Büchner seems to have rested on his attempt to meld evolutionary theory with socialism (as did Lange) as well having some personal basis. Büchner, however, had the last word; his ‘Six Lectures’ were expanded and reprinted after Marx’s death into a book-length work ‘Darwinismus und Sozialismus’ (1894).
Letter 16. Marx to Engels; 18th November 1868. Seven days later, we see Marx again insulting Büchner:
"Büchner’s clumsy work is of interest to me in as much as it quotes most of the German research in the field of Darwinism — Prof. Jäger (Vienna) and Prof. Haeckel.......The conscientiousness with which Büchner has acquainted himself with the English stuff is also shown by the fact that he classifies Owen as one of Darwin’s supporters."
There is some irony in this letter. Marx sarcastically (but fairly) comments on Büchner’s "conscientiousness" for being seemingly unaware that there was (famously) ill feeling between the biologist and palaeontologist Richard Owen and Darwin, though they were formerly better disposed to each other. Briefly, Owen accepted biological evolution but not Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which he considered too simplistic. However, Marx is less than conscientious himself, appearing to think that the German anatomist Ernst Haeckel was a Darwinian. Certainly, Haeckel accepted biological evolution and he had great respect for Darwin, visiting him at home and sometimes showing more than a hint of sycophancy in his correspondence to him. His recently published book ‘Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte’ (1868; ‘The Natural History of Creation’), was marketed in Germany as an attempt to explain Darwin’s ideas to the general public. It was not an accurate description of its content, nor of Haeckel's career. Although often painted as the man who did more than anyone else to promote the work of Charles Darwin in Germany, Haeckel’s views on biology in general and on human origins in particular can be considered no more than semi-Darwinian. By his own admission, Haeckel’s view of evolution was far more Lamarckian than Darwinian.
To be considered a Darwinian in 1868 required, at a minimum, acceptance of Darwin’s claim that natural selection was the primary mechanism that drove evolution. Haeckel only partly accepted this. Haeckel was also a strong advocate of eugenics, something Darwin did not support. Two years earlier, when biologist and anthropologist Thomas Huxley edited the English translation of Haeckel's book 'Generelle Morphologie' (1866) he removed, at Darwin's request (being ever the gentleman; and with Haeckel's agreement), large segments containing Haeckel's grossly acidic views on others who had contributed to the field of Darwinian evolutionary theory and with whom he disagreed (Uschmann, 1979). In the end, the book was reduced to less than half its size and was never published in that form. Nyhart (1994) has also discussed the distinct differences in direction that Darwin's and Haeckel's work took in the decades following publication of 'Origin of Species'. As Gasman (1971) reminds us:
"Haeckel's Darwinism is a vast transformation of what Darwin wrote and stood for."
By labelling Haeckel a Darwinian, therefore, Marx again demonstrates that he doesn’t understand Darwin’s theory as well as he thinks.
Letter 17. Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann; 5th December 1868. Two weeks later. Marx again makes no secret of his disdain for Büchner and yet another charge of plagiarism is made:
"I have received Büchner’s lectures on Darwinism. He is obviously a ‘book-maker’ and probably for this reason is called ‘Büchner’. His superficial babble about the history of materialism is obviously copied from Lange."
He also labels Büchner’s attempt to link his ideas with Darwin’s as "shallow nonsense."
Letter 18. Marx to Engels; 23rd Jan 1869. A very mundane mention of Darwin and yet another opportunity for Marx to disrespect Büchner:
"She [Marx’s eldest daughter Jenny] asks for the return of Büchner, since she has studied Darwin and now wishes to get acquainted with the great."
Letter 19. Marx to Paul and Laura Lafargue; 15th February 1869. Three weeks later Marx re-aims his derision away from Büchner and toward Darwin by way of Clémence Royer, the first French translator of ‘On the Origin of Species’. Royer, unbeknownst to Darwin, had written her own preface to the book where she had suggested the benefits of applying natural selection to human beings, though what she meant was the application of artificial selection and specifically negative eugenics, something Darwin found obnoxious. Marx had read Royer’s preface (he was fluent in French) but his response indicates that he does not seem to understand the difference between natural and artificial selection.
As for Darwin, he did not know Royer. His French publisher commissioned her because she had previous experience translating the work of biologists and Darwin’s preferred translator (who he knew personally) had declined due to the scientific nature of the book. We know from Darwin’s personal correspondence that he was both nonplussed and highly displeased with Royer’s actions. Writing to the American botanist Asa Gray on 10th June 1862 he vented his spleen in his characteristic gentlemanly fashion (in contrast to Marx and Engels’ sometimes less than gentlemanly tone):
"I received 2 or 3 days ago a French Translation of the Origin by a Madelle. Royer, who must be one of the cleverest & oddest women in Europe: [she] is [an] ardent Deist & hates Christianity, & declares that natural selection & the struggle for life will explain all morality, nature of man, politics &c &c!!!"
She likely was one of the cleverest women in Europe at the time, for in 1870 she became the first woman elected to a French scientific society, as a member of the Parisian Society of Anthropology. In other correspondence (to the French biologist Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages de Bréau; 11th July 1862), Darwin writes:
"I wish the translator had known more of Natural History; she must be a clever, but singular lady.......”
And to the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (11th September 1862):
"Almost everywhere in Origin, when I express great doubt, she appends a note explaining the difficulty or saying that there is none whatever!! It is really curious to know what conceited people there are in the world."
Darwin remained unhappy with the French version until Edmond Barbier’s translation for the third French edition in 1876.
