The Frankfurt School, as represented especially by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment, was noted for developing a philosophical critique of the domination of nature. Critical theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt were heavily influenced by the writings of the early Karl Marx. Yet, their critique of the Enlightenment domination of nature was eventually extended to a critique of Marx himself as an Enlightenment figure, especially in relation to his mature work in Capital. This position was expressed most notably in the work of Horkheimer and Adorno’s student, Alfred Schmidt, author of The Concept of Nature in Marx (1970). Due largely to Schmidt’s book, the notion of Marx’s anti-ecological perspective came to be deeply rooted in Western Marxism. Moreover, such criticisms of Marx were closely related to questions raised regarding Fredrick Engels’s Dialectics of Nature, which was frequently said to have extended dialectical analysis improperly beyond the human-social realm. First generation ecosocialists, such as Ted Benton and Andre Gorz, furthered these criticisms, arguing that Marx and Engels had gone overboard in their alleged rejection of Malthusian natural limits.
- Historical Materialism
- Frankfurt School
- Materialist Dialectic
- Metabolic Relation
- External Nature
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The idea of a ‘reconciliation’ of nature and humanity was a constant theme of the Frankfurt School. In practice, however, it took the form of negative criticisms of various ways of reconciling nature and humanity/society, while, according to Martin Jay (1973, pp. 267–273), the form that such a ‘reconciliation with nature’ was meant to take in Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis ‘was never fully spelled out’.
References here to the Frankfurt School’s critique of the ‘dialectic of the Enlightenment’ (and of Marx and nature) are meant to refer specifically to Schmidt, and to Horkheimer and Adorno. It excludes, most notably, Herbert Marcuse, who, though reflecting some of the same tendencies, was to respond affirmatively and dialectically to the growth of environmentalism in the 1970s.
The first of the two polemical attacks is directly referred to by Schmidt (1970, p. 9). The second was just as pervasive, but was presupposed by Western Marxism’s criticism of dialectical materialism.
Schmidt (1970, pp. 77–78) recognizes the philosophical significance of the fact that Marx saw nature as the ultimate source of all wealth without realizing that this is key to Marx’s political-economic/ecological critique. On Marx’s value theory and ecological critique see Foster et al. (2010, pp. 53–64).
‘Western Marxism’ arose as a specific tradition in the West, defined primarily by its rejection of the dialectics of nature (see Jacoby 1983, pp. 523–526).
Marx took his wider ecological notion of metabolism initially from the work of his friend the physician Roland Daniels (1988, p. 49), who appears to may have been the first to use it to develop a larger ecosystemic perspective. (It was Kohei Saito who first brought this to our attention in personal correspondence; we are also grateful to Joseph Fracchia for his translations from the German in this regard.) Later Justus von Liebig’s analysis of the soil problem, in which he incorporated the metabolism concept, proved decisive for Marx. See the discussion of this in Foster (2000, pp. 147–154) and Saito (2014). Despite Schmidt’s claim that Marx took his analysis of metabolism from Jacob Moleschott, there is no evidence of this, while there is considerable evidence on Marx’s reliance on other thinkers here. Marx and Engels were consistent throughout their writings in their rejection of Moleschott’s crude mechanistic materialism. Nevertheless, while Schmidt’s claims on Moleschott’s influence on Marx in this respect appear unfounded, Moleschott’s mechanistic and speculative views of metabolism appear to have colored Schmidt’s own rendition of Marx in ways that proved to be an obstacle to his interpretation (see Schmidt, 1970, pp. 86–88).
Reiner Grundmann (1991, pp. 90–98 and 121–122) considered Marx’s metabolism argument as the strongest of the three approaches to ecological questions (the first being ‘capitalist production as a cause of ecological problems’ and the second the alienation of nature). Yet, Grundmann followed Schmidt in interpreting Marx’s metabolism argument in simple instrumentalist-mechanistic terms, thereby losing sight of its complexity, and failing to recognize the importance of Marx’s theory of ecological crisis arising in that respect.
On the appropriation problem, see Foster (1999, pp. 391–396).
Russell Jacoby sees the split that occurred in Marxism in terms of two different appropriations of Hegel. ‘Soviet Marxism’, he wrote, ‘was regularly sustained by a scientific Hegel, and European Marxism was regularly sustained by a historical Hegel’ (1981, pp. 57–58).
Castree points to these contradictions in Smith’s analysis, while nonetheless arguing that Smith’s approach to the production of nature is basically the one on which Marxian theorists need to build—if in a more nuanced way, recognizing that nature too is involved, in what could then be described as its ‘co-production’.
It should be noted that since Smith and Castree had already faulted Marx for being dualistic, what ecosocialists were actually being charged with here was not a misinterpretation of Marx, but a failure to conform to Smith’s non-dualistic, monistic ‘production of nature thesis’. Contrary to such views, our own assessment is that neither Marx nor his major followers were dualistic. Rather, what Smith and Castree in their mechanistic-monistic worldviews mistook for dualism, was in reality the dialectical analysis of the interpenetration of opposites.
Castree refers abstractly here to the ‘materiality of nature’ but denies its ‘externality’ or ‘universality’, which he characterizes as ‘essentialist’.
On the question of what Horkheimer meant by the Nazi ‘revolt of nature’, see Bruggemeier et al. (2005).
Adorno when he wrote this did not have the benefit of some of Marx’s then still unpublished manuscripts, such as the Economic Manuscript of 1861–63, where Marx discussed the universal metabolism of nature. Nor had Marxian political economists yet uncovered the relation of this concept to Marx’s overall political-economic critique.
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Foster, J.B., Clark, B. (2016). Marx’s Universal Metabolism of Nature and the Frankfurt School: Dialectical Contradictions and Critical Syntheses. In: Ormrod, J. (eds) Changing our Environment, Changing Ourselves. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-56991-2_5
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