COMMENT ON STEFAN ENGEL’S BOOK, CATASTROPHE ALERT: ON MARXISM AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Arkibong Bayan·Tuesday, April 9, 2019·Reading time: 11 minutes
By Jose Maria Sison
Founding Chairman, Communist Party of the Philippines
Stefan Engel, Chairman of the Central Committee of the Marxist Leninist Party of Germany (MLPD), is commendable for seeking to comprehend present-day Earth science and impart knowledge about nature, particularly about the lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere and their dialectical interactions since hundreds of millions years ago, long before the emergence of the human species.
In the lithosphere, soil formation is an important geological process that is beneficial to the biosphere and eventual humanity. But even more fundamental is plate tectonics in causing change through geophysical, chemical and biological processes. In the hydrosphere, in the geologic past, there were natural cycles of ice ages and warm ages, caused by wobbles in the rotation of the earth, periodic variations in solar activity and extended periods of volcanism, leading to mass extinctions of living organisms.
Fortunately, we are not currently in the cusp of a global mass-extinction phase of any such cycles. But the broadest possible scientific view can allow us to better evaluate the anthropogenic factors for climate change. We can focus on the monopoly bourgeoisie as responsible for the environmental crisis and refuse the offer of the multinational firms to apply their scientific and technical expertise and to commodify and securitize the environment.
The latest sham wisdom from the summits of the imperialist powers on the environment is that they who have plundered, polluted and poisoned the earth know best how to fix it and in the process make further private profit. Our answer to the imperialist powers and the multinational firms is that humanity led by the revolutionary proletariat can wage class struggle and get rid of the monopoly bourgeoisie before this class further ravages and ruins the environment.
The monopoly bourgeoisie and its financial oligarchy can be overthrown before they can aggravate the environmental crisis to the point of causing nature to make its own corrections that put at risk not just the productive forces and social resources attained thus far but the very existence or large sections of humanity.
Dialectical Relationship Between Humanity and Nature
Stefan Engel writes in emulation of Frederick Engels who sought in Dialectics of Nature, in the explication of dialectical materialism, to integrate the level of knowledge in the natural sciences in his time. It is also necessary to take into account the great Engels’ attention to anthropology in particular in Dialectics of Nature and Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Some elaboration on how man made himself through labor shows that the dialectical relationship between humans and nature involves both unity (man being part of nature) and struggle. At any rate, Engel quotes aptly from “The Part Played by Labor in The Transition from Ape to Man,” what he acknowledges as the basic position of Marxism: Labour is the source of all wealth, the political economists assert. And it really is the source – next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. (Dialectics of Nature, op. cit., p. 452)
It is of decisive importance to understand the development of the human species in its dialectical relationship with nature. Since the time of Engels, anthropologists have elaborated on how the hominid evolved to be Homo sapiens through labor, developing bipedalism and prehensility of the hand, learning to use stone and other rudimentary tools, adopting language and stimulating the use and growth of the brain. After some #200,000 years of primitive communal life, humanity advanced into what has come to be known as civilization, characterized by literacy, the existence of classes and metallurgy.
Since some 6000 years ago, civilization has developed through a series of social formations: slave-owning, feudal, capitalist and socialist. In the course of prehistory and history, the relationship of humanity and nature has been dialectical, characterized by struggle and unity and not simply by unity. Homo sapiens and his predecessors in evolution were part of nature and were in that sense united with nature.
But humanity arose as a highly conscious and creative part of nature through a great deal of struggle to become relatively free from the blind forces of nature and to gain a certain level of mastery over them. Through the millennia of civilization and class divided society, mastering nature involves rising levels of human consciousness and social practice, such as the following: production, class struggle and scientific experiment. The mode of production increased its ability to produce a bigger amount of surplus and support a more elaborate superstructure.
The class conflicts and wars became driving forces of development (aside from the destructive aspect). Steadily, the physical sciences started their rudiments in the time of slavery, struggled against religious and other traditional biases in the time of feudalism and made unprecedented advances in the time of capitalism.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels observed how all the magnificent structures of thousands of years before were outstripped by the constructions made by industrial capitalism within a short period. Large-scale machine production under capitalism surpassed all previous capabilities of social production. Epidemics were being stopped by the advance of chemistry, biology and medical science.
As early as the 19th century, the metaphorical hyperbole of the “conquest of nature by man” was already being uttered by the bourgeois advocates of science and progress. In the history and current circumstances of humanity, monopoly capitalism has been the most responsible for the massive exploitation of labor power and the use and abuse of science and technology to plunder and ruin the environment.
But bourgeois environmentalists in the pay of monopoly capitalism have been used to spread false notions that Marxism does not care about the environment, that socialist countries in the past preoccupied themselves with productionism without minding the environment, that the limits of growth and the rapid population growth make any social life of plenitude utopian and impossible, and that considerations of environmental sustainability discourage aspirations of industrial development even by resource-rich underdeveloped countries.
Stefan Engel´s book is fine and welcome for stressing the overriding importance of the environment, showing how Marx and Engels and their worthy successors have paid serious attention to ecological science in their works and calling for class struggle against the imperialist powers and monopoly bourgeoisie that ravage and ruin the environment in their drive for private profit and put at risk the very existence of humanity.
Engel also criticizes in the history and current time of the international communist movement those who have had a low regard for the environmental issue and have been responsible for the consequences adverse to the people and their milieu. The environmental issue is fundamental and unavoidable in the theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism.
The three basic components of Marxism deal with the dialectical relationship of humanity and nature. In dialectical materialism, matter in general (nature or universe) and the concrete forms of matter on the one hand and the consciousness and capabilities of humanity on the other are interrelated. In political economy, the people in production must interact with the means of production, with nature providing the object of labor or the material for labor to work on. In social science, the class struggle towards the class dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist revolution and construction are in the context of social relations and the relations of society with nature.
Stefan Engel quotes aptly from Marx in the 1860s (in his preliminary studies for the third volume of Capital) on how man relates to nature through production: “Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase.
Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.” (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III, p. 820)
In the quotation above, Marx depicts how man struggles against being ruled by the blind forces of nature to gain the knowledge and the freedom to rise above a given level of necessity and mobilize greater forces of production through stages of social development until socialism and communism. Social production is the way for man to master and control the forces of nature and it advances in stride with the advances of the class struggle against the plunderers of human and natural resources and with the advances of science and technology. The laws of nature and social development must be understood, respected and applied in the service of humanity.
Nature and Labor as Sources of Material Wealth
Stefan Engel makes an excellent review of how Marx regarded both nature and labor as the sources of material wealth and how he criticized those who said that labor is the source of all material wealth. He rejected Adam Smith’s declaration that the sole source of material wealth or of use-values is labor in general. He approved of the statement of the physiocrat William Petty that both labor and nature are the source of material wealth and are respectively the father and mother.
Primitive communal man knew from the start that nature provided the stone tools, the fruit to gather and the animals to hunt. Engel traces what he considers as the low regard for the environmental issue to the wrong proposition in the Gotha Program that labor is the source of all wealth and the long suppression of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, which declared: Labour is not the source of all wealth.
Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power. …Only in so far as man from the beginning behaves towards nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labour, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, does his labour become the source of use values, therefore also of wealth. (Ibid., p. 8 f.)
Engel acclaims the achievements of socialist Soviet Union in completing a historically unparalleled process of development from a backward agrarian economy to a leading economic power and ascribes this development to the firm foundation in Marxism-Leninism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, a planned socialist economy, and the mobilization of the masses in their millions.
But he criticizes the 1954 Soviet political economy textbook for paying no attention to the environment. He also criticizes Gleb Maximilianovich Krzhizhanovsky, author of The Foundations of the Technical and Economic Reconstruction Plan of the Soviet Union, for making the supercilious call for the “subjugation of the elemental forces” to the goals of economic development.
Stefan Engel describes comprehensively and profoundly the environmental problem. He draws from Willi Dickhut’s book in 1984, Crises and Class Struggle, the definition of the environmental crisis as turning into an accelerated phase the destruction of soil, water, air, flora and fauna, affecting all fundamental conditions of human life and the dissection of the essential factors responsible for the crisis, which are identified as follows:
(1) the rapid increase in the consumption of raw materials and energy, (2) a new quality of radioactive contamination and of the poisoning by substances from mass production of chemicals, (3) the exhaustion and destruction of fertile soil due to overfertilizing and the massive use of pesticides in agriculture, (4) urban sprawl (overdevelopment with factories, roads, houses), (5) extreme overexploitation of nature in the dependent countries by neocolonialism, (6) reduction of investments in environmental protection by the monopolies as a consequence of the intensified global imperialist competition, and (7) the threatening destruction of humans and nature by imperialist wars and by militarization and rising arms production.
These inimical factors have grown larger and worse under the neoliberal and aggressive policies of the imperialist powers headed by the US. Most often cited cause of climate change, like global warming and unprecedentedly destructive and frequent weather disturbances, is the ever growing emission of carbon dioxide and damage to the ozone layer due to the ceaseless and expanding use of fossil fuel.
The US is notorious for engaging in the research and use of weather warfare which manipulates the effects of global warming. It has also expanded the use of fracking to extract natural gas, releasing to the atmosphere the extremely strong greenhouse gas methane, poisoning the water tables and potentially causing earthquakes.
Stefan Engel calls on Marxist-Leninist parties and the people’s organizations to take up the environmental issue globally and to build up resistance against the imperialist schemes to destroy the environment. He urges them to unite the class struggle with the battle against the devastation of the environment and to overthrow the capitalist system because replacing it with the socialist society is the definitive solution to the problem.
We view Engel’s book as a renewed call to all revolutionary parties of the proletariat and the broad masses of the people to enrich and fortify Marxist-Leninist theory and practice with the advances in scientific knowledge, to persevere in leading the class struggles of the proletariat and other working people against the big monopoly bourgeoisie, including on the environmental front, and to uphold the dialectical unity of humanity and nature as we unite and fight for a bright socialist future.