Philosophy, Marxism and Ecology

In the summer of 1965 I was desperate to stay out of the army, so I enrolled in the graduate philosophy department of the New School for Social Research. The New School was a haven for German Jewish refugees from Nazism and two of them were major figures in the philosophy department. One was Aaron Gurwitsch, the world's leading exponent of Husserl's phenomenology. The other was Hans Jonas, also a phenomenologist, who wrote the "Phenomenon of Life" while I was at the New School.

Gurwitsch was concerned with resolving the Cartesian mind-body duality, which he thought Husserl's theory of "intentionality" resolved once and for all. He always announced this at the final lecture of his series on modern European philosophy and there was always a collective sigh of relief from the audience, as if a cure for cancer had been discovered.

Jonas was more my kind of guy, because he was into the search for transcendence. He was part of the circle of philosophers who had studied with and been influenced by Heidegger, including Hannah Arendt. After Heidegger had become a Nazi official, both Arendt and Jonas continued to identify with his philosophy even though Jonas's own mother died in Auschwitz. My own attraction to Jonas had a lot to do with my interest in religion, my undergraduate major. I had an abiding interest in Eastern religion and psychedelics, entirely conventional pursuits in the early 1960s, like mutual funds or health clubs are today.

I always felt an affinity with Jonas, who viewed me as one of his prize students. Once he threw a cocktail party for his classes up at his Scarsdale home. I was very impressed with the Oriental rugs, fireplaces, and oil paintings. For a few months in 1967, I even considered the possibility of getting a Ph.D. and a teaching job so I could enjoy the good life too. Around the same time, however, I was converted to Marxism and dropped out of the doctoral program. I also stopped reading philosophy.

So I attended a lecture last night at NYC's Brecht Forum on "Philosophy and Marxism" to see what possible connection there might be, since I thought Marx had pretty much closed the book on philosophy. The speaker was Guy Robinson, who taught philosophy in British universities for 25 years. He retired in 1982 and moved to Nicaragua where he worked with construction brigades. He now lived in Dublin and his new book "Philosophy and Mystification" had just been published by Routledge.

Robinson's main point was that modern philosophy evolved in order to meet the needs of the rising bourgeoisie. It aspires to be universal but conceals the very particular and historical needs of the class which was coming to power in the age of Descartes. One of the purposes of Marxism is to make this connection and expose the class bias of bourgeois philosophy.

One of the schools of thought that Marxism vies with in this project is post-structuralism or postmodernism. The pomos are also interested in showing that the claims of universality are specious. Robinson described the pomos in pithy terms, as "hunters of zeitgeists," who try to capture historical trends as if they were animal specimens to pin on the wall like trophies. In the process of debunking "universality," the pomos also trash history. This is where Marxists and pomos part company, as well as on the issue of class.

Marxism has an entirely different agenda. Robinson says that a plain way of describing its mission is to clarify things that we already know. Marx's description of this project is found in the preface to the German Ideology:

"Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and - existing reality will collapse."

Robinson gave an example of the clarifying function of Marxism. He said that the term "Artificial Intelligence" is a bourgeois mystification. It presumes that there is some sort of distinction between machines and intelligence, when in reality all machines exhibit some sort of intelligence. The source of it is the human labor which invests intelligence in the artifact to begin with. Positing some sort of duality between machine and intelligence is only possible in a society where a deep state of alienation exists between labor and the products of our labor.

Robinson then proceeded to knock bourgeois philosophy off its pedestal. Its whole purpose was to sanctify private property and the pursuit of profit. In order to do this, it was necessary to conduct ideological warfare against the feudal world view. John Locke's philosophy revolved around this project, especially in its promotion of the idea of the "social contract." Against the arbitrary rules of a Church-run society, the bourgeoisie needed rationality and individual rights. Without rationality and individual rights, capitalist property relations could not be safeguarded.

In order to diminish the role of the Church and the feudal aristocracy, a totally new view of the universe had to be constructed. Instrumental to this was a new view of nature, which was seen as transcendent and outside of humanity, but not sacred. Scientists would replace priests in this new world-view, since they alone had the ability to explain the natural order. Newton becomes a key figure in the general assault on the old order.

If nature is conscripted on behalf of the rising bourgeoisie, the natural tendency is toward what Robinson calls bourgeois materialism. Against this generally progressive philosophical current, he posits historical materialism. The difference between bourgeois and historical materialism is that the latter mode of thought does not see nature as transcendent but as something that society interacts with dialectically. Nature is always being transformed through labor. Furthermore, science in bourgeois society is always qualified by its social role, as Thomas Kuhn argues. The purpose of socialism is to liberate science from its class ties and make it available for the transformation of society.

During the discussion period, Joel Kovel raised some questions about the Marxist understanding of nature. Kovel is an ecosocialist strongly influence by the Frankfurt School. In fact, he is speaking tonight at the Brecht Forum on the legacy of the Frankfurters. He questioned the easy dismissal of transcendence that Robinson seemed to embrace in his attack on bourgeois philosophy. One of the dangers of debunking the notion of transcendent values is that nature will just be seen as something to be exploited, with little regard for future generations. Obviously Kovel is drawn to the Frankfurt School because it critiques this presumed weakness in classical historical materialism.

When I returned home from the lecture, I took a look in the web to see what had happened to Gurwitsch and Jonas in the intervening years. Both had died years ago, but I was curious to see if the social and economic crises of the past 30 years had managed to disturb their philosophical stance. Most of what was available on Gurwitsch seemed to be of a highly technical nature and written in German.

But Jonas, on the other hand, did seem to be stirred by the same things that moved both me and Kovel. According to a profile put together by Peter Sewitz, (Programme Officer at the Max Mueller Bhawan, New Delhi) Jonas's 1979 "The Imperative of Responsibility" made a deep impact on the Green movement in Germany. He writes in the preface to the English edition: "Modern technology, informed by an ever deeper penetration of nature and propelled by the forces of market and politics, has enhanced human power beyond anything known or even dreamt of before. It is a power over matter, over life on earth, and over man himself; and it keeps growing at an accelerated pace."

"Care for the future of mankind", he writes, "is the overruling duty of collective human action in the age of a technical civilization that has become 'almighty', if not in its productive then at least in its destructive potential. This care must obviously include care for the future of all nature on this planet as a necessary condition of man's own. ... We live in an apocalyptic situation, that is, under the threat of a universal catastrophe if we let things take their present course. ... The danger derives from the excessive dimensions of the scientific-technological-industrial civilization. ... The danger of disaster through scientific technology arises not so much from any shortcomings of its performance as from the magnitude of its success. This success is in the main of two kinds: economic and biological."

Jonas's deep ecology came as a complete surprise to me. Although I reject the philosophical basis for the movement, I respect many of the initiatives it has taken to defend flora and fauna. Their problem is that they fail to understand that the ecological crisis is rooted in the capital accumulation process and that the only solution to the crisis is abolition of the capitalist system.

Meanwhile, I am not sure that historical materialism in its current underdeveloped state is entirely adequate to the task of resolving the ecological crisis. There is entirely too much of a tendency to accept the framework of the mid-19th century as appropriate for the period we are now in. While I respect John Bellamy Fosters' groundbreaking scholarship into Marx's affinity with soil scientist Liebeg, there has been far too little of this type of "red-green" synthesis through most of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the crisis deepens.

It has only been in the last 25 years or so that Marxism has redirected its attention to the ecological crisis. The reason that philosophy becomes an issue in this arena is that many of the issues seem to demand some sort of resolution that are not neatly offered in the historical materialist corpus. Such questions have a teleological aspect that fall into the general rubric of what is the purpose to life. In the past, Marxists have had a pat answer to these sorts of questions. Namely, that the working class must appropriate the means of production and produce for social good rather than private profit. The problem, however, is that socialism has been under such pressure from capitalism, the dominant world-system, that concessions are often made on the ideological level as well as on the level of public policy.

Tomorrow, a report on Joel Kovel's reflections on the contributions of the Frankfurt School.