It’s a well-known chestnut of Darwinian trivia that the father of international socialism, Karl Marx, once offered to dedicate one of the volumes of his magnum opus, Das Kapital, to that other 19th Century bearded revolutionary living in the south of England, Charles Darwin.
Unfortunately, it turns out this particular chestnut is something of a myth, although the story of how it came about is of interest in its own right. It seems to have begun thanks to the following quote:
Dear Sir:—Letter from Charles Darwin to Karl Marx
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
Marx genuinely admired Darwin’s Origin, despite its ‘crude English style’. He even sent Darwin a personally inscribed copy of the recently published second edition of Das Kapital in 1873. Darwin’s letter of acknowledgment (quoted above) delighted Marx, who used it as proof that the great scientist appreciated his work. In fact, Darwin, ever the gentleman (and no German scholar), was merely being polite: he never read Marx’s book, the vast majority of whose pages remained uncut in his library.
But, although Marx admired Darwin’s work, some of its implications, particularly the support it gave to the theories of Thomas Malthus, gave him great cause for concern. This makes it extremely unlikely that Marx would ever have considered dedicating Das Kapital to Darwin.
So, how did the dedication story come about? The answer is given, amongst other places, in Francis Wheen’s highly readable biography, Karl Marx (Fourth Estate, ISBN: 1-85702-637-3). It all started with a second Darwin letter unearthed amongst Marx’s papers, dated 13th October, 1880:
I am much obliged for your kind letter & the Enclosure.— The publication in any form of your remarks on my writing really requires no consent on my part, & it would be ridiculous in me to give consent to what requires none. I shd prefer the Part or Volume not to be dedicated to me (though I thank you for the intended honour) as this implies to a certain extent my approval of the general publication, about which I know nothing.— Moreover though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follow from the advance of science. It has, therefore, always been my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.— I am sorry to refuse you any request, but I am old & have very little strength, and looking over proof-sheets (as I know by present experience) fatigues me much.
I remain Dear Sir,
This letter was published in a Soviet newspaper in 1931, which went on to suggest that the enclosures referred to in the letter might have been chapters from Das Kapital that dealt with evolution. No matter that Das Kapital, a book on economics, could never be considered a direct attack on religion, whatever Marx’s well-documented views on the subject.
So what on Earth was going on?
The mystery was investigated and solved by Margaret Fay of the University of California, who came across an obscure book published in 1881, entitled The Students’ Darwin. This was the second in a series of books sponsored by a pair of evangelical atheists.
The author of the book, Edward Aveling, later became the lover of Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. In 1895, he and Eleanor began organising her late father’s papers (which she had recently inherited from Engels). Later, in 1897, Aveling wrote an article about Marx and Darwin, in which he mentioned having corresponded with Darwin. Presumably, he then filed Darwin’s letter to him along with Marx’s papers.
Eventually, a letter from Aveling to Darwin (dated 12th October, 1880) was discovered amongst Darwin’s papers at Cambridge University. Enclosed with this letter were sample chapters from The Students’ Darwin. The letter requested permission to dedicate the book to Darwin.
So, it wasn’t Karl Marx’s Das Kapital that Darwin politely declined the dedication of; it was Edward Aveling’s The Students’ Darwin.
I must admit to having experienced a certain degree of disappointment on learning that the famous Das Kapital dedication chestnut was a myth. On reflection, however, I like to think that Darwin would have approved of the sort of reasoning that questioned a cherished long-standing belief, and of the search for literary missing links that eventually led to the truth. That’s what science and historical research are all about.
Hi! I read your article with great interest! In one of Julian Huxley's books about Darwin there is an image of the book Marx sent to Darwin. If I remember correctly it is in a museum somewhere. Do you know where the copy is currently located and where I can find images of it? I searched for it in vain in Google's image search function.
According to one of the many Darwin biographies I own, his presentation copy of Das Kapital still resides in the library at Down House.
The Francis Wheen book mentioned above gives the inscription as follows:
thanks for providing the text of darwin's letters. any idea where i can get the text of Aveline's letter of 1880 to Darwin?
The Aveling letter was discovered amongst Darwin's papers at Cambridge University. I suggest you contact the Darwin Correspondence Project, who are also based in Cambridge, and who have access to the Darwin Archive there.
As he studied seriously economic sciences Marx knew that Darwin's theory was partly based on the wrong statistics of Malthus whose wistakes were known from the begining.
He knew too that Darwin took the idea of evolution from Lamarck's searches whom Marx quotes when he speaks about biological sciences in his letters.
Very interesting article. It is also interesting to note the destiny of Vavilov, the main soviet botanist, who died in jail for supporting darwinism and Lysenko who was the official agronomist, trying to improve wheat by non darwinian methods, and obviously failing.
Great to have this information, especially now that some anti Darwinists are using the supposed dedication by Marx to discredit Darwin.
Thanks for telling this story. Until now I had felt defensive for Karl. It turns out Charles was both a gentleman and unable to rate the book. Just a quibble - isn't Marx's work including Capital pervaded by an attack on religion? His use of the word 'fetishism' for example part of a furious expose of hocus pocus that dressed up class power? If not a direct attack then an everpresent one? The argument, almost a background assumption, being that as a species we throw away cognitive and social capacities by deferring to gods.
A good article and I think it sufficiently brings to a close this aspect of the Darwin-Marx relation. However, the larger question remains to be asked : in what ways is Marxism as a philosophy indebted to Darwinian insights, and in what ways is it a rebuttal or refusal of these same insights? I think that we can imagine a Marx "dedication" to Darwin that would have been appropriate and sincere, in so far as Marx shared with Darwin an impulse to describe and to understand very long-term developments, Marx being interested in very long-term social formations and changes, and Darwin being interested in very long-term life-form adaptations and changes. On the other hand, we can also imagine a very tongue-in-cheek "dedication", since Marx's philosophy of social well-being and cooperation - we are the 99%, as the saying goes - supposes that the natural order of die-hard struggle Darwin described can be surmounted by human reason and institutions.
The original copy of Das Kapital which contains a handwritten inscription by Marx to Darwin is, indeed, at Down House. I asked to see it and was shown it some 30 years ago. Down House is well worth a trip for all partisans of the scientific method over religious obscurantism. Darwin was a great fructifier of human thought in the 19th century.
Although Darwin and Marx have both been vilified and distorted by the secular and religious right, their works point the way forward for the liberation of the human mind from the shackles of religion and capitalism.
In my country the USA - a reference to a person as a Marxist or a Darwinian is used as a confirmation of general unworthiness. Someone trying to destroy our freedoms. A dangerous 'UnAmerican' enemy of the people. Millions believe that - maybe even the majority.
Communists and Evolutionists - equal threats seemingly in 'the land of the free'....
hi marc. ironically enough, a deceptively near combination of these two demons, the social Marx and the evolutionary Darwin, is accepted widely in the USA: the 'social Darwinism' of Herbert- "Survival-of-the-fittest"-Spencer. Poor Marx would turn himself in his grave (if he could, but the ridiculously huge concrete cube the Stalinists placed on his grave in London's Highgate Cemetry make sure Marx could never turn his own corpse 🙂 ). In any case, the evolutionist and the revolutionists are politcally more apart than that one r would suggest, no matter how much they shared their iconoclasm of the more conservative tradition.
I thought it would be a simple matter to search for the Aveling Letters to and from Mr. Darwin and see images of them on the internet. No such luck. Not one single reference, aside from your interesting article here.
I assume you came across these letters during your search (albeit without images of the originals).
I visited Down house, Darwin's home, in about 1990 anyway before it underwent a major restoration by English Heritage. In the entrance hall they had a glass case containing the original hand written letter from Marx,(possibly written by his daughter) asking to dedicate das Capital or some part of it, to Darwin. Darwin's polite refusal of the offer was in the case next to it. In the 2 thousands I used to take parties of students there. I asked the woman on the desk about the letter and she said they still had it but not on display Can anybody shed light on this?
I presume it must have been because (as I explained in the above article), we now know Marx did not offer to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, so the letters were deemed of less interest than previously.