Marx and Ecology

November 25, 2011


Joel Kovel

I. Introduction
The triumphalism generated by the collapse of the Soviet system in the late 1980s seemed to toss the figure of Karl Marx, capital’s prime nemesis, into the proverbial dustbin of history[1]. Having beaten back the spectre of communism, the ideologues of capital even proclaimed that not just Marxism, but history itself had come to an end. A generation later, the tables appear to be reversed. We are now compelled to recognize the distinct possibility that history may indeed come to an end thanks to capitalism–not in triumph, however, but through the generalized ecological decay it causes. Along with the oncoming waves of accumulation crisis we observe a more deadly reckoning: that the period of capital’s relentless expansion has also been one of constant, chaotic ravaging of the natural foundations of civilization. When a foundation fails, the building collapses. Thus capital is like a cancer upon nature; and the more it lives, so must nature die and with it, ourselves and innumerable other creatures. It is not for us here to demonstrate the evidence for this, or the mechanisms by which ecological collapse may occur, or the ways in which capital accumulation conduces to ecosystem breakdown. We do, however, need to bring out the ways that the figure of Marx can contribute to our coming to grips with this ‘ecological crisis’, and even to overcome it. This defines the theme of the present essay.[2]

II. Nature in Marx
By ‘ecology’ we recognize a branch of the life sciences that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. It is increasingly also a normative reckoning, that nature needs to be comprehended as a manifold of interconnectivity, and on this basis, a matter of ‘wholeness’. The word was coined by Haeckel in 1866, a year before Capital Vol. I was published and the branch of science named by it has become a staple of biological thought, though it would not be until the 20th century until it came into its own. (Sheasby: 2004b) Needless to say, we do not expect Marx to have been concerned with the technical aspects of ecological science. However, the normative side would have been a presence in Marx’s world, and was undoubtedly of concern to him. As Donald Worster has pointed out, while the concept of ecology formalized and made a science out of the relationships within nature,

‘the idea of ecology is much older than the name. In this sense its modern history begins in the eighteenth century, when the appearance of a more comprehensive way of looking at the earth’s fabric of life: a point of view that sought to describe all of the living organisms of the earth as an interacting whole, often referred to as the “economy of nature”’ (Worster 1994:x).

Indeed, the story goes back much further. As long as humanity has been capable of systematic thought it has thought about nature in a relational way, that is, as a process. Marx lived on the cusp between a moment when synthetic generalizations about nature could be made, and another in which the fertility of such thinking was becoming extinguished by the icy grip of an advancing capitalism. He belongs with the great amateurs, like Goethe or Emerson, or the ‘naturalists’ of genius like Darwin (whom he and Engels critically admired). However, Marx’s great interest throughout his life in nature and natural science has been consistently ignored, downplayed, or misinterpreted (Sheasby 2004a, 2004b).

Much nonsense has been written about Marx’s attitude toward and knowledge of nature, alleging ignorance, indifference, or even outright hostility.[3] Even a sympathetic historian like Donald Worster renders Marx’s thought about nature invisible. Writing in his magisterial history of ecological thought, Nature’s Economy, Worster opines that although Marx and Engels help us see that concepts about nature have become fragmented like everything else under the onslaught of capitalism, still, one cannot ‘find in them much concern about preserving any ancient feeling for nature or even any concern for environmental preservation’. (Worster 1994: 427)

We can dismiss such verdicts with a quote from “On the Jewish Question,” written when Marx was only 25 years old:

The view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature; . . . It is in this sense that [in a 1524 pamphlet] Thomas Münzer declares it intolerable ‘that all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on theear th; the creatures, too, must become free’. (MECW 3: 172)

By supporting Thomas Münzer—leader of the peasant rebellion in the 16th Century and Luther’s radical antagonist in the German Reformation—Marx declares himself for the freeing of all creatures, including plants. This ancient principle was first put forth within class society by Buddha.[4] Now, following Münzer, Marx announces that the creatures must be freed especially from the dominion of private property and money, that is, capital. Thus Marx already had in 1843 a premonition of a general ecological crisis, driven by capital and its accumulation, and the resolution of which is an absolute condition of ‘environmental preservation’.

