Thursday, October 6, 2011

Marxism's environmental legacy

Dan Sharber looks at the deep connections between Marxist thought and environmentalism.

By Dan Sharber
Socialist Worker
October 6, 2011

ALTHOUGH NOT as popular a charge as it once was, Marxists are sometimes accused of being concerned with economics to the exclusion of environmental concerns. According to some environmentalists and leftists, Marxists praise the domination of nature by man, while leaving environmental problems to be sorted out by some future technological innovation.

Reading Marx, however, tells a different story. In his 1844 political manuscripts, Marx wrote about the link between humans and the natural world:

Physically, man lives only on these products of nature, whether they appear in the form of food, heating, clothes, a dwelling, etc. The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganic body--both inasmuch as nature is (1) his direct means of life, and (2) the material, the object, and the instrument of his life activity. Nature is man's inorganic body--nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature--means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man's physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.

While this may seem esoteric, it is pretty straightforward. Marx simply reasserts what many had known before him, dating back to the writings of Greek philosophers who Marx was familiar with and wrote his doctoral dissertation about: mainly, that we are nature as much as a tree is nature, and that destruction of nature is suicide since it is self-destruction.

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MARX GOES further than that, however, and asserts that not only should we not destroy nature out of some sort of personal self-preservation, but that we also have a responsibility as thinking human beings to safeguard the natural world so that it may be passed on to future generations:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessor, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias.

"Boni patres familias" simply means "good head of household" or someone who would responsibly manage the environment.

Even the Communist Manifesto contains evidence of the importance of ecology to Marx and Engels. Towards the end of the second chapter, they discuss applicable demands, one of which is the "[c]ombination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country."

This "abolition of all distinction" hints at the radical re-imagining of land use that Marx envisioned. We are not talking here about relocating people from cities to the country or things like urban gardens and green space within cities, but an utter and complete change in how we conceive of "urban" and "rural."

Such a demand represents a mind-boggling array of practical changes. From growing agriculture to where it is best suited environmentally to eradicating useless travel by locating people and food near each other. Also implied here is a thoroughgoing recycling where nutrients are returned to the soil from whence they came. Or, stated another way, a repairing of what Marx and Engels called the "metabolic rift."

This rift that Marx and Engels were fond of discussing is the break in the metabolic cycle between what is received from the earth in terms of food and raw materials and what should be (but is not) returned to the earth in terms of waste products that then fertilize and renew the soil. Engels illustrated the rift when he spoke of soil degradation in the English countryside at the same time the city of London was dumping loads of human and animal waste into the Thames River.

Repairing this metabolic rift and maintaining what makes the soil fertile is a notion Marx and Engels repeatedly returned to.

Further evidence of the ecological concerns of Marx and Engels includes Dialectics of Nature, an unfinished manuscript written by Engels. There is much debate about this work (and sadly about Engels' materialism in general) that I will not go into. My point here is only to say, Engels even years after collaborating on the Communist Manifesto, thought deeply about nature.

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NOR DID this concern for the environment stop with Marx and Engels.

The Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin, who arguably had a lot more pressing issues to write about, still found time to discuss manure and soil fertility problems. Lenin, in The Agrarian Question and the "Critics of Marx," stressed the importance of recycling soil nutrients as well as displaying a knowledge of and a concern for the natural environment.

This is a reflection of their understanding of what Marx's view of socialism was all about--a deeply ecological movement where humans lived in harmony--not just with each other, but also with nature. This harmony with nature was not just a happy afterthought, but was integral to Marx's vision of socialism.

To name just a few, fellow socialists William Morris, August Bebel, and Karl Kautsky all made contributions to environmental thought by building on Marx's original works. Socialist Vladmir Vernadsky is largely responsible for popularizing the term "biosphere."

Nikolai Bukharin, a contemporary of Lenin, wrote in his Philosophical Arabesques of the "earth's atmosphere, full of infinitely varied life, from the smallest microorganisms in water, on land and in the air, to human beings. Many people do not imagine the vast richness of these forms, or their direct participation in the physical and chemical processes of nature."

These writings contain a powerfully dialectical view of nature--stressing the interconnectedness of human beings and their environment--and were considered by Bukharin to be his most important work.

As leading environmental socialist John Bellamy Foster, the author of Marx's Ecology, has said, "It is even possible to argue that ecological science had its genesis almost entirely in the work of thinkers on the left be they socialist, social democratic or anarchist."

With capitalism regarded by many as utterly incompatible with sustainability and environmental conservation, Marxism is pro-environment simply by being anti-capitalist. However, the environmental core of Marxism has been there since the beginning and as Marxists we should be proud of our inherited accomplishments.

We should take pride in the fact that, whether we knew it or not, socialists have always been fighting for a world where human beings are alienated from neither our labor nor our natural environment.

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