Marx and Engels on ecology: ‘Flesh, blood and brain, we belong to nature’

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The slander that Marxism has little to say about the environment persists. In reality, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels addressed these concerns in nearly everything they wrote. Even before the word ecology was coined, they repeatedly stressed the inseparable oneness of humanity with nature, the inherent destructiveness of capitalism, and the necessity of socialism for the survival of earth.

What follows is only a small selection of their writing on the subject.

Unity of humankind and nature

Man lives from nature — i.e., nature is his body — and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.

—Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

Land as commodity

To make earth an object of huckstering — the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence — was the last step towards making oneself an object of huckstering. It was and is to this very day an immorality surpassed only by the immorality of self-alienation. And the original appropriation — the monopolization of the earth by a few, the exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their life — yields nothing in immorality to the subsequent huckstering of the earth.

—Frederick Engels, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy

Destruction of the soil

Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer.

—Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One

Deforestation

The development of culture and of industry in general has evinced itself in such energetic destruction of forests that everything done by it conversely for their preservation and restoration appears infinitesimal.

—Karl Marx, Capital, Volume Two

Environmental injustice

Even the need for fresh air ceases to be a need for the worker. Man reverts once more to living in a cave, but the cave is now polluted by the mephitic and pestilential breath of civilization. Moreover, the worker … actually has to pay for this mortuary. A dwelling in the light, which Prometheus describes in Aeschylus as one of the great gifts through which he transformed savages into men, ceases to exist for the worker. Light, air, etc. — the simplest animal cleanliness — ceases to be a need for man. Dirt — this pollution and putrefaction of man, the sewage (this word is to be understood in its literal sense) of civilization — becomes an element of life for him.

—Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

Capitalist devastation and the socialist solution

In short, the animal merely uses external nature, and brings about changes in it simply by his presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture. When, on the southern slopes of the mountains, the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were … thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, with the effect that these would be able to pour still more furious flood torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that they were at the same time spreading the disease of scrofula. Thus 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.

And, in fact, with every day that passes we are learning to understand these laws more correctly, and getting to know both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. … But the more this happens, the more will men not only feel, but also know, their unity with nature, and thus the more impossible will become the senseless and antinatural idea of a contradiction between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body. …

But if it has already required the labour of thousands of years for us to learn to some extent to calculate the more remote natural consequences of our actions aiming at production, it has been still more difficult in regard to the more remote social consequences of these actions. … When afterwards Columbus discovered America, he did not know that by doing so he was giving new life to slavery, which in Europe had long ago been done away with, and laying the basis for the Negro slave traffic. … But even in this sphere, by long and often cruel experience and by collecting and analyzing the historical material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote, social effects of our productive activity, and so the possibility is afforded us of mastering and controlling these effects as well.

To carry out this control requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and with it of our whole contemporary social order.

—Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature

This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man … between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved.

—Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

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