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The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture

Ecological Insights from His Excerpt Notebooks

Kohei Saito is a PhD candidate of philosophy at Humboldt University, Berlin. He is also a member of the Japanese MEGA editorial group and currently working on Volume IV/18.


While he was preparing for his critique of political economy, Marx produced an enormous quantity of excerpt notebooks. Sometimes accompanied by his own comments, they largely consist of direct quotes from various books, journals, and newspaper articles that attracted his attention. Although they were neglected among Marxist scholars for quite a long time without publication in any languages,1 these notebooks, in addition to the manuscripts and letters, constitute an invaluable original source for understanding Marx’s thinking process. In fact, as the new Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2) has started to publish the excerpt notebooks in its fourth section, their importance is slowly becoming more discernible.2 Marx’s notebooks record his ceaseless efforts to grasp the totality of capitalism, and, since Capital remains unfinished, they provide useful hints for speculating how Marx would have completed his project of critique of political economy.

As an attempt to comprehend the development of Marx’s theory through his notebooks, this paper analyzes his excerpts from books by two agricultural chemists, Justus von Liebig and James F.W. Johnston, in order to reveal a significant modification in regard to Marx’s attitude towards modern agricultural practice, which led his to study the natural sciences even more intensively in his late years.3 Marx eagerly read these agricultural chemists a couple of times, once in the beginning of the 1850s during his first thorough research on political economy, and again in the middle of the 1860s when he was preparing the manuscripts of Capital.4 Examining Marx’s excerpts cautiously, one realizes that he first attained a truly critical and ecological comprehension of modern agriculture, that goes beyond the paradigm of the Ricardian theory of differential rent, in the middle of the 1860s. Although Marx was at first quite optimistic about the positive effects of modern agriculture based on the application of natural sciences and technology, he later came to emphasize the negative consequences of agriculture under capitalism precisely because of such an application, illustrating how it inevitably brings about disharmonies in the transhistorical “metabolism” (Stoffwechsel) between human beings and nature.

Marx’s Excerpts from Liebig’s Book on Agricultural Chemistry

In one section titled “Modern Industry and Agriculture” in Capital, Marx famously writes:

Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever greater preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates the historical motive-power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction [Stoffwechsel] between man and the soil, i.e., it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural conditions for the lasting fertility of the soil.5

Pointing out harmful consequences of capitalist agriculture based on a division of town and country that quickly exhausts the soil in the interest of maximizing profits, Marx warns that the development of productive forces and technology under capitalist relations of production does not automatically prepare the conditions for human emancipation, but on the contrary causes a deep alienation of human beings from their environment in the form of a “metabolic rift”—ecological disruption in their interrelations with nature.6

The recent growing interest in this ecological aspect of Marx’s economic theory—thanks to inspiring and convincing interpretations by John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology (2000) and Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature (1999)—has directed attention to Marx’s concept of “metabolism” (Stoffwechsel) and to Liebig’s use of the term.7 In Capital, vol. 1, Marx refers in a footnote to the passage cited above from the seventh edition of Liebig’s Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agricultur und Physiologie (1862) (abbreviated henceforth as Agricultural Chemistry), and especially to its “Introduction.” He praises Liebig’s work for its “immortal merits” in revealing “the negative, i.e., destructive side of modern agriculture” from the standpoint of natural science, adding that Liebig’s treatment of the “history of agriculture,” despite certain defects, contains “flashes of insight.”8 In the first German edition, he even states that Liebig’s analysis of the conditions of agricultural productivity is “more important than [that of] all the economists put together.”9

Apparently, therefore, Marx’s critique of the metabolic rift in capitalism is especially indebted to this famous German chemist. However, looking at the list of excerpted books in the fourth section of the MEGA2, one notices that Marx had already read Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry once in 1851. Nonetheless, a clear reception of Liebig’s agricultural chemistry does not appear until the first manuscript for the third volume of Capital. In other words, Marx did not develop a critique of ecological disruption under capitalism when he read Liebig’s book for the first time. What is more, examining his excerpt notebooks, normally called London Notebooks (Londoner Hefte), from 1849–1853, one learns that Marx took notes impressed by Liebig’s optimistic ideas about the possibility of overcoming the diminishing agricultural productivity through a scientific management of the soil based on a systematic use of synthetic fertilizers.

It is certainly true that Liebig himself became more critical of capitalist agriculture as time went on, and thus his critique of “robbery culture” in the seventh edition of Agricultural Chemistry (1862), especially in its “Introduction,” must have more decisively contributed to developing Marx’s critique of the metabolic rift than its fourth edition (1842), which he had studied with eagerness in 1851.10 This is not to say that Marx failed to read anything critical about capitalist agriculture before 1860. To the contrary, he encountered critical books and articles in that period, but, astonishingly enough, hardly paid attention at the time. Furthermore, though he repeatedly referred to his own notebooks in different economic manuscripts and in Capital itself, Marx did not use the excerpts from Liebig in the London Notebooks at all. This leads to the hypothesis that Marx later came to regard his notebooks on agricultural chemistry in the London Notebooks as unsatisfactory for his critical investigation of capitalism because they only contained positive prospects of its modern development.

Despite the appearance in the last fifteen years or so of a number of pathbreaking studies of Marx’s ecological thought, such studies were unable to throw sufficient light on the actual evolutionary process in which Marx’s critique of modern agriculture emerged, during his decades-long attempt to complete Capital.11 His notebooks on agriculture are thus indispensable, in that they enable us to see precisely how he changed his attitude towards modern agriculture, in the process of developing his materialist conception of the metabolic interaction between humans and nature mediated by labor.12

Marx’s London Notebooks and Critique of the “Law of Diminishing Returns”

After his exile to London in 1849, Marx, despite severe financial difficulties, went to the British Museum every day and filled twenty-four notebooks, which also contain a substantial amount of excerpts on agricultural chemistry. As Michael Perelman points out, Marx’s main aim in studying natural sciences during this time was to reject a widespread assumption of the “law of diminishing returns.”13 Ricardo famously propagates this law in order to base his theory of differential rent. He argued that since the availability of the best lands is severely limited, more capital needs to be invested into less productive soils as pressed by the growing population to supply more food. It follows that the newly invested capital requires more labor in order to produce a certain amount of agricultural products. Since the exchangeable value of all commodities is regulated by production “under the most unfavorable circumstances,” Ricardo insists that the price of agricultural production necessarily rises with the cultivation of less fruitful soils, allowing for capitalists with better conditions of production to attain the surplus of profit as ground rent.14

