Making an ecological worldview Issue: 167 <>
Posted on 13th July 2020
Martin Empson

*A review of John Bellamy Foster, The Return of Nature: Socialism and
Ecology, Monthly Review Press (2020), £30.*

Since John Bellamy Foster published *Marx’s Ecology* in 2000, the idea that
Karl Marx had little to say on environmental issues has become untenable.1
<> *Marx’s
Ecology* has rightly become a classic. Beginning with Marx’s doctoral
thesis on “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy
of Nature”, and tracing the development of his thought throughout his life,
Foster’s book demonstrated the way that ecological questions were at the
heart of Marxism—a “broad ecological worldview”.

*Marx’s Ecology* finished with the death of Marx. *The Return of Nature*
takes up the story from there, beginning its narrative with the funerals of
Charles Darwin in 1882 and Marx in 1883. The book deals with “the
re-emergence of the natural-material or ecological realm within critical
social analysis, where the complex, reflexive relation of nature to human
production and reproduction has all too often been downplayed.” Foster
traces a long, almost continuous, line of thought that stretches from Marx
and Engels, through their friends and contemporaries—scientists and fellow
activists such as E Ray Lankester and Carl Schorlemmer—and on to figures
such as William Morris, Christopher Caudwell, J D Bernal and J B S Haldane.
The book concludes by looking at more contemporary figures such as Rachel
Carson, Barry Commoner and Hilary and Steven Rose.

The breadth of biographical material here is impressive. However, this is
not primarily a book about the lives, thinking and activism of a succession
of radical ecological thinkers. Rather, it is a deep engagement with their
radical ideas. It is no surprise that many of the figures discussed were
activists. The ideas of writers like William Morris were shaped by an
engagement with the works of Marx, Engels and others, but they honed these
ideas in their activism. Foster writes that these socialist thinkers
“provided systematic if uneven and sometimes contradictory ecological
critiques…that were crucial both in their day and ours—a legacy what we can
no longer afford to do without”.2
E Ray Lankester’s dialectical ecology

One figure who exemplifies the continuity between Marx and later
generations of scientific thinkers was the biologist E Ray Lankester.

Lankester was present at both Darwin’s and Marx’s funerals. In his famous
essay “The Darwinian Gentleman at Marx’s Funeral”, the writer and scientist
Stephen Jay Gould downplays Lankester’s presence as an anomaly, “a niggling
little incongruity from the history of…evolutionary biology”.3
<> Gould
writes that “conservative” Lankester “harboured no secret sympathy for
Marxism” and suggests their friendship arose merely out of the older Marx’s
interest in supporting a younger scholar.4
<> But
this is incorrect. As Foster explains, in the last years of Marx’s life
Lankester was a frequent visitor to Marx’s household. One of the reasons
that Marx’s ecological critique remains so important is that he and Engels
engaged deeply with contemporary scientific discussions. Thus, their mutual
friendship with scientists such as Lankester and the chemist Carl
Schorlemmer should not be a surprise. Foster also demonstrates, against
Gould, Lankester’s youthful radicalism (though he also critiques his
opposition to women’s suffrage much later in life).

Crucially though, it was Lankester’s “thoroughgoing materialism” that
mattered to Marx. In this period of his life, Marx was also engaged in
compiling his *Ethnographic Notebooks* that contain much material on
scientific and anthropological studies. There is little doubt that his
friendship with Lankester would have helped in producing these notes.

Lankester’s conservative positions on women’s suffrage in later life did
not prevent him from engaging in debates against eugenics, which was a key
part of scientific discourse about biology at the time. He was “incensed
when such eugenicist ideas penetrated the general socialist movement”.5
<> But
what is crucial about Lankester is less the specific positions that he took
on contemporary political debates and more his dialectical method in
scientific questions. Speaking at a conference on science and fisheries in
1883 Lankester challenged the biologist Thomas Huxley. Huxley had opened
the event by highlighting the “inexhaustible” fish stocks that could never
be entirely depleted, despite the “destruction effected by the fisherman.”
By contrast:

Lankester emphasised in great detail the ecological complexity of fisheries
and the “interaction of the various organisms.” Indeed, so complex were
these relationships that understanding them required detailed knowledge of
the “the habits and life-histories of the animals concerned,” including
their interactions with all other related species. In Lankester’s
assessment, fisheries, due to the lack of scientific knowledge of
environmental relationships, were far more destructive to species and
entire life systems than was usually supposed.6

It is precisely this dialetical approach to ecology which would have been
of interest to Marx. Lankester combined an understanding of the mutual
interaction between species at the heart of ecological systems with an
appreciation of the impact of human actions upon those systems. A couple of
years after his argument with Huxley, he wrote insightfully, “we recklessly
seize the produce of the seas, regardless of the consequences of the
method, the time or the extent of our depredations”.7
William Morris and the “system of waste”

A grasp of these sorts of dialectical relationships characterise many of
the thinkers in this book. As Foster explains:

In various ways, the major socialist thinkers addressed in this book, all
of whom were concerned with the social relation to nature, as mediated by
science and art via labour and production, came to similar conclusions with
respect to the dialectic in history, seeing this as the realm of “freedom
as necessity”, in Engels’s sense.8

It is just such a dialectical approach to the relations between nature,
labour, art and society that is so crucial to understanding the work of
William Morris. Some on the left regard Morris as one of the few socialists
to incorporate ecological thought into his work.9
<> By
contrast, Foster argues that Morris’s incorporation of nature into his
writing was the result of a “deep reading” of Marx’s writings and an
understanding of the alienation from nature experienced by people under

Foster claims that Morris arrived at a “similar conception of alienated
labour under capitalism” to Marx. It was this understanding that
underpinned his views on what labour is under capitalism and what it might
become under socialism. This understanding of labour placed the
relationship between society and nature at its heart. As Morris wrote in

The mass of people employed in making all those articles of folly and
luxury, the demand for which is the outcome of the existence of the rich
non-producing classes… These things, whoever may gainsay me, I will forever
refuse to call wealth: they are not wealth, but waste. Wealth is what
nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of
nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled
face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the
storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it;
means of free communication between man and man; works of art…all things
which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly and uncorrupted. This is
wealth. Nor can I think of anything worth having that does not come under
one or other of these heads. But think, I beseech you, of the product of
England, the workshop of the world, and will you not be bewildered, as I
am, at the thought of the mass of things which no sane man could desire,
but which our useless toil makes—and sells?10

Foster states that Morris’s significance is that “more than any other
figure within English socialism, he created a distinctive revolutionary
vernacular, wedding this to a socialist aesthetic and an ecological
Certainly Morris’s visions of socialism and his critique of capitalism
should appeal today to a new generation of ecologically-minded
revolutionaries. Few other radicals in the 1880s were concerned about
capitalism’s “system of waste”. As Foster shows, Morris demonstrated a deep
understanding of the problems of capitalist production and how it wastes
resources and human life. Moreover, contrary to some studies of Morris,
Foster argues there is nothing in his writing that suggests a “return to
nature” as being a component of the transition to socialism. Instead,
Morris believed that socialism would transform humanity’s relations to
nature, as was also envisaged in the writings of Marx and Engels.
Friedrich Engels and ecology

The work of Engels is a key part of *The Return of Nature*. Foster examines
how issues of ecology (in their broadest sense) were key to his writing.

Engels’s pioneering 1845 study *The Condition of the Working Class in
England* is often cited as an exemplary analysis of how capitalism destroys
the people who work for it.12
<> It
is still possible to visit some of the sites in Manchester graphically
described by Engels in his account of the poverty, disease, squalor and
environmental degradation that he encountered during his visit between 1842
and 1844. These conditions and the analysis of the system that created them
are minutely explored in Engels’s book.

However, reducing Engels’s environmental understanding to this one book
misses the way that ecological thinking was central to his life’s work.
Foster claims that Engels was an “early exponent of an ecological
worldview, and particularly of the dialectical relation between human
beings and nature”:

Engels’s view of nature was not a reified one associated with economic
categories of capitalist commodity production, where nature was reduced to
something to conquer and exploit. Rather, from the start, he recognised the
intrinsic value of nature and hence the tragedy of its estrangement under

Foster argues that Engels thus develops a broader sense of the working

In focusing on the working class under capitalism in all of its
forms—industrial, agricultural, mining—and on the overall environmental
conditions of the proletariat, Engels was developing a concept of the
working class that was environmental in character, rather than the narrower
notion of an industrial proletariat of purely factory workers that was
later to prevail among many socialists—and their critics.14

Here, Engels’s ideas mirrored those of Morris. Morris’s vision of
socialism, as expounded, for instance, in his novel *News from Nowhere*,
contains a similar broad understanding of workers (and work) that is not
simply about industrial production but about productive labour in its wider

Engels’s analysis was heavily dependent on Marx’s theory of the “metabolic
rift”. The separation between urban and rural areas under capitalism
ruptured the historic relations between people and the natural world.
Engels went on to further develop these ideas, but unfortunately left much
of this work incomplete at the end of his life.

