John Bellamy Foster: Marxism, metabolism and ecology

Submitted by Newcastle on 30 July, 2009 - 6:06 Author: Paul Hampton

Over the past decade or so, John Bellamy Foster has been one of the principal architects of the revival of Marxist ecology, arguing that the relationship between nature and human society is best conceptualised in terms of metabolism.

Foster’s new book, The Ecological Revolution (2009) brings together many of his essays on the subject and together with his earlier book Marx’s Ecology (2000), makes a significant contribution to historical materialism.

Metabolism (stoffwechsel) was widely used in Marx’s main published work, Capital volume I, and it can be found in successive drafts of his mature economic works up to his death. Stoffwechsel was translated as “material interchange”, “material reaction” and “exchange of matter” in the first English edition of Capital and other works, and has been reproduced ever since. These expressions fail to capture the wider meaning of metabolism. However metabolism appears throughout the Penguin editions of Capital published in the 1970s.

The earliest use of stoffwechsel in this sense was in the first, rough draft of Capital, known as the Grundrisse (1857-58). For example Marx wrote: “It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital.”

However Marx used metabolism distinctively with respect to human-nature relations in his first major published economic work, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). He wrote: “Different use-values contain very different proportions of labour and natural products, but use-value always comprises a natural element. As useful activity directed to the appropriation of natural factors in one form or another, labour is a natural condition of human existence, a condition of material interchange [metabolism] between man and nature, quite independent of the form of society.”

Marx made this use more explicit in the second draft of Capital, known as the Economic Manuscripts 1861-63, where he gave it a distinctive ecological meaning. Marx argued that, “Actual labour is the appropriation of nature for the satisfaction of human needs, the activity through which the metabolism between man and nature is mediated”, and that labour was a “universal condition for the metabolic interaction between nature and man… a natural condition of human life [that] is independent of, equally common to, all particular social forms of human life.” Besides the published volumes of Capital, Marx also referred to stoffwechsel in his last economic works, the Notes on Adolph Wagner's Lehrbuch der politischen Ökonomie in 1881.

The concept of metabolism has many attractions, suggesting a dialectical interaction between nature and society and not least because it posits both human beings and the non-human world as active, indeed interactive agencies. Marx summed this up with his reference to William Petty in Capital I, who argued (in a rather unfortunate patriarchal metaphor) that, “labour is the father of material wealth, the earth is its mother”.

Analytically, Marx used metabolism in three important senses in Capital: as a means of formulating the nature-society nexus; as a way of expressing the ecological crisis created by capitalism; and as a means of expressing the more progressive relationship between climate and humanity under socialism.


Marx first used the concept of metabolism in Capital volume I when discussing the role of labour in history. For Marx, labour “is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of human society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself”.

He elaborated on the point further in the discussion of the labour process: “Labour is first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces that belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs.

“Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature… [The labour process] is purposeful activity aimed at the production of use-values. It is an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction [Stoffwechsel] between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence.”

metabolic rift

The second sense in which metabolism appears in Capital is as a means of conceptualising the breakdown in humanity’s relationship with nature.

Marx lent heavily on the insights of the chemist Justus Liebig, whose treatment of the soil nutrient cycle and the waste problem in the large cities was well-regarded by contemporaries. Marx regarded one of Liebig’s “immortal merits” as having “developed from the point of view of natural science the negative i.e. destructive side of modern agriculture”.

Marx summed up the breakdown of human-nature nexus in the following terms: “Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and nature, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil.

“Thus it destroys at the same time the health of the urban worker and the intellectual life of the rural worker. But by destroying the circumstances surrounding that metabolism, which originated in a merely natural and spontaneous fashion, it compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to the full development of the human race.”

Marx would express a similar sentiment in his unfinished Capital, volume III. He wrote that capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The results of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country.”

metabolism and socialism

The final meaning ascribed to metabolism by Marx was in terms of restoring the relationship between humanity and nature under socialism.

Under a system of mass, democratic control over production, “Freedom in this sphere can only consist only in this, that socialised man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control, instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.”