Though he accepted the basic mechanism of Ricardian differential rent, Marx repeatedly criticized Ricardo’s unfounded assumption of the law of diminishing returns early on. In 1845, he had already written down in his excerpts from James Anderson’s A Calm Investigation of the Circumstances that have led to the Present Scarcity of Grain in Britain (1801) about the possibility of advancing the natural fertility of soils to a considerable degree: “productiveness may be made to augment from year to year, for a succession of time to which no limit can be assigned, till at last it may be made to attain a degree of productiveness, which we cannot, perhaps, at this time conceive an idea.”15 Later, in 1851, when Marx read another book by Anderson, An Inquiry into the Causes that have hitherto retarded the Advancement of Agriculture in Europa (1779), he quoted a similar passage again: “Infinite diversity of soils” exists, as they “may be so much altered from their original state by the modes of culture they have formerly been subjected to, by the manures.”16 Marx’s intension is clear, because later in the Manuscripts of 1861–63 he actually cited these sentences from his own notebooks in the context of discarding the Ricardian presupposition of differential rent theory.17 In opposition to Ricardo’s assumption, Marx continued to highly value Anderson who propagated positive effects of using drainage and manures to improve the productivity of soils to such a degree that food supply would suffice to cover the increase of population and the price of crops would remain the same or even fall.

After reading Anderson again in 1851, Marx felt it necessary to read more recent scientific works by agricultural chemists to gain a detailed knowledge about the ways of advancing agricultural productivity, especially the relationship between the use of synthetic fertilizers and the fertility of the soil. In the London Notebooks, there are two principal sources for this purpose: Liebig and Johnston.

It appears that Marx first happened to encounter Johnston’s Notes on North America through two articles in The Economist.18 These articles sum up Johnston’s book well, and it is likely that they motivated Marx to study his more theoretical books on agricultural chemistry and geology. One of the articles starts by mentioning the fact that despite the constant and growing communication between England and North America, there was not sufficient information about the agricultural capacity in the New World. Consequently, as the article continues, a myth prevailed among English readers that a great improvement of virgin soils had been achieved, and the soil would be inexhaustible in North America. For the purpose of disproving this fallacy, the author of The Economist values Johnston’s Notes on North America (1851) quite highly, as “the author’s knowledge of science, and its practical relations with agriculture, enabled him to obtain very clear and accurate views.” According to the article, “one of the most important of these conclusions” is “that the wheat-exporting power of North America has not only been much exaggerated, but is actually, and not slowly, diminishing” or even “worn out.”19 However, as the article continues, it is not in the farmer’s interest to maintain the fertility of the land through good management—because it is actually cheaper to sell it and settle upon new land, going further west once the land becomes less agriculturally profitable. Thus, as the next article maintains, the diminishment of crops is not at all surprising, once “we learn that in many districts the land has been cropped with wheat for fifty years without any other manure than a ton of gypsum a year applied to the whole farm.20 Succinctly summarizing Johnston’s book to rebuff a widespread illusion about American agriculture, these articles conclude that it is in reality still trapped “in a very primitive state,” without a proper investment or management, which quickly exhausts soils.21

Reading those articles in The Economist, Marx quotes only one sentence in regard to the exhaustion of lands in North America: the “Atlantic States of the Union and the western part of New York, once so prolific in wheat, has now become almost exhausted, and Ohio is undergoing the same process.”22 Nevertheless, this sentence does not contain much information because it explains neither a reason for the exhaustion nor its seriousness. In contrast, Marx is much more careful to write down the details about how the introduction of drainage is difficult in North America due to the low cost of abundant lands, and why a larger scale of farming is “not profitable” and “not popular.”23 Here, Marx seems more attentive to descriptions that there are not serious attempts to improve the soil through mechanical and chemical means due to the lack of farmer’s knowledge and capital. Those excerpted passages give an impression that Marx is less interested in the exhausted state of soils in North America than in Johnston’s reports about the primitive or pre-capitalist state of agriculture, which at the same time implies the future possibility of advancing the productivity of its lands under the development of American society under capitalism.

Other excerpts from the same period also strengthen the same impression. In the London Notebook VIII, Marx studies John Morton’s On the Nature and Property of Soils (1838), which is considered to be one of the earliest studies on the relationship between geological compositions and the productivity of lands. Due to a lack of adequate knowledge of chemistry, Morton does not correctly grasp the role of inorganic materials, which he thinks augment the productivity merely by changing the “texture” of the soil and thus by improving the effectiveness of plants to absorb moisture, air, heat, and organic materials.24 As he misses the function of minerals and emphasizes the essential function of decomposed plants, he also optimistically insists: “On a careful examination” one finds that “the production of vegetables will never exhaust a land.” Morton argues that the “quality of the soil on each, is infinitely varied, and increases in value according to the degree of culture it receives,” or the soil is “susceptible of a continued improvement by every fresh application of capital judiciously employed.” Despite the seemingly optimistic tone of Morton, however, one should note that according to him the “powers of nature to create vegetable productions appear never to diminish” only because “the decay of one crop becomes the nourishment of the next.”25 Even if Morton’s insight is restrained by the theoretical and practical knowledge of his time, this limitation also allowed him openly to presuppose the cycle of nourishment between old and new plants as a feasible condition for sustainable agriculture.

In this context, Marx’s excerpts in the London Notebook X from Henry C. Carey’s book, The Past, the Present, and the Future (1848) are worth examining. This book, like Johnston’s Notes on North America, very explicitly challenged Morton’s thesis by pointing out the fact that this way of recycling of nourishments was in danger in North America because of its exhausting management of the soil: the “tendency of the whole system of the United States, is that of taking from the great machine [i.e., soils] all that it will yield, and giving nothing back.”26 Here are some concrete examples about the exhaustion offered by Carey himself:

The farmer of New York raises wheat, which exhausts the land. That wheat he sells, and both grain and straw are lost. The average yield per acre, originally twenty bushels, falls one-third.

The Kentuckian exhausts his land with hemp, and then wastes his manure on the road, in carrying it to market.

