God & Bhaskar

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Thu Dec 21 03:28:50 MST 2000

Gary writes:

>The arguments advanced in this case are quite technical and complex.
>I believe though it helps to see Bhaskar as advancing a position
>close to classic objective idealism where spirit is held to precede
>matter.  This of course puts him in the company of Plato and Hegel.
>Before dismissing this position we would do well here to recall
>Lenin's remarks about how intelligent objective idealists were often
>more interesting than crude materialists.
>What form does spirit take within the Bhaskarian schema?  As already
>mentioned this is God.  The crucial question though is, 'What sort
>of God?'  Thankfully he is not the often sadistic brute of
>Judaic-Christian tradition. Bhaskar's God would seem to be one of
>infinite patience.  He or She or It has created a species of
>essentially god-like creatures (you and me!)  who one day through
>the process of reincarnations will learn this truth and then shall
>rejoin the absolute. There is no hell here or ever lasting
>punishment.  It is never too late.
>In the mean time we live lives of deep alienations and splits.  We
>are divided from our souls and from the totality that is the
>universe.  Our lives are shrouded in ignorance, and reality is
>hidden from us by the veil of ideology.  To discover the truth and
>to be free we have only (!) to recognise our true natures as
>partially divine beings.  Freedom then like Brecht's version of
>communism becomes "the simple thing so hard to achieve".
>Any conclusions about the impact of FEW will have to be tentative. I
>myself think that it will be seen as a turning point and that its
>significance will be enhanced by future contributions. Whatever the
>case I would like to close this review with an appeal for an
>openness of response.  I would like to urge Leftists not to pre-read
>the book as the decline of a philosopher into mysticism.  Rather I
>would maintain strongly that it is a text that signals the absolute
>necessity for the renewal of liberatory thought.  With its
>spirituality and commitment to changing the evils of the world, FEW
>shows us a way beyond the sterility and inflexibility of
>contemporary Marxism.  With its stress on the essential unity of all
>religions FEW attempts to lead us beyond the scandalous sectarianism
>of established religions. I wish both the book and the author well
>in their quest.

What do you think of the contrast between Joel Kovel & John Bellamy
Foster drawn in the review below?

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Review of "Marx's Ecology"
Date: Fri, 17 Nov 2000 19:32:21 -0500
From: Louis Proyect <lnp3 at panix.com>
To: psn-seminars at csf.colorado.edu

(This was submitted to Canadian Dimension a couple of months ago, but
I haven't heard back from them. While they have printed about a
half-dozen articles of mine over the past 2 years--including a review
of Paul Burkett's book--this one seems to have disappeared into thin
air. Perhaps they just lost track of it or perhaps they found it too
unfocused for their purposes. My writing does lose focus all too
easily, I'm afraid. In any case, feel free to pass it on to friends
and relatives. It is a very good book after all.)


"Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature" by John Bellamy Foster

Monthly Review, 2000, $18.00

When the modern ecology movement first appeared, most self-described
Marxists tended to view it through the prism of the Frankfurt School.
 From this perspective, industrial society was the cause of pollution
and other environmental problems. Only by paying nature its proper
respect could we reestablish a natural balance and save the planet.
Without this change of heart, transforming class relations would
accomplish little as indicated by poisoned rivers, denuded forests
and unsafe nuclear reactors in the Soviet Union.

Joel Kovel spoke for many in this broadly defined current when he
wrote, "Specifically, there is no language within Marxism beyond a
few ambiguous and sketchy beginnings that directly addresses the
ravaging of nature or expresses the care for nature which motivates
people--Marxist or not--to become engaged in ecological struggle."
("Capitalism, Nature and Socialism", Dec. 1995). He urged "a call to
open the question of spirituality in Marxism, since spirit, as a
motion within being, is at the proper level of abstraction for
dialectical appropriation."

In "Marx's Ecology," John Bellamy Foster defies conventional green
thinking by raising the banner of materialism rather than
spirituality in the fight to save the planet and humanity from
ecological ruin. In addition to restoring materialism to its proper
place, Foster also shows that ecological questions were central not
only to Marx, but other Marxists such as Bebel and Bukharin. By
restoring this lost tradition, Foster hopes to create a new basis for
ecosocialism grounded in Marxist science rather than mysticism.

For obvious reasons, materialism has taken a back seat in the Western
Marxist tradition, from Lukacs to the Frankfurt School. This school
of thought emphasized a historical materialism that largely bracketed
out nature, while seeing works like Engels' "Dialectics of Nature" as
paving the way for Stalinist dogma in philosophy and the physical

Foster confesses that an early grounding in a Hegelian-influenced
Marxism blocked his own path to ecological materialism. Ironically,
it was not a fellow academic who suggested an alternative
interpretation of Marx, but an older student named Ira Shapiro who
had been a farmer at one time in his varied career. He urged Foster
to "look at this," referring to sections in Marx that dealt with the
problems of soil nutrients. Later on, Charles Hunt, a friend of
Foster's and a part-time professor and beekeeper, urged him to take a
second look at "Dialectics of Nature."

In the first of a series of provocative questions appearing in his
introduction, Foster asks, "Why did Marx write his doctoral thesis on
the ancient atomists?" Like the sled in "Citizen Kane," this serves
as a clue to Marx's lifelong intellectual development and supports
the powerful conclusion of Foster's book.

Although most students of Marx are aware of materialist thought in
such early works as the 1845 "Theses on Feuerbach," Foster argues
that materialism made its debut in Marx's doctoral dissertation on
the "Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of
Nature," written four years earlier. According to Foster, the
standard explanation for the dissertation is that Marx saw Epicurus
as a kindred rebel spirit. This Epicurus sought to overthrow the
totalizing philosophy of Aristotle, just as the
post-Hegelians--including the young Marx--rose up against Hegel. What
is missing here is the element of materialism, which drew Marx to
Epicurus in the first place. Marx identified with the Enlightenment,
for which Epicurus serves as a forerunner to the radical democrats of
the 17th and 18th century. The materialism they all shared was
crucial to an attack on the status quo, ancient or modern.

The Greek materialists, especially Epicurus, are important to Marx
because they represent the first systematic opposition to idealist
and essentialist thought. Just as importantly, Epicurus in particular
anticipates the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment. His dicta
that "Nothing is ever created by divine power out of nothing" and
"nature . . . never reduces anything to nothing" are in harmony with
what we now know as "the principle of conservation." Foster also
notes that Lucretius, another materialist of the classical era,
"alluded to air pollution due to mining, to the lessening of harvests
through the degradation of soil, and to the disappearance of the
forests; as well as arguing that human beings were not radically
different from animals."

In their early writings, Marx and Engels wed the materialism of the
Enlightenment to a political critique of the capitalist system,
particularly targeting ideologues such as Malthus. Taking aim at his
false piety, the 1844 "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy"
challenges private property, especially in the land, asserting that:

"To make earth an object of huckstering--the earth which is ours one
and all, the first condition of our existence--was the last step in
making oneself an object of huckstering. It was and is to this very
day an immortality of self-alienation. And the original
appropriation--the monopolization of the earth by a few, the
exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their
life--yields nothing in immorality to the subsequent huckstering of
the earth."

Marx's materialist conception of history and nature was first of all
a break with Feuerbach, whose materialism was of a contemplative
nature. While Marx first outlined his views in the "Theses on
Feuerbach," he developed them in a more systematic fashion in a "The
German Ideology." Foster's trained eye permits him to bring a
neglected theme in the 1846 classic into the foreground.

According to Foster, geology and geography are key elements in the
materialist conception of history defined in "The German Ideology."
Without bringing them into play, we can not properly understand how
industry and nature evolve. Marx had studied geological science at
the Trier gymnasium under Johann Steinenger, a follower of Abraham
Gottlob Werner, considered the "father of historical geology." Before
Werner, geologists simply categorized rocks on the basis of location
or constituent minerals. Werner speculated on the long-term origins
of geological succession. He emphasized the need to see the
development of the earth from origins of "perhaps a 1,000,000 years."

For Marx this constituted a real breakthrough. Seeing the planet's
history in terms of geological epochs was necessary for the
development of a materialist ontology. In breaking with the
theological and essentialist underpinnings of much of 19th century
thought, Marx drew support especially from the notion of 'generatio
aequivoca,' or 'spontaneous generation,' that was central to Werner's
theories. In this respect, Foster argues, Marx remained true to
Epicurus' view, related by Lucretius, that: "The name of mother has
rightly been bestowed on the earth, since out of the earth everything
is born."

In embracing such an approach, Marx emerges as an early
"evolutionist" in the ongoing battle against "creationism" still
being fought today. Furthermore, it would make him an early ally of
modern environmentalists for whom this kind of connection with the
earth is also important. Foster invokes Rachel Carson: "The
conditions on the young earth produced life; life then at once
modified the condition of the earth, so that this single
extraordinary act of spontaneous generation could not be repeated."
("Silent Spring")

Given Marx's affinity for Werner's theories, it would follow that
Darwin would also factor heavily in Marx's continuing investigations
into nature, including homo sapiens. Key to Darwinian theory,
according to Foster, was "the fact that environments could change
radically, thus making an organism that was previously superbly
adapted to its environment, such as the wooly mammoth, no longer so
well adapted (actually driving it into extinction), in itself
contradicted any simple notion of progression."

Marx developed his response to Darwin's theory of natural selection
between 1859 and 1867, dates which coincide with the appearance of
"The Origin of Species" and Volume One of Capital respectively.
Marx's enthusiasm for Darwin is a matter of record. In January 1860,
he wrote Lassalle that "Darwin's work is most important and suits my
purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the
historical class struggle." Less clear is the extent to which
Darwinian theory actually made its presence felt in Marx's writings.

Foster believes that the answer to this question is in Volume One of
Capital where in footnotes Marx alludes to the connection between
"natural technology" at work in the natural evolution of plants and
animals and the development of human technology in the process of
human history. Engels developed these ideas in the essay "The Part
Played by Labour in the Transition from the Ape to Man." Not only did
this essay make the connection between natural selection in both
nature and society explicit, it also warned about the consequences of
upsetting the balance between them.

