Marxism, ecology and the American Indian

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Wed Nov 10 13:45:56 MST 1999

>>> <acc at> 11/10/99 08:00AM >>

For, just as the
development history of the human embryo in the mother's womb is only
an abbreviated repetition of the history, extending over millions of
years, of the bodily development of our animal ancestors, starting
from the worm, so the mental development of the human child is only a
still more abbreviated repetition of the intellectual development of
these same ancestors, at least of the later ones. But all the planned
action of all animals has never succeeded in impressing the stamp of
their will upon the earth. That was left for man.


Charles: Stephen Jay Gould contradicts the notion that ontogeny reiterates philogeny
in _Ever Since Darwin_

But this is an interesting passage you quote.


 In short, the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about
 changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes
makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential
distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour
that brings about this distinction.*


Charles: This is fundamental in Marxism -social production with tools is the root of
the distinguishing human thought process. But I think Engels is too narrow, though
correct as far as he goes.  Human labor and thereby thought is also distinguished by
the planning of imagination, as Marx says in the famous passage in Capital,
distinguishing the finest web of a spider from that of a human architect.

But human labor , thought, imagination is also unique in that it contains the
recordings of the conscious experience of dead generations of the human species. The
sociality of human labor and production includes individuals of many past generations
in a way that other species' production does not. The imagination and plan of the
architect is based on the experiences of many, many other architects, not only living
, but dead.

Secondly, this sociality is not just labor or production, but reproduction in the
broad sense of  the process of raising and creating the next generation. Human
reproductive sociality is qualitatively different than that of  other animals as much
as social production is qualitatively different. This is in a double sense, for it is
human reproduction that instills the experience of past generations in social
production in the current or next generation.

Finally, it is dialectic or culture or symbols , that is the essence of the reflection
of reality in people's thought which Marx noted and which makes it possible to
accumulate and pass on the experience of so many generations and pass it on.  The
symbol as a unity of opposites, the reflection which is not the reality that it
reflects in the mind, but is united with that reality that it is not ( this is the
"arbitrariness" of the sign of the semioticians) is somehow the pnemonic key, the key
to storing so much information about the experience of others.

This is a materialist conception of "ideas". It is the kernel of truth in all the many
philosophical idealist notions of "mind" and "ideas" as determinative. Not only do
ideas reflect social production of the immediate generation's struggle for existence,
but they also reflect the social production of many generation's struggle for

Sorry to stray from ecology, but I had been thinking about this in another context,
and when I came across Engels' basic reference to the unique role of social production
in making human thought, I was moved to comment.

I agree that ecology must be rooted in this humanist way. Nature is enormous. Whether
we think of the whole earth , the solar system or the universe, it  is much more
powerful than the human species. I really don't worry about humans "destroying"
nature. The issue is will humans destroy the part of nature that we depend on to



 Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our
 human victories over nature. For each such victory nature
takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place
brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third
places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often
cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor
and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never
dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres
and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present
forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used
up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on
the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were
cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had
still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain
springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it
possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains
during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were
not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same
time spreading scrofula. 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 nature -- but that we, with flesh, blood and
brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our
mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all
other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them

 And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better
 understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the
more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference
with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty
advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are
more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also
the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day
production activities. But the more this progresses the more will men
not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more
impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast
between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose
after the decline of classical antiquity in Europe and obtained its
highest elaboration in Christianity.

 It required the labour of thousands of years for us to learn a little
 of how to calculate the more remote natural effects of our
actions in the field of production, but it has been still more
difficult in regard to the more remote social effects of these
actions. We mentioned the potato and the resulting spread of scrofula.
But what is scrofula compared to the effects which the reduction of
the workers to a potato diet had on the living conditions of the
popular masses in whole countries, or compared to the famine the
potato blight brought to Ireland in 1847, which consigned to the grave
a million Irishmen, nourished solely or almost exclusively on
potatoes, and forced the emigration overseas of two million more? When
the Arabs learned to distil spirits, it never entered their heads that
by so doing they were creating one of the chief weapons for the
annihilation of the aborigines of the then still undiscovered American
continent. And when afterwards Columbus discovered this America, he
did not know that by doing so he was giving a new lease of life to
slavery, which in Europe had long ago been done away with, and laying
the basis for the Negro slave trade. The men who in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries laboured to create the steam-engine had no
idea that they were preparing the instrument which more than any other
was to revolutionise social relations throughout the world. Especially
in Europe, by concentrating wealth in the hands of a minority and
dispossessing the huge majority, this instrument was destined at first
to give social and political domination to the bourgeoisie, but later,
to give rise to a class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat
which can end only in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the
abolition of all class antagonisms. But in this sphere too, by long
and often cruel experience and by collecting and analysing historical
material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the
indirect, more remote social effects of our production activity, and
so are afforded an opportunity to control and regulate these effects
as well.

 This regulation, however, requires something more than mere
 knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto
existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our
whole contemporary social order.

 All hitherto existing modes of production have aimed merely at
 achieving the most immediately and directly useful effect of
labour. The further consequences, which appear only later and become
effective through gradual repetition and accumulation, were totally
neglected. The original common ownership of land corresponded, on the
one hand, to a level of development of human beings in which their
horizon was restricted in general to what lay immediately available,
and presupposed, on the other hand, a certain superfluity of land that
would allow some latitude for correcting the possible bad results of
this primeval type of economy. When this surplus land was exhausted,
common ownership also declined. All higher forms of production,
however, led to the division of the population into different classes
and thereby to the antagonism of ruling and oppressed classes. Thus
the interests of the ruling class became the driving factor of
production, since production was no longer restricted to providing the
barest means of subsistence for the oppressed people. This has been
put into effect most completely in the capitalist mode of production
prevailing today in Western Europe. The individual capitalists, who
dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only
with the most immediate useful effect of their actions. Indeed, even
this useful effect -- inasmuch as it is a question of the usefulness
of the article that is produced or exchanged -- retreats far into the
background, and the sole incentive becomes the profit to be made on

 Classical political economy, the social science of the bourgeoisie,
 in the main examines only social effects of human actions in
the fields of production and exchange that are actually intended. This
fully corresponds to the social organisation of which it is the
theoretical expression. As individual capitalists are engaged in
production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the
nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As
long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured
or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied
and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the
commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural
effects of the same actions. |What cared the Spanish planters in
Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and
obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of
very highly profitable coffee trees-what cared they that the heavy
tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper
stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!| In relation to
nature, as to society, the present mode of production is
predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible
result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects
of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are
mostly quite the opposite in character; that the harmony of supply
and demand is transformed into the very reverse opposite, as shown by
the course of each ten years' industrial cycle -- even Germany has
had a little preliminary experience of it in the "crash"; that
private ownership based on one's own labour must of necessity develop
into the expropriation of the workers, while all wealth becomes more
and more concentrated in the hands of non-workers; that [... the
manuscript breaks off here ...]


[1] In the 1870s, when this was written, British zoogeographer Philip
Lutley Sclater put forth the theory that a continent (he called
"Lemuria") existed which reached from modern Madagascar to India and
Sumatra -- and this continent has since submerged beneath the Indian

(Emphasis is mine, when he is talking about Cuba!!!)

Who said Friedrich was not an ecologist?



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