Marxism and the environment

An excerpt from the new Ecology and Socialism

“The analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms—these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.” 
Frederick Engels
Socialism: Utopian and Scientific1

There is a widespread assumption among environmentalists that Marxism, as a “productivist” ideology, has little to say, and little concern, for the fate of the environment. Contrary to a common perception—much of it understandably based on the diabolical environmental depredations carried out in the name of socialism by the former Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, and China—Marx and Engels had a much more holistic view of humankind’s place in the environment.

The idea that Marx and Engels were obsessed only with the conditions of workers comes from all quarters, right and left. They are often portrayed as writers who, it is conceded, may have been ahead of their times with their insightful economic analysis of capitalism but were typical of nineteenth century men enamored of the wonderful powers of technology to solve all of society’s ills. Their only contention, it is argued, was that technology should be owned and controlled by the workers, not the capitalists. Thenceforth, it could be unleashed upon the planet for the furthering of the interests of the entire human race without a thought to natural limits.

According to this view attributed to Marx, through control of the means of production and mastery of nature mankind would be set free. Most often Marx’s ideas are described as “productivist” or Promethean after the Greek god Prometheus, who stole the technology of fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals. The Promethean view is shown to be true by selected excerpts from the writings of Marx and Engels and the evidence of “actually existing socialism” as it used to be in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and as it still exists in China and other “socialist” countries not known for their ecological stewardship, such as North Korea and Vietnam. Marxist scholars John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett have done much to refute this version of Marxism and the presumptive original sin of Marx and Engels with which all past and future socialist projects are taken to be tainted.2

This topic is important because we need not just a critique of the past but also a vision for the future, one that is rooted in historical experience and theoretical cogency that we can build on and develop. Just as socialism needs to be rescued from the distortions of some of its supposed practitioners, so the writings of Marx and Engels should be recognized for their usefulness in examining the natural world and human relationships to it. This is not to take every word of Marx and Engels as the gospel truth more than a hundred years after they wrote them. Rather it is to argue that the methodology of Marxism holds key insights into our relationship to nature that are extremely useful for understanding our place in the biosphere and interaction with it.

The language of socialism and the mantle of Marx and Engels were adopted by Stalin in the USSR, Mao in China, and other “socialist” societies not to further the course of socialism but to derail it. While going into detail on the nature of these regimes is beyond the scope of this book, it should be clear that if socialism means anything, it is the free association of the people who do the work raising themselves into power to collectively and democratically decide the future course of society.3 The workers and peasants who make the revolution should bear its fruits. That is, they democratically decide the direction of the economy and society in the interests of the vast majority; a society where production of goods is based on human need, not profit.

After the Stalinist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, nowhere has this been true of any society claiming to be socialist. Each society is run from the top down in the interests of a bureaucratic ruling elite who run the state as a one-party fiefdom. The interests of the ruling Soviet elite became associated with the interests of a state in economic and military competition with the West.

In other words, the same factors that propel capitalist production—the need to compete and drive out the competition—reigned within these regimes. Flowing directly from this came the need of each of these one-party states to constantly raise productivity and dispense with any environmental, democratic, or labor concerns in the manic drive toward economic and technological parity with the Western powers. It was the severe lack of power of the working class in the “socialist” countries, not its untrammeled freedom, which created the conditions for the extreme ecological vandalism seen there. As Stalin commented, what took the West one hundred years to accomplish, the Soviet Union would do in ten.4 This chapter will therefore explore the real legacy of Marx and Engels and subsequent Marxist thinkers as it relates to enhancing our understanding of the human social relationship to the natural world.

While life will evolve and biodiversity will eventually be reestablished on a planet that is 60ºC warmer than today, it will do so on a timescale vastly greater than human planning and life spans could possibly contemplate. It took fifty million years for biodiversity to recover from the Permian-Triassic mass extinction. In the interim period, 50 to 90 percent of species currently extant will die out as they will be unable to adapt fast enough to such rapid changes and the resulting breakdown in ecosystems within which these species are embedded. It is not just the overall amount of climatic change that will be so devastating to ecosystems, but just as importantly, the rate at which that change occurs. Alongside such drastic reductions in biodiversity, human misery will multiply. Mass migration, droughts, floods, wars, and famine will be endemic rather than periodic features of a greatly constrained human society.

Frederick Engels outlined over one hundred years ago the contradictions between an exploitative, short-term relationship of humanity to nature and the long-term problems that would inevitably engender:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centers and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, making possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy season… 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 of nature—but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.5

This failure to take into account the long-term, unintended consequences of human actions reaches its height of contradiction under capitalism where both the scale of the destructive impact of these unintended consequences, as well as the scientific and material means to overcome them, develop in tandem. Writes Engels:

Classical political economy, the social science of the bourgeoisie, in the main examines only social effects of human actions in the fields of production and exchange that are actually intended. This fully corresponds to the social organization of which it is the theoretical expression. As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result.6

Today, all the solutions to climate change are already technologically feasible, and we have the means to implement them on a global scale, as well as the knowledge of what will happen if we don’t. We are being held back not because solutions don’t exist or money is not available, but because current social relations will not allow for them. As Leon Trotsky wrote in 1926:

I remember the time when men wrote that the development of aircraft would put an end to war, because it would draw the whole population into military operations, would bring to ruin the economic and cultural life of entire countries, etc. In fact, however, the invention of the flying machine heavier than air opened a new and crueler chapter in the history of militarism. There is no doubt now, too, we are approaching the beginning of a still more frightful and bloody chapter. Technology and science have their own logic—the logic of the cognition of nature and the mastering of it in the interests of man. But technology in itself cannot be called either militaristic or pacifistic. In a society in which the ruling class is militaristic, technology is in the service of militarism.7

Today, we clearly have governments overtly committed to militarism to extend the economic reach of their own national group of capitalists. As all mainstream predictions by the United Nations and the International Energy Agency point toward growing worldwide use of fossil fuel energy, waiting for real and meaningful solutions to emerge from governments guarantees humanity a desperate future and many species a short one. The raison d’être of capitalism is profit based on continual economic expansion. Capitalism has, in effect and in practice, alienated humanity from nature by privatizing the land and making all things into commodities—even pollution itself. On this alienation from nature, Marx explains, “As for the farmer, the industrial capitalist and the agricultural worker, they are no more bound to the land they exploit than are the employer and the worker in the factories to the cotton and wool they manufacture; they feel an attachment only for the price of their production, the monetary product.”8

Capitalism is an economic system profoundly and irrevocably at odds with a sustainable planet, as it requires ever-greater material and energy throughput to keep expanding. According to a 2000 study carried out by five major European and U.S. research centers:

Industrial economies are becoming more efficient in their use of materials, but waste generation continues to increase…Even as decoupling between economic growth and resource throughput occurred on a per capita and per unit of GDP basis, overall resource use and waste flows to the environment continued to grow. We found no evidence of an absolute reduction in resource throughput. One half to three quarters of annual resource inputs to industrial economies are returned to the environment as wastes within a year.9

Let’s dwell on that last sentence for a second: One-half to three-quarters of industrial inputs returned to the environment as wastes within a year!

Capitalism simultaneously and of necessity exploits the land and the people and sacrifices the interests of both on the altar of profit. Philosophically, the approach that capitalism takes to the environment, and the attitude it forces us to adopt, is one of separation and alienation. As a species we are forcibly cut off from the land, separated from nature, and alienated from coevolving with it. It’s an attitude amply summed up by Marx in volume 1 of Capital:

Capitalist production…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil…. The social combination and organization of the labor processes is turned into an organized mode of crushing out the workman’s individual vitality, freedom and independence.… Moreover, all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology…only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.10

Marx and Engels viewed humans not as something separate from the environment, as capitalist ideological orthodoxy does, but dialectically interconnected. Writes Marx on the relationship between nature and humanity:

Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.11

The organism interacts with its environment while simultaneously the environment acts back on the organism. In the process, both are changed. The environment is no longer a passive object to be shaped at will by whatever life-form comes along, but plays a role in making the organism what it is. In this view, it is impossible to speak of any living thing, humans and their activity included, as anything but deeply enmeshed with each other, in a constant process of mutual interaction and transformation. Environmental niches don’t just pre-exist so that some happy organism that just happens to wander by at the right time can slot itself in. The very idea of an environment has no meaning unless we are talking about an organism’s relationship to it. For Marx and Engels, writing in The German Ideology, human activity had the potential to alienate all creatures from their environments:

The “essence” of the fish is its “being,” water… The “essence” of the freshwater fish is the water of a river. But the latter ceases to be the essence of the fish and so is no longer a suitable medium for existence as soon as the river is made to serve industry, as soon as it is polluted by dyes and other waste products and navigated by steamboats, or as soon as its water is diverted into canals where simple drainage can deprive fish of its medium of existence.12

Climate, and the earth’s ecosystem more generally, is dynamic and complex; it is best viewed as a process of many interacting factors. Every change feeds back and creates new effects on all actors. This leads to the concepts of tipping points and holism—both central within Marxism. Violent shocks to the system over relatively brief timescales have dominated previous climate swings, as have the revolutionary social changes that ushered capitalism onto the world historic stage. Rapid changes to natural and social systems can be seen to operate in analogous ways. Stresses that accumulate in climate systems and human societies often do so without much outward sign until rapid and extreme changes seem to burst forth almost out of nowhere. Under the surface however, what seem like small, inconsequential “molecular” changes were taking place that eventually led to the radical and abrupt shifts to entirely new systems. In regard to climate change, this is the thesis of Fred Pearce’s book With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change.

In this sense, rapid climate change and revolutionary social change are analogous because they both exemplify the sudden transformation of quantity into quality. The great concern among scientists is that we are fast approaching just such a tipping point with regard to global climate. In the social realm, the great concern among many other people is that we are not approaching just such a corresponding social upheaval fast enough to prevent us from going beyond a systemic breakdown in a stable global climate.

To end the contradiction between humanity and nature requires “something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.”13 To truly end the exploitation of nature in the service of profit requires that the profit motive be excised from society in a revolutionary reconstitution by the majority on whose labor the system depends. The right to privately own the land and the means of production, which lies at the very root of capitalist economics and forces the population at large to work for a living at the behest of private capital, must be abolished. Only by holding land, along with the instruments of production, in common and producing to meet social need will the simultaneous exploitation of nature and humanity end. Only then can we interact with nature according to a conscious plan, utilizing the scientific knowledge and technique that we already possess to organize production and distribution on a completely new footing that thus establishes a more harmonious relationship between humanity and nature. The methodology developed and used by Marx and Engels offers insightful clues as to how to do that.

Socialist ecological thought since Marx
Marxism is a science, not a religion. As such it is a continually evolving body of thought, adapting and learning from new situations and knowledge. It is no surprise therefore to learn that several Marxists and socialists have made significant contributions to ecological thought.

The term “biosphere,” encompassing the entirety of an open system that supports all life and its interaction with the atmosphere and the energy coming from the sun, was coined in the 1920s by a leading scientist of the Bolshevik Soviet government, Vladimir Vernadsky. Vernadsky was one of the very first—in a prophetic speech in 1922—to warn of the dangers of the misuse of atomic power. In 1926 Vernadsky publishedThe Biosphere. This was before Soviet science became intensely productivist, anti-ecological and, in some important and notorious episodes, anti-scientific.

Well before James Lovelock’s rather mystical notions of Gaia and the earth as a self-regulating living organism, Vernadsky, in echoes of Marx, wrote in his book of the essential link and interconnection between all biotic and abiotic matter in shaping the earth:

Life is, thus, potently and continuously the disturbing chemical inertia on the surface of our planet. It creates colors and forms of nature, the associations of animals and plants, and the creative labor of civilized humanity, and also becomes a part of the diverse chemical processes of the earth’s crust. There is not substantial chemical equilibrium on the crust in which the influence of life is not evident, and in which chemistry does not display life’s work. Life is, therefore, not an external or accidental phenomenon of the earth’s crust…All living matter can be regarded as a single entity in the mechanism of the biosphere.14

Here the biosphere, encompassing all living and nonliving matter, is the system, human society is an interacting sub-system of that, and the economy a subsystem of human society, even if the key one through which society evolves. For conventional economists it is the exact reverse: the economy is the system; human society, and, to the extent that the biosphere is even considered, are both subsystems. This reversal gives rise to the idea, essential under capitalism, that the economy can expand without limits, that capitalism is a boundlesssystem. That this runs counter to the physical and biological laws of the universe goes without acknowledgment. The capitalist economy runs as a perpetual motion machine, the practical possibility of which was discredited in the nineteenth century with the enunciation of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. Nevertheless, in order to continue, it requires a belief system that suspends knowledge of those very laws even as it utilizes them in other spheres of scientific endeavor. Hence the entirely necessary but nonsensical notion under capitalism: the economy is essentially independent of nature.

