Compare and contrast Marxist and Social Darwinist accounts of the human condition.


‘Karl Marx (1818-83) and his collaborator Frederich Engels (1820-95) uniquely devised what they regarded as a ‘scientific’ socialism’ (Cahoone, 2003: p75) at a similar period in time ‘in The Origin of Species Darwin (1909-82) argued that biological species are not fixed but are the product of a process of “natural selection”’ (Cahoone, 2003: p88). Both of these theories were applied socially with very different outcomes, I am going to be discussing these two alternatives. I will first look at Marxist accounts of the human condition, drawing largely on the communist manifesto, which was written in the mid nineteenth century by both Marx and Engels. I will be discussing the ideas that were presented in the communist manifesto, including that of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; I will also discuss Marx’s suggestion of a possible revolution, as a results of what he referred to as ‘class consciousness’ which I will also define, I will be using eastern Europe in the late twentieth century as an example. I will also talk about Marx’s ideas about alienation and what this means. I will then compare this to social Darwinist accounts, referring briefly to his scientific theory of evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’ and I will be discussing how that has been applied socially. I will refer to Herbert Spencer, a famous social Darwinist and discuss his ideas on issues such as state support. I will then go on to talk about the use of eugenics and its basis in social Darwinism; I will look at how it has been applied in both America in the early twentieth century, and also in Germany by Adolf Hitler during World War Two. I will then conclude my comparing and contrasting the two ideas, discussing their differences and identifying any similarities between them.


In the 1848 Communist manifesto Marx describes a society consisting of only two major classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, upper class and working class. ‘Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat.’ (Cahoone, 2003: p75). Marx goes on to describe the relationship between these two classes, the bourgeoisie taking the dominant role, and controlling the lives of the proletariat who work for them in a state of what Marx describes as false consciousness, accepting their social position and believing false ideology, ‘In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed -- a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital’ (Communist Manifesto, 1848). Marx also suggests that this will in turn lead to the whole world being in a situation not too different from that of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, stating that despite the forcing of large numbers of people from the country into the towns, those who remain will be dependant upon the towns. This will also happen worldwide, with certain countries being more reliant than others. ‘Just as it has made the country dependant on the towns, so it has made the barbarian countries dependant on the civilized ones, nations of peasants and nations of bourgeoisie, the East and the West.’ (Cahoone, 2003: p77).


However Marx continues to suggest the possibility of a revolution which would be the result of the bourgeoisie pushing the proletariat out of a state of false consciousness, by which he means an unquestioning acceptance of their status and the ideas that are presented to them by the bourgeoisie, ‘…what we perceive to be the true character of social relations within capitalism are in actuality the mystifications of the market. That is, we accept the idea that we are free to sell our labour, and that we get a fair price for it, since this is the way the social world appears to us.’ (Barker, 2005: p77). In   escaping a state of false consciousness Marx says that they will have achieved class-consciousness, Marx suggests that they will become aware of the social position and the fact that they are a majority. This revolution will result in Marx's ideal society, one of complete equality, where is there is no elite minority (bourgeoisie), nobody owns more, or is of more worth than another person.


One example of Marxism could be seen in the communist states of Eastern Europe prior to the 1980’s, when numerous political and economic changes took place, such as the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Following this many of ‘the communist states experienced economic and social crises’ (Barker, 2005: p180) this included rising crime, shortages of consumer goods, including food, mainly as a result of the decrease in industrial production, and also a lack of state support and welfare services (Barker, 2005: 180). It has been argued by Fukuyama that this triumph of consumer capitalism and liberal democracy over communism could be seen as ‘the end of history’ he continues to say that it ‘ is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’ (Fukuyama, cited in Barker, 2005: p180). This is possibly based on Marx saying that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ (cited in Cahoone, 2003: p75).


One of Marx’s key ideas regarding the human condition is that of alienation, by which Marx means that since the labourer, or proletariat gets poorer and poorer as he creates more wealth, and therefore power for the bourgeoisie which in turn leads to the labourer becoming cheaper and cheaper as a commodity. What is in turn meant by this is that the thing that is produced by the laborer ‘stands opposed to it, as something alien… the product of labour embodied and made material …this realization of labour appears as loss of reality to the worker, objectification of loss of and bondage to the object, and as appropriation as estrangement, as alienation…’(Osbourne, 2005: p45) Marx goes on to discuss that the thing itself is only a product of an activity, so if the product of labour is alienation, then ‘production itself must be active alienation’ (Osbourne, 2005: p46) Marx says that the product can only be alien to the worker because  in the act of production he is alienating himself from himself. ‘ An immediate consequence of men and women’s estrangement from the product of their labour, their life activity, their generic being, is the estrangement of men and women from other men and women… each is estranged from other and all are estranged from humanity’s essential human nature’ (Marx cited in Osbourne, 2005: p47)


Darwin’s original work and theories involved evolution, based largely upon the time he spent on the HMS Beagle and his observations, suggesting that creatures within a species that had attributes that were beneficial to that particular species within their habitat and surroundings would be chosen for reproduction, therefore repeating, and also intensifying that attribute within the species, increasing its chances of survival, Darwin referred to this as 'survival of the fittest'. Evolutionary theory, Darwin says, ‘…demonstrate[s] not only that modern species are descendants of earlier species, but also that the mechanism for this process is natural selection’ (Darwin, cited in Barker, 2005: p135) Darwin also states in The Origin of Species ‘growth and reproduction, inheritance…variability, from the indirect and direct action of external conditions of life, and from use and disuse, a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing divergence of character and the Extinction of less-improved forms’ (cited in Cahoone, 2003: p95). His theory is based on the idea of each creature fighting for its survival, as well as the survival of its species, utilizing any advantages changes that occur within the species, leaving weaker members to perish.


