Marxism and the Dialectics of Ecology

Foster, John Bellamy; Clark, Brett
Date Written:  2016-10-01
Publisher:  Monthly Review
Year Published:  2016
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20320

The recovery of the ecological-materialist foundations of Karl Marx’s thought, as embodied in his theory of metabolic rift, is redefining both Marxism and ecology in our time, reintegrating the critique of capital with critical natural science. Marx's materialist conception of history is inextricably connected to the materialist conception of nature, encompassing not only the critique of political economy, but also the critical appropriation of the natural-scientific revolutions occurring in his day.



Marx drew his concept of the universal metabolism of nature, and its relation to social and ecological reproduction, initially from the work of his friend and revolutionary comrade, the socialist physician Roland Daniels. In his 1851 work Mikrokosmos, Daniels applied the concept of metabolism in a systems-theory fashion to explain the interconnected relations between plants and animals. Marx built on Daniels's conception, as well as the work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig, to develop his own notion of social-metabolic reproduction and the metabolic rift. In writing Capital and in the period that followed, he became more and more concerned with ecological crises. After reading the botanist Carl Fraas's studies of the destruction of the soil and desertification over the long history of class-based civilizations, Marx argued that this process had in many ways only intensified and expanded under capitalism -- and had consequently become "irreparable" under the modern system of alienated labor-production. From this he concluded that ecological destruction under capitalism represented an "unconscious socialist tendency" -- in the sense that it pointed to the need for a revolutionary break with the system.

In Marx's analysis, therefore, the concept of metabolism becomes the basis of a theory of the ecological aspects of human historical development, pointing to a metabolic rift under capitalism, requiring the "restoration" of a non-alienated social metabolism in the face of capitalist degradation, and the development of a society of substantive equality and ecological sustainability, namely socialism. None of this took away from Marx’s political-economic critique of capitalism as a system of exploitation of labor power. Rather, in Marx's conception, capitalism undermined "the original sources of all wealth -- the soil and the worker."

The power of Marx's conception of social metabolism lies in the fact that it anticipated modern ecosystem and Earth system analyses, both of which were based on the metabolism concept -- and had concrete links at the formative stage in the development of these ideas within socialist ecology. Marx's general materialist approach anticipated and in some ways influenced many of the great advances in ecology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Moreover, his ecological critique, which was tied to his general political-economic critique of capitalism, is the most developed dialectical-systems theory perspective available to us today for understanding the enormously complex role of capitalism in the degradation of both labor and nature.

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