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Marxist Ecology in the light of Contemporary Ecological Thought: reflections on the Ontological questions in dark, deep and Marxist ecology

Originally published: Economic & Political Weekly on April 23, 2022 Vol. 57, Issue No. 17 by Varun Wighmal (more by Economic & Political Weekly)  | (Posted May 02, 2022)

The paper strives to explore some fundamental debates concerning the question of ecology, nature and culture in Marxian corpus. First, it attempts to explicate the differences and commonalities between the philosophical conception of nature in Marxism and contemporary and old ecological thoughts like Dark ecology of Timothy Morton and Deep ecology of Arne Naess. Second, the paper is also an attempt to revisit some of the larger philosophical and ontological questions pertaining to nature and ecology; especially the questions related to ontological position of mind and matter in relation to nature and how these fundamental questions have a bearing on the current and future trajectory of ecological thought and movements globally in the Anthropocene epoch.

There has been an extensive debate within Marxism concerning the question of nature and its concomitant questions about the interaction of nature and culture or nature and society. This debate goes back to the writings of Karl Marx himself and got livelier after Friedrich Engels’s magnum opus Dialectic of Nature. Marx’s own writing reflected a comprehensive or totalised system of knowledge, which gave due emphasis to the question of ontology. That is, it contends the fundamental question of what constitutes reality and being. This ontological undercurrent in Marx can be seen in his doctoral dissertation, which was a comparative study of Epicurus and Democritus on the philosophy of nature. In his thesis, Marx analysed the materialistic philosophy of ancient thinker Epicurus and also formulated his initial understanding of the working of nature and its materialistic mechanism. This early work of Marx has also been interpreted as an introduction to his dialectical conception of nature, wherein nature is perceived to work in a dialectical materialistic fashion. Although some recent writers like Thomas Nail have argued for a different understanding of Marx’s thesis, wherein Marx formulated that unfolding of nature or change in nature does not happen only dialectically, which is somewhat deterministic, rather it happens as dialectic kinetic swerves (sudden or abrupt change in any process) (Nail 2020).

Whatever may be the case, it becomes quite clear that Marx right from the onset had ontological concerns about nature and its materialistic or non-materialistic underpinning. This negates the later interpretation of Marx and Marxism as an economic theory or philosophical system that was indifferent to the fundamental question of ecology and nature. It has been argued by contemporary political ecologists like John Bellamy Foster that this anti-ecological interpretation of Marx’s oeuvre was a product of neo-Kantian and neo-Hegelian interpretations of Marxism, especially by Frankfurt School and Western Marxism theorists (Foster 2000). This neo-Kantian thinking with epistemology centric discourse completely sidelined the foundational and ontological questions in Marxism.

This had a huge impact on the question of ecology or nature and society as it was assumed that Marxism and its dialectical method is only applicable to society and its unfolding and the domain of nature was virtually left untouched or ignored by this discourse. The domination of Western Marxism and the new left in academia with its Kantian and Hegelian leaning is partly responsible for the marginalisation of the discourse of nature and natural science within Marxism. It can be argued, without an iota of doubt, that it was not the case in original or early Marxism. In early Marxism which includes the writings of both Marx and Engels, nature and society or nature and culture were not seen as independent domains, rather they were perceived as a continuous relational or dialectical process. And, the method of dialectics which entails both struggle and unity of opposites was thought of as a basic scientific method by which all of reality, whether social or natural, unfolds. In other words, the processes that bring changes in the social world were inextricably linked or entwined with the processes of the natural world. This can be substantiated by some common examples from Marx’s own writings and ideas, especially his conception of social and natural metabolism and the metabolic rift that had accompanied the capitalist transformation of agriculture.

Marx formulated that natural and social metabolism is interlinked and disruptions in one bring changes in the other. The best example was the loss of soil fertility that resulted because of the transformation in social relations with capitalist agriculture in enclosure movements in England. The irreversible loss of nutrients from the soil and disruption in the soil cycle embodies a metabolic rift between natural and social metabolism, which was otherwise considered as one and intertwined. This shows the deep insights that Marx had on nature and its relation with society, which was not just an epistemological insight about the question of how we do know or perceive natural and social reality, but what fundamentally entails as nature and society and their enmeshed relationship, i.e. the question of social and natural ontology. These ontological and scientific concerns in Marx are thoroughly explored by philosophers like Helena Sheehan (1985) in her work Marxism and the Philosophy of Science and also by a natural scientist like Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins and Stephen Jay Gould; all of them have tried comprehending nature and its processes and vicissitude through a dialectical prism and method.

Marxist Ecology in the light of Dark and Deep Ecology

After highlighting the basic ecological thinking in Marx and other early Marxist and the drift that happened with Western Marxism, it becomes pivotal to explore Marxist ecological thinking in relation to some other prominent and new ecological philosophies and thought. Two prominent eco-philosophies that are worth reckoning in light of this debate are Dark and Deep ecology. Dark ecology is relatively new and therefore has varied and ambiguous interpretations. It is a sort of ecological thinking that strives to frame the question of ecology without the conception of nature (Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics 2007). This was formulated by philosopher Morton in his major work named Ecology without Nature. Morton belongs to the avant-garde tradition of post-continental philosophy named object-oriented ontology (OOO) and speculative realism. Both these ideas and philosophies contend a position that fundamentally challenges both Kantian correlationism1 and anthropocentrism2. Morton, who is inspired by philosophers like Graham Harman and Bruno Latour, asserts that our formulation of nature is extremely anthropocentric. This is because of the spectre of non-humans, which constitutes virtually every entity in the universe, barring humans.

Morton propounds that Dark ecology is an aesthetic critique of the conception of nature that privileges humans or sentient beings over objects and non-human stuff. This aesthetic of ecological experience that Morton calls Dark ecology transcends all anthropocentric binaries of nature versus culture and asserts solidarity with non-humans on a plane of immanence. Fundamentally, Morton argues for a flat ontology3, wherein the human-centric universe is demolished and a true post-human aesthetic experience is formulated that subverts the violence of the Neolithic agricultural revolution, which severed the symbiosis of human and non-human existence. The symbiotic real that Morton proposed in his work was about the inseparable or entangled existence of humans with non-humans or objects and was also a flat plane of immanence with no duality or transcendence or hierarchy in the ecosphere and which got severed with the Neolithic revolution or agriculture. This severing, according to Morton, is the root cause of our ecological crisis. Dark ecology is nothing but an aesthetic experience or phenomenology that strives to undo this severing by making humans conscious of the complex network that the ecosphere is and how each actor in the network is enmeshed with the other. Morton calls for an eco-communism in his recent work, which is about the solidarity of humans with non-humans. Morton argues that a spectre is haunting Marxism, which is basically the spectre of non-humans. He acknowledges the anthropocentric undercurrents in Marxism and still contends that communism or Marxism has more potential than capitalism because, according to Morton, anthropocentrism is a bug, not a feature of Marxism (Morton 2019). He postulates a post-human economy4 in which human thought is no longer the top access mode to the world.

His work of Dark ecology and ecology without nature is an avant-garde intervention in post-continental philosophy and literary theory that blends together insights from Marxism, Heidegger’s ontology, Lacaian and Derridean framework. Morton, unlike shallow ecologists or liberal ecologists, wants to ontologise ecological thinking, and this resonates with Marx’s own attempt in his doctoral thesis as well as Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and Das Kapitalto bring out deep ontological and materialistic concerns about nature and ecology. The difference between the ecological frame of Morton and Marx lies in their vantage point concerning the ontology of object and matter, because Marx, unlike Morton, did not argue for an active role or agency of non-human objects in social relations independent of human labour, this makes Marxian analysis not completely post-human as is the case with Morton.

After, explicating Dark ecology and its juxtaposition with the Marxian ecological framework. It becomes crucial to delve into some of the vital questions raised by Deep ecology and its adherents and how the Marxian frame fits in it. Deep ecology is an ecological thought as well as a movement started by philosopher Arne Naess and espoused by Vandana Shiva and others who contend that nature has intrinsic value. In other words, the formulation of use-value or exchange value by Marx or any other political economist eludes the basic notion that apart from values attributed to nature by humans and their economic processes, it is the nature that has value-in-itself independent of human attribution.

In Deep ecological framework, nature is alive and should not be seen as dead, inert or brute matter. This fundamental operative logic distinguishes deep ecology from shallow-liberal ecology, which argues for the preservation of nature for human needs and survival. Deep ecologists have also accused Marx of engaging in the same anthropocentric fallacy that liberal political economists fall in that is of seeing nature and its products as a gift to man. Deep ecologists’ accusation against Marx has also been accepted by many eco-socialist like Joel Kovel and others who have accepted the idea that Marx lacked a true ecological lens, due to his spatio-temporal position. This position against Marx has also been accepted by Akeel Bilgrami, who has also alleged that Marx’s thinking lacks a deep ecological frame. But Bilgrami does not blame Marx for this lack, because he contends that there was no ecological Copernican revolution, when Marx was writing, which made him oblivious of some of the catastrophic consequences of capitalism.

