Last Tuesday in addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors on the subject of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s new budget, President Obama fuelled yet another fire storm by accusing Republicans who backed it of practicing “thinly veiled social Darwinism”.
Declaring Ryan’s budget as social Darwinism instantaneously launched a salvo of media speculations. What was the relevance of social Darwinism to the budget process?
Even though Charles Darwin never explicitly promoted social Darwinism, he encouraged contemporary German political activists living in England at the time, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, to extending natural selection into the realm of social movements. In 1859, immediately after the release of The Origin of Species, Darwin sent a complimentary copy to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
At the time, Marx and Engels had become widely known as the authors of The Communist Manifesto published in more than ten years earlier in 1848. Friedrich Engels, commenting on The Origin of Species wrote to Marx noting that “this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view.”
Building on Darwin’s concept of “struggle of life”, Marx published Das Capital in 1867. Darwin, in 1873, implicitly endorsed Das Capital in a letter to Marx: “that this [Das Capital] is in the long run sure to add to the happiness of Mankind.”
In Das Capitol Marx contends that the bourgeoisie, capitalists, unfairly earn income by the exploitation of the workers, the proletariat. Marx called for class warfare by the workers against the capitalists. Social Darwinism, for Marx, was class-struggle from the bottom-up.
In a tribute to Marx in 1883 upon his death, Friedrich Engels declared, “As Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so [Karl] Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.” The works of Marx and Engels established the philosophical foundation that was militarily enforced during the twentieth century by Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany, and Mao in China through popular class warfare.
Sadly, contrary to adding “to the happiness of Mankind”, as Darwin had once envisioned, the twentieth century under the banner of social Darwinism became the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. This type of bottom-up “social Darwinism” is irrelevant Ryan’s budget proposal. Could Obama be referring to another type of social Darwinism?
At the turn of the century, the leading steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie commenting on the validity of Darwin’s theory, declared, “There is no more possibility of defeating the operation of these laws [natural selection] than there is of thwarting the laws of nature which determine the humidity of the atmosphere or the revolution of the Earth upon its axis.”
American oil industrialist, John D. Rockefeller, also joined the social Darwinism movement embraced by Carnegie. “The growth of a large business,” Rockefeller explained to his Sunday School class, “is merely a survival of the fittest.” Unlike Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao class-struggle from the bottom-up, Carnegie and Rockefeller launched social Darwinism–from the top-down.
In 1892, Carnegie, employing militant top-down union breaking tactics, forced workers into a fourteen hour gun battle at the Homestead, Pennsylvania steel plant. Carnegie’s officers eventually surrendered after leaving three officers and nine workers dead or dying. Could this been the type of “social Darwinism” Obama was applying to Ryan’s budget proposal? Probably not either
The practice of eugenics, developed by Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, has also been classified as another type of social Darwinism. After reading The Origin of Species in the 1860’s, Galton developed and promoted selective breeding programs using forced sterilization of selected populations. Groups considered “unfit” were targeted for sterilization.
In Brazil, The Rockefeller Foundation implemented eugenics as a public health initiative. At one time, the Brazilian eugenics program became the essence public health as expressed in the maxim “to sanitize is to eugenize”.
Eugenic was widely practiced worldwide during the twentieth century, even in the United States. The state of California eventually became the vanguard of the American eugenics movement, performing about 20,000 sterilizations or one third of the 60,000 nationwide from 1909 until the 1960s.
Could this be the type of “social Darwinism” Obama was applying to Ryan’s budget proposal? Probably not, either
In the words of David Brooks in a New York Times editorial, Obama “acted out of character when he excoriated Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget… [H]e unleashed every 1980s liberal cliché in the book, calling the Republicans a bunch of trickle-down, Trojan horse-bearing social Darwinists. Social Darwinism, by the way, was a 19th-century philosophy that held, in part, that Aryans and Northern Europeans are racially superior to brown and Mediterranean peoples.”
Social Darwinism has nothing to do with budget planning. This “thinly veiled” saga illustrates why the history of evolution should be studied in public education curriculum.
Use of the term social Darwinism could have been done in simple ignorance, or worse, a planned wacky hoodwinking political ploy to create chaos, confusion and aversion to Ryan’s budget proposal−hoodwinking White House politics at its Obama best.