Abergavenny Left

“Mountains, Markets and Marxists…”

Another deadly war

Afghanistan is not the only campaign to be escalated under Obama, writes Ted North

Barack Obama conveniently found god at the time he entered politics. Similarly, as he has risen in politics, his attitude to drugs has become ever more reactionary and opportunist. He was lucky the police did not kick down the door when as a youth he was experimenting with cannabis and cocaine. He might well have landed in a six by eight cell, rather than the White House.

In the election campaign Obama’s team were quick to iron out his past slightly off-message hiccups about drug policy. In this field, as in every other, he was firmly for the status quo; just look at his Senate voting record since 2004. Once in office, his administration approved the state department report on drugs for 2008, compiled under Bush.

The war on drugs

Richard Nixon was the first to use the provocative term ‘war on drugs’ in 1971. The Drug Enforcement Administration now has offices in over 60 countries. Since 1972 its staff has increased from 3,000 to 11,000, and its budget from $65 million to $2.5 billion.

Almost one in 30 Americans are behind bars, on probation or on parole. Indeed a quarter of the world’s prisoners are on American concrete. Many of these are there due to drugs charges, or indirectly relating to drugs (eg, theft to fund a habit).


A quarter of the world’s prisoners are in US jails

Young and poor black and Latino men are disproportionately affected: ‘white America’ consumes vast amounts of legal drugs like caffeine, nicotine and alcohol (not to mention gargantuan amounts of prescription pills) and middle class whites are likely to be less harshly treated if caught with illegal drugs.

And what America does, the world does. Through a mixture of political/ideological hegemony, economic dominance and direct military intervention the tentacles of America’s war on drugs stretch from the jungles of the South America to the mountains of Afghanistan.

Last year more than 6,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in Mexico. This year’s body count already stretches into the thousands. Thanks to the war on drugs, hippies bringing a few pounds of weed back from Mexico have been replaced by today’s ultra-violent cartels. Volkswagen vans and Timothy Leary books have been transcended by Kevlar body armour, automatic assault rifles, rocket launchers and submarines.

Late in Bush’s reign America launched the Mérida Initiative. This provides Mexico and central American countries with hundreds of millions of dollars to combat the flow of drugs. Voices calling for at least partial legalisation are trampled underfoot as American policy under Obama is centred on ever greater militarisation.

Tens of thousands of armed men have been sent by the Mexican government into ‘problem areas’. Torture and other forms of mistreatment are rife; indeed a video leaked in July 2008 showed police in Guanajuato being instructed in torture methods by American officers.

It was no coincidence that Mexican president Felipe Calderón was the first foreign leader to meet then president-elect Obama. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has been in Mexico to assist the government. On March 25 the Senate Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to hold a meeting on the escalating violence.

Nearly a thousand people linked to the cartels have been arrested on drug charges in America in recent weeks in the strangely named ‘Operation Xcellerator’, under the control of new attorney general Eric Holder. Many tonnes of drugs have been seized. As a result drug prices have quickly increased. Of course, this merely means those still in the game will be even more competitive, ever more violent and cutting their products with unknown substances.

All of this echoes Plan Colombia; hailed by Mullen as a model of success. Never mind the rightwing death squads and resulting kidnappings, assassinations and massacres which were, and still are, funded by billions of American dollars. Indeed never mind the fact that Colombian cocaine production actually increased!

Reach for the lasers

Vice-president Joe Biden has long been hawkish on drugs, sponsoring the ‘crackhouse laws’ of the 1980s. He chairs both the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Caucus.

Biden also sponsored the appropriately abbreviated Rave Act (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy). In the face of stiff opposition this was stalled, only becoming law by being tagged onto the Amber Alert Bill (dealing with child abduction) in 2003.

To understand this law we need to go back a few years. In January 2000 the DEA infiltrated a monthly rave at the State Palace Theatre in New Orleans. They found ‘drug paraphernalia’ including glow sticks, bottled water and a ‘chill room’. The organisers were arrested on drug charges, although no narcotics were found. A somewhat convoluted legal case followed.

The DEA tried again the following year, this time targeting the Club La Vela in Panama Beach City. In addition to the dreaded glow sticks they found Blow Pops candy. It took a jury less than two hours to decide that this was in fact candy, and not drug paraphernalia.

The DEA was pissed off. The drug laws which have seen millions imprisoned were just not tight enough. So Joe Biden potters into our story. He drafted the new law which specifically targets events with “loud, pounding dance music”. Things like glow sticks are now de facto evidence of organisers allowing drug use. They face fines and long jail terms.

In Britain the 1997 Criminal Justice Act similarly targeted events playing “loud, repetitive beats”. The police regularly break up raves with force. For example, 250 police in full riot gear attacked a rave of some 3,500 people near Newport, south Wales in 2007. Many people were injured by police batons and arrested. It seems like the police use such events as training sessions.

The rave (‘free party’) culture is a reflection of people rejecting hyper-commercialised ‘superclubs’ – violent, over-priced, over-policed and playing crap music.


Another crucial cog in the American war on drugs is the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

The ONDCP is, unsurprisingly, a model of bureaucracy. In 2000 the Federal Communications Commission was strongly critical of it for pumping millions of dollars into networks which integrated anti-drug messages into television programmes.

Likewise in 2005 the Government Accountability Office found that the ONDCP had violated laws by circulating pre-packaged news stories to television networks. In both cases the ONDCP failed to give any indication that they were coming from a government source.

Bill Clinton’s director of ONDCP was Barry McCaffrey. This retired general and business consultant has been accused of war crimes for his role in the first Gulf War. It is alleged that he ordered his troops to attack retreating Iraqi forces after a ceasefire had been signed. He dismisses the story as “revisionist history”. Thanks to McCaffrey’s opposition to needle exchanges thousands of people contracted HIV.