Virginia is exhausted by tobacco, and men desert their homes to seek in the west new lands, to be again exhausted; and thus are labour and manure wasted, while the great machine deteriorates, because men cannot come to take from it the vast supplies of food with which it is charged.27

According to Carey, the scattered settlement over the vast continent makes it tremendously complicated to give soils back what plants have taken from them. When consumers and producers lived close to each other, it would be possible to “pay them [soils] back by giving them the whole refuse.”28 Yet, as Carey reprimands, in the current scattered state of the population, nothing can be done but sending agricultural products to distant markets and thus losing altogether the manure. He eagerly claims the necessity of building an autarkic town community based on a concentration of producers and consumers without a special opposition between town and country.

In spite of these explicit remarks by Carey, similar to those in The Economist, about the exhausted soils in the United States, Marx does not seem to have paid any particular attention to them. In fact, he did not quote any of these sentences despite the fact that he did copy various passages before and after them. His excerpts primarily focus on Carey’s descriptions about how the primitive state of agriculture in North America actually improved as the population increased. For instance, Marx wrote down a passage in which Carey argues against the classical political economist, J. R. McCulloch, who, as a Ricardian, insisted upon the insurmountable natural “limits” of agricultural development due to the scarcity of best lands: “Man is always going from a poor soil to a better, and then returning on his footsteps to the original poor one, and turning up the marle or the lime; and so on, in continued successionand at each step in this course, he is making a better machine.”29 With a marginal line for emphasis, Marx also excerpted from Carey that, contrary to the law of diminishing returns, the increase in the population and the agricultural development mutually reinforce each other: “Everywhere, with increased power of union, we see them exercising increased power over land. Everywhere, as the new soils are brought into activity, and they are enabled to obtain larger returns, we find more rapid increase of population, producing increased tendency to combination of exertion.”30

Reading various books on agriculture, Marx found a range of indications that the improvement of agricultural productivity requires a conscious management of lands, the potential of which the advance of natural sciences and technology brought about for the first time in history. However, he did not follow critiques by Johnston and Carey in terms of the real situation of agricultural practice that rapidly exhausts lands without proper management of soils based on recycling of organic and inorganic materials. Instead, since Marx was concerned with a critique of the law of diminishing returns, he sought to rebuff Ricardo’s unsubstantiated supposition by gathering scientific evidence that shows the possibility of advancing the fertility of soils in accordance with the progress of modern society.31 Consequently, Marx often appears hastily and optimistically to attribute the problem of exhaustion to the primitive state of agriculture in pre-capitalist countries, and stress the strategic importance of ameliorating their agricultural productivity in capitalism for the sake of a coming socialist revolution: “But the more I get into the stuff, the more I become convinced that agricultural reform, and hence the question of property based on it, is the alpha and omega of the coming revolution. Without that, Parson Malthus will prove right.”32

Liebig’s Optimism in the Fourth Edition of Agricultural Chemistry

This tendency continues in the following London Notebooks XII–XIV, that is, in Marx’s careful excerpts from Liebig and Johnston. Liebig is one of the most famous German chemists in the nineteenth century, and he is often regarded as the “father of organic chemistry.” In his Agricultural Chemistry (1842), Liebig attempts to apply his knowledge of chemistry to the praxis of agriculture. He propagates the merit of chemistry for the sake of the progress of agriculture because it can determine what the components of soils and plants are, how they function, and how they should be consumed and supplemented in an efficient manner. Inadequate understanding of chemistry and plant physiology, in contrast, leads to the fallacy of the so-called “humus theory” advocated by Johann Heinrich von Thünen, which wrongly assumes the direct contribution of the well-decomposed residue of plants as the source of the plant food, absorbed, as organic substances, through roots of plants. Liebig persuasively demonstrates, based on his chemical experiments, that humus only indirectly contributes to plant growth by providing carbons and nitrogen in the process of its decay. Liebig concludes from his observations that the importance of humus is therefore limited or even nonexistent (in an earlier edition of the Agricultural Chemistry he had gone so far as to say humus “does not yield the smallest nourishment to plants”) because plants can later sufficiently absorb carbon from carbonic gas in the atmosphere through photosynthesis and receive nitrogen in the form of ammonium from the soil.33 (It was not until much later that it was discovered that certain plants—legumes, in association with bacteria living in their roots—were able to draw nitrogen from the atmosphere.)

Liebig’s so-called “mineral theory,” as opposed to the emphasis on organic materials by the humus theory, emphasizes the essential role of inorganic materials in soil for ample plant growth. However, according to Liebig, they can be exhausted due to cultivation, because neither atmosphere nor rainwater can sufficiently provide them. The loss of inorganic materials must be restrained to a minimal degree so that the soil can sustain its original fruitfulness over the long term. Liebig suggests a series of methods for this purpose, such as fallow, crop rotation, and drainage. It is, nevertheless, often necessary to directly add an amount of necessary minerals to the soil if it is to avoid the state of exhaustion or to increase its productivity: “The fertility of a soil cannot remain unimpaired, unless we replace in it all those substances of which it has been thus deprived. Now this is effected by manure.”34 This occurs for instance by adding more animal and human excrements and bones to the soil.

Yet, contrary to a dominant vitalistic belief at that time, Liebig analyzes the purely chemical reaction of manures in the soil and comes to a conclusion that “for animal excrements, other substances containing their essential constituents may be substituted.”35 Marx quotes a key passage where Liebig hopes to replace animal excrements and bones through chemical fertilizers produced in factories: “whether this restoration be effected by means of excrements, ashes, or bones, is in a great measure a matter of indifference. A time will come when fields will be manured with a solution of glass (silicate of potash), with the ashes of burnt straw, and with salts of phosphoric acid, prepared in chemical manufactories.”36

As the passage quoted by Marx plainly shows, Liebig is optimistic about the future development of natural science that permits producing a large amount of chemical manure in factories. This possibility suggested by a famous chemist must have appeared to Marx as a strong counterargument against the law of diminishing returns.

Certainly, Liebig recognizes that insofar as inorganic materials are finite, agriculture can exhaust soils. Some sentences in Agricultural Chemistry actually acknowledge the exhausted state of soils in Europe and the United States, but their tone still remains quite weak because Liebig mentions the fact only strategically to emphasize the essential role of minerals against humus theory.37 After all, Liebig assumes that the exhausted state of soils can be cured through manures. It is clear that Marx studied Liebig very carefully not because he was interested in the state of exhausted lands due to agriculture, but rather because he was striving to understand the function of organic and inorganic materials for plant growth and a variety of methods for increasing crops, including chemical fertilizers.

