‘Darwinism versus Socialism’ by Anton Pannekoek, Chapter IV from Marxism and Darwinism. Charles H. Kerr Publishers, Chicago. 1912.

‘Darwinism versus Socialism’ by Anton Pannekoek, Chapter IV from Marxism and Darwinism. Charles H. Kerr Publishers, Chicago. 1912.

Darwinism has been of inestimable service to the bourgeoisie in its struggle against the old powers. It was therefore only natural that bourgeoisdom should apply it against its later enemy, the proletarians; not because the proletarians were antagonistically disposed to Darwinism, but just the reverse. As soon as Darwinism made its appearance, the proletarian vanguard, the Socialists, hailed the Darwinian theory, because in Darwinism they saw a corroboration and completion of their own theory; not as some superficial opponents believe, that they wanted to base Socialism upon Darwinism but in the sense that the Darwinian discovery, – that even in the apparently stagnant organic world there is a continuous development – is a glorious corroboration and completion of the Marxian theory of social development.

Yet it was natural for the bourgeoisie to make use of Darwinism against the proletarians. The bourgeoisie had to contend with two armies, and the reactionary classes know this full well. When the bourgeoisie attacks their authority, they point at the proletarians and caution the bourgeoisie to beware lest all authority crumble. In doing this, the reactionists mean to frighten the bourgeoisie so that they may desist from any revolutionary activity. Of course, the bourgeois representatives answer that there is nothing to fear; that their science but refutes the groundless authority of the nobility and supports them in their struggle against enemies of order.

At a congress of naturalists, the reactionary politician and scientist Virchow assailed the Darwinian theory on the ground that it supported Socialism. “Be careful of this theory,” he said to the Darwinists, “for this theory is very nearly related to the theory that caused so much dread in our neighboring country.” This allusion to the Paris Commune, made in the year famous for the hunting of Socialists, must have had a great effect. What shall be said, however, about the science of a professor who attacks Darwinism with the argument that it is not correct because it is dangerous! This reproach, of being in league with the red revolutionists, caused a lot of annoyance to Haeckel, the defendant of this theory. He could not stand it. Immediately afterwards he tried to demonstrate that it is just the Darwinian theory that shows the untenableness of the Socialist demands, and that Darwinism and Socialism “endure each other as fire and water.”

Let us follow Haeckel’s contentions, whose main thoughts re-occur in most authors who base their arguments against Socialism on Darwinism.

Anton Pannekoek.

Socialism is a theory which presupposes natural equality for people, and strives to bring about social equality; equal rights, equal duties, equal possessions and equal enjoyments. Darwinism, on the contrary, is the scientific proof of inequality. The theory of descent establishes the fact that animal development goes in the direction of ever greater differentiation or division of labor; the higher or more perfect the animal, the greater the inequality existing. The same holds also good in society. Here, too, we see the great division of labor between vocations, class, etc., and the more society has developed, the greater become the inequalities in strength, ability and faculty. The theory of descent is therefore to be recommended as “the best antidote to the Socialist demand of making all equal.”

The same holds good, but to a greater extent, of the Darwinian theory of survival. Socialism wants to abolish competition and the struggle for existence. But Darwinism teaches us that this struggle is unavoidable and is a natural law for the entire organic world. Not only is this struggle natural, but it is also useful and beneficial. This struggle brings an ever greater perfection, and this perfection consists in an ever greater extermination of the unfit. Only the chosen minority, those who are qualified to withstand competition, can survive; the great majority must perish. Many are called, but few are chosen. The struggle for existence results at the same time in a victory for the best, while the bad and unfit must perish. This may be lamentable, just as it is lamentable that all must die, but the fact can neither be denied nor changed.

We wish to remark here how a small change of almost similar words serves as a defence of capitalism. Darwin spoke about the survival of the fittest, of those that are best fitted to the conditions. Seeing that in this struggle those that are better organized conquer the others, the conquerors were called the vigilant, and later the “best.” This expression was coined by Herbert Spencer. In thus winning on their field, the conquerors in the social struggle, the large capitalists, were proclaimed the best people.

Ernst Haeckel.

Haeckel retained and still upholds this conception. In 1892 he said,

“Darwinism, or the theory of selection, is thoroughly aristocratic; it is based upon the survival of the best. The division of labor brought about by development causes an ever greater variation in character, an ever greater inequality among the individuals, in their activity, education and condition. The higher the advance of human culture, the greater the difference and gulf between the various classes existing. Communism and the demands put up by the Socialists in demanding an equality of conditions and activity is synonymous with going back to the primitive stages of barbarism.”

