Marxism, ecology and the American Indian

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Nov 6 08:24:36 MST 1999

"We are a part of everything that is beneath us, and around us. Our past is
our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations
past and present."

--Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) teaching

"No system, including that of human society, can exist in empty space; it
is surrounded by an 'environment,' on which all is conditions ultimately
depend. If human society is not adapted to its environment, it is not meant
for this world."

--Nikolai Bukharin, "Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology", 1925


Based on an review that I recently submitted to the Journal of Economic
History, this post will address "Marx and Nature: a Red and Green
Perspective", written in 1999 by Paul Burkett. Then it will consider an
article by John Bellamy Foster that appeared in the Sept. 1999 American
Journal of Sociology titled "Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical
Foundations for Environmental Sociology." Both Burkett and Foster are
noteworthy for their pioneering work in establishing Marx's ecological
credentials. I will conclude this piece with some thoughts on possible
missing pieces in the puzzle that might help to put together the big
Red-Green picture.

One of the main criticisms of Marxism from radical environmentalism is that
it follows a "Promethean" logic that takes nature for granted. It sees
Marxism as viewing nature as raw input to the labor process, out of which
pours commodities for a ravenous consuming public. Only a philosophy that
questions unconstrained industrial growth can curb such "productivist"

In "Marx and Nature", Paul Burkett takes up the arguments of Andrew
McLaughlin, Enzo Mingione and Ted Benton, who feel that Marx was squarely
in the Enlightenment tradition. This tradition allegedly holds that human
progress hinges on the subjugation of nature to human purposes. McLaughlin
states, "For Marxism, there is simply no basis for recognizing any interest
in the liberation of nature from human domination." Mingione points to a
rigid need to develop the forces of production in Marx, which solely can
guarantee future liberation. Benton sees Marxism as sharing "the blindness
to natural limits already present in . . . the spontaneous ideology of 19th
century industrialism."

Burkett responds to these criticisms by first of all initially accepting
their plausibility. With frequent references in Marx to the need for
developing the productive forces of social labour, such a conclusion does
not seem far-fetched. Digging deeper into Marx, Burkett questions support
for the proposition that the historic superiority of capitalism is "based
on an anthropomorphic preference for material wealth over nature." Only in
comparison to precapitalist social institutions is capitalism. By removing
constraints on the natural and social character of humanity, capitalism in
theory offers potentially richer and more environmentally conducive values.

But even with this vision of an emancipating capitalism, Marx understood
the negative dialectic that would undermine this tendency in the long run.
It socializes production but only in an "antithetical form" due to the
class-exploitative and alienating character of production. Although all
societies are exploitative, it is capitalism alone that exacerbates
environmental problems to the breaking point. By concentrating the
producers and separating them from the necessary conditions of production,
including natural conditions, capitalism undermines humanity's ability to
develop itself.

Burkett also believes that the labor theory of value--the heart of Marxist
political economy--is of utmost relevance for a socialist ecology. This
seems puzzling since the labor theory of value most often comes into play
within an entirely different context--to refute the claim that prices and
profit are a function of supply and demand, or rewards for entrepreneurial
initiative. Marxists point to labor's creation of value based on the
exploitative wage relationship. Nature as such has rarely entered the
picture in this ongoing debate. Burkett writes, "The notion that Marx's
labor theory of value might provide an important ecological perspective
might seem strange, given the popular view that this theory excludes or
downgrades nature's importance as a condition of and limiting factor in
human production."

The key for Burkett is nature's role in the contradiction between
production of use values and exchange values. Production of use values
characterized precapitalist societies, which yield to the production of
exchange values in capitalist society. Use values consist solely of natural
materials modified by human labor, such as the clothing and crops that
self-sustaining farmers produce. Exchange values emerge from commodity
circulation, where goods yield cash equivalents. Cash then becomes new
commodities in a new round of exchange. Capital exploits labor to produce
commodities that are greater in value than the wage of the workers who
produce them. From the capitalist standpoint, this represents profit. From
the Marxist standpoint, it is exploitation only of a more recent vintage
than the serfdom and chattel slavery that preceded it.

Capitalist production not only exploits labor, but nature as well.
Competition drives the capitalist system. Accumulation of capital requires
ever-increasing demands on the worker and on nature itself. While the
work-day extends, the surrounding countryside turns into a toxic dump in
order to meet production quotas. Objectification of humanity and nature go
hand in hand. Marx describes this process as a system of "self-estranged
natural and spiritual individuality."

Although Burkett's book is an unqualified success in its stated goals,
there is a critical question that requires additional discussion and
clarification among Marxists searching for a combined Red and Green

This involves the relationship of a certain kind of existing precapitalist
society to nature today. While capitalism has a relatively emancipatory
logic vis-a-vis precapitalist social formations such as chattel slavery or
serfdom, there are indigenous societies around the world under siege from
multinational corporations. How do they fit into this schema?

In nearly every instance, the clash is over how to use nature. Indigenous
peoples tend to value nature as a communal economic and spiritual resource,
while the multinationals--in most cases, energy corporations--view it as a
raw input to commodity production. Is the spread of capitalist property
relations in the Amazon rainforest an advance over precapitalist modes of

I will return to this question after reviewing John Bellamy Foster's
article, which recapitulates his research into Marx's concern with the
problem of soil fertility as well as drawing some new lessons about the
relevance of Marxism to ecology.

The context for Marx's examination of the agrarian question was the general
crisis of soil fertility in the period from 1830 to 1870. The depletion of
soil nutrients was being felt everywhere, as capitalist agriculture broke
down the old organic interaction that took place on small, family farms.
When a peasant plowed a field with ox or horse-drawn plows, used an
outhouse, accumulated compost piles, etc., the soil's nutrients were
replenished naturally. As capitalist agriculture turned the peasant into an
urban proletariat, segregated livestock production from grain and food
production, the organic cycle was broken and the soil gradually lost its

The need to artificially replenish the soil's nutrients led to scientific
research into the problem. Justin von Liebeg was one of the most important
thinkers of the day and he was the first to posit the problem in terms of
the separation between the city and the countryside, what Marx
characterized as an "irreparable rift." This contradiction is associated
with the growth of large cities during the industrial revolution and the
removal of wage earners from agrarian society.

While the research proceeded, the various capitalist powers sought to gain
control over new sources of fertilizers. This explains "guano imperialism,"
which I referred to in my post on Peru the other day. England brought Peru
into its neocolonial orbit because it was the most naturally endowed
supplier of bird dung in the world. In 1847, 227 thousand tons of guano
were imported from Peru into England. This commodity was as important to
England's economy as silver and gold were in previous centuries.

There was also a desperate search for bones. Over a ten year period, the
value of English imports rose from 14,000 pound sterling to 254,000.
Raiding parties were dispatched to battlefields to scavenge bodies of dead
soldiers. Their bones were desperately needed to replenish sterile soil.

The United States followed suit. There had been a big crisis in upstate NY
and the mid-Atlantic states in the mid 1800s. This prompted Congress to
pass the "Guano Act" of 1856, which eventually led to the seizure of 94
islands in the Pacific Ocean, rich sources of guano.

Liebeg theorized that such measures would eventually fall short. Even with
such substitutes, the soil tended to lose its nutrient properties so long
as the artificial divide between town and countryside was maintained. Not
only was the countryside losing its productivity, the town was being
swamped with human waste which was no longer being recycled. London had
such a terrible problem with open sewers that Parliament was forced to
relocate to a location outside the city during the summer months. The
stench was unbearable.

Scientists like Liebeg, on the other hand, supported the notion of soil
improvement. This meant looking at the relationship between society and
nature in ecological terms. The solution to the problem was the
reintegration of the town and country. This overlapped with Marx's own
exploration of the problems in Capital. In volume three of Capital, the
discussion of farming is framed within this general dialectic. Soil
fertility could only be ensured over the long run through the abolition of
the capitalist system, which would allow food production to take place
along sound, ecological guidelines.

Marx viewed Liebeg's research as critical to his own attempts to frame a
socialist solution to the most pressing environmental problem of the 19th
century. He wrote, "I had to plough through the new agricultural chemistry
in Germany, in particular Liebeg and Schöbein, which is more important for
this matter than all the economists put together."

Marx's concern with the problem of soil fertility had a profound influence
on the next generation of Marxist thinkers, including Karl Kautsky and
Nikolai Bukharin, one of whose thoughts on the topic serves as an epigraph

Published in 1899, Kautsky's "The Agrarian Question" discussed the failure
of fertilizers to resolve the "metabolic rift":

"Supplementary fertilisers... allow the reduction in soil fertility to be
avoided, but the necessity of using them in larger and larger adds a
further burden to agriculture—not one unavoidab1y imposed by nature, but a
direct result of current social organization. By overcoming the antithesis
between town and country... the materials removed from the soil would be
able to flow back in full. Supplementary fertilizers would then, at most,
have the task of enriching the soil, not staving off its impoverishment.
Advances in cultivation would signify an increase in the amount of soluble
nutrients in the soil without the need to add artificial fertilizers."

Other early Soviet thinkers were influenced by Bukharin's ecological
writings. For example, V.L. Komarov wrote in 1935 that, "The private owner
or employer, however necessary it may be to make the changing of the world
comply with the laws of Nature, cannot do so since he aims at profit and
only profit. By creating crisis upon crisis in industry he lays waste
natural wealth in agriculture, leaving behind a barren soil and in the
mountain districts bare rocks and stony slopes."

After amassing a wealth of documentation supporting the links between
classical Marxism and ecology, Foster writes in his conclusion that, "The
way in which Marx's analysis prefigured some of the most advanced
ecological analysis of the late 20th century--particularly in relation to
issues of the soil and the ecology of cities--is nothing less than
startling." While I agree wholeheartedly with this, I want to suggest some
other areas of research that need to initiated in order for a comprehensive
Red-Green analysis to be completed.

The first of these is the question of energy and global warming, which in
their own way reflect similar contradictions as those found in the
agricultural "metabolic rift." Fossil fuels provide the energy to
manufacturing, just as fertilizers sustain industrial farming. In either
case, you are dealing with organic substances that become transformed into
essential links in the overall chain of commodity production. How
capitalist society deals with these organic substances reflects intractable
problems that no amount of reformist tinkering can resolve.

The industrial revolution not only separated the wage earner from agrarian
society, it also unleashed powerful momentums to gain control over energy
sources. Rivalry over coal fields was one of the main causes of World War
One, just as rivalry over oil provoked World War Two. Many scholars link
the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with FDR's decision to declare an oil
embargo on Japan.

International competition between advanced capitalist countries drives the
exploration for and careless exploitation of mineral resources. Strip
mining, oil spills, nuclear power mishaps and air pollution are not
incidental accessories to the overall capitalist mode of production, but go
to the heart of it. Furthermore, global warming looms as the most serious
challenge to humanity and nature, as capitalist competition proceeds
unabated. While some Marxists regard global warming as some remote problem
that needs to be confronted a century from now, there is evidence that
climate changes are already in progress that have had a killing effect on
poor and working people. Many scientists speculate that the intensity of
Hurricane Mitch, which wreaked havoc in Central America two years ago, is
related to a more intense occurrence of La Niña brought on by global warming.

While irrational use of energy can produce devastating side-effects in
urban-based industrial societies, it as at their source where many of the
most cruel and inhumane effects are being felt. I speak of the clash
between indigenous peoples and multinational corporations looking to
exploit oil, coal or uranium and who will murder to safeguard their profits.

Winona LaDuke's recently published "All Our Relations: Native Struggles for
Land and Life", from which the Haudenosaunee saying above originates,
details the impact of energy exploitation on the lives of American Indians.

In 1973, after the energy crisis began, the US government stepped up
exploration for coal. Many of the US's coal reserves are found on Indian
reservations and this led the powerful AMAX corporation to exert pressure
on the Northern Cheyenne tribal council in Wyoming to sign an agreement
that effectively ceded control to the company. The consequences have been
devastating for the Indians.

That year the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that detailed
the damage of strip mining, especially in arid territory like Wyoming:
"Surface mining destroys the existing natural communities completely and
dramatically. Indeed, restoration of a landscape disturbed by surface
mining, in the sense of recreating the former conditions, is not possible."
Such lands, which often are found in economically and politically marginal
places like Indian reservations, should be dubbed "National Sacrifice
Areas" according to the Academy. The Northern Cheyenne decided that they
had sacrificed enough and launched a rebellion against the government and
the coal company. It took almost 15 years for them to convince Congress to
void all the coal leases and get rid of the coal company.

In addition, much of the world's nuclear industry depends on uranium that
is found on or near indigenous peoples' territory. Since 70 percent of the
world's reserves is found there, the clashes are frequent, whether in New
Mexico with the Dineh, or in Australia's Jabulikka mines.

Forced by economic duress to sign commercial agreements with energy
corporations, American Indians receive very few benefits. Instead they put
up with toxic dumps consisting of the byproducts of uranium mining, while
jobs in the mines often lead to radiation-related cancers. Grace Thorpe,
the  founder of the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans,

"The Navajos .. were warned about the dangers of uranium. The people
emerged from the third world into the fourth and present world and were..
.told to choose between two yellow powders. One was yellow dust from the
rocks, and the other was corn pollen. The people chose corn pollen, and the
gods nodded in assent. They also issued a warning. Having chosen the corn
pollen, the Navajos were to leave the yellow dust in the ground. If it was
ever removed, it would bring evil."

Finally, the most dramatic instance of a life-and-death struggle between
indigenous peoples and energy corporations is taking place in Colombia
today where a miniscule band of U'Wa has threatened to commit suicide en
masse unless Occidental and other companies stop drilling on or near their
homelands. The response of organized Marxism to the U'Wa has not been
satisfactory, as the FARC guerrillas murdered 3 North American activists
who were working to keep the oil companies out. While the FARC has
described the murders as an unfortunate accident and brought the
perpetrators to justice, it unfortunately reflects deeper problems that are
not accidental. The ELN guerrillas continue to blow up pipelines that cause
vast pollution problems on indigenous lands, no matter the objection of the
affected peoples.

This is symptomatic of an ongoing failure of Marxism to fully respect
indigenous demands. It is connected to the problems between the Sandinistas
and the Miskitus and it also reflects the failure of the socialist movement
historically to fully theorize the role of indigenous peoples in a schema
based on the transition from "savagery" to "civilization" as Engels put it.
These "stages" have more to do with Social Darwinism than they do with the
emancipatory project of socialism.

But it is on the particular question of ecology and indigenous peoples that
the Marxist movement needs to sharpen its analysis. There are attacks
everywhere on the notion that American Indians had respect for Nature, the
latest being a book written by Brown professor Shepard Krech III, titled
"The Ecological Indian: Myth and History." It is a rehash of all the stale
arguments about how Indians drove bison off of cliffs, leaving dead
carcasses to go to waste; how they did not practice ecologically
sustainable farming, etc., ad nauseum.

Unfortunately these views have managed to creep their way into some highly
respected Marxist venues. David Harvey, whose latest book "Justice, Nature
and the Geography of Difference" is cited approvingly by Paul Burkett a
number of times, circulates the nonsense about Indians hunting Paleolithic
era animals into extinction. Meanwhile, "Capitalism, Nature and Socialism"
editor J. Donald Hughes has written an article for that journal titled "The
Classic Maya Collapse" that agrees with Krech that the Great Mayan
Civilization collapsed because of environmentally unsustainable farming
practices. It is shocking that such an august journal has not kept up with
recent scholarship on the Mayans, which based on aerial photography and
carbon dating, proves definitively that Mayan farming WAS environmentally
sustainable. (See Robert J. Sharer, "The Ancient Maya).

While indigenous peoples are small in number, their strategic location in
looming battles between energy corporations and humanity as a whole demands
the sharpest and clearest response from Marxists. While Marxism has to look
at social relations with an objective eye, it appears that the response of
Harvey and Hughes has less to do with objectivity than it does with an
overall climate of hostility toward indigenous rights. If human beings
first organized on this planet on the basis of communal property, then it
makes sense to fight for the rights of such peoples today. It is not
"progress" when capitalism destroys indigenous societies organized on the
basis of communal ownership of land and other resources. Modern urban
society has much to learn from people like the U'Wa. Offering solidarity to
such peoples should occupy a central place in a socialist movement
sensitive to Green perspectives.

Louis Proyect
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