Marxism, nature, and proposition one

Why is the SWP commitment to ecological thinking doubted? Jack Conrad looks at the 'What the Socialist Workers Party stands for' column which appears every week in Socialist Worker

Marxism, the Socialist Workers Party’s annual school, once again featured a range of speakers on ecology and climate change: Gareth Dale, Jonathan Neale, Jørn Andersen, Suzanne Jeffrey, Martin Empson, Penny Howard, etc. While some gave little more than a workerist spin to the prejudices, critiques, programmes and demands of the Green Party, Greenpeace and George Monbiot, there is clearly a growing recognition on the left that capitalist degradation of nature is in imminent danger of causing civilisational collapse. For example, this week’s Socialist Worker warns that new research shows the planet’s temperature “will rise by up to four degrees Celsius by 2100 - even if world leaders meet their targets to cut carbon emissions.”[1]

Given the tragic loss of ecological thinking suffered by Marxism for much of the 20th century, and not only in the cancerous form of Stalinism, but with Trotskyism and Cliffism too, this ‘greening’ of the SWP is bound to be highly contradictory. To my knowledge Leon Trotsky never wrote anything even half-serious on the subject, neither directly nor indirectly. Ditto Tony Cliff.

Undoubtedly, there are those comrades in the SWP who, like us, are rediscovering the extraordinarily rich heritage of Marx and Engels. As exhaustively shown by writers such as John Bellamy Foster (Marx’s ecology 2000) and Paul Burckett (Marx and nature 1999), the Marx-Engels team took a keen interest in the science of their day and developed profound insights into environmental problems. In Capital Marx famously urged the future communist society to take care of the earth like “boni patres familias” (good heads of the household) and “hand it down to succeeding generations” in an “improved condition.”[2]

On the other hand, there remains a strong suspicion that the SWP central committee is jumping onto a bandwagon in the desperate attempt to gain recruits and once again, towards that end, is adapting to petty bourgeois populism (under the leadership of John Rees the SWP tried to channel the anti-war movement into the Respect popular front, which saw one leftwing principle sacrificed after another). There is a big pool to fish from. According to a report in The Guardian, climate change is a major cause of concern for people in Britain; 77% of those surveyed wanting the government “to do more”.[3] Protests around carbon emissions, runaway climate change, ecological destruction, etc are certainly attracting ever greater numbers.

Having dumped the Socialist Alliance, Globalise Resistance and Respect, the SWP has chosen as its main vehicle the Campaign Against Climate Change - founded in 2001 in response to president George W Bush’s refusal to sign up to the Kyoto protocol. A king Canute of a name, given that our planet has experienced periodic climatic oscillations and that is it is impossible for human beings to fix the climate at some ideal configuration - continental drift, sunspots, volcanic activity, etc are, and presumably always will be, nature-given.

That aside, SWP members have successfully colonised CACC. They now occupy leading positions: eg, Jonathan Neale is the international secretary and Martin Empson and Suzanne Jeffrey sit on its steering committee (along with Elaine Graham-Leigh, who went with the Reesite Left Platform split from the SWP).

CACC is a typical “broad as possible” popular front. George Monbiot is honorary president and its honorary vice-presidents are Michael Meacher, environment minister from 1997-2003 under Tony Blair; Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP; and Norman Baker, parliamentary under-secretary of state for transport in the Con-Lib Dem government. Keeping such figureheads on board fixes the political boundaries for the SWP as it operates in CACC. Explicit anti-capitalism and communism are therefore dismissed as shibboleths. Hence the SWP’s schizophrenia. At Marxism 2010 it parades its revolutionism, but in CACC it limits itself to the demand for a “million green jobs”.

Given its past record, many fear that the SWP is carrying out a cynical marketing exercise. A leftwing version of the PR makeover that transformed British Petroleum into Beyond Petroleum and which throughout the last decade spawned tens of thousands of green businesses, campaigns, advisors, charities, quangos and lifestyle gurus. A fear surely reinforced by Socialist Worker and its ‘What the Socialist Workers Party stands for’ column.

