Book Review

Nature and Society, from Karl Marx to Rachel Carson

In ‘The Return of Nature,’ John Bellamy Foster documents the chain of people and ideas that connects Marx and Engels to the 20th century’s greatest ecological thinkers

John Bellamy Foster
Socialism and Ecology

Monthly Review Press, 2020

reviewed by Louis Proyect

Working my way through John Bellamy Foster’s magisterial The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology, it dawned on me that there was a gap in my knowledge. I knew that Marx and Engels were consumed with ecological problems, even though the word wasn’t in their vocabulary. To a large extent, my awareness came from reading another great Foster book, Marx’s Ecology. However, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that in between Marx/ Engels and Rachel Carson it was mostly a blur. The failure of the socialist states to support Green values reinforced that feeling. From Chernobyl to the shrinking of the Aral Sea, there was not much to distinguish capitalist and socialist society.

After finishing The Return of Nature, that blur gave way to clarity. Foster’s intellectual history shows a chain of thinkers connecting Marx/Engels to today’s greatest ecological thinkers, from Rachel Carson to Barry Commoner. To use a cliché, they stood on the shoulders of giants.

On page 386, we learn that Rachel Carson applied lessons she learned from the Haldane-Oparin to life’s origin. I knew J.B.S. Haldane was a British Marxist scientist but had no clue how important he was to Carson and the ecosocialist movement of today. As for Alexander Oparin, he was a Soviet biochemist who wrote The Origin of Life. As for the Haldane-Oparin theory, it explained for the first time how life could have originated out of inorganic matter and why such a process was a singularity. Carson stressed the importance of the theory for her work and for anybody else trying to develop a holistic understanding of the connection between humanity and nature:

“From all this we may generalize that, since the beginning of biological time, there has been the closest possible interdependence between the physical environment and the life it sustains. The conditions on the young earth produced life; life then at once modified the conditions of the earth, so that this single extraordinary act of spontaneous generation could not be repeated. In one form or another, action and interaction between life and its surroundings has been going on ever since.” (From Lost Woods)

In a necessary but controversial leitmotif that appears throughout the book, Foster speaks of the need to apply a dialectical materialist approach to organic life, including homo sapiens in its social aspects. For decades now, dialectical materialism has been a dirty word in Marxism. Engels was supposedly responsible for creating a false philosophy that incorporated the worst mechanical tendencies in Marxism. Later on, dialectical materialism became a kind of approved quasi-theology in Stalin’s Russia that spread throughout the world. To counteract its influence, Marxist scholars stressed their adherence to historical materialism that bracketed out most of the natural world except when it became an 800-pound gorilla such today when climate change becomes as important a factor as unemployment.

For Marxism to respond adequately to the threat of a Sixth Extinction, dialectical materialism is essential, since the growing threats to the natural world threaten the social world. Engels understood this entirely, as indicated by his “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.” He wrote,

“When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.”

This single sentence encapsulates the thinking of ecologists ever since.

Engels’s essay was part of Dialectics of Nature, a work that is fundamental to Foster’s thesis. In J.B.S. Haldane’s preface to the 1939 edition, he spoke of its laying “particular emphasis on the inter-connection of all processes, and the artificial character of the distinctions which men have drawn, not merely between vertebrates and invertebrates or liquids and gases, but between the different fields of human knowledge such as economics, history, and natural science.” While the book remains relatively obscure within the Marxist corpus, Foster understands the need to place it much closer to the center. It represents Engels’s attempt to synthesize Hegelian dialectics with modern science, especially Darwin’s theories that both Marx and Engels saw as reinforcing their own ideas about social evolution. By separating dialectics from its Hegelian idealist trappings, the methodology helps us understand the natural world.

For both Marx and Engels, the role of nature came into play because the diseases that were ravaging Europe at the time were largely a product of capitalism’s wrenching human beings from their natural, rural existence. As part of primitive accumulation, capitalism dragged farmers into the great industrial slums that bred cholera and other killer diseases, just as it does today.

Among their contemporaries, no physician was more attuned to the needs of the working class living in unhealthy conditions than Edward Lankester, a friend of the Darwin’s. He led investigations of London’s waters and concluded that organic material was responsible for cholera. He was also a strong supporter of the North in the U.S. Civil War, poor people’s right to a vote, and Irish freedom. In the last decades of his life he devoted himself to public health and working class conditions.

Like Marx, Lankester read soil chemist Justus von Liebig and concluded that the separation of human beings from nature led to soil infertility and the miserable conditions that bred disease in England’s manufacturing centers.

Committed as he was to Darwin’s theories, Lankester encouraged his sons to follow in his footsteps. His son Ray became a zoologist and the Marx’s close friend. In his studies of the natural world, he developed an outlook strikingly similar to what Engels wrote about the Alps. In a 1913 article titled “The Effacement of Nature by Man,” he referred to the kind of despoliation that continues today. “Very few people have any idea of the extent to which man . . . has actively modified the face of Nature, the vast herds of animals he has destroyed, the forests he has burnt up, the deserts he has produced, and the rivers he has polluted.” In North America, the settlers had nearly exterminated indigenous people, while “Progressive money-making man” of the mining and manufacturing world destroyed trout streams. In his own country, “the Thames mud was blood-red (really ‘blood-red,’ since the colour was due to the same blood-crystals which colour our own blood) with the swarms of a delicate little worms like the earth-worm, which has an exceptional power of living in foul water and nourishing itself upon putrid mud.”