This concern continues into Marx’s maturity, as shown by this magnificent quotation from the third volume of Capital:

From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition. (MECW 37: 763)

III. Marx and Ecology
It is clear that Marx had an abiding interest in nature and natural science, and also that he passionately cared about the well-being of the natural world. But this is not the same as saying that he was an ecological thinker in the sense drawn by Worster, that is, one who can provide a ‘more comprehensive way of looking at the earth’s fabric of life: a point of view that sought to describe all of the living organisms of the earth as an interacting whole’. (Worster 1994: x) We may pose this as a question: can we find in Marx a theoretical and practical, that is, scientific, contribution to advancing the awareness of nature as an interconnected manifold in which everything, and certainly every creature, affects everything else in the great fabric of life? The molecular concept of ecology is the ecosystem: a unitary ensemble within this totality, analytically differentiable, yet ultimately interconnected. So the question about Marx’s ecological bona fides may be rephrased as whether and how he helps us see the world in ecosystemic terms.

The answer is yes … so long as we open the notion of ecosystem to include one, highly peculiar, yet natural creature. It is ourselves, Homo sapiens, whose ecosystemic position Marx illuminates as no one else has: the human pest whose social relations are in process of tearing down the whole fabric of planetary nature.

Marx’s ecological thought emerges from within the conception of political economy, and in the course of turning away from philosophical idealism and toward an materialist encounter with the world. The process was initiated, however, not with the industrial proletariat with whom Marx was to become preoccupied, but with their historical antecedents, peasants facing enclosure. These Marx came to know in the Moselle river valley while a correspondent for the Rheinische Zeitung covering struggles over wood resources, then a prime source of energy. (MECW 1: 224-263) The encounter stirred his passionate interest in the affairs of common working people, and, by revealing to him his ignorance of the material side of life, led Marx to study economics and eventually to develop political economy and discover the “laws of motion of capitalist society.”

Marx’s first concrete notion of communism was therefore an association with the ancient and enduring battle over enclosing the Commons, or the commune, and the control over natural resources. Proletarians became of course central for Marx. But they were the product of dispossession, which severed producers from the means of production. To account for this Marx employed the notion of alienation, drawn from Hegel. He gave it flesh and blood, and reflected its image in the mirror of nature. The alienation of labor depicted in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 is foundational for Marx; in the largest sense it expresses the estrangement of those separated from nature, whether means of production as forest, fishery or soil, or as embodied in their own sensuous being. This latter includes the social dimension, which for humanity is a core part of our ‘nature’. Marx is explicit that alienated labor means also alienation from “human nature,” or, in the term used by Feuerbach, “species being.” And this in turn implies alienation from nature, proper. All this came to fruition in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (MECW 3: 229 – 346), which announced Marx’s genius, which included the positing of the ecological relations of humankind.

He did so in an intuitive, or as we might say, prefigurative way of depicting a distressed ecosystem. Thus Marx wrote of ecosystems before the word, “ecosystem,” was devised. We define the ecosystem as an ensemble of natural entities, whose characteristic form is the product of internal relations and whose connection to the rest of the universe is the manifestation of external relations. Marx provided those formal elements in describing the interaction between humans and nature. He used the notion of production to account for the specific properties of ecosystems in which human interacted with other aspects of nature, because he saw production as the species-specific core of our human nature. Production is our species nature; and it is the mode by which we transform nature, becoming thereby the expression of nature’s transforming function.

The elements of human ecosystems include a socially determined human being. No natural scientist ever saw things quite this way. Hence we need to say that Marx as an ecologist was rather different from the ecologists who followed and developed the science more or less exclusively in the domain of natural and biological science. But unless we take the nonsensical position of declaring humans outside of nature, ecology needs a construction of the ecosystem in which human transformative activity is an element. We might say that Marx is limited as an ecologist because he foreshortens the non-human part of ecosystems; while biological-ecologists are equivalently limited by foreshortening the human part of ecosystems; thus a unified ecological science would await an integration of the two one-sided approaches. Marx wrote of this in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:

Natural science will lose its abstractly material—or rather, its idealistic—tendency, and will become the basis of human science, as it has already become the basis for actual human life, albeit in an estranged form. One basis for life and another basis for science is a priori a lie. (MECW 3: 303)

We can take this a bit further: in view of the superiority of Marx’s conception of a socially articulated humanity along the skein of alienation compared to the positivist and fragmented images offered by bourgeois social science, the standard sciences of ecology would be well advised to redefine themselves according to a Marxist conception of human nature.[5] Of course the general run of ecologists are as much shaped by capital’s indoctrination as are other intellectuals. Very few recognize the fact that in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx laid out a theoretical model capable of mutually comprehending political economy and human ecology, organized around the notion of alienation.

At the beginning of his career, then, Marx set forth a profoundly realized, albeit intuitive, ecological vision:

The universality of man is in practice manifested precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganic body. . . . That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature. (MECW 3: 275-76)

It follows that loss of “universality,” that is, freedom, will lead to the degradation of nature. And in the same gesture, the redemption of nature entails the advance of freedom. We could consume the whole of this contribution with extracts from the Manuscripts demonstrating Marx’s ecological vision and its inextricable tie to his revolutionary project. One more quotation will have to do, which expands the meaning of Marx’s “humanism.” For Marx, humanism involves more than the merely human. As he avers in a little-appreciated passage from the Manuscripts, a realized humanism must encompass a vital naturalism:

Here we see how the constant naturalism or humanism differs both from idealism and materialism and is at the same time their unifying truth. We also see that only naturalism is capable of comprehending the process of world history. Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being, and as a living natural being, he is on the one hand equipped with natural powers, with vital powers, he is an active natural being; these powers exist in him as dispositions and capacities, as drives. On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal, sensuous, objective being, he is a suffering, conditioned, and limited being, like animals and plants. That is to say, the objects of his drives exist outside him as objects independent of him; but these objects are objects of his need, essential objects, indispensable to the exercise and confirmation of his essential powers. To say that man is a corporeal, living, real, sensuous, objective being with natural powers means that he has real, sensuous objects as the object of his being and of his vital expression, or that he can only express his life in real, sensuous objects. (MECW 3: 336)

Thus the young Marx is saying that to become fully human we must recognize ourselves in nature and nature in ourselves. This is a call for an ecocentric ethic as an essential component of an unalienated, freely lived life, and by implication, of a revolutionary program along Marxist lines—which we presently conceptualize and try to realize under the name of ecosocialism.

IV. Ecological thought in the mature Marx
How do these early insights fare in Marx’s mature phase? The relationship between the early and mature works of Marx will probably never be settled, and the same holds for the ecological construction of the two phases. In broad outlines, however, we see many elements of the core ecological vision surfacing in the mature work. A revealing example is the following passage from Capital I, concerning the transformations of agriculture under capitalism:

Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive-power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer. But while upsetting the naturally grown conditions for the maintenance of that circulation of matter, it imperiously calls for its restoration as a system, as a regulating law of social production, and under a form appropriate to the full development of the human race. In agriculture as in manufacture, the transformation of production under the sway of capital, means, at the same time, the martyrdom of the producer; the instrument of labour becomes the means of enslaving, exploiting, and impoverishing the labourer; the social combination and organization of labour processes is turned into an organised mode of crushing out the workman’s individual vitality, freedom, and independence. The dispersion of the rural labourers over larger areas breaks their power of resistance while concentration increases that of the town operatives. In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the 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, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the labourer. (MECW 35: 507 – 508)

We may unpack some of the logic of this complex and far-reaching passage:

1. Marx has moved from the philosophical dimension, and turns his eye in a way he could scarcely have done in 1844 toward a concrete ecological issue. We are shown the “soil” and the “laborer” joined in a pathological ensemble of relations, including the mediations of technology (treatment of which is beyond present scope) and under the aegis of capital and its imperative of accumulation. Under capitalism, therefore, ecosystems have become destabilized, i.e., diseased. Further, the ecosystem is connected externally to others, for example, the town. Marx has abstracted from the mass of social and environmental relations a dynamic of considerable explanatory power, which includes the basic notion that the ‘original sources of all wealth [are]the soil and the laborer’. Never again can Marx’s detractors legitimately claim that he sacrifices nature to labor in the creation of wealth. Of course, this does not stop them from trying to do so.

