Search Menu


New Ideas and Changing Assumptions in European Culture and Politics


In addition to nation states, the period from 1848-1871 saw the rise of transformative new ideas, most particularly the ideas of Darwinian Evolution and Marxism. In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, introducing what some historians call the "New Science." His argument was simple: life originated and perpetuated itself through a push-and-pull struggle in which the successful forms adapted themselves to changing conditions and survived, while those that did not chance became extinct. Though he never used the word "evolution," the basics of the argument noticeably suffuse the work. Years later, the notion of "social darwinism"--the application of "survival of the fittest" to political and economic arenas--offered a distinctly conservative approach that advocated unregulated capitalism as the natural form of progress. Darwin, however, never intended such an interpretation of his original biological theory.

In 1848, Karl Marx published the Communist Manifesto . He followed this with his seminal work in 1867, Das Kapital , introducing "scientific socialism." Here was a materialist interpretation of history and society. Labor, a Marx defined it, was the essential effort to transform nature into things useful for survival. Building on this, Marx, joined by his colleague Friedrich Engels, saw society as divided into two groups: those who owned property and those who did not. In the nineteenth century, the middle class bourgeoisie owned property and the means of production, while the workers, or the proletariat, owned nothing. In history, Marx argued, any society based on class division maintained, by its very divided nature, the seeds of its own demise because, inevitably, the proletariat would rise up and overthrown the capitalist system that kept them down. Marx predicted that as the bourgeois society expanded and grew its capitalist base, it would employ more workers in ever larger factories and industries, bringing the working classes into association and organization and thus creating the atmosphere conducive to the eventual progression from capitalism to socialism.


Seen as a conflict, social Darwinism versus Marxism provided the framework for the most basic understanding of the modern Cold War. However, these theories were based on an interpretation Darwin did not intend and a misuse of Marx's intention. We can only understand these two "New Sciences" in contemporaneous terms by viewing them as intellectual developments in a Europe ripe for change. The conservatism of the first half of the century, though once again in power after the defeat of the revolutions of 1848, was not enough. Radicals and intellectuals were starved for something different. Though Darwin offered nothing to uproot the society as it stood, the introduction of a New Science brought much needed depth to a society (especially German society) starved for active thought. In relation to the argument that Europe from 1848 to 1871 was in a transition from the first to the second stages of modernity, these issues were among the new debates, new questions, and new sciences that finally brought Western societies into full modern swing.

More Help

Previous Next