It is undeniable that one of the great challenges of our time is dealing with the effects of human-made environmental destruction. Carbon emissions, deforestation, mining and pollution are among the many ways capitalism is altering and destroying the natural world. When thinking through writers on environmental questions, the names of Marx and Engels are not usually the first that come to mind. However throughout their lives Marx and Engels were two of the harshest critics of capitalism’s destruction of the environment.
This article will address two common misconceptions regarding Marxist thought and the environment. The first is that Marx and Engels had little to say about environmental questions, or that their ideas are outdated and therefore do not apply to the modern world. Many today feel the need to don the label “eco-socialist”, implying that environmental concern is an issue not addressed by the socialist tradition and therefore needs to be added on. The second is the idea that Marxism is inherently productivist and supports social and industrial development regardless of the cost to the environment.
The truth is that across Marx and Engels’ writings there is a strong environmental critique; their understanding of humans’ relationship to nature was a core feature of their analysis. Following in their footsteps, leading Marxists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries expanded on their environmental ideas. Their writings and method leave an important legacy which has key insights for those wanting to see an environmentally sustainable world today.
Marx’s early writings show a philosophical interest in the relationship between humans and the natural world. Among others “he studied Strauss, Bruno Bauer, Hegel, and Feuerbach. He criticized Strauss for his Spinozistic point of view wherein human beings are first posited as nature wearing some metaphysical mask and are then separated from nature.” In The German Ideology Marx and Engels attacked Bruno Bauer for discussing “‘the antitheses in nature and history’, as though these were two separate ‘things’ and man did not always have before him an historical nature and a natural history”. In The Holy Family of 1845 Marx commented how Feuerbach “criticised Hegel from Hegel’s point of view by resolving the metaphysical Absolute Spirit into ‘real man on the basis of nature’.” As Pradip Baksi explains:
This journey through the Young Hegelian world of abstract philosophical concepts convinced Marx that the history of human society can be understood only in the light of the concrete material relations of people with the rest of nature. These relations become actualized theoretically in the natural sciences and practically in the social processes of production and reproduction based on cooperation and division of human labor.
Marx’s starting point was that humans, along with all living things, have a relationship to the earth. At the most basic level, without clean air, water and a stable food supply humans cannot survive on the planet. From the beginning of humanity we have interacted with the natural world, breathed its oxygen, eaten plants and hunted animals to survive. In Borneo there is evidence of humans burning forest over 50,000 years ago to encourage the growth of tubers, an early form of farming. As Marx wrote in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:
In a physical sense, man lives only from these natural products, whether in the form of nourishment, heating, clothing, shelter, etc.… Man lives from nature – i.e., nature is his body – and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.
Changes in the natural environment have had enormous impacts on human societies in the past and will continue to in the future. The end of the last ice age and the beginning of the Holocene epoch around 13,000 years ago changed the earth’s climate, making it warmer and wetter. These changes affected the natural environment in different ways across the globe. But in general the warmer climate made it possible for humans to develop agriculture. The domestication and selective breeding of crops was a slow process which took thousands of years to develop and involved humans responding to and acting on the natural environment.
On a global scale these developments would radically transform some human societies, as the production of surplus food from agriculture was a major factor in the later division of society into social classes which still remain today. These changes in human society are the expression of something unique to humans: the ability to labour consciously and cooperatively. Our basic biology means humans lack many physical attributes that other animals have, such as sharp teeth, claws or wings. Therefore it is our brains, hands and our ability to consciously and collectively labour with other humans that give us the means to our survival. Marx described human labour in Capital as
first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces that belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.
The labour process
is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction [Stoffwechsel] between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.
He continues explaining the difference between human labour and that of other animals:
We presuppose labour in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax.
This ability to labour consciously is the reason why human beings have a history in a way that other animals do not. It gives human beings the ability to shape the world around them and produce wondrous things. However, once society became divided into classes the decisions about what is produced and the conditions under which it is produced were separated from the labourer. For instance, what they constructed was not the decision of Roman slaves, just as today construction workers do not decide what they will build. These decisions are instead made by the ruling classes of the day who control that labour and thus society’s wealth.
In class societies whether our labour is performed in a way that ensures our “continuing dialogue” with nature is a decision removed from the mass of ordinary people. The complete separation of this was established under capitalism, as Marx explained:
It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital.
This is not to argue that pre-capitalist societies always had a harmonious relationship to the environment, but there is an important distinction. There are examples of pre-capitalist class societies which did destroy their local environment, however this was due to a lack of scientific understanding. Our current knowledge of the environment and its natural laws is the result of centuries of human development, of which trial and error has been part. The difference today is that while humans now have a fuller understanding of the natural world, capitalism fundamentally leads to the destruction of its environment, and on a scale impossible in previous human societies.
Describing the relationship between human labour and the natural world Marx used the word metabolism, or Stoffwechsel as it appears in the original German. Marx was very selective in using Stoffwechsel as a new word popular in the scientific community of the time. However some translations of Marx and Engels’ work have simply translated this word to mean “material reactions” which has a different meaning. Stoffwechsel was beginning to be used at the time to describe cell development and the material exchanges that happen within the human body. An example of metabolism is the chemical reactions that take place in our bodies to convert the food we eat into usable energy. Understanding the chemical processes occurring in the human body was a pathbreaking discovery in the scientific community at the time. Marx took up this new term, broadening its scope to apply it to society and the relationship to humans and the natural world. As John Bellamy Foster explains:
For scholars working in these areas, it is now common to recognize, as Fischer-Kowalski has stated, that “within the nineteenth-century foundations of social theory, it was Marx and Engels who applied the term ‘metabolism’ to society.”
