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. footnote1

This lecture starts with an apology for Darwin, but then develops into a manifesto for a literary poetics that has at bottom only a fortuitous connection with the theory of the scientist of Down House. It is not without significance, however, that De Sanctis had read Darwin with enthusiasm (‘those were fine days of my life that I spent reading the works of Charles Darwin’), whereas it does not appear that he ever read a page of Marx or was struck by him in any way. On the other hand, there is one element in this apology by De Sanctis for Darwin which is of particular interest to us here: the passage in which he presents the limitation of the scientist as one of his titles to glory: ‘the scientist’s pride did not prevent him, in that marvellous chain of beings he conceived, from bowing before the Supreme, the Unknowable’. In reality this limitation was not so much Darwin’s—he merely submitted ultimately and reluctantly, after many vacillations, to the anti-scientific suggestion of an unknowable—as that of later Darwinism, which in keeping with all positivist culture of the age ended up by making gnoseological agnosticism into a new philosophical dogma. This indeed was to be one of its weakest links, which was precisely breached towards the turn of the century by the irruption of a new wave of spiritualism, to which Darwinism proper was gradually to yield. Darwinism thus eventually faded away as a general cultural atmosphere, while an aberrant outgrowth from it, Social Darwinism, survived and even acquired new virulence. In this situation the whole problem of the developmental relationship between Marxism and Darwinism, as it had been posed and discussed in the last decades of the 19th century, finally came to seem stale and superseded. We shall consider whether and to what extent this epilogue was justified, once we have examined the more specific, and necessarily prior, question of the historical relations between Marx and Darwin.

De Sanctis’s lecture on Darwinism and Art was given in Rome on 11 March 1883. A few days later in London, on 17 March, in his speech at the graveside of Marx, in the presence of a few intimate friends (including two natural scientists, the chemist Schorlemmer and the Darwinian biologist Ray Lankester), Engels publicly linked for the first time the name of his great dead friend with that of Darwin: ‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.’ footnote2 This verdict of Engels on the fundamental parallelism between Marx and Darwin was later taken up again and again, footnote3 and eventually became a commonplace of Marxist literature.

But the problem cannot be exhausted in these terms; even if those who have tried to advance beyond them have typically run the risk of becoming entangled in the most extreme confusions. footnote4 It remains a fact, however, that before the idea of any parallelism arose, Marx and Engels were themselves preoccupied with another question: that of establishing the significance, importance and limits of Darwin’s work for their own conception of the world. It is therefore appropriate to begin by considering the judgments on Darwin and Darwinism expressed directly by the founders of scientific socialism.

The first pronouncement on Darwin came from Engels, in a letter to Marx of 12 December 1859. He had in his hands, still fresh from the press, one of the 1,250 copies of the first edition of The Origin of Species (which had been published on 24 November of that year). For some time Engels had already been engaged in studying with some assiduity the natural sciences, in which he had discovered various elements which seemed to confirm a line of thought which he had hitherto in certain respects been able to pursue only speculatively. footnote5 It is therefore not surprising that a reading of The Origin of Species delighted him, not because of the novelty of its conclusions—for which he was in a sense prepared—but on the contrary because they offered a new confirmation and a scientific demonstration of certain general principles which until that time had not enjoyed much credit, but which he, along with Marx, had never doubted. ‘The Darwin, which I am just reading’, he wrote to Marx, ‘is really stupendous. Teleology in one respect had still not been finished off hitherto: it is now. Moreover, there has never yet been such a magnificent attempt made to demonstrate historical development in nature, or at least not so happily. Of course, you have to pass over the crude English method [die plumpe englische Methode].’ footnote6