Karl Marx

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Karl Marx, economist and philosopher, is generally regarded as the founder of modern communism as well as a major influence on socialist theory. He was born in Trier, the son of a lawyer, and studied law and philosophy at Bonn and Berlin. After a lively and short-lived career in political journalism he sought refuge first in Paris and then in London, where he was supported financially in a life of impoverished scholarship by Friedrich Engels, with whom he collaborated extensively in his writings. He worked in the British Museum on his great study of the principles of capitalism, Das Kapital; it was unfinished at his death and completed by Engels from the notes that Marx left.

At the heart of Marx's thinking lies an acute sense of the damage done to human life and the human spirit by social and economic conditions, conditions which were not new but which had been exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution, as the quotation above indicates. Marx saw the rapid growth of capitalist economy as achieved by exploitation: the exploitation of one social class (the proletariat, roughly the 'working classes') by another (the bourgeoisie or owners of capital, such as the owners of mills and factories). Under these conditions all values and relations, including environmental ones, become subordinated to monetary or commercial ones: there occurs what we would now call the triumph of market values. Marx regarded this as the cause of alienation, of a great gulf that estranges man from nature, from himself and his own vitality, and from his fellow-man. His ambition was to free humankind from narrow utilitarian and commercially inspired desires and help us to 're-humanise' our senses.

This acute sense of the alienating properties of capitalism, which requires us to engage in what Marx called labour, as opposed to productive and fulfilling work, remains one of his most enduring achievements. The connection he drew between these properties and the estrangement of humankind from the natural world is the principal reason for his continuing importance to thinking about the environment.

Marx's view of the moral standing of the natural world (a concept that would probably have struck him as wholly obscure), and of our relationship to it, is equivocal. In places he directly criticizes the exploitation of nature by humankind. In one essay1 he writes that 'The view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature', and in the same essay he approvingly quotes Thomas Munzer as declaring it intolerable 'that all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free'. It is usual to attribute this kind of view exclusively to the early Marx; nevertheless, in the relatively late third volume of Das Kapital, written between 1863 and 1883, he is still insisting that we are not the owners of the planet, whether 'we' here are construed as a society or a nation or 'even all simultaneously existing societies taken together'. We are only 'its possessors, its usufructuaries', and 'must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition'.

When he writes like this Marx can appear to hold a 'stewardship' view of our responsibilities to the ecosphere. Sometimes he sounds as holistic as any modern Green could wish: 'Man lives from nature— i.e., nature is his body—and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man's physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.'2 The method of 'dialectical materialism' typical of later Marxist thought (it is necessary to be cautious here: Marx never used the phrase, though he often wrote of 'dialectics') also appears to promise a kind of holism. Thinking that is dialectical, in Marx's sense, is impressed by the non-static nature of things and the propensity of any state of affairs to generate contradictions and opposite states, a tension out of which new and often better conditions emerge. Hence later Marxists often welcome contradictions and conflicts as a sign that social evolution is occurring; sometimes their welcome extends to denying that it is logically impossible to maintain directly contradictory propositions (for example, that nothing can be both completely white and completely black at the same time). There is a clear connection here with the modern complaint that binary thinking (yes or no, black or white, 1 or 0) is at the root of the techno-rationalism that fuels our ecological ills. Engels, rather than Marx, makes explicit the relationship between dialectics and respect for nature, meaning here by 'metaphysics' roughly what we would now call binary thinking: 'Dialectics, on the other hand, comprehends things and their representations, ideas, in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin and ending.. .Nature is the proof of dialectics. Nature works dialectically and not metaphysically.'3

Marx himself sometimes appears to regret the 'disenchantment' of the world that comes from the increasing gulf between the natural world and humankind: it is this gulf that he believes communism will bridge, this conflict (among many others) that it will resolve. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature, and between man and man, the true resolution of the conflict between existence and being, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species. It is the solution of the riddle of history.'4

It would however be a mistake to attribute to Marx on the basis of remarks such as these any great degree of environmental sensitivity as we would now understand it. First, this almost romantic strain in his thinking is at odds with the far more central and dominant materialist strain. It is more typical of the mature Marx to repudiate any notion of mystical or spiritual unity between humankind and nature as an expression of false consciousness, a manifestation of the 'superstructure' put in place by priests and others in order to secure their own power base. He writes that nature 'first appears to men as a completely alien, all-powerful and unassailable force, with which men's relations are purely animal and by which they are overawed like beasts':5 thus we need to be liberated from such a superstitious view of nature as much as from any other kind of mystification. Disenchantment then is the name of our cure, not of our disease.

Second, Marx's labour theory of value makes it clear that nature is not to be understood as having any intrinsic worth: nature acquires worth insofar as it is transformed by human work. It is, otherwise, simply nothing: 'nature, too, taken abstractly, for itself, and fixed in its separation from man, is nothing for man'.6 Although Marx comments here and there on the importance of respecting nature and not 'appropriating' it, the importance lies in the benefits for humankind and not in any sense for nature itself. The fundamental outlook is thoroughly anthropocentric and often Marx writes as if nature exists simply in order to be used: 'The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material in which his labour realizes itself, in which it is active and from which, and by means of which, it produces.'7 The danger of mastering nature is not simply that we shall lose our awe for the natural world, but that we shall do so only to replace it with awe for the man-made one. 'What a paradox it would be', he writes, 'if the more man subjugates nature through his labour and the more divine miracles are made superfluous by the miracles of industry, the more he is forced to forgo the joy of production and the enjoyment of the product out of deference to the power of technology and those miracles of the industrial process.'8

Third, Marx has a pronounced tendency to deprecate peasant communities and those who work on the land in traditional ways—people who are, we might think, significantly in touch with nature—as reactionary and superstitious. He placed his hopes of progress in the urban proletariat, whom he expected to form the backbone of revolution. He saw industrial capitalism, whose effects he criticized so eloquently, as nevertheless a necessary phase in sweeping away the old peasant economies and moving humankind forward into a new age when the limitations of capitalism would be transcended in turn.

What can we say about the environmental legacy of Marx and Marxism? Certainly the architects of Soviet Marxism showed no sign of nostalgia for the peasant way of life: they collectivized it at enormous human cost, introducing a form of factory-farming that mirrored in the countryside the industrialization of the cities. But it is simplistic to blame Marxism for the environmental shortcomings of the few socialist republics that have taken Marx's writings as doctrine. For example, the devastating pollution of parts of the former Soviet bloc, or the disaster of Chernobyl, can probably be traced to a significant degree to the overrapid industrialization of backward economies and to a host of other factors, including the reluctance of many Western countries to share the benefits of advanced technology with regimes to which they are ideologically opposed. It is no more sensible to make a direct, causal connection between Marxism and Chernobyl than between capitalism and global warming or the Exxon Valdez.


1 On the Jewish Question, 1844.

2 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, first manuscript.

3 Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1892.

4 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, third manuscript, emphasis added.

5 The German Ideology, 1846.

6 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, first manuscript.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

See also in this book Bahro, Bookchin, Malthus, Passmore

Marx's major writings

Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844. The Communist Manifesto, with Friedrich Engels, 1848. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852. Grundrisse, 1857.

A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859.

Kapital, 1867-94.

These texts can be found in numerous editions. They are conveniently available on the world-wide web at the Marx/Engels Library, whose homepage can be found at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/index.htm. All quotations in the article above are taken from this electronic edition.

Further reading

Fromm, E., Marx's Concept of Man, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. McLellan, D., The Thought of Karl Marx, London: Macmillan, 1980. Parson, H.L. (ed.), Marx and Engels on Ecology, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Schmidt, A., The Concept of Nature in Marx, London: New Left Books, 1971. Singer, P., Marx, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.


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