Quick Thoughts on Marxism, Engels, and the Environment

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.

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8 thoughts on “Quick Thoughts on Marxism, Engels, and the Environment

  1. A critical problem with the Soviet-style countries is that the parties that led them accepted the capitalist logic of continual growth. They dedicated themselves to growing faster than capitalist countries; in itself, not necessarily a bad thing as these were under-developed countries.

    They did have growth faster than capitalist countries for many years, but at the price of severe environmental degradation. Growth for the sake of growth, as the necessary switch from a heavy stress on producer goods toward light industry never was made — and the economy was measured the same way as in capitalist countries. The damage to the environment, the drawing down of natural resources, the effects of pollution all are excluded from measures like GDP.

    Incorporating the environment into the dialectic is the task today; or, as you have written, re-incorporating the environment. Regardless, it is not necessary to read Engels on the topic — all we need do is look around and see a looming environmental catastrophe staring humanity in the face.

    • Thanks for the comment. Indeed, one of the problems with the Soviet-model was the over-ehmphasis on heavy indsutry at the expense of light industry and agriculture. China under Mao had a bbetter balance of the three, given real efforts to satisfy the people’s needs as goal rather than the logic of growth for growth’s sake. A programof national industrialization is essential for the countries of the so-called Third World in order to improve the people’s standards of living. There will always be a certain measure of damage to the environment in the equation, but with the people’s well being as the primary consideration this will not be as great as in capitalism wherein all else is subsumed to the profit-interests of the ruling classes. I think Engels still matters, particularly because he and Mrax represented earlier attempts at considering the environment as a major front in the over-all struggle for greater social transformation. Looking around and knowing at the extent of ecological damageis good, but this should be anchored on an understanding of the need to change the social system that is at the root of this destruction.

      • Engels does indeed matter. Too many who wish to see a world better than what capitalism offers forgot the environmental aspect brought into our understanding by he and Marx. To truly change the social system that is at the root of this destruction is to transcend the logic of growth for the sake of growth, and re-orient production toward meeting human need rather than private profit.

  2. Then again the problem with predicting environmental outcomes is that the universe, nature and man’s actions produce ripple effects which take years to feel.

  3. Karlo, thanks for bring this essay of Engles to light, I had not heard of it before. Although I agreee with you that much of environmental destruction stems from the inherant logic of capitalism, I wonder if the suppression of civil society in Communist countries also had an impact on their environmental record. Grass roots environmentalism where the people complained to the state about the abuses of industry until they were eventually heard and legislation protecting the environment was passed might be more difficult where the state and industry are equivilent. What do you think?

    • Perhaps? Under socialism–wherein all means of production are administered by the state in behalf of the people, there should be massive and lively participation by the masses as to the direction of the state. This can be channeled through the communist party, the various mass organizations, workers’ committees, and so on (an assemblage of formations that should roughly correspond to the bourgeois concept of civil society in the context of western capitalist states). But this is the ideal. This kind of massive collective grassroots participation of the toiling classes in the political life of socialist states reached its apogee during the Cultural Revolutoin in Red China. I’m not very sure about the case in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

  4. The current uproar against environmental degradation in post-Mao China now makes sense. I find this particularly interesting in light of the current anti-SM campaigns here in Baguio (btw, SM is again planning to cut more trees). While I cannot discount the ongoing campaigns led primarily by local environmentalists, the reformist stance of the environmentalists disturbs me, especially since the participants are often motivated by nostalgic fits about the ‘old Baguio’ and its pristine past.

    • true, the approach is usually single-issue based. but that’s where more progressive groups come in to forward a more comprehensive analysis of environmental issues that links them to the social totality

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