John Bellamy Foster

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Nov 13 07:55:27 MST 2000

[These comments were made by John Bellamy Foster on the electronic seminar
for his book "Marx's Ecology]

Louis Proyect, George Snedeker, Tom Mayer, Mara Fridell, Mario Jose de
Lima, Tim Stroshane, and Claudia Robinson have all had interesting and
provocative things to say about MARX'S ECOLOGY and I would like to see if I
could respond briefly to some of these comments and questions, and help to
facilitate what looks like a fruitful discussion. Since this involves a lot
of technical/theoretical questions-some of which may seem to relate to
philosophy more than ecology-seminar members are encouraged to skim these
comments, to find what interests them.

Louis made a number of important points that I agree with. My view is that
Marx made some indispensable contributions to ecological analysis, which
may seem surprising since ecology in the nineteenth century was still in
its early stages, and Marx's main emphasis was on social development. But
Marx's ecological saving grace was his thoroughgoing materialism, which
meant that his analysis, while historical and social in orientation, was
never divorced from nature or from natural and physical science. As a
result, his method of analysis led him to recognize ecological problems,
such as the "metabolic rift" within capitalist agriculture, and to
interpret these within a context which was also social and historical.

One consequence of this is that classical Marxism, as a social theory, was
exceptionally well-equipped, as Louis says, to deal with the interactions
between human society and nature that constitute the crux of the ecological

The difficulty with "Western Marxism" that Louis raised and that George has
questioned, is not the renewed focus on the dialectic of praxis, which was
the main contribution of Lukacs, Korsch and Gramsci in the 1920s, and which
was picked up subsequently by the Frankfurt School and others. I regard
this as an essential component of Marxist analysis. The problem was that
"Western Marxism" in an overreaction to positivism threw out nature--both
any relation between the dialectic and nature (aside from human nature) and
any materialist conception of nature. (The rise of Stalinism in the Soviet
Union where ecologists were purged and where the dialectics of nature was
changed into a sterile dogmatism had a similar effect.) Thus the objection
to "Western Marxism" in MARX'S ECOLOGY is not an objection to all aspects
of this tradition, but rather to the tendency to throw out nature and
science and concede them to the positivists. Obviously there were some
Marxist thinkers in the West who did not do this-mainly in the sciences,
but also in history and political economy, and these are referred to in the

George raises the point, "it is not clear how one derives ethics and
purpose from matter." Of course the short answer to this is that one
doesn't. Here I think a knowledge of the history of materialism is useful.
Epicurus' materialist philosophy was important because it explicitly
opposed teleology, determinism and skepticism-all at the same time. He
started from a materialist standpoint and went on to make a radical
argument for human freedom rooted in contingency and evolution. The
argument was that we live in a material universe which conditions and
constrains us, but which does not determine us. Moreover, our knowledge of
the world is rooted in our healthy senses coupled with the exercise of our
reason. There are no final causes (no gods who determine our material
relationships). Further, skepticism is seen as an enemy of humanism. The
fact that Epicurus' ethics were so admirable (as Marx clearly believed),
encompassing not only human freedom but also rejecting anthropocentric
views of nature, can be traced to this fundamental materialist standpoint.
What this suggests at minimum is that one does not have to be an idealist,
or a skeptic to develop an ethics of freedom-and indeed one is better able
to do so from a materialist standpoint.

Another point that George raises, and I think it is an extremely
interesting one, is that "one can say that ... [the grounds for mapping
reality] are [to be found in] evolution, but since Foster has rejected
teleology, this does not seem to work." Here I would respond that teleology
and evolution (properly understood) have nothing to do with one another.
Marx and Engels argued that Darwin's distinctive contribution to
evolutionary theory was that it struck a "death blow at teleology." And not
only Marx and Engels argued this, but also Huxley, and indeed Darwin
himself. Rejection of teleology is therefore not a rejection of evolution.
And indeed a central theme of MARX'S ECOLOGY is the development of an
evolutionary outlook.