In Marx’s later work he describes more concretely how capitalist society had created a break or rift in this metabolism between humans and nature. Capitalism’s logic of profit before all else would set it on a collision course with the natural world on a scale unknown before in human history. In volume 3 of Capital Marx explained how capitalism
reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country.
Marx’s use of the word “rift” is the basis of John Bellamy Foster’s term “metabolic rift”, used as shorthand to describe Marx and Engels’ ideas about capitalism and nature.
Marx’s interest in the “vitality of the soil” is a significant one which features in many of his works. It impacted his early economic writings on ground rent but became more important over time as an ongoing crisis in soil fertility became a major problem for capitalist agriculture. His concern for the soil and its improvement is clear long before he wrote Capital. In The Communist Manifesto, written in 1847, Marx and Engels’ ten-point list of measures for the working class to implement upon taking power included “the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan”.
Along with pollution from industrial production and deforestation, the crisis of soil fertility in the mid-nineteenth century was arguably the first major environmental crisis of capitalism. Its cause was rooted in the way that the production and consumption of food was now being organised.
Alongside the development of capitalism came the creation of modern cities and the marked separation between town and country. Before this separation, food was largely consumed in close proximity to where it was produced. After consumption the soil nutrients used to grow this food were returned to the soil in the form of human, animal and plant waste. The cycle of nutrients was therefore completed and the soil replenished to continue growing crops.
However when food is transported long distances the nutrients in the soil that grew that food are transported with it, and if not returned inevitably deplete the soil’s ability to continue growing food and other crops. This is exactly what was happening across Europe and the United States at the time. Not limited to food crops, soil nutrition depletion was common in the plantations of the Confederate States, especially in the growing of cotton which is particularly nitrogen hungry. Soil fertility was rapidly declining across the world at a time when the global demand for food was rapidly increasing. Human, animal and plant waste was simply not being returned to the soil. In Britain at the time this waste was instead regularly dumped in the Thames, until an event known as the “Great Stink” prompted the state to build a sewerage network. Marx noted that “[i]n London…they can do nothing better with the excrement produced by 4 [and a] 1/2 million people than pollute the Thames with it, at monstrous expense.” This was not just a nineteenth century problem; in 2013 it was estimated by Thames Water that 55 million tonnes of sewage were dumped in it.
In Marx’s time however it was not scientifically understood why the soil was becoming less fertile and how it could be restored. This began to change with the work of now famous German soil chemist Justus von Liebig who is seen today as the father of organic chemistry and that of fertilisers. He was the first to discover the importance of soil nutrients to plant growth, in particular nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. For the first time the importance of applying human and animal waste to the soil was now scientifically understood. However this also led to an understanding of how other sources of these same chemicals (i.e. fertilizers), such as bone or guano (bird shit) could be applied to the soil to enhance fertility. Rather than returning waste to the soil, the application of these fertilizers fast became the sole way that soil fertility was restored – and a profit-making exercise.
Thus began an era of the scramble for these resources. European farmers desperate for bones to fertilise their soil raided the Napoleonic battlefields of Waterloo. Guano, which is high in nitrogen and phosphorus, became highly sought after. The twenty-first century has seen wars for oil; the nineteenth century had wars for bird shit. In 1879-1884 the War of the Pacific (also known as the Saltpetre War) saw over 20,000 killed and was fought in part over who would have control over this commodity. In 1856 the US passed the Guano Island Act which saw it annex and occupy over 100 islands for precious bird shit. This new dependence on imported guano was not without its critics. The French novelist Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables:
There is no guano comparable in fertility with the detritus of a capital. A great city is the most mighty of dung-makers. Certain success would attend the experiment of employing the city to manure the plain. If our gold is manure, our manure, on the other hand, is gold.
The most important critic however was Liebig, despite having made the scientific discoveries which led to this in the first place. Liebig wrote a highly critical introduction to the 1862 edition of his book Organic Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology:
Great Britain deprives all countries of the conditions of their fertility. It has raked up the battlefields of Leipsic, Waterloo and the Crimea; it has consumed the bones of many generations accumulated in the catacombs of Sicily; and now annually destroys the food for a future generation of three millions and a half people. Like a vampire it hangs on the breast of Europe, and even the world, sucking its lifeblood.
This introduction was not well received by his publishers in Britain, who physically destroyed the copy they received to translate. According to John Bellamy Foster:
When this final edition of Liebig’s great work was finally translated into English it was in an abridged form under a different title (The Natural Laws of Husbandry) and without Liebig’s lengthy introduction. Hence, the English-speaking world was left in ignorance of the extent of Liebig’s critique of industrialised capitalist agriculture.
This however did not stop Karl Marx, proficient in both German and English, from reading the 1862 edition of Liebig’s work while writing Capital. He later wrote in a letter to Engels, “I had to plough through the new agricultural chemistry in Germany, in particular Liebig and Schönbein, which is more important for this matter than all the economists put together.” As a practical solution to the crisis of soil fertility Marx and Engels saw the need for modern sewerage systems that returned waste to the soil to be built and for the abolition between town and country to occur. Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring how “[t]he present poisoning of the air, water and land can be put an end to only by the fusion of town and country.”
Understanding that the root cause of this environmental destruction was capitalist society and its drive for profit, they did not see these changes as possible under capitalism. Instead these would be key tasks in the reconstruction of society by the working class under socialism. As Marx summarised in Capital Volume 3:
The moral of history, also to be deduced from other observations concerning agriculture, is that the capitalist system works against a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (even if the latter promotes technical development in agriculture).
