Harvey, Leibniz and Marx

David Harvey's "Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference" surely has the distinction of being the only Marxist study of ecology to draw inspiration from Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). While openly admitting that Leibniz is a "deeply conservative theoretician in political matters as well as a foundational figure in the rise of that German idealist tradition against which Marx rebelled," Harvey assures us that Leibniz's relational approach to time and space has powerful implications for ecology. This article explores the theoretical issues raised by Harvey's appropriation of Leibnizian dialectics, while attempting to explain why Marx's rebellion against this idealist tradition was a precondition for understanding the ecological crisis of today.

Although Leibniz is an unlikely candidate in many ways, Marxists have occasionally turned to non-Marxist dialecticians to help resolve thorny theoretical or political questions. Kevin Anderson makes a convincing case that socialist support for World War One so disturbed Lenin that he launched an in-depth study of Hegel's dialectics just to understand the contradictory processes taking place. Lenin also turned to Hegel for insights into how a "break in gradualness" might occur. This Hegelian phrase suggested for Lenin the possibility of revolutionary transformation.

Harvey considers Leibniz an important figure because of his contribution to the idea of internal relations. This proceeds from the premise that everything in the world consists of smaller components, each in turn yielding more subcomponents. For example, a neighborhood breaks down into buildings, and buildings into apartments, and apartments into rooms, ad infinitum. Human beings also decompose, but unlike the rest of nature they have consciousness of their place in the broader hierarchy. Through our metabolic, social, political and cultural relationships, we internalize the world around us. Consequently, dialectical inquiry becomes "the process that produces permanences such as concepts, abstractions, theories, and institutionalized structures of knowledge" in the shifting terrain of politics and society. Starting from the individual perspective in the time-space continuum, we strive to uncover deeper, universal truths. This is a dialectics heavily tilted in favor of philosophical idealism.

Harvey's yearning for universals does not materialize out of thin air. It flows from his consultations with Rover auto workers in Oxford, England, who sought outside help in drafting an economic plan to save their plant. Harvey found himself odd-man-out among the group called in by the union. Everyone else thought in terms of keeping the plant up and running, while Harvey questioned whether it was consistent with the socialist vision to produce polluting automobiles. After losing all patience with him, a colleague told him that he was nothing but "a free-floating Marxist intellectual who had no particular loyalties to anyone." Harvey then searched within himself: "So where did my loyalties lie?" His book is an attempt to come up with answers. He writes:

"What is it that constitutes a privileged claim to knowledge and how can we judge, understand, adjudicate, and perhaps negotiate through different knowledges constructed at very different levels of abstraction under radically different material conditions?"

Leibniz is supposed to help provide answers to these questions. His philosophy revolves around the concept of monads, a term drawn from calculus indicating something irreducible and individual. A monad is like a soul or an atom, except that it contains within itself all ideas about the external world, including the relationships between objects on the time and space continuum, including itself. Harvey singles out the following passage from Leibniz's writings presumably because it speaks to his quandary at the Oxford Rover plant.

"And as one and the same town viewed from different sides look altogether different, and is, as it were, perspectively multiplied, it similarly happens that, through the infinite multitude of simple substances, there are, as it were, just as many different universes, which however are only the perspectives of a single one according to the different points of view of each monad."

In a relativistic universe of space and time, we choose the version of reality that suits our needs. In Leibniz's philosophy, god establishes such relationships, like an architect designs a building. Harvey strips the deus ex machina from this theory of internal relations and replaces it with social and political choice. This is not to say, however, that such choices will not clash with each other as they did at the Rover plant. When colonial settlers and American Indians claimed the same geographical space, violence broke out because their respective views of land-usage were mutually exclusive, as Harvey points out in chapter ten of his work, an analysis we will revisit shortly.

Although Leibniz's theory of internal relations can not guarantee a successful negotiation between such contesting viewpoints, they at least "can be used as a means to look more closely at the differentiation of actual spatial and temporal orderings within and between different modes of production and social formations." In other words, Leibnizian dialectics is a means to understanding and clarifying the world around us, so as to allow the individual to make intelligent decisions. It functions like a searchlight or a compass. Such an understanding of dialectics I would argue differs sharply from a Marxist dialectic rooted in social/political praxis and in materialism.

