Bellamy Foster’s Return of Nature shows that ecological science and socialism have developed together from Marx and Engels’ writings, finds Dominic Alexander

John Bellamy Foster, The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology (Monthly Review Press 2020), 687pp.

There have been many in Green and environmental circles who think that socialism in general and Marxism in particular are incompatible with ecological thinking. Still others, less hostile, nevertheless believe that the Marxist tradition needs to be modified, perhaps fundamentally, in order fully to take into account ecological problems, and that there may well be a trade-off between the needs of the environment, and working-class living standards. That all of these views can be shown to be essentially mistaken is in no small part down to the work of John Bellamy Foster, particularly in his now classic Marx’s Ecology (Monthly Review Press 2000).

There, Bellamy Foster established that ecology was central to Marx’s analysis of the processes of capitalism. Furthermore Marx’s particular understanding of materialist philosophy, derived significantly from ancient Epicureanism, was foundational to his overall scientific methodology. It is true that socialism and labour movements in the course of the twentieth century have acquired a poor reputation in terms of the environment and have been accused of dogmatic attitudes towards science. That reputation is, of course, significantly to do with the fate of socialism and Marxism under Stalin and his successors, but previous socialist circles could contain many differing tendencies towards science and nature, some positive and others more problematic.

Bellamy Foster’s work, among that of others, has shown that the faults in socialist movements in general were derived not through an ecological blind-spot inherited from Marx. Rather they arose with significant departures from his dialectical approach, whether among Marxists in the Soviet Union, or among social-democrats in labour movements elsewhere. None of this is merely an academic exercise in finding an original Marx, free from whatever contamination a particular researcher finds offensive. Rather, Bellamy Foster has been engaged in a re-assertion of what had always been part of the revolutionary tradition of Marxism. With The Return of Nature, he offers a comprehensive account of the development of the ecological and scientific tradition established by both Marx and Engels equally.

Threads of socialist ecology

The work of Marx and Engels dovetailed with scientific research and related debates that were developing in the second half of the nineteenth century. As a result, there were always a number of threads, philosophical and scientific, connecting the revolutionary tradition of Marx and Engels with contemporary environmental concerns, and the socialism of many scientists all the way through into the twentieth century. The influences continue right up to the emergence of a new ecological movement by the 1960s, which Bellamy Foster shows was fed by these streams of ecological socialism and socialist scientific endeavour in the first place. Those who have tried to cast Marxism as the enemy of ecology are therefore entirely mistaken: ‘If ecology has often been seen as arising in a liberal universe, divorced from socialism … ecology was at its inception deeply intertwined with the struggles for human equality and the revolt against capitalist society’ (p.22).

Mechanistic and reductive methods and conceptions may often have dominated both science and also much of left political thinking during the course of the twentieth century, but this simply reflects the predominant role of those modes of thinking in capitalist society:

‘for socialist theory as for liberal analysis – and for Western science and culture in general – the notion of the conquest of nature and of human exemption from natural laws has for centuries been a major trope, reflecting the systematic alienation of nature. Society and nature were often treated dualistically as two entirely distinct realms, justifying the expropriation of nature, and with it the exploitation of the larger human population’ (p.7).

In contrast to reductionist approaches, Engels affirmed that humanity was fully a part of nature, so that society is in fact emergent from it. Therefore, Marx and Engels did not accept the standard antinomy between nature and society, which would see the two as categorical opposites. Indeed, they saw the dialectical interrelations of society and nature in ways that escaped many, even on the left in their own time, never mind later on.

By no means all the figures that Bellamy Foster discusses maintained wholly admirable positions across science and politics at all points. The scientist J. D. Bernal for example, certainly towed a Stalinist political line at some points (p.425), while J. B. S. Haldane was capable of ‘crudities’ in his exposition, as well as more subtle presentations of the materialist dialectic (pp.388-9). Yet, equally, it is remarkable how many such figures from such a wide range of different positions were inspired by one or another of the key elements of Marx’s thinking. These can range from Epicurean materialism (as opposed to the mechanistic variety), to the potential for Marx’s dialectical method to illuminate complex natural processes, to the importance of considering capitalism in terms of human living conditions within the context of the whole environment.

This is a complex array of themes to pursue, particularly given that the scientific and social dimensions of sexual politics in the lives of many of these figures is highly relevant as well. Bellamy Foster rightly emphasises the importance of such issues within the overall picture, as a genuinely dialectical understanding of society and nature could hardly avoid confronting the alienated character of gender relations in class societies. The agenda makes for a long and detailed book, but one in which the analysis captures a strong sense of the social milieu of the people he discusses, as well as the scientific and philosophical questions in which they were engaged. Whatever the variety of views to be found, and the strengths and limitations of each figure, they ‘all sought to connect the materialist conception of nature and the materialist conception of history through an examination of the complex, changing material interconnections between nature and human history’ (p.20).

Darwinism and romanticism

The obvious place to start would be at one of the well-springs of socialist thinking, Frederick Engels, whose concern with the environment and labour pre-dated his meeting with Marx, and whose interest and research in science were even more developed. However, Bellamy Foster leaves Engels to the centre of the book, starting instead with the later nineteenth-century scientific scene. Early adherents of Darwinism, some of whom were also attracted to socialist ideas, argued for the importance of the social environment (p.36), or capitalism’s ecological impact (p.66), for example. Following these figures, comes the romantic tradition in William Morris most centrally, who developed through that previous form of anti-capitalism into a serious Marxist for whom ecology and environment were key issues for socialists to pursue.

One of the key positions which helped Morris to absorb Marx was his conception of art as ‘sensuous work, constituting a distinctly human relation to nature – and as reflecting human self-consciousness and hope’ (p.100). The alienation of the worker under capitalism obscures this natural reflexivity in the relationship between human subjectivity and nature. Alienation separates as absolutes in the understanding what should be in dialectical relationship. Therefore, Morris’s pre-Marxian critique of capitalism enabled him to perceive the intimate connection between the exploitation of the worker and the destruction of the environment within capitalism (p.127).

Although without any background in Hegelianism, Morris developed a sound grasp of Marx’s dialectical method, precisely because of their broadly shared understanding of the nature of work as the self-realisation of the subject in active relationship with the environment. In labour, the subject is changed, even in the course of changing the world through work. This is the active epistemology of Marx: knowledge does not come from the detached observation of an objective and separate standpoint, but involves a working engagement with the world. The point is not to interpret the world, but to change it, to remember Marx’s famous statement. Humans necessarily change the world in coming to understand it, which is why there cannot be a simple separation between ‘society’ and ‘nature’. Capitalism and labour, the exploitation of workers and of nature, and scientific knowledge itself, are all thus bound up together.

This then is the origin of two separate strands of the analysis that Bellamy Foster pursues, which might at first glance appear to be strange companions; the continuing inspiration of ancient Epicurean materialism, from which Marx derived his materialist dialectic, and the development of ecological science. Yet, ecological science requires an understanding of dynamic, complex systems which are not usefully reduced to stable series of mechanical operations, which standard, positivistic materialism assumes.

Darwinian dialectics

Hence many of the scientists in Bellamy Foster’s history represent ‘an Epicurean strand of Marxism via Marx himself’ such that various ‘lines of intellectual descent, derived from ancient materialism, converged in important ways within the Darwinian and Marxian traditions’ (p.370). In the course of the discussion, Bellamy Foster is able to draw out a perhaps surprising strain of dialectical thinking among British Darwinians in particular. One insight was, contrary to the standard presentation of Darwin’s theory, that organisms do not simply adapt to their environment, as if that were a fixed entity. Rather, species alter and shape their environment; choosing and adapting their environment to suit themselves.

This dynamic cannot be caught by mechanical models of reality, or base reductionism (‘the selfish gene’), since each among many ‘subjects’ is engaged in attempting to alter its environment optimally for its own purposes. Yet, at the same time, that environment consists not of inert objects, but of reactive processes, and indeed active subjects, other organisms, trying to accomplish the same. Ecology is by its nature dialectical; a ‘balance of nature’ has never in fact existed, as the early ecologist Charles Elton argued (p.315).

All of this has become in fact central to ecological science as it is actually practiced. The Marxist scientist, Richard Lewontin (to whom Bellamy Foster, of course, refers in the closing portions of the Return of Nature) sums up very clearly, in his relatively recent book The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism and Environment, the interrelationships of biological development, and a consequent critique of genetic reductionism. He concludes his argument noting that there ‘is nothing in the first three chapters of this book that is not well known to all biologists.’1 The secret really is just how relevant Marxist ideas have been for the development of the most complex areas of the living sciences in the course of the twentieth century.

Part of the reason for the loss of this history is due to Marxists themselves, with the dialectics of nature being rejected by significant parts of the tradition. For some, particularly so-called ‘Western Marxists’, the dialectic was only relevant where human consciousness was involved. Others, from the Second International period onwards, simply mistook Marx’s materialism for more common forms of mechanical and reductive materialism (p.224). However, if we recall the problem of the interrelationship of the organism and its environment, there is no need for actual self-consciousness to be present for there to be clearly a dialectic at work. The Hungarian revolutionary, Georg Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness supposedly rejected the presence of dialectics in nature (p.17), but this was a total misreading of his position, which he clarified very thoroughly in his less well known Defence of History and Class Consciousness (Verso 2000).

Defence of the dialectics of nature

The centrality of Engels to these arguments means that his work takes up the central portion of The Return of Nature. Leaving Engels to the second part of the book allows Bellamy Foster to show how many of the key ideas in the scientific Marxist tradition were in a sense ‘emergent’ at the time of Marx and Engels themselves, so that Marxism can be seen in itself as a dialectical product of history. The very scientific concept of ‘emergence’, which is of such importance in understanding the dynamics of the different levels of the world’s ecological totality, was a concept that was developing towards the end of Engels’ life.

After Engels, the foundations of Marxist epistemology continued to be re-discovered, mainly through his writings. Joseph Needham (1900-1995) ‘saw in Epicurean materialism the beginnings of an analysis of emergence or integrative levels that represented a dialectical perspective on reality’ (p.404). This understanding allowed him to argue against reductive materialist approaches, such that ‘he wrote of the “irreducibility of the biological” to the physical … the irreducibility of the social to the biological.’ The argument on the importance of perceiving these integrative levels was used by Needham ‘to combat eugenics, social Darwinism, and the Nazi philosophy, and later on, in the 1970s, the kind of biological reductionism associated with Desmond Morris’s popular The Naked Ape’ (p.407). The latter form of reductionism would soon get re-packaged in Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ metaphor, but the arguments remained, at their basis, the same.

Engels’ writing was not only important for the dialectical forms of materialism, but for socialist movements’ environmental concerns more generally. Indeed, Engels’ first famous work, The Condition of the Working Class in England is in fact, to a significant degree, an analysis of the environmental impact of capitalism; the concern for public health and social conditions as a core element of socialism paves the way for socialist ecology to become central to anti-capitalism (pp.211-12). Engels maintained an interest in science throughout his life that culminated with his unfinished Dialectics of Nature, a work that once published was inspirational to many of scientists on the left. Of course, science moved on from where it was in the later nineteenth century, so not all of what Engels wrote there was correct from later perspectives, but the book retains considerable importance as a demonstration of Marx and Engels’ materialist methodology as applied to scientific problems.2

There is one remarkable proof that the materialist dialectic could produce serious analytical results, and this comes from Engels’ essay on human evolution appended to the Dialectics of Nature; ‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man’. Here Engels argued that manipulation of objects, that is, purposeful work, was what drove the evolution of human consciousness. As we adapted the world around us, so we made ourselves in so doing. This essay was ignored for a long time, and went quite against contemporary ideas on the subject.

Most scientists expected to find that brainpower on its own drove human physical evolution, in line with bourgeois idealistic philosophical assumptions, and so sought evidence of a large-brained ape to be at the root of the human lineage. This amounted to a prejudice so strong that, combined with a heavy dose of English chauvinism, the rather obvious ‘Piltdown Man’ hoax (a human skull combined with an orangutan jaw found in an English quarry) actually succeeded. It was, to a remarkable extent, accepted by a whole generation or so of scientists, before being finally discredited. An overwhelming weight of evidence that began to emerge from Africa was eventually acknowledged to show that small-brained, bipedal ‘australopithecines’ were the real human ancestors.

It is now universally agreed among paleoanthropologists that bipedal gait preceded the growth of the brain. The conclusion of a century and more of empirical discoveries and research has come to prove that Engels was correct in the first place: bipedalism freed the hands to manipulate objects, and therefore to become adept at fashioning tools, and so driving the evolution of the mind. Engels’ dialectical method enabled him to see further in this instance than the scientists of his own time, hampered by their own ideological conceptions.

The Return of Nature is a rich book that succeeds in turning several of the standard conceptions of Marxism and science inside out. It has not been the methodology and analysis of Marx and Engels which created anti-scientific dogmas, but rather those who rejected dialectics in favour of mechanical and reductive materialism, or alternatively of idealist pre-suppositions. The latter is represented in the reactionary and racist ‘holism’ of Jan Smuts, a key architect of South African apartheid (p.323). Smuts’ ‘ecologism’ has been an alternative conception to that of the ecological tradition of Marxist-influenced science, and indeed is more likely to be credited in Politics course textbooks as an originator of ecological ideas than any socialist whatsoever.

Certainly, there were those in the Marxist tradition who were sometimes limited, for example by the acceptance of Stalinist imperatives, but often enough strained against the dogmas those imposed. Equally, some succumbed on occasion to ‘Promethean ecological modernism’ and teleological notions of technological progress (p.22). Yet, the outlines of a distinct socialist ecologism were clearly imminent when the late nineteenth and twentieth-century tradition is taken as a whole. The lines of research and argument that Bellamy Foster draws out from the developing social and political contexts show a complex picture, as is the science that grew within those contexts. The threads do all come together, however, to demonstrate the inspirational vitality of the original conceptions and methods of Marx and Engels.


1 Richard Lewontin, The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism and Environment (Cambridge Mass. 2000), p.129.

2 For those who think that Engels’ use of the term ‘reflection’ demonstrates that he had a mechanical understanding of the relationship of mind to material reality, Bellamy Foster mounts a strong defence of Engels’ dialectical approach. He notes that Engels’ understanding was clearly rooted in Hegel, and that ‘reflection’ for him implied an active relationship; he observes that the term ‘reflexive’ was not actually coined until the 1890s, and so was not available to him (p.245).

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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