September 24, 2010

Darwin on the left

I've been meandering lately though some musings on the relationship between human evolution and social life. Some recent posts have looked at how Darwin's ideas were received and celebrated on the political right. A look at how Darwin was received on the left seems to be in order now.

One lefty contemporary of Darwin's who eagerly received his ideas was none other than Karl Marx, who saw some similarities between the former's ideas his own materialist theory of history. He wrote in a letter to another radical leader that

Darwin's book is very important and serves me as a natural-scientific basis for the class struggle in history.

Marx was also amused to find that Darwin projected the workings of capitalism onto nature:

It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition, opening-up of new markets, 'inventions,' and the Malthusian 'struggle for existence.'

(Marx had snarky things to say about everybody.)

It seems, though, that Marx believed that once people became human, social relations of labor and interaction (including especially economic relations) were the decisive factor. In the "Theses on Feuerbach," he wrote that

the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.

His sidekick Friedrich Engels followed suit in viewing humans as uniquely developing through conscious production, which he believed "makes impossible any immediate transference of the laws of life in animal societies to human ones."

This basic denial of human nature was to become a dogma of the communist movement, with disastrous consequences.

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