Marx and ecology

In the first of three articles, Michael Malkin examines the relationship between humanity and nature in the thought of Karl Marx

What was Karl Marx's attitude to nature? At Communist University 2000, Jack Conrad gave us an opening devoted to this question. Among other things, the aim of the comrade's talk was to defend Marx against ignorant accusations levelled at him by greens, bourgeois liberals and others to the effect that Marx must in some sense be held responsible for the ecological catastrophes that befell the USSR and other Soviet bloc states.

Rather than taking issue with Marx's enemies on this particular question - that will come later - my aim in these articles is to contribute to the debate by setting out a theoretical framework for further discussion. In the first, I want to define my own view of the subject in broad terms, and place Marx's naturalistic materialism in its historical and intellectual context.

I shall examine what I consider to be the philosophical kernel of Marx's materialism: namely, the idea that understanding humanity means understanding the relationship between human beings and nature, a relationship mediated through purposeful, productive labour - exercising our natural powers in order to satisfy our physical, emotional and spiritual needs, we enter into productive association with one another and with the forces of nature. In the process, we transform not only nature, but also ourselves.

This notion of humanity as its own creator was by no means original. Marx derived some of his ideas about it from Fichte, and a good deal more from Hegel. But in Marx the concept takes on a new, richer and more concrete form. I shall argue that it brought about a revolution in the way we think about human beings and society, and that it pervades all of Marx's thought, from the Economic and philosophical manuscripts, through the Grundrisse to Capital and beyond.

One subject that was of consuming interest to Marx, a theme that was to occupy him in one way or another throughout his life, was the question: what does it mean to be a human being? Not a human being in relation to god, spirit or any other supernatural entity; nor a human being seen sub specie aeternitatis; nor an "abstract being squatting outside the world", but "man in the world of man, the state, society" (D McLellan (ed) Karl Marx: Selected writings London 1977, p63 - hereafter KMSW). Rejecting the teleological preoccupations of so much previous philosophy, Marx dismisses as "speculative distortion" any reading of history which assigns a special, preordained role or destiny to 'man' in the abstract. From beginning to end, Marx's view is anthropocentric, but it is rooted in the study of "real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity" (K Marx and F Engels The German Ideology Moscow 1976, p36f, hereafter GI).

His perspective is always both historical and social. In the Economic and philosophical manuscripts Marx calls his approach "consistent naturalism or humanism", and says that it can be distinguished from both idealism and materialism, constituting at the same time their "unifying truth" (ihre beide vereinigende Wahrheit - KMSW p104). On many occasions, he writes about "the materialistic basis" of his method. He refers to the "materialistic character" of the views behind his theory, describing them as having "a relation to naturalistic materialism" (KMSW p359). A new and fascinating view of the relation between humanity and nature permeates Marx's thought and is central to his theories about history and society. This philosophical core was never made explicit in terms of a formal doctrine, so we have to establish it by synthesis. Such conclusions as a new reading of the texts may produce will, of necessity, be tentative. The task is one of exploration rather than definitive formulation.

The best way to start is to make clear what Marx's materialism is not.

First, Marx's materialism is not concerned primarily with 'matter': ie, it is not a transcendental, metaphysical, doctrine about some primal substance or stuff out of which everything that exists is made. This kind of absolute materialism is summed up in Engels's aphorism that, "The real unity of the world consists in its materiality" (F Engels Anti-Dühring, Moscow 1978, p60, hereafter AD). It is not that Marx disagreed with this as such - he did not. For Marx, as for all materialists, it was self-evident, to use another phrase from Engels, that "the material, sensuously perceptible world to which we ourselves belong is the only reality" ('Ludwig Feuerbach' in Marx and Engels on religion Moscow 1972, p205, hereafter MEOR). But what interested Marx was not matter, but nature.

