Socialism and Modern Science Enrico Ferri 1900


Socialism and Darwinism, it is said, are in conflict on a second point. Darwinism demonstrates that the immense majority – of plants, animals and men – are destined to succumb, because only a small minority triumphs “in the struggle for life”; socialism, on its part, asserts that all ought to triumph and that no one ought to succumb.

It may be replied, in the first place, that, even in the biological domain of the “struggle for existence,” the disproportion between the number of individuals who are born and the number of those who survive regularly and progressively grows smaller and smaller as we ascend in the biological scale from vegetables to animals, and from animals to Man.

This law of a decreasing disproportion between the “called” and the “chosen” is supported by the facts even if we limit our observation to the various species belonging to the same natural order. The higher and more complex the organization, the smaller the disproportion.

In fact, in the vegetables, each individual produces every year an infinite number of seeds, and an infinitesimal number of these survive. In the animals, the number of young of each individual diminishes and the number of those who survive continues on the contrary, to increase. Finally, for the human species, the number of individuals that each one can beget is very small and most of them survive.

But, moreover, in the cases of all three, vegetables, animals and men, we find that it is the lower and more simply organized species, the races and classes less advanced in the scale of existence, who reproduce their several kinds with the greatest prolificness and in which generation follows generation most rapidly on account of the brevity of individual life.

A fern produces millions of spores, and its life is very short – while a palm tree produces only a few dozen seeds, and lives a century.

A fish produces several thousand eggs – while the elephant or the chimpanzee have only a few young who live many years.

Within the human species the savage races are the most prolific and their lives are short – while the civilized races have a low birth-rate and live longer.

From all this it follows that, even confining ourselves to the purely biological domain, the number of victors in the struggle for existence constantly tends to approach nearer and nearer to the number of births with the advance or ascent in the biological scale from vegetables to animals, from animals to men, and from the lower species or varieties to the higher species or varieties.

The iron law of “the struggle for existence,” then, constantly reduces the number of the victims forming its hecatomb with the ascent of the biological scale, and the rate of decrease becomes more and more rapid as the forms of life become more complex and more perfect.

It would then be a mistake to invoke against socialism the Darwinian law of Natural Selection in the form under which that law manifests itself in the primitive (or lower) forms of life, without taking into account its continuous attenuation as we pass from vegetables to animals, from animals to men, and within humanity itself, from the primitive races to the more advanced races.

And as socialism represents a yet more advanced phase of human progress, it is still less allowable to use as an objection to it such a gross and inaccurate interpretation of the Darwinian law.

It is certain that the opponents of socialism have made a wrong use of the Darwinian law or rather of its “brutal” interpretation in order to justify modern individualist competition which is too often only a disguised form of cannibalism, and which has made the maxim homo homini lupus (man to man a wolf; or, freely, “man eats man”) the characteristic motto of our era, while Hobbes only made it the ruling principle of the “state of nature” of mankind, before the making of the “social contract.”

But because a principle has been abused or misused we are not justified in concluding that the principle itself is false. Its abuse often serves as an incentive to define its nature and its limitations more accurately, so that in practice it may be applied more correctly. This will be the result of my demonstration of the perfect harmony that reigns between socialism and Darwinism.

As long ago as the first edition of my work Socialismo e Criminalità (pages 179 et seq.) I maintained that the struggle for existence is a law immanent in the human race, as it is a law of all living beings, although its forms continually change and though it undergoes more and more attenuation.

This is still the way it appears to me, and consequently, on this point I disagree with some socialists who have thought they could triumph more completely over the objection urged against them in the name of Darwinism by declaring that in human society the “struggle for existence” is a law which is destined to lose all meaning and applicability when the social transformation at which socialism aims shall have been effected.[13]

It is a law which dominates tyrannically all living beings, and it must cease to act and fall inert at the feet of Man, as if he were not merely a link inseparable from the great biological chain!

I maintained, and I still maintain, that the struggle for existence is a law inseparable from life, and consequently from humanity itself, but that, though remaining an inherent and constant law, it is gradually transformed in its essence and attenuated in its forms.