A few weeks before Marx’s letter, Paul Lafargue had unsuccessfully attempted to commission Royer to translate ‘Das Kapital’ into French. Marx and Lafargue would likely not have been aware of the controversy regarding the preface and Darwin’s criticism of Royer. Marx probably assumed, given his previous incorrect assumptions about Darwin’s theory, that Darwin was in full agreement with Royer’s preface, leading to his criticism of her as "bourgeois" (echoing, of course, Engels’ view of Darwin as "bourgeois", being the standard criticism of anyone Marx and Engels disagreed with). As it turned out, a complete French translation of Marx’s book was not available until six years later, having been published in instalments from 1872-1875. Even then, Marx was unhappy with parts of Joseph Roy’s translation, describing it as "too literal" and so felt compelled to re-write numerous passages in French himself.
In this letter note Marx’s unambiguous criticism of Darwin’s theory, even though it seems he still does not properly understand it. His use of the term "The Darwinism" refers to what we now would label ‘social Darwinism’:
"As to Paul’s lively narration of his adventure with Mlle Royer, it has tickled Engels and my humble self. I was not at all astonished at his failure. He will remember that, having read her preface to Darwin, I told him at once she was a bourgeois. Darwin was led by the struggle for life in English society — the competition of all with all, bellum omnium contra omnes — to discover competition as the ruling law of ‘bestial’ and vegetative life. The Darwinism, conversely, considers this a conclusive reason for human society never to emancipate itself from its bestiality."
Letter 20. Marx to Engels; 10th February 1870. One year on Marx writes to Engels and briefly discusses the political scene in Paris. Gustav Flourens has fled the country three days earlier after failing to overthrow the government. His father was the well-known physiologist Marie Jean Pierre Flourens, an ardent anti-Darwinian creationist. The “nearly 100 years of life” comment is an exaggeration by Marx, as he lived only 73 years:
"Flourens, the CRACK-BRAINED youngster, is the son OF LATE Flourens, secrétaire perpétuel de l'Académie, who always adhered to the existing government throughout his nearly 100 years of life, and who was, in turn, Bonapartist, legitimist, Orleanist and again Bonapartist. During the last years of his life he still made himself noticeable with his fanaticism against Darwin."
Letter 21. Marx to Engels; 14th April 1870. This mention comes, not in the main text of the letter, but in the postscript. Darwin is mentioned only in passing. Note, however, the derogatory reference to Thomas Huxley’s philosophical views:
“Apropos. Stirling [J. H. Stirling, The Secret of Hegel: Being the Hegelian System in Origin, Principle, Form, and Matter] (Edinburgh), the translator of Hegel’s Logic, and heading the British subscription for the Hegel monument — has written a small pamphlet against Huxley and his protoplasm. As a Scotsman, the fellow has naturally adopted Hegel’s false religion and Idealistic mysticism (so induced Carlyle to declare publicly his conversion to Hegelianism). But his knowledge of Hegel’s dialectic allows him to demonstrate Huxley’s weaknesses — where he indulges in philosophising. His business in the same pamphlet against Darwin comes to the same as what the Berliner Blutschulze Hegelian of the old school) said some years ago at the natural scientists’ meeting in Hanover."
Marx and Engels never really warmed to Huxley though they seem to appear to have accepted him as a competent scientist. In late 1862 Marx attended a series of six public lectures on Darwin’s findings given by Huxley, along with his friends Friedrich Lessner and Liebknecht (1896; "we attended conscientiously"). Yet Huxley appears to have had zero effect on Marx’s political philosophy. ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ shares much the same fate as Darwin himself, in terms of sparse mentions in Marx and Engels’ published work. For example, he gets only a single mention in Volume 1 of ‘Das Kapital’. This is in a footnote concerned solely with the lung capacity of the "healthy average individual" and their production of carbonic acid. Huxley is ignored in Volumes 2, 3 and 4. For Engels, while ‘On the Origin of Species’ was "epoch-making", Huxley’s (1863) book on human origins was “very interesting and quite good" (Engels to Marx, 8th April 1863). The private correspondence of Marx and Engels reveals only two other occasions in which Huxley is mentioned; one letter from Marx to Engels (28th January 1863) which states no more than Huxley had recently lectured at the Institute of Geology in Jermyn Street. The second comes 32 years later (Engels to the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies; 24th January 1895) in which Engels criticises the philosopher Augustine Comte’s insistence in the importance of maintaining hierarchy in social structures, relating that:
"Huxley could say of Comtism that it was Catholicism without Christianity."
Engels quotes Huxley directly, once only, in ‘Dialectics of Nature’ (1883a). Not for any purpose of political philosophy, but rather to share in ridiculing the then popular craze of spiritualism. Huxley was declining an invitation to join a committee of the London Dialectical Society investigating "phenomena alleged to be spiritual manifestations":
"The only good that I can see in the demonstration of the truth of `spiritualism' is to furnish an additional argument against suicide. Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a `medium' hired at a guinea a séance!"
This distinct lack of enthusiasm for just about anything Huxley had to say was probably not based on his scientific views but rather his perennial philosophical stance. Huxley was perfectly happy to accept materialism in the methodological sense, when conducting science, however, although he is often portrayed as otherwise, Huxley was undoubtedly strongly anti-materialist in an ontological sense, evidenced by this statement given in his 1868 lecture 'On the Physical Basis of Life’ (and published 1869):
"I, individually, am no materialist, but, on the contrary, believe materialism to involve grave philosophical error."
