A Resource for Scientific Radicals – The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology

A review of John Bellamy Foster’s The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology

By Dr Camilla Royle

The Return of Nature is a genealogy of ecological thinking. The word ‘ecology’ was not in common usage until the twentieth century, leading many to consider ecological thinking a fairly recent development. However, in this impressive volume, Professor John Bellamy Foster convincingly identifies a materialist ecological sensibility within works dating back a century prior to ecology’s popularization.

Starting with the funerals of Darwin and Marx in 1882 and 1883 respectively, the book traces how socialist thinkers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were integral to developing an outlook that acknowledges the complex relationship between human production and the rest of nature. 

The scientific discipline of ecology is sometimes assumed to have developed from a series of scientific studies, free from social and political influences. By the same logic, some also suppose that the socialist thinkers of the nineteenth century had little interest in ecological concerns, and consequently that the left were latecomers to the environmental movement in the late twentieth century. Foster’s work, both here and in his earlier books, has been driven by a desire to counter these views and therefore demonstrate the importance of Marxism for today’s radical ecological movements. His aim is to show that Marx adopted an ecological worldview throughout his writings; Marx saw humans as part of nature but also able to actively relate to nature through their labor.  

The Return of Nature was published at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (which is briefly mentioned in the prologue), yet much of the discussion is relevant to how we might analyze its origins and effects. Victorian cities such as London suffered terrifying epidemics of diseases including typhoid, typhus and cholera. As with COVID-19 today, these disproportionately affected the poorest residents with the worst living conditions. This is something Marx was also familiar with, especially as the Marx family was living in Soho in central London during a particularly deadly cholera outbreak in 1854. The story of how the source of the cholera epidemic was identified is well known. The physician John Snow convinced the authorities that cholera was a waterborne disease, rather than one spread through the air, and located the source at a water pump on Broad Street. When the handle of the water pump was removed such that people couldn’t drink the water, the epidemic subsided. 

Less well known is the mutual influence of science and socialism among some of the other protagonists of the story. After the epidemic, further investigations carried out by Edwin Lankester found that the well feeding the Broad Street pump was contaminated by a cesspit at 40 Broad Street, the site of one of the first cases of cholera. Lankester was part of a struggle against the conditions in which nineteenth century workers lived and worked, including crowded homes, overwork, and poor sanitation. In the discussion of Victorian working conditions, Marx, in Volume 1 of Capital, cites Lankester’s investigation into the case of a dressmaker named Mary Ann Walkley, who died after being made to work more than twenty-six hours without a break.

Although not a revolutionary, Lankester had radical views and talked about being on the side of the masses. His son, E. Ray Lankester, was a similarly impressive figure, a member of the Royal Society who directed the Natural History Museum in London between 1898 and 1907 — although he was apparently dismissed from this role for his attacks on the museum establishment. The younger Lankester was also a close associate of Marx and one of the few people to attend his funeral. Stephen Jay Gould, in “The Darwinian Gentleman at Marx’s Funeral,” referred to him as “a basically conservative biologist” and suggested that he saw in Marx’s friendship little more than an opportunity to discuss art and philosophy with another brilliant intellectual. However, Foster has a different take on their relationship. He accepts that Lankester did have some conservative views in later life. Depressingly, he did oppose women’s suffrage on the basis that he thought women did not have the same intellectual abilities as men. But Foster also highlights Lankester’s critique of the way in which a capitalist system driven by the needs of the market would have dangerous ecological consequences, including the spread of new disease epidemics and the increasing extinction of species. Lankester once wrote that “the capitalist wants cheap labour, and he would rather see the English people poor and ready to do his work for him, than better off.”

Foster also makes much of Lankester’s views on degeneration. In essence, Lankester was critical of the assumption that biological evolution was a story of continual progress towards more complex forms and argued that it could also result in less complex organisms. This form of what he called “degeneration” could be said to apply to human civilizations when humans undermine the ecological conditions of their own existence. So for Lankester, human history was, like the evolution of species, not simply a case of linear progress. Instead, he followed Marx in stressing the agency of humans to make their own history, though not under conditions of their choosing. Seeing the association between Marx and Lankester as a mere curiosity overlooks the radical implications of some of Lankester’s views as well as Marx’s own deep interest in Darwin and evolution. 

According to Foster, there are two lines of influence that can be detected by examining the thought of ecological socialist thinkers. One goes from Marx to Lankester and subsequently to figures such as ecologist Arthur Tansley and H. G. Wells, a Fabian socialist as well as an author. The other line runs from Engels via the 1930s generation of “red scientists” and into the late twentieth century.  

Engels was indeed one of the most important Marxist figures in the development of an ecological materialist worldview; a substantial portion of this book is devoted to “Engels’s Ecology.” Engels set out to produce an account of how the dialectical processes Marx had uncovered in his study of society could also be observed by studying nature. As Foster explains, dialectics takes “as its fundamental reality the ever-changing character — as well as resulting contradictions, negations, and qualitative transformations — of both the material world at large and the human condition within it.” It is a philosophy that sees dynamism as inherent to the way the world works rather than assuming that things remain static unless they are influenced by an outside force. 

Engels’s notes were published decades after his death as The Dialectics of Nature with the help of JBS Haldane, one of the founding figures of modern evolutionary biology and a sympathizer of the Communist Party. From the early twentieth century, there has been a protracted debate among Marxists surrounding this text and, more broadly, whether Engels was right or wrong to argue that dialectical processes exist in nature — where human subjectivity does not play a role. This is not helped by the fact that The Dialectics of Nature was not published in Engels’ lifetime and the various published editions have been translated and edited posthumously by others. Therefore, it is difficult to know what a final text from Engels would have looked like or whether he would have expressed his ideas in the same way if he had been able to finish working through his ideas.  

However, this does not mean that we cannot learn much from Engels. He developed an account of nature that recognized that it could be understood in historical terms. Processes of change and development, and sometimes abrupt or qualitative leaps, are inherent to the natural world. In the nineteenth century, this would have been demonstrated most strikingly by Darwin’s account of the evolution of new species. Key to Engels’s thinking was the recognition that humans are a part of nature but are also able consciously to manipulate the environment around them and, in the process, change themselves. Engels’ dialectical materialism was at odds with the prevalent mechanical materialist views of the late nineteenth century, which tended to reduce the natural world to passive matter and treat it as fixed rather than dynamic. As Foster demonstrates, if we want to address Engels’ ecological thought, we should also turn our attention to his other works, including The Condition of the Working Class in England, a much earlier book in which he describes the effects of water and air pollution and disease epidemics, and analyzes how capitalism has created the conditions for these environmental hazards. 

A later chapter, “A Science for the People,” discusses the organization of that name in the 1970s and 1980s (whose magazine, also called Science for the People, was a forerunner of this publication) and the nearest thing to a British equivalent, the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. Foster rightly points out that the original Science for the People was influenced by the 1930s generation in their critique of the idea that science is separate from social relations. But they had some key political differences. As part of the New Left, they were less likely to be sympathetic to greater state control of science compared to previous generations. Several members of the organization were associated with developments in biological and ecological thinking. For example, Science for the People member Richard Levins was part of developing an ecological critique of the assumption that there is harmony in nature. He described a co-evolutionary relationship of humanity and nature where processes of change are inherent to both. Foster also points to a 1973 editorial in the original magazine, “Ecology for the People,” in which members of the organization called for revolution as the solution to the social inequality and ecological devastation that is typical under capitalism. 

The example set by the likes of Levins or Lankester shows how scientific enquiry has often been influenced by the philosophical viewpoints of scientists and their concerns for social and environmental justice. It demonstrates that we cannot treat science as a neutral activity carried out by apolitical thinkers. Indeed, as Foster argues, the politics of these scientists informed their ecological worldview and “it is this method of ecological critique arising out of the socialist critique of capitalist society that is seen here as most important, since it provides the indispensable means for a revolutionary dialectical ecology.”

Most of the key thinkers described in the book are men. However, Foster does point to some fascinating examples of women in science going back to the nineteenth century, whose work has not been so well known. For example, it is likely that the biologist Phebe Lankester (the wife of Edwin) was part of the investigation of the water from the Broad Street well. But as a woman, her work would have been carried out “behind the scenes.” Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England was first translated to English by an American woman, Florence Kelley, in the 1880s. Kelley was the chief inspector of factories in Chicago, who investigated the brutal conditions of child laborers in the city and campaigned for an 8-hour day. She played a major role in the social history of the United States. 

The Return of Nature is focused on Britain, with a few exceptions including the section on Science for the People. This has allowed Foster to trace a coherent narrative, drawing out the influence of Marx, Engels, and Darwin in the country where they spent most of their lives. Of course, any project of this type is bound to be limited in the amount of ground it can cover, but it is worth acknowledging some of the gaps as readers may want to consider how their own research could add to our knowledge of the contributions of women or thinkers from other parts of the world. The book also leaves open the question of whether we are now seeing the start of a new generation of scientific radicals in the twenty-first century. 

Rather than providing a conclusion, Foster ends the book with a short chapter on the Greek philosopher Epicurus, the subject of Marx’s doctoral thesis. It seems that Foster would prefer to let the thinkers whose work he discusses speak for themselves, rather than try to provide an overall summary of their varied thought — which would also be impossible to attempt in this short review. Perhaps what we can say is that one of the central contributions of dialectical thinking is its rebuke to the assumption that “nature” is a fixed or stable realm separate from human society. This dualistic way of thinking so often results in the environment being treated as an afterthought in our understanding of social relations — or worse — as an externality to the economic calculations of capitalists. By contrast, ecology as a scientific discipline addresses the relationships between living things and with their abiotic surroundings. This emphasis has led some ecologists towards an understanding of the role of human activity within such systems.

As Foster therefore argues, the legacy of the nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers discussed in the book is one “that we can no longer afford to do without in our age of combined ecological and social crisis.”  The Return of Nature shows how — if we want to understand issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, or the emergence of new pandemics today — it will take thorough research into ecological systems that also addresses the influence of human activity. That research will be driven by a demand for transformative societal change. We can use the analytical tools of the thinkers presented here to start to make sense of the destructive influence of capitalism on the biosphere and also paint a more hopeful picture of what a more rational relationship to the rest of the natural world might look like. 

The Return of Nature introduces us to some of the key figures in the development of an ecological worldview. Some of them, such as the writer and designer William Morris or biologist JBS Haldane, are relatively famous. Others, such as biologist Lancelot Hogben and the extraordinary British writer Christopher Caudwell are less widely known. Foster has shone new light on their lives and work. The book took years to write (at over 500 pages excluding the notes, Foster describes this as his “big book”) and involved dedicated research from numerous archival resources. The result is a volume full of biographical detail as well as sketches of the key contributions of the various thinkers to ecological thinking. Readers of Science for the People will be rewarded with many examples of great scientific radicals from previous generations to admire, and an opportunity to find out more about the figures who are, in many ways, the forebears of the producers and readers of this magazine.   

Source: Science for the People, SftP Online, May 10, 2021



Dr Camilla Royle holds a PhD degree on the topic Dialectical Biology: A Marxist Approach to Nature and Agency in the Anthropocene, from King’s College London. She is currently a university teacher in the Department of Geography at King’s College and the Department of Geography and Environment at the London School of Economics.

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