Anton Pannekoek: Marxism and Darwinism (1909, 1914)

a) Pannekoek and the critical critique of Darwin

The Dutch edition of Pannekoek’s pamphlet (Darwinisme en Marxisme, 1909) (1) 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) (2), then into Estonian, English (1912) (3), Ukrainian (4) and Chinese (1922, 1924) (5).

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. (6) We believe that this contribution must be weighed and evaluated critically in all its theoretical implications. (7)

In the name of social democracy, Pannekoek praised the contribution of Darwin, who – like Copernicus – had brought about a “[transformation of] the way the broad masses view the world”. As a doctrine of impermanence, of mutability and not of in-variance of biological life, the theory of the development of species, like Marxism, had become “the foundation of the world view of the widest sections of the population. (8) As a veritable Copernican revolution, the theory of evolution shattered the vision of an eternity of the “human soul”, of a quasi-divine essence. No doubt Aristotle had already sensed this by asserting that man is “a political animal” (zoôn politikon). (9) But, emphasizes Pannekoek, before existing as a social being, “…humans are also animals. Humans have developed from animals, and the laws that apply to the animal world cannot suddenly lose their validity for humans.” (10)

But Pannekoek vigorously rejected any claim to make Darwin’s doctrine THE BIOLOGICAL BASIS of class struggle. While showing that “Marxism and Darwinism formed a unity”, in terms of materialism, he stressed their difference in nature, if not their incompatibility in terms of their praxis:

“Darwinism and Marxism are two different theories, one for the animal world and the other for society. They complement each other in the sense that the animal world evolves into humans according to the Darwinian principle and that for humans, from the moment that they rise up out of the animal kingdom, Marxism expresses the law of further development. () Marxism and Darwinism should remain in their own domains; they are independent of each other and there is no direct connection between them.” (11)

If Darwin’s merit was to have discovered “the mechanism of animal development”, Marx’s was to have demonstrated that human development was not a simple “mechanism”, but the product of a history “in human society”, where tools and language have multiplied the cognitive possibilities of the human species, and thus its capacity to transform the natural and living world.

Taking up the well-known definition given by Arthur Schopenhauer of a hybrid being, situated beyond the animal, (12) a metaphysical animal, Pannekoek “liberated” man from his animal ferocity by endowing him with a dual essence, both rational and moral, even if the ‘rational’ could often be totally ‘immoral’:

Man is not a beast. As a free, moral being who sets himself a higher goal, he must eliminate the unrestrained working of this natural law. He can mitigate the struggle and substitute a rational, moral world order for that of the animal.” (13)

To support this assertion, Pannekoek relied on Darwin’s major work, The Descent of Man, (14) but also on Kant, without, by the way, mentioning his name. Indeed, Darwin claimed that his theory, which applied to the natural animal world as well as to the human social world, demonstrated the existence of a solidarity-based moral system in man, which was instinctive or innate, and based on loyalty and obedience to a higher authority:

“[Moral sense] is the most noble of all the attributes of man, leading him without a moment’s hesitation to risk his life for that of a fellow-creature (…).“As man is a social animal, it is almost certain that he would inherit a tendency to be faithful to his comrades, and obedient to the leader of his tribe; for these qualities are common to most social animals.” “The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts.” (15)

Darwin thus transformed the human being into an ideal moral being, endowed with “love and sympathy”, feelings that are also widely shared by the most sociable animals. Better still, Darwin made this astonishing Kantian proclamation: [Man] might then declare – not that any barbarian or uncultivated man could thus think – I am the supreme judge of my own conduct, and in the words of Kant, I will not in my own person violate the dignity of humanity.” (16)

This very humanist proclamation for a time when there was a ruthless race for profit was also accompanied by a rehabilitation of the “savages” or “barbarians”. Darwin noted that “all civilized nations are descended from barbarian peoples”. Moreover, before this thesis triumphed at the end of the 20th Century, he stated that it was “probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.” (17) In an isolated quote, Darwin even spoke out against racist ideology, talking about the so-called races of man, which in fact come from a single primitive stock”. (18)

