Marxism and the Environment
Marxism is often mistakenly accused of taking the environment for granted – in the pursuit of the economic growth needed to alleviate poverty and want. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Drawing on the works of Marx and Engels, and the experience of the first years of the Russian revolution, PER-ÅKE WESTERLUND (Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna – CWI Sweden) sets the record straight. Originally published in Socialism Today, Issue 194 (December 2015 / January 2016), the political journal of the Socialist Party (sister party of Socialist Alternative in England and Wales).
There are two common accusations against Marxism regarding the environment, from right-wingers and some green activists, as well as from part of the left. The first is that Karl Marx had an overly positive view of industrialisation and saw nature as an unlimited source to be exploited. The second is that Marxism bears the responsibility for some of the worst ecological catastrophes, in the Soviet Union.
Contrary to these claims, consciousness about and struggle for the environment is nothing new for Marxists. In fact, Marx was a pioneer in analysing and criticising the destructive effect of capitalist industrialisation on nature as well as on society. Both Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, closely studied and followed science in all fields.
Capitalist industrial production, and the working class (the proletariat) and its labour, had only come into existence in the preceding decades, but were immediately understood by Marx as the key elements for the development of society. Stressing the importance of the working class did not mean ignoring the environment.
Interestingly, Marx viewed labour as “a process in which both man and nature participate”. This is underlined in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme – the programme adopted by the initial congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1875. Marx takes up the programme’s assertion that, “labour is the source of all wealth and all culture”. “Labour is not the source of all wealth”, Marx wrote. “Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power”. The wrong idea of labour as the sole source came from Ferdinand Lassalle, not from Marx.
Marx warned of the effects of the disruption in the relationship between humanity and nature. Therefore, he saw the alienation of workers in capitalist production as part of the same process as humanity’s alienation from nature. In his time, this was particularly obvious in the industrialisation of agriculture.
The working class was and is at the forefront of the effects of capitalism on the environment. For example, energy companies – oil, coal, nuclear power – pose a direct threat to workers in those industries as well as to people and the natural environment in whole regions or countries. Workers in those industries are often the most conscious about those dangers. The struggle to improve the working environment is an important part of environmental struggles.
In addition, Marxist philosophy (dialectical materialism) offers the means to analyse and explain today’s climate crisis. Marx and Engels in the mid-19th century showed how both society and nature develop through the build-up of contradictions leading to qualitative leaps. Today, climate researchers echo this method in warning of tipping points, the moment when the environment passes irreversibly from one stage to another.
Many of those blaming Marx for neglecting the environment have not studied his work, but that of his self-appointed ‘followers’ in social democracy or Stalinism. The societies they constructed, and described as socialism, completely contradicted Marx in relation to workers’ democracy, the role of the state, and also in their treatment of the environment. In contrast, Marx had predicted that “natural science… will become the basis of human science, as it has already become the basis of actual human life”. (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844)
Marx on nature
To understand Marxism and the environment there is a need to understand the method: that Marx always looked at the world and its history in its totality, as the point of departure for his analysis and programme. The fact that Marx regarded capitalism as a historically progressive system has been misunderstood and distorted by many. For example, Michael Löwy, from the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, wrote that Marx had “a fairly uncritical attitude toward industrial civilisation particularly its destructive relationship to nature”. Löwy also claimed that “Marx does not possess an integrated ecological perspective”. (For a Critical Marxism, Against the Current, November-December 1997)
Firstly, the progressive side of capitalism, according to Marx, was in comparison to feudalism and was, therefore, temporary. The main achievement was that capitalism was the first society that created the basis not only to eliminate itself, but class society altogether. The working class taking power with the support of poor peasants would mean the rule of the majority and the beginning of a process towards a completely different society. Already in the Paris Commune in 1871, where workers held power for two months, Marx’s perspective was proven right.
Understanding the role of capitalism does not correspond to a defence of that system. Marx, before and more than anyone else, understood capitalism as a system for producing profit out of surplus labour. Science and natural forces are adapted and exploited to this purpose. The health of workers is ignored, and so are the effects on nature. Marx clearly saw and warned against steps to form nature according to capitalism. Some critics claim that Marx saw nature as something that was for free, and unlimited. But his point was that nature under capitalism had no value. His own conclusion was that unexploited nature also held use value: for example, the air, forests and fish.
Marx studied in particular the non-mechanistic materialism of Epicurus (341-270 BCE) and the dialectics of GWF Hegel (1770-1831) and developed his philosophy, dialectical materialism. It was a brilliant view of the world, fitting perfectly into the period. The major event of the epoch, the French revolution, was a result of both the material basis – capitalist economy and society overtaking feudalism – and the conscious action of the revolutionary masses.
Marx’s ideas were the most developed of all the philosophies breaking with the religious past. Instead of the Earth never changing and being at the centre of everything, with mankind the centre of the Earth, Marxism in line with classic materialism regards the world as always changing, even mortal. Life was a product of Earth (nature) and not of a god. Humanity was one with nature, not outside. Likewise, Marx did not divide history into social or natural, but saw them as one. Dialectical laws apply in both nature and society, and their developments are interchanging, affecting each other. Marx used the term ‘metabolism’: a chain of processes linked to each other, as one body.
Marx showed that the increasing division between town and country was a breach of this metabolism, summarised in the term ‘metabolic rift’ by John Bellamy Foster, author of the useful book, Marx’s Ecology. In the third volume of Capital, published in 1894 after Marx’s death (1883), Marx describes capitalism as a break with the natural laws of life: “On the other hand, large landed property reduces the agricultural population to a constantly falling minimum, and confronts it with a constantly growing industrial population crowded together in large cities. It thereby creates conditions which cause an irreparable break in the coherence of social interchange prescribed by the natural laws of life”.
Based on a discussion about the long-term degradation of the soil following the use of chemical fertilisers in agriculture, Marx wrote that “all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility”.
He explained: “Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres… disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, ie, prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil”. And further: “Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the labourer”. (Capital, Volume I, 1867) In a farsighted prediction, Marx warned that capitalism’s constant modernisation would increase “this process of destruction”.
Engels summarised the dependence on, and need to learn from, nature: “Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly”. (The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, 1876)
Marx on socialism
Marx is also accused by some for not giving a more exact plan for a future socialist society. These critics believe that his socialism meant the working class taking power while the economy, production and the treatment of the environment would basically stay the same as under capitalism. It is true that Marx and Engels differed from the utopian socialists who made up detailed plans for the ideal society. However, that does not mean their writings are empty of descriptions of the difference between capitalism and socialism.
Marx and Engels recorded the huge cost for capitalist production, paid by workers, peasants, nature and society. They stood for a complete change of production, by replacing it with what Marx called cooperative production. Capitalism’s anarchic system would be replaced by social control and ownership over production and distribution. This would then be organised in a social plan.
What about Marx’s predictions of socialism as a society with increased production and an abundance of resources? Would that mean further catastrophes for the environment? Firstly, in Marx’s day, as well as clearly today, there is an urgent need to offer everyone a decent life. This will result in the increased production of food, and provision of housing, healthcare, education, and a more even spread of modern technique. In the 1800s, production of such necessities would have been possible at the expense of the production of arms, luxuries, etc. Today even more so, with enormous resources squandered for military expenditure and the luxury consumption of the 1%.
In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, and in Capital, Marx discussed the need to balance resources between individual consumption and the necessary increase of social consumption, as well as setting aside resources for investment and as a social reserve. That also included balance between work time, which should be shortened, and free time. In such a society, everybody would work, everyone could develop their own skills and understanding, and everyone would have time to participate in the running of society.
A socialist society would break alienation and allow everyone to develop free from the constraints of wage labour and capital. It would also mean “the complete unity of man with nature – the true resurrection of nature – the consistent naturalism of man and the consistent humanism of nature”. (Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 1844) A socialist revolution would not just liberate the workers and mankind, but also nature. With social ownership of the land, nature would no longer be a product to profit from.
In the programme proposed in the Communist Manifesto, some of the key demands are as important today regarding the environment. Demand no.1 says: “Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes”. This applies to protests against dangerous mining, oil fields and fracking, for example. The second part of the demand underlines that income from land should be used by the public sector. Demand no.6 raises the need to deal with transport: “Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state”.
Demand no.7 also has very important implications for the environment: “Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan”. A common plan based on common ownership instead of private exploiters, in order to take care of and improve the land. To summarise: to change the direction of society, including its treatment of nature, is a question about ownership, power and control.
The working class in Russia and nations oppressed by the tsar took power in October 1917. Contrary to today’s slander against the Bolshevik government, it revolutionised politics in all fields of society. That included being the first country to ban racism and antisemitism, and the first to legalise the right to abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. In a similar way, the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Leon Trotsky pioneered radical policies regarding the environment.
Before the revolution, Russia in this field as in so many others was an economically backward country. “Scientists under the Romanov dynasty failed to convince government officials, businesspeople, and even their own colleagues to adopt modern scientific management techniques to protect resources and ensure their availability for present and future generations (‘conservation’)… most of the projects had to wait until after the Russian revolution, because the tsarist government regarded them as too expensive and perhaps believed them to be unnecessary”. (An Environmental History of Russia [anthology], Cambridge University Press, 2013)
The working class under the leadership of the Bolsheviks came to power in a country devastated by the first world war, only to find themselves under military assault by invading armies and ex-tsarist generals. Yet, the new government acted immediately on environmental issues. Two days after taking power the decree, ‘On Land’, nationalised all forests, minerals and water. Half a year later, in May 1918, another decree, ‘On Forests’, took central control of reforestation and protection. Forests were divided into two categories, one of them protected from exploitation. This was an important issue since many forests had been clear-cut under tsarism. In a similar way, hunting was regulated and only allowed during special seasons. “Surprisingly, the Russian revolution enabled the establishment of modern oceanographic and inland fishery research”. (An Environmental History)
These were decisions taken in extremely turbulent times. “During the turmoil of civil war and war communism, the Bolshevik government managed to support scientists, including some working on issues of environmental concern. And scientists, with this support, expanded their environmental activities”. In 1920, Lenin was involved in establishing the first nature reserve in the world that was state-funded and only for scientific use, the Il’menskii. There were four such reserves (zapovedniks) by 1924. Many new research institutes were established, Russian scientists were seen as leading ecologists, and ecology courses started at Moscow University. The scientist Vladimir Vernadsky became world famous for the concept ‘noosphere’: “a new state of biosphere in which humans play an active role in change that is based on man and woman’s recognition of the interconnectedness of nature”. (An Environmental History)
The revolution opened up an explosion of environmental organisations, a development that was encouraged and embraced by the Bolsheviks. The TsBK (Central Bureau for Study of Local Lore) had 70,000 members in 2,270 branches. As important was VOOP (All-Russian Society for the Protection of Nature). The activists and scientists produced magazines – for example, Problems of Ecology and Biocenology. They also held meetings and organised groups in local studies to increase interest in science in rural areas. Leading Bolsheviks, among them Nadezhda Krupskaya, discussed how to improve the environment in cities and towns, leading to the green-city model with more parks and green areas.
These revolutionary ideas came to an abrupt end, however. The social and political counter-revolution under Stalinism also included an environmental counter-revolution. “After the Russian revolution, nascent ecological science expanded rapidly during the social upheaval and political experimentation of the 1920s. Officials, scientists, and engineers worked out an ambitious national electrification programme…” Then, when Stalin took power, his search for so-called ‘wreckers’ “included some of the nation’s most able biologists, forestry and fisheries specialists, agronomists, and ecologists”. (An Environmental History)
Stalinism vs nature
Some of the world’s worst environmental catastrophes occurred under Stalinist rule: the destruction of the Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, Ukraine, and several cities destroyed by pollution. How was this possible, and was there any connection to the Bolsheviks and socialism?
The connection was that Stalin’s regime murdered and destroyed the Bolshevik Party that had led the revolution in 1917. This was possible on the basis of defeated revolutions in all other countries and the actual situation in Russia: economic and cultural backwardness that was deepened by the destruction from the first world war and civil war.
When Stalin’s regime had established itself, it had no ideology other than to stay in power. In order to do so, Stalin had to retain one fundamental achievement from the revolution, the nationalised economy – on which the whole Stalinist bureaucracy rested. The brutal dictatorship could falsely claim thereby to be the inheritor of the revolution. However, it was neither socialist nor communist. Stalin made a 180-degree turn regarding environmental issues, as in other areas. His regime used force to collectivise agriculture, abolished the protection of the zapovedniks, and re-started clear-cutting of forests.
The Stalinist methods against any opposition were brutal: “Arrests, interrogations and torture to compel false confessions and false testimony accompanied accusations of espionage, subversion, and slander of the Soviet Union among those, including scientists, who seemed to oppose Stalinist programmes”. VOOP and TsBK were purged into nonexistence. The dictatorship “made independent and reasonable activities nearly impossible”. (An Environmental History)
All independent organisations of workers and activists were banned, which also opened up the way for the destruction of the environment. Formally excellent regulations and laws were never fully implemented. Waste and mismanagement took over. Science lost its necessary freedom of ideas. Trotsky in the 1930s made the point that the planned economy needed workers’ democracy just as the body needs oxygen, otherwise it would degenerate and eventually die. Trotsky’s leadership of the opposition against Stalin, and his advocacy of a political revolution against the regime, show the view of Marxists in relation to Stalinism, including the environment.
Stalin’s parasitic regime used the massive slave labour camps, with many political prisoners, for rapid industrial expansion. The Vorkuta camp, where many Trotskyists were held, was founded in 1932 to establish coal mining north of the Arctic circle. Millions of prisoners, under the watchful eye of the secret police (NKVD), were used as slave labour in construction, mining and lumbering. Most of the huge projects under Stalinism followed central orders, without consideration of different geographical circumstances.
After the second world war, instead of focusing on the enormous devastation and even starvation in Russia, Stalin’s hubris led him to launch a grandiose ‘Plan for the Transformation of Nature’. This included altering the direction of rivers and reorganising forests into industrial zones. The ideologist behind the plan, Trofim Lysenko, was a charlatan pretending to have invented plantation techniques that, in fact, led to the death of forests. Under Stalinism and Lysenkoism, nature had no value in itself.
Stalinism as a system continued after the death of Stalin in 1953. A few years later, the nuclear catastrophe in Kyshtym, in the Urals, was kept secret by the regime, then under Nikita Khrushchev. Pollution, grand projects and the total ban on any environmental activism continued.
However, capitalist critics of Stalinism – who invariably conflate Stalinism and socialism in order to discredit the latter – have little to be proud of. “In many ways, the western democracies followed the same paths of breakneck development and profligate use of natural resources, of destroyed ecosystems, and tardily adopted laws and regulations to remedy and limit future problems… In the 1990s, many observers argued that dismantling the centrally planned economy would automatically deliver environmental improvement… The reality has proved dramatically different. There have been new threats to sustainability, including the fire-sale of resources, the restructuring of the economy that drastically reduced resources for environmental protection, and president Putin’s decision ultimately to disband the Russian Federation’s Environmental Protection Agency in 2000”. (An Environmental History)
Today, the climate and environment are engaging growing numbers of activists. Around the world, there are numerous struggles against the big oil companies, fracking, dangerous industrial waste, new speculative motorway and mining projects, etc, as well as against the empty promises of the politicians. Marxists are part of these struggles: from protests against Shell’s drilling platform in Seattle to the struggle that stopped the East-West tunnel in Melbourne, the massive local movements against gold mines in Greece, and against fracking in Ireland.
Anti-capitalism is growing among climate activists. In Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything – which, by no accident, has the subtitle Capitalism Versus the Climate – she reports how right-wing Tea Party-type activists argue that climate change is an invention by ‘communists’ in order to implement a planned economy. In this distorted way, they understand the inability of capitalism to solve such a huge crisis. The system, in Klein’s words, is at war with life on earth, including human life.
Of course, the world has changed since the days of Marx and Engels. Marx would undoubtedly have eagerly followed the reports from today’s environmental and climate change scientists. The rift he found in the interdependent functions of Earth has expanded enormously, with accelerating pace. Above all, Marxists can offer a way forward today. Growing social and environmental crises are caused by the same system, capitalism, and the struggle against them is linked together.
Oil companies and their allies will never give up voluntarily. The only force able to solve the environmental crisis is the strongest collective force, the working class, in alliance with the growing numbers already fighting for the environment, many of them indigenous people and poor peasants and rural populations. Crises and struggles are building up for a social revolution, abolishing capitalism.
The climate and environmental crisis has developed very far, underlining the need for urgent action. The only real alternative is a democratic and sustainable planning of resources on a global basis. Such a democratic socialist society will improve the living standards for the vast majority of people, while regarding nature and humanity as one interchanging body.