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Marx S Ecology: Materialism and Nature [Paperback]

John Bellamy Foster
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 1 2000
Progress requires the conquest of nature. Or does it? This new account overturns conventional interpretations of Marx and in the process outlines a more rational approach to the current environmental crisis. Marx, it is often assumed, cared only about industrial growth and the development of economic forces. John Bellamy Foster examines Marx's neglected writings on capitalist agriculture and soil ecology, philosophical naturalism, and evolutionary theory. He shows that Marx, known as a powerful critic of capitalist society, was also deeply concerned with the changing human relationship to nature. Marx's Ecology covers many other thinkers, including Epicurus, Charles Darwin, Thomas Malthus, Ludwig Feuerbach, P. J. Proudhon, and William Paley. By reconstructing a materialist conception of nature and society, Marx's Ecology challenges the spiritualism prevalent in the modern Green movement, pointing toward a method that offers more lasting and sustainable solutions to the ecological crisis.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Original and Compelling March 22 2003
By Malvin
Format:Paperback
"Marx's Ecology" by John Bellamy Foster positively reasserts the long-neglected environmental aspects of Karl Marx's writing. Foster guides the reader through a fascinating look at Marx's personal intellectual development and the various thinkers who influenced him. The author reveals a Marx who was keenly aware of capital's strategy to alienate labor from nature. Foster also makes clear that Marx worked assiduously to develop a theory that might reconnect dehumanized labor with its degraded environment in hopes of creating a better, more sustainable world.
Indeed, Foster's book is an interesting study of intellectual history, with an emphasis on the debates that raged during Marx's lifespan in the 19th century. The ideas and discoveries of Darwin, Engels, Epicurus, Hegel, Malthus, Proudhon, and others are discussed at length. Foster presents a Marx who was clearly at the vanguard of progressive thought in his era and gives us considerable insight into how Marx created his materialist theory of history. We also understand why Marx privileged the environment but explicitly rejected the fashionable teleological and racist arguments of his time.
In particular, I found the discussion concerning Epicurus to be fascinating. Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who had a profound influence on the Enlightenment and was the subject of Marx's doctoral dissertation. Foster tells us that Marx's unconventional interpretations have been confirmed by recent archaeological discoveries, although at the time Marx had been working from a small number of extant fragments of Epicurus' writings. In addition to explaining to the reader why Epicurus' ideas are important, Foster deepens our appreciation for Marx, whose intellectual capabilities were evident even at a fairly young age.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marx as ecologist June 24 2000
Format:Paperback
In "Marx's Ecology," John Bellamy Foster defies conventional green thinking by raising the banner of materialism rather than spirituality in the fight to save the planet and humanity from ecological ruin. In addition to restoring materialism to its proper place, Foster also shows that ecological questions were central not only to Marx, but other Marxists such as Bebel and Bukharin. By restoring this lost tradition, Foster hopes to create a new basis for ecosocialism grounded in Marxist science rather than mysticism.
Although most students of Marx are aware of materialist thought in such early works as the 1845 "Theses on Feuerbach," Foster argues convincingly that materialism made its debut in Marx's doctoral dissertation on the "Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature," written four years earlier. According to Foster, the standard explanation for the dissertation is that Marx saw Epicurus as a kindred rebel spirit. This Epicurus sought to overthrow the totalizing philosophy of Aristotle, just as the post-Hegelians--including the young Marx--rose up against Hegel. What is missing here is the element of materialism, which drew Marx to Epicurus in the first place. Marx identified with the Enlightenment, for which Epicurus serves as a forerunner to the radical democrats of the 17th and 18th century. The materialism they all shared was crucial to an attack on the status quo, ancient or modern.
The Greek materialists, especially Epicurus, are important to Marx because they represent the first systematic opposition to idealist and essentialist thought. Just as importantly, Epicurus in particular anticipates the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Revolutionary Debunking June 7 2000
Format:Paperback
This book is a hot knife through the rancid butter of existing views of the ties between science, ecology, and the politics of the human future.
Foster presents prodigious historical evidence for his thesis that, despite a century-and-a-half of obtuseness on both right and left, Karl Marx was one of the greatest and deepest inheritors and advancers of the best tradition of both "Enlightenment materialism-humanism" and ecological realism.
Foster shows that, contrary to traditional interpretations, Marx was neither an admirer of crude mechanistic science nor an airy Hegelian dreamer. If one actually bothers to read the earliest and the lesser-known Marx, it turns out that the bearded one was quite consciously an exponent of the supple, open-ended materialism embodied in the Epicurean tradition and in the best ideas of its Enlightenment elaborators, including giants of science like Bacon and Darwin.
