Was Marx an Environmentalist?

Was Marx an environmentalist? My overall position on this is skeptical ambivalence. To argue strongly that Marx himself was specifically concerned with nature in a way that is directly consonant with modern day environmental struggles and concerns is going too far. On the other hand, the assertion that Marx had no concern with the environment, and supported an unrestrained and destructive human domination of nature is also false. Some ecological themes did exist in Marx’s thinking, and these themes can be creatively extended in order to inform current social-ecological thinking. However, these creative extensions should not be construed as insights into Marx’s personal ideas.

In this paper I compare and evaluate voices in the academic discussion surrounding the question of Marx’s ecological thought. I rely mostly on John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000), and Alfred Schmidt’s The Concept of Nature in Marx (1971). I also discuss some opinions (Lee 1980; Routley 1981; Tolman 1981) voiced in the debate spawned by Donald C. Lee in the journal Environmental Ethics.

I outline some of the major themes within this discourse regarding Marx on ecology, illuminating them through the opinions of these authors. I also evaluate different opinions. My evaluations are largely on the theoretical level. I choose a particular stance: favoring the later Marx and claiming a certain interpretation of Marx’s dialectical method, emphasizing the necessity to maintain duality rather than to eradicate contradictions and dissolve particulars into wholes or wholes into particulars. On contested issues I consistently describe Schmidt’s position as the soundest. While I am confident that I present some good reasoning to support this stance, I am reticent to claim it is necessarily more correct than others. I commit to this [what I would call a ‘best-guess’] perspective for the bulk of the paper, primarily to have something evaluative to say throughout this presentation, to critically engage the voices of different authors. In the conclusion, I transition out of this provisional stance and question the discussion from a broader angle.


Themes and Thinkers on Marx’s Ecological Thought


Foster and Schmidt both argue nature occupies an important place in Marx’s philosophical materialism. Their arguments are convincing in some ways, but unconvincing in others. While both authors provide their own respective forays into intellectual history on the one hand, and philosophical analysis on the other; Schmidt relies more on the latter, and Foster the former. Central in their discussions, they emphasize ways Marx’s materialism differs from the more mechanistic materialism of positivism.

Schmidt emphasizes a mixture of social constructionism and realism in Marx’s materialism, inextricable from Marx’s concept of nature. He describes Marx’s definition of nature as “that which is not particular to the Subject, not incorporated in the modes of human appropriation, and not identical with men in general” (27). At the same time, “pure historically unmodified nature does not exist as an object of natural-scientific knowledge. Nature, the sphere of the regular and the general, is in each case related both in extent and composition to the aims of men organized in society…” (50). In other words, ‘nature’ designates an ‘objective’ natural world irrespective of human interpretation, yet ‘nature’ as people encounter it is always both modified by human activity and understood within social constructions based upon human purposes in society.

Foster tends to weave into Marx’s thought various natural and ecological considerations derived from other thinkers who influenced Marx. He outlines an element of freedom and indeterminacy in Marx’s thought, intertwined with ideas about nature. He highlights Marx’s doctoral dissertation on Epicurus. Foster emphasizes the Epicurean philosophy of nature included a theory of matter as structured of atoms, some of these atoms involving an inherent indeterminacy. Foster also articulates themes of nature recurring throughout Epicurus’s philosophical system, and claims the latter’s philosophy of nature “had as its starting point the ‘principle of conservation,’ and hence tended toward an ecological worldview” (37).

He also discusses Hegel’s and Feuerbach’s theories of nature in relation to Marx’s. Hegel (1988) posited ‘Nature’ as a realm of matter and determinacy, in contrast to ‘Spirit’ being a realm of thought and freedom. Nature was a reflection and derivation of ‘Spirit’. Foster explains in Feuerbach’s philosophy, “the Hegelian system amounted to a denial of the world of sensuous existence; one that merely replicated, in the name of secular philosophy, rather than religious theology, the estrangement of human beings from nature that was the principle obstacle to the development of freedom” (70). He shows Marx’s affinity to Feuerbach by quoting from a letter Marx wrote, wherein he explained his only criticism of Feuerbach was he should have focused more on politics and less on nature. The reader can assume from this that Feuerbach’s location of freedom in nature (at least in contrast to Hegel’s Spirit) was carried over by Marx; although this also seems to indicate in Marx a possible lack of interest in nature.