Letter 22. Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann; 27th June 1870. Two months later Marx is discussing the book ‘On the Worker’s Question’ by the German philosopher, Friedrich Lange who had attempted to amalgamate Marxist philosophy and Darwin’s scientific findings into a movement he labelled ‘socialist Darwinism’ (not to be confused with ‘social Darwinism’). In particular, he proposed that Darwin’s ‘struggle for existence’ was a natural law that applied no less to human beings than to the rest of the natural world. Both Marx and Engels were distinctly unimpressed and treated Lange with outright disdain and scorn (see e.g., Ball, 1979; Stack, 2000; 2003), and he was predictably labelled as a "bourgeois Darwinian" by Engels. Marx’s letter acts a critique of Lange’s book and his opinion is unambiguous. He is sarcastic and dismissive:
"Mr Lange (On the workers’ question, etc., 2nd edition) pays me great compliments, but with the object of increasing his own importance. Mr Lange, you see, has made a great discovery. All history may be subsumed in one single great natural law. This natural law is the phrase (— the Darwinian expression becomes, in this application, just a phrase —) ‘struggle for life’, and the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population, or rather over-population. Thus, instead of analysing this ‘struggle for life’ as it manifests itself historically in various specific forms of society, all that need be done is to transpose every given struggle into the phrase ‘struggle for life’ and then this phrase into the Malthusian ‘population fantasy’. It must be admitted that this is a very rewarding method — for stilted, mock-scientific, highfaluting ignorance and intellectual laziness."
Darwin was as unenthused as Marx and Engels were with Lange’s attempt at melding his scientific findings with Marxism. To the Austrian diplomat and explorer Karl von Scherzer on 26th December 1879 he wrote:
"What foolish idea seems to prevail in Germany on the connection between Socialism and Evolution through Natural Selection."
Letter 23. Engels to Russian philosopher Pyotr Lavrov; 24th September 1875. Lavrov was an exponent of ‘scientific socialism’, which also embraced Darwinian evolutionary theory. Engels is replying to Lavrov’s letter dated 20th August, which he had only just received as he was on holiday. He tells Lavrov that he intends to read his article, recently published in the Russian journal ‘Vperyod!’ (‘Forward!’):
".......so as to be able to tell you where we agree and where we differ in our views on the relationship of socialism to the struggle for existence as propounded by Darwin."
Letter 24. Engels to Pyotr Lavrov; 12-17th November 1875. Two months later and Engels has now read Lavrov’s article. In this lengthy letter (written in German, along with Russian, French and Latin sentences and phrases), he outlines his disagreement with Lavrov and expounds on the reasons as to why Darwin’s scientific findings cannot provide the basis for Marxist political philosophy. Much of this letter is included almost verbatim in Engels’ book ‘Dialectics of Nature’ (1883a). The most relevant portions of the letter text are reproduced here:
"1. Of Darwin's doctrine, I accept the theory of evolution, but assume Darwin's method of verification (STRUGGLE FOR LIFE, NATURAL SELECTION) to be merely a first, provisional, incomplete expression of a newly discovered fact. Before Darwin, the very people who now, wherever they look, see nothing but the struggle for existence (Vogt, Büchner, Moleschott and others), once laid particular stress on co-operation in organic nature, the way in which the plant kingdom supplies oxygen and food to the animal kingdom and, conversely, the latter supplies plants with carbonic acid and manure, as indicated notably by Liebig. Both conceptions are to some extent justified, but each is as one-sided and narrow as the other. The interaction of natural bodies—both dead and living—comprises harmony as well as strife, struggle as well as cooperation. Hence, if a self-styled naturalist takes it upon himself to subsume all the manifold wealth of historical development under the one-sided and meagre axiom 'struggle for existence', a phrase which, even in the field of nature, can only be accepted cum grano salis [with a grain of salt] his method damns itself from the outset."
There are two points to be made here. First, Engel’s use of the phrase "Darwin’s doctrine" is telling. This use of language is identical to that used modern creationists like Morris or Bergman. Painting Darwin’s work as a prescriptive doctrine rather than an explanatory model based on empirical findings is commonplace in the creationist literature and it is surprising to see someone reasonably well versed in the natural sciences using such fallacious semantics. The "one-sided" and "cum grano salis" jibes are also reminiscent of a creationist author. Arguably, it comes across as a cheap shot, which demeans Engels’ usual attempt at balance. Second, Engels is equating the ideas of Darwin and Spencer by overtly substituting Spencerian ideas for Darwinian concepts. As discussed, Spencer’s notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’ is vastly different to Darwin’s ‘struggle for existence’. The misrepresentation is made all the worse by the fact that several years earlier, Darwin had published a second seminal work, ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871), in which he discusses at some length the importance of cooperativity and sympathy in the evolution of the primate species in general, including humans.
"2. Of the three ubèzdennyie Darwinistyh [convinced Darwinians] you cite, only Hellwald would seem worthy of mention. After all, Seidlitz is at best no more than a minor luminary and Robert Byr a novelist, whose novel Drei Mal is currently appearing in Ueber Land und Meer. And that's where all his rodomontade belongs."
"3.......All that the Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence boils down to is an extrapolation from society to animate nature of Hobbes' theory of the bellum omnium contra omnes and of the bourgeois-economic theory of competition together with the Malthusian theory of population. Having accomplished this feat (the absolute admissibility of which, as indicated above under 1, I contest, especially where the Malthusian theory is concerned), these people proceed to re-extrapolate the same theories from organic nature to history, and then claim to have proved their validity as eternal laws of human society. The puerility of this procedure is self-evident, and there is no need to waste words on it. If, however, I did wish to enlarge upon it, I should represent them, firstly as bad economists and secondly as bad naturalists and philosophers."
Again, Engels appears to be portraying Darwin’s theory as Spencerian, not based on empirical evidence, but as bad philosophy.
