Marx and Nature

Issue section: 

Can Marxism help us understand our relationship with the environment? Did Marx himself ignore the role of nature? And do his theories need to be updated to incorporate ideas from the green movement?

Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature, along with Marx’s Ecology by John Bellamy Foster, was a major contribution to these debates.

Marx and Nature was originally published in 1999, a time when it was common sense, even among some on the left, to argue that Marx neglected the role of the
natural world.

Some academics and activists thought that socialism had become redundant and needed to be replaced with a new form of eco-socialism.

For example, James O’Connor proposed that there are two contradictions of capitalism.

If the first contradiction is that between capital and labour, there is also a second contradiction between capital’s immediate need to accumulate and its need to preserve natural resources for future use.

In contrast, Burkett argued that capitalism’s exploitation of workers and its treatment of the environment are part of the same problem.

Rather than trying to affix ecological thought onto Marxism, he turned to a detailed study of Marx’s own writings.

He demonstrated that Marx’s methods of analysis and economic conclusions could themselves provide powerful tools to help us understand our relationship with nature.

There are references to nature scattered throughout Marx’s writings. Burkett argued that these were no mere afterthought, that an understanding of the natural world was central to Marx’s worldview.

One of Marx’s key insights was that in a capitalist society it is human labour that produces value. Workers provide profits for the bosses.

This has sometimes led to the assumption that he treated nature as having no value and thought that natural resources were available in limitless supply.

But, as Burkett points out, Marx was fully aware of the way human societies have always related to nature and argued that production is shaped by the natural world in which it takes place.

When Marx talked about value he was describing the capitalist economic system. It is capitalism that treats nature as worthless. But of course Marx was not saying this is the kind of world he wanted to live in.

Marx and Nature deals with Marx’s economic thought in some detail. Those looking for perspectives on specific environmental issues such as climate change will not find it here.

And Burkett himself argued that socialists should use evidence from the latest science as well as Marxist theory.

But now that the climate is back on the agenda, this recently reissued book will be extremely important. Many of those taking part in demonstrations against climate change are critical of capitalism — Marx and Nature shows that Marxism is a vital resource for understanding the problem and for pointing the way towards a more just society.