Capital’s Destruction of the Environment: Marx’s Inadequate Response


All art by William Morris (1834-1896)

This piece engages claims around Marx’s legacy as a thinker and his relation to ecology. A promotional blurb for a volume recently published by Haymarket Books on the subject, Marx and the Earth by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, goes so far as to claim that the authors are the “founders of Eco-socialist thought.” This narrative is taken to task in detail here by the author, who concludes with some brief reflections on an alternative vision of ecologically oriented socialism. 

By Ignacio Guerrero

Kohei Saito, writing in Monthly Review in February 2016 on Marx’s “Ecological Notebooks” (1868), distinguishes between “first-stage” and “second-stage” eco-socialists, with the former, an earlier wave, recognizing Karl Marx’s passing references to environmentalism but considering him overall to be a Promethean, and the latter instead claiming Marx to have been a profound ecological thinker. The main theorist presenting this alternative reading has been John Bellamy Foster, author of Marx’s Ecology (2000) and The Ecological Revolution (2009), co-author of The Ecological Rift (2010) and Marx and the Earth (2016/7), and editor of Monthly Review.

Foster bases his argumentation for second-stage ecosocialism on Marx’s statement at the end of “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” in Capital, vol. 1, in the section on industrial-capitalist agriculture, where Marx states that, besides “concentrat[ing]” the proletariat—the “historical motive power of society”—in the cities through the enclosure of the commons and the dispossession of the peasantry, capitalism “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man [sic] and the Earth” in the sense that it exhausts the soil by demanding unsustainable extraction from it (637-8). Capitalism thus proceeds by “undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker” (638). Marx even states that “[t]he more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in […] the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction” (638, emphasis added). Yet he views such environmental degradation as dynamically “compel[ling the] systematic restoration [of the metabolic interaction] as a regulative law of social production.”

Marx isn’t very specific here about what a movement to restore the “natural metabolic interaction” between humanity and the rest of nature would look like, and he doesn’t clarify whether environmental sustainability would be assured in a post-capitalist society, or whether the question of the domination of nature goes beyond the humanistic struggle for the liberation of the proletariat. Initially, it must be said that a passing comment on the capitalist degradation of the soil does not make Marx a radical ecologist, especially when juxtaposed with many of his more Promethean statements. In this sense, the first-stage ecosocialists make a convincing argument. Let’s not forget that this famous statement on the soil comes in the same volume wherein Marx effectively endorses the very dispossession of the peasantry for “dialectically” giving rise to capitalism and thereafter socialism and communism, per the stages theory of history. In “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,” Marx explicitly calls large-scale industrial-capitalist agriculture revolutionary, “for the reason that it annihilates the bulwark of the old society, the ‘peasant,’ and substitutes for him the wage-labourer” (637), while in “The Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels deploy similar reasoning in lauding the bourgeoisie for having destroyed the putative “idiocy of rural life.”

In general, if we consider the amount of text dedicated to environmental issues in Marx’s oeuvre as a whole, we see that communist humanism greatly outweighs concern for ecology in Marx’s philosophy, particularly when the two concerns clash, as they do in bourgeois and Marxist analyses alike (“jobs-versus-nature”).[1] Yet in his youth, Marx does favorably cite Thomas Münzer’s declaration that, under capitalist dominion, “all creatures have been turned into property,” whereas they must “become free.” He even argues that the capitalist “view of nature” implies “real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature.” In addition, Marx defines communism in the 1844 Manuscripts as “the genuine resolution of the conflict between [humanity] and nature” as well as among humans, and in Capital, he cites a report lamenting the invasion and colonization of the Scottish wilderness by rabbits, squirrels, and rats following the enclosure of the commons, which had previously maintained much richer biodiversity (894n33). However, we should likely make a distinction between the young Marx and his dominant older self in these terms, for quite soon after his youthful humanist phase, Marx came to uncritically endorse industrialism in order to accommodate his deterministic theory of history. For example, in “The Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels enthusiastically praise the bourgeoisie for having “[s]ubject[ed] nature’s forces to man [sic]” and developed “machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, [the] clear[cutting] of whole continents for cultivation, [and the] canalisation of rivers”! The pair thus celebrate the bourgeoisie for having created the “material base” that these theorists think is supposedly necessary for the achievement of socialism. Yet this very bias, which permeates Marx’s Capital,[2] is itself very questionable: it goes back to Marx’s conflict with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), where the German claims, against his French counterpart, that socialism can follow only after the full development of capitalism. In Capital, he declares that the goal of associated labor “requires that society possess a material foundation […] which in [its] turn [is] the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development” (173). He goes further to claim the technical basis of industrial manufacturing as “revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative” and to define the “social control and regulation of the forces of nature” as a central part of the anti-capitalist alternative (601-2, 617, 927). Capital’s revolutionism is ultimately revealed for Marx in that it expands, “trains, unites, and organizes” the proletariat (449, 929).

But this approach begs the question: why could communism not instead develop historically in an egalitarian fashion through cooperative labor and the collective advancement of technology, or agrarian socialism? Why is it necessary to have capitalism as a precondition to liberation? Marx’s mechanical reasoning here is not convincing, and frankly, it is anti-ecological, oppressive, and racist: see Engels’ comments (1848) praising the U.S. settler-colonial state for having appropriated California and the U.S. Southwest through war from “the lazy Mexicans [sic], who could not do anything with it.” Engels is effusive on this imperial dispossession:

“[T]he energetic Yankees by rapid exploitation of the California gold mines will increase the means of circulation, [and] in a few years will concentrate a dense population and extensive trade at the most suitable places on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, create large cities, open up communications by steamship, construct a railway from New York to San Francisco, [and] for the first time really open the Pacific Ocean to civilization […].”

While this is Engels writing, such productivist reasoning is not absent from Marx, whose early journalistic articles on India condemn the “brutalizing worship of nature” he claimed as being evident in traditional village life there before British colonialism: he was clearly offended that in Hindu society, “man, the sovereign of nature” would “f[a]ll down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.”[3] Marx also chauvinistically and misleadingly claims the commons to have been a Teutonic invention (Capital, vol. 1, 885). In his discussion of labor and the valorization process in Capital, furthermore, the German Communist reiterates his view of humanity as a “sovereign power” over the rest of nature, and would seem to endorse a typically bourgeois view of nature as a source of extraction, stating that “[a]ll raw material is an object of labour.” He moreover uncritically cites James Steuart’s observation that the Earth’s natural resources “appear […] to be furnished […] in the same way as a small sum is given to a young man, in order to put him in a way of industry, and of making his fortune” (283-4). In parallel, Marx projects bourgeois competition onto the natural world, as in his characterization of evolution as the “war of all against all” (477), and exaggerates the distinction between human and non-human in his discussion of consciousness, self-consciousness, and tool use (284-6).

Additionally, Marx’s privileging of the industrial proletariat as the revolutionary subject leads him to disparage the peasantry—which, if we look to history (the French, Mexican, and Russian Revolutions), in fact can be highly militant—and even to celebrate its coercive transformation into the working class in Capital as a “revolutionary” historical advance to fit his deterministic presentation. Yet late in life, Marx in turn rethinks this callous illogic in a series of letters with the Russian leftist Vera Zasulich (1881), wherein the German envisions an alternative path to communism in Russia that would obviate the “pre-existing need” for capitalism, as based on the mir or obshchina system (the Russian Commune)—as long as such a movement were aided by proletarian revolutions in Western Europe.[4] This was clearly not the approach taken after 1917 by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, who oppressed so many millions and greatly devastated the environment (e.g. the Aral Sea, Chernobyl) through their imposition of state capitalism, a project they advanced in Marx’s name.

Yet Saito, writing about Marx’s “ecological notebooks” from 1868, has a different interpretation, one in line with second-wave ecosocialism and Foster’s analysis. Saito hypothesizes that, had Marx been able to integrate his scientific investigations—especially his investigations into Carl Fraas’ work on deforestation—into Capital vol. 2, the result would have been “a much stronger emphasis on the disturbance of the ‘metabolic interaction’” between humanity and nature in his work. Yet this is somewhat speculative. Saito’s citation of Marx’s criticism in these notebooks of capitalist farmers for unsustainably exploiting cattle by slaughtering calves for meat instead of using them for dairy over a lifetime hardly suggests that the German Communist recognizes the autonomy of non-human world or favors animal liberation. While Saito is right to identify a shift in Marx’s thought on nature over time, with his late position echoing that of his youth, we cannot overlook the fact that Marx for most of his life was a productivist who held a relatively uncritical view of industry and technology. Marx’s Prometheanism was in fact tied to his statism, given his recognition in Capital of the repressive-transformative power wielded by the bourgeoisie through the State, and his dialectical hopes of using this same apparatus to transform capitalism in turn. The critical theorist Herbert Marcuse was therefore right to criticize the “hubris of domination” evident in Marx’s predominant attitude toward nature, and his comrade Theodor Adorno had a point in warning that Marx had wanted to “turn the whole world into a giant workhouse.”[5]


The extent of Marx’s ecological concerns are limited by his anthropocentrism (that is, a bias in favor of humanity over the rest of nature) as well as his productivism. Yet he does express some critical ecological comments in the minor chord in Capital, vol. 1, and his scientific notebooks. For this reason, the first-stage eco-socialists seem more correct in their analyses than second-stagers like Foster and Saito, who exaggerate their case. It is undeniable that Marx has inspired critical ecological thinkers, particularly given his analysis of the “driving force and determining purpose of capitalist production [being] the self-valorization of capital to the greatest possible extent” (Capital, vol. 1, 449), and his telling summary of the maxims governing bourgeois society: “Accumulate, accumulate: that is Moses and the prophets!” (742). Political economy certainly underpins Allan Schnaiberg’s innovative development of the concept of the treadmill of production, whereby environmental destruction is maintained and accelerated under capitalism due to the dependence of property-owners, the State, and business unions on economic growth, while Jason W. Moore, author of Capitalism in the Web of Life (2015) and editor of Anthropocene or Capitalocene? (2016), develops his approach of world ecology from a Marxist analysis of the ways that capitalism appropriates the “unpaid work/energy” of ecosystems for the purpose of accumulation.

Yet anarchism presents a much more consistently environmentalist perspective, considering the breadth of scientific and geographical investigation made by Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus, Murray Bookchin’s liberatory philosophy of social ecology, and Judi Bari’s green-syndicalist attempt to unite Earth First! with timber workers against logging companies in northwest California (1990). In this way, anarchism does not prescribe large-scale industry or capitalist exploitation as “necessary historical evils” but instead opens the possibilities for the direct liberation of humanity and nature through the collective and federative organization of the oppressed against capital and the State.


[1] See Marx, Capital, vol. 1: “Therefore, since machinery in itself shortens the hours of labour, but when employed by capital it lengthens them; since in itself it lightens labour, but when employed by capital it heightens its intensity; since in itself it is a victory of man [sic] over the forces of nature but in the hands of capital it makes man the slave of those forces […]” (568-9, emphasis added).

[2] “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” (Capital, vol. 1, 91).

[3] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 12 (New York: International Publishers, 1974-2004), 132. Kanuman is also known as Hanuman, whereas Sabbala is better-known as Kamadhenu.

[4] See Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).

[5] Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 59-62; Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 57.