Marx and ecology - part three

As we have seen, Marx emphasised the symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature. In order to live, we must "maintain a constant interchange with nature", our "inorganic body" (D McLellan (ed.) Karl Marx: selected writings London 1977, p81). The notion of Stoffwechsel (variously translated as 'material intercourse', 'material exchanges', 'exchange of matter' and so on) became a crucial concept in Capital: "So far therefore as labour is a creator of use-values ... it is a necessary condition, independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race; it is an eternal nature-imposed necessity, without which there can be no material exchanges between man and nature, and therefore no life" (my emphasis, K Marx Capital Vol. 1, Moscow 1983, p50 - hereafter Capital).


Stoffwechsel becomes a powerful leitmotif; its organic, physical suggestiveness brings to mind the physiological process of metabolism.

For Marx, 'matter' is not a philosophical category, but "the stuff of nature", consumed and transformed through labour and ultimately returned to nature in the form of waste material. His use of the concept of metabolism is not a literary device, but is based on a sensuous understanding of the organic life-processes involved in all forms of production.

Implicit in this approach to metabolism is an ecological awareness of the effect on nature of changes in methods of production: "Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres ... disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil: i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil" (Capital p474).

Central to the continuous metabolic interchange of material between humanity and nature is labour: "Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates and controls the material reactions between himself and nature. He opposes himself to nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway" (ibid. p173)

As Engels points out, our labour has literally changed the face of the earth in a way and on a scale that sets us apart as a species: " ... the animal merely uses nature, and brings about changes in it simply by his presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it" (Dialectics of Nature Moscow 1953, p241). In the 19th century the idea of employing the discoveries of science to extend man's 'mastery' of nature was the ground for boundless optimism, but this does not mean that Marx or Engels were blind to the consequences of humankind's overweening pride. The language of 'mastery' must not be taken to imply a reckless and wasteful abuse of nature, such as is characterised by capitalism and became a facet of Soviet and Soviet-bloc industrialisation.

Engels's enthusiasm for the possibilities opened up by scientific discoveries was tempered by a sober realisation that our attempts to control nature can have unforeseen consequences; that our 'control' always has a limited, relative character: "At 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 and 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 know and correctly apply its laws" (ibid. p242).

Underlying the whole dialectical process of our metabolic interrelation with nature is the free, conscious action of our purposive will, which leads us to conceive labour "in a form that stamps it as exclusively human":

"... a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect first raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement" (Capital p174).

As Marx saw it, one of the most valuable aspects of Darwin's work was the insights it gives us into natural technology - all plants and animals adapt to their environment by developing organs which function like tools. Our human organs, especially our hands and feet, were our first tools. Nowhere is our imagination and purposive will more evident than in the way we devise tools, and Marx agreed with Hegel and the enlightenment materialists that, "The use and fabrication of instruments of labour, although existing in the germ among certain species of animals, is specifically characteristic of the human labour-process" (ibid. p175). A tool can be any "thing or complex of things, which the labourer interposes between himself and the subject of his labour, and which serves as the conductor of his activity" (ibid.).

A social process

Marx's view of labour is radically different from that of the classical political economists, whose thinking always focused on the role of the individual in production and his supposedly spontaneous, voluntary entry into a 'social contract' with other producers. For Marx, this was a perverse and unhistorical approach to naturalism, founded on a false romanticism that also served a political end: "The individual and isolated hunter or fisher who forms the starting-point with Smith and Ricardo belongs to the insipid illusions of the 18th century. They are Robinson Crusoe stories which do not by any means represent, as students of the history of civilisation imagine, a reaction against overrefinement and a return to a misunderstood natural life. They are no more based on such a naturalism than is Rousseau's contrat social which makes naturally independent individuals come in contact and have mutual intercourse by contract" ('Grundrisse' KMSW p345n).

The central figure in classical political economy is the free, competitive individual, who enters into productive association with other individuals not because it is in their nature to do so, but because it serves their individual interests. Men like Smith and Ricardo sought to reinforce the political and economic basis of capitalism by projecting this prototype of the individual back into the past, thus 'proving' that humanity is not a product of history, but of nature, and that capitalism was, therefore, the natural system of production.

Marx exposed this flimsy rationalisation of the status quo for what it was: "The farther we go back into history, the more the individual and, therefore, the producing individual seems to depend on and belong to a larger whole: at first it is, quite naturally, the family and the clan, which is but an enlarged family; later on, it is the community growing up in its different forms out of the clash and amalgamation of clans. It is only in the 18th century, in 'civil society', that the different forms of social union confront the individual as a mere means to private ends, as an external necessity" (ibid. p346).

