August Bebel 1899

The Darwinian Theory and Socialism

Source: Social Democrat Vol. III No. 4, April 15, 1899, p.118-121, from Die Neue Zeit;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Under the above title Ludwig Woltmann has lately published a book wherein he examined the relations which the two great influential scientific streams of the present day – the teaching of Darwin in the sphere of natural philosophy, and the teaching of Marx in the domain of economic science – have one to another.

As is well known, a lively combat is being carried on by the great majority of the representatives of Darwinism in both its old and new forms, on the one hand, and by the exponents of scientific Socialism on the other, over the question-in how far Darwinism and Socialism are in accord, and especially whether Darwinism stands in opposition to the theories of Socialism as they affect social life; and whether those theories are assisted or retarded by the knowledge of Darwinism.

All the well-known exponents of Darwinism argue not only that Darwinism is not favourable to Socialism, but that the two theories are directly antagonistic to each other. And the most prominent exponent of Darwinism in Germany, Ernst Haeckel, writes: – “Darwinism – the theory of selection – is, in the eyes of an unprejudiced critic, an aristocratic principle, consisting in the survival of the fittest.”

Only a very small section of the exponents of Darwinism represent another view of the case. They share more or less the views of Socialists, that Darwinism is in accord with Socialism in reference to the development of human society, only it cannot be applied to human evolution in the rough mechanical manner common among the exponents of Darwinism.

In the book under review, Woltmann subjects the two Darwinian schools, as well as the various schools of economy and philosophy, to an inquiry and examination, in as far as their views appear to have any significance to the question, the conclusion to which he arrives being that Darwinism and Socialism are not mutually antagonistic, and that the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence will find its expression in the Socialist State – so far as humanity is concerned – in the establishment of unity between man and nature.

Woltmann has placed the arguments and material, for and against, in such a manner that the exponents of Darwinism, who are usually ignorant of social science, cannot fail to comprehend the actual position of the question. Whether his examination will make much impression on his Darwinian opponents remains, of course, to be seen.

In their ignorance and neglect of the study of social problems, the present day representatives of Darwinism follow, almost without exception, the example of their lord and master. But the colossal work which Darwin accomplished offers an. excuse for him which, however, cannot be extended to his followers. Moreover, the social movement and social problems have, since Darwin’s death, attained an importance and extent which no one in his time could have conceived possible, and, on the part of the Socialists, the question of the significance which Darwinism has for social evolution has been so repeatedly discussed that the exponents of Darwinism have ex cathedra every reason to concern themselves a little with political economy.

The reader is reminded of Darwin’s ignorance of economic phenomena by the reproduction of the letter sent by Darwin to Marx wherein he thanks the latter for the gift of his book, “Das Kapital,” and among other things says: “I heartily wish that I possessed a greater knowledge of the deep and important subject of economic questions which would make me a more worthy recipient of your gift.”

Darwin here admits in plain language his ignorance of economic questions, but he never allowed himself to pass judgment upon Socialism. It is quite otherwise with his successors, especially with Ernst Haeckel, who became enlightened on the antagonism between Darwinism and Socialism before he had ever read a socialistic writing. An amusing instance of this is quoted by Woltmann in a note to the book. He says that when in the spring of 1894 he as a young student visited Haeckel in order to consult him upon some question bearing upon Darwinism and Socialism, he discovered that Haeckel had no real conception of the economic and historic doctrines of Socialism, and up to the summer of 1893 had only read my book, “Die Frau und Der Sozialismus,” and this probably but little, as I had sharply attacked him in it. That he stands no better than other representatives of Darwinism is manifold.

If, as Woltmann says, “Socialism must be brought into closer relationship with the teaching of natural evolution than has hitherto been the case,” the fault of this cannot be laid against the Socialists, who have not failed to understand it, but is due to the exponents of Darwinism, for whom, as the author amply proves, the warning is very necessary.

Woltmann further on says: “In order to comprehend the progress in human culture, considerations, other than economic, must be taken into account, and these can be furnished by physiology and general biology, e.g., the comprehension of the laws of differentiation, adaptation, and transmission, and at least a special study is necessary to find: whether natural selection has exerted its influence in the individual and class struggle, why it has been inoperative, and what may have taken its place. These questions have not been considered by Marx and Engels.” This, however, is not quite so; for in the “Anti-Dühring” Engels has fully discussed the connection between the results of natural philosophy and the laws of the evolution of society, and Woltmann himself devotes a large space in his book to this work which gives an answer to his statement. The position according to Engels is that the sphere of labour becomes within society an arena of combat of ever-increasing dimensions: “It is the Darwinian struggle for individual existence in which nature, with potential wrath, envelopes society. The natural standpoint of the animal appears as the summit of human society.”

In human society the individual holds a dual position which no other creature, ever so highly developed, can possess. Man is, at once an individual and a social being. As the latter, he is again a member of a class with separate and special interests, which are more or less opposed to the interests of other classes, and influence the situation and development of separate persons in a higher degree than their personal nature. This distinguishes man from the other animals and makes it impossible to consider him in his evolution from the same point of view as them.

