Pedantic, empty and false on "metabolic rift"

Submitted by AWL on 5 October, 2021 - 10:53 Author: Paul Hampton
Marx in the greenery

See other articles in this debate here.

It is unfortunate that Matt Cooper chose the eve of international climate mobilisations for his belated foray into Marxist ecological politics (Solidarity 607, 22 September 2021). His musing is vacuous, error-strewn and offers no alternative. Worse, he disparagingly misrepresents the ecological Marxism that underpins the AWL’s climate politics. His essay serves only as an exercise in stale pedantry.


During the mid-1840s, as Marx and Engels developed their materialist conception of history, they were already engaged with ecological questions. They conceived of nature as totality, with humanity an organic, evolving part of it, dependent upon the planetary environment for existence. They also recognised that human activity impacts on the natural environment, reshaping it in both constructive and destructive ways. They attempted to conceptualise the dynamic interaction of these tendencies, avoiding both the dissolution of society into “nature” and the free-floating “social” that ignores nature.

Marx and Engels tried to capture these co-evolutionary, co-constitutive, interdependent, co-regulatory relationships, drawing on a range of contemporary ideas. In their early writings, they explored “alienation”. Although elements of human alienation from nature exist, it is one-dimensional, negative conception: they were right to discard it.

Instead, Marx and Engels eventually settled on the term “metabolism” to express these relations. They became aware of the word in 1851 from their comrade, the doctor Roland Daniels. Marx sculpted his own conceptions of metabolism over the remainder of his life, after studying a range of natural scientists. He was heavily influenced by Liebig and later Fraas, who used metabolism to discuss contemporary ecological matters.

Marx took the term metabolism from organic chemistry, but transformed it to express wider phenomena. In 1881, two years before his death, inNotes on Adolph Wagner, Marx wrote: “I have employed the word [Stoffwechsel] for the ‘natural’ process of production as the material exchange… between humanity and nature.”

Marx used the term metabolism in his mature political economy, notably in Capital, to conceptualise at least three important insights, which help ground ecological questions within Marxism:

First, the labour process is “an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of humanity. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between humanity and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.”


This means production is the place to locate ecological matters, rather than personal consumption. If labour is the key to humanity’s relationship to nature, then all the insights from Marxist political economy, such as exploitation and working class struggle against it, are relevant to ecological questions. Labour, both as a force combined with means of production to produce the surplus product — and crucially labour as the social agency of emancipation — become operative. Working class action can be integrated into ecological movements, rather than marginalised or bolted on from the outside.

Second, class societies (especially capitalism) produce “an irreparable rift in the interdependent process between social metabolism and natural metabolism…” If ecological crises (“rifts”) are products of class societies and capitalism the root cause of contemporary ecological problems, then we can use class analysis to understand these questions across the range of scales, from global to local, and working-class action to start tackling them. Marx and others understood the damage wrought by pre-capitalist modes of production. However capitalism accelerates and expands these tendencies across the globe, notably with climate change.

Third, socialist society will “govern their metabolic interaction with nature rationally, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing this metabolism with the smallest expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature”. Marx did not mean the “restoration” of pre-capitalist relations between humanity and nature — he understood the devastation fashioned before capitalism. Rather, socialism as the rational, free, collective, democratic self-control of human society is the best form of global self-rule that can simultaneously tackle the ecological nightmares created by class societies (especially global capitalism) and ensure that the future relationship between humanity and the planet is sustainable.


Cooper takes umbrage with the word “metabolism”. It offends his terminological taste. He criticises Marx for not sticking to the modern, narrowly biological meaning of metabolism. This is anachronistic. Marx wasn’t drawing rigid analogies. Cooper gets bogged down in pedantic hair-splitting because Marx employed metabolism in various ways. He gets hung up on Marx’s ephemeral examples, rather than the substance of Marx’s engagement with ecological questions like soil fertility and deforestation.

Marx opted for the term metabolism, giving it a distinctive, extensive meaning for dynamic nature-human relationships. Marx’s usage does no particular harm to the regular meanings of the word during his time or since. The issue is what insights it yields. Metabolism is the starting point for serious Marxist engagement with ecological questions. Marx’s metabolism is not the end, or the whole answer. Marx did not know the modern science of climate change, but his method can help socialists today formulate our political responses.

Cooper completely misrepresents subsequent Marxist discussion of metabolism. It is simply untrue that metabolism was only discovered in the 1970s with the Penguin translation of Capital. Bukharin discusses metabolism in Historical Materialism, first published in English in 1925. Similarly, there were debates in the 1920s around metabolism in the journal In Defence of Marxism, including by Marxist geographers such as Wittfogel.

Cooper makes the ridiculous claim that “the Frankfurt school were uninterested in the concept [of metabolism]”. Alfred Schmidt’sThe Concept of Nature in Marx (1962) includes an extensive discussion of Marx’s metabolism. Schmidt misunderstood the origins of Marx’s usage, but did not have access to the sources available today. His reading of Marx dissolves much of historical materialism into “nature” and is pessimistic about working class action and socialism. This has been critiqued by many Marxists since. But Schmidt’s study, including on metabolism, was valuable when translated into English in 1971.