It is thus a vision totally opposed to that of Ernst Haeckel, who defends a racist and polygenist classification in his “taxonomic table of the twelve species and thirty-six human races”. Haeckel, openly pangermanist, in this way justifies the “total extinction” of human groups, such as the Hottentots: “No people with frizzy hair has had a real history”. (19) But it is true that Darwin, in an apparently “neutral” tone, notes that the “civilized races” will eventually triumph over the inferior savage races”, after a process of extermination: At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” (20)

This Darwinian compassion for the weakest, in an era of barbaric ascension of Capitalism, has been transformed by certain Darwinians into a ‘moral of the heart’, rehabilitating the ‘underprivileged’. (21) Without taking into account the genocidal era that colonialism and imperialism initiated in the second half of the 19th Century, culminating in the 20th Century, learned doctrines elaborate an eschatology of triumphant moral virtue: “Within humanity, (one observes) the emergence and the tendential victory of altruistic and solidarity-based behaviors against the previous law of competition.” (22)

This is keeping silent about the fact that the “tendential victory” of altruism and solidarity, manifest in revolutionary periods (Paris Commune, Russian Revolution), corresponds in fact to the establishment of CAPITALIST PHILANTHROPY, where it is a question of preventing the “poor”, victims of their “bad instincts” from overthrowing the dominant order to establish a radically different order based on the management of common goods. In his time, Marx – against Proudhon – had emphasized that the bourgeois class had advocated a humanitarian and philanthropic policy, to avoid any revolutionary catastrophe, whose stake was the victory of the emerging class over the capitalist class. The humanitarian and philanthropic policy is not very far from that advocated by the humanist Darwinians (and not by the totally libertarian social Darwinists):

“(The school of humanitarianism) seeks, by way of easing its conscience, to palliate even if slightly the real contrasts; it sincerely deplores the distress of the proletariat, the unbridled competition of the bourgeois among themselves; it counsels the workers to be sober, to work hard and to have few children; (…) The philanthropic school is the humanitarian school carried to perfection. It denies the necessity of antagonism; it wants to turn all men into bourgeois; it wants to realize theory in so far as it is distinguished from practice and contains no antagonism (…) The philanthropists, then, want to retain the categories which express bourgeois relations, without the antagonism which constitutes them and is inseparable from them. They think they are seriously fighting bourgeois practice, and they are more bourgeois than the others. (23)

In fact this Darwinian compassion, which can be described as “humanitarian” or “philanthropic”, quickly found its limits with the brutal ideology of the imperialist nation. whose slogan was: “Exterminate all these brutes!”, (24) It is Darwin himself, and not just his Darwinist epigones, who allows himself to be carried away by an exaltation of British colonial imperialism, which would be the example of civilizing virtue: “The remarkable success of the English as colonists, compared to other European nations, has been ascribed to their «daring and persistent energy»; a result which is well illustrated by comparing the progress of the Canadians of English and French extraction; but who can say how the English gained their energy?” (25)

Laudably citing the views of William Rathbone Greg (1809-1881) and Francis Galton (1822-1911) on the Irish Catholics, Darwin takes up racist prejudices, not hesitating to speak of an “inferior race”:

The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits: the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot (…) passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him. (…) In the eternal ‘struggle for existence’ it would be the inferior and LESS favoured race that had prevailed – and prevailed by virtue not of its good qualities but of its faults.” (26)

The Darwinian ‘morality of the heart’ was written on a Map of Tenderness, where the privileged classes, necessarily the ‘most intelligent’, were placed at the center of a national “virtuous circle”, where the “excellence” of gentlemen always triumphed:

(…) the more intelligent members within the same community will succeed better in the long run than the inferior, and leave a more numerous progeny [sic], and this is a form of natural selection. The more efficient causes of progress seem to consist of a good education during youth whilst the brain is impressible, and of a high standard of excellence, inculcated by the ablest and best men [sic], embodied in the laws, customs and traditions of the nation, and enforced by public opinion.” (27)

Note that Pannekoek, who has carefully read Darwin’s book The Descent of Man and adopted his doctrine of “social instincts”, (28) does not mention Darwin’s prejudices about the Irish and the “inferior” or “savage” races – who were to disappear from the face of the earth (29) – neither his zealous adherence to the ideology of British “gentlemen” (“the most distinguished”).

For Pannekoek, it is first of all a question of opposing a more humane Darwinian doctrine to the assumed savagery of social Darwinism and of making them in some way impervious to each other.

At this point in his analysis, Pannekoek seems to return – via this doctrine of natural “social instincts”, which here is more a matter of phenomenological and empirical analysis than of irrefutable scientific demonstration (30) – to a Kantian framework inherited from the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Pannekoek proclaims: Alle Menschen sind Brüder” (“All men are brothers”). (31) He believes that cosmopolitan and collective feeling, even in the making, is universal, even “eternal”, all the more so as social feelings, in other words class feelings, are growing:

“If we look to our own time, all of humanity is increasingly forming an economic unit, albeit a very loose one; accordingly lives in, albeit mostly only an abstract feeling of global citizenship that relates to all civilized peoples. (…) The feeling of nationality is stronger, especially among the bourgeoisie, because the nations form the solid, opposing associations of the bourgeoisie. Social feelings are strongest in relation to members of the same class because the classes are the most essential social units within which people’s most important interests are the same. (…) while individual members of a group or a tribe can die, the group or tribe as a whole is, so to speak, immortal.” (32)

This word of ‘immortality’ is certainly exaggerated in a reasoning that lays claim to the historical materialism of Marx and Engels.

Next paragraph: b) A dialectical materialism that is but little historical?

→ Page 3 (link at the bottom of this page)



1 Darwinisme en Marxisme door Anton Pannekoek. Edition: Brochurehandel S.D.P. , Amsterdam, 1909 (Socialistische bibliotheek, no. 1); 62 pages.

2 Marxismus und Darwinismus. Ein Vortrag von Ant. Pannekoek, Verlag der Buchdruckerei AG, Leipzig, 1909 and 1914 (2nd edition, slightly improved). [Note that the substantives in the Dutch language title have been reversed in other languages, starting with the German edition.]

3 Marxism and Darwinism, Charles H. Kerr, Chicago. Translation by Nathan Weiser, 1912 ( [A recent English translation of the original in Dutch language has been provided by Ed Walker, 2020. Both English versions are available online at the Antonie Pannekoek Archives. The quotations from Pannekoek’s work are taken from this new translation.]

4 Марксізм і Дарвінізм, translated from American Winnipeg (Manitoba), Ukrainian Labor News, 1920.

5 馬克思主義和逹爾文主義 Makesi zhu yi he Da’erwen zhu yi [Marxism and Darwinism], 派納柯克著 ; 施存統譯. 施存統. ; Anton Pannekoek; Cuntong Shi 商務印書館, Shanghai: Shang wu yin shu guan, Minguo 13 (1924).

6 It is the thesis of Lilian Truchon who opposes the “good” Pannekoek of 1909, still “revolutionary” (sic), to the “very bad” Pannekoek of 1938 who dared to define the USSR, Stalinist “socialist homeland”, so dear to Editions Delga, as state capitalist.

7 The edition introduced here is the first translation in French of a German edition authored by Pannekoek, more precisely of the 2nd edition (1914).

8 Conclusion of Ch. 2: Marxism.

9 “The city is one of the natural things, and man is by nature a political animal, and he who is without a city – naturally and not by chance of circumstances – is either a degraded being or a superhuman being” (Politika, I, 2).

10 Pannekoek 1914, Ch. 6: Natural Principle and Social Theory.

11 Ibid. Ch. 6 and Ch. 9; our emphasis.

12 Pannekoek does not quote any specific work by Schopenhauer. He probably refers to the philosopher’s famous proclamation: “Man is a metaphysical animal.” (ein metaphysisches Tier) (Le Monde comme volonté et comme représentation, PUF, Paris, 1966, p. 851).