Are the emphases on constructionism and freedom that Schmidt and Foster identify in Marx’s thought really as significant for Marx as Schmidt and Foster suggest? We should not just take their word for it. It would be helpful to consult thoroughly other interpretations as well as Marx’s own texts. What is convincing in both Foster and Schmidt in themselves is their insistence that nature is conceptualized in Marx’s philosophy in an inseparable way from material existence. The phenomenal world is nature. With this in mind, it is unreasonable to dismiss wholesale the notion that nature plays a part in Marx’s system. Because Marx’s is a materialist philosophy, it can also be reasonably argued that is some respects nature must be a significant and foundational element for him.

However, the practical significance of the above is unclear. Just because nature was implicit in Marx’s notion of material reality does not mean anything about what for him was the significance of ‘nature’ (for example in terms of grass as opposed to concrete) within the notion of fundamental matter. It says nothing about how he believes people relate to or should interact with the ‘natural’ (i.e. green) environment. The specific issue of nature vis-à-vis matter is not addressed sufficiently by either author.[1] In contrast, the issue of nature vis-à-vis human relations and interactions is. Below I begin discussing these latter issues using the topic of the body.

Inorganic body, metabolism, and alienation

Authors express different positions on Marx’s description of nature as people’s ‘inorganic body’. It is clear from Marx’s own words that he is in some sense claiming people are not separate from nature. Various authors differ regarding to what extent this signifies an ecological orientation.

Marx uses the ‘inorganic body’ concept in the following passage:

Nature is the inorganic body of a man, that is, in so far as it is not itself a human body. That man lives from means that nature is his body with which he must maintain a constant interchange so as not to die. That man’s physical and intellectual life depends on nature merely means that nature depends on itself, for man is a part of nature. (McLelland 1977:90)[2]

In other words, people and nature are both separate and not separate. They are not separate because human physical existence is inherently in interaction with nature, and absolutely dependent upon this interaction, hence the word ‘body.’ Through eating food and excreting waste there is an unavoidable literal physical interplay. They are separate because this interaction occurs between people and nature posed as external to one another; people act upon nature as an ulterior entity, in order to consume nature originally as something experienced as external to one’s physical body. Marx’s use of the word ‘inorganic’ highlights the separation.

Donald Lee (1980) misses the necessary separation part of this dialectic. He supports his position by sticking to the earlier, more Hegelian Marx. Lee claims “there is no man-nature dichotomy in Marxism; the human being is part of nature and interacts with nature in such a way that in his productive activity he creates both himself and nature. And nature, the material body, is the limiting condition which shapes man” (8). Clearly he understands that on some level there is an inherent separation between a person and her or his natural surroundings; the notion of ‘interaction’ implies this. Still, in clearly stating there is “no man-nature dichotomy”, he collapses the separation into an original unity. As Schmidt points out, in Hegel’s idealist dialectic all things ultimately collapse into ‘Spirit’, but in Marx’s later materialist dialectic, there is no final resolution into an all-encompassing whole. Unity and separation are never resolved into a primary unity.

Tolman (1981) criticizes Lee for not recognizing the trajectory of Marx’s thought as a development, that Marx’s early thought was not so much different as immature in relation to Marx’s later thought. As Schmidt ably shows in a myriad of ways, in the later Marx there is a kind of primary unity in Marx’s notion of nature as humanity’s inorganic body, but there is just as much a primary separation. This dialectic is more complete, and also more realistic. However, Lee not only betrays Marx’s mature dialectic. The early Marx also insisted on preserving particularity:

The mineralogist whose whole science consisted in the statement that all minerals are really ‘Mineral’ would be a mineralogist only in his imagination. For every mineral the speculative mineralogist says ‘Mineral’ and his science is reduced to repeating that word as many times as there are real minerals. (McLelland 2000:150)[3]

Just because Marx may have preserved particularity more consistently or effectively in his later writings does not mean his intention to preserve it should be ignored in his earlier ones. It does, however, pose an unanswerable question in terms of what Marx ‘really’ meant when his professed methodology contradicted his conclusions.[4]

