Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "Marxism and Ecology"

John Bellamy Foster

The purpose of my Great Transition essay was to seek common ground and to demonstrate the importance of Marxian theory in forging a broad popular alliance in the face of the present planetary emergency. In response to those who have asked “Why Marxism?” my answer is that it is precisely socialism that reaches out to the majority of the world’s population, “the wretched of the earth,” envisioning a sustainable human transition in which their role is central. It is potentially the largest, most coherent movement for revolutionary change in the world, visible today in mass actions taking place on every continent, and embracing the struggles of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. (See David Barkin’s powerful comment.)

The new discoveries within Marxian ecology, reaching back to the foundations of historical materialism, are as important today as were the revelations on Marx’s theory of alienation in the 1960s. What is crucial is how Marxian thought is able to cross the “fissure” (as Paul Raskin calls it) separating the struggles for social justice and ecology through a critique of the system that simultaneously addresses both of these contradictions.

The meaning of materialism is a common source of confusion in discussions about the relationship between Marxism and environmentalism. The older meaning, going back to ancient Greek philosophy (particularly Epicurus) and incorporated into modern science, has to do with the rejection of teleological thinking or final causes, and is akin to the notion of naturalism. The later meaning, which arose in the Christian polemic against materialist philosophy and science, refers to the pursuit of worldly goods, commercialism, etc.1 It is, of course, the older meaning intrinsic to science which I evoked in my essay. Marxism is materialist in its emphasis on material-sensuous existence as the starting point. But this does not prevent it from developing alliances with some humanist religious movements, such as liberation theology.

It is not uncommon to see Malthus enlisted to combat Marx (Tim Jackson’s response explores some of the intellectual history). Malthus is generally despised by socialists (see Kent Klitgaard) as the epitome of Alexander Pope’s “man’s inhumanity to man.” He was a sworn enemy of the working class. His treatment of the population-food problem was directed at justifying class hierarchy and poverty. It had nothing to do with an ecological perspective, which, as Eric Ross has shown, only came to be associated with his thought with the rise of neo-Malthusianism in the 1940s, and even then lacked any scholarly basis. Ironically, Marx, in his critique of Malthus, wrote about “overpopulation,” taking it seriously as a historical problem, while Malthus avoided the term (referring instead to an “overcharged population”) since it was in conflict with his strict equilibrium population-food theory. Malthus denied the existence of natural limits with respect to “raw materials,” contending that they were in “great plenty” and that “a demand will not fail to create them in as great a quantity as they are wanted.”2

There are also common confusions regarding Marx’s approach to the labor theory of value. Marx makes a crucial distinction between wealth and value (and between use value and exchange value). Wealth, for Marx, was derived from both nature and labor, and was associated with the production of natural-material use values. In contrast, value (or exchange value) under capitalist commodity production—as expressed by the labor theory of value of classical political economy—excludes nature, which is treated as “a free gift…to capital.” Hence, nature (real wealth), as Marx emphasized, was systematically robbed.3 Here it is important to remember that Marx was a critic of capitalism. The labor theory of value was the key to explaining capitalism’s laws of motion, but the real object was not to understand capitalism but to transcend it—including the commodity-value relations on which it was based.

I found the attempt in some responses (Jackson  and Giorgos Kallis) to dissociate capitalism from the accumulation of capital to be at variance with history, theory, and logic. The Marxian approach focuses on accumulation as the defining characteristic of capital as a social relation, rooted in the class-based exploitation of labor. It is this that constitutes the driver of the entire system (see the comments by Fred Magdoff and Klitgaard). As Joseph Schumpeter stated, “a stationary capitalism would be a contradictio in adjecto.”4 To argue, as some non-Marxian ecological economists now do, that capitalism can exist over the long run with no net capital formation (necessary for zero economic growth) is to deny not only the expansive character of the system, but also its entire set of class-property relations.

Did Marxism, as some have charged, fail to embrace ecology readily in the 1960s and 70s (or earlier)? A more accurate assessment would be that, while socialists have always been at the forefront in the development of ecology, the socialist movement as a whole—as was also the case for liberalism—consistently lagged behind its most advanced thinkers where ecology was concerned. It is true that the USSR (which, in the course of the Stalinist era, became an extremely oppressive regime far removed from Marx’s notion of a socialist society controlled by the associated producers) did extensive environmental damage. But it was hardly alone in that regard. It is worth noting—in contradiction to simplistic views of the Soviet Union as a monolithic society—that in the late 1970s and early 1980s the USSR gave rise to the biggest environmental movement of any country in the world, with 32 million in its largest conservation organization. As was the case everywhere in the world, environmentalism arose in the USSR as an oppositional movement. But Soviet environmentalism was distinctive, as Douglas Wiener has demonstrated, in the degree to which it was led from the 1960s on by high-ranking scientists. It was in the USSR that the danger of accelerated climate change was first raised within science.5

What we must remember in all of this is that the Great Transition, if it is not to be a mere slogan, depends on creating common ground, a new earthly commons. This demands an epoch-making alliance of humanity in movements throughout the world. But that, in turn, requires, as Hannah Holleman explained, developing a “revolutionary environmentalism” committed to the needs of “the earth itself and [the] 99 percent.” In the present planetary emergency, there is no other answer. It is here that Marxism has a central role to play.

1. Raymond Williams, Key Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 197-201.
2. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population and a Summary View of the Principle of Population ([1798]; London: Penguin, 1970), 100, 120, 134; Eric B. Ross, The Malthus Factor (London: Zed, 1998); Karl Marx, Grundrisse ([1858]; London: Penguin, 1973), 604-08; John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 81-104, 142-44.
3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 37, 733; Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (New York: International Publishers, 1938), 3-4.
4. Joseph Schumpeter, Essays (Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1951), 293.
5. John Bellamy Foster, “Late Soviet Ecology and the Planetary Crisis,” Monthly Review 67, no. 2 (June 2105): 1-20; Douglas R. Weiner, “The Changing Face of Soviet Conservation,” in The Ends of the Earth, ed. Donald Worster (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 252-73.

John Bellamy Foster
John Bellamy Foster is the editor of Monthly Review and a Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon. His books include The Ecological Rift (with Brett Clark and Richard York) and What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism (with Fred Magdoff).

Cite as John Bellamy Foster, author's response to GTI Roundtable "Marxism and Ecology," Great Transition Initiative, (October 2015),

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