From the very beginning, precisely because humans are inherently social beings and conscious of this fact, the labour-process has always been a social activity: "All production is appropriation of nature by the individual within and through a definite form of society", and hence "production by isolated individuals outside society ... is as great an absurdity as the idea of the development of language without individuals living together and talking to one another" (my emphasis ibid. p349).

Because our working life is always a collective one, the labour-process involves not just the transformation of nature, but also the development of social forms of collaboration: "In production men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only by cooperating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only within these social connections and relations does their action on nature, does production, take place" ('Wage labour and capital' KMSW p256).

From the beginning, society is nothing but the totality of these natural connections and relations, the totality of interacting human beings pursuing a communal existence shaped by their collective labour, their collective 'metabolic', symbiotic relationship with the natural world.


Dialectic labour

Marx's naturalism led him to a dialectical understanding of human labour which was to play a key part in his thought. Central to Hegel's conception of the dialectic - as Marx understood it - was the notion that, "Man's existence has its centre in his head - i.e., reason - under whose inspiration he builds up the world of reality." In the Phenomenology, Hegel set out to analyse the evolution of human consciousness from simple sensory perception, through self-consciousness, to the use of reason, which offered us the possibility of comprehending the real, and ultimately attaining absolute knowledge. Hegel viewed the evolution of consciousness in terms of a progressive series of 'supercessions' (Aufhebungen), in which elements of each successive stage in our development are assimilated and transformed in a process which combines suppression and conservation.

Hegel attached particular importance to 'negativity' - the idea of an ever-present tension between what a thing is and what it is becoming. His dialectic is often crudely portrayed as a series of triads - thesis, antithesis, synthesis - in terms which are entirely absent from and foreign to his thinking in the Phenomenology. Neither did Marx use such terms. In his Poverty of philosophy he ridicules Proudhon for employing them. Nonetheless, the theoretical framework of Hegel's dialectic is founded on the unfolding of the idea through the reciprocal interaction of categories in a logical progression.

The most important point to grasp is that, whereas Hegel's dialectic is a relationship between concepts, Marx's dialectic consists fundamentally of a relationship between humanity and nature mediated through humanity's productive activity, our labour.

As we have seen, both trends in materialism before Marx were deficient because their passive and contemplative approach to natural phenomena constituted a chasm separating human beings from nature. How did Marx bridge this gulf? István Mészáros sums it up as follows: "The secret of Marx's success in radically transforming the limitations of dualistic, contemplative materialism is his unparalleled dialectical grasp of the category of mediation" (I Mészáros Marx's theory of alienation London 1975, p119). Labour is the catalyst of that dialectical, reciprocal interaction.

Marx wrote that "the greatness of Hegel's Phenomenology and its final product, the dialectic of negativity as the moving and creating principle ... the self-creation of man as a process ... means therefore that he grasps the nature of labour and understands objective man, true, because real, man as the result of his own labour" (KMSW p101).

Hegel conceived labour abstractly as "the self-confirming essence of man [das sich bewährende Wesen des Menschen]." As Marx points out, "the only labour that Hegel knows and recognises is abstract, mental labour" (ibid.). Furthermore, in Hegel the dialectic between humanity and nature is only a part of a much wider dialectic through which spirit progresses on its journey to self-realisation.

Marx's view of labour represents a radical change of direction. What he calls "thingness" (Dingheit) - the objectivity of the external world - becomes real not through thinking, but through work. A human being is not an abstract essence but a "real man of flesh and blood, standing on the solid round earth and breathing in and out all the powers of nature" (KMSW p103).

In Marx, our self-creation [Selbsterzeugung] is not a metaphor, but a literal truth. We reproduce ourselves through sexual intercourse - the archetype of all social labour. We produce our means of subsistence through labour, using brain, nerves and muscles in an endless process of intercourse with nature. Labour is not only the essential precondition for our physical existence, but also for every sphere of our self-development. Without labour, we could not in any sense become human, either individually or socially, either in thought or in reality. And it is labour which sets up that dialectical spiral of need and satisfaction, production and consumption which constitutes the real history of humanity as a species.

Human nature

Human nature has been a problem in the Marxist tradition. Many Marxists argue that historical materialism has no room for this category. There is, however, abundant textual evidence - from all periods of Marx's work - to demonstrate that an authentically Marxian concept of human nature does exist and that it plays both an explanatory and a normative role in his thought. Marx evidently believed there were certain generic, constant and intrinsic attributes common to all human beings, regardless of whatever historical epoch or social formation they live in: human beings differ from all other animals in their free, conscious activity and in their species-consciousness.