Looking to Leibniz for inspiration is no sin. When Marx's friend Kugelmann gave him tapestries from Leibniz's study as a birthday present, he shared his joy with Engels in a May 10, 1870 letter: "You know my admiration for Leibniz." Leibniz's monads can appeal to Marxists because they are hubs of living activity suggesting a world where everything is always evolving. Since there is no real distinction between organic and inorganic monads, the continuity between all forms of matter is thus established. Proposition 71 of Leibniz's Monadology states, "For all bodies are in a perpetual flux like rivers, and parts are passing in and out of them continually." This echoes the Heraclitan understanding of the universe cited approvingly by Engels in "Socialism, Scientific and Utopian":

"We see, therefore, at first the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, combine, and are connected. This primitive, naive but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away."

However, what distinguishes Marxism from other philosophies is the emphasis it places on activity. The universe is no longer an object for contemplation, but something changed by humanity, as it is constantly changing us. As Marx puts it in the second thesis on Feuerbach, "The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-worldliness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question."

"This-worldliness" is just another term for those views of reality that are contingent on time and space in the Leibnizian sense. For Marx, the problem is not determining which point of view more closely approximates objective reality, but how political action might change reality. Contemplation takes a back seat in Marxist dialectics: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

Furthermore, Marxist dialectics examines social classes, while a system based on monads excludes social structures altogether. In Leibniz's philosophy, every object stands entirely on its own, whether god, animal or plant. Marx's rebellion against seventeenth century metaphysics targeted not only idealism, but the radical individualism that was closely associated with the ideological needs of the emerging bourgeoisie as well. A marketplace rests on the notion that there are individual economic actors making rational choices, so the philosopher will find ways to explain this as a universal state of affairs. As Marx said in the Grundrisse, "Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within these individuals stand."

Harvey's reworking of Leibniz's theory of internal relations presumably provides insights into competing demands on nature, such as the kind that arose at the Rover plant. Workers had a perspective of well-paying jobs, while environmentalists had one of clean air. The problem with this approach is that it suggests that the dilemma is of a subjective nature that better communications might meliorate. A Marxist approach, free from idealistic embellishments, regards the problem at the plant as a contradiction rooted in the capital accumulation process itself, only resolvable by abolishing private ownership of the means of production.

Where Harvey's methodology seems most egregiously off-base is in its treatment of a similar dispute, the one that took place between New England colonists and Native Americans. He prefaces his analysis by recapitulating his basic approach:

"To begin with, space and time, once they are set, are a primary means to individuate and identify objects, people, relations, processes, and events. Location and bounding are important if not vital attributes for the definition of the objects, events, and relationships existing in the world around us. To choose one ordering principle rather than another is to choose a particular spatio-temporal framework for describing the world. The choice is not neutral with respect to what we can describe. The absolute theory of space and time always forces us into a framework of mechanistic descriptions, for example, that conceal from view important properties of the world (such as those of living organisms) that stand only to be revealed by a relational view. To choose the wrong framework is to misidentify elements in the world around us."

With this guideline, he interprets the clash as one rooted in "conceptions" and "definitions." The settlers used a "Cartesian vision of fixed property rights," while the Indians adhered to a more primitive outlook. Hence, "the clash between these two social and ecological systems was a clash over naming as well as over the relevant conceptions of space and time to be deployed in the definition of value." An alternative interpretation of what took place in New England, put forward by Eric Wolf in "People Without History," centers on the mode of production, especially the fur trade. New England was a central repository of beaver skins that had been hunted into near-extinction in Europe by the sixteenth century. Factories turned the fur into felt, a necessary component of hats worn by all classes in European society. The New England settlers bartered manufactured goods for beaver skins, especially with the Algonkin tribe. As one beaver population was hunted out, fur hunters plunged deeper into indigenous territories in search of another. This led to conflicts, including King Philip's War that erupted in 1675 and led to the virtual extermination of the Algonikins.

