Communism and the Environment: Engels’s Insights from Dialectics of Nature

In the 1870s, Engels gathered extensive notes for a work that he wanted to call Dialectics of Nature. His plan was to develop a more comprehensive project for the new method that he and Marx had hammered out since the 1840s.

Marx preferred to focus on economic and social issues, for which we now use the shorthand of ‘historical materialism’ (a term Engels coined). But Engels was keen to extend this approach to science, nature and earlier history. During the 1870s and 1880s, Engels did precisely that, alongside his heavy duties in editing Marx’s scattered drafts and notes for the second and third volumes of Capital. While he was still alive, Marx was fully aware of Engels’s ambitious projects and often commented on them.

Some projects were completed, some were not: Dialectics of Nature was one of the latter. What we have are folders with notes and drafts of sections. Although not a finished work, it contains enough of Engels’s insights to have inspired generations of communists since that time. Indeed, along with Anti-Dühring (1878), the work that we now know as Dialectics of Nature was deeply influential. The whole approach would come to be called ‘dialectical materialism’. Even today, it forms a cornerstone for innovation in Chinese science and technology.

Let us focus on one section, for which Engels wrote a full draft entitled ‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man’. Here Engels offers a brief sketch of the role of labour from the earliest human activities to his own day in Europe in the 1870s. Towards the end of the sketch, he outlines the impact of a capitalist mode of production on the natural environment. His main point – which he already saw in Manchester in the 1840s – is that the short-term drive for profit at all costs has a profoundly destructive effect on the natural environment.

This outcome directly affects workers. The position of the Communist Party today is that workers should have a safe and healthy environment in which to live. Further, this focus will ensure that the wider environment is healthy and robust in all respects – a win-win result. So let us consider Engels’s insights from 150 or so years ago, since they show already then how a capitalist system cannot address environmental problems.

The following passages come from Marx-Engels Collected Works, volume 25, pages 461-64.

In short, the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries … Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula.

Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

It required the labour of thousands of years for us to learn a little of how to calculate the more remote natural effects of our actions in the field of production, but it has been still more difficult in regard to the more remote social effects of these actions. We mentioned the potato and the resulting spread of scrofula. But what is scrofula compared to the effects which the reduction of the workers to a potato diet had on the living conditions of the popular masses in whole countries, or compared to the famine the potato blight brought to Ireland in 1847, which consigned to the grave a million Irishmen, nourished solely or almost exclusively on potatoes, and forced the emigration overseas of two million more?

The men who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries laboured to create the steam-engine had no idea that they were preparing the instrument which more than any other was to revolutionise social relations throughout the world. Especially in Europe, by concentrating wealth in the hands of a minority and dispossessing the huge majority, this instrument was destined at first to give social and political domination to the bourgeoisie, but later, to give rise to a class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat which can end only in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the abolition of all class antagonisms. – But in this sphere too, by long and often cruel experience and by collecting and analysing historical material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote social effects of our production activity, and so are afforded an opportunity to control and regulate these effects as well.

This regulation, however, requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order. All hitherto existing modes of production have aimed merely at achieving the most immediately and directly useful effect of labour. The further consequences, which appear only later and become effective through gradual repetition and accumulation, were totally neglected.

The original common ownership of land corresponded, on the one hand, to a level of development of human beings in which their horizon was restricted in general to what lay immediately available, and presupposed, on the other hand, a certain superfluity of land that would allow some latitude for correcting the possible bad results of this primeval type of economy. When this surplus land was exhausted, common ownership also declined. All higher forms of production, however, led to the division of the population into different classes and thereby to the antagonism of ruling and oppressed classes. Thus the interests of the ruling class became the driving factor of production, since production was no longer restricted to providing the barest means of subsistence for the oppressed people.

This has been put into effect most completely in the capitalist mode of production prevailing today in Western Europe. The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions. Indeed, even this useful effect – inasmuch as it is a question of the usefulness of the article that is produced or exchanged – retreats far into the background, and the sole incentive becomes the profit to be made on selling.

As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers.

The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees – what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character; that the harmony of supply and demand is transformed into the very reverse opposite.