Among primitive mankind the struggle for existence is but slightly differentiated from that which obtains among the other animals. It is the brutal struggle for daily food or for possession of the females – hunger and love are, in fact, the two fundamental needs and the two poles of life – and almost its only method is muscular violence. In a more advanced phase there is joined to this basic struggle the struggle for political supremacy (in the clan, in the tribe, in the village, in the commune, in the State), and, more and more, muscular struggle is superseded by intellectual struggle.

In the historical period the Graeco-Latin society struggled for civil equality (the abolition of slavery); it triumphed, but it did not halt, because to live is to struggle; the society of the middle ages struggled for religious equality; it won the battle, but it did not halt; and at the end of the last century, it struggled for political equality. Must it now halt and remain stationary in the present state of progress? To-day society struggles for economic equality, not for an absolute material equality, but for that more practical, truer equality of which I have already spoken. And all the evidence enables us to foresee with mathematical certainty that this victory will be won to give place to new struggles and to new ideals among our descendants.

The successive changes in the subject-matter (or the ideals) of the struggles for existence are accompanied by a progressive mitigation of the methods of combat. Violent and muscular at first, the struggle is becoming, more and more, pacific and intellectual, notwithstanding some atavic recurrences of earlier methods or some psycho-pathological manifestations of individual violence against society and of social violence against individuals.

The remarkable work of Mr. Novicow[14] has recently given a signal confirmation to my opinion, although Novicow has not taken the sexual struggle into account. I will develop my demonstration more fully in the chapter devoted to l'avenir moral de l'humanité (the intellectual future of humanity), in the second edition of Socialismo e Criminalità.

For the moment I have sufficiently replied to the anti-socialist objection, since I have shown not merely that the disproportion between the number of births and the number of those who survive tends to constantly diminish, but also that the “struggle for existence” itself changes in its essence and grows milder in its processes at each successive phase of the biological and social evolution.

Socialism may then insist that human conditions of existence ought to be guaranteed to all men – in exchange for labor furnished to collective society – without thereby contradicting the Darwinian law of the survival of the victors in the struggle for existence, since this Darwinian law ought to be understood and applied in each of its varying manifestations, in harmony with the law of human progress.

Socialism, scientifically understood, does not deny, and cannot deny, that among mankind there are always some “losers” in the struggle for existence.

This question is more directly connected with the relations which exist between socialism and criminality, since those who contend that the struggle for existence is a law which does not apply to human society, declare, accordingly, that crime (an abnormal and anti-social form of the struggle for life, just as labor is its normal and social form) is destined to disappear. Likewise they think they discover a certain contradiction between socialism and the teachings of criminal anthropology concerning the congenital criminal, though these teachings are also deducted from Darwinism.[15]

I reserve this question for fuller treatment elsewhere. Here is in brief my thought as a socialist and as a criminal anthropologist.

In the first place the school of scientific criminologists deal with life as it now is – and undeniably it has the merit of having applied the methods of experimental science to the study of criminal phenomena, of having shown the hypocritical absurdity of modern penal systems based on the notion of free-will and moral delinquency and resulting in the system of cellular confinement, one of the mental aberrations of the nineteenth century, as I have elsewhere qualified it. In its stead the criminologists wish to substitute the simple segregation of individuals who are not fitted for social life on account of pathological conditions, congenital or acquired, permanent or transitory.

In the second place, to contend that socialism will cause the disappearance of all forms of crime is to act upon the impulse of a generous sentiment, but the contention is not supported by a rigorously scientific observation of the facts.

The scientific school of criminology demonstrates that crime is a natural and social phenomenon – like insanity and suicide – determined by the abnormal, organic and psychological constitution of the delinquent and by the influences of the physical and social environment. The anthropological, physical and social factors, all, always, act concurrently in the determination of all offences, the lightest as well as the gravest – as, moreover, they do in the case of all other human actions. What varies in the case of each delinquent and each offense, is the decisive intensity of each order of factors.[16]

For instance, if the case in point is an assassination committed through jealousy or hallucination, it is the anthropological factor which is the most important, although nevertheless consideration must also be paid to the physical environment and the social environment. If it is a question, on the contrary, of crimes against property or even against persons, committed by a riotous mob or induced by alcoholism, etc., it is the social environment which becomes the preponderating factor, though it is, notwithstanding, impossible to deny the influence of the physical environment and of the anthropological factor.

We may repeat the same reasoning – in order to make a complete examination of the objection brought against socialism in the name of Darwinism – on the subject of the ordinary diseases; crime, moreover, is a department of human pathology.

All diseases, acute or chronic, infectious or not infectious, severe or mild, are the product of the anthropological constitution of the individual and of the influence of the physical and social environment. The decisiveness of the personal conditions or of the environment varies in the various diseases; phthisis or heart disease, for instance, depend principally on the organic constitution of the individual, though it is necessary to take the influence of the environment into account; pellagra,[17] cholera, typhus, etc., on the contrary, depend principally on the physical and social conditions of the environment. And so phthisis makes its ravages even among well-to-do people, that is to say, among persons well nourished and well housed, while it is the badly nourished, that is to say, the poor, who furnish the greatest number of victims to pellagra and cholera.

It is, consequently, evident that a socialist regime of collective property which shall assure to every one human conditions of existence, will largely diminish or possibly annihilate – aided by the scientific discoveries and improvement in hygienic measures – the diseases which are principally caused by the conditions of the environment, that is to say by insufficient nourishment or by the want of protection from inclemency of the weather; but we shall not witness the disappearance of the diseases due to traumatic injuries, imprudence, pulmonary affections, etc.

The same conclusions are valid regarding crime. If we suppress poverty and the shocking inequality of economic conditions, hunger, acute and chronic, will no longer serve as a stimulus to crime. Better nourishment will bring about a physical and moral improvement. The abuses of power and of wealth will disappear, and there will be a considerable diminution in the number of crimes due to circumstances (crimes d'occasion), crimes caused principally by the social environment. But there are some crimes which will not disappear, such as revolting crimes against decency due to a pathological perversion of the sexual instinct, homicides induced by epilepsy, thefts which result from a psycho-pathological degeneration, etc.

For the same reasons popular education will be more widely diffused, talents of every kind will be able to develop and manifest themselves freely; but this will not cause the disappearance of idiocy and imbecility due to hereditary pathological conditions. Nevertheless it will be possible for different causes to have a preventive and mitigating influence on the various forms of congenital degeneration (ordinary diseases, criminality, insanity and nervous disorders). Among these preventive influences may be: a better economic and social organization, the prudential counsels, constantly growing in efficacy given by experimental biology, and less and less frequent procreation, by means of voluntary abstention, in cases of hereditary disease.

To conclude we will say that, even under the socialist regime – although they will be infinitely fewer – there will always be some who will be vanquished in the struggle for existence – these will be the victims of weakness, of disease, of dissipation, of nervous disorders, of suicide. We may then affirm that socialism does not deny the Darwinian law of the struggle for existence. Socialism will, however, have this indisputable advantage – the epidemic or endemic forms of human degeneracy will be entirely suppressed by the elimination of their principal cause – the physical poverty and (its necessary consequence) the mental suffering of the majority.

Then the struggle for existence, while remaining always the driving power of the life of society, will assume forms less and less brutal and more and more humane. It will become an intellectual struggle. Its ideal of physiological and intellectual progress will constantly grow in grandeur and sublimity when this progressive idealization of the ideal shall be made possible by the guarantee to every one of daily bread for the body and the mind.

The law of the “struggle for life” must not cause us to forget another law of natural and social Darwinian evolution. It is true many socialists have given to this latter law an excessive and exclusive importance, just as some individuals have entirely neglected it. I refer to the law of solidarity which knits together all the living beings of one and the same species – for instance animals who live gregariously in consequence of the abundance of the supply of their common food (herbivorous animals) – or even of different species. When species thus mutually aid each other to live they are called by naturalists symbiotic species, and instead of the struggle for life we have co-operation for life.

It is incorrect to state that the struggle for life is the sole sovereign law in Nature and society, just as it is false to contend that this law is wholly inapplicable to human society. The real truth is that even in human society the struggle for life is an eternal law which grows progressively milder in its methods and more elevated in its ideals. But operating concurrently with this we find a law, the influence of which upon the social evolution constantly increases, the law of solidarity or co-operation between living beings.

