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Barmen in 1913

Engels on nature and humanity

Originally published: Michael Roberts Blog (April 2, 2020)

In the light of the current pandemic, here is a rough excerpt from my upcoming short book on Engels’ contribution to Marxian political economy on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Marx and Engels are often accused of what has been called a Promethean vision of human social organisation, namely that human beings, using their superior brains, knowledge and technical prowess, can and should impose their will on the rest of the planet or what is called ‘nature’–for better or worse.

The charge is that other living species are merely playthings for the use of human beings. There are humans and there is nature–in contradiction. This charge is particularly aimed at Friedrich Engels, who it is claimed, took a bourgeois ‘positivist’ view of science: scientific knowledge was always progressive and neutral in ideology; and so was the relationship between man and nature.

This charge against Marx and Engels was promoted in the post-war period by the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxism, which reckoned that everything went wrong with Marxism after 1844, when Marx and Engels supposedly dumped “humanism”. Later, followers of the French Marxist Althusser put the blame on Fred himself.  For them, everything went to hell in a hand basket a little later, when Engels dumped ‘historical materialism’ and replaced it with ‘dialectical materialism’, in order to promote Engels’ ‘silly belief’ that Marxism and the physical sciences had some relationship.

Indeed, the ‘green’ critique of Marx and Engels is that they were unaware that homo sapiens were destroying the planet and thus themselves. Instead, Marx and Engels had a touching Promethean faith in capitalism’s ability to develop the productive forces and technology to overcome any risks to the planet and nature.

That Marx and Engels paid no attention to the impact on nature of human social activity has been debunked recently in particular by the ground-breaking work of Marxist authors like John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett. They have reminded us that throughout Marx’s Capital, Marx was very aware of capitalism’s degrading impact on nature and the resources of the planet. Marx wrote that “the capitalist mode of production collects the population together in great centres and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance…. [It] disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil. Thus it destroys at the same time the physical health of the urban worker, and the intellectual life of the rural worker.” As Paul Burkett says:

it is difficult to argue that there is something fundamentally anti-ecological about Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his projections of communism.

To back this up, Kohei Saito’s prize-winning book has drawn on Marx’s previously unpublished ‘excerpt’ notebooks from the ongoing MEGA research project to reveal Marx’s extensive study of scientific works of the time on agriculture, soil, forestry, to expand his concept of the connection between capitalism and its destruction of natural resources. (I have a review pending on Saito’s book).

But Engels too must be saved from the same charge. Actually, Engels was well ahead of Marx (yet again) in connecting the destruction and damage to the environment that industrialisation was causing. While still living in his home town of Barmen (now Wuppertal), he wrote several diary notes about the inequality of rich and poor, the pious hypocrisy of the church preachers and also the pollution of the rivers.

Just 18 years old, he writes:

the two towns of Elberfeld and Barmen, which stretch along the valley for a distance of nearly three hours’ travel. The purple waves of the narrow river flow sometimes swiftly, sometimes sluggishly between smoky factory buildings and yarn-strewn bleaching-yards. Its bright red colour, however, is due not to some bloody battle, for the fighting here is waged only by theological pens and garrulous old women, usually over trifles, nor to shame for men’s actions, although there is indeed enough cause for that, but simply and solely to the numerous dye-works using Turkey red. Coming from Düsseldorf, one enters the sacred region at Sonnborn; the muddy Wupper flows slowly by and, compared with the Rhine just left behind, its miserable appearance is very disappointing.

Barmen in 1913

Barmen in 1913

He goes on:

First and foremost, factory work is largely responsible. Work in low rooms where people breathe more coal fumes and dust than oxygen—and in the majority of cases beginning already at the age of six—is bound to deprive them of all strength and joy in life.

He connected the social degradation of working families with the degradation of nature alongside the hypocritical piety of the manufacturers.

Terrible poverty prevails among the lower classes, particularly the factory workers in Wuppertal; syphilis and lung diseases are so widespread as to be barely credible; in Elberfeld alone, out of 2,500 children of school age 1,200 are deprived of education and grow up in the factories—merely so that the manufacturer need not pay the adults, whose place they take, twice the wage he pays a child. But the wealthy manufacturers have a flexible conscience and causing the death of one child more or one less does not doom a pietist’s soul to hell, especially if he goes to church twice every Sunday. For it is a fact that the pietists among the factory owners treat their workers worst of all; they use every possible means to reduce the workers’ wages on the pretext of depriving them of the opportunity to get drunk, yet at the election of preachers they are always the first to bribe their people.

Sure, these observations by Engels are just that, observations, without any theoretical development, but they show the sensitivity that Engels already had to the relationship between industrialisation, the owners and the workers, their poverty and the environmental impact of factory production.

Engels’ major work (written with Marx’s help), The Dialectics of NatureIn his first major work, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, again well before Marx looked at political economy, Engels notes how the private ownership of the land, the drive for profit and the degradation of nature go hand in hand. To make earth an object of huckstering—the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence—was the last step towards making oneself an object of huckstering. It was and is to this very day an immorality surpassed only by the immorality of self-alienation. And the original appropriation—the monopolization of the earth by a few, the exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their life—yields nothing in immorality to the subsequent huckstering of the earth.”  Once the earth becomes commodified by capital, it is subject to just as much exploitation as labour.

Engels’ major work (written with Marx’s help), The Dialectics of Nature, written in the years up to 1883, just after Marx’s death, is often subject to attack as extending Marx’s materialist conception of history as applied to humans, into nature in a non-Marxist way. And yet, in his book, Engels could not be clearer on the dialectical relation between humans and nature.

In a famous chapter “The Role of Work in Transforming Ape into Man”, he writes:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture. When, on the southern slopes of the mountains, the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were… thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, with the effect that these would be able to pour still more furious flood torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that they were at the same time spreading the disease of 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 beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.” (my emphasis)

The people of the Americas were driven into slavery, but also nature was enslaved.Engels goes on:

in fact, with every day that passes we are learning to understand these laws more correctly and getting to know both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature.… But the more this happens, the more will men not only feel, but also know, their unity with nature, and thus the more impossible will become the senseless and antinatural idea of a contradiction between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body.…

Engels explains the social consequences of the drive to expand the productive forces.

But if it has already required the labour of thousands of years for us to learn to some extent to calculate the more remote natural consequences of our actions aiming at production, it has been still more difficult in regard to the more remote social consequences of these actions.… When afterwards Columbus discovered America, he did not know that by doing so he was giving new life to slavery, which in Europe had long ago been done away with, and laying the basis for the Negro slave traffic.…

The people of the Americas were driven into slavery, but also nature was enslaved. As Engels put it:

It was not just slavery that the Europeans brought to the Americas, but also disease, which in its many forms exterminated 90% of native Americans.What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees–what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!

Now we know that it was not just slavery that the Europeans brought to the Americas, but also disease, which in its many forms exterminated 90% of native Americans and was the main reason for their subjugation by colonialism.

As we experience yet another pandemic, we know that it was capitalism’s drive to industrialise agriculture and usurp the remaining wilderness that has led to nature ‘striking back’, as humans come into contact with more pathogens to which they have no immunity, just as the native Americans in the 16th century.

As we experience yet another pandemic, we know that it was capitalism’s drive to industrialise agriculture and usurp the remaining wilderness that has led to nature ‘striking back’Engels attacked the view that ‘human nature’ is inherently selfish and will just destroy nature. In his Outline, Engels described that argument as a “repulsive blasphemy against man and nature.”   Humans can work in harmony with and as part of nature. It requires greater knowledge of the consequences of human action. Engels said in his Dialectics:

But even in this sphere, by long and often cruel experience and by collecting and analyzing the historical material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote, social effects of our productive activity, and so the possibility is afforded us of mastering and controlling these effects as well.

But better knowledge and scientific progress is not enough. For Marx and Engels, the possibility of ending the dialectical contradiction between man and nature and bringing about some level of harmony and ecological balance would only be possible with the abolition of the capitalist mode of production. As Engels said: “To carry out this control requires something more than mere knowledge.”  Science is not enough. “It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and with it of our whole contemporary social order.” The ‘positivist’ Engels, it seems, supported Marx’s materialist conception of history after all.

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