I was sent the following question this morning. I think that the topic is worth replying to on my blog


Hello paul! I was reading your article “new age Marxism” in which you provide a critique of this quote by marx : “The anatomy of man is a key to the anatomy of the ape. On the other hand, indications of higher forms in the lower species of animals can only be understood when the higher forms themselves are already known.”

However, it seems to me that this view is somewhat necessary in Marxism. Marx’s entire dialectical framework rests on the notion that with the *evolution of the bourgeois class and bourgeois political economy, the total development of capitalism — and hence of History — can *finally be apprehended, and the stage can be set for the *negation of the class by the final class of modern historical development, the self-conscious industrial proletariat. How can we make sense of this without the essentially teleological claim of Marx here?


I think the quote shows that there are tendencies or temptations towards teleology operating in Marx’s thought at the time he wrote that. But an individual person may have difficulty breaking with a past paradigm or problematic. Marx is complimentary about Darwin for removing teleology from biology but here we see Marx himself was not consistent on the matter.

I forget the date of the passage from Marx about apes and men, I suspect it was actually before he read the Origin of the Species, so a teleological view of evolution may still be understandable at that point.

At present we see Darwin as a conceptual break from Lamarckian concepts of evolution, with the mechanism of natural selection acting to selectively enhance randomly acquired traits, but even Darwin himself at times is inconsistent and gives us passages that are clearly, by modern standards, Lamarkian:

“But such experience will have been slowly gained at a later age during a long series of generations; and from what we know of inheritance, there is nothing improbable in the transmission of a habit to the offspring at an earlier age than that at which it was first acquired by the parents.

From the foregoing remarks it seems probable that some actions, which were at first performed consciously, have become through habit and association converted into reflex actions, and are now so firmly fixed and inherited, that they are performed, even when not of the least use,[14] as often as the same causes arise, which originally excited them in us through the volition. In such cases the sensory nerve-cells excite the motor cells, without first communicating with those cells on which our consciousness and volition depend. It is probable that sneezing and coughing were originally acquired by the habit of expelling, as violently as possible, any irritating particle from the sensitive air-passages. As far as time is concerned, there has been more than enough for these habits to have become innate or converted into reflex actions; for they are common to most or all of the higher quadrupeds, and must therefore have been first acquired at a very remote period.” ( From chapter I of The Expression of the Emotions, by Darwin)

And again:

“This gentleman’s second daughter also shrugged her shoulders before the age of eighteen months, and afterwards discontinued the habit. It is of course possible that she may have imitated her elder sister; but she continued it after her sister had lost the habit. She at first resembled her Parisian grandfather in a less degree than did her sister at the same age, but now in a greater degree. She likewise practises to the present time the peculiar habit of rubbing together, when impatient, her thumb and two of her fore-fingers.

In this latter case we have a good instance, like those given in a former chapter, of the inheritance of a trick or gesture; for no one, I presume, will attribute to mere coincidence so peculiar a habit as this, which was common to the grandfather and his two grandchildren who had never seen him.

Considering all the circumstances with reference to these children shrugging their shoulders, it can hardly be doubted that they have inherited the habit from their French progenitors, although they have only one quarter French blood in their veins, and although their grandfather did not often shrug his shoulders.”(also from the Expression of the Emotions)

And in another book we find Darwin write:

“In infants long before birth, the skin on the soles of the feet is thicker than on any other part of the body;166 and it can hardly be doubted that this is due to the inherited effects of pressure during a long series of generations.
It is familiar to every one that watchmakers and engravers are liable to become short-sighted, whilst sailors and especially savages are generally long-sighted. Short-sight and long-sight certainly tend to be inherited.167 The inferiority of Europeans, in comparison with savages, in eyesight and in the other senses, is no doubt the accumulated and transmitted effect of lessened use during many generations;”(From Darwin Descent of Man)

So a writer who makes a breakthrough does not necessarily make the total breakthrough that later followers would recognise. Modern biologists would see the above passages as still being Lamarkian.

Similarly, in Marx, we have a constant emphasis on communism being the real movement that brings about the abolition of existing conditions and looking for causes and tendencies in the existing economic system that will bring about its dissolution. But there may remain temptations to teleology as a shorthand still.

But there is more involved I think in his projection onto human evolution when he says that human anatomy is the key to the ape. In the context that is clearly wrong, the key to the anatomy of the Gibbon is the anatomy of the monkey combined with the mode of locomotion and diet of the Gibbon. But applied to human history it makes more sense. Having analysed capitalist society and in the context of political economy come up with the idea of surplus value, and behind it surplus labour, this concept can then be applied to the prior forms of economy – the form of surplus extraction can be seen as the ‘key’ to understanding feudalism.

But this, of course, brings the dangers of writing what Althusser calls history in the future anterior if you do not restrict it to the right level of abstraction. Yes, the development of ideas was linked to economic development so that only in the capitalist economy did a definite school of political economy arise in which abstract concepts like social surplus labour could be formulated. But the actual causal mechanisms of feudal economy operated synchronously. They were not driven by any historic task of preparing the ground for capitalism.

Note that Marx in his metaphor is only comparing existing with potentially past forms, men with putative ape ancestors. So the comparision that corresponds would be between capitalism and feudalism not between communism and capitalism. For that, he would have had to have said ‘the anatomy of the superman is the key to the anatomy of man’.

That said, there is no doubt that in passages in Capital, Marx is imaginatively contrasting capitalist economy with a future communist one in order to bring out features that are historically specific. But imagining or even predicting the future is not the same as teleology.

When climate scientists predict that the world will have a drastically different climate and higher sea levels in a century’s time, that is not teleology, but a study of ‘the real movement that brings about the abolition of existing conditions‘.