Darwin, Bryan, and the Socialist Books of Genesis (1990)


Sean Matgamna

Last Sunday I made Thomas, my 12
year old son, the excuse for watching
Inherit the Wind once again, on TV.
Made in 1960, this is a fine movie about the
1925 "Monkey Trial", in America, when a young
school teacher was charged, at the instigation
of Christian fundamentalists, with teaching
Darwin's theory of evolution; and he was
found guilty.

A strange business. Stranger still was the
role played in it by William Jennings Bryan,
for decades America's leading left-wing
populist. Three times a candidate for US
President, champion of the poor and the op-
pressed, enemy of the monopolists and big
bankers, and Secretary of State in Woodrow
Wilson's government from 1912 to 1915,
Bryan had long been a sort of Tony Benn in
American politics.

But in the "Monkey Trial" Bryan appeared
for the prosecution, who, taking their
stand on the literal truth of the Bible, sought
— in 1925! — to jail a teacher for daring to
teach Darwin.

The case for the defence was put by
Clarence Darrow, a perennial legal champion
of civil liberties.

Frederic March, an actor who was witch-
hunted by the McCarthyites, played Bryan as
a twitchy, vain, glutinous, kindly
and — I found — likeable old man, proud of
his links with "the people" and fighting a
ridiculous battle on their behalf. Privately he
appeals to Darrow, an old acquaintance, to
leave the people's Christian beliefs alone.
Those beliefs are the best they have in
poverty-stricken, closed-in lives, he tells him.

Now I know little about William Jennings
Bryan and his religious beliefs, and not
much about American populism.
But I read something recently which made
the drama of William Jennings Bryan at the
"Monkey Trial", depicted in lightly fictional
form on the little screen in Thomas's room,
seem to me to be a parable about the left now.

It seems that Bryan hated Darwinism —
the idea that animal species, including
humankind, evolve through "natural selec-
lion" and "the survival of the fittest" — for
reasons other than Christian fundamen-
talism. He hated the doctrines known as
"Social Darwinism" and had spent his
political life fighting them, or ideas like

The "Social Darwinists" took Darwin's
picture of nature and made a moralising
ideology of it for society, justifying the
domination of the rich and powerful over
the poor and dispossessed. It was, they
said, nature's way, nature's law.

This version of "Darwinism" added a
"scientific" gloss, and sometimes could give
a messianic elan, to old bourgeois attitudes
that had already produced the terrible 1834
Poor Law in Britain, well before Darwin
published his scientific theories.

Social Darwinism said that brutish pre-
welfare-state capitalism was the only possi-
ble, and therefore the only moral, system. It
worked to stop people imagining even a
welfare capitalism.

It openly stigmatised all the poor with the
racial inferiority now alleged only by the
most lunatic racists against blacks.
And those Social-Darwinist ideas were the
trend of the times in the early part of this cen-
tury. They had great power. Entwined
though they were with bourgeois
special pleading, they were nourished by
shreds of historical-scientific truth. They carried all before
them in the scientistic 19th and early 20th Cs..

Turning observations about evolution in
the wild into precepts for running society and
into an ideology justifying exploitation and
oppression by "the fittest", "Social Dar-
winism" was indeed a nasty and inhuman
piece of brute-bourgeois self-righteousness. It
stank with the smell of the slums and of the
workhouses, and it would later stink with the
smell of the racist death camps.

So Bryan had social reasons, going
beyond mere religious belief and
reaching deeper than the everyday foolishness of
Bibical dogmatism, for opposing all forms of

He, and others like him, used religious
ideas about the uniqueness of humankind,
created whole by a supreme being, to assert
social and political claims here and now —
that men and women were not beasts, that
they should not be treated as cattle, and that
all were equal under God.

I assume that the great old populist did
believe in the Bible when he stood up in court
to make a fool of himself in the eyes of the
educated world. But Bryan thought that the
"Word of God" he defended was also The
Word authorising the struggle for a better
human society than the one American
capitalism had so far made.

And of course it was all nonsense. Against
science the book of Genesis was untenable.
Bryan's stand on the Bible could only bring
ridicule and discredit on him, and a measure
of discredit on all his ideas. The real solution
to the problem presented by the unholy
alliance of bourgeois social ideas with science
was to unite the proletariat — or, in Bryan's
terms, "the people" — with science. Bryan
went the opposite way.

The "parable" seems to me to be this:
the left too has often opposed the multi-faceted
evil of capitalism on platforms as
senseless as that on which W. J. Bryan tried to
fight Social Darwinism. It is one of the main
reasons why the left is now in disarray.

It is the keystone of Marxist politics that the class
struggle is fought not only on the economic and
political fronts but also on the “ideological

What happens on the ideological front
conditions and shapes what happens on the
political and economic fronts.

For decades the left — I mean the honest,
militant left — has been in disarray and in
retreat on the front of ideas. Pressure from
the ideas of the bourgeoisie — endowed with
vast resources as they are, and aided by the
reformists, with their outright bourgeois
ideas, as they are – is always with us. In addition to
that, Stalinism worked like a cancer within the left,
appropriating, changing, perverting and in-
ternally disrupting old left-wing ideas.

