In a previous article I urged readers not to dismiss the good in historian Paul Johnson’s brief new book Darwin: Portrait of a Genius. I have since received some learned challenges in particular regarding my comments on Stalin whom Johnson regards as among those who embraced, with catastrophic results, “Darwin’s theory of natural selection as justification for class struggle.”
Well, let’s consider Stalin. Biographically speaking, reading Darwin’s Origin was seminal in Stalin’s own march toward a godless communism. In Landmarks in the Life of Stalin (1940), Yaroslavsky writes about the influence Darwin had on young Joseph Stalin. Francis B. Randall, in Stalin’s Russia: An Historical Reconsideration (1965), goes even farther, saying, “He remained all his life an admirer of Darwin, whose theories had been so exciting and controversial in Stalin’s youth.” Darwin had taught him that all things move progressively in an evolutionary determinism.
More revealing, however, is how social Darwinism was implicitly applied during Stalin’s regime. His purges were not exercises in racial cleansing, but social Darwinism need not take a racial form. Darwin’s nature “red in tooth and claw” can be equally construed in the context of so-call “fitness” as seen through the lens of class struggle.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn relates the story (I believe this took place in the 1930s) of a district party conference. At the conclusion of a “tribute to Comrade Stalin” enthusiastic applause was called for. But everyone was afraid to be the first to stop. The applause droned on insufferably. As palms grew sore, tired, and sweaty, everyone kept looking at everyone else — who would be the first to stop? Even the secretary of the District Party Committee who had called for the ovation feared to take the lead. Finally, after more than ten minutes of this nonsense, a director of a paper factory dared to stop and sit down.
“The squirrel,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them.” The factory director was arrested. Solzhenitsyn concludes, “Now that’s what Darwin’s natural selection is. And that’s also how to grind people down with stupidity.” Social Darwinism can take many forms, all insidious, all destructive of the human condition.
Connections between social behaviors and politics could easily be made like this because of Stalin’s view of the party itself. Stalin believed in what Erik van Ree calls an “organic” party (see his “Stalin’s Organic Theory of the Party,” The Russian Review, January, 1993, 43-57), which is to say he was influenced by a segment of theoreticians who synthesized their Marxism with significant doses of Darwinism. Lenin didn’t do this, but Alexander Bogdanov (the most prominent leader of the “Darwinist trend in Russian Marxism”) and “Koba” Dzhugashvili (aka Stalin) did. Dzhugashvili considered the party to be “a complex organism” and Bogdanov, who had taken certain cues from Marxian Darwinist Karl Kautsky, insisted that society is like an organism, a “form of life.” The people became “separated organs of one organism”; it was by the “collectivization of mankind” that Stalin hoped to merge individuals into common “cells in the system of the tissues of an organism” that in this case was the body politic.
Where did such thinking come from? As van Ree points out, “biologism” was “a flexible doctrine that can be made to serve various purposes.” Members of the Second International, which included the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party, “were not,” according to van Ree, “immune . . . to the fascination of Darwinism that had so fundamentally challenged religion and therefore seemed to support their materialist philosophy.” Thus, it became easy for them to translate biological “fitness” into political terms. In large part this involved dissolving the individual into the “collective will.” Stalin, as van Ree compellingly argues, saw the party as a “self-acting organism living its independent ideological and practical life.”
In later years, Stalin expanded this organic theory. Because it departed too significantly from Lenin to suit Stalin’s purposes in laying down the party’s foundation, he backed off from overt references to the biological basis of his theory. He nevertheless remained committed to it, and after Lenin’s death Stalin began talking of “the metabolism of the party organism.” On December 7, 1927, Stalin declared in a speech to the Fifteenth Party Congress that “Our party is a living organism. As in every organism a metabolism takes place: old, obsolete stuff dies off; new growing things flourish and develop.” Stalin, van Ree believes, took this “dying off” quite literally. Stalin, of course, was there to guide, encourage, and usher in by sometimes ruthless means the “new.”
His purges both within the party and without could be seen within his “organic view” of party as a cleansing of the body politic. Since the roots of the idea are Darwinian, I see no reason why this should not be considered a clear example of social Darwinism. No wonder Solzhenitsyn could see the incident I mentioned earlier — the factory manager who sat down amidst the applause at the party function — as an example of “natural selection in action.” It was rooted in Stalin’s own political theory, a theory for which Darwinism served as an ideological catalyst.
Indeed, what else is social Darwinism unless it is Darwin’s ideas put into social action? That essentially is what Stalin did. It’s very different from Hitler’s Darwinism, granted, but the net effects were the same — millions dead in the interest of “purity.”
