Marx, ecology, and science

Submitted by AWL on 30 October, 2019 - 9:25 Author: Paul Hampton

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.


Submitted by rwburcik (not verified) on Thu, 31/10/2019 - 18:11

Many "levelers" (economic egalitarians or collectivists) believe that "Socialism is the total opposite of capitalism/imperialism. It is the rejection of empire and white supremacy. Socialism is the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat, and the eradication of the social system based on profit. Socialism means control of the productive forces for the good of the whole community instead of the few who live on hilltops and in mansions. Socialism means priorities based on human need instead of human greed. Socialism creates the conditions for a decent and creative quality of life for all." Of course, the number of admitted adherents to this definition diminishes when these collectivists learn that this rendering of socialism comes from the Weather Underground in its 1974 Prairie Fire Manifesto. [Note: Their chagrin only multiplies when they learn the motto of Vladimir Lein's newspaper, "The Left Voice" was "A single spark can start a prairie fire".]
Ayn Rand defined collectivism in 1944 magazine article ("The Only Path To Tomorrow") as "... the subjugation of the individual to the group ... Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called 'the common good'".
Currently, there is an almost endless drumbeat of anti-capitalist and pro-socialist articles in almost all newspapers, magazines and on many websites. One goal of these numerous essays is to mislead the American electorate regarding the history of socialism both in the US and around the world. Perhaps several examples will suffice to demonstrate this point. The New York Times on July 6, 2019, in its Sunday Review section printed Sitaraman & Alsort as follows: "The struggle between capitalism and socialism is back." And that "Americans don't need to resign themselves to vicious capitalism ..." In the Aug. 12, 2019 edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books Prof. Christian Fuchs cited three left-wing authors to his readers to remind them that "... liberalism and capitalism have inherent fascist potential (and) that fascism is a terroristic version of capitalism."
Inexplicably, many (most?) redistributionists apparently choose to ignore the clear-cut results of socialism's many actual historic experiments which can be handily recounted.

Socialism (millenarian collectivism) traces its roots to 1789 and the French Revolution which is commonly known as "The Terror". Of course, this led solely to tyranny and ultimately to the guillotine.[One must recognize that the vast majority of those who were beheaded in France were from the middle and lower classes and not from the aristocracy.] (See: "Tyrants" by Waller Newell) Beginning in the 1820s there was a wave of cooperatives (socialist experiments) formed in the US and Europe led by men like Robert Owen but most had failed by 1840. The average life span of these many "co-ops" was only two years. [See: ].

The Socialist Party of America was formed in 1901 by Eugene Debs and Mr. Debs (from 1904 till 1920) never got more than 6% of the vote in any presidential election. From 1924 through 1948 Debs was replaced by Norman Thomas whose election results were also always in the low single digits. [Note: Interestingly, Mr. Thomas was always (like George Orwell) rabidly anti-communist and some fear that their combined virulence may not have rubbed off on many of today's left-wing collectivist authors since it is suspected that some of these socialists may actually hold neo-Marxist views.] Since 1948 the Socialist Party in the US has only steadily faded away. [See: ]. In fact, the Democratic Socialists of America today boasts of less than 60,000 members which are a paltry few although their membership has grown from only 6,000 to 56,000 in just two years. [See: ].

Economic historians cite three face-to-face "experiments" since WW II in which capitalism and socialism can be directly compared and these are West Germany vs. East Germany after 1945; China vs. Taiwan after 1949 and North Korea vs. South Korea after 1952. Suffice it to say that socialism has never measured up very well anywhere. [Note: Some experts in economic history are today examining Venezuela vs. Chile and many are reaching the very same conclusion.] On the other hand, capitalism has lifted over one billion people out of abject poverty in just the last 12 years. [See: ].

All of this might lead some to ask -- What took capitalism so long to work its magic on much of the developing world? And economic history is also quite clear on this point. In 1947 India after its independence from Great Britain opted for socialism. Indeed, socialism is mandated by the Indian Constitution and for more than 40 years India was the world's largest social democracy. [See: ]. In 1949 China followed suit but of course, selected only collectivism and not democracy. Obviously, capitalism could not work its wonders in a socialist nation.

