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Materiality and spiritually in Marx, Darwin and Malthus

:: I am not quite sure why discussions about Marx elicit such eloquence, but they invariably do. Perhaps it is because, at its best, Marx’s own writing had the same quality. At any rate, John Bellamy Foster’s excellent essay, along with the ensuing discussion, has been no exception. I have been struck throughout by the quality of the writing and the intensity of the arguments: careful thought, lucid prose, and occasional outbursts of pure emotion. Marx clearly still has the power to elicit strong feelings—on both sides of the debate. The sheer level of engagement is a credit both to Foster and to the influence Marx still has.

I would like to comment on two specific aspects of this wide-ranging conversation, each of which resonates strongly within the Great Transition Network, and then to share, anecdotally, the work of the artist Christin Lahr, which I find quite wonderfully subversive and hope you will enjoy as well.

My first point goes to the discussion about materialism and spirituality. Marx’s much-quoted view that religion is the “opium of the people” appears on the surface to be downright dismissive of religion and also mildly pejorative towards “the people.” But some have argued that this comment was more a critique of society than it was of religion as such, and others would even claim some room, within a broadly Marxist framework, for a more spiritual view of the Great Transition. I would not entirely dismiss this possibility, but I am skeptical of a historical foundation for it for the following reasons.

The declared (and slightly top-heavy) intent of historical materialism was to provide an explicitly evolutionary rationale for the progress of human history and thence for the inevitability of a final socialist state, without any appeal to a purpose higher than human. Though Marx may have been sympathetic to the consolation religion afforded to the masses, I suspect he was no more likely to accord spirituality an ontological status in his theory than was Darwin—of whom Marx was a huge admirer—in the theory of natural selection. Most latter-day Marxists have inherited this antagonism. Since he did not explicitly mention it in his essay, I would be interested in Foster’s take on this.

More relevant to my concern here is the common intellectual root shared not just by Darwin and Marx but also by modern environmentalism in Thomas Robert Malthus. The influence of Malthus on Darwin is extremely well-documented. In its simplest terms, the theory of natural selection has two key components: the idea of spontaneous variation and the process through which these variations are selected in the “struggle for existence.” Darwin’s notion of struggle was drawn explicitly from Malthus’s Essay on Population, which had a huge influence on early nineteenth century thought and, of course, still resonates with environmental concerns today.

Marx himself (and indeed many Marxists since) had very little time for Malthus. Perhaps because of the latter’s support for the protectionist Corn Laws which caused such misery to the poorest in society; perhaps because of his religious background. Where this rejection of Malthus (commonly regarded as a crucial forerunner of modern environmentalism) leaves an appeal to the ecological intent of Marx I am not entirely sure. But Darwin himself described the influence that Malthus had had on him in no uncertain terms. In an autobiographical essay, published a decade after his death, he shared the following reflections:

In October 1838, that is fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement ‘Malthus on Population,’ and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work…1

To explain why I find this link between Malthus, Darwin and Marx so interesting, I should say something more about the origins of the Essay on Population itself, which are largely ignored by modern environmentalists.

Malthus’s father happened to be a close friend of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose underlying view of human nature was that “man is naturally good, and only by institutions is he made bad”—a view that stood in stark contrast to the Christian doctrine of original sin and salvation through the church. The origin of evil and suffering was to be found, in Rousseau’s view, not in human nature itself, but in the corrupting influences of a civilization based on the notion of private property. The way to redress evil, claimed Rousseau, was to reject civilization and return to the natural state, “for savage man, when he has dined, is at peace with all nature and the friend of all his fellow-creatures.”2

Rousseau’s utopian views on the perfectibility of human society were highly influential in the late eighteenth century and, later, on Marx. They also provided the foundations for the romantic movement of the nineteenth century to which many latter-day environmentalists appeal. Followers of Rousseau included the British reformer William Godwin, who in 1794 published his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which had greatly impressed Malthus’ father.

At the time he wrote the first Essay on Population, Malthus had just taken up a living as a curate in a small parish in Surrey (close to where I live) and was staying on his father’s estate in Albury. One evening in 1797, father and son were sitting together discussing the latest edition of Godwin’s Enquiry. Malthus senior defended Godwin’s optimistic views about human society; Malthus junior attacked them. In the aftermath of the argument, Malthus junior felt inspired to set down his case on paper, and the result was the first Essay. For Malthus, the import of the population principle lay quite precisely in refuting the romantic view of the savage state as one free from evil and suffering. On the contrary, Malthus argued, suffering was inherent in nature and arose directly from the pressure of population on the means of subsistence.

