Discovering Karl Marx, the essential ecologist
Dennis Sanders
volume 37
issue 1
February 2016

Many environmentalists disdain the ideas of Karl Marx. Some tout the spiritual virtues of environmental “ideals.” Some argue for individual solutions like recycling, reduced consumption and “going back to the land.” Anti-communists claim that the ecological crimes of the Stalinist-era USSR flowed from Marxism itself.

John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature counters all these ideas. It is a dense and intricate analysis of Marxist theory, its historical and scientific foundations, and how central ecological concerns are to it. Foster states that his “goal is to transcend the idealism, spiritualism … 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.”

Unearthing the history of materialism. Foster is a professor of Sociology, author, and current editor of the Monthly Review magazine, a Marxist periodical.

He explains in the Preface that he had to overcome his own prejudices before he could understand how central environmental concerns were to Marx. He started to question his bias after friends (one a part-time farmer and the other a professional beekeeper) convinced him to look further into Marx and Engels’ writings about the degradation of soil nutrients in capitalist agriculture, the devastation wrought by deforestation, and Engels’ seminal book, Dialectics of Nature.

Foster focuses on the debate between materialism and idealism. Materialism is the school of thought that everything that exists (including ideas) originates in matter. This is the philosophy that science is based on. Idealism is the opposing school of thought, which holds that the basic element of reality is not matter, but mind or spirit. This, of course, is the basis of religion and mysticism generally.

The author investigates the roots of Marx’s materialist views in a “literary detective story” that starts with the writings of Greek philosopher Epicurus (born in 341 B.C.) It’s not easy to stay with him as he follows the history of materialist thinkers and contrasts them to each other as well as the various strains of idealism.

But with perseverance, the reader learns of the development of materialist thinking and how the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, including Marx most of all, made the environmental movement possible.

The birth of environmental science. Marx was an admirer, though not an uncritical one, of English naturalist Charles Darwin. Darwin’s ground-breaking theory explaining the origin of species through natural selection had the principle aim, says Foster, of accounting for the “adaptation (and co-adaptation) to be found everywhere in nature.” Its impact “ultimately had to do with the conception of human evolution, … leading Marx to form a definite hypothesis on the relation of human labor to human evolution.”

Marx and his co-thinker, Frederick Engels, were among the first to write about the destruction of the soil caused by capitalist agriculture. They talked about “sustainability” and “ecological balance,” not for some abstract, idealistic purpose, but because it could threaten human survival.

Foster quotes Engels, who said, “at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature — but that we … belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.” A powerful statement of how central environmental concerns are to Marxism!

Foster also brings out the ecological concern of other great Marxists, including August Bebel, Rosa Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin.

He reveals how some of the earliest and greatest advances in ecological thought and science were in the Soviet Union, starting with the 1917 revolution, and even continuing into the Stalinist era. It was Soviet scientists who, starting in the 1950s, unearthed the intensification of climate change.

A good addendum to Marx’s Ecology is Foster’s article in the July 2015 Monthly Review, “Late Soviet Ecology and the Planetary Crisis.”

Most importantly, the author dismisses the impact of individual actions as a solution to the ecological crisis. He suggests that social planning can achieve the vast changes that are necessary. He could have made the point more strongly!

Where to from here? The message of this book is a vital one. My biggest criticism is that Foster limits the reach of his own message by making it very challenging for readers not steeped in the language of academic Marxism.

Of course, many environmental issues have emerged since Marx’s day. It remains for today’s revolutionaries to grapple with environmental racism, how to incorporate the class struggle generally into the environmental movement, and popularize the need to overthrow capitalism in order to solve our ecological emergency.

Send feedback to

To listen to this and other articles from this issue, click here.