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Misrepresenting Marx’s Ecology: A Response to Daniel Tanuro’s “Was Marx an Ecosocialist?”

Daniel Tanuro is an agricultural engineer and leading socialist activist who has made numerous contributions to ecosocialist thought and practice, most notably, in his book Green Capitalism: Why It Can’t Work.(1) Yet, this has been coupled with persistent claims that there are “fundamental flaws” in Karl Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism.(2) Tanuro has previously charged that Marx failed to recognize the centrality of fossil fuels to capitalist industrialization, and that Marx discounted peasant/indigenous knowledge by rejecting French agronomist Léonce Lavergne’s notion that forage crops were capable of obtaining all the nutrients they needed directly or indirectly (through manure) from the atmosphere.(3) These and other criticisms of Marx by Tanuro were refuted by Paul Burkett and myself in our book Marx and the Earth (2016).(4)

Tanuro has now shifted his argument in a number of ways, requiring a further response. In his recent review “Was Marx an Ecosocialist: A Reply to Kohei Saito,” on Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, Tanuro has dropped his accusation that Marx and Engels ignored the role of fossil fuels—something that did not hold up in the face of the mass of evidence to the contrary. Instead, he now faults Marx for being unaware even in the context of his time of the global energy imbalance caused by the anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.(5) He follows this up with the charge that Marx incorrectly denied that some plants could obtain nitrogen from the atmosphere, while coupling this with the observation that Marx also neglected the role of earthworms and other soil fauna in soil fertility.(6) Tanuro asserts that both of these were parts of traditional peasant knowledge, which Marx “disdained.” Additionally, the role of earthworms, he notes, was emphasized in Charles Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881).(7) Finally, Tanuro claims that Marx and Engels’s well-known failure to develop a full critical analysis of the expropriation of women’s unpaid domestic labor is related to these general ecological failures.

Marx’s ecological conceptions were naturally limited by the nineteenth-century material conditions and knowledge. Marxian ecology does not rest simply on what Marx and Engels knew or didn’t know about concrete ecological problems, relative to our own time, but rather on their overall critical method. Nevertheless, it is important to scrutinize the “orrery of errors” that Tanuro himself manufactures in his misrepresentation of Marx’s ecological views.(8)

Marx and Nineteenth-Century Ecological Knowledge

In “Was Marx an Ecosocialist?” Tanuro deftly underscores the importance of Marx’s theory of metabolic rift as explored most recently in Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism. Yet, he criticizes Saito for “exaggerating” the importance of Marx’s ecological critique. This is followed by an attempt to single out certain ecological shortcomings in Marx’s argument. Tanuro’s initial criticism of Marx is to say, “As far as I know, the possibility of a global energy imbalance in the Earth due to the burning of fossil fuels did not catch his [Marx’s] attention. It could have been otherwise—John Tyndall discovered the radiative power of CO2  and other atmospheric gases in 1859. But Marx’s interest in science was mostly focused on other areas of research. (Let’s add that [Carl] Fraas [whom Marx studied] was talking about local climate change caused by deforestation, not global warming.)”(9)

In saying that “it could have been otherwise,” and that Marx could have recognized both the earth’s energy imbalance and global warming if his interests in science had not been “mostly focused on other areas of research,” Tanuro is in effect suggesting that Marx is to be judged not by his understanding of the science of his day, but rather by his failure to supersede it. Here a few facts are in order. Although Tyndall had empirically demonstrated that carbon dioxide played a role in producing a greenhouse effect, neither he nor anyone else in Marx’s lifetime put forward the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming. This had to await the Swedish scientists Svante Arrhenius in 1896.(10) Marx, it is worth noting, attended some of Tyndall’s lectures at the time that the latter was presenting his experiments in relation to solar energy and carbon dioxide. Marx was also aware of general speculations with respect to the role of human production in earth warming—though lacking any clear scientific basis—from his studies of the work of the early Marxist ecological economist Sergei Podolinsky.(11)