Marx’s writings on soil chemistry do not appear as a fleeting interest but one which he took seriously. Not limited to reading Liebig, Marx read the works of agricultural chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein, botanist John London’s Encyclopaedia of Agriculture, several works by agricultural chemist and geologist James Johnston, and many others. His ongoing interest is demonstrated in another letter he wrote to Engels in 1868:
I would like to know from Schorlemmer what is the latest and best book (German) on agricultural chemistry. Furthermore, what is the present state of argument between the mineral-fertilizer people and the nitrogen-fertilizer people?
Marx and Engels both read the works of German botanist Carl Nikolaus Fraas and Marx’s personal library contained three of his books complete with his own marginal notations. Fraas’ work impacted their understanding of the environment, in particular the effects of deforestation. Marx wrote in a letter to Engels:
Very interesting is the book by Fraas (1847): Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit, eine Geschichte beider [Climate and the Plant World throughout the Ages, a History of Both], namely as proving that climate and flora change in historical times. He is a Darwinist before Darwin, and admits even the species developing in historical times. But he is at the same time agronomist. He claims that with cultivation – depending on its degree – the “moisture” so beloved by the peasants gets lost (hence also the plants migrate from south to north), and finally steppe formation occurs. The first effect of cultivation is useful, but finally devastating through deforestation… The conclusion is that cultivation – when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois he naturally does not reach this point) – leaves deserts behind it, Persia, Mesopotamia, etc., Greece. So once again an unconscious socialist tendency! 
Not only does this contain key criticisms of modern agricultural methods, Marx links concern for soil destruction directly with the socialist movement (note, not eco-socialist). Writing about the cause of recent floods in France, Engels noted that “every child in France knows that it is precisely the destruction of the forests that is the cause”. He continued, remarking that “nowhere is so much complaint made as in France over neglect of forests and ever more extensive deforestation without regard for reforestation”. Marx noted in Capital Volume 2 how “[t]he development of culture and of industry in general has evinced itself in such energetic destruction of forest that everything done by it conversely for their preservation and restoration appears infinitesimal.”
In a letter to Nikolai Danielson, who translated Capital Volume 1 into Russian, Engels wrote about how “reckless deforestation…may cause a colossal waste of productive forces” in Russia due to capitalist development. Further in another letter to Marx, Engels commented on how modern industry is a “great squanderer…of energy, coal, ores, forests, etc.”
It was not only Marx who gained insights from reading Fraas, Engels too was influenced by his work. Engels wrote that modern society
is an antagonistic process which in its hitherto existing form exhausts the land, turns forest into desert, makes the earth unfruitful for its original products and worsens the climate. Steppe lands and increased warmth and dryness of the climate are the consequences of culture. In Germany and Italy it is 5-6°C warmer than at the time of the forests.
The observation of temperature changes due to deforestation is an important one. The earliest records of global temperature changes due to human activity date from the 1940s, yet Engels made this remark between 1877 and 1883. He saw these temperature increases as local rather than global changes, but this is understandable given the general level of scientific knowledge of the time.
What makes Marx and Engels’ observations unique however is not just the time, but the political conclusions they drew. Every environmental criticism they made was linked to the exploitative nature of capitalism, and therefore they saw the solution in its overthrow and the creation of a socialist society.
Engels’ important work The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 shows the utter disregard that capitalists at the time had for the environment and the living conditions of the working class. He condemns the pollution of the streets, rivers and the air by waste and factory effluent in nineteenth century England. Poor housing and a lack of any waste management meant that workers lived in awful conditions causing death and disease.
All putrefying vegetable and animal substances give off gases decidedly injurious to health, and if these gases have no free way of escape, they inevitably poison the atmosphere. The filth and stagnant pools of the working-people’s quarters in the great cities have, therefore, the worst effect upon the public health, because they produce precisely those gases which engender disease; so, too, the exhalations from contaminated streams. But this is by no means all. The manner in which the great multitude of the poor is treated by society today is revolting. They are drawn into the large cities where they breathe a poorer atmosphere than in the country; they are relegated to districts which, by reason of the method of construction, are worse ventilated than any others; they are deprived of all means of cleanliness, of water itself, since pipes are laid only when paid for, and the rivers so polluted that they are useless for such purposes; they are obliged to throw all offal and garbage, all dirty water, often all disgusting drainage and excrement into the streets, being without other means of disposing of them; they are thus compelled to infect the region of their own dwellings. Nor is this enough. All conceivable evils are heaped upon the heads of the poor.
Engels comments that the capitalists were well aware of the problem of pollution from their factories, and so chose to live away from them to avoid the smoke. Working class people of course were not afforded such a luxury.
These east and north-east sides of Manchester are the only ones on which the bourgeoisie has not built, because ten or eleven months of the year the west and south-west wind drives the smoke of all the factories hither, and that the working people alone may breathe.
Despite the catalogue of topics concerning environmental questions Marx and Engels wrote about, they did not get everything right. This is not surprising given that the level of scientific knowledge of the time placed a limit even on those with the best intent. For example in a letter to Engels, Marx wrote of the environmental benefits of burning coal. Quoting Liebig’s work he wrote:
“The combustion of a pound of coal or wood restores to the air not merely the elements needed to reproduce this pound of wood or, under certain conditions, coal, but the process of combustion in itself” (note the Hegelian category [Marx’s note]) “transforms a certain quantity of nitrogen in the air into a nutrient indispensable for the production of bread and meat.”
