Socialism and Modern Science Enrico Ferri 1900



On the 18th of September, 1877, Ernest Haeckel, the celebrated embryologist of Jena, delivered at the Congress of Naturalists, which was held at Munich, an eloquent address defending and propagating Darwinism, which was at that time the object of the most bitter polemical attacks.

A few days afterward, Virchow, the great pathologist, – an active member of the “progressive” parliamentary party, hating new theories in politics just as much as in science – violently assailed the Darwinian theory of organic evolution, and, moved by a very just presentiment, hurled against it this cry of alarm, this political anathema: “Darwinism leads directly to socialism.”

The German Darwinians, and at their head Messrs. Oscar Schmidt and Haeckel, immediately protested; and, in order to avert the addition of strong political opposition to the religious, philosophical, and biological opposition already made to Darwinism, they maintained, on the contrary, that the Darwinian theory is in direct, open and absolute opposition to socialism.

“If the Socialists were prudent,” wrote Oscar Schmidt in the “Ausland” of November 27, 1877, “they would do their utmost to kill, by silent neglect, the theory of descent, for that theory most emphatically proclaims that the socialist ideas are impracticable.”

“As a matter of fact,” said Haeckel,[2] “there is no scientific doctrine which proclaims more openly than the theory of descent that the equality of individuals, toward which socialism tends, is an impossibility; that this chimerical equality is in absolute contradiction with the necessary and, in fact, universal inequality of individuals.

“Socialism demands for all citizens equal rights, equal duties, equal possessions and equal enjoyments; the theory of descent establishes, on the contrary, that the realization of these hopes is purely and simply impossible; that, in human societies, as in animal societies, neither the rights, nor the duties, nor the possessions, nor the enjoyments of all the members of a society are or ever can be equal.

“The great law of variation teaches – both in the general theory of evolution and in the smaller field of biology where it becomes the theory of descent – that the variety of phenomena flows from an original unity, the diversity of functions from a primitive identity, and the complexity of organization from a primordial simplicity. The conditions of existence for all individuals are, from their very birth, unequal. There must also be taken into consideration the inherited qualities and the innate tendencies which also vary more or less widely. In view of all this, how can the work and the reward be equal for all?

“The more highly the social life is developed, the more important becomes the great principle of the division of labor, the more requisite it becomes for the stable existence of the State as a whole that its members should distribute among themselves the multifarious tasks of life, each performing a single function; and as the labor which must be performed by the individuals, as well as the expenditure of strength, talent, money, etc., which it necessitates, differs more and more, it is natural that the remuneration of this labor should also vary widely. These are facts so simple and so obvious that it seems to me every intelligent and enlightened statesman ought to be an advocate of the theory of descent and the general doctrine of evolution, as the best antidote for the absurd equalitarian, utopian notions of the socialists.

“And it was Darwinism, the theory of selection, that Virchow, in his denunciation, had in mind, rather than mere metamorphic development, the theory of descent, with which it is always confused! Darwinism is anything rather than socialistic.

“If one wishes to attribute a political tendency to this English theory, – which is quite permissible, – this tendency can be nothing but aristocratic; by no means can it be democratic, still less socialistic.

“The theory of selection teaches that in the life of mankind, as in that of plants and animals, it is always and everywhere a small privileged minority alone which succeeds in living and developing itself; the immense majority, on the contrary, suffer and succumb more or less prematurely. Countless are the seeds and eggs of every species of plants and animals, and the young individuals who issue from them. But the number of those who have the good fortune to reach fully developed maturity and to attain the goal of their existence is relatively insignificant.

“The cruel and pitiless ‘struggle for existence’ which rages everywhere throughout animated nature, and which in the nature of things must rage, this eternal and inexorable competition between all living beings, is an undeniable fact. Only a small picked number of the strongest or fittest is able to come forth victoriously from this battle of competition. The great majority of their unfortunate competitors are inevitably destined to perish. It is well enough to deplore this tragic fatality, but one cannot deny it or change it. ‘Many are called, but few are chosen!’

“The selection, the ‘election’ of these ‘elect’ is by absolute necessity bound up with the rejection or destruction of the vast multitude of beings whom they have survived. And so another learned Englishman has called the fundamental principle of Darwinism ‘the survival of the fittest, the victory of the best.’

“At all events, the principle of selection is not in the slightest degree democratic; it is, on the contrary, thoroughly aristocratic. If, then, Darwinism, carried out to its ultimate logical consequences, has, according to Virchow, for the statesman ‘an extraordinarily dangerous side,’ the danger is doubtless that it favors aristocratic aspirations.”

I have reproduced complete and in their exact form all the arguments of Haeckel, because they are those which are repeated – in varying tones, and with expressions which differ from his only to lose precision and eloquence – by those opponents of socialism who love to appear scientific, and who, for polemical convenience, make use of those ready-made or stereotyped phrases which have currency, even in science, more than is commonly imagined.

It is easy, nevertheless, to demonstrate that, in this debate, Virchow’s way of looking at the subject was the more correct and more perspicacious, and that the history of these last twenty years has amply justified his position.

It has happened, indeed, that Darwinism and socialism have both progressed with a marvelous power of expansion. From that time the one was to conquer – for its fundamental theory – the unanimous endorsement of naturalists; the other was to continue to develop – in its general aspirations as in its political discipline – flooding all the conduits of the social consciousness, like a torrential inundation from internal wounds caused by the daily growth of physical and moral disease, or like a gradual, capillary, inevitable infiltration into minds freed from all prejudices, and which are not satisfied by the merely personal advantages that they derive from the orthodox distribution of spoils.

But, as political or scientific theories are natural phenomena and not the capricious and ephemeral products of the free wills of those who construct and propagate them, it is evident that if these two currents of modern thought have each been able to triumph over the opposition they first aroused – the strongest kind of opposition, scientific and political conservatism – and if every day increases the army of their avowed disciples, this of itself is enough to show us – I was about to say by a law of intellectual symbiosis – that they are neither irreconcilable with, nor contradictory to, each other.

Moreover, the three principal arguments which form the substance of the anti-socialist reasoning of Haeckel resist neither the most elementary criticisms, nor the most superficial observation of every-day life.

These arguments are:

I. – Socialism tends toward a chimerical equality of persons and property: Darwinism, on the contrary, not only establishes, but shows the organic necessity of the natural inequality of the capabilities and even the wants of individuals.

II. – In the life of mankind, as in that of plants and animals, the immense majority of those who are born are destined to perish, because only a small minority can triumph in the “struggle for existence”; socialism asserts, on the contrary, that all ought to triumph in this struggle, and that no one is inexorably destined to be conquered.

III. – The struggle for existence assures “the survival of the best, the victory of the fittest,” and this results in an aristocratic hierarchic gradation of selected individuals – a continuous progress – instead of the democratic, collectivist leveling of socialism.


2. Les preuves du transformisme. – Paris, 1879, page 110 et seq.