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Recovering the Legacy of Marxism in the Face of the Ecological Crisis

Does progress require the conquest of nature? Is “humanity” responsible for the climate crisis? What is the relationship between nature and capitalist society? In Marx’s Ecology — newly translated into Spanish for Ediciones IPS — John Bellamy Foster overturns conventional interpretations of Marx and instead offers a rational approach to the environmental crisis. This article presents the prologue to the new Spanish-language edition.

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A graphic image of a landscape with silhouettes of animals and a tree in dark green, with a lighter green background of branches.

Note: Quotations from the Bellamy book used in this translation of the prologue to the new Spanish edition are taken from the original English edition.

This translation into Spanish of John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature,1John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000. the inaugural installment in Ediciones IPS’s “Ecology and Marxism” collection, comes at a unique moment when all the alarm bells of climate crisis are ringing at once, and two years after the appearance of Covid-19. Global warming is reaching historic levels, driven by an unprecedented accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels, the destruction of native forests, and changes in land use. The consequences of warming become more evident by the day. Extreme climate events are becoming commonplace: heavy precipitation, record floods, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and mega-storms. The loss of biodiversity, the acidification of oceans, the melting of glaciers, and ever-rising sea levels — all these accentuate and accelerate the crisis, alongside the mass extinction of species and industry-caused chemical contamination; these are just a few of the terrible manifestations of the unprecedented situation humanity faces. Meanwhile, the role of capitalism in generating the crisis becomes clearer every day. This social system has prospered for centuries through the exploitation of both human labor and nature, which it treats as an “inexhaustible” source of “resources” to be converted into commodities, or as a repository for waste. Capitalism is quickly pushing past the planet’s capacity to “support” its eco-destructive processes. Ending nature’s subordination to the logic of capital is increasingly urgent. As Rosa Luxemburg said, we face a choice between socialism or barbarism.

Facing this crisis, capitalism vacillates between denialism and various “green” solutions, in which nature is monetized, considered “natural” capital. This only further commodifies nature, with the added benefit of subsidizing the large corporations that are supposedly leading an ecological transition. It’s no coincidence that this strategy also blames the climate crisis on individuals, pointing to their supposed power as consumers while shifting attention from the responsibilities that can be traced through the entire production chain. Meanwhile, governments’ use of climate summits to “greenwash” their do-nothing agendas give capitalist hypocrisy a worldwide stage.

This dynamic contributes directly to the degradation of the social and material conditions of hundreds of millions of people, who already suffer misery, unemployment, and job insecurity, a dynamic through which capitalism ensures its profitability and reproduction. The Covid-19 pandemic has its origins in human encroachment on natural and semi-natural ecosystems, conditions that favor the emergence of zoonotic illnesses. It ran headlong into public health systems devastatingly weakened by neoliberalism, and finally became a thriving business for pharmaceutical giants — yet another piece of the larger puzzle of neoliberalism’s overall dynamic. Latin America is a terrain where this predatory logic translates directly into extractivist destruction and looting, promoted by imperial interests and accentuated by the preceding decades of neoliberal boom. The advance of extraction leaves devastated territories and populations, true “sacrifice zones”: agribusiness, the destruction of forests, wetlands, and other natural or semi-natural environments, the displacement of indigenous communities, the extraction of fossil fuels through fracking, and the mining of metal with polluting substances. Faced with this reality, Foster’s book recovers the contributions of Marx’s ecological thought.

Reflections on Nature, the Cornerstone of Marxism

In 1876, after listing a series of ecological disasters and “nature’s revenge” for every human victory over it, Engels noted,

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, 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 beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.

This observation is not an anomaly among Engels’s works, nor in those of Marx. Their interest in the natural and physical sciences was expressed, for example, in reflections on the work of Charles Darwin, and in their exchanges regarding the analyses of Carl Schorlemmer and Justus von Liebig on agricultural chemistry, where the latter extended the concept of “metabolism” to the bio-geochemical cycles of agroecosystems. Marx and Engels’ discussions of environmental degradation include reflections on the role of colonialism, advancing anti-colonial debates that would become key in the imperialist era. As Marx pointed out, “England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without as much as allowing its cultivators the means for making up the constituents of the soil that had been exhausted.”

Foster explores and develops an interesting idea: that the works of Marx “cannot be fully comprehended without an understanding of his materialist conception of nature, and its relation to the materialist conception of history. Marx’s social thought, in other words, is inextricably bound to an ecological world-view.” Foster posits that Marx’s notion of the alienation of human labor was, from the very beginning, linked to an understanding of the alienation of human beings from nature. Marx was denouncing the plunder of nature long before the birth of modern bourgeois ecological consciousness.

Nevertheless, until recently, to speak of Marx’s ecological thought, or the possibility of an ecological Marxism, seemed like a contradiction. Marx has been criticized by mainstream environmentalism (and even by ecosocialism itself) for supposedly taking a typically “modernist” stance toward nature: positing a dualistic ontology between nature and society; putting forward a vision of development associated with infinitely expanding productive forces,2Foster exemplifies these positions in the work of ecofeminist author Carolyn Merchant and her influential book The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1980). The author, however, considers this work “indispensable, despite its one-sided treatment of the Baconian tradition, for its profound critique of the mechanistic and patriarchal tendencies of much of seventeenth-century science.” accompanied by an intense anthropocentrism. In other words, Marx and Marxism have been accused of a “Promethean” attitude. This characterization is based on the Greek myth of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the Gods of Olympus, to give to humanity. Prometheus has therefore become a symbol of human self-sufficiency. In contrast, some sectors of environmentalism, departing from dialectical thought, adopted an organic and “vitalist” vision, in an abstract, postmodern sense; a type of holism that culminated in the Gaia metaphor,3James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). a personification of the planet’s self-regulatory mechanisms. Not only would each community be an integrated, homeostatic whole, but the entire planet would function as such, autonomously maintaining its own health, almost like a conscious being. Thus, the real historical-material themes disappear, reduced to mere phrases.4Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin explain its origins as follows: “Modern holism is the reaction of an educated bourgeoisie, repelled and frightened by the activities that brought them into being as a class. They are anti-industrial without being explicitly anti-capitalist and, for the most part, do not explore the contradictions that such a stance entails. The politics of modern holism is neither conservative” nor “liberal” but, at least on the American scene, has much more affinity with the anti-big business politics of populism” (Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, “Holism and Reductionism in Ecology,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 5, no. 4: 33–40). Regarding the Gaia hypothesis, Daniel Bensaïd correctly points out that “it is no accident that a radical naturalism can lead on to an anti-humanist ‘realism’” (Daniel Bensaïd, Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique, trans. Gregory Eliott (London: Verso, 2002), 350. It is against this background that Foster begins his journey in Marx’s Ecology.

Honoring the truth, this decoupling of the environmental movement from Marxism goes a great way toward explaining the disastrous role of Stalinism in the greater part of the 20th century, on both sides of the equation, and deepened by the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s. This decoupling was only furthered by the violent purge of the USSR’s ecological thinkers under Stalinism, alongside a series of ecological crises, culminating in the Chernobyl disaster and the disappearance of the Aral Sea. This also truncated the ecological tradition initiated by the Russian Revolution, which took pioneering measures in the first years of the workers’ state. Early Soviet ecological thinkers included Vernadsky, renowned for his analysis of the biosphere and a founder of geochemistry; Oparin, co-discoverer of the first authentically materialist explanation of the emergence of living organisms from the inorganic world; the geo-botanist Sukachev; and Vavilov, the first president of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, who, with the help of the Soviet state, applied the materialist method to the question of the origins of agriculture, and was a pioneering founder of germplasm banks, among others. All these contributors to ecology, the author writes, were a product of the early Soviet era, of the dialectical and revolutionary forms of thought it engendered. The Soviet relationship with the environment eventually fell into a state of tragedy, which has even been characterized as “ecocide”; this has, however, tended to obscure the enormous dynamism of early Soviet ecology from the 1920s and Lenin’s personal role in promoting conservation.

