"Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature" by John Bellamy Foster


Monthly Review, 2000, $18.00


When the modern ecology movement first appeared, most self-described Marxists tended to view it through the prism of the Frankfurt School. From this perspective, industrial society was the cause of pollution and other environmental problems. Only by paying nature its proper respect could we reestablish a natural balance and save the planet. Without this change of heart, transforming class relations would accomplish little as indicated by poisoned rivers, denuded forests and unsafe nuclear reactors in the Soviet Union.


Joel Kovel spoke for many in this broadly defined current when he wrote, "Specifically, there is no language within Marxism beyond a few ambiguous and sketchy beginnings that directly addresses the ravaging of nature or expresses the care for nature which motivates people--Marxist or not--to become engaged in ecological struggle." ("Capitalism, Nature and Socialism", Dec. 1995). He urged "a call to open the question of spirituality in Marxism, since spirit, as a motion within being, is at the proper level of abstraction for dialectical appropriation."


In "Marx's Ecology," John Bellamy Foster defies conventional green thinking by raising the banner of materialism rather than spirituality in the fight to save the planet and humanity from ecological ruin. In addition to restoring materialism to its proper place, Foster also shows that ecological questions were central not only to Marx, but other Marxists such as Bebel and Bukharin. By restoring this lost tradition, Foster hopes to create a new basis for ecosocialism grounded in Marxist science rather than mysticism.


For obvious reasons, materialism has taken a back seat in the Western Marxist tradition, from Lukacs to the Frankfurt School. This school of thought emphasized a historical materialism that largely bracketed out nature, while seeing works like Engels' "Dialectics of Nature" as paving the way for Stalinist dogma in philosophy and the physical sciences.


Foster confesses that an early grounding in a Hegelian-influenced Marxism blocked his own path to ecological materialism. Ironically, it was not a fellow academic who suggested an alternative interpretation of Marx, but an older student named Ira Shapiro who had been a farmer at one time in his varied career. He urged Foster to "look at this"—referring to sections in Marx that dealt with the problems of soil nutrients. Later on, Charles Hunt, a friend of Foster's and a part-time professor and beekeeper, urged him to take a second look at "Dialectics of Nature."


In the first of a series of provocative questions appearing in his introduction, Foster asks, "Why did Marx write his doctoral thesis on the ancient atomists?" Like the sled in "Citizen Kane," this serves as a clue to Marx's lifelong intellectual development and supports the powerful conclusion of Foster's book.


Although most students of Marx are aware of materialist thought in such early works as the 1845 "Theses on Feuerbach," Foster argues convincingly that materialism made its debut in Marx's doctoral dissertation on the "Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature," written four years earlier. According to Foster, the standard explanation for the dissertation is that Marx saw Epicurus as a kindred rebel spirit. This Epicurus sought to overthrow the totalizing philosophy of Aristotle, just as the post-Hegelians--including the young Marx--rose up against Hegel. What is missing here is the element of materialism, which drew Marx to Epicurus in the first place. Marx identified with the Enlightenment, for which Epicurus serves as a forerunner to the radical democrats of the 17th and 18th century. The materialism they all shared was crucial to an attack on the status quo, ancient or modern.


The Greek materialists, especially Epicurus, are important to Marx because they represent the first systematic opposition to idealist and essentialist thought. Just as importantly, Epicurus in particular anticipates the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment. His dicta that "Nothing is ever created by divine power out of nothing" and "nature . . . never reduces anything to nothing" are in harmony with what we now know as "the principle of conservation." Foster also notes that Lucretius, another materialist of the classical era, "alluded to air pollution due to mining, to the lessening of harvests through the degradation of soil, and to the disappearance of the forests; as well as arguing that human beings were not radically different from animals."


In their early writings, Marx and Engels wed the materialism of the Enlightenment to a political critique of the capitalist system, particularly targeting ideologues such as Malthus. Taking aim at his false piety, the 1844 "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy" challenges private property, especially in the land, asserting that:


"To make earth an object of huckstering--the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence--was the last step in making oneself an object of huckstering. It was and is to this very day an immortality of self-alienation. And the original appropriation--the monopolization of the earth by a few, the exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their life--yields nothing in immorality to the subsequent huckstering of the earth."


Marx's materialist conception of history and nature was first of all a break with Feuerbach, whose materialism was of a contemplative nature. While Marx first outlined his views in the "Theses on Feuerbach," he developed them in a more systematic fashion in a "The German Ideology." Foster's trained eye permits him to bring a neglected theme in the 1846 classic into the foreground.


According to Foster, geology and geography are key elements in the materialist conception of history defined in "The German Ideology." Without bringing them into play, we can not properly understand how industry and nature evolve. Marx had studied geological science at the Trier gymnasium under Johann Steinenger, a follower of Abraham Gottlob Werner, considered the "father of historical geology." Before Werner, geologists simply categorized rocks on the basis of location or constituent minerals. Werner speculated on the long-term origins of geological succession. He emphasized the need to see the development of the earth from origins of "perhaps a 1,000,000 years."


For Marx this constituted a real breakthrough. Seeing the planet's history in terms of geological epochs was necessary for the development of a materialist ontology. In breaking with the theological and essentialist underpinnings of much of 19th century thought, Marx drew support especially from the notion of 'generatio aequivoca,' or 'spontaneous generation,' that was central to Werner's theories. In this respect, Foster argues, Marx remained true to Epicurus' view, related by Lucretius, that: "The name of mother has rightly been bestowed on the earth, since out of the earth everything is born."


In embracing such an approach, Marx emerges as an early "evolutionist" in the ongoing battle against "creationism" still being fought today. Furthermore, it would make him an early ally of modern environmentalists for whom this kind of connection with the earth is also important. Foster invokes Rachel Carson: "The conditions on the young earth produced life; life then at once modified the condition of the earth, so that this single extraordinary act of spontaneous generation could not be repeated." ("Silent Spring")


Given Marx's affinity for Werner's theories, it would follow that Darwin would also factor heavily in Marx's continuing investigations into nature, including homo sapiens. Key to Darwinian theory, according to Foster, was "the fact that environments could change radically, thus making an organism that was previously superbly adapted to its environment, such as the wooly mammoth, no longer so well adapted (actually driving it into extinction), in itself contradicted any simple notion of progression."


Marx developed his response to Darwin's theory of natural selection between 1859 and 1867, dates which coincide with the appearance of "The Origin of Species" and Volume One of Capital respectively. Marx's enthusiasm for Darwin is a matter of record. In January 1860, he wrote Lassalle that "Darwin's work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle." Less clear is the extent to which Darwinian theory actually made its presence felt in Marx's writings.


Foster believes that the answer to this question is in Volume One of Capital where in footnotes Marx alludes to the connection between "natural technology" at work in the natural evolution of plants and animals and the development of human technology in the process of human history. Engels developed these ideas in the essay "The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from the Ape to Man." Not only did this essay make the connection between natural selection in both nature and society explicit, it also warned about the consequences of upsetting the balance between them.


Darwinism of course has had a troubled relationship to socialism that Foster acknowledges. A Malthusian cast to Darwin's thought helped to spawn a Social Darwinism that made the "survival of the fittest" a paradigm for understanding the relentless march from "savagery" to "civilization." Engels recognized this problem and warned that attempts to extrapolate "the same theories from organic nature to history, and then claim to have proved their validity as eternal laws of history" were wrong.


Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, this mistake has cropped up in Marxist thought repeatedly. Perhaps no other figure symbolizes this uneasy relationship more dramatically than Lewis Henry Morgan, who figured prominently as an inspiration for both the "Ethnological Notebooks" of Marx and Engels' "Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State."


