Darwin, Marx, and theories of evolution

In 1859, two ground-breaking works of science were published. One is Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. The other is less obvious, but no less important: Marx’s ‘Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’. While Darwin posited a theory of biological evolution by natural selection, Marx proposed a theory of social evolution by productive selection (as I term it). They are both effective explanations of the course of natural and social history, respectively: but they both missed important stuff out. In this post, I focus on Marx. But Darwin sheds light on how biology progresses in an analogous way to society.

Darwin’s theory of natural history was incomplete, so needed to be made more holistic. Similarly, Marx’s theory of social theory needs to encompass the whole, not just part, of our shared social reality. That’s why in this post I put forward a ‘realistic’ theory of historical materialism (Marx’s term for his theory of history), just as natural scientists have put forward a more ‘realistic’ theory of biological evolution. In future posts, I suggest some important contemporary implications of realistic historical materialism—including for today’s choice between ‘class war’ and ‘culture war’.

Meet Charles Darwin and Karl Marx

Charles Darwin and Karl Marx exchanged friendly letters on each other’s work. Marx especially admired Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, claiming to model his theory of social evolution on it. Darwin, on the other hand, was quite baffled by Marx’s dense argumentation, saying he was ‘not worthy’ of fully understanding Marx’s great but unapproachable masterpiece, ‘Das Kapital’.

Darwin’s theory is so widely accepted and taught that it scarcely needs explaining. For Darwin, biological evolution takes place not by design but by spontaneous variation in the biological characteristics of living organisms, where characteristics are ‘selected for’ according to their conduciveness to biological reproduction of the species (‘bio-reproductive success’). So, we have:

The original theory of natural historyNatural scarcity + natural variation —> Biological evolution by natural selection (from organisms’ bio-reproductive success)

Since Darwin, the theory of natural history has been updated somewhat. The discovery of the genetic code suggested the link between two sides of the above process. For Darwin, it was always a bit puzzling what allowed visible characteristics, or ‘phenotypes’, to vary. Could that have been a work of the gods? It turns out that underlying the visible characteristics are invisible, molecular codes known as DNA, with genes that can be arranged into different strands or ‘genotypes’ which map onto the visible phenotypes. Underlying phenotypic variation is the random mutations of genes—the mechanism of natural evolution, discovered using technology Darwin did not have. So, we have:

The modified theory of natural historyNatural scarcity + natural variation among organisms’ genotypes —> Biological evolution by natural selection (from organisms’ bio-reproductive success)

Marx’s theory is a more implicit one than Darwin’s—there are three paragraphs in the Preface to a Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy that formally spell out the theory, and scattered reflections in other writings like the German Ideology and Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts. G. A. Cohen dedicated a whole book to unravelling what Marx meant. Some of my description of Marx’s theory, then, is from my reading of Marx; some from Cohen; and some from my filling in the gaps. Here is a ‘steel man’ version of Marx’s argument; i.e., the strongest possible version of the argument that can be given.

For Marx, social evolution is like biological evolution in that it takes place via spontaneous adaptation to natural scarcity. Stuff is scarce; there is less stuff to go around than there are human appetites for it. So, humans compete with each other over who has what resources. But the competition, unlike Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’ of warring individuals, involves a social element. People compete with one another not just as as individuals but also as members of social structures. To adapt to scarcity, each social structure needs adequate technological development—otherwise, it gets out-competed by other structures. The surviving social structures are the most technologically competitive.

Thus, technological development arises over time to adapt to scarcity, which ‘selects for’ the most competitive characteristics of social structures. Marx calls technologies ‘forces of production’, and social structures ‘relations of production’, and the whole mode of power a ‘mode of production’, in line with Marx’s technological determinism. I call this process of scarcity ‘selecting for’ adaptive social characteristics ‘productive selection’. For Marx, classes—or wealth strata where the dominant economic class exploits the subordinate one—arise because they lend social structures greater adaptivity to natural scarcity. So, we have:

The original theory of social historyNatural scarcity + social variation = social evolution by productive selection (from structures’ techno-productive success)

Unlike Darwin, who did not know of the existence of DNA, Marx could easily see that technology was the variable that determined social structure. While bio-reproductive competitiveness selects for particular characteristics above others in organisms, techno-productive competitiveness selects for particular characteristics over others in social structures.

But Marx missed out something crucial: what are the relevant social structures? What are the ‘relations of production’? Here’s where things get sticky. It’s a stickiness we can only unstick by considering answers given by one predecessor and one successor to Marx: G.W.F. Hegel and Max Weber.

For philosopher Hegel, history involved not the development of productive forces but the development of the national spirit of states. Marx turned Hegel on his head by emphasising the material over the ideational. For Hegel, culture is fundamental. For Marx, technology is fundamental. It’s not too hard to see who won this debate. While culture provides us with meaning, technology provides us with the precondition for meaning: life itself. Without life, there can be no meaning. Without order, there can be no good order. Thus, the material is prior to the ideational; technology is prior to culture. But what comes in between? What, in other words, mediates between technology and culture? What is order constituted by?

For Marx, the answer’s clear: class. The ruling class of every mode of production owns the ‘means of production’, and is thus ultimately responsible for developing the forces of production to a level where, eventually, their class relations fetter their further development, and a revolution brings a new class to the ruling position in society. Feudalism ended when productive forces could be developed no further, and the bourgeoisie took the place of the nobility as the ruling class in society. But this begs the question: what determines who ‘owns’ the means of production? Where does this relation of ‘ownership’ come from?