When Lankester wrote these words, he was not an outlier. By 1913, socialism’s popularity was widespread in Britain, even from a Fabian perspective. It did not take reading Marx or Engels to understand that the Thames was an open sewer.

Two non-Marxists became outspoken critics of the environmental devastation. H.G. Wells, best-known for his science fiction sagas, was deeply concerned that the dystopia of The Time Machine might be England’s fate if it did not reverse industry’s assault on nature. The other was Julian Huxley, an evolutionary biologist who unfortunately shared Trotsky’s belief that eugenics could help “improve” the human stock. Notwithstanding this flaw, which was endemic in progressive circles in the early 1900s, Huxley’s ecological critique was ahead of his time. It was no accident that both Wells and Huxley were students of Ray Lankester.

In 1929, Wells, his son G. P. Wells, a biology instructor, and Huxley co-authored a 1,400 page book titled The Science of Life that warned humanity about their fate unless capitalist despoliation of the environment came to an end. They anticipated the warnings about a Sixth Extinction made by scientists today. So dire are the symptoms of collapse today that scientists need no prodding from the left. This excerpt from The Science of Life expresses their concerns:

“When man comes on the scene, matters are altered. He crowds the country with animals. He hurries up their growth and increases the demands they make on the soil. A modern cow gives about a thousand gallons of milk at one lactation period, and produces her first calf at about three years; the native cattle of Africa do not breed till they are six, and yield at most three hundred gallons of milk at one lactation. And too often he ships off the meat, bone-meal, cheese leather, and wool without putting anything back in the soil. He forgets that all their mineral ingredients have come out of the soil. A country that is exporting grassland products is also exporting grassland fertility. There are large areas which are naturally deficient in minerals; but man has been creating mineral-deficiency over other and vaster areas.”

Despite its dismal environmental record (or perhaps because of it), England remained in the vanguard of ecological thought. In 1931, England’s scientific world met Nikolai Bukharin, a vanguard figure of the Russian revolution. Unlike Leon Trotsky, whose ecomodernism led him to embrace atomic power in 1926 and “enlightened” eugenics in 1934, Bukharin applied dialectical materialism to both the natural and social world.

In 1921, he wrote Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology to help develop a social science that could contend with that of the bourgeoisie. The work is startling for its grasp of the kind of environmental threats the U.N. warned about in a highly publicized report released to the public on May 6th. Bukharin wrote:

“The world being in constant motion, we must consider phenomena in their mutual relations, and not as isolated cases. All portions of the universe are actually related to each other and exert an influence on each other. The slightest motion, the slightest alteration in one place, simultaneously changes everything else. The change may be great or small – that is another matter – at any rate, there is a change. For example: let us say the Volga forests have been cut down by men. The result is that less water is retained by the soil, with a resulting partial change in climate; the Volga “runs dry,” navigation on its waters becomes more difficult, making necessary the use, and therefore the production, of dredging machinery; more persons are employed in the manufacture of such machinery; on the other hand, the animals formerly living in the forests disappear; new animals, formerly not dwelling in these regions, put in their appearance; the former animals have either died out or migrated to forest areas, etc.; and we may go even further: with a change in climate, it is clear that the condition of the entire planet has been changed, and therefore an alteration in the Volga climate to a certain extent changes the universal climate. Further, if the map of the world is changed to the slightest extent, this involves also a change – we must even suppose – in the relations between the earth and the moon or sun, etc., etc.”

In 1931, the British scientific left convened the Second International Conference on the History of Science and Technology, in London in 1931. Bukharin brought along a Soviet delegation of eight scientists that included the USSR’s best-known physicist, A. F. Joffe, and best-known biologist/geneticist, N. I. Vavilov. Vavilov gave a rousing speech on the Soviet discovery of germplasm for major cultivated plants. Soviet scientists searched for the earliest agricultural cultivation, based on the theory that this would identify the areas with the greatest genetic diversity.

Bukharin’s delivered a paper titled “Theory and Practice from the Standpoint of Dialectical Materialism” that had little to with Stalinist dogma. It began with the statement that “The crisis of present-day capitalist economy has produced a most profound crisis in the whole of capitalist culture; a crisis in individual branches of science, a crisis in epistemology, a crisis in world outlook, a crisis in world feeling.” This crisis continues to this day.

However, the biggest impact on the British left during the conference came from the physicist Boris Hessen, who delivered a paper titled “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s ‘Principia’,” placing Newton’s discoveries within the context of the socio-economic backdrop of 17th and 18th century Britain. Hessen’s paper became a major influence on the thinking of three of the great scientists of the left attending the conference: J.B.S. Haldane, J.D. Bernal, and Joseph Needham. They all had ties to the Communist Party but never to the point of allowing Soviet dogma to derail their work.

In one of the more fascinating passages in The Return of Nature, Foster reviews the cold war climate that ostracized the British scientists who dared to identify with the USSR. As was the case with the CIA intervening in the literature and art world to discredit the admittedly stultifying character of Soviet culture, anti-Communists took aim at the British leftist scientists, especially their opposition to nuclear war.

A campaign against “Bernalism” began long before the Cold War. In the fall of 1940, John R. Baker, an Oxford zoologist, eugenicist, and virulent anti-Communist, wrote a letter to forty-nine prominent British warning about Bernalism. Two of the scientists aroused by the letter formed a triumvirate with Baker against the Marxists. One was Baker’s Oxford colleague, the ecologist Arthur Tansley. The other was the chemist Michael Polanyi, Karl Polanyi’s brother. In 1941, they founded a group called the Society for Freedom in Science (SFS) that referred to their opponents as “gangsters” and argued against planning in science and condemned the Soviet Union.

After WWII ended, the three escalated their attack, no doubt fired up by Winston Churchill’s bellicose Iron Curtain speech. Baker and Polanyi were hard-core anti-Communists, while Tansley was a rightwing social democrat. In a letter to a colleague during the war, Baker wrote, ““I do not at all appreciate our alliance with the USSR. I should have preferred to have nothing to do with her, whatever the consequences. The regime seems to me more evil . . . than . . . [Hitler’s] Germany.”

Baker and Polanyi were followers of Hayek’s economics. It was a mutual admiration society with Hayek inviting Polanyi to the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society’s founding meeting in Switzerland. In 1950, rightwing intellectuals founded the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). The CIA used the Rockefeller Foundation as cover to provide funding for the CCF, which in turn dispensed funding to allied groups, including the SFS.

Hayek, Polanyi, and Baker were all directly involved with the CCF, with Polanyi playing a leading role throughout. He was president of the organizing committee for a 1953 CCF meeting in Hamburg, under the theme of Science and Freedom. This first large meeting of the CCF drew120 scholars and scientists, along with professional anti-Communists such as French philosopher Raymond Aron and ex-Marxist Sidney Hook.

In their ongoing crusade against the British scientific left, they anticipated the “science wars” of the 1980s and 90s that pitted scientists such as Paul Gross and Norman Levitt against men and women they dismissed as “relativists.” They wrote a book titled Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science that helped shape the agenda of a conference at NYU on the “science wars,” funded by the Olin Foundation. Levitt got the ear of an NYU physics professor who wrote a postmodernist spoof for Social Text, a journal that included it as part of a special issue on the “science wars.”

Many people on the left, including me, cheered for Sokal because we hated postmodernist obfuscation. However, I eventually learned that the Social Text issue hardly conformed to Sokal’s stereotype. It contained an article by Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins that defended the kind of analysis the British scientific left pioneered and that eventually led to the formation of the New Left Science for the People. In his Epilogue, Foster pays tribute to Lewontin, Levins, and Science for the People’s legacy. Let me conclude with Foster’s call for a renewed spirit of ecosocialist theory and activism:

“As an organization, Science for the People was known for the intellectual stars with which it was associated, including such giants in their fields as Rita Arditti, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Stephen Jay Gould, Ruth Hubbard, Richard Levins, and Richard Lewontin. In particular, Levins, Lewontin, and Gould, all of whom took up positions at Harvard, then the leading center for evolutionary biology, were to become known for the creative ways in which they drew on the dialectical, historical, and materialist views of Marxism (as well as other influences such as Darwinism) to develop their evolutionary and ecological critiques. In many ways, this constituted a further iteration, but in startlingly new ways, of the dialectic of nature and society, symbolized by the Marx-Darwin relation, that had so engaged Engels and the British Marxist scientists of the 1930s. It manifested itself practically in strong research-based repudiations of crude mechanism, idealism (teleology), and racialism in science, along with exposing the inherent misuse of science in a capitalist society.”

As part of the mass movement against capitalist barbarism today, scientists of the left will respond in the same way that earlier generations did. Given the anti-scientific miasma deepening each day in Washington, they can’t remain in an ivory tower. We should never forget that in addition to being a blow against war and feudal privileges, the Russian Revolution was an attempt to build a society based on scientific principles. No amount of idealism could overcome the obstacles placed in the path of Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky and other revolutionaries. Today, a revolution in a country like the USA will not have to worry about 21 invading counter-revolutionary armies. For the first time in human history, the construction of a socialist society will be feasible. I urge you to read John Bellamy Foster’s The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology as an essential guide to how earlier generations saw such a task.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. This review, originally titled “Nature, Science and Revolution” is reposted with his permission, from Counterpunch. A small number of typographical and textual errors in the original have been corrected. 

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Posted in Books & Reports, Ecosocialism, History, Marxist Ecology, Science


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