Interaction between humans and nature has fundamentally shaped the world we live in.
It’s often said that Marxists treat environmental politics as secondary to class politics.
Another charge levelled against Marxists is that they see the natural world as subordinate to the needs of humanity.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The basis of the charge lies in the crass oversimplifications that were at the heart of Stalinist “philosophy”. This held that iron-clad laws governed everything in nature.
Engels developed ideas that were far more nuanced.
He wrote, “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first.”
Marx and Engels could not have known the devastating impact that climate change would have on life on Earth.
Yet they situated humanity’s relationship with the planet within a philosophical and scientific framework that sees society as shaped by historical processes rather than absolute values.
Marx and Engels were deeply interested in the work of their contemporary Charles Darwin. They saw his ideas about changes in species as being similar to the way they understood the development of human societies.
The idea of constant change is at the heart of both theoretical frameworks. This stood in contrast to conservative ways of understanding the environment that see nature as static.
One bourgeois ideological understanding of nature portrays it as a constant, unsullied thing that exists independently of humanity.
It is to be enjoyed or exploited, not interacted with in a dynamic way—even if this is the real relationship.
Marx and Engels saw human society as riven with contradictions and conflict. These contradictions are everywhere.
For instance, there is no profit to be made on a dead planet. Yet capitalists continue to plunder and burn fossil fuels because they are gripped in a system of competition that pits them against each other.
If BP got rid of its carbon-based business it would go to the wall as its competitors cashed in.
So the death-march of environmental destruction tramps on. Similar contradictions are found everywhere in capitalist society.
Marx identified the working class as the force that can resolve these contradictions.
Workers create value in the system and are robbed of it almost simultaneously. This puts them in a uniquely powerful position.
In Capital’s third volume, Marx argued that capitalism creates “an irreparable rift in the independent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself”.
This means that the savage social processes that capitalism has unleashed separates humans from nature. These processes subordinate both the natural world and humans’ interaction with it to the drive for profit.
Capitalism reduces the natural world to something which is a source of either profit or bucolic fantasy.
The fight to limit the effects of climate change must be linked to the fight against capitalism. Otherwise the drive to profit will create yet more “unforeseen effects” that ravage the planet, and the people that create those profits too.