The environmental destruction under the pseudo-socialist regimes in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its Eastern European satellites from 1954 to 1991, as epitomized by the Chernobyl disaster, has cast a negative light on Marxists as enemies of nature.
The socialist road to development that implemented a program of nationalist industrialization, like in the USSR under Stalin and People’s Republic of China under Mao, is often depicted as equally harmful to the environment as the profit-oriented capitalist road.
But what is often forgotten amidst the plethora of Cold War era anti-communist propaganda is the concern for the environment intrinsic in Marxist theory and practice.
At the onset, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels established the need for the care of the environment in The Communist Manifesto, wherein they tackled the need for the cultivation of wastelands and the improvement of the soil as part of the communist program.
In his essay “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man” Engels takes the main point forwarded in the Manifesto into a more extensive consideration of the question of environmental protection and sustainability.
In this piece, Engels set out to explain how the transition from ape to man was made possible by man’s performance of labor, a process jumpstarted by man’s adopting of an erect gait and having his hand free to acquire new skills:
Only through labour, through constant adaptation to new operations, through inheritance of the special development thus acquired of muscles, ligaments and, over longer periods of time, bones as well, and by the ever renewed use of this inherited refinement in new, increasingly complicated operations, has the human hand attained that high degree of perfection that has enabled it to conjure into being the paintings of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini.
Along the way, Engels proceeds to differentiate man’s relation with nature as opposed to other animal’s relation with nature wherein the latter simply uses nature and changes it by its mere presence; man on the other hand seeks to master nature, to make it serve his ends.
But far from confirming the usual stereotype of godless materialist Marxists gloating over so-called “human victories over nature,” Engels himself warns about how “for every such victory it takes its revenge on us.”
He points out how the victories of the peoples of the ancient world over nature resulted in “quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first ones.”
The people who destroyed the forests in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere to obtain cultivable land never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present desolation of those countries by removing the collecting centres and containers of moisture along with the forests.
Engels laments the effects of the deforestation of the Alps:
When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slope which were so carefully preserved on the northern slope, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of dairy farming in their region; still less did they foresee that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, so that the latter could pour all the more furious torrents onto the plain during the rainy season.
But unlike goody-goody environmentalist who just rails against the cutting of the trees without looking at the larger socio-economic context, Engels traced large-scale man-made destruction of nature to the emergence of class-based society.
The individual capitalists who dominate production and exchange can concern themselves only with the most immediately useful effect of their actions. Indeed, even this useful effect — inasmuch as it is a question of the usefulness of the article that is produced or exchanged — completely recedes into the background, and the profit to be gained by selling becomes the sole incentive.
Because “the interests of the ruling class became the driving factor of production” and “the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the first, the most tangible result,” it becomes clear that the struggle to protect the environment cannot be separated from the struggle to overhaul the present exploitative and oppressive social order.
This framework proves instructive in these times of intense cataclysms – from typhoon Frank in 2008, Ondoy in 2009, Sendong in 2011, and the recent massive floods – as a result of government neglect of disaster preparedness alongside the invitation of more environmentally-destructive logging and mining operations by multinationals in the country.