Marx and the robbery of the soil and the worker

Issue: 163

Camilla Royle

A review of Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (Monthly Review Press, 2017), £22.32

Kohei Saito’s book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism is based on extensive and ­painstaking research.1 As well as Marx’s published works, Saito makes use of notebooks that Marx kept on science and agriculture and that have only recently been made available. He argues that ecological questions were central to Marx’s worldview and defends a version of ecosocialism based on the notion of metabolism, and using the Marxist tools of value theory, contradiction and alienation.

Marx published relatively little in his lifetime on environmental questions. And societies that claimed to be based on Marxist principles, including the Soviet Union, often had disastrous environmental records. This led some environmental activists in the 20th century, including those on the left, to conclude that Marxism was lacking in its attention to environmental destruction and consequently that the ecological revolution would still need to be fought after the socialist revolution. However, at the turn of the century, writers such as John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett did much to counter this view by highlighting the ecological core of Marx’s own thinking.2

Thanks in large part to their work, we now know that Marx took an interest in the environmental debates of his day and that he studied various works by natural scientists, especially Justus von Liebig, the father of agricultural chemistry, whose books he read multiple times. According to Saito, half of the detailed notes Marx kept in the last 15 years of his life concern the natural sciences. Marx was doing this research at the same time as working on his critique of political economy and was, according to Saito, attempting to integrate the two. However, this ambitious attempt to produce an account that combined economics and natural science slowed him down in terms of publishing any of his findings; it was one reason why Marx only completed the first volume of Capital for publication during his lifetime.3 The unpublished notes are now becoming available to scholars as part of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2) project. This mammoth undertaking—started in 1975 and still ongoing—aims to publish all the known work of Marx and Friedrich Engels.4

Labour, metabolism and alienation

Foster’s particular contribution was to develop an understanding of ecological destruction based on Marx’s comments on “metabolism” in Capital.5 Human beings, like all living things, must exist in a metabolic relationship with their surroundings in order to survive. At its most basic, metabolism means that we all need to eat and drink and expel waste products into the environment. It is a constant and dynamic process.6

Humans are different from other animals in that we transform our environments in a conscious and teleological way (ie directed towards a purpose) through labour.7 But, with the separation of humans from the land with modernity, our ability to control our own labour and therefore our metabolism was taken from us. 8 This created what Marx refers to as an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism”, often shorted to “metabolic rift”.9 This initial separation consequently allowed for people to become “free” workers, selling their labour power to a boss for a wage. It was therefore a “historical and logical presupposition for the emergence of the capitalist mode of production”.

In Britain this historical process was closely associated with the migration of humans into cities and the irrational relationship cities had with the surrounding countryside. As Ian Angus explains, in 16th and 17th century Britain, residents of towns collected excrement (euphemistically referred to as “night soil”) and transported it to the countryside to be used on their own farmland or sold to local farmers. Later, workers could make a steady income by collecting and selling the valuable soil to farmers. But over time cities grew to such a size that the population and the distance to the countryside made this practice unprofitable. As Marx and Engels both observed, the build-up of excrement in cities such as London reached catastrophic levels. It filled streets and seeped through the floors of workers’ houses and inundated their basements. Typhus and cholera reached terrifying levels. In 1848, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers employed workers to flush the sewage into the Thames, which almost certainly made the cholera epidemic worse, killing 14,000 people in a few months and causing the Great Stink of 1858.10 Technological efforts to solve the problem had merely shifted it elsewhere.

This arrangement not only polluted the river but at the same time left the fields unfertilised. Indeed, the problem of soil fertility in the 19th century got so acute that the battlefields of Europe were raided for bones and small islands of the coast of Peru were annexed to gain control of guano from seabirds—both bonemeal and guano were very effective as fertilisers. By 1859 the amount of guano imported to England alone reached 286,000 tons per year. This not only decimated the supply but involved the exploitation of indentured Chinese labourers and the brutal oppression of indigenous south American people. The industry also undermined its own conditions of production. Extracting guano from rocky islands destroyed seabirds’ nests and reduced their numbers which affected the supply of excrement itself.11 The metabolic rift had widened ­geographically and came to involve an element of colonial domination.