This conflict, rooted in the capital accumulation process, ultimately led to European domination over the rest of the world. This process not only led to the destruction of the Algonkin, it has also resulted in the elimination of jobs throughout Europe, including the Rover plant. "Conceptions" and "definitions" are of secondary consequence. They reflect deeper conflicts in the base of the capitalist system itself, which no amount of theorizing about time-space relations can resolve. Harvey concludes his discussion on a wistful note: "The relational theory not only helps explain why so many of us find ourselves wavering on the frontiers between, for example, space and place or thing and flow, it also helps identify what it is we might be wavering about." One would hope that David Harvey would put some distance between himself and such wavering after his difficulties at the Rover plant.

Let us turn now to Marx's rebellion against the German idealist tradition. In "The Holy Family," Marx identified with the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century--particularly its materialism--against the preceding century's metaphysical investigations, including Leibniz's. While Marx gives credit to seventeenth century thinkers, including Leibniz, for their breakthroughs in mathematics and physics, he states that by the beginning of the eighteenth century, the positive sciences had divorced themselves from philosophy leaving behind a metaphysics which "consisted only of beings of thought and heavenly things."

Although Marx upholds materialism here and elsewhere, it fell upon Engels's shoulders to fully explore its implications. Engels is a convenient target for those twentieth century Marxists who lace their thought with idealism. As Sebastiano Timpanaro writes, "This ostensible self-purification of Marxism is typically concretized by a devaluation of Engels, who for many hold prime responsibility for the decline of Marxism from its true philosophical heights to the depths of a 'popular philosophy.'" He continues, "Engels was much more sensible than Marx of the necessity to come to terms with the natural sciences, to link 'historical' materialism (in the human sciences) to physical and biological materialism--all the more so, at a time when Darwin had opened the way to an historical understanding of nature itself."

David Harvey cites Engels as an advocate of a "strong version" of dialectics, which has "come in for considerable criticism in part because of its association with ideas of teleology and doctrines of emergence and immanence which appear almost deterministic." Anxious not to make such errors, Harvey takes up the Leibnizian theory of internal relations as part of an effort to define a fresh, new dialectics that "avoids many of the problems which Engels bequeathed and readies abstract discussion of dialectics as a set of principles for dissolution into a flow of argument." Unfortunately, what Harvey leaves behind is the materialism that grounds the core philosophy of Marxism. His dialectics does not differ qualitatively from those of non-Marxist thinkers as he freely admits. He groups Marx with Hegel, Heidegger, Foucault, Ricoeur and Derrida--all practitioners of "dialectical modes of thought." However, it is only Marx who combines materialism with his dialectics. Furthermore, the Marxist dialectic is permeated with an understanding that there are sharp contradictory tendencies within nature and society that generate crisis and can only be resolved through struggle.

Harvey's dialectics, when finally applied to ecology, lacks these dimensions entirely. Instead nature appears as a network of processes, relationships and flows that are always changing like a grand kaleidoscope. Not only does he draw from Leibniz, he also enlists Alfred North Whitehead, whom he quotes as follows: "Nature is always about the perpetual exploration of novelty." Harvey is correct in conjoining Leibniz and Whitehead, since they have very similar philosophical agendas. They build systems around a world that is a grand repository of objects organically and logically connected with one another, where everything has a final purpose. This leads to a view of ecology that virtually excludes anything that is crisis-ridden. Not even New York City can be regarded as unnatural since it represents a system of productively interrelated natural and social processes. New York City, which Harvey characterizes as an "ecosystem," looks more like a happy, industrious beaver dam than an insane urban sprawl generating cancer alleys, transportation breakdown, tuberculosis epidemics and other ecological nightmares.

In the final analysis Harvey's inexplicable denial of looming planetary ecological catastrophe rests firmly on Leibnizian metaphysics, a point that has not generally been made in scholarly venues. If Harvey is correct that nature consists of nothing except transformations and relationships, then presumably nothing can be done to destroy it, as indicated in his criticism of the thinking behind the title of John Bellamy Foster's "The Vulnerable Planet." Leibniz says almost the same exact thing.

"Thus there is nothing waste, nothing sterile, nothing dead in the universe; no chaos, no confusions, save in appearance. We might compare this to the appearance of a pond in the distance, where we can see the confused movement and swarming of the fish, without distinguishing the fish themselves."


"And so I have judged that if the animal never begins naturally, neither does it end naturally; and that not only will there be no birth, but also no complete destruction, no death, strictly speaking. And these reasonings, which are a posteriori and derived from experience, agree perfectly with the principles which I have deduced a priori above."

In distinction to Leibniz's idealist dialectic, Marxism does take into account the very chaos and confusions that are produced by the capitalist mode of production. After all, what are these terms but synonyms for the contradiction and crisis are at the heart of the Marxist dialectic? Lenin sought to reintroduce these categories into a Marxism that had cast them aside during a decades-long, peaceful expansion. In many ways the ecological crisis that we face today threatens us as much as imperialist war. It is trench warfare rather than Leibniz's fishpond that should serve as a paradigm.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the aftermath of the horrible destruction brought on by Hurricane Mitch in Central America. Tens of thousands of peasants lost their lives needlessly as flooding was intensified by nearly a half-century of deforestation tied to the expansion of cattle ranching and other forms of export agriculture.

When a wealthy rancher needed new land for his herds, they often hired gangs to go out and burn and slash wooded areas. A more common practice, however, was to con the poor campesino into acting as an accessory. This took place all across Central America. The campesino was allowed to farm the land just long enough to allow the tree-stumps to rot, at which time they were evicted to make room for cattle. A dispossessed campesino either migrated to the city or deeper into the forest, especially mountainous areas where the competition for land was less severe. When mountainsides are stripped of the tree cover, there are fewer obstacles to the sort of devastating flooding that accompanied Hurricane Mitch. Furthermore, there is mounting evidence that global warming has intensified hurricanes both in frequency and in power. The use of internal combustion engines in advanced industrialized countries contributes disproportionately to the greenhouse effect, which leaves poor, underdeveloped countries like Honduras or Bangladesh vulnerable to the ravages of hurricanes or monsoons.

Engels was on the right track in trying to tie together natural and social processes. While it was necessary to reject Stalinism's dogmatic attempts to wed natural science to "dialectical materialism," there was a kernel of truth in Engels's investigations. By showing the materialist basis for history, society and the natural world holistically, and how they interact dialectically, he provided a foundation for a Marxist approach to ecology. It can help us understand how disasters like Hurricane Mitch are not "natural" at all, but rooted in the capitalist mode of production.

Voltaire, a leading figure of the eighteenth century French enlightenment, was traumatized by the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, the Hurricane Mitch of his era. This led him to disavow belief in a supreme being and to stake out his opposition to Leibniz's belief that we live in "the best of all possible worlds." Leibniz turned up as the comical Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's "Candide," whose profession that everything in the world serves some higher purpose is belied by the catastrophes that meet Candide at every step. In grappling with Leibniz's boundless optimism, Voltaire turned to the Deist Pierre Bayle, whose materialist skepticism served as an antidote to the previous century's belief in a well-regulated universe. In the poem The Lisbon Earthquake: an inquiry into the maxim, 'whatever is, is right,' Voltaire writes:

Plato and Epicurus I disclaim. Nature was more to Bayle than ever known: What do I learn from Bayle, to doubt alone? Bayle, great and wise, all systems overthrows, Then his own labors to oppose.

Marx also lavished praise on Bayle in "The Holy Family" because he "prepared the way for the acceptance in France of materialism and common-sense philosophy" through the "skeptical disintegration of metaphysics." Bayle expressed the tendency in French materialism that flowed directly into socialism. And "above all, he refuted Spinoza and Leibniz."

If not for eighteenth century materialism, Marxism would have failed to come into existence. It makes far more sense to connect with these traditions than those of the previous century, which Marx and Engels struggled to supersede. Seventeenth century idealism continued to reappear in many guises in Marx and Engels's century, most of all in Feuerbach's philosophy. The struggle to reassert materialism was not just an academic exercise for Marx and Engels, nor should it be so for us. In the final analysis, only materialism of this sort can provide the analytical tools for understanding and resolving ecological crisis.


Kevin Anderson, "Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism: a Critical Study," U. of Illinois, Urbana, 1995; Ch. 5 especially deals with WWI and Lenin's Hegel studies.

David Harvey, "Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference," Blackwell, Cambridge, MA, 1996

Leibniz, Philosophical Writings, Dent, London, 1973

Eric Wolf, "Europe and the People Without History," U. Cal., Berkeley, 1982

Sebastiano Timpanaro, "On Materialism," Verso, London, 1975

--Louis Proyect