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August Bebel 1899

The Darwinian Theory and Socialism

Source: Social Democrat Vol. III No. 4, April 15, 1899, p.118-121, from Die Neue Zeit;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Under the above title Ludwig Woltmann has lately published a book wherein he
examined the relations which the two great influential scientific streams of the present day
the teaching of Darwin in the sphere of natural philosophy, and the teaching of Marx in
the domain of economic science have one to another.

As is well known, a lively combat is being carried on by the great majority of the
representatives of Darwinism in both its old and new forms, on the one hand, and by the
exponents of scientific Socialism on the other, over the question-in how far Darwinism and
Socialism are in accord, and especially whether Darwinism stands in opposition to the
theories of Socialism as they affect social life; and whether those theories are assisted or
retarded by the knowledge of Darwinism.

All the well-known exponents of Darwinism argue not only that Darwinism is not
favourable to Socialism, but that the two theories are directly antagonistic to each other.
And the most prominent exponent of Darwinism in Germany, Ernst Haeckel, writes:
Darwinism the theory of selection is, in the eyes of an unprejudiced critic, an
aristocratic principle, consisting in the survival of the fittest.

Only a very small section of the exponents of Darwinism represent another view of the
case. They share more or less the views of Socialists, that Darwinism is in accord with
Socialism in reference to the development of human society, only it cannot be applied to
human evolution in the rough mechanical manner common among the exponents of

In the book under review, Woltmann subjects the two Darwinian schools, as well as the
various schools of economy and philosophy, to an inquiry and examination, in as far as
their views appear to have any significance to the question, the conclusion to which he
arrives being that Darwinism and Socialism are not mutually antagonistic, and that the
Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence will find its
expression in the Socialist State so far as humanity is concerned in the establishment
of unity between man and nature.

Woltmann has placed the arguments and material, for and against, in such a manner
that the exponents of Darwinism, who are usually ignorant of social science, cannot fail to
comprehend the actual position of the question. Whether his examination will make much
impression on his Darwinian opponents remains, of course, to be seen.

In their ignorance and neglect of the study of social problems, the present day
representatives of Darwinism follow, almost without exception, the example of their lord
and master. But the colossal work which Darwin accomplished offers an. excuse for him
which, however, cannot be extended to his followers. Moreover, the social movement and
social problems have, since Darwins death, attained an importance and extent which no
one in his time could have conceived possible, and, on the part of the Socialists, the
question of the significance which Darwinism has for social evolution has been so
repeatedly discussed that the exponents of Darwinism have ex cathedra every reason to
concern themselves a little with political economy.

The reader is reminded of Darwins ignorance of economic phenomena by the

reproduction of the letter sent by Darwin to Marx wherein he thanks the latter for the gift of
his book, Das Kapital, and among other things says: I heartily wish that I possessed a
greater knowledge of the deep and important subject of economic questions which would
make me a more worthy recipient of your gift.

Darwin here admits in plain language his ignorance of economic questions, but he
never allowed himself to pass judgment upon Socialism. It is quite otherwise with his
successors, especially with Ernst Haeckel, who became enlightened on the antagonism
between Darwinism and Socialism before he had ever read a socialistic writing. An
amusing instance of this is quoted by Woltmann in a note to the book. He says that when
in the spring of 1894 he as a young student visited Haeckel in order to consult him upon
some question bearing upon Darwinism and Socialism, he discovered that Haeckel had
no real conception of the economic and historic doctrines of Socialism, and up to the
summer of 1893 had only read my book, Die Frau und Der Sozialismus, and this
probably but little, as I had sharply attacked him in it. That he stands no better than other
representatives of Darwinism is manifold.

If, as Woltmann says, Socialism must be brought into closer relationship with the
teaching of natural evolution than has hitherto been the case, the fault of this cannot be
laid against the Socialists, who have not failed to understand it, but is due to the
exponents of Darwinism, for whom, as the author amply proves, the warning is very

Woltmann further on says: In order to comprehend the progress in human culture,

considerations, other than economic, must be taken into account, and these can be
furnished by physiology and general biology, e.g., the comprehension of the laws of
differentiation, adaptation, and transmission, and at least a special study is necessary to
find: whether natural selection has exerted its influence in the individual and class
struggle, why it has been inoperative, and what may have taken its place. These
questions have not been considered by Marx and Engels. This, however, is not quite so;
for in the Anti-Dhring Engels has fully discussed the connection between the results of
natural philosophy and the laws of the evolution of society, and Woltmann himself devotes
a large space in his book to this work which gives an answer to his statement. The
position according to Engels is that the sphere of labour becomes within society an arena
of combat of ever-increasing dimensions: It is the Darwinian struggle for individual
existence in which nature, with potential wrath, envelopes society. The natural standpoint
of the animal appears as the summit of human society.

In human society the individual holds a dual position which no other creature, ever so
highly developed, can possess. Man is, at once an individual and a social being. As the
latter, he is again a member of a class with separate and special interests, which are
more or less opposed to the interests of other classes, and influence the situation and
development of separate persons in a higher degree than their personal nature. This
distinguishes man from the other animals and makes it impossible to consider him in his
evolution from the same point of view as them.