To understand more clearly Marx’s intention in studying Liebig, his excerpts from Johnston’s books in the following London Notebooks are useful. In his letter to Engels on October 13, 1851, Marx affirmatively referred to Johnston’s Notes on North America (1851), characterizing him (though a Scot) as “the English Liebig.”38 Before writing the letter, Marx had already read Johnston’s Lectures on Agricultural Chemistry and Geology (1847) and Catechism of Agricultural Chemistry and Geology (1849) and carefully studied these books in the London Notebooks XIII and XIV.39 Since Marx identifies Johnston with Liebig, excerpted texts from the former’s books simultaneously help us discern more clearly how Marx was reading Liebig and which aspects of agricultural chemistry he was trying to learn from these agricultural chemists.

Johnston, a Scottish chemist and geologist, is like Liebig one of the leading figures in the field of agricultural chemistry in the nineteenth century and contributed to the development of agricultural praxis through the application of chemical and geological knowledge acquired during his various travels through Europe and North America. Similar to Liebig, Johnston also recognizes that organic materials alone do not suffice for ample plant growth, but that inorganic materials must be constantly returned to the soil after plants absorb them.40 Otherwise, sooner or later, it will be fully exhausted. It is certainly preferable to cultivate lands under better natural conditions, so Johnston proposes to conduct a geological survey and to prepare a geological “map” that highlights fruitful soils.41 He also firmly believes, contrary to Ricardo, that “natural character and composition” is subjected to mechanical and chemical improvements: the “farmer can change the character of the land itself. He can alter both its physical qualities and its chemical composition and thus can fit it for growing other races of plants than those which it naturally bears—or, if he choose [sic], the same races in greater abundance and with increased luxuriance.”42

Although Johnston is surely aware of the danger of natural lands being exhausted without a proper management, the following passage from his Catechism reflects the same optimism towards the use of chemical manure as observed in Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry: if the “farmer puts in the soil the proper substances, in the proper quantities, and at the proper times, he may keep up the fertility of the land, perhaps for ever. To make his land better, he must put in more than he takes out.”43 In order to attain constant “profits,” Johnston advocates advancing productivity by changing the chemical composition of the land through mechanical and chemical means. For this purpose, he also suggests importing from foreign countries “guano” and “bones” rich in mineral substances because they are suitable for transport over great distances,44 even though this is, as we see later, exactly the view that Marx calls into question in the 1860s under Liebig’s influence.

Now one can better comprehend why Marx calls Johnston “the English Liebig.” Both Liebig and Johnston appreciate the essential role of minerals for the plant growth, but, more importantly, they share the same optimism about ameliorating agricultural productivity to a considerable degree through the application of natural science and technology. In the context of criticizing the Ricardian law of diminishing returns, claims made by Liebig and Johnston provide Marx with a scientific foundation about the possibilities of modern agricultural production based on the newest discoveries of natural sciences. Contrary to Ricardo, who assumes a strict natural limit to the improvement of the productivity of each soil,45 Marx comes to believe in the future great advancement of agriculture.

Of course, this would not mean that the fertility of the soil could be multiplied infinitely, as if there were no natural limits at all for agricultural production. However, insofar as Marx, influenced by Liebig and Johnston, presumes that the exhausted state of the soil can be cured by using synthetic fertilizers, guano, and bones, it is hard to find a concrete analysis on the relationship between the exhausting culture and the natural limits of the soil, which makes the general tone of Marx’s notebooks from 1851 appear sometimes too optimistic. Criticizing Ricardo’s ahistorical understanding of the natural character of the soil, Marx too strongly emphasizes the sociality of agricultural productivity, as if the natural limit imposed upon agriculture does not really exist. By doing so, his theoretical framework tacitly assumes the static binary between naturalness and sociality without adequately considering the dynamic entanglement between the internal logic of the natural material world and its social and historical modifications under capitalism.

However, Marx became much more conscious of this entanglement in the 1860s, and this is how Liebig’s concept of “metabolism” decisively contributed to the deepening of Marx’s critique of the metabolic rift under modern agriculture. When Marx starts theorizing the natural limit of agricultural productivity, he does not argue that it would manifest as a natural consequence of the law of diminishing returns. On the contrary, Marx claims that the contradiction of capitalist agriculture emerges precisely because the “free” power of nature is subjected to historical modifications under the logic of valorization, resulting in the disruption of the natural metabolic cycle under “robbery culture” in capitalism.

Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry in 1862 and his Critique of “Robbery Economy”

Finishing up writing his manuscript for the chapters on ground rent in Capital, Marx, in a letter to Engels, emphasized the importance of the scientific contributions by Liebig and Schönbein, and then continued: “I concluded my theoretical investigation of ground rent two years ago. And a great deal had been achieved, entirely in the period since then, fully confirming my theory.”46 In the process of acquainting himself with the newest achievements of agricultural chemistry, the development of Marx’s critique of political economy allowed him to integrate Liebig’s agricultural chemistry as a basis for his critical analysis of the “capitalist form” of agricultural praxis.47 Marx’s main concern is no longer simply the law of diminishing returns, which he rejected through his studies of agricultural chemistry in 1851. Yet, as seen above, Marx did not pay sufficient attention to the concrete reality in terms of how the very historicity and sociality of the fertility of the soil could cause diverse contradictions in agricultural production under certain social conditions.

Preparing the manuscript on ground rent, Marx takes up this problem seriously by dealing more cautiously with the capitalist form of agriculture—that is, how the logic of capital modifies or even distorts the relationship between human beings and nature mediated by labor. The labor process in general, i.e., as a transhistorical reality common to all forms of production, is defined by Marx as the metabolic interaction between humans and nature—the primary mediation between the human beings and the natural conditions of their existence. Humanity needs to work upon and transform nature to be able to reproduce its distinctly human-social species being. However, the labor process, viewed from the standpoint of any given concrete reality, and not simply transhistorically, always takes on a certain determinate historical form (Formbestimmung), associated with a particular set of relations of production. This reflects the varying ways in which humans carry out the metabolic interaction with their environment.

Marx’s Capital reveals that the capitalist form of labor, i.e., “wage labor,” radically transforms and reorganizes material dimensions of labor according to the logic of valorization. There emerges the domination of abstract labor as the sole source of value, which violently abstracts labor from other essential concrete aspects and turns humans into a mere personification of the reified thing through formal and real subsumption under capital. The process of accommodating human activity for the logic of capital causes various disharmonies in the lives of workers, such as overwork, mental illness, and child labor, as Marx described in the chapters on “The Working Day” and “Machinery and the Modern Industry.” This domination by capital goes beyond the reorganization of labor in the factory as the sphere of commodification enlarges to subsume agriculture. Consequently, as the section on “Modern Industry and Agriculture” describes, it produces various discordances in the material world by disturbing the natural metabolic interaction between humans and nature. It is then no coincidence that Marx’s notebooks on agricultural chemistry also reflect a shift of his interest because he now studies it again in order to deal with such a destructive transformation of the material world under capitalism.

