Marxism and the Origins of the Ecological Critique

John Bellamy Foster’s The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology (Monthly Review Press, 2020) shows the role played by biologists and other scientists with a non-mechanistic, materialist outlook, alongside various Marxists, in laying the foundations of ecology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

John Bellamy Foster | Il ritorno di Engels e l ...

John Bellamy Foster’s book The Return of Nature picks up where the author left off 20 years ago in Marx’s Ecology, which, as the title indicates, addresses the aspects of Marx’s critique of political economy that shed light on the consequences of capitalism’s development on the metabolism of nature. In his new work, Foster continues to elaborate, following Marx, the study of nature from a materialist, non-mechanistic outlook, understanding it as a hierarchical whole that is not static but rather in a state of permanent transformation.

In the period from the end of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th, which is the book’s focus, the materialist project was nurtured by contributions from many scientists and intellectuals who were key to the development of biology and other sciences. These thinkers debated how to do science; as proponents of a materialist outlook, they criticized those who held idealist views. As the author recounts in the introduction, the wide breadth of this history obligated him to reformulate the entire plan to give voice to more than a dozen protagonists, alongside a multitude of “supporting actors.” Foster briefly recounts their lives and works, using them to construct his narrative. And, as promised, the thinkers:

“who constitute the book’s focal point are incredibly varied, from the Leftist-Darwinist E. Ray Lanklester and the romantic Marxist Morris in the first part, to the classical historical materialist Friedrich Engels in the second part, and the Fabian ecologist Arthur Tansley, the “red scientists” J. D. Bernal, J. B. S. Haldane, Joseph Needham, Hyman Levy and Lancelot Hogben, and the cultural materialist Christopher Caldwell, in part three.” (4)

We have scientists as well as artists and writers like Morris and Caudwell, and the revolutionary leader Engels himself. Despite this wide diversity of thinkers, Foster sees them all falling into “the broad category of socialist materialists concerned with the dialectical interpenetration of nature and society, and the complex relations of evolution and emergence” (4).

The Return of Nature has a well-defined geographic focus on Great Britain. For various reasons expounded at the beginning of the book, Foster chooses to limit himself to this narrow spatial compass. Some of those reasons stand out: in Britain, as in no other country, there could be seen “the development of an intellectual heritage drawing directly on both Marx and Darwin”; that the links between the romantic movement, Marxism, and ecology were particularly strong there, reflected especially in the work of William Morris; and, finally, that among British Marxists in particular there was a strong current of “Emergentist Marxism,” with roots going back to ancient Epicurean materialism (9). Only the 1931 arrival of a prominent Russian delegation to the Second International Congress on the History of Science and Technology leads Foster to broaden his scope wide enough to consider the remarkable developments taking place in the USSR. These developments would be rudely interrupted in the years after the congress: the Moscow Trials led to the execution of the delegation’s most prominent member, Nikolai Bukharin. The rest of the participants were displaced after Trofim Lysenko consolidated power in the Academy of Sciences, from which he imposed an official line on the science of genetics with the backing of Stalin. Those reflections on the scientific method, which had such a great impact on British scientists at the 1931 congress, were thus cut sadly short in the USSR.

As Foster shows over 700 pages, each of these thinkers enriched ecological thought from perspectives critical of capitalism, laying the first foundations for an ecological critique in an era before environmental concerns had the urgency they do today. Much of this pioneering work was done by socialists, a fact that gets obscured in contemporary histories of these disciplines.

While received wisdom holds that ecology arose in a liberal universe, divorced from socialism, this is far from accurate: our analysis shows that ecology was, in its early days, deeply intertwined with struggles for human equality and the revolt against capitalist society. (25).

Just for demonstrating this so forcefully, Foster’s book is a welcome contribution. But, beyond this, he recovers the rich theoretical enterprise of those researchers who not only sought to deepen our understanding of nature — its complexity, its evolution, its interaction with social metabolism — but also bet on the progressive socialist transformation of capitalist society. For this reason, The Return of Nature is a fantastic contribution to today’s conversation on the relationship between social and natural metabolism, which is on the verge of catastrophic imbalance as a result of the unhinged dynamics imposed by capitalism.

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Nature, Complex, and Dynamic

The protagonists of The Return of Nature helped develop the conception of nature as a complete reality, in constant flux and interaction with human societies, either through their theoretical work in specific scientific fields or through more general reflections on the place of science and the effect of humanity’s actions on nature, of which it is a part.

To get an idea of the scope of the change in the scientific concept of nature that occurred from the 18th to the 19th century, we should look to the words of Engels, who is literally at the center of Foster’s book. Engels’s explanations had a profound influence on many of the other thinkers considered here, and his work stands out for the fundamental importance it assigned to capitalism’s effects on the climate — both rural and urban — and for his profound understanding of the science of his time, on which he debated on several occasions.

In his notes published posthumously as Dialects of Nature, a fragmentary and incomplete work taken from drafts of Anti-Dühring, Engels summarizes the formidable achievements of “modern natural science,” beginning in the second half of the 15th century, which, in his opinion, “alone has achieved an all-around systematic and scientific development.” It is this interconnectivity that distinguishes it from “the brilliant natural-philosophical intuitions of antiquity.” Even as it produced revolutionary advances in various fields, Engels observed, the period of scientific discovery that lasted until the end of the 18th century is characterized by

“the elaboration of a peculiar general outlook, in which the central point is the view of the absolute immutability of nature. In whatever way nature itself might have come into being, once present it remained as it was. … In contrast to the history of mankind, which develops in time, there was ascribed to the history of nature only an unfolding in space. All change, all development in nature, was denied.”

For this reason, as Engels writes, “high as the natural sciences of the first half of the eighteenth century stood above Greek antiquity in knowledge and even in the sifting of material, it stood just as deeply below Greek antiquity in the theoretical mastery of this material, in the general outlook of nature.”

In Dialectics of Nature, Engels celebrated the new discoveries and theoretical elaboration that, since the second half of the 18th century, had made this static worldview increasingly untenable. In physics and in astronomy, in the nascent field of geology, in biology with the Darwinian theory of evolution and other contributions that preceded it, a different perspective was arising, one that was more rich, complete, and dynamic.

The new conception of nature was complete in its main features; all rigidity was dissolved, all fixity dissipated, all particularity that had been regarded as eternal became transient, the whole of nature shown as moving in eternal flux and cyclical course.

One of the primary preoccupations of The Return of Nature is to show how the biologists, geneticists, and other scientists working under the influence of this new framework continued to nurture it through discoveries in their respective fields, while at the same time opening the door to new conflicts between those fields and that of ecology. We’ll briefly consider some of these.

E. R. Lankester, whose work is briefly outlined in the first chapter, furthered his studies of evolution. In one of his most important works, entitled Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism, Lankester “rejected the popular notion of evolution as a unilinear process of progress from simpler to more complex forms” (40). Lankester affirmed that there are three possibilities in the evolution of species: equilibrium, elaboration, or degeneration. This last he defined as “a gradual change of the structure in which the organism becomes adapted to less varied and less complex conditions of life.”1 According to Foster, rejecting a linear vision of evolution is “the necessary starting point for any ecological critique” (40).

The concept of an “ecosystem” was first formulated by the botanist Arthur Tansley in a polemic against John Philips, who defended an idealist “Holistic” position (according to which the whole is more than the sum of its parts), inspired by Jan Smuts. According to holism, systems tend to convert themselves into abstractions with a predetermined meaning, and they therefore always produce “progressive” evolution. In the field of botany, over which Tansley and Philips debated, one of the main consequences of this approach was to discard any lines of evolution deemed “regressive,” be it “retrograde succession” or “external disruptions.” These concepts, treated by several materialist biologists continuing down the lines pioneered by Lankester, offered the possibility of different evolutionary results. It was in contrast to Philips’s approach that Tansley originated the concept of an ecosystem, which, according to Foster, allowed an ecological analysis “without giving way to idealism, mysticism, and teleology” (409). According to Tansley, the goal of botanical analysis should be to conceive:

“the whole system (in the sense of physics), including not only the organism — complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment of the biome — the habitat factors in the widest sense. Though the organisms may claim our primary interest, when we are trying to think fundamentally we cannot separate them from their special environment, with which they form one physical system. … These ecosystems, as we may call them, are of the most various kinds and sizes. They form one category of the multitudinous physical systems of the universe, which range from the universe as a whole down to the atom.”2

In addition to questioning the teleological standpoint, Tansley presented the idea of nature as a totality, structured by systems of different scopes or hierarchy, each of which has specific properties, which he had sketched out in earlier works. Relationships of mutual dependence exist between various levels, each of which has different degrees of influence. Central to Tansley’s conception of ecology, Foster notes, was the dialectical notion of “the reciprocal action of different components” (410). For example, Tansley points out that:

“the climatic complex has more effect on the organisms and on the soil of an ecosystem than these have on the climatic complex, but the reciprocal action is not wholly absent. … What we have to deal with is a system, of which plants and animals are components, though not the only components. The biome is determined by climate and soil and in its turn reacts, sometimes and to some extent on climate, always on soil.”3

Just as important as the works elaborated on here are contributions from John Desmond Bernal, John Needham, J. B. S. Haldane, and several others.

