It is a question that has preoccupied many thinkers in recent decades: did Marx’s work consider the possibility of an ecological crisis such as the one we currently face? For a long time it was thought that Marx attributed no role to nature (read: the ecological environment external to man). It was claimed that his focus was solely on human nature. Now, however, sociologists believe that Marx did indeed have a life-long concern for nature. The pressing question now is whether Marx was able to develop an understanding of the dialectic between human society and nature. Understanding this dialectic is crucial if we wish to understand the ecological crisis facing capitalist society. The question is therefore: did Marx’s political-philosophical theory pay any heed to nature and its potentially finite resources?
Man at the centre
Many ecologists and sociologists believe that Marx made mistakes in this respect. Their main criticism is that Marx’s vision was ‘Promethean’. The mythical Greek hero Prometheus was bent on obtaining the fire that would help humanity to survive. In a similar vein, the critics say, Marx’s work is pervaded with an excessive trust in industry and technology and fails to consider the way in which they disrupt and deplete the natural world. They believe that Marx linked man’s development, under both the capitalist and the communist system, to ever-stronger control over nature and unlimited use of natural resources.
Even some neomarxists agree with this criticism. These ‘social ecologists’ resolve the problem by predicting that the assumption of power by the worker classes will ensure that even previously dangerous technologies such as nuclear energy will ultimately become safe: once it is channelled safely, clean nuclear energy will be possible. They therefore believe that Marx’s faith in technological progress is entirely justified; there are simply a few practical obstacles to overcome.
This interpretation is not really convincing. After all, it has never been proven that we are indeed capable of generating enough food and fuel, safely and sustainably, for the entire global population. A theory that pays no heed to the possibility of finite natural resources cannot be convincing. Should we then just accept that we cannot take Marx too seriously when it comes to ecology?
Not if it is up to the sociologist John Bellamy Foster and the economist Paul Burkett. Long before Foster wrote his groundbreaking work Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature in the early 21st century, both authors were aiming to show that Marx and Engels were deeply concerned about the impact on nature of industry and technology. Foster’s book focuses mainly on the intellectual history of the works written by both the younger and the older Marx, whereas Burkett emphasises a close reading of Marx’s texts. In his well-known book Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective, Burkett shows that Marx’s work makes numerous references to the importance of nature and its conservation.
However, and this is a crucial point, Foster and Burkett stress that Marx’s vision of the relationship between man and nature is essentially different from that of many modern green political and social theories. Indeed, in contrast to what some believe, Foster asserts that Marx would have none of the ‘idolatry of nature’ that we see in the philosopher Schelling for example. The latter’s approach is strikingly similar to the currently fashionable philosophy of ‘deep ecology’ which is founded on the principle that living organisms have an inherent value distinct from their importance to man. On that basis, our entire natural environment would have an inalienable right to life. Many green thinkers embrace this principle to some extent and advocate new collective ecological values that we can use as a society to determine what our approach to nature should be. They believe it is time to place not man but nature at the centre.
For Marx, however, the origins of the ecological problem lie much deeper: in man’s alienation from nature. Foster and Burkett highlight a common fault among critics of Marx, namely that they see the material and social as separate in Marx’s theory. In that case nature, for Marx, would be entirely separate from man’s sociohistorical development and could indeed, as deep ecologists advocate, be assigned separate values. But, according to Foster and Burkett, Marx’s historical materialism (the dialectic premise that our successive systems of production determine the course of history) is, for Marx, closely interconnected with the ecological history of the earth.
This is best explained on the basis of the criticism of Marx’s ecological vision. Many critics point out that Marx’s assertions appear to be consistent with the Promethean interpretation. In Das Kapital for example, Marx says that the historical task of capital is to develop the productive forces of social labour, and that it thereby creates the material conditions for higher means of production. For Marx, capitalism is in that sense progressive – the emergence of the capitalist system is a necessary step in order to abolish the ‘limits imposed on natural and social human development’ in the pre-capitalist era. According to Marx, therefore, capitalism rightly places great importance on ever-increasing production and material growth. So does this mean that Marx himself described this capitalist tendency towards unlimited material growth as intrinsically positive?
