Topic: Anton Pannekoek, Marxism and Darwinism (1909, 1914)

An Introduction by Ph. Bourrinet, October 2019

In A Free Retriever’s Digest Vol. 4 Issue #2, April – June 2020 (April 21, 2020) we have presented Anton Pannekoek’s classic work on Marxism, Darwinism and their thorny relationship at the hand of a summary written for its recent French translation. (a)

In the following we continue with the elaborate introduction to Pannekoek’s synthesis by its French translator, which endeavors a critical evaluation of this work and its reception in diverse quarters.

We wholeheartedly support this effort to review the ‘classics’ of historical materialism in the light of the lessons taken from the historical experiences of the working class struggle and in that of the evolution of science – not limiting ourselves to saving them from the “the gnawing criticism of the mice”, nor to simply repeating them – and hope this review contributes to a meaningful discussion among the political minorities that lay claim to proletarian internationalism.

Due to the length and scope of this contribution and its extensive annotations, we publish our translation on the portfolio pages. The following presents the contents at the hand of excerpts, with links to the full text.

H.C., September 7, 2020

a) “Marxismus und Darwinismus. Ein Vortrag von Ant. Pannekoek” (2nd German edition, Leipzig 1914). Its French translation is available with Moto Propio, Paris, November 2019.

Note:  The full text is available here since September 14, 2020.


Marxism and/or Darwinism?

Pannekoek played a considerable theoretical role in the deepening of Marxism, which was under constant attack by a capitalist order, sometimes armed with the latest discoveries of a science that had gone through the grinder of bourgeois ideology.

a) Pannekoek and the critical critique of Darwin

The Dutch edition of Pannekoek’s pamphlet (Darwinisme en Marxisme, 1909) was a party work, as it was published under the aegis of the social democracy of the Netherlands and Germany. The booklet, which was particularly dense in content, gave an account of the difficult cohabitation between Marxism and Darwinism, for the 100 years since the birth of the founder of the theory of evolution. It was soon translated into several languages, first into German (1909, 1914), then into Estonian, English (1912), Ukrainian and Chinese (1922, 1924).

This 44-page pamphlet is considered – especially by its opponents! – as the major Marxist work of Pannekoek before his alleged “ultra-left” degeneration of the 1920s and 1930s, under the effect of a visceral anti-Leninism/anti-Stalinism. We believe that this contribution must be weighed and evaluated critically in all its theoretical implications.

b) A dialectical materialism that is but little historical?

The interest of this work by Pannekoek lies less in its approximate use of “historical materialism” (and his definite interest in the Darwinian doctrine of “social instincts”) than in its conception of Marxism as a “weapon of the proletariat”. Marxism is opposed to the ideology of social Darwinism, a “weapon of the bourgeoisie”, as from the outset ardently adopted by the bourgeoisie”. The latter in fact rallies to an “armored materialism”, where the Christian idea that the “first would be the last and the last the first” in earthly or heavenly paradise has become a crime against capitalism, which well deserves to rid oneself without delay of the biblical tradition.

c) Natural man against nature?

In the light of these analyses by Marx and Engels, it is clear that there was no question of waging a war against nature in order to ensure the development of the productive forces, and that such a development could only be conceivable if humanity treated the natural environment as “its inorganic body”.

Pannekoek himself was perfectly aware of this environmental problem. In a 1909 article, published the same year as his brochure, he strongly emphasized that capitalism deliberately destroyed nature in order to maximize its profits. It was therefore a question of putting an end to the reign of Capital. Here Pannekoek was more radical than in the last part of his pamphlet, on the perspective of socialism (…)

d) “Race”, “moral feelings” and revolutionary universalism of the proletariat

In order to get out of social Darwinism, Pannekoek reveals himself to be more or less Kantian, implicitly taking up the idea of a moral man because he is cosmopolitan, even if he firmly combats the development of the neo-Kantian ideology in social democracy.