"4. The essential distinction between human and animal society is that the most animals do is garner, whereas humans produce. This unique but crucial distinction alone makes it impossible simply to extrapolate the laws of animal societies to human societies. What it does make possible, as you rightly remark, is that celovëk vel borjbu ne toljko za suscestvovanie, no za naslazdenie i za uvelicenie svojich naslazdenij.......gotov byl dlja vyssago naslazdenija otrecsja ot nissich [man was not simply engaged in a struggle for existence but also for enjoyment and for the intensification of his enjoyment.......was prepared to forego less high for the sake of higher enjoyment]. While not contesting the conclusions you proceed to draw from this, I would, from my own premisses, draw the following inferences: At a certain stage, then, human production reaches such a level that not only necessary requirements are produced, but also luxuries if, to begin with, only for a minority. The struggle for existence—if, for the moment, this category be allowed—thus becomes a struggle for enjoyment, not just for the means of subsistence, but for the means of development—socially produced means of development—and in respect of this stage the categories of animal kingdom are no longer applicable. If, however, as has now happened, production in its capitalist form produces means of subsistence and development far in excess of what can be consumed by capitalist society since it keeps the great mass of real producers artificially at a distance from these means of subsistence and development; if, by its own existential law, that society is compelled continually to raise what is, for its own purposes, an already excessive production and hence periodically, every ten years, gets to the point of destroying, not only huge quantitites of products, but even the productive forces themselves— what meaning still attaches to talk of the 'struggle for existence'? For in that case the struggle for existence can consist only in this—that the producing class takes over the management of production and distribution from the class formerly entrusted with that task but now no longer capable of it, and this, in effect, is socialist revolution."
“I might remark en passant that the mere consideration of previous history as a series of class struggles is enough to reveal the utter shallowness of the view of that same history as a slightly modified representation of the 'struggle for existence'. Hence it's a favour I'd never do these bogus naturalists."
One might reasonably ask at this point how it is possible to digest Engels’ letter and be convinced that he (along with Marx) was a "doctrinaire evolutionist." And that "Marxism, socialism, and communism.......are squarely based on evolutionism"?
Letter 25. Engels to Marx; May 28th 1876. Six months later, Engels makes a passing disparaging remark about the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz who was attempting a neo-Kantian view of human perception:
"Herr Helmholz has never stopped chasing round the ‘thing-in-itself’ since 1853 and has still not got clear about it. The man is not ashamed of calmly allowing the nonsense he had printed before Darwin to be still reprinted over again."
Letter 26. Marx to Engels; 11th December 1876. Another half year passes before we reach the next Darwin mention. It occurs in the (longer) postscript of a very brief letter. The context is a conference organised by the Liberal Party in London three days earlier dealing with the question of relations with Russia. Marx first repeats a claim that the "workers" taking part in a demonstration outside the hall "without exception belonged to a paid band" leading to:
"Unfortunately Charles Darwin also lent his name to the rotten demonstration."
Letter 27. Engels to the German zoologist Eduard Oscar Schmidt; 19th July 1878. More than 18 months later Engels writes to the Darwinian zoologist Oscar Schmidt. The 51st Congress of Natural Scientists and Physicians was coming up in September 1878 and the program included Schmidt’s paper entitled 'On the Relation of Darwinism to Social Democracy' in which he was going to propose an amalgamation of evolutionary theory and socialism. Engels was decidedly unimpressed. He issued Schmidt with a warning that he intended to subject his paper to "ruthless criticism":
"By way of making a contribution of my own, I am taking the liberty of sending you by post a copy of my work Herr Eugen Duhring's etc., which has just come out. In it, I have endeavoured to give, among other things, an outline of the relation of scientific socialism to the propositions of modern theoretical natural science in general, and to Darwin's theory in particular. The passages relating to Darwinism are marked."
He goes on:
"With your permission, I shall in due course and from my own standpoint subject your lecture to the kind of ruthless criticism which alone does justice to free science and which any man of science must welcome, even when applied to himself."
Letter 28. Engels to Pyotr Lavrov; 10th August 1878. Engels starts by referring to a paper (‘The Freedom of Science in the Modern State’) presented at the previous 50th Congress of Natural Scientists and Physicians by German physician and pathologist Rudolf Virchow. Virchow was a maverick as a medical doctor being anti-evolution, anti-Darwinian theory, and refusing to accept the germ theory of disease. In his presentation, he had proposed that Darwinism should be banned in schools and that any amalgamation of Darwinism and socialism was morally dangerous and a threat to social order (though he himself was socially liberal). Engels writes:
"As you will have seen, the German Darwinians have, in response to Virchow's appeal, come out unequivocally against socialism."
He then reiterates his position re Eduard Oscar Schmidt:
"Mr Oscar Schmidt of Strasbourg is going to flatter us [i.e., socialists] con amore at the natural scientists' conference in Kassel. It's a waste of effort. If reaction in Germany gets the bit between its teeth, its first victims, after the socialists, will be the Darwinians."
Letter 29. Engels to the German Marxist theorist Eduard Bernstein; 3rd May 1882. We need to jump almost four years for this next transitory mention of Darwin. It concerns Darwin’s reply to Marx nine years earlier (1st October 1873) discussed earlier following Marx’s gift of ‘Das Kapital’. The following sentence occurs alone, unconnected to other subjects discussed in the letter:
"Darwin's letter was of course addressed to Marx and was an extremely kind one."