Discourse on Method

A central question taken up by many of the authors surveyed by Foster is that of “emergentism.” According to Marxist scholar Zbigniew A. Jordan, emergentism, a concept which is implicit in the work of Engels, holds that:

“material reality has a multilevel structure; each of these levels is characterized by a set of distinctive properties and irreducible laws; and each level has emerged from temporally prior levels according to laws which are absolutely unpredictable with respect to those operating at the lower levels.”4

This way of understanding material reality, alongside the conclusions that emerge from it when studying it, is a point emphasized by several of the thinkers Foster has assembled. The aforementioned thought of Tansley is based on Hymen Levy’s theory, in which nature is characterized as a set of hierarchical and interdependent systems. Starting from there, he argues that “the whole method of science … is to isolate systems mentally for the purposes of study, so that the series of isolates we make become the actual objects of our study.” The isolated system, though, should always be conceived as a part of a larger reality, with which it is related and interacts: “The systems we isolate mentally are not only included as parts of larger ones, but they also overlap, interlock, and interact with one another. The isolation is partly artificial, but is the only possible way in which we can proceed.”5

Foster takes up these points from Tansley and Levy to conclude that:

“the materialist-scientific method uses abstraction as a method for ascertaining scientific laws whereby nature’s complexes can be isolated for analysis and investigated. Moreover, if there is any meaningful approach to examining nature it lies in recognizing that the world is in a constant state of flux, so that knowledge of it at best is concerned with processes and laws, which hold only at given levels of abstraction.” (404)

In the discussions reviewed in The Return of Nature, we find many ties to the scientific method Marx discusses in the introduction to the economic manuscripts of 1857–58, which were published posthumously under the title Fundamentals of a Critique of Political Economy (Grundrisse). Here, Marx proposes that material reality is a hierarchical totality, and that to fully comprehend that reality (i.e., to reproduce the concreteness of reality with similarly concrete thought, which is how science attempts to appropriate reality), one must proceed by means of abstractions. In other words, one must first disassemble reality into the simplest possible concepts in order to later reconstruct the relationships between them. In doing so, one comprehends them in isolation while also reconstructing, in thought, the relations that constitute the totality.

Il ritorno di Engels - Jacobin Italia

The Dialectic of Nature

The question of the dialectic of nature spans the entire length of The Return of Nature. One of the book’s three sections is devoted entirely to Engels’s contributions, of which an entire chapter deals with Engels’s views on the dialectic of nature.

The 1920s were a watershed moment for the theory of a dialectic of nature among Marxists theorists. As Foster observes,

“For those versed in the philosophical debates surrounding Marxism, no question has been more contentious than the dialectics of nature, the adamant rejection of which has separated the philosophical tradition known as “Western Marxism” from the Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals, while also driving a wedge between Marx and Engels.”

This last reference is to the common perception that Engels extended the dialectic into the study of nature, a path that Marx himself may not have followed.

The rejection of the dialectic of nature resulted in “an almost total abandonment of any connection to natural science (seen as inherently positivistic) within Western Marxism” (19).

Foster argues that those Marxist currents that rejected the dialectic of nature introduced a neo-Kantian dualism, one “that separated those phenomena that could be experienced from noumena, or things-in-themselves.”

“This was then transposed in Western Marxism into the notion that social/historical sciences were reflexive, with an identical subject-object (the Vician principle), whereas natural science relied on a naive positivism, failing to recognize the inherent limitations of our knowledge of the physical world, and the impossibility of a dialectical reasoning where reflexivity did not apply.” (22)

Georg Lukács, in a footnote to History and Class Consciousness (1921), was one of the first to object to the dialectic of nature, thus beginning a line of criticism against Engels. It’s a paradoxical case because, among other reasons, the text took inspiration from Hegelianism; that is to say, it was opposed in principle to neo-Kantianism. Several decades later, Lukács would correct his position on this point. In Ontology of Social Being, he questioned the interpretations that had arisen from his earlier text, clarifying that in his criticism of Engels, he did not reject the existence of an “objective dialectic.” According to Foster, Lukács would henceforth refer to a “typology” of dialectical forms, including “the objective dialectic of nature as well as the dialectic of human history.”6 To the question of how we can know this objective dialectic, Lukács responds that such knowing happens in two primary ways. In the first case,

“since human life [labor] is based on a metabolism with nature, it goes without saying that certain truths which we acquire in the process of carrying out this metabolism have a general validity — for example the truths of mathematics, geometry, physics and so on.” 7

In the second instance, in referring to scientific experimentation,

“Lukács argued, in line with Engels, that scientific experimentation, which involves interaction with nature under controlled conditions, can provide insights into nature’s own objective dialectic and its ever-changing laws, though knowledge derived from such experiments and from industrial practice had to be critically assessed as ideologically mediated.” (24)

According to Lukács’s later thought, the metabolism between humanity and nature was conditioned by nature’s dialectic, and at the same time it was the source of the human comprehension of that “objective dialectic” (25).

This dialectic of nature was never in dispute for most of the thinkers whose trajectories Foster traces in the book. Let us see what some of them had to say on the matter. Regarding the dialectical process, Needham asserted that Marx and Engels boldly claimed that the process actually occurs in evolving nature itself and that the undoubted fact that it occurs in our thinking about nature happens because we, and our thinking, are part of nature:

“We cannot consider nature otherwise than as a series of levels of organisation, a series of dialectical syntheses. From the ultimate physical particle to atom, from atom to molecule, from molecule to colloidal aggregate, from aggregate to living cell, from cell to organ, from organ to body, from animal body to social association, the series of organisational levels is complete. Nothing but energy (as we now call matter and motion) and the levels of organisation (or the stabilised dialectical syntheses) at different levels have been required for the building of our world.” 8

Bernal gives an account of the dialectic of nature when explaining the cumulative effects of the residues left by all natural processes, which sometimes generate tendencies to oppose the very processes that created them:

“Given any system whatever — not a static system, because … static systems are mere abstractions — given any system, then, besides the main activity of the system, there will always be left certain cumulative, residual effects. Now, these residual effects can be divided into those that contribute to the main activity and those that oppose it. The former may be reckoned as simply part of the main activity; but the latter are bound in sufficient time and in the absence of external disturbances to accumulate to such an extent that the whole nature of the system and its activity are transformed. In the simplest possible case this is merely an explanation of the universally recurring oscillatory changes. Any process, once set going by an initial impulse, continues in the absence of external forces until, passing its equilibrium position as a result of its own momentum, it is brought to a stop and reversed. But in more complicated cases, instead of mere oscillatory back-and-forth movement as the type of cyclic change everywhere, we get as the result of the opposition and stopping of the primary activity a new and qualitatively different one.” 9

The question of the dialectic of nature, as we have already seen, traverses the entire book. Not all the thinkers mentioned openly embraced the idea, but even those most reluctant to globally adopt it can nevertheless, in their research and writings, be seen to approximate its dynamic, complex, structured vision, including the interaction with social metabolism that Engels sought to account for. And, without exception, each of them enriched the non-mechanistic materialist approach to science, opposed to both idealism and empiricism.

The Rise and Fall of a “Science for the People”

During World War II Great Britain’s “scientific Left” (mostly members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, CPGB) was at the peak of its influence, though it faced fierce opposition from the start by liberals and conservatives alike.10 Authors such Bernal, Needham, and Hogben were part of an extended current that played an important role in diverse fields of inquiry; while each contributed to their individual field, they all simultaneously raised the perspective of social transformation, the notion of putting new knowledge at the service of society. Without questioning the strategic frameworks of the CPGB, they focused on debates about science and the social role of scientists and their research. In his book The Social Role of Science, Bernal puts forward the perspective of a “science for the people,” which is inseparable from a fundamental transformation of society itself. Though he recognized the importance of academic freedom within science, he objected to the notion of “pure science” that was often put forward to challenge any discussion about the role of science in society. The claims of “pure science” under the conditions of imperialist capitalism amounted to little more than excuses to disregard the period’s “increasing tendency to national monopoly of science in the interest of State power, economic and military.” Bernal concluded that, just as bourgeois revolutions had been essential for the growth of science, giving it, for the first time, a practical value, the human importance of science transcends in every way that of capitalism, and, indeed, the full development of science in the service of humanity is incompatible with the continuance of capitalism.”11

This group’s ascendency suffered severe setbacks in the early Cold War years; while sometimes harassed directly by the state, they were often confronted by fellow scientists (conservative and liberal alike) from organizations with extensive funding from the American CIA (543–44). This loss of influence anticipated a similar pattern that would occur in other fields of the Left over the coming decades. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in 1956, and the occupation of Hungary by the USSR in the same year, led to ruptures with Communist Parties across the world. In Great Britain, a fifth of the PCGB membership resigned immediately. Many intellectuals who left the party gave life to the New Left, out of which came the iconic magazine New Left Review. The second generation of the New Left, which arose in the 1960s without any militant ties to the CPGB, emerged primarily in the intellectual fields of “philosophy, history, and cultural studies, within what was understood as ‘Western Marxism,’ largely defined by its rejection of the dialectics of nature and thus dialectical materialism” (719). The better part of the contributions that these socialist-leaning scientists made during the first half of the 20th century has been forgotten.