There was in fact no such thing in Marx’s day as a developed theory of the energy balance of the Earth System. The concept of energy itself (as distinct from force, motion) was still fairly new in the mid-nineteenth century—having been introduced in the context of the scientific revolution associated with the development of thermodynamics, to which Marx and Engels paid close attention.(12) It was not until the 1958, that Mikhail I. Budyko in the Soviet Union published the first estimates of global energy balance in his Heat Balance of the Earth System.(13) The concept of the Earth System itself was thus a late twentieth-century creation.(14)

As Tanuro partly acknowledges, Marx was influenced by the work of the German scientists Carl Fraas and Matthias Schleiden, who documented climate changes in ancient societies. Marx and Engels were also aware of the environmental effects of colonialism on islands like St. Helena (and even in parts of India). Thus, they referred a number of times to local climate change associated with deforestation. Marx carefully took notes from the work of geologist Joseph Beete Jukes on the movement of isotherms due to paleoclimatic change and their effects on species extinctions in geological time over tens of millions of years.(15)

In addition to questioning Marx’s understanding of Earth System changes, Tanuro goes on to challenge Marx for his criticisms of Lavergne’s Rural Economy of England, Scotland and Ireland (1853). Marx derided what he called Lavergne’s “fairy story” with respect to forage plants and soil fertility. Tanuro contends that this amounted to a denial of nitrogen fixation in the soil on Marx’s part. Thus, Tanuro points to what he takes to be:

the fact that Marx considered the notion that certain plants could fix nitrogen from the air in soils as a fable…. I think there is little doubt that Marx…expresses a disdain [for this reason] for what he sees as the superstitions of peasants (and those of indigenous peoples). We find a trace of this scientism in Marx’s admiration for Liebig’s theory that chemical nutrients are the main explanation for soil fertility: it is certain that peasants knew the role of earthworms and other organisms of soil fauna—a role confirmed by Darwin in 1881—but peasant knowledge did not hold the attention of Marx.(16)

Tanuro is alluding here to Marx’s objection to Lavergne’s extraordinary claim that “Forage plants derive from the atmosphere the principal elements of their growth, while they give to the soil more than they take from it.”(17) In fact, Marx was entirely correct in treating this as a bourgeois nursery tale, indicating that both parts of Lavergne’s statement were fallacious. It is not true that forage plants, even in the case of legumes, derive from the atmosphere all the principal elements of their growth. Like all other plants they depend largely on nutrients from the soil. For most plants only carbon dioxide plus atmospheric oxygen (which plays a secondary role in removing the waste electrons in the respiratory process and does not enter directly into plant growth) are obtained from the atmosphere. The remainder of the sixteen essential chemical elements have to be obtained by most plants from the soil, including nitrogen. However, legumes (such as clover, peas, and beans) can utilize atmospheric nitrogen and fix it in the soil (with the help of bacteria at their roots). But even legumes are dependent on the soil in order to obtain all the other essential chemical elements in plant growth (aside from carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen). And all plants exhaust the soil, requiring soil chemicals to be recycled. Lavergne’s contention that legumes give to the soil more than they take from it is therefore wrong—as Marx contended.(18)

Nowhere in all of this does Marx go so far as to deny that some plants (legumes) are capable of drawing nitrogen from the atmosphere and fixing it in the soil (a fact that had been demonstrated by Jean-Baptiste Boussingault in 1836, though the exact mechanism by which it occurred was not known until 1880). Moreover, Marx makes no reference at all to nitrogen in this context, so there is no basis for Tanuro’s charge that he denied the existence of nitrogen fixation. Logically, to challenge, as Marx did, the “fairy story” that forage plants get from the atmosphere all of the “principal elements of their growth” is not the same as to adopt the fallacious notion that they get none of these chemicals from the atmosphere. Nor does this say anything about nitrogen specifically. Liebig, who was Marx’s principal source on soil chemistry, had concluded by the third edition of his Agricultural Chemistry in 1843 that the nitrogen that plants obtained from the atmosphere was “quite sufficient” (a position, however, that did not distinguish legumes from plants in general) so that additional nitrogenous fertilizer was unnecessary. Although this conclusion was rightly questioned at the time by farmers and scientists, Marx, would have had little reason on this score to doubt the reality of nitrogen fixation.(19)

Marx’s wider opposition to Lavergne was based on the latter’s advocacy of English high farming with its emphasis on meat-based agricultural system geared to the consumption of the rich, as opposed to a cereal- or grain-based agricultural system geared to the consumption of workers. Far from denying peasant knowledge in this sphere, Marx, as one would expect, was questioning the new, meat-based system of English industrialized agriculture and generally siding with the common people (the people of the commons) and their traditional agricultural practices.(20)

But what of Marx’s neglect of earthworms and other soil fauna in his treatment of the soil? Here Tanuro is undoubtedly correct that this received no attention from Marx,  mainly because major advances in science in this area required the study of soil microorganisms, which had not yet occurred in Marx’s day. It is true, as Tanuro points out, that Darwin published his book on earthworms in 1881, but this was a mere two years before Marx died (one year before Darwin’s own death). Still, it is hardly possible to argue on this meager basis, as Tanuro does, that Marx had “a disdain for what he sees as the superstitions of peasants (and those of indigenous peoples),” or that he was guilty of “scientism.”(21) One has only to look at Marx’s very detailed treatment of the forms of spade cultivation practiced by the Irish peasantry, including their management of the subsoil, to disprove the allegation of his disdain for peasant cultivation.(22) Moreover, Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks and writings on the indigenous more generally contain numerous detailed investigations into indigenous agricultural methods.(23)

With respect to gender, Tanuro throws out logic altogether, contending that Marx’s famous statements in Capital and in the Critique of the Gotha Program that nature and labor are the two sources of wealth constitutes a direct indication that Marx took “into account neither the reproductive work mainly performed by women, nor the specific exploitation of female employees.”(24) This seems to be based on two presumptions strangely attributed to Marx: (1) women’s reproduction in the household does not belong to the categories of either corporeal nature or social labor, and cannot be seen as producing real wealth in the form of use values; (2) labor in industry is mainly to be identified with men and excludes women. In contrast, Marx recognized the importance of the reproduction of labor power within the family (while failing to investigate this sufficiently) and could not even have conceived of the idea of reducing all of social labor to capitalist commodity production, which would have undermined the entire basis of historical materialism. Moreover, he indicated in Capital that women were the bulk of the laborers in the main value-generating sector, particularly textiles, in the Industrial Revolution. He carefully examined the specific conditions of women’s labor, as in the chapter on “Modern Domestic Industry” in volume 1 of Capital.(25)

There is no question that Marx and Engels only tangentially dealt with the problem of domestic labor and the fact that women’s contributions to social reproduction in the household were not compensated within the capitalist system. This then is a clear shortcoming in their political-economic analysis. True, there were historical reasons for this in their time, since proletarian women were not stay-at-home housewives in this period—even if they still carried on their backs the main household tasks—but spent the majority of their hours slaving in factories (together with men and older children). The result was that the working-class family was in a state of dissolution, giving rise to the protectionist movement that subsequently relegated women increasingly to the home. Nevertheless the theoretical gap in the analysis of the social reproduction of labor power constituted a crucial weakness in Marx’s critique of capitalism.(26) Marx’s fundamental methodology, together with the recognition of the shortcomings of his analysis in this area, however, has opened the way to the revolutionary development of social reproduction theory over the last half-century, and particularly in the last decade or so.(27) One of the results of this analysis is the growing recognition that capitalism has to be understood in terms of a dialectic of exploitation and expropriation, with the latter including the robbery of both domestic/subsistence labor and nature.(28)

The Centrality of Marx’s Ecological Critique

Tanuro concludes that Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism though important is “exaggerated and counterproductive” in its contention that the thrust of Marx’s critique was to put ecological contradictions increasingly at the center of the analysis. Yet, in understandably asserting that the exploitation of labor power was more important to Marx than the expropriation of nature, Tanuro artificially divides what Marx thought was a dialectical unity, the robbing of both “the soil and the worker,” failing to understand that, as a materialist, Marx invariably went to the root of the problem: the metabolic rift generated by capitalist production, which was at the same time the ultimate manifestation of the alienation of human species-being.(29) “The irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself” was not to be viewed as a separate reality, but rather as the deepest material consequence of the alienation of human labor.(30) It is this unified critical outlook that makes Marx’s work an indispensable starting point for understanding capitalism’s creative destruction of the earth as a place of human habitation.


