Making an ecological worldview

Issue: 167

Martin Empson

A review of John Bellamy Foster, The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology, Monthly Review Press (2020), £30.

Since John Bellamy Foster published Marx’s Ecology in 2000, the idea that Karl Marx had little to say on environmental issues has become untenable.1 Marx’s Ecology has rightly become a classic. Beginning with Marx’s doctoral thesis on “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature”, and tracing the development of his thought throughout his life, Foster’s book demonstrated the way that ecological questions were at the heart of Marxism—a “broad ecological worldview”.

Marx’s Ecology finished with the death of Marx. The Return of Nature takes up the story from there, beginning its narrative with the funerals of Charles Darwin in 1882 and Marx in 1883. The book deals with “the re-emergence of the natural-material or ecological realm within critical social analysis, where the complex, reflexive relation of nature to human production and reproduction has all too often been downplayed.” Foster traces a long, almost continuous, line of thought that stretches from Marx and Engels, through their friends and contemporaries—scientists and fellow activists such as E Ray Lankester and Carl Schorlemmer—and on to figures such as William Morris, Christopher Caudwell, J D Bernal and J B S Haldane. The book concludes by looking at more contemporary figures such as Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner and Hilary and Steven Rose.

The breadth of biographical material here is impressive. However, this is not primarily a book about the lives, thinking and activism of a succession of radical ecological thinkers. Rather, it is a deep engagement with their radical ideas. It is no surprise that many of the figures discussed were activists. The ideas of writers like William Morris were shaped by an engagement with the works of Marx, Engels and others, but they honed these ideas in their activism. Foster writes that these socialist thinkers “provided systematic if uneven and sometimes contradictory ecological critiques…that were crucial both in their day and ours—a legacy what we can no longer afford to do without”.2

E Ray Lankester’s dialectical ecology

One figure who exemplifies the continuity between Marx and later generations of scientific thinkers was the biologist E Ray Lankester.

Lankester was present at both Darwin’s and Marx’s funerals. In his famous essay “The Darwinian Gentleman at Marx’s Funeral”, the writer and scientist Stephen Jay Gould downplays Lankester’s presence as an anomaly, “a niggling little incongruity from the history of…evolutionary biology”.3 Gould writes that “conservative” Lankester “harboured no secret sympathy for Marxism” and suggests their friendship arose merely out of the older Marx’s interest in supporting a younger scholar.4 But this is incorrect. As Foster explains, in the last years of Marx’s life Lankester was a frequent visitor to Marx’s household. One of the reasons that Marx’s ecological critique remains so important is that he and Engels engaged deeply with contemporary scientific discussions. Thus, their mutual friendship with scientists such as Lankester and the chemist Carl Schorlemmer should not be a surprise. Foster also demonstrates, against Gould, Lankester’s youthful radicalism (though he also critiques his opposition to women’s suffrage much later in life).

Crucially though, it was Lankester’s “thoroughgoing materialism” that mattered to Marx. In this period of his life, Marx was also engaged in compiling his Ethnographic Notebooks that contain much material on scientific and anthropological studies. There is little doubt that his friendship with Lankester would have helped in producing these notes.

Lankester’s conservative positions on women’s suffrage in later life did not prevent him from engaging in debates against eugenics, which was a key part of scientific discourse about biology at the time. He was “incensed when such eugenicist ideas penetrated the general socialist movement”.5 But what is crucial about Lankester is less the specific positions that he took on contemporary political debates and more his dialectical method in scientific questions. Speaking at a conference on science and fisheries in 1883 Lankester challenged the biologist Thomas Huxley. Huxley had opened the event by highlighting the “inexhaustible” fish stocks that could never be entirely depleted, despite the “destruction effected by the fisherman.” By contrast:

Lankester emphasised in great detail the ecological complexity of fisheries and the “interaction of the various organisms.” Indeed, so complex were these relationships that understanding them required detailed knowledge of the “the habits and life-histories of the animals concerned,” including their interactions with all other related species. In Lankester’s assessment, fisheries, due to the lack of scientific knowledge of environmental relationships, were far more destructive to species and entire life systems than was usually supposed.6

It is precisely this dialetical approach to ecology which would have been of interest to Marx. Lankester combined an understanding of the mutual interaction between species at the heart of ecological systems with an appreciation of the impact of human actions upon those systems. A couple of years after his argument with Huxley, he wrote insightfully, “we recklessly seize the produce of the seas, regardless of the consequences of the method, the time or the extent of our depredations”.7

William Morris and the “system of waste”

A grasp of these sorts of dialectical relationships characterise many of the thinkers in this book. As Foster explains:

In various ways, the major socialist thinkers addressed in this book, all of whom were concerned with the social relation to nature, as mediated by science and art via labour and production, came to similar conclusions with respect to the dialectic in history, seeing this as the realm of “freedom as necessity”, in Engels’s sense.8

It is just such a dialectical approach to the relations between nature, labour, art and society that is so crucial to understanding the work of William Morris. Some on the left regard Morris as one of the few socialists to incorporate ecological thought into his work.9 By contrast, Foster argues that Morris’s incorporation of nature into his writing was the result of a “deep reading” of Marx’s writings and an understanding of the alienation from nature experienced by people under capitalism.

Foster claims that Morris arrived at a “similar conception of alienated labour under capitalism” to Marx. It was this understanding that underpinned his views on what labour is under capitalism and what it might become under socialism. This understanding of labour placed the relationship between society and nature at its heart. As Morris wrote in 1888:

The mass of people employed in making all those articles of folly and luxury, the demand for which is the outcome of the existence of the rich non-producing classes… These things, whoever may gainsay me, I will forever refuse to call wealth: they are not wealth, but waste. Wealth is what nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art…all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly and uncorrupted. This is wealth. Nor can I think of anything worth having that does not come under one or other of these heads. But think, I beseech you, of the product of England, the workshop of the world, and will you not be bewildered, as I am, at the thought of the mass of things which no sane man could desire, but which our useless toil makes—and sells?10

Foster states that Morris’s significance is that “more than any other figure within English socialism, he created a distinctive revolutionary vernacular, wedding this to a socialist aesthetic and an ecological consciousness”.11 Certainly Morris’s visions of socialism and his critique of capitalism should appeal today to a new generation of ecologically-minded revolutionaries. Few other radicals in the 1880s were concerned about capitalism’s “system of waste”. As Foster shows, Morris demonstrated a deep understanding of the problems of capitalist production and how it wastes resources and human life. Moreover, contrary to some studies of Morris, Foster argues there is nothing in his writing that suggests a “return to nature” as being a component of the transition to socialism. Instead, Morris believed that socialism would transform humanity’s relations to nature, as was also envisaged in the writings of Marx and Engels.

Friedrich Engels and ecology

The work of Engels is a key part of The Return of Nature. Foster examines how issues of ecology (in their broadest sense) were key to his writing.

Engels’s pioneering 1845 study The Condition of the Working Class in England is often cited as an exemplary analysis of how capitalism destroys the people who work for it.12 It is still possible to visit some of the sites in Manchester graphically described by Engels in his account of the poverty, disease, squalor and environmental degradation that he encountered during his visit between 1842 and 1844. These conditions and the analysis of the system that created them are minutely explored in Engels’s book.

However, reducing Engels’s environmental understanding to this one book misses the way that ecological thinking was central to his life’s work. Foster claims that Engels was an “early exponent of an ecological worldview, and particularly of the dialectical relation between human beings and nature”:

Engels’s view of nature was not a reified one associated with economic categories of capitalist commodity production, where nature was reduced to something to conquer and exploit. Rather, from the start, he recognised the intrinsic value of nature and hence the tragedy of its estrangement under capitalism.13

Foster argues that Engels thus develops a broader sense of the working class:

In focusing on the working class under capitalism in all of its forms—industrial, agricultural, mining—and on the overall environmental conditions of the proletariat, Engels was developing a concept of the working class that was environmental in character, rather than the narrower notion of an industrial proletariat of purely factory workers that was later to prevail among many socialists—and their critics.14

Here, Engels’s ideas mirrored those of Morris. Morris’s vision of socialism, as expounded, for instance, in his novel News from Nowhere, contains a similar broad understanding of workers (and work) that is not simply about industrial production but about productive labour in its wider sense.

Engels’s analysis was heavily dependent on Marx’s theory of the “metabolic rift”. The separation between urban and rural areas under capitalism ruptured the historic relations between people and the natural world. Engels went on to further develop these ideas, but unfortunately left much of this work incomplete at the end of his life.

