Marx’s theory of metabolism is the starting point for explaining how capitalism generates ecological problems through the insatiable drive for capital accumulation.
Kohei Saito’s book, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (2017), is the most extensive study to date of the roots of Marx’s ecology.
Saito exhaustively combs through Marx’s published works, as well as his excerpt notebooks. The book draws out the dialogue between Marx and natural scientists of his epoch. It successfully explains the influence of natural science on Marx, but also how Marx developed new innovations as a result of this reading. Saito convincingly demonstrates the origins of Marx’s metabolic theory.
The concept of “metabolism” (Stoffwechsel) was first employed in physiology at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Marx appears to have learned about it from Roland Daniels, a doctor and Communist League member.
On 8 February 1851, Daniels sent Marx his book manuscript, Mikrokosmos: Entwurf einer physiologischen Anthropologie. Marx critically evaluated the manuscript and replied on 20 March 1851.
Marx first wrote about the concept of metabolism in his London Notebooks of March 1851:
“Unlike ancient society where only the privileged could exchange this or that [item], everything can be possessed by everybody [in capitalist society]. Every metabolic interaction can be conducted by everyone, depending on the amount of money of one’s income that can be transformed into anything: prostitute, science, protection, medals, servants, cringer – everything [becomes a] product for exchange, just like coffee, sugar, and herring.
“In the case of rank [society], the enjoyment of an individual, his or her metabolic interaction is dependent on a certain division of labour, under which he or she is subsumed.
“In the case of class [it is dependent] only on the universal means of exchange that he or she can appropriate…
“Where the type of income is still determined by the type of occupation, and not simply by the quantity of the universal medium of exchange like today but by the quality of one’s occupation, the relationships, under which the worker can enter into society and appropriate [objects], are severely restricted, and the social organ for the metabolic interaction with the material and mental productions of the society is limited to a certain way and to a particular content from the beginning.”
Shortly after his discussion with Daniels, Marx read Justus von Liebig’s book, Die Organische Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agriculture und Physiologie. This reading in July 1851 sparked two decades of engagement with Liebig’s work.
Although that edition of the book used the term only twice, in the course of several revised editions Liebig developed metabolism as the basis of his explanation of soil exhaustion. In particular the seventh edition (1862) had a great impact upon Marx’s theory.
In 1865, Marx returned to studying natural sciences for his investigation of ground rent. Marx told Engels, in a letter of 13 February 1866, about his fascination with the rapid development of chemistry:
“As far as this ‘damned’ book [Capital] is concerned, the position now is: it was ready at the end of December. The treatise on ground rent alone, the penultimate chapter, is in its present form almost long enough to be a book in itself. I have been going to the Museum in the daytime and writing at night. I had to plough through the new agricultural chemistry in Germany, in particular Liebig and Schönbein, which is more important for this matter than all the economists put together…”
Marx’s excerpts of 1856-66 document why the seventh edition of Agricultural Chemistry must have been particularly insightful, because Liebig also altered his arguments in the new Introduction and reinforced his critique of the robbery system of modern agriculture.
Liebig pointed to “the terrifying fact that Great Britain is not producing food necessary for her 29 million population”. He argued that “the introduction of water-closets into most parts of England results in the irrecoverable loss of the materials capable of producing food for three and a half million people every year.” This made “the progress of cultivation and civilisation” dependent on urban toilets.
Marx repeated his praise publicly in the first edition of Capital volume 1 (1867):
“To have developed from the point of view of natural science the negative, i.e., destructive side of modern agriculture, is one of Liebig’s immortal merits. His historical overview of the history of agriculture, although not free from gross errors, contains more flashes of insight than all the works of modern political economists put together.”
After Capital was first published, Marx continued to study natural sciences seriously. Carl Nikolaus Fraas holds a unique position in Marx’s notebooks.
Fraas’s “agricultural physics” emphasised the “climatic influences” on vegetation and on human civilisation. Fraas first appears in Marx’s notebook December 1867-January 1868, when he notes Fraas’s Die Ackerbaukrisen und ihre Heilmittel (1866), a polemic against Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion. In a letter to Engels dated 3 January 1868, Marx asked for advice from their friend, the chemist Carl Schorlemmer:
“I would like to know from Schorlemmer what is the latest and best book (German) on agricultural chemistry. Furthermore, what is the present state of the argument between the mineral-fertiliser people and the nitrogen-fertiliser people? (Since I last looked into the subject, all sorts of new things have appeared in Germany.)
