Nature and the Communist Manifesto

— John Bellamy Foster

"The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceeding generations together. Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground--what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?"

IN THE COMMUNIST Manifesto Marx and Engels referred to "the subjugation of nature" and to the "idiocy of rural life." They saw history as generally progressive in character and lauded technological advances. Their analysis of the revolutionary role of the proletariat paid scant attention to environmental factors. Were Marx and Engels then anti-ecological thinkers by today's standards, as some have charged, and is the Manifesto to be classified as one of the great anti-ecological documents of all time?

Most contemporary commentators on Marx and Engels and the environment have been highly critical of the founders of historical materialism. This is to be expected, given not only the tendency within the hegemonic political culture to evade Marx and his ideas, but also the sorry performance of Soviet-type societies with respect to the environment. Still, the range and intensity of the accusations directed against Marx on ecological grounds far exceed those leveled at any other thinker.

For example, Victor Ferkiss and Gary Snyder cite the reference to "the idiocy of rural life" in the Manifesto as evidence that Marx and Engels believed in the domination of the country by the town. Anthony Giddens insists that Marx's "concern with transforming the exploitative human social relations expressed in class systems does not extend to the exploitation of nature." Jean-Paul Deléage and Ward Churchill accuse Marx of denying any intrinsic value to nature, as a result of his adherence to the labor theory of value, which saw labor power as the sole source of value under capitalism. Robyn Eckersley and Ted Benton claim that Marx was "anthropocentric" rather than "ecocentric" and that he supported the subordination of nature to human purposes.*

All of these criticisms can be refuted directly. Rather than celebrating the dominance of town over country, Marx and Engels argued (in the Manifesto as well as elsewhere in their thought) that this antagonistic division needed to be abolished under communism through an "equable dispersal of population across the country," "combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries," elimination of both the intellectual degradation ("idiocy") of rural society and the physical degradation of urban society, etc.

Far from denying that nature was exploited, Marx and Engels referred explicitly throughout their works to the fact that the earth or soil was "exploited," in the sense of being "robbed" of its nutrients under capitalism--part of the same process that included the exploitation of workers in both city and country. This formed the basis of Marx's critique of capitalist agriculture. Hence, even as early as the Manifesto the "improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan" was stipulated as a necessary condition for communism.

Although it is correct that Marx viewed labor power as the sole source of value (or exchange value) under capitalism, he also emphasized that nature alongside labor power constituted one of the two "original sources" of all use value or wealth within production in general. So important was this point that Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, railed against socialists who attributed "supernatural creative power" to labor by denying nature's role in the creation of wealth. Capitalism's limited approach to wealth (embodied in its restrictive value calculus) according to which nature was viewed as a "free gift" to capital--a proposition still found in introductory economics textbooks today--was for Marx and Engels the core reason why the system constantly violated the conditions of nature's reproduction.

But isn't it true that Marx and Engels referred frequently in the Manifesto and elsewhere to capitalism's subjugation of nature? Yes, but in acknowledging this they also went on to critique it. As Engels wrote in "Outlines to a Critique of Political Economy," "To make the earth an object of huckstering--the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence--was the last step toward making oneself an object of huckstering." Likewise, for Marx, writing in the Grundrisse, "the theoretical discovery of its [nature's] autonomous laws" in bourgeois society "appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production."

The accusation that Marx and Engels were "anthropocentric" rather than "ecocentric" makes little sense from a historical materialist standpoint, since such views of the human-nature relationship are themselves based on an undialectical, dualistic way of thinking. Marx always theorized the relation of nature to human society in terms of a complex organic process, or what he called the "metabolic interaction" of human-nature relations.

In the case of capitalist agriculture, this evolving metabolic relation, forming a natural basis for all production, was ruptured through the robbing of the soil, thereby requiring its "restoration." Marx's analysis of the ecological crisis of the soil in his day was based on close study of the work of such pioneering nineteenth century agronomists as Justus von Liebig and James F.W. Johnston, who dealt extensively with the disruption of the soil nutrient cycle with the growth of large-scale industrial agriculture.