Tom raises the question of dialectics--whether it provides "a distinctive
intellectual orientation." My answer would be dialectical thinking is
distinctive compared to non-dialectical thinking. But there are also
distinct ways of being dialectical-for example within idealist or
materialist traditions. Hegel recognized in his ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE
PHILOSOPHICAL SCIENCES that the materialist tradition that he associated
with Epicurus and the Enlightenment aimed at an immanent dialectics (a view
of the truth as a whole), as did seventeenth century metaphysics, coming
from the other direction (with which Hegel himself was sympathetic). Marx
suggested in THE HOLY FAMILY that the difference between materialist and
idealist dialectics arose from their different starting points. I believe
that Marxism without the dialectic is empty of all critical elements; and I
would say a similar thing about ecology without the dialectic (for an
understanding of what I mean by this read Levins and Lewontin's THE

Tom also raises the question of the dialectics of nature. The introduction
to the book explains that I did not intend to answer that issue fully in
the discussion. Yet, it is true that the there is a general approach to
this problem evident in the book, which differs from much of the so-called
"dialectical materialist" tradition, but not, I would argue, from Marx and
Engels. That general approach associates the dialectic (and also evolution)
with emergentism. This is closely related to Bhaskar's argument of course.
Further, it has long been understood that Epicurus was one of the founders
of emergentist approaches to evolution (which is tied up with his immanent
dialectics). At a minimum, from an epistemological standpoint, one can
understand dialectic as a heuristic necessity for human beings, much as
Kant defended teleology as a heuristic necessity in his CRITIQUE OF
JUDGEMENT. But for Marx it went deeper than mere epistemology-and was
rooted in ontology. Human beings perceive the world through their
senses--and exist within it materially--only as it changes, that is, as it
emerges. This is the foundation of a materialist dialectic. Marx summed it
up at times in terms of the principle of mortality, the transitory nature
of material existence-"death the immortal," as Lucretius had said.

Tom asks whether an emphasis on emergence means that all aspects of nature
are to be understood as emergent. "Are the principles of physics emergent?"
I would answer yes to both of these questions. Physics lately has gone more
and more in the direction of an emergentist perspective, discovering its
principles in cosmological developments. (I am not an authority on physics,
of course, but a friend of mine, who is, was telling me of this revolution
in the nature of physics just the other day.) Another issue that Tom raises
is what is the relationship between Marxism and science? He writes: "I
strongly agree with John that a viable Marxism as well as a viable movement
to protect our planet must involve a strong relationship with science. But
what is an appropriate relationship between Marxism and science? Is Marxist
thought really in a position to act as a critic of scientific
practice?….Won't it lead to new forms of Lysenkoism or the rejection of
relativity theory as occurred under Stalin?" Tom admits that he is somewhat
impatient with intellectual history. Nevertheless, in this case we are
talking about the relationship between Marxism, understood as a body of
thought (and also a form of practice), and another body of thought, namely
science. Therefore I think it is worthwhile recognizing that Marxism and
science are not entirely separate but have influenced each other in the
course of their development and have been embodied often in the same
thinkers. Marx had some scientific training and kept up his scientific
studies throughout his life (here I am using science to refer to natural
and physical science). Engels too engaged in serious studies in the history
of science. Other later Marxist theorists did likewise. As MARX'S ECOLOGY
explains the contributions to Marxism by scientists and to science by
Marxists (often the same individuals) are numerous. Names such as Hessen,
Caudwell, Haldane, Needham, Farrington, Bernal, Oparin, Vavilov, Lewontin,
Gould and Levins appear in the text. I think it is a major mistake to think
that Marxism has only existed within the social science realm (a view that
has arisen within Western Marxism partly as a result of ceding science and
nature to positivism). It is true that Lysenkoiosm was a scar on Marxism.
But Stalinism was only able to promote these views by first purging some of
the greatest ecologists and Marxist in the world (such as Bukharin and
Vavilov). (The history of Lysenkoism is dealt with quite well in THE
DIALECTICAL BIOLOGIST by Levins and Lewontin, referred to above.) Einstein,
moved from science, to an interest in Marxism, but this was not a great
leap, since his science always reflected a critical realism, that was
compatible with Marxism. When Rachel Carson explained the ecological view
that lay at the roots of SILENT SPRING she referred to the Oparin-Haldane
theory of the origins of life, a view that arose out of materialism and
Marxism. My own view is that the work of Gould, Lewontin and Levins, which
advances materialism while attacking positivism and (non-dialectical)
reductionism shows the power of a scientific viewpoint that draws on
critical, dialectical, materialist thinking. As for Marx, he argued that
ultimately there was only one science.

