Dialectics, nature and the dialectics of nature

Issue: 141

Camilla Royle

In 1873 Karl Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels started work on an ambitious volume entitled Dialectics of Nature.1 He described in a letter to Marx how, while lying in bed one morning, he had concluded that the natural sciences were really all about “matter in motion”. He also asked his friend to keep quiet about the idea “so that no lousy Englishman may steal it”.2 Engels was starting to spell out the relevance of a Marxist approach to his own extensive studies in the natural sciences. Writing up his ideas was a project that he would keep returning to over the next decade but ultimately never get a chance to complete.

The notion of a dialectics of nature has remained controversial ever since. Dialectics, as applied to the study of society, is contested, with many interpretations of what dialectics is and what it is supposed to be used for. But various theorists who are in favour of understanding human societies dialectically have rejected the notion that it is also applicable to nature. The debates about the dialectics of nature raise further questions about the type of philosophy Marxism is and whether it can help us understand more fundamental aspects of the world we live in. It also depends on what we might mean by “nature”—a subject just as contentious as dialectics.

Engels and the science of the 19th century

Engels was arguably one of the most impressive self-taught intellectuals of his (or any) day. He taught himself not just about social science and philosophy but about anthropology, chemistry, mathematics and the arts. He lived through a time when there were revolutionary changes in all of these fields. Perhaps most notably, Charles Darwin had published On the Origin of Species in 1859 demonstrating that species of organisms, rather than being fixed and separate entities, are able to evolve into new and radically different forms. Both Marx and Engels read Darwin’s work and saw it as evidence of a conception of nature that changes through time—at least analogous to their own ideas about historical change in human societies.3

But it wasn’t just biology that was revolutionised in the 19th century. In physics James Prescott Joule had shown that heat can be transferred into mechanical energy and vice versa. In geology Charles Lyell had discovered the continual creation and destruction of strata within the earth’s crust.4 Alex Callinicos argues that Engels’s insights must be seen in the context
of real developments in the physical sciences at the time when he was writing. Science had previously been based on a model—related to Newton’s laws—where mechanical processes are reversible in time. In the 19th century science started to take into account the nature of irreversible processes such as evolution where nature does not just change but develops.5

Marxism has helped further our understanding of scientists and their role within society. However, Engels wasn’t just interested in the social position of science—he also analysed debates within science. And his writings on the subject make it clear that he was himself well informed enough to take part in those debates. Some of Engels’s insights have since been proved correct. In The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man Engels argued that early humans’ erect posture freed up their hands and allowed them to develop tool use, which took place alongside the development of larger brains. This idea has been praised by scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould as an early example of what is now referred to as gene-culture coevolution.6

However, the idea of a dialectics of nature remains controversial—and this isn’t helped by the fact that Engels never lived long enough to finish writing the book or to defend his project. In March 1883 Karl Marx died. Engels put his own work aside to take on the formidable task of preparing volumes 2 and 3 of Capital for publication. But the manuscript of Dialectics of Nature survived and was published in Russian in 1925 and in English in 1939. J B S Haldane was responsible for the English version. He was an eminent scientist responsible for advancing our understanding of how evolution relates to genetics, but also a committed Marxist and member of the Communist Party. Throughout his life he became progressively more convinced of the explanatory power of a dialectical approach, arguing in his preface to Dialectics of Nature that had it been published earlier it would have saved him a lot of “muddled thinking”.7 But publishing Engels’s work wasn’t an easy task: it was basically a series of notes. Engels may have intended to edit or even to leave out sections of the work.

Is it useful to call nature dialectical?

To discuss whether Engels’s ideas have any merit we need to also have some idea of what dialectics is and what it is supposed to be used for. There is little point learning about dialectics if it is just a scholastic exercise—if we learn about it in books and at conferences but then instantly forget it afterwards because it has no relevance to everyday practice. Marx agreed, in an afterword to Capital, that materialist dialectics is essentially a philosophy for people who want to change the world. It is “in its essence both critical and revolutionary”.8 Marx based many of his ideas on those of the German idealist philosopher Georg Hegel, who lost his sympathy for revolutionary movements, especially towards the end of his life. However, I would argue that the materialist, Marxist version of dialectics only makes sense when seen as central to the project of revolutionary change.

For many theorists the most important aspects of dialectics are change and contradiction. It allows us to grasp the nature of a world that is constantly changing, an element that John Molyneux highlights and deals with in his recent guide to Marxist philosophy.9 Dialectics can be called a critical philosophy because it calls into question the idea that our world has always remained the same and will carry on unchanged into the future. But it also argues that change is not always gradual—that things can progress by leaps10—what might be described as revolutionary change. In Dance of the Dialectic Bertell Ollman likens trying to understand this world to trying to jump on to a moving car—would you want to try to jump into a car if you were blindfolded and did not know what direction the car was moving in and how fast? Ollman argues that the world around us is changing and we need theory that can understand that.11 Most theories take it for granted at the outset that we can start by looking at the world as if it is static and then try to explain any changes that we see. For dialectical thinkers the reverse is true. Change is the default state of the universe; it is stasis that is unusual and requires explanation.

