Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature

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

Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature


Foster, John Bellamy, Monthly Review


The rediscovery over the last decade and a half of Marx's theory of metabolic rift has come to be seen by many on the left as offering a powerful critique of the relation between nature and contemporary capitalist society. The result has been the development of a more unified ecological world view transcending the divisions between natural and social science, and allowing us to perceive the concrete ways in which the contradictions of capital accumulation are generating ecological crises and catastrophes.

Yet, this recovery of Marx's ecological argument has given rise to further questions and criticisms. How is his analysis of the metabolism of nature and society related to the issue of the "dialectics of nature," traditionally considered a fault line within Marxist theory? Does the metabolic rift theory-as a number of left critics have recently charged-violate dialectical logic, falling prey to a simplistic Cartesian dualism?1 Is it really conceivable, as some have asked, that Marx, writing in the nineteenth century, could have provided ecological insights that are of significance to us today in understanding the human relation to ecosystems and ecological complexity? Does it not rather stand to reason that his nineteenth-century ruminations on the metabolism of nature and society would be "outmoded" in our more developed technological and scientific age?2

In the following discussion I shall attempt briefly to answer each of these questions. In the process I shall also seek to highlight what I consider to be the crucial importance of Marx's ecological materialism in helping us to comprehend the emerging Great Rift in the earth system, and the resulting necessity of an epochal transformation in the existing nature-society metabolism.

The Dialectics of Nature

The problematic status of the dialectics of nature in Marxian theory has its classic source in Georg Lukács's famous footnote in History and Class Consciousness in which he stated with respect to the dialectic:

It is of the first importance to realise that the method is limited here to the realms of history and society. The misunderstandings that arise from Engels' account of dialectics can in the main be put down to the fact that Engels-following Hegel's mistaken lead-extended the method to apply also to nature. However, the crucial determinants of dialectics-the interaction of subject and object, the unity of theory and practice, the historical changes in the reality underlying the categories as the root cause of changes in thought, etc.-are absent from our knowledge of nature.3

Within what came to be known as "Western Marxism" this was generally taken to mean that the dialectic applied only to society and human history, and not to nature independent of human history.4 Engels, in this view, was wrong in his Dialectics of Nature, in attempting to apply dialectical logic to nature directly, as were the many Marxian scientists and theorists who had proceeded along the same lines.5

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this stricture for Western Marxism, which saw it as one of the key elements separating Marx from Engels and Western Marxism from the Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals. It heralded a move away from the direct concern with issues of material nature and natural science that had characterized much of Marxian thought up to that point. As Lucio Colletti observed in Marxism and Hegel, a vast literature "has always agreed" that differences over philosophical materialism/realism and the dialectics of nature constituted the "main distinguishing features between 'Western Marxism' and 'dialectical materialism.'" According to Russell Jacoby, "Western Marxists" almost by definition "confined Marxism to social and historical reality," distancing it from issues related to external nature and natural science.6

What made the stricture against the dialectics of nature so central to the Western Marxist tradition was that dialectical materialism- in the sense that this was attributed to Engels and adopted by the Second and Third Internationals-was seen as deemphasizing the role of the subjective factor (or human agency), reducing Marxism to mere conformity to objective natural laws, giving rise to a kind of mechanical materialism or even positivism. …

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