In their defence, Marx and Engels were in no position in the mid-nineteenth century to know what the long term effects of “restoring to the air” excessive amounts of carbon would be. Their thoughts on the topic were not simply their own but were entirely formed on the basis of the leading scientific opinion of the day. While incorrect, Marx’s statement still comes from a good place – wanting to understand biological processes and to consider the positive role humanity can play. I have no doubt that with a modern understanding of the long term impacts of burning coal both Liebig and Marx (who as we have seen followed scientific debates closely) would admit their error.
Marx and Engels’ writings on the environment and the natural sciences is impressive for their time, but there is still much more that remains unpublished or unavailable in English. In 1996 Baksi estimated that there were still 25,000 pages of handwritten notes and manuscripts by Marx and Engels that remain unpublished. A large portion of Marx’s unpublished writings are on the environment and the natural world. According to Baksi:
The fields investigated in the hitherto unpublished manuscripts and notes of Marx are: agriculture, agricultural chemistry, biology, chemistry, geology, climatology, pathology, physiology, mining, mechanics, mechanical engineering, history of science and technology, and philosophy of science.
Some of these works have since been published through the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) project, however there is much more work to be done (these publications are currently only available in the original German). While the exact content of the unpublished manuscripts is unknown, Baksi confirms the picture of Marx and Engels gleaned from their existing writings. They both had a deep concern for the environment and wanted to understand the natural world. It is clear they did not want to see humans dominate nature, but rather sought the restoration of the sustainable metabolic relationship between humans and the natural world. As Engels wrote in The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man:
[A]t every step we are reminded that 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.
Marx and Engels’ environmental critique was not simply due to personal interest but came out of their general analysis of and opposition to capitalism. Their general critique of capitalism, outlined below, led them to be its most ardent critics. Their analysis led them to understand that while capitalism is the most dynamic human society created, it is also the most destructive. Rather than human need or environmental sustainability, competition for the sake of accumulation and profit-making is the key motor force of the system. Environmental destruction has been a key consequence of this capitalist logic from its beginnings through to today. While some allege that Marxism is productivist, it is in fact capitalism that supports industrial development regardless of the cost to the environment.
Marx and Engels’ analysis led them to conclude that human liberation was now possible, with the overthrow of capitalism by the working class and the creation of a new society. In a rationally organised society free of class divisions, there would be no need for oppression and exploitation of other humans or of the natural world. Therefore even if an environmental critique was not as prominent as it actually is in Marx and Engels’ writings, their philosophical outlook points the way towards an environmentally sustainable world. Even the best environmental critique is insufficient without a wider understanding of capitalism and a political program for how a new society can be created.
The emergence of capitalism created a fundamentally more dynamic system than feudalism, which had a slow pace of technological change. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers…
The basis for this dynamism is competition between individual capitalists for profit and the accumulation of capital. As Marx summarised it: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!” Competition and the threat of losing market share forces capitalists to constantly innovate to get ahead of their rivals. This results in a continual drive to produce commodities faster and more efficiently, and to drive down the costs of production, in particular wages and working conditions.
Capitalism therefore seeks to maximise the exploitation of both workers and the natural world as the source of raw materials for commodities. While Marx and Engels emphasised labour as the source of surplus value and therefore profit, the exploitation of the natural world was also key to their understanding. As Marx noted in his polemical work Critique of the Gotha Programme, “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.”
Commodities are not produced for human need but for profit, or at least its expectation. The profit motive determines where capitalists direct their investment. As shown in the earlier quote from The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, the health of workers, let alone that of the environment, was never the concern of capitalists.
While a lot has changed since Marx and Engels’ day, this basic logic of capitalism continues to destroy the planet. Dirty and highly profitable fossil fuels remain dominant over renewable energy. In 2015 seven of the ten largest corporations by revenue are energy or mining companies dedicated to the exploitation of fossil fuels. These corporations have much to lose with the development of renewable energy and are at the forefront of funding climate change denialist thought.
Environmental destruction, while not the conscious intent of individual capitalists, has been the necessary outcome due to the fundamental logic of putting profit before all else. The profit motive makes such irrationally destructive decisions to be entirely rational to modern corporations. The constant drive for profit and competition between capitalists means they are never satisfied. They are forced to continually produce commodities and accumulate capital by exploiting human labour and the natural world. As Marx wrote, this inner logic “gives capital no rest and continually whispers in its ear: ‘Go on! Go on!’”
Therefore it is not possible to reform the system so as to create a sustainable green capitalism that does not exploit. Organising production around human need and ensuring it is performed in a sustainable way requires a break with the entire logic of capitalism and its profit motive. Even if climate change can be brought under control (which is unlikely) other industries, based on the same destructive competition, will threaten environmental degradation.
After the death of Marx and Engels, ecological thought within the Marxist tradition continued into the twentieth century. The writings of some of the key figures of German Social Democracy show strong opposition to capitalism’s destruction of the environment and saw its restoration in the struggle for socialism.
August Bebel, a founder of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), had personal contact with Marx and Engels and was heavily influenced by many of their ideas. Bebel’s major works, Woman and Socialism and Society of the Future, incorporate much of their thinking about the natural world and soil degradation. His writings show that he too read Liebig’s work and had an understanding of the chemical and fertiliser industry of the time. Explaining humans’ basic relationship to nature, he wrote that “man, altho [sic] the most highly developed animal, is distinguished from animals by the fact that he has learned to understand the laws of nature, and may consciously and intelligently apply these laws.”
