Despite the relative success of the late Victorian Darwinian Liberals it is arguable that Darwin’s biological ideas were too open-ended, matter of fact, rapidly outdated, and ambiguous in how they applied to humanity to be truly applicable to any type of politics. George Bernard Shaw summarised evolution as being borrowed by anyone “who had an axe to grind” in the late Victorian era. While this may appear to be part of his flippant repertoire, there is a lot of truth contained in that statement. It may be that Darwin and Marx were entirely right to be cautious.
The vast majority of “Darwinian” political explanations, values systems, and theories seem to have been built on false premises. As Levine has also showed, Darwinism could be twisted and bent into a complex defence of most popular political systems and movements. First hand awareness of this problem can be found. In his meticulous 1891 thesis of how Darwin had affected the defence of English laissez-faire over forty years, David Ritchie noted the tendency for every conceivable opinion to claim that Darwin (or the similarly respected Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) and evolutionary theory had anticipated their favoured model of political economy.
In the very worst cases such as Aveling, Darwin may have been superficially attached to arguments because of his impeccable reputation in England during the last two decades of his life. Tellingly, Engels admitted in private correspondence with Peter Lavrov in 1875 that although theoretically objective, economic and societal truth and natural truth were to be seen as nonmutual in Marxist socialism. Such things were held as largely self-justifying suppositions of the reactionary “bourgeois”, according to Engels.
Arguments concerning evolution were therefore potential revolutionary tools to be used, altered, and discarded at will for the Marxist socialist. Conferability as a fact was not considered particularly important, more the fight itself over it. Of course, this scientific insincerity was not universally held. Kropotkin seemed to honestly believe in his own claims to Darwinism validating socialism and had good reason at the time to, as Stephen Jay Gould later showed. But as Jean Gayon once stated, the elements of pathos that can certainly be found in nature are not to ever be confused with complex human ideas of moral charity or collective help.
Erroneously claiming a “natural” basis for a viewpoint with no real backing had been common prior to the Darwin amongst political pundits. It remained common long afterwards and it remains relatively common today. Even prominent figures of the period with serious scientific and sociological credentials were not immune to promoting their own political biases. The irony of this is illustrated well by Ernst Haeckel. Having compared the compatibility of Darwinism and German Socialism to “fire and water” in 1878, he went on to offer biased hierarchical, racialist interpretations of human evolution and interaction in the vein of Spencer.
These would later be thoroughly discredited through further research and their misuse in Fascist Germany as a justification for discrimination. His biological work was also successfully used in allegory by German socialists despite Haeckel expressing hatred of socialism in Freedom in Science and Teaching (1879), perhaps showing that interpreting biology itself was a subjective matter. Darwin also faced the dual challenges of declining relevance and stiff competition from other evolutionary theorists as a source of socialist authority and allegory as time went on.
During the last decade of the century, neo-Lamarckian ideas of conferred traits and learnt behaviours once again came to prominence. Additional challenges to the general Darwinian world-view such as the discovery of sterile, yet beneficial worker insects that could not be the result of sexual selection necessitated new explanations that were not provided in Origin, making Darwinian authority carry less weight. Darwin died in 1882 and was subsequently unable to defend himself as he had done in the 1860s.
Most damningly, the explicitly “improving” direction of Lamarck’s theory of animals adopting traits through the education nature provided appealed better as an allegory to a broader range of factions optimistic about human progress. The otherwise unusually sympathetic Peter Singer noted that Engels held a self-serving view of animals “learning” useful traits conferred from nature, in line with his ideals of improvement through working class education. For example Kropotkin’s relentless faith in nature (by his own admission, writing in the romantic vein of Goethe) may have been based on a Lamarckian misreading of Darwin.
As Stephen Jay Gould argued species do not automatically need a sense of altruistic behaviour for mutual gain within a Darwinian model, although Kropotkin was certainly in the minority arguing this at the time. However, his evidence for anarchistic cooperation being both a superior trait and “natural” was, at best, selective. Correspondingly, Darwin’s theories were frequently mixed or confused with those of Lamarck amongst socialists as his scientific prestige and influence gradually faded.
Serious problems emerged concerning misinterpretation and the crux of Darwinian allegory was effectively lost in the political sphere, which can be as a smaller part of the infamous “Eclipse of Darwinism” demonstrated by Peter Bowler. His political use amongst the left would remain mostly obscure, at least until the rapid rise of challenges from the religious right in America after 1980 which led to the subsequent emergence of the “neoDarwinian” advocacy movement. It is also naive to assume that an appreciation of Darwin or evolution was present amongst all socialists, Marxist or otherwise.
Darwin simply did not interest some intellectuals. Biographer Nicholas Capaldi also notes that the most prominent liberal political philosopher of Darwin’s time, John Stewart Mill, chose to give little comment whatsoever on evolution. That his arguments for egalitarianism endured and helped to achieve several goals desired by socialists within Britain (such as greater suffrage and the female vote) may be key evidence that Victorian political theories were, in practice, often held as separate to arguments over purely scientific biology.
Individuals loosely affiliated with socialism such as the artist John Ruskin even argued against its cold theorisation as spoiling an unexplained, perfect sense of benevolent nature. This carefully nurtured hostility was used to further Ruskin’s reformative socialist ideas, in the vein of earlier romantic authors such as Goethe. Did Darwin influence European socialism? Undoubtedly. Darwin himself was not a socialist and his theories not inherently socialist, but a fictional versions of both that were eventually sprang into being.
Unsurprisingly, socialist claims to Darwinian validity were concentrated within the nations most receptive to Marx and Darwin, such as England, Germany, and Russia. Respect for Darwin was nevertheless present throughout Europe amongst socialists. Ferri was entirely right to assume a casual association between Marxist and evolutionary theory by 1900, although it was one amongst many. Darwin contributed to the socialist left mainly through prompting debate and encouraging alternate, materialistic perspectives on society that contradicted traditional assumptions.
Socialists advanced through exploring the implications of Darwinian thought, tiered evolutionary progress, and strategically targeting other appropriators of his theory. Was the wider socialist movement actually enhanced? The answer is also yes, with several major caveats as to the extent. The literary sphere of European socialism was undoubtedly strengthened through exploring and debating Darwin after Marx’s impact in the 1860s, as David Stack argues.
Darwinism additionally contributed to socialism through forming a foundation for advocating gender and class equality through interpretation, use in propaganda such as that produced by Annie Bessant, and as part of the wider tapestry of European speculative biological theory. If the long view is taken, Darwinist interpretations of natural advancement and equality are important cornerstones of meritocracy and greater social mobility. However, Darwin arguably made more of an impact on paper for socialism than he ever did in the actual running of socialist states or organisations.
Exceptions can be made in the cases of Kropotkin, egalitarian perspectives in the long view of European history, and the early work of the British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald. As David Stack showed, MacDonald built up an intricately researched, Darwin influenced socialist model of how British society ought to be run as a young man from socialist literature. Although the results of implementing this model would have been interesting, he was forced to all but abandon it as prime minister for Labour in the 1920s due to Realpolitik.
As seen in the hesitancy of Mill and Marx, political economy remained a primarily philosophical arena in which evolutionary science was an optional (if effective) weapon. The finer points of biological science became almost secondary to the political weaponisation of Darwinian authority. This process has arguably continued into the present. The later conflation and recombination of Darwin with Lamarck also attests to it being one highly sensitive to following scientific fashion, with commentators vaunting who was considered supreme amongst biologists at that moment as a source of authority.
Most examples of socialist use are subsequently of a decidedly interpretive spin. Conversely, was Marxist socialism ever seriously challenged by Darwinism? Spencer and the German anti-socialists did achieve far more in terms of demonstrable impact. Origin was effectively fixed to its expressed purpose and too grounded in the ideas of natural competition, Malthus, and fettered by the mainstream liberal conventions of its time. That is not to say that Haeckel or Spencer “won”. It is a truism that Darwin found a broader, more receptive audience amongst ightist liberalism and advocates of competition during the period. But this was probably more of a reflection of Herbert Spencer’s chronically cited early, unfounded speculation and the indomitable position of classic liberalism itself in Victorian political economy.
Liberals simply had a better window of opportunity for social allegory through living in highly competitive societies rather than any better claim to validity or natural affinity. Political biases and frameworks that do not focus on biology lone have tended to clash rather badly with Darwinism. Post-1859 European socialism is not exempt. In terms of Darwinism lending any scientific validity to socialism, at least, Darwin himself was (mostly) right. But in socialist argument, Darwin and Darwinism became invaluable through metaphor, abstraction, and moral allegory. The idea of Darwin as a prophet of “evolutionary”, tiered social progress standing against oppressors was created. It has remained present in Western politics ever since.