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

Marx, at that period absorbed with other work and preoccupations, had not had the chance to read The Origin of Species right away, but when about a year later he had occasion for the first time to appraise Darwin’s work, his verdict did not differ from that of Engels, except in so far as it was expressed in a more laconic but even more categorical fashion: ‘However grossly unfolded in the English manner’—wrote Marx to his friend on 19 December 1860—‘this is the book which contains the natural-historical foundation [die naturhistorische Grundlage] of our outlook.’ footnote7 Shortly afterwards, in a letter to Lassalle on 16 January 1861, Marx repeated the same judgment virtually verbatim, expressly reiterating the anti-teleological motif already emphasized by Engels: ‘Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a natural-scientific basis for the class struggle in history [als naturwissenschaftliche Unterlage des geschichtlichen Klassenkampfes]. One has to put up with the gross English mode of development, of course. Despite all deficiencies, not only is the death-blow dealt here for the first time to “teleology” in the natural sciences, but its rational meaning is empirically explained.’ footnote8

These assessments may, however, be easily misunderstood if they are not situated within the general framework of the theoretical positions at which Marx and Engels had by then arrived. If the whole way in which the materialist conception of history gradually took shape is not borne in mind, it might seem that it was only with The Origin of Species that historical materialism acquired a basis that it formerly lacked; indeed that it was only now that the problem of the relationship between human history and natural history, and thus between science of society and science of nature, was posed for Marxism. In fact, of course, it is plain that Marx and Engels did not wait for Darwin in order to postulate a historical and anti-teleological development of nature in close relation with their materialist conception of history. The very idea of the evolution of animal species—which, as is well known, did not originate with Darwin footnote9 —was anything but extraneous to their range of interests, even before 1859. There is a significant hint in this respect in the 1857 draft introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Describing bourgeois society as a superior form of social organization compared with the historical formations which preceded it—‘out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up’—Marx resorted precisely to an analogy with the evolution of animal species: the bourgeois economy, as the highest phase of development of an anterior historical process, furnishes the key for understanding the economy of past societies, just as ‘human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape’. footnote10 On the other hand, he adds immediately, continuing the analogy, ‘the intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species can only be understood after the higher development is already known.’ In other words, Marx was already not only taking for granted the principle of the historical evolution of animal species and of nature in general, which found little favour in the science of the time, but also tending to exclude from that evolution any finalist assumption. Admittedly, it could be said that for a consistently anti-teleological conception of nature there cannot be anything in a lower species which intimates as such something higher, in the sense (for example) of that internal tendency towards perfection postulated by Lamarck. Nothing of the kind, however, can be found in Marx’s statement, despite the finalistic overtones of the metaphor he employed; on the contrary, his stress that a higher development of a less evolved antecedent form can only be understood a posteriori, implicitly denies any preordained design in nature, any internal rationality of the real which precedes the material process of its external formation.