“Does he know anything about the most recent Germans who have written against Liebig’s soil-exhaustion theory? Does he know about the alluvion theory of Munich agronomist Fraas (Professor at Munich University)? For the chapter on ground rent I shall have to be aware of the latest state of the question, at least to some extent…”
Marx wrote in another letter to Engels on 25 March 1868:
“Very interesting is the book by Fraas (1847): Climate and the Plant World Over Time: A Contribution to the History of Both, namely as proving that climate and flora change in historical times. He is a Darwinist before Darwin, and admits even the species developing in historical times... The first effect of cultivation is useful, but finally devastating through deforestation, etc.
“This man is both a thoroughly learned philologist (he has written books in Greek) and a chemist, agronomist, etc. The conclusion is that cultivation — when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois he naturally does not reach this point) — leaves deserts behind it, Persia, Mesopotamia, etc., Greece. So once again an unconscious socialist tendency!”
Fraas repeatedly argued that rational agriculture must seriously take climatic factors into account:
“To the extent that favourable climatic conditions are missing to the cultivated plants and cannot be replaced somehow, we must open up the sources of nutrition in the soil, that is, we must dung better. [It is] not because cereals consume more ash constituents (mineral constituents) than meadow plants, but because they are alien to our climate and do not have enough warmth to assimilate salts of the soil as well as gases of the air into our desired amount of organic substance within an artificially and naturally measured time of vegetation.”
Fraas called Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion a variety of “quietism”. Soils without manure can provide successful crops over a long time period under certain conditions of climate. Marx quoted Fraas in his notebook:
“In southern Europe cereals (barley) can be quite successfully cultivated on the same land every year for many years even without rotation and without manure, maybe not corn and cotton, but at least melons.… Cereals are thus soil-exhausting plants in the cold temperature zone as they strongly require favourable climate, particularly corn, durra, wheat, barley, rye and oat, legumes and buckwheat less so, and clovers, our pasture, asparagus etc. not at all.
“In the warm and moderate temperature zone cereals and legumes are no longer soil-exhausting plants with exception of corn, rice and durra, but hardly tobacco that is already cultivated often without manure.”
Even if Liebig was correct in predicting that “one day” soils all over the world would be exhausted due to the robbery system of agriculture and would be unable to provide enough food for growing populations, Fraas believed that this was long way off, particularly if the enormous lands in North America and South Russia were factored in.
Fraas also opened up a way to the rational arrangement of metabolism between humans and nature, through “alluvion”, the use of sediment from rivers to fertilise the soil.
Marx’s interest in Fraas’s theory was not limited to soil exhaustion. His comments about an “unconscious socialist tendency” relates to Fraas’ book, Climate and the Plant World Over Time.
Fraas posed the same question as Liebig concerning desertification in areas such as Persia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt that used to have very fertile lands. But Fraas explains the emergence and collapse of old civilisations from changes of “natural climate” (physikalisches Klima).
Fraas described how civilisations were transformed by climate over a long period. It is not robbery of a certain mineral substance in the soil but changes in climate that cause such a great disturbance in the metabolic interaction between humans and nature:
“Great damage of natural vegetation in a region results in a deep transformation of its entire character, and this modified new state of nature is never so favourable to the region and its population as before; certainly, people change with it.
“Such great transformations of the natural state of the region can hardly remain without effects, or, if they occur extensively and together with many regions, never remain without effects, and, of course, the old state of affairs cannot be rehabilitated.”
Fraas summed up his ecological critique:
“Man in various ways changes his environment, on which he is quite dependent, and he changes nature more than one usually imagines. In fact, he is able to change nature to such an extent that later it completely malfunctions as the indispensable means for the realization of a higher level of mental and physical development, forcing him to confront extreme physical obstacles… There is no hope of overcoming this reality.”
Fraas’s historical investigation opens up an even more expanded vision of ecology than Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion.
Climate change is a new and important element for Marx’s investigation into the historical disturbances in natural metabolism caused by humans. Fraas made Marx aware that this development of modern capitalist production accelerates the disturbance of metabolism between humans and nature, due to a more massive deforestation than previously in human history.
Marx documents a passage in his notebook in which Fraas laments the rapid forest decrease in Europe. Fraas argued the only solution was to regulate the speed of deforestation as much as possible:
“Civilised states with dense population inevitably need to add artificial constructions to meadow and forest that damage nature, replace forests with fields for farming, dry out swamps and marshes, and burn peat and forests that sustain humidity. In short, without such supports civilised societies cannot be what they are. However, without actual necessity such changes of the state of nature should never be carried out.…
“That is, trees in mountain areas should never be cut down without the highest necessity because they are most influential.”
Marx was sufficiently influenced by Fraas to modify the second edition of Capital published in 1872-73.
Liebig was still praised: “His historical overview of the history of agriculture, although not free from gross errors, contains flashes of insight.” However Marx deleted the statement that Liebig was more insightful “than all the works of modern political economists put together.”
Though Marx continued to praise Liebig’s contribution, the tone definitely became more sober. His engagement with Fraas had opened a wider vista.