2. The human/natural ecosystem is revealed as intrinsically historical. This is consonant with Marx’s assertion, noted above, that for humans, nature is historically constituted and that human nature is expressed in the capacity to create history. In this history, now one, now another, of the human agents acts transformatively on nature—as a pathogen under capitalism, and prospectively a beneficent steward under socialism; from another perspective, the physical relations of the ecosystem are changed as town and countryside are separated. Once constituted and formed into classes, the human agents, i.e., workers, will therefore have varying effects on nature.

3. The laborer, a de-formed relic of his original self, brings about (in association with various kinds of technologies and material inputs such as pesticides) the degradation of the soil. Accordingly, Marx can say that capital robs both the soil and laborer. Marx also shows that a degraded soil will be an implement of degrading the laborer (as by yielding poor nutrition); while a beaten-down worker, culturally manipulated and terrorized by debt, will be unable to apply the ecocentric ethic of properly caring for nature, and so will further degrade the soil. We see the horrors of this in today’s ecosystems ruined by agro-business, and in the host of pollution-related cancers, birth defects, etc, that result.

4. Degradation metastasizes throughout the ecosystem and between ecosystems. At some point we begin to speak of the ecosystemic set as a whole as losing its integrity, or disintegrating, as in climate change. This is another way of expressing the workings of alienation on a larger scale. Eventually, it comes to constitute the ecological crisis: capital’s cancer upon nature.

Marx’s mature theory brings ecological thought onto new ground. Philosophical abstraction has been replaced by a concretely grounded and coherent discourse with a major politico-economic range of application. The implication of Marx’s eco-political approach is quite distinct from standard environmental practices, as its prime point is not directly environmental at all but the transformation of the human element in the ecosystem through empowerment of the associated producers and the overcoming of their alienation, by revolution if necessary. This does not rule out sound environmental practices, such as regulation or direct intervention in the non-human elements of the ecosystem (for example, by improving fertilization or irrigation, or employing renewable energy). However, the fundamental logic is quite different in its prime attention to human creative power and not the things outside ourselves in the environment. Marx trusts that the emancipated worker will work to emancipate (or heal) nature along with her- or himself. This extends into and becomes a core principle of the practice of socialist/ecological politics, or ecosocialism.

V. Problems within Marx’s mature ecology
Disparagement of Marx’s ecological bona fides may be one source of error, but so is overestimation. Recognizing the fundamentally ecological structure of Marx’s thought obviously does not make him omniscient in matters of natural science, most of which has been developed in the years since the writing of Capital. Marx should not be tasked with having to understand the Second, or entropy, Law of Thermodynamics, much less, essential 20th century discoveries like quantum mechanics or molecular biology and their relation to genetics, all of which are highly important for ecology. The idea of Marx’s ecology as fully developed requires the assumption of a god-like omniscience on his part. Unfortunately, Marxists often regard Marx himself as above critique.[6]

In any case, the salient critique of Marx must be of his own texts. In this respect we may observe a peculiarity appearing in Capital just before the above passage about the degradation of the worker and the soil. Here we see that though Marx recognizes and strongly condemns the alienation of workers under the regime of capital, he disparages precapitalist production equivalently, as when he calls for “irrational, old fashioned methods of agriculture [to be] replaced by scientific ones”— and for a new, “higher synthesis” to arise between “the union of agriculture and industry on the basis of the more perfected forms they have each acquired during their temporary separation.” [MECW 35: 506 Marx consequently sees no appropriation in this higher synthesis of pre-modern ways of labor, whether indigenous or peasant, even though he knew better than anyone that such labor, generally speaking, was carried out under communal conditions that had been destroyed by the penetration of capital—and of which some variant would have to be postulated for the time when capital would be superseded. Therefore, it is unwise of Marx to dismiss them, tout court, as irrational and old-fashioned. Put more positively, it may be held that what was left behind by the “progress” of capitalist agriculture represents a degree of differentiated unity between labor and its object in nature: a dynamic unity embedded in pre-capitalist spirituality and suppressed by the alienation of capitalist production relations.