True, apart from political novices, few will bother to read it. Fewer still, if any, cross-examine and seriously criticise the column proposition by proposition. A mistake. When it comes to programme, ‘What the Socialist Workers Party stands for’ is just about all the famished SWP possesses. Anyway this is how its proposition one reads: “The workers create all the wealth under capitalism. A new society can only be constructed when they collectively seize control of that wealth and plan its production and distribution.”

For those inexperienced in Marxism this might appear a perfectly acceptable formulation. Yes, it is superficially anti-capitalist and apparently militantly pro-working class.

What is there to object to then? The problem lies not in the call for the working class to “collectively seize” control of the wealth they create and then “plan its production and distribution”. The SWP’s programmatic poverty and economism[4] announces itself in the first sentence: “The workers create all the wealth under capitalism.” The fault with this statement is twofold. Firstly, the proposition is simply untrue. Workers do not create all wealth under capitalism. Secondly, it treats workers merely as wage-slaves, the producers of commodities - not feeling, thinking, emotional human beings.

So it was disappointing to read the trusted SWP veteran, Colin Baker. He was tasked with defending the ‘What the Socialist Workers Party stands for’ column in a 19-part series in Socialist Worker over December 6 2003-June 26 2004. Naturally he began with proposition one but completely steered clear of nature. The same goes for Martin Empson’s pamphlet Marxism and ecology: capitalism, socialism and the future of the planet (2009). He too tried to do the impossible: that is square Socialist Worker’s ‘What the Socialist Workers Party stands for’ statement on wealth and the workers with the Marxism of Marx and Engels.


Let us begin with wealth. To do that we must sketch out some basic Marxist concepts. Wealth for capital concerns value, surplus value and accumulated surplus value - its general form being money. Marx gives a simple algebraic formula for capital: M-C-M¹. This movement involves the capitalist laying out money to purchase commodities in order to realise more money in the market place.

When this takes the embryonic form of mercantile capitalism, the secret of making something out of nothing is to be found in the cheating of the immediate producers and the existence of isolated geographical zones, which are tenuously linked by the merchant’s ships or caravans. Arab traders bought cheap in India and China and sold dear in Byzantium and feudal Europe. Merchants parasitically inserted themselves between these ‘worlds’. There were no generalised socially determining capitalist relations of production. Unequal exchange was the key to the merchant’s wealth and capital accumulation.

Under industrial capitalism, however, surplus value derives from the surplus labour performed by workers who are forced to sell their ability to labour to a capitalist. By means of coercion direct producers have been separated from the means of production and as a result workers have to present themselves daily for hire. It is that or poverty and maybe even starvation. Yet on average workers sell their labour-power at a ‘fair’ market price. As sellers of a commodity - labour-power - they receive back its full worth. Wages buy the means of subsistence necessary for the reproduction of the worker as a wage-slave. Only as human beings are they robbed.

Capital - and therefore in the last analysis its personifications - has no concern for the worker. Capital would compel workers to work for 24 hours a day and seven days a week if such a feat were physically possible. Nor has capital any particular concern for the commodity created by the combination of labour-power, the instruments of labour and raw materials - albeit brought together under the auspices of capital. The resulting commodity could be of the highest quality or complete rubbish. But as long as it sells, and sells at a profit, that is what really matters. Value is what drives capitalism and drives it to constant expansion. Growth, and overcoming all barriers to growth, is inseparable from the system. The capitalist lays out money at the beginning of the circuit in order to realise more money ... and not just once, but repeatedly.

Hence for capital wealth comes in the form of value, surplus value and above all money. In other words, exchange value. Of course, for the capitalists themselves wealth also comes in the form of use-values. Despite Weberian myths and the so-called Protestant work ethic, no one should imagine them living a frugal, self-denying existence, which sees all takings ploughed back into the production process and using money to make more money.