The Marxist geographer David Harvey has also argued for several years that the method he uses in his work as a social theorist is a dialectical one. Harvey’s approach is perhaps most easily explained by looking at what it is not. He opposes Cartesian reductionism, which is based on the assumption that we can study the world by dividing it up into separate “things”. Cartesians argue that the parts have their own properties that exist independently of the whole. We can analyse each in isolation and then look at how they relate.12 So a geographer trying to understand cities on a Cartesian basis might look at London (perhaps defined as everything within the M25 motorway). They could ask who lives in London, what kind of housing they live in, what kind of industries are present in different parts of the city and many other questions. They could then go on to do the same for another city, maybe New York. Only once they understood the attributes of each city as a separate entity would they attempt to compare the two.

A dialectical thinker would turn their sights to the processes that constitute those cities, processes such as migration into and out of cities, or the growth of neoliberalism in both the US and Britain. Cities are then considered not as discrete things but as complexes of processes. Harvey’s way of thinking questions whether we can consider a city without taking its context into account. To look at immigration into cities we also need to understand what is happening in the places outside the city where immigrants come from. But it also draws attention to the similarities between cities—so immigration in both London and New York might affect both in similar ways. Harvey’s dialectical approach turns our common sense way of thinking on its head. He is effectively saying that there is no such thing as a “thing”. What we think of as solid objects are actually made up of processes. Different processes can come together temporarily to produce things but these are always transitory. Things are always in the process of being created or destroyed—all that is solid melts into air. In this approach a thing could be an idea or concept or something concretely existing like a city. Engels also argued something similar in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy: “The world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things…go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away”.13

For Marx, and for many of his followers, dialectics is about contradiction as well as change. The two are related, internal contradictions drive change forward and lead to the dynamism that we observe. Everything under capitalism seems, and is, contradictory.14 However, Harvey argues that thinking in terms of contradictions is compatible with his own approach. If things are made up of shifting complexes of processes it stands to reason that some of those processes will be in opposition to each other.15 Take the example of the Labour Party in Britain—a bourgeois organisation but one that maintains a mainly working class membership. To call it bourgeois and working class sounds like a contradictory thing to say. This is because it does refer to a contradiction. The key is to look at the diverse processes that caused the Labour Party to come into existence. At the time the welfare state was becoming increasingly important to sections of capital, while workers were looking towards reformist ideas and reformist parties. The needs of workers and of capitalists are in opposition to each other but were able to coalesce at a particular point in history—in this case to form a very contradictory organisation. This approach to the question of contradiction recognises the real presence of contradictions but looks for the concrete mechanisms by which they develop, through the processes by which things come into and out of existence. It is not enough simply to state that everything is contradictory without asking why.

The dialectical biologists

If dialectics helps Marxists understand something about human society could it also be useful for natural scientists—people trying to understand very different aspects of the world? Few natural scientists have explicitly argued that they are doing dialectical science, but there are a few notable exceptions. In 1985 Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin published a collection of essays entitled The Dialectical Biologist. Both were (and still are) distinguished biology professors at Harvard in the US. As the name of the book suggests, Levins and Lewontin avoided saying that they were trying to apply dialectics to biology.16 This is not the dialectics of biology as they are not philosophers approaching biology from the outside. Instead they argue that they had adopted it as a method and incorporated it into their practice as biologists. The book was dedicated to Engels, who “got it wrong a lot of the time but got it right where it mattered”.17 Readers familiar with Levins and Lewontin will be aware that between them they have a wide range of interests. They criticise some of the statistical methods used in biology, take on biological determinism (the notion that human behaviour is purely explainable by genetics) and advocate the rights of Latin American migrant workers in the US.

However, one of the most innovative lines of reasoning Levins and Lewontin develop is what they refer to as the idea of the organism as both subject and object of evolution.18 Lewontin in particular points out that classical approaches within evolutionary biology have viewed organisms as the passive objects of forces beyond their control. Those forces may be either internal to the organism or external.19 Darwin saw organisms as responding to changes in their environment. Individuals within a population vary in their ability to survive and reproduce but it takes external pressures from the environment to act on that variation and determine which individuals will be the most successful. Those individuals pass on their genes to the next generation. When evolution is explained in this way the environment is seen as presenting a species with a particular set of problems that it must find a solution to through a process of trial and error. For example, the environment of the humpback whale is cold and full of nutritious krill and small fish. It “solves the problem” of how to live in this environment by evolving blubber to survive the icy waters, a huge mouth and some impressive techniques for catching its food. The job of a large, cold-water-swimming krill eater is what ecologists refer to as a niche.

Where classical Darwinists see organisms as responding to forces acting on them from the outside, genetic determinists look from the other direction. They argue that plants and animals respond to internal forces originating from their genes. Richard Dawkins has repeatedly compared living things to robots: “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”.20 In this view of biology organisms, including humans, develop along a predetermined path decided by the information coded in our genes.

