Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, John Bellamy Foster, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
Marx’s Ecology fills a gap in Marxist scholarship by, in a sense, taking seriously Marx and Engels’ claim to materialism. Reading 20th century Marxists, it can sometimes seem as if “materialism” is being used metaphorically, or at least has lost some of the precision it held in the 19th century (the same can be said, of course, for “dialectic”). Bellamy recovers not only Marx’s own interest in materialism, but the history of materialist thought from the pre-Socratics and Epicurus, through to the scientfic discoveries and displacement of idealistic/religious views of the world (“natural theology”) culminating in the work of Darwin and others. Putting Marxism in this context not only uncovers new depths to Marx’s project, but it clarifies the sense in which Marx and Engels always maintained that project to be “scientific”. Foster shows the extent to which Marx and Engels were fully versed in the scientific theories and advances of their age. The end result is not only fuller recognition of the place of ecology within Marx’s thinking, but a way to fit Marxism into thinking around ecology, population, climate change, and other social/ecological problems we are facing today.
The initial impetus for Marx’s materialism was the reading of Epicurus, especially as popularized by Lucretius in his De rerum natura, a didactic poem in which he sets out and explains Epicurus’ philosophy. For Epicurus (as for Democritus), the world was composed of atoms which interacted mechanically, those interactions producing everything that exists in the physical world. In this schema, both “the gods” and Platonic ideals have no place, and the teleological view of idealism is surplus to requirements. Foster carefully links the areligious, anti-teleological view of Epicurus with that of the early scientific thinkers like Bacon and Newton, showing that the materialistic science of the 17th and 18th centuries was, if anything, a vindication of the theories of Epicurus and the pre-Socratics. By the early 19th century, Epicurean philosophy was being recovered as an antidote to idealism, just as his materialistic physics was an antidote to religiosity in science. In 1841, Marx wrote his doctoral thesis on The Difference between the Democritean and the Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, part of a growing movement in Germany attempting to modify the idealism of Hegel with materialist thought.
For Marx, Epicurus and Hegel stood at two poles of a very productive, dialectical, relationship. Epicurus’ materialism allowed Marx to reject the idealism of Hegel while retaining Hegel’s conception of dialectical movement and totality. In this way, the logical and philosophical foundations of Marxism were laid. But materialism did not only inform Marx’s philosophical views; the victory of materialist science in the work of Huxley, Lyell, Tyndall, and especially Darwin, gave Marx the scientific information required to firmly anchor the theory of historical materialism and Capital within the scientific understanding of his day. Indeed, Foster’s book is perhaps at its most interesting in uncovering the connections between Darwin’s work and Marx’s. It is no coincidence that Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) appears at the time Marx begins working on what will become Capital (1867). Darwin and Marx were very near contemporaries, and this fact alone gives fresh insight into the wider context of Marx’s economic project, and the context in which he worked. Marx is generally considered first and foremost a political writer, his self-identification as an economist often played down, and his view of his work as scientific generally dismissed. But by connecting Marx’s work with Darwin’s, as well as the general development of modern science in the mid-19th century, Foster recovers an aspect of Marx which is generally ignored.
In all, Marx’s Ecology is a fascinating book, making the connection between science and (materialist) philosophy clear and providing much-needed historical context not only for Marxism, but for the history of ecological thought in and through advances in materialist thinking and scientific discovery.