Deep ecologist argues that it is not just capitalism that promotes ecological destruction, but it is a modern or modernist frame of perceiving nature in predatory terms that fuels this catastrophe. There lies the fundamental distinction between Marxian ecology and Deep ecology because Marx despite his stringent condemnation of capitalism and capitalist modernity did not oppose modernity as such. It was capitalism, not modern productive forces that according to Marx wreaked havoc on the environment and nature. In his, envision of future communism advancement of technology and productive forces are a prerequisite for any communist society.

Deep ecology shares a lot with animistic epistemology and ontology. Animism, which is nothing but panpsychism5 in action view nature and every entity of nature as alive and also attributes rudimentary agency or subjectivity to matter. And, here we can draw a strong parallel between Deep and Dark ecological frameworks. Both frameworks somehow attribute agency to matter and objects or nature, which is non-human, the difference emanates in their method. Dark ecology which is inspired by object oriented ontology of Graham Harman that transcends Kantian correlationism that privileges human subjectivity for any knowledge of the object and the Cartesian notion that the world is split into two kinds of entities: human thinkers and dead physical matter. Object Oriented Ontology (OOO upholds Kant’s basic conception of the thing-it-itself, but the primary difference between OOO and Kant is the claim by OOO proponents like Harman and Morton that objects are noumenal (that is exist in themselves), not just for us, but for each other as well. And, hence the deep error of Kantian philosophy is the assumption that we cannot speak of any relationship that does not include humans as one its elements. For example, we cannot talk about thunder-in-itself, but only about how thunder manifests to humans under the condition of time and space. In other words, OOO speaks of objects outside of any relations. This ontological assumption is accepted by Dark Ecology of Morton and through this, he formulates a non-anthropocentric model of ecology. Deep ecology is also non-anthropocentric but does not accept the fundamentals of Dark ecology, which is based on object oriented ontology and actor-network theory of Latour. Deep ecology in a way ascribes human-like subjectivity to all of nature and objects; albeit some scholars have tried drawing some link between Deep and Dark ecology through a common notion of panpsychism, but it is quite contested as to how much of a link can be drawn between the two, as Dark ecology is primarily lies in the domain of aesthetic experience and argues for a fundamental shift in human consciousness and Deep ecology perceives all nature to be alive like humans.

Marxist ecological framework does not go into such conceptual philosophical questions about the ontology of objects and can we speak of objects outside of our subjectivity like thing-in-itself. Many Marxist thinkers have criticised both Dark ecology and Deep ecology for ignoring concrete historical and social factors that shape any ecology and its framework. Dark ecology is seen as an attempt by Marxists to obfuscate and absolve capitalist exploitation of nature by bringing obscure complex ontological questions in their analysis of nature and ecology. I believe this criticism is not very strong due to Marx’s own engagement with ontological questions as shown in the earlier part of the paper. Deep ecology has also been criticised by Marxist ecologists due to its cryptic and mystical language and it’s complete sidelining of concrete social and economic factors in their ecological analysis.


The paper started with an endeavour to introduce Marxist ecological thought and to trace its genealogy in the writings of early Marx. It contends that Marx and Marxism right from inception had taken ontological questions seriously. It argued that Marx was a comprehensive philosopher, who had conceptualised a totalised ontology of humans and nature. He saw both nature and humans or society have always existed in a symbiotic relationship that got disrupted by capitalist agriculture and mode of production. The paper also looked at the attempts initiated by Western Marxism that tried to separate Marxism from natural sciences and positioned the process and method of dialectics as belonging only to the human and social sphere. This fallacy was disproved by delving into Marx’s ontological concerns about nature and matter as well by the involvement of Marxist natural scientists in framing and perceiving nature dialectically.

It then explored the domain of Dark and Deep ecology and juxtaposed the non-anthropocentrism of both these ecological frameworks with Marxist ecological thought and argued that Marx was not completely anthropocentric, as he is usually accused of, but he also did completely touch on some of the intriguing ontological questions about object, matter and its ontology as framed by Dark ecologist and OOO theorists. Dark ecology subscribes to a relational ontology, wherein everything is inextricably interconnected and this common factor blends insights of all three ecological frameworks, whether Dark, Deep or Marxist.

Deep ecological concern and their panpsychist orientation were also juxtaposed with Marx’s analysis of the matter. It can be argued that the new interpretation of Marxism in light of new materialism that perceives matter to be active, dynamic and in motion and changing abruptly especially by Nail in his work Marx in Motion provides new space to interpret Marx’s ontology in a panpsychist lens. This could be interesting future work that can bridge some of the gaps between Dark, Deep and Marxist ecology. Finally, the paper was an attempt to explore new perspectives on the question of ecology and nature and to envision a new ontological framework which is truly relational and transcends anthropocentrism and hubris of human exceptionalism.

Varun Wighmal (varunwighhmal@gmail.com) is a PhD Scholar Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi.

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