This is not to say that either approach is wrong, or that they are incompatible with each other. Dawkins has consistently tried to defend evolution against creationists. But both approaches, the one emphasising external factors and the other emphasising internal ones, only look at part of the picture. Levins and Lewontin argue that such approaches ignore the role that the organism itself plays in its own evolution.21 The organism is seen as a passive site where genes and environment interact. The dialectical biologists contend that an organism is also, in a way, not just the object but “the subject of its own evolution”.22 Organisms define a niche around themselves as they determine which aspects of their immediate surroundings are most relevant. For example, a woodpecker might find the bark of a tree relevant but not the stones at the base of the tree. Other birds that use those stones to smash snail shells will find them relevant and treat them as part of their environment.23 We cannot know what a niche is in the absence of the organism that inhabits it. There was never a job vacancy for something that lives in cold water just waiting for a humpback whale to evolve to fill it. That particular niche developed in a relationship with the evolution of the whale.

Levins and Lewontin have also drawn attention to the numerous examples of ways in which organisms act on their environment as well as just responding to it. Beavers build dams to make their immediate surroundings more habitable for themselves; plant roots change the composition of the surrounding soil so that they can extract nutrients more easily. Living things have changed the planet on a spectacular scale, even altering the atmosphere irreversibly by adding oxygen. We are not merely objects to be acted on by external forces. Levins and Lewontin study the ways in which organisms actively relate to the environment around them implying that neither organism nor environment can be understood without reference to the other. This is in direct contrast to Cartesian approaches that might try to look at an organism in isolation. Furthermore, this relationship develops through time as the organism grows—animals and plants have a history.

Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge also applied a dialectical understanding of processes that develop in a disjointed rather than smooth and gradual way. In their theory of punctuated equilibrium evolution is characterised by long periods of stasis interspersed with instances where new species evolve very quickly.24 Gould admitted that the theory was influenced by Marxist philosophy and argued that “dialectical thinking should be taken more seriously by Western scholars”.25 But despite the close similarity between punctuated equilibrium and dialectical insights about gradualness and leaps it has remained remarkably resilient as a theory. Steven Rose, a neuroscientist and popular writer on the philosophy of biology, cites the dialectical tradition as one of his influences.26 His argument that complex systems have properties which cannot be explained by looking at each part of the system in isolation does resemble some of the insights of dialectical thinkers like Harvey.

Arguments against a dialectics of nature

However, not all Marxists have accepted the idea that there are dialectical processes in nature in the way that the dialectical biologists have done. Engels’s views on the subject have attracted controversy ever since Dialectics of Nature was first published, with his ideas “distorted by both enemies and many would be friends”.27 Perhaps part of the confusion is due to Engels’s formulation of the three laws of dialectics. These laws—originally borrowed from the German idealist philosopher Hegel—were supposed by Engels to describe processes in both the social and natural worlds. The laws are the interpenetration of opposites, the transformation of quantity to quality and the negation of the negation. We often use examples from science and nature to explain these three laws. For the law of transformation of quantitative change into qualitative people often mention that water turns into steam once its temperature reaches 100°C. A quantitative change in temperature leads to a qualitative change from one state to another. There is also the one about the chicken and the egg. When a chick hatches from an egg it destroys that egg—negates it—but when it grows into a hen that negates the chick so this is the negation of the negation.

By choosing these particular examples we often take it for granted that dialectical processes exist in nature. But this assumption is rejected by many Marxist commentators. The triviality of some of these examples is one reason that some have questioned the notion of a dialectics of nature. Ian Birchall rightly points out that “making a revolution is…rather more complex than making a cup of tea—or even than breeding chickens”.28 The dialectics of nature has also been criticised as an attempt to find convenient evidence for a more or less arbitrary set of laws. It should be possible to find evidence in the “natural” world for laws such as the negation of the negation if you look hard enough and are willing to be selective about which examples you choose. This led Jean-Paul Sartre to comment that “the only dialectic one will find in nature is a dialectic that one has put there oneself”.29

Some argue that Engels was fundamentally mistaken for suggesting it. They say that he did not understand Marx’s dialectical method or had corrupted it by extending its reach beyond social or historical questions. George Lichtheim, writing in the early 1960s when many Marxist academics were seeking to rescue Marxism from associations with Stalinism, argued that Engels was the problem. For Lichtheim and others on the left the idea that there are “laws” in nature was irreconcilable with socialism from below. Laws imply that nature—and consequently human history—follows a predetermined course. And if history is predetermined there is no role in it for the conscious action of the working class. If we try to distil dialectics into a set of three laws we risk breaking its ties with the concrete reality it is meant to stem from. Applying laws to nature would suggest a dualist distinction between ideas and reality where one determines the other. How can this be reconciled with a conception of Marxism that argues for a unity of theory and practice? In the 1960s and 1970s it became accepted among left wing academics of various tendencies that Engels’s ideas were at the root of the Stalinist interpretation of socialism—that is, as something that could be handed down to workers by an elite at the top of society. Some have even cited Engels’s comments on nature to dismiss his contribution to the Marxist tradition entirely.30 More recently writers on gender, for example, have similarly found it much easier to accept Marx’s “nuanced” position, whereas Engels’s view is apparently “scientistic” and “deterministic”.31