Letter 30. Marx to Engels; 5th June 1882. Marx writes this letter in Cannes, France where he is unwell with a bronchial condition and the letter is solely about this subject and the expert medical attention he is receiving. The mention of Darwin is jovial yet mundane, to say the least:
"Nature, too, can evince a certain philistine humour (after the manner, already humorously anticipated in the Old Testament, of the serpent feeding on dust, cf. the dusty diet of Darwin's worms)."
Here, Marx is alluding to two Old Testament passages as well as Darwin’s most recent book ‘The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits’ (1881; his bestselling book during his lifetime) in which he revealed that worms eating soil and defecating it aids in the formation of humus.
Letter 31. Marx to Engels; 4th September 1882. Marx is still in France. The following is the final sentence of the letter and appears unaccompanied by any other relevant discussion.
"Mr Virchow, or so I see from the supplément to yesterday's Journal de Genève, has again demonstrated that he is far and away above Darwin, he alone, in fact, being scientific and hence also 'contemptuous' of organic chemistry."
This is more an unmistakeable sarcasm aimed at Rudolph Virchow, less a favourable comment on Darwin. This was the last letter Marx wrote in which he mentioned Darwin. He died a little over six months later.
Letter 32. Engels to the Czech-Austrian socialist philosopher Karl Kautsky; 15th November 1882. This is the first of three letters spanning a little more than two year period in which Engels mentions Darwin, all three being addressed to Karl Kautsky. At the time Kautsky was arranging publication in Stuttgart of a new socialist journal ‘Die Neue Zeit’ (‘The New Times’; published 1883-1917) and had asked Engels to contribute an article on Darwin. He replies:
"The Darwin article in particular is an impossibility just now.......To dash off a few commonplaces on Darwin would serve neither you nor me."
Letter 33. Engels to Kautsky; 10th February 1883. Engels refers to an article authored by Kautsky entitled 'Hetärismus' (1882-1883: ‘Hetaerism’) that had been recently published in the journal ‘Kosmos: Zeitschrift für Entwickelungslehre und einheitliche Weltanschauung’ (‘Kosmos: Magazine for Development Theory and Unified Worldview’). This was the first article by Kautsky in a series of three, under the umbrella title ‘Die Entstehung der Ehe und Familie’ (1882-1883; On the Emergence of Marriage and Family). Hetaerism is a stage of proto-human society originally hypothesised by the Swiss anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen in 1861 and expanded upon by the Darwinian sociologist Lewis Morgan in his book ‘Ancient Society’ (1877). In this stage, families did not exist. Instead, polyamory was practiced and women, like land, were considered common property. As a result, children would have no relationship with a single father and descent was known only through the matrilineal line. The subject was pertinent to Engels at that time because the following year he published ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’ from which he drew much from Bachofen and Morgan (though Kautsky’s srticle is not mentioned). Ten years later this was to become the first book by Engels published in Russia, and Lenin later described it as "one of the fundamental works of modern socialism."
Engels (1884) agreed with Bachofen, Morgan and Kautsky that such a shift occurred in proto-human and early human societies (though he disliked the term hetaerism) from communal mating to pairing but disagreed with the strength of the role played by biological laws. He accepted that this probably partly resulted from natural selection, because the clusters of nuclear families that resulted would have experienced strengthened familial and social ties. However, he strongly doubted that natural selection was the only mechanism, and disagreed that natural selection played any part at all in further social evolution. In his article, Kautsky had introduced evidence from anthropological studies of chimpanzees and other primate communities but Engels was not convinced and yet again, there is a dig at Darwin for having taken Malthus seriously:
"Darwin is no more of an authority in this field than in that of political economy, whence he imported his Malthusianism."
Engels does go on make some salient methodological points against Kausky’s evidence, however:
"We know practically nothing about apes in this respect, since observations in a menagerie prove nothing and are difficult to make in the case of a troop of wild apes, while such as are alleged to have been made cannot claim to be accurate, conclusive or even universally valid. Gorillas and orang-outangs must in any case be excluded, since they do not live in troops."
Letter 34. Engels to Kautsky; 16th February 1884. A year later and Engels is recommending Morgan’s 1877 book to Kautsky:
"There is a definitive book — as definitive as Darwin's was in the case of biology - on the primitive state of society; once again, of course, Marx was the one to discover it. It is Morgan's Ancient Society, 1877."
Later in the letter, Engels once again displays disdain for those who attempt Darwinian incursions into human social and cultural evolution:
"All the impostures - endogamy, exogamy and whatever else the balderdash is called - of Tylor, Lubbock and Co. have been demolished once and for all."
Edward Tylor was an English anthropologist, considered the originator of cultural anthropology with his two-volume 1871 book ‘Primitive Culture’. He strongly supported biological evolution. John Lubbock was a wealthy Englishman who contributed to science as an amateur biologist and archaeologist. He coined the terms ‘paleolithic’ and ‘neolithic’. Also a strong supporter of evolutionary theory, he was a close friend of Darwin for many years. Engels’ criticisms of Tylor and Lubbock were also included in the first German language edition of his book ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’ (1884).
Letter 35. Engels to Paul Lafargue; 10th May 1884. The relevant text here is this:
"Your lectures and those of Deville are excellent but, at least for the published version, you should develop more exhaustively the conclusions of your second one on Darwinism. That part seems overwhelmed by the mass of premisses leading up to the conclusion, nor is the latter self-evident enough, while its detail is inadequately developed."
Engels is referring to a series of seven Sunday lectures on socialist politics, economics and philosophy, given by Lafargue and the socialist lawyer Gabriel Deville at the French Workers Party library. They were due to be published at the time of writing.