13 “Der Mensch ist keine Bestie. Als freies, sittliches Wesen, das sich höhere Ziele setzt, muss er das zügellose Walten dieses Naturgesetzes aufheben. Er kann den Kampf mildern und eine vernünftige, moralische Weltordnung an die Stelle der tierischen setzen.” (Ch. 5: Darwinism against Socialism). The accentuation in bold is ours. Pannekoek denies here that man is also a predator (Bestie, beast of prey).

14 Full title: Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London, John Murray, 1871; 2nd edition 1874). Quotations are taken from the 1874 edition as published by the Gutenberg project.

15 Darwin, ibid., Ch. IV: Comparison of the mental powers of man and the lower animals (Continued); Ch. V: On the development of the intellectual and moral faculties during primeval and civilised times. (The accentuation in bold is ours.)

16 Darwin, ibid., Ch. IV – § Man a Social Animal. The applicable quote of Kant is as follows: “So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” (Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, transl. Mary Gregor (Cambridge, 1996), p. 429.

17 Darwin, ibid., 
Ch. VI: On the Affinities and Genealogy of Man. § On the Birthplace and Antiquity of Man.

18 Darwin, ibid., Ch. VII: On the Races of Man.

19 Haeckel, Histoire de la création des êtres organisés d’après les lois naturelles, 1922, p. 518-519. The first edition (1868) appeared before The Descent of Man (1871).

20 Darwin, ibid., Ch. VI – § On the Birthplace and Antiquity of Man.

21 Like Patrick Tort, co-editor (with a small team from the ICC) of a French translation from the Dutch ‘Darwinisme en Marxisme’, who ventures to write that Darwinian ‘morality’ is a “morality of rehabilitation of the weak and aid to the underprivileged.” (op. cit., p. 19).

22 Patrick Tort, Dictionnaire du darwinisme et de l’évolution, PUF, 1996, volume II, article “Instincts sociaux”. Our emphasis. The same author affirms that compassion, which he calls “sympathy” is naturally “internationalist”, abolishing “nations and races”: “… an artificial barrier cannot prevent (feelings of sympathy) from extending to all men of all nations and races. (op. cit., volume III, article “Sympathy”). An all-angelical or evangelical conception that disregards the existence of a ferocious capitalist system which elevates hatred of the other, the competitor, the enemy, the economically and/or “racially” inferior to the rank of sublime virtue.

24 Exterminate All the Brutes: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide, New Press, 2007.

25 Darwin, op. cit. Ch. V § Natural Selection as Affecting Civilised Nations.

26 Darwin, ibid., Ch. V§ Natural Selection as Affecting Civilised Nations.

27 Darwin, ibid., Ch. V – idem, concluding section.

28 Pannekoek 1914: “These instincts will have developed in the first place out of habit and necessity. Then they are gradually strengthened by the struggle for existence.” (Ch. 7: Social Coexistence)

29 See the passage on Haeckel and Darwin before.

30 Pannekoek defines these social instincts as a force that keeps the animals together and thus allows “the survival of the group”. In men, it implies “self-sacrifice, bravery, discipline, loyalty and rigour”, qualities that are more the result of the “zôon politikon” of the City of Aristotle than the “zôon” of the naturalist.

31 Op. cit., Ch. 7: Social Coexistence. A selection of Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts, published in Geneva by UNESCO in 1958, is entitled: “All men are brothers”. [Complete translation of the fragment in Pannekoek: “At the end of antiquity we see all known mankind around the Mediterranean at that time organized into a single unit, the Roman Empire. And this is also the time when the doctrine arises that extends moral feelings to all of humanity and sets out the principle that all men are brothers.”]

32 Pannekoek 1914, ibid., Ch. 7: Social Coexistence and Ch. 8: Tools, Thought and Language. [Complete translation of the last sentence, which is cited from Ch. 8: “Only in a society can the experiences and knowledge of the previous generations be preserved, reproduce and thereby increase steadily; because while individual members of a group or a tribe can die, the group or tribe as a whole is, so to speak, immortal.”]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s