Darwin, Marx, Satan, and a mythical dedication

by Paul Braterman

John R. Rice, photo from The Sword of the Lord

In 1954, at the height of the McCarthyite Red Scare, the anti-evolution preacher John R. Rice asked his audience to whom Marx had dedicated The Communist Manifesto. The answer, he shouted out, was Charles Darwin. It is doubtful whether Marx had even heard of Darwin when he and Engels wrote the Manifesto in 1848, but that is the least of Rice’s errors.

Zentralbibliothek Zürich Das Kapital Marx 1867.jpgCarl Weinberg, in his excellent Red Dynamite, an overview of the deep links between evolution denial and right-wing politics in America, points out that Rice had the wrong book; he should have been referring to Das Kapital. But as we now know, even if he had been he would still have been wrong. Wrong book, wrong date, wrong author, wrong about Darwin’s response to the request to dedicate.

The matter is well summarised by Richard Carter, reporting in The Friends of Charles Darwin on a paper by Margaret Fay in The Journal of the History of Ideas. The same conclusions had been reached, independently, by Lewis Feuer, and Fay’s paper has a long discussion regarding their relative priority, and describing differences of interpretation between them. As for the belief that Marx had wished to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, Fay traces this to Isaiah Berlin, probably misunderstanding what Darwin actually did say in a letter to Marx.

There is no doubt that Marx greatly admired Darwin, and sent him a copy of Das Kapital, which Darwin graciously acknowledged, writing, in 1873,

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’s study in Down House, photo Mario Modesto, via Wikipedia

A polite response to Marx’s gift and implied admiration, while refraining from taking any position on the merits or otherwise of the subject matter. The volume itself still languishes, with pages uncut, in the library of Darwin’s residence, Down House.

The legend that Marx had offered to dedicate his work to Darwin may also have arisen from another of Darwin’s letters, written in 1880:

Dear Sir:

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,
Yours faithfully,
Ch. Darwin

Darwin did in fact write about his changing views of religion, and at some length, in an autobiographical memoir intended only for his family, where he tells of his religious faith slipping away from him imperceptibly by degrees. He initially writes of

the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.

So to that extent he was, at that time, an advocate of what is now called Intelligent Design, although for some strange reason the modern Intelligent Design movement never lists him among their supporters.

Later, however, he wrote

This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of SpeciesBut then arises the doubt—can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? … The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has built an entire theory of knowledge on misunderstanding what Darwin is saying here. Darwin is pointing out that a mind arising through evolution would not be equipped to deal with problems loftier than those relating to survival. Plantinga does not seem to realise how an evolving mind would nonetheless be constrained by experience when constructing its model of the everyday world, and applies the term “Darwin’s doubt” to his own curious belief that the correspondence of that model to reality could only have arisen through supernatural intervention. For a more technical discussion of this issue, see e.g. here.

Regarding Christianity, Darwin wrote

I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.

Emma Darwin in later life, via Wikipedia

Emma Darwin, Charles’s widow, wanted to suppress this passage, on the grounds that surely nobody believed so crude and cruel a version of Christianity any more. Yet that is the version of Christianity preached by John R. Rice, with whom this piece started, and central, as I wrote earlier, following William Trollinger, to the teachings of Answers in Genesis.

The 1880 letter was written seven years later than Marx’s presentation of Das Kapital to Darwin. Moreover, it clearly relates to a work dedicated to attacking religion, which in Das Kapital is a peripheral issue. As with the first letter, we have the formal salutation “Dear Sir”, which of course does not tell us who is being addressed.

Marx’s papers were curated by Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, but the letter was almost certainly not addressed to Marx (which, as we saw before, would have made no sense regarding either content or date) but to Edward Aveling, who became Eleanor’s lover. Aveling did in fact write to Darwin in 1880, offering to dedicate his Student’s Darwin to him, and enclosing excerpts for him to consider. A contemporary review of the work by the biologist George Romanes in Nature shows that Darwin’s criticisms were fully justified:

In itself science has no necessary relation to any such belief; it is neither theistic nor atheistic; it is simply extra-theistic… Therefore, although it may be of use in the interests of “Freethought” to represent science as not merely neutral but negative in its bearings upon religion, the attempt to do so is detrimental to the interests of science; so far as it may be successful it can only tend to increase the suspicious dislike of scientific knowledge which large masses of the general public are already too apt to harbour.

And as we know, that “suspicious dislike” is as powerful and as damaging as ever.

Feuer and Fay published their refutations of the myth of Marx’s request to dedicate in 1975 and 1978 respectively, but nonetheless the myth has persisted in creationist circles. Henry Morris, co-author of The Genesis Flood, and founder of the Institute for Creation Research, referred to it repeatedly long after the story had been laid to rest. Weinberg shows a 2012 photo of a panel at the Institute for Creation Research’s Creation and Earth History Museum in Santee, California, that reads

Karl Marx is considered to be the chief founder of Communism. Although he was a professing Christian in his youth, he became an atheist and (according to some) a Satanist in college. His philosophies of history and economics were squarely based on evolutionism. In fact, he wanted to dedicate his book DAS KAPITAL to Charles Darwin, who had given him what he thought was a scientific foundation for Communism.

Satanism does seem an unlikely pursuit for the father of dialectical materialism, but according to Weinberg the suggestion that Marx had been a Satanist goes back to Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian anti-Communist dissident. Wurmbrand’s evidence included wordplay in Marx’s juvenilia, and his 1977 book Was Karl Marx a Satanist? refers in the look-inside of its Amazon page to “Karl Marx making the secret societies symbolic gesture of the ‘hidden hand.’ ”

And according to Morris, in his The Long War against God, 1989, Satan’s involvement in promoting evolution, or at any rate a materialism which is part of the same package, dates back from Darwin through the pre-Socratics to Nimrod, the mighty hunter, whom Morris, following John Milton, blames for the catastrophe of Babel. Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis, younger relative of the Institute for Creation Research, goes further, back to when the serpent (whom Ham, like so many, unbiblically identifies with Satan) first tempted Eve. As the Rev Michael Roberts has pointed out, Milton, rather than the Bible, is the source of much of this creationist theology.

There is an article in the October 2022 issue of Creation magazine, organ of Creation Ministries International, with the title “Darwin, Marx, and two letters”, by Russell Grigg, who like me is a chemist by training, and if anyone reading this has access to the article, I would greatly appreciate hearing what it says. There may yet be more to learn from this old story.