  1. Daniel Tanuro, Green Capitalism: Why It Can’t Work (London: Merlin, 2003).
  2. Tanuro, Green Capitalism. Tanuro’s views reflect what has often been called “first-stage ecosocialism,” see John Bellamy Foster, “Foreword,” in Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014), vii-xiii.
  3. Léonce de Lavergne, The Rural Economy of England, Scotland and Ireland (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1855).
  4. John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, Marx and the Earth (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016), 15-33.
  5. Daniel Tanuro, “Was Marx an Ecosocialist?: A Reply to Kohei Saito,” International Viewpoint, January 12, 2020; Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017).
  6. Tanuro, “Was Marx an Ecosocialist?”
  7. Charles Darwin, The Formation of the Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (London: John Murray, 1881).
  8. E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978).
  9. Tanuro, “Was Marx an Ecosocialist?”
  10. Spencer R. Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003), 5-8.
  11. Sergei Podolinsky, “Human Labour and the Unity of Force,” Appendix 2 in Foster and Burkett, Marx and the Earth, 262-87. Marx may have seen this more developed version of Podolinsky’s argument. He was certainly acquainted with (and took notes on) earlier versions. Here see Sergei Podolinsky, “Socialism and the Unity of Physical Forces,” Appendix 1 in Foster and Burkett, Marx and the Earth, 243-61.
  12. See J.B.S Haldane, “Introduction,” in Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (New York: International Publishers, 1940), ix-x.
  13. John Bellamy Foster “Late Soviet Ecology and the Planetary Crisis,” Monthly Review 67, no. 2 (June 2015): 7.
  14. Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 29-32.
  15. John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe,” Monthly Review 63, no. 7 (December 2011): 1-17, “Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature,” Monthly Review 65, no. 7 (December 2013): 9-10.
  16. Tanuro, “Was Marx an Ecosocialist?”
  17. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 769; Lavergne, Rural Economy, 50-51.
  18. Foster and Burkett, Marx and the Earth, 28-29. On the soil nutrient cycle see Fred Magdoff and Harold Can Es, Building Soils for Better Crops (Waldorf, Maryland: Sustainable Agricultural Publications, 2009), 69-76, 213-30.
  19. William H. Brock, Justus von Liebig: The Chemical Gatekeeper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 166-67; James N. Galloway, Allison M. Leach, […], and Jan Willem Erisman, “A Chronology of Human Understanding of the Nitrogen Cycle,” Philosophical Transactions B (July 5, 2013), www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
  20. See John Bellamy Foster, “Marx as a Food Theorist,” Monthly Review 68, no 7 (December 2016): 13-17.
  21. Tanuro, “Was Marx an Ecosocialist?”
  22. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, The Robbery of Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020), 69-70: Eamonn Slater, “Marx on the Colonization of Irish Soil,” MUSSI Working Paper Series 3 (January 2018).
  23. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Hannah Holleman, “Marx and the Indigenous,” Monthly Review 71, no. 9 (February 2020): 1-19; Karl Marx, Ethnological Notebooks (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1974).
  24. Tanuro, “Was Marx an Ecosocialist?”; Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 134. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (New York: International Publishers, 1938), 3.
  25. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “Women, Nature, and Capital in the Industrial Revolution,” Monthly Review 69, no. 8 (January 2018): 3-4.
  26. Foster and Clark, “Women, Nature, and Capital, in the Industrial Revolution,” 1-13.
  27. On social reproduction theory see the following: Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013), Tithi Bhattacharya, “Liberating Women from ‘Political Economy,’” Monthly Review 71, no. 8 (January 2020): 1-13. See also the special September 2019 issue of Monthly Review on social reproduction theory celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Margaret Benston’s “The Political Economy  of Women’s Liberation” with contributions by Benston, Silvia Federici, Martha E. Gimenez, Selma James, Leith Mullings, Marge Piercy, and Vogel.
  28. See Nancy Fraser, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode,” New Left Review 86 (2014): 60.
  29. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 636-39.
  30. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 949.