Evolution and Revolution


Continuing my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, today I summarize anarchist views on evolution, revolution, Darwinism and their opposition to the reactionary and racist uses to which 19th century science was put. One of the founders of “criminology,” Cesare Lombroso, claimed that anarchists were defective human beings, a throw back to an earlier stage of evolution. Unsurprisingly, as I pointed out in my previous post on science and technology, anarchists were not uncritical supporters of scientific views. Anarchists in the 20th century faced even more extreme racist doctrines, particularly in Nazi Germany. The Italian anarchist activist, Camillo Berneri, was among the first to denounce the racist ideology and policies of the Nazis.

Elisée Reclus

Elisée Reclus

Evolution and Revolution

The anarchist communist revolutionary Peter Kropotkin noted in Modern Science and Anarchism that among the scientific works that appeared in the mid-19th century, “there was none which exercised so deep an influence as The Origins of Species, by Charles Darwin.” What Darwin demonstrated, Kropotkin argued, was that “man… was the product of a slow physiological evolution; that he drew his origin from a species of animals which gave birth both to man and the now-living apes and monkeys; that the ‘immortal mind’ and the ‘moral sense’ of man had developed in the same way as the intelligence and the social instincts of a chimpanzee or an ant.”

While anarchists welcomed Darwin’s ideas regarding evolution because they undermined the authority of religion by discrediting notions of divine creation and design, they also had to contend with the apologists of a rapacious capitalism, the “Social Darwinists,” who used Darwin’s notion of “the struggle for existence” to attack egalitarianism and to argue against social reform in general. As Kropotkin put it, there was “no infamy in civilized society, or in the relations of the whites towards the so-called lower races, or of the strong towards the weak, which would not have found its excuse in this formula.”

To combat the ideas of the Social Darwinists, Kropotkin wrote a series of essays, later published as Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), in which he sought to demonstrate “the overwhelming importance which sociable habits play in Nature and in the progressive evolution of both the animal species and human beings.” It is from these practices of mutual aid, Kropotkin argued, that moral feelings are developed, leading him to conclude that “in the ethical progress of man, mutual support—not mutual struggle—has had the leading part” (Volume One, Selection 54). Kropotkin’s notion of mutual aid and his critique of Social Darwinism was very influential in anarchist circles, not only in Europe but also in Latin America and Asia.

Some opponents of revolutionary change argued that the notion of “progressive evolution” was inconsistent with the anarchist commitment to social revolution. As Elisée Reclus observed in 1891, the “word Evolution, synonymous with gradual and continuous development in morals and ideas, is brought forward in certain circles as though it were the antithesis of that fearful word, Revolution, which implies changes more or less sudden in their action… entailing some sort of catastrophe.” It was Reclus, not Kropotkin, who first developed the idea that revolutionary upheavals are part of a natural evolutionary process, an accelerated period of evolutionary change, such that revolution and evolution “are fundamentally one and the same thing, differing only according to the time of their appearance.” Turning Social Darwinism on its head, he argued that as “powerful as may be the Master,” and the “privileged classes” in general, they “will be weak before the starving masses leagued against” them. “To the great evolution now taking place will succeed the long expected, the great revolution” (Volume One, Selection 74). This was a common theme among late 19th and early 20th century anarchists, including anarchists in Japan (Volume One, Selection 102) and China (Volume One, Selections 97, 100 & 102).

Lombroso Museum Exhibit

Lombroso Museum Exhibit

Against Racism

Anarchist supporters of science also had to contend with the development of a racist ethnology, purportedly based on scientific theory and research, which was used to justify colonial exploitation and war against the so-called “inferior” races. In his 1904 essay, ironically entitled “Our Indians,” the Peruvian anarchist intellectual, Manuel González Prada (1848-1919), marveled at what “a handy invention” ethnology was in the hands of those who seek to justify white domination: “Once one has accepted that Mankind is divided into superior and inferior races and acknowledged the white man’s superiority and thus his right to sole governance of the Planet, there cannot be anything more natural than suppression of the black man in Africa, the redskin in the United States, the Tagalog in the Philippines and the Indian in Peru” (Volume One, Selection 91).

While González Prada questioned the “science” behind racist doctrines, pointing out that there “is such a mish-mash of blood and colouring, every individual represents so many licit or illicit dalliances, that when faced by many a Peruvian we would be baffled as to the contribution of the black man or the yellow man to their make-up: none deserves the description of pure-bred white man, even if he has blue eyes and blond hair,” he argued that rather than “going around the world spreading the light of [European] art and science, better to go around dispensing the milk of human kindness,” for “where the ‘struggle for existence’ is enunciated as the rule of society, barbarism rules.” González Prada agreed with Kropotkin that the true mark of progress and civilization is the degree to which practices and institutions of mutual aid are spread throughout society, such that “doing good has graduated from being an obligation to being a habit” (Volume One, Selection 91).

Robert Graham

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin


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