Today's Discussions

What the foregoing criticisms of Marx and Engels reflect, in fact, is not so much the limitations of Marx and Engels' perspective on nature, but rather the limited, childish form of much social ecology in our day, in which abstract dualisms such as "anthropocentric" vs. "ecocentric" have come to dominate discussions of the complex, interdependent process of human-nature interactions. Most environmentalism of the 1970s and early `80s adopted what has been called the "post-materialism thesis" arguing that environmental issues arise mainly in affluent societies, and pose questions that are not so much material as cultural.

In this climate of postmodernist environmentalism social ecology was disconnected from issues of class and other forms of social hierarchy and reduced to questions of human industry vs. nature, or of anthropocentric vs. ecocentric culture. Rather than dealing with economic issues, in radical ecological circles the tendency was to reject them--as simply at odds with ecology (due to the limits of growth), while the same time no longer of overriding importance (because of affluence). An overemphasis on the question of overpopulation encouraged a reduction of the whole environmental problem to too many people or too many consumers.

The late 1980s and `90s, however, saw a marked shift in the nature of the environmental discussion as planetary ecological crisis rose to the forefront of environmental concerns. From a strong emphasis on post-materialism, the nature of the discussion, beginning particularly with the Brundtland Commission report in 1987, switched to issues of sustainable development, which was defined as "that development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."

The question then became: Is capitalism sustainable? On a movement level, the late 1980s and `90s saw the emergence on a global scale of what has come to be known as the environmental justice movement, organized on the basis of fighting the intersections between environmental degradation and the hierarchies of class, race, gender and nation-state. Finally, the old notion, propounded by many social ecologists, of a dualism between nature and society increasingly gave way to an emphasis on "coevolution."

Given this shift from what might be called a post-materialist to a materialist ecology, it is not surprising that the assessment of Marx and Engels on ecology should change. Rather than being summarily dismissed, they are now increasingly viewed as forerunners of the current emphasis on sustainability and sustainable development--as explicitly recognized in the work of such thinkers as Elmar Altvater, István Mészáros, David Harvey, Paul Burkett, and the present author.

No one in the nineteenth century offered as comprehensive a conception of sustainability as Marx, who wrote in vol. 3 of Capital:

"From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias" [good heads of the household].

To be sure, Marx did not believe that environmental factors would play a major, defining role in the immediate revolution against capital. The proletariat depicted in the Manifesto was motivated mainly by the conditions of exploitation within the workplace. Yet even in the mid-nineteenth century Marx and Engels were aware of how much the working class's struggles were affected by the environmental conditions in large cities and factories, "polluted," as Marx put it, "by the mephitic and pestilential breath of civilization"-a phenomenon analyzed in detail by Engels in the Condition of the Working Class in England. Today it is even clearer that a materialist approach to social movements must embrace both labor and ecological (not to mention race, gender and anti-imperial) struggles--seeing them as part of a single struggle for social, economic and environmental justice.

What is needed is a broadening of the original socialist vision rather than a rejection of that vision or its amalgamation with something else, like liberal (or neo<->liberal) environmentalism. Today we should seek to give a fuller meaning than originally intended to the famous lines of The International which state,

The earth shall rise on new foundations,
We have been naught, we shall be all.

Note

All citations to the literature referred to in this article can be found in the following essays by the present author: "Marx and the Environment" in Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster, ed. In Defense of History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), 149-162; "The Crisis of the Earth: Marx's Theory of Ecological Sustainability as a Nature-Imposed Necessity for Human Production," Organization & Environment, vol. 10, no. 3 (September 1997), 278-295; and "The Communist Manifesto and the Environment," forthcoming, The Socialist Register, 1998.

—John Bellamy Foster teaches sociology at the University of Oregon. He is the author of The Vulnerable Plant (Monthly Review Press, 1994) and coeditor of the new periodical Organization and Environment.

ATC 72, January-February 1998

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