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BOOKS A naturally radical symbiosis

HELEN MERCER recommends a challenging account of the interaction between ecological science and dialectical materialism

The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology
by John Bellamy Foster
(Monthly Review Press, £30)

TWENTY years ago, Marx’s Ecology by John Bellamy Foster mined Marx’s writings for what he calls his “ecological materialism,” rehabilitating him as a major ecological thinker. Marx pointed out how capitalism disrupts the interactions between humans and the earth, creating what Foster calls a “metabolic rift,” leading to pollution and environmental degradation.

The central concern of his new book, which traces the work of scientist-philosophers whose ideas anticipated the modern ecological movement from Marx’s day to the 1970s, explores the evolution of ecological science simultaneously with the development of dialectical materialism.

This philosophy is not a dogma but, in the words of JD Bernal, it is a  method of discovery  — “an approach which sees interconnections between and within the human and the natural world, all elements constantly acting on and reacting to each other in the process of which they are transformed.” As JBS Haldane had it, the natural world consists of “processes, not things.”

Foster advances Engels’s argument that humanity’s distinctive relationship with nature is through labour, social labour and the use of tools. This central fact transforms human beings’ physical attributes — the hand, the tongue, language — human society and, simultaneously, nature.

Engels, insisting that nature is the proof of dialectics, warned of the unforeseen effects and uncontrolled forces of capitalist production and argued for the “conscious organisation of social production.”

Unsurprisingly, much of the energy of scientists in this period was directed against the establishment thinking of their day. The opponents of Darwin offered an idealist interpretation of evolution, with many of his supporters embracing eugenics and outright racism, while “mechanistic” materialists deny the application of materialism to the social world and critics of the New Left and the Frankfurt School dismissed the application of dialectics to the natural world.  

Zoologist E Ray Lankester, a friend of the Marx family who developed the concept of bionomics — a term now synonymous with ecology — features prominently. So too does William Morris and his world, with chapters charting his crossing the “river of fire” and his close reading of Capital.

Through Morris’s rather scattered writings, Foster portrays his artistic and political interests and activities as a “unified vision, connecting his understanding of the dialectical relations between nature, labour/art, and humanity.”

There is a  bewildering cast of characters, dramatic tensions and intellectual sword fights —  scientific endeavour became increasingly collective but it also met increasing opposition. Botanist Arthur Tansley, a student of Lankester’s, criticised a narrow taxonomic approach to botany, proposing instead the study of plants as living organisms in their relationship to their environment.

He and fellow ecologists were denounced as “Bolshevik botanists” by the professorial establishment, which derailed his academic career.

The roster of names is increasingly dominated by outstanding scientists with strong communist sympathies, some of whom joined the Communist Party of Great Britain.  Among the many were Bernal, Christopher Caudwell, Hyman Levy, Haldane, Joseph Needham and Lancelot Hogben and a picture emerges of a scientific and cultural renaissance centred around the 1930s CPGB, sometimes literally in the rediscovery of Greek philosophy and especially the works of Epicurus and Democritus, the subjects of Marx’s doctoral thesis.

These “red scientists,” already familiar with Marx and with Engels’s Anti-Duhring, were deeply influenced by the “epoch-making” appearance of Soviet scientists at the second International Conference on the History of Science and Technology in London in 1931.

Their approach to the role of science in society acted on a “peculiarly British set of conditions... their strong Darwinian backgrounds and their own distinctive interpretations particularly of the classical historical materialist approach to science,” Foster writes, but here the book fails by not considering what links were made with the ideas of British Marxist economists.

Bernal published an account in a 1935 edition of Labour Monthly of Engels as a scientist, opening with Engels’s grasp of the fundamental connection between science and productivity. Jack Lindsay’s comment on Morris seems very relevant here: “Marx and Engels were aware of the disastrous effects on nature that a society of commodity-production was liable to inflict; but for Morris the awareness of this destructive tendency was central.”
With the Cold War, the close association of British Marxist science with the Soviet Union made them prime targets for anti-communists organised through the Society for Freedom in Science and the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

The community broke up, with “each doing as he could,” in the peace movement or the newly decolonised countries.  I suspect that Foster will himself be criticised for his relatively even-handed analysis of Soviet science and the response of British scientists.

He ends with a sketch of the reworking of ideas from the 1960s in the research of Rachel Carson, Stephen Jay Gould, Barry Commoner and EP Thompson. This period saw the re-establishment of Bernal’s call for a “science for the people,” a programme echoing that of Engels.

Though long and complex, the book has a lyrical style which makes the details fascinating and absorbing — and its themes are central to current ecological and social crises in the time of Covid.


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