The work of Woltmann brings out another thought. Independent of Darwinism, one can comprehend the evolutionary laws of society in their various degrees of development, but the Darwinian, as such, can never understand the evolutionary laws of human society, if he does not understand scientific Socialism, and with it its basis – historic materialism. Without this one remains in the rough, purely mechanical conception of Darwinism, which still dominates the majority of the exponents of Darwin’s theories. Woltmann is of opinion that the logical help which modern Socialism has received from Hegelian philosophy is not sufficient, and that Socialism would obtain greater scientific power if it returned, so far as its abstract propositions are concerned, to the philosophy of Kant.

That the teachings and conceptions of Marx and Engels are not of a soli me tangere order, that they are not dogmas laid down unchangeable for all time, is admitted on all sides. Social developments, whose single phases the most clear and exact prophet could not foretell, may affect modifications in them, but they will still remain the firm-basis upon which we shall strive, in which respect they are in a position analogous to the teaching of Darwin.

Woltmann has made a systematic investigation of the Socialistic and Darwinian ideal worlds from the standpoint of the history of social development and social politics, and he has done this in a diligent and praiseworthy manner. In the course of his inquiry he comes upon the long-disputed question of the transmission of acquired character in which the great majority of Darwinians follow Haeckel, L. Buchner, and W. Haacke, whilst a minority took the side of Weissmann. With regard to this discussion I have to make an explanation. After Woltmann has briefly reviewed my conception of Darwinism in reference to human society, which I have stated in “Die Frau und der Sozialismus,” he continues: “Bebel may be reproached (on the part of the Darwinians) that he does not understand Darwinism, and puts falsely the claim of Socialism. Doubtless there are breaks in Bebel’s order of ideas, for example, not to recognise that the previous history of the evolution of the human species is drawn from the same laws as that of animals and plants,” and he argues further as if this thought was in reality mine. This is because he evidently has not understood what it is that I have said in reference to the relation of Darwinism to the evolution of human society .... But Woltmann goes further, and here our opinions sharply differ. He says: “But Bebel, and with him all the dogmatic supporters of historic materialism, overlook the fact that man has not only a scientific reasoning, but is also a moral and practical being, and that the reaction of moral consciousness on present conditions engenders the idea of a higher form of society and will bring the realisation of it.”

Most certainly man is a moral being; he has perceptions which we name moral. But when these moral perceptions are brought into relationship with society we find that moral views depend upon class interests. The influence which social morality produces is also of a very materialistic nature, and therefore my estimate of the reaction of the moral conscience on the conditions of the present as of the future is different to that of Woltmann. The idea that moral consciousness, has hitherto caused the transformation of the economic and political forms of human society will be disputed by us “dogmatic supporters” of historic materialism until our opponents are in a position to give us another and clearer basis of explanation for the phenomena in question. To us it appears that the explanation of historical materialism is completely sufficient, and finally nothing more can be asked of a method than that it does what one desires of it. Again, I have not said that existing conditions are suitable for humanity, but that the classes injured by these conditions have strived to make them suitable to their interests and necessities. This is the difference which exists between man and the other animals.

Further on Woltmann again directs his attention to me when he says: “We must decidedly oppose Bebel when he infers (dealing with the existence of promiscuity in the relations of men living in hordes) that polygamy and polyandry were universally practised.” If Woltmann had read the preface to the twenty-fifth edition of “Die Frau,” he would probably have not made this remark, which appears to arise from a false moral wrath. In that preface, dealing with Ziegler, I have written: – “In the twentieth chapter of Darwin’s book, ‘The Descent of Man,’ dealing with the secondary sex character of man, he says that he had thought the existence of common marriage, and its preceding condition of promiscuity, incredible. He had, however, found that all those who had most thoroughly studied the subject were of the opinion that promiscuity was the original and general form of sex connection throughout the whole earth, including sexual connection between brothers and sisters ....

Farther than this, we have the very instructive legends of the ancients, from which it appears that in primitive times sexual connection was common between parents and children, and not simply between brothers and sisters. The legend of Lot, who committed incest with his daughters without having incurred the wrath of the Bible, shows that this was no unusual occurrence, although at that time the Jews had reached the intermediate stage of barbarism. Other examples of incestuous connection have been cited in an early number of Die Neue Zeit, by Paul Lafargue, e.g., the legend that Brahma was married to his daughter Saravasth; the legend of Amon being the spouse of his mother, and the similar connection between Uranos and his mother Gäa. We need not wonder at the irregularity of sexual commerce among the hordes, as the term horde itself conveys that impression.

In the satisfaction of sexual passion the modern man often sinks lower than the animals. I refer to the worst sexual excesses (the excesses of lust and unnatural prostitution). In primitive times, however, man was an animal.

BEBEL, in Die Neue Zeit.