JBF: A little history is in order here. Since the 1980s there has emerged, first in the United States/Canada and Europe, and now all around the world, what is known as the ecosocialist movement.
What exactly constitutes an “Anti-Critique” in the sense you use it?
JBF: In Marxian theory the notion of anti-critique has a long history, associated most directly with Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital: An Anti-Critique, in which she replied to her Marxist critics. Engels’s earlier, more famous Anti-Dühring can also be viewed as an anti-critique.
Why do you think it is necessary to counter critiques of Marx, Engels and Marxism particularly regarding eco-socialism/ecological debates?
JBF: It is like asking: Why is it necessary to counter critiques of Darwin in relation to evolution? The answer should be obvious: It is a matter of science. However much evolutionary theory has developed since the mid-nineteenth century we keep going back to Darwin and his work, which generates new insights. This is one of the ways in which science advances.
In three of the five main chapters of the book you deal with the accusations against “the dual founders of historical materialism” regarding their study of and their relation to thermodynamics, in particular to the work of the 19th century Ukrainian socialist Sergei Podolinsky? Briefly, what are the charges against them and why do you consider them to be invalid?
JBF: Podolinsky was a Ukrainian Marxist who was a follower of Marx and Engels. He is best known as the founding figure of ecological economics because of his study of “Human Labour and the Unity of Force.” Podolinksy sent an early draft of his manuscript to Marx in 1880 and Marx took copious notes and wrote back to him. Podolinsky then produced another, expanded draft that he published shortly afterward in French, followed by an Italian version, and one in German in 1883, published shortly after Marx’s death. There was also a Russian edition. We do not have Marx’s views on Podolinsky’s manuscript because none of his letters to Podolinsky survived. However, Engels wrote two letters to Marx in 1882, on Podolinsky’s work, at Marx’s request.
You write that there is a “complex materialist ecology at the root of classical Marxism.” What are the basic and most important insights of Marx and Engels regarding the destruction of nature in capitalism?
JBF: This is difficult to answer. The principal discoveries have to do with Marx’s theory of metabolic rift, his ecological-value analysis, the analysis of ecological imperialism, and Marx and Engels’s development of the dialectics of ecology. Most important from the standpoint of praxis is Marx’s extraordinarily radical definition of sustainability, in which he said no one owns the earth, rather people must maintain it for future generations as good heads of the household. Socialism, for Marx, was defined in Capital, vol. 3 in terms of the rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolism between human beings and nature, along with the full development of human potential.
You mentioned the generations of Marxists who have tried to interpret ecological destructions through the lens of Marx’ and Engels’ tremendous work. How do you conceive the history between Marxism and Ecology?
JBF: The history of the relation of socialism to ecology is not very well-known. The main reason for this is that ecology as a way of understanding the world was a product of natural science more than social science and even more than cultural theory. But Marxism when it revived in the West in the 1960s was distinguished from classical Marxian thought in that it largely excluded natural science and with it nature itself from the Marxian tradition.
Moreover, Marxism is a revolutionary philosophy, tied to the belief, expectation, or hope that the working class will be able to carry out its own self-emancipation. Some leftist academics are frightened by this. Others claim that the working class is by nature anti-environmental.
One of the traditional flaws of ecological activists as well as thinkers is to treat ecological problems as human or species problems, as if there are no winners and losers of ecocide. How do you explain this ideological misinterpretation?
JBF: Yes, there are all sorts of varieties of this “we are all in this together” notion within liberal environmentalism. One is the Malthusian view that all ecological problems are due to their being too many people. Another is the claim, made by Al Gore, that we all reside on a spaceship earth so we are all essentially in the same position.
At first glance the articles of the book seem to be directed to the scientific community. What can political activists and people who are interested in solving ecological problems learn from it?
JBF: Marx and the Earth is a book, written for a more theoretically inclined audience. Historically, Marxism has always taken the development of theory/science very seriously, without which revolutionary praxis would be impossible. In the struggles to define the critique of capitalism embodied in Marxian ecology and ecosocialism it is essential to get the theory and the science correct to the extent possible. Our practice, the clarity of our ideas, our way forward depend on that.
John Bellamy Foster is a professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon, and editor of the US socialist magazine Monthly Review. He has published several books on political economy, the theory of imperialism and Marxist ecology, some of which have been published in German translation by Laika-Verlag.
John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett: Marx and the Earth. An Anti-Critique. Brill, Leiden / Boston 2016, 316 pp, 115 Euro