Socialism and Modern Science Enrico Ferri 1900


Darwinism has demonstrated that the entire mechanism of animal evolution may be reduced to the struggle for existence between individuals of the same species on the one hand, and between each species and the whole world of living beings.

In the same way all the machinery of social evolution has been reduced by Marxian socialism to the law of the Struggle between Classes. This theory not only gives us the secret motive-power and the only scientific explanation of the history of mankind; it also furnishes the ideal and rigid standard of discipline for political socialism and thus enables it to avoid all the elastic, vaporous, inconclusive uncertainties of sentimental socialism.

The only scientific explanation of the history of animal life is to be found in the grand Darwinian law of the struggle for existence; it alone enables us to determine the natural causes of the appearance, development and disappearance of vegetable and animal species from paleontological times down to our own day. In the same way the only explanation of the history of human life is to be found in the grand Marxian law of the struggle between classes; thanks to it the annals of primitive, barbarous and civilized humanity cease to be a capricious and superficial kaleidoscopic arrangement of individual episodes in order to become a grand and inevitable drama, determined – whether the actors realize it or not, in its smallest internal details as well as in its catastrophes – by the economic conditions, which form the indispensable, physical basis of life and by the struggle between the classes to obtain and keep control of the economic forces, upon which all the others – political, juridical and moral – necessarily depend.

I will have occasion to speak more at length – in studying the relations between sociology and socialism – of this grand conception, which is the imperishable glory of Marx and which assures him in sociology the place which Darwin occupies in biology and Spencer in philosophy.[37]

For the moment it suffices for me to point out this new point of contact between Socialism and Darwinism. The expression, Class-Struggle, so repugnant when first heard or seen (and I confess that it produced this impression on me when I had not yet grasped the scientific import of the Marxian theory), furnishes us, if it be correctly understood, the primary law of human history and, therefore, it alone can give us the certain index of the advent of the new phase of evolution which Socialism foresees and which it strives to hasten.

To assert the existence of the class-struggle is equivalent to saying that human society, like all other living organisms, is not a homogeneous whole, the sum of a greater or smaller number of individuals; it is, on the contrary, a living organism which is made up of diverse parts, and their differentiation constantly increases in direct ratio to the degree of social evolution attained.

Just as a protozoon is almost wholly composed of albuminoid gelatine, while a mammal is composed of tissues widely varying in kind, in the same way a tribe of primitive savages, without a chief, is composed simply of a few families and the aggregation is the result of mere material propinquity, while a civilized society of the historical or contemporaneous period is made up of social classes which differ, the one from the other, either through the physio-psychical constitutions of their component members, or through the whole of their customs and tendencies, and their personal, family or social life.

These different classes may be rigorously separated. In ancient India they range from the brahman to the sudra: in the Europe of the Middle Ages, from the Emperor and the Pope to the feudatory and the vassal, down to the artisan, and an individual cannot pass from one class into another, as his social condition is determined solely by the hazard of birth. Classes may lose their legal character, as happened in Europe and America after the French Revolution, and exceptionally there may be an instance of an individual passing from one class into another, analogously to the endosmose and exosmose of molecules, or, to use the phrase of M. Dumont, by a sort of “social capillarity.” But, in any case, these different classes exist as an assured reality and they resist every juridical attempt at leveling as long as the fundamental reason for their differentiation remains.

It is Karl Marx who, better than anyone else, has proved the truth of this theory by the mass of sociological observations which he has drawn from societies under the most diverse economic conditions.

The names (of the classes), the circumstances and phenomena of their hostile contact and conflict may vary with the varying phases of social evolution, but the tragic essence of history always appears in the antagonism between those who hold the monopoly of the means of production – and these are few – and those who have been robbed (expropriated) of them – and these are the great majority.

Warriors and shepherds in the primitive societies, as soon as first, family and then individual ownership of land has superseded the primitive collectivism; patricians and plebeiansfeudatories and vassalsnobles and common peoplebourgeoisie and proletariat; these are so many manifestations of one and the same fact – the monopoly of wealth on one side, and productive labor on the other.

Now, the great importance of the Marxian law – the struggle between classes – consists principally in the fact that it indicates with great exactness just what is in truth the vital point of the social question and by what method its solution may be reached.

As long as no one had shown on positive evidence the economic basis of the political, juridical and moral life, the aspirations of the great majority for the amelioration of social conditions aimed vaguely at the demand and the partial conquest of some accessory instrumentality, such as freedom of worship, political suffrage, public education, etc. And certainly, I have no desire to deny the great utility of these conquests.

But the sancta sanctorum always remained impenetrable to the eyes of the masses, and as economic power continued to be the privilege of a few, all the conquests and all the concessions had no real basis, separated, as they were, from the solid and fecund foundation which alone can give life and abiding power.