The (Necessary) Return of Nature

In the 1960s and 1970s, during which revolutionary processes unfolded across the globe, the ecological critique grew with incredible vigor. One of the principal drivers of this was the nuclear threat, which gave rise to a movement for peace and disarmament, with Bernal among its prominent promoters.

In the heat of political radicalization, there appeared an entirely new cadre of anti-capitalist and socialist scientists, critically returning to the work of those who came before them. In the epilogue, Foster gives an account of some of the most notable contributors from then until today: Rachel Carson, Jack Lindsay, Stephen Jay Gould, Rita Arditti, Anne Fautso-Sterling, Ruth Hubbard, Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, Hilary Rose, and Steven Rose. Within a few years, the motto “Science for the People” gained purchase in the United States and Britain once more. This gave life to a broad movement challenging the “militarization of science” and its domination by capital. But, by the end of the 1970s, with the defeat and fragmentation of revolutionary processes, the political climate turned hostile to the development of these currents (and for Marxist and left-wing thought in general, which would experience a marked setback over the next two decades). Particularly on the environmental issue, Foster notes that

“the influence of radical anti-capitalist ecology was greatly weakened by the liberal environmental reforms of the 1970s, only to be further crippled by the backlash of Reaganism and the dire revelations about Soviet environmental mismanagement. It would not recover this lost ground for nearly a generation, in response to the mounting global catastrophe unleashed by capitalism.” (73)

As the global ecological catastrophe of capitalism grows more urgent and more undeniable each day, a Marxist ecological critique gains relevance and authority. This flows from the urgency of discussing “exit strategies” from our current mode of production, which subordinates everything, including the sustainability of the relationship between the social and natural metabolisms, to the profit motive. For Foster, this also necessitates that we “turn to the past,” not simply “in a historical sense but because the results that were obtained but now forgotten are crucial to our struggles in the present” (29). The return of nature to which the book’s title refers points to the “rediscovery of the ecological roots of human society” (29). Foster’s book is a major contribution to the project of recovering — with the benefit of hindsight — the Marxist or Marxist-influenced approaches to the complex interaction between society and nature, and thus to sharpen the weapons of our critique of contemporary capitalism.


Source: Published in Monthly Review, June 1, 2021

First published in Spanish on February 21 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by B.C. Daurelle

The author, Esteban Mercatante, is an economist from Buenos Aires.


  1. Edwin Ray Lankester, Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (London: Macmillan, 1880), quoted in Foster, Return of Nature, 40.
  2. Arthur G. Tansley, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms,” Ecology 16, no. 3 (1935): 284–307, quoted in Foster, Return of Nature, 523–24.
  3. Tansley, “Use and Abuse,” quoted in Foster, Return of Nature, 524–25.
  4. Zbigniew A. Jordan, The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism: A Philosophical and Sociological Analysis (London: Macmillan, 1967), 167.
  5. Tansley, “Use and Abuse,” 299–300, quoted in Foster, Return of Nature, 409.
  6. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 207, quoted in Foster, Return of Nature, 24.
  7. Theo Pinkus, ed., Conversations with Lukács (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1975), quoted in Foster, Return of Nature, 24.
  8. Joseph Needham, Time: The Refreshing River (Nottingham, UK: Spokesman, 1986), quoted in Foster, Return of Nature, 25.
  9. J. D. Bernal, “Dialectical Materialism,” in Hyman Levy et al., eds., Aspects of Dialectical Materialism (London: Watts & Company, 1934), 103–4, quoted in Foster, Return of Nature, 438–39).
  10. Among those who fought the influence of the so-called red scientists, there were even researchers who influenced many of them, such as the aforementioned Arthur Tansley; although he saw himself as a socialist inclined toward Fabianism (a reformist current that developed in Great Britain), he was hostile to the approached identified in Soviet Russia.
  11. J. D. Bernal, The Social Function of Science (1939), 242, 316, quoted in Foster, Return of Nature, 535–36.

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