Marx's Ecology and the Left

By Foster, John Bellamy; Clark, Brett | Monthly Review, June 2016 | Go to article overview

Marx's Ecology and the Left


Foster, John Bellamy, Clark, Brett, Monthly Review


One of the lasting contributions of the Frankfurt School of social theorists, represented especially by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment, was the development of a philosophical critique of the domination of nature. Critical theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt were deeply influenced by the early writings of Karl Marx. Yet their critique of the Enlightenment exploitation of nature was eventually extended to a critique of Marx himself as an Enlightenment figure, especially in relation to his mature work in Capital. This position was expressed most notably in the work of Horkheimer and Adorno's student, Alfred Schmidt, author of The Concept of Nature in Marx. Due largely to Schmidt's book, the notion of Marx's anti-ecological perspective became deeply rooted in Western Marxism. Such criticisms were also closely related to questions raised regarding Frederick Engels's Dialectics of Nature, which was said to have improperly extended dialectical analysis beyond the human-social realm. First-stage ecosocialists such as Ted Benton and André Gorz added to these charges, contending that Marx and Engels had gone overboard in their alleged rejection of Malthusian natural limits.

So all-encompassing was the critique of the "dialectic of the Enlightenment" within the main line of the Frankfurt School, and within what came to be known as "Western Marxism" (defined largely by its rejection of the dialectics of nature associated with Engels and Soviet Marxism), that it led to the estrangement of thinkers in this tradition not only from the later Marx, but also from natural science-and hence nature itself.1 Consequently, when the ecological movement emerged in the 1960s and '70s, Western Marxism, with its abstract, philosophical notion of the domination of nature, was ill-equipped to analyze the changing and increasingly perilous forms of material interaction between humanity and nature. Making matters worse, some Marxian theorists-such as Neil Smith and Noel Castree-responded by inverting the Frankfurt School critique of the domination of nature with the more affirmative notion of "the production of nature," which conceived nature and its processes as entirely subsumed within social production.2

Matters changed, however, with the rise in the late 1990s of a secondstage ecosocialism that returned to Marx's materialist-ecological approach, and particularly to his concept of "social metabolism," while also reincorporating elements of Engels's ecological thought. This development represented a sharp break with the earlier Frankfurt Schoolinfluenced approach to the question of Marx and nature. Surveying this history, we will examine the debates on Marxian ecology that have emerged within the left, while pointing to the possibility of a wider synthesis, rooted in Marx's concepts of the "universal metabolism of nature," the "social metabolism," and the metabolic "rift."

Criticisms of Marx's Concept of Nature

Paul Burkett described Schmidt's The Concept of Nature in Marx in 1997 as "perhaps the most influential study ever written on Marx's view of nature."3 The book appeared in Germany in 1962, the same year as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, often seen as the starting point of the modern environmental movement. The Concept of Nature in Marx began as Schmidt's dissertation in philosophy, written between 1957 and 1960 under the supervision of Horkheimer and Adorno, and was "impregnated with the influence of'critical theory.'"4 It thus antedated the modern environmental movement both historically and philosophically. Yet Schmidt's work, carrying the imprimatur of the Frankfurt School, would come to shape the attitudes of many New Left theorists towards Marx in the context of the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1960s-1980s. As Marxian geographer Neil Smith put it in 1984, Schmidt's book was considered the "definitive study" of nature in Marx.5

The Concept of Nature in Marx was deeply affected by the broader Weberian pessimism of the Frankfurt School, which viewed the "domination of nature" as an intrinsic characteristic of modernity or "the dialectic of the Enlightenment. …

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