Change Was in the Air

Revolutionary Worker #1157, June 30, 2002, posted at

The scientific theory of evolution was first put forward in systematic fashion by the great English naturalist Charles Darwin in 1859. It is interesting to reflect on just how much "change was in the air" in Europe and North America from the end of the 18th century and throughout much of the 19th, revolutionizing intellectual discourse in both the social sciences and the natural sciences. The end of the 1700s in Europe and America had been times of political revolution--when newly rising bourgeois classes and the masses of the dispossessed rose up to overthrow the feudal kings and noblemen. Large numbers of people began to flat-out reject the old feudal idea (which had been drilled into most people's heads literally for centuries!) that an individual's position in the social hierarchy (whether as prince or pauper, for instance) was permanently determined by birth and ordained by god (kings were said to rule "by divine right") and could therefore never be changed. People of all strata had been taught that they were supposed to "simply accept" their lot in life, whatever it might be, because this was just the "natural order" of things. But throughout the late 1700s and a good part of the 1800s, more and more people challenged and rejected this way of thinking .

Of course, realizing that things can change is not quite the same thing as knowing how things can change, that is, on what basis changes can occur. This became the subject of much reflection, discussion and struggle in different spheres.

In the mid 1800s (during the same period that Darwin was starting to figure out not only that life had evolved but also how it had evolved), Karl Marx (who also lived in England during much of this period) was working out some of the underlying dynamics of how human social and political systems come to change: in 1848, together with Frederick Engels, he published "The Communist Manifesto," which spoke to how the material basis for dramatically new social change can be found right within the pre-existing mode of production and class divisions of a society, and how social systems can be transformed through class struggle. Then, over the course of the following years, Marx worked out a comprehensive theory (the theory of surplus value) which explained the system of exploitation of workers under capitalism, and he further developed the thinking about why the people at the bottom of society (the proletarians) would in time come to replace the capitalists at the helm of society. Darwin's revolutionary scientific work The Origin of Species came out in 1859, and the first volume of Marx's socially revolutionary Capital was published in 1867. One could definitely say that "change was in the air" in the mid to late 1800s! [Return to "The Science of Evolution, Part 1"]

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