[OPE-L] Peter Dickens Marx and the Metabolism between Humanity and Nature

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Thu Mar 23 2006 - 04:01:47 EST

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Peter Dickens
Marx and the Metabolism between Humanity and Nature
: a red and green perspective
by Paul Burkett. St. Martin⤁s Press, New York, 
1999, viii, 312pp. ISBN 0-312-21940-7 (hbk only)
MARX S E COLOGY materialism and nature
by John Bellamy Foster. Monthly Review Press, New 
York, 2000, x, 310 pp. ISBN 1-58367-012-2 (pbk).

Marxism, or historical materialism, has had a long-standing
if sometimes problematic engagement with ecological
issues. These two exceptional books take this association
further. They resist inaccurate interpretations of Marx while
locating his ecological thinking in its historical, philosoph-
ical and theoretical contexts. Perhaps most importantly,
they spell out new implications for present-day ecological
understanding and politics. They suggest that much such
understanding is narrow minded and insufficiently con-
scious of the relations between internal and external nature.
Over-industrialised readings of Marx
Critiques of existing work start with what Burkett and
Foster argue to be the currently over-industrialised under-
standing of Marx. Perhaps the best known critique of Marx
concerns his alleged Prometheanism. Marx, it is often
argued, believed that capitalism had cracked the problem
of natural resources. The problem of production had been
solved, therefore a future communist society could assume
there is no longer a problem of scarce resources. The cen-
tral questions are thereby the reorganisation of capitalist
social relations and the allocation of goods and resources
more equitably. Such a construction of Marx⤁s thinking
has, understandably, found little sympathy with the Green
movement. Typically within environmental politics,
modernity is the problem rather than the solution. Anyone
claiming that a future communism need not be ecological-
ly conscious can be dismissed as an uninformed and unre-
deemable clown. But, these books ask, do these arguments
really reflect Marx⤁s understanding?
A second, and closely related, critique concerns Marx⤁s
alleged class reductionism. If the transition to communism
is to be effected by the working class, this would seem to
leave little scope for the so-called new social movements;
those based on, for example, gender, race or locality.
Marx⤁s supposed economism also therefore leaves an
unbridgeable gap between the ⤗old⤁ and ⤗new⤁ forms of pol-
itics, the latter including most forms of ecological politics.
At best, such a position renders alliances between, say,
ecofeminists and Marxists, whose politics remain overly
restricted to the class struggle, very difficult. At worst, it
dismisses struggles other than those of class as largely irrel-
evant. Therefore anyone trying to subsume ecological pol-
itics within a theory of class struggle is a Marxian dinosaur
who richly deserves exposure to the forces of modernity
(and postmodernity) and accelerated extinction. But, once
more, Burkett and Foster suggest that class reductionism is
far too simplistic a version of Marx⤁s rich understanding.
All such interpretations of Marx largely leave the eco-
logical question as an add-on to the basic theory. The ques-
tion therefore becomes how can we hang on to the key and
underlying tenets of Marxism (especially those which
locate environmental degradation in the context of class
relations, commodity production and the self-alienation of
the human species) while recognising the contributions
from environmentalists, feminists and others? Another
⤗add-on⤁ in the recent eco-Marxist literature concerns the
nature of capitalist contradiction. O⤁Connor (1991), for
example, is well known for his argument that an ecologi-
cal Marxism must recognise a ⤗second contradiction⤁, one
largely unrecognised by Marx himself. The first contradic-
tion, according to this view, is the familiar one of overpro-
duction; capital is unable to realise the surplus value incor-
porated into commodities due to labour being controlled to
the extent that it cannot consume the commodities made
for it by capital. This in turn is associated with the rise of
credit structures, aggressive marketing, increased competi-
tion in an attempt to overcome periodic ⤗crises of realisa-
tion⤁ and, in due course, massive and climactic social
upheaval. But, according to O⤁Connor, capital also contin-
ually confronts the conditions necessary for its own repro-
duction. At this point we meet the second contradiction.
These conditions include the environment. Global warm-
ing, resource depletion and environmental degradation
undermine (almost literally) the very conditions necessary
for capital⤁s continuing reproduction and growth. Such
undermining typically takes the form of extra and continu-
ally growing costs imposed on capital.