The experience of the first workers’ state included the publication, two days after taking power, of the Decree on Land, which converted all forests, waters, and minerals into communal state property as a prerequisite for their rational use; half a year later, the promulgation of the Basic Law on Forests, which divided forests into an exploitable and a protected sector, intended for “the preservation of natural monuments, gardens, and parks,” and also the declaration of a natural reserve in the Volga delta, reclaimed in 1919 by militant Bolsheviks from the then-besieged city of Astrakhan. On this occasion, Lenin declared that “the conservation of nature is of importance for the whole Republic; I give it an urgent significance. Be it declared a national need and appreciated on a scale of national importance.” This was only the first zapovednik (ecological reserve) instituted by the Bolsheviks (followed by legislation in 1921 that ordained protected “areas of natural significance” across all Russian territory), not toward the end of converting these areas into recreational areas, but of preserving them as natural systems, untouched for the sake of science and of nature itself, even though the area was rich in precious metals.5Douglas R. Ver Weiner, Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988); Andreas Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (London: Verso, 2020). Ver Weiner highlights Lenin’s push for ecological policies. The 1921 resolution established a control commission of specialists in geography-anthropology, mineralogy, two from the field of zoology, and one from ecology. Similar protections were extended to game animals, in response to the claim of conservationist sectors, in the Decree on Hunting Seasons and the Right to Own Hunting Weapons, approved by Lenin in May 1919, to the detriment of income generated from the sale of skins. All this took place, of course, within the general framework of land distribution, repudiation of the imperialist shackles of foreign debt, and the nationalization of banking, foreign trade, and the main pillars of the economy, toward the goal of advancing international revolution.

Yet the roots of the separation between Marxism and environmentalism go back, as Foster explains, to a division within Marxism itself: around the possibilities of speaking of a dialectic in the natural sphere. Thinkers associated with a sector of anti-Stalinist Marxism, which some have termed “Western Marxists,” 6Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: Verso, 1976). argued that dialectical reasoning, given its reflexive character, applies only to human society and history. Thus, through an idealistic turn, they ended up rejecting materialism and distancing themselves from the natural sciences, so that the very concept of materialism became more and more abstract, with the consequence of moving away, precisely, from the ecological thought of Marx himself.

This problem was pointed out early on by Sebastiano Timpanaro,7See, in particular, Praxis, materialismo y estructuralismo [Praxis, materialism and structuralism] (Barcelona: Fontanella, 1973). See also Juan Dal Maso and Ariel Petruccelli, “Sebastiano Timpanaro: en defensa del materialismo”[Sebastian Timpanaro: In Defense of Materialism], Ideas de Izquierda, May 30, 2021. and that the works of John D. Bernal8John Bellamy Foster, The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020). and Manuel Sacristán, who stand out as pioneers in the approach to ecology in the Stalin-critical vein of Marxism.9See Ariel Petruccelli and Juan Dal Maso, Althusser y Sacristán, Itinerarios de dos comunistas críticos [Althusser and Sacristán: Itineraries of two critical communists (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2020). Foster argues that the dialectical tradition in fact remained present within the scientific world (although perhaps not dominant), influenced by Engels, in the works of authors such as J. B. S. Haldane, Bernal, and Joseph Needham in the first half of the 20th century; and in the second half, in the works of thinkers such as Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, and Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Rose,10In the Ediciones IPS “Science and Marxism” series, we aim to recover these works and authors. We have already published Spanish translations of Genes, Cells, and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (2019); and Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health by Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins (2021). and Ruth Hubbard, among others.