To be clear, I am not saying that Stalin was an unamended, purebred Darwinist, but this “organicisim” is of clear Darwinian derivation by way of the Marxian Darwinists like Bogdanov. His metabolism theme was an expansion on this organic view of the body politic, not a restriction or reduction of the Marxist Darwinian “organicism” learned at their hands. It was not through eugenic breeding or racial extermination that Stalin applied his social Darwinism but by identifying political noncompliants and dissidents and expunging them from the body politic through execution, banishment, forced labor, and imprisonment.
Johnson is correct when he writes,
Stalin had Darwin’s ‘struggle’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ in mind when dealing with the Kulaks and when relocating the minorities of Greater Russia: extermination of groups was a natural event if the party, redefined as the politically ‘fit,’ was to survive.
If the party was a “living organism,” that organism could become infected with dissidents, protesters, and just about anyone else Stalin deemed a “blight” upon the party.
Stalin said precisely this on November 24, 1928. Complaining of certain “deviations from the Leninist line,” Stalin bemoaned “the fact that our Party is surrounded by petty bourgeois elemental forces, and, lastly, the fact that certain of our Party organizations have been infected by these elemental forces.” Even later, on March 29, 1937, amidst internal economic successes, Stalin reprimanded members of the Party for losing sight of the “capitalist encirclement” and the dangers of Trotskyism. This wasn’t an “organic” deficiency but rather a case of being “infected with political blindness as a result of dizzying rapture over economic success.”
If Stalin’s view of the party was indeed “organic” then he also saw himself as its physician. Thus this “man of steel” directed almost single-handedly a society under severe challenges and built a military apparatus capable of stopping a different group of social Darwinists — the Nazis — who sought to encroach upon his “living organism.”
Daniel Dennett is right: Darwinism really is a “universal acid” and you can see how this acid cuts in the men Johnson cites in his book. I’ve already given the associations of Darwinism with Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Sartre (largely from socialist scholars themselves) so I see no reason to belabor the point.
But all this raises an interesting point. How are we to construe social Darwinism in a meaningful manner across and among tyrants particularly of the Left? I believe Stalin provides an interesting example of social Darwinism and of how it may be broadly applied — a theory of social Darwinism as it were — and why those professing at least some form of Marxian ideology have, historically speaking, been prone to it.
Social Darwinism is not the application of a set of specific technical and technocratic notions about the evolution of the biological world to society in a particular way. It is much more vague than that, more pliable and more adaptable. This makes it more far reaching and, in fact, more dangerous.
The finer distinctions between various permutations of evolutionary theory in its biological senses often do not apply in the social context. As an example, important scientific distinctions in Lamarckian conceptions of inheritance may have particular significance among scientists, especially in a highly politicized scientific environment like the Lysenko debacle (a nightmare from which the Soviet Union didn’t wake up until the early 1960s), while having little real impact upon or relevance to the application of broadly Darwinian doctrines in society. In short, Darwinism in science and in society are usually separate issues. In fact, Lysenko’s bewitching of Stalin resulted in a policy not of abandoning Darwinism but simply of jettisoning the neo-Darwinian synthesis in a ruthless purge of geneticists.
The keys to social Darwinism, in other words, are not to be found in the technical expressions of evolutionary theory but rather in much larger forces. There are two features characteristic of social Darwinism and they are fairly broad.
First is its metaphysical foundation grounded in an effective atheism. It may or may not actually be called atheism, but a metaphysical outlook that has the net effect of placing man as the sole arbiter of moral and ethical life is a necessary condition of social Darwinism. This was best described by R. F. Baum in Doctors of Modernity:
Marx laid down a proposition that would later gain support from Darwin’s notion of an indefinitely continuing evolution and that it might be called a fundamental creed of the Left: everything, Marx unqualifiedly asserted, could be different from what it was. In effect Marx said, and said belligerently, that man could and should assume powers once regarded as God’s.
Darwinism in its social application (however construed) said no less.
Another characteristic is more empirical. It comprises a general effort to translate evolutionary theory into some kind of social construct of progress. Gertrude Himmelfarb explained this well in her Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution:
There is an important sense in which Marx and Darwin alike were evolutionists. There was truth in Engels’ eulogy on Marx: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.” What they both celebrated was the internal rhythm and course of life, the one the life of nature, the other of society. . . . As their philosophical intent was similar, so was their practical effect. Against all those, socialists and others, who thought that men were moved by a basic harmony of interests, and that history advanced by making that harmony conscious and effective, Darwin and Marx insisted upon the basic fact of struggle and upon progress as its result. It was on this ground that Marxism had a legitimate claim to the title of “social Darwinism.”
In associating the 20th century “mass exterminators” with Darwin, Paul Johnson is merely applying — and wisely so — the above criteria. Such crimes occur when man tells God to step aside and takes the reins of galloping evolutionary “progress” using scientism for his map.
Professor Flannery is the author of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press) and other books.