Another departure from Lee comes from Routley (1981), who sidesteps the ‘inorganic’ part of the ‘inorganic body’ term, and asserts the notion of nature as people’s body means nature is appropriated by people as if an extension of themselves which they act upon according to their own interests. In his words, “…through humanizing and transforming nature…man makes nature his or her ‘body,’ his or her creation and self expression, and in this way…nature ceases to be ‘the other’” (238). In this description, the integration between people and nature that the word ‘body’ signifies is treated not as something primary or ontological, but as something that is created by people (albeit it intrinsically created) through appropriative and transformative activity, i.e. through labor. This is different from Lee on two accounts: 1) unity is not fundamental, and 2) unity is inseparable from domination. [5] We are not born into unity with nature; we achieve unification by appropriating it.

This description falls short of a satisfying dialectical philosophy. The argument that unification is created presupposes a primary separation without an equally weighted fundamental unity. Since a full dialectic would propose both unity and separation as fundamental, Routley’s model is not adequate. Schmidt is better able to represent Marx’s notion of nature as people’s inorganic body:

Just as in living nature assimilation changes the inorganic into the organic, so man assimilates that ‘inorganic body’ in his work and converts it in an ever-increasing measure into as ‘organic’ part of himself. Man can only do this, however, because he himself belongs directly to nature, which is by no means a purely external world entirely separated from his internal characteristics… (80)

Schmidt does the best job of interpreting this theory in all of its fullness and dialectical complexity. Marx’s theory preserves a duality of separation and unity in the notion that people are part of nature yet act upon nature from a place of mutual externality.

Marx uses the word ‘metabolism’ to describe the constant and necessary interaction of people with nature, their inorganic body. In this metabolic, cyclical interaction, people act upon nature through labor, transforming it and taking from it. In the process, people are transformed too through this labor and the acquisition. Finally, remnants and waste are returned to nature. People take from nature and give back; nature takes from people and gives back. Both people and nature are continuously transformed in and by the process.

Foster (2000) articulates a problematic of ‘metabolic rift’ in Marx’s writings. The notion refers to the development of a new, disruptive level of separation within the aforementioned cyclical process. In a normal or natural state, this metabolism is a direct and consistent, which works for the health and benefit of both people and nature. When there is a rift in the process, the relationship is more indirect, and there are consequences for both people and nature.

Central to Foster’s description of metabolic rift is the ‘antagonism between town and country’ that develops under capitalism. With the development of industrial production and the centralization of major marketplaces, etc. cities arise which become very different both materially and culturally from more rural areas. Cities become cultural centers, from which people in the country are largely left out. Agriculture continues to be practiced in rural areas, but in large scale for urban populations, using methods that are not good for the soil. Significantly, the remnants and waste from what people grow in the countryside for urban consumption, is not returned to the soil. Instead of being absorbed back into nature in healthy ways, the remnants and waste collect in the city in unsanitary ways, and natural areas just lose what is taken without people giving back.

The rift is predicated on the mediation of people’s relation to nature by the capitalist system. As mediated, people’s relation to nature is alienated. In Marx’s 1844 essay on alienated labor (Struick and Marx 1964), he described a multi-dimensional kind of alienation. Under capitalism, people do not produce what they consume and consume what they produce. They do not intentionally and creatively transform nature according to their own designs and for rewards that they enjoy. Instead, they labor for the capitalist, and the fruits of their labor are given over to the capitalist. In return, workers receive wages that they then use to purchase other goods that were made by other people in other places. In this process, people are alienated from each other, from themselves, from their work, and from nature.

In this scheme, self-alienation and alienation from nature are intrinsically connected. This naturally follows from the fact that in Marx’s notion of nature as people’s inorganic body, nature and self are framed as not only connected but as different expressions of extensions or aspects of one another. Ostensibly in terms of alienation, Marx – also in the alienated labor essay – says people become alienated from their ‘species-being,’ i.e. what characterizes them as a species; he denotes “free conscious activity” as “the species-characteristic of man” (McLelland 1977:90). The heart of human species-being is the capacity for intentionally directed activity in labor, and the self-recognition involved in enjoying the fruits of one’s own free work. “Therefore when alienated labor tears from man the object of his production, it also tears from him his species-life…and turns the advantage he has over animals into a disadvantage in that his inorganic body, nature, is torn from him” (91).

In Lee’s (1980) optimistic piece, alienation is seen from a particularly one-sided version of the early Marx. In reporting Marx’s predictions for a future society that transcends alienation, Lee says:

…recognition of nature as our body will constitute the overcoming of the alienation of ourselves and nature, manifested in subject-object dualism. Thus, the identity between supposedly external nature and human nature will be established. To act upon nature will be correctly seen as acting upon ourselves. (8)

It is telling that in this quote Lee has omitted the word ‘inorganic’ and instead describes nature as “our body.”[6] In this sense, if Marx’s dialectical description (preserving both unity and separation) of the relation between people and nature in terms of the ‘inorganic body’ is taken to be primary, then the notion that a correct understanding would be of pure identity with nature has to be false. This utopian view of discovering fundamental unity with nature as our true relation can only be maintained if the integrity of Marx’s non-idealist (preserving particularity) dialectic is sacrificed.


History and Communism

Schmidt (1971) shows how Marx’s theories pertaining to history relate to his treatment of nature. As I explained earlier, Schmidt emphasizes in Marx’s system nature is both a material reality, and a social construction. This means nature is objective, in a sense, and does operate according to scientific principles; but we only understand nature in the terms that we problematize it. We only observe those scientific principles that we look for and acknowledge. As our understanding of nature changes depending on the principles we observe in it, then so does it change depending on the principles we look for. The principles we look for are intimately tied in with our interactions with nature, i.e. our labor and the organization of production. In sum, the realities of our labor condition our constructions of nature.

Nature evolves throughout history as production evolves. We can only encounter nature through our own experience and understanding as people. We never have immediate access to an underlying ‘objective’ nature. The only ‘nature’ we can ever refer to is the one that has been socially constructed in accordance with the foci introduced through the organization of our labor in production. As society and its organization of production evolves, so too does ‘nature.’

Schmidt also adds speaking of a ‘nature’ that has not already been altered by human action is basically pointless, as most of nature at this point has been so permeated by human actions and developments. So nature is in this sense too, inseparable from human activity. There is no natural history separate from human history. As society evolves – particularly under capitalism – people achieve ever greater mastery over nature. On this point, the various authors are unanimous with Schmidt. Opinions differ on the significance of this in terms of Marx’s assessment of where history under capitalism is leading.



For Marx, the advent of Communism marks the dialectical resolution of class society as an historical process. The voices in the debate all agree that, to the extent the nature is foundational to Marx’s thinking about material and social existence, so Communism must also mean for him the dialectical resolution of humanity’s alienation from nature. There is great disagreement about what this resolution would actually mean in terms of how society under Communism would engage with its natural ecological context.

On this issue Lee knowingly stretches Marx’s concept of ‘species-being,’ in his words claiming:

…the logic of this can be extended. Man is the universal being who can understand what is good for each species intrinsically, and thus…ecologically aware socialist man” must “transcend the selfish greed of homocentrism and act for the good of the whole ecosystem…Man as the unique creature with universal consciousness thus becomes responsible for all species. Man is the steward of the ecosystem for the good of the whole… (16)

This is introduced without any more justification. This is clearly a leap beyond Marx.[7] One problem with this is yet again the leap is along the same mistaken lines that Lee emphasizes throughout his article: he subsumes the particular within the universal. In the subjects discussed in previous sections of this paper, I argue Lee is using his own one-sided view of a Hegelian (i.e. the universal overshadowing the particular) early Marx, and that this is faulty. In this case the situation is the same (or worse). Lee takes his chosen aspects of Marx’s early writings and inflates them to the point of caricature.

Some strange threads of Prometheanism are present here. The ‘Promethean’ charge[8] – that Marx celebrates eventual human domination of nature – is easier to associate with the words of a later, less ecological Marx who describes Communism as involving people’s use of nature for their own purposes (Marx [1894] 1981). In Lee’s description, there is also a romanticism of humanity rising to become master of nature, with the difference that this mastery is proclaimed as somehow for the good of nature, not just people.

The notion that humanity can actually master nature is far-fetched and dangerous. The framing of this in such a romantic, harmonious, altruistic light is effectively a call to delusion. The idea that we can somehow ‘understand what is good for each species intrinsically’ is paternalistic, grandiose, and absurd. Routley also has these criticisms of Lee’s romantic vision of benevolent totalization:

…Marx’s theory represents an extreme form of the placing of man in the role previously attributed to God, a transposition so characteristic of Enlightenment thought. But this Enlightenment-inspired transposition has been and is an environmental disaster …And the human hubris which results from this transposition has led to a vast overconfidence an overestimation of human ability to interfere in complex and only partially understood natural systems with ill consequences, a major factor in generating environmental problems. (240)

Similar to Lee’s characterization of the final return to primary unification of people and nature, Routley posits a Marxian final unification is in the form of the complete domination of nature by humanity, purely for human ends. Apparently, to Routley the only real problem with Lee’s interpretation of Marx’s ecological thought is the positive spin. Routley’s characterization of Marx is either taken directly from Lee, or he is making similar mistakes. Routley accuses Marx, Lee, or both of them (it is difficult to discern), of not living up to “Hegelian standards” (238). These various conflations are disorienting.

Once again, Schmidt provides the most thorough and balanced use of the dialectical aspect of Marx’s thought. He also provides one of the more plausible explanations of how the theory might translate into practice. He asserts Communist society would necessarily preserve unity and separation in people’s relation to nature, even if only because labor is an unavoidable fact of life. Ideally Communism would bring people and nature into a relatively harmonious comprise. This would mean a less – but still somewhat – dominating engagement of nature by people. Schmidt specifically refrains from claiming in Marx’s theory any implicit or explicit precise prediction on this issue.



Schmidt’s emphasis on social constructionism in Marx, specifically in the historical material contexts of understanding, presents a strong challenge to Foster’s general approach. Earlier, when describing the authors’ perspectives on the place of nature within Marx’s materialism, I claimed it is difficult to discern what was meant by Marx in terms of ‘nature’ vis-à-vis ‘matter,’ and that this complicates the attempt to assess the level of ecological orientation in his philosophical foundations. While I do not attempt to theorize these meanings within this paper, I will note that this confusion, paired with Schmidt’s observations on Marx’s socio-historical constructionism, really stand in the way of a passive acceptance of Foster.

If we accept Schmidt’s explanation of Marx’s theory of knowledge as indicating the ways in which people understand is conditioned by their own purposes, which in turn are shaped according to experience in labor practices appropriate to different material conditions and production processes; if the Object as we encounter it is always socially and historically conditioned, then not only can we not know for sure what Marx meant by nature. If we assume Marx’s theory should – if its dignity is to be preserved as a legitimate philosophy – be taken within its own precepts, we can be certain he did not mean what we mean by it today when we talk about ‘nature.’ By Marx’s historical social constructionism, the ‘nature’ of today simply did not exist in the 19th century.

Beyond just being an argument about the internal coherence of Marx’s philosophy, there are ramifications to this idea in more practical terms. Marx spoke about industrial pollution in the cities, about unsustainable uses of soil, and about cutting down forests (Foster 2000). To the extent that in his writings he voices negative sentiments about these things, he appears like a modern day environmentalist. However, in Marx’s day, concern for ‘nature’ was not and could not have been the same as it is today. People did not discuss climate change back then. It is a huge topic today, and a reality that is starting to have immediate harmful impacts. The notion of wildlife preservation that is today often associated with environmentalism, including the growing list of extinct and endangered species, could not have existed back then with the same urgency and immediacy. The very real concern that we are making the planet uninhabitable for many species, and increasingly for our own, is far more drastic than a concern over an antagonism between town and country, even as toxic as industrial working conditions may often have been in Marx’s day. The severity of the harm we have been inflicting on the environment was not and could not have been a part of the discourse when the word ‘nature’ was uttered back then.

It is also worth considering Marx’s discussion of nature as strongly influenced by a rejection of Hegel. It is curious that Foster focuses so much on Marx’s Epicureanism and so little on the potential implications of Marx’s odd relationship to Hegelianism. As I mentioned earlier, Hegel relegated ‘Nature’ to a secondary position, a derivative reflection of ‘Spirit.’ ‘Nature,’ in this sense, was always negation, and ‘Spirit’ was always the higher truth. For Hegel (1988), people are inherently and most fundamentally ‘Spirit.’ They are both ‘Spirit’ and ‘Nature’, but history leads toward people’s emergence from ‘Nature’ and their actualization as ‘Spirit’ through their recognition of it as their higher truth. When Hegel’s dialectic ultimately resolves into idealism, it does this in contrast to the realm of apparent, material phenomena, which includes ‘the environment.’ Hegel’s ‘Nature’ is the realm of material reality, in contrast to ‘Spirit’ which is the realm of the ‘Idea’ (i.e. mind). There is a strong contradiction between mind and matter, privileging of the former over the latter. In connection with this, ‘Nature’ is associated with brute, simple, amoral, unconscious, animal drives. In opposition, ‘Spirit’ signifies the higher qualities that mark humanity as exceptional: the capacity for reason, self-consciousness, morality, and freedom.

Marx’s relationship to Hegel is somewhat contradictory. He diverges from him in profound ways, but his dialectical method is very similar to – and his ideas are strongly influenced by – Hegel’s thought. It is at least plausible that when Marx speaks of ‘nature,’ this Hegelian influence extends into the term. Marx followed Feuerbach’s inversion of Hegel, in placing people and material, natural reality as primary (Foster 2000). Feuerbach discussed religious theology that placed God as primary as being a form of self-alienation of the natural, material human (Feuerbach 2004). When Marx speaks of the inorganic body and people’s alienation from nature, his theory is similarly an inversion (or at least a conversion) of Hegel’s theory of ‘Spirit’ as primary, ‘Nature’ as self-alienation, and people as a vehicle for ‘Spirit’ to attain self-recognition as higher reality. For Marx, there is no ‘Spirit;’ instead, the material, natural world is reality.

Hegel’s material ‘Nature’ is Marx’s reality in its entirety, but with some key changes. The human qualities Hegel celebrated as higher and belonging to ‘Spirit’, such as freedom and the recognition of connectedness with reality beyond oneself, Marx preserves and situates within the realm of material nature. Marx’s alienation from nature is not only from ‘the environment,’ but from human nature. The theory of alienation from ‘species-being’ unites what is uniquely human with what is naturally human, which Marx notes significantly as involving self-conscious transformation of the material world intentionally, through conscious activity (labor). To put it broadly, Hegel speaks about self-alienation as alienation from Spirit, but instead Marx discusses self-alienation as alienation from nature.

Taking a step back, it is easy to see that casting Marx as an environmentalist is at best a stretch, an amplification of small threads in his corpus that, while identifiable, were really peripheral in his overall work. It is unconvincing to argue that these were somehow secretly more significant than how much they are represented by his emphases. For argument’s sake, it could be true; it is impossible to prove that a secret does not exist. But just as much as it cannot be dispelled completely as a possibility, it cannot be verified. Marx is not around to testify either way. The basic question of what Marx ‘really’ meant cannot be answered, but the amount of attention in his writings given to nature is a reasonable yardstick by which to measure whether or not his significance as a social theorist should be seen to include ecological concerns. It is at least more reasonable than an opposite approach.

To the extent that Marx’s thought lent itself to celebrating people as a part of nature vs. praising the capacity of people to dominate nature for purely human ends, authors consistently interpret a distinction between his early and later writings. Marx moved from the ‘inorganic body’ and alienation-from-nature discussion in the 1844 manuscripts (Struick and Marx 1964) to articulating in Capital volume III (Marx 1981) an ideal future world where “…the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their own collective control…with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature” (959). When contrasted, his early works are easier to interpret as promoting human connection to nature, his later works as promoting human control of nature.

While the early/late distinction does not necessitate hard and fast rules of interpretation, just noting to what extent interpreters rely on early or late Marx can go a long way toward explaining some of the differences in opinion. Lee focuses only on the early Marx and presents an extremely optimistic picture of Marx the environmentalist. Tolman criticizes this on the grounds that there is only one Marx, and his later work was a more developed version of his earlier work. He couples this ascertain with a view of Marx as supporting human domination of nature. Schmidt calls attention to both early and later Marx, does not explicitly draw a meaningful distinction between the two, and ends up presenting a fairly mixed picture. Foster acknowledges a difference, but his arguments concerning Marx’s ecological thought range wide outside of Marx’s own writings.

In terms of evaluating the legitimacy of using the early vs. late Marx to define Marx qua Marx, my sense is this cannot be decided. Momentarily accepting for argument’s sake that he was an environmentalist in his youth but stopped being so later in life, then those wishing to argue he was an environmentalist can only be wrong if they claim it to be true for his entire life’s work. The same is true for those wishing to discount him as an environmentalist. On the other hand, if the key criterion for whether he qualifies is whether he was consistent is maintaining an ecological orientation throughout his life, it is easier to argue for his lack of qualification. However, to assume that any thinker can only be assessed by finding and focusing on the common threads in all of their works, is a strange way to approach philosophy. My guess is if the question was put this way, most people would not give their ascent. Rather than revealing which side is correct, this fog shows how impossible it is to decide how and where to anchor an assessment of Marx. I would rather not commit to either side, but if pressed, I would have to side with those who claim the late Marx. His later writings were more meticulous and made less of the artful but ungrounded Hegelian leaps and loops so prevalent in his early work.

Taking a further step back, it is curious what the importance is of determining whether Marx was an environmentalist. Even if he was somewhat, what significance does this have for us today? It is different to argue that buried within his volumes are threads of thought which can be insightful frameworks for philosophizing nature in the 21st century in ways that encourage responsible consideration of and care for our ecological contexts. This latter case is one that I cannot argue against. Pulling out these threads and amplifying them so as to take Marxian elements to frame a thus influenced eco-philosophy is a different matter, and an open option to anyone interested in the endeavor. Even staying closer to the claim of Marxism, and advertising a ‘reconstruction’ (Burkett 1999) of his thought along explicitly ecological lines that were already arguably implicit in various ways is legitimate. The question of whether Marx himself was truly ecologically concerned does not seem to be of much importance outside of the more ideological issue of whether it is possible to hold him up as an icon for environmentalists.

In the end, I suspect this is the real issue behind this discussion. Marx is not just any 19th century philosopher with an undecidable relation to 21st century environmentalism. He is a controversial and highly influential political figure of the Left. The question really being grappled with in all of this is whether Marxists who are also environmentalists can meld the two together and argue that other environmentalists should rightly honor Marx as well, and that Marxists should recognize environmentalism as implicit in their philosophical heritage. Essentially, some eco-Marxists are arguing they are correct in being eco-Marxist, and that others not only can be, but should be too.


Burkett, Paul. 1999. Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. 2004. Essence of Christianity. Barnes & Noble Publishing.

Foster, John B. 2000. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. NYU Press.

Hegel, Georg W. F. 1988. Introduction to the Philosophy of History: With Selections from the Philosophy of Right. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Lee, Donald C. 1980. “On the Marxian View of the Relationship between Man and Nature.” Environmental Ethics 2(1):3-16.

Marx, Karl. [1894] 1981. Capital, Volume III. New York: Penguin.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. [1845] 2013. The Holy Family: Critique of Critical Critique. Windham Press.

McLellan, David. 1977. Karl Marx: Selected Writings. 2nd Ed. Oxford University Press.

Routley, Val. 1981. “On Karl Marx as an Environmental Hero.” Environmental Ethics 3(3):237-244.

Schmidt, Alfred. 1971. The Concept of Nature in Marx. London, NLB.

Struik, Dirk J. and K. Marx. 1964. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Radford: Wilder

Tolman, Charles. 1981. “Karl Marx, Alienation, and the Mastery of Nature.” Environmental Ethics 3(1):63-74.

[1] I discuss this obfuscation more in the concluding section of this paper.

[2] This passage is properly from Marx’s essay on alienated labor from his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Struik and Marx 1964).

[3] This earlier work is The Holy Family (Marx and Engels [1845] 2013).

[4] This is as unanswerable as the question whether the early or late Marx is the ‘real’ Marx, which is revisited in this paper’s conclusion.

[5] It is worth emphasizing here that Routley proposes in Marx’s philosophy the most fundamental way people interact with nature is through appropriation qua appropriation. We engage with nature through domination, and this encompasses the basic constitution of that relationship. This is echoed in his Routley’s view of Marx’s Communism, which I discuss later on.

[6] Earlier I explain Routley (1981) makes a similar error.

[7] There is nothing wrong with leaping beyond Marx, but Lee should be clearer what he means be ‘extending’ Marx’s logic.

[8] See Foster (2000).

Jeremiah Morelock

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