Influenced by Marx’s and Liebig’s writings on soil nutrients, Bebel wrote that “[t]he land must be feel [sic] back exactly the same chemical ingredients it loses through the growing of a harvest, and it must receive a greater quantity of chemical substances preferably needed for the growth of the specific genus of plants.” He described capitalist agriculture as a “system of soil-vandalism…that impoverishes the soil and impairs the harvest, unless the importation of artificial fertilisers compensates for the lack of natural ones.” Echoing Marx’s criticism of human waste being dumped in the Thames, Bebel expressed the same concern for what was happening in Germany:
A large portion of excrement in towns is thrown into our rivers and streams, and pollutes them. The refuse from kitchens, small workshops and factories, which could be used as manure, is also usually wasted most frivolously. The future society will find ways and means to put a stop to this waste.
Envisioning a future socialist society which has abolished the division between town and country, he wrote:
People will enjoy all the advantages of city life but will be spared its disadvantages. The whole population will live in much healthier and more pleasant surroundings. The rural population will participate in industry, the industrial population in agriculture and gardening, a variety in occupation at present only enjoyed by a few, and then in the main only at the cost of an excessive outlay of time and effort.
Karl Kautsky was the leading theoretician of the German SPD; indeed before his later rejection of revolutionary Marxism he was known as the “Pope of Marxism”. Written in 1899, his work The Agrarian Question contains an environmental critique on a whole range of topics. In the same vein as Bebel, Kautsky wrote of the importance of Liebig’s work in agricultural chemistry and his critique of fertilisers. He lamented how Liebig’s
observations are now nearly half a century old. The high value of human excrement as a fertiliser and the need to restore it to agriculture have long since been acknowledged, but the solution to the sewage question demanded by Liebig is now even more remote than ever.
Commenting on the need for a proper sewerage system to solve this problem, he argued “[t]he prevailing mode of production rules such a solution out”. Like Marx and Engels, Kautsky linked the destruction of the environment directly to capitalism and its drive for profit. He wrote how “under the capitalist mode of production… [t]he quicker they suck the fertility out of the soil, the more profit they make.” Kautsky also understood the new dependence on fertilisers in this same light.
Such fertilisers allow the reduction in soil fertility to be avoided, but the necessity of using them in larger and larger amounts simply adds a further burden to agriculture – not one unavoidably imposed by nature, but a direct result of current social organisation.
He did however see that fertilisers could be used in a rational way. In a socialist society, “[s]upplementary fertilisers would then, at most, have the task of enriching the soil, not staving off its impoverishment.” Kautsky also raised a number of concerns about capitalism selectively breeding specific plants and animals for profit:
Natural selection leads to the selection and reproduction of those individuals most fitted to maintain the species. Artificial selection in capitalist society ignores this aspect, and is simply concerned with breeding individuals which offer the greatest profit, incur the least cost, mature early and in which the exploitable parts are as large as possible, and the non-useful organs as atrophied as possible.
While humans have artificially selected many of the domesticated plants we enjoy today, Kautsky’s point is that under capitalism selective breeding is performed purely for profit, ignoring potential side effects. This is essentially the same logic that drives companies like Monsanto today to genetically modify and patent seeds solely for profit, which has ramifications for plant diversity in the gene pool. Finally Kautsky also had a critique of the use of pesticides. Land clearing and destruction of habitat has significantly changed the balance and limiting factors of different species, allowing some to grow out of control. He wrote: “One of the factors favouring the devastation caused by pests is the disappearance of insect-eating birds, a result not only of hunting them out but also of the reduction in nesting opportunities prompted by the extension of cultivation.” For the farmer this now meant that “[t]he costs of fertilisers are joined by those of pesticides.
To reemphasise, this work which raises many environmental issues still relevant today was written in 1899.
Rosa Luxemburg did not produce any ecological writings, but she was certainly not indifferent to the natural world or environmental destruction. Her original studies at the University of Zurich in 1890 were in the natural sciences, specifically zoology and botany, and her interest continued after transferring to political economy. On 2 May 1917, while in prison, Luxemburg wrote to a friend that she was mostly reading about the natural sciences, specifically the distribution of plants and animals:
Yesterday I was reading about the reasons for the disappearance of song birds in Germany. The spread of scientific forestry, horticulture, and agriculture, have cut them off from their nesting places and their food supply. More and more, with modern methods, we are doing away with hollow trees, waste lands, brushwood, fallen leaves. I felt sore at heart…[for the] destruction of these defenceless little creatures, that the tears came into my eyes. I was reminded of a book I read in Zurich, in which Professor Sieber describes the dying-out of the Redskins [sic] in North America. Just like the birds, they have been gradually driven from their hunting grounds by civilised men.
What is common throughout the writings of Bebel, Kautsky and Luxemburg is the complete absence of productivist thought. They all express concern for capitalism’s destruction of the environment and the desire for a more rational way of organising society in order to protect it. Both Bebel and Kautsky took direct inspiration from Marx and Engels’ environmental thought and sought to expand upon it. They were however not in a position to implement any of their ideas. Bebel died in 1913 and Kautsky broke with revolutionary Marxism at the time of World War I.
The inheritors of the genuine revolutionary Marxist tradition shifted from the German SPD to the Russian Bolsheviks. The aftermath of the October 1917 Russian Revolution and its ecological record is therefore an important case study.
Long before the Russian Revolution, Lenin’s writings echo the concern about soil degradation and a criticism of artificial fertilisers of others in the Marxist tradition. In his 1901 work The Agrarian Question and the “Critics of Marx” he wrote of the “irrationality of wasting natural fertilisers and thereby polluting the rivers and the air in suburban and factory districts.” He comments that due to urban pollution, Russian workers regularly “flee from the cities in search of fresh air and pure water”. Almost an entire chapter of this work is dedicated to a defence of Kautsky’s criticism of the overuse of artificial fertilisers. At this time Kautsky was sharply criticised for sharing Liebig’s “outdated” concerns. Lenin condemned the “slanderous accusation that Kautsky is not acquainted with scientific names and scientific discoveries”, writing that “Liebig proved that it is necessary to restore to the soil as much as is taken from it. He was therefore of the opinion that throwing city refuse into the seas and rivers was a stupid and barbarous waste of materials essential for agriculture. Kautsky agrees with Liebig’s theory.”
In Lenin’s 1903 work Marxist Views on the Agrarian Question in Europe and in Russia, he defends Marx and Liebig against members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (peasant party):
Mr. Hertz, and, later, Messrs. Bulgakov, Chernov, and Struve here in Russia maintained that the theory of Marx, who relied upon Liebig, had become antiquated. This opinion of the “critics” is quite fallacious. There is no doubt that capitalism has upset the equilibrium between the exploitation of the land and fertilisation of the land (the role of the separation of the town from the countryside).
The Russian writer Maxim Gorky recalled that Lenin, in discussing the topic of the utopian novel, once suggested to Bogdanov that he “should write a novel for workers on how the predatory capitalists have despoiled the earth and wasted all its oil, lumber and coal”.
In pre-revolutionary Russia there existed a body of environmental thought and concern for environmental preservation. In 1909 the Twelfth Congress of Russian Naturalists and Physicians called for the creation of zapovedniki (nature sanctuaries). In these zapovedniki hunting and exploitation of the natural resources would be banned to ensure their pristine ecosystems remained. However obtaining land for conservation proved difficult, with the majority of land owned privately. By 1914 1,426,493 hectares of forest was protected, around two and a half percent of the total forestry. But even that small amount was poorly protected, with Tsarist law being quite limited and vague in regard to environmental protection. Before 1917 several zapovedniki were created with the support of a few wealthy landowners; however the conservationists found limited support for their cause from the Tsarist monarchy.
With the October Revolution of 1917 ownership of the land was fundamentally changed, with widespread nationalisations and land being granted to the peasants, a demand long fought for. The first major environmental law, entitled “Basic Law on Forests”, was passed on 30 May 1918. This specifically nationalised all forestry in Russia and introduced new laws to ensure the preservation and controlled exploitation of forests. For the first time the zapovedniki were enshrined in law as important “monuments of nature”. On 27 May 1919 laws “On Hunting Seasons and the Right to Possess Hunting Weapons” were introduced, aimed at protecting local wildlife across Russia. In 1920 the Il’menskii zapovednik dedicated to scientific research was established with the personal support of Lenin. According to Weiner this was a significant milestone in global conservation, “the first protected territory anywhere to be created by a government exclusively in the interests of the scientific study of nature.” In 1923 a new “Forest Code” was adopted which maintained a commitment to forest preservation and the establishment of zapovedniki. By 1929 a total of 61 zapovedniki existed, covering a total of 3,934,428 hectares of protected forestry, a 275 percent increase from 1914 levels.
The study of fisheries was also a project of the Bolsheviks in government. These studies were to form a scientific understanding of Russia’s enormous fisheries and to ensure that fishing would be carried out in a rational way. According to Josephson et al, the Russian Revolution “enabled the establishment of modern oceanographic and inland fishery research… Lenin himself signed off on government support of fishery research. The Bolsheviks supported Knipovich’s inland fisheries along the Volga River and the Azov, Black, and Caspian Seas.”
In the 1920s several environmental and conservation organisations were established. Of note are the All-Russian society for Conservation (VOOP) and the Central Bureau for the Study of Local Lore (TsBK). The TsBK at its high point had nearly 60,000 members and 2,270 branches across the USSR. In 1925, the state-run committee Gostkomitet dedicated to the protection of nature was established. It was partly directed by leading Bolsheviks Alexei Rykov and Nikolai Bukharin.
Bukharin’s role reflected his keen interest in conservation. His work Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology contains a chapter on The Equilibrium between Society and Nature in which he draws on Marx’s concept of metabolism between humans and nature. In an earlier chapter in the same work he wrote: “No system, including that of human society, can exist in empty space; it is surrounded by an ‘environment,’ on which all its conditions ultimately depend. If human society is not adapted to its environment, it is not meant for this world; all its culture will inevitably pass away; society itself will be reduced to dust.” His later Philosophical Arabesques, written in prison and first published in English in 2005, shows an even greater environmental understanding, influenced by Vladimir Vernadsky’s concept of the biosphere.
In addition to the conservation measures mentioned above, several important environmental and scientific works were produced in the revolutionary years from 1917 to about 1926. According to John Bellamy Foster, the “Soviet Union in the 1920s had the most developed ecological science in the world”. In 1926 Vladimir Vernadsky published his influential work The Biosphere, popularising the idea of the planet as a self-contained sphere. Nikolai Vavilov conducted pioneering work on the history of plant domestication and established the first seed bank in the world in Leningrad. Alexander Oparin expanded the biosphere concept to develop the “primordial soup” theory which was “the first influential modern materialist explanation for the origin of life on earth”. Today this is still one of the leading theories for explaining the origins of life on earth.
However before looking at the defeat of revolution and its consequences for environmental thought in Russia, it would be disingenuous to portray the years 1917-1928 as a conservationist’s dream. Despite the Bolsheviks’ environmental laws and practises, the reality of the counter-revolution and civil war put serious limitations on what was practically possible. The military intervention of 14 countries to crush the fledgling workers’ state, economic blockade and industrial sabotage by Russian capitalists took a disastrous toll on the population. Due to starvation in the cities many workers fled to the countryside in search of food. According to Trudell, “between 1914 and 1920 the population of Petrograd fell by 66 percent, that of Moscow by 42 percent and of Kiev by 30 percent.”
Controlling the felling of forests and hunting of animals to ensure sustainability would have been next to impossible in this situation. As Josephson et al explain: “[a]s the civil war escalated, Red and White deserters alternated fishing and overfishing with impunity. Many zapovedniks were destroyed and took years to recover. As troops came and went, confiscating what they could, the fishermen overfished to stay afloat.”
Given this situation it is quite surprising what was achieved in these years. Despite the enormous difficulties it is important to remember that the intention of creating an environmentally sustainable society was espoused by the Bolsheviks; it was Stalinism that created a break with these ideas.
The rise of Stalin was a death blow to genuine workers’ control but also to conservation and science in the USSR. Stalin sought to industrialise Russia no matter the cost to the human population or the environment. In 1931 he proclaimed: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.” This is not the cooperative language of socialism but the language of capitalist competition. It is emblematic of the wider shift occurring in Russian society towards capitalism and competition with other nation states. The embrace of this logic above all else meant that environmental thought, along with ideas of democracy and workers’ control, were now impediments to this competitive dynamic.
Opposition to Stalin came from many quarters and the environmentalists were no exception. Delegates to the 1929 All Russian Conservation Congress raised serious concerns about Stalin’s Five Year Plan and its impact on the environment. Chattopadhyay explains how
M. P. Potemkin, Deputy President of Gostkomitet, warned that the Five Year Plan had set targets that threatened the ecology seriously. Seals, sea otters, whales, were being threatened, said Potemkin. A Congress resolution talked about the progressive decline of game and called for a game census, a game biology institute, and greater powers to Gostkomitet. Another debate was over logging and the clearing up of the steppes. It was revealed that the forest of an entire province was being “planned” into “abolition”.
However the 1930s was not a time when dissenting views in Russian society were welcome. Under Stalin this strain of environmental thought needed to be crushed. Epitomising this was the elevation of Trofim Lysenko, who later became the director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR’s Academy of Sciences. Lysenko was no scientist and deemed modern science to be “capitalist” and “bourgeois”. He referred to biologists as “fly-lovers and people haters”. His ideas remained dominant, not due to any academic merit, but because of the brutal suppression of any critical voices. Just as Stalin had to murder many of the old Bolsheviks to consolidate his rule, over 3,000 biologists were soon sacked from their positions and many laboratories destroyed. Later all legal protections granted to the zapovedniki as inviolable were removed.
The Russian scientist Vavilov famously spoke out against Lysenko’s “science” and was rewarded with arrest. He was sentenced to death in 1941 and died of starvation in 1943. Vavilov’s seed bank however survived, even remarkably through the siege of Leningrad, when 12 scientists died of starvation guarding it. Their struggle was recorded in the 2006 song “When the War Came” by the Decemberists:
We made our oath to Vavilov
We’d not betray the Solanum
The acres of asteraceae
To our own pangs of starvation
When the war came
When the war came.
By 1948 any scientific opposition to Lysenko was banned and his theories were the only ones allowed to be taught in schools and universities. It took until the 1960s for his theories to be thoroughly discredited in the USSR, but the damage had already been done. In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov summed up Lysenko’s legacy to the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences: “He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.”
The Stalinist destruction of the environment in the USSR is well known today, even described by some as ecocide. Adding to this environmental tragedy is the fact that this destruction was carried out in the name of Marxism. Lysenko dressed his pseudo-science in Marxist rhetoric, claiming that he applied dialectical-materialism to biology. This was symptomatic of all aspects of Stalinist society – the claim that it was the true inheritor of the Marxist tradition was used to justify its brutal dictatorship.
This record of Stalinism is commonly held as proof that Marxism is productivist and supports economic growth regardless of destruction to the environment. However as shown, Stalinism led a complete break with Marxist thought and the attempts at ecological sustainability under the Bolsheviks from 1917.
Despite the defeat of the revolution, genuine environmental and scientific thought was not completely crushed in the Communist Parties outside the USSR. Of note is the Communist Party of Australia which campaigned around issues such as pollution and industrial waste. Its members in the Builders Labourers Federation were responsible for the famous Green Bans to save Australian parklands. However it has been through the work of Marxists such as John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett and the MEGA project that Marx and Engels’ environmental and scientific writings have come to new light today.
Today the metabolic rift between humans and the natural world is on a scale that Marx and Engels could never have imagined. While in Marx and Engels’ time agriculture was dependent on guano, today it is dependent on synthetic chemicals in the form of fertilisers and pesticides, while human and animal waste continues to be not just squandered, but a source of pollution. The continual burning of fossil fuels is leading to warmer average global temperatures and an increase in extreme weather events, with many more changes predicted. The changes to the earth’s climate caused by capitalism are so great that there is currently debate in the scientific community about whether we are now living in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Not limited to the burning of fossil fuels, many other factors such as deforestation and pollution are also wreaking havoc on the natural world. The mining industry is well known for its environmental destruction. Mining companies are increasingly looking to more environmentally dangerous forms of oil and gas extraction.
Then there is overfishing and pollution destroying marine life. Added to this, every year around eight million tons of plastic is dumped into the world’s oceans. The impact of these and other factors on the ocean was well described by Australian yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen, who sailed from Melbourne to San Francisco via Osaka in 2013. He had made the same trip in 1993 and noted the way the oceans had changed in the intervening twenty years. Describing his journey he wrote:
After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead… We hardly saw any living things. We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. It was pretty sickening… I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.
