John Bellamy Foster

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Mon Nov 13 16:07:37 MST 2000

On Mon, 13 Nov 2000 09:52:16 -0500 Louis Proyect <lnp3 at> writes:
> [These comments were made by John Bellamy Foster on the electronic
> seminar
> for his book "Marx's Ecology]

> 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.

Does this mean that John Bellamy Foster would subscribe to Sebastiano
Timpanaro's take on Marxism as represented in his *On Materialism*,
where he argued that Marx's materialism not only encompassed
a historical materialism but was also a natural science and a biological

> 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
> problem.

That was also Juan Martinez-Alier's argument in his *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.)

This argument is very remniscient of the one that Timpanaro presented
in *On Materialism*.  Timpanaro was very critical of both the
and the Althusserians for ignoring, downplaying, rejecting Marx's natural
science & biological materialism.  In his view, these Western Marxists
guilty of reverting back to idealism.

>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
> text.
> 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.

This argument is remniscient both of Kautsky's take on Marx's ethics
and also if Timpanaro who emphasizes the Epicurean roots of Marxist

> 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.

I wonder what Foster's take would be on Alan Carling's selectionist
interpretation of historical materialism which explicitly draws upon
Darwinian expalantory paradigms for analyzing social evolution.

> 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.

This sounds a bit, perhaps more than a bit like David Bohm!


> 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.

Hilary Putnam has characterized Engels as having been one of the most
learned men
of the 19th century, especially in science.

Jim Farmelant

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