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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 15, New Delhi, March 27, 2021

Lotz on John Bellamy Foster’s The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology

Friday 26 March 2021

John Bellamy Foster
The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology

Monthly Review Press, New York, 2020. 687 pp., £30 hb
ISBN 9781583678367

Reviewed by Corinna Lotz

[Corinna Lotz’ book Finding Evald Ilyenkov – How a Soviet Philosopher who stood up for dialectics continues to inspire, was published by Real Democracy Movement in April 2019. She co-ordinates International Friends of Ilyenkov.]


For too long it has been a cliché that a class-based Marxist approach is incompatible with the ever more urgent issues of ecological well-being. The Return of Nature comes as a breath of fresh air as, with some success, it sets out to disprove this notion.

Today we take the term ‘ecology’ for granted. And yet, as John Bellamy Foster explains, it took over a century for ecology to achieve recognition as a science.

Researching his ‘sequel’ to Marx’s Ecology, Foster set out to provide a survey of the 80 years between Marx’s death and the 1960s. He adopts a wide-ranging, anecdotal approach, with mini biographies of the interacting personalities, as though a War and Peace of ecological socialist thought.

Marx’s and Frederick Engels’ philosophical approach to science and society was in essence ‘ecological’ before the term ‘ecological’ was even dreamt of. It was Engels who in 1876 warned of hubris, saying that for each human conquest ‘nature takes its revenge on us’ –poignant in our time of coronavirus pandemic.

The first major character is E. Ray Lankester, the son of a doctor who investigated the causes of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London’s Soho (where Marx and his family lived at the time). Lankester was friends with Karl and Eleanor Marx, sharing their research and other interests (35). Lankester’s youthful studies under the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, who first coined the term ‘oekologie’ in 1866, no doubt influenced his thinking. Lankester was to introduce the concept of ‘bionomics’ (59) in terms which we would today understand as ecology. Thanks to his early studies in Germany he could read the copy of Das Kapital presented to him by Marx in 1880, seven years before it was translated into English, with ‘the greatest of pleasure and profit’ (38).

Foster traces the connections between Lankester and early feminists such as Karl Pearson, Eleanor Marx, her partner Edward Aveling and her friend Olive Schreiner in the 1880s socialist movement. From 1879, Pearson initiated discussions about the role of the sexes, arguing that ‘The Woman’s Question’ would ‘ultimately involve a revolution in all our social institutions’. Pearson stimulated new debates but later promoted racist notions of eugenics in what became known as ‘social Darwinism’ (44).

The Return of Nature presents William Morris as a pioneering campaigner for socialism and ecology in theory and practice. He was the link between the Romantic view of nature, the Victorian critic John Ruskin and Marx’s economic and class politics. It only took Morris two years to wear out his copy of Capital (85). Key themes in Morris’ writings covered everything from the nature of human labour and its relationship with arts and crafts, to the production of waste (131), the impoverishment of soil, his vision of the relationship between town and country, and even a feminist approach to his own marriage (74-75). Politically he promoted the organisation of a ‘labour parliament’ and the creation of a sovereign public constitution. In News from Nowhere he envisages a future society centring on the commune, with a ‘Mote’ making democratic decisions. Morris actively opposed the ‘new Tyrannous Empire of capitalism’ (144, 147).

He wrote to a friend: ‘We cannot turn our people back into Catholic English peasants and guild-craftsmen […] we have no choice but to accept the task which the centuries have laid upon us of using the corruption of 300 years of profit-mongering for the overthrow of that very corruption.’ He drew on the past to present a vision of the future, well described by Foster as ‘the negation of the negation – the change beyond the change’ (167).

Having debunked the notion that Morris only looked backwards, Foster says ‘he stood wholeheartedly for the return of nature and unalienated human values as part of a revolutionary-dialectical movement of society, rejecting the exclusions and enclosures of a one-sided, distorted capitalist development. The radical conception for which he fought thus grew out of a complex notion of historical change in which the past became a force transforming the future.’ (147)

Morris’ 1888 book Signs of Change makes clear that far from putting his faith in existing institutions or parliamentary reform, he believed that the system could not be changed in a piecemeal way. He defined what he meant by revolution, saying ‘[i]t may frighten people, but at least it will warn them that there is something to be frightened about, which will be no less dangerous for being ignored; and also it may encourage some people, and will mean to them at least not a fear, but a hope.’ (96)

The 1854 London cholera epidemic reappears as Foster describes Marx and Engels’ close studies of the abysmal living conditions of the English working class. At its peak in August 1866, over 900 people died each day. Poor housing and lack of hygiene and clean water meant that mortality was by far the worst in the working class parts of London, in West Ham and Stratford (204). Foster rightly believes that Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class was a pioneering form of ‘ecological’ social study.

In a letter from Engels to Marx à propos a cough suffered by Marx’s daughter Eleanor, Engels writes that recent discoveries in physiology were a vindication of Hegel’s concept of ‘being in itself’. Quite the opposite of Prometheanism, he notes: ‘This much is certain – comparative physiology gives one a healthy contempt for man’s idealistic arrogance regarding other animals.’ (218)

At this time, Marx and Engels reconsidered Hegel’s legacy, seeing it as an approach that saw things in development and change, and exactly how change takes place. When Darwin’s Origin of Species was offered to the public on 24 November 1859, Engels was already reading it by 12 December. He described it as ‘absolutely splendid’. Marx and Engels felt the need to counter the new German school of ‘scientific materialists’, Karl Vogt, Ludwig Buchner and Jacob Moleschott. Rejecting Hegel’s dialectic, these German scientists had a political influence in the international working-class movement.

Engels work’ on dialectics and science was interrupted by Marx’s death in 1883. The manuscripts of the Dialectics of Nature lay buried for 30 years in the archives of German Social Democracy, under the auspices of Eduard Bernstein, who had earlier enraged Engels by presenting him as a ‘peace-loving proponent of legality quand-même (at all costs)’ (Engels’ own words).

This distortion of Engels’ politics and not-so benign neglect of the Dialectics of Nature were a foretaste of the controversies which continue to this day. It only appeared in Russian and German in 1925. When it finally appeared in English in 1940 leading British Marxist scientists took to it like ducks to water.

Engels’ core thesis was that ‘nature is the proof of dialectics’, the ‘complex, spiralling process of contingency, change, interpenetration, negation, mediation, transcendence and emergence within the natural world (and history) which generated, at the highest level of human consciousness, fluid, dialectical conceptions of reality.’ (230)

It’s great to see Foster highlighting Engels’ ‘third dialectical law’, the negation of the negation (242-243). And yet he skates over the complex meaning of the term ‘Negation’, as well as its related words, ‘sublation’ or ‘transcendence’ (Aufhebung in German).

His interpretation tends to smooth over and remove the active operation of negativity, which embraces notions of absenting (Roy Bhaskar’s term), removal, loss, conflict, interruption, leaps and breaks. Instead, the emphasis is on ‘emergence’ again and again. Thus, despite his often fine summations of dialectics, Foster’s interpretation is problematic.

In his section on ‘Reflection Determinations’ (244-251), Foster defends Engels against detractors who held him responsible for the sterile teaching of dialectics in the Stalin era (243). But in the anxiety to counteract accusations of mechanical materialism, Foster leans towards making the ‘reflection’ of nature and society in the human mind into a purely subjective moment of consciousness.

By subjectivising of ‘reflection’, Foster remains agnostic about the possibility of forming a true picture of the movement of the world. This seems surprising considering that Engels said this was the fundamental issue in philosophy, a position championed by oppositional Soviet philosopher, Evald Ilyenkov, who is quoted elsewhere (265).

Foster describes reflection as a property of human thought, but not as one of the fleeting but crucial ‘determinations of reflection’. Hegel, supported by Lenin in his Philosophical Notebooks, stressed the importance of the indeterminate moment of ‘semblance’ as simultaneously external and internal, as the object encounters subject. Foster says that for Engels as well as Hegel, scientific knowledge ‘consisted of going beyond the particular (the finite) to the universal (infinite)’. But in his Science of Logic, Hegel insisted that knowledge penetrates not only beyond, but through the immediate, making an entrance into ‘Being’. This passage was heavily emphasised by Lenin in his Philosophical Notebooks.

The rise of ecology as a science, and its politicisation, in the 1920s and 1930s is reviewed in part three. There were prolonged conflicts between racist eugenicists such as the influential holist philosopher and murderous South African general, Jan Christiaan Smuts, Isaac Bailey Balfour and Frederick Orpen Bower on the one side, and Arthur Tansley, Lancelot Hogben, J.D. Bernal, J.B. S. Haldane, Benjamin Farrington and Noel Needham on the other. Shocking to modern eyes is the 1931 election of Smuts to the presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There was indeed, a ‘battle for ecology’ (339).

It’s fascinating to learn that Lancelot Hogben’s close friend Hyman Levy, a Jewish Communist Party mathematician and physicist, theorised a ‘whole system approach’ in his The Universe of Science. His book greatly inspired Tansley, who warned that ecosystems were ‘extremely vulnerable’ despite having developed over many thousands of years (354, 355).

The 1931 Second International Congress on the History of Science and Technology, held at London’s Science Museum, was a major watershed in ecological thought as well as in politics. The presence of ‘these luminous thinkers’ from the Soviet Union was a huge surprise and their British counterparts became increasingly radicalised.

‘Ironically, it was in Britain rather than the USSR, that the critical ideas of the Soviet delegates […] were to exert major, continuing influence’ (367). ‘Red scientists’ Hogben, Bernal, Haldane, Needham, Levy and Farringdon contributed to the development of a Marxist-Engelsian view of science and its history. In the late 1930s Haldane warned of the danger of climate change due to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (397).

Foster praises the lesser-known contribution of Christopher Caudwell, the ‘shooting star’ of British Marxism, who was killed age 30 in the Spanish civil war. Caudwell theorised a ‘triple helix’ interrelationship between gene, organism and environment, thus anticipating the work of geneticist Richard Lewontin (451). Lewontin and his colleague Richard Levins dedicated their 1985 book The Dialectical Biologist to Engels (471).

Stalin allowed his political opponent Nicolai Bukharin and top Soviet scientists – Boris Hessen, Nicolai Vavilov, Boris Zavadovsky to travel to London at the very last minute. But within a few years he had them executed or perish in prison. Bukharin and Hessen were shot on 20 December 1936, Bukharin on 15 March 1938, on Stalin’s personal orders (367).

Foster’s account here becomes problematic. The crimes of Stalinism are mentioned, but they are described in an almost incidental way. He writes that the scientific debates in the Soviet Union were ‘unfortunately [my emphasis] coupled with political denunciations and purges that violated all standards of scientific ethics, leading to the imprisonment and death of leading scientific figures’ (606). As if it was only an issue of scientific ethics! The term ‘Stalinism’ is only used once (and then to disparage anti-Stalinists), as though the years of terror, show trials, murders and the imprisonment of millions in Stalin’s Soviet Union were the work of one man only. The fact that the Soviet Union’s agriculture and economy was catastrophically undermined, not to mention the Hitler-Stalin pact, do not figure in Bellamy’s account.

In the post-World War II period, the ‘Red Scientists’ were vulnerable, not due to their scientific work, ‘but rather their close identification with the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Great Britain’ (470). It seems hard to believe that they could have remained ignorant of ‘Stalin’s wider purges’, as Foster suggests, given the notoriety of the Moscow Trials of the 1930s. Hyman Levy struggled heroically against the CPGB leadership from within, particularly over anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union after 1956 (484). By this time, the dream of a socialist science was irrevocably disrupted. Haldane left for India, Needham focused on China and Bernal espoused the cause of world peace. By the 1960s it was to be in the United States that figures such as Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, and Steven J. Gould, took up the cudgels of a Marxist approach to science.

16 December 2020


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