Marx and Corals

March 14, 2008

In his latest book, Coral, A Pessimist in Paradise, the biologist and popular science writer Steve Jones attributes to Marx the statement that “we see mighty coral reefs rising from the depth of the ocean into islands and firm land, yet each individual depositor is puny, weak, and contemptible”. Marx was something of a polymath, but an expert on corals?

These words do appear in Capital – in chapter 13 of Volume I on “Co-operation” – but were not written by Marx. He was quoting a passage from a book by Richard Jones making the point that by working together humans can construct things which they would not otherwise be able to.

The Rev. Richard Jones (1790-1855) was the Rev. Malthus’s successor as Professor of Political Economy at the East India College in Haileybury. Marx held Jones in fairly high esteem – a whole chapter of Theories of Surplus Value is given over to a discussion of his views – because he did not regard capitalism as an ideal system deduced from assumptions about human nature but as just one historically evolved way of organising the production and distribution of wealth.

But to return to Jones the Biologist. After misattributing the quote to Marx, he continues, believing himself to be summarising Marx’s view:

“Every atoll proved that collective action, by polyps or by people, was a natural law. Society had been ruined by an altogether artificial medium called cash, which matured into capital and led to exploitation. In an ideal world all would give what they could and get what they needed. In time the state – and money – would lose its raison d’être and a global system of mutual aid would begin” (chapter III).

Although Marx did want a society without state or money in which people “would give what they could and get what they needed”, he did not base the case for this on what happened in nature. That was the position set out by the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 book Mutual Aid, A Factor in Evolution.

Kropotkin’s position has an obvious attraction for socialists as it would turn the tables and make socialism natural and capitalism unnatural. His book has always been popular amongst socialists as an answer to the Social Darwinists who argued that Darwin’s “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” applied to human society too and that any attempt to limit it would lead to the degeneration of the human race.

Kropotkin sought to counter this argument by bringing forward evidence that the struggle for individual survival was not the only factor in biological evolution but that co-operation and mutual aid both within and between species were too. Kropotkin was a scientist in his own right – he had done some pioneering work on the geography of Siberia – and Jones says his contribution was taken seriously by biologists who called his theory “mutualism” (not to be confused with the market anarchism of that other anarchist Proudhon). It is now called “symbiosis” (literally, living together) and is a recognised fact of nature.

The trouble is that, whereas there is agreement on this fact, there is no agreement on its interpretation. While Kropotkin saw this as an argument for a co-operative, communist society, others have argued that it is not really mutual aid but rather mutual exploitation. As a self-confessed pessimist Jones tends to agree, but he does make the point that the science of biology can’t contribute anything to what he calls “philosophy” beyond supplying facts. He’s basically right, though we would express it differently: that conclusions about how human society should be organised cannot be derived from the behaviour of other organisms. The Social Darwinists (and their latter-day incarnation, the Sociobiologists) are wrong to try to do this but so, even if unfortunately, are Socialist Darwinists like Kropotkin. Marx was right to steer clear of such arguments and base the case for a stateless, moneyless communist society on an analysis of human society not biology.

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Related posts:

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  2. The return of Karl Marx
  3. ‘Surplus Theory’ versus Marxian Theory
  4. Marx and Engels on The Origin of Species
  5. Increasing misery?

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