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Karl Marx at 200 — Darwinism & Communism

Karl Marx

Born on May 5, 1818, Karl Marx turns 200 years old this Saturday. So let’s consider the following question: Does Darwinism lend support more naturally to a capitalist moral-economic perspective or to some other competing philosophical standpoint, say, a Marxist one?

Economic historian Niall Ferguson argued on behalf of the former view in a 2008 book, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. For applying a Darwinian framework to understanding market forces, he was taken to task by a number of reviewers. In The New York Review of Books, economist Robert Skidelsky chided Ferguson for purveying “false analogies between financial evolution and Darwinian natural selection….These attempts to explain the rise of money in terms of natural processes strike me as being both morally and philosophically naïve.”

Ferguson describes the “creative destruction” that comes about when financial institutions can’t cut it in the marketplace and so fail and disappear, to be replaced with better adapted competitors. Darwinian capitalism?

Unless your moral, political, and philosophical ideas are completely untethered to reality, then the way you picture in your mind the rules by which the world does work should have some impact on the way you think it should work. So the various answers that have been offered to the question of how life developed naturally lend themselves to the construction of philosophies that answer other, more practical questions, including how human fulfillment is achieved in the economic realm. 

And why not? The notion that theories of evolution properly contribute nothing to theories of how wealth is created and divided just makes no sense. If life’s history required the guidance of a transcendent source of intelligence, that has consequences in the realm of economics. If life developed without guidance, but merely under the power of a Darwinian mechanism, that too has consequences, probably different ones.

The problem comes in determining what those consequences are. I haven’t read Ferguson’s book, but it sounds like he’s offering the traditional Darwinian tautology: The fittest firms survive. And what, in economic history, defines fitness? Well, survival. Because, you see, those that survive are, uh, those that survive.

Ferguson traces his idea that “Darwinian processes may be at work in the economy” back to Thorstein Veblen, who “first posed the question ‘Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science’ (implying that it really was) as long ago as 1898.” But the truth is that economic thinking that claims to be based on evolutionary science goes back decades before that.

In the preface to Capital in 1864, Karl Marx heralded his own ideas as presenting “the development of the economic formation of society as a process in natural history.” In his oration at Marx’s funeral in London’s Highgate Cemetery, Engels gave the ultimate compliment: “As Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.” That was March 17, 1883.

Communism has deeper Darwinian roots than many of us realize. In fact, even though Marx had already begun sketching the outlines of his ideas before Darwin published the Origin of Species — the Communist Manifesto appeared in 1848, the Origin in 1859 — he is fairly called a Darwinist. 

In fact, the men who translated Marxism into practical political terms in the form of Soviet terror were evolutionary thinkers, just as they themselves claimed to be.

I Loved the Book So Much, Mummy

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.

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, on 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 hope, 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 interpretation, and even though Jesus’ ideas were further developed by Paul, the gospel writers, the early church fathers, and later Christian thinkers.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

What Marx and Darwin shared was brilliantly seen by Hannah Arendt. It is what makes Hitlerism and Stalinism two sides of the same coin.

Marx and Darwin developed parallel theories of historical or natural law. In a religious context, law is perceived as static and eternal: God’s law, higher than any man, worthy of judging kings and tyrants by its light. Marxism and Darwinism, as materialist philosophies, believe they have succeeded in obviating the need for God, or metaphysics generally. For them, there is no such thing as a static, eternal moral law.

Thus in the Descent of Man, Darwin describes the process by which morals evolve, just like animal bodies. He finds nothing absolute or God-given even in a seemingly fundamental moral instinct like that against incest: “We may, therefore, reject the belief, lately insisted on by some writers, that the abhorrence of incest is due to our possessing a special God-implanted conscience.” The place of God is taken by a law of movement. History is a tide that moves the development of nature or society along with it according to an impersonal, unguided, yet scientifically describable law. Evolution and revolution are really the same dynamic, looked at respectively from a natural and a social perspective. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt wrote of Darwin and Marx, “If one considers, not the actual achievement, but the basic philosophies of both men, it turns out that ultimately the movement of history and the movement of nature are one and the same.”

This helps clarify why, under Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes, what Arendt called “total terror” was the predictable result. The only morality was of the law of history’s movement, whether seen in biological or economic terms. Either way, if you opposed it, you were an enemy and qualified for destruction.

Stalin’s version of evolution derived from the thread in that philosophical and scientific tradition that in turn came down from the earlier French evolutionist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Larmarck argued that characteristics acquired by an organism in its lifetime could be passed down to offspring, making environment of equal importance to heredity. (Modern evolutionary theory excludes this idea.) Hitler’s more strictly Darwinian methods, obsessed with heredity, accordingly emphasized eugenics and murder to rid society of genetic undesirables, while Stalin’s approach emphasized manipulation of the social environment, isolating deviants, sending adults and children possessing minds “diseased” as judged by anti-Soviet thinking off to the Gulag so as not to corrupt healthy minds. The subtle difference hardly mattered to the millions who were murdered in pursuit of an evolutionary nightmare.

Initially, the Soviet regime was fascinated by eugenics, establishing a Russian Eugenic Society in 1921 and immediately proceeding to study the Jewish question. But Marxism in general was of two minds about evolution, and as noted above, tended to favor the Lamarckian side of the theory. Already in 1906, Stalin had declared himself for Lamarck. This was not a rejection of Darwinism but simply of the evolutionary mechanism that Darwin personally made famous, natural selection. For various reasons, Communists preferred to think in terms of environmental selection as the impersonal mechanism driving evolution. In the 1930s, Stalin beat the drum for Lamarck with increased intensity. After 1945, the official evolutionary theory of Soviet Communism was represented by a Ukrainian agronomist and scientific fraud, Trofim Lysenko. Under the rule of Lysenkoism, dissenters from the favored evolutionary orthodoxy were subject to career-destruction, imprisonment, even death.

Rather than breeding supermen through genetics as Hitler did, Soviet evolutionism sought to do so through heavy-handed manipulation of the environment, including through exile, imprisonment, and murder. In the Great Terror of 1937-8, one of the common classes of victims was the “socially harmful.” This was not merely a political category but an evolutionary one.

The Soviet state was, then, an experiment in applied Darwinism. As Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist who broke with colleagues to report honestly on the Stalinist terror-famine, later noted: “It is interesting to reflect that now, in the light of all that has happened, the early obscurantist opponents of Darwinian evolution seem vastly more sagacious and farseeing than its early excited champions.”

Photo: Grave of Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery, by Duncan Harris from Nottingham, UK [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from a 2009 series at Evolution News.