Marx and Engels on ecology

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Nov 24 11:31:50 MST 1999

>From the Fall newsletter of the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library for Social
Research (


Book by Howard Parsons, review by Elaine Allen

Engels wrote: "To make earth an object of huckstering— the Earth which is
our one and all, the first condition of our existence is... an immorality."

Marx: "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 process towards
ruining the lasting sources of that fertility".

That Marx and Engels had an understanding of an approach to ecology before
the German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel coined the term Oekologie in 1869, and
long before the current ‘ecological crisis’ is not generally recognized.
Howard Parsons’ book can change this, its purpose "is to assemble the ideas
of Marx and Engels on ecology and, with the help of the philosophical
framework and method they have provided, to explore some of the important
ecological issues, past and present." These words in the preface describe
very well what this book is about; we are reminded once again that Marxism
is by no means ‘outdated.’

In the Introduction we are provided a very helpful historical and
theoretical background; Parsons addresses criticisms that have been made
of.Marxist ecology—e.g., that man has been pitted against nature, that
basic human values have been denied, etc. Following this, there are
selections from Marx and Engels’ writings. These selections are grouped
into ten various categories, such as, The Matter of Nature as Prior and
Prerequisite to Man’s Labor (i), The Interdependence of Man as a Living
Being with Nature (iii), The Mutual Transformation of Man and Nature
Through Labor (iv), and Capitalistic Pollution and the Ruination of Nature

This last category will be of great interest—and perhaps a surprise—to
today’s ecologists; here are more selections:

Marx points out that the capitalist uses natural forces without cost—water
power, metals, minerals, coal, stone— these are free gifts of nature.

Marx: "Excretions of consumption are the natural waste matter discharged by
the human body, remains of clothing in the form of rags, etc. (These) are
of the greatest importance for agriculture. So far as their utilization is
concerned, there is an enormous waste of them in the capitalist economy. In
London, for instance, they find no better use for the excretion of four and
a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy

Marx: "The most striking example of utilizing waste is furnished by the
chemical industry. It utilized not only its own waste, for which it finds
new uses, but also that of many other industries. For instance, it converts
the formerly almost useless gas-tar into aniline dyes, alizarin, and more
recently, even into drugs." Engels: "For in nature nothing takes place in
isolation. Everything affects every other thing, and vice-versa... (Man)
transfers useful plants and domestic animals from one country to another
and thus changes the flora and fauna of whole continents. Through
artificial breeding, both plants and animals are so changed by the hand of
man that they become unrecognizable. The wild plants from which our grain
varieties originated are still being sought in vain.

Engels: "Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our
human conquests over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on
us. Each of them it is true, has in the first place the consequences on
which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite
different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first.
The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere,
destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they
were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of those
countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and
reservoirs of moisture." Marx: "Exploitation and squandering of the
vitality of the soil takes the place of conscious rational cultivation of
the soil as eternal communal property, an inalienable condition for the
existence and reproduction of a chain of successive generations of the
human race.

Marx: "The development of culture and industry has (resulted) in such
destruction of forests that everything done by it conversely for their
preservation and restoration appears infinitesimal."

There is much more.

In his introduction, Parsons notes that "it was no accident...that ecology
and dialectics both arose in the 19th C. in response to the revolutionary
achievements in societies and the sciences, especially the biological and
historical science, which revealed the interactive, evolutionary and
transformative character of nature and society. Thus today, in the late
20th C, the fastest growing concept of nature among all those extant is the
dialectical concept. This concept is implicit in the vary method and
findings of the sciences, and while it is not always explicit and
conscious, it is widely shared in the thought and practice of scientists
the world over." He discusses dialectics and the dialectical method, and
illustrates its application to the understanding of nature as well as
society. He notes that Marx and Engels were the first major scientists of
human society; it was they who could describe the "grasp of the dialectical
effects of social practice upon the world of external nature."

Louis Proyect
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