Anton Pannekoek: Marxism and Darwinism (1909, 1914)

c) Natural man against nature?

In the conclusion of his pamphlet Marxismus und Darwinismus, Pannekoek seemed to adhere to the utilitarian philosopher Stuart Mill’s “lesson” On Nature (1874), in which he turned “mother nature” into a bad stepmother against whom (capitalist) man had to use violence and cunning to submit her to his will:

“Everybody professes to approve and admire many great triumphs of Art over Nature: [examples]. But to commend these and similar feats, is to acknowledge that the ways of Nature are to be conquered, not obeyed: that her powers are often towards man in the position of enemies, from whom he must wrest, by force and ingenuity, what little he can for his own use, and deserves to be applauded when that little is rather more than might be expected from his physical weakness in comparison to those gigantic powers.” (1)

This utilitarian philosophy is hardly different from that of the big capitalist groups which, today as in the past, declare a merciless war on nature in order to plunder it and to sacrifice itself until the last possible atom of profit, to the point of bruising it to the final degree. (2)

But can it be affirmed that Marx, in the name of an alleged Promethean myth, (3) declared war on nature in order to better dominate it? This seems to be what the philosopher Alfred Schmidt affirms, who in 1962 was also the German publisher of Lenin as Philosopher by Pannekoek. For him, in a socialist society, because of the permanence of the reign of necessity and the peculiarities of human history, men will behave towards nature by appropriating and fighting it. (4)

This idea stems from an analysis of Marx in the ‘Grundrisse’ (1857–1858 Manuscripts), where Marx celebrates the “great civilizing influence of capital”:

Thus Capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society. Hence the great civilizing influence of Capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry. For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production. In accord with this tendency, Capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (5)

Marx against nature? This is to disregard a bit hastily Marx’s scientific analysis describing the gigantic development of the productive forces operated by a capital that purely and simply seizes the whole of nature. For the Trotskyist Michael Löwy there is indeed a certain idolatry of the productive forces in Marx: “one often finds in Marx or Engels (and even more so in later Marxism) a tendency to make the ‘development of the productive forces’ the main vector of progress, and an uncritical stance towards industrial civilization, especially in its destructive relationship to the environment.” (6) This is to confuse a bit hastily the position of Marx and Engels with that of the “builders of socialism” (the “later Marxism”): Stalin, Mao and Fidel Castro, etc. (7)

As John Bellamy Foster remarkably notes (8), Marx, working in the early 1860s on the composition of his Capital, was one of the first to highlight the destruction of nature by modern capitalist agriculture, drawing on the work of Justus von Liebig (1803–1873) who denounced the negative side of this agriculture from the point of view of the natural sciences. (9)

In the third book of Capital, Marx forcefully notes that the capitalist profit system debilitates life as a whole, both that of the workers and the natural force of the nourishing earth:

“Large-scale industry and large-scale mechanised agriculture work together. If originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and destroys principally labour-power, hence the natural force of human beings, whereas the latter more directly exhausts the natural vitality of the soil, they join hands in the further course of development in that the industrial system in the countryside also enervates the labourers, and industry and commerce on their part supply agriculture with the means for exhausting the soil.” (10)

In the first book of Capital, Marx already denounced the widespread plunder of both the worker and the soil, leading to the ruin of natural resources. “Capitalist progress” finally leads to the ruin of the land:

In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. (…) Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer.” (11)

And Engels in the years 1878-1882 already warned against a fierce exploitation of nature, to which man belongs, a reality that has been forgotten since antiquity with the triumph of Christianity. The “victories” over nature are ultimately also a defeat for mankind:

“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. […] Thus 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. […] In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose after the decline of classical antiquity in Europe and obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity.” (12)

In the light of these analyses by Marx and Engels, it is clear that there was no question of waging a war against nature in order to ensure the development of the productive forces, and that such a development could only be conceivable if humanity treated the natural environment as “its inorganic body”. (13)

Pannekoek himself was perfectly aware of this environmental problem. In a 1909 article, published the same year as his brochure, he strongly emphasized that capitalism deliberately destroyed nature in order to maximize its profits. It was therefore a question of putting an end to the reign of Capital. Here Pannekoek was more radical than in the last part of his pamphlet, on the perspective of socialism, where the reader was not really sure what concrete revolutionary perspectives emerged from Pannekoek’s work. In the article, entitled The Devastation of Nature Pannekoek showed the path that the proletariat should take to put an end to the chain of successive destructions – of nature and of people – caused by the capitalist system. (14)

The struggle of communism cannot therefore be summed up as a simplistic struggle for tools, for technique, therefore for a “better”, more rational and socialized production, even if it takes place in the historical framework of a struggle for the possession of technique, a struggle “for the best tools and the best weapons”. The problem was no longer how the other “races” of the Earth obtain the same technological footing as the European “race”:

“The races whose technical aids are the most developed supplant the others, secure the best quality land, rise to the level of civilization and subdue the others. The rule of the European race is based on its technological superiority.” (15)

The conditions of the proletarian struggle were changing. It was no longer to be content with seizing the “tools” created by Capital to make them work for their benefit. These tools were also those of humanity, a humanity that had to emerge from a permanent war against nature without thinking at all about the future and the preservation of life itself. The proletariat, guiding humanity in its struggle, had therefore to safeguard its environment and stop considering it as a simple INERT OBJECT, just worthy of being exploited for the needs of production, whether capitalist or “socialist”. IT WAS NOW UP TO HUMANITY TO TAKE ITS DESTINY INTO ITS OWN HANDS, NOT AGAINST NATURE, BUT WITH NATURE:

“Capitalism is a headless economy which cannot regulate its acts by an understanding of their consequences. But its devastating character does not derive from this fact alone. Over the centuries humans have also exploited nature in a foolish way, without thinking of the future of humanity as a whole. But their power was limited. Nature was so vast and so powerful that with their feeble technical means humans could only exceptionally damage it. Capitalism, by contrast, has replaced local needs with world needs, and created modern techniques for exploiting nature. So it is now a question of enormous masses of matter being subjected to colossal means of destruction and removed by powerful means of transportation. Society under capitalism can be compared to a gigantic unintelligent body; while capitalism develops its power without limit, it is at the same time senselessly devastating more and more the environment from which it lives. Only socialism, which can give this body consciousness and reasoned action, will at the same time replace the devastation of nature by a rational economy.” (16)

Next paragraph: d) “Race”, “moral feelings” and revolutionary universalism of the proletariat

→ Page 5 (link at the bottom of this page)



1 J. Stuart Mill, Nature, The utility of religion, and Theism (London, 1874).

2 The American multinational Monsanto (absorbed in 2018 by Bayer, another leading specialist in ecosystem destruction), in an advertisement for a brushcutter, uttered this war cry: “Kill nature!” (Quoted by Christian Godin, La haine de la nature, Champ Vallon, Seyssel, 2012). In 2017, Monsanto was accused of ecocide and crimes against humanity for its marketing of toxic products that caused the death of thousands of people, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), glyphosate – used in herbicides such as Roundup – and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, the Agent Orange used by the US army during the Vietnam War.

3 John Bellamy Foster notes, in an interview given to Médiapart (April 2016), about Marx’s “Prometheism”: “The myth of the gift of fire was originally interpreted as the gift of knowledge, assimilated to illumination. And this is indeed how Marx understood it. It was only later that the fire thus given could also be interpreted as a material power, a power source for engines and the basis of industrialization.”

4 Alfred Schmidt, Der Begriff der Natur in der Lehre von Marx, Europäische Verlagsanstalt, Frankfurt, 1962 [The Concept of Nature in Marx, ISBN-10: 0902308416].

5 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Ch. 8: Notebook IV – The Chapter on Capital.

6 Michael Löwy, De Marx à l’écosocialisme, Écologie et Politique n° 24, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 2002, p. 29-41.

7 Löwy’s article concludes with a call for an anti-imperialist united front between “Reds” and “Greens”: “… Eco-socialism… proposes a strategy of alliance between the ‘reds’ and the ‘greens’, the labor movement and ecology, and solidarity with the oppressed and exploited of the South.” (loc. cit., p. 39)

8 John Bellamy Foster, Marx écologiste, Éditions Amsterdam, Paris, 2011. Title of the American edition: The Ecological Revolution. – Making Peace with the Planet, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2009.

9 Cf. “To have developed from the point of view of natural science, the negative, i.e., destructive side of modern agriculture, is one of Liebig’s immortal merits.” (Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I, Part 4, Production of Relative Surplus Value; Ch. 15: Machinery and Modern Industry – Section 10: Modern Industry and Agriculture, footnote 245.)

10 Karl Marx, Capital Vol. III, Ch. 47: Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent. V. Métayage And Peasant Proprietorship Of Land Parcels. (International Publishers, NY, [n.d.]. Source: IML, USSR, 1959).

11 Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I, Ch. 15: Machinery and Modern Industry. Section 10 – Modern Industry and Agriculture (Source: First English edition of 1887).

12 Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature. The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (Written: in May-June 1876. First published in English by Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1934).

13 Cf.: “The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganic body – both inasmuch as nature is (1) his direct means of life, and (2) the material, the object, and the instrument of his life activity. 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.” Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844; Estranged Labour (Source: Progress Publishers, Moscow 1959).

14 Cf. A[nton]. P[annekoek], Naturverwüstung in: Zeitungskorrespondenz, Nr. 75, 10. Juli 1909; English translation of 2019: The Devastation of Nature, also: The Destruction of Nature (1909 by Anton Pannekoek) (SPGB, July 13, 2019).

15 Pannekoek, Marxism and Darwinism, Ch. 9: Animal Organ and Human Tool.

16 Source, see footnote 14.

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