This aspect of metabolism has been recognised by Foster’s co-thinker Paul Burkett. He argued that the socialisation of labour, “by socialising the people-nature metabolism, creates a valid stake for all society, the producers and the communities on a global scale, in the transformation of this metabolism into one that supports a less restricted but sustainable development for themselves and their children”. (Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective). Similarly Foster argued that “metabolic restoration” was an essential feature of the Marxist conception of socialism.

The centrality of metabolism was recognised by other classical Marxists such as Bukharin and Wittfogel, before it fell out of use at the time of Stalin’s rule. Bukharin, in his textbook Historical Materialism (1921) noted that, “This material process of "metabolism" between society and nature is the fundamental relation between environment and system, between ‘external conditions’ and human society”. He went on to argue: “We therefore regard the metabolism between society and nature as a material process, for it deals with material things (objects of labour, instruments of labour, and products obtained as a consequence-all are material things); on the other hand, the process of labour itself is an expenditure of physiological energy, nerve energy, muscular energy, whose material expression is in the physical motions of those engaged at work.”

Wittfogel made a similar point in his Geopolitics, geographical materialism and Marxism (1929), writing that, “According to Marx, the stuff of nature required by man – this metabolism of man with nature — ‘enters’ into the use of society through the process of labour”. (1985) Or as he put it in 1932, “According to Marx and Engels, one has to start from 'true production processes', from the metabolism of the socially labouring human with nature.” (Die naturlichen Ursachen der Wirtschaftsgeschichte, thanks to Bruce Robinson for translation)

The importance of metabolism to Marx’s conception of nature was revived by Alfred Schmidt in his book The Concept of Nature in Marx (1962/1971). More recently Paul Burkett has applied the concept of metabolism to political economy and ecology, while in similar vein John Bellamy Foster has produced highly readable accounts of the historical origins and development of Marx’s concept. In many ways, as Peter Dickens has put it, Burkett and Foster have “permanently changed the landscape for those attempting to view the relation between society and nature through a historical materialist perspective”.

the limits of metabolism

Metabolism is an important methodological starting point for integrating ecological questions into historical materialism and Foster should take much of the credit for its revival in recent years.

As he put it in Marx’s Ecology, “beginning in the 1840s down to the present day, the concept of metabolism has been used as a key category in the systems theory approach to the interaction of organisms to their environment… the concept of metabolism is used to refer to the specific regulatory processes that govern this complex interchange between organisms and their environment”. More recently, the concept has also begun to be applied to particular ecological problems, such as climate change, marine systems and water.

However its very generality is also the source of its limitations. This was recognised by Engels, who wrote in Anti-Dühring (1876-78): “That organic exchange of matter is the most general and most characteristic phenomenon of life has been said times out of number during the last thirty years by physiological chemists and chemical physiologists, and it is here merely translated by Herr Dühring into his own elegant and clear language.” He added: “But to define life as organic metabolism is to define life as — life; for organic exchange of matter or metabolism with plastically creating schematisation is in fact a phrase which itself needs explanation through life, explanation through the distinction between the organic and the inorganic, that is, that which lives and that which does not live.”

To avoid “plastically creating schematisation”, more conceptual development is required. In my view the way to go is with the Marxist geographer Neil Smith’s idea of the “production of nature”, which more adequately emphasises the manner in which human action makes and remakes every aspect of nature. Climate change is but one example of how no part of nature as we know it on planet earth is pristine, or remains untouched by human action. Smith has also suggested some fertile lines of enquiry, such as the process of real subsumption of nature to capital, in conjunction with the real subsumption of labour to capital. Bringing “metabolism” down to earth, i.e. making it more concrete, requires a great deal more Marxist under labouring.

The ambiguities of metabolism are more brought out more clearly by looking at the politics that can be accommodated beneath it. Foster himself is far too soft on some existing “socialist” models, arguing that “Latin America is reawakening to the revolutionary spirit of Bolivar and Che”.

