A needed red-green perspective

November 20, 2015

Marx & Nature: A Red & Green Perspective
By Paul Burkett
Haymarket Books, 2014

Marx and Nature is a challenging, but very important book for all those concerned with developing and acting on the ecological insights in Marxist theory.

First released in 1999, its republication is long overdue, but should offer new readers the opportunity to grapple with Paul Burkett's analysis, and build on the ideas here. It has a new foreword by Marxist ecologist John Bellamy Foster that locates the book in the wider debates that have arisen among Marxist thinkers since its publication.

In Marx and Nature, Burkett takes up several arguments regarding Marx's ecological thinking. A common criticism, that Marxism is “Promethean” in its vision of the development of the forces of production, is challenged very effectively.

Burkett notes that it is not just anti-Marxists who make this criticism, but Marxists too. Burkett quotes ecosocialist Michael Lowy for instance, suggesting: “There is a tendency in Marx … to consider the development of the forces of production as the principal vector of progress, to adopt a fairly uncritical attitude toward industrial civilisation particularly its destructive relationship to nature.”

Burkett effectively challenges this view through the book. He does this by returning to the very core of Marx's ideas. He shows how, at almost every stage of Marx's intellectual development, the question of human relationships to nature is key.

The first part of this is a recognition that Marx treats “society and nature in terms of historically specific class-differentiated relations between people and necessary conditions of human production”. In other words, the relationships that exist between humans and nature, that are essential to the continued existence of society, vary through history.

But with the development of capitalism, this relationship takes a particularly unusual form. Burkett writes: “The commodity, value, and capital, for example, become dominant forms of human production only with capitalism's extreme social separation of the direct human producers from necessary conditions of production.”

Burkett points out, though, that this analysis is not limited to hitherto existing societies, but “extends to Marx's vision of the new productive forces developed under communism”.

A central part of this for Marx, Burkett explains, is the role played by nature in the production process. Quoting from Marx's 1861-63 Economic Manuscript, Burkett notes that for Marx, both nature and labour “contribute to the production of wealth or use-values … Labour can only produce wealth 'by effecting exchange of matter between man and Nature'.”

As Burkett reiterates: “All Marx suggests is that the significance of unappropriated natural wealth as potential use value hinges on its eventual combination with human labour, even if this is only the labour of primary appropriation.”

The significance of Marx's (and Burkett's) repetition of this point is that the production process and the creation of surplus value (the production of exchange values) under capitalism are inherently linked with the interaction of nature. Thus any development by Marx, based on this understanding, must inherently have an ecological component.

Natural variations themselves have an impact on the production of surplus labour. In Capital I, Marx wrote: “The fewer the number of natural wants imperatively calling for satisfaction, and the greater the natural fertility of the soil and the favourableness of the climate, so much less is the labour-time necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of the producer.”

The strength of Marx's argument helps explain another common criticism of Marx, which is that he viewed nature as somehow unlimited, particularly his use of the phrase “free appropriation”.

Burkett explains that here, Marx is not talking as though nature is somehow a free gift to humans, but he is explaining it in terms of the production process. Burkett writes: “When Marx speaks of capital's 'free appropriation' of natural and social conditions, this is not meant to imply that such conditions are costless or infinite from a total, society-wide standpoint.

“Rather, capitalistic free appropriation only means that no wage labour is required to produce certain conditions serving as material or social vehicles of value production and accumulation. Thus free appropriation certainly does not imply that the conditions being appropriated have no opportunity cost or alternative use from a social point of view …

“That something can be freely appropriated in the sense that it is 'directly' or 'spontaneously provided by nature' as Marx puts it, in no way implies that it is not scarce or valuable from a social (and farsighted) perspective.”

Nor did Marx ignore the potential for environmental crisis. In fact, Burkett argues, Marx considers two types of such crises. The first are crises caused by “imbalances between capital's material requirements and the natural conditions of raw materials production”.

Secondly, perhaps more pertinently to current environmental problems, is what Burkett describes as “a more general crisis in the quality of human-social development stemming from the disturbances in the circulation of matter and life forces that are generated by capitalism's industrial division of town and country”.

For Marx, the centrality of nature to the productive process lays the potential roots for both economic crisis and wider environmental crisis.

I was less convinced of Burkett's location of natural shortages as one cause of economic crisis, as I was by the fact that the very nature of capitalism, based on the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation, leads to unrestricted environmental degradation.

The separation of town and country, the historic development of a system that seeks to relocate natural resources in the production of commodities for exchange, was for Marx and Engels a key explanation of the roots of environmental crisis under capitalism.

The undermining of that separation was also a key part of their vision for a sustainable economy that would see the rational control of human metabolism of nature as a central part of production.

There is much else of interest here. I was particularly taken by Burkett's discussion of “Marx's Working-Day Analysis” in which he shows how the objectification of nature also leads to the destruction of human individuality and creativity.

In examining how Marx considered issues such as the struggle for the 10-hour day, Burkett concludes: “Marx does insist … that significant progress towards a sustainable utilization of society's life-forces and the use of such progress as a launching pad for further struggles depend on the incursion of explicitly social decision-making into areas previously reserved for capital and the market.

“This imperative for 'general political action' stems from the fact that capital requires the forces of human and extra-human nature only as conditions of monetary accumulation, whereas workers, like society as a whole, obviously have a more holistic interest in natural conditions as conditions of present and future human development.”

The conclusions of Burkett's analysis is to put the working class back at the heart of radical change. This is particularly important because it is this class that has the power to create a sustainable society. This is because its control and organisation of production can lead to a human interaction with nature that is both sustainable and in the best interest of the long-term development of humans.

Environmental critics of Marx (particularly those from the left) often seem to have wished that Marx had talked more about nature or at least considered the natural impact of society more generally. Burkett shows that both Marx and Engels did precisely this, but not in the easily accessible way that some people seem to want. In fact, the ecological core to Marx and Engels' thinking is of much greater significance than some might have thought.

That Marx and Engels were products of their time is a truism — they could not have foreseen climate change, for instance. Though they did understand that a fully developed world capitalism might make fundamental changes to the planet's environment.

What Burkett has done is to show that nature is a fundamental part of Marx's nuanced and detailed critique of capitalism and his vision for a better world. Marx and Nature is not an easy book — readers will need some familiarity with Marx's works and ideas — but it repays reading.

In a time when many are critiquing capitalism's relationship with the environment, but few are offering a revolutionary alternative, Marx and Nature, shows the necessity for a Marxist understanding of the world to be part of the struggle for a sustainable world.

[This review first appeared on Martin Empson's blog, Resolute Reader. Empson is the British author of Marxism and Ecology: Capitalism, Socialism and the Future of the Planet.]

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