Now, that Socialism has shown – even before Marx, but never before with so much scientific precision – that individual ownership, private property in land and the means of production is the vital point of the question – the problem is formulated in exact terms in the consciousness of contemporaneous humanity.

What method will it be necessary to employ in order to abolish this monopoly of economic power, and the mass of suffering and ills, of hate and injustice which flow from it?

The method of the Class Struggle, based on the scientifically proven fact that every class tends to preserve and increase its acquired advantages and privileges, teaches the class deprived of economic power that in order to succeed in conquering it, the struggle (we will consider, further on, the forms of this struggle) must be a struggle of class against class, and not of individual against individual.

Hatred toward such or such an individual – even if it result in his death – does not advance us a single step toward the solution of the problem; it rather retards its solution, because it provokes a reaction in the general feeling against personal violence and it violates the principle of respect for the human person which socialism proclaims most emphatically for the benefit of all and against all opponents. The solution of the problem does not become easier because it is recognized that the present abnormal condition, which is becoming more and more acute – misery for the masses and pleasure for a few – is not the consequence of the bad intentions of such or such an individual.

Viewed from this side also socialism is, in fact, in perfect harmony with modern science, which denies the free will of man and sees in human activity, individual and collective, a necessary effect whose determining causes are the conditions of race and environment, acting concurrently.[38]

Crime, suicide, insanity, misery are not the fruits of free will, of individual faults, as metaphysical spiritualism believes, and neither is it an effect of free will, a fault of the individual capitalist if the workingman is badly paid, if he is without work, if he is poor and miserable.

All social phenomena are the necessary resultants of the historical conditions and of the environment. In the modern world the facility and the greater frequency of communication and relations of every kind between all parts of the earth have also increased the dependence of every fact – economic, political, juridical, ethical, artistic or scientific – upon the most remote and apparently unrelated conditions of the life of the great world.

The present organization of private property with no restrictions upon the right of inheritance by descent or upon personal accumulation; the ever increasing and more perfect application of scientific discoveries to the facilitation of human labor – the labor of adapting the materials furnished by Nature to human needs; the telegraph and the steam-engine, the constantly overflowing torrent of human migrations – all these bind, with invisible but infrangible threads, the existence of a family of peasants, work-people or petty trades-people to the life of the whole world. And the harvest of coffee, cotton or wheat in the most distant countries makes its effects felt in all parts of the civilized world, just as the decrease or increase of the sun-spots are phenomena co-incident with the periodical agricultural crises and have a direct influence on the destinies of millions of men.

This magnificent scientific conception of the “unity of physical forces,” to use the expression of P. Secchi, or of universal solidarity is far, indeed, from that infantile conception which finds the causes of human phenomena in the free wills of individuals.

If a socialist were to attempt, even for philanthropic purposes, to establish a factory in order to give work to the unemployed, and if he were to produce articles out of fashion or for which there was no general demand, he would soon become bankrupt in spite of his philanthropic intentions by an inevitable effect of inexorable economic laws.

Or, again, if a socialist should give the laborers in his establishment wages two or three times as high as the current rate of wages, he would evidently have the same fate, since he would be dominated by the same economic laws, and he would have to sell his commodities at a loss or keep them unsold in his warehouses, because his prices for the same qualities of goods would be above the market price.

He would be declared a bankrupt and the only consolation the world would offer him would be to call him an honest man (brave homme); and in the present phase of “mercantile ethics” we know what this expression means.[39]

Therefore, without regard to the personal relations, more or less cordial, between capitalists and workingmen, their respective economic situations are inexorably determined by the present (industrial) organization, in accordance with the law of surplus-labor which enabled Marx to explain and demonstrate irrefutably how the capitalist is able to accumulate wealth without working, – because the laborer produces in his day’s work an amount of wealth exceeding in value the wage he receives, and this surplus-product forms the gratuitous (unearned) profit of the capitalist. Even if we deduct from the total profits his pay for technical and administrative superintendence, this unearned surplus-product still remains.

Land, abandoned to the sun and the rain, does not, of itself, produce either wheat or wine. Minerals do not come forth, unaided, from the bowels of the earth. A bag of dollars shut up in a safe does not produce dollars, as a cow produces calves.

The production of wealth results only from a transformation of (Nature-given) materials effected by human labor. And it is only because the peasant tills the land, because the miner extracts minerals, because the laborer sets machinery in motion, because the chemist makes experiments in his laboratory, because the engineer invents machinery, etc., that the capitalist or the landlord – though the wealth inherited from his father may have cost him no labor, and though he may practise absenteeism and thus make no personal exertion – is able every year to enjoy riches that others have produced for him, in exchange for wretched lodgings and inadequate nourishment – while the workers are, in most cases, poisoned by the miasmatic vapors from rivers or marshes, by gas in mines and by dust in factories – in brief, in exchange for wages which are always inadequate, to assure the workers conditions of existence worthy of human creatures.

