Charles Darwin and Karl Marx gained and held attention because they approached topics that had been in the domain of philosophy as scientists and historians. Both men were dedicated to empiricism and based their theories on only those things that could be confirmed. Both were utilitarians in the sense of the greatest good for the greatest number. Both took up the topic of evolution; Darwin in the organic realm and Marx in the social. Where Darwin attempts to explain the process of adaptation of biological life, Marx examines the conditions of man and his history of attempts to adapt society to the ever-changing conditions of the means of production. These theories are very similar when looking at evolution as a continuing series of adaptations to changing conditions and while comparisons can be valuable, the topics of investigation differ too much to be translated directly.
Neither of these men saw the current state of affairs as the culmination of evolution, but as one more step of progressive adaptations to changing conditions. For Darwin, the human race is not the end product of evolution but merely the current state of nature. For Marx, the current state of capitalism was merely another step in the evolution of society. Darwin explains that in the evolution of man and animals in their struggle for existence nothing is more important than adaptation to the means of survival, while Marx examines the need for society to adapt to the means of production. However, Darwin was looking at a geologic time frame and the continuation of species in the natural world, while Marx was looking at the speed with which society and the means of survival were changing and man’s need to adapt quickly to these changes. When Darwin examined social animals he found it was not necessarily the fittest of the species that survived, but that the survival of the group depended on cooperation. Marx agreed. For Marx the path to the greatest security and happiness for all depended on man’s respect for and cooperation with others within society. In this way it is not just the strongest individuals who survive but also the entire social group.
Political thinkers have used Darwin to both support and discredit Marx. Capitalists interpreted this “survival of the fittest” as survival of the wealthy and saw the poor as unfit for society and a pollutant to the genetics of mankind. The wealthy were deemed the fittest. The theory of evolution is therefore thought to be the best antidote to the socialist demand of making all equal. But Darwin also found that animals which live socially in conditions of plentiful resources no longer wage a struggle against each other, the weak enjoy the same advantages as the strong. This combining of powers into one unit gives the group more power than any one individual can. If everyone places the interest of the entire group above his own; he will act instinctively for the good of the group and thereby attempt to create the greatest amount of happiness and security for the group. This is the foundation of Marxism.
When mankind freed itself from the animal world, the development and evolution of tools and productive methods became the means of survival. The machine that is more improved outstrips and insures the extinction of the less efficient tools. This is the real application of Darwin’s theories to human society. Therefore the struggle becomes a race of capital; those with the most capital are better equipped for adapting more efficient tools than those with less or no capital. Thus the accumulation of capital becomes the role of man and is directly contrary to the survival of the species and certainly does not increase the amount of good for most people.
So while Darwin looked at survival of the species in nature which early man had little control over, Marx was looking at a society that was the invention of man and therefore could be readily adapted by man for the survival of all. Marx said “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles” (3) and Darwin seemed to agree when he said “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” (2) Any comparison of nature and the inventions of society will be faulty at best and should only be used metaphorically when using one to describe the other.
(1) Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species – 1859
(2) Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle – 1845
(3) Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto – 1888