Black was declared white, and not only on
the level of straight lies. Goals, ends, means
were redefined and redefined again, out of all

People in revolt against capitalist oppres-
sion wound up justifying or calling historical-
ly progressive systems more murderously op-
pressive than any capitalist oppression except
Nazism in its final paroxysm. Starting with
opposition to their immediate oppression,
and trying to hold their own against the
relentless pressure of the bourgeoisie and
their ideas, of the dominant ideas in bourgeois
society, left-wingers based themselves on
general ideas about the world which were
often blatantly nonsensical.

The prerequisite for mass socialist belief in
the putrid Stalinist myths about the various
"socialist fatherlands" — with their
philosopher kings and their all-regimenting
fascist-like states — was the need to deny
what the bourgeoisie said about them. My
enemy's enemy is my friend — or, in this
case, workers were in effect saying of the
totalitarian state and its bureaucratic ruling
class: my enemy's enemy here at home is me,
therefore it is me over there too...

The clearest example in Britain today is
Arthur Scargill, with his pixillated
notions — even now! — about the
Stalinist systems.

And not just the Stalinist left has gone
astray, but much of the would-be Trotskyist
left too. On most of the essential questions
about the world, the neo-Trotskyist left
stood on the same ground as Stalinism.
Critically, to be sure, championing the rights
of the workers, of course, but accepting the fundamen-
tal nonsense that the Stalinist societies were a
progressive alternative to capitalism.

The small, isolated, resource-starved
rearguard of Bolshevism, the Trotskyist
groups have frequently sustained their com-
mitment to the struggle against the
bourgeoisie by endorsing the political
equivalents of the Book of Genesis, and oc-
casionally the equivalents of the Koran and
the Book of Mormon too!

The worst example I know of is the un-
critical endorsement — as proof of the
superiority of socialistic methods — of-Mao's
late-'50s "Great Leap Forward" in China. In
reality that was an attempt at an economic
forced march by the totalitarian state in
which an unknown number of Chinese —
perhaps 30 million: no-one knows for sure
— senselessly lost their lives. Yet, you will
find the weighty journal Fourth Interna-
tional, then published by Ernest Mandel and
Michel Pablo, reproducing Chinese claims of
success with all the credulity of a medieval
peasant listening to the words of a priest an-
nouncing a new religious miracle!

Nor is it just a matter of illusions in
Stalinism. In Britain the broad left —
from the SWP through to Michael Foot
— for decades opposed the bourgeois policy
on the EC by standing on a hopeless and
bankrupt little Englandism!

Many still do. Instead of endorsing any
progress away from the national narrowness
that bred two world wars, criticising the class
nature of the emerging capitalist Europe, and
seeking to serve working-class interests
within that Europe, the broader left chose to
"defend" working-class interests by standing
on the untenable position that the British
bourgeoisie itself had reluctantly had to
abandon. It was, and is, ideological Lud-

A once respect-worthy working class
fighter like Dennis Skinner M P is, on this and
similar questions, an out and out reactionary
compared even to a John Major or a Margaret

The "struggle on the ideological front" is
not like a physical battle, or a trade union
battle, or an election. In all of those you
know roughly who won and who lost. Defeat
on the ideological front comes in many dif-
ferent forms.

It can be creeping and insidious. It can
come disguised as a great new idea, or a get-
rich scheme. It can seem to offer big advan-
tages and enormous price reductions on the
political and industrial front; and then you
find it is no longer the same political or in-
dustrial front!

The greatest and worst defeats are thos_e
in which the working class movement
and the left are driven back to take
refuge in old, discredited ideas.

The worst inner political setbacks occur
when we are unable to deal with the problems
of the real world except by the spinning of
fantasies about socialist fatherlands, or by
reading alien scenarios into inappropriate
situations, thus, for example, transforming
Ba'athist dictators or military dictators in
Argentina into "anti-imperialists". You
could make a very long list from the ex-
perience of post-Trotsky Trotskyism.

The spectacular collapses of Stalinism pose
a hard choice to the Trotskyist left. The
truth, however unpalatable it may be, is that
for decades the would-be Trotskyist move-
ment subsisted by proclaiming the true ideas
of working-class self-emancipation alongside
and entwined with nonsense, some of it per-
nicious anti-working class nonsense. We
sought reassurance, despite everything, from
the world-wide social weight of the Stalinist

That reassurance helped to sustain those
currents of "Trotskyism" that most adroitly
adapted to Stalinism, with Ernest Mandel
glibly and servilely theorising the "historic
process" in the same way that Karl Kautsky
theorised the practice of the Social-
Democratic parties before World War 1.
No more. The Trotskyist movement will
now either cut loose fully, and renew itself
politically and ideologically, or it will sink,
still attached to Stalinism, and die. If it does
not cut loose, it will deserve to die, as Bryan's
poisonous populist mixture of ignorance, good inten-
tions and benighted confusion deserved to
die. And did.

("Against the Tide", a column in Socialist Organiser )