Obama continued the Democratic Party tradition in good style with his apparent choice of man for the job: recovering alcoholic and unrecovered Republican Jim Ramstad. Talk of Obama’s gestures towards this anti-drug crusader and opponent of needle exchanges and medical cannabis led to more than 40 healthcare organisations writing to Obama to complain.

Ramstad was quietly dropped. The man who is now in the job, pending Senate approval, is former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske. He is actually, in relative terms, something of a moderate; but the whole debacle provides another illustration of the opportunism of those on the left who advocated support for Obama.

Notorious Zionist Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, has long being considered another hawk on drugs. As a narcotics advisor under Clinton he infamously attacked even the “notion of legalisation”. We have little reason to expect better of other Obama appointees like Janet Napolitano. Eric Holder, now attorney general, pursued a strict approach to drugs when attorney in Washington DC (see, for example, Washington Post September 9 1996).

Free the weed

In Britain the 1999 Runciman report called for the downgrading of cannabis, ecstasy and LSD. Cannabis became a class C drug for a few years, but once again the government ignored the moderate conclusions of its own commission and recently raised the drug to class B in another victory for the Daily Mail lobby.

The news is full of horror stories about the effects of ‘skunk’. This is used as a generic name for any powerful weed; the original skunk was actually a particular and specific blend of Afghani, Colombian and Mexican strains. It is one of many combinations of the two main subspecies, cannabis indica and cannabis sativa.

Aside from the illusion/lie that strong weed was not around in the past, few discuss the real reason for the increasing strength: its illegalisation. In the face of the economic laws of capitalism, concentrated through strident prohibition, cannabis breeding has largely been driven by the need to produce compact, quick flowering and potent plants. Thus there is a trend towards cannabis indica dominant strains, rather than the less ‘couch-lock’ inducing, but tall and slow flowering cannabis sativa.

In Britain the large number of raids on growing operations means many smokers face dealers adding tiny glass beads to their mass-produced herbs to bulk up the weight; presumably not too good for the lungs. Hairspray is another unwelcome additive. Oil, lumps of plastic and other unknown niceties are found in low-quality Moroccan hashish (‘soap bar’). Commercial pressure means that hydroponically grown cannabis is not properly ‘flushed’ of fertilisers, possibly posing more of a health issue than pure cannabis itself.

Even if we accept the ‘scientific’ arguments (eg, a link to schizophrenia) this is no grounds for illegalisation. The damage pales into insignificance compared to that caused by, for instance, fatty foods and cars. Precise statistics are superfluous when considering the massive harm caused by tobacco and alcohol.

Followed to its logical conclusion, the prohibitionist approach would see the state dictate every breath and every twitch of our short lives. The simple fact is that millions of people enjoy smoking cannabis and have done so for thousands of years, whilst many find it medically beneficial.


The war on drugs has cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Yet it has clearly failed. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Prohibition simply means higher profits, and therefore a propensity to violence by the gangs and cartels. It also means dealers cutting their products with all sorts of crap, leading to many deaths.

All this became clear with attempts at alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century. It is no coincidence that the murder rate in America peaked in the final year of prohibition. Neither was there a decline in alcoholism during this time.

In Britain both the Westminster and Scottish governments are targeting cheap alcohol. It is, of course, impossible for them to actually address the cause of ‘drug problems’ like alcoholism because these reflect alienation produced by the capitalist system they defend. Attacks on cheap drink are attacks on the working class. One hears little mention of the epic drinking sessions around London’s financial district.

The Campaign for Real Ale claims that, on average, six pubs a day are closing. Most of those that remain sell second-rate, overpriced beer – the beer halls run by the early German Social Democratic Party provide a far better model.

Meanwhile, the American ruling class wins out from the war on drugs. The flow of prisoners into overcrowded prisons justifies sweeping police powers and maintains the ‘dictatorship of the lawyers’. The war also serves as a justification for imperialism – witness the American invasion of Panama in 1989. The Iran-Contra scandal reveals the hypocrisy of key sections of the American elite.

Many people’s opposition to the legalisation of drugs hinges on little more than crude distrust of the working class. Communists, on the other hand, fight for the rule of the working class. It must be able to understand the most complicated questions of science and politics, not to mention decide what it should consume.

We need to separate drug use from ‘drug abuse’; and the latter must be seen in a medical and social context, and not a moral and political one. This does not mean that we think that on finishing this article you should go and get off your face on methamphetamine. In fact I would strongly advise against it.

As I write, negotiations are continuing in Vienna on the updated UN declaration on drugs. Obama’s America and Russia, whose anti-drug policies are leading to a huge rise in HIV, are pushing for the continuation of the hard line. Other governments want a more moderate approach. Across the world there are splits in the bourgeoisie and the police on the question.

The working class and its political representatives must stand together in rejecting the war on drugs. Communists call for the complete legalisation of all drugs and their socialisation.

(Weekly Worker March 12 2009).


March 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Darwin’s Revolution

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th of the publication of his seminal ‘On the origin of species by means of natural selection’. Huw Sheridan looks at its importance for communists


Charles Robert Darwin died on April 19 1882. Plans for the funeral in his quiet village were quickly interrupted when influential figures called for him to be buried at Westminster Abbey. A House of Commons petition stated that this “would be acceptable to a very large number of our countrymen of all classes and opinions”. And so it was: Darwin was buried alongside the cream of the British empire; one of less than half a dozen non-royals to be buried in Westminster Abbey in his century.

Today, it is hard to avoid Darwin. Bank notes and coins bear his face, whilst towns, universities and national parks are named after him. The anniversary of his birth has led to a torrent of articles, as well as television and radio programmes.


Evolution of evolution

Let us try and put Darwin in context. As far back as the 5th and 6th centuries BCE Greek philosophers such as Anaximander and Empedocles proposed an evolutionary view of life. Not much later, so did taoist philosopher Zhuangzi in China. In the Roman empire men like Titus Lucretius Carus kept these traditions alive. It was also through Lucretius that much of our modern knowledge of the Greek materialist, Epicurus, survived. Through such people materialism and evolutionism, in large part symbiotically, came down to the modern era.

In medieval Europe the notion of the scala naturae, the ‘great chain of being’, was dominant, and largely stifled evolutionary thought. Species, like the social order of feudalism, were seen as god-given and immutable. In contrast, across the ‘Islamic world’ evolutionary ideas were expressed by a number of people, including Al-Jahiz and Ibn Miskawayh.

The renaissance and the enlightenment paved the way for the development of modern evolutionary theory. Carlos Linneaus’s Systema naturae was the high point of enlightenment natural history. Within a creationist framework – and following the work of John Ray, who first used the terms ‘species’ and ‘genus’ – Linneaus developed ‘taxonomy’: the science of naming and classification of the natural world. We still use his system of binomial nomenclature today (eg, Homo sapiens).

Yet Linneaus showed the limits of a descriptive, as opposed to explanatory, approach. Despite being forced by the weight of anatomical evidence to put human and great apes in the same family (Hominidae), he denied there was an evolutionary relationship between them. Other examples of this core contradiction include his initial classifying of whales with fish.

In the later 18th century the real action was in France, particularly in the Paris Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle. Georges Cuvier (the ‘pope of bones’) held classically Aristotelian views, combined with a propensity to bureaucracy and intrigue. In response to the discovery of dinosaur fossils Cuvier proposed the theory of catastrophism, which was still just about compatible with biblical accounts. Nevertheless, his work in uniting anatomy with palaeontology was of lasting significance.

Others at the museum advocated evolutionary ideas. The intellectual spat between Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier makes modern disagreements, such as that between Steven Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, look like a picnic on the beach. Saint-Hilaire was influenced by German philosophy and strongly supported the French revolution. He travelled to Egypt with Napoleon. When he returned, he found Cuvier was widely regarded as the most important scientist in France.1

Saint-Hilaire came to support another colleague at the museum, the young professor of invertebrate biology, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck is a key figure, in that from 1809 he moved beyond abstract speculation on evolution and proposed a mechanism by which it occurred. The ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’ was in many ways an application to biology of John Locke’s philosophical ideas, as filtered through the French ideologues.

The clichéd example of Lamarckism is that of the giraffe, which by stretching up for leaves during its lifetime supposedly passes on a longer neck to its offspring. Yet only the genetic information in sperm or eggs can be passed on, and these are not affected by stretching the neck – but it was at least a serious attempt to explain it. Lamarckism later disastrously reappeared as ‘Stalinist-Marxist’, or Lysenkoist, biological theory in the Soviet Union.

Lamarck also broke the legs of the scala naturae; he proposed two chains, with side branches and the ability of species to move along them. It undermined the entire idea of the chain and prepared the way for Darwin.

In Britain geologist James Hutton developed the theory of uniformitarianism. This held that the key to understanding the past was the present; the same forces such as erosion and deposition had always taken place. Hutton impotently tried to combine his geology with theology, yet he was to inspire a generation of geologists.

Charles Lyell was one of them. He was another creationist, yet in his Principles of geology Lyell accumulated considerable evidence for uniformitarianism; in no small part a polemical response to Lamarck. Lyell was a key figure in pushing the age of the earth back, which was crucial in that it allowed for the time Darwin’s mechanism would require.

A final character deserves a mention. William Buckland, professor of geology at Oxford, was another scientist pushing creationist ideas against a wall. An advocate of ‘old earth creationism’, he rejected simplistic ‘flood geology’, which linked sedimentary deposits and what was later shown to be the evidence of glaciation to Noah’s flood.

In 1823 he discovered the famous ‘red lady’ of Paviland, in south Wales. This was actually a 30,000-year-old man, associated with the remains of a mammoth. Buckland claimed the individual was from Roman times, and the mammoth dug from older deposits by those who buried him. Likewise, the association of long extinct species with ancient human tools at Kent’s Cavern in Dorset must have been the work of Celts digging pits into the floor.

In spite of his flaws, Buckland made important advances. To his credit he accepted the idea of Louis Agassiz, a former student of Cuvier, that there had been past glaciation. This helped others to suggest there had been two glaciations. Then three were proposed … and so on. The Earth was getting older; the Bible an ever more inadequate account of history.

Space prevents a thorough discussion of another important field. It may have been idealist and overly speculative, but romantic biology – inspired by philosophers such as Kant and Hegel – was crucial in developing the idea of nature as a dynamic system. It led to advances in fields from neurology to embryology, many of which would have been unlikely if a purely empirical method had been used. The philosophical winds coming out of Germany were thus a vital catalyst for the development of modern evolutionary theory.

Life and times

In many senses Darwin was a synthesis of his two grandfathers. Erasmus Darwin was a personification of the enlightenment in Britain. In Zoönomia and the epic poem Temple of nature he advocated a loosely defined evolutionism, reflecting his belief in reason and progress. Darwin’s maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgewood, was a rich Unitarian pottery industrialist.

Four first-cousin marriages connected the Darwins and the Wedgewoods. They personified the increasingly influential Unitarian Whig bourgeoisie – although wealth would push them towards Anglican respectability.

Darwin’s father complained of him as a young man: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family.”2 Indeed at the University of Edinburgh Darwin quickly became averse to his course in medicine. Instead he enjoyed attending debates and collecting marine invertebrates on the shore of the Firth of Forth with Robert Edmond Grant, a follower of Lamarck and Saint-Hilaire.

Darwin left Edinburgh, and moved to Cambridge University as a step towards a career with the Church of England – a ‘calling’ with more than enough free time to pursue his interest in nature. 1820s Cambridge was a strange place, deeply religious and conservative. Darwin spent much of his time collecting beetles, and on Friday evenings would attend Reverend John Stevens Henslow’s dinner parties for discussions on natural history.

