Remembering Engels in the Time of Pandemic

Satyaki Roy

The world is reeling under severe health crisis. It has disrupted our daily lives and mundane preoccupations. Growth turned negative, employment fell sharply and massive contraction in demand due to huge income loss hardly shows any sign of reversal in the immediate future. The human race stands perplexed by the speed of viral transmission and mutation causing in numerous deaths and the worst kind of human disaster since the World War. The frustration of not being able to contain the spread of the disease and subsequent waves of infection came as a big jolt to the anthropocentric pride of controlling nature with utilitarian motives. Green theorists and non-anthropocentric perspectives raise alarm bells to all versions of ‘productivist’ enthusiasm and at the least some sort of ‘revenge theory’ of nature seems to be gaining grips if not a looming threat of apocalypse.

Apparently Malthus is back with its neo-incarnations arguing that there are some natural limits, crossing those, nature reacts back with a vengeance restoring the intrinsic balance eventually along with loss for the violators that they deserve. The seductive attraction of ‘naturalism’ follows from a mystical belief, that a trans-historic grand balance exists and the humans destabilise that natural balance in order to fulfil unending greed. Let us listen to Frederick Engels in the midst of this pandemic. A man with great humility who saw himself as the ‘second fiddle’ of his life-long collaborator and comrade Karl Marx. He was no less a founder than Marx of materialist understanding of dialectical engagement between humans and nature, a passionate reader of contemporary scientific theories, a believer of coevolution of man and nature not from a normative perspective but could see for the first time the rise of the anthropological ‘man’ emerging out of self-mediation through labour. He co-authored with Marx the scientific theory of socialism replacing ‘philosophical’ or ‘philanthropic’ socialism, analysed class relations and state and the class processes that condition metabolism or material exchange between man and nature.

The Pandemic and MNCs

The pandemic is an eye opener. In the twentieth century we came across three epidemics including the ‘Spanish Flu’, while within the first twenty years of the twenty-first century we already have five of them namely SARS, MERS, Avian Flu, Ebola and the current Covid-19. Rob Wallace’s Big Farms Make Big Flu gives a graphic account of how increasing intensity of MNC led agri-business have turned the rural peri-urban regions of Global South into terminal ghettos of hog or poultry industry and as the boiling pots of human strains of virus mix. Fact indeed is in the later part of the twentieth century or in the twenty-first century origins of human transmission of influenza and other virus are mostly located in China, Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Arabian peninsula and so on not because of their savage or occidental habits as portrayed by xenophobic campaign done by the US and Western media, but because they emerged as the low-cost site for vertically integrated meat value chain where huge amount of investment is pumped into by the Northern investors including Goldman Sachs. Deforestation, destruction of biodiversity and human beings involved in these industries coming close to zoonotic resources, increases the probability of transferring the virus into human bodies. Animals and birds packed and transported in crammed spaces and immune suppressed conditions excrete and secrete pathogens that easily transmit the virus to human bodies.

Who is the culprit? Are the bats, rodents, pigs and chickens be held responsible for the frequent occurrence of viral epidemics or the yellow or brown coloured Chinese or Mexican race who are to be accused for being inclined to ‘biological war’ against the West or at the least not capable or open enough to identify or act upon to prevent a pandemic. Politics has its own course and a simmering trade and technology war between the US and China can very well be in sync with a Sinophobic campaign. The larger question however is how a distant ecological crisis turns into an immediate humanitarian disaster, and how to appreciate human-nature relationship in the context of increasing pollution, depletion of natural resources, extinction of species, climate change, proliferation of toxic chemicals and hazardous waste.

Malthus and Natural Theology

Population growth manifested excesses of human intervention and appropriation of nature in Malthus’ time. If remained unchecked population grows exponentially while food supply increases in arithmetic progression. Hence population growth approaches a natural limit and destruction of part of the population through natural calamities or famine eventually resolves the disequilibrium. Engels in his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy written in 1843 says ‘Malthus, the originator of this doctrine, maintains that population is always pressing on the means of subsistence; that as soon as production increases, population increases in the same proportion; and that the inherent tendency of the population to multiply in excess of the available means of subsistence is the root of all misery and all vice. For, when there are too many people, they have to be disposed of in one way or another: either they must be killed by violence or they must starve.’ Engels vehemently criticised this idea of absolute natural limit which according to him provided justification for private property and pauperisation and death of the working class. Instead Engels historicised nature’s capacity including the productivity of the soil arguing that ‘The productive power at mankind’s disposal is immeasurable. The productivity of the soil can be increased ad infinitum by the application of capital, labour and science. According to the most able economists and statisticians “over-populated” Great Britain can be brought within ten years to produce a corn yield sufficient for a population six times its present size’. Marx later criticised Malthus in the same vein for transforming historically determined laws of population into immanent or natural laws. This critique of assuming natural limits further came in Marx’s discussion on differential rent (Capital III) where he contested Ricardo resorting to similar assumptions of the ‘original and indestructible power of the soil’. The Malthusian notion of over-population invokes natural theology. It implicitly assumes that nature is driven by teleological principles that are immutable and over population is caused by some sort of violation of natural principles. Engels on the contrary was probably the first to propose the idea of ‘reserve army of labour’ or ‘relative overpopulation’ as a result of the fluctuations of employment provided by the state and the market.

Engels: Human-Nature Dialectics

Both Marx and Engels were opposed to any idea of intrinsic natural balance and hence of ‘nature worship’. Human engagement with nature has been seen as ‘in and against’ nature. In fact in the Dialectics of Nature (1843) Engels writes: ‘With men we enter history. Animals also have a history, that of their derivation and gradual evolution to their present position. This history, however, is made for them, and in so far as they themselves take part in it, this occurs without their knowledge or desire……If, however, we apply this measure to human history, to that of even the most developed peoples of the present day, we find that there still exists here a colossal disproportion between the proposed aims and the results arrived at, that unforeseen effects predominate, and that the uncontrolled forces are far more powerful than those set into motion according to plan.’

This suggests that human beings tend to create a ‘second nature’ which is by conscious interaction with objects around them but at the same time changing themselves as well. This is precisely the reason why humans do not have a restricted defined habitat and no permanent enemy so to say. But this engagement with nature has been captured by the notion of ‘metabolism’ (Stoffwechsel) which Marx mentioned in several occasions particularly in Capital and Grundrisse, it is about material exchange between human beings and their surroundings. Hence humans do not engage with nature as separated from it rather they are materially part of this nature. The grain of this idea of metabolism existed in Marx’s initial writings Economic and Philosophical Manuscript 1844 where he defined nature as the ‘inorganic body’ of human beings. Men not only appropriate nature as it is but create tools and machines that are not readily available in nature and these tools and machines or means of production are extension of their limbs and constitute the ‘inorganic body’. Therefore both Marx and Engels held the view that unlike all other plants and animals what makes humans distinct from others is that humans are ‘self-mediating’ animals and the mode of mediation is by understanding the laws of interrelations of objects within their body and nature and also by influencing the interaction by technologies as they developed in the course of human civilisation.

Conceptual Divide: Science and Society

Controlling nature for the purpose of human use has been taken as ‘Promethean’ and ‘productivist’ in the case of both Marx and Engels by Green theorists who out rightly reject the idea that appreciating some intrinsic value cannot get along with the purpose of its use at the same time. On the top of that within Marxists, Engels has been considered by some prominent Western Marxists to be someone who infused ‘positivism’ in Marxian dialectics and wrongly thought of applying dialectics in non-human bodies and natural objects. But dialectics is the philosophy of interrelations which is not restricted to human societies alone. But it is humans who need to understand the importance of those mutual constitutions between man and nature. This requires profound study not only of human society but also of natural science. J.B.S. Haldane described Engels in the preface of Dialectics of Nature as: ‘One reason why Engels was such a great writer is that he was probably the most widely educated man of his day. Not only had he a profound knowledge of economics and history, but he knew enough to discuss the meaning of an obscure Latin phrase concerning Roman marriage law, or the processes taking place when a piece of impure zinc was dipped into sulphuric acid. And he contrived to accumulate this immense knowledge, not by leading a life of cloistered learning, but while playing an active part in politics, running a business, and even fox-hunting!’

 In fact the conceptual separation between natural and social science was a later aberration in Marxian studies primarily influenced by the humanist Marxist tradition of the West. In fact Engels comprehended the developments in the field of chemistry, physics, geological science, military science, biology of his time which was reflected in his unfinished work Dialectics of Nature and his comprehensive critique of Herr Duhring (Anti-Duhring). This was true of Marx and Lenin as well. Marx delved deep into the science of soil chemistry or mathematics and Lenin dealing with astronomy, geology, physics and chemistry in his Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Engels was the first to understand how the erect body of human beings and their labour made them distinct from other animals, how that helped developing their brains and the practice of communication through language. In his The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State he could trace the anthropological roots and dynamics of family and divisions of labour that emerged in the course of human history particularly linking the sexual division of labour with the emergence of private property. Therefore the novel philosophical contribution was to comprehend the metabolic exchange between man and nature from the perspective of material life. Engels historicised the coevolution of human and nature as it played out in the life process rather than seeing it from a normative perspective derived from a universal notion of ‘species being’ as was the case in Feuerbach’s critique of religion.

Capitalism and Alienation

Capitalism according to Marx and Engels was characterised by several layers of estrangement or alienation. The separation of human beings from nature is one such fundamental alienation. Human-nature metabolic relation is trans-historic. In every society human beings engage with the surroundings and create means of production to produce their necessaries. Particular kinds of labour with specific skills and knowledge are involved in this engagement and humans produce goods and services for their use. The allocation of labour in total used to be done through some social norms and according to social division of labour decided prior to the act of production. Only in capitalism the social allocation of labour happens after the goods are being produced and then allocated by the market. Individual producer knows what actually is being demanded by the society only at the point of sale and accordingly the goods are valued. Capitalism is a society that primarily produces exchange values and hence reduces all forms of concrete labour into quantities of abstract labour. The abstraction presupposes alienation of labour not only from its ‘inorganic body’ nature but also from the entire labour process as well as from the fruits of labour. The Marxian notion of ‘metabolic rift’ (further elaborated in John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature) that is the separation between man and nature accentuates with the proliferation of capital relations.

The uncontrolled process of ‘self-valorisation’ of capital accumulation tends to batter down all barriers and all forms of natural limits, grossly ignores how such interventions destroy interrelations between human and natural world, creates ecological disaster, human catastrophe or pandemics. Hence the problem is not about human intervention into nature but essentially what drives such interventions. The resolution of the ‘metabolic rift’ and erasing the conceptual separation of society and ecology therefore demands a complete overhaul of human-nature relationship. The engagement demands the end of blind human dominance driven by profit motive articulated through market. It has to be a conscious social control where humans do not aspire to be masters of nature but intervenes through a continuous process of understanding the unfolding inter-relations. As Engels writes’  ‘………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 of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.’ (The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

The author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi