Evolutionism vs historicism

Carrol Cox cbcox at SPAMilstu.edu
Tue Dec 26 19:34:28 MST 2000

snnoonan wrote:

> Capitalism wasn't inevitable.

This seems to me a necessary point of departure for fully
understanding capitalism. Capitalism could only have been
inevitable if it corresponded to some element in "human
nature" that could not but be expressed, and if no other
social system so corresponded. In other words, the
inevitability of capitalism connotes the impossibility of

It seems terribly difficult to grasp the fact that just
because something exists does _not_ mean that
therefore it _had_ to exist. (This identification of
existence with necessity seems to have been
Tolstoy's assumption in the Second Epilogue
to _War and Peace_.)

John Bellamy Foster on Evolution & Teleology:

    If the idea of the "survival of the fittest" and
Spencerian-Malthusianism seemed at times
to overwhelm Darwin's scientific message, so did
the concept of "evolution," which, like "survival of
the fittest," did not appear in the first edition of
_The Origin of the Species_. In that initial edition
Darwin had referred simply to "natural selection,"
the "mutability" of species, and "descent with
modification" (only once does he use the term
"evolve" -- never "evolution"). "Evolution," with its
sense of "unrolling" and "progress," contained an
almost teleological view -- a sense of direction,
toward ever greater perfection, in the overall
organic process -- which was opposed to Darwin's
decidedly materialist views. "Never higher or lower,"
he had written epigrammatically in the margins of
his copy of _The Vestiges of Creation_.

Natural selection in Darwin's theory related only to
adaptation to local environments; if the environment
changed, a species (say the wooly mammoth) that
was superbly adapted to the old environment might
not be to the new one. In no way did adaptability to
changing local environments suggest superiority/
inferiority. Nevertheless, here too a more Spencerian
view, which explicitly associated evolution with general
progress, triumphed. Darwin's theory was thus rapidly
converted into what it was not -- a theory that reinforced
specifically bourgeois ideals of progress. The more
revolutionary materialistic aspects of his theory were
thus curtailed, and indeed had to be rediscovered by
later biologists. Today biologists no longer think of
evolution in terms of higher or lower, but the general
public continues to use the term in its Spenserian sense.

Unfortunately, Darwin occasionally allowed such inconsistencies
to creep into his analysis -- inconsistencies that can be traced
to his class position. Thus he himself contributed the view of
evolution as constituting progress. In the second to last paragraph
of _The Origin of Species_ (a paragraph that was devoted to
downplaying the revolutionary nature of his doctrines and
calming his shaken readers), he wrote that, "As natural selection
works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and
mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection." For
a thinker who previously had taken such a decidedly materialist,
that is, anti-essentialist/anti-teleological stance -- not only in his
book but even more so in his theoretical notebooks -- this was a
case of dissimulation on a grand scale.*****
    (Foster, _Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature_, pp. 188-89)

It is our hope as socialists that socialism will in fact represent
progress, and just for that reason we cannot, without deserting
our materialism, speak of socialism as something that will or
must _evolve_. Socialism is, as capitalism was, contingent, not
necessary. The bourgeois doctrine of Progress,  is opposed to
the whole of Marxist thought.


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