For example he claims that Hugo Chavez has articulated, “A new socialism for the twenty-first century in the context of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution”, which “closely follows Marx’s notion of a society of associated producers”. The problem is that Chavez has neither led a revolution to overthrow capitalism, nor moved away from a fossil-fuel-based political economy, nor has he come close to articulating a vision of socialism based on Marx — namely the self-emancipation of the working class. Similarly the greening of Cuba is exalted, despite its terrible record of ecological degradation for the first 30 years after the revolution, and the fact that the government has become more environmentally-conscious mainly out of necessity, rather than from conviction.

Foster is critical of the old model of the USSR, though less so of the Chinese Stalinist variant under Mao. In his previous book, Ecology against Capitalism, he wrote: “The history of the non-capitalist world offers a few glimpses of other possibilities. The Soviet model, followed by most other countries in Eastern Europe, offers no help on this issue because it closely copied many of the methods used in the United States… However in China under Mao things were different… Mao’s emphasis on local food self-sufficiency in each region helped to reinforce these practices [cycling nutrients to maintain soil fertility] and together with the encouragement of local industry, slowed down urbanisation at the same time as impressive advances were made in agricultural production.”

Foster also overstates the connection between classical Marxism and subsequent ecological discussions, seeking to establish an uninterrupted tradition where none exists. He states: “If an unbroken continuity is to be found, nonetheless, in the development of socialist nature-science discussions and ecological thought, its path has to be traced primarily to Britain.”

I think it is better to acknowledge that there was a rupture in the Marxist tradition, both ecologically and in much else — and to squarely face the consequences of this breach. Foster is right that classical Marxism, including Marx and Engels, Bebel, Kautsky, Morris, Luxemburg, Lenin, Bukharin and others contributed to the development of a coherent socialist ecology for their time. I think he is also correct to argue that the classical Marxists “tended to view ecological problems that they perceived as having more bearing on the future of communist than capitalist society”. (2009)

However the rise of Stalinism and the defeat of the labour movement across the globe decimated this ecological strand within Marxism — even among the best of those, such as the Trotskyists, who kept other elements of it alive. Foster appears to be grasping at straws with many of the dissident Stalinists and others he commends for keeping things going after 1930.

The reality is that the revival of interest in ecology from the 1960s took place largely outside the labour movement and mostly outside the ranks of genuine Marxism. One of the task today is to reconnect the classical Marxist tradition with ecology, and also to integrate ecological concerns back into the heart of historical materialism.

Foster calls for “ecological revolution” and argues that this differs from the technocratic, top-down green industrial revolution proposed by Obama and by the UK government, because it requires a “popular uprising”. Social agency is indeed an important dividing line for Marxists. Foster provides a sharp critique of the neoliberal climate thinkers such as Nordhaus and Stern, as well as a critique of ecological modernisation, the view that underpins New Labour’s environmentalism.

But Foster does not articulate a specifically working–class political strategy for tackling the ecological crisis. He recognises the core mistake of Joel Kovel, who does not regard the working class as the privileged agent in a socialist transformation and argues that “class revolt is not necessarily the key”.

However ecological revolution is nebulous without developing a programme of demands to mobilise the working class, it is vacuous without answers to workers’ real concerns about jobs and conditions, and it is impractical without a strategy to link existing workers’ struggles with the wider socialist and ecological transformation. Foster’s work has been valuable in clearing some of the ground for this discussion, but has been less fertile in mapping the path ahead.


Submitted by martin on Tue, 01/01/2019 - 18:52

As Paul writes, "[the] very generality [of the concept of metabolism] is also the source of its limitations. This was recognised by Engels, who wrote in Anti-Dühring... to define life as organic metabolism is to define life as — life..."

On the whole, it seems to me that Foster puffs up very general comments (not wrong, but very general) by Marx and Engels about the importance of a respectful relation between humanity and nature into the status of amazing insights. Marx and Engels do not need that treatment.

He also puffs up Christopher Caudwell (a young CPer of 1935-7 who died within a year or so of beginning to try to write as a Marxist) and Nikolai Bukharin (on the basis of a posthumous text).

He ignores others. Harry Rothman's "Murderous Providence" (1972) never claimed to be a philosophical or scientific breakthrough, but it was a Marxist indictment of capitalist and Stalinist abuse of the natural environment.