Ivan’s brother Glenn described how they saw “huge tangles of synthetic rope, fishing lines and nets… [p]ieces of polystyrene foam by the million… slicks of oil and petrol, everywhere… countless hundreds of wooden power poles… a factory chimney sticking out of the water, with some kind of boiler thing still attached below the surface”.
Finally they noted that “[t]he boat’s vivid yellow paint job, never faded by sun or sea in years gone past, reacted with something in the water off Japan, losing its sheen in a strange and unprecedented way”. Their trip was two years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which is possibly the cause of this. While the full extent of the environmental toll from the Fukushima disaster is still unknown today, a department of the International Atomic Energy Agency has stated that “[t]he area potentially affected may encompass much of the Pacific Ocean, which covers one third of the area of the globe.”
Marxist and socialist thought has always included concern for the environment and the natural world. From Marx and Engels’ earliest writings through to their final works, criticism of capitalism’s destruction of the environment is constant throughout. They wanted to see an environmentally sustainable world and saw this as intimately connected with the struggle for socialism. There is continuity with the environmental writings of leading Marxists after Marx and Engels who sought to expand upon their ideas and concepts.
The genuine Marxist tradition is full of environmental insights and provides the best framework for understanding how modern capitalism has ruined humans’ relationship to nature. A harmonious relationship to nature will only be restored through the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a socialist society where production will be organised for human need – which includes a sustainable environment – and not profit. As Marx wrote:
Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.
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 Thanks to Liz Ross for useful discussions over several years on these questions and particularly on the draft of this article. She first raised some of the issues I deal with in her pamphlet How capitalism is costing us the earth, Socialist Alternative, 2007.
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 Marx and Engels 1970, p62.
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 Gasper 2005, p151.
 Holmes 2015 p31; Ian Hodder outlines these processes in neolithic Catalhoyuk in Anatolia in Hodder 2006, pp233-258.
 Harman 1994.
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 Marx 1993, p489.
 Foster 2000, p162.
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 BBC News, “London’s ‘super sewer’ gets the go ahead”, http://www.bbc.com/ news/uk-england-london-29175607, 12 September 2014.
 Sater 2007, pp348-349.
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 Cited in Foster 2009, p145.
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 Hampton 2010.
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 Cited in Hampton 2010.
 Depra 2015.
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 Cited in Marx and Engels 1987b, p231.
 Incidentally Liebig was incorrect on the topic of nitrogen fixation. The temperatures produced by regular combustion of wood or coal is nowhere near high enough to fix nitrogen. Lightning strikes however can produce this effect, in part because they reach temperatures around five times hotter than the surface of the sun. The German Marxist Karl Kautsky also wrote (more correctly) about nitrogen fixation in his 1899 work The Agrarian Question, in particular on the ability of legumes and pulses to fix their own nitrogen.
 Baksi 1996, p263.
 Engels 1934.
 Gasper 2005, p46.
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 “The 100 largest companies in the world ranked by revenue in 2015 (in billion U.S. dollars)”, http://www.statista.com/statistics/263265/top-companies-in-the-world-by-revenue/.
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 Chattopadhyay 2014.
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 “When the war came”, http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/decemberists/ whenthewarcame.html.
 Agazzi et al 2008, p152.
 See for example Feshbach and Friendly 1993.
 See Burgmann and Burgmann 1998.
 James Bradbury and Christina DeConcini, Fact Sheet: The Connection Between Climate Change and Recent Extreme Weather Events, World Resources Institute, August 2002, http://www.wri.org/publication/fact-sheet-connection-between-climate-change-and-recent-extreme-weather-events.
 For analysis of habitat destruction and resultant extinction of species see CSIRO 2008, p229 and Jan Zalasiewizc, “The Earth stands on the brink of its sixth mass extinction and the fault is ours”, The Guardian, 21 June 2015.
 For the destruction wrought in Papua New Guinea by Conzinc Riotinto of Australia’s copper mine as just one example, see Keri Phillips, “Bougainville at a crossroads: independence and the mine”, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/ programs/rearvision/bougainville-at-a-crossroads/6514544.
 For the destruction caused by BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 see Debbie Elliott, “5 Years After BP Oil Spill, Effects Linger And Recovery Is Slow”, National Public Radio, 21 April 2015, http://www.npr.org/2015/04/20/400374744/5-years-after-bp-oil-spill-effects-linger-and-recovery-is-slow. For the expansion of these dangerous methods into Africa and the Mediterranean see Clifford Krauss and John M. Broder, “Deepwater Oil Drilling Picks Up Again as BP Disaster Fades”, New York Times, 3 March 2012. And for the danger of BP’s methods planned for Australia see Oliver Milman, “BP oil spill in Great Australian Bight would be catastrophic, modelling shows”, The Guardian, 9 October 2015.
 World Wide Fund for Nature, “Overfishing – the plundering of our oceans”, http://www.wwf.org.au/our_work/saving_the_natural_world/oceans_and_marine/marine_threats/overfishing/.
 Greg Ray, “The ocean is broken”, Newcastle Herald, 18 October 2015, http://www.theherald.com.au/story/1848433/the-ocean-is-broken/. Following quotes from the same article.
 International Atomic Energy Agency, “REGIONAL PROJECT DOCUMENT for the IAEA Technical Cooperation Programme 2011–2015”, www.rcaro.org/attach/ filedownloads/do_down/no/13466+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us.
 Marx 1991, p911.