As individuals, capitalists indulge themselves ... and often to extraordinary excess. They live in ostentatious luxury and cultivate all manner of louche habits and extravagant tastes. When it comes to transnational companies, Lear jets, chauffeur-driven limos, vintage wines, Saville Row suits and an endless supply of female flesh are almost considered the birthright of every CEO.

For capital, wealth is self-expanding money or value. But for the human being, wealth is use-value - what fulfils some desire, what gives pleasure, what it useful. Because use-value so obviously relies on subjective judgement, Marx quite correctly gave the widest possible definition. Use-value, he said, must satisfy a human need of “some sort”. Whether these needs arise from the “stomach or from fancy” makes no difference.[5] Use-value is therefore not just about physical needs: it encompasses the imagination too. Indeed, a use-value may be purely imaginary. Its essence is to be found in the human being rather than the thing itself. The consumer determines utility or use-value.

Obviously use-values are bought on the market for money and come in the form of commodities produced through the capitalist production process. However, it is vital to grasp the fact that capital has not only an interest, a drive, to exploit labour and maximise surplus labour. In pursuit of profit, capital also seeks to maximise sales and therefore to expand consumption. Capitalists sell raw materials and the instruments of labour to other capitalists: electricity, steel, machine tools, computer programmes, etc (department I). They also, however, sell the means of consumption (department II) to other capitalists ... and to workers too (food, clothing, housing, transport, drink, etc).

While the individual capitalist, the particular capital, attempts to minimise the wages of the workers they employ, capital as many capitals, capital as a system, encourages, manufactures and even acts as the pimp for all manner of new or even artificial wants and needs. Hence advertising, special-offer promotions, celebrity culture and the endless transformation of luxuries into necessities. That, and the class struggle conducted by workers themselves, combines to constantly overcome the barrier represented by the limited consumption power of the working class. Part of what the working class produces is therefore sold back to the working class … and on an ever increasing scale. That way workers manage to partially develop themselves as human beings. Not that their needs are ever fully satisfied. There is a steady stream of the latest must-haves. Capital, capital accumulation and the lifestyles of the rich always run far ahead of the workers. Relative impoverishment, gnawing dissatisfaction and immiseration remain the lot of the working class.

Workers and capitalists alike consume use-values that come in the form of commodities and from the sphere of capitalist relations of production and the exploitation of wage labour (there are non-commodity use-values such as domestic labour - cleaning, cooking, looking after the children, maintaining the car, putting up shelves, etc). Doubtless they also consume some commodities that come from peasant agriculture, the individual service-provider or the self-employed artisan. Eg when visiting Greece, I enjoy drinking the rough village wines sold along the roadside by small farmers; I buy newspapers from my local British-Muslim newsagent; and I get my shoes repaired by the British-Bengali cobbler over the road. Such little businesses produce use-values and therefore, by definition, wealth too. With such examples in mind, it is surely mistaken to baldly state that “workers create all the wealth under capitalism”.

In theoretical terms, however, forgetting or passing over petty bourgeois commodity production is a mote, a mere speck of dust, in the eye of the SWP’s ‘Where we stand’ column. But there exists a beam. In his Critique of the Gotha programme Marx is quite explicit. “Labour is not the source of all wealth.”[6] There is nature too.

Marx writes here against the first paragraph of the draft programme of the newly established German Social Democratic Party. The Gotha unity congress in 1875 represented a rotten, unprincipled unification, joining together Lassallean state socialists and the Eisenachers - the Marxists, led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht.

The first paragraph of the Gotha programme has a strangely familiar ring. A ghostly anticipation of Socialist Worker’s ‘What the Socialist Workers Party stands for’ proposition one: “Labour is the source of all wealth and culture and, since useful labour is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labour belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.”

Marx pointedly blames the Lassalleans for this formulation ... that or he calls it an unwarranted concession to them (which may or may not have been the case). But, whoever provided the inspiration, whoever actually wrote the lines, we know that the SWP did not blow the dust off from the long forgotten publications of Ferdinand Lassalle. Nor did it secretly crib from German social democracy and its Gotha programme. The SWP is transparently honest and frighteningly sincere in its theoretical poverty. Hence, we have a textbook case of historical repetition - opportunist reflux, economism spontaneously resurfacing, as it inevitably does, given the material conditions of capitalism and the oppressed position of the working class.