In 1978 after Mao's death China adopted market-based reforms and one need not recount the upward explosion in human economic well-being that followed. India saw the resulting skyrocketing increase in overall living standards in China and instituted market reforms of their own starting in 1991. Since then these two nations have lifted a combined one billion of their citizens out of subsistence poverty. [See: ].
In 1945 Clement Atlee defeated Winston Churchill in Great Britain and quickly proceeded to nationalize most of that country's major industries. By the 1970s the whole world was talking about the "British Disease" and the "Sick Man of Europe". This led to the election in 1979 of Margaret Thatcher who insisted that "No theory of government was ever given a fairer test or a more prolonged experiment than democratic socialism received in Britain. Yet it was a miserable failure in every respect..." [See: ]. Indeed, Mrs. Thatcher insisted that "To cure the British disease with socialism was like trying to cure leukemia with leeches." [See: ].
Israel is another instructive example. This new country's founding principles (Zionism) took a socialist form of communal organization (kibbutzim). In the early 1980s, Israel suffered from hyperinflation (445% In 1984). In 1985 Israel adopted an Economic Stabilization Plan (wage and price controls) which failed. Then Bibi Netanyahu, during his first term (1996 - 1999) began instituting market-based reforms. In 1999 he lost and upon his later return as Prime Minister, he slashed public sector spending, privatized and deregulated industry. He also drastically cut taxes and reformed Israel's labor laws. Today Israel has risen from a relatively poor country to a growing wealthy nation. [See: ].

During the 1960s much of sub-Saharan Africa chose collectivism and all of these nations then entered a period of rising abject poverty. A single set of statistics tells the entire story regarding socialism in sub-Saharan Africa. When the British and the other colonizers left Africa the poverty rate stood at 11%. By 1998 under their new indigenous socialist governments this figure had skyrocketed to 66% and now as some of these nations have begun to re-introduce market-based reforms this percentage has fallen to 20% today. Still way too high but currently moving in the right direction. [See:… ]

Next take Sweden, once one of the most socialistic of the Nordic countries, as another case study. Some years ago the Swedes opted for social democracy and since 1981 Sweden' annual GDP growth rate has averaged only 0.56%. [See: ]. In other words, the growth in human economic well-being in Sweden was virtually stagnant. Then in 1992, a major financial crisis hit Sweden as interest rates soared to a brief high of 500%. [See:… ]. As a result, the Swedes became very disenchanted with the results of their collectivism and began converting their economy back to a more market-based system. The Swedes cut their income tax. They also abolished their wealth tax, their inheritance tax, and their property tax. They reduced the corporate tax from 28% to 22% and the new coalition government has recently promised to make further reductions. This one-time social democracy has lowered its tax to GDP ratio from 52% (one of the world’s highest) to 45% and the new government has announced still more cuts for 2020. The overall result is that in 1975 fifty percent of Swedish companies were government-owned and today this figure has been cut in half and Sweden is now the fourth richest country in the world in trems of per capita wealth. [See: ].

