Emile Gautier, “Social Darwinism” (1877 / 1880)

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Emile Gautier’s 1880 pamphlet, Le Darwinisme sociale, is often cited as the first French use of the term “social Darwinism,” three years after the term was first used in English. Gautier was an anarchist, the a political prisoner, and finally a popular science writer and novelist. He was tried alongside Kropotkin in the “Trial of the 66,” collaborated with Louise Michel, and provided the preface for Sébastien Faure’s La douleur universelle. Drawn into a debate about the application of Darwin’s theories to the solution of social problems, he championed a pro-socialist interpretation of the science, anticipating Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid in some ways. A translation of the pamphlet can be found in the pdf linked in the sidebar, but the research for that task also turned up an earlier essay, with the same name and much the same argument, in a periodical, Le Mot d’Ordre, in which Gautier was one of the principal contributors. That essay (also included in the pdf) is presented below.


A medical student, who is interested and preoccupied by social questions, he says, is surprised that we have placed Darwinism among the systems or theories falsely applied to the solution of social problems. He even wonders if we would be the adversaries of this absolutely positive theory of incontestable scientific value, based on experience and the study of facts, which is only rejected by the eternal enemies of science and the reason.

As this student is perhaps not the only one who could have asked these questions and it is not useless for the education of the democracy to explain them, we will answer him.

The scientific value of Darwinism affecting the theory of the origin and transformation of spaces, zoology, anthropology and physiology, is not in question here; there is not even a need to discuss it. Let it be enough for the satisfaction of our medical student, his friends and all those who devote themselves to these special studies, to know that this theory is in our eyes the most true. But from the fact that a theory or a system is scientific, rational, when it concerns a particular order of things, it does not follow that it is applicable to the solution of social problems, by analogy, comparison or extension. It would then no longer be science, it would be fantasy.

What ultimately is Darwinism? A theory that explains the origins of species, their evolution, their transformations, the modification of their organs and their character, the influence of environments, the reasons for their improvement or their disappearance. In other words, Darwinism explains the natural fatalities to which beings, men, animals and plants, are subject. It is certainly useful to know these fatalities; it is essential that anyone who works as an economist, historian or sociologist understands at least the general notions; but from all this theory, there is nothing to conclude for social organization.

There is nothing to conclude, because society, far from having the aim of perpetuating natural fatalities and encouraging their fulfillment, has precisely the aim of reducing these fatalities, of mitigating their consequences, even of making them disappear or making them serve results quite contrary to what appears to be their end.

Social laws and natural laws are all different, one could even say contradictory. Nature, if we are to believe our origins and the way in which the alma mater gave birth to us, brought man into this world, in order to perpetuate his race and destroy his species: but it did not make him to live, as a civilized person, as a citizen of a nation, to labor and save, to make locomotives, fabrics, furniture and spend his life shaping watch wheels or pin heads. If it had wanted him to have steam engines, she would have installed them on the great roads it had made; if it had wanted him to have shoes, clocks and cupboards, it would have made them grow like pumpkins. But this is not the case: man does not obey the law that nature seems to assign to him, he does not submit to the fatalities that result from his arrangement.

He withdraws from them and tries to make them serve his views, his satisfaction, the realization of his desires and his wishes. Society is no more a natural creation than boots, suspension bridges, crushed velvets and mirrored wardrobes; it is a human creation. However, if society has the aim and sometimes the effect of restricting, reducing natural fatalities, being unable to completely eliminate them, it too often replaces them with social fatalities. And the very particular study of these, as well as the search for the means to make them disappear, are precisely what constitutes socialism.

A short time ago, a now defunct newspaper, having to discuss English opinions, thought it necessary to point out that, among our neighbors across the Channel, Darwinism was at the same time Malthusian. This newspaper was wrongly surprised by this, because the logical conclusion of the Darwinian theory transported into the social domain is precisely the Malthusian solution.

After having observed, experimented, collected the evidence provided by the debris and the remains of previous generations, after having received the attestation of the facts, Darwinists rightly affirm that beings living by absorption, life is a universal distraction or rather that the creation is in continual transformation; that, in this eternal struggle for existence, there are individuals, races, species that adapt better to the demands of the environment, modifying themselves in their habits and even in their organism to resist, endowed with vital energies more powerful, resist and perpetuate themselves, while others wither away, disappear, die or are destroyed by stronger and better ones. Thus nature pursues its obscure goal which we cannot grasp or know and to which our pain, our miseries, our disasters and our mourning probably contribute.

Such is the world, say the disciples of Malthus; by virtue of these natural or providential laws, — it is all one, — he lets selection do its work. Those who have the right to live are those who triumph in the struggle for existence; if there are exploited people, it is because they are exploitable, it is because they are less strong, it is because they have less energy and capacity than their exploiters; they only have to resign themselves or disappear; those that remain will be the most beautiful samples of the species. There is not room for everyone at the banquet of life; let those whose place is not set go away; let those who cannot raise their children not have them, and let war and plagues harvest those who are too many on this earth. Such is the extinction of pauperism.

And the one who spoke thus was an honest man, of gentle morals, but one who was a sincere and rigorous interpreter of nature and its fatalities.

It is understandable that the leader or the bard of barbarian tribes, obeying their instincts and the force of things, should go, like an overflowing river, to invade the land where more abundant harvests ripen in a milder climate. This is the whole philosophy of Attila, which, after all, is as good as any other. But do we remember that the inferiors, the disinherited, the condemned by selection, those who are too many, as Malthus says, can respond:

“We don’t want to disappear; we too want to have a place at the banquet. If you are the best organized, the strongest, the best, we are the most numerous; and numbers are a force worth as much as yours. If we do not have your abilities and your energies, we have others sufficient to replace you at the table of guests, the most beautiful samples of the species with the disinherited, poor and suffering who want to live.”

And the necessary, practical conclusion of this double argument is the brutal struggle, the extermination of men; it is perhaps the fulfillment of the views of nature, but it is not the extinction of pauperism, it is not the most perfect way of living in peace, in society.

It is precisely to avoid having to come to this argument, to these consequences, in order not to have to invoke the supreme reason of numbers, the right of force and blind fatality that men, if they want to live more or less peacefully among themselves and enjoy social advantages, instead of exterminating one another in the struggle for existence, must find a modus vivendi, an organization of society, political and economic, imagine combinations and formulate a contract that assures to everyone everything necessary for life, the means of laboring, of producing, of consuming at least the equivalent of what they produce and of helping with their faculties, their skills, their example and their services to the prosperity of their fellow men.

Now, the study of the conditions in which this organization can be accomplished, of which human will is the first element, is not a natural science, like Darwinism; it is social science. And this is what we must learn, if we want to have eternally others means of extinguishing pauperism than by exterminating the poor, while having to fear that the exterminated will in turn take a revenge similar to that which the vanquished of Jena took at Sedan.

“Darwinisme sociale,” Le Mot d’Ordre no. 48 (25 août 1877): 1.

Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.