Christian Stache interviews John Bellamy Foster on the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of metabolism between nature and society”
MR online | 24 February, 2017
You and your colleague Paul Burkett just released your new book Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique (Brill 2016, Haymarket 2017). The subtitle classifies your new book as an “Anti-Critique.” To whom do you reply and, most importantly, why do you answer them?
JBF: A little history is in order here. Since the 1980s there has emerged, first in the United States/Canada and Europe, and now all around the world, what is known as the ecosocialist or ecological Marxist movement.
What Paul Burkett and I call first-stage ecosocialism grafted Green ideas on Marxism, or sometimes Marxist ideas on Green theory, creating a hybrid, or Centaur-like analysis. Pioneering thinkers such as Ted Benton, Andre Gorz, and James O’Connor faulted Marx and Engels for the ecological blinders, or even anti-ecological bases, of their thought. It was sometimes said that Marx had gone overboard in his rejection of Malthusian natural limits. In general, first-stage ecosocialism developed under the hegemony of Green theory. Although Marxism contributed the class or labor perspective the main ecological critique was seen as coming almost entirely from outside rather than from within historical materialism itself. Some, though not all, first-stage ecosocialists were very adamant in arguing that ecosocialism had displaced classical Marxism, freeing them from what they saw as many negative aspects of socialist traditions. Ecosocialism in such cases thus became a kind of negation of classical socialism.
Second-stage ecosocialism, in contrast, is usually seen as having begun with Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature (1999) and my Marx’s Ecology (2000), soon joined by numerous other analysts (including figures like Brett Clark, Hannah Holleman, Stefano Longo, Kohei Saito, and Richard York). Elmar Altvater is an important precursor. Here thinkers returned to the foundations of classical historical materialism in order to examine the role of ecological analysis in the deep structure of Marx and Engels’ critique of political economy, focusing in particular on the relation between the materialist conception of history and the materialist conception of nature.
What transpired over the last decade and a half or more was a long debate between first-stage and second-stage ecosocialists on the status of Marx’s ecology, in which first-stage ecosocialists were gradually forced to accede the ground at nearly every point, based on all the new research, evidence, and theoretical discoveries. Marx and the Earth is in many ways the culminating stage in this debate. It is a response to a number of counterattacks and persistent misconceptions aimed at Marx and Engels, particularly in the area of ecological economics. Some ecological economists like Joan Martinez-Alier and James O’Connor argued that Marx and Engels failed to incorporate thermodynamics into their analysis Similarly, it has been charged that Engels rejected the second law of thermodynamics. Other criticisms directed at classical historical materialism, such as Joel Kovel’s claim that Marx and Engels excluded any notion of the intrinsic value of nature, and John Clark’s contention that Marx denied the organic relations between nature and society, are also addressed.
What exactly constitutes an “Anti-Critique” in the sense you use it?
In Marxian theory the notion of anti-critique has a long and distinguished history, associated most directly with Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital: An Anti-Critique (usually referred to simply as the Anti-Critique), in which she replied to her Marxist critics. Engels’s earlier, more famous Anti-Dühring can also be viewed as an anti-critique—one in which he was compelled to follow Eugen Dühring into the natural sciences and philosophy, as well as political economy, responding to what Marx and Engels viewed as a major challenge to the German social democratic movement in their day. An anti-critique in historical materialism is thus a work that engages with a critique of one’s own perspective, and generates an anti-critique in response, exploring the inner core and historical bases of both perspectives. The object of such a confrontation is to achieve by these means self-clarification and a degree of self-critique, together with a major dialectical advance in theoretical understanding. In this way Marxism has continually deepened and revolutionized its perspective, renewing itself in terms of both its foundational views and new historical challenges. In our case, however, we were not responding primarily to attacks on our own ideas, though such attacks existed, but rather to criticisms that first-stage ecosocialists had directed at Marx and Engels’s ecological analyses.
Why do you think it is necessary to counter critiques of Marx, Engels and Marxism particularly regarding eco-socialism/ecological debates?