Foster shows how Engels’s work, however unfinished, remains crucial to a
radical understanding of ecology. At the core of *The Return of Nature* is
a study of his dialectical thinking. One key part of this was Engels’s
development of a materialist understanding of human evolution. In his 1876
essay “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”, Engels
argued that scientists had neglected the role of labour in shaping human
evolution. As Foster explains:

Engels, as a dedicated materialist and egalitarian, sought to counter all
such views of inherent human inequality with a materialist anthropological
approach, emphasising labour as the basis of human self-creation and
slavery or servitude as a product of the development of class society… He
argued that attempts to explain human evolution by purely biological
factors…left out what was most important: the active role of human beings
in their self-creation through the transformation of nature and their
relation to nature by means of labour.15

Engels also famously extended this critique to an explanation of the
development of women’s oppression in society—arguing that this is not
rooted in nature, but in concrete historical circumstances.

However, it is Engels’s *The Dialectics of Nature* that proved most
influential for a generation of radical scientific thinkers. This
unfinished 1883 work was first published in 1925 in Russian and German but
not available in English until 1940. Arriving for English readers in the
midst of the Second World War, an incomplete scientific work written in the
middle of Queen Victoria’s reign ought to have had little impact. Yet for
some scientists Engels’s method provided a way of approaching scientific
questions that broke free of the tendency to view the world in terms of its
component parts. It also challenged the assumption of human domination of
nature. The influential communist scientist J D Bernal noted the importance
of ecological issues to *The Dialectics of Nature*, as Foster notes:

A crucial contribution on Engels’s part, Bernal argued, was his critique of
notions of human mastery of nature. Bernal quoted from this at length.
Engels had powerfully diagnosed the failure of human society to foresee the
ecological consequences of its actions—including, in Bernal’s words, “the
effect of undesired physical consequence of human interference with nature
such as the cutting down of forests and the spreading of deserts”.16

However, it was the question of dialectics that was so important to a
generation of 20th century radical scientists. In his ground-breaking book *The
Social Function of Science*, Bernal argued that dialectical thought gave
scientists a unique overview of interacting systems: “Dialectical
materialism can…do two things: suggest the directions of thought which are
likely to be particularly fruitful in results, and integrate and organise
different branches of scientific research in relation to one another and to
the social processes of which they form a part”.17
Science and communism in the 20th century

A key moment in the development of a left-wing movement within the British
scientific community was the 1931 Second International Congress on the
History of Science and Technology in London. At short notice, a delegation
from the Soviet Union arrived, led by Nikolai Bukharin. At this conference,
papers on philosophical and historical ideas presented by Bukharin and
others “came to exercise a dominant influence on younger socialist-oriented
British scientists”. One scientist, quoted by Foster, gives a sense of the
shock and power of the presentations made by the Soviet delegation:

The most remarkable paper delivered at this congress was that of Boris
Hessen, on the “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s *Principia”*. It
had never occurred to me, or to most other people, that Newton’s *Principia*
had any social and economic roots… Hessen sketched an outline of the social
origins of this greatest of scientific works. The argument of his paper was
quite simple, and it was obvious to British historians that there was much
relevant information which he did not quote… But the limitation of the
scope of Hessen’s knowledge was irrelevant; he was a professor of physics
in a Moscow university, not a British historian. It was the penetration of
his thought, arising from his command of both mathematical physics and
Marxism, that enabled him to reach new depths in the understanding of
Newtonian science that intellectually superseded other historical analyses,
however much more learned.18

The conference, and the books and papers it produced, would become
touchstones for a generation of scientists. Sadly, several of the Soviet
delegation, including Bukharin and Hessen, were to become victims of
Stalin’s purges within a few years of the conference.

The importance of dialectical ideas to generations of scientists in the
20th century should not overshadow the battles that took place over
scientific and political questions in the first half of the century. For
instance, Foster documents the struggle by Arthur Tansley, a key figure in
biological science, to fight for his ecological science, opposed by
right-wing scientists. Prior to the Second World War the influence of
right-wing ideas in biology also coalesced around figures like Jan Smuts,
the South African general and politician whose holistic views of science
masked a virulent racism. Indeed as Foster explains, “in the early 1930s
ecology was being promoted by reactionaries as well as radicals and the
former seemed to be gaining the upper hand.”

It can be argued that the influence of reactionary science culminated in
the use of eugenics by the fascist European regimes and has retreated since
then. However, the post-war period has certainly not seen the triumph of
radical dialectical thinking within science.19
<> The
Second World War saw a peak in the influence of what Foster calls “Red
Scientists”, such as Haldane and Bernal, in Britain. In the post-war
period, a radical science movement emerged again in the 1960s, encouraged
by the movements against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War. But it is
fair to say that today, despite the participation of many working
scientists in the environmental movement, we are yet to see the emergence
of a similar revolutionary scientific movement.

The absence of such thinking has no doubt undermined the ability of
scientists today to challenge the predominant ideological narratives.
Political and scientific responses to contemporary environmental crisis
usually begin from neoliberal economic approaches such as those preoccupied
with the idea of “natural capital” or those that look to technological
<> Not
enough scientists take their starting point from a dialectical
understanding of the interaction between society and nature. Such an
approach is incredibly powerful. Take a point made by J D Bernal in 1954
about industrial agriculture, quoted by Foster:

The success of modern mechanical agriculture and lumbering has been at the
expense of ruining a dangerously large proportion of the soil of the planet
and of changing its climate unfavourably to almost all forms of life… The
destruction of the soil has been enormously accelerated in the last fifty
years by the methods characteristic of ruthless capitalist exploitation for
immediate profit. The actual destroyers of the soil need not themselves be
the capitalists. They may be poor share-cropping farmers who have to secure
a large harvest of cash crops in order to prevent themselves from being
evicted or Africans driven on to reserves by Europeans who take all the
best land. The different causes lead to the same result, and the process is
continually accelerating. The less there is in the land, the more it has to
be exploited and the worse its condition becomes.21

Today, the scale of the social and environmental catastrophe that we face
demands a revolutionary response. It requires an approach that places the
society-nature dialectic at the centre of understanding the current,
manifold crises of capitalism, and the potential solutions. Foster’s book
shows brilliantly that such an approach has existed in the past and must be
renewed today. *The Return of Nature* is both a unique study of that
history and a detailed account of the type of ecological thinking that we
need in the 21st century. Together with *Marx’s Ecology*, this book ought
to be widely read by socialist and environmental activists as well as
within the scientific community.

*Martin Empson* is the author of *Kill all the Gentlemen: Class Struggle
and Change in the English Countryside* (Bookmarks, 2018) and the editor of
the book *System Change not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to
Environmental Crisis* (Bookmarks, 2019).

Highlighting the importance of Foster’s work is not intended to downplay or
ignore the contributions of other thinkers. For instance, Paul Burkett’s
important *Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective* was published in
1999. Moreover, as both Foster and Burkett have highlighted, there has been
a long, though frequently neglected, record of Marxists engaging with
ecological ideas in the 20th century. See Foster and Burkett, 2016, pp2-4.

Foster, 2020, p22.

Gould, 2006, p167.

Gould, 2006, p177.

Foster, 2020, p53.

Foster, 2020, p57.

Quoted in Foster, 2020, p58.

Foster, 2020, p10.

For instance, see Kovel, 2007, p226 and p230.

Quoted in Foster, 2020, p104. From “How We Live and How We Might Live” in
Morris’s *Signs of Change*.

Foster, 2020, p110.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and a renewal of Marxist
discussions about capitalism, illness and epidemics, Engels’s comments on
disease in *The Condition of the Working Class in England* are of
particular interest. Foster also discusses Engels’s 1872 work *The Housing
Question*, which is frighteningly prescient on this subject and others.

Foster, 2020, p179.

Foster, 2020, p197.

Foster, 2020, p272.

Foster, 2020, p414-415.

Bernal, 2010 [1939], p231.

Foster, 2020, p365.

As Angela Saini’s recent book *Superior: The Return of Race Science* (2019)
explains, although the Nazi regime and the Holocaust badly damaged the
public image of the eugenics movement and “race science”, these phenomena
are re-emerging today.

On “natural capital” see Rappel, 2018.

Foster, 2020, p461.

Bernal, J D, 2010 [1939], *The Social Function of Science* (Faber & Faber).

Burkett, Paul, 1999, *Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective*

Foster, John Bellamy, 2020, *The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology*
(Monthly Review).

Foster, John Bellamy and Paul Burkett, 2016, *Marx and the Earth: An
Anti-Critique* (Brill).

Gould, Stephen Jay, 2006, *The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay
Gould* (Jonathan Cape).

Kovel, Joel, 2007, *The Enemy of Nature* (Zed).

Rappel, Ian, 2018, “Natural Capital: A Neoliberal Response to Species
Extinction”, *International Socialism 160* (autumn),