Marx and Engels on the Sustainable Society

Written in July 1991, revised May 1992, revised for Healthearth Blog November 2011, republished here in December 2019.

The now almost orthodox view of Marx and Engels concerning the relationship humans have to the natural environment is that they endorsed a strongly anthropocentric or human centered philosophy which gave humans a position of dominance over the rest of nature. Moreover, it is frequently argued that their anthropocentrism is supported by their ‘materialism’ and its association with a view of perpetual progress. The net result of these broad philosophical beliefs was to produce human beings and social orders that have a crude instrumental view of nature, a belief in the unlimited satisfaction of ‘genuine’ human needs and wants and the infinite growth of an attendant economic system that produces material goods in response to those needs and wants.

It would appear that the society which is the outcome of these beliefs, is the opposite of what is currently understood as a ‘sustainable’ society. A sustainable society would at a bare minimum accept that there are environmentally imposed limitations on human material progress and that humans must learn to live in harmony with natural structures and processes. For human life and societies to have continuity, human needs and wants must find their expression most fundamentally within ecologically defined constraints.

With respect to the human-nature relationship, the value system associated with Marx and Marxism is thought to be no different to the value system associated with industrial capitalism. Exactly the same outcome arises where the destruction of the environment is seen as the unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the ‘development’ of ‘raw’ nature to suit human needs and interests. The common factor in both Marxian inspired ‘Socialist’ economies and free-market ‘Capitalist’ economies is the belief that human progress is dependent on a commitment to the ongoing growth of industrial society.

The major differences in the political and economic structures that animate these quite different social orders are of no great consequence when it comes to assessing their respective records on destruction of the environment. The central command economy and the free-market economy have equally bad track records on protection of environmental quality because they share a value system that elevates human material progress and economic growth above all else.

That Marx and Engels were ‘true believers’ in the prevailing anti-nature value system is based on a reading of their major works where there appears to be ample evidence of their adherence to this paradigm. Major support for this reading comes from the view that Marx in particular viewed humanity as “possessing” nature as its “inorganic body”, that nature must be “transformed” or “mastered” to satisfy human needs and that automated production and associated technology will be universally used to exploit nature while liberating humans in the process.

That Marx understood nature to be the “inorganic body” of humanity is not at all contentious. However, in the Early Writings Marx makes it clear that the message of this claim is not that humans ‘own’ or ‘possess’ nature as one might possess an automobile or a watch, but that humans interact in a vital way with the whole of nature in order to survive. Marx argues:

The life of the species in man as in animals is physical in that man, (like the animal) lives by inorganic nature… Man lives physically by these [plants, animals, minerals, air, light, etc.,] products of nature; they may appear in the form of food, heat, clothing, housing, etc. The universality of man appears in practice in the universality which makes the whole of nature his inorganic body: (1) as a direct means of life, and (2) as the matter, object and instrument of his life activity. Nature is the inorganic body of man, that is, nature insofar as it is not the human body. Man lives by nature. This means that nature is his body with which he must remain in perpetual process in order not to die. That the physical and spiritual life of man is tied up with nature is another way of saying that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.

(Marx, in Easton L. and Guddat K., eds [E&G] 1967:293)

 Humans are, according to Marx, uniquely self-conscious animals and they creatively apply consciousness to their interactions with nature. Other animals, by contrast, interact with nature on the basis of the instinctive satisfaction of basic needs, however, their own transformations of inorganic nature (beehives, termite mounds, beaver dams etc.) are not the products of active design. Furthermore, most animals are limited in their interactions with nature to specific ecological settings, while humans can transcend such limits to use the entire earth as a ‘home’. Humans are qualitatively different from other animals in that they can lead a universal life in conceptual and material terms. Marx comments:

The animal builds only according to the standard and need of the species to which it belongs while man knows how to produce according to the standard of any species and at all times knows how to apply an intrinsic standard to the object. Thus man creates according to the laws of beauty.

(Marx, E&G 1967:295)

Humans are productive in ways that go beyond the satisfaction of basic physical needs and through their productive work what is ‘natural’ for humans is the creative transformation of nature to suit their needs and interests. When humans exploit one another, particularly when the products of human labour are appropriated from its producer, the human becomes alienated from its own species potential. It is then, according to Marx, that the human becomes “inferior” to the animal since the human is alienated from “…his spiritual nature, his human essence, from his body and likewise from nature outside him.” (Marx, E&G 1967:295).

It is clear from these remarks that Marx did not see nature as the creation of human consciousness, as would an Idealist or Constructionist, rather he sees nature as external and independent of ‘mind’. Humans have through their naturally acquired intelligence the unique capacity to understand the ‘laws of nature’ as they affect all life forms. As a consequence of the workings of an intelligent and creative mind, humans recreate external nature as it appears to them, in a ‘humanised’ form. A Realist interpretation of Marx’s ideas would be that there is an external nature and that humans, through the media of sensory experience and rational thought, attempt to know that externality. Although a part of nature themselves, humans will have a uniquely human perspective on the totality of nature. In that no other animal has the capacity to “reproduce the whole of nature” as a consequence of its productive capacities, humans in some significant sense, have ‘superior capabilities than other life forms.

Marx would certainly not have agreed with those contemporary environmental philosophers who see, as a result of our interconnectedness with nature, all living species on this planet as having equal standing. Yet, despite this major difference, Marx does share with many modern environmentalists, the idea that nature is an extension of the body of humans. Inspired more by spiritual than material extension of the self into nature, writers such as Alan Watts in the 1960s created mottos for modern thinkers such as “the world is your body” (in Nash 1990:151). Deep Ecologists such as Fox, Seed and Naess all agree that there is “…no firm ontological divide in the field of existence” (Fox, in Devall and Sessions 1985:66). Marx, in seeing material existence as involving continuity of the organic and the inorganic actually anticipated one of the foundational planks of a distinctively environmental philosophy.

Marx’s organicism runs deeper than his recognition of the reciprocal relationships that exist between humans and the natural realm that sustains them. His Hegelian ancestry meant that the whole philosophical approach that is linked to the term “dialectic”, is an expression of a more systematic organicist perspective. The background to understanding Marx’s use of organic imagery is to know something of Hegel’s Organic or Dialectical philosophy. Hegel, in what he termed the “Dialectic”, tried to create a new type of philosophical reflection suitable for the explication of reality, which he saw as an organically unfolding process or development.

The model or metaphor most widely used by Hegel to convey to the reader just what this means is that of a natural organism, a plant, for example, and the way it grows or develops. In simple terms, a natural organism like a plant undergoes constant development from genesis to death. Such an organism displays both great unity, in that its ‘parts’ possess a common life, and great diversity, in that the ‘parts’, the bud, the blossom and the fruit, for example, display great structural variation.

In addition to this ‘unity in diversity’, an organism develops by a constant process of negation; the blossom replaces the fruit, the fruit replaces the blossom and the seed the fruit. All this change by ‘contradictions’ happens within the context of what amounts to an internal blueprint for all development from the outset. The seed, for example, contains internally all the ‘instructions’ it needs to grow into a tree, given a suitable environment. Hegel’s dialectical or organic philosophy was designed to counter a mechanistic and atomistic view of reality which had become popular under the influence of the founding fathers of modern reductionist science.

Marx incorporated this Hegelian way of thinking into his own theory. His and Engels’ views on organic life were also supplemented by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Marx, utilising a review of Capital written in 1872, quotes from the review in a way that brings the Hegelian and Darwinian elements of his thinking together. The reviewer states of Marx’s method:

In a word, economic life goes through an evolutionary history resembling that with which we are familiar in other domains of biology…the earlier economists misunderstood the nature of economic laws when they compared them with the laws of physics and chemistry… A profounder analysis of the phenomena has shown that social organisms differ from one another as fundamentally as do vegetable and animal organisms… the scientific value of such an investigation lies in the origin, existence, development, and death of a given social organism, and its replacement by another and higher one. Such, in fact, is the value of Marx’s book.

(Marx, 1974[1867]:lviii-lix)

Marx makes the following comment immediately after the passage just quoted:

When the writer describes so aptly and (so far as my personal application of it goes) so generously, the method I have actually used, what else is he describing but the dialectic method?

