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Marxism and Climate Change: Engels’ Struggle for a Dialectical Concept of Nature

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Arne Johansson, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (ISA in Sweden)

Seven of the world’s leading climate and so-called Earth System scientists warned last year that the world could be very close to tipping points and even “a cascade of tipping points” that mean that gradual global warming can, at a certain point, exceed limits in the Earth’s ecological system. This will more than likely lead to an unstoppable catastrophic development towards a “greenhouse world”.

To prevent this, revolutionary decisions are needed based on a widespread understanding of the “dialectics of nature”, which Friedrich Engels, on his joint mission with Karl Marx, sought to make the pioneers of the labor movement understand.

It was in the journal, Nature, that the seven leading earth and climate scientists — Timothy Lenton, Johan Rockström, Owen Gaffney, Stefan Rahmstorf, Katherine Richardson, Will Steffen and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber — pointed out that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long believed that such “large-scale discontinuities” in the climate system were likely only at a global warming above 5 °C. Here they sounded the alarm that the IPCC has, in its then two most recent “special reports” in 2018 and 2019, warned that these tipping points could already occur at between 1 and 2 degrees warming.

The seven researchers expressed their discontent over the fact that politicians, economists and even some natural scientists either consciously downplayed or did not understand the importance of the threat of these tipping points, such as the loss of the Amazon rainforests or the western Antarctic ice sheet. Other tipping points that Earth System researchers warn of are an expansion of the ongoing problem of species death, chemical, biochemical and biological emissions, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, deforestation, freshwater shortages and air pollution.

Dialectics of nature

All this also means that so-called “Earth Science”-research provides a historical confirmation of Friedrich Engels’ attempts to show the laws of motion of nature in books such as Anti-Dühring (1878) and Dialectics of Nature (published posthumously in 1925). Something that some of the ancient Greek philosophers like Heraclitus already suspected, as well as the great German philosopher, Hegel.

Today’s Earth Science-research also puts an end to a long-running battle over the interpretation of the political and scientific legacy of Marx and Engels. As a misguided reaction to Stalin’s dogmatic abuse of dialectical materialism, “Western” academics in the wake of the so-called Frankfurt School and even “existentialism” have long argued that Engels, as well as Plekhanov, Lenin and others, have, by including natural history, deviated from Marx’s supposed limiting of dialectics to the materialist conception of human history alone.

Sven-Erik Liedman’s tragic mistake

Here in Sweden, the historian of ideas, Sven-Erik Liedman, in his books The Game of Contradictions and most recently, Karl Marx (2015), has followed in this tradition by dismissing the inclusion of nature in dialectical materialism as “Engelsism” with chapter names like “Twin souls or tragic mistake?”.

This is a baseless interpretation that has hampered both the global climate struggle and a new renaissance for Marxism, but which is now seriously beginning to give way.

“Offensiv” — paper of the Swedish section of ISA — has previously written about how not least the efforts of the Americans, John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, and most recently, Kohei Saito from Japan, in Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism have disproved this derailment, while at the same time, Earth Science research is responsible for frightening confirmations.

Marx and Engels agreed early on that the dialectical thinking that above all Hegel tried to systematize only reflected the processes that are constantly going on in the real, material world of nature and humankind, something they initially used to develop a materialistic and dialectical conception of history. It was also a method that Marx, backed by Engels in particular, would use to criticize the new (classical) English economy and to analyze in detail the laws of motion of the capitalist economy, something that culminated in Marx’s enormous work with Capital.

But alongside political struggle, both Marx and Engels engaged in enthusiastic studies of the great breakthroughs in science, which Engels in particular, with the support of Marx, set out to compare in detail with Hegel’s dialectical logic of thinking. Darwin’s theory of evolution, atomic theory, cell biology, the physical energy theory of thermodynamics, and agronomy made a particular impression.

After Marx, at Engels’ request, read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 on the evolution of species and thus the biological origins of humankind, Marx called this “the basis in natural history for our view”. The discovery spurred Engels to further reflections on how the dialectical transition from animal to human had probably taken place. In an ingenious little booklet called The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man, which has been included in Dialectics of Nature, Engels assumed that this began “with the development of the hand, with labor, and widened man’s horizon at every new advance.” Labor demanded further cooperation and eventually speech.

Everything that exists is in constant motion

How the new science confirmed Marx and Engels’ view of dialectics on point after point, Engels summarized mainly for himself in Dialectics of Nature in the concept of “the science of interconnections”. A basic thesis is that everything that exists is in constant motion, but still connected, even if, at a certain stage, form can explode and change.

“Motion is the mode of existence of matter”, he stated early on, something that today is usually summarized as “everything is energy” and encompasses all motion, changes and processes in the universe.

The seemingly stable only applies for a certain period of time and under certain conditions. Everything that is born emerges and disappears, something that applies to both nature and social systems. “You could not step twice into the same river” as the Greek dialectician, Heraclitus, had already pointed out. Both in nature and human history, a process of constant motion, change, transformation and development is taking place.

In the tangle of innumerable changes, science had, according to Engels, confirmed above all three general laws of motion:

  • the transformation of quantity into quality (where gradual changes driven by internal contradictions can, at a certain point, suddenly change into a new form and vice versa)
  • the interpenetration of opposites (where the antithetical poles, positive and negative, are as equally opposite as they are inseparable)
  • the negation of the negation (when internal contradictions in a phenomenon give rise to a new one, which in turn is negated in a process at a higher level of development)

These are all philosophical terms taken from Hegel, but which for him only referred to the long-term development of thought in the direction of what he called an “Absolute idea”, when everything is realized. For Hegel, this was an idealistic view of dialectics, which Marx and Engels put on a material footing by explaining how nature comes first and how human thinking is primarily affected by how humans work and live their material lives, while at the same time, the dominant ideas of our time are the ideas of the ruling class.

As the British physics professor and historian of science, J.D. Bernal, explained in a tribute to Engels, the central idea of dialectical materialism is transformation, where the most important task of research is to explain the qualitatively new, the conditions that govern the emergence of a new “organizational hierarchy” and through which nodal points (intersections) this occurs.

It was also by analyzing such transformations that Engels himself, with the help of his dialectical materialist conception of nature, was able to shed light on questions that have not yet received clear answers from contemporary research, such as the view of the universe’s emergence from nebulae, life’s emergence from complex chemical processes, the role of the hand and labor in the creation of humans and the transition from mother-right to patriarchal families with private property.

Nature has evolved from matter and motion (which today is usually called energy) in a series of organizational levels of stabilized dialectical syntheses. From the elementary particle to atom, from atom to molecule, from molecule to colloidal aggregate (of fine substances), from aggregate to living cell, from cell to organ, from organ to body, from animal body to society.

Engels’ “dialectics of emergence”

According to the British biochemist and historian of science, Joseph Needham, the “dialectics of emergence” was Engels’ most revolutionary contribution to the kind of scientific research he focused on.

Evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, who himself contributed to the theory of “punctured equilibrium”, claims that it was Engels, in the footsteps of Darwin, who made the 1800s best contribution to the theory of “gene–culture coevolution”. The theory of the “punctuated equilibrium” is precisely about how long periods of evolutionary stability are sometimes punctuated by the rapid branching of species. The examples can be multiplied. Today’s Earth Science research is by definition about nature’s dialectical “interactions and feedbacks” through the flow of matter and energy between the earth’s subsystems of cycles, processes and “spheres”.

Anthropocene or capitalocene

Climate research has today launched the concept of the Anthropocene (human age) as a stage in which the impact of humanity has seriously begun to upset the relative balance in nature that has prevailed during the recent geological period, the Holocene, for about 11,700 years. Many scholars date this to the period after World War II, while others, like us Marxists, understand that its roots can be dated to the unbridled capital accumulation of capitalism since the Industrial Revolution (and therefore could be called the Capitalocene).

After Darwin, Marx and Engels’ good friend, Ray Lankester, became England’s leading evolutionary biologist. In his book The Kingdom of Man (1911) in the chapter “Nature’s Revenges”, Lankester warned, as Engels had done, how humans are increasingly disturbing the balance of nature in a potentially catastrophic way, for example through the periodic epidemics that can all be attributed to human intervention, the markets and “cosmopolitan” financial transactions. At the end of the First World War, the Spanish flu provided a horrific confirmation.

Already at the age of 23, Engels had, in the article Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (1844), railed against the ruthless exploitation of the Industrial Revolution, whose misery, epidemics but also promising labor struggle he would describe in 1845 in The Condition of the Working Class in England. “Only an end to private property can mean humanity’s reconciliation with nature and itself”, Engels concluded.

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts from 1844, Marx also described capitalism’s growing gap (alienation) between workers and the results of production on the one hand as well as between human themselves and between humans and nature when the workers are separated from the earth, and that it was the task of communism to, at a higher level, restore a complete and rationally regulated unity between humankind and nature.

Long before his masterpiece Capital, Marx already criticized the theory of value of the bourgeois economists for considering only labor as the source of all value and forgetting the use value of nature which they regard as “a free gift to capital”. Something which means that capital, driven by competitive accumulation, undermines both labor and the earth, “the original sources of all wealth.”

Marx’s “Metabolic rift”

The stage was already set here for Marx to also adopt the dialectical concept of a “metabolic rift” in the metabolism between man and nature as an insoluble conflict under capitalism and which today has developed into a metabolic abyss. In his article, “Engels’s Dialectics of Nature in the Anthropocene” (Monthly Review, November 1, 2020), John Bellamy Foster points out that Engels, like Marx and biochemist, Justus von Liebig, pointed to London’s huge sewage problem as an example of the metabolic rift, which deprived the earth of its nutrients (through human feces) and transported them to overcrowded cities where they were polluted into rivers and seas.

Engels also emphasized the class basis of the spread of periodic epidemics of, for example, smallpox, cholera, typhus and other infectious diseases.

In Dialectics of Nature, Engels says that the last essential difference between animals and humans is that humankind can master nature and make it serve its purposes, but his warning echoes today more strongly than ever:

“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.”

Having given a number of examples of this, Engels recalls how “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.”

From his point of view during the industrial revolution, Engels was able to quickly realize the key problem that “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”. Quite simply because they will otherwise be inexorably knocked out of the competition.

Engels’ conclusion is that in order to carry out this regulation of our relationship with nature, more than mere knowledge is needed. “It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.” This was a conclusion completely in line with Marx’s famous words in Capital that: “From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”

When capitalism today has driven us to the threshold of an existential crisis for humanity, we can of course not wait to do everything here and now to delay the threatening tipping points.

But to secure victory and restore a balance with nature, a global victory for a new democratically planned and socialist social system is necessary, as Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx spent their entire lives explaining.

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