Even in animal societies mutual aid against the forces of Nature, or against other animals is of constant occurrence, and this is carried much further among human beings, even among savage tribes. One notes this phenomenon especially in tribes which on account of the favorable character of their environment, or because their subsistence is assured and abundant, become of the industrial or peaceful type. The military or warlike type which is unhappily predominant (on account of the uncertainty and insufficiency of subsistence) among primitive mankind and in reactionary phases of civilization, presents us with less frequent examples of it. The industrial type constantly tends, moreover, as Spencer has shown, to take the place of the warlike type.[18]

Confining ourselves to human society alone, we will say that, while in the first stages of the social evolution the law of the struggle for life takes precedence over the law of solidarity, with the growth within the social organism of the division of labor which binds the various parts of the social whole more closely together in inter-dependence, the struggle for life grows milder and is metamorphosed, and the law of co-operation or solidarity gains more and more both in efficiency and in the range of its influence, and this is due to that fundamental reason that Marx pointed out, and which constitutes his great scientific discovery, the reason that in the one case the conditions of existence – food especially – are not assured, and in the other case they are.

In the lives of individuals as in the life of societies, when the means of subsistence, that is to say, the physical basis of existence, are assured, the law of solidarity takes precedence over the law of the struggle for existence, and when they are not assured, the contrary is true. Among savages, infanticide and parricide are not only permitted but are obligatory and sanctioned by religion if the tribe inhabits an island where food is scarce (for instance, in Polynesia), and they are immoral and criminal acts on continents where the food supply is more abundant and certain.[19]

Just so, in our present society, as the majority of individuals are not sure of getting their daily bread, the struggle for life, or “free competition,” as the individualists call it, assumes more cruel and more brutal forms.

Just as soon as through collective ownership every individual shall be assured of fitting conditions of existence, the law of solidarity will become preponderant.

When in a family financial affairs run smoothly and prosperously, harmony and mutual good-will prevail; as soon as poverty makes its appearance, discord and struggle ensue. Society as a whole shows us the picture on a large scale. A better social organization will insure universal harmony and mutual good-will.

This will be the achievement of socialism, and, to repeat, for this, the fullest and most fruitful interpretation of the inexorable natural laws discovered by Darwinism, we are indebted to socialism.



14. NOVICOW, Les luttes entre sociétés, leurs phases successives, Paris, 1893. LERDA, La lotta per la vita, in Pensiero italiano, Milan, Feb. and March, 1894.

15. I regret that M. Loria, ordinarily so profound and acute, has here been deceived by appearances. He has pointed out this pretended contradiction in his “Economic Foundations of Society” (available in English, Tr.). He has been completely answered, in the name of the school of scientific criminal anthropology, by M. RIVIERI DE ROCCHI, Il diritto penale e un'opera recente di Loria in Scuola positiva nella giurisprudenza penale of Feb. 15, 1894, and by M. LOMBROSO, in Archivio di psichiatria e scienza penali, 1894, XIV, fasc. C.

16. ENRICO FERRI, Sociologie criminelle (French translation), 1893, Chaps. I. and II.

A recent work has just given scientific confirmation to our inductions: FORSINARI DI VERCE, Sulla criminalità e le vicende economiche d'Italia dal 1873 al 1890. Turin, 1894. The preface written by Lombroso concludes in the following words: “We do not wish, therefore, to slight or neglect the truth of the socialist movement, which is destined to changed the current of modern European thought and action, and which contends ad majorem gloriam of its conclusions that all criminality depends on the influence of the economic environment. We also believe in this doctrine, though we are unwilling and unable to accept the erroneous conclusions drawn from it. However enthusiastic we may be, we will never, in its honor, renounce the truth. We leave this useless servility to the upholders of classical orthodoxy.”

17. A skin-disease endemic in Northern Italy. Tr.

18. See in this connection the famous monographs of Kropotkin, Mutual aid among the savages, in the “Nineteenth Century,” April 9, 1891, and Among the barbarians, “Nineteenth Century,” January, 1892, and also two recent articles signed: “Un Professeur,” which appeared in the Revue Socialiste, of Paris, May and June, 1894, under the title: Lutte ou accord pour la vie.

19. ENRICO FERRI, Omicidio nell’ antropologia criminale, Introduction, Turin, 1894.