The answer is clear: The state, which has a monopoly of legitimate coercion, lays down the laws of property ownership, and enforces these laws. The coercive power of the state was wielded, for instance, to dissolve the monasteries in the 1530s and 1540s in England, to expropriate the peasantry by allowing for the enclosure of common land (despite some legal restrictions on enclosure), and to establish the Bank of England in 1694 to provide a monetary basis for the rise of capitalism. The state is the fundamental conduit of social change. Without the state, class hierarchy itself cannot exist, as there is no means of enforcing inequality by preventing the subject class from overthrowing the ruling class at any time. Conversely, the state must precede class for any given class system to change: if class preceded the state, it would be impossible to change the ruling class, as the state would be reducible to one particular ruling class, and no other. Thus, we can put each of the four modes of power into a clear hierarchy of causal significance:

1.    Technology,

2.    The state,

3.    Class, and

4.    Culture;

Corresponding to what we might term (after Marx in the case of #1):

1.    The mode of production,

2.    The mode of organisation,

3.    The mode of distribution, and

4.    The mode of socialisation

These occur the within broader ‘mode of power’, such as hunter-gatherer communalism, agricultural extractivism, capitalism, and (perhaps) socialism.

Marxists emphasise technology and class. Hegelians emphasise culture. And Weberians emphasise the state. The Marxists and the Weberians are both more realistic [don’t know what you mean by ‘realistic’] than the Hegelians, given the former theorists’ emphasis on structural power over cultural factors. Marx’s historical materialism should therefore be replaced with what I term ‘realistic historical materialism’, or Weberian Marxism, which emphasises the fundamental or ‘basic’ role of technology, the state, and class—and the derivative or ‘super-structural’ role of culture. There are two broad reasons for embracing realistic historical materialism:

1.    Functionality—Material needs precede ideational needs (hence why technology precedes culture), and the need for security precedes the need for luxury (hence why the state precedes class); and[??]

2.    Historicity—Material change precedes ideational change (e.g., Alexander the Great created his empire through conquest before he legitimated it through fusing Hellenistic and Persian/Egyptian ideas and practices), and the state precedes class (e.g., ancient states made class hierarchy possible by concentrating coercive power).

This leads me to suggest three theses of realistic historical materialism:

1.    The ‘material matters’ thesis—Material needs precede ideational needs because material things are public, while ideas are private to the thinker, meaning matter influences social change more than pure ideas do;

2.    The ‘political priority’ thesis—The need for order and security precedes the need for luxury and commerce, as demonstrated by the existence of hunter-gatherer proto-states which fight one another as states but don’t possess class inequality; and

3.    The ‘economic expediency’ thesis—Class warfare is always more effective than culture warfare, as a class war involves material interests that are clear and obvious, while a culture war involves ideational interests that are fungible and weaponisable.

But what has all this got to do with social evolution? Well, if for neo-Darwinians like Richard Dawkins ‘the selfish gene’ is the unit of historical change, then for neo-Marxians ‘the state’ itself is this unit. But the underlying mechanism for Darwin is bio-reproductive success, while for Marx it is techno-productive success. The two do not meet: while so-called ‘social Darwinism’ has been weaponised in defence of race-reductionist historical ideologies, which treat primal ‘races’ as the units of historical change, for Weberian Marxians the unit is the state—which is initially neutral as to its cultural/ethnic make-up.

While nation-states often assume some prior ethnic/cultural identity, the territorial states of antiquity assumed no such racialised division; indeed, the Roman empire was based on slavery, but not on racialised slavery, since several emperors were African, such as the Libyan emperor Septimius Severus. The concept of race is a modern concept; it is culturally/ideationally constructed, and can play no fundamental role in any legitimate theory of history. Social Darwinism (at least in its racialised form) fails. But a form of Marxism which draws on Darwinism as a model can succeed in explaining history in a neutral way. So, we have:

The modified theory of social historyNatural scarcity + structural variation = social evolution by productive selection (from states’ techno-productive success)

There are three levels of comparison between natural and social evolution—or the theory of natural history, and the theory of social history. Here are the levels:

1.    CHARACTERISTICS: Natural characteristics / structural characteristics

2.    UNIT: Organism / the state

3.    CHANNEL: Species / state type

4.  MECHANISM: Bio-reproductive success / techno-productive success

The type of unit of evolution is a critical dimension of comparison. While the natural type is the species, the social type is the state—not race. The state is the fountain of legitimate authority in society; it is fundamental political community possessing, as Weber put it, a monopoly of legitimate coercion. ‘Man is a political animal’, or a zoon politikon (Aristotle), so must live in a state to survive—just as genes and phenotypes must correspond to an organism. The body politic and the body natural are the fundamental units of evolution. The state type is the channel of social evolution, while the species is the channel of biological evolution. And while the mechanism of natural evolution is bio-reproductive success, or an organism’s ‘fit’ with the environment, the mechanism of social evolution is techno-productive success, or a state’s technological capacity relative to that of other states. Bio-reproductive competitiveness ‘selects for’ some natural characteristics of organisms and some species over others, while techno-productive competitiveness ‘selects for’ some structural characteristics of states and some forms of state over others.

Comparing Darwin and Marx has taught us a new way of looking at evolution. Social evolution and biological evolution are distinct but analogous in their developmental trajectory. Both involve selective pressures generated by competition over scarce resources. To overcome evolution would mean to overcome scarcity itself—something which is only possible if evolution takes one more step into the unknown, which I consider next time…

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