Socialist Reformism and "Evolutionary" Debate

— Michael Löwy

American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920
by Mark Pittenger
Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press,
1993, 310 pages, $24.95 paper.

THIS REMARKABLE PIECE of committed scholarship is an outstanding contribution to understanding one of the main weaknesses of the early American (and also European!) socialism: the evolutionist fallacy.

The eclectic combination of socialist (even Marxist) ideas with Darwinist and Spencerian evolutionism led to the acceptance of modern industrial forms (the trusts) as a stage toward socialism, and to complacent expectations of gradual and inevitable change. Worse than that, it provided a "scientific" legitimation for the exclusion of so-called "evolutionary inferior" groups: women, Blacks, immigrants.

The pseudo-darwinist social evolutionism of the British ultra-liberal Herbert Spencer, immensely popular in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, served as a philosophical background for a domesticated, organicist and inevitabilist socialism.

Mark Pittenger examines in this light the writings of several early socialists of the Gilded Era—John Bates Clark, Richard Ely, Laurence Gronlund—as well as Edward Bellamy’s famous utopia Looking Backward (1888)—who in typical Spencerian terms, predicted the establishment of "socialism" (in fact ultracentralized state capitalism) as a rational industrial state "in accordance with the principles of evolution."

Bellamy’s "Nationalist" paradigm influenced many early socialists, including the feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose novel Herland (1915) is a sort of evolutionist utopia. Defining women’s identity in strictly biological terms—feminine "motherhood" and "growth" instead of male "struggle"—Gilman believed in the evolutionary superiority of the female principles, and imagined an all-feminine society where this principle ruled without the interference of any destructive male presence.

It should be added that Gilman’s socialism was strictly white and western, and that she considered Bolshevism as a "Jewish-Russian nightmare."

Spencerian evolutionism and its darwinist-socialist vision in Enrico Ferri’s "Marxist" writings had also a considerable impact among intellectuals and cadre of the newborn Socialist Party. Obviously, the right-wing’s politics of gradualism and inevitabilism could easily receive a "scientific" legitimation thanks to Spencer’s ideology of cosmic evolution: As Victor Berger, the self-styled "American Bernstein" once wrote, "socialism is coming quite of itself"...thanks to the growth and development of trusts.

But the Kautskyan sort of U.S. socialists—such as A.M. Simons, E. Untermann or Arthur M. Lewis—also presented socialism as a product of nature and a particular case of evolution inside a broader Spencerian social-organicist framework.

More mixed feelings existed on the left wing of the party. While some, like Robert Rives La Monte, insisted on the scientific inevitability of socialism, according to the principles of evolution, Louis Boudin disdained Spencer as a capitalist apologist and rejected evolutionary fatalism. Only passion and revolutionary will, Boudin argued, could realize socialism.

One of the most fascinated chapters of Pittenger’s book deals with the "outsiders of evolution:" immigrants, Blacks, women. Berger, Hunter, Untermann and other socialist luminaries loudly voiced evolutionary racist cases against Asian emigration, while J. Spargo and A.M. Lewis considered Native Americans as an obstacle in the path of Euro-capitalist progress.

During the bitter debate in the SP on Asian exclusion (1907-12), Untermann and Hunter argued that race wars were normal mechanisms of natural selection and that to oppose restrictions was utopian and unscientific, ignoring "the inevitable logic of events."

Morris Hillquit opposed such blatant racism, but argued, for "economic" reasons, for the exclusion of immigrants from "such races and nations as have not yet drawn into the sphere of modern production."

By the way, this position, adopted by the American SP, was rejected by the Stuttgart conference of the Second International (1907). Eugene Debs was an outspoken opponent of the exclusionists, whose positions he considered to be unsocialistic, reactionary and outrageous, but he ignored any specific grievances: "the class struggle is colorless."

A similar debate took place around Blacks. While William English Walling, one of the founders of the NAACP, sharply criticized racism, anti-immigration and eugenics, as well as the whole evolutionist anthropology inherited from Spencer and Morgan, for people like Berger and Arne Blacks were a "lower race," "centuries behind in social evolution."

Among the outsiders of evolution, women were the only group sufficiently numerous and organized to fight back against the "scientific" established wisdom, which defined women as biologically inferior (because of maternity).

In their journal Socialist Women (1907-13), feminist socialists tried to use Darwin and Spencer for their own cause, and to reconcile women’s biological nature with their social mission: a double-edged sword! Lide Parce referred to Engels’ celebration of matriarchy to argue that the "mother-spirit of altruism," applied to social organization, would lead to socialism.

The next generation of socialist intellectuals, which emerged around 1912, challenged the scientific and inevitabilist cast of mind of the Socialist Party, as well as the apparent congruence between Marxist "laws" and evolutionist models.

In different ways Max Eastman, Walter Lippmann, Louis Fraina, Robert Lowie and W.E. Walling rebelled against passive evolutionary fatalism, and substituted Bergson, Sorel, Nietzsche, Dewey and Boas for Darwin, Spencer and Ferri. They used pragmatism and relativism—but not Marxism (with few exceptions)—to criticize the fallacy of "growing into" socialism, and denounced pseudo-scientific racism, antifeminism and eugenics.

They tried to lay the basis of an activist scientific socialism, freed from the grip of Victorian evolutionism, but soon after World War I most became deradicalized, with the exception of Eastman and Fraina, who gravitated toward the communist movement.

Evolutionism also left its imprint in socialist novels, including those of the revolutionary socialist Jack London, whose mind was a contradictory mixture of Darwin, Spencer, Nietzsche and Marx: brotherhood of man and anti-Asiatic racism.

In his famous Iron Heel (1907) London suggests that Darwinian beast is called forth by class conflict, which makes the capitalist become "a growling pack" and the people of the abyss a mob of "apes and tigers." Although some of his best socialist novels, like South of the Slot, portray the intellectual siding with the workers, London himself resisted such a full commitment to a class that he regarded ambivalently through the distorted lens of evolutionary theory.

The most brilliant—although hardly known as a socialist intellectual—was probably Robert Lowie, a Vienna-born young anthropologist. A follower of Franz Boas’ relativist anthropology, Lowie dismissed social evolution as "un-historical" and insisted that each culture is a unique historical product. Together with W.E.B. Du Bois, he fought against "scientific" racism, arguing that, since cultural evolution is not unilinear, there is no reason for a cultural ranking of races.

As a revolutionary socialist, Lowie invoked historical particularism against anti-Bolsheviks who denied the possibility of a Russian socialist revolution before the evolutionary stage of capitalism. And last, but not least, he pointed to the links between "scientific" racism and antifeminism, insisting on the cultural variability of women’s roles—against the theories of feminine evolutionary uniqueness that were used by early feminists.

These ideas sound astonishingly modern in 1997, but did not have much influence on the socialist movement at that time and were soon forgotten. Lowie himself drifted away from socialism during the ’20s.

While Pittenger does not provide us with an explanation for the evolutionist degradation of socialism—which is of course not an exclusively American phenomena—his book is a most insightful rediscovery of a forgotten chapter of U.S. socialism.

ATC 66, January-February 1997