Marxism and the Earth: A defence of the classical tradition

Issue: 153

Martin Empson

A review of John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique (Brill/Haymarket, 2016), £21.99

Marxist analyses of the natural world have been the focus of intense debate recently, and the publication of any book that further explores what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels thought about the subject is something to be welcomed. John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett have proven track records of writing some of the clearest books on the subject, and while Marx and the Earth is not a specific response to some of their recent critics, it is an important defence of Marx’s and Engels’s original work.*

The authors call their work an “anti-critique”, in the vein of books such as Engels’s Anti-Dühring, as a way of reasserting and developing their core arguments in the context of a defence of the original work. As they write: “We have gradually come to see our own efforts to define a historical materialist ecology, in opposition to those ecosocialists who want to dump the greater part of the classical Marxist legacy, as taking on the overall character of an anti-critique” (pix). As such the book systematically examines the work of those who have critiqued (and in some cases tried to develop) the work of Marx and Engels on ecological questions.

The authors’ starting point is very clear. They argue that at the heart of classical Marxism is an “absolute general law of environmental degradation under capitalism” but that this is not simply an economic rule. The degradation of the natural world is a dialectical counterpart to the “general law of capital accumulation” but could not be reduced down “to the internal logic of capital accumulation”. While this allows capitalists to separate the environmental crises caused by capitalism from their economic system, some Marxists fell into the same trap.

The authors point to James O’Connor’s concept of “the second contradiction of capitalism”, where the ability of capitalism to accumulate wealth is itself undermined by environmental degradation. The problem with this approach is that it sees environmental problems only through the prism of the economic realities of capital. But the environmental crises caused by capitalism, from the sixth mass extinction and the biodiversity crisis to the problems of nuclear waste, oceanic dead zones and climate change, are issues that stretch far beyond the undermining of production under capitalism.

In contrast, the historical materialist approach puts the dialectical relationship between humans and nature at the heart of history. It sees environmental problems as arising out of that relationship, but under capitalism they are exacerbated because of the way that the system is driven by accumulation for the sake of accumulation. The outcome of this approach is that the only path to a sustainable society is one that transforms our relationship to nature, so that, as Marx said in Capital, volume 3, “private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men”.

This general approach has, in no small part due to the work of the authors of this book, become generally accepted by the Marxist left. However, there have been some important critiques of the ecological content of Marx’s and Engels’s work, with some arguing that they failed to develop an ecological approach. This book seeks to address these in order to strengthen classical Marxism’s analysis of environmental questions. These debates are, it must be said, of a highly specific nature which means the authors must delve deep both into the works of Marx and Engels and their critics. The key arguments taken up by Foster and Burkett are the distinction between organic and inorganic nature in some of Marx’s writings, the question of energy and the laws of thermodynamics and how they pertain to the question of production, the question of entropy and finally Marx’s reproduction schemes. Here I want to focus on one particular aspect of these debates as it illustrates the authors’ approach well in defending classical Marxism. This is the question of energy.

As a result of the invention of the steam engine, scientific interest in questions of heat and energy dramatically increased in the 19th century. Scores of scientists published books and papers on the subject, and Marx and Engels displayed a keen interest in these; both attended lectures and debated the latest scientific ideas. Despite this, a number of authors, such as James O’Connor and the Spanish economist Joan Martinez-Alier, have suggested that Marx neglected the energy question.

In his influential 1987 book Ecological Economics Martinez-Alier noted the pioneering work of the Ukrainian socialist Sergei Podolinsky, who attempted to link the labour theory of value to the laws of thermodynamics, and suggested that Marx and Engels had responded negatively and thence ignored Podolinsky’s work. For Martinez-Alier this was the origin of “the Marxist neglect of ecology” (p90).

Podolinsky was a fascinating activist whose early death likely robbed the socialist movement of many interesting writings. In a series of articles developing the themes of human labour, socialism and energy, “Podolinsky tried to use the new thermodynamic perspective to develop an agricultural energetics, combining elements from physics, physiology, and Marxian economics. His goal was to explore the centrality of human labour to the accumulation of energy on Earth” (p99).

Two of Podolinsky’s articles on this subject are helpfully reproduced as appendices to Marx and the Earth, and while they show an admirable attempt to link Marxism with the emerging theories of thermodynamics, they are limited in this by both a limited grasp of the science and a problematic approach which sees value in the Marxist sense as being reduced to energy. In contrast, as the authors point out, for Marx value is a material-social relation that arises out of human social relations in interaction with the natural world.

Foster and Burkett critically explore Podolinsky’s work to show that Marx and Engels had read it and discussed it and that Marx had made detailed notes on the material. By comparing published editions, they argue that Martinez-Alier’s criticisms of Marx don’t stand up. For instance, the version of Podolinsky’s manuscript read by Marx was missing the sections that are usually seen as most useful to value theory.

Foster and Burkett argue that Marx’s whole approach took questions of contemporary science very seriously:

Because Marx’s dialectical conception of value gives it from the very start a twofold character, both use value and exchange value, which together constitute commodity relations. Use value incorporates the conditions of production and in particular the natural-material properties embodied in production that are universal prerequisites. Exchange value, in contrast, is concerned with the enhancement of economic surplus value for the capitalist… Marx’s method is never to ignore either part of this dialectic but to analyse their developing relations and contradictions together. Hence, every chapter of Capital addresses conditions related to physics and economics (p138).

Marx and the Earth is a rigorous defence of Marx’s and Engels’s engagement with wider scientific ideas that are of importance to ecology. But because it also reasserts how Marx puts the dialectical interaction between society and the natural world at the heart of his ideas, the book highlights the strength of a Marxist approach for understanding modern environmental crises. As Marxism and ecology is once again a subject for debate on the left, this is an important defence of the core ideas of the classical tradition.

Martin Empson is the treasurer of the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union group and the author of Land and Labour: Marxism, Ecology and Human History.

* Jason W Moore’s recent book Capitalism and the Web of Life, reviewed by Jean Parker in this issue, is in large part a critique of the approach developed by Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster in many of their writings on Marxism and ecology.