Marx and the environment

Submitted by AWL on 9 October, 2019 - 10:12 Author: Paul Vernadsky
Marx tree

Over the past two decades, John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett have made outstanding contributions to the resurgence of Marxist ecological politics.

In particular their emphasis on Marx’s political economy contained in Capital and their careful dissection of other texts, notes and letters have shown how environmental concerns lie at the core of historical materialism. Their latest book, Marx and the Earth (Haymarket 2017) is a robust defence of Marx and Engels on ecology in the face of a range of green critics.

Marxism has a sophisticated view of the relationship between human society and nature, utilising the concept of metabolism (stoffwechsel).

Foster and Burkett explain how for Marxists, labour mediates the relationship between society and nature; how the metabolic rift conceptualises the breakdown in humanity’s broken relationship with nature under class society; and how socialism will reconstruct this metabolism in a more rational way.

First, Marx argued that labour “is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between humanity and nature, and therefore human life itself”. Labour is “the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between humanity and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence”.

Second, capitalist production drives the breakdown of the nature-humanity relationship. Capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The results of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country”.

Third, metabolism captures the terms for restoring the relationship between humanity and nature through socialism.

Under a system of collective, democratic control over production, “Freedom in this sphere can only consist only in this, that socialised humanity, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control, instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.”

From these premises, it is possible to reconstruct a wide-ranging Marxist ecology, to explain the onset of range of environmental crises, including climate change. It provides the basis for the demand for “system change”. If the cause is capitalism, then the solution is a different form of social relations, more in harmony with both environmental and human needs.

Marx and Engels have been criticised by a range of green activists and academics for alleged inadequacies in their framework for addressing environmental questions. Foster and Burkett provide a detailed rebuttal of a range of these claims.

First, critics have accused Marx of anthropocentrism, because in his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, he refers to nature as “man’s inorganic body”. Similarly, in the first draft of Capital, known as the Grundrisse, Marx wrote that “Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry”.

These are terminological misreadings of texts Marx never published. The “inorganic body” was not about portraying the natural environment as something passive, but rather a convoluted expression of the dependence of between human activity on the natural world. Similarly, the production of machines reinforces the point about how human activity transforms the environment. Neither point is particularly contentious. Each can be countered by passages describing the negative, damaging side of this activity. Marx’s account is both materialist and dialectical.

A second criticism, made by ecologists such as Joan Martinez-Alier, concerns Marx and Engels apparent dismissal of the attempt to find a thermodynamic grounding for the labour theory of value by the Ukrainian socialist Sergei Podolinsky.
Foster and Burkett show that Podolinsky produced versions of his essay, with both Engels and Marx making extensive criticism of his approach, which reduced political economy to the workings of a perfect machine, measured by calorific calculations. Engels criticised Podolinsky for forgetting that humanity “is not merely a fixer of present solar heat but a still greater squanderer of past solar heat. The stores of energy, coal, ores, forests, etc., we succeed in squandering you know better than I”.

A third criticism is that Marx and Engels ignored energy flows or worse, accepted the “fallacy of energy neutrality” by failing to distinguish between renewable and carbon intensive fuel sources. This is based on the well-known expression from Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy (1847), that “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist”.

In fact, Marx’s mature political economy discussed the transition from water power to steam (coal) power as part of the drive to introduce machinery in factories nearer the expanding population centres. This drove up capitalists’ profits and disciplined labour. Marx did not anticipate the consequences of fossil fuel burning for the biosphere – during his lifetime no scientist had understood the physics of climate change. However he did identify the major drives that gave rise to the proliferation of fossil fuel use and their use of “auxiliary” or “ancillary” materials in production. Later Marxists would seize on the potential of solar, wind and atomic power as cleaner sources of energy with less environmental impacts.

Similarly, Engels is sometimes accused of rejecting the second law of thermodynamics in the course of an argument with scientists over the heat death hypothesis. William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) had supported the latter claim to justify the role of God in the universe. Engels rejected the role of a deity on materialist grounds, while accepting that entropy was a feature of the universe. Latter day scientists agree with Engels: energy dissipation continues but the universe expands at a faster rate, meaning the universe is getting further away from thermal equilibrium.

A further criticism, often associated with ecologists such as Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen, that Marx’s reproduction schemes do not adequately capture material as well as value flows. In fact Marx greatly admired the Physiocrats, arguing that “the process of economic reproduction, whatever its specific social character may be, is in this area (agriculture) always intertwined with a process of natural reproduction”. He understood the commodity as the unity of (material) use value and value. Marx also chastised the German SPD’s Gotha Programme: “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values… as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature”.

Foster and Burkett therefore provide a great service in clearing the ground of spurious objections to Marxist ecology.

However the book is flawed by the creation of a pastiche of a Marxist tradition after Marx that is significantly imbued with Stalinism. This was a feature of Foster’s earlier work and it is disappointing to find it extended in this book.

First, they itemise three stages of ecosocialism, lumping earlier socialist green opponents (such as Benton and O’Conner) with later ones (such as Bensaïd and Tanuro). They then lump some of their co-thinkers into both second and third stage ecosocialism, making some further distinctions between some authors’ earlier and later works. None of these divisions correspond to actual schools of thought or bring clarity to the real political differences.

Second, Foster and Burkett point to some highly dubious sources of inspiration in the 1970s and 1980s. notably the Soviet scientists Budyko and Federov, the latter a member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Another ‘inspiration’ is Virginia Brodine, who wrote on the environment for the CPUSA. Of course it is entirely possible that scientists working for the Russian, (or any other governments) might have contributed to a greater understanding of climate change. However it is quite another to claim that these were politically forebears because they used some Marxist language.

The Monthly Review tradition now headed by Foster is a bizarre formation. It propagates a view of “monopoly capitalism” and imperialism frozen from high Stalinism into today’s conditions. It is mildly critical of Russian Stalinism, but dates it from the late 1930s. It is soft on Bukharin, but dismissive of Trotsky. It is largely unapologetic of Maoism and mostly uncritical of the current Chinese state capitalist formation.

Similarly, it is a flag-waver for Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela, despite the attacks on workers rights and their appalling environmental records. This detracts from the valuable work done on Marxist ecology.

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