However, it seems unlikely that Marx and Engels disagreed fundamentally with each other on questions of science and nature during their lifetimes. In later life they employed a kind of division of labour in which Engels dealt with science while Marx was concentrating on writing Capital. But they visited each other often, especially after Engels moved to London in 1870, and would have regularly discussed their respective work in detail. There is nothing in the written correspondence between Marx and Engels to suggest that they disagreed. This is not to say that Marx was ignorant when it came to science. In fact he often chose examples from chemistry and physics to illustrate points in Capital. He uses the example of elliptical motion in physics to explain contradiction32 and refers to organic chemistry. Marx explains that making quantitative changes to the chemical structure of a compound—adding carbon, oxygen and hydrogen in different proportions—can lead to those substances gaining qualitatively different properties.33

It is true though that Engels’s Dialectics of Nature was influential within the Soviet Union after it was published there in 1925. The version of dialectics the Stalinists employed was tied to a rigid application of Engels’s three laws. The laws were repeated by Stalin and his followers accepted the concept of a dialectics of nature, completely uncritically, it seems. Professors who had previously been leaders of institutions found themselves replaced by junior colleagues who had professed their allegiance to dialectical materialism, or a Stalinist interpretation of it. Many formerly respected scientists found themselves imprisoned and even killed. Trofim Lysenko, who rejected genetics as a bourgeois deviation, was appointed head of the Institute of Genetics. These attacks on science were part of a wider drive towards “Bolshevisation” in all areas of intellectual life. It was partly an effort to force science to catch up to the very particular needs of the Soviet Union to maintain itself as a global power. There was no longer time for pure science. Scientists had to justify their work by demonstrating its relevance to Stalin’s Five Year Plans for economic growth. But it was also part of an ideological effort to justify the existence of the Soviet Union, both to its own citizens and to potential sympathisers in the West, as a society run completely in the interests of the proletariat.34

So Engels may have unwittingly played a role in this appalling attempt to try to force science to be more “dialectical”. But taking a dogmatic approach to dialectics was the last thing Engels intended. And, of course, Dialectics of Nature was an unfinished work—a series of notes that Engels might well have revised considerably if he had published it himself. Helena Sheehan, in Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, argues that his work on the subject should be viewed more as a pointer to areas that required further study rather than the final word on the matter.35 This position is also suggested by Engels’s own comments on science, again in Ludwig Feuerbach. Here he discusses the potential useful contribution of Hegel’s philosophy, from which he derived the three laws, and rejects some conservative interpretations of Hegel. Engels states: “The whole dogmatic content of the Hegelian system is declared to be absolute truth, in contradiction to his dialectical method, which dissolves all dogmatism. Thus his revolutionary side becomes smothered beneath the overgrowth of the conservative side”.36

Here it seems he is saying that Hegel’s laws should themselves be left open to being evaluated and reinterpreted. They are not a fixed set of rules. However, this is not to say that he intended dialectics to be purely a method. It also seems clear that, at least as far as Engels was concerned, ways of thinking about the world cannot be separated from the real nature of the world we are intending to study.

Lukács and the dialectics of society

The work of the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács was a particularly powerful tool in the argument against a dialectics of nature. Lukács was concerned with the practical application of Marxist philosophy, with dialectics as a vehicle for revolution. Lukács’s ideas famously changed throughout his life and it would be impossible to cover his thought in detail here. However, his early approach to dialectical philosophy comes through most clearly in his classic work History and Class Consciousness, which was published in 1923 while he was in exile in Vienna. Lukács had been a leading member of Bela Kun’s Communist Party, although the left was dominated by the much larger social democratic party. He was forced to flee Hungary after the country was taken over by Admiral Horthy who banned the Communists and executed and imprisoned thousands of their supporters.37

Lukács argued that we cannot immediately grasp the real nature of the world around us. We live and think in a bourgeois society that distorts our ideas. Under capitalism many of the things most essential to us take the form of commodities that are exchangeable for money. The material properties of commodities, and their social origins, are therefore obscured as only one property becomes relevant: their price on the market. Marx argued that capitalist exchange of commodities follows its own logic—and can give a sense of inevitability. As Lukács put it in History and Class Consciousness:

Objectively a world of objects and relations between things springs into being (the world of commodities and their movements on the market). The laws governing these objects are indeed gradually discovered by man, but even so they confront him as invisible forces that generate their own power.38

So we think of the capitalist system as being made up of a series of objects which relate to each other but this obscures a much more complex reality. Lukács argued that the working class is uniquely able to understand the capitalist system in the way that the bourgeois class cannot. This is because we are ourselves central to keeping capitalism running. We sell our labour power to capitalists for a price, so our ability to labour is, in a way, also objectified and turned into a commodity. The proletariat do not just observe how capitalism works from the outside but act within capitalism. Lukács followed Marx in seeing theory as a tool of class struggle and inseparable from practice: “materialist dialectic is a revolutionary dialectic”,39 a way of understanding the processes at work in the society we live in but also a tool for changing that society. Lukács was focused on the role of the working class in uncovering the reality of capitalist society. But he had little to say on the subject of nature, showing an “almost exclusive concern with the dialectic in society”.40 Aspects of the natural world—animals, plants, stones, etc—don’t take on the same unique role as both subject and object of history that the working class does in capitalist society, according to Lukács. They don’t engage in class struggle.

Lukács is often assumed to have dismissed the concept of a dialectics of nature entirely, an assumption which owes a lot to the following passage in History and Class Consciousness: “The misunderstanding which arises from Engels’s presentation of dialectics rests essentially on the fact that Engels—following Hegel’s false example—extends the dialectical method also to the knowledge of nature”.41 However, John Rees questions whether Lukács completely rejected the idea of a dialectics of nature. Lukács criticised Engels for equating the methods by which we study society with those by which we study nature. For Lukács we cannot approach the study of society as a distanced, objective observer in the same way as we (supposedly) approach nature. We are part of society so we observe it from within. It does not necessarily follow that there is no dialectics of nature. However, any dialectical processes occurring in nature without the conscious intervention of humans would be different from that observed in society.42 It is also worth remembering that in 1923 Lukács would not have read Dialectics of Nature and so wasn’t responding to that text in particular; it had yet to be published.

What do we mean by nature?

Later commentators have questioned whether it is possible to cordon off human society and treat it as separate from the natural world as Lukács appears to have done. Antonio Gramsci said of Lukács that “if his assertion presupposes a dualism between nature and man he is wrong”.43 To assess whether there is anything in the idea of a dialectics of nature it would seem that we need to at least agree on some idea of what “nature” actually means. This question is often left out of such arguments. The debate is generally focused on what dialectics is—and this remains disputed. But the concept of nature is just as difficult to pin down. Raymond Williams refers to it as “perhaps the most complex word in the language”.44 So coming up with a definitive definition would certainly be beyond the scope of this article. But we can at least question some of the more reactionary assumptions about what the word nature refers to.

Some of the most insightful ideas about nature have been developed within my own discipline, geography. This is perhaps due to the history of the subject. Geographers were traditionally the people travelling the world observing different human societies and suggesting how the environments people live in might influence those societies. For example early geographers propagated the racist myth that people from hotter climates tended to be poorer because the climactic conditions encourage laziness. Today (most) geographers are more critical of the notion that the environment influences society in such a simple and unidirectional way. But the interest in the relationship between society and nature remains. Geography is often described as a bridging discipline, part social science, part natural science.45

One of the most prominent geographers to take an explicitly Marxist approach to these questions was the late Neil Smith (whose doctoral thesis was published as a book: Uneven Development).46 Smith argued that many of our ideas about nature can be linked to the ideology of class society, and of capitalism as a specific form of class society. His work aims to add substance to the partial insights Marx left as to his approach to nature. We tend to see nature as something external to humanity. The “natural” world is the wilderness beyond the edges of our cities, a paradise untainted by human intervention. These images of nature are central to the ideology of many “deep green” environmental thinkers. Of course, lots of people who consider themselves environmentalists are also deeply concerned for the welfare of humans. However, the ideology of protecting an external nature can be politically unhelpful. It has fostered the belief that the needs of humans are in opposition to those of the natural world that can be seen in the persistent argument that we need to limit human population growth in order to protect nature. This is demonstrated by David Attenborough’s recent remarks that humans are “a plague on the earth”.47 The ideal of a nature that can be kept separate from human society is also upheld by people with much less interest in protecting it. Technocratic thinkers argue that we can take control over nature. They suggest that we can solve all our environmental problems by developing ever more sophisticated technology. We can run our societies based on the same economic rules as before and simply treat nature as an externality to be managed.48 Whether nature is a paradise or a resource for us to exploit, it is still defined by being external to society. These approaches are all predicated on this nature-society dualism.

Dualism also fosters the idea of an unchanging or universal nature. Bourgeois thinkers argue that as nature exists independently of society then what’s “natural” must never change. Appeals to the authority of nature can be used to justify some of the most conservative ideas about society. Human nature can never change. Institutions such as marriage, as an exclusively heterosexual endeavour, are also seen as part of the “natural” order of things. Capitalism stalks the globe looking for new ways to destroy natural resources, but its apologists insist that their way of life must be preserved for eternity.

If bourgeois thought sees nature as an untouched wilderness this only serves to obscure the real situation. Human beings don’t just exist in the world but also impact on that world. Different types of society treat nature in very different ways. Capitalism tends to treat every aspect of nature as something that could potentially become a commodity for exchange on the market. There is no natural world outside its influence. Even by thinking about nature we are compelled to think about it in a particular way based on the needs of whatever type of society we live in. But generally we are not just contemplating the environment but finding new ways to turn it into a source of profit or a dumping ground for our waste. Smith argued that “in the form of a price tag, every use-value is delivered an invitation to the labour process, and capital—by its nature the quintessential socialite—is driven to make good on every invitation”.49

This has become strikingly clear with the rise of carbon markets, which effectively put a monetary value on the air we breathe. For Smith and others the theory of the “production of nature” has been an antidote to dualist assumptions. To argue that nature is produced doesn’t mean that we humans literally create aspects of it; we don’t build mountains. However, we do literally produce new organisms (by genetic modification) and new ecosystems such as the heathlands created by deforestation. It could be said that our actions produce a new nature within the old one. There are few parts of the world that are not impacted by humans. Marx argued that even in his day there was very little “wilderness” left.50

Marx saw the ideological separation between society and nature as an aspect of class society, not as something that has always existed. To quote Smith: “The domination of nature idea begins with nature and society as two separate realms and attempts to unite them. In Marx we see the opposite procedure. He begins with the relation with nature as a unity and derives as a simultaneously historical and logical result whatever separation between them exists”.51

This approach to nature could also in itself be described as dialectical. In the method Marx developed and employed in Capital he uses what Ollman refers to as different levels of generalisation.52 The whole of the universe is both complex and constantly changing. Everything is related to everything else. But it would be impossible to try to think about the whole universe at once. Therefore Marx uses dialectics as a method to focus his attention on different aspects of the world. Sometimes he refers to processes at the level of capitalist society, sometimes class society more generally. Sometimes he broadens the scope of his arguments still further by suggesting that what he is referring to relates to the whole of the natural world. It often makes sense to refer just to what happens among humans to make a particular point, for example, to explain the relationship between capitalist and worker. Sometimes it makes sense to refer to the way capitalists and workers relate in a capitalist society but this relationship does not exist independently of the wider context in which it exists. This, for Ollman, supports the argument that Marx, like Engels, intended dialectics to be applicable to both society and nature—not just society. Looking at the whole of the natural world, of which human society is a part, is seeing things at a different level of generalisation than the one someone might use to make a particular argument about human society.

The question for Marx and Marxists then is not so much about how society and nature relate to each other. Instead we should question how these two aspects of the whole ever got separated in the first place. This point is taken up by John Bellamy Foster, who has revived Marx’s concept of a metabolic rift.53 Marx argued that human beings interact metabolically with the world around us. It is our ability to work—to use our labour power—that facilitates this interaction. Capitalism commodifies labour power and turns it into a source of profit. It simultaneously creates a metabolic rift between humanity and nature. So the rift is a historically contingent one that, it is argued, developed with the development of capitalism. In a passage in Capital Volume 3 Marx describes how the conditions produced by capitalism “provoke an irreparable rift in the independent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself”.54 Marx asserts in this passage that there is such a thing as nature (and even goes as far as to suggest that there are natural laws). He would not have seen nature as entirely socially constructed in the extreme sense in which the term is sometimes used. It would be inconsistent with Marx and Engels’s approach to focus entirely on nature/biology as if it is separate from society. But if the two are inseparable it would also be problematic to focus one’s attention entirely on the social side of the equation and see nature as solely determined by society.

If we produce nature our relationship with it is much more complicated than one of domination or management. However, it also means that we can change the way we produce nature. We should continue trying to prevent processes such as climate change and species extinction but should not imagine that what we are doing is restoring the environment to some imagined natural state before humans existed. Instead we should turn our attention to the ways in which nature is produced, towards what aims and in whose interests. Neil Smith rejected the pessimistic argument that humanity will always exploit the environment. He argued for a socialism based on control by ordinary people of the production of nature. If we see dialectics as existing only in society we risk reinforcing the view that nature is a separate realm entirely, the kind of dualism that Neil Smith, John Bellamy Foster and others have argued against. Perhaps this dualism is why people such as Gramsci have questioned Lukács’s tendency to try to separate nature and society. However, if Lukács was wrong about nature this is not to say that his ideas are useless for progressive environmental politics. Recent thinkers, particularly geographers, have applied the ideas of Marxist thinkers such as Lukács, Gramsci and the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre to questions about the natural world.55

The debates over Dialectics of Nature have a wider significance for Marxist theory than the relationship between Marx and Engels or even the important question of our approach to nature. It gets to the root of questions about what kind of philosophy Marxism is and what that philosophy is supposed to be used for. It seems like Engels was trying to understand something fundamental about the way the world works. He saw dialectics as describing real material processes. When he says quantitative change leads to qualitative change it doesn’t just mean that it is useful as a method to treat the world as if this happens or to think about the world in this way. He means that it really does act in this way. Not all philosophers even agree that the world does exist outside of the mind of the person doing the thinking. And trying to understand something about how that world works is not a universally accepted role for philosophy.56 For many thinkers it is far too ambitious to try to argue that there are underlying laws or processes governing reality and that we can understand these laws.

However, this materialist approach to philosophy is in line with Marx’s approach to social questions. Marx agreed, in his Theses on Feuerbach, that “the dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question”.57 If we are aiming to change the world it stands to reason that we should agree that the world exists. And we have to take seriously the project of trying to understand that world. Marxism is, of course, about intervening in the world, not just interpreting it. But the two are, for Marx, inseparable. We interpret the world through intervening in it and intervene based on our interpretation.

Why aren’t there more dialectical scientists?

But if there are real dialectical processes at work in the natural world this raises the question of why only a few scientists studying nature openly acknowledge this. Why aren’t there more dialectical scientists? It could be countered that there are many arguments, not just in science, where Marxists feel that their ideas are correct but where the majority of people disagree. Why aren’t there more economists who accept the tendency of the rate of profit to fall?

We often assume that science is neutral. In other words, we tend to think that when scientists observe the natural world their methods of enquiry allow them to gain an objective understanding of the world that the rest of us cannot. However, scientists do not live outside of society. Their theories, as well as the types of questions that are considered worthy of research, reflect the type of society that they live and work in. So scientists could be said to be observing the real world but through a social prism which distorts their view.58 Capitalism, as Lukács recognised, needs to turn aspects of the natural world into commodities for exchange on the market. Researchers working on increasing rates of photosynthesis in plants have focused on one enzyme in a plant leaf called rubisco. They are trying to make that enzyme work more efficiently so that ultimately they can engineer a plant that will produce more crops for farmers than existing varieties.59 It is possible to see how such a system might encourage science to see the world in a reductionist rather than a dialectical way. Phil Gasper argues that the tendency towards reductionism in capitalist science reflects the dominance of individualism is capitalist society.60 It is not particularly helpful for these scientists to see the enzyme they are trying to improve as a complex of processes or to view it as being in a historically developing relationship with its environment. They are much more able to work on that one enzyme if they can deal with it as if it is separate from the rest of the plant.

John Parrington makes a similar point. He argues that reductionism, “the belief that a system is best understood by dissecting it into component parts and studying these individually”, has provided a powerful tool in his own research into the molecular biology of human fertility.61 However, reductionism reaches the limits of its usefulness when trying to make sense of how its insights fit into a wider picture. It is particularly problematic when used to try to interpret the social implications of biological research—when it goes from being a method to an ideology.

The dialectical biologists—Levins and Lewontin and a few others such as Steven Rose—could all be accused of following a soft version of dialectics. They don’t explicitly take into account the infamous three laws of dialectics. Chris Harman argued that if we do not recognise the evidence for these Hegelian laws in nature, particularly the negation of the negation, we are missing “something central”.62 Harman argued that organisms don’t just relate to their environments but are “negated” by those environments. The way they react back on those environments should be considered as an example of the negation of the negation. For Harman, the ability to act on the environment is common to many types of living organism. But, unlike Levins and Lewontin, he argued that only those that have developed consciousness—ie humans—can be considered to go from being objects to being subjects. Only humans are able to control the world around us rather than just reacting to our environment with a “blind response”.63

Christof Niehrs, a German embryologist, explicitly noted the formal similarities between processes in biology and Hegel’s laws in a recent scientific paper.64 Niehrs looks at the way animal embryos develop in the very early stages, long before they have gone from being a ball of cells to a recognisable foetus. Chemicals called morphogens are released by cells at one side of the embryo. This side starts developing into what, in vertebrates, will become the side where the spinal cord is (the dorsal side). These then trigger the release of different chemicals at the opposite end that act against the production of the first group of morphogens (negate it). These are in turn negated at the dorsal side. This is one of the most important stages in animal development. It kicks off the process that will eventually lead to the formation of an animal with a head end and a tail end rather than a homogenous mass of cells. And it could hardly be more similar to the negation of the negation.

However, noting interesting examples of Hegel’s laws in “nature” does not give much clue as to how, if at all, scientists can use these laws. If scientists are expected to start from the idea that they go out and look for examples of the laws in their work (which Chris Harman did not suggest), it risks turning dialectics into a scholastic exercise. All of the biologists mentioned state that what they do when they go into a lab is the same science using the same methods as anyone else. Dialectics is for them a way to interpret the results of their experiments rather than an excuse not to do those experiments. Knowing the laws of dialectics is no substitute for a scientific understanding based on knowledge of specific material phenomena.


We often explain dialectics using examples from science and nature—but the notion that dialectics is relevant in these areas is not universally accepted. Many Marxists would completely reject the idea of a dialectics of nature. But there is also a tradition of Marxist approaches that see the separation of nature from society as part of capitalist ideology. If we question the divide between society and nature and agree that dialectics shows us something about society, can we then consistently argue that it has nothing to say about nature?

