Although it is developed in the crude English style, this is a book which contains the basis of natural history for our views. (Marx on Darwin’s Origin of Species)
During the late nineteenth century, both democrats and reactionaries, and socialists and anti-socialists, claimed to be Darwinian and adopted evolution as a way of explaining the world. They debated passionately who was truly the heir to Darwin’s ideas.
The philosopher, social scientist, historian and revolutionary, Karl Marx was among those who enthusiastically adopted elements of Darwinism. Though Darwinism and Marxism differed in fundamental ways, they had in common a belief hat human behaviour could be understood by scientific investigation and that life was governed by underlying laws. While Darwin stated that humanity must be understood biologically, and in the same way as other animals, Marx insisted that all behaviour was caused by economic realities.
Both evolution’s opponents and Marxists have since that time attempted to link Darwin and Marx together. Hence, while Marxism has been in full retreat since the 1970s - when over two-thirds of the world’s surface was governed by nations who described themselves as socialist or communist – the religious right continues to associate Darwin with Marx, and by tenuous association with totalitarianism and atheism.
“Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.” Friedrich Engels’ eulogy at Marx’s graveside
Marx certainly admired Darwin, and he sent Darwin a personally inscribed copy of his recently published second edition of Das Kapital. Darwin politely replied:
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 and important subject of political Economy. Though our studies have been so different. I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of Knowledge, & that this is in the long run sure to add to the happiness of mankind.
I remain, Dear Sir, Yours faithfully, Charles Darwin
(Letter from Darwin to Marx, October 1873)
This letter of acknowledgment was well received and Marx used it to show that he had the recognition of the renowned scientist. However, it may well be that Darwin never read Marx’s book as the majority of the pages remained uncut in his library.
There were also major disagreements between the two theories, and Darwin clearly did not associate himself with Marx’s political or economic ideas. Marx, on his part, was concerned with the similarities between Darwinism and the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism and the support it gave to the theories of Thomas Malthus. Crucially, an essential part of evolutionary theory is that life has no gaols, while Marxism defines society as having a supreme and achievable purpose. Thus, it seems unlikely that Marx ever saw Darwin as a close ideological ally.
Also, the suggestion that Marxism was somehow inspired by Darwin is unsustainable bearing in mind the chronology. The Origin of Species was published in 1859, after Marx’s Communist Manifesto of 1848, and while he was working on Das Kapital.
Nevertheless, the association of Marx and Darwin continued. In 1931, a letter was published in a Soviet newspaper that suggested that Marx had offered to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin. As the story fitted in with the communist world-view, the story was widely circulated. The letter had been found among Marx’s papers and was dated 13th October 1880. It read:
I am much obliged for your kind letter & The Enclosure…. I should prefer the Part or Volume not to be dedicated to me… It has always… been my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science…
However, it has been pointed out that Das Kapital was a book on economics and not an attack on religion. What is more likely is that the letter referred, not to Kapital, but to a long-forgotten book promoting atheism called The Students’ Darwin. The author, Edward Aveling, had a relationship with Eleanor, Marx’s daughter, and he later remarked that he had written to Darwin. Sample chapters from The Students’ Darwin were also discovered requesting permission to dedicate the book to the great scientist.
Despite such attempts at recruiting Darwin as a supporter of communism, opposition to his evolutionary theories became state policy in the Soviet Union in the nineteen thirties. Stalin shipped Darwinian geneticists to the Gulag, having been persuaded by the agronomist Trofim Lysenko that evolution ran counter to Communist Party doctrine. Lysenko convinced Stalin that applying Lamarckian ideas would yield more productive crops if applied to mass collectivization. Yet, though Lysenko’s ideas caused devastating famines in both the Soviet Union and China, state support for Lysenkoism remained until the 1960s.
Lysenko with Stalin at the Kremlin in 1935