What Karl Marx has to say about today’s environmental issues

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… All progress in capitalist agriculture is progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of stealing the land; any progress in increasing the fertility of the soil over a period of time is progress in destroying the sustainable sources of that fertility.

– Karl Marx, Capital vol 1

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and an economic change in China, it seemed like capitalism had become the only game in town. Karl Marx’s ideas could safely be relegated to the dustbin of history. However, the 2008 global financial crash and its aftermath sent many people to the trash.

For better or for worse, the ideas of the German philosopher have affected our world more profoundly than any other modern social or political thinker. Yet on Marx’s recent 200th birthday, the discussion of its continued relevance was still dominated by “traditional” understandings of Marxism. Commentators, whether hostile or sympathetic, have focused on his critique of the exploitation and inequality of capitalism and imperialism, and the struggle to transform society into a socialist direction.

Unfortunately, there was little – far too little – about Marx’s thinking on the relationship between humans and nature.

After all, the constant but accelerated destruction by modern capitalism of the very conditions that sustain all life, including human life, is arguably the most fundamental challenge facing humanity today. This is most widely recognized in the form of one of its most devastating symptoms: climate change. But there is much more to it, including toxic pollution of the oceans, deforestation, land degradation and, more dramatically, a loss of biodiversity on a geological scale.

“The history of nature and the history of men depend on each other as long as men exist” – Karl Marx.
Stephen Bonk / Shutterstock

Some would say these are new problems, so why should we expect Marx, writing over a century ago, to have had anything worthwhile to offer us today? In reality, recent scholarship demonstrated that the problematic and often contradictory relationship between humans and the rest of nature was a central theme in Marx’s thought throughout his life. His ideas on this matter remain of great value – even indispensable – but his legacy is also quite problematic and new thinking is needed.

Alienation – from nature

The beginnings of Marx philosophical manuscripts of 1844 are best known for having developed his concept of “alienated labor” under capitalism, yet commentators almost never noticed that for Marx the fundamental source of alienation was our estrangement from nature.

It started with common ground fence, which left many rural people with no other means of supporting themselves than to sell their labor power to the new industrial class. But Marx also spoke of spiritual needs and the loss of a whole way of life in which people found meaning from their relationship to nature.

The fence turned the common land into private property and, according to Marx, helped England move from feudalism to capitalism.
Cristian Teichner / Shutterstock

The theme that runs through his early manuscripts is a vision of history in which exploitation of workers and nature go hand in hand. For Marx, the future communist society will resolve conflicts between humans and between humans and nature so that people can meet their needs in harmony with each other and with the rest of nature:

Man Lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous exchange if he does not want to die. That the physical and spiritual life of man is related to nature simply means that nature is related to itself, for man is part of nature.

In these writings, Marx makes vital contributions to our understanding of the human-nature relationship: he overcomes a long philosophical tradition of viewing humans as separate and above the rest of nature, and he asserts the need for both the survival and spiritual well-being of a proper and active relationship with the rest of nature. At the same time, he recognizes that this relationship has gone badly in the capitalist era.

The problem is capitalism – not humanity

In his later writings, Marx develops this analysis with his key concept of “mode of production”. For Marx, each of the different forms of human society that have existed historically and across the world has its own specific way of organizing human labor to meet subsistence needs through work on and with nature, and its own specific way. to distribute the results of this manpower. For example, hunter-gatherer societies have generally been egalitarian and sustainable. However, feudal or slave societies involved deeply unequal and exploitative social relations, but lacked the limitless and destructive dynamics of industrial capitalism.

Marx spoke of “primitive communism” in ancient societies.
Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock

This concept of “modes of production” immediately undermines any attempt to explain our ecological situation in such abstract terms as “population”, “greed” or “human nature”. Each form of society has its own ecology. The ecological problems we face are those of capitalism – not human behavior as such – and we need to understand how capitalism interacts with nature if we are to solve them.

Marx himself made an important start on this subject. In the 1860s he wrote about soil degradation, a big concern at the time. His work has shown how the division of city and countryside has resulted in loss of soil fertility while imposing a heavy burden of pollution and disease on urban centers.

Modern writers have developed these ideas further, including the late James o’connor, sociologist John Bellamy Foster, who identified an endemic tendency of capitalism to generate a “ecological fault”With nature, and those of the United Kingdom associated with Study group red green.

I suggested above that Marx’s ideas were indispensable but also problematic. There are places where he seems to celebrate the tremendous advances in productivity and control over the forces of nature made by capitalism, seeing socialism as necessary just to share the benefits with everyone. Recent studies have questioned this interpretation of Marx, but historically it has been very influential. Arguably the disastrous consequences of the Stalinist push for rapid industrialization in Russia came from this interpretation.

But there is another point. The new ecological Marxists argue, rightly, that capitalism is ecologically unsustainable and that socialism is necessary to establish a rational relationship with the rest of nature. However, to build a movement capable of transforming society in this way, we must remember Marx’s early emphasis on both the material and spiritual needs that can only be met through a fully rewarding and respectful relationship with the rest of nature: in short, we need a Marxism that is both green and ecological.


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