The Emergence of Marx's Critique of Modern Agriculture
Ecological Insights from His Excerpt Notebooks

Saito, Kohei
Date Written:  2014-10-01
Publisher:  Monthly Review
Year Published:  2014
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX16767

Examining Marx’s notebooks, one realizes that he first attained a truly critical and ecological comprehension of modern agriculture in the middle of the 1860s. Although Marx was at first optimistic about the positive effects of modern agriculture based on the application of natural sciences and technology, he later came to emphasize the negative consequences of agriculture under capitalism precisely because of such an application, illustrating how it inevitably brings about disharmonies in the transhistorical “metabolism” (Stoffwechsel) between human beings and nature.



if, despite the intensive usage of synthetic fertilizers, industrial agriculture under capitalism only exhausts land over the long run, a socialist project needs to carry out a radical change. This means learning to manage soils more holistically, using better rotations and other management practices than possible given the logic of capitalist markets. These practices should aim to maintain and build soil organic matter and enhance the health of the soil and its biological, chemical, and physical characteristics. Contrary to a common critique of Marx’s “Prometheanism,” he does not overestimate the modern development of technology at all.73 Instead, analyzing how the logic of capital transforms the transhistorical metabolism between humans and nature, Marx convincingly emphasizes the necessity of consciously interacting with nature to enable a sustainable development of humanity and nature, and he attests to the irrationality and contradictions of the development of productive forces under the capitalist mode of production.

In order to theorize a more rational form of culture, modern natural sciences, including the agricultural chemistry and geology of Liebig and Johnston, play a significant role for Marx because they uncover necessary conditions of reproducing the original state of soil. After publishing the first volume of Capital, Marx engaged in a more intensive study of the natural sciences. Throughout the process, Marx attempted a critical comprehension of the ongoing ecological degradation under capitalism from a broader scientific perspective.

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