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“Colossal intellectual undertaking”: Irish Marxist Review on John Bellamy Foster’s “The Return of Nature”

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The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology
672 pp, $35 cloth, ISBN 978-1-58367-836-7
By John Bellamy Foster

Reviewed by Owen McCormack for the Irish Marxist Review, vol. 9, no. 28, 2020

Read, below, or on Irish Marxist Review PDF

“John Bellamy Foster is a U.S.-based writer and lecturer whose works are essential reading for all revolutionaries and environmentalists. Over two decades, Foster has produced an immensely important body of work, and alongside a small number of others (like Ian Angus), has clarified and rescued Marxist thinking on key environmental issues in the age of climate catastrophe.

Much of Foster’s earlier works are readily available and easy to read. Their importance for those concerned with the current climate crisis and related issues lies in their clear demonstration that the early generation of socialist revolutionaries (including Marx himself) did not hold a promethean view of nature, a charge often made by environmentalists who dismiss Marxist analyses of environmental destruction. Instead, the basic analysis of Marx and Engels—the view that capitalism rests on the theft of human labour and of nature itself, and that capitalism creates a ‘metabolic rift’ between humanity and nature—lay the ground for the clearest understanding of the sources and remedies of the environmental crisis we now face on a global scale.

The Return of Nature touches on similar themes, but seems to have even larger ambitions for an overarching narrative. It is chiefly concerned with staking out the claim that in the years following Marx’s death, many leading figures in science and society, influenced by his passing, made huge contributions to the understanding of and fight against social injustice, as well as to the fight for environmental sustainability. Foster’s claim is that the understanding of Marx’s dialectical materialism proved time and again to yield profound insights in many areas and influenced a generation of socialist and revolutionaries. In a way, The Return of Nature is three separate books rolled into one, any one of which would be a huge intellectual undertaking in its own right, containing fascinating insights and engaging thoroughly with the ideas of the separate eras.

The book starts in the years following the deaths of both Marx and Darwin, and looks at the careers and works of E. R. Lankester and William Morris. Later sections look at the work of Arthur Tansley, J. D. Bernal, Joseph Needham, Barry Commoner, Rachel Carson, and others, although in briefer form than the earlier, extraordinarily detailed treatment of Lankester and Morris. In between these sections are three chapters that engage with the works of Engels.

Foster is not simply giving an account of each of these figures, he engages exhaustively not only in their ideas and works but with the currents and writings of other figures of their day, who they were often responding to. It makes for an astonishingly detailed and monumental work of research. If you are looking for an accessible introduction to Foster’s works this is not it; What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism or Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift would be better starting places. However, this is a fascinating and minutely detailed exploration of many figures who will be unknown to a larger audience and whose works and ideas deserve to be well known. It is also an opportunity for the reader to engage with those works and to understand the importance of their ideas for today’s struggle.

E. R. Lankester has often been presented as an odd historical character—famous for attending Marx’s funeral, he was also a leading British scientist and establishment figure with standard reactionary Victorian views on many issues. In later life he sat at the top of British society.

Thanks to Foster’s research we get a much more detailed and complex picture of Lankester. His attendance at Marx’s funeral was no youthful indiscretion later atoned for. Lankester was, for his time, a radical whose work in the field of evolutionary biology was explicitly anti-capitalist. He saw environmental destruction as rooted in the drive for commercial accumulation, and his writings, warning of depleted fish stocks at a time when most others believed humanity incapable of affecting such systems or natural stocks, are astonishingly prescient. For Foster, Lankester—although not a revolutionary—is the first link in a chain that runs from Marx to today’s left ecologists.

William Morris will be more familiar to many readers, although perhaps not for the pioneering ideas and works that Foster unearths. Morris was a lifelong revolutionary, utterly devoted to the cause of the working class, and an articulate propagandist for a radical alternative society based on equality. His writings on art and artists seem incredibly vital for today. Art, he claimed, is an essential characteristic of human beings; it represents what he described as ‘mans pleasure in his daily necessary work’. Capitalism and modern production methods not only alienate human labour, but in so doing, result in a corruption of what art is and could be. Art is not the lonely endeavour of a brilliant individual, it is essentially a social and cooperative effort. Each artist, Morris claimed, has ‘dead men guide his hands, even when he forgets they ever existed’.

Morris saw waste and despoliation as a by-product of how capitalism produces and how it alienates humanity. His vision of an alternative society based on equality and an end to capitalist relations was one that married a wider meaning of socialist struggle and human freedom with artistic creativity. Similarly to Marx, he also saw that environmental problems stemmed from the division under capitalism of town and country. Morris, in his fiction writing, also created an elaborate version of what a socialist utopia might look like.

The central chapters of The Return of Nature engage with the work of Engels. It is these that are an important continuation of Foster’s central idea that the Marxist understanding of capitalism and ecological destruction holds vital lessons for today’s ecological movement. Foster argues that, far from believing in the stock idea that Marxism held the natural world to be of no value, Engels recognised its intrinsic value. He viewed capitalism as alienating both ‘the soil and the worker whose life ultimately depends on the soil’.

Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England is described as a ‘foundational environmental work’. Engels documented the growth of industrial towns, especially Manchester, and the conditions imposed on workers driven to labour in the new factories. It’s a testimonial of premature deaths, degrading conditions, and the constant threat of diseases and viruses like cholera, typhus, and whooping cough. Based on Engels’ first-hand investigations, it documents capitalism’s ‘social murder’ of workers in pursuit of profit. This chapter deals with the debates around how diseases spread and how the establishment dealt with the need to take measures to combat epidemics and diseases. Then as now, disease and death were embedded in the class system. Poverty, poor housing, and lack of access to public health services determined your chances of surviving.

In a passage that could be written today, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, Engels charged the ruling class with social murder saying that when society ‘knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual…murder it remains.’

Engels’ writings on Ireland are also analysed, and yield an important lesson for today. Engels rejects the idea, widely aired in England, that the cause of the Great Famine was just a natural disaster of poor soil and crop failure. The poor productivity of the soil was a direct by-product of the economic and social relations between the peasants and landowners and between Ireland and England. The greed of the landowners and a capitalist-induced ecological rift with nature lay at the base of the crisis, not the fecklessness of the country’s inhabitants or the geography of the land.

Many may find the chapter on the Dialectics of Nature challenging. Foster engages deeply and minutely with Engels’ work and the philosophers, writers, and political currents of the time. While difficult, it’s also rewarding. For Foster, Engels’ triumph is that he recognised that while humanity may ‘seem to triumph over nature, it was capable of producing its own antithesis in capitalist society by undermining its fundamental relation to nature, of which it was merely a part’.

Foster argues that Engels’ Dialectics of Nature prefigures modern Earth Systems Analysis and its idea of the connectedness of the Earth’s vast chemical, biological, and physical systems. Engels was a fierce defender of Darwin and of evolution, but also a fierce opponent of the abuses of Darwin by social Darwinians who tried to twist his work to justify social class, inequality, racism, and imperialism in the Victorian age.

The third section of the book takes up the story of the growth of ecological thinking among radical socialists in the twentieth century.

The 1917 revolution was to have huge impacts on the study of and understanding of the natural world in science. Many debates around ecology, and how we view nature, have origins dating back to this. Arthur Tansley was the father of what today is known as ecosystem analysis—moving away from the dry, descriptive categorisation of plants to a holistic view of each organism in its environment and their interactions with other living organisms.

Many of the current debates between mainstream environmentalists and socialists date back to the start of ecological studies. Importantly, the mainstream Green view that only they have an understanding of the intrinsic value of nature while the left maintains a promethean view, is challenged here. The earliest advocates for a view of nature as having intrinsic value were radical socialists and revolutionaries, often at the cutting edge of scientific discoveries, who shared a deep commitment to challenging the destruction capitalism wreaked on humanity and nature.

Foster charts the growth and impact of movements like Science for the People, composed of leading left-wing scientists; in the years after World War II, they had a huge influence in many fields of science. They advocated for increased funding of science, independent of corporate and business interests, and the use of science in fighting inequality. They challenged and countered ideas of racism and imperialism often endemic in scientific circles.

New studies in ecology were challenging crude ideas of the struggle for existence in favour of a more complex view of nature and life, looking toward the evolved cooperation of different organisms in an environment. J. D. Bernal identified large-scale ecological crisis as being due to ‘the predatory nature of capitalism’. Crucially, Bernal saw that capitalism was the ultimate driver of this crisis even if the immediate agent was a poor sharecropper or peasant driven from better land by colonial expansion.

Unfortunately, many of the leading proponents were uncritical of the USSR and unable to see the limits and damage done by Soviet planning or that unfettered intervention in natural systems in the name of rational planning might result in unplanned-for devastation. While inevitably leading to promethean and eco-modernist nonsense in their view of nature, Foster argues these failings shouldn’t occlude the genuine insights that came from those scientists, even if today their plans for large-scale domination and intervention in earth systems seems hopelessly naive at best, dangerous at worst.

The post-WWII era of nuclear weapons testing gave birth to mass movements that linked the fight against potential global destruction with a deep understanding of the consequences of humanity’s interventions in the natural world. Its leading activists and writers were often from the radical Marxist and scientific community, and could trace their lineage back to the generation of thinkers that followed Marx and Engels.

These later chapters are a breathless, whirlwind tour of those thinkers and writers. It’s hard to escape the feeling that people like Carson and Gould deserve more thorough treatment, although in fairness, Foster and others have written about them elsewhere.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, written about the dangers inherent in the accumulation of synthetic chemicals and radiation in organisms, is often heralded as the birth of the modern environmental movement. Hers was an analysis based on an ecological understanding of earth and nature. She saw that capitalist agriculture, with its emphasis on monoculture, was creating dangerous environments and literally ‘raining death’ on nature on an historic scale, often with unknown long-term consequences. The book launched a new level of environmental struggle. While mainstream environmentalist often claim Carson as the founder of the modern green movement, Foster reiterates that she was far more radical in her analysis than any Green today. She located the environmental damage and threat not in individual consumer choices but in the nature of industry under capitalism. It was ‘the Gods of profit and production’ and ‘an era dominated by industry in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged’ and which ‘worships the Gods of speed and quantity, of the quick and easy profit’. Carson’s view of what ecology meant—that totality of life and its interactions—gave her profound insights into the damage that modern industry was doing and into the obligation we had to challenge that system of destruction.

The Return of Nature is an immense work and represents a colossal intellectual undertaking that deserves to be read by all those interested in continuing the struggle against environmental destruction.

–Owen McCormack

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