Rescuing Key Concepts: Metabolism and the Metabolic Rift

Although one still occasionally hears the accusation of “Prometheanism,” it’s precisely thanks to the works of authors like Paul Burkett (author of Marx and Naturalism), John Bellamy Foster himself, and, more recently, Andreas Malm and Kohei Saito, that the ecological thought of Marx has been given its due. For Foster, Marx saw “the antagonistic tension between Use Value and Exchange value as a key factor of both the internal contradictions of capitalism, and in its conflict with the natural environment.” Foster has also helped resuscitate and clarify the theory of the “metabolic rift,” a thread that runs through various works of Marx, from his reflections on nutrient cycles to soil management. The capitalist mode of production, according to one of Marx’s annotations,

disturbs the metabolism [Stoffwechsel] 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. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town laborer and the intellectual life of the rural laborer.

The book presents a detailed development of the genesis of the Marxist concept of metabolism (Stoffwechsel) between society and nature. This is key to a scientific understanding, for example, of how the disruption of carbon metabolism is responsible for growing global warming and the climate crisis.11Foster analyzes this question concretely in John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010). It is also an important tool for elaborating a program to overcome it.12Foster, Marx’s Ecology, chap. 5, “The Metabolism of Nature and Society.”

Foster poses the crisis of socio-ecology around the predominant themes of green thought: the idea of natural limits to human expansion, and the contraposition of anthropocentrism to ecocentrism. Lacking an appropriately materialist point of view, he continues, “such distinctions as anthropocentric and ecocentric are revealed as empty abstractions — mere restatements of old dualisms such as the human conquest of nature vs. nature worship.” Thus, discussions of limits to growth are dehistoricized. The book should serve to “to transcend the idealism, spiritualism, and dualism of much of contemporary Green thought, by recovering the deeper critique of the alienation of humanity from nature that was central to Marx’s work.” In this sense, continuing with his principal line of inquiry, Foster maintains that Marx’s ecological ideas are the product of “a systematic engagement with the seventeenth-century scientific revolution and the nineteenth century environment via a deep philosophical understanding of the materialist conception of nature.” In other words, an “ecological materialism,” in which the material conditions of production, and its relation with the possibilities of human freedom, are closely tied to a dialectical concept of natural history. An exhaustive ecological analysis requires a materialist and dialectical viewpoint, from which evolution is envisioned as an open and contingent process, in a context of interrelationality and coevolution, positing, after Lewontin and Levins,13Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, Biology Under the Influence (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007). a unity between organism and environment.

Foster traces the development of Marx’s materialist synthesis, from his critical reading of Epicurus, Feuerbach, and Hegel, to the fight against the ecclesiastical doctrine of Malthus, to the critiques of English political economy and of utopian socialism (particularly that of Proudhon, who Marx and Engels themselves criticized strongly for his mechanistic Prometheanism, which imagined that technology could provide solutions to all social and ecological problems without ending capitalism and its law of value. Such ideas have resurfaced today as techno-utopian solutions to the climate crisis). Our author also restates the critique of positions that have mystified nature in an ahistorical way within socialism and, of course, the place of ecology in the process of creating a society of associated workers, highlighting the need to eliminate the antagonism between town and countryside as the key to constructing sustainable relationships between humankind and nature.

Continuing this trajectory, Foster explains how Marx built a concrete vision of sustainability, basing itself in the work of agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig and the idea of coevolution inspired by Darwin’s work. It is a vision tightly bound up with the concept of metabolic rift and the strategic necessity of transcending this rift. In other words, as Marx wrote, to think consistently in terms of sustainability means to question capitalist private property:

From the standpoint of a higher socioeconomic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias.

The Strategic Task of Recovering and Re-creating an Ecological Marxist Perspective

Climate change has already begun to produce inevitable catastrophes and sociopolitical effects. Not only are the great powers and capitalist corporations responsible for this, they are perfectly well aware of it. The measures they propose, whether market-based or of the Green New Deal variety, inevitably collide, as Marx pointed out, with their interests or with those of the governments and states that protect them. Never has it been more urgent to “pull the emergency brake” on capitalism, to face the consequences of the climate crisis that affect the working majority of the world, and, at the same time, to fight to destroy its causes. As the slogan raised by the global environmental movement puts it, “There is no Planet B!”

Faced with this, and against any catastrophizing visions that lead only to skepticism, we need to prepare alongside the youth, the working class, women, and all oppressed people around the world.14See Trotskyist Fraction — Fourth International, “Global Climate Strike S24: Capitalism Is Destroying the Planet — Let’s Destroy Capitalism!,Left Voice, September 23, 2021. The environmental catastrophe — alongside the economic crisis and the mounting social hardships — will bring about heightened class struggle and rebellions of the exploited masses for their very survival. Strategic debates and fights will open, including the possibilities of reactionary and even “eco-fascist” solutions, but also different strategic formations that propose ways to overcome the crisis without questioning capitalism itself, such as “degrowth” ideas, which are limited to inverting the idea of growth and reducing everything to a problem of quantity and scale, without questioning the social relations of the system of capitalist accumulation.

In this framework, environmental fights are multiplying across the globe, with heroic resistance from communities fighting to protect their waters, or against extractivist megaprojects. The environmental movement, which spans the second half of the 20th century, reemerged with a vengeance in 2018, especially among youth. In past decades, environmentalism has adapted itself to neoliberalism, hegemonized by NGOs that focus on symbolic actions or propaganda promoting individual responsibility. Now, however, experiences of confluence with workers’ movements are beginning to happen, though they are still somewhat incipient. The working class is more numerous, but also more precarious, than ever; it is fighting important battles, but it carries a great deal of baggage, in the form of historical, political, and ideological subjectivity. Bureaucratized unions have completely set fundamental environmental issues aside, even though these weigh the heaviest on oppressed sectors. Demands related to pollution, health, and housing are kept separate from the supposed “interests of the working class”; but it is precisely here, where these splits are being remedied, that the most strategic opportunities to overcome capitalist interests are emerging. The unity between workers and environmentalists at the Grandpuits oil refinery in France, owned by Total SE, is an example of this; so, too, is the experience of the workers of Madygraf, who reorganized their production along ecological criteria in consultation with Argentine environmental groups. 

To understand the need for this unity, one only need consider that a real guarantee of health, for the vast majority, involves not only local aspects, such as workplace safety, but also production systems, and relationships with other species and the natural environment. The same is true when one considers the potential of this alliance to resolve key issues, such as a just energy transition (without upending working conditions, while creating new jobs with full rights), the development of public transport, or access to decent housing. 

The working class in all its heterogeneity — nationalities, indigenous peoples and racial minorities, women and dissidents against patriarchal oppression — has the social strength to lead an alliance of the working class, youth, and oppressed peoples, which can put an end to the environmental ills of capitalism. This working-class coalition can overcome the double alienation — from both labor and nature — that capitalism imposes, and thus advance a truly rational and democratic planning of the economy, where the social metabolism between humanity and nature is planned, social production is reorganized to respect natural cycles, and poverty and social inequalities can be erased without exhausting our common natural resources. In other words, it has the strength to fight for communism.

The task falls to us, then, to build an ecosocialist strategy15Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello, Socialist Strategy and the Art of War (forthcoming in English). within the climate movement, which links environmental struggles to those of the working class on the one hand, and which provides the working class an environmental program on the other, as part of its transitional program toward socialism. Presenting the inseparability of these two aspects of the movement is, today, an increasingly dramatic necessity. Therefore, recovering the ecological foundations of Marx’s thought, and making these ideas broadly available to the new ranks of militants among the environmental and labor movements, is a task of the highest importance, that they might act on and innovate from these ideas in a new era. To this task, we dedicate this new collection, beginning with Foster’s key work, Marx’s Ecology.

First published in Spanish on April 17 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by B. C. Daurelle


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