by Joseph Green
(CV #40, August 2007)
The writings of Marx and Engels
Alongside and after Marx and Engels
Lenin and the early Soviet Union
Stalinist and state capitalist ecocide
Marxism and global warming
--Not market methods, but direct regulation of production
--Class basis of environmental destruction
--The nature of state regulation
--Bringing the masses into the environmental struggle
Foster's Marxism without teeth
. Heat waves, dry spells, storms, floods, and other disasters are raising the issue of global warming more and more urgently. This is going to put all economic ideas and practices to the test. Which ones contributed to global warming and other environmental problems? Which ones can help solve these problems? Many apparently well-established economic practices and views are going to become outdated rather soon.
. Will Marx and Engels' ideas be among them? Many people think that they could have cared less about ecological questions. But Marx's Ecology: materialism and nature by John Bellamy Foster is one of several books in the last decade that show that Marx and Engels were intensely interested in the ecological problems of their time. They wrote about these problems; kept abreast of the advance of scientific knowledge about them; showed the relationship of these problems to the free market and private ownership; regarded these problems as one of the important proofs of the need for social planning of production, land use, and the overall economy; and held that socialist society would have to reunite town and country in order to protect the environment.
. Moreover, Marx and Engels's views are of interest, not mainly because they were right in their controversies with various of the personalities of the time, but because Marxism remains relevant to today's ecological problems. In Marx's time the main environmental concerns were preserving the fertility of the soil and overcoming the plague of rampant pollution and the poisoning of the land, air, and water, while today there are additional problems, such as global warming. But global warming, if anything, raises the question of emancipating the economy from the dictatorship of private profit even more strongly than before. The failure of free market methods, such as carbon trading and carbon taxes, to sufficiently curb greenhouse gas emissions will lead to the need for direct regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. This and other environmental issues will eventually raise the issue of economic planning, locally, regionally, and even globally. This raises the question of whether this planning will be subordinated to the profits of the corporations, or whether corporate ownership will increasingly be infringed upon. Struggle will take place over who will pay for environmental disasters and the necessary economic reconstruction, and whether economic planning will go on behind the backs of the masses or with their participation. All this raises the questions of class struggle and socialism, and hence of Marxism.
. Unfortunately, Foster is more interested in protracted argumentation on the most general philosophical questions than with what has to be done to solve the ecological issues of our day. For example, he refers repeatedly to the Greek materialist philosopher Epicurus (341 - 270 BC), his Roman adherent Lucretius (99 - 55 BC), and their connection to Marx's original philosophical development. Hellenistic philosophy will always retain a certain interest, but it would seem rather peripheral to a book on Marxism and the environment.
. But Foster's overall theme is that "in order to understand the origins of ecology, it is necessary to comprehend the new views of nature that arose with the development of materialism and science from the seventeenth through nineteenth century". Foster points out that the development of both materialism and science promoted--indeed made possible--ecological ways of thinking. "(1) There are two major problems with Foster's ability to carry through this approach. For one thing, he doesn't seem to have a sufficient knowledge of science to understand its development; he is impressed with profound-sounding words in and of themselves, like "metabolism", "entropy, and "thermodynamics", rather than with the content of scientific thought. But moreover, it is a mistake to present the development of a self-conscious ecology as the triumphant conclusion of science and materialism, rather than continuing on to examine the adequacy of the various ecological trends of thought of the 19th century through the present, and noting what is distinctive in Marxism's approach.
. Instead Foster ends up criticizing Engels, Lenin, and just about everyone else, for supposedly
not being philosophically knowledgeable enough about materialism and dialectics, due to lack of
sufficient attention to Epicurus. As a result, according to Foster, theorists who were "supposedly
emphasizing dialectical perspectives that rejected both mechanism and idealism" would really be
mired in "Marxist positivism". (2) This sort of windy nonsense aside, he nevertheless provides
some background information on a number of the major scientific and political figures of Marx
and Engels' times, both those whose work Marx and Engels valued and those whom they
The writings of Marx and Engels
. In the course of his book, Foster cites many passages by Marx and Engels about the environment. This may be eye-opening to those who are not familiar with Marx and Engels' writings. In fact, from the beginning of their work to the end, they were concerned with questions concerning environmental devastation, and what had to be done to overcome it.
. This concern was already evident in their earliest works. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx referred to "the necessary result" of competition among the capitalists being the "universal poisoning [pollution], evident in large towns" and that the workers are forced to revert to "living in a cave, but the cave is now polluted by the mephitic and pestilential breath of civilization. . . . Filth--this stagnation and putrefaction of man, the sewage (quite literally) of civilization--comes to be the element of life for him. "(3) And Engels, in his famous book of 1844, The Condition of the Working-Class in England, dwelt in detail on the miserable environmental conditions facing workers in the great towns, while pointing out that the "the members of this money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the labouring districts to their places of businesses, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left."(4)
. Marx and Engels were concerned not just with the workers' living conditions, but with the devastation of the land itself. They didn't believe that the problems of capitalist agriculture could be put off indefinitely by the spectacular increase in the use of commercial fertilizer in the 19th century, a process which Foster says is called the "second agricultural revolution" by some historians. Marx wrote in Capital that
"all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the laborer, but (Text) of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. . . . Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth--the soil and the laborer. "(5)
. And of course not just capitalism, but other exploiting systems such as slave agriculture devastated the soil. Engels noted in Anti-Duhring that "In North America, . . . the big landlords of the South, with their slaves and their improvident robbery of the land, exhausted the soil until it could only grow firs, so that the cultivation of cotton was forced farther and farther west."(6)
. Marx connected the degradation of the land to its being cultivated without an overall plan, a plan that covered entire regions. Indeed, he pointed out, agriculture must be planned not just with respect to the immediate needs of the moment, but with future generations in mind. But private property in land made this impossible. So did farming according to the ups and downs of the marketplace. He wrote in vol. III of Capital that
. "Very conservative agricultural chemists, such as Johnston, admit that a really rational agriculture is confronted everywhere with insurmountable barriers stemming from private property. So do writers who are ex professo advocates of the monopoly of private property in the world . . . Johnston, Comte, and others, only have in mind the necessity of tilling the land of a certain country as a whole, when they speak of a contradiction between property and a rational system of agronomy. But the dependence of the cultivation of particular agricultural products upon the fluctuations of market-prices, and the continual changes in this cultivation with these price fluctuations--the whole spirit of capitalist production, which is directed toward the immediate gain of money--are in contradiction to agriculture, which has to minister to the entire range of permanent necessities of life required by the chain of successive generations. A striking illustration of this is furnished by the forests, which are only rarely managed in a way more or less corresponding to the interests of society as a whole, i.e., when they are not private property, but subject to the control of the state."(7)
. Foster relates some of the changes in European and American agriculture in the 19th century that were the background for Marx's views. Marx and Engels paid close attention to the theory of land rent, the problems facing farming, and the application of chemistry to agriculture. They took particular note of the work of the scientist Justus von Liebig. Foster points out that "The problem of the depletion of the soil was also tied, according to Liebig, to the pollution of the cities with human and animal wastes." The failure to return human excrement and organic sewage to the fields not only polluted the cities and nearby waters, but stripped the soil of needed elements. (8) In this regard, Marx wrote that
". . . Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centers, and causing an ever increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive-power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town laborer and the intellectual life of the rural laborer."(9)
. This was one of the main reasons that Marx and Engels stressed the need to overcome the contradiction between town and country. Such a change would require an arduous and protracted reconstruction of, essentially, the entire industrial and agricultural infrastructure of society. But they did not shrink from advocating the necessity for it.
. Thus in 1872 Engels wrote, in The Housing Question,
. "The abolition of the antithesis between town and country is no more and no less utopian than the abolition of the antithesis between capitalists and wage-workers. From day to day it is becoming more and more a practical demand of both industrial and agricultural production. No one has demanded this more energetically than Liebig in his writings on the chemistry of agriculture, in which his first demand has always been that man shall give back to the land what he receives from it, and in which he proves that only the existence of the towns, and in particular big towns, prevents this. When one observes how here in London alone a greater quantity of manure than is produced by the whole kingdom of Saxony is poured away every day into the sea with an expenditure of enormous sums, and what colossal structures are necessary in order to prevent this manure from poisoning the whole of London, then the utopia of abolishing the distinction between town and country is given a remarkably practical basis."(10)
. Engels also dealt with this subject in Anti-Duhring, where he wrote that
. ". . . The present poisoning of the air, water and land can only be put an end to by the fusion of town and country; and only this fusion will change the situation of the masses now languishing in the towns, and enable their excrement to be used for the production of plants instead of for the production of disease."(11)
. The issue of the disposal of excrement and sewage is still with us today. Indeed, with the further development of capitalist agriculture, it is no longer simply a problem of urban wastes. The development of huge factory farms for pigs and other animals has become a problem in itself, as the resulting mountains of excrement poison nearby land, waters, and air.
. Marx and Engels also denounced deforestation. Marx wrote in Capital that
". . . The development of culture and of industry in general has ever evinced itself in such energetic destruction of forests that everything done by it conversely for their preservation and restoration appears infinitesimal."(12)
. Indeed Marx and Engels were deeply interested in the history of this question. For example, in a letter to Engels, Marx pointed out that
. "Very interesting is the book by Fracas (1847): Lima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit, eine Geschichte beider [Climate and the Vegetable World Through the Ages, a History of Both], namely as proving that climate and flora change in historical times. He is a Darwinist before Darwin, and admits even the species developing in historical times. But he is at the same time an agronomist. He claims that with cultivation--depending on its degree--the 'moisture' so loved by the peasants gets lost (hence also the plants migrate from south to north), and finally steppe formation occurs. The first effect of cultivation is useful, but finally devastating through deforestation, etc. . . . The conclusion is that cultivation--when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois he naturally does not reach this point)--leaves deserts behind it, Persia, Mesopotamia, etc. , Greece. So once again an unconscious socialist tendency!"(13)
. Engels also wrote vividly of how human activity has affected the environment, the unforeseen results of destroying forests, and the need for human action to be in accordance with the laws of nature. In his unfinished fragment, The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man, he wrote that
. "In short, the animal merely uses external nature, and brings about changes in it simply by his presence; man by his changes makes it serves his ends, masters it . . . .
. "Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centers and reservoirs of moisture. When, on the southern slopes of the mountains, the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, with the effect that these would be able to pour still more furious flood torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. . . . Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature--but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws."
. Engels went on to talk of how long it had taken humanity to learn the laws of nature. He pointed out that the more humanity knows these laws, "the more will men not only feel, but also know, their unity with nature", but also that knowledge of these laws is not sufficient in order to ensure that human activity controls the secondary and more remote effects of its action properly. He wrote that
. "To carry out this control requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and with it of our whole contemporary social order.
. "All hitherto existing modes of production have aimed merely at achieving the most immediately and directly useful effect of labor. The further consequences, which only appear later on and become effective through gradual repetition and accumulation, were totally neglected. . . . The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions. Indeed, even this useful effect--in as much as it is a question of the usefulness of the commodity that is produced or exchanged--retreats right into the background, and the sole incentive becomes the profit to be gained on selling."(14)
. Foster also refutes the criticism that the Marxist theory of value downgraded nature and the environment because it said that only labor had value. Yes, nature, in and of itself, has no exchange-value. This is one of the reasons for capitalism's abuse of nature. The labor theory of value is a description of capitalist exchange value, a picture of the reality under capitalism, and not a guide to how a socialist society should treat nature or run the economy. Marxist socialism aimed, not to perfect the law of value, but to overcome it. Marx distinguished between exchange value (financial wealth) and use-values (the material wealth of humanity), and he repeatedly pointed out that nature is a source of actual material values, just as much as labor. For example, in his Critique of the Gotha Program he criticized the view that "Labor is the source of all wealth and all culture", saying that
. "Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!), which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power."(15)
Alongside and after Marx and Engels
. The impression that may be created by Foster aside, there were many activists in the workers' movement of that time who were concerned with the devastation of the land. Marx and Engels, however, stressed the connection with all forms of private property in land, including both landlord and small peasant production; the need for overall planning; and the importance of scientific knowledge about environmental questions. Their views on the environment, as well as on the class struggle, were taken up by others.
. Unfortunately Foster doesn't have much concern for the views of the mass of class-conscious workers and activists involved in the revolutionary movement. He makes no attempt to judge how the environmental issue was reflected among the socialist masses and in the work of revolutionary parties. He focuses exclusively on certain theorists, scientists, and major figures.
. But even this limited focus shows some of the concern for the environment that existed in the revolutionary working class movement of the time, and that the environmental views of Marx and Engels were influential. For example, Foster refers to the views of August Bebel, one of the founders and major leaders of German social-democracy, back in the days before it betrayed the working class cause by backing the inter-imperialist slaughter of World War I. His book Socialism and Women, written just before Marx died, was one of the most reprinted works of German socialism. Aside from its main theme, the championing of women's rights, it also described Bebel's views of the transformation of society, and a major part of this is devoted to agriculture and the land. In the course of this, Bebel discussed the need for overall planning of the land use and agriculture of a country, the ways of protecting the fertility of the soil, and the dire consequences of the destruction of forests, and he advocated overcoming the contrast between city and country.
. Thus Bebel wrote that
. "Society must consider the land in its totality, its topographical condition, its mountains, plains, forests, lakes, rivers, ponds, heathers, swamps and moors. Besides the geographical location, which is unalterable, this topographical condition exerts a certain influence upon the climate and the nature of the soil. This is a vast field of activity, where much experience is still to be gained and much experimentation still to be performed. . . . Without interference with private property nothing effectual could be done." He also reported that "the boundless and desultory devastation of forests in the most fertile provinces of Russia, was the chief cause of the failure of crops from which these at one time fertile regions suffered severely during the last few decades." And he wrote that "Manure is to the fields what food is to man, and just as not every kind of food is equally nourishing to man, so not every kind of manure is of equal value to the soil. The ground must be given exactly the same chemical substances that have been withdrawn from it by the reaping of a crop, . . . Therefore the study of chemistry and its practical application will develop to an extent unknown today."(16)
. Karl Kautsky was a major theorist of German and international social-democracy after the deaths of Marx and Engels; he took a Marxist position for some time, but he later followed official social-democracy in betraying the revolutionary movement during World War I, opposing the Bolshevik revolution, and embracing reformism from then on. His earlier works remain of interest. His book of 1899, The Agrarian Question, provided a careful and detailed study of agriculture and the class relations in the countryside, and he reiterated the need for overcoming the contradiction of town and country in order to protect the land. He wrote:
". . . That the soil is becoming exhausted is beyond dispute. Without supplementary fertilisers, . . . this would soon lead to the complete collapse of agriculture. Such fertilisers allow the reduction in soil fertility to be avoided, but the necessity of using them in larger and larger amounts simply adds a further burden to agriculture--not one unavoidably imposed by nature, but a direct result of current social organisation.
