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Marxist ecology after Marx (‘The Return of Nature’ reviewed in ‘Critical Sociology’)

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The Return of Nature:
Socialism and Ecology

By John Bellamy Foster
687 pages; $35.00 (cloth); ISBN 9781583678367

Reviewed by Ning Zhang for Critical Sociology

The relationship between Marx and ecology, or the question of the legitimacy of Marx’s ecology, is still a controversial issue among classical Marxists, ecological Marxists, ecologists, ecological economists, mainstream environmentalists, and deep ecologists. Among supporters of Marx’s ecology, the work of metabolic theorists such as John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett, Brett Clark, and Kohei Saito is particularly noteworthy. Since the 1990s, they have revealed the coupling of Marx and ecology by ‘returning to Marx’s materialist-ecological approach, and particularly to his concept of social metabolism’ (Foster and Clark, 2016: 1). Thus, the legitimacy and importance of Marx’s ecology have been more positively recognized today. Allegations of Marx’s Prometheanism and productivism are now generally regarded as having been proven false (Saito, 2017). However, the arguments and objections are far from over. Recent metabolic theorists have studied the relationship between Marx and ecology in greater depth and detail, and from diverse perspectives providing more evidence to reveal the legitimacy, validity, and importance of Marx’s ecology. For example, Saito’s (2017) Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism and Foster and Burkett’s (2016) Marx and the Earth have both reconstructed Marx’s ecology to varying degrees, and they have refuted the sup- posed ecological flaws of Marx and Engels (Foster and Burkett, 2016). Foster (2020), in The Return of Nature, writes about the development of Marxist ecology from a unique post-Marxian perspective, confirming the intrinsic lineage of Marxism, ecology, and socialism in history…..

…In The Return of Nature, Foster emphasizes that the revolutionary concept of restoring a sustainable social metabolism of humans and nature dates to the 19th century. At that time, socialists and ecological pioneers had already started to explore topics such as man and nature, society and nature, urban environments, and the separation of urban and rural areas. Especially in the major works of historical materialists such as Marx and Darwin, the discussion of the dialectical relation- ship between society and nature is never absent. Ernst Haeckel’s concept of ecology, Darwin’s concept of natural economy, and the concept of metabolism shared by Justus von Liebig and Marx all discuss the relationship between man and nature. After their deaths, this ecological exploration was not interrupted. Various leftist thinkers, many of them working in the natural sciences and the arts, produced a broader ecological dialectic by combining ecology and socialism. The Return of Nature reveals the little-known history of socialist materialists who, after Marx and Darwin, explored the dialectical relationship between nature and society and developed ecology.

The first part of Foster’s book focuses on two of Marx’s contemporaries—the leftist Darwinist
E. Ray Lankester and the Romantic Marxist William Morris—uncovering how they developed a materialist view of ecology from the perspectives of science and art, respectively. Lankester was a pioneering zoologist, evolutionary biologist, and ecologist, and he represents a link between Marx and many socialist scientists. His unique family environment and personal experiences enabled him to play a crucial foundational role in the development of ecological critique during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On the one hand, his father Edwin Lankester, who was a physician and coroner, was extremely concerned about environmental issues. He supported Liebig’s view that the preservation of soil nutrients is the key to maintaining agricultural productivity and an adequate diet for the population, a view that Marx also shared (Foster, 2020: 31). On the other hand, as a protégé of Darwin and Thomas Huxley, Lankester embraced many materialist and evolutionary ideas. In any cases, Marx had an important influence on Lankester, who had enjoyed Capital and discussed materialism, evolution, capitalism, and so forth with Marx. In the years fol- lowing Marx’s death, Lankester connected with various socialist and feminist circles through Marx’s friends and colleagues.

It was in his dealings with Darwin, Huxley, and especially Marx as well as various socialist groups, that Lankester became an opponent of idealism and a scientific materialist; an anti-capitalist sentiment repeatedly emerged in his work. He emphasized that in societies where exchange value has gained dominance, science, technology, and the mere pursuit of producing profit only systematically destroy the original natural conditions of the earth. Capitalism is on a continuous path to a path of destruction, and nature’s revenge is caused by the failure of societies organized around commercial interests, and the monetary profits of capitalists dictate all these processes of nature’s destruction and transformation. Lankester advocated a sustainable society that would replace capitalist commodity relations using science. The unity of ecological critique and capital critique is clear in Lankester’s writings.

