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Marx and ecology:Frederick Engels got it wrong a lot of the time but got it right where it counted

by Dave Riley

There's a thoughtful interview with John Bellamy Foster -- On “Marx’s ecology” - materialism and nature which is worth a squiz. Foster explores the oversight in Marxism in way of recognising and embracing the rich ecological tradition that underpins a lot of Marx and Engels thinking and work.

He says:
The irony is that thinkers like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins and Steven Rose did carry on a Marxists tradition in science that was very dialectical. Gould, Levins and Lewontin (and they weren’t alone - think of Haldane) became major figures in evolutionary theory, but the rest of the Marxist tradition ignored them.
I don't think that's quite true in my experience of Marxism these last forty years. It may be true of the Western Marxists in academia who Foster polemicises against -- but there has been a strong 'dialectical biology' thread in Marxism particularly as it related to debates on genetics, evolution and personalty. And these were debates Marxists in the real world of activism and change could not avoid...and these thinkers were not ignored.

Fortunately not all Marxist were 'westernized'...

The handicap has been that Marxists haven't been able to integrate this ecological/biological science with their everyday work. There's been a separation as Marx was harnessed primarily as a political and historical tool. No one was actually rushing to sign on with Marx's view that dialectical materialism was the "one science " -- because, unlike Engels, no registered Marxist was planning to update The Dialectics of Nature for the 20th, let alone the 21st century (as Lenin tried to do in the lead up to the 1917 Russian Revolution in the wake of discoveries in quantum physics).

Except for the crew Foster dips his lid to...and that tradition in biology (but there were others like Lev Vygotsky who were similarly engaged with dialectics but in field of psychology).

As Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin reminded us in their dedication for the 1985 edition of The Dialectical Biologist:
'To Frederick Engels, who got it wrong a lot of the time but who got it right where it counted''
Part of the problem over the past 20 years has been that a lot of green theory has been sourced in anarchist tradition and in a few instances relied on the perspectives advocated by libertarians such as Prince Peter Kropotkin whose Mutual Aid: a factor in evolution was as much employed as a political treatise as it was a study in ecology. Green theory has also been held hostage to what Rudolf Bahro called "the last hesitation to socialism"-- a registered third way that was thought to be piloted without Marxian baggage.

Allied to this, as any keen reader of Stephen Jay Gould will tell you, is that comprehending ecology and the interactivity between organism and the environment had to weather the stormy debates that accompanied Darwinism, read as crude genetics. Then sociobiology , the quintessential biologic ideology of conservatism, asserted itself as a harsh determinism for almost everything about us as a species you care to question.

You know the mantra:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.
So while the touchy feely edge of the green movement was moving into holistic mode -in health and pseudo science -- under the aegis of the I Ching and related metaphysical concepts-- this new spirituality which accompanied that drift was not matched or counteracted by a keener commitment to the philosophy of Marxism -- as the practice of it had fallen into a sort of neglect, and treated with disdain in some quarters under the influence of these same Western Marxists, Foster targets.

For those who can recall any of it, part of the drum was that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was thought to be a bit of a bad influence on Marx and the Marxists. But is was from Hegel that Marx got a lot of his radical philosophical bent. It was similarly argued that Frederick Engel was an unfortunate and too much a freehand editor of Marx...and soforth.

In my view, we missed an opportunity presented by the publication of Lovelock's and Margulis' Gaia Hypothesis back in 1979 to re-orientate.Not a Dialectical Materialist work as such, but holistic and inter relational.

I can blame the packaging: Greek goddesses are not kosher icons among dedicated materialists. And this "Gaia" concept -- offered to Lovelock by the novelist William Golding [The Lord of the Flies author]-- thereafter served to help seed the environment movement with a spiritual substrate rather than a rigorous and hard hat science. This approach was encouraged by the fact that Lovelock and Marguilis' hypothesis was canned by main stream science and Lovelock persisted for some time with the liberal use of deifying metaphors.

I think a bias crept in which was later shorn up by a preference in green debates to default to anarchy speak and defer to a crude concept of ecological "balance" -- balance being almost anathema in Marxism.

Today, the scientific work throughout the eighties and nineties which sort to steer investigation away from reductionism has facilitated this new promise and comprehension we are all -- Marxist and non Marxist; left and green alike --harnessing today.

There is, nonetheless, a core aspect of Marxism that needs to be asserted quite strongly I believe: that rather than 'having' an ecology, Marxism is ecology. It is study of the relationship between things: classes, celestial bodies, atoms, molecules,species, plants, ideas...any and everything in the way that any and anything relates to any and everything else.

So while the local forest may be a relationship between many living and inanimate things; capitalism is also a relationship between many living and inanimate things.

5 Com:

John Tracey | September 21, 2007

As a fully trained anarchist in another lifetime, I can agree that anarchism has ignored dialecticism for the notion of balance.