Liebig described this as a “raubsystem” or robbery system. He pointed out that the situation was unsustainable because it relied on adding nutrients from sources that would soon be exhausted. For Marx, this was a symptom of human alienation from the natural world. Saito adds that estrangement of humans from the land existed “to some extent” in earlier, feudal societies. However, there is a qualitative difference between feudalism and capitalism. Feudalism still remains characterised by “unity of producers from the land” and by a personal relationship between the lord and serfs maintained by allegiance and duty as well as coercion. In capitalism the land becomes a commodity, and the workers are also alienated from the land and their own labour power.12 This is significant because some theorists such as world-ecologist Jason W Moore tend to see “appropriation”, including the extraction of oil and coal and the exhaustion of fertile soils at the geographical frontiers of the capitalist world system, as the cause of ecological degradation, even if such appropriation is ultimately inseparable from capitalist social relations at the core.13 By contrast, Moore’s critics point out that appropriation as such took place in earlier societies and would presumably still exist with socialism; people would still extract resources in some form, for example, by growing food. Therefore, Kamran Nayeri points out that Moore’s thinking departs significantly from Marx’s project of trying to ascertain what is unique about the capitalist mode of production.14

The advantage of theories based on metabolic rift for Marxists is that they show how the corruption of the natural environment is intrinsically linked to the alienation and exploitation of workers. These theories suggest that in a society where humans gain control over our own labour power, we could also hope to develop a more sustainable relationship with the rest of the biosphere.

How did Marx’s view change?

Saito’s work continues in the tradition of Foster and others. He makes a strong argument that ecological questions were central, rather than secondary, to Marx’s worldview. Instead of starting out with a study of political economy and attempting to graft on the issue of the relationship with nature afterwards, the question of how humans organise to fulfil their basic needs by appropriating from nature was the starting point for Marx’s analysis. The relationship between capital and nature was “the central contradiction of capitalism”. Saito says: “It is not possible to comprehend the full scope of his political economy if one ignores its ecological dimension”.15

But as well as confirming the ecological sensibility within Marx’s thought, Saito aims to show how Marx’s ideas changed during his own lifetime: “Despite the appearance in the last 15 years or so of a number of pathbreaking studies of Marx’s ecological thought, such studies were unable to throw sufficient light on the actual evolutionary process in which Marx’s critique of modern agriculture emerged during his decades-long attempt to complete Capital.16 He demonstrates how Marx was willing to change his position as he read more, developing his understanding by engaging with the work of specialists in the natural sciences.

Some Marxists such as Louis Althusser have argued that there was an “epistemological break” in Marx’s thought. According to this view he initially embraced the philosophy of the Young Hegelians17 and took an interest in the problem of alienation. But he later abandoned this approach entirely, criticising the Hegelians in The German Ideology and adopting a more “scientific” outlook in order to embark on his economic work.18 For Saito, thinkers such as Althusser overemphasise this shift by treating it as a break. If we accept that Marx changed his ideas throughout his lifetime it does not necessarily follow that there was a radical break between his earlier approach and his later work. On the contrary, Saito shows how Marx was able to build on his earlier work on alienation later in his career. Martin Empson points out that “there is no break between the early Marx and his later thinking, but rather a development of his approach and ideas. While this has always been acknowledged in accounts of Marx’s economic writings, it has not been recognised that this is also true of his thinking on the natural world”.19

However, Marx did shift his position away from Young Hegelian philosophy. For the Young Hegelians, particularly Ludwig Feuerbach, the key question was to restore the unity between humanity and nature. But in The German Ideology (written in 1845) Marx and Engels criticise Feuerbach on the basis that he has an abstract and ahistorical view of both “man” and nature. He has a notion of “nature as such”, isolated from human activity, but this doesn’t actually exist.20 For example, Feuerbach saw the “essence” of a freshwater fish as the water in which it swims. But, Marx asks, what happens when the river flows through an industrial town and becomes polluted with dye from the factories? (Perhaps this example came from Engels who was very interested in the pollution from dye works in the river Wupper near his family home).21 All Feuerbach can say is that the polluted water is wrong or abnormal and clean water must be restored. But this is not enough. Feuerbach’s philosophy does not allow him to ask questions about how the water came to be polluted in the first place. This would require a recognition of the specific social relations involved, in this case we might argue that industrial capitalism in places such as Britain and parts of Germany was already causing water pollution.

The debate underlines that when we talk about “nature” we need to be concrete about which nature and recognise that nature has been modified throughout history, including by human activity, in different types of society. There is no pure thing called nature that remains constant and that we can go back to. Likewise, humans are conditioned by the social relations in which they find themselves and a quest to discover a pure “human essence” will be fruitless. Therefore, Marx was turning to a historical and materialist understanding of the process through which society and nature relate rather than repeating the ahistorical abstractions offered by the Young Hegelians.22 Again, this suggests that as Marx began to distance himself from Young Hegelian thought, he came to differentiate what was specific about capitalist society as compared with other societies such as feudalism.23

In one interesting section of Saito’s book, he highlights Marx’s materialism by explaining that Marx read work by a contemporary German physiologist, Carl Gustav Carus. Using the concept of metabolism, Carus pointed out that the human body renews itself completely every few years. But, importantly, different types of organs renew themselves at different rates. Blood cells renew themselves relatively quickly, while bone renewal is a slower process. Marx drew a comparison to the way in which, in a factory for example, there is a distinction between fixed capital and circulating capital. It is possible perhaps to compare the blood with raw cotton that comes into the factory and leaves as woven goods at a fast rate (circulating capital) and the bones with the wooden or metal machinery (fixed capital), which does wear out and needs to be replaced but this circulatory process occurs at a slower rate.24

As Marx puts it in the Grundrisse, “the distinction between ‘fixed capital’ and circulating capital’” is a “merely formal distinction”.25 However, there are constraints on the form that a particular material can take. Not all ­materials can become part of the fixed capital, only those that are fairly durable. Therefore, Saito points to a regard for the material properties of things found in Marx. This also shows that there is a contradiction within capitalism between economic form and material substance. From the point of view of capital only the circulation of value is of interest, but this circulation process is determined and constrained by the types of raw material available and their properties.

As well as 19th century scientists such as Carus, Saito also introduces us to the contribution of Japanese thinkers in Marxist political economy, particularly Samezō Kuruma (1893-1982) and his student Teinosuke Ōtani. Saito’s engagement with these thinkers is welcome because readers in Europe or North America are unlikely to be familiar with their writings.26

Kuruma followed Marx in highlighting how capitalism is characterised by a division of labour whereby producers work independently of each other to produce commodities. Only after those commodities have been produced and put into the market does it become possible for those private producers to relate to each other as they attempt to exchange their goods with each other (in the hope that they have produced something useful to someone else). In essence, human relationships are mediated via commodities.27 A more rational system of production would presumably invert this—starting out by mutually deciding what is useful to human wellbeing and then producing that, so the production of goods would be subordinated to human needs and desires.

Saito refers to the contribution of the Kuruma School as an important interpretation of Marx. It is strange therefore that only a few pages in this book deal with their work. It would be useful to hear more from Saito about why these theories are distinctive from other theories of reification.28

Soil fertility and climate change

The second half of Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism deals in more detail with questions of soil fertility and Marx’s engagement with Liebig and the debates around Liebig’s work. Most notably, Saito shows how, when Marx first started to investigate these questions (in around 1850-51), he did not appreciate that soil can become exhausted and that yields will decline each year. He supposed that, by applying labour and introducing irrigation and fertiliser, any loss of fertility could be overcome. Saito supposes that this view was attractive to Marx, both because it counters the Malthusian assumption that overpopulation will always lead to disaster and because human labour would be key to the solution.29

Marx changed his view partly because Liebig’s own position also changed. Liebig was a proponent of the “mineral theory” of agriculture as opposed to the “nitrogen theory”. He proposed that plants only need minerals such as phosphoric acid to be applied because they receive enough nitrogen from the air. These minerals could be artificially produced in factories. It is useful to note here that Liebig was also a capitalist who attempted—unsuccessfully—to patent his own artificial manure so he had a financial interest in the success of mineral theory. At this point Liebig suggested that any limit to agricultural production could be overcome. But, as Saito argues:

This naïve neglect of natural limits in agricultural production reflects nothing but the arrogance of modern science, which treats natural characteristics and properties as passive mediums that humans can arbitrarily modify. When new technology can transform this passive nature freely, in accordance with our needs, there is no need for a serious ecological investigation.30

This serious ecological investigation came later with the theory of robbery agriculture mentioned above. Liebig moved away from his earlier optimistic view and came to recognise that farmers’ drive to maximise production and increase their profits was leading to an increase in crops from the soil but without nutrients being fully replaced.31 It was the driver of the twin crises of urban pollution and soil degradation. Marx built on this analysis, further arguing that a capitalist system that treats only abstract labour as a source of value and systematically fails to recognise the contribution of other sources of wealth will necessarily open such a metabolic rift.

Marx had come to recognise that there are material “limits” to the extent to which soils can be used in agriculture such as those imposed by soil type. As with the Carus example above, material properties are important. However, this is not a return to the idea that population growth is the problem. Instead it is a criticism of “robbery agriculture”. Importantly, robbery is not common to all types of agriculture, but is “a specific problem of modern capitalist production”.32

In a final chapter, Saito discusses Marx’s engagement with Carl Nikolaus Fraas, who differed from Liebig in that he emphasised the effect on soil of physical processes—such as temperature and humidity—rather than ­chemical processes.33 Fraas was also aware that the cultivation of plants changes the climate, at least on a local scale, with deforestation leading to hotter and dryer conditions, which in turn causes plant species to change their range, moving further towards the poles (this is widely recognised by ecologists today). These climatic changes had devastated ancient civilisations, for example the population of Greece had started to decline in around 700BC due to desertification. Marx added that this process had accelerated in his own time.34 Although he may not have been aware of global climate change caused by the greenhouse effect, as we are today, Marx was becoming aware of the extent to which human action could transform environments over time, potentially threatening human existence itself.

Saito makes a strong argument for the centrality of metabolism to Marx’s critique of political economy. But this is likely to be controversial with those who question the emphasis on metabolism in the writings of Foster and colleagues. Some argue that the concept has been over-emphasised at the expense of other areas of fruitful Marxist ecological investigation. For example, Salvatore Engel di-Mauro agrees in general about the importance of Marx for ecological thinkers. He says that both Foster and Saito should be praised for demolishing the view that Marx was disinterested in environmental questions. But, he contends, this does not make Marx an authority on ecology. If he was, why did contemporary natural scientists such as Ray Lankester not reference Marx in their own writings on ecological subjects? He wonders then whether metabolism was more of a side interest for Marx, perhaps something he read about, was deeply interested in and occasionally raided for examples to make particular points, but not something that was fundamental to his economic project.35

By contrast, Saito argues Marx’s understanding of metabolism should be treated as integral to his understanding of capitalism and as related to his value theory.36 He even goes as far as to say that Capital, Marx’s major achievement, is a theory of metabolism.

Engel di-Mauro contends that socialists should develop their knowledge of the actual biophysical processes involved in soil science, rather than treating soil itself as a background on which capitalism acts: “There is little prospect in social theory for explaining how capitalistic practices impact soils without learning about soils themselves”.37 It is evident to all that Foster, Saito and colleagues are interested in science. Foster, for example, has worked closely with various natural scientists and published their writing.38 But, for some of their critics, they don’t fully embrace the focus on processes, dynamics and complexity that the biophysical sciences are increasingly leaning towards.39

Furthermore, the emphasis on separation, on “ruptures” and “rifts” in metabolic processes in the writings of Foster and others40 has led to them being accused of making the unfounded presumption that biophysical systems exist in a state of harmony and balance unless they are disturbed by the influence of capitalism.41 Instead Engel di-Mauro emphasises that such systems exist in a mutually constitutive relationship with humans, who are also part of nature. Similarly, Moore argues that the metabolic rift school see nature as something that is simply acted upon by humans. It endows humans with the ability to ­“disrupt” the biosphere or create a rift in the metabolism of humanity and nature, while non-humans are not seen as possessing the same agency. Therefore, such theories tend to play down the qualities and capacities of elements of non-human nature.42

Related to this, one notable omission in Saito’s book is the work of Engels. As Engel di-Mauro points out, Engels is more often associated with science and nature and with an evolving, dialectical understanding, than Marx. Engels studied the natural sciences closely and corresponded with scientists, even starting to write a Dialectics of Nature, although this unfinished work was not published until after his death.43 Much earlier, Engels was also key to sparking the young Marx’s interest in questions of political economy. Saito makes much of The German Ideology and the critique of Feuerbach within it, which suggests that Marx did not see nature as something that can be understood outside of its relationship to human activity. But, of course, this text was co-written by both Marx and Engels and the argument is developed further in Engels’s independent work on nature.44

Saito’s book is based on a careful reading of Marx’s notes which is a ­mammoth task in itself. So it is understandable that he focuses just on Marx. But it would be useful to know more about what he thinks of Marx’s intellectual relationship with Engels beyond hints that there are “important differences” between them.45

The metabolism debate will certainly continue. But, although engaging in an ongoing dispute among ecological Marxists doesn’t seem to be Saito’s main purpose, his work anticipates and answers some of the criticisms of the metabolism sceptics. Indeed, the Marx he presents, who was fascinated by the soil science debates of his day and recognised the importance of the material properties of soil, suggests that metabolic rift theory is not just an account of human action on a passive natural world. Moore has criticised metabolic rift theorists for failing to integrate their economic theory with their ecological understanding and therefore taking a “dualist” approach.46 However, Saito’s work would seem to suggest that it is possible to integrate the two, although since in this case it is metabolism that provides the coupling between economics and natural science, this is probably not how Moore would go about integrating them.

Debates aside, Saito’s book is a formidable achievement. By making Marx’s work available in this book, he has led a huge leap forward in scholarly understanding of his thought. The book has rightly been awarded the prestigious Deutscher Prize. It is a complex work and not an easy read. Nevertheless, it deserves to be closely studied. Saito’s work shows how capitalism distorts the relationship between humanity and nature. It adds weight to the conclusion, increasingly raised within the environmental movement, that we need system change to rebuild a rational relationship with the natural world.

Camilla Royle is a PhD graduate from King’s College London and a contributor to System Change, not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis (Bookmarks, 2019).


1 Thanks to Alex Callinicos and Joseph Choonara for their comments and advice.

2 Foster, 2000; Burkett, 1999. Saito’s book is published by Monthly Review Press, associated with the journal of the same name that Foster edits. Foster played a key role in publishing the book.

3 Saito, 2017, p68.

4 Saito was able to read some of the notebooks in German as he has been involved in editing them for the MEGA2 project. Alex Callinicos notes that the publication of the MEGA2 has facilitated various recent scholarly studies of Marx, Saito’s book is just one example—Callinicos, 2018, p37.

5 Particularly volume 3, see Foster and Clark, 2018.

6 Angus, 2018.

7 Saito, 2017, p101.

8 Saito, 2017, pp45-47. In his brief comments on modernity, Saito defines it as the separation of producers from the land. This occurred in places such as Britain when agriculture was monopolised by large owners and peasants were physically driven from the land. This separation then created the conditions for capitalism to appear rather than vice versa. Saito therefore implies that modernity is different from capitalism, defined by exploitation of a class of “free” workers, although if one is the precondition for the other, they are clearly related.

9 Quoted in Foster and Clark, 2018. See also the explanation in Empson, 2016.

10 Angus, 2018. Cholera is a water-borne disease but in the 19th century it was widely thought to be caused by bad smells or miasma in the air, hence the misguided emphasis on washing away the cause of the smell.

11 Saito, 2017, pp203-205.

12 Saito, 2017, pp39-40.

13 Moore, 2015, pp70-73.

14 Nayeri, 2016.

15 Saito, 2017, pp14 and 19.

16 Saito, 2017, p178.

17 Young Hegelian or Left Hegelian philosophers were followers of GWF Hegel who looked to the radical potential of Hegel’s ideas after his death. They were active in Germany in the 1830s and early 1840s.

18 See Saito, 2017, p27.

19 Empson, 2018.

20 Saito, 2017, p59.

21 Engels, 1839.

22 Saito, 2017, pp60-61.

23 Saito, 2017, pp57-58.

24 Saito, 2017, pp88-90.

25 Quoted in Saito, 2017, p92.

26 Although Kuruma’s work has recently been published in English in the Historical Materialism book series—Kuruma and Schauerte, 2019.

27 Saito, 2017, pp104-106.

28 Where relations between humans are turned into relations between things.

29 Saito, 2017, pp179-180.

30 Saito, 2017, p195.

31 Saito, 2017, p198.

32 Saito, 2017, p186.

33 Saito, 2017, p231.

34 Saito, 2017, pp248-249.

35 Engel di-Mauro, 2014, p135. Engel di-Mauro is the editor-in-chief of the influential journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism.

36 Saito, 2017, pp99-100.

37 Engel di-Mauro, 2014, pxii.

38 Ted Benton, Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, Fred Magdoff, Rob Wallace and many others with scientific training have contributed to Monthly Review.

39 Engel di-Mauro, 2014, pp134-137. In the same chapter, Engel di-Mauro also less convincingly berates the eco-socialist author/activist Chris Williams for being so overly focussed on climate change that he includes a whole chapter on the subject in his 2010 book!

40 These critiques predate the publication of Saito’s book.

41 White, Gareau and Rudy, 2016.

42 Moore, 2017, p299.

43 Royle, 2014.

44 For example, in “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”—Engels, 1934.

45 Saito, 2017, p17.

46 Moore, 2017.


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