. "By overcoming the antithesis between town and country, or at least between the densely populated cities and the desolated open country, the materials removed from the soil would be able to flow back in full. Supplementary fertilisers would then, at most, have the task of enriching the soil, not staving off its impoverishment."(17)
. He also noted that
. "The advance of capitalist methods of cultivation has also been accompanied by an increase in the various animal and plant diseases afflicting agriculture. "
He held that this was mainly caused by artificial selection of strains of plants and animals that gave a maximum amount of agricultural product and profit, but weren't very hardy. He held that another reason for the proliferation of pests was
"the disappearance of insect-eating birds, a result not only of hunting them out but also of the reduction in nesting opportunities prompted by the extension of cultivation. In forestry, the destruction of forests by pests is encouraged by modern large-scale operations, the replacement of a planting by a felling system, and the elimination of slow growing deciduous trees by rapid-growing, and more rapidly exploitable, conifers." All this led, he said, to the need for pesticides. (18)
Lenin and the early Soviet Union
. Lenin shared the environmental concerns of Marx and Engels. Thus he upheld the Marxist theory of overcoming the contradiction between town and country, writing in 1901:
". . . The fact that we definitely recognize the progressive character of big cities in capitalist society, however, does not in the least prevent us from including in our ideal . . . the abolition of the antithesis between town and country. It is not true to say that this is tantamount to abandoning the treasures of science and art. Quite the contrary; this is necessary in order to bring these treasures within the reach of the entire people, in order to abolish the alienation from culture of millions of the rural population, which Marx aptly described as 'the idiocy of rural life'. . . .
. "And if there is nothing to prevent the abolition of the antithesis between town and country (not [to] be imagined , of course, as a single act but as a series of measures) it is not an 'aesthetic sentiment' alone that demands it. In the big cities people suffocate with the fumes of their own excrement, to use Engels' expression, and periodically all who can, flee from the cities in search of fresh air and pure water. Industry is also spreading over the countryside; for it, too, requires pure water. The exploitation of waterfalls, canals, and rivers to obtain electric power will give a fresh impetus to this 'spreading out of industry'. Finally--last, but not least--the rational utilization of city refuse in general, and human excrement in particular, so essential for agriculture, also calls for the abolition of the antithesis between town and country. It was against this point in the theory of Marx and Engels that the Critics decided to direct their agronomical arguments . . . Their line of reasoning is as follows: Liebig proved that it is necessary to restore to the soil as much as is taken from it. . . . But modern agronomics has proved that it is quite possible to restore the productive forces of the soil without the use of stable manure, namely, by means of artificial fertilizers, by the inoculation of certain bacteria into leguminous plants which collect nitrates, etc. Consequently, Kautsky [in his book The Agrarian Question], and all those 'orthodox' people, are simply behind the times.
. "Consequently--we reply--here, too, the Critics commit one of their innumerable and endless distortions. After explaining Liebig's theory, Kautsky immediately showed that modern agronomics has proved that it is quite possible 'to dispense altogether with stable manure'. . . , but added that this was merely a palliative compared with the waste of human excrement entailed by the present system of city sewage disposal."(19)
. After the October revolution of 1917, the new Soviet government faced difficult conditions. World War I continued, and then the Civil War and the foreign intervention, and, of course, the economic blockade. The land was ravaged by war and the search for anything to use for fuel or food.
. Nevertheless, the Soviet government didn't simply say, "wait, we'll deal with this later." The Bolshevik Party, as a Marxist party, was committed to certain environmental views. The Soviet government proclaimed various environmental laws, and made efforts to put them into effect, although the practical results were modest.
. Thus the Soviet government was the first government in the world to establish a system of nature reserves that were devoted entirely to the scientific study of nature. By 1920 the Soviet government began the development of a system of zapovedniki, or "scientific nature reserves". There are different levels of protection among the zapovedniks, but this was not a system of recreational parks. The main purpose of this system exists was the study of the environment, and some zapovedniks were reserved for nothing else. This system still exists today. (20)
. This helped put the early Soviet Union, for a time, on the forefront of environmental research and theorizing. Foster points to Lenin's support for such scientists as Vladimir Vernadsky, who was a visionary proponent of environmentalism. (21)
. The Soviet government also proclaimed the idea of preserving "the monuments of nature". Backed by Lenin, the People's Commissariat of Education, headed by Anatol Lunacharsky, was also given responsibility for various conservation tasks, including responsibility for the zapovedniki. (22)
. Another major issue was forestry, which the Soviet Government sought to regulate. It wanted to provide for an increased but sustainable forest output, as well as to protect various forests from logging. It extended the categories of forests to be protected, and it sought to secure various conservationist goals.
. Thus the original decree "On Land" of 1918 nationalized the forests, and gave the government the authority to act with respect to the forests. In May 1918, a basic law on forestry was passed. But it didn't work well in practice. The peasantry felt the revolution gave them the right to chop down wood wherever they liked, and they couldn't be restrained; the pressing needs of the time undoubtedly motivated this. Indeed, the different agencies of the Soviet government themselves needed as much wood as possible to deal with the harsh economic situation; they often violated their own regulations and chopped down wood in excess of their own rules about forestry use. Moreover, the relationship of the central forest management to the local population caused friction; this too would have to be adjusted.
. Given the bloodshed and privations of the Civil War, the continuing devastation of forests probably was inevitable. After the Civil War, the situation eased, but problems remained. A new forestry law would be passed in 1923. The Soviet government tried to protect the forests, but it had trouble achieving much.
. Thus the early Soviet government sought as best it could to put environmental principles into operation. As with many of its goals, it was limited in what it could achieve, and it set forward many new environmental goals and plans on which it only succeeded in taking the first few steps, and on which it started to accumulate some experience. But this is how new things start, and it put environmentalism on the agenda in Russia for the time being.
. Foster makes it sound like all this stopped right after the death of Lenin in 1924. Actually, it continued and extended for a number of years. According to one account,
". . . By the mid-1920s, a governmental apparatus was in place, featuring a Conservation Department within the [education] commissariat's Main Administration for Scientific Institutions, the Arts, Museums and Conservation, plus an Interagency State Committee for Conservation uniting a number of ministerial bureaucracies. Also, in the last weeks of 1924, an All-Russian Society for Conservation (VOOP) was started up, at the initiative of Kozhevnikov and others, with a membership of about one thousand. By 1928, the Society was publishing an attractive bimonthly Okhrana prirody (Conservation) and had built up an impressive network of foreign contacts. Enhancing the movement's clout was the solid support it received from the one hundred thousand-member Society for the Study of Local Lore (the Kraevedy)."(23)
. Meanwhile the system of scientific nature reserves, the zapovedniki, continued to grow, until
"by 1933, these numbered thirty-three with an aggregate area of 2,698,527 hectares (6,666,000 acres), and were the loci for significant research, including the development of ecological energetics by Professor Vladimir Vladimirovich Stanchinskii, a zoologist. Two large conservation congresses were held in Moscow, in 1929 and 1933, and the widespread observance of 'Bird Day' as a school holiday, testified to the vigor of the movement."(24)
. In 1928-1931, during the First Five-Year plan, many Russians felt that the working class was really coming into its own. Newly-trained and educated workers were taking over many professional and managerial positions, the Russian economy was changing, and new cities were coming into being. In this situation, there was a discussion of how to build "green cities" or even how to integrate town and countryside. (25) Most of this planning may have been utopian and unrealistic, but it reflected the concern with environmental issues.
. But this speculative town planning was not simply mistaken as to the material possibilities of the time. It also was wrong as to what was going on in the country. Socialism was not moving closer to reality in the 1930s, but instead a state-capitalist order was being built up. On one hand, the old bourgeoisie and professionals were being replaced from many of their old positions, and the restoration of the old Tsarist order was rendered impossible. But on the other, a new bourgeoisie was rising from amidst the Soviet and party officialdom. The Bolshevik revolution had died out gradually during the 20s, and a new system of class rule was developing. In this new system, while the central ministries decreed the major national projects to be achieved, individual factories and their management competed against other factories and managers to achieve their goals. The new-style competition of state-capitalist managers proved as fatal to environmental goals as the old-style competition of free-market managers.
