In 1891 in Gori, Georgia, a 13-year-old choirboy with dreams of becoming a priest, Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, was discovered by his mother at dawn, having stayed awake through the night reading Darwin’s Origin of Species.
“I loved the book so much, Mummy, I couldn’t stop reading,” he explained. He later told a friend that God “doesn’t actually exist. We’ve been deceived.”
“How can you say such a thing?” the friend exclaimed, to which the boy, the future Joseph Stalin, replied by handing him a copy of Darwin.
In this little series, we are asking, among other things, what came from Stalin’s precocious appreciation of evolutionary theory? Hitler and Stalin alike sought to create a new race of supermen. Where did they both happen to get this idea? From Darwinian theory, in the broad sense, of course.
To understand why this is so, we need to go back to the origins of Communist philosophy. Communists from the very beginning were attracted to Darwinism because, as Engels remarked in a letter to Marx, it eliminated “teleology” from the story of life’s history. That is, it obviated the need for understanding life’s development as having been directed by a transcendent personal being outside nature, and it opened the way to understanding history as being directed by impersonal forces of the kind envisioned by Marx. In 1861, upon reading the Origin of Species, Marx exulted: “Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a natural scientific basis for the class struggle in history. One has to put up with the crude English method of development, of course.”
How can we blame Darwin for any of that when Marx and Engels had already arrived at the outlines of their philosophy by 1859 when the Origin first appeared? Yes, Marx saw in Darwinism a confirmation of his views, and Engels did so even more emphatically. But what does that prove?
True again, Lenin kept a statuette prominently situated on the desk in his Kremlin office, depicting a monkey contemplating the skull of a man and surmounting the single dedicatory word, “DARWIN.” It had several meanings. The ape statue signified Lenin’s contempt for fellow men, who were nothing but apes’ children; also the Soviet state’s idolatrous regard for science, for Lenin held resolutely to the Communist faith that Marxism itself was a scientific doctrine; and most ominously, it alluded to the Darwinian struggle applied to social classes, with the proletariat rising to its destined rule after the competing classes of aristocrats, bourgeois, priests, and peasants had been exterminated. For Lenin, as for Darwin, “extermination” was a favorite word.
As for Lenin’s successor, Stalin wrote an ideological tract, Anarchism or Socialism?, speculating on Darwinian science and declaring, “Evolution prepares for revolution and creates the ground for it; revolution consummates the process of evolution and facilitates its further activity.”
But still, Marx, not Darwin, published first.
The relationship between Communism and Darwinism has been debated by scholars for years, leaving a muddy and frustrating mass of claims and counterclaims. Yet there is a clear and satisfying way to resolve the debate. Both Marxists and Darwinists are heirs to the materialist revolt against metaphysics that began in the 17th century with Hobbes and Locke and of the 18th century “naturalist” revolt against Church and Throne inaugurated by Rousseau. Marx simply emerged from that tradition a little earlier than Darwin. However, because in Darwin the worldview reached its apogee of influence, it is called Darwinism and therefore Marx is aptly called a Darwinist.
Christian readers will, I trust, forgive the following rough analogy. Marx was to Darwin, very approximately, as John the Baptist was to Jesus: a forbearer, a contemporary, and a disciple. The worldview that bears Darwin’s name justly does so in the same way that the name Christianity alludes to the personality of a historical figure, called Jesus Christ, even though Jesus and many of his ideas emerged from a tradition, Judaism, that long preceded him and on which he placed his own particular interpretation, and even though Jesus’ ideas were further developed by Paul, the gospel writers, the early church fathers, and later Christian thinkers.
What Marx and Darwin shared, to the world’s sorrow, was brilliantly seen by Hannah Arendt. It is what makes Hitlerism and Stalinism two sides of the same coin. More on that tomorrow.