Turning to Denmark, while Lars Lokke Rasmussen was Prime Minister he stated that "I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore, I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a planned economy. Denmark is a market economy." [See:… ]. Indeed, according to the Economic Freedom Index, all of the countries in Scandinavia are far more capitalist than socialist. [See: ]. All Nordic countries have no minimum wage and each offers full school choice. In addition, Denmark and Sweden have greatly reduced unemployment benefits.
Some redistributionalists still cling to Norway as the final redoubt of Nordic democratic socialism but this tiny country adheres to its mix of capitalism and socialism solely because of that nation's massive offshore oil and natural gas deposits. In May of 1963 Norway claimed the petroleum reserves off of its coast and in 1969 they struck oil which now produces 1,600,000 barrels per day. As a result, Norway's GDP rose from $12 billion to $65 billion in only ten years. The government wisely formed a sovereign wealth fund which today is worth $1 trillion the largest in the world. [See: ].
No socialist in France had won the presidency from the inception of the Fifth Republic in 1958 until 1981 when Francois Mitterrand ascended to that high office. As president, Mr. Mitterrand quickly implemented a program of nationalization coupled with an economic stimulus designed to jump-start France's flagging economy. His election could not have come at a worse time. The world was suffering from a new phenomenon called "stagflation" and in less than two years after his election, President Mitterrand was forced to sharply curtail his collectivist efforts. [See: ].
Even the well known Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, (who is a self described "political radical") admits that "Social democracy is of another era" and that "A simple return to old (20th century) social democratic welfare states can not work" due to "digitalization through new forms of science (and) new forms of liberal capitalism." [See: ].
From 1998 to 2015 fifteen Latin American countries elected socialist presidents in a trend called the "Pink Tide". [See: ]. Now, Oxfam reports that Latin America has remained the most unequal region in the world. [See:… ]. Also, according to the Igarape Institute, Latin America has persisted in being the most violent place on the planet. [See:… ]. The UN asserts that Latin America has had no reduction in poverty and that extreme poverty has increased to its highest level since 2008. [See:… ]. Corruption has continued unabated and all of this has led to a counter wave that includes new conservative leaders in Brazi, Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador, Columbia, Chile, Peru, and Paraguay. [See: ]. Some of the people of Latin America who tried collectivism did not like what they got. This is especially true in Venezuela. 
Let's examine Iran. The 1979 revolution promised three things: independence, social justice, and democracy & freedom. After 40 years there has been a 17-fold increase in the number of Iranians living in slums.  Iran's Gini coefficient has remained high while a growing sense of disillusionment and frustration forcefully erupted in the Green Movement in 2009, as well as, another upheaval in 2017-2018. [See:… ].
Arab socialism (Ba'athism) began in Syria in the 1940s and later spread to Iraq but neither emphasized pure Marxism nor class struggle. In the 1970s neo-Ba'athism evolved and morphed into Assadism and Saddamism with their accompanying fascism and racism. Since then Saddam has been removed while Assad's son has been fighting a prolonged civil war against rebels who strive for freedom and economic growth. [See: ].

The book, "Heaven on Earth" (2nd edition 2019) summarizes all of this with "Socialism was man's most ambitious attempt to supplant religion with a doctrine claiming to ground itself in 'science'. Each failure to create societies of abundance or give birth to 'The New Man' inspired more searching for a path to the promised land: revolution, communes, social democracy, communism, fascism, Arab socialism, African socialism. None worked and some exacted a staggering human toll. Then, after two centuries of wishful thinking and bitter disappointment socialism imploded in a fin de siècle drama of falling walls and collapsing regimes. It was an astonishing denouement but what followed was no less astonishing. After a hiatus of several decades, new voices were raised, as if innocent of all that had come before, proposing to try it all over again."
Thus the economic record is clear. Over the last 230 years, socialism has caused only poverty, misery and human suffering. [See"… ] While capitalism (in the opinion of many, humankind's greatest invention since the wheel) has been slashing poverty as the next graph clearly documents.

In a 2018 article in Foreign Affairs Magazine the esteemed historian, Prof. Walter Russel Mead, offered that over a 35 year period our nation had been plagued by "Ineffective politicians, frequent scandals, racial backsliding, polarized and irresponsible news media, populists spouting quack economic remedies, growing suspicion of elites and experts, frightening outbreaks of violence, major job losses, high profile terrorist attacks, anti-immigrant agitation, rising inequality and the appearance of a new class of super-powered billionaires in finance and technology-heavy industries." But, Prof. Mead was writing about the period in American history from 1865 till 1901 after the end of the US Civil War. Like the movie "Groundhog Day" history only repeats itself but no one ever seems to notice that human economic improvement and overall well-being only continue to spiral ever upward. Does anyone really want to go back to living in caves eating nuts, berries, and roots, scavenging dead meat and consuming an occasional fresh kill where everyone is mostly equal? Given an informed choice, almost all of us would, one strongly suspects, opt for individualism and capitalism every time.

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