Green realism
Such, then, are the kinds of critique and developments of
Marxism which feature in the ⤗red-green⤁ literature. Again,
however, both Burkett and Foster argue that they are based
largely on false premises. They strongly suggest that an
understanding of the philosophical bases to Marx indicates
that humanity⤁s relation to nature was always central to the
development of his thought, and indeed to that of Engels.
In a sense both these writers always were ⤗ecologists⤁, if
not ecologists as we would now know them. Similarly, the
particular way in which Marx envisaged social relations
and social struggle necessitated a sensitivity to nature and
to humanity⤁s relations to nature. According to these texts,
therefore, Marx⤁s theory of social change and social strug-
gle has no need of the environment as an optional add-on.

Page 2
It is already integral to the historical materialism original-
ly propounded by Marx and Engels. Furthermore, Burkett
and Foster show that in Marx there is the kernel of a theo-
ry which can greatly improve on contemporary environ-
mental analysis. It proposes that the relation between
humanity and nature must be extended to incorporate
human nature; how human beings change themselves in
the process of understanding and using the powers of
nature to make the things they want.
More generally, these authors (and Burkett in particular)
are arguing from a broadly realist perspective which
implies that what look like problems requiring ecological
increments to the basic theory are really problems stem-
ming, or emergent, from a basic underlying tension in cap-
italism itself. This is a system of production based on prof-
it but providing for human and social requirements.
Environmental crises and struggles of many and diverse
kinds are therefore envisaged as manifestations of this
basic tension. All this of course leaves the question
whether such an underlying problematic is indeed the only
and most fundamental underlying mechanism affecting all
forms of struggle and politics in capitalist society. But
before turning to this contentious matter we should outline
what, according to these texts, were the key elements in
the making of Marx and Engels⤁ understanding of society
and nature, and how these might be extended to understand
contemporary social-cum-ecological questions.
Marx and Engels vs. Malthus⤁ ⤗system of despair⤁
Malthus of course argued that, left unchecked, populations
tend to increase at a geometrical rate while food at best
increases at an arithmetical rate. His position was an impor-
tant source of Marx and Engels⤁ stance regarding humanity⤁s
relation to the environment. Malthus was what Foster calls a
⤗parsonian naturalist⤁. That population should increase faster
than food was preordained by the Supreme Being. It is a
process that created in Malthus⤁ words ⤗partial evil⤁ but an
⤗overbalance of good⤁. In particular it inspired and generated
greater effort to create improved levels of subsistence. The
problems of resource scarcity is quite literally, then, an act of
God. It brings a balance of benefits, not least a range of desir-
able Christian values such as sexual abstinence.
Unsurprisingly, Marx and Engels had little time for
Malthus⤁ population theory. Engels⤁ Outline of a Critique of
Political Economy and Marx⤁s 1844 Economic and
Philosophical Manuscripts were especially virulent. Not
only was Malthus⤁ theory little more than religious dogma
wrapped in (empirically unproved) science, but it was, Marx
and Engels argued, dogma attempting to justify emergent
forms of property relations. Bourgeois society had separat-
ed nature from society. On the one hand, a God-given
⤗nature⤁ was being created, one denuded of human beings,
detached from human intervention and experience and made
⤗an objective of huckstering⤁ by a property-owning elite;
this despite the fact that nature still depends on human
beings for fertilisation and that human beings depend on
nature for their material and spiritual existence. On the other
hand, great masses of people were being concentrated in the
great cities devoted to industrial production. In much the
same way that ⤗nature⤁ was being intensively exploited by a
few, humanity or human nature was being intensively
exploited by the owners of the means of production in
industry. Malthus⤁ religious naturalism, according to Engels
and Marx, was therefore little more than a camouflaging
apology for these processes. It attempted to justify both
these processes as somehow ⤗natural⤁, the land and its pro-
ductivity as sacrosanct and unimprovable, while humanity
remains inevitably subject to vices and practices leading to
its own misery. It was ⤗the crudest most barbarous theory
that ever existed, a system of despair⤁. This is therefore one
important stage in blowing away theological mysticism and
its replacement with a historical materialism.
Feuerbach and the theft of dead wood
After finishing his doctoral thesis, Marx was forced to aban-
don his academic career as a result of the Prussian authori-
ties⤁ virulent campaign against the radical Young Hegelians.
He became editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, a major
Rhineland paper, and wrote an article entitled Debates on
the law on thefts of wood. According to Foster, this repre-
sented ⤗an intellectual turning point in his life⤁. It was, Marx
believed, ⤗the really earthly question in all its life-size⤁.
