How Marxist economic theory can contribute to understanding environmental crisis

Note to Readers: This article is based on a handout prepared for the Aug. 29 meeting our DSA chapter's Climate Change & Environmental Justice Committee, exploring different approaches to thinking about democratic socialism and the environment. It's also something of a response to Steve McKevitt's opinion piece in the last issue of the Socialist, which could be interpreted as saying that Marxism is largely irrelevant to today's most important environmental problems.

As I understand Steve's article, and as I interpret the presentation he made in our Aug. 29 panel discussion, Steve believes that too many socialists over the years have seen Marx's ideas in almost religious terms, as holy scripture that cannot be questioned or modified.  He argues that this dogmatic attitude keeps orthodox Marxists from applying common sense and logical deduction to current environmental realities that Marx had no way of anticipating when he composed his theories more than a century ago.

Steve therefore seems to conclude that DSA members just need to stop obsessing about the theories of a certain dead white male revolutionary, wake up and smell the coffee, and start grappling on a pragmatic basis with the environmental issues of today.

I actually agree with some of Steve's objections to socialist dogma, but the past several years I've spent as a DSA activist indicate to me that Marxism is hardly a dead tradition on the democratic socialist left.  Not all DSA members agree with Marx, and many have never read him, but many socialists both inside and outside of DSA do identify as Marxists, and this alone makes some grasp of a "Marxist" approach to capitalist environmental crisis important both to our organization and the wider radical left.

As an environmentalist myself, and as a Sierra Club member since 1985, I also submit that an understanding of our capitalist world economy and how it functions is essential to all serious environmentalists, even relatively conservative ones, because capitalism is the dominant economic reality over Planet Earth.  How it does and doesn't work has an enormous influence on how human society interacts with nature, for good and for ill.

And while it would indeed be superstitious to imagine that Marx was completely flawless in his analysis of capitalism more than 130 years ago, a host of modern economic thinkers, including some enthusiastic anti-socialists, have acknowledged that Marx's theories still have much to teach us about how the capitalist system generally functions. That's why I'm offering the analysis below, to any readers of the Socialist who may be interested.

I'd like to add in passing that I'm fully aware that during the 20th century, a number of governments and political movements that were allegedly devoted to "Marxist" principles were responsible for some terrible environmental destruction, as well as some grotesque violations of political democracy and human rights.  But the crimes and blunders of Stalin's regime in the former Soviet Union don't keep DSA members from envisioning different approaches to democratic socialism that we hope will not involve crimes and blunders.  Similarly, Soviet-era air and water pollution and destruction of major ecosystems, like that of the Aral Sea, should not preclude us from formulating a socialist approach to nature that is environmentally sound.

Such Marxist environmental writers as John Bellamy Foster, Fred Magdoff, Ian Angus, Joel Kovel, the late Barry Commoner and the late Alfred Schmidt, author of The Concept of Nature in Marx, have been exploring the intersection between Marxist and environmental thought for decades now.  In this article I attempt to explore what Alfred Schmidt, more than 50 years ago, noted about the way Marx actually wrote about the relationship between human civilization, economic production and natural resources in the pages of Capital and two other important works.

In future articles, all taken from my Aug. 29 handout, I'll attempt to show what a Marxist understanding of nature and economics suggests for how environmentalists can understand the modern working class; the special environmental problems and growing importance of mega-cities; the bloated U.S. military budget and the role Pentagon spending plays in our society; the economic basis for excessive advertising and obsessive consumerism, the capitalist system's addiction to apparently perpetual economic growth; and the risks and some of the promises of our society's love affair with revolutionary technologies.

What Marx Really Said About Nature:  Beyond the "Labor Theory" of Value

To start with, it's crucial to see what Marxism, more or less as Marx and Engels formulated it in the mid-nineteenth century, really says about the role of nature and natural resources in economic production and the advancement of human welfare.

A simplistic and distorted view of Marx's famous "labor theory of value," which some Marxists in the labor movement still advocate, holds that labor alone creates all economic value and that questions of natural resources and resource conservation can therefore be ignored.  But like the famous capitalist economist Adam Smith, whose ideas he partly inherited, Marx recognized two very different kinds of economic value -- exchange value, which more or less corresponds to the prices of capitalist commodities, and use value, which consists of the material properties that actually make things usable by human beings.

Marx and Adam Smith both believed that labor, and labor alone, is the ultimate source of all exchange value.  But they also both believed that natural qualities and natural resources are essential to the existence of all use values, which in some cases are provided by Nature itself, without humans contributing any labor to the final product.

"A Material Substratum Is Always Left, Which Is Furnished by Nature"

As Marx wrote in Capital, the use values of all capitalist commodities "are combinations of two elements -- matter and labor."  If we take away the useful labor expended on them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature without the help of man.

In fact, Marx concluded, man can work "only as Nature does, that is, by changing the form of matter."  And in doing this work, he is constantly helped by natural forces. We see then, that labor is not the only source of material wealth, of use values created by labor.  As [17th century economist] William Petty puts it, labor is [use value's] father, and the earth its mother."

There also are examples of physical use values that are entirely generated by Nature, with no human labor involved at all, Marx acknowledged: "Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, etc."

Toward the end of the first volume of Capital, Marx noted that in extractive industries such as mining in particular, the "subject" of labor -- the ore -- "is not the product of previous labor, but is furnished by Nature gratis, as in the case of metals, minerals, coal, stone, etc."  But this not only true in mining.  Commenting on other raw materials used in the labor process, Marx added that:

"All those things which labor merely separates from immediate connection with their environment, are subjects of labor spontaneously provided by Nature.  Such as fish, which we catch and take from their element, water, timber which we fell in the virgin forest, and ores which we extract from their veins."

"Labor Is a Process in Which Both Man and Nature Participate"

Rather than seeing Nature and natural resources as irrelevant to human welfare and the creation of wealth, then, Marx saw them as central.  Admittedly, he was not a sentimental nature lover or a nature mystic.  Instead, he and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels saw human societies as having to struggle against Nature in critical ways in order to survive, or at least in order to prosper.  As the introductory section to Part III of the first volume of Capital framed the issue,

"Labor is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature.  He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants."

When Marx followed Adam Smith in basing his economic analysis of capitalism mostly on exchange values rooted in labor, then, he did not deny the crucial importance of use values to all economic production.

"Man Lives on Nature -- With Which He Must Remain in Continuous Interchange If He Is Not to Die"

In the now-famous Critique of the Gotha Program, written in 1885, Marx for better or worse endorsed the notion of a temporary "dictatorship of the proletariat" that he believed would need to follow a socialist overthrow of capitalism.  But he began the Critique by taking issue with the leaders of the new German Social Democratic Party, who stated in their Gotha program, a draft charter for their new party, that "Labor is the source of all wealth and culture." In a document he did not publish, but sent to the founders of the new party for consideration, he retorted sharply:

"Labor is not the source of all wealth.  Nature is just as much a source of use values (and it is surely of such material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only a manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power."

Much earlier in his radical career, in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which were only published long after his death, Marx had concluded:

The life of the species, both in man and in animals, consists physically in the fact that man (like the animal) lives on inorganic nature; and the more universal man is compared with an animal, the more universal is the sphere of inorganic nature on which he lives … Man lives on nature -- means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die.

Marx added here: "That man's physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature."  And he argued that by separating most people from access to nature in the form of agricultural land and raw materials, the large-scale ownership of private property – and the exclusion of most working people from control over such property -- produces an "alienation" of labor from nature that is one of the root evils of capitalism.

The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts conclude that this sort of alienation from the natural world has devastating effects on the human personality; it also sees the modern working class's forced separation from control over land and other natural resources as central to the process of economic exploitation under capitalism.

On Labor, Nature, and the Alienation of the Working Class

This idea that Marx first explored in 1844 surfaced again in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme, where he wrote that "precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man that possesses no other property than his own labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can work only with their permission, hence live only with their permission."

In other words, Marx in these works sees the "alienation" of working people from nature -- nature in the form of economically useful land and other resources -- as being the basis for the formation of the modern proletariat -- the landless industrial working class.

It is the landless proletariat, of course, that classical Marxism sees as the most revolutionary social class in capitalist society, and the class that will eventually be forced to bring capitalism to an end, as the price of its own economic and social survival.

The topic of how an alienated working class or proletariat relates to the environmental crises confronting global capitalism today, however, is one that will have to wait for Part Two of this series.

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