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The first Darwinian left: radical and socialist responses to Darwin, 1859-1914

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Myths, misunderstanding and neglect have combined to obscure our understanding of the relationship between left-wing politics and Darwinian science. This article seeks to redress the balance by studying how radical and socialist thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, desperate to legitimate their work with scientific authority, wrestled with the paradoxical challenges Darwinism posed for their politics. By studying eight leading radical and socialist thinkers — ranging from the co-founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, through to Britain's first Labour Prime Minister, J. Ramsay MacDonald — this article analyses the often tortuous relationship between Darwinism and the left, as well as providing fresh insights into the historiographical debate over ‘continuity’ in radicalism and socialism. A strict definition of ‘Darwinian’ is adopted throughout, in order to help us delineate what was specifically ‘Darwinian’ from what merely reflected the general evolutionary ethos of the age, in left-wing thought, and to move us beyond the sensational and distorting focus on eugenics which has characterized previous studies

Keywords: Aveling; Darwin; Darwinism; Kropotkin; MacDonald; Marx; Wallace; evolution; left; radicalism; socialism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of History, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, London, E1 4NS.

Publication date: April 1, 2000


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