Secondly, Marx's materialism is not a reductionist doctrine of causation: ie, it does not claim that all events, including mental events, can be reduced to the operation of immanent laws governing the forms and motion of 'matter'. Marx certainly believed, with all materialists, that the mind has no independent existence without matter, and that it is what Engels called "the highest product of matter" (ibid p 206). But to say that 'x is the product of y' is not the same as saying that 'x is nothing but y'. Reducing human thinking and consciousness to biochemistry is totally alien to Marx's naturalistic approach. Such reductionism, as we shall see, is a facet of that 'vulgar' materialism against which Marx battled consistently.

Thirdly, Marx's materialism is not an abstract theory of knowledge. It does not regard perception as the passive reception of sense impressions produced by external stimuli and held in the mind in the form of images, reflections or copies of external phenomena (what Engels called Abbilder). Marx's practical, naturalistic approach meant that he had no time for speculative, scholastic theorising about such classical epistemological problems as the relationship between 'pure' thinking and reality. For him, these were not meaningful questions at all. To imagine that we can abstract ourselves from ourselves and perceive the world 'as it really is' outside the framework of human perception is an absurdity. For Marx, thinking is "sensuous human activity" or "practice" and the focus of this "real sensuous activity" is always the interaction between humanity and nature, in which consciousness plays a constitutive part (cf 'Theses on Feuerbach', KMSW p156). In a sense, every act of cognition is an act of creation.

Finally, for those new to the subject, there is one misunderstanding that seems trivial but still needs to be cleared up. Marx's materialism has nothing to do with being 'materialistic' in the colloquial sense. Marxists are materialists, but this does not mean that they are obsessed with material things. His attitude to this kind of 'materialism' was always perfectly clear:

"Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it ... when we directly possess it ... all the physical and intellectual senses have been replaced by the simple estrangement of all these senses - the sense of having" (K Marx Early writings London 1975, p351f, hereafter EW).

Marx was not a moralising ascetic and it would be a mistake to see this passage as preaching against the 'evils' of acquisitiveness. But for Marx there is something debasing and dehumanising in the sort of 'materialism' which makes having more important than being, which judges people not by who they are, but by what they own. It is one of the manifestations of that alienation which perverts relations between people into relations between things and is of central importance to Marx's ethics.

So what is Marx's materialism? What does "consistent naturalism or humanism" mean? Naturalism is based on the conviction that the natural world (including, of course, human beings) is all that there is. In more technical language, we could say that, for Marx, "the 'natural' - including the human, and hence such human products as images and ideas - exhausts the totality of actual and possible objects of action and discourse" (see N Lash A matter of hope London 1961, p136). This natural world is self-sufficient and self-regulating. It requires no supernatural being or agency to explain its existence, because it is by itself capable of providing all the knowledge we need in order to understand all phenomena within it.

Marx's naturalism is humanistic and anthropological because, "Nature taken abstractly, for itself - nature fixed in isolation from man - is nothing for him" (EW p161). Obviously, "the priority of external nature remains unassailed" (GI p175). The natural world existed billions of years before any life forms came along, but this pre-human world is of little interest to Marx, who wastes no time speculating about how it came into being or what it was like. The point is that for us now to think of nature abstractly, as something that can be dissociated from human existence and human activity would be nonsense. Marx equates "consistent naturalism" with "humanism" precisely because nature has effectively been 'humanised' by the practical activity of humankind throughout our existence as a species. Homo faber - man the maker - has made the world what it now is through "his active species-life, through [which] nature appears as his work and his reality" (KMSW p82). To see nature as something 'out there', an eternal and unchanging datum, is, therefore, a profound mistake.

This is stating the obvious, you may think. But sometimes it is necessary to do so. And if we want to grasp the impact of ideas in their historical context, we also need to use our imagination. Take the example of our thinking about the 'creation' of the world. It is hard not to agree with Roger Garaudy's remark that, "To grasp the absurdity of this question, this senseless formulation of a 'creation' that would be a transition from nothingness to being, is the essential role of materialism" (R Garaudy Karl Marx: the evolution of his thought London 1967, p85). The notion of evolutionary development is now so deeply embedded in the consciousness of most of us that we are apt to forget how relatively new this kind of thinking is.

