Socialism and Nature

Will capitalism bring the world to the brink of ecological disaster? It is certainly having a good try with its pursuit of profits and its competitive drive to keep costs down that have led to all sorts of inappropriate methods and materials being used in production. The consequences of climate warming are many and varied, and some may be here already: droughts in the US and Africa. Capitalism can do no more than tinker with the problem. The very unpredictability of the consequences makes it vital to bring the situation under human control. But capitalism is the worst possible social system for the kind of rational, integrated action which is needed. Socialism, in contrast, will provide the kind of framework within which global warming, and other ecological problems can be tackled and solved by that marvellous resource—human ingenuity. The only way to green the planet is to first make it the common heritage of all of us. Then we will be freed from the tyranny of market forces and money and in a position to consciously regulate our relationship with the rest of nature in an ecologically acceptable way.

Although not a member of the World Socialist Movement the June 1992 Socialist Standard published a criticism from a Marxist viewpoint of the so-called “Deep Greens” or “Deep Ecologists” who see nature as a force to which humans must submit, written by the environmentalist and author, David Pepper [ David Pepper: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle]

Socialism and nature

Our ecological crisis, say the “deep” Greens, stems from a fundamentally unhealthy relationship between society and nature. In this relationship, inherited from attitudes and philosophies developed during the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, we regard ourselves as separate from and superior to nature. We think we can constantly change, develop and destroy it for material benefit. Such alienation and exploitation result, Deep Greens say, from human arrogance and greed, which are displayed equally in capitalism and socialism.

They argue that a healthy, holistic, organic relationship with nature would, by contrast, regard humans as part of it, not separate from it—subject, like any other species, to the same ecological laws. We therefore must observe the natural limits on human activity imposed by finite resources. We should respect, celebrate and revere nature in its own right (the “bioethic”)—regardless of its use value to us. This means abandoning materialism and “living lightly on the earth”, while conserving virtually all species from highest to lowest.

Socialists, too, condemn Western attitudes to nature. However we relate them not to human “sin” but to the specific workings of capitalist economics (state or private). We reject the Deep Ecology approach in favour of a dialectical Marxist one.

Dialectical approach

A dialectical view of the society-nature relationship says, first, that there is no separation between them. They are part of a unity. There is not a self-contained “humanity” counterposed to a self-contained “non-human” world. The two are so un-self-contained that you cannot define one without the other (try it!). They are really aspects of one another: what humans do is natural, while nature is socially produced.

Second, as they develop they constantly interact to change each other, in a circular, mutually affecting way. “Non-human” nature, and human perceptions of it, affect and change human society. The latter then changes nature, which, changed, affects society to further change it, and so on.

Underlying human interactions with nature is the process of production, which is a defining characteristic of being human. In production we change nature with forethought, into forms more useful to us than in their “natural” state. Labour incorporates our essential human forces into nature, which therefore gains social quality in the form of use values. Under capitalism, of course, the value of nature is not judged simply by its use, material or aesthetic. It is expressed as exchange value: the value which its products realise when bought and sold in a market place.

Over time, our work on a nature which existed before humans were present—a “first nature”—has produced the material creations of society together with its institutions, ideas and values—a “second nature”. Here, we should recognise something which most Deep Ecologists do not (or if they do, they do not welcome it—see Bill McKibben’s Death of Nature). This is that wherever there are humans it is no longer meaningful to distinguish between first or second nature: everything is the latter. Marx certainly recognised this:

Animals and plants, which we are accustomed to consider as products of nature, are, in their present form, not only products of, say, last year’s labour, but the results of a gradual transformation, continued through many generations, under man’s superintendence and by means of his labour. (Capital Vol. I).

The nature that preceded human history . . . today no longer exists anywhere . . .

(German Ideology).

In these days of concern about ubiquitous global atmospheric modification the truth of these observations becomes clear upon a moment’s reflection. Even “wilderness” areas and wildlife preserves are not “natural”. They have been artificially segregated from normal development processes by human decisions.

Because socialists accept all this with equanimity, Deep Ecologists often accuse them of sharing with capitalism an arrogance towards the rest of nature. And, indeed, Marxism was, like liberalism, born of the Enlightenment view that saw nature as something to be understood in order to use its laws, principles and resources for the material benefit of humans.

But the society-nature dialectic does also acknowledge human dependence on non-human nature as well as vice versa. This is fundamental in the recognition of nature as one of the forces of production: a recognition which should beget, in socialists, sensitivity to the objective existence of ecological laws. It should also beget kindness and humane (i.e. like humanity) treatment of animals. For, if in changing nature we change ourselves, then acts of cruelty to animals create cruel humans.

This all means that as the productive forces of technology develop, what it is to be human and to be “natural” both change. In production

Man sets in motion arms and legs, head and hands—the natural forces of his body—in order to appropriate nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. (Marx. Capital).

So through learning how to farm nature’s products we changed ourselves from nomadic hunter/gatherers to sedentary humans. Through learning how to manufacture things we changed ourselves to an industrial society. As our ability to use resources has grown we have developed new needs: housing, energy, telecommunication. As we have changed our power to do things (e.g. via transport and computers) we have changed the things we want and need to do (e.g. travel).

This interaction is not just material. Through changing nature and making things, we have changed ourselves into creatures who appreciate the beauty of what we create: buildings, machines, art, landscapes. Included in all this are our intellectual senses. As we transform nature, we get to know nature’s laws in order to do it more effectively and usefully. As this happens we develop our own intelligence.

Lewis Mumford described aspects of this dialectic, in Technics and Civilisation. He argued that creating machines produced new moral values in Western societies. These elevated practicality, thus favouring a meritocracy which swept aside a feudal caste system. And new cultural values were created. Nature was transformed into a human work of art: its beauty and wonder being augmented by the quantitative and analytic appreciation which a machine culture induces. The human imagination has also been enlarged by scientific, technological fantasising, and by a new machine aesthetic: a second nature of cranes, skyscrapers and microscopes. Cubism was the first style to reflect the beauty of the machine. Photography enhanced our appreciation of pure form in nature, while films brought distant environments near, recreating symbolically a world beyond our immediate reach.

This unfolding society-nature dialectic is an evolutionary process. In it, industrial, technological society is not some unnatural aberration, but a natural stage in social development and a social stage in the development of nature. It follows that changing our nature changes our needs. If most needs are thus socially produced, so too are the resources to fill them. Coal, oil, quartz, then, are not fundamental, basic resources: they did not become resources until we developed the technologies to use them. So we should be less concerned about whether they are going to run out. Rather, we should ask whether we wish to fulfil needs for energy, transport and telecommunication through these particular resources or others. Alternatively, we may wish to change our view of what we need; consequently our view of what constitutes “resources”. The point is that the choice is ours: we are not the helpless playthings of natural or economic forces that Greens sometimes would have us believe.

We should appreciate that this dialectical perspective is profoundly holistic. It contains no dualism of society and nature, but a monism in which both are defined by each other and are constantly co-cvolving:

Nature is man’s inorganic body—nature, that is, in so far as it is not itself the human body. “Man lives on nature” means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous intercourse if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is part of nature . . . (Marx: Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts).

As Fritjof Capra, the Deep Ecology physicist who is not a friend of Marxism, has conceded, this is a deeply ecological view of the society-nature relationship.

Alienation from nature

The socialist conception of nature, then, is not as a mere stock of economic goods (capitalism), nor as a source of intrinsic worth or good (deep ecology), nor as an endangered ecosystem (tragedy of the commons survivalism). It conceives of nature as a social category: though there was an “objective” nature it has been reshaped and reinterpreted by one aspect of itself, human society.

Since alienation means separation from aspects of the self, then alienation from nature means a failure to realise that it is an aspect of the self, i.e. a social creation. This implies that the environmental crisis results from failing to see nature as our own creation and to understand that we can exercise conscious social control over this creation in order to make it a more desirable environment. Instead, we tend to view change towards unpleasant environments as substantially inevitable—a result of economic and technological forces (like the market and mechanisation) that are (we imagine) largely beyond our control. Reformist environmentalists and politicians try to wrestle with such forces, introducing taxes and legislation to soften their environmental impact. But they consider that a truly socialist society—an egalitarian, productive community of society and nature in which both are mutually benign—is quite beyond their reach.

For Deep Greens, “alienation” from nature means something quite different. It means asserting the naturalness of humans by “living in harmony with nature”, i.e. effectively conceding that natural laws (c.g. carrying capacity) have immediate determining power over us. Nature is seen as the source of worth (it “knows best”) and we endanger it unless we follow its rules. This view, says Steven Vogel, by seeing human activity as encroachment on or violation of nature

seems to be curiously guilty of just the sort of dualism it ascribes to the project of dominating nature. Somehow the activity of humans in transforming their environmcnt, alone of all other species, is ‘‘unnatural”. (“Marx and Alienation from Nature”, Social Theory and Practice, Vol 14, No3).

Vogel might well be thinking of Greenpeace’s 1990 recruiting leaflet, which accuses “man” of multiplying “his numbers to plague proportions . . . and now stands like a brutish infant, gloating over this metcroric rise to ascendency”.

Deep Ecologists would have us revere nature, preserving it to acknowledge our “one-ness” with it. But, as Murray Bookchin suggests, such worship mystifies nature, actually placing humanity far apart from it. It is a “Supernature with its shamans, priests, priestesses and fanciful deities”. Reverent mystification really separates us from nature: we the “impotent and terrified mortal before a jealous and angry god”, Gaia as an inhuman force we cannot change but to which we must adjust for our survival.

So Deep Ecology’s view of alienation from nature really rests on a dualistic conception of the human-nature relationship: a conception it is supposed to reject. The socialist dialectic, however, is not dualistic, and therefore, as Vogel says, “the question is not whether what we do ‘accords with nature’, it is whether we like what we have wrought”. And, as Reiner Grundmann says, in communism (socialism) humans will “dominate” nature but only in the sense of being in total control of their relationship with it. This in fact is the precondition for avoiding ecological crises.

Further Reading

A Vision of Green Socialism – (

Book Review: Getting means to survive – (

Letters: Socialists and Parliament – (