Committed to the unity of theory and practice, the Bolsheviks did not limit themselves to theoretical reconceptions of a dynamic and interactive organic and inorganic world but actively supported little-known but nevertheless groundbreaking ecological practice. The Soviet Union, particularly through the leadership of Lenin while he was alive, and Lunacharsky while he was head of the People’s Commissariat for Education, Narkompros, (before his forced resignation by Stalin in 1929) were strong backers of an ecologically minded policy toward agricultural sustainability, biodiversity, and ecological research. This was in the face of the most desperate economic circumstances bequeathed to the young Soviet state due to the deprivations of the First World War and the unrestrained savagery with which the counterrevolutionary White armies and Allied Western governments prosecuted the ensuing three year civil war.

For a short period of time, studies in Soviet ecology blossomed as in no other country. That brief period was brought to an abrupt end when Stalin and the ascendant bureaucracy demonized “science for the sake of science” as a “bourgeois deviation.” Stalin insisted not only that true “proletarian science” must first and foremost justify itself in the interests of the economy, but also that scientific theory had as much to gain from “practice” as it did from the unearthing of scientific relationships. In other words, what was happening on the ground, with Trofim Lysenko’s infamous crop-yield experiments and theory of “vernalization,” for example, should be accepted by scientists because it was in the interests of Soviet agriculture, rather than critically examined for scientific soundness.15 Even science was not immune to the ideological manipulations and distortions required by Stalin as political considerations came to trump scientific conclusions.

Prior to the Stalinist counterrevolution, the Soviet Union in fact pioneered ecological theory and practice. The government was the first in the world to listen to its scientific and ecological researchers and implement a policy of setting aside large tracts of land, zapovedniki(nature reserves), that were completely inviolable to any form of human intervention other than scientific research. There was to be no logging, animal hunting, or crop growing—even tourism was banned.

These areas, linked together in a nationwide network were to serve asetalony—baseline standards similar to the surrounding region that could be used to track how virgin nature existed in order to better understand how industrialized society was changing natural habitats in nonprotected areas. Russian ecologists similarly pioneered the idea that despoiled land could be rejuvenated through rational use and through the development of a regional plan on the basis of the study of etalony. It was Russian scientists who were among the first to consider the idea of plant distribution as communities (phytosociology) and initiated the concept of ecological energetics (trophic dynamics).

Two days after the October Revolution, the crucial decree “On Land” was passed, abolishing the ability of anyone to privately own “alienated” land. Because all land, forests, waterways, and natural resources were now publically owned, a rational plan for their sustainable use and renewal could be put in to action. Despite this, the journal Lesa respubliki (Forests of the Republic) reported that forests were being degraded by illegal logging and hunting and something needed to be done. In May 1918, in a meeting chaired by Lenin, the government responded by passing the decree “On Forests,” which created a Central Administration of Forests of the Republic to design a plan for reforestation and sustained yield. Forests were to be divided into an exploitable sector and a protected one. The purpose of the protected part was specifically to engage with issues of the control of erosion, the protection of watersheds, and the “preservation of monuments of nature.” Another law, the Forest Code, was adopted into law in 1923 which further enhanced the protected status of forests.

By January 1919, from a Soviet perspective, the civil war had reached its nadir. The continued existence of the worker’s and peasants’ government was in serious doubt. Bolshevik-controlled areas had been severely curtailed and the Red Army pushed back almost to the gates of Petrograd. The government was hanging by a thread as White armies crossed the Urals and seemed headed for the desperately beating heart of Soviet power. U.S., British, French, and Japanese troops occupied and controlled key Russian ports, and much of the fertile Ukraine and the south were under the control of the Germans. Despite the almost hopelessly dire situation, Lenin took time out to personally meet with the well-known agronomist, N. N. Podiapolsky, to hear about proposals for the first zapovednik. As Podiapolsky recounts:

Having asked me some questions about the military and political situation in the Astrakhan region, Vladimir Ilyich expressed his approval of all of our initiatives and in particular the one concerning the project for the zapovednik. He stated that the cause of conservation was important not only for the Asktrakhan region, but for the whole republic as well, and that he considered it an urgent priority.16

Lenin proposed that Podialpolsky immediately draft national legislation on conservation for consideration. After submitting the legislation, Podiapolsky received the examined draft back from Lenin the very same day!

