‘Darwinism and the Class Struggle’ by Anton Pannekoek from Marxism and Darwinism. Charles H. Kerr Publishers, Chicago. 1912.
That Marxism owes its importance and position only to the role it takes in the proletarian class struggle, is known to all. With Darwinism, however, things seem different to the superficial observer, for Darwinism deals with a new scientific truth which has to contend with religious prejudices and ignorance. Yet it is not hard to see that in reality Darwinism had to undergo the same experiences as Marxism. Darwinism is not a mere abstract theory which was adopted by the scientific world after discussing and testing it in a mere objective manner. No, immediately after Darwinism made its appearance, it had its enthusiastic advocates and passionate opponents; Darwin’s name, too, was either highly honored by people who understood something of his theory, or despised by people who knew nothing more of his theory than that “man descended from the monkey,” and who were surely unqualified to judge from a scientific standpoint the correctness or falsity of Darwin’s theory. Darwinism, too, played a role in the class-struggle, and it is owing to this role that it spread so rapidly and had enthusiastic advocates and venomous opponents.
Darwinism served as a tool to the bourgeoisie in their struggle against the feudal class, against the nobility, clergy-rights and feudal lords. This was an entirely different struggle from the struggle now waged by the proletarians. The bourgeoisie was not an exploited class striving to abolish exploitation. Oh no. What the bourgeoisie wanted was to get rid of the old ruling powers standing in their way. The bourgeoisie themselves wanted to rule, basing their demands upon the fact that they were the most important class, the leaders of industry. What argument could the old class, the class that became nothing but useless parasites, bring forth against them? They leaned on tradition, on their ancient divine rights. These were their pillars. With the aid of religion the priests held the great mass in subjection and ready to oppose the demands of the bourgeoisie.
It was therefore for their own interests that the bourgeoisie were in duty bound to undermine the “divinity” right of rulers. Natural science became a weapon in the opposition to belief and tradition; science and the newly discovered natural laws were put forward; it was with these weapons that the bourgeoisie fought. If the new discoveries could prove that what the priests were teaching was false, the “divine” authority of these priests would crumble and the “divine rights” enjoyed by the feudal class would be destroyed. Of course the feudal class was not conquered by this only, as material power can only be overthrown by material power, but mental weapons become material tools. It is for this reason that the bourgeoisie relied so much upon material science.
Darwinism came at the desired time; Darwin’s theory that man is the descendant of a lower animal destroyed the entire foundation of Christian dogma. It is for this reason that as soon as Darwinism made its appearance, the bourgeoisie grasped it with great zeal.
This was not the case in England. Here we again see how important the class struggle was for the spreading of Darwin’s theory. In England the bourgeoisie had already ruled a few centuries, and as a mass they had no interest to attack or destroy religion. It is for this reason that although this theory was widely read in England, it did not stir anybody; it merely remained a scientific theory without great practical importance. Darwin himself considered it as such, and for fear that his theory might shock the religious prejudices prevailing, he purposely avoided applying it immediately to men. It was only after numerous postponements and after others had done it before him, that he decided to make this step. In a letter to Haeckel he deplored the fact that his theory must hit upon so many prejudices and so much indifference that he did not expect to live long enough to see it break through these obstacles.
But in Germany things were entirely different, and Haeckel correctly answered Darwin that in Germany the Darwinian theory met with an enthusiastic reception. It so happened that when Darwin’s theory made its appearance, the bourgeoisie was preparing to carry on a new attack on absolutism and junkerism. The liberal bourgeoisie was headed by the intellectuals. Ernest Haeckel, a great scientist, and of still greater daring, immediately drew in his book, “Natural Creation,” most daring conclusions against religion. So, while Darwinism met with the most enthusiastic reception by the progressive bourgeoisie, it was also bitterly opposed by the reactionists.
The same struggle also took place in other European countries. Everywhere the progressive liberal bourgeoisie had to struggle against reactionary powers. These reactionists possessed, or were trying to obtain through religious followers, the power coveted. Under these circumstances, even the scientific discussions were carried on with the zeal and passion of a class struggle. The writings that appeared pro and con on Darwin have therefore the character of social polemics, despite the fact that they bear the names of scientific authors. Many of Haeckel’s popular writings, when looked at from a scientific standpoint, are very superficial, while the arguments and remonstrances of his opponents show unbelievable foolishness that can only be met which only find their equal in the arguments used against Marx.
The struggle carried on by the liberal bourgeoisie against feudalism was not fought to its finish. This was partly owing to the fact that everywhere Socialist proletarians made their appearance, threatening all ruling powers, including the bourgeoisie. The liberal bourgeoisie relented, while the reactionary tendencies gained an upper hand. The former zeal in combatting religion disappeared entirely, and while it is true that the liberals and reactionists were still fighting among each other, in reality, however, they neared each other. The interest formerly manifested in science as a weapon in the class struggle, has entirely disappeared, while the reactionary tendency that the masses must be brought to religion, became ever more pronounced.
The estimation of science has also undergone a change. Formerly the educated bourgeoisie founded upon science a materialistic conception of the universe, wherein they saw the solution of the universal riddle. Now mysticism has gained the upper hand; all that was solved appeared as very trivial, while all things that remained unsolved, appeared as very great indeed, embracing the most important life question. A sceptical, critical and doubting frame of mind has taken the place of the former jubilant spirit in favor of science.
This could also be seen in the stand taken against Darwin. “What does his theory show? It leaves unsolved the universal riddle! Whence comes this wonderful nature of transmission, whence the ability of animate beings to change so fitly?” Here lies the mysterious life riddle that could not be overcome with mechanical principles. Then, what was left of Darwinism in the light of later criticism?
Of course, the advance of science began to make rapid progress. The solution of one problem always brings a few more problems to the surface to be solved, which were hidden underneath the theory of transmission. This theory, that Darwin had to accept as a basis of inquiry, was ever more investigated, and a hot discussion arose about the individual factors of development and the struggle for existence. While a few scientists directed their attention to variation, which they considered due to exercise and adaptation to life (following the principle laid down by Lamarck) this idea was expressly denied by scientists like Weissman and others. While Darwin only assumed gradual and slow changes, De Vries found sudden and leaping cases of variation resulting in the sudden appearance of new species. All this, while it went to strengthen and develop the theory of descent, in some cases made the impression that the new discoveries rent asunder the Darwinian theory, and therefore every new discovery that made it appear so was hailed by the reactionists as a bankruptcy of Darwinism. This social conception had its influence on science. Reactionary scientists claimed that a spiritual element is necessary. The supernatural and insolvable has taken the place of Darwinism and that class which in the beginning was the banner bearer of Darwinism became ever more reactionary.
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