JBF: The question has an odd ring to it. It is like asking: Why is it necessary to counter critiques of Darwin in relation to evolution? The answer should be obvious: It is a matter of science. However much evolutionary theory has developed since the mid-nineteenth century we keep going back to Darwin and his work, which generates new insights. This is one of the ways in which science advances. So it is not just a matter of defending Marx and Engels, or even Marxism. There are other foundational views within natural and social science that we have to defend as well in developing a meaningful social-ecological analysis in the Anthropocene. Moreover, responding to criticisms, if the analysis reaches deep enough, often reveals new things about the core perspectives, allowing us to advance our own “progressive research programs.”
Today our social-ecological problems are more daunting than ever given the planetary emergency in which the world is now caught, emanating from capitalism. It is important to reexamine our critical traditions in order to understand where things went wrong or to discover critical tools we missed, in the process of addressing the crises of today. Rosa Luxemburg once said that Marx’s science was ahead of the movement, and that as new historical challenges arose we would find new insights in his work, previously ignored or not recognized. This has been especially the case with respect to ecology, where Marx’s ideas in this area were long neglected by the movement—because ahead of the immediate needs of the movement itself.
Marx was the first to develop an ecological-social systems theory. He connected the ecological and economic contradictions of capitalism, and insisted on the need for a sustainable society. This critical outlook is needed more than ever at present.
In three of the five main chapters of the book you deal with the accusations against “the dual founders of historical materialism” regarding their study of and their relation to thermodynamics, referring in particular to the work of the 19th century Ukrainian socialist Sergei Podolinsky? Briefly, what are the charges against them and why do you consider them to be invalid?
JBF: Podolinsky was a Ukrainian Marxist who was a follower of Marx and Engels. He is best known as the founding figure of ecological economics because of a study that he published, in four different versions and four different languages (French, Italian, German, and Russian), on “Human Labour and the Unity of Force.” Podolinksy sent an early draft of his manuscript in French to Marx in 1880 and Marx took copious notes and wrote back to him. Podolinsky then produced another, expanded draft that he published shortly afterward in French, followed by an Italian version, and one in German in the main journal of the German Social Democratic Party in 1883, published shortly after Marx’s death. We do not have Marx’s views on Podolinsky’s manuscript because none of his letters to Podolinsky survived. However, Engels wrote two letters to Marx in 1882, on Podolinsky’s work, at Marx’s request, a couple of months before the latter’s death.
Engels pointed to Podolinsky’s important achievements but also criticized Podolinsky’s work for its crude calculations of energy use in agriculture. He stressed Podolinsky’s failure to take into account not only the human metabolism, but also to incorporate fertilizer and fossil fuels (coal) into his calculations. Engels was clearly disturbed by some of the extreme aspects of Podolinsky’s analysis, where the latter saw the human being as the perfect thermodynamic machine able to restart its own firebox. Podolinsky thought that the accumulation of solar heat on earth and a possible increase in global temperature was a sign of human progress. In his criticism of Podolinsky Engels indicated that it was crucial to recognize that capitalist society was a “squanderer of past solar heat,” i.e., coal.
What is significant here is that even though some first-stage ecosocialists and ecological economists have used the Podolinsky business to argue that Marx and Engels rejected ecological economics, the evidence points to the opposite for the reasons mentioned above.
The leading ecological economist of the twentieth century, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen sided directly with Engels rather than Podolinsky or Martinez-Alier on these issues. In the chapters of our book we unearth the whole story of Marx and Engels’s discussions of energetics. In chapter three we examine how Marx explicitly incorporated thermodynamics into his economics—something that other economists in the nineteenth century (and most economics up to the present day) failed to accomplish. In chapter four we address the frequent charge, made by figures like Martinez-Alier, Lezek Kolakowski, and Daniel Bensaïd, that Engels rejected the second law of thermodynamics. Instead we demonstrate that what Engels (like most leading physicists in his day and ours) questioned was the dubious corollary of the heat death of the universe.