Even under a system of absolute métayage (share-farming) – which has been called a form of practical socialism – we always have this question left unanswered. By what miracle does the landlord, who does not work, get his barns and houses filled with wheat and oil and wine in sufficient quantities to enable him to live in ample comfort, while the métayer (the tenant on shares) is obliged to work every day, in order to wrest from the earth enough to support himself and his family in wretchedness?

And the system of métayage does at least give the tenant the tranquillizing assurance that he will reach the end of the year without experiencing all the horrors of enforced idleness to which the ordinary day or wage laborers are condemned in both city and country. But, in substance, the whole problem in its entirety remains unsolved (even under this system), and there is always one man who lives in comfort, without working, because ten others live poorly by working.[40]

This is the way the system of private property works, and these are the consequences it produces, without any regard to the wills or wishes of individuals.

Therefore, every attempt made against such or such an individual is condemned to remain barren of results; it is the ruling tendency of Society, the objective point which must be changed, it is private ownership which must be abolished, not by a partition (“dividing up”), which would result in the most extreme and pernicious form of private ownership, since by the end of a year the persistence of the old individualist principle would restore the status quo ante, and all the advantage would accrue solely to the most crafty and the least scrupulous.

Our aim must be the abolition of private ownership and the establishment of collective and social ownership in land and the means of production. This substitution cannot be the subject for a decree, – though the intention to effect it by a decree is attributed to us – but it is in course of accomplishment under our eyes, every day, from hour to hour, directly or indirectly.

Directly, because civilization shows us the continuous substitution of public ownership and social functions for private ownership and individual functions. Roads, postal systems, railways, museums, city lighting-plants, water-plants, schools, etc., which were only a few years since private properties and functions, have become social properties and functions. And it would be absurd to imagine that this direct process of socialization is destined to come to a halt to-day, instead of becoming progressively more and more marked, in accordance with every tendency of our modern life.

Indirectly, since it is the outcome toward which the economic individualism of the bourgeoisie tends. The bourgeois class, which takes its name from the dwellers in the bourgs (towns) which the feudal chateau and the Church – symbols of the class then dominant – protected, is the result of fecund labor intelligently directed toward its goal and of historical conditions which have changed the economic structure and tendency of the world (the discovery of America, for instance). This class achieved its revolution in the end of the eighteenth century, and conquered the political power. In the history of the civilized world, it has inscribed a page in letters of gold by those wondrous developments in the lives of nations that are truly epic in character, and by its marvelous applications of science to industry ... but it is now traversing the downward branch of the parabola, and symptoms are appearing which announce to us – and offer proof of their announcement – its dissolution; without its disappearance, moreover, the advent and establishment of a new social phase would be impossible.

Economic individualism carried out to its ultimate logical consequences, necessarily causes the progressive multiplication of property in hands of a constantly diminishing number of persons. Milliardaire (billionaire) is a new word, which is characteristic of the nineteenth century, and this new word serves to express and emphasize that phenomenon – in which Henry George saw the historic law of individualism – of the rich becoming richer while the poor become poorer.[41]

Now it is evident that the smaller is the number of those who hold possession of the land and the means of production the easier is their expropriation – with or without indemnification – for the benefit of a single proprietor which is and can be Society alone.

Land is the physical basis of the social organism. It is then absurd for it to belong to a few and not to the whole social collectivity; it would not be any more absurd for the air we breathe to be the monopoly of a few airlords.

That (the socialization of the land and the means of production) is truly the supreme goal of socialism, but evidently it cannot be reached by attacking such or such a landlord, or such or such a capitalist. The individualist mode of conflict is destined to remain barren of results, or, to say the least, it requires a terribly extravagant expenditure of strength and efforts to obtain merely partial or provisional results.

And so those politicians, whose conception of statesmanship is a career of daily, trivial protests, who see nothing in politics but a struggle between individuals – and those tactics no longer produce any effect either on the public or on legislative assemblies, because they have at last become wonted to them – produce just about as much effect as would fantastic champions of hygiene who should attempt to render a marsh inhabitable by killing the mosquitoes one by one with shots from a revolver, instead of adopting as their method and their goal the draining of the pestilential marsh.

No individual conflicts, no personal violence, but a Class Struggle. It is necessary to make the immense army of workers of all trades and of all professions conscious of these fundamental truths. It is necessary to show them that their class interests are in opposition to the interests of the class who possess the economic power, and that it is by class-conscious organization that they will conquer this economic power through the instrumentality of the other public powers that modern civilization has assured to free peoples. It may, nevertheless, be foreseen that, in every country, the ruling class, before yielding, will abridge or destroy even these public liberties which were without danger for them when they were in the hands of laborers not organized into a class-conscious party, but forming the rearguard of other purely political parties, as radical on secondary questions as they are profoundly conservative on the fundamental question of the economic organization of property.