In 1830 the monarchy of the reactionary Charles X was overthrown in France. In Britain the working class was beginning to assert itself. In Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales the zenith of a period of radicalisation saw thousands of people take to the streets and hills in the summer of 1831, raising both ‘economic’ and political-democratic demands. The red flag was raised in Britain for the first time and workers forced soldiers out of the town.

However, the rising remained, essentially, socialism in a single town. Reinforcements were sent in; the revolt was isolated and crushed. Yet within weeks trade union lodges started appearing and a new chapter in the history of the working class had opened. The population of Britain had doubled in the previous 30 years, and with the Tories for now frustrating attempts at a Reform Bill, things were in a fluid state.

In 1831, the year Hegel died, the 22-year-old Darwin set off on a five-year voyage around the world. HMS Beagle, bristling with the latest technology, and a not insignificant amount of firepower, was to survey the South American coast. Considerable British capital was invested in the area.

Darwin hit foxes on the head with his geological hammer, knocked hawks off branches with the barrel of his gun, tormented lizards and shot anything which was too slow to get away. One time he was looking for a rare species of bird, only to discover that he had just almost finished cooking and eating one! Despite the ‘savages’, he was pleased to note that “little embryo Englands are springing into life”.3


When he returned in 1836, much had changed. The Reform Bill had finally been passed in 1832. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act introduced the dreaded workhouses.

A growing chorus of voices called for professional scientists, not the traditional gentlemen-amateurs. The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in these years, in opposition to the conservative Royal Society. Darwin and many others came to embrace Auguste Comte’s positivism.

Positivism was a particular manifestation of another, wider trend. No longer would nature be explained by god’s random interventions, but rather by fundamental laws. Maybe god had initiated the laws of nature, but for increasingly secular science that was a secondary, philosophical question. From one perspective, it was capitalist ‘rule of law’ constitutionalism applied to science.

These were the conditions under which Darwin began to condense his thoughts and observations on ‘transmutation’ (evolution) in secret notebooks in 1837.

These were also the years of Chartism. Darwin’s cousin, Emma Wedgewood, whom he married in 1838, presumably summed up their shared feelings when on reading Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism pamphlet she declared it “full of compassion and good feeling, but utterly unreasonable”.5

A variety of factors held Darwin back from publishing his ideas. Not least the family and friends who would be shocked. The Malthusian bourgeoisie wanted theories to justify and expand their position, yet Darwin was also concerned that his ideas would be appropriated from below.

Darwin’s fears were understandable. The people were skilled at plagiarising the work of the bourgeoisie for progressive ends. Aside from the Chartists, there were illegal newspapers such as the Oracle of reason. This sold well and expounded atheist and evolutionary ideas. Editor after editor was jailed for blasphemy.

In August 1838 the latest editor of the Oracle (and the man who coined the phrase ‘secularism’), George Holyoake, was put on trial. He turned the trial into a propaganda epic. From the dock he spoke for eight hours on atheism and socialism. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

That summer saw a huge and prolonged Chartist-inspired general strike. But the popular enthusiasm from below was let down by poor leadership, insufficient organisation and an altogether wrong strategy. Troops marching from London to put down disorder in Manchester passed Darwin’s street. They were followed by screaming crowds, who shouted at the soldiers, “Remember, you are brothers” and “Don’t go and slaughter your starving fellow countrymen.” For a respectable Whig like Darwin it must have been terrifying.5


By 1842 Darwin had a basic sketch of what would become On the origin of species. Yet he compared discussing his ideas to “confessing a murder”.6

But by the mid-1840s evolutionary ideas were beginning to gain respectability in ‘polite society’. The anonymous publication in 1844 of Vestiges of the natural history of creation by Robert Chambers is a crucial event preparing the way for the later publication of Darwin’s ideas. Written for a popular audience, it led many to accept that species could change.

In 1845 Tory prime minister Robert Peel embraced ‘free trade’. The following year the hated Corn Laws were repealed. Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto crystallised the modern Conservative Party, favouring modest reforms. Whig politics had ‘won’, but in the process heralded their negation.

Darwin turned his attention to that most pressing of subjects, barnacles! It showed that the man who largely lived on his father’s money could do ‘proper science’, and not merely abstract theorisation.

Then 1848 happened. The French workers showed more of a passion for barricades than barnacles, and the king fled to Britain. Europe exploded in revolution. Thousands of Chartists were expected to meet on Kennington Common in April. The upper class engaged in an extensive programme of arming and fortifying buildings. Even the geologist, Reverend Buckland, now Dean of Westminster, wielded a crowbar, ready to bludgeon any undesirables in the Abbey.7 As it turned out, the Chartist demonstrations were peaceful, a period of reaction was ushered in and the economy boomed in the 1850s.

On June 18 1857 a long letter that landed on Darwin’s doormat was like a cruise missile. It was from Alfred Russel Wallace, a working class socialist born near Abergavenny in south Wales. He had some ideas for the respected English naturalist to look over. Little did he know they closely paralleled what Darwin had been working on in secret. Darwin panicked, and rushed to publish his ideas.

On the origin of species

On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life was finally published on November 24 1859. It was a surprise bestseller alongside Charles Dickens’ A tale of two cities, a novel set in the context of the French revolution, and Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the king (superficially a retelling of the Arthurian legend, this was widely interpreted as an allegory of the class struggle). The popularity of such works tells us much about the attitudes of Victorian Britain.

Origin begins by discussing artificial selection. It was clear that selective breeding had strongly changed many species. Thus from the humble wild cabbage came Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower. From the wolf we bred the diminutive chihuahua and the mighty Irish wolfhound. Darwin argued, by drowning the reader in examples, that nature worked in the same way. Clearly all species were varied, and most have the ability in theory to rapidly increase in numbers. Yet this does not happen. There is therefore a “struggle for existence”.

Natural selection was, however, considerably slower than artificial selection because nature was blind and change was not teleological. Over time varieties became species. It was a remarkable book, although genetics was perhaps the invisible ‘elephant in the room’ within it.

