Toward a Global Dialogue on Ecology and Marxism: A Brief Response to Chinese Scholars

By Foster, John Bellamy | Monthly Review, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Toward a Global Dialogue on Ecology and Marxism: A Brief Response to Chinese Scholars


Foster, John Bellamy, Monthly Review


I would like to thank Zhihe Wang, Meijun Fan, Hui Dong, Dezhong Sun, and Lichun Li for doing so much to promote a global dialogue on ecological Marxism by summarizing some of the insights and concerns of Chinese scholars in this area, focusing in this case on my work in particular. The various questions, challenges, and critiques raised in relation to my work and that of related scholars are all, I believe, of great importance to the development of theory and practice in this area. I am therefore providing a brief set of responses to the problems raised, which I hope will be helpful in the further promotion of this global dialogue on ecology and Marxism.

Marx and Ecological Marxism

Many of the criticisms expressed relate to the question of the compatibility of Marx's ideas with ecological Marxism. Xu Yanmei, Pu Xiangji, Li Benzhu, Gao Huizhu, Zhang Xiangli, and Leng Yunsheng have all raised what I consider to be important questions about how Marx's materialism is depicted in my book Marx's Ecology, and how this is related to classical Marxian conceptions of history, practice, and dialectics - as well as Marx's own development. Xu Yanmei, we are told, contends that my work makes the mistake of placing Marx's dissertation on a par with his mature work. In contrast to my interpretation, she argues that an ecological critique did not consciously enter into Marx's critique of capitalism or his critique of religion. These are important criticisms. Here I will confine my response to the relation of Marx's ecological critique to his critique of capitalism. However, the connections of his ecological thought to the critique of religion are also important. I have discussed these in the book Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationismfrom Antiquity to the Present, written with Brett Clark and Richard York.1

The initial research that led me to write Marx's Ecology began with an investigation into the ecological analysis that came to occupy such a central place in Marx's critique in Capital. The most important discussions lie at the end of the core chapter on "Machinery and LargeScale Industry" in Capital, vol. 1, and at the end of the long treatment of capitalist ground rent in Capital, vol. 3 - but the same critical ecological viewpoint permeates all of Marx's mature work. In particular, he relied heavily on Justus von Liebig's critique of capitalist agriculture (contained in particular in the long introduction to the 1862 edition of Liebig's great work on agricultural chemistry). But Marx went beyond Liebig in brilliantly incorporating the metabolism concept to explain the relation between humanity and nature, defining the labor process itself in these terms. Human production, like life itself, could thus be viewed in terms of "metabolism," i.e., as an "organic exchange of matter" - as Engels put it in Anti-Dühring. Marx described capitalism's necessarily antagonistic relation to nature as an "irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself." He thus anticipated the entire direction that critical ecological science was to take in twentiethcentury systems ecology, which made the concept of metabolism the key to ecosystem theory.2

I wondered how was this possible? How did Marx arrive at such profound ecological conclusions, which could not be explained simply in terms of his encounter with Liebig? Could the answer lie in the nature of Marx's materialism? What was the relation of Marx's thought to natural science? The only way to find an answer, I decided, was to go back to the genesis of Marx's thought - not just to his "early writings" but what I came to think of as his "very early writings," i.e., his dissertation and other pre-1844 manuscripts.3 That led me to Marx's early encounter with Epicurean materialism, which had played such a large role in the development of modernity and modern science. Marx approached Epicurus, like all other major thinkers, dialectically, which meant that he appropriated Epicurus's thought in a critical-transformative fashion. …

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