A Class-Struggle, therefore a struggle of class against class; and a struggle (this is understood), by the methods of which I will soon speak in discussing the four modes of social transformation: evolution – revolution – rebellion – individual violence. But a Class-Struggle in the Darwinian sense, which renews in the history of Man the magnificent drama of the struggle for life between species, instead of degrading us to the savage and meaningless brute strife of individual with individual.

We can stop here. The examination of the relations between Darwinism and socialism might lead us much further, but it would go on constantly eliminating the pretended contradiction between the two currents of modern scientific thought, and it would, on the contrary, confirm the essential, natural and indissoluble harmony that there is between them.

Thus the penetrating view of Virchow is confirmed by that of Leopold Jacoby.

“The same year in which appeared Darwin’s book (1859) and coming from a quite different direction, an identical impulse was given to a very important development of social science by a work which long passed unnoticed, and which bore the title: Critique de l'économie politique by KARL MARX – it was the forerunner of Capital.

“What Darwin’s book on the Origin of Species is on the subject of the genesis and evolution of organic life from non-sentient nature up to Man, the work of Marx is on the subject of the genesis and evolution of association among human beings, of States and the social forms of humanity."[42]

And this is why Germany, which has been the most fruitful field for the development of the Darwinian theories, is also the most fruitful field for the intelligent, systematic propaganda of socialist ideas.

And it is precisely for this reason that in Berlin, in the windows of the book-stores of the socialist propaganda, the works of Charles Darwin occupy the place of honor beside those of Karl Marx.[43]


37. LARFARGUE, Le Matérialisme économique, in Ere nouvelle, 1893.

38. Avoiding both of the mutually exclusive theses that civilization is a consequence of race or a product of the environment, I have always maintained – by my theory of the natural factors in criminality – that it is the resultant of the combined action of the race and the environment.

Among the recent works which support the thesis of the exclusive or predominant influence of race, I must mention LE BON, Les lois psychologiques de l'évolution des peuples, Paris, 1894. This work is, however, very superficial. I refer the reader for a more thorough examination of these two theses to Chap. IV of my book Omicidio nell’ anthropologia criminale, Turin, 1894.

39. I use the expression “mercantile ethics,” which LETOURNEAU used in his book on the Evolution of Ethics (L'évolution de la morale), Paris, 1887. In his scientific study of the facts relating to ethics, Letourneau has distinguished four phases: animal ethics – savage ethics – barbarous ethics – mercantile (or bourgeois) ethics; these phases will be followed by a higher phase of ethics which Malon has called social ethics.

40. Some persons, still imbued with political (Jacobin) artificiality, think that in order to solve the social question it will be necessary to generalize the system of métayage. They imagine, then – though they do not say so – a royal or presidential decree: “Art. 1. Let all men become métayers!”

And it does not occur to them that if métayage, which was the rule, has become a less and less frequent exception, this must be the necessary result of natural causes.

The cause of the transformation is to be found in the fact that métayage represents (is a form typical of) petty agricultural industry, and that it is unable to compete with modern agricultural industry organized on a large scale and well equipped with machinery, just as handicrafts have not been able to endure competition with modern manufacturing industry. It is true that there still are to-day some handicraft industries in a few villages, but these are rudimentary organs which merely represent an anterior phase (of production), and which no longer have any important function in the economic world. They are, like the rudimentary organs of the higher species of animals, according to the theory of Darwin, permanent witnesses of past epochs.

The same Darwinian and economic law applies to métayage, which is also evidently destined to the same fate as handicrafts.

Conf. the excellent propagandist pamphlet of BIEL, Ai contadini toscani, Colle d’ Elsa, 1894.

41. HENRY GEORGE, Progress and Poverty, New York, 1898. Doubleday & McClure Co.

42. L. JACOBY, L'Idea dell’ evoluzione, in Bibliotheca dell’ economista, série III, vol. IX, 2d part, p. 69.

43. At the death of Darwin the Sozialdemokrat of the 27th of April, 1882, wrote: “The proletariat who are struggling for their emancipation will ever honor the memory of Charles Darwin.”

Conf. LAFARGUE, La théorie darwinienne.

I am well aware that in these last years, perhaps in consequence of the relations between Darwinism and socialism, consideration has again been given to the objections to the theory of Darwin, made by Voegeli, and more recently by Weismann, on the hereditary transmissibility of acquired characters. See SPENCER, The Inadequacy of Natural Selection, Paris, 1894. – VIRCHOW, Transformisme et descendance, Berlin, 1893. But all this merely concerns such or such a detail of Darwinism, while the fundamental theory of metamorphic organic development remains impregnable.