In destroying the romantics’ conception of nature, however, the Parson Malthus was left with a problem in theology: Why should a caring God allow inescapable suffering? Why should an omnipotent God have created a world in which suffering was an integral element in the design? In response to these questions, Malthus dedicated two full chapters in the first Essay to propounding a complex theodicy intended to “vindicate the ways of God to man” by providing an explanation of “the constant pressure of distress on man from the difficulty of subsistence.”3

The divine purpose of creation, in Malthus’ theodicy, is the “formation of mind.” The world is subject to natural laws that function in such a way as “to awaken inert, chaotic matter into spirit, to sublimate the dust of the earth into soul, to elicit an ethereal spark from the clod of clay.” The difficulty of subsistence is a part of the divine plan by providing a stimulus for hard work and an incentive to moral restraint. Thus, evil and suffering, resulting from the inevitable and irreducible pressure of population, exist in the world precisely to rouse man from his natural sloth and achieve a higher purpose—in other words, as a constant stimulus for the formation of spirit out of inert matter.

Much of this theological inquiry was expunged from later editions of the Essay and goes virtually forgotten within the environmental legacy of Malthus’s work. But it was a critical element in the complex history of ideas from which both Darwin’s theory of evolution and Marx’s Das Kapital emerged. (This history includes, by the way, the strange twist that William Godwin’s daughter Mary, later Shelley, was none other than the author of Frankenstein: perhaps a more popular creation than any that we have been discussing here—with, of course, its own relevance to sustainability. But that is another story.)

Darwin’s answer to Malthus’s question was a simple one, captured forever in a short, hand-written letter to a young barrister named Francis McDermot in November 1880. “Dear Sir,” wrote Darwin, “I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a Divine revelation, and therefore not in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.” It was the most explicit statement of the atheism that had grown steadily within Darwin throughout his adult life. Such is its intellectual significant that, one hundred and thirty five years later, the letter has just sold at auction for a staggering $197,000.4

His followers were even more explicit. According to the playwright Bernard Shaw, religion had been “knocked to pieces” by the theory of natural selection and “where there had been a God, a cause, a faith that the universe was ordered, and therefore a sense of moral responsibility as part of that order, there was now an utter void…we were quite sure for the moment that whatever lingering superstition might have daunted these men of the eighteenth century, we Darwinists could do without God, and had made a good riddance of him.”5

I have dwelt on this history, partly because it illustrates the complex and sometimes perverse ebb and flow of intellectual thought that characterized the period in which Marx was writing, in which natural, social, moral, and religious philosophy were inter-twined and constantly evolving, but also because it shows up the paucity of some of our own simplistic dichotomies. If there is a failing of latter-day Marxism, it is to reduce too many things to a simple dichotomy between capital and labor. If there is a failing of modern environmentalism, it is to thirst too readily for easy answers. We draw hungrily from one-dimensional representations of our intellectual heroes, and in the process gloss over the complexity that might aid a more robust intellectual synthesis.

Religion is a case in point. We may or may not be Marxists. We may or may not be advocates of any particular religion. But neither Marx nor Darwin spoke to the “god-shaped hole” that haunts the human condition and is evident (as Peter Berger shows beautifully in The Sacred Canopy) in every culture for which we have anthropological evidence.6 And the theological views of Malthus, whom we revere as the distant founder of modern day environmentalism, were so dismal as to warrant the allocation of that very adjective to the entire discipline of economics.

Evidence of a god-shaped hole is not of course evidence for a god. But as I have argued elsewhere, a god-shaped hole in the absence of god is fertile ground for the rise of consumerism.7

In the face of this complexity, I have to say I am a little skeptical that Foster’s new “environmental proletariat” will be a strong enough force to lead us into a sustainable future. But whether it is or not, I think the transition we are searching for would do well not just to engage with the complex intellectual history from which Marxism emerged but also to embark on a thorough exploration of the deeper philosophical and ontological challenges that were left behind by it.

My second point concerns the so-called logic of capitalism. In Foster’s essay this is described variously in terms of the inevitability of economic growth or the insatiable accumulation of capital that has to occur within a capitalist system. Clearly, much depends here on how capitalism itself is defined. It may seem obvious to point this out, but to define capitalism in terms of the drive to accumulate capital and then to argue that capitalism is inevitably inconsistent with environmental limits because of the tendency of capital to generate economic growth won’t quite do.

Contrariwise, to define capitalism in terms of the ownership of the means of production and then to argue that Marx’s ideas are irrelevant simply because communism failed to curb (and sometimes exacerbated) environmental disaster is equally specious. There are too many nuances here, all influenced by the structure of the rather complex institutions of market and state, to jump easily to such simplistic conclusions.

The question of whether there is an inherent growth imperative in contemporary society is, of course, an extremely important one. A number of ecological economists have argued not only that there is such an imperative but that it flows inevitably from some rather basic features of capitalism, such as the creation of money as credit and the charging of interest on debt. If this were shown to be the case, it would certainly seem to rule capitalism out of any sustainable form of post-growth or steady-state economy. But as my colleague Peter Victor and I have recently argued, this does not, in fact, seem to be the case. Our recent paper for Ecological Economics illustrates a quasi-stationary economy which is entirely consistent with the existence of credit creation and a money system based on interest-bearing debt.8

A more credible candidate for a growth imperative lies in the relentless pursuit of labor productivity. At the very least, it is easy to see that a continual reduction in the labor required to produce a given level of economic output leads (through simple arithmetic) to a stark choice between growth and unemployment. There are answers to this dilemma, for instance, by reducing working hours, by structural shifts towards low productivity sectors, and by redistributing the ownership of capital assets. But it is not clear that any of these are either inherently ruled out by a capitalist economy or inherently ruled in by a Marxist one.

What is clear, of course, is that a relentless accumulation of fixed, physical capital is inconsistent with ecological sustainability. But if a steady state of capital is exclusively the terrain of Marxism rather than capitalism, then it must mean that Herman Daly (who has most cogently articulated this particular foundation for sustainability) is after all a Marxist, which I find mildly amusing given the poor experiences with Marxism that Daly himself has recounted.

Finally, I promised to share the subversive work of a German artist called Christin Lahr. I met Christin in Berlin in five years ago at a panel discussion on capitalism. After the event she presented me with a certificate, which I still have. It is a printout of an online banking page and shows the details of a transaction, a deposit of 1 euro cent, made into the bank account of the German Federal Ministry of Finance. In the ‘reason for payment’ field are 108 characters taken from Chapter 1 of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

Christin has been paying the same 1 euro cent into the same bank account every day since May 31, 2009, and importing a small portion of the text of Das Kapital as the 108-character “reason for payment.” Over the next 38 years, the entirety of Marx’s magnum opus will in this way be transcribed via online banking into the central account of the German government at the Federal Bank. Christin makes a certificate from each transaction and presents each one to someone that she meets. My own personal fragment of Das Kapital reads thus:

‘-schaft beider Dinge vertritt: Ihren Wert etwas rein Gesellschaftliches. Indem die relative Wertform einer Wa-‘

Which can be roughly translated as:

‘-operty of both, something purely social, namely their worth. Since the relative form of value of a commod-‘

Of course I can’t deny that I might have preferred one of Marx’s more famous and colorful sentences. Something like, for instance: ‘Accumulate, accumulate! That is the Moses and the prophets!’ But all the same, I am rather pleased with my gift—as I hope the German government is with theirs.


1. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, ed. Francis Darwin ([1892]; New York: Dover, 1958), 68.
2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind ([1754]; New York: Dover, 2004), http://www.bartleby.com/168/605.html.
3. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr Godwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers (London: J. Johnson, 1798), 349.
4. “Charles Darwin’s Letter on Bible, God Fetches $197,000 at Auction,” NDTV, September 24, 2015, http://www.ndtv.com/world-news/charles-darwins-letter-on-bible-god-fetches-197-000-at-auction-1222311.
5. George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1921), 48.
6. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967).
7. Tim Jackson, “Angst essen Seele auf: Escaping the ‘Iron Cage’ of Consumerism,” in The Economy of Sufficiency: Essays on Wealth in Diversity, Enjoyable Limits and Creating Commons, eds. Uwe Schneidewind, Tilman Santarius, and Anja Humberg (Wuppertal, Germany: Wuppertal Institute, 2014), 53-68.
8. Tim Jackson and Peter Victor, “Does Credit Create a Growth Imperative? A Quasi-Stationary Economy with Interest-Bearing Debt,” Ecological Economics (forthcoming 2015).

This blog is a commentary on an essay by John Bellamy Foster – and first appeared on the Great Transition Initiative website, Oct 2015.

:: Image © Great Transition Initiative