Darwin and Marx


Jason Collins


July 6, 2011

Yesterday I visited Down House, Charles Darwin’s home from 1842 until his death in 1882. Darwin wrote most of his major works there. The house contained a lot of interesting artefacts and bits of information, but one of the more interesting was a copy of Das Kapital sent from Karl Marx to Darwin. Inscribed inside the book was:

Mr. Charles Darwin On the part of his sincere admirer Karl Marx London 16 June 1873 Modena Villas Maitland Park

Seeing this, I did a quick search to find out the extent to which Marx was in contact with and influenced by Darwin (having not yet read Das Kapital) and it seems that there is a history of storytelling and exaggeration around it. One now debunked myth was that Marx proposed dedicating Das Kapital to Darwin but that Darwin declined. The story was later found to be based on mixed up letters. However, in the German version of Das Kapital was the dedication “In deep appreciation - for Charles Darwin”.

More broadly, Marx has indicated some interest in Darwin’s work. In one letter, Marx wrote that:

Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle. One does, of course, have to put up with the clumsy English style of argument. Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained.

The flow of ideas, however, was slightly lop-sided. On receipt of the book from Marx, Darwin responded:

Dear Sir: I thank you for the honour which you have done me by sending me your great work on Capital; & I heartily wish that I was more worthy to receive it, by understanding more of the deep and important subject of political Economy. Though our studies have been so different, I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of Knowledge, & that this is in the long run sure to add to the happiness of Mankind. I remain, Dear Sir Yours faithfully, Charles Darwin

Darwin does not seem to have read most of Das Kapital, with only the first 100 pages opened (books at the time were often printed such that the pages were joined and the reader needed to slit them open).