Marxism and the Earth: A defence of the classical tradition
Book review of Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique

Empson, Martin
Date Written:  2017-01-03
Publisher:  International Socialism
Year Published:  2017
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20202

Marxist analyses of the natural world have been the focus of intense debate recently, and the publication of any book that further explores what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels thought about the subject is something to be welcomed. John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett have proven track records of writing some of the clearest books on the subject, and while Marx and the Earth is not a specific response to some of their recent critics, it is an important defence of Marx’s and Engels’s original work.



The authors’ starting point is very clear. They argue that at the heart of classical Marxism is an “absolute general law of environmental degradation under capitalism” but that this is not simply an economic rule. The degradation of the natural world is a dialectical counterpart to the “general law of capital accumulation” but could not be reduced down “to the internal logic of capital accumulation”.

the historical materialist approach puts the dialectical relationship between humans and nature at the heart of history. It sees environmental problems as arising out of that relationship, but under capitalism they are exacerbated because of the way that the system is driven by accumulation for the sake of accumulation. The outcome of this approach is that the only path to a sustainable society is one that transforms our relationship to nature, so that, as Marx said in Capital, volume 3, “private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men”.

This general approach has, in no small part due to the work of the authors of this book, become generally accepted by the Marxist left. However, there have been some important critiques of the ecological content of Marx’s and Engels’s work, with some arguing that they failed to develop an ecological approach. This book seeks to address these in order to strengthen classical Marxism’s analysis of environmental questions.

Marx and the Earth is a rigorous defence of Marx’s and Engels’s engagement with wider scientific ideas that are of importance to ecology. But because it also reasserts how Marx puts the dialectical interaction between society and the natural world at the heart of his ideas, the book highlights the strength of a Marxist approach for understanding modern environmental crises. As Marxism and ecology is once again a subject for debate on the left, this is an important defence of the core ideas of the classical tradition.

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