Social Darwinism is the adaptation of Darwin's theories into social and political contexts. One of the most noted and memorable social Darwinists was Herbert Spencer, who lived in America during the mid-nineteenth century. Spencer was described by F.A.P Bernard as ‘not only the profoundest thinker of our time, but the most capacious and most powerful intellect of all time’ (cited in Hofstadter, 1944: p31). Spencer fiercely opposed all state aid to the poor, considering them to be unfit and that they should therefore be eliminated. Spencer said ‘the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for the better’ (cited in Hofstadter, 1944: p41). Spencer opposed state supported education, poor laws, sanitary supervision, regulation of housing conditions, as well as things such as government postal systems and state banking. However did repeatedly insist that he was not in opposition to voluntary private charity to the unfit ‘since it had an elevating effect on the character of the donors and hastened the development of altruism; he opposed only compulsory poor laws and state measures’ (Hofstadter, 1944: p41) When discussing the difference between Marxism and social Darwinism Summer said ‘Let it be understood that we cannot go outside this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members, the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.’ (Cited in Hofstadter, 1944: p51) So we can see that there were large numbers of people that had faith in the notion of social Darwinism and that they argued for it publicly.

One of the results of Darwin’s theories within society is that of eugenics, in 1917 a film was released in Hollywood depicting a specific example of a newly born baby being refused treatment, only two years earlier, because he was thought to be defective by a doctor. One ad for this film featured a quote from Auguste Forel ‘the law of heredity winds like a red thread through the family history of every criminal, of every epileptic, eccentric and insane person. Shall we sit still . . . without applying the remedy?’ (Cited in Black 2006). As the eugenics movement gathered pace in America other countries soon followed their lead, including France, Sweden, and many others within Europe, particularly Germany, who were even on occasion funded by American eugenics groups, even after the depression had begun. America continued to be the leading country regarding eugenics ‘As America's elite were describing the socially worthless and the ancestrally unfit as "bacteria", "vermin", "mongrels" and "subhuman", a superior race of Nordics was increasingly seen as the answer to the globe's eugenic problems’ (Black, 2006). A great believer in the ideals of the Nordic race was Madison Grant who extolled the Nordic race and bemoaned its corruption" by Jews, Negroes, Slavs and others who did not possess blond hair and blue eyes’ (Black, 2006)


Another follower of the American Eugenics movement was Adolf Hitler, who wrote in Mein Kampf  ‘The demand that defective people be prevented from propagating equally defective offspring is a demand of clearest reason and, if systematically executed, represents the most humane act of mankind. It will spare millions of unfortunate undeserved sufferings, and consequently will lead to a rising improvement of health as a whole.’ (Black, 2006) Hitler eventually gained power on 30th January 1933, and his ongoing belief in eugenics was always evident in his actions ‘identification, segregation, sterilisation, euthanasia, eugenic courts and eventually mass termination in lethal chambers’ (Black, 2006) and by 1934 sterilisation in Germany had reached around five thousand people a month. (Black, 2006) Following the end of the second world in the mid twentieth century, eugenics laws become very unpopular around the world, and were largely deemed to be unnatural and cruel; as a result the laws were eventually revoked. However it could be argued that the medical and scientific advances that made eugenics possible could be seen as a form of evolution, since humans have advanced sufficiently, in regards to intelligence for human evolution to be achievable through eugenics.


There are many differences between Marxist and Social Darwinist ideals and accounts of the human condition. Darwin believed humans to be naturally competitive, and that they needed to be this way in order to survive, this is also thought to be true by social Darwinists who also agree that that is how things should be, hence the rejection of state support and education and health services among other seemingly drastic ideas. However, in Marx’s idea of society there are two main classes, the majority of which are the proletariat who are living in a state of false consciousness, ignorant to the reality of their own lives and an acceptance of the ideas and status that they are given to them by the bourgeoisie. Marx also suggests that when the proletariat can escape their state of false consciousness and achieve class-consciousness at which point Marx suggests that there will be a revolution. In this sense there is a colossal similarity between both Marxist and Social Darwinist accounts of the human condition, they both present the idea of a struggle. In Darwin’s case the struggle is based on his theory of evolution, his notion of ‘survival of the fittest’, it is the struggle of one creature over another, a fight for survival, whereas in Marx’s case the struggle is that of the Proletariat, with their false consciousness and the bourgeoisie, but also the state of alienation that comes as a result of their social position.


Barker, Chris. (2005) Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. Alden Press Ltd, Oxford

Black, Edwin (2006) Hitler’s Race Hate Debt to America [available online],,1145641,00.html (accessed 01/05/2006)

Cahoone, L (2003) From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology, Blackwell Publishing ltd, Oxford

Hofstadter, R (1944) Social Darwinism in American Thought, University of Pennsylvania press, USA

 Jones, G (1980) Social Darwinism and English Thought: The Interaction between Social and Biological Theory, Humanities press Inc, New jersey

Osbourne, P. (2005) How to Read Marx, Bookmarque Ltd, Surrey

Ridley, M (2005) How to Read Darwin, Bookmarque Ltd, Surrey


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