The English philosopher Herbert Spencer already had a theory on social growth before Darwin. This was the bourgeois theory of individualism, based upon the struggle for existence. Later he brought this theory into close relation with Darwinism. “In the animal world,” he said, “the old, weak and sick are ever rooted out and only the strong and healthy survive. The struggle for existence serves therefore as a purification of the race, protecting it from deterioration. This is the happy effect of this struggle, for if this struggle should cease and each one were sure of procuring its existence without any struggle whatsoever, the race would necessarily deteriorate. The support given to the sick, weak and unfit causes a general race degeneration. If sympathy, finding its expressions in charity, goes beyond its reasonable bounds, it misses its object; instead of diminishing, it increases the suffering for the new generations. The good effect of the struggle for existence can best be seen in wild animals. They are all strong and healthy because they had to undergo thousands of dangers wherein all those that were not qualified had to perish. Among men and domestic animals sickness and weakness are so general because the sick and weak are preserved. Socialism, having as its aim to abolish the struggle for existence in the human world, will necessarily bring about an ever growing mental and physical deterioration.”

These are the main contentions of those who use Darwinism as a defence of the bourgeois system. Strong as these arguments might appear at first sights they were not hard for the Socialists to overcome. To a large extent, they are the old arguments used against Socialism, but wearing the new garb of Darwinistic terminology, and they show an utter ignorance of Socialism as well as of capitalism.

Those who compare the social organism with the animal body leave unconsidered the fact that men do not differ like various cells or organs, but only in degree of their capacity. In society the division of labor cannot go so far that all capacities should perish at the expense of one. What is more, everyone who understands something of Socialism knows that the efficient division of labor does not cease with Socialism; that first under Socialism real divisions will be possible. The difference between the workers, their ability, and employments will not cease; all that will cease is the difference between workers and exploiters.

While it is positively true that in the struggle for existence those animals that are strong, healthy and well survive; yet this does not happen under capitalist competition. Here victory does not depend upon perfection of those engaged in the struggle, but in something that lies outside of their body. While this struggle may hold good with the small bourgeois, where success depends upon personal abilities and qualifications, yet with the further development of capital, success does not depend upon personal abilities, but upon the possession of capital. The one who has a larger capital at command as will soon conquer the one who has a smaller capital at his disposal, although the latter may be more skillful. It is not the personal qualities, but the possession of money that decides who the victor shall be in the struggle. When the small capitalists perish, they do not perish as men but as capitalists; they are not weeded out from among the living, but from the bourgeoisie. They still exist, but no longer as capitalists. The competition existing in the capitalist system is therefore something different in requisites and results from the animal struggle for existence.


Those people that perish as people are members of an entirely different class, a class that does not take part in the competitive struggle. The workers do not compete with the capitalists, they only sell their labor power to them. Owing to their being propertyless, they have not even the opportunity to measure their great qualities and enter a race with the capitalists. Their poverty and misery cannot be attributed to the fact that they fell in the competitive struggle on account of weakness, but because they were paid very little for their labor power, it is for this very reason that, although their children are born strong and healthy, they perish in great mass, while the children born to rich parents, although born sick, remain alive by means of the nourishment and great care that is bestowed on them. These children of the poor do not die because they are sick or weak, but because of external causes. It is capitalism which creates all those unfavorable conditions by means of exploitation, reduction of wages, unemployment crises, bad dwellings, and long hours of employment. It is the capitalist system that causes so many strong and healthy ones to succumb.

Thus the Socialists prove that different from the animal world, the competitive struggle existing between men does not bring forth the best and most qualified, but destroys many strong and healthy ones because of their poverty, while those that are rich, even if weak and sick, survive. Socialists prove that personal strength is not the determining factor, but it is something outside of man; it is the possession of money that determines who shall survive and who shall perish.

Marxism and Darwinism by Anton Pannekoek. Charles H. Kerr Publishers, Chicago. 1912.

Contents: Darwinism, Marxism, Marxism and the Class Struggle, Darwinism and the Class Struggle, Darwinism versus Socialism, Natural Law and Social Theory, The Sociability of Man, Tools, Thought and Language, Animal Organs and Human Tools, Capitalism and Socialism. 58 pages.

Charles H Kerr publishing house was responsible for some of the earliest translations and editions of Marx, Engels, and other leaders of the socialist movement in the United States. Publisher of the Socialist Party aligned International Socialist Review, the Charles H Kerr Co. was an exponent of the Party’s left wing and the most important left publisher of the pre-Communist US workers movement. It remains a left wing publisher today.

PDF of full book: http://palmm.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/ucf%3A5169/datastream/OBJ/view/Marxism_and_Darwinism.pdf

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