Letter 36. Engels to Laura Lafargue; 23rd November 1884. This is no more than a routine request for the return of loaned books, including ‘On the Origin of Species’:
"Now before concluding I want to ask you a favour. Paul has from me: 1 ) Darwin's Origin of Species, 2) Thierry, Histoire du tiers état, 3) Paquet, Institutions provinciales et communales de la France, 4) Buonarotti, Conspiracy of Babeuf . Now, Jenny had from me: 1) Die 'Edda'', poetische und prosaische, and 2) Beowulf, both in Simrock's New High German translation. The latter two books and Darwin I am in especial want of. Could you get them together if they can be found…."
Letter 37. Engels to the economist Nikolai Danielson; 15th October 1888. This mention is no more than a report that the German economist Lujo Brentano advocated using empirical rather than philosophical methods in social research. Engels mentions Darwin only in the context of being a successful scientist (along with three other examples):
"To prove to you to what depths of degradation economical science has fallen, Lujo Brentano has published a lecture on Die Klassische Nationalokonomie (Leipzig, 1888), in which he proclaims: general or theoretical economy is worth noting, but special or practical economy is everything. Like natural science (!), we must limit ourselves to the description of facts; such descriptions are of infinitely higher value than all a priori deductions. ‘Like natural science’! That is impayable in the century of Darwin, of Mayer, Joule and Clausius, of evolution and the transformation of energy!”
Note the exclamations after both uses of the term ‘natural science’. This, along with his comments in Letter 33 (Engels to Kautsky; 10th February 1883) surely make clear that Engels did not view the entirety of Darwin’s evolutionary theory as being empirically based. This was the last mention of Darwin in Engels’ personal correspondence for almost six years.
Letter 38. Engels to Kautsky; 23rd September 1894. The final mention of Darwin is in a discussion of Enrico Ferri’s book ‘Socialismo Escienza Positiva (Socialism & Positive Science; 1894). Ferri draws comparisons between socialism and Darwinism, and suggests that Darwin’s scientific findings offer a scientific basis for socialist principles. He also criticises those who point out the obvious contradictions. Engels gives his short and sharp, no-nonsense opinion of Ferri’s synopsis:
"His book on Darwin-Spencer-Marx is an atrocious hotchpotch of insipid rubbish."
•The Lack Of Evidence From Modern Day Socialists•
Perhaps it is best to leave the final word to the more modern adherents of Marxist philosophy residing in the country in which Marx, Engels and Darwin lived. Because the political body Marx founded and led, the International Workingmen’s Association, had ceased to exist in 1872, arguably, the party that holds the closest lineage to Marx himself is the small yet active Socialist Party of Great Britain. It was established as the Social Democratic Foundation on June 7th 1881 while Marx was alive. His daughter Eleanor and son in law Edward Aveling were founder members serving on the Executive Council. The Socialist Party of Great Britain was a 1904 offshoot from the Social Democratic Foundation, formed because they viewed reformist attitudes in the Social Democratic Foundation to be moving away from pure Marxist political and social philosophy (refusing, for example, to even incorporate the word ‘socialist’ in their title). They maintain that stance today and in the past have criticised all socialist governments as not properly Marxist but "state capitalism." Although they take care not to be seen to revere Marx himself they do claim original Marxist philosophy to be the only true form of Marxism. If "Darwin.......opened the door to Marxism" and "Marxism, socialism, and communism.......are squarely based on evolutionism" and Marx himself was "infatuated with Darwin" we would expect, then, such a self-professed purely Marxist organisation to consider Darwinian theory to be a central basis of their political philosophy.
Once again, however, the facts declare otherwise. The Socialist Party of Great Britain’s attitude to Darwin has always been decidedly hands-off and measuredly distanced, exemplified by these excerpts from an editorial in their ‘Socialist Standard’ (Hardcastle, 1959), published on the centenary of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’:
".......both Marx and Engels were critically conscious of the limitations of Darwinism and its shortcomings. What are the limitations of Darwinism? We may begin by saying that while Darwinism can account for the emergence of a biologically gifted creature from a simian ancestry, it cannot adequately explain man himself. By this is meant, man, not as a bare biological entity but as a social animal, capable of entering into definite relations with his kind via a form of economic organisation unprecedented in the animal kingdom.......Man's environment is not something over and above him, a set of natural conditions to which he must conform, not something against which he operates, but something through which he operates."
Unsurprisingly, this is a straightforward rendering of what Marx and Engels had always said. Hardcastle then goes on:
"Natural selection" — "the survival of the fittest, "have no determination in the making of human society.......It might be said Darwinism is accepted today and Marxism is not. Darwinism, however, appeared as a threat to religion, not private property. Marxism threatened the existence of both."
Surely though, in a Socialist Standard article entitled ‘Marx’s Basic Theory’ (Thomas, 1998) we would find at least some small appreciation of Darwin’s contribution to socialism. We would be wrong again. There is no mention. Even extrapolating Marx and Engel’s political and economic philosophy into the future bears no fruit. If the fundamentalist synopsis were correct, we would surely expect a volume of 14 essays which "surveys current research on Marx and Marxism from a diverse range of perspectives" (Uchida, 2006) to bring Darwin and evolutionary theory into their discussions. Yet none of these essays does so. The terms ‘Darwin’, ‘Darwinism’ or ‘Darwinist’ occur in none of these essays. Darwin is neither discussed nor referenced. Darwin does gain mention in an edition of the Socialist Standard published on the 150th anniversary of ‘On the Origin of Species’. Yet nothing had changed. As Blewitt (2009) writes:
"Marx is Marx and Darwin is Darwin. There is no Marx-Darwin. At his funeral in 1883, Engels was justified in comparing the importance of Marx with that of Darwin, but in doing so he recognised that their theories covered different terrains. There could be no marriage of Marx and Darwin any more than there could be with Marx and Newton. Many have tried to arrange the Marx-Darwin marriage over the last 150 years, but it always results in unhappiness."