In Capital, labour-power itself is defined as being "the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality of the human being" (p164). The dialectical relationship between needs and powers gives rise to new techniques and modes of production, because "it is quite obvious from the start that there exists a materialist connection of men with one another, which is determined by their needs and their mode of production, and which is as old as men themselves" (K Marx and F Engels The German ideology Moscow 1976, p49).

Two examples, one from the notebooks which Marx compiled while writing the Economic and philosophical manuscripts and one from Capital, will suffice to demonstrate that Marx explicitly committed himself to a concept of human nature. Among his critical comments on James Mill (1773-1836) we find the following:

"Since human nature is the true communal nature of man, men create and produce their communal nature by their natural action; they produce their social being, which is no abstract, universal power over single individuals, but the nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own enjoyment, his own wealth. Therefore this true communal nature does not originate in reflection: it takes shape through the need and egoism of individuals - i.e., it is produced directly by the effect of their being ... Men, not in the abstract, but as real, living, particular individuals, are this nature. It is, therefore, as they are" ('On James Mill' KMSW p115).

This passage reiterates Marx's holistic view of society: "The individual is the social being", but without depreciating the significance of every individual (KMSW p91). In stressing that human nature is no abstraction, but the product of communal, natural action by individuals, he distances himself simultaneously from the nature-humanity dualism of Feuerbach and from his abstract concept of human essence. In Capital, criticising the crude and superficial utilitarianism of Bentham, Marx once again commits himself to human nature as a concept:

"To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog-nature. This nature itself is not to be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would criticise all human acts, movements, relations, etc, by the principle of utility must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch" (Capital p571n).

To "deal with human nature in general" is to do exactly what Marx did. The concept of human nature, both explicitly and implicitly present in his naturalistic materialism, provides the explanatory framework on which he later built his theory of history, a theory which shows how "human nature in general" is "modified in each historical epoch".

If the case for a Marxian concept of human nature is so compelling, why has it met such stubborn resistance from within Marxism? There are a mixture of theoretical and ideological reasons.

First, there is an apparent contradiction in the notion, illustrated in my last extract from Capital, that human nature is "modified in each historical epoch" and yet remains "human nature in general." After all, history is "nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature" (my emphasis, 'The poverty of philosophy' KMSW p192). Logically and from the point of view of common sense and experience, there is no real contradiction here at all. Things can change radically, while retaining features that are permanently and universally present. There is a level of biological determination in the species which remains unaffected by social, economic and political changes.

For Marx, one of these eternal facts is labour itself, which he describes as "the everlasting, nature-imposed condition of human existence ... independent of every social phase of that existence, or, rather ... common to every such phase" (my emphasis Capital p179). Even in a future communist society men and women will have to work - though their labour will be much more productive and more personally fulfilling than under capitalism - so much so, that it will itself become a vital need.

Secondly, there is a more familiar Marxist objection that arises out of the ideological struggle against capitalism. Bourgeois ideologues tell us that socialism is 'all very well in theory, but human nature is just not like that'. We have to fight such attempts to rubbish socialism on the grounds that selfishness, greed for power and property, ethnic and religious prejudice, and so forth, are permanent facets of human nature which make socialism inherently unrealisable. However, the fact that the concept of human nature is often hijacked by reactionaries for political purposes should not be grounds for rejecting the notion per se.

Thirdly, I would contend that there is a powerful normative dimension to Marx's understanding of human nature that was effectively suppressed in the doctrinaire formulations of 'orthodox' Marxism-Leninism. At the theoretical level, an unbridgeable gulf was said to exist between facts and values. This dilemma is more apparent than real and a correct understanding of praxis disposes of it. What is more, an ethical position founded on a specifically Marxian concept of human nature is not only logically possible and coherent: it is also, I would argue, essential.

As to its possibility, Norman Geras argues correctly that, "If one places a value upon life and human happiness and there exist universal needs that must be satisfied respectively to preserve and to promote these, then this furnishes - the value and the fact conjointly - a basis for normative judgement: such needs ought to be satisfied ceteris paribus" (N Geras Marx and human nature: refutation of a legend London1983, p101).


Not to regard these needs as demanding satisfaction to the greatest possible extent is to emasculate Marxism as a political and moral force. The normative dimension in Marxism is essential precisely because, without it, we have no effective arguments for socialism as a desirable goal, something worth fighting and, if need be, dying for. We must argue for socialism not just because it is true, but because it creates the conditions in which all can live a life that is worthy of human beings.

