Marxism and the Dialectics of Ecology

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

Marxism and the Dialectics of Ecology


Foster, John Bellamy, Clark, Brett, Monthly Review


Does Critical Criticism believe that it has reached even the beginning of a knowledge of historical reality so long as it excludes from the historical movement the theoretical and practical relation of man to nature, i.e. natural science and industry?

-Karl Marx and Frederick Engels'

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. This may seem astonishing to those who were reared on the view that Marx's ideas were simply a synthesis of German idealism, French utopian socialism, and British political economy. However, such perspectives on classical historical materialism, which prevailed during the previous century, are now giving way to a broader recognition that 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.

What Georg Lukács called Marx's "ontology of social being" was rooted in a conception of labor as the metabolism of society and nature. In this view, human-material existence is simultaneously social-historical and natural-ecological. Moreover, any realistic historical understanding required a focus on the complex interconnections and interdependencies associated with human-natural conditions.2 It was this overall integrated approach that led Marx to define socialism in terms of a process of sustainable human development-understood as the necessity of maintaining the earth for future generations, coupled with the greatest development of human freedom and potential. Socialism thus required that the associated producers rationally regulate the metabolism of nature and society. It is in this context that Marx's central concepts of the "universal metabolism of nature," "social metabolism," and the metabolic "rift" have come to define his critical-ecological worldview.3

Marx's approach in this respect is inseparably related to his ecological value-form analysis. Central to his critique of capitalist commodity production was the contradiction between use value, representing production in general, and exchange value (as value, the crystallization of abstract labor). Moreover, Marx placed great emphasis on the fact that natural resources under capitalism are treated as a "free gift of Nature to capital," and hence they do not enter directly into the production of value.4 It was on this basis that he distinguished between wealth and commodity value. Wealth consisted of use values and was produced by both nature and labor. In contrast, the value/exchange value of the capitalist commodity economy was derived from the exploitation of human labor power alone. The contradiction between wealth and value thus lies at the core of the accumulation process and is directly associated with the degradation and disruption of natural conditions. It is this ecological contradiction within the capitalist value and accumulation process that serves to explain the system's tendency toward ecological crises proper, or the metabolic rift. The system in its narrow pursuit of profit-and on ever-greater scales-increasingly disrupts the fundamental ecological processes governing all life, as well as social reproduction.

The rediscovery of Marx's metabolism and ecological value-form theories, and of their role in the analysis of ecological crises, has generated sharply discordant trends.5 Despite their importance in the development of both Marxism and ecology, neither idea is without its critics. One manifestation of the divergence on the left in this respect has been an attempt to appropriate aspects of Marx's social-metabolism analysis in order to promote a crude social "monist" view based on such notions as the social "production of nature" and capitalism's "singular metabolism. …

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