Morris is another key figure in this section. According to Foster, Morris, a self-proclaimed communist, was acquainted with Engels and had studied Marx’s Capital in depth, especially the chapters on the division of labor and alienation, as well as many other works in socialist political economy. Morris has created a unique revolutionary discourse in which he offered an extraordinary fusion of Marx’s ecological critique with a Romantic aesthetic. For example, Morris repeatedly stressed the need to limit coal production and industrial production because instead of helping to meet human needs, they were destructive to human health, nature, and beauty. Morris wanted to develop an environmental proletariat concerned with protecting and sustaining life, creativity, beauty, and the earth itself, which already had some foundation in his time (Foster, 2020: 148). Morris especially developed Marx’s theory of alienated labor. Art, he argued, implies non-alienated production and is therefore an active, creative existence that unifies man with nature. The capitalist system of alienated labor and division of labor led to a serious rift between the working class and their work, themselves, and especially the wider natural world and the ecological whole. Thus, the freedom and individuality of the worker are destroyed by the alienating labor of capitalism. By combining humanism, naturalism, and aesthetics, Morris developed an ecological view with socialist and communist tendencies and a critique of capitalism based on a synthesis of Romanticism and Marxism.

Leftist thinkers of the late 19th century, such as Lankester and Morris, combined socialism and ecology as much as possible on the materialist base inherited from Marx and Engels. In this combination, they produced a broader ecological dialectic and a deeper materialism to question the environmental and social damage of capitalism. In addition, Foster makes an important point in Part I of his book: that ecology and socialism have a natural kinship. Thus, socialist thinkers have always had a major advantage over liberal thinkers in embracing an ecological worldview. This view of Foster is very appealing and credible. Marx discussed the homogeneity of communism and naturalism as early as in his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. He (2014: 78) asserted that ‘this communism, as fully developed naturalism equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man’. The future communist society, he said, would have achieved two major reconciliations, in which individuals’ ‘needs and pleasures lose their egoistic nature, and nature loses its pure usefulness’ (Marx, 2014: 82). Man and nature regain their respective essences; nature regains a warm relationship with man and, ceasing to be an object of profit, becomes man’s true personal property again through his free labor and free enjoyment. Similarly, in Capital, Marx (2004) describes a future scenario of ecosocialism:

Socialized man, the associated producers, govern their metabolic interaction with nature rationally, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing this metabolism with the smallest expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature. (pp. 928–929)

It is because of the inherent kinship between socialism and ecology that leftist thinkers were able to actively develop a materialist-ecological perspective based on the inherited materialist tradition.

In the second part, Foster discusses in detail the development of Engels’ ecology and provides a strong defense of his dialectic of nature. Overshadowed by the aura of Marx’s genius, Engels’ work, especially his contribution to ecology, is often overlooked. Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, by analyzing Marx’s natural science notebooks from 1868, showed Marx’s keen interest in ecology and natural science. In The Return of Nature, Foster reveals Engels’ study of natural science and how Engels combines the materialist conception of nature (which he held in common with science) with the materialist conception of history which is unique to Marxism.

Foster emphasizes that Engels not only aligned himself with Marx’s ecology in every respect, but also developed Marxist ecology in new directions. Engels had already criticized industrial towns’ poor environments in his The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845. He believed that premature deaths in the working class were linked to their squalid living and working conditions, and that workers were ‘murdered’ by the urban environment polluted by capital. Decades later, Engels outlined the dialectical approach to ecology in his 1878 Anti-Dühring and his unfinished Dialectics of Nature written in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Engels was particularly severe in his criticism of the capitalist concept of conquest of nature, arguing that every victory of man over nature would inevitably be met with the revenge of nature. In a sense, Engels may have been one of the earliest proponents of the ecological worldview and the dialectical relationship between humanity and nature.

