| A farmer spreading fertiliser on a field in North Yorkshire March 10 2021 | MR Online A farmer spreading fertiliser on a field in North Yorkshire, March 10, 2021.

Marxism and ecology: Does the answer ‘lie in the soil?’

Originally published: Morning Star Online on May 27, 2024 by Marx Memorial Library (more by Morning Star Online)  | (Posted May 29, 2024)

READERS of a certain age may remember a wireless (sorry, radio) comedy in which one of the characters Rambling Syd Rumpo (played by Kenneth Williams) replies to any question:

The answer lies in the soil.

Two recent reports, one from the government’s Environment Agency and the other from Rothamsted Research (previously the Rothamsted Experimental Station, one of the oldest agricultural research institutions in the world, founded in 1843) reveal that the question is still important.

The Rothamsted report, for example, sheds new light on how intensive, fertiliser-based farming impoverishes the soil’s “natural” fauna and flora, damages soil structure (the layers in the soil and the way that individual particles of sand, silt and clay are aggregated into soil “crumbs”) and leads the loss of soil carbon into the atmosphere, contributing significantly to global warming.

The report is in many ways an update and gloss on an earlier but equally significant report entitled “Modern Farming and the Soil” published 50 years ago by Britain’s then agricultural advisory council of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Then the emphasis was more on the use of heavy farm machinery as much as on fertilisers, and the resulting destructuring and soil erosion, particularly on silt soils.

But concern about the soil goes back well before this. Frederick Engels in his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (1843) complained that capitalism had made “the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence” an object of huckstering.

And Karl Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (written the following year) observed how “we live from nature [and] must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if we are not to die. To say that physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for we are part of nature.”

As the views of the 24-year-old Engels and the 26-year-old Marx matured, they progressively incorporated a growing awareness of human impacts on the natural environment and its interconnectedness. In their Communist Manifesto, they emphasised the dynamism of capitalism, constantly transforming the world in the search for profit and the need to transform society for the benefit of people.

During, and especially subsequent to, the publication of Volume I of Capital both Marx and Engels became deeply interested in the dynamic of human-nature relations and the ecological damage wrought by capitalism. Although the analytical focus of Marx’s Capital was economics, key passages reveal a concern with the evolutionary origins and biological nature of humans and our relations with the non-human world.

Both Marx and Engels saw environmental degradation as not just a problem of the burgeoning industrial cities but a more general consequence of the alienation of humans from nature. Soil was a particular focus. Marx’s own research for Capital included a study of Justus Von Liebig’s work on agricultural chemistry.

Liebig pioneered the study of nutrient cycling and the role of chemical elements in plant growth (including the carbon cycle) but while promoting the manufacture of inorganic fertiliser he was also concerned about the depletion of soil organic matter and argued for the recycling of human sewage.

Engels was particularly influenced by his close friend in Manchester, the “Red Chemist” Carl Schorlemmer whose address he used to avoid police opening his letters. Schorlemmer (Marx nicknamed him Jollymeir because of his sense of humour) was one of the foremost organic chemists of his time and his influence, with Liebig and others, was almost certainly pivotal in Marx’s concept of the “metabolic rift.”

At that time systemic biogeochemical impacts of human activities were unknown, and their attention focused on specific issues to do with land management such as soil degradation and deforestation. Capitalist agriculture was a particular concern. Awareness of the consequences of monocropping in nutrient depletion, soil destructuring and pest infestation had informed the agricultural innovations which underpinned Britain’s industrial revolution.

With the intensification of farming, facilitated by inclosures, soil deterioration became in some areas a major problem, only partly addressed by a new trade in horse manure from the growing towns. Joseph Fison, John Lawes and other entrepreneurs made huge profits from the mining of mineral fertilisers. But the substitution of manures by inorganic fertiliser led to a reduction in soil organic matter (itself, together with the burning of fossil fuels, a significant contribution to atmospheric CO2).

In Volume I of Capital Marx declares that “capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth–the soil and the labourer.”

Whether Marx or Engels were aware of Charles Darwin’s final work The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits published in 1881 and containing the results of 40 years of research on earthworms, is unclear but it seems likely: the book sold 6,000 copies in its first year, more than Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Later, in writings assembled by Engels as Volume III of Capital, published in 1894 after Marx’s death, he writes of the moral imperative of environmental stewardship:

Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies together, are not the owners of the Earth. They are only its keepers, its beneficiaries, and [ … ] they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.

Fast forward a century and a half and it is clear that soil is something infinitely more complicated than either Darwin or Marx could have envisaged. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have declared: “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” It’s a moot point whether that remains the case but it is clear that our understanding has grown considerably since Marx and Engels wrote.

To take one example, as a paper entitled “Socialism in soil?” in the prestigious British Ecological Society’s Journal of Ecology stated: “Almost all plants are engaged in symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi.” These soil fungi can promote plant growth by supplying limiting nutrients to plant roots in return for plant assimilates. The relationship can be destroyed by poor agricultural practices including overploughing, overgrazing, excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, and monoculture.

As socialist soil scientist Charlie Clutterbuck said in a recent edition of Gardener’s World, among the plant roots and earthworms is a “teeming mass of little mites”–a “ferment of little rotters.” Shortly before this in a Marx Memorial Library seminar series Food, Farming and the Future (available on the Library’s website) he and Tim Lang (joint authors of a hugely influential text More Than We Can Chew: The Crazy World of Food and Farming (Arguments for Socialism), argued that soil destruction is part of a wider crisis of agriculture which in turn arises from a dysfunctional and exploitative economic system.

Every farmer, gardener and environmentalist must at some point have had thoughts echoing those of Engels who wrote in his notes later published as Dialectics of Nature:

Let us not flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us.

The soil is part of the complex “web of life” on which we humans and our planetary ecosystem depend. Together with human labour, it delivers 95 per cent of global food supplies. Soil holds three times as much carbon as the atmosphere, it reduces the risk of flooding by absorbing water, and it is a wildlife habitat in its own right.

Soil conservation is critical for human wellbeing.

So, does the answer lie in the soil? No, but the soil provides an important focus for understanding the relation between corporate capitalism and the environment and we neglect it at our collective peril.

Details of the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School’s rich programme of events, lectures and courses and recordings of past events–including the Food, Farming and the Future series–can be found on its website: www.marx-memorial-library.org.uk.

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