The dialectics of Marx and Engels is a materialist philosophy. It treats the world as if it is changing because it does change, and as contradictory because it is contradictory. The “natural” world really is changing. Recently the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time since measurements began in 1958. The levels of the gas in the atmosphere fluctuate but it is possible that they will soon reach levels where they will cause irreversible changes. If the Siberian permafrost starts to melt, scientists speculate that this could lead to the release of methane held within the frost. Methane is also a greenhouse gas and is much more potent than carbon dioxide, so it could lead to much more warming—likely to feed back and melt more of the frost. It not as though the earth has never been this warm before—it is not unnatural—but it will have devastating consequences for the people who have to live with the effects. Humans are causing these changes to our environment and they cannot be understood in any sensible way without reference to our societies.

Dialectics is a tool for understanding the reality of the world that we live in. As Engels argued, it is about matter in motion. If we try to treat the world as if it can be divided up into separate elements and as if everything in it stays the same we risk letting something important slip from our grasp. But Marxists don’t just interpret the world; we also change that reality. Dialectical approaches see our current problematic rift with nature as an aspect of class society—and, like all things, as something that can be changed.


1: Engels, 1939. Thanks to Paul Blackledge, Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara and Alex Loftus for their invaluable advice and comments on an earlier version of this article.

2: Quoted in Sheehan, 1993, p24.

3: Marx and Engels famously described Darwin’s theories as providing, in the field of natural history, “the basis for our views”-Foster, 2000, p197. Although the claim that Marx proposed to dedicate Capital to Darwin is, unfortunately, false, the persistence of this myth shows that it is plausible enough that people still believe it (see Blackledge, 2002, p11).

4: Sheehan, 1993. The young Marx was also trained in geology having studied under Johann Steininger, who was himself a student of Abraham Werner-an early exponent of the then radical idea that the earth has a history-Foster, 2000, p117.

5: Callinicos, 2006, pp210-211.

6: Foster, 2000, p203.

7: Sheehan, 1993, pp316-326.

8: Marx, 1976, p15.

9: Molyneux, 2012.

10: See John Molyneux’s article in the previous issue of International Socialism-Molyneux, 2013.

11: Ollman, 2003 (although the moving car metaphor had previously been used by Louis Althusser-thanks to Alex Callinicos for pointing this out).

12: Harvey, 1996.

13: Engels, 1947, p52, emphasis in original.

14: Ollman, 2003.

15: Harvey, 1996.

16: This discussion of the role of dialectics in biology is not intended to imply that there is no role for dialectical thought in other areas of science such as physics. I chose biology because of the particular influence of Levins and Lewontin and also because it is the subject I am most familiar with. For a useful overview of physics see McGarr, 1994.

17: Levins and Lewontin, 1985.

18: Levins and Lewontin, 1985; Lewontin, 1982.

19: Levins and Lewontin, 1985, pp85-106, see also Clark and York, 2005.

20: Dawkins, 1976, p.ix.

21: Levins and Lewontin, 1985, pp87-89.

22: Levins and Lewontin, 1985, p89.

23: Levins and Lewontin, 1985, p99.

24: Eldredge and Gould, 1972.

25: Gasper, 2002.

26: Rose, 1997.

27: McGarr, 1994.

28: Birchall, 1983.

29: Sartre, 2004, p31.

30: See Rees, 1994.

31: Brown, 2012, p211.

32: Marx, 1976, p70; Weston, 2012.

33: Marx, 1976, p215.

34: Sheehan, 1993. The proletarian science episode and Lysenko in particular are described by the historian of science Loren Graham (1993) and also by Levins and Lewontin, 1985, pp163-196.

35: Sheehan, 1993.

36: Engels, 1947, p16.

37: Rees, 1998.

38: Lukács, 1971, p87.

39: Lukács, 1971, p2.

40: Rees, 1998, p252.

41: Lukács, 1971, p24.

42: Rees, 1998, p252.

43: Gramsci, 1971, p448.

44: Williams, 1976, p219.

45: Castree, 2000.

46: Smith, 1990.

47: Gray, 2013.

48: Castree, 2000.

49: Smith, 1990, p56.

50: Marx refers to a nature separate from human history as no longer existing anywhere “except perhaps on a few Australian coral islands of recent origin”-Foster, 2000, p116. It could be added that humanity doesn’t have much of an impact on outer space (besides adding a few satellites and space junk) although for many followers of Smith’s ideas on the production of nature these are academic questions.

51: Smith, 1990, p48.

52: Ollman, 2003.

53: Foster, 2000.

54: Marx, 1981, p949.

55: See for example Loftus, 2012.

56: Molyneux, 2012.

57: Marx, 1947.

58: Parrington, 2013.

59: Mackenzie, 2010.

60: Gasper, 1998.

61: Parrington, 2013, p104.

62: Harman, 2007.

63: Harman, 1988.

64: Niehrs, 2011.


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