Foster shows how Engels’s work, however unfinished, remains crucial to a radical understanding of ecology. At the core of The Return of Nature is a study of his dialectical thinking. One key part of this was Engels’s development of a materialist understanding of human evolution. In his 1876 essay “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”, Engels argued that scientists had neglected the role of labour in shaping human evolution. As Foster explains:

Engels, as a dedicated materialist and egalitarian, sought to counter all such views of inherent human inequality with a materialist anthropological approach, emphasising labour as the basis of human self-creation and slavery or servitude as a product of the development of class society… He argued that attempts to explain human evolution by purely biological factors…left out what was most important: the active role of human beings in their self-creation through the transformation of nature and their relation to nature by means of labour.15

Engels also famously extended this critique to an explanation of the development of women’s oppression in society—arguing that this is not rooted in nature, but in concrete historical circumstances.

However, it is Engels’s The Dialectics of Nature that proved most influential for a generation of radical scientific thinkers. This unfinished 1883 work was first published in 1925 in Russian and German but not available in English until 1940. Arriving for English readers in the midst of the Second World War, an incomplete scientific work written in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign ought to have had little impact. Yet for some scientists Engels’s method provided a way of approaching scientific questions that broke free of the tendency to view the world in terms of its component parts. It also challenged the assumption of human domination of nature. The influential communist scientist J D Bernal noted the importance of ecological issues to The Dialectics of Nature, as Foster notes:

A crucial contribution on Engels’s part, Bernal argued, was his critique of notions of human mastery of nature. Bernal quoted from this at length. Engels had powerfully diagnosed the failure of human society to foresee the ecological consequences of its actions—including, in Bernal’s words, “the effect of undesired physical consequence of human interference with nature such as the cutting down of forests and the spreading of deserts”.16

However, it was the question of dialectics that was so important to a generation of 20th century radical scientists. In his ground-breaking book The Social Function of Science, Bernal argued that dialectical thought gave scientists a unique overview of interacting systems: “Dialectical materialism can…do two things: suggest the directions of thought which are likely to be particularly fruitful in results, and integrate and organise different branches of scientific research in relation to one another and to the social processes of which they form a part”.17

Science and communism in the 20th century

A key moment in the development of a left-wing movement within the British scientific community was the 1931 Second International Congress on the History of Science and Technology in London. At short notice, a delegation from the Soviet Union arrived, led by Nikolai Bukharin. At this conference, papers on philosophical and historical ideas presented by Bukharin and others “came to exercise a dominant influence on younger socialist-oriented British scientists”. One scientist, quoted by Foster, gives a sense of the shock and power of the presentations made by the Soviet delegation:

The most remarkable paper delivered at this congress was that of Boris Hessen, on the “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia”. It had never occurred to me, or to most other people, that Newton’s Principia had any social and economic roots… Hessen sketched an outline of the social origins of this greatest of scientific works. The argument of his paper was quite simple, and it was obvious to British historians that there was much relevant information which he did not quote… But the limitation of the scope of Hessen’s knowledge was irrelevant; he was a professor of physics in a Moscow university, not a British historian. It was the penetration of his thought, arising from his command of both mathematical physics and Marxism, that enabled him to reach new depths in the understanding of Newtonian science that intellectually superseded other historical analyses, however much more learned.18

The conference, and the books and papers it produced, would become touchstones for a generation of scientists. Sadly, several of the Soviet delegation, including Bukharin and Hessen, were to become victims of Stalin’s purges within a few years of the conference.

The importance of dialectical ideas to generations of scientists in the 20th century should not overshadow the battles that took place over scientific and political questions in the first half of the century. For instance, Foster documents the struggle by Arthur Tansley, a key figure in biological science, to fight for his ecological science, opposed by right-wing scientists. Prior to the Second World War the influence of right-wing ideas in biology also coalesced around figures like Jan Smuts, the South African general and politician whose holistic views of science masked a virulent racism. Indeed as Foster explains, “in the early 1930s ecology was being promoted by reactionaries as well as radicals and the former seemed to be gaining the upper hand.”

It can be argued that the influence of reactionary science culminated in the use of eugenics by the fascist European regimes and has retreated since then. However, the post-war period has certainly not seen the triumph of radical dialectical thinking within science.19 The Second World War saw a peak in the influence of what Foster calls “Red Scientists”, such as Haldane and Bernal, in Britain. In the post-war period, a radical science movement emerged again in the 1960s, encouraged by the movements against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War. But it is fair to say that today, despite the participation of many working scientists in the environmental movement, we are yet to see the emergence of a similar revolutionary scientific movement.

The absence of such thinking has no doubt undermined the ability of scientists today to challenge the predominant ideological narratives. Political and scientific responses to contemporary environmental crisis usually begin from neoliberal economic approaches such as those preoccupied with the idea of “natural capital” or those that look to technological solutions.20 Not enough scientists take their starting point from a dialectical understanding of the interaction between society and nature. Such an approach is incredibly powerful. Take a point made by J D Bernal in 1954 about industrial agriculture, quoted by Foster:

The success of modern mechanical agriculture and lumbering has been at the expense of ruining a dangerously large proportion of the soil of the planet and of changing its climate unfavourably to almost all forms of life… The destruction of the soil has been enormously accelerated in the last fifty years by the methods characteristic of ruthless capitalist exploitation for immediate profit. The actual destroyers of the soil need not themselves be the capitalists. They may be poor share-cropping farmers who have to secure a large harvest of cash crops in order to prevent themselves from being evicted or Africans driven on to reserves by Europeans who take all the best land. The different causes lead to the same result, and the process is continually accelerating. The less there is in the land, the more it has to be exploited and the worse its condition becomes.21

Today, the scale of the social and environmental catastrophe that we face demands a revolutionary response. It requires an approach that places the society-nature dialectic at the centre of understanding the current, manifold crises of capitalism, and the potential solutions. Foster’s book shows brilliantly that such an approach has existed in the past and must be renewed today. The Return of Nature is both a unique study of that history and a detailed account of the type of ecological thinking that we need in the 21st century. Together with Marx’s Ecology, this book ought to be widely read by socialist and environmental activists as well as within the scientific community.

Martin Empson is the author of Kill all the Gentlemen: Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside (Bookmarks, 2018) and the editor of the book System Change not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis (Bookmarks, 2019).


1 Highlighting the importance of Foster’s work is not intended to downplay or ignore the contributions of other thinkers. For instance, Paul Burkett’s important Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective was published in 1999. Moreover, as both Foster and Burkett have highlighted, there has been a long, though frequently neglected, record of Marxists engaging with ecological ideas in the 20th century. See Foster and Burkett, 2016, pp2-4.

2 Foster, 2020, p22.

3 Gould, 2006, p167.

4 Gould, 2006, p177.

5 Foster, 2020, p53.

6 Foster, 2020, p57.

7 Quoted in Foster, 2020, p58.

8 Foster, 2020, p10.

9 For instance, see Kovel, 2007, p226 and p230.

10 Quoted in Foster, 2020, p104. From “How We Live and How We Might Live” in Morris’s Signs of Change.

11 Foster, 2020, p110.

12 In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and a renewal of Marxist discussions about capitalism, illness and epidemics, Engels’s comments on disease in The Condition of the Working Class in England are of particular interest. Foster also discusses Engels’s 1872 work The Housing Question, which is frighteningly prescient on this subject and others.

13 Foster, 2020, p179.

14 Foster, 2020, p197.

15 Foster, 2020, p272.

16 Foster, 2020, p414-415.

17 Bernal, 2010 [1939], p231.

18 Foster, 2020, p365.

19 As Angela Saini’s recent book Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019) explains, although the Nazi regime and the Holocaust badly damaged the public image of the eugenics movement and “race science”, these phenomena are re-emerging today.

20 On “natural capital” see Rappel, 2018.

21 Foster, 2020, p461.


Bernal, J D, 2010 [1939], The Social Function of Science (Faber & Faber).

Burkett, Paul, 1999, Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (Haymarket).

Foster, John Bellamy, 2020, The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology (Monthly Review).

Foster, John Bellamy and Paul Burkett, 2016, Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique (Brill).

Gould, Stephen Jay, 2006, The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould (Jonathan Cape).

Kovel, Joel, 2007, The Enemy of Nature (Zed).

Rappel, Ian, 2018, “Natural Capital: A Neoliberal Response to Species Extinction”, International Socialism 160 (autumn),