The idea of looking at nature historically, of seeing it as the product of an immensely long process of evolutionary change, was deeply shocking in Marx's day. Darwin's On the origin of species (1859) and more particularly his The descent of man (1871) stirred up an enormous and lengthy controversy. This was a time when the literal truth of the bible commanded more or less complete acceptance. Many intelligent people were apparently prepared to believe, with the 17th century archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, that god had created the universe and everything in it in the space of six days, starting on October 26 4004 BC (see Annales veteris et novi testamenti). Darwin's work was seen, reasonably enough, as a threat to the foundations of religious belief. As a scientific theory which dispenses with the need for a creator or designer, evolution effectively makes god redundant. And by exposing the falsehood of the creation narratives in the book of Genesis, it also raises doubts about the truthfulness of scripture as a whole.

It was also argued, less rationally, that Darwin's work, by demonstrating the falsehood of scripture, destroyed the basis for any system of morality. The reasoning behind this proposition rests on the exclusive identification of morality with religion and is familiar enough: if god does not exist, then there is no after-life, no heaven and hell and no punishment for sin. Freed from the threat of god's wrath, human beings will behave like beasts. Accepting this proposition necessarily entails accepting its corollary, that when civilised humanity was guided by organised religion over the last few thousand years, our history was one of unalloyed moral probity.

This kind of thinking can still be found in 'god's own country', where American politicians of the religious right use it to justify the suppression of evolution and the teaching of creationism in schools and colleges. They seriously ask us to believe that the criminality and barbarism afflicting the western world (nowhere more so than in the USA itself) are solely the result of a decline in religious belief and that the restoration of such belief is the only way of removing these social evils. Theologically, this argument presents us with a characteristically pessimistic, almost despairing view of the potential of human beings and human institutions.

1. The mechanistic trend

Marx's naturalism, with its reiterated emphasis on humanity's practical, creative activity in shaping the world, sets him apart from many aspects of classical materialism. In The holy family he had sketched two trends in the development of materialism: one was inaugurated by Descartes, who had "endowed matter with self-creative power and conceived mechanical motion as the act of its life" (KMSW p150). This school interpreted human consciousness and intellectual activity mechanistically as the outcome of exclusively physiological processes. Lamettrie (1709-1751), for example, had taken Cartesian ideas about how animal organisms work and applied them to human beings. In his L'homme machine (1748), "a treatise after the model of Descartes' beast-machine", Lamettrie had "affirmed that the soul is a modus of the body and ideas are mechanical motions". This way of looking at humanity was taken further by Cabanis (1757-1808), who "perfected Cartesian materialism" (ibid). He argued that consciousness could be reduced to a purely mechanical, physiological process, in which thought was secreted by the brain in the same way that bile was secreted by the liver. It is hardly surprising that this approach to materialism became effectively merged with natural science. It was not an approach with which Marx had any sympathy.

A brief digression is called for at this point. In recent years, the mind-body problem has once again come into vogue. The American philosopher Daniel C Dennett, a prominent advocate of the mechanistic solutions proposed by Lamettrie and Cabanis, assures us that human consciousness can be reduced to physiological, biochemical processes in the brain and central nervous system (see D C Dennett Consciousness explained London 1991; and Kinds of minds London 1996). Some Marxists, particularly those who get their ideas about materialism from a crude reading of Engels, may find this approach attractive as a scientific way of disposing of mind-body dualism. They should resist such temptations.

There should be no doubt that the implications of such a reductionist approach to this intractable problem are almost incalculable. It entails, for example, a fundamental redefinition of human identity. If our thoughts and feelings are really nothing more than "molecular and chemical motion in the brain" (as Engels expresses it), then in what sense can we talk coherently about human individuality or a sense of self, of individual human freedom, agency or responsibility? Marx is often accused (ignorantly and incorrectly) of being a thorough-going determinist, but if people like Dennett are right, we are left with a biological determinism that robs humanity of most, if not all, of its meaning.

True, without a brain and nervous system, we would obviously have no minds at all. To suggest, however, that mind is purely and simply identical with the operations of the brain and central nervous system seems absurd. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that it were possible to take the brain and spinal chord from a fresh cadaver, supply them with the necessary blood and oxygen, and subject them to appropriate electrical stimuli, thus replicating sensory perception and generating something akin to 'thought'. In theory, this artificial reproduction of the physiological mechanisms of the brain would satisfy all the mechanists' requirements for the existence of a mind. But it would be risible to maintain such a position.

Although there can be no thought unaccompanied by mechanical and chemical processes in the brain, these processes alone cannot surely explain the specific nature of thinking, nor serve as anything approaching an adequate definition of mind. Yes, the mind is a "property" of specifically organised matter - ie, a "property" of the human brain (Engels) - but this explanation, while necessary, is by no means sufficient. My crude example of the 'brain in the jar' points to the source of the mechanists' distortion of materialism: they look at material-physiological processes undialectically, in isolation from the totality. The brain exists not in a jar, but in the head of a human being, whose mind and consciousness are constituted out of complex, interactive social processes, not just self-contained, physiological ones.

Another example to illustrate the point: suppose we imitated the holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa and took a normal, healthy, new-born child, supplied it with all the physical requirements for survival, but kept it for 10 years in total isolation, without language or any other form of contact with another human being. It might have a brain working in such a way as to comply with the mechanists' requirements, but could this poor creature really be said, in any meaningful sense, to have a mind at all? Surely not, or at least not a human mind. It must remain arguable that there is a distinct, objective and irreducible reality to the mind - something qualitatively different from the mere operations of the brain, and that the essence of this reality is to be found in social intercourse mediated through language and other forms of communication.

This is certainly what Marx appears to have thought, though he says relatively little about the subject. He repudiated the materialism of Lamettrie, just as he did the vulgar materialism of Lamettrie's disciples among his own contemporaries, such as Vogt, Büchner and Moleschott. The terms of this repudiation are significant: "In its further development materialism became one-sided ... sensuousness lost its bloom and became the abstract sensuousness of the geometrician. Physical motion was sacrificed to the mechanical or mathematical ... materialism became hostile to humanity (KMSW p152).

Marx's distaste for the excessive abstraction of the mechanists is interestingly foreshadowed in his doctoral dissertation on Democritus and Epicurus. Democritus concerned himself exclusively with the atom as a "pure and abstract category". His atomism was a hypothesis intended to explain the phenomena of physical nature in absolute terms. Epicurus, on the other hand, wanted to understand nature in order to set humanity free from fear and spiritual slavery. Marx described him as "the greatest Greek enlightener" and founder of "the natural science of man's self-consciousness". The "invigorating principle" which Marx seized on in Epicurus was his naturalism: ie, his notion that nature and human beings could be described and explained in the same terms, so that there is no gulf between the world of nature and the world of humankind (see KMSW pp11-16).

That Marx singled out hostility to humanity (Menschenfeindlichkeit) as the most objectionable facet of mechanistic materialism is entirely characteristic of his humanism. When we come to look at Marx's thinking about knowledge, human nature and human individuality, we shall find him emphasising time and again this same point. For Marx, all explanations of consciousness, including materialist ones, are useless if they fail to take into account the social and practical nature of human existence:

"Language is as old as consciousness; language is practical, real consciousness that exists for other men as well, and only therefore does it also exist for me; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men. Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all" (GI p49).

2. The humanist trend

We can readily see how Marx's insistence on the social origin and nature of consciousness led him to find the second trend in the 'old materialism' - represented, among others, by Bacon, Locke and Helvétius - much more congenial. In The holy family Marx refers to the work of the encyclopaedist Condillac (1715-80), who "proved that the French had quite rightly rejected metaphysics as the mere bungling of fancy and theological prejudice ... he expounded Locke's ideas and proved that not only the soul, but the senses too - not only the art of creating ideas, but also the art of sensuous perception - are matters of experience and habit. The whole development of man therefore depends on education and environment" (KMSW p153).

Characteristically, what appealed to Marx about this second trend in French materialism was its practical concern with materialism's moral and political consequences, which lead directly to socialism and communism. In the work of Helvétius ideas about the importance of experience, habit, education and environment formed the basis of an optimistic, humanist doctrine. You recall the passage from The holy family in which Marx paraphrases this doctrine:

"If man draws all his knowledge, sensation, etc, from the world of the senses and experience gained in it, the empirical world must be arranged so that in it man experiences and gets used to what is really human and that he becomes aware of himself as a man. If correctly understood, interest is the principle of all morality: man's private interest must be made to coincide with the interest of humanity ... If man is shaped by his surroundings, his surroundings must be made human. If man is social by nature, he will develop his true nature only in society, and the power of his nature must be measured not by the power of separate individuals, but by the power of society" (KMSW p154).

Marx saw Helvétius as the forerunner of men like Babeuf, Fourier and Owen in the socialist tradition. Insisting on "the original goodness and equal intellectual endowment of men", this trend of materialism was "necessarily connected with communism and socialism" (ibid). Another thing which must have appealed to Marx was the way this trend concentrated on "the real individual man", an approach refreshingly more concrete than that of the Young Hegelians, castigated in The holy family for their "spiritualism or speculative idealism" and their introspective, navel-gazing obsession with "self-consciousness". More than anything, Marx valued Helvétius's insistence on our social nature, and on the fact that human potential, including that of the individual, can only be fully developed in a social context. As we shall see presently, however, Helvétian materialism was marred by a flawed theory of knowledge from which only Marx's radically different approach to epistemology could rescue it.

3. Feuerbach

In August 1844, when he was living in Paris and composing the Economic and philosophical manuscripts, Marx wrote a letter to Feuerbach expressing not only his "exceptional respect", but also his "love" for the man whose works were "of more weight than the whole of German literature put together" (KMSW p113). What was it about Feuerbach that inspired Marx to write in such admiring terms? A significant pointer to an answer can be found in the preface to the Economic and philosophical manuscripts. Marx writes that Feuerbach's discoveries constituted the "true foundation" of post-Hegelian "positive criticism". Since Hegel's Phenomenology and Logic, Feuerbach's works had been the only ones to "contain a real theoretical revolution", and it was Feuerbach who had produced "the first positive humanist and naturalist criticism" (KMSW p76). When we read Feuerbach's philosophical writings, we see that they are permeated by a profoundly sensuous feeling for humanity and nature and we find an identical sensuousness in many passages of the Economic and philosophical manuscripts.

The word 'sensuous' recurs frequently in the writings of both men and we need to understand it correctly. To English protestant ears, 'sensuous' may still have a vaguely distasteful ring about it. Sensuousness (colloquially cognate with sensuality) is suggestive of carnal indulgence or gratification - and, as we all know, such things are invariably sinful! In German, the corresponding adjective and noun, sinnlich and Sinnlichkeit, are less burdened by these connotations and can simply mean 'sensory' and 'sense-perception' respectively. The point is that, in whatever way we use the term, 'sensuousness' is inseparable from the body - and the body is something on which both Feuerbach and Marx place considerable emphasis.

It is no exaggeration to say that in the work of Feuerbach, and even more so in the work of Marx, the body is rehabilitated, reintegrated into a new, holistic account of what it means to be a human being. Both consciously turned their backs on a centuries-old religious and philosophical tradition of mind-body dualism. In christianity, for so long dominated by Pauline and Augustinian theology, the body was little more than a fleshly integument for the soul, a source of innumerable (especially sexual) temptations, something to be subdued and mortified as a potentially lethal obstacle to salvation. In philosophy, from Plato and Socrates onwards, the body, because it belonged to the transitory world of matter, was of inferior interest when compared with the soul and mind.

With Descartes, the dualistic division of soul and body, mind and matter was further formalised. They were assigned to two entirely separate spheres of being: that of res cogitans (the realm of spirit or mind) and that of res extensa (the realm of matter). As we have seen, it was this Cartesian division which inaugurated the mechanistic trend in materialism. His Cogito ergo sum was also immensely influential: as a result, human identity, personality and self-consciousness were fixed firmly in the realm of the mind. Think about this, and you will realise that most of us are still primarily aware of ourselves as individual, isolated egos. The 'innermost' part of myself, what I think of as 'the real me', is literally a disembodied concept.