Marx savaged the “hollow phrases” about “useful labour” and all members of society having an “equal right” to society’s wealth. There is useless labour in society. Labour that fails to produce the intended result. Furthermore, every society needs a surplus to reinvest in production and infrastructural projects or in case of emergencies. Hence not all production can be, or should be, returned “undiminished” to the producers. As to equality, people are not equal in their abilities. Nor in their needs. The first stage of communist society will operate according to the principle of work done; but once fully mature it will inscribe onto its banner these splendid words: “From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs.”

What of the claim that “labour is the source of all wealth” serves as an indictment of capitalism? If anything, the opposite is the case. Displaying great insight, Marx argues that the “bourgeoisie have very good grounds for ascribing supernatural creative power to labour; since precisely from the fact that labour is determined by nature, it follows that man, who possesses no other property than his labour-power, must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour. He can work only with their permission, hence live only with their permission”[7]

More to the point, what did Marx have to say about nature? He emphasised: “Nature is just as much the source of wealth of use-values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour-power.”

Marx goes on to explain that “insofar as man from the outset behaves towards nature” - what he calls the “primary source of all instruments and objects of labour” - as an “owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labour becomes the source of use-values, therefore also of wealth”. The same gendered metaphor occurs elsewhere in order to depict the twofold source of wealth. In Capital, he approvingly quotes William Petty: “Labour is its father and the earth its mother.”[8]

Sunshine and water, air and soil, plants and animals are all ‘gifts from nature’. Human beings too are of nature and, just like every other living thing, rely on nature in order to survive. Humanity applies itself to nature and we often calculate on the direct actions of nature. Though a natural product, wheat is selected, sown and harvested by labour; yet it germinates in the soil and needs both rain and the warmth of the sun if it is to grow and duly ripen. So the two forms of wealth conjoin. Yet, for the laws of capital, what gives the wheat value is not that which is supplied by nature. That has use-value, but no value. Value derives from the application of labour-power alone.

There is a spiritual, or artistic, dimension to the use-value of nature that should never be underestimated or discounted. Humans live not by bread alone. I am constantly inspired, humbled, by the evening sunset I see through my office window, the mists of autumn mornings, the thunderstorms as they roll over London. Then there is the stunning beauty of the star-studded night sky, the joy of walking over an ever-changing Hampstead Heath, the awe-inspiring mountains and lochs of the Scottish highlands, the Atlantic waves as they crash into the Cornish coast. All are wealth for the human being.

So wealth cannot be limited to the products of human activity alone. Wealth must include every form of consumption which produces human beings in one respect or another. Michael Lebowitz rightly considers this of particular significance: “Marx’s identification of nature as a source of wealth is critical in identifying a concept of wealth that goes beyond capital’s perspective”[9]

Capital, as we have shown, has no intrinsic concern for either the worker or nature - and especially over the last 100 years, and increasingly so, capitalist self-expasion has resulted in wanton destruction. Deforestation, the erosion of topsoil, the spread of deserts and air and water pollution grow apace. Today half the world’s population has no ready access to clean drinking water. Countless species of plants and animals have been driven to extinction. Instead of the cherishing of nature’s resources, there is greed, plunder and recklessness. Oil is prodigally devoured and criminally depleted through the car economy; air travel booms, while railway prices are hiked; nuclear power is presented as the salvation from global warming and the danger of dramatic climate change.

Total reorganisation

The working class presents the only viable alternative to the destructive reproduction of capital. First as a countervailing force within capitalism, one which has its own logic pulling against that of capital. The political economy of the working class brings with it not only higher wages and shorter hours. It is responsible for health services, social security systems, pensions, universal primary and secondary education ... and measures that protect the environment. Wealth, for the working class, is not merely about the accumulation and consumption of an ever greater range of commodities.