Capital imposes an all-consuming economy on society. But capital is more than an economic arrangement; and nobody teaches this better than Marx. As a mode of production capital also entails a world-view that includes a conception of nature as the object of labor. We might call it a kind of metaphysic that both arises from and conditions capitalist science and production relations. In contrast, observation about the pre-capitalist world from historical, anthropological and comparative religious sources discloses that it conceives of nature as a vital plenum, full of “spirits” and other odd beings. (Kovel 1998: 161-169, and passim). This phenomenological surface extends into the conception of the “matter” upon which labor acts. Within the indigenous world, and extending well into the lives of peasantries, matter is considered neither inert nor passive. It expresses rather a kind of self-organizing potential. This may extend into ‘vitalism’, though it need not, since self-organizing potentials need not signify the presence of life. They do signify, however, the potential toward life—and, it must somehow also be, consciousness.

Capital is built around a profound metaphysical rupture with pre-capitalist world-views. To the mind and eye of capital, matter is inert, atomized substance, indifferent except as represented by physically quantifiable parameters. This is no peccadillo. It is, in fact, the way the world looks from the perspective of abstract labor—the form taken by labor that capital must valorize as it prioritizes exchange- over use-value, and de-differentiates the universe into an exchangeable substance for the generalization of the commodity form. Great philosophers like Whitehead (no Marxist, to be sure) demolished the capitalist metaphysic, albeit without confronting its social origins.(Whitehead 1925) But a philosophical defeat is no eradication, which cannot take place until capital’s mode of production itself is eradicated.

As a young man Marx did radically question capital’s metaphysic. The most striking, indeed, startling instance is found in The Holy Family, composed with Engels in 1845. In the midst of an extended commentary on the philosophies of materialism, the text digresses from a discussion of Francis Bacon to introduce the figure of the 17th century mystic Jakob Böhme:

Among the qualities inherent in matter, motion is the first and foremost, not only in the form of mechanical and mathematical motion, but chiefly in the form of an impulse, a vital spirit, a tension — or a ‘Qual’, to use a term of Jakob Böhme’s — of matter. The primary forms of matter are the living, individualising forces of being inherent in it and producing the distinctions between the species. (MECW 4: 128)[7]

At the level of the metaphysics of matter, therefore, the young Marx followed one of the most radically hermetic thinkers in the Western tradition into a vision that respected the active internal potentials of nature. Ernst Bloch was virtually alone among Marxists in seeing its implication as a kind of ‘co-productivity’ in nature. As he wrote in The Principle of Hope: ‘The more a technology of alliance in particular were to become possible instead of the superficial one, a technology of alliance mediated with the co-productivity of nature, the more certainly the creative forces of a frozen nature will be released again’. [Bloch 1986: 689-90]. Marx, however, did not go in this direction, but wavered by the time of writing Capital. Consider a condensed version of his celebrated passage on the labor process:

Labour is … a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. [...]We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.

An instrument of labour is a thing, or a complex of things, which the labourer interposes between himself and the subject of his labour, and which serves as the conductor of his activity. He makes use of the mechanical, physical, and chemical properties of some substances in order to make other substances subservient to his aims. […] Thus Nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, one that he annexes to his own bodily organs, adding stature to himself in spite of the Bible. As the earth is his original larder, so too it is his original tool house. It supplies him, for instance, with stones for throwing, grinding, pressing, cutting, &c. The earth itself is an instrument of labour, but when used as such in agriculture implies a whole series of other instruments and a comparatively high development of labour. [MECW v. 35, 187 -190; (italics mine)]

This is justly famous. However, it also represents a drastic turning away from the path laid down by Böhme that Marx had. More basically, it sharply clashes with those notions drawn from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 that serve as the foundation for our discussion of Marx as ecologist.[8] And indeed, to the extent that this kind of reasoning prevails within Marxism, it can be said that Marxism has dissipated a portion of its ecocentric potential. For to make labor “exclusively human,” is to make nature exclusively inert, or devoid of agency. In Capital nature is reduced to an organ subordinated to the master’s mind and an instrument of labor, indeed, the whole earth is seen as such an instrument. Though the worker is a force of nature, he is opposed to nature, and this opposition is chosen of his own accord. Thus Man is purely active, as nature is passive. This is no longer a differentiation but a splitting where the degree of separation is such that the concept can no longer support an ecosystemic integrity predicated upon the interconnection of elements. If nature is just a thing-like ‘stuff’ for “Man” to work upon,[9] then it has lost the formative quality essential for ecosystemic being. Thus the judgment about Marx’s ecological bona fides needs to be qualified: the authenticity of Marx’s ecological thought depends upon the degree to which appropriation of the more radical thought of his youth can be sustained.