Dualism creates a fragmented picture of the human personality. One part of us, what some call the 'soul' and others the mind, is in some respects made to signify the whole, in other respects to represent the 'higher' part of our nature, whose role it is to control, through reason and will, the 'lower' part. For Feuerbach, the idea of a personality without a body was meaningless, and the idea of a body that is inferior to some other part of us was a lie against our humanity. We are an organism and must see and understand ourselves organically from the standpoint of sensuousness (der Standpunkt der Sinnlichkeit):

"Whereas the old philosophy started by saying, 'I am an abstract and merely a thinking being, to whose essence the body does not belong', the new philosophy, on the other hand, begins by saying, 'I am a real sensuous being and, indeed, the body in its totality is my ego, my essence itself'" (L Feuerbach Principles of the philosophy of the future London 1986, p54, hereafter Principles).

What religion calls the soul, notionally immortal, spiritual and implanted by god at the moment of conception, is in reality (like god himself) a creation of the human imagination, a projection or alienation of our self-consciousness. To split ourselves up into separate compartments in this way is a purely theoretical act, an illusion which is refuted by the experience of living. Every act of our everyday lives shows us that we are organic, objective beings. Even at a later stage, when he was critical of the serious errors in Feuerbach's materialism, Marx pointed to Feuerbach's insistence that "man too is an object of the senses" as being that which elevated him above the "pure materialists" (KMSW p175).

Just as importantly, for Marx, Feuerbach had "founded true materialism and real science by making the social relationship of man to man the basic principle of his theory" (KMSW p97). Indeed, so far as Feuerbach (and Marx) were concerned, becoming aware of ourselves as human individuals is something we can only accomplish socially, "in the community of man with man" (Principles p71).

4. Humanity in the natural world

Feuerbach stressed that the starting point of his new philosophy had to be "the man who is and knows himself as the self-conscious being of nature" (ibid). Like all materialists, Feuerbach asserted the primacy of the external world: "Nature, matter, cannot be explained as a result of intelligence; on the contrary, it is the basis of intelligence, the basis of personality, without itself having any basis; spirit without nature is an unreal abstraction; consciousness develops only out of nature" (L Feuerbach The essence of christianity New York 1957, p270).

Outside the self-sufficient realm of nature, neither consciousness nor anything else can exist at all. In his essay on Feuerbach, Engels aptly paraphrased this idea as "nothing exists outside nature and man", and went on to define this naturalistic materialism, which he identified with the "new materialism" of Marx, as resting on the conviction that "the material, sensuously perceptible world to which we ourselves belong is the only reality ... our consciousness and thinking, however suprasensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily organ, the brain. Matter is not the product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter" (MEOR p206).

Feuerbach's anthropocentrism and naturalism were combined in the conviction that, "The new philosophy makes man - with the inclusion of nature as the foundation of man - the unique, universal and highest object of philosophy. It thus makes anthropology, with the inclusion of physiology, the universal science" (Principles p70). Hence, though he calls his ideas "the new philosophy", he never suggests that philosophy, in the classical, Hegelian sense, should be assigned its traditional place of primacy. Philosophy, like science, must find its sole basis in nature:

"Philosophy must again unite with natural science and natural science with philosophy. This union, based upon a reciprocal need, an inner necessity, will be more fruitful than the mésalliance existing up to now between philosophy and theology" ('Preliminary theses', quoted in Z Jordan The evolution of dialectical materialism London 1967, p16).

When Marx praised Feuerbach for having "opposed sober philosophy to drunken speculation" (KMSW p149), the "sober philosophy" he had in mind was not really philosophy at all, or at least not in any conventional sense, but the expression of an embryonic naturalistic materialism. This new approach, with its emphasis on the necessity of seeing human existence organically and naturalistically, was to form the basis of Marx's materialism. Though much modified in some crucial respects, elements of Feuerbach's thinking constituted, as we shall see, a significant and lasting component of Marx's own thought.

Having explored the background to Marx's thinking on the relationship between human beings and nature, in my next article I shall turn to the principles that underlay his own approach to naturalistic materialism.