Fittingly, we can summarise Marx and Engels’ attitude to Darwin as one that evolved. Initially, a year or so after publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’, Darwin’s theory was of interest because of his bold refutation of teleology; having identified a mechanism by which the natural world underwent enormous change over vast amounts of time without the need for any agency to direct the process. Of course, one can reach an ateleological conclusion without recourse to evolutionary theory and plenty have, including Marx and Engels themselves. The interest waned, however, when they realised that the primary mechanism by which biological evolution operated, natural selection, was inimical to their own view of the evolution of human beings and human societies. Fay (1978) summarises the progression:
"Though he was initially excited by the publication of Darwin's Origin.......[Marx] developed a much more critical stance toward Darwinism, and in his private correspondence of the 1860s poked gentle fun at Darwin's ideological biases. Marx's Ethnological Notebooks, compiled circa 1879-81, in which Darwin is cited only once, provide no evidence that he reverted to his earlier enthusiasm."
But all this is a digression. The bottom line is this: the primary source evidence presented here clearly shows that Darwin's scientific findings were, at best, only a minor influence on those who produced Marxist political philosophy. Connecting the two fields are a handful of footnotes and supplementary notes, and a few diverse paragraphs within published work along with a medley of mundane and tending to critical sentences nested within thousands of personal correspondences, across four decades. To claim anything otherwise is a less than honest enterprise.
Ali, S.A. (1944). Publisher’s Note to Indian Edition. In P. Lafargue & W. Liebknecht. Reminiscences of Karl Marx 1818-1883. Bombay: People’s Publishing House.
Aveling, E.B. (1881). The Student’s Darwin. London: Freethought Publishing Company.
Aveling, E.B. (1882) A Visit to Charles Darwin. National Reformer, 40: 292.
Aveling, E.B. (1897). Charles Darwin and Karl Marx: A Comparison. The New Century Review, March-April.
Bachofen, J.J. (1861). Das Mutterrecht: eine Untersuchung über die Gynaikokratie der alten Welt nach ihrer religiösen und rechtlichen Natur. Stuttgart: Verlag von Krais und Hoffmann.
Ball, T. (1979). Marx and Darwin: A Reconsideration. Political Theory, 7: 469-483.
Bergman, J. (2001). The Darwinian Foundation of Communism. Journal of Creation, 15: 89-95.
Bergman, J. (2011). The Dark Side of Charles Darwin: A Critical Analysis of an Icon of Science. Green Forest, AR: Master Books.
Berlin, I. (1939). Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. London: Thornton Butterworth.
Blewitt, E. (2009). Marx and Engels on the Origin of Species. Socialist Standard, 1254: February.
Büchner, L., & Collingwood, J.F. (1864). Force and Matter: Empirico-Philosophical studies, Intelligibly Rendered. London: Trübner & Co.
Büchner, L (1894). Darwinismus und Sozialismus: Der Kampf um das Dasein und die Moderne. Leipzig: Ernst Günthers.
Colp, R. (1982). The Myth of the Darwin-Marx Letter. History of Political Economy, 14: 461-482.
Crook, D.P. (2007). Darwin's Coat-tails: Essays on Social Darwinism. Oxford: Peter Lang.
Darwin, C.R. (Ed., 1838-1843). Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
Darwin, C.R. (1839). Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836. London: Henry Colburn.
Darwin, C.R. (1842). The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
Darwin, C.R. (1844). Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
Darwin, C.R. (1845). Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. London: John Murray.
Darwin, C.R. (1846). Geological Observations on South America. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
Darwin, C.R. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray.
Darwin, C.R. (1868). The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. London: John Murray.
Darwin, C.R. (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.
Darwin, C.R. (1881). The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits. London: John Murray.
Darwin, C.R. (1909; Ed. F. Darwin).The Foundations of The Origin of Species: Two Essays Written in 1842 and 1844. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Darwin, C. (ongoing). Correspondence Project. Online at https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk
Darwin, C. R., & Wallace, A.R. (1858). On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection. Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, Zoology, 3: liv-lvi.
Dozy, R. (1864). De Israélieten te Mekka van Davids tijd tot in de vijfde eeuw onzer tijdrekening. Haarlem.
Engels, F. (1845/1969). The Condition of the Working Class in England. Moscow: Institute of Marxism-Leninism.
Engels, F. (1877/1947) Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Engels, F. (1883a/2007). Dialectics of Nature: Explanation about Dialectical Materialism. London: Wellred Books.
Engels, F. (1883b). Karl Marx’s Funeral. Der Sozialdemokrat March 22nd.
Engels, F. (1884/transl. A West, 1942). The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Engels, F. (1885/1970). On The History of the Communist League. Marx and Engels Selected Works, Volume 3. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Fay, M.A. (1978). Did Marx offer to dedicate Capital to Darwin? A Reassessment of the Evidence. Journal of the History of Ideas, 39: 133-146.
Ferri, E. (1894). Socialismo e Scienza Positive: Darwin, Spencer, Marx. Roma : Casa Editrice Italiana.
Feuer, L.S. (1978). The Case of the Darwin-Marx Letter. Encounter: October, 62-78.
Feuer, L.S., Carroll, P.T., & Colp, R. (1976). On the Darwin-Marx Correspondence. Annals of Science, 33: 383-394.
Fraas, C. (1847). Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit, eine Geschichte Beider. Landshut: J.G. Wölfle.
