Books: The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology

13 November 2020 —  Climate & Capitalism

Essential Reading
Bulletin: On the day this review was published, it was announced that The Return of Nature has won this year’s Deutscher Memorial Prize, awarded annually to “a book which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition.”

John Bellamy Foster’s brilliant recovery of a century of ecological and socialist thought will inform, enable, and inspire a new generation of reds and greens


John Bellamy Foster
THE RETURN OF NATURE
Socialism and Ecology

Monthly Review Press, 2020

reviewed by Peter Critchley

In an age in which the call for system change is being heard more and more, in increasing recognition of the socio-economic causes of climate crisis, a book establishing the connection between socialism and ecology could not be more timely. In tracing the evolution of that connection, John Bellamy Foster’s The Return of Nature identifies the conditions for an effective ecosocialism.

The book is a work of recovery in several related senses: of Marx and Engels and those they inspired as pioneer social ecologists; of nature as necessarily ingrained in social analysis; of dialectics as a critical-practical method; of materialism as field of immanence and emergence; of socialism as the systemic mediation of the social-natural relation; and, importantly, of politics as the practical engagement with the world, rendering knowledge and reason socially effective.

Though neither Marx nor Engels used the word “ecology,” both displayed a critical systematic interest in the environmental questions arising from the metabolic interchange between human society and nature. Having established the foundations of Marx’s socio-ecological critique of capitalist society in Marx’s Ecology (MR Press, 2000), Foster traces its further development in The Return of Nature in the work of an impressive range of socialist scientists and thinkers. Taking up the story from the deaths of Darwin and Marx in 1882 and 1883, with a primary focus upon Britain, Foster shows that from its inception, ecology was “deeply intertwined” with “struggles for human equality and the revolt against capitalist society.”

Biologist E. Ray Lankester serves as a link between Marx and the socialist scientists who developed his materialist conception. A personal friend of Marx, Lankester introduced the word œcology into English, in his 1873 translation of Ernst Haeckel’s History of Creation. Rather than follow Haeckel’s usage, however, Lankester developed his own concept of “bionomics” to embrace the study of the mutual adaptations of plants and animals, studying complex mutual relations within “the infinite web of life.” Studying the co-evolution of humanity and external nature, and the issues arising from their interaction, Lankester paid particular attention to the threats that degenerative forms of human ecology under capitalism posed to civilization.

From this beginning, Foster establishes the basis of an expansive notion of ecology, one that joins culture, politics and science. Defining the dialectical approach concisely as “the social relation to nature, as mediated by science and art via labor and production,” he traces the advent of an emergent ecological materialism that integrates the objective and subjective flux of an organic dialectics mediating natural and human metabolic orders.

The “one science” which J.D. Bernal described in Marx and Science offers an integral conception that is capable of bridging the realms of theoretical reason (our knowledge of the world) and practical reason (how human beings act in light of that knowledge), thus informing and sustaining an effective eco-praxis.

Foster demonstrates that Marx and Engels founded a socialist ecology based on a two-faceted ecosystem analysis that focused on capital’s disturbance in the metabolic interaction between humanity and nature, tracing its further development in a number of socio-ecological critiques and analyses. Centered on the mediated relation between human society and nature, the critical dialectical ecology developed throughout this book is crucial in identifying the specific causes of environmental crises and addressing them effectively in a structural and systemic sense.

In this analysis, social systems emerge as human ecologies constituted by determinate material relations which, within capitalist relations, are driven by contradictory dynamics which are in violation of both the human and the natural ontology. Humanity — as “nature’s rebel” (Lankester) — can never separate itself from nature, but can generate ecological consequences through its actions within specific social relations to threaten its very survival.

Lankester identified the socio-ecological contradiction at the heart of the capital system as a “disharmony” in the relations between human beings and nature. Under the sway of accumulative imperatives arising from the overriding pursuit of exchange value, capitalist society systematically undermines its pre-existing natural conditions.