It would seem that as Marx matured his youthful insight into the unity of humanism and naturalism became weaker. The implications are considerable, for to split nature apart from humanity costs matter its ‘qual’, which is to say, its formativity. It is a retreat into the metaphysic demolished by Whitehead, that matter is dully scattering, indifferent substance. And it naturalizes the alienating kind of production that intrinsically corrupts ecological integrity. The obtuseness of many socialists toward ecological issues may be seen as its heritage. This is coordinated with the presence of productivism in the history of socialism. Further, prioritizing the forces of production over mere nature leads to the convergence of socialism with what it is to surpass—capitalism. Whether carried out under the direction of State or Market, the result tends toward ecological disintegration. The common feature is, precisely, to make nature ‘mere’ by stripping away the reverential protections that belong to a human nature still in touch with its communal origins. This is not to facilely indict Marx as “Promethean,” a verdict that ignores the profound openings to nature that undergird his thought. But it is not a dismissal of the charge, either. There are too many ambiguities in the views of Marx–and Marxism–for that.

A few brief observations may round out this discussion. For labor to cease being opposed to nature means recognition of what Bloch called nature’s co-productivity. Instances of this are as commonplace as having dogs tend flocks or learning to use the wind to sail a ship–modalities that the metaphors used in Capital to describe the labor process tend to close off. Of special significance is the ‘labor’ that applies immediately to the generation and flourishing of life, and which has been downgraded to mere ‘woman’s work’ under conditions of capitalist patriarchy. [Mies 1986]

Alternative ways of production involve a going-with nature, a reading of its ways, and fundamentally, a kind of receptivity to it: realization that we are differentiated from nature and not split off and above it. This opens upon a recognition of nature within us, and ourselves within nature. If carried forth conscientiously it would have far-reaching consequences in freeing us and freeing nature as well while radically altering the character of industrial civilization. Alongside this, it would conduce to freeing us from the compulsion toward endless consumption of commodities, the immediate edge of the ecological crisis that points us toward doom. Here the ‘fetishism of commodities’, which Marx saw as a result of the primacy of abstract labor, needs to be overcome. But fetishism is also an idolatrous displacement of our spiritual capacities onto Mammon. Marx was actually much more sensitive to this dimension than given credit for in the present spiritually barren era. We should study this side of Marx, and learn from it.[10]

Human existence is inherently conflictual, which leads to the necessity of choice, and with this, a life oriented according to values. We are urged as socialists—and ecosocialists—to devalue exchange-value (and its congeners, surplus value, labor power, and Value itself); and to valorize use-value as the point of entry of labor into nature. We can now add that there needs be something beyond use-value, then: namely, the intrinsic value of nature, whose foundations are embedded in processes such as “going with” and “receptivity.” Use-value thereby becomes triangulated between exchange-value and intrinsic value; and this configuration can be seen as a way of breaking capital’s death-grip, by transmitting energy to the struggle to regain control over use-values while de-legitimating the annihilation signified by exchange and the cancerous growth of capital. Intrinsic value differs from use-value and exchangevalue in not being immediately tied to production at all. As such, it is impossible for us to live by it alone. But it may be argued that it is not worthwhile to live without it, either, inasmuch as intrinsic value is the door opening upon the spirit dimension of existence. For now, however, it is sufficient to show the need to rethink Marxism from the point when it went astray and lost the thread of living nature.