According to Foster and Burkett, it is important here not to lose sight of Marx’s historical-dialectic approach. Marx saw capitalism as a step towards the next goal: socialism and ultimately communism. This step has an antithetical form: on the one hand the capitalist system eliminates the pre-capitalist limits on human development, but it does so by means of its exploitative, alienating production system. And it is precisely this production system that in turn leads ultimately to the disappearance of the need for exploitative class relations. This contradiction is evidently confusing for critics, because what Marx saw as a necessary and hence positive characteristic of capitalism (its exploitative production system) is also the characteristic that needs to be overcome and so cannot inherently be viewed as positive. When Marx describes capitalism and the accompanying drive towards technological progress as progressive and positive, it is only in its role as a necessary transition to the communist system. Consequently, according to Burkett, we should not confuse the material values within capitalism that Marx describes as positive with the ecological values that he himself saw as moral.
For Marx, ecological sustainability is connected with what Foster famously calls the ‘metabolic rift’: the gulf of alienation between man and the earth. In Marx’s vision, the metabolic relation with nature is essential to man’s survival and welfare. Labour is the essence of this metabolic relation, because labour is the process by which, in Marx’s own terms, we remold the ‘raw materials’ produced by the ‘great workshop of nature’ for our own survival and benefit.
Marx describes the character of this human labour, and hence the human relationship with nature, as ‘limited and conditional’. This character, which – according to Marx – limits man’s development as a natural and social being, is generally ‘exploitative, anarchistic and uncertain’, within all currently existing production systems. Capitalism merely reproduces this character, and aggravates it by its extreme social separation of workers and their production system.
The good news, according to Marx, is that man’s generally ‘exploitative character’ can be overcome: ultimately, capitalism creates the material conditions for a ‘new and higher synthesis’ – a union of agriculture and industry. Yet in order to achieve this higher synthesis, it will be necessary for the workers in the new society (socialism and ultimately communism) to do what the bourgeoisie cannot do: govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way. The post-revolutionary society of ‘the free association of producers’ will have this ability. They govern their relationship with nature through collective control, not using the blind power of the bourgeoisie’s market relations.
Marx as ally
This does mean that the socialist society of free and associated workers will be faced with fundamental and lasting challenges. According to Marx, a sustainable relationship with the earth will not follow automatically from the transition to socialism; socialism will merely provide a basis on which man, no longer hindered by the drive towards industrial overproduction, will have to take further steps, for example to abolish the division of labour and population between town on the one hand and country on the other. Steps will also have to be taken to repair soil contamination, and in the same way, according to Foster, Marx linked topics such as deforestation, climate change, environmental pollution and overpopulation to the ‘metabolic rift’.
Marx therefore treated the capitalist forces of production (alienated from nature) as qualitatively different from the communist forces of production (not alienated from nature), in contrast to what is often believed. The ecological crisis is part of the historical crisis of the capitalist system and, even though Marx himself did not explicitly link the two crises, Foster and Burkett believe that against that background we can indeed see the potential role of ecological conflicts in the transition from capitalism to communism.
In summary, if we wish to resolve the ecological crisis, we need to start by transcending the capitalist system of production. If we want an harmonious, sustainable relationship with nature, we need to change the alienating, exploitative social and material circumstances, not individual moral values. This interpretation of Marx becomes all the more plausible on reading the clear analyses presented by Foster and Burkett. Marx’s approach offers original, useful insights into the causes of the environmental crisis under capitalism, the relationship between ecological struggle and class struggle, and the preconditions for healthy, sustainable co-evolution of man and nature. Marx, according to Foster and Burkett, was nothing else but an early ally of modern environmental activists.
John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, Monthly Review Press, U.S. 2000.
Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective, St. Martin’s Press, New York 1999.