The work of Woltmann brings out another thought. Independent of Darwinism, one can
comprehend the evolutionary laws of society in their various degrees of development, but
the Darwinian, as such, can never understand the evolutionary laws of human society, if
he does not understand scientific Socialism, and with it its basis historic materialism.
Without this one remains in the rough, purely mechanical conception of Darwinism, which
still dominates the majority of the exponents of Darwins theories. Woltmann is of opinion
that the logical help which modern Socialism has received from Hegelian philosophy is not
sufficient, and that Socialism would obtain greater scientific power if it returned, so far as
its abstract propositions are concerned, to the philosophy of Kant.

That the teachings and conceptions of Marx and Engels are not of a soli me
tangere order, that they are not dogmas laid down unchangeable for all time, is admitted
on all sides. Social developments, whose single phases the most clear and exact prophet
could not foretell, may affect modifications in them, but they will still remain the firm-basis
upon which we shall strive, in which respect they are in a position analogous to the
teaching of Darwin.

Woltmann has made a systematic investigation of the Socialistic and Darwinian ideal
worlds from the standpoint of the history of social development and social politics, and he
has done this in a diligent and praiseworthy manner. In the course of his inquiry he comes
upon the long-disputed question of the transmission of acquired character in which the
great majority of Darwinians follow Haeckel, L. Buchner, and W. Haacke, whilst a minority
took the side of Weissmann. With regard to this discussion I have to make an explanation.
After Woltmann has briefly reviewed my conception of Darwinism in reference to human
society, which I have stated in Die Frau und der Sozialismus, he continues: Bebel may
be reproached (on the part of the Darwinians) that he does not understand Darwinism,
and puts falsely the claim of Socialism. Doubtless there are breaks in Bebels order of
ideas, for example, not to recognise that the previous history of the evolution of the
human species is drawn from the same laws as that of animals and plants, and he
argues further as if this thought was in reality mine. This is because he evidently has not
understood what it is that I have said in reference to the relation of Darwinism to the
evolution of human society .... But Woltmann goes further, and here our opinions sharply
differ. He says: But Bebel, and with him all the dogmatic supporters of historic
materialism, overlook the fact that man has not only a scientific reasoning, but is also a
moral and practical being, and that the reaction of moral consciousness on present
conditions engenders the idea of a higher form of society and will bring the realisation of

Most certainly man is a moral being; he has perceptions which we name moral. But
when these moral perceptions are brought into relationship with society we find that moral
views depend upon class interests. The influence which social morality produces is also of
a very materialistic nature, and therefore my estimate of the reaction of the moral
conscience on the conditions of the present as of the future is different to that of
Woltmann. The idea that moral consciousness, has hitherto caused the transformation of
the economic and political forms of human society will be disputed by us dogmatic
supporters of historic materialism until our opponents are in a position to give us another
and clearer basis of explanation for the phenomena in question. To us it appears that the
explanation of historical materialism is completely sufficient, and finally nothing more can
be asked of a method than that it does what one desires of it. Again, I have not said that
existing conditions are suitable for humanity, but that the classes injured by these
conditions have strived to make them suitable to their interests and necessities. This is
the difference which exists between man and the other animals.

Further on Woltmann again directs his attention to me when he says: We must

decidedly oppose Bebel when he infers (dealing with the existence of promiscuity in the
relations of men living in hordes) that polygamy and polyandry were universally practised.
If Woltmann had read the preface to the twenty-fifth edition of Die Frau, he would
probably have not made this remark, which appears to arise from a false moral wrath. In
that preface, dealing with Ziegler, I have written: In the twentieth chapter of Darwins
book, The Descent of Man, dealing with the secondary sex character of man, he says
that he had thought the existence of common marriage, and its preceding condition of
promiscuity, incredible. He had, however, found that all those who had most thoroughly
studied the subject were of the opinion that promiscuity was the original and general form
of sex connection throughout the whole earth, including sexual connection between
brothers and sisters ....

Farther than this, we have the very instructive legends of the ancients, from which it
appears that in primitive times sexual connection was common between parents and
children, and not simply between brothers and sisters. The legend of Lot, who committed
incest with his daughters without having incurred the wrath of the Bible, shows that this
was no unusual occurrence, although at that time the Jews had reached the intermediate
stage of barbarism. Other examples of incestuous connection have been cited in an early
number of Die Neue Zeit, by Paul Lafargue, e.g., the legend that Brahma was married to
his daughter Saravasth; the legend of Amon being the spouse of his mother, and the
similar connection between Uranos and his mother Ga. We need not wonder at the
irregularity of sexual commerce among the hordes, as the term horde itself conveys that

In the satisfaction of sexual passion the modern man often sinks lower than the
animals. I refer to the worst sexual excesses (the excesses of lust and unnatural
prostitution). In primitive times, however, man was an animal.
BEBEL, in Die Neue Zeit.