Marxist geographer Neil Smith’s Uneven Development (1984) includes a discussion of Marx’s metabolism and propagates the fertile notion of the “production of nature” to describe how human activity completely reshapes the environment all the way down. Smith pointed to climate change as a particularly prescient example of this tendency.

John Bellamy Foster is subjected to Cooper’s scorn. Foster has written much in Monthly Review on imperialism, monopoly capitalism, China, Cuba and Venezuela that I have criticised many times (including on the environment). However his work on Marx’s ecology is immensely fruitful, both as a reading of the founders’ contributions and as the inspiration for Marxist studies of today’s ecological problems. Cooper also ignores entirely the contribution of Paul Burkett, who has drawn out the value of Marx’s political economy for environmental sustainability.

Cooper is quick to rubbish the conscientious efforts of Kohei Saito. Yet Saito has conducted the most extensive investigation of Marx’s ecological writings to date, including much unpublished material and notes unavailable previously. Saito’s original work deserves better than impressionistic dismissal, by someone who clearly hasn’t read even the rudimentary texts on these questions.

Utilising the term “metabolism” is no guarantee of Marxist ecological rectitude. But Marx’s metabolic reflections suggest that capitalism is the cause of current ecological problems, that workers’ struggles are key to tackling them and that socialist society is the only global regime capable of resolving these questions. These are the key conclusions to base our own efforts on.

Town and country

Cooper says that “The one programmatic proposal to follow from Marx’s view on the ‘metabolic rift’ was that the distinction between town and country should be abolished”. This is plain falsification.

The demand to abolish the dichotomy between town and country predates Marxism. I regard it as a relic, a leftover from utopian radicalism — though not particularly harmful.

InPrinciples of Communism (1847), Engels listed among the measures of communist revolution:

“9. The erection of large palaces on national estates as common dwellings for communities of citizens engaged in industry as well as agriculture, and combining the advantages of both urban and rural life without the one-sidedness and disadvantages of either.”

Marx expressed this in condensed form in the Communist Manifesto (1848):

“9. Combined operations in running agriculture and industry, making for the gradual elimination of the antithesis of town and country.”

Marx wrote this text three years before his earliest known used of the term “metabolism” and almost two decades before he had worked up his mature conceptions. Marx did not develop his views on metabolism and then conclude that abolishing the town/country dichotomy was the central demand. The demand was operative before Marx’s metabolism, not a consequence of it. And the demand was not central to Marxist-led parties.

Marx and Engels pointed to real class divisions of their time. The countryside, globally mostly consisting of peasants, could not be the basis for socialism. The isolation of rural life was not (and is not) conducive to collective, democratic control. Correspondingly, appalling conditions in Victorian cities required remedy. But today the dichotomy is largely superseded: town and country are under the command of capital.

Worse, Cooper argues that metabolism leads to advocacy of small communes of 3,000 people under socialism, as expressed by Engels in Anti-Dühring (1878). Such communes were advocated by utopian socialists such as Fourier and Owen, as Engels notes. However Engels does appear to endorse the idea in this text and elsewhere, like The Housing Question (1873). If so, then Engels was wrong.

Metabolism does not logically commit Marxists to small communes. Cooper conjures a convenient straw argument in his invective against the word “metabolism”. Marx’s ecology does not inexorably lead towards village-living under socialism. It is pure invention to suggest that Engels’ mistake “follows” from Marx’s metabolism.

I have specifically rejected Engels’ formulation on this question. I also explicitly advocate the advantages of urban life under capitalism and for socialism, extending that to the role of cities in tackling climate change. Cooper underestimates urban squalor in many cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America, but his fundamental argument for cities is not disputed.

Marxist ecological politics

Cooper’s assault on metabolism concludes that “Marx did not have the worked through ecological perspective… let alone the greater theory”. He cannot even manage an honest rendering of Marx’s position. He offers no alternative Marxist framing for ecological questions. He has no framework after discarding Marx.

His ruminations offer no theoretical referents and no guide to action.

In the last two decades, the AWL has made a positive contribution to current ecological questions, building on insights from other Marxist writers. AWL conferences in 2008 and 2013 carried resolutions on climate change, both referring to metabolism. These resolutions are reprinted in the pamphlet, Climate Change, Capitalism and Working-class Struggle (2018). Similarly, the AWL’s last full conference document, Fighting climate crises (2020), also mentions metabolism. Solidarity has carried many articles and reviews. Cooper apparently was not paying attention.

Rather than taking cheap shots at Marx and Engels, and at efforts to develop an ecological Marxism, Cooper should tackle some of the hard questions about aviation, gas, nuclear, HS2 and bioengineering, where climate activists are crying out for Marxist answers. Sadly, Cooper prefers ruinous, nonsensical quips about the pandemic requiring more rifts with nature.

For decades, Green Parties, social democrats and conservationists have claimed that Marxism is redundant or reactionary on environmental questions. They denounce Marxism as Promethean, productivist, technological determinist and the progenitor of ecological destruction. Cooper’s destructive position leaves socialists with nothing to answer critics and activists who dismiss Marxism.

The AWL is right to join a range of thinkers seeking to develop an ecological Marxism. The rediscovery of ecological thinking within Marx’s mature political economy is an important step forward. This is the real significance of metabolism in recent Marxist discussion. Marx’s metabolism is only a starting point; but at least it is a beginning. Cooper’s pedantic, empty and false pontification is a dangerous retrogression.

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