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Marx: the radical ecologist

Faline Bobier

September 28, 2013

There is a growing consciousness among ordinary people that the world we are creating/destroying will not sustain animal, plant or human life unless there is a drastic change to the way we interact with nature. Marxism has important contributions to make to this urgent challenge.
Marxism and ecology
There is a myth that Marx was, and that Marxism is, only interested in ever-increasing production and the development of technology, subordinating nature to humanity no matter what the cost. This is not surprising given the distortions of Marxist thought that came out of Stalin’s drive to accumulate, in order to compete with Western capitalism, beginning in the late 1920s. As part of the counter-revolution that imposed a state capitalist regime, Stalin purged ecologists and ecological theory. Revitalizing this theory is important not only for historical record but also to contribute to the environmental justice movement today.
Marx saw interaction with nature as central to what makes us human (writing in the 1800s, he used the term “man” to refer to humanity)—not in a mechanical way where humans simply use nature, but a dialectical relationship where the interaction between humanity and nature through labour transforms both. “Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature…By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature.”
Whereas Marx understood deeply that as human beings we cannot exist apart from nature—that we are a part of nature—capitalism attempts to break this relationship. Marx saw capitalism from its very inception as inherently unsustainable for both nature and humanity: “Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres…on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil…Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology…only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the labourer.”
The drive to accumulate and the competition between capitalists translate into ongoing innovation and the development of new ways to produce goods. However this is driven not by what people need or by what is sustainable for the environment, but by profit. There can be no technological or consumerist fix to the climate crisis. One of the largest solar and wind energy providers in Canada is the oil giant Enbridge, which sees energy alternatives not as a method to stop the oil industry’s plunder of the earth, but as simply another method of making profit. Clearly we have to challenge corporate power and the way capitalism organizes our relationship with nature.
Under capitalism, nature has become something outside of human beings, something we visit periodically, something that is instrumental for our needs, but which we are not a part of. As Marx writes, "For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognised as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws merely as a ruse so as to subject it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.”
This is a reflection of the way in which capitalism has physically separated us from nature and given control over our labour—our creative interaction with nature—to profit-driven corporations. In the modern workplace, ushered in during the nineteenth century, workers have no say over what we produce, how we produce it, or for whom. Marx described the result as alienation: “The relation of the worker to the product of labor as an alien object exercising power over him. This relation is at the same time the relation to the sensuous external world, to the objects of nature, as an alien world inimically opposed to him.” We can see this in the way the mainstream media portrays “natural disasters” like floods and hurricanes as a hostile planet threatening us—instead of seeing these climate disasters as products of society’s interaction with nature mediated through the capitalist labour market.
Ecological revolution
To overcome our alienation from the natural world, we must tackle at the same time our alienation from labour and from the work we perform on a daily basis, since the two are integrally connected. A system that treats human beings as expendable cogs in the machine will do the same to the natural world in which we must survive. To overcome this alienation we need to use the collective power we have to wrest the decisions about what is produced and how it is produced from those whose only concern is the bottom line. The coming together of concerns over the environment and the struggle for workers’ power is not two separate struggles, but the same one. Ultimately, we can only save our world if we can bring together the power of workers to challenge the priorities of capital and the realization that we are a part of nature—not its masters, nor its slaves.
As Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels wrote in Dialectics of Nature, “We by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly…The more this progresses the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body…This regulation, however, requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.”

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