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How Darwin Influenced Marx and Engels

Charles Darwin died 140 years ago today. His work revolutionised our understanding of nature, and had a major impact on other thinkers of his time – including Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.

Marx wrote that Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species' ‘contains the basis in natural history for our view’. (English Heritage / Heritage Images / Getty Images)

Only 1,250 copies of the first edition of On the Origin of Species were printed, and they all sold in one day. One of those who obtained a copy was Friedrich Engels, then living in Manchester. Three weeks later, he wrote to Karl Marx:

Darwin, by the way, whom I’m reading just now, is absolutely splendid. There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done. Never before has so grandiose an attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in Nature, and certainly never to such good effect.

When Marx read Origin a year later, he was just as enthusiastic. In 1862, Marx made a point of attending the public lectures on evolution given by Darwin’s supporter Thomas Huxley, and encouraged his political associates to join him. Wilhelm Liebknecht, a friend and comrade who often visited the Marx family in London, later recalled, ‘when Darwin drew the conclusions from his research work and brought them to the knowledge of the public, we spoke of nothing else for months but Darwin and the enormous significance of his scientific discoveries.’

Although Marx and Engels criticised various aspects of his ‘clumsy English style of argument,’ they retained the highest regard for Darwin’s scientific work for the rest of their lives. In his own masterwork, Marx described On the Origin of Species as an ‘epoch-making work’.

Some today argue that there is no real connection between Darwinism and Marxism, but anyone who seriously studies the works of Marx, Engels, and Darwin will understand—even if they don’t agree—that Marx was both honest and exceptionally insightful when he wrote that On the Origin of Species ‘contains the basis in natural history for our view’.

To understand what Marx meant, we need to understand what Darwin wrote, and why his views marked a radical break with the dominant ideas of his day.

An Unlikely Revolutionary

Charles Robert Darwin was an unlikely revolutionary. His father was a prominent physician and wealthy investor; his grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, founder of one of the largest manufacturing companies in Europe. He could have lived a life of leisure, but instead, he devoted his time to science.

In 1825 his father sent him to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, but Charles was much more interested in studying nature. After two years he dropped out and enrolled in Cambridge to become an Anglican priest—a respectable profession that would allow him leisure time to collect beetles, stuff birds, or search for fossils.

After graduation in 1831, one professor took him on a three-week geology expedition in North Wales, and then his botany professor recommended him to Captain Robert Fitzroy of the Royal Navy, who was looking for a gentleman naturalist to travel with him on a surveying voyage to South America and the South Pacific.

And so it began. On 27 December 1831, twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle for a trip on which he conducted extensive and detailed geological studies, wrote thousands of pages of scientific observations, and collected more than 1,500 specimens of living and fossil life.


When he left England, Darwin seems to have been a conventional Christian who agreed with ‘the great majority of naturalists [who] believed that species were immutable productions, and had been separately created’. Biblical literalists and deists agreed that species were fixed by divine law: dogs might vary in appearance, but dogs don’t turn into pigs or give birth to cats.

After five years of scientific research on the Beagle and two more years of study at home, Darwin came to a heretical conclusion: species were not immutable. All animals were descended from common ancestors, different species resulted from gradual changes over millions of years, and God had nothing to do with it.

It is difficult, today, to appreciate just how shocking this idea would be at the time. Those who questioned God’s word were perceived as endangering the very fragile social order.

However, by the 1830s, educated people, including Darwin, knew that the Genesis creation story wasn’t literally true. The expansion of capitalism in the 1700s had led to booms in mining and canal building, which exposed geological layers and fossils that proved that the earth was millions of years of old—not the six thousand years allowed by Biblical chronology. The fossil record also showed that animals unknown today were once common, while modern animals appeared relatively recently, contradicting the claim that God created all species at once. Global exploration and the discovery of more varieties of plant and animal life than any European had ever imagined—far more than could have lived in Eden or found space on Noah’s ark.

Scientists agreed that there were only two possible explanations for the accumulating evidence. The influential Cambridge professor William Whewell summed up the choices:

Either we must accept the doctrine of the transmutation of species, and must suppose that the organised species of one geological epoch were transmuted into those of another by some long-continued agency of natural causes; or else, we must believe in many successive acts of creation and extinction of species, out of the common course of nature; acts which, therefore, we may properly call miraculous.

Whewell, like every other respectable scientist of the time, had no doubt about the answer: animals and plants may vary in response to external circumstances, but ‘the extreme limit of variation may usually be reached in a brief period of time: in short, species have a real existence in nature, and a transition from one to another does not exist.’