Gasman, D. (1971). The Scientific Origins of National Socialism: Social Darwinism in Ernst Haeckel and the German Monist League. NY: Elsevier.
Haeckel, E. (1866). Generelle Morphologie der Organismen. Allgemeine Grundzüge der Organischen Formen-Wissenschaft, Mechanisch Begründet Durch die von Charles Darwin Reformirte Descendenztheorie. Berlin: George Reimer.
Haeckel, E. (1868). Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte. Berlin: George Reimer.
Hardcastle, E. (1959). The Darwin Centenary. Socialist Standard, 664: December.
Heyer, P. (1975). Marx and Darwin: A Related Legacy on Man, Nature and Society. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation: Rutgers University.
Heyer, P. (1982). Nature, Human Nature, and Society Marx, Darwin, Biology, and the Human Sciences. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.
Hofstadter, R. (1944). Social Darwinism in American Thought: 1860–1915. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hovind, K. (1991) Untitled. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Patriot Bible University. https://wikileaks.org/wiki/Young-earth_creationist_Kent_Hovind's_doctoral_dissertation
Huxley, T.H. (1863). Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature. London: Williams & Norgate.
Huxley, T.H. (1869). On the Physical Basis for Life. New Haven, CN: The College Courant.
Institute for Creation Research (1994). A Walk Through History: A video tour of the ICR Museum of Creation and Earth History. VHS Video.
Kautsky, K. (1882-1883). 'Die Entstehung der Ehe und Familie'. Kosmos, Vol. XII.
Kolman, E. (1931). The Darwin-Marx Letter. Under the Banner of Marxism, Jan-Feb.
Lafargue, P. (1890/1972). Reminiscences of Marx. In Marx and Engels Through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Lange, F.A. (1865). Die Arbeiterfrage in ihrer Bedeutung für Gegenwart und Zukunft, Duisburg: W. Falk & Volmer.
Liebknecht, W. (1901/1975; transl. E. Untermann). Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs. London: Journeyman Press.
Malthus, T. (1798). An Essay on the Principles of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society. London: J. Johnson.
Marx, K. (1845-46/1968). The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, K. (1859/2009; transl., S.W. Ryazanskaya). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, K. (1863/1956). Theories of Surplus Value. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, K. (1867). Das Kapital: Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie. Hamburg: Otto Meissner.
Marx, K. (1885/1956). Capital Vol. II: The Process of Circulation of Capital. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, K. (1894/1959). Capital Vol. III: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole. Moscow: Institute of Marxism-Leninism.
Marx K. (1952/1969). Capital Vol IV: A History of Economic Theories. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848a/English ed., 1948). The Communist Manifesto. London: Allen and Unwin.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848b/2014 trans. E. O'Callaghan). Demands of the Communist Party in Germany. Paris: The Communist Party in Germany.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1924). Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vols. 40-45. NY: International Publishers.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1931). Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vols. 40-45. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1942). Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vols. 40-45. NY: International Publishers.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1975). Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vols. 40-45. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2010). Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vols. 40-45. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Megill, A. (2002). Karl Marx: The Burden of Reason. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Morgan, L.H. (1877). Ancient Society or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism to Civilization. London: Macmillan & Co.
Nyhart, L. (1994). Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities, 1800-1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Morris, H.M. (1963). The Twilight of Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group.
Morris, H.M. (1974). Scientific Creationism. Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Publishing Group.
Pannekoek, A. (1912; transl. N. Weisser). Marxism and Darwinism. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr.
Partridge, D. (2018). Darwin’s Two Theories, 1844 and 1859. Journal of the History of Biology, 51: 1-30.
Paul, D. (1979). Marxism, Darwinism and the Theory of Two Sciences. Marxist Perspectives 2: 123-124.
Riley, W.B. (1942/Ed. W.V. Trollinger, 1995). The Antievolution Pamphlets of William Bell Riley. London: Garland Publishing.
Rosenblatt, L.B. (2018). Are the Gods Indifferent? Oxford University Press Blog, January 21st.
Spencer, H. (1864). The Principles of Biology. London: Williams & Norgate.
Spencer, H. (1893). The Inadequacy of ‘Natural Selection’ (Parts 1 and 2). Contemporary Review, 63: 153–166, 439–456.
Stack, D.A. (2000). The First Darwinian Left: Radical and Socialist Responses to Darwin, 1859–1914. History of Political Thought. Winter: 683–694.
Stack, D.A. (2003). The First Darwinian Left: Socialism and Darwinism, 1859–1914. Cheltenham: New Clarion Press.
Thomas, G. (1998). Marx’s Basic Theory. Socialist Standard, 1122: February.
Torr, D. (1934, transl., & ed.). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Correspondence 1846-1895. NY: International Publishers.
Trémaux, P. (1865). Origine et Transformations de l'Homme et des autres Étres. Paris: L. Hachette.
Tyler, E.B. (1871). Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. London: John Murray.
Uchida, H. (2006, Ed.). Marx for the 21st Century. London: Routledge.
Uschmann, G. (1979). Haeckel’s Biological Materialism. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 1: 101-118.
Zirkle, C. (1949). Death of Science in Russia: the Fate of Genetics as Described in Pravda and Elsewhere. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Zirkle, C. (1959). Evolution, Marxian Biology, and the Social Scene. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.
'The Fictitious Influence of Darwin On Marx & Engels' © Gary Hill 2020. All rights reserved. Not in public domain. If you wish to use my work for anything other than legal 'fair use' (i.e., non-profit educational or scholarly research or critique purposes) please contact me for permission first. Feel free to download a PDF file of this essay: