As Witwatersrand University’s Professor Lee Berger told the Daily Maverick (2 November 2015) we “need to focus more attention on science in a country like South Africa, both for the advancement of knowledge as well as for basic economic goals.”
For Marxists this is an unavoidable topic, as our entire theory is grounded in a scientific explanation of economic, social and political developments. Karl Marx and Friederich Engels were greatly influenced by evolutionary scientists, especially their famous contemporary Charles Darwin and his epic work On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.
Engels wrote to Marx: “Darwin, by the way, whom I’m reading just now, is absolutely splendid… Never before has so grandiose an attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in Nature, and certainly never to such good effect.”
Marx was just as impressed, calling it “the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view.” He wrote to German socialist, Ferdinand Lassalle, that: “Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle.”
At his comrade’s funeral in 1883, Engels said: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.”
Neither evolutionary science nor Marxism is a rigid dogma. Although starting from a common scientific standpoint, they both have to keep developing theories as new evidence comes to light, or when nature or society change. In both fields this has lead to fierce debates between, and within them. There were areas when Marx and Darwin diverged, notably on Darwin’s view on the gradual and orderly nature of evolution, compared to Marx’s dialectical materialist view that there were sudden leaps in evolution, when both nature and societies changed rapidly.
This was well explained by the Russian Marxist, Georgi Plekhanov: “It is sometimes said that the standpoint of dialectics is identical with that of evolution. There can be no doubt that these two methods have points of contact.
“Nevertheless, between them there is a profound and important difference which, it must be admitted, is far from favouring the teaching of evolution. Modern evolutionists introduce a considerable admixture of conservatism into their teaching. They want to prove that there are no leaps either in nature or in history.
“Dialectics, on the other hand, knows full well that in nature and also in human thought and history leaps are inevitable. But it does not overlook the undeniable fact that the same uninterrupted process is at work in all phases of change. It only endeavours to make clear to itself the series of conditions under which gradual change must necessarily lead to a leap.”
Many later evolutionary scientists agreed with Marx and Plekhanov. As Stephen Jay Gould wrote: “The history of life is not a continuum of development, but a record punctuated by brief, sometimes geologically instantaneous, episodes of mass extinction and subsequent diversification. Rather than a gradual transition, modern multicellular animals make their first uncontested appearance in the fossil record some 570 million years ago – and with a bang, not a protracted crescendo.”
Such differences amongst scientists will doubtless continue, but do nothing to undermine the basic premise that both nature and society can only be understood through scientific research and analysis. One might expect that 156 years after Darwin’s famous work was published, there would be a consensus around this principle. Darwin’s detractors, who ridiculed his ideas, particularly to his rejection of ‘creationism’, based on the bible and the teachings of most religions, saw divine, super-natural intervention as the source of both nature and humanity. These beliefs have a strong and loyal following.
Their latest champion in South Africa is Mathole Motshekga, African National Congress Member of Parliament, a former Gauteng premier and Founding President of the Kara Heritage Institute.
“Humanity,” he told Radio 702, “did not evolve from the animal kingdom, and more specifically the apes.”
“This thing is inconsistent with reality and supports the theory that we are subhuman,” he said on eNCA. “That’s why Africans aren’t respected by the rest of the world. The western materialist theory, which states that “we are sub-humans who developed from the animal kingdom. Therefore they (the west) gave us the title of subhuman beings to justify slavery and colonialism.”
“African literature,” he said, “shows that humankind’s origins are at the source of the Nile River and that humanity existed before the universe was formed. Africa is the most ancient civilization which produced abundant literature about our origins – but this was suppressed by the west to promote that Africans are subhuman”.
It is hard to believe that someone could make so many mistakes in so few words. Firstly there is his attempt to locate evolutionary theory as ‘western’, when in fact it is widely accepted across the world. He mentions “abundant” African literature about our origins, but cannot produce any quotations from any of it because it has been “suppressed by the west”, yet then confidently assures us that this suppressed literature confirms the ludicrous theory that “humanity existed before the universe was formed”.
Then he compounds this error about the “western” origins of evolutionary theory, by trying to link it to slavery and colonialism, and to Africa in particular. While it is true that many of the most recent fossil remains have been found in Africa, the scientists have always made clear that these are the remains of species that evolved into human beings throughout the world. That is why Maropeng has been called the Cradle of Humanity, not the ‘Cradle of African Humanity’.
These evolutionary developments occurred millennia before slavery and colonialism, which in any case were features of societies around the world, and the slave-owners and colonialists evolved from the same origins as the slaves and colonised. All these patently ridiculous arguments are, however, just a distraction. The real reason for Motshekga’s view is his belief that humans “did not evolve from the animal kingdom, and more specifically the apes,” which incidentally no one has argued. Although we share common ancestors with apes and baboons, as Professor Berger confirms, they evolved into distinct and separate species.
Motshekga however is disputing the entire scientific theory of evolution and implicitly endorsing the super-natural, “creationist” view of our origins. This is absolutely irreconcilable with Marxism’s dialectical materialist view of history, which led Marx and his followers to reject any form of religion, on the basis that such beliefs are inherently unscientific, false and will mislead people.
Marx used his materialist tools to explain why religion exists, and how it helps to keep people subjugated by a ruling class which uses religion as a means to confuse the classes they exploit. His best-known comments are found in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”
Marx is not condemning the believers in religion, for whom it is as a reaction to the misery inflicted on the oppressed, and a search for relief from the pain. But, as Marx makes clear, any such relief from the misery is “illusory”, just like the opium which dulls the pain, but cannot stop it. Only real solutions, which will end the suffering, and liberate the oppressed masses from the pain of slavery and exploitation under the capitalist system. But for the working class to free themselves they need a programme for the socialist transformation of society, and that programme has to be based on economic reality, not religious fantasy, so that they fully understand the nature of the society they have to overthrow, and the tasks they have to fulfil, if they are to succeed.That is why it is so important that we are not led astray by charlatans like Motshekga, and why the Marxist method, based on a scientific, evolutionary analysis of the world is so crucial. DM