Friday, June 12, 2009

Karl Marx Stares Down Herbert Spencer

We spent a couple of days in London on this trip (a post about the Genome and Public Health meeting we attended in Bristol will come in due course). On a drippy day we walked through the Highgate Cemetery because we had read that several prominent people were buried there. It is an overgrown, but esthetically very interesting place (representative photo to the left). The most prominent resident is undoubtedly Karl Marx. We don't know how he got there (though it's not a church burial ground, which would not be a very savory place for a strongly declared atheist!). In any case, he has a very nicely done, and imposing (and rather non-proletarian!) monument (photo below)--to which he would surely object!

When we were there, a few others were gathered round to reflect upon the historically influential man's tomb. A British woman was singing the Internationale while her friend took her photo. A young American, wearing an old hippie-style US Army jacket, walked up and complimented her on her singing. He asked her if she would take his photo as he stood by the monument. She said yes, if he'd also sing the Internationale. He protested that he could only sing the American version, but as his new friend aimed the camera, he burst into a loud and passionate rendition of the communist anthem, forgetting not a word.

But there is a rather great irony in this tomb. Marx had originally been buried 200 M away from his current location. The original site, a rather plain one, was not on a major walkway through the cemetery, and as Marx grew in fame, it along with the surrounding burials were being trampled by tourists. So after a fund was made available for the large new monument, the Marx family remains were moved. But just opposite the new location was the site of one of the other most noteworthy former Londoners who are interred in Highgate: Herbert Spencer.

The irony is that Marx was a strong advocate for both the potential for human improvement, and the eventual evolution of egalitarian human society, while Spencer was the advocate of what became called 'social Darwinism' and the person who coined the term 'survival of the fittest', the exact opposite of Marx's view about human nature--and who justified social inequality as Nature's way that society would oppose at its peril. To Marx, society should work towards the poor catching up with the privileged; to Spencer, the privileged should distance themselves from the poor.

The two may or may not have met--they were born at the same time (1818 and 1820) but Marx died in '83 while Spencer lived until 1903. Spencer was English and of the middle class while Marx was an immigrant living largely in poverty and so on, often relying on the help of the politically left but wealthy mercantile class. Did those who chose the new burial site for Marx know of this juxtaposition? Wikipedia says not, but we don't know if that's accurate or not.

The difference of views, between darwinian and marxist social evolution could hardly be more marked, even though both were historical materialists, saying that evolution of organisms, and society, respectively, were the result of historical processes.

We don't know what Spencer thought of Marx, or even if they referred to each other (that must be well-known to historians and should be easy to determine). But it's worth reflecting that both views were prominent and expressed at the same time, in the same place, and with the same facts at hand. It's not at all unusual for opposing or opposite views to be held by contemporaries who use the same facts, sometimes selectively, to advance their views. In this case, Marx and Spencer were both working in the 'Newtonian' era in which it was believed that there were Laws of Nature that, if understood, could be used to the betterment of human society. This grew out of the so-called Enlightenment period, and tensions were greatly increased by the French Revolution which, until it unraveled, threatened the world's existing non-egalitarian order. How could both authors, and others who allied with them or who expressed similar views, both claim to be empirical and scientific and yet disagree so profoundly--and does this have any lessons for us today?

The answer to the latter question is that we'll never know until tomorrow, when someone can look back in retrospect and see how competing ideas worked out. But it is at least almost always true that there are such ideas. Even when a theory is widely or universally accepted, such as evolution, there are always debates about aspects of the theory on the edge of current understanding.

Darwin rested his case on short-term observations of current adaptations, comparative biology, artificial breeding experience, biogeography and geology, and extrapolation of these things into the deep past. He provided convincing evidence for the fact of common historical origins of life forms, and natural selection was a mechanism that would work in principle even if its long-term effects could not be directly observed. For Darwin. evolution had no direction, value, or ending point, but was a continuing process (except in industrial societies, which he thought in many ways had finally suspended the role of natural selection).

Marx also used comparative methods (with Engels, for example, using anthropological observations on world cultures, especially the 'primitive' pre-industrial ones that colonialists had observed around the world), and detailed analysis of the current economic system (capitalism). He predicted that social evolution would resolve class conflicts, and his views were taken to mean that the desired endpoint wasn't far way. For those dedicated to the theory, like Lenin, the endpoint was just a revolution away! Society would then, in a sense, suspend the inherent conflicts between ideas and their antitheses. For Marx, social evolution did have a direction, one that was inevitable because it was due to a natural Law, and it also had an end point.

Whether or not the juxtaposition of these great men's tombs was inadvertent, it certainly set up interesting contrasts that the cemetery presented to us on a drizzly walk.


R.R. said...

Very interesting, great post.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thank you. Glad we piqued your interest.