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New Left Review I/82, November-December 1973

Valentino Gerratana

Marx and Darwin

In the middle of the 19th century, no one could at the time have discerned any relationship between Marx and Darwin, when there appeared almost simultaneously, a few months apart, two works which were in fact to become fundamental for all modern culture: Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (June 1859) by Karl Marx and On the Origin of Species (November 1859) by Charles Darwin. In particular, Marx’s work at first found virtually no response, whereas Darwin’s work achieved an overwhelming success, which started on the very day the Origin of Species appeared in the bookshops (as is known, the first edition sold out within 24 hours), and lasted for the remainder of the century. Even in the following decades, when Marx’s reputation broke through the barriers of isolation within which socialist thought had been confined after 1848, and finally came into wider public circulation, it was Darwin, not Marx, who dominated the cultural scene and influenced every sector of it. Admittedly, the depth of this influence was not equal to its extent. Darwinism was essentially a diffuse cultural atmosphere that imbued the most diverse, and even opposite, tendencies with its hues. Thus, for example, both socialists and anti-socialists, democrats and reactionaries, in those years called themselves Darwinian, and disputed at length who was more legitimately so. Not only the majority of natural scientists, but also philosophers and literati, sociologists and artists, drew sustenance from his doctrine and received direct or indirect inspiration from it. It will suffice here to cite the testimony of a great Italian man of letters, brought up in a completely different intellectual tradition, but sensitive to the new ferments in the culture of his time: ‘There are men who may never have heard of the books or even the name of Darwin, but despite themselves live within the atmosphere created by him and feel its influences,’ wrote the critic Francesco De Sanctis in a lecture in the last year of his life, entitled Darwinism in Art. [1] F. De Sanctis, Saggi Critici, Vol. III, Bari 1953, pp. 355–67.

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