If species could not change over time, only miracles could explain the fossil record. But how did God do it? What did the process of divine creation actually look like on earth? ‘The replacement of extinct species by others,’ was, wrote astronomer John Herschell, the ‘mystery of mysteries.’

Evolution Before Darwin

That the scientific establishment thought it necessary to deny ‘transmutation of species’ shows not everyone agreed that species couldn’t change. But before Darwin, only two writers proposed worked-out theories of species change over time: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Robert Chambers.

Unlike Darwin, Lamarck didn’t suggest common descent, but rather a complex model in which every type of organism went through a separate evolutionary process. Nature constantly and spontaneously creates new evolutionary lines, beginning with single-celled animals that have an innate drive to become more complex, or perfect, over time. Eventually, if the climb isn’t interrupted, they reach the peak of perfection as human beings.

But the climb is often interrupted by environmental changes to which the animal must respond. Giraffes develop long necks by stretching to reach high leaves, while fish that live in caves become blind because they don’t use their eyes—and those changes are then inherited by their offspring.

More influential on broad public opinion in England was Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844 by Robert Chambers. He attributed the entire history of the universe to a God-ordained ‘Law of Development’ that produced stars, planets, and eventually life. After the first life arose spontaneously on earth, animals and plants ascended the ladder of life. ‘It has pleased Providence to arrange that one species should give birth to another, until the second highest gave birth to man, who is the very highest.’

Chambers meant ‘gave birth’ literally. Drawing on the theory that embryos pass through stages similar to the adults of more primitive animals, he concluded that when it was time for a new species to arrive, females would extend their gestation periods so their offspring would emerge as the next species up the ladder. Universally condemned by the scientific establishment at the time, and nearly forgotten today, Vestiges was nevertheless a sensational bestseller.

Essentialism and Teleology

Most professional scientists and many amateurs and outsiders offered views on how the apparent extinction and creation of species could be explained or explained away. While the explanations varied, they all rested on a common ideology, the twin concepts of essentialism and teleology.

Essentialism is based on the first law of formal logic: that a thing is always equal to itself, that A always equals A. That’s a useful, even necessary assumption for many purposes, but it ignores the reality of change—that over time all things decay, or transform, or combine, so that A turns into something that is no longer A. In nineteenth-century natural science, essentialist thinkers assumed that a species was a constant, unchanging type, and the variations observed in nature were accidental and transitory.

Teleology is the belief that all things are designed for or inherently directed toward a final result. Birds were given wings so that they could fly, giraffes got long necks so that they could reach high leaves, and the earth was created as a place for people to live. Leading philosophers and scientists believed the earth and everything in it was designed by God to achieve His divine ends.

Natural Selection

In Origin, Darwin argued that three factors combine to create new species.

  1. Population pressure: All organisms tend to have more offspring than can survive in the local environment. Many individuals either do not survive or are not able to reproduce.
  2. Variations and heritability: There are many variations between the members of a given population: no two individuals are exactly alike. Most of these variations are inheritable—that is, they are passed on to the offspring of the individuals concerned. While most of these variations are insignificant (eye colour, for example), some will increase or decrease the individual’s chances of surviving and reproducing.
  3. Natural selection: Individuals with favourable variations will tend to have more offspring than average; those with unfavourable variations will tend to have fewer. As a result, over long periods of time, unfavourable variations will tend to decrease in frequency, while favourable variations will become more common.

Darwin wasn’t just speculating. His ‘theory of descent with modification through natural selection’ was developed and then fine-tuned in years of careful study and experimentation. In his home in Kent, he dissected all kinds of animals, raised pigeons to learn about variation and inheritance, and experimented with plant germination and seed dispersal. Above all, he sought out and learned from people with practical, hands-on knowledge—gamekeepers, pigeon enthusiasts, sheep and cattle breeders, gardeners, and zoo managers. These materialist methods led him to an entirely materialist theory—at a time when materialism was considered subversive and politically dangerous.

Between 1838 and 1848, England was swept by an unprecedented wave of mass actions, political protests, and strikes. Radical ideas were infecting the working class, leading many to expect (or fear) revolutionary change.

Rather than risk being identified with the radicals and perhaps ostracised by his fellow gentleman-scientists, Darwin wrote a 270-page account of his theory in 1844, attached a letter asking his wife to publish it if he died, and told no one else. Only in the mid-1850s, when his scientific reputation was assured, and the social turbulence of the 1840s was clearly over, did he return to the subject for which he is now most famous. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published in November 1859.

Turning Science the Right Way Up

Marx wrote that in Hegel’s writings, the dialectic ‘is standing on its head,’ so it had to be turned right side up to discover ‘the rational kernel within the mystical shell.’ That is what Marx and Engels did in the process of working out the fundamental basis of their views, historical materialism. And that is what Darwin did in On the Origin of Species.