Engels’ view and his dialectic of nature caused the first confrontation between Marx and Engels in history. Especially, his extension of dialectics to the natural world drew strong criticism from Western Marxism. Georg Lukács (1971) expressed his dissatisfaction with Engels in History and Class Consciousness:

It is of the first importance to realise that the [dialectical] method is limited here to the realms of history and society. The misunderstandings that arise from Engels’ account of dialectics can in the main be put down to the fact that Engels—following Hegel’s mistaken lead—extended the method to apply also to nature. (p. 24)

According to Lukács, the dialectic that emerges from human practice is an internal, reflective knowledge that is not available when it comes to external nature. Lukács’ critique of Engels was inherited by later Western Marxists. Western Marxism holds that the natural sciences are directed to the external, objective world, described as inherently empirical and separate from the realm of the human sciences. Thus, there is no dialectic in nature, and Engels’ dialectic of nature is a departure from Marxism. Foster points out that the abandonment of the dialectic of nature by Western Marxists, especially the Frankfurt School thinkers, has largely fallen into the contradiction of what they call the dialectic of enlightenment, falling victim to the epistemological dualism between nature and society (Foster and Clark, 2016). Abandoning of the dialectic of nature also allowed Western Marxists to create a rift between Marxism and natural science (Foster, 2016).

This has serious consequences. On the one hand, Marx’s concept of nature is understood as a historical category only, and the concept of external nature is rejected. On the other hand, both Western Marxism, with its enthusiasm for cultural criticism, and the Second International, with its insistence on economic determinism, have abandoned the examination of the natural sciences of Marxism, especially ecology. Even David Riazanov ‘negatively commented on Marx’s later engagement with the natural sciences, dismissing the importance of the notebooks for understanding his critique of political economy’ (Saito, 2020: 7). In short, Western Marxism’s rejection of Engels and his dialectic of nature means that they exclude nature and the field of natural science from Marx’s analysis, which inevitably leads to the marginalization of Marxist ecology.

Ironically, Lukács later changed his hostile attitude toward Engels and the dialectic of nature, and his understanding of Marx’s concept of nature, in the manuscript of Tailism and the Dialectic. He argued that if human life is based on a metabolism with nature, some of the truths (natural sciences) that we acquire during this metabolism are of universal validity. Thus, the metabolism between man and nature is governed by the dialectic of nature. Through his reading of Engels, Foster concludes that Engels’ dialectic (based on the dialectical categories of totality, mediation, contradiction, negativity, transformative change, transcendence, and unity of opposites) does not depart from classical Marxism but rather is consistent with it. This consistency can even be traced back to ancient Epicurus in his view of materialism. For Engels, the natural world is in a constant process of change. Therefore, our view of the material world is also in a constant process of change, and the material world can never reach completeness or final form because this would mean that evolution or change itself would cease. When combined with materialism, this perspective inevitably leads to an interrelated ecological worldview. It was by refining the dialectic that Engels eliminated the opposition between nature and society and explained the contradictory nature of the world’s constant development and change.

Engels’ dialectic of nature and society, aimed at a truly scientific socialism, complements Marx’s ecology in many ways while enriching and expanding its orientation and content. Foster’s assessment of Engels’ ecology points out that Engels restored the legitimacy of natural dialectics in Marxism, refuted the Western Marxist critique of Engels (especially dialectics of nature), and bankrupted the view that Marx and Engels opposed to each other.

In the third part of his book, Foster examines the ecological worldview of leftist thinkers deeply influenced by Marx and especially Engels. This includes Fabian-style socialist ecologist Arthur Tansley; the red scientists J. D. Bernal, J. B. S. Haldane, Joseph Needham, Hyman Levy, and Lancelot Hogben; and the cultural materialist Christopher Caudwell. They have all contributed in various ways to the development of an ecological worldview related to science, art, and politics. According to Foster, the common characteristics of these leftist thinkers are as follows:

The materialist principle they adopt sees the alienating character of capitalist production (social metabolism) and its destructive effects on natural metabolism as the basis of a negative, critical dialectic.

Mediated by the science and art of labor and production regulation, they focused on the relationship between society and nature and reached similar conclusions to Engels in terms of dialectics. They attempted to link the materialist view of nature and the materialist view of history by examining the complex and changing material connections between nature and human history.