The seventh edition of Agricultural Chemistry must have been particularly insightful for Marx’s purpose because Liebig also altered his arguments in such a way that Marx thinks “entirely affirm my theory.” Liebig reinforced his critique of “robbery culture (Raubbau)” in modern society, which takes mineral substances from the soil without return for the sake of maximal profits. In the newly added “Introduction,” Liebig warns: “Each land” will inevitably become “poorer not only by continuously exporting its crops, but also by uselessly wasting the products of metabolism (Stoffwechsel) that accumulate in large cities.”48 The population growth in towns, the result of industrialization, increases demands for agricultural products from the country; but the mineral substances contained in them do not return to the original soil. Farmers also strive to sell as much as they can in order to attain more profits, so they even end up selling bones and straw, which should be used for maintaining the fertility of their own lands. Marx thus finds a new scientific expression for the modern problem of the division between town and land, which he and Engels suggested in The German Ideology.

Liebig continues further: “it is clear to everyone that labor as such gradually but constantly makes the soil poorer and exhausts it in the end. One knows that one returns nothing to the field in this way, but always takes up [everything] into crops.”49 Marx’s notebook carefully follows these explanations offered by Liebig that convey how the reified praxis of agriculture inevitably destroys the natural metabolic cycle. By merely pursuing the maximal crops without considering the reproducibility of the current fertility in the future, robbery culture exploits the free power of the natural world as a tool to squander for the sake of capital accumulation.

As Liebig’s seventh edition repeatedly warns that there is always the danger of exhaustion, it is interesting in this context to see differences in tone between the two editions. In one passage cited in the London Notebooks, Liebig writes: “Soil formed from basalt, grauwacke, and porphyry, are the best for meadowland, on account of the large quantity of potash they contain. The potash abstracted by the plants is restored during the annual irrigation. The amount of potash contained in the soil itself is inexhaustible in comparison with the quantity necessary for plants.”50

In the seventh edition Liebig modifies the sentence: “Soil formed from basalt, phonolite, clay slate, grauwacke, porphyry are the best for meadow-land under the same condition due to their decomposition, on account of the large quantity of alkalies. The amount of alkalies contained in the soil itself is very great in comparison with the quantity necessary for plants, although not inexhaustible.”51

The seventh edition suggests that even the most favorable lands are by no means free from exhaustion. Furthermore, in the fourth edition, Liebig argued, after the passage cited above, that the exhaustion of the meadowland is simply due to the lack of potash, and it is possible to regain the former productivity by adding “ash”: “But if the meadow be strewed from time to time with wood-ashesthen grass thrives as luxuriantly as before.”52 This gives the misleading impression that ash could easily cure the exhaustion of the soil, and so Liebig deletes this sentence in the seventh edition. He seems to admit the limits of the effectiveness of manures in preventing the loss of minerals.

Furthermore, Marx’s excerpts from Johnston’s Notes on North America in 1865 reflect the same tone as his excerpts from Liebig. As seen above, Marx did not pay any particular attention to the exhaustion of lands in North America when he read the two articles in The Economist and Carey’s book in 1851. Yet, after Marx cited a sentence from Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry that “this is the natural course of the robbery culture, which has been pursued nowhere on a larger scale than in North America,” he actually read Johnston’s Notes in order to study the real agricultural state in North America, despite his general avoidance of travel reports.53

This time, Marx clearly concentrates on those passages by Johnston that describe the diminution of the productivity of soils due to robbery culture, which Marx refers to as the “system of exhaustion in North America”: “The common system, in fact, of North America of selling everything for which a market can be got [hay, corn, potatoes etc]; and taking no trouble to put anything into the soil in return.”54 Johnston continues: “There was however no motivation for those American farmers who merely seek for profits to conduct a more reasonable agriculture with a good management of their soils because careless and improvident farming habitsthus introducedit was cheaper and more profitable to clear and crop new land than to renovate the old.”55 Consequently, farmers also have no interest in preserving or improving the fertility of their lands for their children: “The owner has already fixed a price in his mind for which hehopes to sell, believing that, with the same money, he could do better for himself and his family by going still farther west.”56

As long as agriculture, under the “monopoly of private property,” is carried out on the basis of profit calculation, the robbery culture prevails over society simply because the squandering exploitation of lands is more profitable in the short term. Facing this deep contradiction of the capitalist form of agriculture, Johnston, the “very conservative agricultural chemist (!)” as Marx calls him, repeatedly tries to justify it as a necessary, but only temporary, evil: “the emigration of this class of wilderness-clearing and new land-exhausting farmers, is a kind of necessity in the rural progress of a new country. It is a thing to rejoice in rather to regret.”57 Curiously enough, focusing on descriptions about the state of exhausting agriculture under this system, Marx stops his excerpts right before the passage cited just above and also ignores other passages where the conservative agricultural chemist stresses, in vain, the future possibility of introducing a more rational agricultural system through education and the development of technology under capitalism.

Against the robbery economy, Marx in Capital demands both the preservation and sustainable improvements of lands for future generations:

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 the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].58

Obviously, Marx still recognizes the importance of “rational culture,” an idea which he attained from Liebig and Johnston in the 1850s, and states that the unique merit of employing soils is the possibility of constantly investing capital without losing previous investments.59 However, Marx also makes it unambiguously clear this time that it is not the primitive agricultural state in North America, but precisely the capitalist relations of production that prevent such a rational form of agriculture by forcing American farmers to abandon lands, going further west once they no longer produce enough profits. Capital actually constitutes a system of robbery economy with an “art” of exploiting the productive force of nature for free, as Liebig writes that the “crude robbery develops into the art of robbery.”60 The exhaustion of lands in North America has its origin precisely in the development of capitalism—and not simply due to the pre-capitalist backwardness of its agriculture, as the articles of The Economist indicated in accordance with Johnston. Marx plainly states in Capital: “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 proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in the case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction.”61

An important aspect of soil fertility was not yet recognized by scientists, and, therefore, also not recognized by Marx. Plants do not generally directly use nutrients that are part of organic matter. They are first converted into inorganic elements that plants can directly use during the process of decomposition by soil organisms. However, it is now understood that soil organic matter is a critical part of building and maintaining healthy and productive soils. It positively influences almost all soil properties—chemical, biological, and physical. While it is true that organic matter (or humus) is not taken up directly by plants, its depletion from soils is one of the main causes for decreased productivity. Adding only inorganic chemical nutrients to replenish those removed by crops can leave soils in poor biological and physical condition leading to numerous problems including accelerated erosion, droughty soils (that do not store much water), low nutrient holding capacity, more disease and insect problems, and so on. In “modern” industrial agriculture these are corrected to an extent with greater capital input in the form of pesticides, fertilizers, more powerful equipment, and more frequent irrigation.62

Guano Imperialism and Global Ecological Crises

As his critical view toward modern agriculture develops, the seventh edition of Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry thoroughly criticizes existing attempts of agricultural praxis to maintain or increase the fertility of the soil, including the dependence upon imports of guano and bones. In the fourth edition this solution did not bother Liebig so much; like Johnston, he simply stated that a small quantity of guano could greatly improve poor land that consists only of sand and clay.63 However, as the resource of guano became scarce, Liebig added some passages in the seventh edition to warn about importing guano from foreign countries because such a form of agriculture would quickly exhaust lands and annihilate guano in South America.64 Attempts to recover the fertility of land in England and North America with guano could at most postpone the unavoidable exhaustion to a very near future. What is more, importing guano from South America is based on a system of oppression and destruction. Not only does it create economic and political inequalities through the brutal subjugation and exploitation of colonial inhabitants, but it also causes the exhaustion of natural resources and the devastation of ecosystems, which Brett Clark and Foster properly characterize as the “global metabolic rift” due to “ecological imperialism.”65

Under the heated competition of so-called “guano imperialism,” England and North America strove to import an enormous amount of guano in order to prevent the loss of the fertility of their own soils, but this even worsened the situation from an ecological point of view, because the disruption of the metabolic cycle now emerged on a global level. After importing a large amount of guano from South America, North America exported wheat to England. Minerals contained in guano were taken up by crops in North America, but they returned neither to American nor English lands. They simply ended up pouring into the River Thames as sewage, severely degrading the living conditions in London.66 Importing guano and wheat without returning them to where they came from, English capitalism could barely sustain the existing robbery and wasteful system of production. As capitalism developed and its network of commodity exchange became more global due to the emergence of more effective means of transportation, the scarcity of natural resources, and the exhaustion of land and guano, prevailed more devastatingly than ever.

Marx recognized the capitalist tendency to anti-ecological robbery from peripheral countries through his analysis of England’s importation in effect of the soil of Ireland, despoiling it of its nutrients.67 His usage of Liebig in the 1860s thus proves to be a more sophisticated one, in criticizing Ricardo’s rent theory, than in the case of the London Notebooks. Marx does not simply problematize Ricardo’s unscientific and ahistorical assumption of the law of diminishing returns but also his solution to the obstacle imposed upon capital accumulation due to the scarcity of natural resources.

According to the law of diminishing returns, Ricardo argues that the advance of the population requires the cultivation of less fertile lands. It requires more labor to produce the same quantity of crops and causes the general increase of wheat price, which also never fails to raise ground rent and the labor wage. Corresponding to the increase, the profit rate falls. In order to eliminate this hindrance to capital accumulation, Ricardo famously supports the idea of abolishing the Corn Law and insists upon importing cheaper crops from foreign countries and concentrating on industrial development within England instead of cultivating less fertile lands under the pressure from the growing population to provide more food. Here Ricardo only considers a constant retreat to less productive lands without seriously taking their exhaustion into account, for he actually believes in the “original and indestructible powers of the soil.”68 Even if the best land in England is limited, there would be enough fertile lands in the world for English capital accumulation.

Referring to Liebig, Marx now warns, in opposition Ricardo, that the international crop trade means nothing but the global reckless robbery of the vitality of the soil: in capitalism “large landed property reduces the agricultural population to a constantly falling minimum, and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country (Liebig).”69 Contrary to Ricardo’s assumption, the import of crops from North America or Eastern Europe would by no means solve the fundamental crisis of capitalist agricultural production, because the import of crops would only enlarge the metabolic rift under capitalism on a global level. Insofar as the infinite desire for capital accumulation hinders humans from constructing any rational and sustainable interrelation to their environment, capitalism cannot overcome the metabolic rift arising from natural limits inherent to the logic of the natural world. On the contrary, it ultimately poses an insurmountable obstacle to the regime of capital accumulation.

In contrast to Ricardo, Marx thus demands the abolition of the capitalist relations of production so that the problem of natural limits can be managed without aggravating ecological disruptions: “the moral of the taleis that the capitalist system runs counter to a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system,” and it requires “the control of the associated producers.”70 A more rational management of the “metabolic interaction” by “associated producers” includes consciously giving back to soils what plants have taken away.

Surely enough, Marx recognizes that the modern development of natural sciences and technology prepares the necessary material conditions of rational culture by inventing better chemical fertilizers or a more effective system of drainage. Yet the new knowledge that the development of natural sciences brings about is not neutral for the environment, as its capitalist application does not primarily take the ecological sustainability into account but aims to maximize profits, which rather leads to a wasteful or irrational art of cultivation of the soil. Thus, it compromises the necessary environmental bases for human reproduction itself—i.e., the existence of “the land as permanent communal property, as the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations.”71 This deep, crisis-laden estrangement from nature cannot help but bring into question the legitimacy of the capitalist system itself in the long run. Marx thus foresees that the limitation of subsumption of the material world under capital creates a realm of resistance against the logic of valorization. The disharmony forces an “enormous [new] consciousness” to emerge with which human beings more subjectively and consciously deal with their metabolic interaction with nature.72


To sum up, if, despite the intensive usage of synthetic fertilizers, industrial agriculture under capitalism only exhausts land over the long run, a socialist project needs to carry out a radical change. This means learning to manage soils more holistically, using better rotations and other management practices than possible given the logic of capitalist markets. These practices should aim to maintain and build soil organic matter and enhance the health of the soil and its biological, chemical, and physical characteristics. Contrary to a common critique of Marx’s “Prometheanism,” he does not overestimate the modern development of technology at all.73 Instead, analyzing how the logic of capital transforms the transhistorical metabolism between humans and nature, Marx convincingly emphasizes the necessity of consciously interacting with nature to enable a sustainable development of humanity and nature, and he attests to the irrationality and contradictions of the development of productive forces under the capitalist mode of production.

In order to theorize a more rational form of culture, modern natural sciences, including the agricultural chemistry and geology of Liebig and Johnston, play a significant role for Marx because they uncover necessary conditions of reproducing the original state of soil. After publishing the first volume of Capital, Marx engaged in a more intensive study of the natural sciences. Throughout the process, Marx attempted a critical comprehension of the ongoing ecological degradation under capitalism from a broader scientific perspective. Nonetheless, despite his ceaseless effort, Marx was never able fully to integrate these broader historical analyses of agriculture and civilization into his critique of political economy. Yet, as Marx’s late notebooks become more available through the MEGA2, their careful examination will enable analysts to explain the way Marx’s socialist project envisioned reestablishing the absolute unity in the metabolic interaction between human beings and nature.


  1. Cf. Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 247–52.
  2. In addition to Anderson’s work, see also: Kolja Lindner, “Marx’s Eurocentrism: Postcolonial Studies and Marx Scholarship,” Radical Philosophy 161 (May/June 2010): 27–41. Through a careful analysis of Marx’s notebooks, Anderson and Lindner convincingly demonstrate that Marx’s view of modernity underwent a significant change in the 1860s in that he came to abandon a view of “linear” historical development. This paper aims to strengthen Anderson and Lindner’s interpretation by examining Marx’s reception of agricultural chemistry.
  3. Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2) (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, Akademie Verlag, 1975). A part of the late Marx’s excerpts on natural sciences are available as MEGA2 IV/26 and 31.
  4. The importance of Johnston and Liebig for Marx can be conceived from the fact that he read them a second time both Liebig’s Über Theorie und Praxis in der Landwirthschaft (Braunschweig: Verlag von Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn, 1856) in 1863 (to be published as MEGA2 IV/17) and Johnston’s Elements of Agricultural Chemistry and Geology, 4th ed. (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1856) in 1878 (MEGA2 IV/26). Due to the limited space, it is not possible to deal with Marx’s Liebig-excerpt of 1863, though it would more clearly show how careful Marx was following theoretical changes in Liebig’s agricultural chemistry.
  5. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 637.
  6. John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), ix.
  7. Foster, Marx’s Ecology, and Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014; original edition 1999), chapter 9.
  8. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 638.
  9. MEGA2 II/5, 410. Marx modified this expresson in later editions of Capital.
  10. Justus von Liebig, Die Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agricultur und Physiologie, 7th ed. (Braunschweig: Verlag von Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn, 1862); Liebig, Die organische Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agricultur und Physiologie, 4th ed. (Braunschweig: Verlag von Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn, 1842). For Liebig’s later criticisms, see William H. Brock, Justus von Liebig, the Chemical Gatekeeper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); for his 1851 studies, see Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 149.
  11. Without doubt, this paper greatly owes to recent works on Marx’s ecological thought, especially to Foster’s books and comments. My analysis of Marx’s notebooks also confirms his interpretation.
  12. Marx’s excerpts from Liebig in the 1860s are still in preparation by a Japanese editorial group of the MEGA2 led by Teinosuke Otani, who also kindly supported my project. Once they appear in MEGA2 IV/18, it will be possible to deal with this problem more thoroughly.
  13. Michael Perelman, Marx’s Crises Theory: Scarcity, Labor, and Finance (New York: Praeger, 1987), 34–35. Another important figure is of course Thomas Robert Malthus, who also assumes the validity of the law; see Foster, Marx’s Ecology,142–44.
  14. David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy, and Taxation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), 73.
  15. MEGA2 IV/4, 62; James Anderson, A Calm Investigation of the Circumstances that Have Led to the Present Scarcity of Grain in Great Britain (London: John Cummins, 1801), 35–36.
  16. MEGA2 IV/9, 119; James Anderson, An Inquiry into the Causes that have hitherto retarded the Advancement of Agriculture in Europe (Edinburgh: Charles Elliot, 1779), 5.
  17. cf. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 31 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 372, 374.
  18. James F.W. Johnston, Notes on North America (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1851).
  19. “North American Agriculture,” The Economist, no. 401, May 3, 1851, 475.
  20. “Husbandry in North America,” The Economist, no. 404, May 24, 1851, 559; emphasis in original.
  21. “North American Agriculture,” 476.
  22. MEGA2 IV/8, 87.
  23. Ibid, 89. Excerpted passages from Johnston are for example: “An objection to drainage is made in this country. The cost of this improvement, even at the cheapest rate, say 4 l. or 20 dollars an acre is to a large proportion of the present price of the best land in this rich district of Western New York”; “It is plain that there is too great an abundance of land, which, for little labour and with no skill, will produce year after year, moderate crops”; “Husbandry by capitalists not yet available in North America. ‘on a larger scale, farming is not profitable.’ Beyond purchasing a farm for their own use there is no much to be done with land, for renting land is not popular, and, in fact, the economical condition of North America is not yet such as to render such a mode of management necessary or desirable.” See MEGA2 IV/8, 88–89.
  24. MEGA2 IV/8, 306–7; Morton, On the Nature and Property of Soils, 1st ed. (London: James Ridgway, Piccadilly, 1838), 140–41.
  25. Ibid. 306, 309, 311, 305; Morton, On the Nature and Property of Soils, 1st ed., 130, 209–10, 221, 129–30.
  26. Henry C. Carey, The Past, the Present, and the Future (Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1848), 304–5; for nourishment recycling, see Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 153.
  27. Carey, The Past, the Present, and the Future, 305–6.
  28. Carey, The Past, the Present, and the Future, 299.
  29. MEGA2 IV/8, 746; Carey, The Past, the Present, and the Future, 129.
  30. MEGA2 IV/8, 744; Carey, The Past, the Present, and the Future, 48–49.
  31. cf. Perelman, Marx’s Crises Theory, 34.
  32. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 38, 425.
  33. Justus von Liebig, Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, 4th ed. (Cambridge: John Owen, 1843), 33. Humus is the portion of the soil organic matter that is well decomposed and stable (not subject to more decomposition) and is different in chemistry from compounds found in the original material. Humus is now known to be a chelating agent (can hold plant available micronutrients such as zinc) and to have a very high negative charge giving it an ability to hold onto a lot of cations (positively charged elements such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium) allowing them to be held in the soil (not easily leached out) while still being available for uptake by the plant.
  34. MEGA2 IV/9, 207; Liebig, Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, 4th ed., 174.
  35. MEGA2 IV/9, 209; Liebig, Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, 4th ed.,182.
  36. MEGA2 IV/9, 210; Liebig, Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, 4th ed.,187; emphasis added.
  37. Marx writes down one passage where Liebig describes the exhausted state of lands in New England which have produced plenty of wheat and tobacco without manure but become unproductive without manure after a while (cf. MEGA2 IV/9, 202). Nonetheless, Liebig points out this fact only to substantiate his demand for realizing the system of “rational culture” composed of fallow, crop rotation, and synthetic fertilizer. In fact, Liebig does not elucidate any critical comments to agricultural praxis in modern society that has caused such exhaustion in New England.
  38. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 38, 476.
  39. James F.W. Johnston, Lectures on Agricultural Chemistry and Geology, 2nd ed. (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1847); Catechism of Agricultural Chemistry and Geology, 23rd ed. (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1849).
  40. cf. Johnston, Lectures on Agricultural Chemistry and Geology, 855–56.
  41. MEGA2 IV/9, 382; Johnston, Catechism of Agricultural Chemistry and Geology, 44.
  42. MEGA2 IV/9, 299; Johnston, Lectures on Agricultural Chemistry and Geology, 545; emphasis in original.
  43. MEGA2 IV/9, 380; Johnston, Catechism of Agricultural Chemistry and Geology, 38.
  44. MEGA2 IV/9, 381; Johnston, Catechism of Agricultural Chemistry and Geology, 39.
  45. According to Ricardo, although the increase of agricultural productivity through manures and the improvement of tools is possible, the “natural tendency of profits to fall” can only be “checked at repeated intervals” by those countermeasures. See Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy, and Taxation, 1951, 120.
  46. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 42, 227.
  47. Marx knew that Liebig became more concerned with the difficulty in terms of recycling minerals for the sake of a lasting fertility of lands by 1860, as he writes in Herr Vogt: “Liebig rightly criticizes the senseless wastefulness which robs the Thames of its purity and the English soil of its manure” (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 17, 243). Marx may have got this information from Liebig’s article in The Times (December 23, 1859). As Brock points out (Justus von Liebig, the Chemical Gatekeeper, 259), this article in which Liebig talks about “the question of the sewage of towns” was widely read at that time. However, Marx does not immediately integrate such an insight by Liebig into his economic manuscripts. Perelman argues that Marx became more “pessimistic” about agricultural production when he was writing the Manuscripts of 1861–63. According to Perelman (Marx’s Crises Theory, 36–40), it was due to the cotton famine in 1862 and Marx’s personal hardships during the crisis. In this context, it is important to indicate that in 1863 Marx took notes from Liebig’s Über Theorie und Praxis in der Landwirthschaft, in which he starts much more clearly emphasizing the danger of soil exhaustion. Thus, it seems plausible when Foster argues that Marx changed his view “due to two historical developments in his time: (1) the widening sense of crisis in agriculture in both Europe and North America…; and (2) a shift in Liebig’s own work in the late 1850s and early 1860s” (“Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology,” American Journal of Sociology, 105, no.2 [1999]: 376). I hasten to add however, that the impact of Über Theorie und Praxis upon Marx is only partial because Liebig remains still quite optimistic about modern agriculture. For now, I attempt to examine the issue from another perspective by pointing out the methodological development of Marx’s political economy in analyzing the entanglement of “form” and “material.” Only after grasping the dynamic transformation of the material world through the form determination by capital, is Marx able successfully to integrate Liebig’s critique of the exhaustion of soils into Capital.
  48. IISG, Marx-Engels-Nachlaß, Sign. B 106, 30; Justus von Liebig, “Einleitung,” in Die Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agricultur und Physiologie, 7th ed. (Braunschweig: Verlag von Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn, 1862), 1–156, 141.
  49. IISG, Marx-Engels-Nachlaß, Sign. B 106, 30–31; Liebig, “Einleitung,” 142.
  50. MEGA2 IV/9, 193; Liebig, Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, 4th ed., 118; emphasis added.
  51. Liebig, “Einleitung,” 106; emphasis added. This modification actually occurs in the fifth German edition (1843), which indicates that Liebig already began to develop his critical view at that time.
  52. Liebig, Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, 4th ed., 118.
  53. IISG, Marx-Engels-Nachlaß, Sign. B 106, 55; Liebig, “Einleitung,” 124; emphasis by Marx; for Marx’s avoidance of travel reports, cf. Marx to Engels, February 13, 1866, Collected Works, vol. 42, 227.
  54. MEGA2 II/4.3, 239, 712; James F.W. Johnston, Notes on North America: Agricultural, Economical, and Social, 2 vols. (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1851), 47. Marx’s expression “system of exhaustion in North America” is found in his “Notizen zur Differentialrente” created in 1868. It clearly conveys Marx’s intention to read Johnston’s Notes on North America as a direct source about the “system of exhaustion.” The editor of MEGA2 II/4.3, Carl-Ehrlich Vollgraf, reproduces many parts of Marx’s Johnston-excerpt from 1865, and I will refer to its pages here.
  55. MEGA2 II/4.3, 712; Johnston, Notes on North America, 54.
  56. MEGA2 II/4.3, 713; Johnston, Notes on North America, 163.
  57. Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 754; Johnston, Notes on North America, 54.
  58. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 911.
  59. Ibid., 916.
  60. IISG, Marx-Engels-Nachlaß, Sign. B 106, 54; Liebig, “Einleitung,” 123.
  61. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 638.
  62. Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es, Building Soils for Better Crops (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, 2010),
  63. cf. MEGA2 IV/9, 187; Liebig, Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, 4th ed., 95–96.
  64. Liebig, “Einleitung,” 121.
  65. Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Ecological Imperialism and the Global Metabolic Rift: Unequal Exchange and the Guano/Nitrates Trade,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 50, no. 3–4 (2009): 311–34.
  66. Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 163.
  67. After fully appropriating Liebig’s theory, Marx’s Capital also applies it to the exhausted state of lands in Ireland due to exporting its agricultural products to England: “If the product also diminishes relatively per acre, it must not be forgotten that for a century and a half England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for making up the constituents of the exhausted soil.” See Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 860.
  68. Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy, and Taxation, 67; emphasis added.
  69. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 949; emphasis added.
  70. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 216.
  71. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 949.
  72. cf. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 34, 246.
  73. cf. Burkett, Marx and Nature, chapter 11.
2014, Volume 66, Issue 05 (October)
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