  1. [1] This essay is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Walt Contreras Sheasby, who was best qualified to write it, but perished of West Nile Virus on August 20, 2004 at age 62 while working on what would have been a definitive book-length study of Marx’s views on nature.
  2. [2] See Kovel (2007) for a general discussion of the issues from the standpoint of ecosocialism.
  3. [3] John Bellamy Foster does a good job of summarizing this in Marx’s Ecology (Foster 2000).
  4. [4] For evidence that Marx read Buddha and had a sympathetic attitude toward him, See Sheasby (2004a: 55). Sheasby documents Marx’s wide-ranging fascination with 19th Century biology and an intense amateur naturalist’s in the outdoors, seaside and aquariums.
  5. [5] A kind of exception occurs in the life project of the late Murray Bookchin, whose Social Ecology explicitly applied ecological discourse to human society and politics from an emancipatory standpoint. However, Bookchin was also explicitly anti-Marxist and never, so far as I know, made use of the notion of alienation as drawn in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. His work was influential among post-1960s anarchists. (Bookchin, M. 1985); (Kovel, J. 1997).
  6. [6] Joan Martinez-Alier (1987) argues that Marx does not deserve to be called a realized ecologist because of an inability to incorporate the energic implications of the Second Law, especially those developed by the Ukrainian, Serhii Podolinsky (1850-1891), who tried without luck to interest Marx and Engels in adopting a thermodynamically coherent point of view. This is a good point; however, it is no more than that and does not nullify the fundamentally ecological structure of Marx’s thought, which Martinez-Alier does not recognize. Other writers on Marx and ecology, for example, John Bellamy Foster ( 2000) and Paul Burkett ( 1999) go to the other extreme: not a single critical word about Marx as an ecologist appears in their studies, in which rather weak constructions are elevated into grand theoretical generalizations. For example, the term, “metabolism,” (Stoffwechsel), appears frequently in Marx, and is frequently cited in works by Foster and others, such as Alfred Schmidt (1971), to show that Marx was at home with the concepts of contemporary science, and as indications of the analogy between labor and transformations in nature. To this is frequently added the phrase, “metabolic rift,” as descriptive of aberrations in our relationship to nature. These terms may be useful for descriptive purposes, but they belong to the dimensions of physiology and chemistry and are bound to the notion of material exchange, that is, they tend to reduce our vision to the quantitative movement of matter and energy through nature and between society and nature, rather than helping us understand the essentially structural and formal questions posed by ecosystems. Life is best defined as ‘selfreplicating form, and while metabolic processes are necessary for comprehending life, they are not sufficient. Terms like metabolism are no more than analogical metaphors, in my view, for the Heraclitean belief that change and transformation is the most fundamental feature of reality, whether in nature or society. No doubt, Marx saw things this way, as should we all, but his theory of alienation went further, to demonstrate which kinds of transformation conduce to the flourishing evolution of society and nature, and which spell doom. Mere recitation of “metabolism,” or “metabolic rift,” to indicate the presence of ecological damage finesses the key questions. It indicates, to my view, the limitations of Marx within the framework of 19th Century Science.
  7. [7] Ernst Bloch gives considerable emphasis to this passage in The Principle of Hope, where he calls it “a fact itself worth recalling over and over again.” [Bloch 1986: 671] The young Marx was quite impressed by Böhme, an utterly other-worldly mystic and just about the last person the conventional view of Marx would expect for this judgment. Yet he wrote that Böhme was “a great philosopher” and “divinely inspired.” Notably, Engels held to the end of his life the same opinion as had been articulated in The Holy Family, writing in the Introduction to the 1892 English edition of his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, that “’Qual’ is a philosophical play upon words. Qual literally means torture, a pain which drives to action of some kind; at the same time the mystic Böhme puts into the German word something of the meaning of the Latin qualitas; his ‘qual’ was the activating principle arising from, and promoting in its turn, the spontaneous development of the thing, relation, or person subject to it, in contradistinction to a pain inflicted from without.” [MECW v4 691]. A remarkable passage, with deep implications for the theory of use-values, which are distinct from exchange-value in expressing quality rather than quantity. As for torture, we should ponder what happens in the real world of dominated nature, whether animal (whipping of oxen, chickens in battery cages), vegetable (GMO corn), or mineral (mountaintop removal for coal), all mediations of ecological crisis. These are summated in the relation to the worker, who, like non-human nature and the built infrastructure, is seen as an abused ‘condition of production’ of capitalism in James O’Connor’s seminal concept of the Second Contradiction of Capitalism. (O’Connor 1998).
  8. [8] One may wonder here whether the phrase in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 quoted above, that nature is man’s “inorganic body,” is a kind of harbinger of this. There has been considerable discussion about this point, which we do not have space to explore.
  9. [9] Here an essential gendered critique enters. See (Merchant, C. 1980), (Kovel, J. 2007 121–158).
  10. [10] In the 1980s a good deal of this aspect of Marx was uncovered by the liberation theologists of that period. See, for example, (Miranda, J. 1980).


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