You write that there is a “complex materialist ecology at the root of classical Marxism. “What are the basic and most important insights of Marx and Engels regarding the destruction of nature in capitalism? What is their contribution to a critical social theory of the dialectical relation between society and nature?
JBF: These are complicated questions that are not easy to answer in a brief interview format. The principal discoveries have to do with Marx’s theory of metabolic rift, his ecological-value analysis, and his and Engels’s dialectics of ecology. Other important revelations include the theory of unequal ecological exchange (or ecological imperialism) arising out of Marx’s analysis. Most important is his extraordinarily radical definition of sustainability, in which he said no one owns the earth, not even all the people in all the countries of the world own the earth, rather they must maintain it for future generations as good heads of the household. Socialism, for Marx, was defined in Capital, vol. 3 in terms of the rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolism between human beings and nature, along with the full development of human potential.
Marx adopted the concept of metabolism from the natural science of his day. His metabolism argument took the form of a dialectic between what he called “the social metabolism,” i.e. the labor and production process looked at from an ecological standpoint, and what he termed “the universal metabolism of nature”. Capitalism’s creation of an alienated social metabolism (in contradiction with the universal metabolism of nature) generated an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism,” or metabolic rift. Influenced by the great German chemist Justus von Liebig Marx explored the problem of the rift in the soil nutrient cycle.
In this way Marx developed a theory of ecological crisis related to capitalist production, which focused not simply on the economy, but on the degradation of natural conditions that capitalism generated.
Marx’s ecological value-form theory, which embraced the concepts of use value and exchange value, argued that value production under capitalism, through the crystallization of abstract labor, undermined the natural-material/use value components of wealth, generating contradictions not only in relation to labor, but also in relation to nature. Value in capitalist terms is radically removed from material conditions—not one iota of matter, Marx insists, enters into abstract social labor and its crystallization as value. But Marx’s overall ecological-value analysis reveals the contradictions inherent in this, embedded in capitalism’s treatment of nature as “a free gift for capital.”
You and your co-author Paul Burkett write that there have been at least about three generations of Marxists who have tried to interpret ecological destructions through the lens of Marx’ and Engels’ tremendous work. What are the merits of these generations, what are the differences between them and how do they relate to each other?
JBF: If we look at it from the post-Second World War years to the present and if we concentrate on those who can be called ecosocialists or ecological Marxists, we get a fairly coherent picture, at least in the English-speaking world. There was a “pre-figurative phase” in which there were enormous contributions by individuals like K. William Kapp, Barry Commoner, Virginia Brodine, Paul Sweezy, Murray Bookchin (in his more Marxian stage), Charles Anderson, and Alan Schnaiberg, among others. In this early phase, it was generally assumed that Marxism/socialism and ecology were a natural fit. This was followed by the first two stages of ecosocialism.
The history of Marxism and ecology gets more complicated of course if one looks back to the period from the late nineteenth century to the Second World War. Here we find several generations of socialist ecological theorists who were deeply affected by both Marx and Darwin, particularly in Britain. It is this period that socialism had its main influence on ecology but that story is little known. This was before the development of the modern ecological movement and the discoveries at the time related mainly to the discovery of ecological relations themselves, and from that a growing sense of concern. I have been working for a long time on a book on this whole development.
And in the Soviet Union?
One runs into further complications when the Soviet Union is brought into the picture. The USSR had the most dynamic ecological science in the world in the 1920s. This was largely but not completely destroyed in the purges under Stalin. It was partly resurrected, based initially on the natural sciences, in the post-Stalin decades (which did not prevent the Soviet Union from having a destructive relation to its environment-as in the case of Chernobyl, for example). It is important to recognize that it was the Soviet scientists who were the first to alert the world to accelerated climate change (due to Mikhail Budyko’s work on the ice-albedo effect). They had many more climatologists than anywhere else and were ahead in this until around the mid-1960s. The Soviet conservation movement was very strong in the 1980s with millions of members, and was distinguished from the West in that it was led by natural scientists. There were important developments in Marxian ecology there that are only now being recognized. Of course many on the left as well as the right for essentially political reasons insist that is somehow wrong to acknowledge any of this—and who refuse even to look at the facts—because they have the adopted the rigid, and largely irrational view that the Soviet Union was simply a monolithic society determined in its entirety from above. As the late Richard Levins suggested, there was always an undercurrent of serious Marxist and dialectical analysts in the USSR, particularly in the natural sciences.
