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Darwinism & Communism, Part III

In previous posts in this brief series, we've been looking at the relationship between Marx and Darwin, who developed parallel theories of historical or natural law. In a religious context, law is perceived as static and eternal: God's law, higher than any man, worthy of judging kings and tyrants by its light. Marxism and Darwinism, as materialist philosophies, believe they have succeeded in obviating the need for God, or metaphysics generally. For them, there is no such thing as a static, eternal moral law.

Thus in the Descent of Man, Darwin describes the process by which morals evolve, just like animal bodies. He finds nothing absolute or God-given even in a seemingly fundamental moral instinct like that against incest: "We may, therefore, reject the belief, lately insisted on by some writers, that the abhorrence of incest is due to our possessing a special God-implanted conscience." The place of God is taken, instead, by a law of movement. History is a tide that moves the development of nature or society along with it according to an impersonal, unguided, yet scientifically describable law. Evolution and revolution are really the same dynamic, looked at respectively from a natural and a social perspective. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote of Darwin and Marx, "If one considers, not the actual achievement, but the basic philosophies of both men, it turns out that ultimately the movement of history and the movement of nature are one and the same."

This helps clarify why, under Hitler's and Stalin's regimes, what Arendt called "total terror" was the predictable result. The only morality was that of the law of history's movement, whether seen in biological or economic terms. Either way, if you opposed it, you were an enemy and qualified for destruction.

Stalin's version of evolution derived from the thread in that philosophical and scientific tradition that in turn came down from the earlier French evolutionist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Larmarck argued that characteristics acquired by an organism in its lifetime could be passed down to offspring, making environment of equal importance to heredity. (Modern evolutionary theory excludes this idea.) Hitler's more strictly Darwinian methods, obsessed with heredity, accordingly emphasized eugenics and murder to rid society of genetic undesirables, while Stalin's approach emphasized manipulation of the social environment, isolating deviants, sending adults and children possessing minds "diseased" as judged by anti-Soviet thinking off to the Gulag so as not to corrupt healthy minds. The subtle difference hardly mattered to the millions who were murdered in pursuit of an evolutionary nightmare.

Initially, the Soviet regime was fascinated by eugenics, establishing a Russian Eugenic Society in 1921 and immediately proceeding to study the Jewish question. But Marxism in general was of two minds about evolution, and as noted above, tended to favor the Lamarckian side of the theory. Already in 1906, Stalin had declared himself for Lamarck. This was not a rejection of Darwinism per se but simply of the evolutionary mechanism that Darwin personally made famous, natural selection. For various reasons, Communists preferred to think in terms of environmental selection as the impersonal mechanism driving evolution. In the 1930s, Stalin beat the drum for Lamarck with increased intensity. After 1945, the official evolutionary theory of Soviet Communism was represented by a Ukrainian agronomist and scientific fraud, Trofim Lysenko. Under the rule of Lysenkoism, dissenters from the favored evolutionary orthodoxy were subject to career-destruction, imprisonment, even death.

Rather than breeding supermen through genetics as Hitler did, Soviet evolutionism sought to do so through heavy-handed manipulation of the environment, including through exile, imprisonment and murder. In the Great Terror of 1937-8, one of the common classes of victims was the "socially harmful." This was not merely a political category but an evolutionary one.

The Soviet state was, then, an experiment in applied Darwinism. Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist who broke with colleagues to report honestly on the Stalinist terror-famine, later noted: "It is interesting to reflect that now, in the light of all that has happened, the early obscurantist opponents of Darwinian evolution seem vastly more sagacious and farseeing than its early excited champions." Which about sums it up.