Once land was retaken by the Red Army, this decree, “On the Protection of Monuments of Nature, Gardens, and Parks” could eventually be signed in to law by Lenin in September of 1921. In May 1919 Lenin approved passage of the decree “On Hunting Seasons and the Right to Possess Hunting Weapons,” which prohibited hunting of endangered moose and wild goats and initiated closed seasons for hunting other animals in order to ensure sustainable yield.

In 1924, the All-Russian Society for Conservation (VOOP) was created through the Conservation Department of the Commissariat of Education to help build a mass social base for conservation and to incorporate conservation and the study of nature into school curricula. VOOP published its own journal, Okhrana prirody (Conservation), which carried vigorous debates inside its pages on critical academic issues in ecology, the history of ecological research in Russia, news from national parks in other countries, including translations of Theodore Roosevelt’s thoughts on Yellowstone, articles for and about children, special profiles on various endangered species, and articles for biological pest control and against monocultures. The journal even discussed the positive role shamans had historically played in ensuring sustainable yields of game in Siberian culture. Ecology as a separate field of academic study began to appear in Russian university curricula by 1924.

All this stood as law; academic debate and research flourished and popular organizations sought to further the rational use and study of nature with governmental support, even as the most far-reaching goals were constrained by the need to feed the people and earn foreign currency through fur and timber sales. These advances were circumvented, curtailed, and ultimately reversed by the requirements of Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, when unrestrained productivism was the order of the day and animals and plants were reclassified. Species, in a mirror image of the short-termism inherent to capitalism, were now to be classified either as “useful” to the most immediate needs of “socialist construction” or “harmful”—and therefore penciled in for extermination.

The early years of Soviet rule could not be more different from the usual picture of total disregard for the environment, leading to horrific pollution and environmental crimes. The entirety of Soviet ecological misrule is presented as a continuum from the modernizing despot Lenin all the way through to Chernobyl in a smooth unbroken line. In fact, the Soviet Union under Lenin and through the 1920s was characterized by a stunning series of pioneering ecological policies, education, research, and theorizing. Compare the enlightened policies sketched above with Maxim Gorky’s paean to the concept of the total “transformation of nature” inaugurated once Stalin had consolidated his rule through repeated purges in the 1930s:

Stalin holds a pencil. Before him lies a map of the region. Deserted shores. Remote villages. Virgin soil, covered with boulders. Primeval forests. Too much forest as a matter of fact; it covers the best soil. And swamps. The swamps are always crawling about, making life dull and slovenly. Tillage must be increased. The swamps must be drained…The Karelian Republic wants to enter the stage of classless society as a republic of factories and mills. And the Karelian Republic will enter classless society by changing its own nature.17

The ascension of Stalin, as in all other areas of post?revolutionary life, represents a clearly delineated rupture with the pioneering ecological policies and environmental research of the 1920s. Under Stalin, who had little use for any scientific theory if it didn’t ideologically justify party rule or enhance economic competitiveness with the West, meant that anyone charged with carrying out “science for science’s sake” automatically became a potential “wrecker”—the charge that precipitated trial, the gulag, execution, or frequently all three. The ecology movement, along with independent scientists, had to be broken and entire governmental departments purged, reordered, renamed, or simply abolished. To examine just the Ukraine, formerly a center of ecological research, every single voluntary scientific or professional society concerned with conservation or nature protection was terminated in the 1930s. Many were accused of cooperating with “counterrevolutionary nationalist groups,” due to their continued opposition to economic issues taking primacy over those of conservation. This amounted to a certain death sentence; more than a third of the Ukrainian Committee for the Preservation of Monuments of Nature were executed.

