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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

James Bellamy Foster's Marx's Ecology
Paul Burkett's Marx and Nature

reviewed by Tom Smith, Park Slope Greens

James Bellamy Foster's Marx's Ecology, 2000. (New York, Monthly Review Press)
Paul Burkett's Marx and Nature, 1999. (New York, St. Martin's Press)

Many "populist" writers still condemn Marx for his alleged "Promethean" faith in technological progress. Many "Marxists" agree—and accept the charge proudly. For them, workers' control will merely ensure that even heretofore-dangerous technologies-nuclear power, for example—will become safe. Even such "social ecologists" as Murray Bookchin accept this view of Marx's concept of ecology and progress.

Foster's and Burkett's books thoroughly debunk this belief. In actual fact, Marx and Engels were deeply concerned about the impact of industry and technology upon nature. Marx attacked "Prometheanism" when his contemporary Proudhon promoted it. Engels discussed the danger, revealed in one historical civilization's collapse after another, of human hubris in dealing with nature: the idea that man could ever dominate and control nature rather than understand better how to sustainably conform to its laws.

The "deep ecological" ideology fashionable today asserts that we should feel collective guilt for the environmental crisis engulfing the planet, and that what we need is "green values" that place nature rather than man at the center of our ethos. Marx offers a materialist alternative that permits us to deal with the real source of our ecological problems: exploitation and class conflict. In Marx's view, the exploitation of the producer classes by the ruling classes of history is simply the flip side of human society's exploitation of nature. Man exists in what Marx called a "metabolic" relation with nature, a relationship that is absolutely essential to man's survival and welfare. Labor is the essence of this metabolic relation. For labor is the process by which we remold the "raw materials" produced by the "great workshop of nature" (Marx) for our own survival and benefit.

When human social and economic relations become alienated and exploitative, the ruling class thus created becomes just as interested in exploiting nature without regard to the ultimate destructive consequences as it is in exploiting the class that "works" nature-the workers, the serfs, the slaves. Thus human history — "the history of class conflict" — is simultaneously a history of our increasingly conflictual, alienated relationship with nature. It is this history and these alienated, exploitative social relations, rather than individual moral values, which must be overturned if a harmonious, sustainable relationship with nature is to ensue.

In Marx's view, the exploitation of the producer classes by the ruling classes of history is simply the flip side of human society's exploitation of nature.

While Burkett emphasizes a close reading of Marx's texts, Foster focuses on intellectual history. From Foster we learn that Marx placed human freedom, equality, and justice at the heart of his ecology. Whether it was the blind faith in Progress, sanctioned by God and by parson economist Thomas Malthus, as it trod over the bodies of the miserable but dispensable working poor, or even the idolatry of "nature" presented by Schelling (a view strikingly similar to the "deep ecology" of our own day as well as to the vitalist, volkist ideology that presaged Nazism), Marx would have none of it.

Foster provides a fascinating intellectual prehistory for Marx's humanist social ecology. He begins with the ideas of Epicurus, the ancient philosopher about whom Marx wrote his doctoral thesis. Foster portrays Epicurus as the materialist spectre who stalked idealist and theist defenders of the status quo through the centuries, by continuing to inspire followers such as Marx and Francis Bacon.

Epicurus was a critic of all theist religion, in the name of humanity. To the idealism of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, Epicurus counterpoised the first humanistic version of materialism. He insisted upon the possibility of human freedom, within the realm of nature and necessity. Like Protagoras, the democratic Sophist, Epicurus argued that "man," not "gods," should be the "measure of all things." He rejected the idealist notion that social and political authoritarianism were divinely mandated. Instead, Epicurus was one of the first to see society in terms of a "social contract," an extremely radical view at the time. And Epicurus, according to Foster, was the first to formulate three of the four "informal laws of ecology" presented by Barry Commoner. For example, Epicurus asserted that "everything is connected to everything else," and that "nature knows best."

Foster also discusses the ecological critique of capitalism made by Marx. Following agricultural scientists James Anderson and Liebig, Marx and Engels grew to understand that the concentration of population in the industrial metropolis not only impoverished and crippled the lives of the workers trapped in this polluted and congested environment. Under this bourgeois-metropolitan regime, the soil also lost its fertility. The nutrients from the food farmed in the countryside were never returned to the land. Instead, they were washed away through the urban sewer system. Thus Marx and Engels demanded that the "the division between town and country" be abolished; that the populations of the "great towns" be permitted to migrate to what Ebenezer Howard would later call "garden cities," with their own cooperatively-owned industry, spread across the countryside. The citizens of these decentralized communes would work the land cooperatively, and the natural nutrients would return to the land from whence they came.

Foster continues with an exploration of the tremendous enthusiasm with which Marx and Engels greeted Darwin's findings, of Darwin's admiration for Capital, and of Darwin's materialism. Foster is careful to separate Darwin from his "social Darwinist" interpreters, such as Spencer, Sumner and Carnegie, who twisted his ideas into a neo-Malthusian crutch for capitalist indifference to the plight of the poor and the workers. The book ends with some fascinating studies of two Marxist ecological thinkers. The first is Nicolai Bukharin, who wrote great works of social ecological philosophy and begged Stalin—successfully—to preserve them after he was executed. The second is Christopher Caudwell, a young English philosopher who also wrote great works before going off to die fighting heroically in the Spanish Civil War.

I highly recommend both works to those interested in the history and philosophy of social ecology.

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