Marx and the Environment

By Foster, John Bellamy | Monthly Review, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview

Marx and the Environment


Foster, John Bellamy, Monthly Review


It has become fashionable in recent years, in the words of one critic, to identify the growth of ecological consciousness with "the current postmodernist interrogation of the metanarrative of the Enlightenment." Green thinking, we are frequently told, is distinguished by its postmodern, post-Enlightenment perspective. Nowhere is this fashion more evident than in certain criticisms directed at Marx and Engels. Historical materialism, beginning with the work of its two founders, is often said to be one of the main means by which the Baconian notion of the mastery of nature was transmitted to the modern world. The prevalence of this interpretation is indicated by its frequent appearance within the analysis of the left itself. "While Marx and Engels displayed an extraordinary understanding of and sensitivity toward the `ecological' costs of capitalism," socialist ecofeminist Carolyn Merchant writes, "... they nevertheless bought into the Enlightenment's myth of progress via the domination of nature."(1)

It is of course undeniable that many of those who claimed to be following in Marx's footsteps treated nature as an object to be exploited and nothing more. It is common for today's critics, however, to argue that the worldview of Marx and Engels themselves was rooted before all else in the extreme technological subjugation of nature, and that despite the ecological sensitivity that they displayed in particular areas, this remains the primary context in which their theoretical contributions must be judged. Marxism and ecology are therefore never fully compatible.

The chief complaint upon which this general criticism is based is that Marx adopted what the socialist environmentalist Ted Benton - himself a critic of Marx in this respect has called a "Promethean, `productivist' view of history." Reiner Grundmann concurs, writing in his Marxism and Ecology that "Marx's basic premiss" was "the Promethean model" of the domination of nature - a position that Grundmann attempts to defend. For liberal Victor Ferkiss, no defense is possible: "Marx's attitude toward the world always retained that Promethean thrust, glorifying the human conquest of nature." Social ecologist (ecological anarchist) John Clark goes further:

Marx's Promethean ... "man" is a being who is not at home in nature, who does not see the Earth as the "household' of ecology. He is an indomitable spirit who mint subject nature in his quest for self-realization. ... For such a being, the forces of nature, whether in the form of his own unmastered internal nature or the menacing powers of external nature, must be subdued.(2)

There are of course other common environmental criticisms directed at Marx and Engels (not to mention Marxism as a whole) in addition to this one. Benton, for example, argues that Marx was "unmistakably anthropocentric" and that he resisted any framework that would recognize the natural limits to economic advance. Marxian value theory, we are frequently told, designated labor (power) as the source of all value, thereby denying any intrinsic value to nature. Then there is the dismal ecological performance of the Soviet Union and other Eastern European regimes before the fall, which is seen as a general reflection of Marx's failure to incorporate ecological concerns into his master narrative.

Yet it is the charge of Prometheanism that occupies central place in green criticisms of Marx. True environmentalism, we are led to believe, demands nothing less than a rejection of modernity itself. The charge of Prometheanism is thus a roundabout way of branding Marx's work and Marxism as a whole as an extreme version of modernism, more easily condemned in this respect perhaps than liberalism itself. Thus postmodern environmentalist Wade Sikorski writes that, "Marx ... was one of our age's most devout worshippers of the machine. Capitalism was to be forgiven its sins because ... it was in the process of perfecting the machine."(3)

This claim that Marx's work was based on a crude "Prometheanism," it is worth recalling, has a very long history.

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