Stranger Fruit

Darwin and Marx

Razib notes "I’m sure you know that Marx was a keen follower of Darwin’s theory." Eh, no. Not so much.

While Marx in 1860 described Origin as containing "the natural-historical basis of our outlook," by 1861 he was noting that “[i]t is remarkable how Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society with its labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’, and the Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’”. Indeed he would view Darwinism as a bourgeois ideology which mirrored the bourgeois competitive struggle in capitalist society. Marx’s use of Darwin is underwhelming – he twice mentions Darwin’s theory in Das Kapital, both as footnotes and neither indicate a "keen follower" of Darwin+. These are the only published references of Marx to Darwin. More importantly, Marx chastised a number of his followers, in particular Büchner and Friedrich Lange for attempting to link his ideas with those of Darwin. Büchner’s work was described as "superficial nonsense" and Lange lead Marx to describe the struggle for life as "the Malthusian population fantasy". Clearly, Marx was no Darwinist. As Ball notes,

"Marx clearly admired and agreed with Darwin’s having finished off teleology in the natural sciences … [In Marx’s view] Darwin’s theory of natural selection applies, at best, only to prehuman, preconscious natural history; it does not apply to the epoch of human history in which men consciously transform nature and therefore themselves." (emphasis mine)

Marx accepted the theory of organic evolution and the denial of teleology in natural science. What he did not however accept were Mathusian arguments and use of such to explain human history. In other words, Marx – like many other thinkers of the time – ultimately denied the efficacy of natural selection.

Oh, and I’ve written about Darwin and Marx before.

+ Here are the two footnotes from Das Kapital (1867). The first occurs in a discussion of tool specialization and the second in one of the difference between tools and machines. Marx is clearly not utilizing Darwin’s ideas ("epoch-making" though they may be) in any meaningful way.

“Darwin in his epoch-making work on the origin of species, remarks, with reference to the natural organs of plants and animals: ‘So long as one and the same organ has different kinds of work to perform, a ground for its changeability may possibly be found in this,that natural selection preserves or suppresses each small variation of formless carefully than if that organ were destined for one special purpose alone.Thus, knives that are adapted to cut all sorts of things, may, on the whole, be of one shape; but an implement destined to be used exclusively in one way must have a different shape for every different use.’”

“Darwin has interested us in the history of natural technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of the organs that are the material basis of all social organism, deserve equal attention?.”


  1. #1 mark
    January 31, 2008

    Back when I worked in a factory, there was a fellow who heard I was a geology student and began to argue against evolution. He said how Marx dedicated his book to Darwin, &c. Not surprisingly, he was also a member of the John Birch Society.

  2. #2 R.G. Price
    February 1, 2008

    I’m not sure where you draw some of these conclusions from. Firstly, there is scant little material to go on in terms of drawing some of your conclusions, and secondly some of Marx’s statements contradict your conclusions.

    I’ve touched on the subject in this article for example:

    As you can see, Marx once wrote:

    Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that **it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle.**
    - Karl Marx; Letter to Ferdinand Lassalle, 1861