No solution to the ecological catastrophe without the emancipation of labour from capitalist exploitation

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The overwhelming consensus of serious scientific opinion is that we are already entering a global ecological catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. This is not the place to itemise all the various aspects of the disaster facing humanity, from the pollution of the sea, air and rivers to the impending extinction of innumerable of plant and animal species,  culminating in the threats posed by the accelerating process of global warming. Suffice it to say that the combination of all these tendencies, if unchecked, could make the planet itself uninhabitable, and at the very least unfit to sustain a decent human existence.

It is our contention, however, that it is not enough to examine this problem through the lens of ecology, or the natural sciences, alone. To understand the underlying causes of ecological devastation, and the possibility of reversing it, we have to understand their connection to the existing social relations, to the economic system that governs the earth: capitalism. And for us that means using the only really scientific approach to understanding the structure and dynamics of human society – the method of marxism. One excellent point of departure here is Engels’ 1876 essay ‘The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man’, an unfinished movement that has been included within a broader unfinished symphony, The Dialectics of Nature[1].

Engels’ essay is an application of the understanding that only by looking at the human past from the standpoint of a class of labour – and of associated labour in particular – does it become possible to understand the emergence of the human species. Contrary to the mechanistic view that it is the result of the development of the human brain seen in isolation – its growth in size and complexity as the simple result of random mutations – Engels argues that in the final analysis man makes himself; that it is the dialectical interaction between hand and brain in the collective production of tools and the transformation of our natural surroundings which determines the “mechanical” capacities of the brain, the dexterity of the human hand,  and the evolution of a specifically human consciousness. This consciousness is one in which planned, purposeful activity and cultural transmission outweighs the more instinctual actions of previous animal species.

“It goes without saying that it would not occur to us to dispute the ability of animals to act in a planned, premeditated fashion. On the contrary, a planned mode of action exists in embryo wherever protoplasm, living albumen, exists and reacts, that is, carries out definite, even if extremely simple, movements as a result of definite external stimuli. Such reaction takes place even where there is yet no cell at all, far less a nerve cell. There is something of the planned action in the way insect-eating plants capture their prey, although they do it quite unconsciously. In animals the capacity for conscious, planned action is proportional to the development of the nervous system, and among mammals it attains a fairly high level… But all the planned action of all animals has never succeeded in impressing the stamp of their will upon the earth. That was left for man[2].

In short, the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction”.

There is no question that humanity acquired these capacities through collective activity, through association. In particular Engels argues that the evolution of language – a prerequisite for the development of thought and of cultural transmission from one generation to the next – can only be understood in the context of a developing social connection:

It has already been noted that our simian ancestors were gregarious; it is obviously impossible to seek the derivation of man, the most social of all animals, from non-gregarious immediate ancestors. Mastery over nature began with the development of the hand, with labour, and widened man’s horizon at every new advance. He was continually discovering new, hitherto unknown properties in natural objects. On the other hand, the development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by increasing cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual. In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other. Necessity created the organ; the undeveloped larynx of the ape was slowly but surely transformed by modulation to produce constantly more developed modulation, and the organs of the mouth gradually learned to pronounce one articulate sound after another”.

The human capacity to transform nature has brought it enormous evolutionary and historical advantages, undeniably making humanity the dominant species on the planet. From the utilisation of fire to the domestication of animals and the sowing of crops; from the construction of the first cities to the development of vast networks of production and communication that could unify the entire planet: these were the necessary stages towards the emergence of a global human community founded on the realisation of the creative potential of all its members, in other words, of the communist future which Marx and Engels predicted and fought for.

A warning against arrogant assumptions

And yet The Part Played by Labour is anything but an arrogant hymn to human superiority. In the footsteps of Darwin, it begins by recognizing that everything that is uniquely human also has its roots in the abilities of our animal ancestors. And above all, no sooner has Engels noted the fundamental distinction between man and animal than he issues a warning which has a very clear resonance in the face of today’s ecological crisis:

“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly”.

In this passage, Engels provides us with a concrete example of the marxist theory of alienation, which is predicated on the recognition that, in given social conditions, the product of man’s own labour can become a hostile power, an alien force that eludes his control and acts against him. Without entering into a discussion into the more remote origins of this human self-estrangement, we can say with certainty that the qualitative development of this process is linked to the emergence of class exploitation, in which, by definition, those who labour are compelled to produce not for themselves but for a class that holds the power and wealth of society in its hands. And it is no accident that the development of exploitation and of alienated labour is connected to mankind’s progressive alienation from nature. The examples of “unforeseen consequences” of production that Engels provides us with in the passage just cited are taken mainly from pre-capitalist forms of class society, and it is precisely with these earlier forms of civilisation that we find the first clear example of man-made environmental disasters.

“The first cases of extensive ecological destruction coincide with the early city states; there is considerable evidence that the very process of deforestation which allowed civilisations such as the Sumerian, the Babylonian, the Sinhalese and others to develop a large-scale agricultural base also, in the longer term, played a considerable role in their decline and disappearance”[3].

But these were, relatively speaking, local catastrophes. In contrast to previous modes of production, capitalism is compelled by its deepest inner drive to dominate the entire planet. As it says in the Communist Manifesto,

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere…

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image”.

This necessity to “globalise” itself, however, has also meant the globalisation of ecological catastrophe. For Marx, the capitalist social relation marked the high point of in the whole process of alienation, because now the exploitation of human labour is no longer geared towards a personal relation between master and servant, as it was in previous class societies, but towards the expansion and growth of a fundamentally impersonal power – “Das Kapital”, or the profit system.  The universal advent of production for the market and for profit means that the tendency for the results of production to escape the control of the producer has reached its ultimate point; moreover, the capitalist exploiter himself, though benefiting from the proceeds of exploitation, is also driven by the remorseless competition for profits, and is, in the final analysis, merely the personification of capital. We are thus confronted with a mode of production which is like a juggernaut that is running out of control and threatening to crush exploiter and exploited alike.

Because capitalism is driven by the remorseless demands of accumulation (what it calls “economic growth”), it can never arrive at a rational, global control of the productive process, geared to the long-term interests of humanity. This is above all true in a period of economic crisis, where the pressure to penetrate the last untouched regions of the planet and ransack their resources becomes increasingly irresistible to all the feverishly competing capitalist and national units.

The extreme point in the alienation of the worker in the process of production is thus mirrored in the most extreme alienation of humanity from nature. In the same way that the workers’ labour power is commodified, our most intimate needs and feelings seen as potential markets, so capitalism sees nature as a vast warehouse that can be robbed and ransacked at will in order to fuel the juggernaut of accumulation. We are now seeing the ultimate consequences of the illusion of ruling over nature “like a conqueror over a foreign people”: it can only lead to “nature taking its revenge...” on a scale far greater than in any previous civilisation, since this “revenge” could culminate in the extinction of humanity itself.

 “Taking back control”

Let’s return to the last passage from Engels, where he writes that “all our mastery of (nature) consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly”. He goes on thus: “And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities”. 

The paradox of capital is that while the development of science under its reign has allowed us to understand the laws of nature to an unprecedented degree, we seem increasingly powerless to “apply them correctly”. 

For Engels, of course, the capacity to control the consequences of our production depended on the overthrow of capitalism and the appropriation of science by the revolutionary working class. But Engels, confident that the victory of the socialist revolution was not far off, could not have foreseen the tragedy of the centuries that followed his: the defeat of the first attempt at world proletarian revolution, and the prolongation of the capitalist system that has reached such a level of decay that it is undermining the very bases for a future communist society. In the nightmare world that decadent capitalism is shaping before our eyes, scientific knowledge of the laws of nature, which could and should be used for the benefit of humanity, is more and more being enlisted to aggravate the mounting calamity, by bending it to the intensification of the exploitation of man and nature, or the creation of terrifying weapons of destruction which themselves pose a major ecological threat. Indeed, a measure of capitalism’s decadence is precisely this growing gap between the potential created by the development of the productive forces – of which science is a vital part – and the way this potential is blocked and distorted by the existing social relations.

On its own even the most disinterested scientific knowledge is powerless to turn back the tide of environmental despoliation. Hence the endless warnings of concerned scientific bodies about the melting of the glaciers, the poisoning of the oceans or the extinction of species are endlessly ignored or counteracted by the real policies of capitalist governments whose first rule is always “expand or die”, whether or not these governments are ruled by crude climate change deniers like Trump or by earnest liberals and self-proclaimed socialists.

The solution to the ecological crisis – which, increasingly cannot be separated from capitalism’s irreversible economic crisis and its drive towards imperialist war – can only come about if mankind “takes back control” through the suppression of capital accumulation, with all its outward expressions, not least money, the state, and all national frontiers. Labour must emancipate itself from capitalist exploitation: the entire process of production must be organised on the basis of the needs of the producers and their long-term interaction with the rest of nature. 

This is a precondition for the survival of our species. But it is also much more than that. In the last-cited passage, Engels continues: “the more this progresses the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose after the decline of classical antiquity in Europe and obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity”.

Here Engels returns to some of the most audacious hypotheses of the young Marx about the nature of communism. Fully realised communism means the emancipation of labour not only in the sense of getting rid of class exploitation: it also demands the transformation of labour from a penance into a pleasure, the unleashing of human creativity. And this in turn is the precondition for the subjective transformation of the human species, which will “feel and know” its oneness with nature.

Such notions take us into a far-distant future. But it will only be our future if the class which embodies it, the world proletariat, is able to fight for its specific interests, to rediscover its sense of itself as a class, and to formulate a perspective for its struggles. This will mean that its immediate, defensive struggles will more and more have to incorporate the struggle against capitalist oppression and barbarism in all their forms; at the same time, it is only by fighting on its own class terrain that the proletariat can draw behind it all those layers of society who want to call a halt to capitalism’s cannibalisation of nature.  The recognition that capitalism is a threat to all life on the planet will be central to this broadening of the class struggle towards a political and social revolution.



[2]                     Anthropologists, geologists and other scientists have coined the term “Anthropocene” to designate a new geological era in which man has definitely stamped his will upon the atmosphere, climate and biology of the Earth. They put forward different moments to mark this transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, some seeing the invention of agriculture as crucial, while others opting for the beginning of the industrial revolution, i.e. the beginning of the capitalist epoch, but also including a phase of considerable acceleration after 1945.

[3]                     “Capitalism is poisoning the Earth”,


Supplement on Ecology