The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology
By John Bellamy Foster
Monthly Review Press, 2020
The Return of Nature is essentially a sequel to John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology published twenty years earlier. In this new work Bellamy Foster examines the ecological thought of those who came after Karl Marx and were influenced by his philosophy, politics and ecology.
Among the theorists that Bellamy Foster examines, the ideas of socialism they held and their relations to the socialist movement were of various forms. But an important unifying thread that informed their ecological thinking is the materialist and dialectical critique that originated with Marx.
Marx rejected the idealist philosophies, such as those of Kant and Hegel, which placed humans and human thought at their centre. He championed a materialist philosophy which saw humans and human thought as a part of nature.
Marx did, however, take from idealist philosophy Hegel’s dialectical perspective through which to see the world as a differentiated, developing and interconnected whole.
When Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, Marx enthusiastically endorsed it as vindicating his materialist philosophy. Marx sent Darwin a copy of the second edition of Capital, which Darwin thanked him for, but there was yet to be an English translation published so he would have made little of it.
Marx died in London in 1883 less than a year after Darwin. In attendance at both funerals was Ray Lankester, Marx’s young friend and Darwin’s protégé.
Lankester had been a regular visitor to Marx’s household in the later years of Marx’s life. Having studied in Germany he would have been able to benefit from reading Marx’s work as well as regular discussions with him.
Lankester was to become a major figure in the development of evolutionary biology and zoology. His expertise was wide ranging but he particularly developed the field of what he called “bionomics”.
Rather than studying and comparing species as individuals he insisted that they should be studied in their living environments in interaction with other species. His colleague Ernst Haekel described it as the “economy of nature” or “ecology” — the term that has come to dominate.
This also involved a concern about the human disruption of natural ecology. As founding father of the Marine Biology Association, he wrote in Nature in 1885: “Our fishery industries are still barbaric; we recklessly seize the produce of the seas, regardless of the consequences … With the increase of population, and the introduction of steam fishing boats and more effective instruments of capture, there is reason to believe that some at least of our coast fisheries are being destroyed”.
He condemned human interaction with nature being governed by “the pecuniary profits to capitalists”.
Another figure that Bellamy Foster examines is William Morris. Morris was one of Britain’s most famous poets and artists.
Morris came from the illustrious English Romantic tradition, influenced especially by John Ruskin. Disdain for the dehumanisation of the Industrial Revolution was a common theme for Romanticism. It valued nature and the countryside over urban squalor.
However, this often involved a romanticisation of the past and a middle-class radicalism rather than an identification with working-class struggles.
Morris became a socialist fairly late in life, and credited reading John Stuart Mill’s attack on socialism in 1879 as converting him to the cause. He began reading Marx and joined the Social Democratic Federation shortly before Marx’s death. He was soon one of the major leaders of the socialist movement in England, founding the Socialist League in 1884.
Morris’s mature perspective is reflected in his 1890 novel News from Nowhere. As science fiction it looks to the future rather than the past. Its main protagonist wakes up in the 22nd century, in a post-revolutionary socialist utopia.
It reflects the Romantic ideals of nature but in a modern setting with human civilisation living harmoniously within nature. London has been opened up to green spaces, parliamentary buildings have been converted to a dung warehouse and salmon swim in the Thames.
After delivering a lecture in a Scottish mining town in the 1880s, Morris was asked if he was proposing to do away with coal and what would be done for fuel. His response was indicative: “For myself, I should be glad if we could do without coal … But without saying we can do without coal, I will say we could do with less than half what we use now, if we lived properly and produced only really useful, good, and beautiful things.
"We could get plenty of timber for our domestic fires if we cultivated and cared for our forests as we might do; and the water and wind power we now allow to go to waste, so to say, and with or without electricity, we could perhaps obtain the bulk of the motive power which might be required”.
The materialist perspective in ecology came under challenge in the 1920s through the influence of Jan Smuts’ holism. While this shared with dialectics an emphasis on seeing nature as an interconnected whole, it did so from an idealist and teleological point of view.
It saw nature as advancing toward perfection and ordered nature in a hierarchy of wholes from low to high species. Smuts also included race in this hierarchy, which tied in to his other role as one of the main architects of South African Apartheid.
Smuts was ably countered, however, by zoologist Lancelot Hogben in the 1929 “Nature of Life” debate. As well as countering Smuts in debate over ecology, Hogben was a socialist who actively opposed the rise of racial segregation in South Africa.
Also important in defending a materialist perspective in ecology was biologist Arthur Tansley, founder of the British Ecological Society and editor of Journal of Ecology. He was a student of Lankester and his parents had been involved in the Working Men’s and Working Women’s Colleges, as had been Morris.
Tansley took up the battle against Smuts’ holism in his 1935 article “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms”. Through this article, he also originated the concept of an “ecosystem”.
A significant part of The Return of Nature is devoted to Frederick Engels. While he is mostly thought of as Marx’s collaborator rather than successor, he did outlive Marx by twelve years.
More importantly though, he dedicated himself to the study of science. Especially through his Anti-Duhring and his unfinished Dialectics of Nature, he developed the dialectical materialist perspective for subsequent scientists and ecologists.
While Dialectics of Nature was only published in German in 1925 and English in 1940, the chapter “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” was published in 1896. Here Engels gave a materialist explanation of how the unique properties of human society and thought emerged out of nature through the collective interaction between humans and with nature.
This provided a perspective from which to understand human society within nature, but also a general model of how unique “emergent” properties can arise from the dialectical interaction of natural systems.
It was the work of Engels that was particularly influential among the “red scientists”. From the 1920s and 30s, some of the most important scientists in Britain, mostly connected with the Communist Party of Great Britain, combined philosophically-informed science with political commitment.
Among these was JBS Haldane, a founder of neo-Darwinism, who produced a more sophisticated evolutionary science combining Darwin’s natural selection with genetics. Among his many interests, he followed his father’s work on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and its effect on climate and was an advocate for alternative energy.
Other major figures among the red scientists included Hogben, physicist Hyman Levy, molecular biologist JD Bernal and biochemist, historian and sinologist Joseph Needham.
Though Cold War CIA-funded attacks on left-leaning scientists made the atmosphere more difficult, they largely continued their work and political commitments, particularly through involvement in the peace and anti-nuclear movement, with Bernal becoming president of the World Peace Council.
The influence of dialectical materialism on ecology and science generally has continued through subsequent generations. Some of the most explicit influences can be seen in the works of Harvard academic, palaeontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin who notably authored the classic The Dialectical Biologist in 1985.