A British socialist, A. G. Tansley, who went on to become the first president of the British Ecological Society and in the 1930s coined the term “ecosystem,” a concept central to our modern understanding of ecosystems ecology, now an academic research field of its own. Tansley wanted to explain how his materialist conception of natural communities had become fused with all physical and chemical factors such as soil and climate and so came up with the term “ecosystem” to speak effectively of this dynamic equilibrium and essential unity. As he explained:

It is the systems so formed which, from the point of view of the ecologist, are the basic units of nature on the face of the earth. Our natural human prejudices force us to consider the organisms as the most important parts of these systems, but certainly inorganic “factors” are also parts—there could be no systems without them, and there is constant interchange of the most various kinds within each system, not only between the organisms but between the organic and the inorganic. These ecosystems, as we may call them, are the most various kinds and sizes. They form one category of the multitudinous physical systems of the universe, which range from the universe as a whole down to the atom.18

And, in an image of how Marxist dialectics can help us understand the constant motion and interconnectivity of life processes, Tansley goes on to explain how “the systems we isolate mentally are not only included as parts of larger ones, but they also overlap, interlock, and interact with one another.”19

The reason I bring up these examples is to illustrate that a central preoccupation of socialists, beginning with Marx and Engels, but including scientists and leading Bolsheviks from the 1920s among others, has been our relationship to the environment. Socialists have made serious and fundamental contributions to ecological or “green” thought and practice. In addition, socialists were thinking along these lines and were able to make these contributions precisely because they were socialists. Marxism provides by far the best framework for understanding the concept of sustainability.

This is in contrast with much of green thought that for far too long has neglected the issue of class and the nature of the economic system. Many people truly concerned with environmental degradation and global warming view sustainability through the lens of individual responsibility—working within the system to reduce one’s personal carbon footprint, biking to work, not eating meat, making sure to recycle, or not drinking bottled water. There is a focus on individual lifestyle changes in order to show in practice what an alternative, more sustainable life would look like and prefigure a sustainable world, one person at a time.

I am all for making those personal choices if you can, but it shouldn’t be confused with a political strategy that will actually bring about the change everyone wants to see. If we subscribe to lifestyle politics we then see ourselves exactly as corporate and political elites want us to see ourselves—as consumers. This is not where our power lies. It allows capitalism to go on as before, with more and more environmental damage and pollution, while we are lulled into believing we’re actually doing something—recycling is the classic case. If we view ourselves primarily as consumers, they will figure out a way to sell us crap. As they have successfully done with all of the new “green” merchandise, organic and “carbon-neutral” products, hybrid vehicles, and so on, which are doing nothing to challenge the competition-driven growth imperative hardwired into a system based on profit as its prime objective.

Marx was concerned with taking a long-term view of the earth over a century before the UN discovered a problem. In the third volume ofCapital he essentially defines sustainability thus:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular 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 household].20

Nature and society cannot be seen as diametrically opposed but should co-develop with one another as natural history and human history become different aspects of the same thing. For Marx it was necessary to heal the “metabolic rift,” to use his term, created between humanity and nature by capitalism.

This article is excerpted from Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books 2010).


  1. Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Company, 1910) chap.
  2. See John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000); Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature; and Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009).
  3. For details on how Marxism became distorted by states calling themselves socialist and how the Soviet Union decayed into a state-run dictatorship of extreme exploitation and oppression see John Molyneux, What Is the Real Marxist Tradition? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003) and Anthony Arnove et al., Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003).
  4. “We are fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We have to make good this distance in ten years. Either we do this or they crush us.” Quoted in J. Miller, “A Political Economy of Socialism in the Making,” Soviet Studies 4, no. 4 (April 1953): 418.
  5. Frederick Engels, “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” inThe Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International Publishers, 2007), 260–61.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 317.
  8. Quoted in Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 132.
  9. Quoted in James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, The Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2008), 56.
  10. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 505–07.
  11. Quoted in Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 72.
  12. Ibid., 112.
  13. Engels, “Part Played by Labor.”
  14. Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere (New York: Nevraumont Publishing Company, 1998), 57.
  15. Trofim Lysenko was the director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences under Stalin. His theories of vernalization backed the disproven ideas of Lamarck concerning acquired characteristics. Lysenkoism has become synonymous with the idea of science and scientists backing certain scientific ideas based on their political expediency rather than their scientific rigor.
  16. Douglas Weiner, Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 2000), 27. Information in this section, including the Podiapolsky quote, is taken from here.
  17. Ibid. 169.
  18. A. G. Tansley, “The Ecosystem,” reprinted in Keeping Things Whole: Readings in Environmental Science (Chicago: Great Books Foundation, 2003), 191.
  19. Quoted in John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet (New York:Monthly Review Press, 2009), 159.
  20. Ibid., 181.

 

Issue #95

Winter 2014-15

The political economy of low-wage labor

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