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.

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.

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.

He was particularly interested in exercising the weapon of critique against the latest expression of bourgeois materialism, Darwinism, which was based on the work of Charles Darwin, but whose aim was to consolidate the existence of the capitalist social order, a Darwinism that preached the “selection of the best”, that is to say, of those most capable of preserving this “order” by violence and maintaining an iron heel on the “lower classes”, the most numerous, whose work allowed an immense accumulation of wealth for the sole benefit of the “most capable”.

In his book On the Origin of Species (1), published in 1859, Darwin carried out a veritable Copernican turnaround. Just as the Earth had not been the center of the universe since the Renaissance, (2) man ceased to be the crowning glory of divine creation, even when “God” had driven Adam and Eve out of the original paradise. The Bible imagined a “reasoned” creation. Before man and woman frolicked in the “earthly paradise”, plants and animals had been ordered to reproduce “according to their kind”. This expression comes up ten times in the chapter on Creation, testifying to an “in-variance” of the species conceived sub specie aeternitatis in the sample books of the brilliant Designer. Man, on the other hand, was outside the natural world, rising metaphysically above the animals: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them”.

With Darwin, man stopped rising towards transcendence and fell into the center of matter, discovering a common ancestry with the primates. Man was neither an exception in the living world, nor a creature that miraculously appeared almost 6,000 years ago. With On the Origin of Species, man became a humble animal species, having evolved over at least a hundred thousand years, as demonstrated by the discovery in 1856, near Düsseldorf, of prehistoric remains of homo neanderthalensis, the first fossil man to be recognized as such. Man thus lost all his metaphysical arrogance. (3)

It should be pointed out that even before On the Origin of Species, Engels – in a letter to Marx on July 14, 1858 – confessed to Mohr (Marx) his rejection of all metaphysical arrogance, with scientific facts as a starting point:

“It is certain that the study of comparative physiology leads us to a contempt mixed with shame (schmähliche Verachtung) for this idealistic exaltation of man who would be superior to other wild beasts (über die andern Bestien).” (4)

On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, caused panic among proponents of creationism of all species and was the object of multiple condemnations. After a few decades of half-silence and disapproving whispers, the Catholic Church, as was its custom, finally adapted to the most disturbing scientific discoveries. (5) For Protestant-Evangelical and/or Muslim creationists, Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution still remains an eternal object of scandal, condemned as “Atheism” or “disbelief” and destined to the flames of Hell. In fact, the alliance of religion and the State constitutes a granite foundation, on which a dominant class that demands absolute submission to the Holy Trinity: God, Capital and State is enthroned. (6)

It is understandable that the founders of historical materialism showed real enthusiasm for the scientific contribution of Charles Darwin, at the same time as Marx was pursuing the drafting of Capital, which studied the laws of the rise, evolution and decline of the capitalist mode of production.

Marx had first (1861) become enthusiastic about Darwin, considering him to be a real support for the proletarian revolution that undermined all the bases of metaphysics, where God appeared as the Alpha and Omega of the universe:

Darwin’s work [On the Origin of Species] is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle. One does, of course, have to put up with the clumsy English style of argument. Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained.” (7)

But later (1869) Marx had expressed the most explicit reservations about the “Darwinist movement”:

Darwin was led by the struggle for life in English society — the competition of all with all, bellum omnium contra omnes — to discover competition to […] as the ruling law of ‘bestial’ and vegetative life. The Darwinism, conversely, considers this a conclusive reason for human society never to emancipate itself from its bestiality.” (8)

In a letter to Lavrov dated November 12-17, 1875, Engels went further:

“The whole Darwinists teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbes’s doctrine of bellum omnium contra omnes [from Hobbes’s De Cive and Leviathan, chapter 13-14] and of the bourgeois-economic doctrine of competition together with Malthus’s theory of population. When this conjurer’s trick has been performed (and I questioned its absolute permissibility, as I have indicated in point 1, particularly as far as the Malthusian theory is concerned), the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved. The puerility of this procedure is so obvious that not a word need be said about it.” (9)

Later, in 1886, Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, in his pamphlet The Religion of Capital, imagined this ferocious personification of Neo-Darwinism, which he was careful not to put in Darwin’s mouth, but in that of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an ultra-liberal disciple, partisan of the “selection of the most suitable”, with the aim of creating a “superior race”, that of the capitalist Übermensch :

“Our theory of evolution teaches that the low social status of the working class is the inevitable result of the laws of nature; and that the privileged members of the upper classes will [evolve] into higher and higher beings until they shall have formed a new race. The people of that race will resemble in nothing the beasts in human form of the lower classes, who are not to be ruled, except whip in hand.” (10)

Next paragraph: a) Pannekoek and the critical critique of Darwin

→ Page 2 (link at the bottom of this page)



1 Full title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (John Murray, London, 1859). The 6th and last print revised by Darwin came out in 1876.

2 Nicola Copernicus’ book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (“Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”) was completed around 1530 and published in 1543, the year of his death. The book was dedicated to Pope Paul III. It was put on the index in March 1616, after Pope Paul V, presiding over the Tribunal of the Holy Office, had decreed: “The doctrine attributed to Copernicus that the Earth moves around the Sun and that the Sun stands in the middle of the world without moving from sunrise to sunset, is contrary to the Holy Scriptures, and therefore can neither be defended nor upheld.” It wasn’t until 1757 that the work, which undermined the foundations of Ptolemaic geocentrism, ceased to be condemned by the Catholic Church.

3 Re-translated from French: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy of the intervention of a god. It is more humble and I think it is truer to consider him as created from animals.” This sentence of Darwin’s was written in Notebook “C” in 1839 (Ronald W. Clark, The Survival of Charles Darwin: A Biography of a Man and an Idea, New York, 1984, p. 178).

4 Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, Werke, vol. 29, Dietz Verlag, Berlin, 1978, p. 338. Note that here Engels turns man into a wild beast (“Bestie”). Pannekoek, on the contrary (cf. infra), considers that man is not a wild beast.

5 The Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio, elected Pope on March 13, 2013, and who chose the name Francis, was thus able to declare before the Pontifical Academy in October 2014: “When we read the account of Creation in Genesis, we risk taking God for a magician waving his magic wand. But this is not so. He created human beings and allowed them to develop according to internal laws that he gave to each one so that they could be fully fulfilled.”

6 The Turkey of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has abolished the teaching of the theory of evolution in secondary school, a new sign of the rampant Islamisation of society from above, where the issue at stake is the reconstitution of the former Ottoman Empire and the Islamic Caliphate abolished in March 1924, on the proposal of Mustafa Kemal. In the USA, Vice-President Mike Pence, who seconds Donald Trump, is a “Catholic evangelist” (sic), a supporter of creationism.

7 Cf. Marx’s letter to Lassalle of January 16, 1861. [MEW, Bd. 30, S. 578].

8 Letter from Marx to the Lafargue couple, February 15, 1869 [MEW Bd. 32, S. 591].

9 Letter of Engels to Piotr Lavrov, 12 – 17 November 1875 [MEW Bd. 34, S. 170].

10 La religion du Capital, Bibliothèque socialiste de l’agglomération parisienne du Parti ouvrier, Paris, 1887 (Lafargue 2013, p. 9-10). Spencer’s article entitled “The coming slavery” had just been published in the Contemporary Review of April 1887. [Translation:]

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