Why do you think lots of ecological scholars make such great efforts to ignore, downplay, or distance themselves from these insights by Marx and Engels?
I think this is less the case than in the past. But the fact that such divisions exist should not surprise us. Ecosocialism or ecological Marxism emerged mainly during a period of decline of the left in the 1980s and 1990s. Marxism was totally discredited in some eyes by the fall of the Soviet Union—a view that was of course nurtured by establishment ideologues. Intellectually you saw the rise on the left of postmodernism characterized by a deep scepticism, a heavy emphasis on deconstruction, social constructivism, and identity, and the general loss of an emancipatory project. At the same time the Cold War ideology persisted, now taking on a kind of post-Cold War version, which presented the fall of the USSR as the proof of the most extreme readings of that society on the ecological front as well.
While all of this was going on Marxian scholars increasingly focused on the environment raising more radical questions. Environmental sociology arose in the United States and has been dominated since its beginnings in the 1970s by a Marxian or neo-Marxian critique of capitalism. Ecosocialism itself arose as a distinct tradition in the 1980s.
So these were opposing tendencies. Marxism itself of course is a revolutionary philosophy, tied to the belief, expectation, or hope that the working class will be able to carry out its own self-emancipation. Some leftist academics—the university after all remains a bourgeois institution—are frightened by this. Others claim that the working class is by nature anti-environmental, and that the ecology movement has to depend on the middle class or above.
The truth is there are a lot of non-radical, capitalist-oriented environmentalists. German sociologist Ulrich Beck, for example, denied that the ecology problem had anything to do with class and then became a senior fellow of the Breakthrough Institute, the leading think tank in the United States for capitalist ecomodernism with its purely technocratic and market-based perspective, geared to unlimited, exponential capital accumulation.
One of the traditional flaws of ecological movements and activists as well as ecological thinkers is to treat ecological problems as human or species problems and not as problems of the class struggle, as if there are no winners and losers of ecocide, or as if there are no interests in exploiting nature. How do you explain this ideological misinterpretation and what role do you think does the class-struggle play in understanding capitalist exploitation of nature and solving ecological problems like climate change?
JBF: Yes, there are all sorts of varieties of this “we are all in this together” notion within liberal environmentalism. One is the Malthusian view that all ecological problems are due to their being too many people so it is just a failure of the mass of humanity (though the real Malthusian message is that there too many poor people). Another is the straightforward claim that we all reside on a spaceship earth so we are all essentially in the same position. In this view, there is no class or inequality, race and gender oppression can be completely discounted, imperialism does not exist, the conditions of indigenous people are invisible. Hence, there is no environmental injustice, no difference in life chances, etc. Of course this is pure liberal ideology.
The best overall answer to your question that I know of was given by Ian Angus in a remarkable chapter of his Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System. The chapter is entitled “We Are Not All in This Together” and addresses race, class, and international inequality, along with other exclusions associated with the deepening crisis of the Anthropocene. Angus points to the new manifestations of economic and ecological inequality—of a sort worse than anything that we have ever seen.
The truth is that the environmental problems and the mounting catastrophes facing humanity have everything to do with economic and environmental injustice and a society that put the accumulation of capital before people and the planet. This is so much the case that we will increasingly see the development of an environmental proletariat where the working class broadly speaking, accounting for the greater part of humanity, will be increasingly drawn together by the need to respond to deteriorating material conditions in which the distinction between say the material conditions on the job and life conditions in general will more and more dissolve. This will put workers in a condition akin to the early years of the Industrial Revolution, when the class struggle was as much about urban environmental conditions as factory conditions. This is likely to arise (and I would argue is already arising) in the global South, before the North.