Darwinism of course has had a troubled relationship to socialism that
Foster acknowledges. A Malthusian cast to Darwin's thought helped to
spawn a Social Darwinism that made the "survival of the fittest" a
paradigm for understanding the relentless march from "savagery" to
"civilization." Engels recognized this problem and warned that
attempts to extrapolate "the same theories from organic nature to
history, and then claim to have proved their validity as eternal laws
of history" were wrong.

Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, this mistake has
cropped up in Marxist thought repeatedly. Perhaps no other figure
symbolizes this uneasy relationship more dramatically than Lewis
Henry Morgan, who figured prominently as an inspiration for both the
"Ethnological Notebooks" of Marx and Engels' "Origins of the Family,
Private Property and the State."

While most Marxists are aware of the high regard paid to the Iroquois
by Morgan, there is another more troubling side. Morgan's materialist
conception of social evolution included biological determinants that
often led him to racist conclusions. Concluding that certain common
cultural characteristics of various Indian tribes were proof of a
common racial makeup, Morgan surmised that behavioral differences
between Europeans and Indians could be explained by blood. In
"Systems of Consanguinity," Morgan writes:

"The Indian and European are at opposite poles in their physiological
conditions. In the former there is very little animal passion, which
with the latter it is superabundant. A pure-blooded Indian has very
little animal passion, but in the half blood it is sensibly
augmented; and when the second generation is reached with a cross
giving three-fourths white blood, it become excessive and tends to
indiscriminate licentiousness."

Thus the answer to "improving" the Indian's situation involved
breeding him with non-Indians. Robert E. Bieder wrote in "Science
Encounters the Indian" that "Although most so-called Indian reformers
of the day steered away from suggesting miscegenation as a means of
'improving' the Indian, Morgan felt that it held a certain
utilitarian value." Morgan believed that although a half-blood Indian
was inferior to a pure-blood both physically and mentally, a mixture
of 3 parts white blood to 1 part Indian might be just what was needed
to show that in Morgan's words "Indian blood can be taken up without
physical or intellectual detriment." ("Systems of Sanguinity")

Although it would impose an impossible burden on "Marx's Ecology" to
expect Foster to deal with these troubled legacy, we still must
recognize that the proper relationship between scientific socialism
and indigenous peoples has yet to be defined in its full complexity.
Both Kautsky and Plekhanov relied heavily on Social Darwinist sources
in their approach to such peoples. Worse, the general reliance on a
"stages" conception of social development undoubtedly led to the
Sandinistas' patronizing attitude toward the Miskito Indians or the
failure of the FARC and ELN in Colombia to respect indigenous

By restoring Marx's materialism to its proper place, "Marx's Ecology"
provides a theoretical foundation for further explorations in
ecosocialism. Once we understand the proper connection between nature
and society, we can begin to act to confront the major problems
facing humanity, from global warming to diminishing fresh water
supplies. In the final chapter, Foster cites a number of Marxist
thinkers who belong to the materialist tradition. Their examples can
help to inspire a new generation of ecologically minded socialists.

Foster presents an unfamiliar side of Bukharin. His "Philosophical
Arabesques," only made available in 1992, reveals a sophisticated
dialectical materialist who grounds his analysis of society in
ecology. Bukharin writes of the "earth's atmosphere, full of
infinitely varied life, from the smallest microorganisms in water, on
land and in the air, to human beings. Many people do not imagine the
vast richness of these forms, or their direct participation in the
physical and chemical processes of nature."

As one of the founders of German Social Democracy, August Bebel not
only spoke with some authority in the 1884 "Woman Under Socialism,"
he also seemed to be anticipating the dire consequences experienced
today in the wake of clear-cutting:

"The mad sacrifice of the appreciable deterioration of climate and
decline in the fertility of the soil in the provinces of Prussian and
Pomerania, in Syria, Italy and France, and Spain. Frequent
inundations are the consequence of stripping high ground of trees.
The inundations of the Rhine and Vistula are chiefly attributed to
the devastation of forest land in Switzerland and Poland."

Finally, in an instance that seems to address Joel Kovel's complaint
about the lack of spirituality in Marxism and a possible alternative
to Lewis Henry Morgan's obsession with "improvement,", we have the
example of Rosa Luxemburg who wrote from prison in May, 1917:

"What am I reading? For the most part, natural science: geography of
plants and animals. Only yesterday I read why the warblers are
disappearing from Germany. Increasingly systematic forestry,
gardening and agriculture are, step by step destroying all natural
nesting and breeding places: hollow trees, fallow land, thickets of
shrubs, withered leaves on the garden grounds. It pained me so when I
read that. Not because of the song they sing for people, but rather
it was the picture of the silent, irresistible extinction of these
defenseless little creatures which hurt me to the point that I had to
cry. It reminded me of a Russian book which I read while still in
Zurich, a book by Professor Sieber about the ravage of the redskins
in North America. In exactly the same way, step by step, they have
been pushed from their land by civilized men and abandoned to perish
silently and cruelly."

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org/   *****


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