Finally, Tom raises the question of whether we need to excavate Marx in
order to understand what is wrong with contemporary Green theory. I suppose
my answer is that we need to excavate not simply Marx, but the entire
Marxist (and materialist) tradition, and ecology too. From a Marxist
standpoint it makes sense to start with Marx, particularly as he made
fundamental ecological breakthroughs. (I think this was Mario's point in
his message.) But in a sense Marx is a part of a much larger struggle, so
that in order to understand his development it is necessary to look at a
large part of the history of philosophy and science going as far back as
the ancient Greeks. And it is also necessary to study Malthus, Darwin, etc.
Ecology emerged as a form of thought and practice in a context of struggle.
Moreover, nineteenth century ecology is in many ways more profound than our
own because it was wrapped up with a sense of the socio-ecological changes
that had taken place within the evolution of a new mode of production-a
phenomenon that we today too often lose sight of. Tom asks, doesn't this
focus on Marx undermine our confidence in the ability of current Marxists
to solve these problems based on current principles? My answer would be no.
Historical research into intellectual as well as practical struggles of the
past never disempowers the present. The reason is that, as Adorno said,
"all reification is forgetting." We need to move forward on the basis of
the past, not leave the past behind discarded. Also it is wrong to think
that "current principles" have left past principles behind. The hottest
concept in ecology in Europe is the idea of metabolism, and it is now
recognized that the first thinker to apply this concept to the
society-nature interaction was Marx. Many social ecologists today write as
though Darwinism and evolution are old ideas of no importance to ecology.
But as we struggle with ideas of coevolution and attempt to understand them
in materialist and social terms the work of Darwin and Marx in relation to
evolution-both natural and social--remain essential. In discussions of the
globalization of agribusiness today we are thrown constantly back on Marx's
concept of primitive accumulation, which was all about the removal of
workers from any connection to nature (and to a self-sufficient household
economy). (This has recently been explored in Michael Perelman's THE
INVENTION OF CAPITALISM.) I could give many other examples of this general

I agree with Mara that a materialist ecology opens up exciting new
prospects and that some of these are raised by Tim. In reading Tim's
comments about ecology that ignores production and the economic conditions
of human beings, and promulgates a deep-ecological perspective that
privileges nature while ignoring class, etc., I am reminded of my own early
work on "The Limits of Environmentalism Without Class: Lessons from the
Forest Crisis of the Pacific Northwest," which was published in CAPITALISM,
NATURE, SOCIALISM in 1993. I objected in that essay to those who sought to
defend the forest while also arguing that workers could depend on the free
market to provide them with jobs. I insisted that that the forest and the
spotted owl had to be protected. But the crux of the problem, if long-term
sustainability was at issue, was to develop a labor environmentalism that
took into consideration class relations, the role of capital, etc., rather
than forcing workers into accepting a non-humanistic ecology that denied
their reality, and thus avoided any confrontation with capital. Why should
it be assumed that if the economy has to be constrained that the effects of
this have to fall mainly on the workers? For me the tendency toward a
largely spiritualistic ecology, which prevailed among radical environmental
activists, got in the way of dealing with the social-material-natural
relations as they had developed historically. Instead we were caught in a
bizarre "ecocentric" (or biocentric) vs. industrial capital model.
Ironically, the industry at least recognized the problems of the workers to
some extent (while exploiting them). Ecologists often pretended that the
workers did not exist or that they were inherently against nature. I hoped
that historical materialism could provide a more meaningful perspective
rooted in its deeper materialist understanding of both society and nature.
It seems to me that Tim is struggling along these lines.

Claudia tried to answer a lot of the questions posed to the seminar at the
outset, but was hindered by not having a copy of the book. I think Claudia
wanted to argue that we should avoid simplistic, either-or answers to
complex issues and that there is room for many different versions of
ecological struggle and points of view. I would agree in part. But I also
think that the more unified we can be (without suppressing real needs that
exist within the movement) the more effectively we will be able to wage our
struggle. Also to even begin to deal with the ecological problem we have to
have some idea of what the causes are, and the social remedies. Theory and
knowledge of history are therefore required. Theory often means making hard
choices, biting the analytical bullet, as Cornel West once said. We can't
afford what C. Wright Mills called a "democratic theory of knowledge" in
which all ideas are created equal. That means real debates have to take
place. My view is that ecology and Marxism both demand a materialist (as
well as dialectical) perspective. And that in many ways is what the book is
about. This does not mean that there is no place for ideas, ethics, human
freedom, revolutionary spirit, etc.-quit the contrary. It does mean that we
are better equipped to deal with the problems that confront us if we to
start with a conception of the ecological dependence of human society and
human freedom, rooted in a deep materialism. Viewed aside from the argument
in the book this is a no more than an empty opinion. It is the argument,
not this view itself, which is most important. If you still want to get
hold of MARX'S ECOLOGY you can do so by going to the web page listed in the
original announcement. Here it is for your convenience:

Thank you for jumping so eagerly into this discussion.

Louis Proyect
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