Stealing dead wood might sound like a trivial issue, but in
Prussia during this period five-sixths of all prosecutions
were associated with this matter. A system of private prop-
erty over land was being established and reinforced. The last
rites of common peasant ownership were being performed
and Marx was protecting the rights of the poor to collect
wood for their most basic needs, especially shelter, cooking
and food. It was at this stage that he realised that his lack of
knowledge of political economy was ⤗embarrassing⤁ and
needed serious and urgent attention.
Feuerbach, especially his critique of Hegel and his par-
ticular form of materialism, was crucial at this point. His
naturalism made sense of the young Marx⤁s attempted pro-
tection of the peasants⤁ attempts to gain access to the land.
⤗Man⤁, Feuerbach wrote, ⤗belongs to the essence of Nature⤁
and ⤗Nature belongs to the essence of Man. Only by unit-
ing man with nature can we conquer the supranaturalistic
egoism of Christianity.⤁ It is a short step from here to
Marx⤁s assertion in the Economic and Philosophical
Manuscripts that nature is ⤗man⤁s inorganic body⤁ and that
alienation under modern property relations consists of
estrangement from nature, from the material basis on which
human society makes itself. It is also a short step from
Feuerbach⤁s materialistic assertion that science and philos-
ophy ⤗must be grounded in nature⤁ and Marx⤁s early plea
for ⤗one science⤁, spanning the natural and human realms.
As is well known, Marx and Engels were later to reject
Feuerbach⤁s ⤗contemplative⤁ materialism, around the time
of The German Ideology. Henceforth Feuerbach⤁s ⤗man⤁
was to be replaced by ⤗real historical man⤁ and ⤗nature⤁ by
⤗natural history.⤁ But the effect of engaging with Feuerbach
was to be long lasting. From here on both historically cre-
ated ⤗man⤁ and ⤗nature⤁ were to be central to Marx and
Engels⤁ historical materialism.

Page 3
Darwin: ⤗the basis in natural history for our view⤁
Marx, less so Engels, was ambivalent about Darwin.
Clearly Darwin⤁s adoption of Malthus as part of his con-
ceptual framework was anathema. And his transposition of
English society on to nature was spotted and commented
on by Marx in a letter to Engels:
It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers among the beasts
and plants, the society of England with its division of labour,
competition, opening up of new markets, ⤗inventions⤁ and
the Malthusian ⤗struggle for existence.⤁ It is Hobbes⤁ bellum
contra omnes.
On the other hand, the Darwinian theory of evolution
(developing the materialism long linked to evolutionary
ideas) was attractive to Marx, not least because it repre-
sented, in Foster⤁s words, ⤗the death of teleology⤁. Marx
went so far as to say that Darwin⤁s theory was ⤗the basis in
natural history for our view⤁. Quite what he meant by ⤗the
basis⤁ is subject to debate. Foster argues that Capital
makes clear what he meant: that labouring on nature to
produce commodities is the way in which Marx was to
extend Darwinism into the human social realm. To some
extent we are engaged here in old and not always produc-
tive debates about ⤗what Marx really meant⤁. Certainly, the
later Marx of Capital did use Darwin as a ⤗basis⤁ in the
way Foster argues. But equally it could be said that Marx
was looking back to Feuerbach in making this remark; he
was again envisaging a single science, one linking ⤗philos-
ophy⤁ and the emergent physical and natural sciences.
But what is more clear is that Marx continued to treat
Darwin with some suspicion, despite his endorsement of
him as ⤗splendid⤁. This hesitation over Darwin is particu-
larly clear in the seemingly rather curious adoption of
Tremaux by Marx and the correspondence between Marx
and Engels over Tremaux⤁s 1866 book, Origine et trans-
formations de l⤁homme et des autre etres. Tremaux argued
that human evolution is patterned by conditions of geolog-
ical succession and changing soil conditions. Marx
believed Tremaux to be ⤗a very significant advance over
Darwin⤁ (his emphasis). This view seems to have partly
stemmed from Marx⤁s belief that Tremaux⤁s theory
explained gaps in the paleontological record. It also reflects
Marx⤁s concern that species should not be seen as neces-
sarily undergoing constant improvement. Tremaux himself
resisted such an understanding, adopting the theory that
species eventually ⤗revert to type⤁. But Marx⤁s short lived
adoption of Tremaux (dismissed by Engels due to the many
errors he claimed were in the book) seems also to have
stemmed from the perspective outlined earlier. Evolution is
in part a product of the causal powers and mechanisms of
species. But on the other hand, they actively change their
environment (including the conditions of the land) and this
in turn changes them. Again, this is Feuerbach revisited.
Feuerbach⤁s influence would also account for Marx⤁s
enthusiastic support (though not one discussed by either
Burkett or Foster) of Fraas, a mid-nineteenth century doctor,
agricultural historian and philosopher. In 1868 Marx argued
in another letter to Engels that Fraas was ⤗a Darwinist before
Darwin and admits even the species developing in historical
times⤁. In 1847 Fraas had written Climate and Flora over
Time: a contribution to the history of both. This now almost
wholly neglected text argued that the avoidance of desertifi-
cation requires active and conscious control. More contro-
versially, and yet more importantly for an understanding of
Marx, Fraas argued that environmental degradation leads to
social and cultural degradation. The decline of Greek civil-
isation was, he believed, partly a result of internal dissent
and struggle. But it was also a product of deforestation, the
destruction of rain and water cycles, the consequent warm-
ing-up of the earth, the deterioration of the soil and period-
ic devastating floods. All this, he suggested, was closely
associated with a series of social and cultural changes.
Albanians moved in to cope with the deteriorating physical
conditions, in particular with the degraded agriculture left
behind by the Greeks. Meanwhile, the original Greek popu-
lations moved into more profitable areas of work such as
trade and commerce but became steadily weakened by
changes in vegetation and climate. They were therefore no
longer physically or culturally nourished by the environ-
ment they had originally developed and Greek culture there-
by went into steady and terminal decline.
These arguments, with their assertions of racial purities
and impurities, contain more than a hint of racism.
Similarly, Marx⤁s assertion to Engels that the Albanian
incursors were prone to ⤗every sort of shameless lechery
and rape⤁ was a repeat of not only Fraas⤁ social prejudices
but those of many other writers at the time. But the key
point here again is that Marx was trying to develop
Darwin⤁s way of thinking. He was once more insisting
that, as human beings work on nature to produce the things
they need, they change themselves culturally as well as
physically. The work of Fraas, like that of Tremaux,
seemed to be backing up such a position.
Marx⤁s adoption of both Tremaux and Fraas in his attempt
to upgrade Darwin can now be seen as problematic in a
number of ways. More positively, however, it can be seen as
a precursor to those current versions of Darwinism and evo-
lutionary thought which emphasise not only the organism
but its reciprocal interactions with its environment
(Lewontin 1982, Dickens 2000). People finish up making
themselves in making their environment. Similarly, the
environment is indeed actively made and is not, as Malthus
argued, an eternally fixed and morality-enhancing quantity.
Such a perspective can of course be asserted and developed
without adopting stereotypes about ⤗species⤁, ⤗races⤁, their
supposed biologically inherited predispositions and whether
they represent the peaks or troughs of civilisation.
Epicurus: ⤗nature never reduces anything to nothing⤁
If Feuerbach and Darwin are amongst the most obvious
influences on Marx⤁s ecological materialism, a perhaps
less well known figure in this context is Epicurus. Yet he
emerges as central in Foster⤁s study. And, since he was the
subject of Marx⤁s 1841 doctoral thesis, he was central to
Marx too. Epicurus was an Athenian who is now reckoned
by some biologists to be the most important forerunner of

Page 4
modern science. Indeed it is only in recent years, and in
particular with the discovery of remains of papyri found in
Philodemus⤁ library in Herculaneum, that the full worth of
Epicurus has been established. This discovery also largely
confirms Marx⤁s early interpretation of Epicurus. A part of
the Greek philosopher⤁s output was dedicated to dismiss-
ing religious and superstitious views of nature; preferring
to see human and non-human life (and indeed human
nature itself) as emergent from the earth and the organisa-
tion of matter. He was a naturalist, a materialist and a real-
ist. He was resolutely opposed to determinism. Indeed, in
Marx⤁s opinion he tended to err on the side of abstract pos-
sibility and neglect necessity or what Foster calls ⤗real⤁
possibility. The materialism and atheist philosophy of
Epicurus are set down in his great book, On Nature. Here
he argues, for example, that
from the outset we always have seeds directing us some
towards these, some towards those, some towards these and
those, actions and thoughts and characters, in greater and
smaller numbers. Consequently that which we develop â¤" char-
acteristics of this or that kind â¤" is at first absolutely up to us.
Most importantly, Epicurus was a very early progenitor of
ecological science. Around 300 BCE he envisaged in a
remarkable way the principle of conservation and thermo-
dynamics, arguing that ⤗nothing is ever created by divine
power out of nothing⤁ and ⤗nature never reduces anything
to nothing⤁. Furthermore, he can now be seen as an early
⤗Darwinist⤁; recognising evolutionary processes of varia-
tion and the adaptation of species to their environment.
Foster shows Epicurus to have been immensely influential
on modern scientific thought, Kant, Hegel, Bacon, Newton
and Darwin as well as Marx being amongst those owing
him intellectual debts. Suffice to say here, however, that
Marx⤁s early engagement with Epicurus was not, as is
sometimes suggested, an aberration. Epicurus, an early
ecologist and evolutionist, was centrally implicated at a
key moment in the making of Marx⤁s thought.
Stoffwechsel, the labour process and metabolic rift
Such were some of the key ingredients in the making of
both Marx⤁s and Engels⤁ ecologically based thought. How
did these ingredients congeal in their social and political
theory? Both Foster and Burkett convincingly show that the
⤗metabolism between man and nature⤁ was at the heart of
Marx⤁s thinking, both the Marx of the Economic and
Philosophical Manuscripts and the Marx of Capital. It was
also key to Engels, who is often seen as more sensitive than
Marx to ecological and environmental questions.
Metabolism, or Stoffwechsel, refers to the material
exchange or interaction between human beings and nature.
Such an interaction is, as set out in Capital, ⤗the everlasting
nature-imposed condition of human existence⤁. Human
beings throughout history have confronted the processes
and powers of nature. And they have set about using their
bodies, arms, legs, hands and mental capacities to use the
powers and materials of nature to adapt nature to their own
ends. Therefore all social formations have not only been
faced with nature but they have actively engaged with it to
create the things they want. But the key feature of
Stoffwechsel is not simply the labour process inaugurated
by ⤗man⤁. ⤗Metabolism⤁ simultaneously refers to the
changes effected on her or himself (on, that is, her or his
own nature) in the process of modifying nature⤁s powers.
This dialectical way of thinking is at the heart of Marx⤁s
conceptual framework. Yet it has been largely ignored by
disciplines such as environmental philosophy and environ-
mental sociology. Put another way, Marx and Engels are
offering a postdisciplinary vision. The concept of ⤗metabo-
lism⤁ immediately makes organised links between social
theory and such sciences as physics and developmental
biology. Similarly, coherent association is made between
⤗sociology⤁, ⤗the sociology of the environment⤁ and ⤗the
sociology of health⤁. This is the emergent ⤗one science⤁ to
which Marx alluded in the early Manuscripts.
But Stoffwechsel and ⤗metabolism⤁ were, for Marx and
Engels, more than just concepts. They were used, as Burkett
and Foster show in detail, for an analytical and political pur-
pose. Capitalism⤁s plundering of labour-power via the
industrial labour process is a central and well known feature
of Capital. But its plundering of ecological systems is like-
wise a central, but much less well known feature. The result
is no less than a nineteenth century analysis of environmen-
tal sustainability. Marx in particular developed the idea of a
⤗rift⤁ in the metabolic relation between humanity and nature
that was an emergent feature of capitalist society. The ten-
dency, under the capitalist version of Stoffwechsel, was
therefore to violate the nature-imposed conditions of sus-
tainability. As Marx put it, ⤗capitalist production turns
towards the land only after its influence has exhausted it and
after it has devastated its natural qualities⤁(cited in Foster,
163). Marx intensively studied the work of industrial
chemists of his day such as Justus von Liebig and built their
analysis into the heart of his work, including Capital itself.
He, like Engels in The Housing Question, documented at
great length the implications of large numbers of people liv-
ing in towns and the systematic failure to recycle the nutri-
ents that had been removed from the soil. Urban pollution
and irrational sewerage systems were all part of the meta-
bolic rift under industrial capitalism. In Capital III, Marx
noted that: ⤗In London...they can do nothing better with the
excrement produced by 4.5 million people than pollute the
Thames with it, at monstrous expense⤁.
It is hardly fair, therefore, to caricature Marx as uneco-
logical. The implications of Capital for the twenty-first cen-
tury surely stare the contemporary reader in the face.
Nevertheless, those recent commentators who have recog-
nised and used Marx⤁s concept of metabolism have para-
doxically tended to over-emphasise the use and misuse of
raw materials (Fischer-Kowalski 1997, Schandl and Schulz
2000). The other half of Stoffwechsel â¤" the transformation of
internal nature and of human social relations in the process
of exchange with external nature â¤" has gone largely missing.
Important as the ecological half of Marx⤁s equation has
become, the impact on society and the subsumption of inter-
nal nature can hardly be denied. It must be retained as a cen-
tral component of ⤗man⤁s metabolism with nature⤁.

Page 5
Making value under capitalism
The culminating point in these two books comes with
Burkett⤁s argument that the making of value, and in par-
ticular the making of exchange-value under capitalism,
must form the centrepiece of the analysis and of the poli-
tics stemming from the analysis. The making of value,
and its subsumption of both internal and external nature,
is therefore the core element in the wrecking of both inter-
nal and external nature. And since the making of
exchange value is at the heart of Capital, so the degrada-
tion of the environment is also at its core.
Value, with all its anti-ecological features, remains the active
factor disrupting the co-evolution of society and nature due to
its treatment of people and nature as merely disguised modes
of value itself. (98)
Value, under its specifically capitalist form, is a product of
both nature and labour. However, as Burkett insists, it is ⤗sim-
ply the abstract social labour time objectified in commodities⤁
(79). So, while nature contributes to value, it is only doing so
insofar as it is contributing to commodity-producing labour.
In this sense it is quite wrong of Marx⤁s critics to suggest that
he was ⤗Promethean⤁ in the simplistic sense of assuming that
nature could be treated as a free resource. He is saying here
no more than what capital actually does. It uses nature as a
free resource in the making of value in commodity production
in the exploitation of human labour. The key problem, again,
is that in subsuming or appropriating both external and inter-
nal nature, capital is testing both internal and external nature
to their limits. Note, however, that even this process is con-
tradictory. Capitalism, by releasing people and nature from
feudal social relations, has certainly had positive outcomes
insofar as it has allowed the development of people as a social
and natural species. As such, it has made the conditions for a
new kind of communist society.
It is also unnecessary and somewhat misleading to sug-
gest that a ⤗second contradiction⤁ (concerned with the
social and environmental conditions for accumulation)
needs to be clipped on to a first contradiction concerned
with crises of overproduction. The two are, as Burkett in
particular insists, locked together. The first contradiction is
rooted in capital⤁s social and political power over labour.
And this power is itself rooted in capital⤁s appropriation of
natural and social conditions. Again, such is the way in
which labour-power and the objectification of surplus-
value into saleable use-values is effected. Hence,
O⤁Connor⤁s attempt to relegate capital⤁s socialisation of
the conditions of production to a ⤗second⤁ cost-side con-
tradiction is, according to Burkett, ⤗implausible⤁(195).
Beyond ⤗new⤁ vs. ⤗old⤁ social movements?
A similar line of argument extends to the critique of the
supposed class reductionism of Marx⤁s politics. Free com-
petition is restricting the development of producers and is
meanwhile ruinous to the environment. To counter this
process workers must, according to Marx, ⤗associate
among themselves ... in the form of combinations⤁. As
Burkett in particular points out, ⤗the associational impera-
tive⤁ is a key feature of Marx⤁s understanding of the transi-
tion to communism. The combination of workers currently
forced on them by industrial labour and by their living con-
ditions takes largely defensive forms. It must be replaced
under communism by new forms of combination which go
beyond the wage-labour relation and defend the principle
of association as a key mechanism in making new condi-
tions for the development of human beings. Furthermore,
and most importantly, such associations would not be
focused on industrial production alone. As Burkett puts it:
the problems of working-class life increasingly call out for
explicitly social solutions that directly conflict with the princi-
ples of privately contracted wage labour and labour market
competition.. (211)
These social solutions must include connections between
industrial workers and others to education, transportation,
health care and, of course, natural conditions.
In this way narrowly conceived and industrialist visions
of a future communism are, according to Burkett, super-
seded. Popular and self-activated struggles in such areas of
culture and domestic life join industrially based politics,
with the common and unifying theme of what Burkett calls
⤗a reappropriation of the social conditions of production⤁.
This seems at first like a reasonable rallying cry; an umbrel-
la under which, for example, many of the diverse groups
attacking the World Trade Organisation might feel com-
fortable. It is also in line with the attacks made by such
groups on existing environmental policy making. Market-
based policy institutions, according to Burkett,
validate all the anti-ecological characteristics of value and cap-
ital, but their enforcement may also be contradicted by the
power and influence of competing capitalists. (220).
Burkett⤁s reworking of Marx also reasonably accounts for
such ⤗associations of producers⤁ as the vast number of
small-scale ⤗third sector⤁ organisations such as Local
Exchange Trading Systems (LETS) or self-build groups.
These groups are small and hardly visible but, taken
together, they represent just the kinds of resistance to
which Burkett refers. They are actively making the new
kinds of producer and associations of producers to which
he refers. Indeed Marx seems to have prefigured just these
kinds of associations. His description in Capital of how a
future association of producers might operate reads
remarkably like an account of systems used by LETS
schemes and by increasingly co-ordinated relations
between such schemes in many contemporary societies.
The individual producer receives back from society â¤" after the
deductions have been made â¤" exactly what he gives to it. What
he has given to it is his individual amount of labour .... The indi-
vidual labour time of the individual producer is the part of the
social labour day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives
a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an
amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common
fund), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of
means of consumption as much as the same amount of labour
costs. The same amount of labour which he has given to society
in one form, he receives back in another. (Cited in Burkett, 233)
But what about the power relations and divisions of labour
supporting racism, patriarchy and other forms of oppres-

Page 6
sion such as ageism? Is the fact that domestic labour
remains unpaid in contemporary capitalism simply to be
celebrated insofar as it has so far resisted commodifica-
tion? Surely, many feminists and others will still argue, the
picture is more complex and contradictory than this. The
argument should still be questioned, not least because such
unpaid work and human skills can easily join external
nature as yet another ⤗free⤁ input, further reducing the cost
of labour-power for capital. In short, it is still not clear that
independent or at least partly autonomous sources of social
power other than class are adequately dealt with in
Burkett⤁s revised form of historical materialism. In this
sense his study may be accused of being still ⤗industrialist⤁
in outlook, despite pleas to the contrary. In his defence it
might be argued that class relations, commodity produc-
tion and the misuse of nature can equally well exist inde-
pendently of racism, patriarchal gender relations and so
on. A more positive reading of Burkett is, therefore, that
his politics is looking to a time when these other forms of
oppression have been largely dispensed with and when
capitalism remains as the main social force to be resisted
and changed. In this sense it can be seen as an emancipa-
tory vision after all.
The debates set off by both Burkett and Foster will no
doubt continue. But these two books certainly establish
that simply picking and choosing ⤗ecological⤁ remarks in
Marx and Engels is no longer sufficient for the develop-
ment of a historical materialist ecology. Such a practice
vastly underestimates the original centrality of ecology to
the whole of Marx and Engels⤁ work. These texts have
therefore permanently changed the landscape for those
attempting to view the relation between society and nature
through a historical materialist lens.
Dickens, Peter (2000) Social Darwinism: linking evolutionary
thought to social theory. Buckingham, Open University Press.
Fischer-Kowalski, Marina (1997) Society⤁s metabolism: on the
childhood and adolescence of a rising conceptual star, in
Redclift, M., Woodgate, G. The International Handbook of
Environmental Sociology. Cheltenham, Elgar.
Lewontin, R. (1982) Organism and environment, in Plotkin, H.
(ed) Learning, Development and Culture. Chichester, Wiley.
Marx, K. Economic and philosophical manuscripts, in L.Colletti
(ed) Karl Marx. Early Writings.Harmondsworth, Penguin.
O⤁Connor, James (1991) On the Two Contradictions of
Capitalism. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 2, 3, 107â¤"9.
Schandl, Heinz, Schuz, Niels (2000) Using material flow
accounting to operationalize the concept of society⤁s metabo-
lism: a preliminary MFA for the United Kingdom for the peri-
od 1937â¤"1997. ISER Working Paper Number 2000â¤"3.
University of Essex, UK.
International Association for Critical Realism 
and the Department of Social Sciences, Roskilde 
University announce

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