Besides being of capitalism, the working class is uniquely opposed to capitalism. The political economy of the working class more than challenges capital. As Michael Lebowitz suggests, it points beyond - to the total reorganisation of society and, with that, the ending of humanity’s strained, brutalised and crisis-ridden relationship with nature.

Socialism and communism do not raise the workers to the position where they own the planet and stand over it like a conqueror. Mimicking the delusions associated with capitalism - as witnessed under bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union - brings constant disappointment, ecological degradation and the certain revenge of nature. Humanity can only be the custodian.

Marx was amongst the first to theorise human dependence on nature and the fact that humanity and nature co-evolves. He warned, however, that a metabolic “rift” had occurred which threatened the nature-imposed conditions of human existence. Capitalism crowds vast numbers into polluted, soulless, crime-ridden concrete jungles. Simultaneously, the ever bigger farms of capitalist agriculture denude nature with mono-crops, the ripping up of hedgerows and, as highlighted by Rachel Carson back in the early 1960s, the chemical death meted out to “birds, mammals, fishes and indeed practically every form of wildlife.”[10]

The Marx-Engels team wanted to re-establish an intimate connection between town and country, agriculture and industry, and rationally redistribute the population. Mega-cities are profoundly alienating and inhuman. Urban sprawl should be checked and spaces for city woodlands, parks, public gardens, allotments and little farms considerably expanded. Doubtless, such a programme has no practical relevance for the champions of capitalist society; which, because of its short-termism and manic fixation on generating profits, is incapable of carrying through such measures. But under conditions of socialism and communism such ideas will surely be put into practice.

Our aim is not only to put a stop to destruction and preserve what remains. Of course, the great rain forests of Congo, Indonesia, Peru, Columbia and Brazil must be safeguarded. So must the much depleted life in the oceans and seas. But more can be done. As Marx urged, communism would restore and where possible enhance the riches of nature for the benefit of future generations.

Human activity - when it progresses spontaneously and not according to a conscious plan - leaves deserts in its wake. Mesopotamia - now dry and dusty - can be remade into the lush habitat it was in pre-Sumerian times. The Sahara in Africa and Rajputana in India were once home to a wonderful variety of fauna and flora. The parched interior of Australia too. With sufficient resources and careful management they can bloom once again.

The aim of such projects would not be to maximise production and churn out an endless flood of products. Hardly the Marxist version of abundance. On the contrary, the communist economy has every reason to rationally economise and minimise all necessary inputs.

The “enormous waste” under capitalist social conditions outraged Marx. The by-products of industry, agriculture and human consumption are squandered and lead to pollution of the air and contamination of rivers. Capital volume three contains a section entitled ‘Utilisation of the extractions of production’. Here Marx outlines his commitment to the scientific “reduction” and “re-employment” of waste.[11]

In place of capitalism’s squandermania and Stalin’s cult of steel, coal and cement, there comes with communism the human being who is rich in human needs. However, these needs are satisfied not merely by the supply of things: they are first and foremost satisfied through the concert of human interconnections and a readjusted and sustainable relationship with nature. At the heart of the Marxist project is therefore the richest development of human beings. Individuals who have developed their capabilities and capacities, so that there is a full working out of all innate and acquired potentialities.


  1. Socialist Worker July 10 2010.
  2. K Marx Capital Vol 3 Moscow 1971, p776.
  3. The Guardian July 30 2009.
  4. In the last analysis economism is a bourgeois world outlook which restricts and narrows down the horizons of the working class to mere trade unionism - that or more commonly it simply denies or belittles the essential role of high politics and democracy in the struggle for socialism and communism.
  5. K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1970, p35.
  6. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p81.
  7. Ibid.
  8. K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1970, p43.
  9. M Lebowitz Beyond Capital Basingstoke 2003, pp130-31.
  10. R Carson Silent spring Harmondsworth 1991, p87.
  11. K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1971, p101.