In your new book you claim to carry on a classical Marxist tradition from Marx and Engels that has always been engaged in the critique of ecological devastation. You also write that there have been various Marxist scholars before the new social movements came up in the second half of the last century. Nevertheless, you assert that your tradition and these thinkers have been neglected by those opponents of ecological Marxism who condemn Marxism as whole for being anti-ecological. What constitutes this tradition, who does belong to it, and what has made it “ecological”? How do you explain the negligence/disregard of your tradition?
The history of the relation of socialism (and radical materialism) to ecology is not very well known. The main reason for this is that ecology as a way of understanding the world was a product of natural science more than social science and even more than cultural theory. But Marxism when it revived in the West in the 1960s (and even before that in the philosophical tradition known as “Western Marxism” that arose from the 1920s on) was distinguished from classical Marxian thought in that it largely excluded natural science and with it nature itself from Marxian thought. So when ecology became a force from the 1960s and 1970s on, and concepts like the ecosystem and the biosphere crossed over into general usage, socialists were themselves largely ignorant of the role that socialists/materialist scientists, particularly in Britain and the Soviet Union, had played in the development of these ideas.
British socialist scientists (Marxist or social democratic) in the 1880s-1940s and Russian scientists in the 1920s (and to a much more limited extent after) were the principle developers of many our most important ecological ideas: bionomics, ecosystem, biosphere, the Anthropocene (an idea raised by A.P. Pavlov in the 1920s), biogeocoenosis, human ecology, the Vavilov areas (the sources of the world’s germplasm), the theory of the origin of life (Haldane)–to name just a few of the many intellectual developments.
In the English-speaking world alone such thinkers included, among the scientists (and science writers) Ray Lankester, Arthur Tansley, H.G. Wells, Joseph Needham, J.D. Bernal, J.B.S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben, Hyman Levy, Herman Muller, and C.H. Waddington. Among the social scientists, philosophers, classicists, and artists, we find such figures as William Morris, Florence Kelley, Benjamin Farrington, Christopher Caudwell, George Thompson, and V. Gordon Childe. These and other thinkers helped bring about a revolution in our world view leading to ecological materialism, but deeply rooted in historical materialism, dialectics, and socialist ideas.
At first glance the chapters of Marx and the Earth seem to be directed to the scientific community and debates as opposed to your earlier ones, especially when compared to What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism: A Citizen’s Guide to Capitalism and the Environment, written with Fred Magdoff. What are the political implications of Marx and the Earth? What can political activists and people who are interested in solving ecological problems learn from it?
JBF: What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, of which Fred Magdoff was first author, was primarily a movement book aimed at explaining to environmentalists why addressing capitalism was necessary if we were to deal with the environmental crisis.
Marx and the Earth is a different, more specialized, book, written for a more theoretically inclined audience, but is no less crucial in its own way. Historically, Marxism has always taken the development of theory very seriously, without which meaningful practice (or revolutionary praxis) would be impossible. In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote that “in promoting the movement of the present” it is necessary also to “take care of the future of that movement.” In the struggles to define the critique of capitalism embodied in Marxian ecology and ecosocialism it is essential to get the theory correct to the extent possible. Our practice, the clarity of our ideas, our way forward depend on that.
As first-stage ecosocialist interpretations and related left conceptions were refuted one after the other in the face of second-stage ecosocialist research the new theoretical understanding has enhanced our critique of capitalism and how we understand the new revolutionary possibilities represented by an ecological socialism. The real importance of our work, like all largely theoretical developments, will assert itself only in practice, and in works that are more broadly accessible.
Our anti-critque, despite its necessary excursions into all sorts of areas seemingly divorced from immediate political practice, ends on a very concrete basis—relating Marx’s metabolic rift to his insistence on metabolic restoration and the creation of a sustainable society. It is this, we argue that mainly defines the ecological struggle of our age. But such a metabolic restoration can only be accomplished by going against the logic of capital as part of the larger movement toward socialism.