Quotable Marx

An abridged selection of his memorable statements on the environment

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Thursday 31 May 2018

Illustration: Tarique Aziz

The world is celebrating the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, interestingly with unusual celebratory moods. The contemporary context of the deep polarisation on environment-capitalism line has added a new dimension to the much talked about notion of Marx as an anti-environment theorist.

There are lots of writings on his understanding of environmental issues. The Ecologist magazine wrote on him:

“Environmentalists found value in Marx, but not in his ecological analysis.”

Taking a break from the usual format of this column, here are some of his notable observations on the environment.

  • “As for the farmer, the industrial capitalist and the agricultural worker, they are no more bound to the land they exploit than are the employer and the worker in the factories to the cotton and wool they manufacture; they feel an attachment only for the price of their production, the monetary product.”
  • “Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”
  • “The “essence” of the fish is its “being”, water… The “essence” of the freshwater fish is the water of a river. But the latter ceases to be the essence of the fish and so is no longer a suitable medium for existence as soon as the river is made to serve industry, as soon as it is polluted by dyes and other waste products and navigated by steamboats, or as soon as its water is diverted into canals where simple drainage can deprive fish of its medium of existence.”
  • “We presuppose labour in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax.”
  • “[i]n London…they can do nothing better with the excrement produced by 4 [and a] 1/2 million people than pollute the Thames with it, at monstrous expense.”
  • “The combustion of a pound of coal or wood restores to the air not merely the elements needed to reproduce this pound of wood or, under certain conditions, coal, but the process of combustion in itself transforms a certain quantity of nitrogen in the air into a nutrient indispensable for the production of bread and meat.”
  • “Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.”
  • “Association, applied to land,…reestablishes, now on a rational basis, no longer mediated by serfdom, overlordship and the silly mysticism of [private] property, the intimate ties of man with the earth, since the earth ceases to be an object of huckstering.”

It is said that Marx was just 40 when scientists started theorising on human-induced climate change. His writings always insisted on the perils of alienation of human society from nature. That is precisely what is happening now.

(Note: Above quotes have been excerpted from various published papers by historians and also from a few essays by Marx).

This article was first published in the1 6-31st May issue of Down To Earth.

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