He overturned essentialism. ‘I look at the term ‘species’ as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other.’ A species is not a thing, and change does not involve the transformation or replacement of that thing: a species is a population of real, concrete individuals. Variations are not exceptions or diversions from the species’ essence—variation is the concrete reality of nature.

And he overturned teleology. ‘Far from imagining that cats exist in order to catch mice well,’ wrote Darwin’s close associate Thomas Huxley, ‘Darwinism supposes that cats exist because they catch mice well—mousing being not the aim, but the condition of their existence.’

By the time Darwin died in 1882, evolution was accepted by the great majority of scientists.

Evolution and Marxism

In 1844, while Darwin was secretly writing his first full account of natural selection, Karl Marx was in Paris developing his critique of contemporary political and philosophical thought. In his notebooks he wrote: ‘History itself is a real part of natural history and of nature’s development into man. Natural science will, in time, incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science.’

A year later, Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology, the first mature statement of what became known as historical materialism. Initially they included this passage (later deleted), which is similar to the 1844 statement, but more complete:

We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist.

These passages show why Marx and Engels were so excited by Darwin’s work. Fifteen years before Origin, they were confident that nature could be explained using the same historical and materialist principles that underlaid their analysis of human societies. By providing a thoroughly researched and powerfully argued confirmation of that assumption, Darwin’s book completed historical materialism.

Nature and Society

Engels was, however, also scathing in his rejection of attempts to apply biological laws to human society. In a letter to the Russian socialist Pyotr Lavrov in 1875, he pointed out that the ‘bourgeois Darwinians’—referring to a political current in Germany that claimed to be applying Darwin’s views—first claimed that the political concept ‘survival of the fittest’ applied to nature, and then reversed the process:

All that the Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence boils down to is an extrapolation from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the bellum omnium contra omnes [war of all against all] and of the bourgeois-economic theory of competition together with the Malthusian theory of population. Having accomplished this feat … these people proceed to re-extrapolate the same theories from organic nature to history, and then claim to have proved their validity as eternal laws of human society. The puerility of this procedure is self-evident, and there is no need to waste words on it.

These political Darwinians, Engels concluded, can be described ‘firstly as bad economists and secondly as bad naturalists and philosophers.’

In 1845, in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels had argued that the ability to produce life’s needs distinguishes humans from other animals, an argument Engels repeated and extended in his unfinished book Dialectics of Nature:

Let us accept for a moment the phrase ‘struggle for existence’, for argument’s sake. The most that the animal can achieve is to collect; man produces, he prepares the means of subsistence, in the widest sense of the words, which without him nature would not have produced. This makes impossible any unqualified transference of the laws of life in animal societies to human society.

Engels was restating a fundamental element of the Marxist view of nature—that different forms and complexities of matter involve different scientific laws. The laws governing the movements of atoms and molecules are not the same as the laws that govern the movements of billiard balls; human beings are physical and biological objects, subject to the same physical and biological laws as other animals, but we are also social beings who produce our means of existence, so our lives and history cannot be fully explained by physics and biology.

As Engels wrote, ‘The conception of history as a series of class struggles is already much richer in content and deeper than merely reducing it to weakly distinguished phases of the struggle for existence.’

Darwin’s Achievement

Apart from his lifelong opposition to slavery and his involvement in the affairs of the small town where he lived, Darwin seems to have had little interest in political activity or theory. And yet, as the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr wrote, ‘in his scientific works he systematically demolished one after the other of the basic philosophical concepts of his time and replaced them with revolutionary new concepts.’

By doing that, Darwin unwittingly contributed to and strengthened the most revolutionary social theories ever developed, the ideas we know today as Marxism. It is possible, as Paul Heyer points out, to be a Darwinian in biology while rejecting Marxism, but it is not possible to be a consistent Marxist and reject Darwin.

The reason is basic. Central to Marx’s vision is the assumption that nature and history fit together to comprise a totality. Since man emerged from and continues to depend on and transform nature, history as a science will remain incomplete until this foundation is fully comprehended. And no one has contributed more toward this comprehension than Darwin.

The idea that nature has a history, that species come into existence, change, and disappear through natural processes, is just as revolutionary, and just as important to socialist thought, as the idea that capitalism isn’t eternal, but came into being at a given time and will one day disappear from the earth.

This is an abridged version of an article from A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism by Ian Angus (Monthly Review Press, 2017), reprinted with the author’s permission.

About the Author

Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism and a founding member of the Global Ecosocialist Network. He lives in Canada.