One notable omission was human evolution. This is what people largely talked about, and Darwin was quite clear in private on the implications of his work. He was not keen on a fight, and he merely comments that “light will be cast on the origin of man and his history”. Even so, the true significance of the book was clear. A number of reviews of Origin and books such as the Duke of Argyll, George Campbell’s Reign of law (1867) attacked Darwin for undermining the natural basis of class society.

It was Darwin’s ‘bulldog’, Thomas Huxley, who took on the topic of human evolution most directly with his Evidence as to man’s place in nature (1863). Darwin later showed the diversity of his thought in The descent of man and selection in relation to sex (1871). As this was being published, the Parisian working class were ‘storming the heavens’. The Paris Commune was to be the most significant action of the proletariat until 1917. The Times criticised Darwin’s application of evolutionary ideas to humans, which it claimed would lead to “the most murderous revolution”.8


Behind all this lay the struggle between idealism and materialism. Philosophy had become mired in the scepticism of Kant and Hume. A key role played by Hegel was in transcending Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’, but Hegel remained an idealist, chasing the Geist through history. Materialism was also troubled, being largely mechanical and contemplative. Darwin’s ideas were powerful ammunition for materialist dialectics.

This explains the reaction of the Marx-Engels team to Darwin’s ideas. To fast-forward somewhat, at Marx’s graveside Engels declared: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.”

Marx’s initial reaction to Origin, in a letter to Engels on December 19 1860, was that, although “developed in the crude English style”, Darwin’s argument “contains the basis in natural history for our point of view”. He made similar comments to Lassalle.

A relatively little known affair occurred some time later. Marx greeted the publication of the now largely forgotten Origine et transformations de l’homme et des autres êtres (1865) by Pierre Trémaux with considerable excitement. Trémaux argued that changes in soil chemistry were the primary factor in driving evolution. Marx declared this “a very significant advance over Darwin” and that “for certain questions, such as nationality, etc, only here has a basis in nature been found”.9 Engels bluntly criticised Marx for warming to this crap, and Darwin was re-embraced. Marx was certainly not infallible.

A widespread myth is that Marx asked Darwin if he could dedicate Das Kapital to him. Yet, as has been comprehensively shown, this is false. The letter from Darwin on which it is founded, addressed simply “Dear Sir”, was actually sent to Marx’s soon to be son-in-law, Edward Aveling, who had sent Darwin proof sheets of his The student’s Darwin (1881).

Engels addressed the relationship of Darwinism to the communist project at length in his Anti-Dühring.10 Here we find a defence of the core of Darwinism. To Dühring Darwin had done little more than crudely paste Malthusian political economy onto nature. With the exception of the villain – in this case the megalomaniac professor Dühring rather than the modern creationists – Engels’ exposition of Darwin reads like a contemporary textbook.

Dühring’s words find a modern echo with, for example, ex-Workers Revolutionary Party member Cyril Smith.11 The irony is that, in the end, both Smith and Dühring actually do accept evolution by natural selection, but both complain that it is not the only mechanism by which evolution occurs. Darwin agreed!

Marxists have adopted a plethora of positions on Darwinism. For Dutch council communist Anton Pannekoek the essence of Darwinism was valid, but he advocated a somewhat mechanical division whereby Darwinism applies until man appears, and then Marxism takes over. He has a point, but goes too far. While he criticises “bourgeois Darwinists”, his proletarian Darwinism was just as unscientific.12

Trotsky argued that Darwinism was “the highest triumph of the dialectic in the whole field of organic matter”.13 Kautsky, on the other hand, moved away from his initial keenness for Darwin and later advocated a “materialist neo-Lamarckism”.14

Today the Socialist Workers Party has an uncomfortable relationship with Darwin. For instance, in former Socialist Worker editor Chris Harman’s A people’s history of the world (1999) we find only fleeting reference to him. A recent article by SWP intellectual Alex Callinicos rightly criticises those on the left who are suspicious of Darwin’s ideas.15

But Callinicos implies that anything progressive about Darwinism had been elucidated 150 years ago. The spectacular advances of the 20th century are brushed aside, as crude defences of capitalism. His GCSE level analysis would, in many regards, be better replaced by a few minutes on Wikipedia. The same goes for the 2005 Socialist Worker series by Viren Swami, who chucks in some basic factual errors for good measure.16

Malthus, gradualism and fitness

Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the principle of population went through six editions, and must be seen in its polemical context.17 The anonymously published first edition was a frontal assault on the enlightenment. In later editions the focus was on the Poor Laws and anything else which helped the workers to survive and multiply. Malthus’s ideas boiled down to ‘do nothing’; help for the impoverished workers now would only make things worse later.

Malthus famously claimed that, whilst population increased geometrically (eg, 1, 2, 4, 8 …), resources – primarily food – could only increase arithmetically (eg, 1, 2, 3, 4 …). Both of these assumptions are flawed; contraception and artificial fertilisers, to name just two things, upset his neat schema. In reality his Essay was, as Engels argued in his The condition of the working class in England (1845), the “most open declaration of war of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat”.18

Yet how much did Darwin’s theory really owe to Malthus? Darwin had already started work on evolution, and Malthus’s views on humans inspired his views on nature, where the logic of Malthusianism may actually have some bearing. However, as Engels put it in Anti-Dühring, “No Malthusian spectacles are required in order to perceive the struggle for existence in nature”.19

The essence of Darwin’s Origin was the claim that gradual natural selection was the primary mechanism by which evolution occurred. In many cases this is true: for instance, with the detailed mimicry of many butterflies – an example August Weismann used in his defence of Darwinism from attack by the Dutch botanist, Hugo de Vries.

But what about something like a change in the number of chromosomes? This is a ‘digital’ change, a qualitative transition. The same goes for the origin of life from inanimate material. Periodic ‘extinction events’ also scupper the idea of the universality of gradualism; the last one, the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, wiped out some 75% of extant species.