Foster claims that the Frankfurt School was unconcerned with ecological questions. Whatever other criticisms may be made of the Frankfurt School, that is not true of Herbert Marcuse, for example. There was no great philosophical or scientific breakthrough in Marcuse's writings which criticised both fascist cults of "nature" and "soil", and technocracy, but they did criticise both. Max Horkheimer's critique of "instrumental reason" included a censure of the destructive relation of "instrumental reason" to "outer nature".

In 1952 the Labour Party considered trying to move a vote of no confidence in the Tory government of the day over its complacent initial response to the Great Smog of December 1952, which killed maybe 4,000 to 10,000 people in London. It backed off when the Tories conceded, and moved towards measures like the Clean Air Act of 1956, which have greatly improved air quality in the city and ended the notorious "smogs" of the city which many used to call "the Smoke".

In 1957 the Thames river was declared biologically dead. No fish could live there. It was revived from the 1960s, and now has over 150 species of fish. I don't know that there was any distinctive Marxist twist to demands for clean air and clean water, or to the Labour London County Council's eventually-successful pressure for a "green belt" around London, but it is not that no-one talked about the environment then.

Foster praises, without discussion, the chief "ecological" idea which Marx and Engels took over from the socialist movement of their day: the abolition of the distinction between town and country, and the even redistribution of the population across countries.

There is no mystery about why that idea was popular. The industrial cities of the mid-19th century were filthy, smoky, and noisy. Working-class housing was shoddy and overcrowded, with poor water supplies and no sewage system. In 1840, 57% of the working-class children of Manchester died before their fifth birthday, compared with 32% in rural districts. A farm labourer in Rutland had a life-expectancy of 38, but a factory worker in Liverpool had an average age of death of 15.

The sheer inhumanity and impersonality of the cities also shocked people, as we can see in the section on "The Great Towns" in Engels's "Condition of the Working Class in England". "What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other..."

Revulsion against the cities was linked up, before the invention in 1913 of the Haber process which allowed synthesis of fertilisers, with concern for the depletion of agricultural land. For fertiliser the agriculture of the time depended on guano, accumulated bird shit mined mostly from islands off the coast of Peru, and supplies were difficult. It was logical enough to propose that the land should instead be fertilised with the human shit which instead piled in the streets of the cities.

Fourier's idea that a socialist society would disperse its population in units of a few hundred people each (phalansteries), spread evenly across the country, made rough sense to many other socialists.

150 or 200 years on, reassessment is in order.

In the first place, large-scale sewage requires considerable processing to remove toxins, some of which come from industry, but some from human diseases or medications. It can be and sometimes is processed into fertiliser (that is done with some of the sewage from New York City), but that is no magic bullet for agriculture.

In the second place, big, high-density cities have great cultural and economic advantages over low-density settlement ( And they are "greener". New York City emits 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases per resident per year, compared with a USA average of 24.5. Big cities have fewer cars, more bikes, more walking, more public transport, shorter commutes, smaller energy requirements for heating homes, smaller requirements per population for infrastructure (roads, pipes, cables, etc.)

Some cities such as New Delhi and Beijing have air pollution today as London had in the 1950s. Social measures can fix that pollution without dispersing the population. In fact, concentrating the population helps ecologically as well as economically and culturally.

Low-density peri-urban settlement destroys nature while bringing few of the advantages of cities. This can be seen, for example, in the "sprawl" surrounding US and Australian cities.

To its south and south-east Brisbane, itself already sprawling, abuts onto the cities of Logan and Redland City. Both Logan and Redland City are essentially strings of small clumps of housing, each with a few thousand or at most 10,000+ people, a shopping centre of sorts, a school or two, and not much else, scattered across a wide area, mostly along big roads. This pattern has been generated by a pattern which seeks constantly to find cheaper land, a bit further out, to build new houses.

Hardly anyone in Logan or Redland City can get to work or school or university without a car. The population density is 317 people per km2 in Logan and 274 in Redland City, lower than the whole county of Kent (490) or the whole US state of New York (412), and comparable to the whole of England (275). London is 5400 and Manhattan is 25,800.

England, or New York state, would be made worse, not better, by having their populations spread out so as to make both of them giant replicas of Logan or Redland City.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.