Call for Papers

Workshop on ‘Biological Thought and the German Left’

5th Feb 2019

Workshop on ‘Biological Thought and the German Left’. 

Ernst Bloch Centre for German Thought, IMLR, London. 

17 May, 2019.  

When the new science of biology emerged in Europe around 1800, it transformed the way people saw the world. Biology challenged religious ideas by providing a scientific explanation of life for the first time. Yet almost as soon as it was founded the science became a worldview. From the mid-nineteenth century, right-wing thinkers used biological arguments to naturalise social, sexual, and racial inequality. As Europe struggled to recover after the First World War, fascists used biological concepts of race to explain real and perceived social ills. These ideas were institutionalised in Germany with the foundation of the Nazi biological state in 1933.

As a result of this legacy, the history of biology’s influence on the German right is well documented. However, the life sciences also enjoyed a widespread reception among the German left. Liberal democrats like Carl Vogt and Ludwig Büchner used physiological arguments to interpret social phenomena. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels engaged intensively with Darwin’s thought. Anarchist Gustav Landauer translated Peter Kropotkin’s work on cooperation as a factor in evolutionary development. Nietzschean feminists such as Helene Stöcker evoked biological arguments to justify the social rights of unmarried mothers.

This one-day workshop aims to investigate how biology influenced left-wing ideas and movements in Germany from its foundation as a science around 1800 to 1933, when the rise of Nazism dramatically changed the political and intellectual landscape. The questions it seeks to address include but are not limited to: 

(1) How were major thinkers such as Marx and Engels influenced by biological theories and concepts?

(2) How did biological ideas circulate among the wider left and how were they popularised among workers?

(3) How did writers such as Georg Büchner, Alfred Döblin, Paul Scheerbart and others incorporate biological and political ideas into their literary works?

(4) How were biological theories put into practice by left-wing political activists?

(5) How did left and right-wing interpretations of biology intersect and how were they distinct?

Proposals are invited for papers on any aspect of the reception of biology by the German left from 1800 to 1933. Affiliation with the left is defined in terms of membership of, self-identification with, or close proximity to a liberal or radical left-wing political party, and/or a civil society organization with expressly reformist or revolutionary aims. ‘Biology’ includes all fields of the life sciences from anatomy to zoology. It includes theories and concepts that continue to underpin life science today—e.g. cell theory, genetics, evolution, homeostasis, metabolism—as well as those—such as vitalism and pre-Darwinian theories of evolution—which have been superseded but were influential in the past.

Papers should be 20 minutes in length, and abstracts no longer than 250 words. Please send abstracts to by Friday 15th March.

Confirmed keynote: Professor Nicholas Saul (Durham), ‘Wilhelm Bölsche, biopolitics, superorganisms and the origins of fascism around 1900’.

This event is made possible thanks to the collaboration and support of the Ernst Bloch Centre for German Thought, the Institute for Modern Languages Research, the Coffin Trust of the University of London, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities.