Marxism and the Environment: Environmental Problems as Problems of Practice

Arjun Sengupta

the last few decades, a view has gained currency amongst certain sections
interested in social change that Marxism or historical materialism has little
to contribute to a resolution of contemporary environmental problems. There are
different versions of this claim. A particularly strong version, held by a
number of deep or “radical” ecologists, is that Marxism is positively inimical
to environmentalism, sharing as it does in a “productivist” “Enlightenment”
ethic which is itself, in the first place, responsible for the environmental
problems of today. A relatively weak version, popular amongst certain sections
of Marxists themselves and others sympathetic to the left, is that while
Marxism is not incompatible with environmentalism (far less responsible for environmental problems),
it does however suffer from a theoretical “blindness” to environmental issues.
Marxism would thus have to be supplemented with a dose of environmentalism, from the outside as it were, to make it
serviceable in the environmentalist cause. Differences notwithstanding, however, the various versions of the claim (and
their proponents) share a basic opposition to the central thesis of historical
materialism – that the principal motor of historical change is the
contradiction between relations of production, on the one hand, and forces of
production, on the other. The attribution of causal primacy to the development
of the forces of production, in the explanation of historical transformation, is
diagnosed as the chief reason why Marxism, as a theoretical paradigm, is unsuited
to tackling environmental problems.

unabashedly Marxist commentators such as Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster,
who have otherwise extensively argued for the necessity of Marxism in
adequately addressing environmental issues, have displayed discomfort with the
main thesis of historical materialism. In analyzing the relationship between
capitalism and environmental problems, they pay scant regard to where this
relationship stands with respect to the contradiction between relations and
forces of production in capitalist society. In other words, they adopt, in
their theoretical enterprise, a Marxism cleansed
historical materialism. Contrary to such a view, I would like to argue that
the manner in which any social formation, including capitalism, deals with
environment problems is an expression
of the contradiction between relations and forces of production. Historical
materialism, therefore, is not only compatible with the objective of
effectively addressing environmental issues, but is in fact indispensable for
the same. Recognition of this fact requires an appreciation of what exactly
constitutes production or practice in the Marxist worldview, and relatedly how
one is to conceive of forces of production, relations of production, and
environmental problems.    

  1.       Forces
    of Production – The Dialectic of Quality and Quantity

beings interact with nature principally through labour or practice. Practice
involves modification of nature for the satisfaction of needs. What defines
practice as human practice, further,
is that it entails transformation of nature as
already transformed by prior practice
. Individual human labour or practice,
therefore, involves transforming the products of other labour or practice. Human practice, in other words, is
fundamentally social. It involves a
complex of different kinds of labour that are qualitatively or causally connected.
The labour of each is causally dependent on the labour of all. A carpenter’s
labour is made possible, for instance, by the labour of the lumberjack, the
labour of those transporting the wood, the labour of the artisans making the
tools, the labour of the masons who built her work shed, the labour of those
who cooked her food, etc. Each of these of other kinds of labour, in turn, is
causally dependent on a range of different kinds of labour. And so on and so
forth. Human production, thus, can be seen to constitute an organic complex
where each kind of individual labour is concretely connected to every other kind. 

points are important to note here. First, the qualitative unity of different kinds
of labour is a part of the unity of
nature itself. Different kinds of labour are casually connected because the different objects of labour are themselves
causally connected. Thus, if the wood, obtained through the labour of the
lumberjack, did not have the inherent ability of being crafted in specific ways
by specific operations of the carpenter’s tools, no relationship would have
existed between the labours of the lumberjack, the carpenter, and the artisans
making the tools. The causal connections between different kinds of practice,
thus, are a part of the causal connections between objects.

the qualitative unity of different kinds of labour has a quantitative dimension
as well. Because different kinds of practice are causally interdependent – i.e.
because they constitute a single social
, they are also quantitatively commensurable. Thus, because the
qualitatively distinct labours of the lumberjack, the carpenter, and the tool
artisans, causally depend on each other, they are quantitatively comparable as
instances of human labour in general.
In other words, the labour expended by the lumberjack over a certain amount of
time is equivalent to the labour
expended by the carpenter or the tool artisans over the same amount of time. It
is precisely this quantitative equivalence between different kinds of labour,
incidentally, that makes commodity
production possible.

ought to be stressed here is that quantitative equivalence is only an expression of qualitative unity.
Without the causal interdependence of different labours, the latter could not
have borne any quantitative relationship to each other. Bourgeois social
science, on account of its class moorings, is incapable of understanding this
dialectic of quality and quantity. For instance, while Adam Smith and David
Ricardo made a genuine scientific advance in discovering that the value of a
commodity is determined by the amount of labour time expended in producing it,
they remained in bewilderment over how qualitatively distinct kinds of labour
could compare with each other quantitatively. This led them to erroneously
suppose that the expression of labour as pure
– i.e. the alienated and abstract form which labour assumes under
capitalism – is an inherent or transhistorical feature of labour. This fatal
inability to understand that quantitative equivalence is an aspect of
qualitative unity is what eventually resulted in the wholesale abandonment of
the labour theory of value within bourgeois economics.

Forces of production,
as a concept in the Marxist theoretical outlook, refers precisely to this
concrete complex of qualitatively distinct and
united labours which, by virtue of this unity-in-
are also quantitatively equivalent. Development of the forces of production, therefore, means an elaboration of this complex of social
practice. Each significant productive advance in human history, from the
emergence of settled agriculture, to the introduction of iron tools, to the
invention and use of the computer, has involved a deepening of the causal interdependence between different kinds of
practice. Each such technological improvement has, in other words, diversified the complex of human

qualitative elaboration of the complex of labour also expresses itself
quantitatively. This is so in two related ways. First, diversification of practice
implies an increase in the number of
different kinds of practice. There is, thus, an increase in the number of
different kinds of labour that each particular kind of labour is dependent upon, and an increase in
the number of different kinds of labour that depend on each particular kind of labour. Development of the forces
of production, therefore, involves an increase in the number of concrete social connections of
individual practice. Second, an increase in the causal connections of each kind
of practice also means that a greater quantity of each kind of product is produced.
This is precisely the reason why technological development, historically, has
entailed an increase in the productivity
of labour. For instance, the introduction of the iron plough, while it
elaborated the complex of casually interdependent labours – the labour of the
tiller now being dependent on the labours of the miner, smelter, forger etc., also
meant an increase in the amount of
land that could be tilled over a given period of time.

this dialectical unity between qualitative elaboration and quantitative
expansion is lost sight of by all strands of bourgeois social science. Thus,
while, on the one hand, neoclassical triumphalist accounts of economic
development see in technological advance nothing but increasing productivity
and efficiency conceived purely
(i.e. abstracted from the complex of social labour),
postmodern skeptical views of technology, on the other, understand
technological development  only in terms of
scale and quantity (and, therefore, their preoccupation with purely
quantitative dichotomies like “big” versus “small” technology, “industrialism”
versus “non-industrialism” etc.). Both perspectives, seemingly antithetical,
are united in erroneously conceiving the development of the forces of
production exclusively in its quantitative dimensions. Both fail to realise, in
other words, that the quantitative growth of production is an expression of the qualitative deepening of the complex of social

do the Forces of Production Develop? – The Dialectic of the Finite and the

the development of the forces of production as the qualitative elaboration of
the complex of labour has another important implication. We have already seen how
the causal unity of labour is a part of the causal unity of the objects drawn
into labour. It follows from this that as the forces of production develop a
greater variety of objects are drawn into social practice. This, of course,
then means that such development involves the
practical utilization of a greater number of causal properties of each of these
. Thus, for instance, the introduction of the use of clay pots in
cooking raw meat, as against direct exposure of the meat to fire, involved the
use of a greater number of properties of each of the objects involved – the
fire, the uncooked meat, and the clay pot.

consideration leads us directly to an inherent contradiction of practice. While
social production, at any point in its development, involves the use of certain
properties of objects, there are always
properties that are not utilized. In other words, while practice is always
qualitatively finite in character,
the objective world – the world that we transform through practice – is
qualitatively infinite. This contradiction
between finite practice and an infinite world means that no matter what the
level of development of our practice, it will always be partial and limited
i.e. there will always be objective properties and relations which our practice
has not reckoned with and which will
therefore present themselves as practical
. Thus, for instance, in the Paleolithic period, the development of
various techniques – hunting tools such as the bow, the trap, the boomerang,
the bolas and the harpoon, elaborate techniques of chipping, flaking, polishing
and grinding stones, a fairly well developed system of language etc., enabled
hunting communities to hunt game with increasing efficacy. But what this
complex of social practice did not reckon
were the natural rates of reproduction of species of game. As a
result, the increasingly elaborate and successful practice of Paleolithic
hunters led to serious depletion in the population of game species, which
threatened to undermine the very basis of that practice itself. Practice, thus,
always throws up problems for itself.

since each such problem originates in certain causal properties of objects not
being reckoned with – not being utilized – by social practice, its resolution lies in drawing such
properties into the ambit of the latter.
Such utilization of previously
unutilized qualities, of course, amounts to a qualitative elaboration of the
complex of practice. The resolution of problems thrown up by current practice
involves, therefore, the emergence of new kinds of practice. Thus, for
instance, the crisis of the hunting economy of the Paleolithic period was
resolved principally through what is often referred to as the Neolithic
revolution – the emergence of agriculture and the domestication of animals.
Agriculture and stockbreeding involve the utilization of precisely the casual property unutilized by the Paleolithic hunter
– i.e. the natural rates of reproduction of species that serve as sources of
food. The Neolithic revolution entailed conscious control over the entire life cycle of these species,
and thus resolved the problems thrown up by Paleolithic production.

is this dual character of practice – as
being, at the same time, both
and problem-yielding
that accounts for the historical development of the forces of production. Practice
develops because it necessarily throws up problems which can only be solved through
a further elaboration or enrichment of practice. In other words, it is the
contradictory character of practice itself, being finite transformation of an
infinite world, which impels it to change. It is in the nature of production – being necessarily limited, partial and
incomplete – to develop. The reason for the development of the forces of
production, therefore, must not be sought in any abstract unfolding of “human
genius”, or in a teleologically pre-determined drive to perfection, or, for
that matter, in any “Promethean, productivist, Enlightenment rationality”, but
in the objectively contradictory character of production itself.

few things need to be noted here. First, the dialectic of quality and quantity
we have discussed so far implies that the qualitative problems of practice, and
their solutions, have a quantitative aspect as well. Qualitative problems and
solutions, in other words, are also quantitative problems and solutions. Thus,
the crisis of Paleolithic production was also, at the same time, a quantitative
crisis involving sharply diminishing production of food. By the same token, the
Neolithic resolution of the crisis involved a qualitative development of production
which was, at the same, a major expansion in terms of the sheer quantity of
what was produced. It was precisely this quantitative expansion, incidentally,
which, for the first time in history, made possible the production of a social
surplus – a prerequisite for the emergence of class divisions.

since a problem originates in the non-utilization of causal properties in the
current complex of practice, it is impossible to define it as a problem independently of current practice. To put
the point more generally, a problem is a problem only for social practice at a
given point of historical development. Thus, while the content of a problem is
objective, it is constituted as a problem only relative to practice at a certain point in its qualitative
elaboration. There are, therefore, no problems which stand outside the history of the development of production. All problems
are problems for human beings engaged in social production. No production, no

3.      Relations of Production – The
Dialectic of Form and Content

dialectic of the finite and the infinite involves a historically developing relationship between individual
practice, on the one hand, and the overall social complex of practice, on the
other. This relationship can also be understood in terms of a dialectic of the form and content of practice. Let us examine how. We saw that the infinite
nature of the world implies the ever-present need for finite practice to solve
problems. The objective of practice,
therefore, is not just the maintenance of practice at its current level of
elaboration but also its qualitative
. Practice, in other words, involves not only the transformation
of the objective world but also its own

relationship, however, between the maintenance and development of practice is a
historical one. It is vitally dependent on the level of qualitative development
of practice itself. The reason for this is quite simple. The qualitative
finitude of practice also implies its quantitative finitude. Therefore, a finite quantity of total social labour
must be apportioned between the tasks
of maintaining and of developing practice. Such apportionment, of course, means
apportionment of a finite amount of social labour time. Further, we have seen that the qualitative elaboration of
labour also entails its quantitative expansion – i.e. increase in the
productivity of labour. Thus, as practice qualitatively develops, the social labour time required for the
maintenance of practice, as a proportion of total social labour time,
This, of course, means an increase in the proportion of total
labour time available for the development of practice.   
the social complex of labour, which is expressed quantitatively as total social
labour time, is carried out by real individuals engaged in social production.
Therefore, the determinate
apportionment of total social labour between the tasks of maintenance and
development of practice means that the practice of each individual must stand
in a determinate relation to this
apportionment.  And since this
apportionment changes historically, its relation with individual practice
changes historically as well. Thus, in pre-class societies, the limited
development of production meant that the task of the maintenance of practice
occupied almost the entire work day
of the individual producer. At the same time, and for the same reason, the
production of a social surplus which could sustain individuals specializing in
the development of practice was impossible. Each individual was necessarily
almost completely occupied in the task of maintaining production at its current
level of qualitative elaboration.

class society, which presupposes a more developed complex of practice, the
social apportionment between the maintenance and development of production assumes the nature of a difference between
the immediate objective of the practice of different individuals
. While the
majority of individuals are still involved in the direct maintenance of
practice, a minority can devote themselves exclusively to the task of
developing the complex of practice. In other words, the said social allocation
assumes the character of a division between mental
and physical labour.

all such societies – both pre-class and class-divided – the immediate practical
objective of individuals engaged in the maintenance of practice, i.e. engaged
in physical labour, is not the
development of practice
.  But such
practice, where the objective of individual activity is not its own development
– i.e. where the situation is not one
in which “the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling
has a specific requirement.  The
objective of individual practice can be exhausted by the maintenance of current
practice only if the objects drawn into practice are socially conceived as possessing
only those properties which are utilized in current practice.
In other
words, it requires that the objective
world be socially understood as qualitatively finite
. Such an objective
involves, therefore, an abstract
conception of objects – a conception which abstracts
from their concrete, i.e.
qualitatively infinite, character. An abstract conception of objects also
implies, of course, an abstract conception of practice, wherein the causal connections between individual labours are socially
posited as fixed
. Thus, a standard of practice as the maintenance of
current practice requires that concrete production be socially understood as –
i.e. appear as – abstract. It is this
abstract expression or phenomenal form of concrete production
that is referred to as the relations of
. Relations of production, in other words, designate the abstract
social conception of concrete practice which
mediates such practice
. They are the abstract form within which concrete
production is carried out.

all pre-capitalist societies, from the classless hunting economies of the
Paleolithic period to feudal societies, production is socially conceived as
qualitatively fixed. The causal connections of individual labour are regarded
as unchanging. Thus, the activity of hunting, in Paleolithic times, stands in a
socially fixed relationship to a
specific number of other kinds of activity – tool-making, pottery, cooking etc.
Similarly, in feudalism, the labours of tilling, sowing, harvesting, animal
rearing, weaving, tanning etc. are bound together in stable socially established ties of personal dependence. In all
such societies, the standard of individual practice is to maintain social
practice at its current level of qualitative elaboration. The objective of
individual activity is not its own development but simply its preservation.

capitalism, the form of production continues to be abstract, but with a key
difference. The qualitative connections of objects, instead of being socially
posited as finite, are now posited as non-existent.
Commodity production, where production is carried out on private account for
exchange in the market, posits the quantitative equivalence between different
kinds of labour in abstraction from
their qualitative unity. Concrete, qualitatively specific labour, in other
words, assumes an undifferentiated and homogenous form – abstract labour – different instances of which are related to each
other only in terms of the amount of
such labour performed. Labour, thus, appears
as simply the exertion of the capacity to labour, regardless of the specific
character of such labour, over a certain amount of time. The relationship
between objects, thus, is expressed purely
– in terms of the values
of different objects as commodities, value merely being congealed labour time. The causal, qualitative
determinations of the object as use value
are expressed as the purely quantitative determinations of the object as value.

contradiction between the abstract form and concrete content of practice is precisely the contradiction between
relations and forces of production. It must be remembered that the qualitative
development of practice – because it involves a greater number of objective
qualities being drawn into production – is itself a movement from the abstract
to the concrete. In a social form which posits the objective world abstractly,
this real movement from the abstract to the concrete must itself be carried out abstractly. An abstract form of concrete
production, therefore, implies an abstract mode of problem resolution. Thus, in pre-capitalist societies, practical
problems have to be solved and the complex of practice developed within the
constraints imposed by a rigid social structure. Under capitalism, problem
resolution takes a fundamentally anarchic
form with maximization of the profits of the individual capitalist typically
serving as the chief motive. In both, the rational
resolution of problems takes place in a fundamentally irrational way.   

an abstract mode of resolving problems is
itself a practical problem.
Thus, in any society where production is
carried out within an abstract form, problems of practice also exist as directly social
In other words, practical problems have a two-fold character in
such societies: they exist both as
problems of the relationship between human beings and nature, and as problems of the relationship
between human beings. Thus, for instance, in medieval England, the frequent
recurrence of plague epidemics and the devastating toll they took on human
lives were as much problems of the
feudal order as they were of control over natural processes. Similarly, the
widespread persistence of diseases under contemporary capitalism is as much a
problem of capitalism as it is of medical science and practice. Therefore, when
forces and relations of production are in contradiction, problems of changing
the natural world are, at the same time, problems of changing the social
Problems as Practical Problems.

problems, if we are to meaningfully view them as problems at all, must be conceived as problems of human practice. The
foregoing discussion, then, has several implications for how such problems are
to be understood. First, there can only be anthropocentric
(i.e. centred around human practice) standards for defining and resolving
environmental problems. Tremendous confusion reigns on this question. Most contemporary
environmentalist literature broadly agrees, and quite correctly, on three
points: a) environmental problems are definitionally anthropogenic – i.e. they are consequences of human practice; b)
environmental problems undermine the continuation of the current complex of
practice; and c) environmental problems require practical intervention for
their resolution. The trouble, however, is that most such literature, while
asserting all three, fails to see their causal unity. Thus, for instance, deep
ecologists see no contradiction between maintaining, on the one hand, that
environmental problems are anthropogenic in origin, and denying, on the other,
that the standard of defining (and, therefore, resolving) such problems has
anything to do with human practice. On such accounts, therefore, the objective
of environmental interventions should not be the development of human practice
but the preservation or restoration of some fictitious, ahistorical, and static
“balance of nature”.       

Marxist view sketched above brings out the basic error of such a position. The
three aspects of environmental problems, far from being causally disconnected,
stem in fact from the same
contradiction of practice – that it involves qualitatively finite
transformation of a qualitatively infinite world. It is precisely because
practice, at any point in its development, is necessarily finite in a specific way (i.e. it encompasses a
finite number of qualitatively specific
properties), that it undermines its own continuation in a specific manner or, in other words, throws up specific problems for itself, which can in turn be resolved only
through specific kinds of practice. There
is a necessary unity, therefore, between the origin of environmental problems, their content, and their resolution.
The definitional standard of environmental problems must be anthropocentric precisely
because such problems are anthropogenic.
And it is for the same reason that they can be resolved through practice itself.

course, if one operates with an abstract notion of the objective world and its
transformation through practice, one loses sight of the basic contradiction of
production. Thus, if the objective world itself is understood as qualitatively
finite, then finite practice ceases to contradict it. Or, if production and the
objects drawn into it are conceived purely quantitatively, then again the
contradiction disappears as pure quantity cannot, in any meaningful sense,
contradict itself. Strands of “back to nature” environmentalism which argue for
a certain set of “stable” and “appropriate” technologies the adoption of which
would supposedly solve, once and for all, all environmental problems, commit
the first kind of mistake. Neoclassical apologetic economics, which views
production and the world of objects exclusively in their quantitative
dimensions, commits the second kind of error. Both, because they conceive
production abstractly, see it as contradiction-free. Further, and similarly, the
contradiction also disappears if the objective existence of the world itself is
denied. If the world lacks any objective quality of its own, and is “created”
by our practice itself, as social constructivism and certain strands of
political ecology would have it, then our
practice necessarily coincides with the totality of qualitative properties

and is, therefore, bereft of any contradiction. In all such cases, the unity of
the origin, content and resolution of environmental problems will be missed.  

since problems of production, where practice takes place within an abstract
social form, have a dual character – being at the same time both problems of control
over natural processes and of social relations, environmental problems must be
understood as a part of specific socio-historical contradictions. In other
words, the specific character of an environmental problem in a specific social formation
cannot be understood in abstraction from the specific contradiction between the
forces and relations of production obtaining therein. Thus, for instance, the
problem of contemporary global climate change must be seen as a part of the
contradictions of contemporary global capitalism. No characterization of
climate change as an environmental problem would be possible, thus, without a
characterization of different aspects of this contradictory social form –
imperialism, for instance. Further, if environmental problems exist today as a
part of the contradictions of capitalism, the resolution of the former cannot
be divorced from the question of the resolution of the latter. Environmental questions
exist today, in other words, as class

note of caution must, however, be sounded here. As we pointed out earlier,
there is an increasingly salient tendency within environmentalism, particularly
political ecology, to reduce
contemporary environmental problems to capitalist relations, while abstracting the latter from the concrete
production that takes place within these relations. Such reduction, or
abstraction of form from content, is illegitimate. It amounts to a fundamental
distortion of both the nature of environmental problems and of capitalism.
Environmental problems, even when they assume the character of problems of
capitalism, remain problems of
production – i.e. problems of our conscious transformation of nature. Indeed,
as must be quite evident from the account sketched here, it is precisely
because they are problems of production in the first place that they can at all
be, at the same time, problems of capitalist
directly brings us to our final point. The conception of environmental problems
as problems of production – as problems emerging from our practical
transformation of the world – implies that environmental problems will not cease under socialism. Socialism, by
ending the blind anarchy of capitalist production and bringing all of social
production under direct social control, is a decisive step towards ending the
contradiction between the relations and forces of production – i.e. between
form and content. Being a social form of production,
however, it would still continually throw up problems including environmental ones. The character of such environmental
problems, as problems of socialism,
would depend, among other things, on the extent to which the social objective
of production remains abstract. Environmental problems will continue to have a
dual character, as both problems of the human-nature relationship and problems
of social form, as long as the objective of social practice is not the free
development of individual practice – i.e. till a situation is reached where the
“free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”[ii]. But
this requires, as we have seen, a certain degree of qualitative development of
production. It requires also a progressive deepening of the control of the
working people over production and its objectives. The perils, challenges, and
opportunities attending these enormous tasks are evident from the experiences
of socialist construction in the twentieth century, compounded though they were
by numerous historical contingencies. But while a close study of these
experiences might win us a broad understanding of the nature of environmental
problems under socialism, fine-grained prognoses and predictions would amount
to idle, if not counter-productive, speculation. The environmental problems
that confront us today are problems of contemporary capitalism, as manifested
in concrete and specific contexts. That is how we must tackle them.                                  


Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I, available
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Communist
, available at

The Author is doing his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi