Marx, Marxism, and the Environment

in history •  3 months ago

This is my entry into @anarchyhasnogods's current writing contest.

Most of my environmental articles here on Steemit have primarily focused on environmental conditions under capitalist, rather than communist, regimes, with the exception of my post on the draining of the Aral Sea. This has been in great part because the environmental damage tends to be fairly similarly severe in both communist and capitalist regimes, but it's actually fairly important to address, since the form it takes can sometimes be quite distinct, and strategies for confronting environmental problems cannot be one-size-fits-all. They must both address the unique environmental conditions in each region, as well as the unique political and social conditions.

Karl Marx. [Image source]

Karl Marx's writings, despite his well noted admiration for naturalists such as Charles Darwin, wrote precious little on the relationship between man and nature, and almost nothing on specific environmentalist concerns. This is no condemnation by any means- environmentalism as we understand it was near non-existent at the time, and likewise ecology. Marx may have had quite a few prophetic predictions about the future of capitalism (and some arguably less prophetic predictions about the future of communism), but they were based off social trends and scientific knowledge available to him during his life, while environmentalism isn't nearly so predictable based off the science and politics of Marx's time.

The precious little Marx wrote on the relationship of man and nature was interesting enough, of course, but the scant time he spent discussing it does seem indicative of his entirely reasonable (for his time) priorities. Most notably of his sparse discussion of the topic revolves around the concept of alienation in Marxism, which for Marx sprang originally from man's estrangement from nature. Quite a few Marxists today have spent large amounts of time attempting to prove Marx was an environmentalist, in large part to attempt to separate themselves from the severe environmental catastrophes enacted by major Marxist states. I find this entirely unnecessary, given the limitations Marx worked under, but understandable.

Friedrich Engels, the frequent collaborator and close friend of Karl Marx. It's up for debate as to who had the more impressive facial hair. [Image source]

Marxism- the communist philosophy and political movement based off his work- most assuredly did exist alongside environmentalism and ecology, and has a very, very strange relationship with it. Namely: the major Marxist states of the 20th century entirely rejected that environmental problems could happen in Marxist states, and that they were only possible in capitalist nations. This is, of course, obviously untrue in retrospect, and our first inclination in regards to that claim would be to consider it a spurious propaganda claim of the kind that was so often seen during the Cold War. There's more to it than that, however. To fully understand Marxism's relationship with the environment, we need to understand its relationships with its environmental experts.

This requires us to first discuss Lysenkoism. Named after its founder, Trofim Lysenko, it was a political purge conducted against geneticists, agricultural scientists, and other biologists and biological research. Lysenko, himself a biologist, adhered to Lamarkian evolutionary views- that is, the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In humans, for instance, this might result in being able to pass on muscle or stamina gains to your children. In agriculture, it resulted in Soviet claims of being able to transform rye into wheat or barley. Lamarkian evolution was thoroughly supplanted and discredited by Darwinian evolution, and yet it made a comeback in the Soviet union. Over 3,000 Soviet biologists lost their jobs for advocating Darwinian evolution, often being imprisoned, sent to the gulags, or even executed. It was also widely present in Maoist China, in rather different form, but arguably greater degree.

Trofim Lysenko speaks at the Kremlin. Note Stalin listening attentively on the right. [Image source]

Lysenkoism severely retarded the biological sciences in Marxist states, resulting in them falling far behind the capitalist powers in the Cold War. Beyond that, it actually resulted in severely reduced crop yields, contributing to the deaths of millions. It was, by any account, one of the more severe failures of Marxism. It wasn't unique or unanticipated, however- it was part of a larger, more omnipresent phenomena in the Marxist states- the repression of the intellectual class. There was widespread repression of experts of all stripes in the Marxist states, especially where they deviated even slightly from the words of Marx- or, more often, since the ruling class claimed that their ideas came from Marx (whether true or not), the intellectuals were punished for disagreeing with their leaders.

This runs, however, extremely counter to the ideas of Marx, both in specifics and in principle. The rise of Lysenkoism is particularly absurd, since Marx clearly subscribed to Darwinian evolution- in fact, he even begged Darwin to allow him to dedicate Das Kapital to him. (Darwin politely declined, feeling that he didn't understand economics well enough to have an economics text dedicated to him.) So the assault on genetics and Darwinism very directly runs counter to Marx's ideas in that respect. On the level of principles, however, it has to be remembered that Marx was essentially the founder of sociology and the first sociologists. Many of Marx's economic ideas and predictions were based in rigorous and painstaking research and statistics- something he very much encouraged in others, not least because of his extreme confidence in his findings. The anti-empirical, often positivist ideas of the Marxist states ran strongly against Marx himself.

The Aralkum Desert is the dried up seabed of the Aral sea, left there by the disastrous environmental policies of the Soviet Union. [Image source]

At this point, we need to explore in more specifics the environmental atrocities carried out by the major Marxist states. In the Soviet Union, they most often tended to result from their obsession with massive utopian projects- the construction of mammoth dams and the like. They often rushed them, resulting in long term unforeseen issues. (Chernobyl, anyone?) The draining of the Aral Sea as mentioned above is another, as is there support of the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt. Their ongoing rejection of the possibility of environmental problems under communist states allowed them to continue unchecked in a way that wasn't true in America and many other capitalist states. (This isn't to say that environmental problems ceased in the capitalist states- anyone who's read my blog much at all should know this is the farthest thing from the truth. Environmentalists did succeed in winning a few major victories in the West, however, and have managed to at least act as something of a brake on civilization's rape of nature, even if not the most effective one.)

In China, the story was somewhat different, and if anything, even more severe. While they had quite a few massive, environmentally destructive projects along the same lines as the USSR (the Three Gorges Dam, for instance), those are best understood as coming from Soviet influences, often even put together with Soviet support. The more severe environmental damage, however, came directly from the ideas and orders of Mao Zedong. Mao engaged China in, quite literally, a war of conquest against nature. In fact, one of his main slogans translated to "Man must conquer nature." If anything, China's environmental catastrophes far, far outweighed nearly any other nation's during the 20th century.

The Sanmenxia Dam, an environmental catastrophe built during the height of Mao's reign. The massive sediment buildup behind the dam has caused extensive flooding upstream from it, among other problems. [Image source]

They include the deforestation of an absurd amount of China's land, the destruction of much of its topsoil, the desertification of much of its land, the soiling of its rivers and lakes, and more at a scale essentially unequaled for its time. They attempted to use a single uniform method of agriculture across their entire landscape- an utterly insane act, since they're the most geologically diverse nation in the world. The Great Leap Forward, a program launched by Mao, caused an environmental catastrophe leading to the single greatest starvation event in all of human history. China oppressed their experts at a far greater level than the USSR, actually labeling them not only a despised political class, but the lowest political class. Mao's rampant distrust of experts and his voluntarist philosophies led him to believe that human will could overcome literally any problem through simple effort and application of work- a disastrous policy that led to the rampant abuses. By far the most destructive environmental impact of Mao's policies, however, came from Marxist rejections of Malthusian ideas. Mao and his followers (and many Soviets) believed that overpopulation was only a serious concern in capitalist states, and China's enormous population today, with its massive environmental impact, is thanks to these policies.

There are some major commonalities between the two primary Marxist states that are fairly revealing about what led to their specific environmental issues. The repression of experts is the first one, of course- without warning of environmental catastrophes, they had no chance of escaping them. Next is the utopian character of all of these environmentally disastrous plans and projects- they were treated as the only way to improve the world, and adhered to with a terrifying certainty, as well as rushing the projects beyond good sense. Then we've got an obsession with legibility and uniformity- these states demanded a level of uniformity at all levels that ended disastrously, taking no account into local variations in climate, ecology, culture, or economy. Finally we have their tendency to massively and forcibly relocate populations, often into biologically marginal regions.

The Eurasian tree sparrow. Mao ordered the destruction and killing of all sparrows in China as part of the Great Leap Forward, out of concern they were eating too much grain from fields. This was, frankly, stupid, as the sparrows were actually holding down locust populations. Once the sparrows were wiped out, massive locust swarms ravaged fields across China, greatly worsening the severe famines caused by the Great Leap Forward. [Image source]

Of these four tendencies, it's debatable which were the most disastrous- but it needs to be recognized that these factors also contributed to a very, very large number of environmental catastrophes among the capitalist powers, though not quite to the same degree. Though environmental damage on either side of the Cold War often ended up physically similar, they came from remarkably different ideologies, politics, and economies. This, however, leads us to an interesting conclusion that actually dovetails quite precisely with many of Marx's ideas- namely, that ideas matter far, far less in determining the path of history than physical, economic, and biological circumstances.

To put it into a lengthier form, while the ideologies and policies governing human behavior might change, the fundamental needs of humans, both on an individual level and a civilizational level, remain the same. One's political affiliation does nothing to reduce one's caloric requirements, nor does the guiding ideology of a polity significantly affect its need for iron or electricity. The comparatively similar environmental destruction that accrued on the Earth during the Cold War regardless of political affiliation does seem to indicate a high level of validity to these philosophically materialistic ideas.

All of this also has another, interesting consequence- that of essentially pardoning Karl Marx for the environmental depredations of Marxism. He doesn't seem to share any culpability for the environmental destruction within Marxist states, especially considering how often the ideas that led to this ran very against Marx's. (I'm not making any commentary about any moral culpability he has for some of their other atrocities- any answer to that lies well beyond the scope of this article.) It certainly offers a new light to offer to one of Marx's most famous quotes: "I'm not a Marxist."

If my biases weren't obvious in this article: I highly respect Marx, strongly oppose Cold War era Marxism, and haven't yet made up my mind on present day Marxism. For anyone interested in reading more on this topic, I recommend perusing my bibliography- even moreso than usual. The first three items on the list are especially worth your time, though by no means exclusive of the others.


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"Marxism is a method of socioeconomic analysis that views class relations and social conflict using a materialist interpretation of historical development and takes a dialectical view of social transformation. It originates from the works of 19th century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels."

Marxism-Leninism is what you meant by marxism. This contest was as much a vocabulary test as a writing test, and you did not pass. The basis of marxism is an analysis of the overall change in society based on dialectics and class conflict, in which there was a focus on capitalism. His own theory went as far as that the people would likely rise up at one point or another. Any states based on that idea took it in their own direction, they were based on the teachings of marx but went far beyond them as well.


I don't think you mean vocabulary test, I think you mean shibboleth test. The use of Marxism in place of Marxism-Leninism is more than colloquially acceptable, and also quite acceptable in many academic publications. A hard-line requirement on calling it Marxism-Leninism is really a modern day fellow traveler shibboleth used to separate Marx from the atrocities of the Soviet Union and Maoist China- as I mentioned above, something I already do for environmental issues, but through actual confrontation. In fact, that was the whole point of my essay- merely excusing Marx via "Any states based on that idea took it in their own direction" isn't a sufficient exoneration for Marx in my book. It's like excusing a parent for the behavior of a child because the parent was never around. I wanted to prove that no, the parent did their best, the child was just a rebellious shit. I couldn't have done that without seriously examining their relationship.

I can handle not winning a contest- what actually disappoints me is that I was really looking forward to your responses or disagreements with my post, which in my experience tends to be pretty on point and interesting. To get no real engagement whatsoever, and merely be told that I didn't use the preferred nomenclature? That kinda sucks.


im an anarchist communist, we use the works of marx and marxism in many of our theories as well


many orthodox marxists exist today still, I have met them in my daily life irl, the term is still in much use. The problem is that inside capitalist circles they often ignore what is going around in the society around them.

Marx wrote little on revolution, I give the suggestion of reading the wikipedia article at the very least, for a reason. What's more I said write on the concept of marxism, which you also ignored. At the very inception of the soviet state, marxists anarchists and the rest of the left were split. You can't call them "marxist" and ignore the marxists that were against its very existence.


What? Marx wrote EXTENSIVELY on revolution (by the proletariat). It was one of his favorite topics of discussion, and something he was actively hoping for. Have you glanced at, say, his writings regarding the 1848 uprising? His letters to Engels were also absolutely filled with discussions of it. Marx literally and commonly wrote of the proletarian revolution as necessary and inevitable. Hell, he and Engels literally call for the "forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions" in the Communist Manifesto. This is like Marx 101.

And I've met quite a few Orthodox Marxists IRL too, even had a crush on one for a while. I never said they don't exist, so I'm utterly baffled as to why you brought that up. Likewise, I'm pretty baffled by the reference to capitalist circles- were you under the impression that I was one?

Why would I possibly be required to discuss every single group of Marxists, of which there were oh-so-many? For the purposes of this article, ignoring those who opposed the founding of the Soviet Union was perfectly fine, because their opposition failed, and it was founded, and had negative effects on the environment. I can perfectly well call both groups simply Marxists as well and be correct, or use Marxist to describe just one in a specific context and still be correct.

And accusing me of not writing on the concept of marxism- well, I interpreted that as giving me the freedom to discuss a variety of topics, so long as it interacted with the ideas of Marxism. My bad, I suppose.

But... again, your vocabulary test is merely a shibboleth test, not a test of ideas.


Marxism is a method of socioeconomic analysis that views class relations and social conflict using a materialist interpretation of historical development and takes a dialectical view of social transformation. It originates from the works of 19th century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Marxism uses a methodology, now known as historical materialism, to analyze and critique the development of capitalism and the role of class struggles in systemic economic change.
According to Marxian theory, class conflict arises in capitalist societies due to contradictions between the material interests of the oppressed proletariat—a class of wage labourers employed by the bourgeoisie to produce goods and services—and the bourgeoisie—the ruling class that owns the means of production and extract their wealth through appropriation of the surplus product (profit) produced by the proletariat.

That was extremely interesting to read, thanks a lot.

I think it's important to see that environmental catastrophies are often in part caused by the oppression of specialists and scientists. Sadly, there are parallels to our present situations. Today, science is not oppressed, but a) kept on a short leash with dependancies in funding and b) buried under so much noise that it's increasingly hard to see facts over fiction for many people.

P. S. : I'm resteeming your post


Thanks, I'm glad you found it interesting! And yeah, anti-intellectualism is on the rise again right now- it's an unfortunately scary circumstance to be in.


@mountainwashere very nice article written. And it's good to see article about environment.. i am a big lover of environment..

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Great post, very well written and an interesting idea! I feel like during Cold War ideas mattered more than any other circumstance, even though, as you said, it went against Marx’s ideas. And even today ideas seem to outpower the real circumstance. That is probably because man is trying to elevate himself above nature and power can feed off ideas. Sorry for deviating a bit. Again, awesome post, going to erstem as well. Cheers!

Nice write up

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Nicely written, thank you. Upvoted.

human will could overcome literally any problem through simple effort and application of work

I kinda believe in that too. It's called meliorism and I consider myself a meliorist. But I guess drastically different meanings can be given to the same words, as the misinterpretations of Marx show. I wonder if Darwin had accepted the dedication, how that would've influenced the reception of Lysenko, and if some environmental catastrophes would've been prevented.