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  • Annie Kenney on Evolution, Freedom, and Fellowship
  • Erin Mclaughlin-Jenkins (bio)

In her 1924 autobiography, Annie Kenney wrote confidently that “history does but repeat itself; its garb may be changed, but the principle actuating the change is ever the same, which is Freedom” (296). Kenney was a late-Victorian factory worker, a supporter of the labour movement, and a prominent militant suffragette. Her assertion that history is the story of freedom was in keeping with the democratic and revolutionary passions of the Enlightenment and Victorian periods, but her confidence represented more than just crusading zeal and political fervour: Kenney’s historical assessment was grounded in the assurance that the force driving the extension of freedom made an egalitarian England a scientific inevitability. The force [End Page 39] that Kenney trusted—a force that was by the 1880s a cornerstone of labour and socialist ideology—was evolution.

With the post-Origin popularization of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection in the 1860s and 1870s, theories of the mutability and descent of organic life gained a degree of credibility not earned by earlier versions of transformism, even if natural selection remained controversial within the Darwinian naturalist community and beyond. Critics, defenders, and interpreters from every sector of Victorian society confronted the implications of evolution in general and natural selection in particular. This was no ordinary scientific theory, no ordinary scientific event: its social relevance was revolutionary. As the traditional paradigms of creationism and elitist cultural authority shifted, pro-evolution agitators scrambled to tear down the narratives of the past. Secularists used evolution to attack religious authority; democrats and capitalists used it to attack aristocratic privilege; socialists used it to attack democrats and capitalists. Darwin’s theory was nothing if not adaptable, and it could not be contained by the scientific naturalist community: it was public property.

By the 1880s, the working-class movement included socialists, Marxists, labour activists, trade unionists, wholesalers, republicans, secularists, humanists, positivists, suffragettes, Fabians, and anarchists from within and beyond the ranks of the working classes. This eclectic community joined the evolution debates, rejecting the Darwinian application of natural selection for its closed system of competition and inequality while making evolution a cornerstone of an egalitarian future guaranteed as part of human progress. Darwin was respected by working-class advocates for establishing evolution as a fact, but he was ridiculed for the obvious “transference from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the war of every man against every man” (Engels). This transference was excoriated as a short-sighted projection of bourgeois society onto nature, an error for which Darwin and fellow defenders of natural selection were ridiculed without mercy by the pro-labour cadre of philosophers, intellectuals, activists, and scientists that included Peter Kropotkin, Robert Blatchford, Karl Marx, Edward Aveling, Thomas Alfred Jackson, F.J. Gould, Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, and Dennis Hird. From stump and lecture hall, in informal classrooms, and through cheap books, cheap pamphlets, and the ubiquitous penny press, evolutionism was brought into popular consciousness (McLaughlin-Jenkins, “Common Knowledge”). And the message was clear: evolution meant more than a struggle in nature and modification of species; it did not stop with biological changes. Human society had evolved from primitive to civilized and would proceed onward toward the expansion of liberty and equality. History had shown it, and now science had made it a natural law. Capitalism, class inequality, and elitist monopolization of governments and cultural institutions were merely stages in human evolution that would eventually be transcended. The present system was doomed. The future would bring freedom to ordinary Britons, or so they predicted. [End Page 40]

But what exactly was evolving? How did evolution work? What kind of freedom would it bring? Would equality arise from increased political and economic freedom, from a change in the systems used to govern and distribute wealth? Or was there more? Was there something about humanity that was evolving? These were not mere theoretical points: the answers determined action and rationale. Importantly, were they dealing with evolution or r/evolution? It was this last question that broadly divided the pro-labour community into two camps: scientific and evolutionary socialism.

The scientific socialists included...


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