Foster does not believe that the ecological views of socialist thinkers after Marx have always been perfect. In fact, their ecological critique of capitalism has sometimes been inconsistent and contradictory. Within some historical periods, these thinkers’ socialist and ecological tradition would adhere to a narrow conception of human progress and fall victim to a Promethean ecological modernism. However, the general direction of these socialist thinkers has been toward ecosocialism, and their critical theories have been crucial in their time and in ours. The hard work of these socialist thinkers has proved that ecology is not a free field separate from socialism: it was from the beginning closely linked to the socialist movement against capitalism and for the emancipation of humanity. Prior to the birth of ecosocialism in the second half of the 20th century, these leftist thinkers developed a rigorous ecological critique of capitalism through the fusion of ecology and socialism.

Among the many leftist thinkers portrayed by Foster, Bernal (a central figure in the movement against above-ground nuclear testing—also an ecological movement) deserves special attention. He held many thoughts and insights on the relationships between imperialism, war, and the environment. In the postwar context of opposition to nuclear pollution, ecological destruction, and war, Bernal turned to the struggle for world peace and combined it with a broader ecological perspective. He believed that to ensure the progress of all humanity, governments should end conflicts, disarm, and ban all nuclear weapons. In World Without War, Bernal proposed a new world approach—emphasizing national development, peace, and economic and environmental planning—to transcend the Cold War ideology of his time (Foster, 2020: 492). Thus, the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements led by the leftist thinkers of the 20th century were also ecological movements.

It is in this sense that Foster (2020) writes,

The Age of Ecology is often said to have arisen in 1962, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It is more accurate, however, to see it as having its origin in the public response to the disastrous thermonuclear weapons test under the code name ‘Castle Bravo’ carried out at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954. (p. 502)

It was the nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands that sparked a massive anti-nuclear ecological movement. At the end of the book, Foster also mentions Hermann Joseph Muller (a geneticist and Marxist) as well as Barry Commoner (a cell biologist and socialist ecologist), both of whom were active in opposing nuclear weapons experiments. Even from the 1960s, Commoner became the ‘intellectual leader of the burgeoning ecological movement in the United States and the world’ (Foster, 2020: 508). In short, leftist thought did not forget the theoretical exploration of the relationship between war, the environment, and imperialism while actively developing a modern ecological view of the world.

Today, we must not only treat the environmental crisis as a byproduct of modern industry and especially of uncontrolled production and consumption. We must also be aware of the close relationship between war and the environmental crisis. In addition to human casualties, wars cause continuous damage to the environment. According to Gould (2007), ‘militarization is the single most ecologically destructive human endeavor’ (p. 331). From the 1950s to the 1990s, nuclear testing by the superpowers as part of the Cold War wreaked havoc on the earth’s ecosystem. The Cold War can also be seen as an undeclared war on the people, the flora and fauna, the land, and the ecology (Endres, 2018). There is evidence that thermal radiation from massive nuclear bomb explosions not only causes widespread fires and fire-induced land degradation problems but also, because of radioactive fallout, permanently alters the physical and chemical properties of land, animals, plants, and humans. In addition, nuclear explosions alter the concentration of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air, thinning the ozone layer and enhancing ultraviolet radiation while reducing sunlight and temperature; these changes cause a series of unpredictable ecological disasters on earth (Westing, 1987).

The world today is not in real and permanent peace, and the entire human race and the planet are still exposed to the great threat of war and nuclear weapons. Therefore, opposing war and pursuing peace is not only a matter of human life and security, but also an important component of the environmental movement. The contemporary environmental movement should not be limited to the traditional issues of energy conservation and emission reduction, but should also include the anti-war and anti-nuclear peace movement advocated by the leftist thinkers of the 20th century.

In sum, The Return of Nature examines the ecological critiques of socialist thinkers after Marx and Darwin. It presents us with a hidden history of the synergistic development of socialism and ecology from the second half of the 19th century to the mid-20th century, charting the original sources of an ecosocialist vision. In addition, this book offers an ecosocialist solution to the current environmental crisis: a solution based on a socialism of true equality and a sustainable metabolism of society and nature. In Foster’s (2020: 530) own words, ‘what we must dethrone today is the idol of capital itself, the concentrated power of class-based avarice, which now imperils the ecology of the earth’. This reaffirms the importance of the fusion of red and green. In effect, this fusion is a revival of the historical tradition started more than a century ago by socialist materialists such as Marx, Engels, Lankester, and Morris to combine socialism and ecology……

To read the full review, you can head to Critical Sociology


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