Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and the dialectics of nature

Filed under: climate,Counterpunch,disaster,Ecology — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm

Between 1872 and 1882, Frederick Engels worked on a book titled “The Dialectics of Nature” that sought to apply Marxist dialectics to the natural world. Although it was never completed and is filled with dated ideas about science, it is a work that has earned the respect of some of the most important scientists on the left such as Stephen Jay Gould who praised its best known chapter that was issued separately as a pamphlet—The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. Long before people such as Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson were laying the groundwork for the eco-socialism of today, Engels anticipated the kind of contradictions that have led to three disastrous hurricanes: Katrina, Sandy and now Harvey. Engels wrote:

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.

If you understand that the prairies surrounding Houston, the wetlands to the south of New Orleans and the brush that grew across the coastline around greater New York were closely related to the forests of the earliest class societies that Engels refers to, you will realize that “each victory” will bring us closer to the ultimate defeat of civilization itself. Just consider the words that follow those above:

When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.

Furious torrents. Are there any words better matched to the pictures of Houston seen on television every night?

Continue reading


  1. This is really excellent and thought-provoking, and has changed my mind about this unfinished work of Engels when I thought nothing could.

    I am an unfrocked student of the humanities (unemployable Ph.D. in English) with an unofficial (and perhaps dubious) minor in science and technology. My closest brush with actual science came during a five-year stint at the Space Physics Division of NASA, where I wrote and published technical documents and program communications for their community of priniipal investigators in solar, heliospheric, and upper atmospheric physics. Within the limits of this checkered career, I have always regarded the notion of “the dialectic in nature,” taken literally, as unnecessary and obscurantist at best. I still think so when it comes to seeing e.g. the Uncertainty Principle as revealing a fundamental dialectic outside the sphere of human activity that can be accessed by the speculative philosopher without the aid of experiment. To the extent that I’m qualified to think about this, I tend to think formulations at the physical level such as e.g. the “law” of transformation of quantity into quality are also an intellectual lobster pot from which, once one has taken the bait, there can be no exit.

    But nothing in this piece touches on such areas of doubt. It is completely convincing, selects its sources unerringly, and despite its brevity, is IMHO one of the most cogent statements of the fundamental and practical link between Marxism and ecology that I have yet seen.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 1, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

  2. priniipal=”principal”

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 1, 2017 @ 2:24 pm

  3. Marx and Engels defined dialectics in “Anti Duhring” as “the science of the general laws of the motion and development of nature, human society, and thought.” Thus they saw that organized relations underlie the material systems of life and society, and that life and society were organic, systemic processes, not collections of isolated parts.

    Engels, especially, began to see that natural relations and healthy human relations were at least similar, and “The Dialectics of Nature” was his halting effort to explore this territory. The science at his disposal was primitive, but recent developments have confirmed his overall thesis that “nature is the proof of dialectics.” In the dedication of “The Dialectical Biologist,” Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin wrote, “To Frederick Engels, who got it wrong a lot of the time but who got it right where it counted.”

    As Engels declared at Marx’s graveside, “Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force.” The modern “left,” though, has abandoned science and Engels and thus Marxism. It is long-lost and has followied its detours to today’s dead end.

    There is nothing more contemptible among today’s faux Marxists than their separation of Engels from Marx. This stance serves to “disappear” science from any consideration and ignores the close personal and professional relationship enjoyed by Marx and Engels–a rare if not unique collaboration between two formidable intellects.

    Divorcing Marx from Engels is akin to separating Hurricane Harvey from capitalism-manufactured climate chaos. Harvey couldn’t have occurred in a more appropriate state, though.

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — September 1, 2017 @ 7:16 pm

  4. “Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” Marx, ‘Economic and Philososophical Manuscripts of 1844’.

    BTW ‘Anti-Duhring’ was written by Engels, though at the suggestion of Marx, to whom Engels outlined its general approach before beginning it.

    Comment by Des Derwin — September 2, 2017 @ 1:01 pm

  5. Des, Marx was intimately involved in writing “Anti-Duhring,” which became a theoretical exposition of “Marxism.” Here is what page xiii in the Preface to Vol 25, “Karl Marx Friedrich Engels Collected Works” has to say about this:

    “Marx also took a direct part in the writing of “Anti-Duhring.” Engels consulted him when planning the work; Marx also helped to collect the necessary material, wrote a critical outline of Duhring’s views on the history of economic doctrines, which was used as the basis for Chapter X of Part II of “Anti-Duhring” (pp. 211-43), and, finally, read and approved the whole manuscript. “Anti-Duhring was thus the result of creative collaboration by Marx and Engels, reflecting their joint views and giving a generalized account of the main propositions of Marxism.”

    I’m especially worked up over the left’s almost universal rejection of Engels and the new science(s) of organizational relations now available to we who must consciously organize our lives, as the ever-treacherous Gareth Stedman Jones has just published yet another book attacking Engels, splitting him from Marx and Marx from “Anti-Duhring” This is clearly and outrageously wrong, and is an accurate indicator of Gareth Stedman Jones’s lousy character and lack of intellectual integrity. I would invite Herr Professor to kiss my ass if I didn’t value my ass.

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — September 2, 2017 @ 3:24 pm

  6. Joe, you should not get so worked up. Engels is the published author of ‘Anti-Duhring’. It seems unusual to ascribe something as defined as a definition to another also, no matter how close their collaboration and how great the specialist background knowledge. Actually I acknowledged Marx’s involvement with the work, though I did not know it was so close; that new information was very interesting.

    I too am uneasy about theses that split Engels from Marx but they have a history that cannot be simply put down to treachery. I must leave others to slug this out with Stedman Jones, Coletti, Eagleton, etc. and hope to learn from the results. I’m not sure the rejection of Engels is almost universal on the marxist left. Your quote is I presume from the Moscow edition of the Collected Works. On the far left the British SWP were always strong on Engels. Trotsky was a great personal fan.

    Comment by Des Derwin — September 4, 2017 @ 12:09 am

  7. […] Counterpunch September 1 […]

    Pingback by Hurricane Harvey and the Dialectics of Nature | JSC: Jamaicans in Solidarity with Cuba — September 14, 2017 @ 11:27 pm

  8. Now with Hurricanes Erma, Joseph and Marla something should be written about the problems of coastal soil erosion.

    Comment by CLK 200 MB — September 21, 2017 @ 3:26 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: