Remarks on Marx and ecology posted to apst by Jim Farmelant

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Nov 25 08:02:27 MST 1999

lnp3 at wrote:
> 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 ‘outdated.’

Since I haven't read Parsons' book I can't comment directly on it.
One earlier work that I am aware of that deals with the views of
Marx & Engels concerning ecology is Juan Martinez-Alier's book
*Ecological Economics* (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987) which
discusses the views of Marx & Engels along with later Marxist
thinkers including Bogdanov and Bukharin (Viglielmo ought to
be pleased), as well as Otto Neurath and Lancelot Hogben.
Martinez-Alier in noting Marx & Engels interest in ecological
issues, points out that Marx had kept abreast of the work on
these matters by the so-called 'vulagar materialists' including
Moleschott, Buchner, and Vogt. Marx's use of the expression
"metabolism (Stoffweschel) between man and earth" is attributed
to the influence of Moleschott.  Marx criticized the Malthusian
of decreasing returns on the grounds that British agriculture had
shown it possible to both increase production while simulateneously
decreasin the number of workers employed.  Marx noted that the
concentration of populations into the great cities was damaging to
the natural conditions for soil fertility, and he drew upon Liebig's
notion of an agriculture of spoliation versus an agriculture of
restitution.  Marx is also described as having in volume 3 of
*Capital* endorsed Liebig's argument that small-scale agriculture
was preferrable because it returned more fertilizing elements to
the soil.

On the other hand Martinez-Alier argues that despite his interest
in ecological issues Marx never attempted to integrate his
analysis of these issues with his theory of history.

According to Martinez-Alier, Alexander Bogdanov renewed attention
to ecological issues from a Marxist perspective.  His theoretical
speculations laid the groundwork for what was later called
general systems theory, as he concerned himself with analyzing
the conncections betweeen thermodynamics and biology.  He
suggested a link between the study of energy flow and the
principle of natural selection. In this he was influenced
by Ostwald which was one reason why Lenin chose to attack
Ostwald in *Materialism and Empirio-Criticism*.  As Martinez-Alier
noted Bogdanov rather uncritically accepted many of Ostwald's
notions including his idea that "mental" energy is a form
of physical energy.  On the other hand Martinez-Alier thought
that Bogdanov's notion that it might be possible to define
the forces of production in terms of energy availibility
to be a promising one. And unlike Lenin he saw promise
in Bogdanov's Machism.

Concerning Bukharin, Martinez-Alier points out that he
devoted one chapter of his *Theory of Historical Materialism*
to analyzing the relations between nature and society in
whic he noted that society must to survive extract
material energy from its environment.  The more energy
it can extract from nature, the better adapted it is to
its environment.  Soeciety spends the energy of human work
in exchange for a quantity of appropriated natural energy.
For Bukharin the idea of an exchange of energy was a useful
way for interpreting the idea of metabolism between
nature and society which enabled the process of social
reproduction.  As Martinez-Alier sees it Bukharin had come
close to dealing with the question of whether this energy
"income" is really an income or is in fact a part of
"capital."  Bukharin also presented a typology of both
stable and moving social equilibria which he he analyzed
in terms of social energetics, that is in terms of energy
flows between society and the natural environment.

Jim F.

Louis Proyect
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