For Marx, Epicurus represented, most importantly, a non-reductionist, non-deterministic materialism, and articulated a philosophy of human freedom. In Epicurus could be found a materialist conception of nature that rejected all teleology and all religious conceptions of natural and social existence. In studying Epicurus’s natural philosophy Marx was addressing a view that had had a powerful influence on the development of European science and modern naturalist-materialist philosophies, and one that had at the same time profoundly influenced the development of European social thought. In the Epicurean materialist worldview knowledge of the world started with the senses. The two primary theses of Epicurus’s natural philosophy make up what we today call the principle of conservation: nothing comes from nothing, and nothing being destroyed is reduced to nothing. For Epicureans there was no scale of nature, no sharp, unbridgeable gaps between human beings and other animals. Knowledge of Epicurus provides a way of understanding Marx’s deep materialism in the area of natural philosophy. His study of ancient and early modern materialism brought Marx inside the struggle over the scientific understanding of the natural world in ways that influenced all of his thought and was deeply ecological in its significance, since it focused on evolution and emergence, and made nature not god the starting point. Moreover, Marx’s dialectical encounter with Hegel has to be understood in terms of the struggle that Marx was carrying on simultaneously regarding the nature of materialist philosophy and science.
Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift is the core element of this ecological critique. The human labour process itself is defined in Capital as ‘the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence’. It follows that the rift in this metabolism means nothing less than the undermining of the ‘everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence’. Further there is the question of the sustainability of the earth – ie the extent to which it is to be passed on to future generations in a condition equal or better than in the present. As Marx wrote:
Any account of the ecology of British Marxism in this period has to highlight Caudwell, who, though he died at the age of 29 behind a machine-gun on a hill in Spain, left an indelible intellectual legacy. His Heredity and Development, perhaps the most important of his science-related works, was suppressed by the Communist Party in Britain due to the Lysenkoist controversy (he was anti-Lysenkoist) and so was not published until 1986. But it contains an impressive attempt to develop an ecological dialectic. Haldane, Levy, Hogben, Needham, Bernal and Farrington – as previously noted – all developed ecological notions (though Bernal’s legacy is the most contradictory in this respect). All indicated profound respect not only for Marx and Darwin but also for Epicurus, who was seen as the original source of the materialist conception of nature. The influence of these thinkers carries down to the present day in the work of later biological and ecological scientists, such as Steven Rose in Britain, and Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins and the late Stephen Jay Gould in the US.
But it is not just a question of the direct inheritance of certain propositions with respect to nature-ecology. Marx and also Engels employed a materialist conception of nature, which was not at all foreign to the major revolutions in science of their day (as evident in Darwin’s theory), and which they combined with a dialectic of emergence and contingency. A very large part of this was reflected in both socialist and scientific thought in the immediately succeeding generations. Among the socialists who incorporated naturalistic and ecological conceptions into their thinking, after Marx and up through the 1940s, we can include such figures as William Morris, Henry Salt, August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, V.I. Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin, V.I. Vernadsky, N.I. Vavilov, Alexander Oparin, Christopher Caudwell, Hyman Levy, Lancelot Hogben, J.D. Bernal, Benjamin Farrington, J.B.S. Haldane and Joseph Needham – and in the more Fabian tradition, but not unconnected to Marx and Marxism, Ray Lankester and Arthur Tansley. Bukharin employed Marx’s concept of the metabolism of nature and society in his writings, and situated human beings in the biosphere. ‘Human beings,’ he wrote:
My own view of the history of ecological thought and its relation to socialism is different. In this, as in other areas, I think we need to beware of falling into what Edward Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. More specifically, we need to recognise that Marx and Engels, along with other early socialist thinkers, like Proudhon (in ) and Morris, had the advantage of living in a time when the transition from feudalism to capitalism was still taking place or had occurred in recent memory. Hence the questions that they raised about capitalist society and even about the relation between society and nature were often more fundamental than what characterises social and ecological thought, even on the left, today. It is true that technology has changed, introducing massive new threats to the biosphere, undreamed of in earlier times. But, paradoxically, capitalism’s antagonistic relation to the environment, which lies at the core of our current crisis, was in some ways more apparent to 19th and early 20th century socialists than it is to the majority of today’s green thinkers. This reflects the fact that it is not technology that is the primary issue, but rather the nature and logic of capitalism as a specific mode of production. Socialists have contributed in fundamental ways at all stages in the development of the modern ecological critique. Uncovering this unknown legacy is a vital part of the overall endeavour to develop an ecological materialist analysis capable of addressing the devastating environmental conditions that face us today.
At this point you may think that I have deviated from my path in addressing Tansley so extensively. But an analysis that is materialist and at the same time dialectical is bound to provide a more powerful set of insights into both ecology and society, natural history and human history. The Marxian materialist perspective was bound to such an approach. Figures like Bukharin, Vernadsky, Vavilov, Oparin, Caudwell, Haldane, Hogben, Needham and Levy – but also Lankester and Tansley – shared, albeit with considerable variance among them, both a materialist conception of nature and history and a commitment to dialectical readings of human and natural relations. The fact that these thinkers to varying degrees also sometimes lapsed into mechanicalism should warn us to approach their work cautiously, but it should not blind us to their genuine insights.
James O’Connor, “The Second Contradiction of Capitalism,” in Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism. New York: Guilford Press, 1998: 158-177.
Though he was not a Marxist, Lichtheim’s view here did not differ from the general outlook of Western Marxism at the time he was writing. Yet this same outlook would be regarded by most socialists today as laughable. After decades of explorations of Marx’s contributions to ecological discussions and publication of his scientific-technical notebooks, it is no longer a question of whether Marx addressed nature, and did so throughout his life, but whether he can be said to have developed an understanding of the nature-society dialectic that constitutes a crucial starting point for understanding the ecological crisis of capitalist society.