Lankester’s student, botanist Arthur George Tansley, socialist and pioneer of the concept of the ecosystem (in 1935) conceived humanity as an “exceptionally powerful biotic factor” capable of transforming natural ecosystems and disturbing the metabolic equilibrium between them.

It is this capacity for transformation and disturbance in the metabolic interaction between society and nature which lies at the heart of the ecological problems of the age. The “metabolic rift” identified by Marx has now assumed global proportions as the transgression of planetary boundaries.

Such analysis begs — and receives — an identification of the social forms facilitating a harmonious metabolic restoration.

Lankester argued for a sustainable society in which science would take the place of commodity relations as the basis of civilization.

In Dangerous Truths (1943), Lancelot Hogben argued that against “the Liberal doctrine that prosperity is being able to choose the greatest variety of goods,” the “other socialism,” set forth most clearly by William Morris, “asserted the need to decide whether the dark satanic mills were making things which are good for men to choose,” and having a benign rather than destructive impact on the environment.

Joseph Needham criticized the inherently disorganizing and dissipative nature of the capital system in using the gifts of nature to fulfil growth imperatives arising from commodity relations, wasting natural energy as well as human effort and creativity. Emphasizing the need to recognize the ecological limits to human societal expansion, he argued that this wasteful system be supplanted by a more sustainable path of human development. “The object, “ Foster argues, was “to create a society in which the alienation of nature and the alienation of labor no longer fed upon the other.”

Above all, William Morris offered a wider, more coherent and cogent socialist strategy, one more attuned to people’s needs and nature’s intrinsic worth in stabilizing the productive interchange beyond endless economic expansion.

Foster shows that a crucial part of Morris’s argument was that the luxury and waste which was having such a destructive social and ecological impact paradoxically represented a substantial economic surplus that gave society the potential to satisfy the genuine needs of all within egalitarian relations.

Morris, Hogben declared, was both “a social psychologist,” in his recognition that a socialist program could not ignore the fact that people want their lives to be “picturesque,” and “a sound biologist” in believing that Britain could be made “so beautiful that people would neither need nor wish to travel.” Calling for a “reorientation of social values,” Hogben concluded that “if we are to plan for survival our first aim must be to create a social environment in which the setting of the family is satisfying because it is picturesque.” (Planning for Human Survival). Such integral praxis involves more than design, engineering, and science: “There is no reason why Socialism should identify scientific planning with an exclusively mechanical technology.”

Morris is hugely important in this respect. The extent to which the economic stagnation engulfing Britain in the late nineteenth century had not generated a wellspring of revolt made it clear to Morris that revolutionary transformation could not be considered an automatic response to objective conditions and crises. He therefore emphasized the need to strengthen the subjective conditions of social transformation, a process of “making socialists” by way of education and broad political activity. Without this, socialism would be but “the mill-wheel without the motive power.”

The testimony of the various thinkers gathered in The Return of Nature leads inexorably to the conclusion that the future health, harmony, and flourishing of Earth and humanity lies in a labor-environmentalist fusion that can supplant the capital system with new social forms, integrating sensuous human interaction with nature.

Some environmentalists entertain ideas of a “steady state” capitalism. Bill McKibben in Eearth argues for a realigned capitalism that could happily function without growth. The Return of Nature shows such thinking to be chimerical, having the concomitant danger of seducing those seeking a corrective environmental intervention that avoids conflict and division (i.e., politics and power) into “pragmatic” actions and common solutions that remain firmly within the accumulative logic of capital and its non-organic growth.

Endless and unresolvable controversies with respect to regulations and technologies, as well as behavioral and lifestyle changes, issue inevitably from the attempt to make an inherently unsustainable capitalist system sustainable. This book is a reminder that capital is not a neutral “thing,” to be appropriated and used in various ways (a typically bourgeois notion that naturalizes and eternalizes an economic category that needs to be historicized), but a power-infused class relation and process.

Capital cannot be delinked from the accumulative imperative: it’s systemic logic of accumulation and waste has to be uprooted at source.

In recovering nature, Foster recovers socialism as an emancipatory-critical project oriented towards the achievement of the rational society, a defetishized, free, and egalitarian social order.

Arguing that Marx and Engels saw a critical dialectical reason as “crucial for apprehending nature because it was itself a refracted, reflexive part of nature’s complex process of change mediated by historical society,” Foster’s brings the dialectical conception of materialism to bear on a transformative eco-praxis in which human beings are not passive heads to be educated from the outside, but practical-knowledgeable co-agents transforming a reality of which they are a part on the inside.

The result is an actively democratic environmentalism, based on the reflexive connection between human agency and emergent social and natural processes.

Foster does a superb job of recovering Marx’s dynamic conception of materialism, emphasizing fluidity against fixity to subvert metaphysical or philosophical tendencies to totalizing abstraction. The return of the materialist dialectic is, perhaps, the most significant aspect of Foster’s work of recovery.

While it is important to set the record straight as to “what Marx really said,” maintaining a theoretical and practical fidelity with Marx is more about respecting Marx as a pioneer of a critical-dialectical realism than as a prophet whose view is ossified in fixed concepts and systems. It is more important to apply his critical method than to repeat quotations.

Marx cultivated an intense passion for freedom and knowledge in their interconnection. This entailed a commitment to destroy all forms of fetishizing practice and mystifying consciousness implicated in humanity’s self-estrangement, and to develop critical ideas with a practical purchase in the struggles of the oppressed against relations of domination and exploitation. He would have looked first and foremost for future generations to engage in the practical-critical activity he pioneered, treating with scorn those who would turn him into an authority presiding over a static system of thought and politics.

Foster does impressive work in emphasizing that the materialism that Marx developed, and which those who followed in his footsteps developed further, emphasized movement and change, demanding a dialectical apprehension that was attuned to the dynamism and fluidity of reality, aiding those struggling for freedom and equality against all ossified and ideological forms.

This movement at the heart of Marx’s dialectical conception of materialism stands as a continual reminder that the theory and practice of freedom, like the reality we are immersed in, are always an unfinished and unfinishable affair. So long as this reality and our mediated relation to it exists, Marx’s materialist conception, in whatever form it may take within specific social relations, will remain obdurately relevant.

John Bellamy Foster has rediscovered that view in the work of others, giving it a shape, coherence, and clarity as a dialectical ecology that deserves serious consideration by all who are concerned with the parlous state of planetary health.

The critical analysis presented in this book leaves no doubt that the resolution of the environmental crisis requires not just cuts in carbon emissions and investment in renewable energy, but a new kind of society whose institutional framework and economic system — allied to the transformative agency with the structural capacity to act — make the implementation of such programs practicable and effective in the first place, and cease generating the ecological rifts that make it necessary in the second.

The Return of Nature is an informative and educational book that shows the close connection of socialism and ecology — in contradistinction to the dominant form taken by socialism in the twentieth century which lost touch with nature and became complicit with capital’s destructive imperatives. It restores a lost conception of ecologically sensitive socialism that the world is desperately in need of today.

Foster presents a worldview that can inform, enable, and inspire a new generation of ecologically-minded socialists and socialistically-minded ecologists, envisaging the day when these identities merge in the political commitment to put the society-nature metabolic relation on a harmonious and healthy basis.

The final line in the book states its lesson concisely:

“What we must dethrone today is the idol of capital itself, the concentrated power of class-based avarice, which now imperils the ecology of the Earth. It is this that constitutes the entire meaning of freedom as necessity and the return of nature in our time.”

Foster’s work of intellectual restoration demonstrates that the line of critical metabolic thinking leading from Marx and Engels to an integrated social-natural ecology remains the most cogent, intellectually satisfying, and practically relevant theory of liberation in the world today.


Peter Critchley is an independent scholar and writer who works, in free access, in the fields of ethics, politics, and philosophy. His e-books and articles are available on his website, Being and Place. He would like to thank Professor Hélène Domon of California State University Fullerton for her generous contributions of time and expertise to this review.

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