A Short Note on Marxism and Environmentalism

4 August 2009


Marx Capital Three front

It would easily be possible to write a book, or even a series of books, about Marxism and environmentalism. Perhaps someday I will do so. For now, I will only make a quick comment or two on the relationship between them. Elsewhere I have written that,

“…we ought to honestly recognize, whether or not we approve, and whether or not we agree with it, that environmentalism is becoming one of the dominant ideologies of our time, one of those rare ideologies (like Marxism) that has changed the behavior of individuals and influenced the policies of nation-states.”

Thus I have maintained that environmentalism and Marxism are similar, as ideologies, in scope and power. Beyond this, there is the question of internal relationships between the doctrines of environmentalism and the doctrines of Marxism.

Marx Capital Three back

Any inquiry of the latter sort puts one on dangerous ground. During the Cold War, environmentalists in Latin America were derisively called “watermelons” because they were said to be green on the outside and red on the inside. The message here is that environmentalists were only concerned about the environment as a facade for their true Marxist agenda. In other words, environmentalists were “stealth Marxists.” Environmental objections made against industrial development were thought to have some kind of (unspecified) doctrinal relationship to communism.

Marx Capital Three contents

Intellectual honesty ought to demand that we make careful distinctions between environmental ideology and Marxist ideology, so that we do not merely repeat vulgar, politicized slurs; intellectual honesty ought also to demand that we not flinch from an objective inquiry into the interrelations between environmentalism and Marxism. And it is in the spirit of intellectual honesty that I make the following observation.

Marx Capital Three 911

A few days ago I was skimming volume 3 of Capital and found a particularly interesting passage near the end. Volume 3 was not finished by Marx; it was assembled posthumously and published by Engels. Thus Marx wrote the material, but he did not live to see it into publication. It is always important to note such matters. In the edition of volume 3 that I possess, Marx’s name alone appears on the cover, but sole responsibility for the content cannot be laid to Marx. With that caveat, I found the following in Chapter 46, after a discussion of slavery:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias.

Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume Three, Introduced by Ernest Mandel, Translated by David Fernbach

This is a perfect expression of a central tenet of environmentalism: we do not “own” the earth; we are but its caretakers. (This theme appeared prominently in the re-make of The Day the Earth Stood Still.)

The works of Marx have never been central texts in the environmental movement. While the kind of person who is sympathetic to environmentalism may also be the kind of person who is sympathetic to parts of Marxism, the two ideologies are clearly separable and each can be elaborated in isolation from the other.

The central texts of Marxism have been, self-evidently, the works of Marx. The central texts of environmentalism, on the other hand, have been nature studies such as the works of John Muir, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ The Everglades: River of Grass, Aldo Leopold’s The Sand County Almanac, and so forth. One immediately notices the local focus of such works, which stands in sharp contrast to the internationalism of early Marxism. (However, the slogan “Think globally, act locally” is widely used in environmental circles.)

With this clearly in mind, it is then important to ask why we find this central tenet of environmentalism expressed so clearly in Marx (in the passage quoted above). There are several potential explanations for this:

1. It could be the case the environmentalism is inherent and implicit in Marxism, or, vice versa, that Marxism is inherent and implicit in environmentalism. This is not really plausible, due to the separability of Marxism and environmentalism noted above.

2. It could be the case that Marxism and environmentalism overlap at some point, sharing certain intuitions about the world and employing some of the same concepts to express these intuitions. (This is essentially a weaker formulation of 1 above, so that we could say that part of environmentalism is inherent and implicit in Marxism, etc.)

3. It could be the case that Marx, in addition to being a communist and a materialist and an erstwhile Hegelian, was also an environmentalist, though not fully conscious of the fact because the language and concepts had not yet been explicitly formulated at this time.

4. It could be the case that Marx was a visionary who saw what most others did not see at the time: that each individual is finite and thus must die, but that the earth continues, and our only choice is whether we will leave it in a better or in a worse condition than we found it. I have argued elsewhere that Marx is entitled to be called a visionary because he recognized that the Industrial Revolution was a revolution, which many at the time did not recognize.

This list makes no pretense to completeness. I have simply written down what has occurred to me while writing. A small investment of time and thought could easily expand this list and make it relatively systematic.

Marx presents the above-quoted insight in the context of a discussion of private property. It would be a worthwhile inquiry to draw out the conception of private property within environmentalism and Marxism, and to draw out the consequences of each to see the extent to which either parallels the other, if it does.

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2 Responses to “A Short Note on Marxism and Environmentalism”

  1. km said

    The private property of individuals through large corporations has seen the privatisation, control, commodification and exploitation of natural resources and the environment as the norm in a globalised economy. The inherent capacity of nature to self correct and rebalance itself is disrupted by irrational economic/political decisions of production for the maximisation of profit. Irrational social relations reproduce and create irrational patterns in nature. As a society cannabalises itself this has created a permanent social, economic, political and environmental crisis.

    expand please

  2. geopolicraticus said

    Thanks for your stimulating comment. I have expanded on your comments in two further posts, Some Remarks on Environmentalism and Expanding on a Comment.

    Best wishes,


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