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Marxism and ecology


Clearly there is a growing recognition on the left that capitalism’s degradation of nature is in imminent danger of causing civilizational collapse. However, given the tragic loss of ecological thinking suffered by Marxism for much of the 20th century, and not only in the cancerous form of Stalinism, but with Trotskyism and Cliffism too, this ‘greening’ of the left is bound to be highly contradictory.

Undoubtedly, there are many comrades on the left, who, like us, have rediscovered the extraordinarily rich heritage of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. As shown by writers such as John Bellamy Foster (Marx’s Ecology 2000) and Paul Burckett (Marx and Nature 1999) the Marx-Engels team took a keen interest in the science of their day and developed profound insights into environmental problems. In Capital Marx famously urged the future communist society to take care of the earth like “boni patres familias” (good heads of the household) and “hand it down to succeeding generations” in an “improved condition”.

On the other hand, there remains a strong suspicion that many leftwing sects are simply jumping onto another bandwagon in a desperate attempt to gain recruits. This involves a crude adaptation to green ideology, which in the last analysis reflects the concerns, methods and limitations of petty bourgeois radicalism.

The working class presents the only viable alternative to the destructive reproduction of capital. First as a countervailing force within capitalism: its own logic pulls against that of capital. The political economy of the working class brings with it not only higher wages and shorter hours. It is responsible for health services, social security systems, pensions, universal primary and secondary education … and measures that protect the environment. Wealth, for the working class, is not merely about the accumulation and consumption of an ever greater range of commodities.
Besides being of capitalism, the working class is uniquely opposed to capitalism. The political economy of the working class more than challenges capital. As we argue, it points beyond - to the total reorganisation of society and, with that, the ending of humanity’s strained, brutalised and crisis-ridden relationship with nature.

Socialism and communism do not raise the workers to the position where they own the planet. Mimicking the delusions associated with capitalism - as witnessed under bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union - brings constant disappointment, ecological degradation and the certain revenge of nature. Humanity can only be the custodian.

Marx was amongst the first to theorise human dependence on nature and the fact that humanity and nature co-evolves. He warned, however, that a metabolic “rift” had occurred which threatened the nature-imposed conditions of human existence. Capitalism crowds vast numbers into polluted, soulless, crime-ridden concrete jungles. Simultaneously, the ever bigger farms of capitalist agriculture denude nature with mono-crops, the ripping up of hedgerows and, as highlighted by Rachel Carson back in the early 1960s, the chemical death meted out to “birds, mammals, fishes, and indeed practically every form of wildlife”.

The Marx-Engels team wanted to re-establish an intimate connection between town and country, agriculture and industry, and rationally redistribute the population. Doubtless, this programme has little practical relevance to capitalist society, which, because of its short-termism and manic fixation on generating profits, is incapable of carrying through such far-reaching measures. But under conditions of socialism and communism such ideas will surely be put into practice.

Articles from the Weekly Worker

Series on Malthusianism (2006)

Greenism and neo-Malthusian pseudo-science

In the first of three articles Jack Conrad argues that the global ecological crisis cannot be explained by crude overpopulation theories. Each social formation has its own laws, including laws of population

Contours of green thought

Greenism is hobbled by two fundamental faults. It cannot tame capitalism, nor does it offer a realistic way of superseding capitalism. Jack Conrad explores its limitations

Darker shades of green

Jack Conrad questions the romantic images presented by green primitives and cautions against the seductive lures of ecofascism

Series on Marx and ecology

Marx and ecology

In the first of three articles, Michael Malkin examines the relationship between humanity and nature in the thought of Karl Marx

Marx and ecology - part two

Michael Malkin continues his three-part examination of the relationship between humanity and nature in Marx's thought

Marx and ecology - part three

As we have seen, Marx emphasised the symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature.

Reviews and interviews

The only answer is revolution

The book Marx's ecology - materialism and nature by John Bellamy Foster does much to reclaim a lost tradition of ecological thinking in Marxism. As CPGB comrades in London draw towards to the end of an extensive series of seminars based on this work, Mark Fischer spoke to the author about the relationship of red and green

Natural insights

Derek Wall, a founder member of Green Revolution, the socialist platform in the Green Party of England and Wales, reviews Nikolai Bukharin Philosophical Arabesques Pluto Press, 2005, pp407, £35