The normative aspects of Marx's theory constitute not an embarrassment, as some Marxists seem to think, but an ideological weapon. If Marxists can show, as they can, that there are certain basic needs and aspirations common to all humankind and that, where these needs are not met, people are dehumanised, this is the basis for a powerful critique of existing conditions. It forms a coherent platform from which to launch demands for a revolutionary transformation of existing society.

Finally, some Marxists object that talking about human nature is idealist and unscientific. All concepts can be abused. Some of the central concepts of Marxism have been abused in ways which it is shameful to contemplate, and bourgeois ideology regularly uses human nature to legitimate pretty well every facet of existing society, even the most deplorable. But none of this should lead us to dismiss human nature out of hand. If a coherent, materialist concept of human nature exists and can be used to expose the lies and nonsense that commonly travesty it, then this must be done.

What most, if not all, 'Marxist' objections to the concept of human nature have in common is the groundless fear that it will somehow contaminate or compromise what they see as the scientific 'purity' of Marxist theory. This antipathy is the product of an exaggerated scientistic positivism which took root in 'orthodox' Marxism after Marx's death, and which was given a new and modish twist by the likes of Althusser. For all his cleverness and his sonorous vocabulary of "problematics" and "theoretical anti-humanism", Althusser never seems to have grasped that Marx's naturalistic humanism, from which his concept of human nature arose, was the bedrock of his theory. Marxism is about human beings, and as a doctrine it is perfectly compatible with something we can rightly call human nature: "a totality of human properties, biological needs and social relations which can rightfully be termed immutable" (L Kolakowski Marxism and beyond London 1971, p64). Preaching a scientific understanding of human society while denying the existence of such a human nature is an absurdity.



Classical German philosophy inherited from Descartes and Kant a preoccupation with epistemology: i.e., with the problem of how we know things, and the conformity of our cognitive acts with reality. Idealists and materialists alike devoted much of their work to exploring the relationship between thought and reality, between the thinking subject and the object of thought. For Hegel and the idealists, as we have seen, "man's existence had its centre in his head" and reality was, in effect, a product of thought.

For the materialists, on the other hand, objective reality existed outside and independent of human consciousness; they accepted a Lockean, empirical model of cognition, according to which our knowledge of reality came about through a process of cause and effect, whereby the mind registers sense impressions (effects) imprinted on it by the action of external stimuli (causes).

The question arises at this point as to what extent Marx's naturalistic materialism was itself a theory of knowledge. He was not inclined to waste time debating what he thought were abstract problems: "The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory, but a practical question. Man must prove the truth - i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question" ('Theses on Feuerbach' KMSW p156). In fact, for Marx, the whole epistemological question was not a real question at all: the 'problem of knowledge' was in effect a "problem of knowledge about knowledge". It is futile to try and separate "man, the cognitive being" from man as a totality.

In their different ways, the idealists and materialists were both wrong, but both points of view had some truth in them. Hegel and the idealists were right when they asserted that the individual subjective consciousness plays a role in constituting reality through acts of perception and the formation of knowledge. Lenin himself makes this point in his Philosophical notebooks, when he writes that "consciousness not only reflects the world. It also creates it ... Philosophical idealism is only nonsense from the standpoint of crude, simple, metaphysical materialism. From the standpoint of dialectical materialism, on the other hand, philosophical idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated development of one of the features, aspects, facets of knowledge into an absolute, divorced from matter, from nature, apotheosised" (my emphasis, VI Lenin CW Moscow 1961, Vol. 39, pp212, 363).

In this 'absolutised' form of idealism the constitutive function of consciousness was exaggerated to the point where the real world was reduced to a derivative status and became essentially the product of human thinking. Idealism exalted subjectivity and suppressed objectivity.

Feuerbach and the enlightenment materialists were right when they asserted that the natural world exists independently of human consciousness, that there is always what Marx called an objective "natural substratum" on which human consciousness works - but the old materialists' theory of knowledge was flawed by its passivity, which reduced human consciousness to the status of a receptor of sense impressions. Materialism exalted objectivity and suppressed subjectivity.

The consequence of this suppression of subjectivity was that "in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism - which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such" ('Theses on Feuerbach' KMSW p156). The question which exercised Marx in his Economic and philosophical manuscripts was how to bring together the correct aspects of idealism and materialism and eliminate their respective defects. In tackling this problem he created a new epistemological category which he called praxis.


"It can be seen how subjectivism and objectivism, spiritualism and materialism, activity and passivity lose their opposition and thus their existence as opposites only in a social situation; it can be seen how the solution of theoretical opposition is only possible in a practical way, only through the practical energy of man, and their solution is thus by no means an exercise in epistemology, but a real problem of life that philosophy could not solve just because it conceived of it as a purely theoretical task" (KMSW p93).

By now we are familiar with the emphasis which Marx placed on practical activity (praktische Tätigkeit). He called it praxis, a term which means far more than just 'practical' as opposed to 'theoretical'. Praxis is Marx's word for the reciprocal relationship of action and reaction with nature, through which we shape the world and with it ourselves. Praxis is the kernel of Marx's naturalism, because, in a single concept, it specifically defines the way in which "consistent naturalism or humanism is distinguished from both idealism and materialism and constitutes at the same time their unifying truth". For Marx, 'practical' invariably implies 'social', and vice versa, because human social life is a manifestation of that collective, practical activity - labour - through which we satisfy our needs and in doing so expresses our uniquely human nature as a species-being.

Forgive me if I produce one more lengthy extract. It comes from some notes which Marx wrote, only a few years before his death, about a textbook of political economy published by professor Adolf Wagner of Berlin:

"Men do not begin by 'finding themselves in a theoretical relationship to the things of the external world'. Like every animal, they begin by eating, drinking, etc ... by behaving actively, gaining possession of certain things in the external world by their actions, thus satisfying their needs ... By repetition of this process, the property that those things have of 'satisfying their needs' is impressed on their brain; men, like animals, also learn to distinguish 'theoretically' the external things which, above all others, serve to satisfy their needs. At a certain point in their evolution, after the multiplication and development of their needs and of the activities to assuage them, men will baptise with the aid of words the whole category of these things that experience has enabled them to distinguish from the rest of the external world.

"This is an inevitable result; for, during the process of production (that is, the process of acquiring these things), men continuously create active relationships with each other and with these things, and soon they will have to struggle with each other for their possession ... this linguistic domination only expresses, in the form of a representation, what has become an acquired experience by constant repetition: that certain external things serve to satisfy the needs of men who live in given social relationships (which results necessarily from the existence of language). Men only give a name to these things because they already know that they serve to satisfy their needs and that they attempt to acquire them by frequently repeated acts and thus to keep them in their possession" ('Marginal notes on Adolf Wagner's Textbook of political economy' - my translation, original emphasis, K Marx and F Engels Werke Berlin 1956, Vol. 14, p355n).

This passage may be rather rambling - it was not prepared for publication - but it is important for two reasons: first, it presents us with a clear-headed and credible model of how cognition works in human beings. Practice comes first and involves separating by use and experiment those things which satisfy our needs from those which do not. Giving names to useful, useless and harmful things comes before those things are conceptualised in terms of abstract ideas and categories. Secondly, in more discursive form, it confirms what Marx had written more than 35 years previously in his Economic and philosophical manuscripts and Theses on Feuerbach. With decades of theoretical labours and political struggle behind him, Marx still described the relationship between humanity and nature in essentially the same terms as he had used years before. Of course, this is not the whole picture by any means, but the continuity of Marx's thought is striking in conclusion of his study.

How, then, can we sum up the meaning and implications of Marx's notion of praxis in everyday language? It means that our intellectual faculties are shaped from the beginning by action. From the moment we leave the cradle (if not before), we are all 'sensual materialists': we relate to the objects and people around us not by abstract thinking, but by contact. This process can be seen at its clearest in our labour - using that word in its widest sense. When working, we are both materialists and idealists. We are materialists in that every act of physical contact with our environment convinces us that we are living in a world of real, natural things, not a world composed of bundles of thoughts and sensations.

Yet in our labour - again in the widest sense - we are all idealists: we develop thoughts, concepts, theories, knowledge, and we use this knowledge to subject objects (and other people) to our purposive will. We use knowledge to get what we want and to avoid what we do not want.

Praxis is not just a process of understanding reality, but of changing it according to our purposes. It is dialectical at several levels. At the social level, it involves a continuous process of interaction between humanity and environment and between humans; at the level of individual consciousness, it involves a continuous, reciprocal interaction between doing and thinking, a constant enrichment of thought through action and of action through thought. It is simply not possible to take a kind of 'freeze-frame' of consciousness at any point and to separate out our sense-experience of the external world and our thinking about it.

The existence of 'autonomous' ideas divorced from practical activity is a myth; but so is the existence of sensuously 'concrete' knowledge isolated from ideas. Neither exists without the other, nor without changing and enriching the other. Praxis is an epistemological category, but not, I believe, a theory of knowledge. Theories of this kind stand apart from the reality they purport to explain, whereas the whole point about praxis is that it is an organic fusion of theory and practice. At its heart stands humanity's working relationship with nature, the true - indeed the only - source of our knowledge, a knowledge that cannot be separated from its social and historical context.

Michael Malkin