Review of 'The First Darwinian Left' by David Stack, New Clarion Press £12.95
Darwinism and socialism were two of the most important ideas of the 19th century. In this well written and sophisticated book David Stack argues that the importance of Darwinism to socialist thought has been underestimated. He demonstrates that after the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species, evolution became integral to socialist theory.
Stack makes his argument through a series of case studies of some of the most significant left wing thinkers in Europe, including Karl Kautsky, Peter Kropotkin, and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. However, perhaps the most interesting and important parts of the book concern his consideration of Alfred Wallace, Eduard Bernstein and Ramsay MacDonald.
Wallace was, along with Darwin, the co-founder of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Many have taken Wallace and Darwin's theory as proving that there is a hierarchy of ethnic groups. Some saw natural selection as justifying social and gender inequalities, while others saw it as validating eugenics programmes. Wallace, however, argued that natural selection did nothing of the sort. He contended that natural selection in fact refuted the claim that there was a hierarchy of races.
Wallace also held what must have been a highly controversial view at the time, that the morality of so called 'primitive' people contrasted rather well with the 'social barbarism' of Victorian England. Further, Stack shows that it was Wallace's, admittedly increasingly unconventional, version of natural selection that led him to be a socialist and to the belief that society would evolve towards socialism.
It is well known that MacDonald broke with the Labour Party in 1931 to form a National Government with the Liberals and the Tories. What is perhaps less well known is the influence Darwinism had upon his thought. His writings were laced with analogies and metaphors drawn from biology and he declared that 'Socialism is naught but Darwinism'. However, his was a very peculiar form of Darwinism which saw progress as being inevitable. And, given the inevitability of socialism he argued that while one could study the forces of social change, one could rarely act upon them.
Eduard Bernstein was a leading theoretician of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) at the end of the 19th century. He argued, contrary to Marxist theory, that capitalism was gradually overcoming its contradictions and that therefore the SPD should no longer be a party fighting for revolutionary change. Stack argues that Bernstein's rejection of the need for revolution is, in part, due to his conviction that society should be viewed as an organism. Viewed in such a way class antagonisms were no longer central to understanding society.
This was because different classes within the same organism could not have fundamentally different interests. Bernstein's position was also due to his mistaken belief that biology only ever exhibited slow and incremental change, that is, evolutionary change and not revolutionary change.
Stack is not arguing that Darwinism and socialism are incompatible. On the contrary his consideration of Marx, and especially Engels, shows that they can be complementary accounts of change in biology and society. Stack is trying to argue that if Darwinism is the starting point for your consideration of the social world it is likely - although as Wallace shows not inevitable - that you will draw the wrong conclusions.
Despite the book's overall strength, Stack may have overstated the influence of Darwinism on the development of the ideas of some socialist thinkers. This is because while for some of the period under consideration Darwinism was the dominant biological idea, at others it clearly was not. For instance, at the beginning of the 20th century it had been displaced by Mendelian genetics as the most important field of biological research. Nonetheless, this is a book to be read with profit.