This unappreciated fact, Foster also shows, meant that Marx was also a very profound ecologist. Up to speed on the most important ecological debates of his epoch, Marx's whole project, Foster convincingly demonstrates, rested on the kind of hard-headed, historically-sensitive, and politically clear-sighted concern for the world's ecological welfare that is so sorely lacking in today's sterile debates between status-quo ostriches and "radical" nature worshippers.
This book has opened my eyes and greatly deepened my appreciation of Marx, ecological thought, the history and future of science, and the best meaning of humanism. Anybody interested in these vital issues ought to get and digest this ground-breaking tour-de-force!
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marx as ecologist June 24 2000
By Louis Proyect - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In "Marx's Ecology," John Bellamy Foster defies conventional green thinking by raising the banner of materialism rather than spirituality in the fight to save the planet and humanity from ecological ruin. In addition to restoring materialism to its proper place, Foster also shows that ecological questions were central not only to Marx, but other Marxists such as Bebel and Bukharin. By restoring this lost tradition, Foster hopes to create a new basis for ecosocialism grounded in Marxist science rather than mysticism.
Although most students of Marx are aware of materialist thought in such early works as the 1845 "Theses on Feuerbach," Foster argues convincingly that materialism made its debut in Marx's doctoral dissertation on the "Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature," written four years earlier. According to Foster, the standard explanation for the dissertation is that Marx saw Epicurus as a kindred rebel spirit. This Epicurus sought to overthrow the totalizing philosophy of Aristotle, just as the post-Hegelians--including the young Marx--rose up against Hegel. What is missing here is the element of materialism, which drew Marx to Epicurus in the first place. Marx identified with the Enlightenment, for which Epicurus serves as a forerunner to the radical democrats of the 17th and 18th century. The materialism they all shared was crucial to an attack on the status quo, ancient or modern.
The Greek materialists, especially Epicurus, are important to Marx because they represent the first systematic opposition to idealist and essentialist thought. Just as importantly, Epicurus in particular anticipates the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment. His dicta that "Nothing is ever created by divine power out of nothing" and "nature . . . never reduces anything to nothing" are in harmony with what we now know as "the principle of conservation." Foster also notes that Lucretius, another materialist of the classical era, "alluded to air pollution due to mining, to the lessening of harvests through the degradation of soil, and to the disappearance of the forests; as well as arguing that human beings were not radically different from animals."
In their early writings, Marx and Engels wed the materialism of the Enlightenment to a political critique of the capitalist system, particularly targeting ideologues such as Malthus. Taking aim at his false piety, the 1844 "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy" challenges private property, especially in the land, asserting that:
"To make earth an object of huckstering--the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence--was the last step in making oneself an object of huckstering. It was and is to this very day an immortality of self-alienation. And the original appropriation--the monopolization of the earth by a few, the exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their life--yields nothing in immorality to the subsequent huckstering of the earth."
By restoring Marx's materialism to its proper place, "Marx's Ecology" provides a theoretical foundation for further explorations in ecosocialism. Once we understand the proper connection between nature and society, we can begin to act to confront the major problems facing humanity, from global warming to diminishing fresh water supplies. In the final chapter, Foster cites a number of Marxist thinkers who belong to the materialist tradition. Their examples can help to inspire a new generation of ecologically minded socialists.
Foster presents an unfamiliar side of Bukharin. His "Philosophical Arabesques," only made available in 1992, reveals a sophisticated dialectical materialist who grounds his analysis of society in ecology. Bukharin writes of the "earth's atmosphere, full of infinitely varied life, from the smallest microorganisms in water, on land and in the air, to human beings. Many people do not imagine the vast richness of these forms, or their direct participation in the physical and chemical processes of nature."
As one of the founders of German Social Democracy, August Bebel not only spoke with some authority in the 1884 "Woman Under Socialism," he also seemed to be anticipating the dire consequences experienced today in the wake of clear-cutting:
"The mad sacrifice of the appreciable deterioration of climate and decline in the fertility of the soil in the provinces of Prussian and Pomerania, in Syria, Italy and France, and Spain. Frequent inundations are the consequence of stripping high ground of trees. The inundations of the Rhine and Vistula are chiefly attributed to the devastation of forest land in Switzerland and Poland."
Finally, in an instance that seems to address Joel Kovel's complaint about the lack of spirituality in Marxism and a possible alternative to Lewis Henry Morgan's obsession with "improvement,", we have the example of Rosa Luxemburg who wrote from prison in May, 1917:
"What am I reading? For the most part, natural science: geography of plants and animals. Only yesterday I read why the warblers are disappearing from Germany. Increasingly systematic forestry, gardening and agriculture are, step by step destroying all natural nesting and breeding places: hollow trees, fallow land, thickets of shrubs, withered leaves on the garden grounds. It pained me so when I read that. Not because of the song they sing for people, but rather it was the picture of the silent, irresistible extinction of these defenseless little creatures which hurt me to the point that I had to cry. It reminded me of a Russian book which I read while still in Zurich, a book by Professor Sieber about the ravage of the redskins in North America. In exactly the same way, step by step, they have been pushed from their land by civilized men and abandoned to perish silently and cruelly."
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Revolutionary Debunking June 7 2000
By Michael Dawson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is a hot knife through the rancid butter of existing views of the ties between science, ecology, and the politics of the human future.
Foster presents prodigious historical evidence for his thesis that, despite a century-and-a-half of obtuseness on both right and left, Karl Marx was one of the greatest and deepest inheritors and advancers of the best tradition of both "Enlightenment materialism-humanism" and ecological realism.
Foster shows that, contrary to traditional interpretations, Marx was neither an admirer of crude mechanistic science nor an airy Hegelian dreamer. If one actually bothers to read the earliest and the lesser-known Marx, it turns out that the bearded one was quite consciously an exponent of the supple, open-ended materialism embodied in the Epicurean tradition and in the best ideas of its Enlightenment elaborators, including giants of science like Bacon and Darwin.
This unappreciated fact, Foster also shows, meant that Marx was also a very profound ecologist. Up to speed on the most important ecological debates of his epoch, Marx's whole project, Foster convincingly demonstrates, rested on the kind of hard-headed, historically-sensitive, and politically clear-sighted concern for the world's ecological welfare that is so sorely lacking in today's sterile debates between status-quo ostriches and "radical" nature worshippers.
This book has opened my eyes and greatly deepened my appreciation of Marx, ecological thought, the history and future of science, and the best meaning of humanism. Anybody interested in these vital issues ought to get and digest this ground-breaking tour-de-force!
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Original and Compelling March 22 2003
By Malvin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"Marx's Ecology" by John Bellamy Foster positively reasserts the long-neglected environmental aspects of Karl Marx's writing. Foster guides the reader through a fascinating look at Marx's personal intellectual development and the various thinkers who influenced him. The author reveals a Marx who was keenly aware of capital's strategy to alienate labor from nature. Foster also makes clear that Marx worked assiduously to develop a theory that might reconnect dehumanized labor with its degraded environment in hopes of creating a better, more sustainable world.
Indeed, Foster's book is an interesting study of intellectual history, with an emphasis on the debates that raged during Marx's lifespan in the 19th century. The ideas and discoveries of Darwin, Engels, Epicurus, Hegel, Malthus, Proudhon, and others are discussed at length. Foster presents a Marx who was clearly at the vanguard of progressive thought in his era and gives us considerable insight into how Marx created his materialist theory of history. We also understand why Marx privileged the environment but explicitly rejected the fashionable teleological and racist arguments of his time.
In particular, I found the discussion concerning Epicurus to be fascinating. Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who had a profound influence on the Enlightenment and was the subject of Marx's doctoral dissertation. Foster tells us that Marx's unconventional interpretations have been confirmed by recent archaeological discoveries, although at the time Marx had been working from a small number of extant fragments of Epicurus' writings. In addition to explaining to the reader why Epicurus' ideas are important, Foster deepens our appreciation for Marx, whose intellectual capabilities were evident even at a fairly young age.
In the Epilogue, Foster shows how Marx's ecology fell out of the loop, a victim to Soviet ideology, Stalinist purges and other historical forces. But he shows how snippets of Marx's environmental thought has influenced scholars and activists throughout the 20th century. In fact, Foster suggests that Marx has been vindicated by some within the contemporary environmental movement. For example, Rachel Carson's work connecting corporate power with environmental and social degradation recalls (unconsciously?) Marx's work regarding the dialectic of nature and science. But with this book, Foster has effectively redrawn the circle, solidly connecting Marxist theory with the environment. Foster helps us understand that social justice and ecological sustainability are core Marxist values that can guide and inspire activists who are looking for solutions to today's environmental crisis.

In short, I strongly recommend this book for readers who are interested in intellectual history and/or eco-socialist theory, and congratulate Foster for an outstanding piece of research.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant excavation of Marx's ecology Sept. 22 2009
By M. A. Krul - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
John Bellamy Foster has a justified reputation as a left-wing writer on ecological issues and the intersection between the Red and the Green. In this book he totally vindicates that reputation, because "Marx's Ecology" is an exceedingly well-written, occasionally brilliant book about the ecological thought of Marx and Engels and the philosophical background of the same. Marx and Engels both, it must be noted: Foster correctly rejects the fashionable tendency to leave Engels by the wayside as a mere epigone or someone who warped the True Faith of Marx. On the contrary, as the author shows: Engels was perhaps even the greater ecological thinker of the two, and this book also provides much of a defense and vindication of his much maligned philosophical texts on these topics, including but not limited to "The Dialectics of Nature" and the "Anti-Dühring".

Foster starts out by tracing the importance of Marx's studies of classical philosophy, in particular the Epicurean school, and locates the basis of his entire intellectual project in Epicurus' attempt to unite both the possibilities of freedom and of a consistent causal materialism. Until now, Marx's doctorate thesis on Democritus and Epicurus had often been seen as merely a convenient topic for him to work on, while he was really focused on Hegel - but Foster shows convincingly that in reality the Epicurean strand of thought in Marx is equal at least to the Hegelian, and of course Hegel himself was much influenced by that classical philosophy also.

The writer then in a very accessible manner traces the vagaries of attempts to develop a consistent materialism throughout the history of philosophy, focusing on Bacon, the early mechanistic materialists such as Hobbes, and the Enlightenment materialists like d'Holbach and La Mettrie. Foster shows how Marx and Engels were influenced both by particularly this aspect of Enlightenment thought, but were dissatisfied with the mechanistic aspects of it and its determinism, and wanted to reconcile it with the idea of freedom. This led eventually to the development of the 'dialectical' way of thinking, being-as-becoming, and after Marx and Engels undertook their studies of political economy this was worked out as their historical materialist theory.

Another major part of the book is tracing the influence of ecological and biological thought in their day and preceding it on Marx and Engels. Darwin, of course, is the main figure here, and Foster tells the reader all about the interactions the two had with Darwin and his supporters, about whom they were very enthousiastic. But also the developments in geology, with Lyell and the foundation of non-biblical earth sciences, receive due attention. In so doing, Foster attempts to explain what Marx could have meant when he remarked about the theory of evolution by means of natural selection that it was "the basis in natural history for our view".

This finally leads to a discussion of the fullest development of the thought of Marx and in particular Engels, and the aftermath. Here Foster tries to show that indeed the thought of both was not just thoroughly historical in nature, but also thoroughly embedded in natural history, and that their conception of man's "metabolism" with nature was fundamental to understanding their philosophy of history. He discusses somewhat the different degrees to which later authors have worked along the same lines or failed to perceive it. Interesting in particular is the mentioning of the line of Marxist or Marxist-inspired pathbreakers in biology, from J.B.S. Haldane to the Harvard school of Levins and Lewontin. It is telling that the latter two, in their famous work "The Dialectical Biologist" (The Dialectical Biologist), dedicated it to Friedrich Engels: "who got it right where it counted".
5.0 out of 5 stars A thesis clearly stated Aug. 4 2014
By L. Bloch - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This was originally a response to the one negative review, but I decided it might be useful for anyone considering this book. The other reviewer was simply wrong in claiming "NOWHERE is [the thesis] ever clearly stated." The clearest statement appears in the Preface, and it is elaborated in the first two paragraphs of Chapter One.

Here are the first three sentences of the second paragraph of the Preface:

"Marx has often been characterized as an anti-ecological thinker. But I was always too well acquainted with his writing to take such criticisms seriously. He had, as I knew, exhibited deep ecological awareness at numerous points in his work."

If you need a simple sentence, it would be:

"[Marx]... exhibited deep ecological awareness at numerous points in his work."

A more elaborate statement is made in the first and second paragraphs of Chapter One:

"The argument of this book is based on a very simple premise: that in order to understand the origins of ecology, it is necessary to understand the new views of nature that arose with the development of materialism and science from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. [...]

"The overall discussion is structured around the work of Darwin and Marx- the two greatest materialists of the nineteenth century. But it is the later who constitutes the principal focus of this work, since the goal is to understand and develop a revolutionary ecological view of great importance to us today; one that links social transformation with the transformation of the human relation with nature in ways that we now consider ecological. The key to Marx's thinking in this respect, it is contended, lies in the way he developed and transformed an existing Epicurean tradition with respect to materialism and freedom, which was integral to the rise of much of modern scientific and ecological thought."

If these two paragraphs make sense to you, then the book will be clear and enjoyable read. If they seem like gobbledygook, then there are plenty of other excellent books that you might enjoy reading.
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