Marx, 1974[1867]:lix)

Marx’s analysis of the material basis of social organisation was to be a scientific application of the dialectical method to the history and contemporary reality of the way that humans interact with nature to produce their own means of subsistence. This required of Marx and Engels that they apply an organicist or dialectical way of thinking to all human action. As Marx himself put this idea in relation to his era, “… even the ruling classes are beginning to realise that contemporary society is not a solid crystal, but an organism capable of change and continually undergoing change” (Marx, 1974:li). Therefore, the epistemological stance of Marx was in support of organic or holistic ways of analysing parts, wholes and relationships. This too indicates that Marx and Engels thought in ways that anticipated the strong links that have been forged between the environmental movement and neo-organicist thought. In writers as divergent as Capra (1982), and Bookchin (1982), we can see the resurgence of philosophical organicism and its application to environmental matters.

The overwhelming emphasis in Marx’s writings was to explicate and evaluate the structural implications of the Capitalist mode of production from the perspective of a dialectically inspired materialism. His major concerns centered on how capitalist economies develop over time and the exploitation that characterised relationships between classes in society. However, as we shall now see, Marx and Engels displayed a surprisingly ‘modern’ grasp of the impact of the Capitalist mode of production on both social and natural ecologies.

Capitalism, according to both Marx and Engels, is based fundamentally on the unsustainable exploitation of both the productive capacities of human labour and the natural capital provided by the environment. It is symptomatic of relationships based on increasing levels of exploitation that those who are being exploited can, after a certain point, no longer sustain themselves. Although credited mainly with the elaboration of the exploitation of human labour, Marx, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, saw clearly the implications of both types of exploitation. In an important passage in Capital, Marx suggests the need for a law of social production that maintains human activity in balance with its support environment. He prophetically argues:

With the constantly increasing preponderance of urban population aggregated in the great centres, capitalist production increases, on the one hand, the mobility of society, while destroying, on the other, the interchange of material between man and the soil, that is to say the return to the soil of its constituents that are used by human beings in the form of food and clothing – a return which is the permanent natural essential for the maintenance of the fertility of the soil. Thus it simultaneously destroys the health of the urban labourer and the mental welfare of the rural worker. But, while thus destroying the natural and spontaneously developed system for the circulation of matter from the soil to human beings, and from human beings back to the soil, it necessitates the systematic restoration of such a circulation as a regulative law of social production, and its restoration in a form adequate to the full development of mankind.

(Marx, 1974:546-547, my emphasis)

The specific awareness of the systematic, reciprocal relationships that exist between human communities and their surrounding natural environments indicates that Marx had a very sophisticated ecological understanding of the human-nature relationship. His reference to a regulative law of social production that would maintain human activity in dynamic balance with nature is an idea that strongly anticipates the current demands for what is called “sustainable development”. What is unsustainable about much current production is that it is predicated on a perpetual, one-way flow of raw materials and energy from nature to society. Such unidirectional, ‘infinite growth’ in a finite system based on cycles and flows is clearly not sustainable in the medium to long term.

For Marx, capitalist production is based upon a set of values that enables the “foundations of all wealth – the land and the workers” to be exploited and destroyed by productive processes and technology. This view is supported by Engels who saw the ecological implications of the selfishness, egocentricity and short-sightedness of capitalist values. In the Dialectics of Nature, Engels observes:

When an individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual profit he is satisfied, and does not care what becomes afterwards of the commodity and its purchases. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What did it matter to the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of highly profitable coffee trees, what did it matter to them that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the now unprotected upper stratum of soil, leaving only bare rock.

(Engels, in Parsons, 1977:182)

In his mature writings Marx was primarily concerned to show the connections between environmental degradation and a decline in human vitality and health. In Capital, Marx makes an observation linking environmental and human health, which as we shall see below, is being repeated with tragic consequences in the late twentieth century. He warns:

Quite apart from the menace of a steadily growing labour movement, a restriction of the hours of factory labour was dictated by a necessity akin to that which has bought guano to manure English fields. The same blind eagerness for plunder which had, in one case, exhausted the soil, had in the other, exhausted the vital energies of the nation. Periodical epidemics speak as loudly here as does the reduction of the standard of fitness for military service in Germany and France.

(Marx, 1974:239-40)

In the Grundrisse, (1977[1857-8]:604-608), Marx presents a systematic attack on Malthus for over-emphasising the role of natural scarcity in setting limitations on human population size. What Malthus failed to acknowledge was that to a very large extent, human population levels are tied to the ‘specific conditions of production’ that operate at a particular point and place in human history. Modern environmentalists, particularly some Deep Ecologists, have rather simplistically tended to see human overpopulation as a major cause of environmental problems and a substantial decrease in human numbers as the ‘solution’ to those problems.

 As humans change the ways they produce their means of material existence they transcend previous limits to what could be produced. Marx would have reminded us that over history, the perceptions of what appeared to be natural limits to productive capacity have in fact been limits imposed only by the specific mode of production operating at that time. Thus, a hunting and gathering people would have limitations on the productive capacity of their home ‘territory’ set by the technologies they used and their ability to find food in a natural setting. Agricultural and industrial societies could use the same size ‘territory’ but have it be productive to a far greater extent and have it ‘carry’ a far more numerous population. The concept of over-population is certainly tied to the concept of the carrying capacity of the support environment, however, the carrying capacity is defined by both naturally imposed, absolute limits and socially imposed relative limits to productive capacity.

For Marx, it is a particular feature of Capitalist production that it converts food into a commodity, luxuries into ‘necessities’ and the labour of humans into surplus value or profit. It is these and other features of Capitalist society such as the need for perpetual unemployment that are the major causes of overpopulation. If overpopulation subsequently is implicated as a major contributing cause in environmental destruction, then its social genesis must be understood. Marx at least provided a theoretical framework for understanding how overpopulation emerges under capitalist values. Contemporary strands in environmental philosophy such as Deep Ecology show  great concern about overpopulation and carrying capacity, but they do not examine the social aspects of carrying capacity nor the specific features of Capitalism that contribute to overpopulation.

The thesis on carrying capacity and population forwarded by Marx is supported to a large extent by some contemporary writers on environmental issues. The Eco-anarchist, George Bradford, for example, has pointed out that Western Capitalist nations currently waste and deliberately dump enormous amounts of high quality food. He also argues that “…the present human population could be carried today if we did not put so much agricultural land into the production of such luxuries as coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar and beef cattle that mostly go to rich nations.” (in Watson, 1990:20-27). Put simply, it is largely the system of food distribution that is a problem in the present context of global population numbers, not a problem of productive capacity in relation to population size.

It is well known that Marx and Engels said little about the possible social structure of a post-capitalist society. Readers of their works are given the impression that a Communist society will be one where the abolition of private property will see the end to the alienation of human beings from their potential as creative, productive animals. Capitalist society will self-destruct since humans begin to see their full potential as individuals and as a species but have it denied to them by a numerically small but powerful elite. This happens under Capitalism, as distinct from all previous modes of production, because there is a drive toward the universal development of the forces of production. Marx argues on this point:

Hence the highest development of productive power together with the greatest expansion of existing wealth will coincide with depreciation of capital, degradation of the labourer, and the most straitened exhaustion of his vital powers. These contradictions lead to explosions, cataclysms, crises… and finally to violent overthrow.

(Marx 1977:749)

Capitalism, is for Marx, a necessary stage in human productive history because it is the last major step in progress toward the universal development of human beings. One possible interpretation of this ‘grand theory’ is that in the communist utopia, the productive machinery of Capitalism continues as before a revolution, changing only in that technology and machinery is owned by the workers or the people, not the capitalists. Thus, critics of Marx suggest that the technological ‘paradise’ of communism will be, with respect to environmental destruction, not in any way different from the technocentric destructiveness of industrial Capitalism. This view finds stark verification when current evidence suggests that environmental degradation in what was the Eastern Bloc may be worse than anything to be found in the Capitalist West.

However, this thesis ignores much of what Marx actually had to say about labour and technology under the Capitalist mode of production. It is true that Marx saw technology as a kind of liberating force. In Capital when discussing the development of manufacturing industry, Marx, barely containing his moral outrage, states:

The cheapening of labour power by the sheer misuse of labour power of women and children, the sheer theft of all the normal conditions of life and labour, and the sheer brutality of overwork and nightwork, encounters, at long last, certain limits imposed by nature, limits which cannot be overstepped… When this point is finally reached (and it is not reached for a long time), the hour has struck for the introduction of machinery…

(Marx, 1974:506, my emphasis)

Modern eco-anarchist writers such as Bookchin see machinery, particularly high-tech automated production, as having an important place in their own visions of an ecological society. Bookchin has no time for those who, for supposedly ‘environmental’ reasons, wish to encourage the use of labour-intensive work. Like Marx, he sees that labour-saving technologies “…would free human beings from needless toil and give them unstructured time for their self-cultivation” (Bookchin 1989:196).

With the introduction of industrial technology in the form of machines, Marx still insists that not only is alienation occurring via the extraction of surplus value, alienation happens because the machines have been built and designed by humans working within the exploitative parameters of the capitalist mode of production. This is a primary reason why workers are mutilated in such horrific numbers in industrial ‘accidents’ and why workers are poisoned by the very substances that they use in production. In the chapter in Capital on ‘The Working Day’ the reader gets the indelible impression that the whole system of production under capitalist values is an abhorrent thing for Marx. He argues, in a passage typical of his mature writings:

Whereas simple cooperation leaves the individual’s methods of work substantially unaltered; manufacture revolutionises these methods, and cuts at the root of individual labour power. It transforms the worker into a cripple, a monster, by forcing him to develop some highly specialised dexterity at the cost of a productive world of productive impulses and faculties – much as in Argentina they slaughter a whole beast simply in order to get its hide or its tallow (Marx,1974:381).

Under capitalist relations of production, according to Marx, “… machines can only arise in antithesis to living labour”, under different relations of production, Marx argued that there would be “… a changed foundation of production, a new foundation first created by the process of history” (Marx, 1977:833). Clearly, Marx has in mind the idea that in his vision of the new society, new relations of production entail a new mode of production. Given what has been argued in the context of human and environmental health above, and in particular the idea of a regulative law of social production that embraces the idea of ecologically sustainable development, it is inconceivable that Marx’s vision of the future society simply be the productive system of Capitalism minus the capitalists. What Marx might have had in mind with the idea of a changed foundation of production could easily be consistent with the ideas of ‘tools for conviviality’ proposed by Illich or the technology implied by Schumacher’s ‘technology with a human face’ or the collection of environmentally sound technologies that are now labelled under the word “appropriate”.

To condemn Marx and Engels for what happened in the Soviet Union is to ignore the fact that the changed relations of production under “communism” have not seen the introduction of a new mode of production. If anything, the East has simply appropriated the worst of the technologies of the West, often in outdated or secondhand forms. In this context, the opposition of living labour to the machine and technology reaches its global zenith.

It is little wonder then that the scenario documented by Marx in the first half of the C19 is now being repeated in the second half of the C20. In a recent report on eco-catastrophe in the Soviet Union, Hedlund shows how the relationship between environmental and human health is being made manifest:

Some of the toxic wastes concentrated in air, water and soils have inevitably found their way into human bodies. The consequences are easy to find. In the industrial city of Chelyabinsk, in the southern Urals, half of all the young men are reported to be unfit for any form of military service, while the remainder are assigned to light duties. Equally disturbing accounts may be heard from many other parts of the country (Hedlund,S. 1991:25).

No doubt Marx and Engels would not have approved of any government, be it central command or democratic, “socialist” or capitalist, that ignored lessons learnt more than 150 years ago about the vital relationship between environmental and human health. When Marx speculated about the future society he seemed content with a vision that made it “… possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I like, without ever becoming a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman or a critic.” (Marx, 1967:425). Marx was able to conceptualise such things because he, like Engels, believed activities like fishing, hunting, farming and criticism are predicated on protecting and conserving the totality of nature that sustains body and spirit. The ideas of workers being more creative, autonomous and multi-skilled in the workplace and industry being acutely aware of its environmental responsibilities toward the total life cycle of materials and products are being touted as the contemporary trademarks of a ‘clever’ society. Such ideas are not all that new.


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5 thoughts on “Marx and Engels on the Sustainable Society

  1. Loved your book and posts. Would love to invite you to Paris for a lecture or sabbatical. I wondered if you knew about citizen science but I think it could be a great way to invite citizens to describe their relationship with natural world and its destruction.


    • Thank you Francois. I will be in France (Paris) in late Feb early March for the launch of the French edition of my book ‘Earth Emotions.’ I have a couple of obligations, but maybe something could be organised? I am a strong supporter of citizen science and yes, it could be a huge part of a solution to our many problems. Regards,



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