The idea of gradualism was thick in the air Darwin breathed. The bourgeoisie wanted ‘progress’ (eg, industrialisation), but it did not want the proletariat to overstep its mark. Archaeologist August Pitt Rivers put things somewhat more honestly than many of his contemporaries when he said the law that nature “makes no jumps” can be taught to the people “in such a way as at least to make men cautious how they listen to scatterbrained revolutionary suggestions”.20

But gradual change is not necessary for Darwinism. Even Huxley – among many others – was critical of Darwin’s repeated use of the phrase Natura non facit saltum (‘Nature makes no leaps’) in Origin. As Huxley quite rightly suggested, “We believe that nature does make jumps now and then, and a recognition of the fact is of no small importance.”21

This debate has continued in recent years. Those who consider themselves orthodox Darwinists (gradualists), including Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, have opposed more dialectical suggestions. This primarily takes the form of the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, initially proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould.

Yet even in Darwin’s lifetime he moved away from the focus on natural selection in Origin. The nature of the fossil record – also the prominent in Gould’s arguments – was an important factor. As was the claim by creationist geologist William Thomson, seemingly supported by ‘scientific evidence’, that the Earth was far too young for natural selection to have taken place.

In response, in the later editions of Origin and in The variation of animals and plants under domestication (1868), Darwin sought to speed up evolution by a variety of mechanisms (some of which look suspiciously close to being Lamarckian) and advocated an increasingly multi-causal view of evolution.

The most controversial element of Darwinism for progressively minded people has been the idea of the ‘struggle for existence’, or ‘survival of the fittest’.

Darwin states in Origin that he uses the expression ‘struggle for existence’ in a “large and metaphorical sense”. There can be no simplistic moral application to human society of descriptions of natural processes; we need to remove our anthropomorphic spectacles when looking at nature.

When old oak trees compete for light they are engaged in a struggle for existence. The male peacock, with his cumbersome tail, shows that for this species the struggle largely takes the form of sexual selection. Altruism in no sense contradicts the struggle for existence.

The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ originated with Herbert Spencer, and Darwin used it in later editions of Origin (as a less anthropomorphic alternative to ‘natural selection’). Here we need to understand what the biological term ‘fitness’ means, because it does not refer to one’s capacity for distance running or weightlifting. Fitness refers to the overall suitability of an organism for survival and, crucially, for passing on its genes.

The fitness of an organism reflects its phenotype – the way the genotype is expressed in combination with environmental factors. Fitness is about adaptation to the changing local environment, not some supra-historical schema.

With the rise of the ‘gene-centred view of evolution’, provocatively labelled ‘selfish gene theory’ by Dawkins, the way we understand fitness has changed considerably. What matters is that genes are passed on – an organism can therefore be ‘fit’ either by passing on these genes itself, or by helping another who shares the genes.

Many comrades, not least those in the SWP, have a major problem with the idea of the ‘selfish gene’. Yet their view is based on a crass simplification and an inability to get beyond moral outrage at the name. The ‘selfish gene’ can be taken as support for capitalism, but, on the other hand, by undermining the idea that selection takes place at the level of the individual or social group, it can equally support a progressive world view. Richard Dawkins described himself as “mortified” to discover that The selfish gene was Enron CEO Jeff Skilling’s favourite book and that he took it in a social Darwinist way.22 Dawkins repeats this message in the introduction to the latest edition of The selfish gene.

Social Darwinism

What came to be labelled social Darwinism stems from Herbert Spencer, particularly in his Progress: its law and cause (1857), published two years before Darwin’s Origin. Spencer took little from Darwin; instead his views were more a foul cocktail of the worst of Comte, Lamarck and Malthus; he took the bourgeois yearning for all-embracing natural laws to its logical conclusion.

The idea that the working class was ‘unfit’ was palpable nonsense and owed little to biology. The combining of social Darwinism with the modern idea of ‘races’, as advocated by people such as Ernst Haeckel, was equally unscientific. At heart the ideas of Spencer and Haeckel were largely about attacking the working class and socialism, as well as advocating imperialism, and they are to Darwinism as Stalinism is to Marxism.

The eugenics movement, which sought to ‘improve the human gene pool’, may have reached its zenith in Nazi Germany, but it was heavily influential elsewhere. Supporters ranged from HG Wells to John Maynard Keynes and to the highest echelons of American society. Indeed the second largest eugenics programme was directed by the Swedish social democrats.

The post-war consensus extended into the realms of biology. The ‘modern synthesis’ united Darwinism and genetics, and in its wake Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr and George Simpson largely defined modern biology. As I have briefly discussed, the primary change has been the idea of the gene as the unit of selection. This was initially developed by Bill Hamilton to explain altruistic behaviour, and thus as a minimum communists need to constructively engage with it. Evolution is about changing gene frequencies, not necessarily Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes. This means Darwinism offers, even more than in Marx’s day, “the basis in natural history for our point of view”.

To simplify a huge field considerably, it is reasonable to argue that much of what passed for Marxism in the 20th century, as articulated by Lukács, Gramsci and others, fundamentally downplayed the role of dialectics in relation to nature.The materialist dialectic was reinvigorated by people like Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins and Steven Jay Gould.23

Clearly ideas on evolution have reflected what is going on in society as well as ‘scientific evidence’. This is certainly the case with things like the ‘worship of the gradual’, which was in many senses a key element of Darwin’s ideas. It is not, however, essential to them.

The role of communists is to disentangle the science from the reactionary politics. We must take scientific questions seriously – not merely because they are ‘interesting’, but because to change the world we need to understand them. As Engels put it, “The more ruthlessly and disinterestedly science proceeds, the more it finds itself in harmony with the interests and aspirations of the workers”24

Weekly Worker February 26 2009.


1. See K Malik Man, beast and zombie London 2000, p55.

2. C Darwin The autobiography of Charles Darwin London 1887.

3. C Darwin Voyage of the Beagle London 1989, pp173, 358.

4. There are a number of biographies of Darwin. The principal one here is A Desmond, J Moore Darwin London 1991, p288.

5. Ibid p297.

6. Ibid p314.

7. Ibid p354.

8. See J Moore, A Desmond, introduction to C Darwin The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex London 2004.

9. F Wheen Karl Marx London 1999, pp 364-65.

10. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch05.htm

11. C Smith Marx at the millennium London 1996, pp118-22.

12. http://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1912/marxism-darwinism.htm

13. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/12/abc.htm

14. For example, compare http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1906/ethics/ch04.htm; and http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1929/12/naturesoc.htm

15. Socialist Worker February 14 2009.

16. See, for example, Socialist Worker October 29 2005.

17. See JB Foster Marx’s ecology; materialism and nature New York 2000, pp 87-102.

18. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/condition-working-class/ch13.htm

19. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch05.htm

20. See R Dennell (1990), ‘Progressive gradualism, imperialism and academic fashion: lower Palaeolithic archaeology in the 20th century’ Antiquity 64: 549-558.

21. Quoted in JB Foster Marx’s ecology, materialism and nature New York 2000, p192.

22. R Dawkins The god delusion London 2006, p246n.

23. For example, R Levins, R Lewontin The dialectical biologist Harvard 1985.

24. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch04.htm

March 1, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Single Bullet

Ted North explores the background to unrest against a state regarded as endemically corrupt

Recent explosive events in Greece were not a revolution. Nor were they a half-revolution. But they were in their own way a quarter-revolution. And all sparked by a single bullet.

On December 6 2008 a police ‘special guard’ shot and killed Alexandros Grigoropoulos in the infamous Exarcheia area of Athens. The 15-year-old was the son of a bank manager, attended a private school and lived in the pleasant suburb of Psychiko.

Within minutes protests had erupted in Athens. Pitched battles with riot police, combined with attacks on banks, police stations and other buildings, quickly spread to other Greek cities over the following days. Solidarity demonstrations across Europe and beyond frequently ended in confrontations with the police.

During the week following Grigoropoulos’s death the Greek police used close to 5,000 canisters of tear gas, almost exhausting their supplies. TV screens across Europe projected images of hooded youths lobbing petrol bombs and the remains of burnt out cars and buildings. Hundreds of people were arrested, dozens injured and damage costing billions of euros inflicted.

Yet the riots are not the totality of what has occurred. Greece has also seen hundreds of demonstrations, school walkouts and occupations, which have received, unsurprisingly, less attention in the bourgeois press. It was only in the closing days of December, for example, that the occupation of university buildings in Athens and Thessaloniki came to an end.

On December 16 protestors stormed a state-owned TV channel and were shown on air for around a minute holding a banner which urged, “Stop watching – get out into the streets”. The following day two huge banners were hung on the iconic Acropolis reading: “Thursday 18/12: demonstrations in all Europe” and proclaiming the message of “resistance” in Greek, English, Italian and German. A number of other TV and radio stations were subsequently occupied.


The most recent major demonstration, on January 9, followed the same basic course as those before it. Sixty people were arrested – including 14 lawyers, who claimed to have nothing to do with the protestors. The familiar pattern of police brutality was repeated, with several people seriously injured.

The trade unions adopted an ambiguous position throughout. Nevertheless, because of the sympathy and feelings of solidarity below, at a rank and file level, for the youth and student movements, a one-day general strike was staged on December 10. Originally it was intended as a protest against the government’s fiscal policies, coinciding with strike action by air traffic controllers, teachers and lecturers. But the union leaderships needed a safety valve and had December 10 at hand. This and similar token gestures did little to build unity between the students’ and workers’ movements, and not much either to pressure the government into granting positive concessions.

Understandably there is frustration with the role of the labour bureaucracy. Hence, on December 17 protestors occupied the offices of the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), which is traditionally close to the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). The confederation’s president, Giannis Panagopoulos, pleaded that “GSEE does not govern this country”.1 But what the protesters wanted was decisive action. Not another 24-hour holiday.

On December 17, Giorgos Paplomatas, a 16-year-old member of the Communist Youth of Greece (KNE) – one of those involved in organising the protests and the son of a prominent KKE and Greek Teachers Federation member – was shot. Fortunately for Paplomatas the bullet hit him in the hand, rather than inflicting life-threatening injuries.

Bullets have been flying in the other direction too. In the early hours of December 22 several shots from something like an AK47 hit a police riot van, having been fired from the grounds of the University of Athens. No police were hit in the attack, for which a new organisation called Popular Action apparently claimed responsibility. This group seems to be a splinter of Revolutionary Struggle, itself an offshoot of the now defunct Revolutionary Organisation 17 November.

On January 5 masked gunmen fired multiple shots with automatic weapons and threw a grenade at police guarding the culture ministry in Athens. A policeman was hit in the leg and chest. Presumably, the aim is to kill a cop in a symbolic show of revenge. But such acts of terrorism allow the state to increase repression and hardly offer a viable strategy for the working class.

The kidnapping of shipping tycoon Pericles Panagopoulos on January 13, and the reported demand for a €40 million ransom, may be the work of people from the same milieu. A mistaken response to the use of Greek-owned ships to deliver US weaponry to Israel, as well as a cash-making exercise.

Clearly, if we start at the most obvious level, the tragic death of Grigoropoulos was the spark which initiated the outburst of anger. Whether special guard Epaminondas Korkoneas deliberately killed the young man, or, as he claims, fired a warning shot which ricocheted into him, misses the point. Greece was ready.


Rodney King provided a similar spark for the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which were only suppressed by the army and the arrest of 10,000 people. The death of two Paris teenagers, who were apparently trying to evade the police in 2005, likewise acted as a catalyst. In Greece itself the deaths of Michalis Kaltezas and Christos Tsoutsouvis led to extensive rioting in 1985.

Over the last few years ordinary Greeks have faced rising economic hardship, even before the start of the current recession. For those with a job the rising cost of living, combined with low salaries, has led to widespread dissatisfaction. The ‘700 euro generation’ – so called for the salary the young can expect to earn each month and because the last two governments have considered this an ample sum – has come of age. Things are even worse for the increasing numbers of young people who are unemployed and for migrant workers.

The Greek version of Keynesian stimulus has consisted of a government gift of €28 billion to the banking sector. In that sense the Greek state is one of the ‘lucky’ ones. It is one of those that is both sanctioned by a hegemonic US capital to provide ailing financial institutions with fiscal medicine and is actually in a position to do so. Keynesian solutions take a national form; if applied globally they would quickly lead to spiralling inflation. For an example of an ‘unlucky’ country look at Pakistan, which must stick with the IMF’s neoliberal plans.

To produce profound political change, economic factors must be, as they always are, filtered through political and social reality. Police brutality against demonstrations and other protest events leads to a recognition of the state as an ‘armed body of men’. A frequently heard chant on the December demonstrations was: “Cops – pigs, murderers”. Yet to get anywhere this anger must be channelled into conscious opposition to the bourgeois state as a whole and given organisational coherence.

For many young Greeks the state is rightly regarded as endemically corrupt and official society has been shaken by a whole series of scandals. One example was in 2005, when the Greek Orthodox Church was rocked by reports of several significant clerical figures, including a senior bishop, bribing judges (Greek Orthodoxy is described by the constitution as the “prevailing” religion, the church is heavily funded by the state and its creed is taught to children in schools). Other scandals have involved tapped telephones (eg, the 2006 Vodafone episode) and the deliberately started huge forest fires of 2007.

Yet parliamentary opposition to Kostas Karamanlis’s rightwing New Democracy party has been weak and ineffective. All the major players are loyal to the existing state and accept the rules of the game. The main opposition party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), has been in power for most of the time since 1981. It is a typical social democratic organisation and its leader, George Papandreou, is also president of the Socialist International, whose other members include our own Labour Party.

The next most important opposition party is the KKE. Always fervently pro-Moscow, it won 8.15% of the vote in the 2007 elections. To the left of the KKE lies the usual competing shoal of Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist sects.

Because there is no effective left alternative, KKE was able to take a lead in organising some of December’s biggest demonstrations in order to keep them safe and attempt to bring anti-state sentiments back under control. Naturally it condemned the anarchist rioters. Three days after Grigoropoulos’s death KKE released a statement claiming that things were increasingly taking the “form of open provocations against the growing wave of protest”. The rioters were “trying to prevent the emergence of an organised and mighty mass movement”.2

In a speech at a demonstration in Athens KKE general secretary Aleka Papariga attacked the “blind rage of the hooded people”. On the same day its central committee issued a statement calling for a “broad popular alliance, the sole hope and guarantee for a genuine popular power”.3 In that spirit Papariga visited the presidential mansion for talks with president Papoulias this week.

Clearly KKE has played a role in some senses analogous to the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1968, albeit at a lower level. KKE, and its historically connected trade union confederation, have attempted to stop the fusing of the students’ and workers’ movements. As a result, the anger of the youth has failed to find an effective outlet.

The role of KKE is recognised by the thinking sections of the Greek bourgeoisie and the state. For instance, the rightwing Avriani newspaper ran an article headlined, “Either citizens or the KKE should take it upon themselves to restore public order and protection of the democratic system.” It described KKE as the “only organised political power which dared to denounce publicly the ‘hoodies’ and to reveal their dirty role”.4


Why have these events occurred? It is not simply the killing of Grigoropoulos and the recurrent scandals. As we have shown, there are deep-rooted socio-economic factors at work.

Whilst ‘the weakest link in the EU chain’ might be something of a cliché, there is a certain truth about such a description at the level not only of economics, but politics and history too. Greece experienced a two-phase civil war from 1942 to 44 and from 1946 to 49, which pitted the pro-monarchist right against the KKE and its allies. The right won with the help of British and US aid and because of Stalin’s betrayal. This left permanent scars and Greek society remained deeply divided.

There was a colonel’s coup in April 1967 which claimed to be saving the country from the threat of communism. The military regime was initially supported by Constantine II and ruled the country with an iron fist until 1974 when it collapsed amid student protests, foreign policy blunders and corruption charges. Other factors which contribute to instability are the regional tensions. Greece and Turkey are bitterly divided over Cyprus and exploitation of the Aegean Sea. Then there is the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia which is seen as having ambitions over Greek Macedonia.

It is reasonable to assume that a spark in Italy or Spain could perhaps ignite a similar flame in the very near future. However, for real progress to be made the workers must establish parties which really represent their historic interest in superseding capitalism and abolishing private property and social classes. Halfway house projects such as Die Linke in Germany, Refoundation in Italy, the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity and Respect in Britain and the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece are doomed to disapoint and fail.

Objective circumstances cry out for genuine communist parties and the formation of a Communist Party of the European Union. Militant class fighters, not least those in the KKE, have every reason to fight for such a perspective. We have already seen indications that the frightened bourgeoisie sees the Stalinist misleaders of the KKE as a potential ally against their common foe, the ‘hooded people’.

But anarchism, riot after riot and ‘propaganda by deed’ do not offer a realistic line of advance. Whilst Marxists will struggle alongside anarchists whenever our interests coincide, we have no illusions where anarchism leads – to futile gestures and eventually defeat. Nonetheless we ought to engage them in serious debate. They too hate capitalism and yearn for human liberation.

Ted North. (Published in Weekly Worker 752)

Notes 1. Kathimerini December 18 2008.

2. inter.kke.gr/News/2008news/2008-information

3. inter.kke.gr/News/2008news/2008-15-cc-resolution-xrono

4. Avriani December 12 2008.

March 1, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment