Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Method in Ecological Marxism

Science and the Struggle for Change

Hannah Holleman is assistant professor of sociology at Amherst College in Massachusetts and a frequent contributor to Monthly Review. Along with her other work, she is also coauthor, with John Bellamy Foster, of “The Theory of Unequal Ecological Exchange: A Marx-Odum Dialectic” (The Journal of Peasant Studies, 2014).

This was a talk delivered at the “2015 China Marxist Philosophy Summit & Sino-U.S. Philosophers Forum,” at Jiangsu Normal University, Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, July 11, 2015; in summary at the Compilation and Translation Bureau under the CPC Central Committee in Beijing, July 13, 2015; and at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, July 14, 2015.

In the short time available to me in this talk it is impossible to go too far with a discussion of the state of ecological Marxism as I understand it.1 However, I plan to discuss briefly a significant feature of the program of ecological Marxist analysis and practice of which I consider myself a part. Specifically, I will discuss the methodological commitments responsible for much of the strength and insight of the ecological Marxism associated with what John Bellamy Foster has called the “third stage of ecosocialism research…in which the goal is to employ the ecological foundations of classical Marxian thought to confront present-day capitalism and the planetary ecological crisis that it has engendered—together with the ruling forms of ideology that block the development of a genuine alternative.”2 This, I believe, will interest scholars and activists working toward a deeper understanding of the world with the ultimate goal of changing it, and should interest those involved in debates regarding Marxian theory and praxis.

Ecological Marxism: Three Stages

Since ecosocialist thought developed as a distinct tradition of inquiry in the 1980s, we may identify three stages of its development.3 This is not meant to impose a linear periodization into which all ecosocialist work neatly fits, but rather to represent particular shifts in the focus of debate within ecosocialist thought over the last several decades. The first stage developed in the 1980s and early ’90s under the hegemony of green theory, during a period of crisis in Marxism following the downfall of Soviet-type societies. While making important contributions to ecosocialist analysis, first stage ecosocialist thinkers often assumed Marx’s work had no basis in ecological understanding, or believed his positions were Promethean and productivist—anti-ecological in the end. As a result of these assumptions, “the general approach adopted was one of grafting Marxian conceptions onto already existing green theory—or, in some cases, grafting green theory onto Marxism.”4

Second stage ecosocialist analyses, in contrast, sought to recover the “radical roots of Marxian theory itself in order to build on its own materialist and naturalist foundations.” Studies like Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature refuted “such first-stage ecosocialist views by means of a reconstruction and reaffirmation of Marx’s own critical-ecological outlook.” This work, and that of others, including Foster, “represented the rise of a second stage of ecosocialist analysis which sought to go back to Marx and to uncover his materialist conception of nature as an essential counterpart to his materialist conception of history.” The main project of second stage ecosocialist thought “was to transcend first-stage ecosocialism, as well as the limitations of green theory, with its overly simplistic, idealistic, and moralistic emphases, as a first step in the development of a more thoroughgoing ecological Marxism.”5

Today the importance of Marx’s ecological and social critique is well recognized amongst scholars and within the movement itself. And Marxian analysis continues to develop in such a way that “a third stage of ecosocialism research” has arisen, building organically on—and overlapping with—the second. One of the most important features of this third stage of ecological Marxism is that in going “back to Marx’s radical materialist critique,” the recovered methodological insights of Marx’s dialectic have informed work capable of penetrating much more deeply into the heart of the ecological and social crises of the current period than traditional green thought.6 It is a methodology rooted in a materialist conception of natural and social history, focused on specifying the dynamic processes of social and ecological transformation and their consequences as they develop historically. Moreover, it is committed to understanding the means and barriers to transcending the existing anti-ecological and inhumane social order.

The reinvigoration of ecological Marxism owes much to taking seriously and building on Marx’s methodological approach, wherein, as Paul Sweezy said, we find many of his “most original and significant contributions.”7 Drawing on the insights of Marx’s method has allowed contemporary ecological Marxism to integrate a vast range of historical and scientific knowledge. It is therefore able systematically to address a wide range of concerns, playing a leading role in bridging the social and natural sciences, and providing path-breaking ecosocial analyses of critical emerging and persistent issues. I would like to share with you some recent developments in one of the research programs of ecological Marxism. But most importantly, my goal in this talk is to outline key features of the methodology that account for the power and insight of this work.

So central is Marx’s methodological approach to the development of his vast insights, Lukács wrote in History and Class Consciousness that, with regards to Marxism, “orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.”8 In what follows I will outline central aspects of Marxian methodology brought to bear and yielding fruit in third-stage ecosocialist research. These central features are: (1) A Commitment to Materialism; (2) Concern for the Appropriate Use of Abstraction; (3) A Dialectical Approach; (4) A Focus on Historical Specificity; and (5) Political Commitment (to Socio-Ecological Change).

Important Aspects of Marx’s Methodological Approach in Ecological Marxism Today

Commitment to Materialism

The strength of ecological Marxism, as it is practiced today amongst scholars associated with the third stage of ecosocialist research, is that it takes as its objective the “confrontation of reality with reason” as the means with which to “draw the necessary conclusions for conscious action designed to bring about desirable change.” This confrontation, as Sweezy and Paul Baran discussed, “inevitably involve[s] comparisons of what is with what would be reasonable.”9

For Marx, what was reasonable was explained not in abstract ethical terms or principles, but in terms of an understanding of the appropriate goals of socialism based on concrete, deep investigation into existing social relations and the real barriers these presented to the development of a society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” and wherein the “freely associated producers [could]… ‘govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way.'”10

Marx’s “confrontation of reality,” his investigation of “what is,” was based philosophically and methodologically on a materialist conception of social and natural history. This made possible his powerful critique of capitalist social relations and inherent class antagonisms, which result in an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” as “prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”11 It also made possible his recognition that the transcendence of class antagonisms is necessary, but not sufficient for ecologically sustainable human development. Moving beyond socially and ecologically destructive social organization requires “the explicit integration of ecological and other communal concerns into the anticapitalist revolutionary process itself.”12

Because his methodology was rooted in a materialist conception of history, Marx didn’t take anything for granted, but rather looked for the historical development, consequences, and interrelations of various aspects of the whole of social and biological evolutionary development. As a result of this methodological approach, Marx’s engagement with the natural and social sciences allowed his critique of capital’s class relations to develop as an ecological critique, while extending to a range of other concerns, including the oppressive nature of the family and gender relations in bourgeois society, the structure of political power and the state, and specific technological and legal developments, along with much else. The struggle against the exploitation and oppression of the working class in Marx and Engels’ conception included the struggle against the oppression of women, imperialist aggression and colonial exploitation, and the destruction of nature, all outcomes of a particular ensemble of historical developments that must be transcended.

Appropriate Use of Abstraction

A second essential feature of Marx’s method is the critical use of abstraction. In the Preface to Capital Marx wrote, “in the analysis of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The force of abstraction must replace both.”13 His point was not that we do not need microscopes, but that we need to choose the appropriate tools of science for the problem under study. Abstraction in scientific investigation allows us “to bring the essential into relief and to make possible its analysis.”14 Choices about our abstractions have to do with the problem we are investigating and what we determine are its essential elements. Determining what is essential, however, is not a straightforward task. We make provisional hypotheses about what constitutes the essential aspects of any problem and constantly check these against “the data of experience,” or continued investigation into the “actuality of historical development.”15

For Marx, the determination of what was essential took him into deep studies of natural and social history, which he describes in various places, including the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Based on his intensive studies, he asserted, for example, that the capital relation—an antagonistic class relation—was the “all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society,” which conditioned relations between people and between human society and the land.16 This class relation was the center of investigation and abstraction was employed to isolate it, “to reduce it to its purest form, to enable it to be subjected to the most painstaking analysis, free of all unrelated disturbances.”17

For different problems we apply the tool of abstraction in different ways. “One may abstract from a difference which another is trying to explain, yet each may be justified from the point of view of the problem which he is studying.”18 The use of different levels of abstraction, from low to high, also reflects the purpose of the investigation. Mediating factors may be removed from one level of analysis to clarify a particular relation, and reintroduced at another, depending on the object of study. “The legitimate purpose of abstraction in social sciences,” of course, “is never to get away from the real world but rather to isolate certain aspects of the real world for intensive investigation.”19

Along with our scientific concerns, our abstractions also reflect our prejudices and political commitments. As Marxist scientists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins wrote, “Much abstraction is evasive of what matters, chosen for reasons of safety and convenience.” They use as an example neoclassical economics, which posits the “individual making choices in ahistoric markets.” While this, they say, leads to “elegant theorems about rational choice,” it hides “exploitation, monopoly, class conflict, and the evolution of capitalism.” They also cite Bertolt Brecht’s warning that “we live in a terrible time when to talk about trees is a kind of silence about injustice.'” Today, of course, trees and nature more generally “figure prominently in the study of justice.” But not always, and the link is usually insufficiently made. This point is so important, especially as a critique of environmental perspectives de-linked from critical social analysis. This de-linking in thought of essential features that are linked in reality has the consequence of distorting understanding of the specific social roots of ecological crises across societies, as well as the kind of change necessary to resolve them.20

The goal for ecological Marxists today is to bring a Marxian methodology to bear on the “vast body of historical and scientific knowledge” in its current stage of development and push this knowledge forward under “the conditions of contemporary social praxis.”21 The critical use of abstraction is central to this process.

A Dialectical Approach

Upon determining the essential aspects of a problem, and therefore clarifying the matter at stake, dialectical analysis allows one to steer “a cautious path between the Scylla of reductionism and the Charybdis of holism.” Richard York and Philip Mancus write, “as reductionism fails because of its focus on parts, holism without dialectics fails because of its inability to recognize divisions, tensions, and internal contradictions, and its tendency toward functionalism.”22

There are some tendencies in green thought to go back to a conception of “oneness,” suggesting that because of the interconnectedness of phenomena, “they are all ‘One,’ an important element of mystical sensibility that asserts our ‘Oneness’ with the universe.” But, as Lewontin and Levins write, “of course we can separate intellectual constructs.… We have to in order to recognize and investigate them. But it is not sufficient. After separating them, we have to join them again, show their interpenetration, their mutual determination, their entwined evolution, and yet also their distinctness. They are not ‘One.'” They warn against the “one-sidedness in holism that stresses the connectedness of the world but ignores the relative autonomy of parts.”23

This is an especially important point for ecological Marxists, interested in uncovering causality in order to better direct our efforts at social change. There is no analytical rigor in treating the “whole” without recognizing that, as York and Mancus write, while “the social is rooted in and emergent from the biological, the social also has causal efficacy upon the biological.” As a result, for those engaged in social change efforts, it is critical to study the dynamic “dialectical interaction between nature and culture.”24 And, at another level of abstraction, it is important to break down “culture” and the “social” to understand relations involved in the exploitation of nature and people, by specific classes, for example. Then we might be interested in further specification of the gender, ethnic, and racial dynamics of class relations in the world today, and so on, and how these shape the nature/culture dialectic.

Historical Character of Marx’s Thought

Marx’s dialectical and materialist approach, as Lukács said, is “in its innermost essence historical.”25 For Marx, “social reality is not so much a specified set of relations, still less a conglomeration of things. It is rather the process of change inherent in a specified set of relations. In other words, social reality is the historical process, a process which, in principle, knows no finality and no stopping places.”26 The libratory nature of the historical character of Marx’s thought is the recognition of the possibility and actuality of change. But the direction of change is not determined mechanically. Humans act, but part of the struggle of change, as Marx wrote, is that we “do not make history just as [we] please, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”27

The only universal, transhistorical reality of the human condition for Marx is that we are individually and collectively the sum total of social and natural history, and the joint development of these conditions shapes how we live, the way we think, and what possibilities exist for change. On the biological side, he writes that the only inevitability is that “man lives from nature, i.e., nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die.”28 This dialogue is the labor process, which is “first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.”29 Through this process humans transform nature and are in turn transformed. Altogether this represents “the universal condition for the metabolic interaction [Stoffwechsel] between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence.”30

The historical character of Marx’s thought, the recognition that “society both is changing and, within limits, can be changed,” leads to a critical approach “to every form of society.”31 It also leads to a critical approach to every phenomena under investigation and poses a challenge to ahistorical conceptualizations of existing conditions. For ecological Marxists, static and essentializing categories in mainstream bourgeois society—such as the binary “man” and “woman”—are understood as the product of particular historical developments, rather than as everlasting, inherent realities of human existence. Understanding the world through such an historical lens makes possible what Marx calls the “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”32

Linking Ethics and Critical Social Analysis in the Political Commitment to Change

A final feature of Marx’s methodology uniting the approaches of many third stage ecological Marxists is the commitment to living the eleventh thesis, or keeping at the forefront that the goal is not merely to interpret the world, but to change it. This means our work, including our theoretical development, must link philosophy, ethics, and critical social analysis. In Biology Under the Influence, Lewontin and Levins wrote that “any theory of society has to undergo a test, What does it do to Children?”33 This was in the context of a discussion of methodology, specifically “Strategies for Abstraction”—the title of the chapter in which the topic appears.

Raising the question of the implications for children of our work in developing social theory illustrated the impossibility of separating questions of reality from questions of ethics. The impossibility arises because “theories support practices that serve some and harm others.” While “philosophers go through great contortions to separate questions of reality from questions of ethics, the historic process unites them…. Ethicists may debate, [for example], over dinner, the rational reasons for feeding the hungry, but for people in poverty food is not a philosophical problem.”34

For ecological Marxists, “even the most committed investigation of ethics cannot be a substitute for a radical critique of politics in its frustrating and alienating contemporary reality.”35 “For Marx,” as Cornel West wrote, “an adequate theoretic account of ethical notions, e.g., ‘just’ or ‘right,’ must understand them as human conventional attempts to regulate social practices in accordance with the requirements of a specific system of production.”36 In the end, István Mészáros suggests, the measure of the success of our ethics in practice “can only be” their “ability to constantly maintain awareness of and reanimate practical criticism towards the real target of socialist transformation: to go beyond capital in all its actually existing and feasible forms through the redefinition and practically viable rearticulation of the labor process.”37

Marx’s Method and Third Stage Ecosocialist Thought

The commitment to a materialist conception of natural and social history, attention to critical and appropriate uses of abstraction, and the employment of dialectical analysis and an historical approach, has led to path-breaking analyses in ecological Marxism. These analyses are able at once to deal with broad sweeps of human history, shed new light on concrete, emerging problems, and contribute to debates shaping movements for change today. They transcend the divides between the natural and social sciences and between the scholar, practitioner, and activist.

An important recent example of such work is The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries, and Aquaculture (2015) by Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark.38 This study illustrates the relationship between the whole of capitalist development and the profound changes in the ecology of the oceans, aquaculture, and fisheries engendered by the endless drive for accumulation. It provides a systematic critique of prevailing market approaches to addressing ecological crises, as well as the associated “tragedy of the commons” school of thought. It ends with an important chapter on “Healing the Rifts”—urgent reading for all concerned with the planetary crisis of the oceans and building an alternative to this ecologically and socially destructive social order.

Other areas in which the method described here is applied by ecological Marxists include, but are not limited to: soil fertility, fertilizers, agriculture, forest management, the carbon and nitrogen metabolism, climate change, feminism and ecology, stockyards/meat-packing, environmental justice, unequal exchange, ecological imperialism, public health, ecological economics, urban and rural development, and much more.

For a compendium of examples of some of the great work by ecological Marxists, please see the metabolic rift bibliography published online by Monthly Review. It is a wonderful resource for scholars and activists alike.39 The “Environment & Science” section of the Haymarket Books online catalogue also lists important contributions in this area.40

Conclusion: Importance of Method in the Struggle for Ecological Civilization

Given the point of this conference is consideration of the contribution of varieties of Marxism to the project of building Ecological Civilization, I will end by discussing why Marx’s method is so important in this task. As we all know, the ideological form of slogans, or statements of political principles and goals, may differ widely from their substantive, practical content. Marx and Engels employed their critical method to take to task not only the bourgeoisie, but also socialists, communists, anarchists, and others struggling for alternatives, through critical analyses of political goals and strategies. They recognized contradictions between stated ideological commitment and practice, and highlighted the inevitable contradictions of programs that did not take adequate account of existing material conditions or that would result in new forms of oppression, and so on.

For all of us involved in the struggle for a new world, we need a methodology for, and commitment to, critical social analysis through which we constantly assess the direction in which we are headed, how this conforms to our goals, and whether our goals should change. For Marx and Engels, and for ecological Marxists today, the struggle is only meaningful if it, in social and ecological content, (1) promotes substantive material and political equality, in other words, aims for the self-empowerment of the associated producers; (2) entails the end of oppression and exploitation in all its forms; and (3) has the ultimate goal of the realization of a society in which “the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all,” and in which the social metabolism connecting human beings to “the universal metabolism of nature” is governed in a rational way.41 Whether we describe this struggle as one toward Ecological Civilization, or something else, critical social analysis and investigation allows us to assess and overcome obstacles to movement in this direction.

In contrast to green theory, or ecologism (which tends to be idealistic and ethical in orientation, or even purely romantic) and to ecological modernization theory (which tends to defend the status quo as a whole), Marx’s method allows for the critical function of social analysis required by movements for effective social change. It moves us beyond the appearances of social realities to their essence, which Marx believed was the reason for, and was only possible through, scientific investigation.

The point in the end is not that we follow Marx because it is Marx, but because the methodological innovations that began with Marx remain a powerful aid in our efforts at social change. We need the capacity to know as well as possible, “what is,” and compare the current reality “with what would be reasonable” in order to “draw the necessary conclusions for conscious action designed to bring about desirable change.”42 Ultimately, it is only in the context of our concrete struggles for change that any philosophical or scientific approach, especially a Marxist one, becomes meaningful and full of life.

Thank you.


  1. The terms ecological Marxism and ecosocialism are used here in reference to identified intellectual projects and movement terminology. While this usage was appropriate for the context in which this talk was given, the ecological critique and imperative for change is already explicit in Marx’s work and many socialist traditions. Therefore I consider myself a socialist, rather than an ecosocialist, and the work described here is at heart simply Marxist in approach.
  2. John Bellamy Foster, Foreword to Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2014; originally 1999), xii.
  3. Foster, Foreword, Marx and Nature.
  4. Ibid, viii.
  5. Ibid, ix.
  6. Ibid, xii–xiii.
  7. Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development (New York: Monthly Review Press 1977; originally 1942), 11.
  8. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971; originally 1968), 1.
  9. Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966), 134.
  10. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2005; originally 1848), 71; Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: Penguin Books, 1991; originally 1863–1865), 959.
  11. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 949.
  12. Burkett, Marx and Nature, xxvi.
  13. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I (New York: Penguin, 1990, originally 1867), 90.
  14. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, 12.
  15. Ibid, 12–15.
  16. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1973; originally 1857—1858), 107; Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, 16.
  17. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, 16–17.
  18. Ibid, 12.
  19. Ibid, 18.
  20. Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Biology Under the Influence (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007), 151–52.
  21. Foster, Foreword, Marx and Nature, xi.
  22. Richard York and Philip Mancus, “Critical Human Ecology: Historical Materialism and Natural Laws,” Sociological Theory 27 (2009): 134.
  23. Lewontin and Levins, Biology Under the Influence, 106.
  24. York and Mancus, “Critical Human Ecology,” 134–35.
  25. Lukács quoted in Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, 20–21.
  26. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, 20–21.
  27. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1994, originally 1852), 15.
  28. Karl Marx, Early Writings (London: Penguin, 1974.
  29. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Penguin Books, 1990; originally 1867), 283.
  30. Ibid, 290.
  31. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, 21.
  32. Karl Marx, “Letter to Arnold Ruge (1843),”
  33. Lewontin and Levins, Biology Under the Influence, 165.
  34. Ibid.
  35. István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010; originaly 1995), 410.
  36. Cornel West, The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1991), 99. See also John Bellamy Foster, “Introduction to a Symposium on The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought,” Monthly Review 45, no. 2 (1993): 8.
  37. Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 410.
  38. Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark, The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries, and Aquaculture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
  39. See Ryan Wishart, R. Jamil Jonna, and Jordan Besek, “The Metabolic Rift: A Selected Bibliography,” October 16, 2013,
  40. Haymarket Books, “Environment & Science,”
  41. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 30 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 54–66.
  42. Baran and Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, 134.
2015, Volume 67, Number 5 (October)
Comments are closed.