Balance is an escapist fantasy, a longing for relief from pressure.

There is an inherent dialecticism in Anarchism, between freedom and the opression of the state. It is this context in Russia, Spain and elsewhere that the real life and death struggles occured and the logic and wisdom of the anarchists took form in a coherent ideology.

However modern anarchists in western affluent society, in particular academia, have objectified this ideology born of repression and poverty and packaged it in a form that is pallatable to modern affluent idealism, without the inherent struggle for life driving it as in Spain and Russia.

The same for Marxist radicalism in places like Australia.

On another matter, I'm gunna get freaky now.

The flaw in historical materialism is the assumption that material is the full extent of the parameters of reality. The assumption that consciousness is the product of material reality alone.

Dialecticism is perceived as a product of the collission of material forces rather than a non-material, or spiritual, force that directs the material entities towards collission, or at least towards relationship.

I reckon dialecticism is the byproduct of spiritual forces, which also play a role in the construction of consciousness.

What is matter made of? Molecules.
What are molecules made of?
What are Atoms made of?
sub atomic particles
What are subatomic particles made of?

At this point our microscope technology cannot offer an answer except, some vague notion of energy which, like gravity cannot really be explained, just measured.

Notions of matter are constructions of the inherent assumptions of the microscope technology.

Go macro - how big is the universe and what is on the other side of it? Again our basic assumptions of the nature of reality is determined by the nature of scientific instruments.

The dialecticism of cell reproduction. Is it a co-incidental collision or is there a force of attraction or repulsion? What is the force that drives a sperm to seek out an ovum? Where does the basic life consciousness or "will" of a simple cell structure come from?

The answer is not "God". The answer is "nature", but the nature of nature is spiritual not material.

Our notions of matter, beyond our instruments, are essentially products of stimuli upon sensory receptors which is transformed to electric or chemical processes in our brain which builds a picture of the patterns in the sensory perceptions. This is the nature of knowledge.

What if reality was something bigger than the receptive parameters of our own sensory organs? I think it is.

Brad. | September 21, 2007

But then, John Tracy, you play up to the Post modernist game that "matter" and "reality" is simply a POV.

No thanks....

John Tracey | September 22, 2007

No Brad,

I say POV is the illusion that prevents us understanding reality.

P.M. like Budhism says nothing exists.

I say everything exists but we can only comprehend some of it.

I cant really see the philosophical difference between P.M. that says everything is a matter of perspective and the Marxist notion of consciousness being a blank sheet of paper filled in by historical circumstance.

Brad. | September 22, 2007

But then you miss the relevance of where located in social reality people are and the fact that despite whatever variations there may be in the comprehension of reality, reality still exists -- and it's concrete and material. That's a MAJOR difference, I would think.

But how it relates to Dialectical Materialism is the question of how does reality change -- that's DM's over-riding challenge that it sets itself.AND by trying to understand how and what makes things change can you begin to understand what 'things' are.

John Tracey | September 23, 2007

You insist that there is a reality beyond social variation. The christians insist the same thing and call it god, with essentially the same explanation - "it just is".

If we are blank sheets filled in by circumstance, how do we become aware of this universal reality beyond our circumstance? How does it reveal itself to us?

It seems to me that change is itself the only universal reality that human consciousness is able to comprehend. All the rest is constructed from our position in the change - this is where our notion of things is generated.

We construct notions of things rather than discover the true nature of things.

The most basic change that all humans experience is life and death. This is the only universal human experience. It is the nature of change on this level that raises more questions than answers on the nature of material things.

eg. consider the cycle of a tree - seed, seedling, small tree, big tree, dead tree, compost, seed, seedling, etc. What is the material nature of the tree?

To understand the tree properly we can only understand it as a process of change, not as a static reality or material truth.

We can observe and measure the change but the second we define it as a concrete material entity it changes again.

Dialectical change is not as simple as an interplay between concrete entities. Each entity (thesis/antithesis/synthesis) are all dynamic sub-dialectics of their own, and each sub-dialectic has its own sub-dialectic etc. etc. until we get down to sub-atomic physics.

Everything from sub-atomic dialectical energy right through to the cosmic dialectical cycle of big bang and and black hole implosion is connected in a universal framework of dialectical change. Human history is just a speck in that spectrum, but is not detatched from it.

The engineering of the human brain makes us no more capable of understanding the nature of "things" than a bird or a caterpillar. All we can do, like the bird and caterpillar, is identify that change is occuring and the patterns in that change.

The clever caterpillars, birds and humans will figure out how to opportunistically engage with the process of change.

Change is the ultimate reality, not material things. Our conception of those things is created solely by the universal truth of change.

Change is "spiritual" not material. For those offended by the term, I offer the alternative "non-material".

Change has nothing to do with the illusion of time, but that is another story.

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