. As the 30's wore on, the environmental goals of the early Soviet Union would end up hemmed
in and discarded. The period of state-capitalism, whether under Stalin or under his successors
who repudiated him, such as Khrushchov, would end up devastating the Soviet environment.
Stalinist and state capitalist ecocide
. The Stalinist system, and other state-capitalist regimes such as present-day China, have a bad environmental record. They have been as bad as free-market regimes when they industrialize. Thus China's rapid economic growth of the past few decades has been accompanied by the development of tremendous environmental problems: water shortages, air pollution, tremendous increase in greenhouse gas emission, etc. While the US free-market capitalists can hardly claim to be better -- as the US still emits somewhat more greenhouse gas than China although the US population is a fraction of the size of China's -- the point is not which is worse, but that both state-capitalism and free-market capitalism are devastating the environment.
. As the Stalinist regime and other state-capitalist regimes have called themselves communist and Marxist, their record has been taken as tarring Marxism-Leninism, economic planning, and even materialism, with respect to ecology. Or, as Foster puts it, "the ultimate tragedy of the Soviet relation to the environment, which eventually took a form that has been characterized as 'ecocide,' has tended to obscure the enormous dynamism of early Soviet ecology of the 1920s, and the role that Lenin personally played in promoting conservation."(26) So if one is going to discuss ecology and Marxism, one faces the question -- why did this change take place?
. From the Marxist and materialist standpoint, this means asking whether the original class nature of the Soviet Union had changed, and looking into the nature of the Stalinist system. Were the latter Soviet regime and other state-capitalist regimes still working-class, revolutionary regimes? Were the increasing environmental problems really due to their restrictions on the free market, as the capitalist ideologues of today say? Or did the abandonment of environmental goals occur because the revolution had died out, and a new system of capitalism was developing?
. Foster doesn't deal with this. He glosses over the fact that hundreds of millions of people have lived for decades under state-capitalist systems that denied them rights and also devastated the environment. These systems did, albeit in their own distinctive way, exactly what traditional and free-market capitalism does -- degrade both the worker and the environment. It is an important, if tragic, part of the revolutionary history of the 20th century that the most important mass revolutions, such as the Russian and Chinese revolutions, revolutions that pushed forward world history and which led the working masses to see revolutionary communism as the path forward, died out in their home countries, and the once-revolutionary regimes became state-capitalist ones. These regimes still claimed to be Marxist, but they revised and distorted the Marxist principles into something ugly; hence we condemn them as "revisionists" of various sorts, such as Soviet and Chinese revisionists. The development of revisionist state-capitalism has been a major setback for the working class struggle, and it has to be taken into consideration by anyone seeking to rebuild a revolutionary working class movement. And it is especially important for those who are Marxists, as Foster claims to be, because there can be no revival of Marxism except as anti-revisionist Marxism, Marxism-Leninism that distinguishes itself from the Stalinist and state-capitalist parody of Marxism and socialism.
. But what does Foster do in his book? His entire discussion of the question is that "Marx's ecological critique . . . was discarded only later on, particularly within the Soviet Union under Stalin, as the expansion of production for production's sake became the overriding goal of Soviet society."(27) That's it.
. He then goes on to say that one has to have a deeper understanding of the philosophical basis of materialism. You probably think that I am leaving out Foster's description of what happened to the Soviet environment under Stalinism, and what institutions caused it, or what is happening to the Chinese environment today, and what political and economic relations are causing that. But I'm not leaving that out: Foster doesn't talk about it. Foster isn't concerned with it. He is above all that. All he says is that the Soviet Union under Stalin abandoned Marx's ecological critique because it took up production for production's sake. So the picture one gets is this: the country cared about the environment; the country knew about Marx's critique; the country claimed to be following Marx's critique; but for some reason, whenever it came to economic construction, it suffered a fit of forgetfulness and followed another idea.
. Now throughout the book, Foster lectures one and all about the need for a materialist viewpoint. Materialism, materialism, materialism. Ancient Greek materialism, Liebig's materialism, Darwin's materialism, Marx's materialism. But when it comes to one of the most important phenomena of the 20th century economics and politics, the development of a new type of state-capitalism, materialism flies out the window. Foster doesn't think it is necessary to even refer to the economic and political reality of the Soviet Union, and see whether a change in class relations took place. Instead, Foster says, just look back at Liebig and Darwin more carefully. Putting aside any discussion of Soviet reality, he tells us that "This [the discarding of Marx's critique] can be understood in terms of two major themes arising out of Marx's (and Engels's) ecological critique: the concept of sustainable development, associated with Liebig; and the coevolutionary analysis emanating from Darwin."(28) He thereupon goes back to discussing general philosophy, the importance of Epicurus, and whether certain leaders and intellectuals have a sufficiently deep idea of materialism.
. This is the idealist conception of history taken to the extreme. Only the leaders count, and the issue is whether they have studied Epicurus and other philosophers.
. But what else can Foster do? For him, anyone who called themselves Marxist is Marxist. He doesn't made a fundamental distinction between revolutionary Marxism, when it was the banner of a working class movement for change, and Stalinism and other forms of revisionist Marxism, in which Marxism is turned into lying phrases to prettify state-capitalism. Indeed, he is one of the editors of a theoretical journal, Monthly Review, which doesn't make such a distinction. Foster doesn't agree with various of the policies of the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors, but he still regards it as a new, non-capitalist system and supporter of revolution around the world. In essence, he regards it as an unfortunate sort of socialism, and its ruling class as mistaken comrades. But he expresses this in a vague and confusing way.
. For example, a few years after his book Marx's Ecology, he wrote in 2005 an introduction to an issue of Monthly Review that was devoted to "renewing socialism". He wrote that "the Soviet Union had ceased by the 1930s to be socialist" in the sense of being his ideal society. Indeed, this supposedly meant that it wasn't socialist "in any meaningful way". Except, of course, that -- in Foster's view -- it wasn't capitalist either. But if it really weren't capitalist, wouldn't that mean it was socialist or moving in that direction? But no, Foster said, that only made it "post-revolutionary"; he wrote that "it remained a post-revolutionary society distinguished in many ways from capitalism. Competition between enterprises played almost no role in the economic workings of Soviet society." So he pictured this "post-revolutionary" society as having a "centrally-planned economy" and being sort-of socialist. Indeed, he said it was a "grave threat" to capitalism, and that it gave some support to "socialist-oriented" change around the world. (29)
. But is his picture of the revisionist Soviet Union accurate? Well, let's take an example. Did the latter Soviet Union support environmentally-oriented change around the world? Foster, while talking about the looming dangers of global warming in his statement about renewing socialism, was diplomatically silent about the role of the Soviet Union, and other regimes which he also presumably regarded as "post-revolutionary", in devastating the environment. If Foster is right that capitalism devastates the environment, and he is definitely right about that, then this suggests that truly non-capitalist economies might not devastate the environment. So why should the "post-revolutionary" economy, which he said didn't have capitalist competition anymore, devastate the environment? Foster's only answer to that is, essentially, that the "post-revolutionary" leaders don't have the right ideas.
. The real answer is that Foster's "post-revolutionary" societies are capitalist societies, albeit a special kind of capitalism, state-capitalism. Foster is wrong about their being planned economies that had overcome competition. A serious study of their economies shows the rampant economic competition within them, and the resulting anarchy of production, as Marxism describes it. This helps mark the revisionist or "post-revolutionary" economies as simply variants of the capitalist economy.
. Thus Foster's analysis of the latter Soviet economy is wrong not just overall, but in detail. He held in his article of 2005 that the masses were no longer in control, but believed that there nevertheless was a planned economy without competition between enterprises. His view of the Soviet economy has a lot in common with neoliberal propagandists, who then blame all the resulting stagnation, waste, and environmental devastation in the Soviet economy on the supposed elimination of capitalist competition. But in fact, a closer look at the Soviet economy shows that it is impossible to eliminate competition between enterprises if the working masses aren't in control.
. Yes, the Soviet Union had five-year plans, and ministries that officially ran the entire economy. These ministries could and did direct large amount of resources here or there as they chose. But these resources often were squandered due to competition between enterprises. Indeed, competition arose between ministries as well. This competition resulted in waste and lack of concern by Soviet enterprises for anything but meeting their own quotas, whether or not they hurt other factories and enterprises by cutting corners or putting out poor work. It also resulted in the failure of the economy, year after year, to meet the targets of the five-year plans. As I mentioned, this competition occurred between ministries as well as enterprises, and this had some astonishing results. For example, year after year economic plans were prepared that everyone knew were unrealistic, in that they called for far more construction than the Soviet Union could conceivably accomplish. But the different special interests and ministries had to be placated, and the way to do it was to include all their projects in the plan. So year after year, Soviet officialdom lamented the unrealistic plans, and year after year, after crying a few tears, they prepared new sets of them.
. This competition among the Soviet bureaucrats, as well as their lack of concern for the general interest, was an inevitable result of their becoming a new ruling class, whose concern was to increase its own privileges while maintaining the passive and oppressed status of the Soviet working masses. And it was one of the main causes of the environmental devastation in the Soviet Union. A Soviet enterprise or even ministry was concerned with its own goals, not the overall good of the country. The working masses in the Soviet Union might worry about what was happening to the land around them, but they had little voice.
. The Communist Voice Organization has put a great deal of work and effort into studying the Soviet economy and some other state-capitalist economies, particularly the Cuban economy. We have looked into how they ran, how they evolved over time, and what this means for Marxist theory. Marxism does not hold that state-ownership is sufficient for a country to be socialist. Marxist theory holds that socialism is based economically on overall control of the economy by the working class, and this working class control is essential to eliminate the anarchy of production. The state-capitalist economies have anarchy of production -- it takes on forms somewhat different from that in the market economies, but it is the same old anarchy at heart. This shows that they are not socialist economies. This shows that actual working-class control of the politics and economics of a country is not an optional feature for socialism; it does not distinguish between good and bad socialism, but there is no socialism, or progress towards socialism, without it.
. This is a crucial question for seeing whether the collapse of the Soviet-bloc regimes was the
collapse of socialism and Marxism-Leninism, or the collapse of a new version of capitalism. It
deserves study in detail. In my article "The anarchy of production under the veneer of Soviet
revisionist planning" , and in other articles in Communist Voice, there is extensive material which
gives the background for the conclusions I have outlined above. (30)
Marxism and global warming
. In the last issue of Communist Voice, the article "The Coming of the Environmental Crisis" pointed out that the failure of market methods of controlling greenhouse gas emission will eventually force moves towards the direct regulation of production; that clashes between capitalist interests and the needs of society will intensify; and that the masses will have to fight to have the regulations take some account of their needs. (31) These things will take place regardless of the ideas of economists and politicians: it is not articles and theories that are forcing these developments, but environmental changes and the failures of the capitalist economy. These things would happen even if Marx or Lenin had never existed. Correct theory can, however, encourage a faster and stronger response by the working class to the coming crisis; it can hasten recognition of the seriousness of the threat of global warming and other environmental problems, and the need for major economic changes, rather than neo-liberal tinkering with market measures; it can speed up the process of workers and activists recognizing that regulated capitalism is still capitalism; it can encourage working class organization in its own right, so that isolated struggles against this or that outrage--whether it is capitalist obstruction of needed environmental measures, heartlessness toward working-class victims of climatic catastrophes, or efforts to squeeze the workers in the name of government regulation--merge into an organized class struggle; and it can thus help ensure a better outcome to the environmental crisis.
. Thus Marxism's theory of class struggle and its denunciation of capitalism turn out to be in the center of the environmental problems of today. Marxism isn't just compatible with environmental concerns, but it provides a distinct approach to ecological problems that contrasts with that of the mainstream and establishment environmental groups: it puts its finger on problems that the establishment wing of environmentalism wants to sweep under the rug. It's not just, or even mainly, Marx's direct views on the environment that are important for dealing with global warming and other ecological problems today. It's the whole range of Marxism's ideas on economic planning and the methods for achieving it that are crucial.
. Below I survey some of the aspects of Marxism which are important for dealing with global
warming, emphasizing those aspects which don't directly deal with ecology.
-- Not market methods, but
the direct regulation of production
. **Direct regulation of production.** Environmental protection has always involved government regulation. Today the need to eliminate most greenhouse gas emissions, to redo the economic infrastructure so that it can survive changing climate, and to take care of other environmental issues, will mean that this regulation will have to extend over more and more of the economy. The crisis is forcing recognition of the fact that economic production today is social production; it is not a matter of individual concern how this or that enterprise is conducted or product is produced, but a matter that affects everyone. But it is Marxism alone which deals thoroughly with the need for a planned economy, how to achieve it, and what are the intermediate steps towards it.
. Marxism holds that a consistent system of planning can only be obtained by eliminating the private ownership of the means of production, and the entire commodity economy, and building a socialist economy. But from the first, Marx and Engels also recognized that the workers should not simply wait for socialist revolution, but should fight under capitalism for various goals. Today this would include measures to directly regulate production to achieve environmental goals; measures to transform the economy so that it can survive the already ongoing climate change; and measures to ensure mass welfare despite the hardships of the coming period.
. Marxism has a good deal to say about the nature of economic planning under capitalism, what
the masses should expect from it, and how they should attempt to influence it. But I'll list these
issues about planning as separate points.
. **True cost pricing doesn't work.** This might seem to simply be restating the idea that there has to be direct regulation of production, rather than marketplace solutions. But the point is that if government planning is based on the same financial considerations as the marketplace, say through cost-benefit analysis, this will harm ecological or other rational goals, even if this cost-benefit analysis is carried out not with ordinary prices, but with "true values" that include an attempt to measure the ecological cost of goods.
. The actual costs and benefits of a good can't be reduced to a single number. There is no common numerical scale which can reasonably compare, say, the amount of carbon dioxide which results from producing some food product, with the number of people it feeds, and with the type of land needed to grow it. These are distinct features of a food product, which have to be kept track of separately in planning. Similarly, there is no way to assign a single number for the environmental cost of destroying a wetland. This depends on other nearby features of the land, on whether other wetlands are being protected and expanded, and so on.
. Marx opposed the view that pricing things at their real value would solve the evils of
capitalism. His analysis of the nature of pricing showed that no single indice, whether the dollar,
the labor-hour, the true cost, or the energy content, can serve as a rational unit of economic
planning. Moreover, economic exchange carried out on the basis of some sort of true pricing,
even though this pricing attempts to represent environmental costs and benefits as well as other
costs and benefits, will essentially end up duplicating the evil features of the capitalist law of
value. Such exchange will not provide a general method of directing market forces to solve
environmental problems. (32)
. **Material balances.** Environmental planning thus requires that one keep track of the physical amounts of goods needed and produced and of greenhouse gases emitted, and even the geographical distribution of forests, wetlands, farms, cities and so forth. This cannot be reduced to financial planning. It requires planning that takes account of the material amounts and geographic locations. Some people think there can be no economic planning except financial planning. But in fact, there is already some experience in developing more rational means of economic planning.
. Marx made the first steps towards economic planning that took account of physical balances in his analysis of the annual economic cycle of production in Capital, vol. II, part III. Then, starting in the 1920s, the Soviet Union began to develop what would be called the method of "material balances". This was not, in itself, socialist planning, and it was later used extensively for state-capitalist planning. It was neither the final word in planning in general, or even the final word in the general idea of maintaining physical balances, but it was a major advance over simple financial planning. Moreover even Western free-market capitalists have to be concerned with the physical structure of their economies at times, so the method of "material balances" had an echo in the West. Thus the Soviet method seems to have been the inspiration for the late Professor Wassily Leontief of Harvard University developing a Western version of the method, which he called input-output analysis. (33)
. The experience of the revolutions of the twentieth century has dramatically pushed forward the
idea of economic planning from what it was before World War I. Thus when I talk of
Marxism-Leninism being relevant to ecology, I by no means mean simply following what Marx
or Lenin has already written. Marxism is not a dried-up, finished field. The Marxist framework
has been fruitful and given rise to further theoretical developments since the deaths of Marx and
-- Class basis of environmental destruction
. **Capitalism devastates the environment. ** We have seen that Marx emphasized that capitalist agriculture ravages the soil as well as the agricultural workers. It is not agriculture in itself that inevitably does this, but agriculture carried out solely for profit certainly does it.
. Today it is the capitalist economic development that has given rise to global warming. Meanwhile many large and powerful corporations still deny the existence of global warming, and seek to prevent any action against it. Those capitalist interests and governments that do recognize that something has to be done advocate, in the name of creating market solutions, that corporations should get tremendous subsidies; no matter how deadly the danger, the drive for profit takes priority with them. Indeed, the type of overall economic planning needed to deal with global warming goes against the very nature of capitalism.
. Thus every serious step to deal with the environmental crisis will result in frictions and
obstruction from capitalist interests.
. **Small-scale economy can't solve the environmental crisis.** The crimes of the large corporations and the devastation caused by large-scale capitalist industry and agriculture have led some to believe that a return to small-scale production would be a solution to the environmental crisis. But Marx pointed to the limitations of small-scale agriculture, which is unable to break out of the restrictions of private property. He recognized the historical role played by "free self-managing peasant proprietorship of land parcels", and regarded this "as a necessary transitional stage for the development of agriculture", but pointed out that "The causes which bring about its downfall show its limitation." He included among these causes "a gradual impoverishment and exhaustion of the soil subjected to this cultivation". He compared small-scale agriculture and large-scale capitalist agriculture and wrote that
"This barrier and hindrance, which are erected by all private landed property vis-a-vis agricultural production and the rational cultivation, maintenance and improvement of the soil itself, develop on both sides ["small landed property" and "large landed property"--JG] merely in different forms, and in wrangling over the specific forms of this evil its ultimate cause is forgotten."(34)
. Foster holds that Marx promoted that small-scale agriculture was just as much a solution as agriculture carried out according to a social plan. He cites Marx saying that capitalism is incompatible with rational agriculture, which needs "either small farmers working for themselves or the control of the associated producers."(35) No doubt Marx noted that under some circumstances small farmers might carefully manage the soil and avoid the ravages of large-scale capitalist agriculture. But he also repeatedly pointed to the need to transcend small-scale private agriculture.
. Today there are some individuals who lovingly cultivate small farms according to the best
principles they can discover. But most small farmers are forced, by competition in the market, to
follow in the wake of the practices carried out by the larger farms. And for that matter, there are
also millions upon millions of poor villagers who chop down trees and carry out harmful
practices because they have no alternative: small-scale agriculture doesn't provide these villagers
with any reasonable way to deal with the economic problems confronting them. Moreover, the
environmental problems of today call for regional and even global planning. This is completely
beyond what can be accomplished by individual farmers and communal groups acting on their
-- The nature of state regulation
. **Government regulation isn't socialism.** The neo-liberal bourgeoisie calls all government regulation "socialism". But sometimes more and sometimes less regulation has always been used by governments of all political tendencies. From the start, Marxism has demanded that capitalist governments carry out various programs, but has never regarded this as socialism.
. This will be an increasingly important issue as environmental catastrophes and other problems
result in a more regulated capitalism replacing the reign of neo-liberalism. Unless the working
class regains a critical attitude to the regulations of bourgeois government, these regulations will
place the cost of the environmental and other crises on the back of the masses. The governments
will bribe the bourgeoisie and the corporations with lucrative deals, while telling the masses to
pull in their belts. It is crucial, if government regulations are really to restrict corporate ravaging
of the environment, and if they are not to crush the masses, that the working class wage a sharp
fight over the regulations and for a mass role in carrying out environmental regulations. The
more influence the Marxist view on regulation has on the working class and environmental
activists, the stronger this fight will be.
. ** Government ownership isn't necessarily socialist either.** Marxism has maintained a
critical attitude, not just towards regulation by bourgeois governments, but even state ownership.
As with government regulation, Marxism may demand state-ownership of various parts of the
economy by even capitalist governments, but it doesn't regard this as socialism. Marx and Engels
opposed the idea that state ownership by a capitalist government is socialism, and sometimes
referred to this as "state socialism", which they didn't regard as socialist at all. For Marx and
Engels, socialism required the control by society as a whole, and thus by the working masses
who constituted the majority of the population, of the means of production.
. **The Stalinist and other revisionist regimes were and are not socialist regimes or in transition towards socialism, but state-capitalist regimes.** In a way, this is simply restating the previous point that government ownership, taken by itself, is not socialism. But here we are dealing with situations where the government involved isn't run by the traditional bourgeoisie of the country, which has been largely dispossessed, but a new bourgeoisie. This bourgeoisie may have arisen from the ranks of a once-revolutionary party, and may include many people from working class or peasant families. This is a new situation which arose in the 20th century.
. Neither Marx and Engels, nor even Lenin, dealt with this situation. Nevertheless, the basic
criteria set down by them shows that these are capitalist countries, albeit with a new variant of
capitalism. This is actually a crucial test for socialism: should the oppressive conditions -- and
the notorious environmental devastation -- in the revisionist countries be viewed as a result of
socialism, or of capitalism? Marxism-Leninism either has to develop further and be verified by
showing the economic basis for the crimes of the revisionist regimes, or Marxism and socialism
have to be discarded. Foster may try to skip over this question is his book Marx's Ecology, but it
isn't going to go away. He closes his eyes to this question at the price of making socialism and
Marxism into vague philosophical beliefs that have lost most of their practical content.
. **The fight against opportunism.** Throughout their lives, Marx and Engels had to wage a struggle against opportunist political trends that misdirected the working class struggle. It's notable that a substantial section of the Communist Manifesto itself was devoted to distinguishing between those trends which were really for a new society, and those trends which hid conservative and other backward interests under the signboard of socialism. Today it is necessary to distinguish sharply between socialism and the state-capitalism of the revisionist regimes which call themselves "communist" or "Marxist".
. Such differences exist within the environmental movements as well. There are differences between establishment environmentalists who are promoting market solutions or even nuclear power, and more radical environmentalists. Indeed, certain environmental groups make deals with large corporations that give them a green cover.
. Some differences among activists are due to uncertainty today over what to demand in order to, say, drastically reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. But there are also class differences involved between the bourgeois and establishment sections of the environmental movement on one hand, and environmentalists more closely attuned to the working masses on the other. These differences are not going to go away.
. Marxism has a good deal to say about how to fight opportunism. This isn't only a matter of
polemic, and it certainly isn't a matter of denouncing everyone with a different idea. There will
be no effective fight against environmental opportunism without also building an independent
class trend that unites workers and activists behind the basic interests of the masses. But the more
this takes place, the sharper the differences with the establishment trends will be.
-- Bringing the masses into the environmental struggle
. **Linking environmental measures and the welfare of the masses.** In his analysis of the nature of capitalist agriculture, Marx linked the devastation of the land and of the worker. Conversely, the only force that can wholeheartedly stand for the direct regulation of production which is needed to protect the environment is the working class. Environmental measures, if they are to be effective, must have this mass working class support and, indeed, mass participation: the measures needed to deal with global warming and other environmental problems aren't minor fixes, but major changes that will affect everyone's lives, require a transformation of the economic infrastructure, and be opposed by major capitalist interests. It will take years of unremitting effort to carry through the needed economic transformations, and it will require mass supervision to ensure that these measures aren't thwarted by numerous enterprises and entrenched interests.
. Yet workers are going to suffer disproportionately from the economic dislocations caused by
climatic changes, and they are also going to take the brunt of the changes in the economy. In this
situation, the only way that there can be mass support and enthusiasm for environmental
measures is if they are linked to measures to protect the well-being of the population and reverse
the insecurity and devastation that neo-liberalism has brought down upon working people all
over the globe. The well-being of the masses can't simply be an afterthought, providing some
minor tax rebates or welfare measures if there is sufficient money left over. Instead the
well-being of the masses has to be central to the overall environmental plan.
. **Working class organization.** But who is going to push for the mass role? This requires that the masses themselves get organized. And the lessons of Marxism on mass organization are crucial for this. Thus the work of Marx in developing political and economic organization of the working class is quite relevant for the environmental struggle.
. Astonishingly enough, Foster ignores this aspect of Marx's work in his book. Although he says he is talking about how far ecology was dealt with in the Marxist movement, he ignores the views and activities of the mass of workers and activists in the Marxist parties.
. Moreover, at one point he dismisses the immediate concerns of workers as unimportant, saying "Marx and Engels did not generally treat environmental destruction (apart from the role that it played in the direct life of the proletariat--that is, the lack of air, of cleanliness, of the prerequisites for health, and so on) as a major factor in the revolutionary movement against capitalism that they saw as imminent." (Emphasis added) (36) This is an odd statement, as Foster's own book shows that general environmental questions were raised in some of the most popular Marxist and Marxist-influenced works of the time. But no general catastrophe like global warming was then imminent. In that situation, the main way in which environmental issues could manifest themselves in immediate action was presumably in dealing with the immediate effects of environmental degradation. Indeed, dealing with these immediate effects must always be a major part of environmental action. But Foster appears to dismiss concern for "the lack of air, of cleanliness, of the prerequisites for health" of the masses as something secondary. He apparently doesn't see these concerns as important for the environmental movement, and doesn't refer to the need to build a specifically working-class section of the movement.
. Indeed, Foster's statement gives the same impression as if someone had claimed that Marx and
Engels didn't pay much attention to the oppression of the working class, "apart from the role that
it played in the direct life of the proletariat--that is, low wages, lack of political rights, and so
on". Such a person would have made the liberation movement into a philosophical abstraction far
detached from the mere concerns of the masses. Marxism, on the contrary, seeks to connect these
immediate concerns with the building of a broad class movement for revolutionary change.
Foster's Marxism without teeth
. This survey of some of the implications of Marxism with respect to the environmental crisis shows that Marxism doesn't simply support whatever any ecologist says. Marxism has always been deeply concerned with the environment, but it has its own distinct viewpoint about what to do about it.
. Foster, however, doesn't deal with what Marxism would have to say about solving the environmental crisis today. Instead his Marxism is one of general phrases. He doesn't point out the key features of Marxism that distinguish it from other ecological viewpoints, but tends to gloss them over. He'd rather try to show that he can talk about Marxism while using all the currently fashionable turns of phrase, and make a show of that pseudo-scientific erudition that many academics and non-Marxist theorists are fond of.
. Hence, in season and out, he is fond of terms like coevolution, metabolism, energetics, and so forth, and at one point even refers, without explanation, to a "thermodynamic critique of capitalist agriculture."(37) He is particularly excited that Marx, in explaining the process of the soil being stripped of its nutrients by capitalist agriculture, once used the terms "metabolism" and "rift" (at least according to one translation). Foster puts them together, and talks repeatedly of Marx's theory of "metabolic rift". (38) A bit catchy perhaps, but what does this term add to the basic idea? Why should such stress be given to the term "metabolism", and what it clarify about Marx's ecological views?
. Well, let's see how Foster explains "metabolism":
. "Beginning in the 1840s down to the present day, the concept of metabolism has been used as a key category in the systems theory approach to the interaction of organisms to their environments. It captures the complex biochemical process of metabolic exchange, through which an organism (or a given cell) draws upon materials and energy from its environments and converts these by way of various metabolic reactions into the building blocks of growth. In addition, the concept of metabolism is used to refer to the specific regulatory processes that govern this complex interchange between organisms and their environment. Eugene Odium and other leading system ecologists now employ the concept of 'metabolism' to refer to all biological levels, starting with the single cell and ending with the ecosystem."(39)
. So Fosters says that metabolism refers to "metabolic exchange" and "metabolic reactions", a rather circular definition. Or, if we look again at Foster's explanation, he seems to be saying that "metabolism" refers either to organisms eating, and growing by digesting the food, or to the basic processes through which eating and digestion take place. Very well. But does this really make Marx's reference to soil being stripped of its nutrients clearer? And does it show any knowledge of the scientific significance of metabolism to simply use the word as many times as possible as Foster does?
. No, it just obscures things. What it boils down to is that Foster seems to think that what is important, that what really gets at the heart of the matter, is to be able to repeat over and over profound-sounding things like "complex biochemical process", "complex interchange", and "systems theory approach". And how dare anyone doubt the usefulness of such verbiage! Doesn't Foster imply that this would be questioning Eugene Odum and system ecology as a whole?
. Well, maybe we just need some more explanation from Foster. He adds a few pages later that "An essential component of the concept of metabolism has always been the notion that it constitutes the basis on which the complex web of interactions necessary to life is sustained, and growth becomes possible." This would seem to be a fancy way of saying that you'd better eat if you want to grow. But what does it have to do with the rest of the paragraph, in which Foster talks about "the metabolic relation between human beings and the earth"?(40)
. No doubt the term "metabolism", and the concept behind it, are useful at times. But Foster seems to think that there is something inherently progressive or ecologically sound in using the term "metabolism" as much as possible. This is reminiscent of other fashionable biological analogies. Prior to the use of the term "metabolism", and afterwards as well, comparisons of society, the "social body", to a biological "organism" have been common. It clearly wouldn't be hard to extend such comparisons to include economic activity. Such comparisons are similar to the idea of talking about metabolism, because "metabolism" and "metabolic interchange" refer to what happens inside a living organism. Such comparisons can easily be turned in one direction or another; they aren't inherently progressive; and they are often made use of for conservative purposes, as a living entity is not a democracy: the different parts of a living organism don't vote on what the organism as a whole decides to do, and each part of the body plays the role to which it has been assigned "by nature", so to speak.
. With his fascination with fancy terms, Foster makes science into a literary flourish, hardly distinguishable from the high-flown way he talks about philosophy. He excels at making simple things incomprehensible, rather than making complex things understandable. An author who wants to help his reader understand what science says about the world, should strive to clarify it as much as possible, not obscure it. But I don't really see much indication that Foster knows or cares much about the content of science, or the basic ways the real material world works. No, what Foster is concerned with, is to know what the big names are talking about. It's "so-and-so talks about energetics", and "so-and-so talks about entropy", rather than any discussion of what these terms refer to and whether they are really relevant. This is pretentious shallowness.
. Thus Foster's book is harmed by the lack of the very materialism he preaches about: it is an
idealist, and even elitist, history of materialism, a doctrine which can only really thrive when it
becomes a force among the masses. Nevertheless, his book does show that Marx and Engels were
concerned with environmental issues. He also makes a thousand and one assessments, many of
which I think are mistaken, of various figures and their viewpoints. Still, abundant mistakes
aside, he does end up giving a certain panorama of the views and polemics of a number of people
of historical interest. Thus despite the book's flaws, it has a certain interest. But what he doesn't
do, despite the title of his book, is give a picture of what Marxism really means for ecology.
Foster would drown Marxism, a revolutionary doctrine with many sharp edges, in a sea of bland,
philosophical generalities. So to actually see what Marxism says to do about the environment
today, one has to go elsewhere. <>
(1) Foster, John Bellamy, "Marx's Ecology", Monthly Review Press, 2000, p. 1. (Return to text)
(2) Foster, Ibid. , pp. 230, 231. Foster laments that it was only at the end of his life that Engels, in his view, took real notice of Epicurus. He says that, worse yet, no subsequent Marxist had obtained even this level of philosophical awareness, and this "had important consequences for subsequent Marxist thought (after Engels)". He praises Lenin's philosophical sophistication, especially the Philosophical Notebooks, which, he notes, refer to Epicurus, but thinks that Lenin, nevertheless, "was caught up in the same difficulties". (Text)
(3) Foster, Ibid., p. 75; Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, First Manuscript, section "Profit of Capital", subsection 4 "The Accumulation of Capitals and the Competition Among the Capitalists", and Third Manuscript, XIV. This work is available at www.marxists.org. Here and in the rest of this article, when I am quoting the same works and passages as Foster does, I do not necessarily give the same extent of the passage as Foster does, or use the same translation, or make the same points about the passage. (Text)
(4) Foster, Ibid., p. 109; Engels, The Condition of the Working-Class in England, Progress Publishers, p. 85. (Text)
(5) Foster, Ibid., pp. 148-9, 155-6; Marx, Capital, vol. I, Kerr edition, at the end of chapter XV, p. 555. (Text)
(6) Foster, Ibid., p. 165; Anti-Duhring, International Publishers, Part II, Chapter IV. The Force Theory (Conclusion), p. 196. (Text)
(7) Foster, Ibid., p. 164; Marx, Capital, vol. III, Ch. XXXVII, p. 617, footnote 27. (Text)
(8) Foster, Ibid., p. 154, and see many other references to Liebig in Foster's book. (Text)
(9) Marx, Capital, vol. 1, near the end of Ch XV, p. 554. (Text)
(10) Engels, The Housing Question, Part III, "Supplement on Proudhon and the Housing Question", in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 368. (Text)
(11) Engels, Anti-Duhring, Part III. Ch. III. Production, p. 323. (Text)
(12) Foster, Ibid., p. 166; Marx, Capital, vol. 2, Progress Publishers, Ch. XIII, The Time of Production, p. 248. (Text)
(13) Foster, Ibid., p. 166; Letter of Marx to Engels, March 25, 1868, emphasis as in the original, available in several good collections of Marx and Engels's letters as well as in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 42, p. 559. (Text)
(14) Foster, Ibid., pp. 235-6, Engels, The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man, in Engels, Dialectics of Nature, pp. 291-2, 294-5, emphasis as in the original. (Text)
(15) Foster, Ibid., pp. 167-8; Marx Marginal Notes to the Program of the German Workers Party in "Selected Works", vol. III, ", p. 13, emphasis as in the original. Also see the section "The environment and things of zero labor content" in "Labor Money and Socialist Planning (part two)" at www.communistvoice.org/26cLaborHour2. html or in Communist Voice #26, May 1, 2001. (Text)
(16) Foster, Ibid., 238-9; Bebel, Socialism and Women, Chapter XXII Socialism and Agriculture, Section 2. The Amelioration of Land, pp. 409-410; chapter XIX. The Revolution in Agriculture, Section 3. The Contrast Between City and Country, p. 360; chapter XXII Socialism and Agriculture, Section 6. Measures to prevent exhaustion of the soil, p. 428. I have added the reference to the need for overall planning to the two passages cited by Foster. (Text)
(17) Foster, Ibid., pp. 239-240; Kautsky, The Agrarian Question, volume II, p. 215. (Text)
(18) Kautsky, Ibid., pp. 215-217. (Text)
(19) Foster, Ibid., p. 240; Lenin, "The Agrarian Questions and the 'Critics of Marx'", Collected Works, vol. 5, pp. 154-5, emphasis as in the original. (Text)
(20) Foster, Ibid., 243. Weiner, "The Changing Face of Soviet Conservation" in The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, edited by Donald Worster, p. 255. (Text)
(21) Foster, Ibid., p. 243. (Text)
(22) Foster, Ibid., p. 243. (Text)
(23) Weiner, Ibid., pp. 254-5. (Text)
(24) Weiner, Ibid., p. 255. (Text)
(25) See S. Frederick Starr, "Visionary Town Planning during the Cultural Revolution" in Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1928-1931, edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick. (Text)
(26) Foster, Ibid., p. 243. (Text)
(27) Foster, Ibid., p. 236. (Text)
(28) Foster, Ibid. (Text)
(29) "The Renewing of Socialism: An Introduction" by John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review, vol. 57, Number 3, July 05 www.monthlyreview,org/070jbf.htm. (Text)
(30) "The anarchy of production under the veneer of Soviet revisionist planning" in Communist Voice, #12, March 1, 1997. And see articles listed at www.communistvoice.org/00Stalinism. html,www.communistvoice.org/00Cuba.html, and www.communistvoice.org/00China.html. (Text)
(31) Joseph Green, "The Coming of the Environmental Crisis, the Failure of the Free Market, and the Fear of a Carbon Dictatorship" in Communist Voice, vol. 13, #1, Jan. 24, 2007. (Text)
(32) See the three-part series "The labor theory of value does not mean that the labor-hour is the natural unit of socialist calculation: Labor-money and socialist planning" in the 25th, 26th, and 27th issues of Communist Voice. Links to these articles can be found at www.communistvoice.org/25cLaborHour.html; www.communistvoice.org/26cLaborHour2.html; and www.communistvoice.org/27cLaborHour3.html. These articles show how recognition of the inadequacy of any single indice for economic planning is contained in Marx's distinction between the concrete and abstract labor hour; and he insisted that trying to compare two goods on a single numerical scale means equating them qualitatively, thus negating their real material differences. (Text)
(33) It is possible with material balances to keep track of pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions, just as much as the balances of coal or steel, although neither the state-capitalist Soviet Union nor western capitalism was inclined to do so. For a more detailed description of material balances, see "Labor Money and Socialist Planning", Part II, at www.communistvoice.org/26cLaborHour2.html. (Text)
(34) Marx, Capital, vol. III, Chapter XLVII. Sec. 5. pp. 806-7, 812-3. (Text)
(35) Foster, Ibid., p. 165, citing from the Vintage edition of vol. III of Capital (Ch VI, Section II). This passage appear on p. 121 of the Progress Publishers edition. (Text)
(36) Foster, Ibid., p. 140. (Text)
(37) Foster, Ibid., p. 167. (Text)
(38) Foster, Ibid., pp. ix, 155-163, 163, 164, 239, 245 etc. On page 155 Foster cites the 1981 Vintage translation of Capital, vol. III, as saying that "Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself." (Marx is referring to the stripping of the soil of nutrients, as urban human excrement is thrown away rather than being returned to the land.) The 1971 Progress Publishers' edition has the last clause translated without the use of the term "metabolism": "It thereby creates conditions which cause an irreparable break in the coherence of social interchange prescribed by the natural laws of life." (From the last paragraph of ch. XLVII.) The meaning is the same, and I don't know which translation is more faithful to the original, although the Progress Publishers' translation does seem clearer. (Text)
(39) Foster, Ibid., p. 160, emphasis as in the original. (Text)
(40) Foster, Ibid., p. 163. (Text)
September 6, 2007.