"Marx and the Earth – An Anti-Critique," by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, 2017
While JB Foster was swilling his celebratory beer at the conclusion of the Marx Symposium in Toronto, Canada, last weekend, we may ask ‘what use does an intense and detailed academic Marxist rebuttal of green ecologist philosophy have to do with an actual revolutionary movement’? Well, a bit! This book is a follow-up to the author's prior works on “Marx’ Ecology” and “The Ecological Revolution” (both reviewed below). Yet it’s point is not examine Marx’s perspective of the metabolic rift between humans and nature brought about by capital, but to challenge certain anti-Marxist stereotypes promulgated by Green ecology thinkers - while doing just that.
Now it’s supposedly not nice to polemicize against people who call themselves ‘eco-socialists.’ Yet I have found that ‘socialists’ who are against Marx – the most radical anti-capitalist in history – have a hidden agenda, which usually translates into some kind of compromised version of bourgeois socialism and anti-capitalism. So there are eco-socialists and eco-socialists. Foster/Burkett paraphrase Sartre to this point, saying that ‘Marx’s critique was so ruthless… that it is impossible to surpass it without surpassing bourgeois society itself.’
Here Foster and Burkett take on 6 main theories opposing Marx on the terrain of ecology. They make quite effective work of them, using their voluminous knowledge of Marx and Engel’s writings, along with many later Marxists who followed in their footsteps. To do this, Foster and Burkett must have every written document done by Marx and Engels on a searchable database. They reference many of the leading socialist and scientific thinkers in the field from the 1800s onward, which the reader will find valuable in filling in gaps in knowledge.
The sloppy mischaracterizations of Marx include thinking he was merely a ‘productionist’ who had no ecological perspective, but was only interested in putting more material goods on the table of the worker. They take on John Clark who says that because Marx said that nature was ‘the inorganic body of man’ he demonstrated his anthropocentrism; Martinez-Alier, who insisted it was incorrect for Marx and Engels to criticize Sergei Podolinsky ‘energetic’ theory of labour; Martinez-Alier and Bensaid’s charge that Marx opposed the second law of thermodynamics; Herman Daly’s charge that Marx’s economics excluded material flows from nature; Tanuro’s claim that Marx ignored fossil fuels; and the claims of Kovel and Worster that Marx slighted the ‘intrinsic’ value of nature.
If this sounds all really obscure, then remember that the class struggle is not just confined to the streets or the factories, but also happens in the realm of ideas and culture.
Briefly, Foster/Burkett’s response to these 6 main charges are this:
Clark was not familiar with the usage of the term ‘organic’ and ‘inorganic’ during this period in philosophy, especially through Hegel.
Podolinsky’s theory of the ‘perfect human machine’, which was to create the perfect caloric retention of heat, was carefully examined by Marx and Engels. It was found to be unworkable and in fact part of a reductionist ‘closed’ system analysis that did not incorporate many external inputs.
Marx and Engels incorporated the early beginnings of thermodynamics in their writings, but opposed the extension of the second law (entropy) to the theory of the ‘heat death of the universe’ – an idea having more in common with Christianity, and which had no proof, and still doesn’t. As anyone familiar with scientific laws know, they sometimes apply to one area, but not all. Foster/Burkett however fail to follow up on this insight as to the flawed nature of the ‘Big Bang’ theory itself, which would have also been opposed by Marx and Engels. The ‘big bang’ is the theoretical equivalent - at the other end of the 'clock' - of the ‘heat death’ theory. (Commentaries and reviews on the "Big Bang," below.)
Foster/Burkett point out that Marx and Engels, while describing the circulation of capital, always included ‘material’ inputs, and never left the system closed to the effects and attributions of nature – i.e. raw materials. Indeed Marx said quite clearly in their criticism of the simplistic economics of the German Social-Democrats in the Critique of the Gotha Programme that value comes from both nature AND labour, not just labour.
Tanuro a-historically blames them for not predicting global warming, which makes you think there is another agenda here. Marx and Engels always paid close attention to sources of power at that time, like wood, wind, steam and later, coal, and even commented on the over-use or ‘squandering of our reserves of energy, our coal’ (Engels). Foster/Burkett mention that Tanuro has no proof citations in his article as to their ignoring of power sources. Marx & Engels are generally recognized as foundational to ecological economics, and saw the role of energy in historical, not neutral, terms. But no, they did not predict global warming, though they kept very close attention to nearly all scientific developments. The first scientific mention of the role of carbon and the greenhouse effect happened about the time of Marx’s death.
Kovel presents ‘eco-socialism’ of a certain type as a successor to Marxism by insisting that Marx did not recognize the human role in the alienation of nature. Foster/Burkett point out the frequent parallels Marx and Engels drew between the alienation of and exploitation of labor AND also of nature. Marx’s description of the ‘metabolic rift’ is basic to them. Both were aware of the various ecological crises of the 1800s – polluted water and air, destruction of the soil, unsustainability, deforestation, loss of biological diversity, natural resource shortages. Theirs, unlike capitalist economics, was an ‘open’ economics that took everything into account, not merely the circulation of products or ‘supply and demand’ or mystical processes like ‘the market.’
Lying beneath Foster and Burkett’s polemics with ‘green socialists’ is a general criticism of green ecology itself. For instance, ‘deep ecology’ is an essentially anti-human and idealist response to the present situation. The mere worship of nature is not a substitute for a dialectical response to the crisis we are in. There is much mysticism in current Green theory. Instead, ‘there is an abstract, moral division between anthropocentric and ecocentric views,’ which basically slights the working class and human society. Deep ecology is at bottom a romantic, pre-industrial idea that offers little to the working classes.
They quote Murray Bookchin regarding Deep Ecology: ‘Mystical ecologists who dualize the natural and the social by contrasting ‘biocentricity’ with ‘anthropocentricity’ have increasingly diminished the importance of social theory in shaping ecological thinking. Political action and education have given way to values of personal redemption, ritualistic behavior, the denigration of human will and the virtues of irrationality… mystical ecology has advanced a message of self-effacement, passivity, and obedience to the laws of nature that are held supreme over human activity and praxis.’
The struggle with the bourgeois corporate Greens – the ‘Big Greens’ - who are based on the capitalist market – or the anti-working class ‘deep greens’ – will decide whether the ecological crisis is solved through an actual socialist solution – or barbarism. That is the choice we face.
While some of the debates are a bit obscure, this book is a valuable in-depth look at past scientific thinkers and discoveries and Marxist political and economic contributions to that science, showing their intimate and enduring relationship.
Prior reviews of “Marx’s Ecology” and “The Ecological Revolution,’ below. Use blog search box, upper left.
June 4, 2017