Marxism and Ecology

Marxism is about economics and class. What about the environment?

Our growing understanding of the human impact on the planet poses some profound questions for all socialists, including Marxists, says the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

IT’S true that much of Karl Marx’s own work was to do with economics. And class is central to a Marxist understanding of history.

Much of Marx and Friedrich Engels’s writing was concerned with examining the inherently exploitative and dynamic nature of capitalism, seen as underlying the struggle between exploiting and exploited classes which would lead to socialism (and eventually to communism) in which inequality would be abolished and there would be plenty for all.

But both Marx and Engels were well aware of the wider, environmental aspects of human “conquest” over nature. And Marxists today have a good deal to say about the environment.

In his The Condition of the Working Class in England (written in 1845) Engels emphasised not just the low pay and appalling working and living conditions of working people, but the wider damage to the environment caused by industrial capitalism. This was as important to him as the conflict between factory-owner and worker over hours and wages.

The Communist Manifesto, composed the following year, focused on the need to organise technology and industry for the direct benefit of humans rather than profit.

But as the views of the 29-year-old Marx and the 27-year-old Engels matured they progressively incorporated the growing awareness of human impacts on the natural environment (as represented by Liebig’s work on soil fertility) and its interconnectedness (Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859 and Ernst Haeckel coined the term “ecology” in 1866).

Both Marx and Engels saw environmental degradation as not just a problem of the burgeoning industrial cities but a more general problem of the relations of humans to nature.

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Although the analytical focus of Marx’s Capital was economics, key passages indicate his awareness that there were fundamental environmental as well as economic contradictions within capitalism.

At that time problems such as food-chain accumulation of pesticides or global warming were unknown, and their attention focused on issues such as soil deterioration and deforestation.

In Volume I Marx declares that “[c]apitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer.”

And later, in Volume III, he writes of the moral imperative of environmental stewardship: “Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies together, are not the owners of the Earth. They are only its keepers, its beneficiaries, and […] they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”

Environmental contradictions raise questions about the complex dynamics of the relations of humans and of human society to nature — a project started by Engels in fragmentary essays collected together and later published as Dialectics of Nature.

Engels wrote: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first.”

Engels saw this “revenge” as something which predated capitalism, and as one of the main driving forces behind technological and social change.

He concluded: “Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws. And, in fact, with every day that passes we are learning to understand these laws more correctly, and getting to know both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature.”

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Other Marxists pioneered approaches which have integrated economics with our growing understanding of the way the natural world functions.

For example, Sergei Podolinsky, a contemporary of Marx and Engels and a pioneer of “ecological economics,” set out to develop a synthesis of Marxism with the insights of Darwin and the laws of thermodynamics.

Engels himself was critical of Podolinsky but more recently others have built on the ecological aspects of Marx’s own work, arguing that it provides the basis for a truly green socialist theory.

What seems clear is that just as capitalism, as an economic system, depends on exploiting workers, so too does it depend on exploiting the resources — living and non-living — of our planet. Non-exploitative capitalism is a contradiction in terms.

But notwithstanding their insights, Marx and Engels could not have foreseen the extent of the environmental crisis today.

Our growing understanding of human impact on the planet poses some profound questions for all socialists including Marxists.

For example, as the environmental crisis develops, it has been argued that the relationship between capitalism and the environment should be seen as a “second contradiction” of capitalism, a contradiction of equal significance to that between capital and labour.

Some claim that the increased costs of maintaining production in the face of environmental limits will automatically lead to the collapse of capitalism.

Others assert that the dangers of ecological collapse and the potential for a broad anti-capitalist alliance of people determined to bring about a greener, more peaceful world mean that “old” ideas about the primary role of class conflict in changing society are outdated.

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Put thus, both arguments are over-simple. However, just as the contradiction between capital and labour has the potential to bring about a new kind of society, the contradiction between capitalism and the environment does raise the question of what such a society might be like; whether any vision of socialism based on unqualified material abundance is tenable.

Some declare that socialism itself, based on a perception of the potential of people, acting freely together, to do away with exploitation, poverty and want and to usher in an era of plenty for all, is misguided.

Current rates of growth — of production, consumption, and of the numbers of people on the planet are unsustainable; resource shortages and global ecological limits to growth, they claim, mean that any post-capitalist society will be characterised by scarcity and/or a kind of ecological authoritarianism very different from “traditional” socialist visions.

These are important questions and need to be examined in depth. A Marxist approach can contribute greatly to our understanding of the environmental crisis and the future prospects for people and the planet, which will be the focus of subsequent answers in this series.

A Labour Party consultation on the environment ends on Sunday June 24. See

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