While most Marxists are aware of the high regard paid to the Iroquois by Morgan, there is another more troubling side. Morgan's materialist conception of social evolution included biological determinants that often led him to racist conclusions. Concluding that certain common cultural characteristics of various Indian tribes were proof of a common racial makeup, Morgan surmised that behavioral differences between Europeans and Indians could be explained by blood. In "Systems of Consanguinity," Morgan writes:


"The Indian and European are at opposite poles in their physiological conditions. In the former there is very little animal passion, which with the latter it is superabundant. A pure-blooded Indian has very little animal passion, but in the half blood it is sensibly augmented; and when the second generation is reached with a cross giving three-fourths white blood, it become excessive and tends to indiscriminate licentiousness."


Thus the answer to "improving" the Indian's situation involved breeding him with non-Indians. Robert E. Bieder wrote in "Science Encounters the Indian" that "Although most so-called Indian reformers of the day steered away from suggesting miscegenation as a means of 'improving' the Indian, Morgan felt that it held a certain utilitarian value." Morgan believed that although a half-blood Indian was inferior to a pure-blood both physically and mentally, a mixture of 3 parts white blood to 1 part Indian might be just what was needed to show that in Morgan's words "Indian blood can be taken up without physical or intellectual detriment." ("Systems of Sanguinity")


Although it would impose an impossible burden on "Marx's Ecology" to expect Foster to deal with these troubled legacy, we still must recognize that the proper relationship between scientific socialism and indigenous peoples has yet to be defined in its full complexity. Both Kautsky and Plekhanov relied heavily on Social Darwinist sources in their approach to such peoples. Worse, the general reliance on a "stages" conception of social development undoubtedly led to the Sandinistas' patronizing attitude toward the Miskito Indians or the failure of the FARC and ELN in Colombia to respect indigenous sovereignty.


By restoring Marx's materialism to its proper place, "Marx's Ecology" provides a theoretical foundation for further explorations in ecosocialism. Once we understand the proper connection between nature and society, we can begin to act to confront the major problems facing humanity, from global warming to diminishing fresh water supplies. In the final chapter, Foster cites a number of Marxist thinkers who belong to the materialist tradition. Their examples can help to inspire a new generation of ecologically minded socialists.


Foster presents an unfamiliar side of Bukharin. His "Philosophical Arabesques," only made available in 1992, reveals a sophisticated dialectical materialist who grounds his analysis of society in ecology. Bukharin writes of the "earth's atmosphere, full of infinitely varied life, from the smallest microorganisms in water, on land and in the air, to human beings. Many people do not imagine the vast richness of these forms, or their direct participation in the physical and chemical processes of nature."


As one of the founders of German Social Democracy, August Bebel not only spoke with some authority in the 1884 "Woman Under Socialism," he also seemed to be anticipating the dire consequences experienced today in the wake of clear-cutting:


"The mad sacrifice of the appreciable deterioration of climate and decline in the fertility of the soil in the provinces of Prussian and Pomerania, in Syria, Italy and France, and Spain. Frequent inundations are the consequence of stripping high ground of trees. The inundations of the Rhine and Vistula are chiefly attributed to the devastation of forest land in Switzerland and Poland."


Finally, in an instance that seems to address Joel Kovel's complaint about the lack of spirituality in Marxism and a possible alternative to Lewis Henry Morgan's obsession with "improvement,", we have the example of Rosa Luxemburg who wrote from prison in May, 1917:


"What am I reading? For the most part, natural science: geography of plants and animals. Only yesterday I read why the warblers are disappearing from Germany. Increasingly systematic forestry, gardening and agriculture are, step by step destroying all natural nesting and breeding places: hollow trees, fallow land, thickets of shrubs, withered leaves on the garden grounds. It pained me so when I read that. Not because of the song they sing for people, but rather it was the picture of the silent, irresistible extinction of these defenseless little creatures which hurt me to the point that I had to cry. It reminded me of a Russian book which I read while still in Zurich, a book by Professor Sieber about the ravage of the redskins in North America. In exactly the same way, step by step, they have been pushed from their land by civilized men and abandoned to perish silently and cruelly."