The case for ecocentric socialism: Part 1

Earth 2

“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.”

“…[I]n Wildness is the preservation of the World.”—- “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau, May 1862

“I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here, and still more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than at one of our party congresses. ”—- Letter to Sophie Liebknecht by Rosa Luxemburg, Breslau Prison, May 2, 1917

1. Introduction

This essay is a response to a question I was asked during a Zoom presentation and discussion about Ecocentric Socialism on May 7, 2021.  The meeting was organized thanks to Mr. Farrokh Jafari and Ettehad-e Fadian-e Komonist (Fadian Communist Unity) who invited me. The presentation and discussion followed two earlier meetings they organized. In the first, Mr. Jafari introduced environmentalism and some of the environmental problems we face particularly in Iran.  The second meeting was organized after a reading of two of my essays, “The Crisis of Civilization and How to Resolve It: An Introduction to Ecocentric Socialism” (October 2018) and “The Coronavirus Pandemic as the Crisis of Civilization” (March 2020), to discuss them and raise questions.  These questions were then shared with me to prepare my presentation for May 7.  The most important of these questions was this: “How does Ecocentric Socialism differ from other theories of socialism and ecosocialism?” Although I offered an outline of a response to this question in my Zoom presentation, it was clear that there is much more to be said in more detail. This is the task of this essay.

After an initial opening remark in which I focus attention on the problem of anthropocentrism, I will present textual arguments in Section 2 to demonstrate that anthropocentrism is a hallmark of human civilization for almost 5,000 years.

In Section 3, I will discuss how anthropocentrism arose as the reflection of alienation from nature as some groups of hunter-gatherers began to take up farming about 12,000 years ago in the process that is now called the Agricultural Revolution leading to the establishment of the first city-state civilizations about 5,000 years ago.

In Section 4 (ed. note: this will be Part 2 to be posted subsequently), I will outline the main features of Ecocentric Socialism and how it differs from other socialist and ecosocialist theories including some key policy implications.

    *   *

Since the 1960s there has been a growing understanding of the looming ecological-social crises.  Currently humanity faces four existential crises: catastrophic climate change, the Sixth Extinction, recurring pandemics, and nuclear holocaust.

As the environmentalist movement emerged in response to these crises, some socialist thinkers and currents began to consider a response.  Some have added environmentalist planks to their political platform.  Some have renamed themselves “ecological socialists” to designate their interest and attention to ecological issues facing human society.  A smaller fraction have gone further to develop ecological socialist theories to address and explicitly incorporate nature into socialist theorizing often using some interpretation of the work of Marx (e.g., O’Connor, 1998; Kovel, 2002; Bellamy Foster, Clark, and York, 2010; Löwy, 2015; Moore, 2015). (see endnote 1)

Broadly speaking, socialist and ecological socialist theories by design focus on “capitalism” and in the case of the latter they focus on tendencies in “capitalism” that degrade the environment leading to ecological crises. Most have argued that Marx’s theory needs modifications to address ecological crises.  Foster et al. citing Marx’s ecological insights (Burkett, 1999, Foster  2000) in particular with reference to “metabolic rift” have argued that Marx’s theory is essentially ecological.  Still, despite their theoretical differences and their varying assessments of Marx, all generally argue that capitalist accumulation (growth) is responsible for ecological crises, and some explicitly embrace a form of natural limits to growth as the immediate cause of ecological crises.   What remains outside their purview is any theoretical and analytical consideration of the anti-ecological tendencies of all human civilizations many of which succumbed to ecological crises beginning with the Sumerian civilization(4500 –1900 Before Current Era-BCE).  As an analogy, while it is necessary to theorize and analyze oppression of women in capitalist societies as social reproduction theorists have done, it is also necessary to understand the origins of patriarchy as did Friedrich Engels (1884).  That is, to understand the root causes of ecological crises, we must search for their origins in human history.  Just as the rise of patriarchy explains the origin of women’s oppression in all class societies, the rise of anthropocentrism concomitantly with the Agricultural Revolution that began about 12,000 years ago which was systematized and institutionalized in civilization explains domination and control of nature to plunder it, causing ecological crises.

All socialist theories and the bulk of ecosocialist theories are essentially theory of society as nature remains outside of their theoretical framework. When nature is considered, it is usually objectified and passive. Humans remains the sole agency in history.  Moreover, the problem of anthropocentrism, key to environmental ethics, which I will argue is the manifestation of alienation from nature, is entirely ignored. A recent exception is Jason W. Moore’s theorizing which unsuccessfully attempted to revise Marx’s theory of history and “capitalism” to give agency to nonhuman nature. (Moore, 2015, Nayeri, 2016)

Thus, by-and-large all current socialist and ecological socialist theorizing have remained anthropocentric by design or by default (for my critique of one such theory, see, Nayeri 2015).

Ecocentric Socialism represents a clear break with this tradition of anthropocentric socialist and ecosocialist theory and practice in terms of philosophy of nature, theory of society and history, and practical politics to transcend anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization.

2. Anthropocentrism as a pillar of civilization

The modern era is unimaginable without the advances made in science and technology (see endnote 2) which formed the basis for the idea of progress in the eighteenth century Europe. (see endnote 3) Key advances in scientific and mathematical achievements in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries were in physics, astronomy, and mathematics, in particular the contributions of Copernicus (1473–1543), Galileo (1564–1642), Kepler (1571–1630), and Newton (1642–1727).

Bourgeois anthropocentrism

In her magisterial The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980), Carolyn Merchant, an ecofeminist philosopher of science, has provided a powerful critique of the Scientific Revolution showing how it replaced the feminine organic view of nature with a mechanical reductionist view that facilitated its exploitation by the rapidly expanding commercial interest and that in the process it contributed to further subordination of women.  While socialists and ecosocialists typically view science as knowledge of nature and identify it with progress, philosophers of science still disagree on what exactly is the scientific enterprise and how it differs from a philosophy of nature.  Merchant views science as a “methodology for manipulating nature which became a significant undertaking during the latter half of the seventeenth century.” (see endnote 4, Merchant, 1980, p. 186)

“Disorderly, active nature was soon forced to submit to the questions and experimental techniques of the new science. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a celebrated ‘father of modern science,’ transformed tendencies already extant in his own society into a total program advocating the control of nature for human benefit. Melding together a new philosophy based on natural magic as a technique for manipulating nature, the technologies of mining and metallurgy, the emerging concept of progress and a patriarchal structure of family and state, Bacon fashioned a new ethic sanctioning the exploitation of nature.” (ibid. p. 164, my emphasis)

Merchant also traces the ideology of scientific domination of nature to its Judeo-Christian roots according to which mankind lost the God-sanctioned domination of the Earth after Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. (see endnote 5) In the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Torah and the Christian Bible’s Old Testament, on the sixth day of creation God made mankind to rule the earth:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”(emphasis added)

Bacon turned medieval strictures against searching too deeply into God’s secrets into sanctions.

“Only by ‘digging further and further into the mine of natural knowledge’ could mankind recover that lost dominion. In this way, ‘the narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe’ could be stretched ‘to their promised bounds.’ ” (ibid. p. 170)

Some of what that entailed was outlined by Bacon himself in his utopian novel New Atlantis (1626). One goal was using technology to artificially recreate the natural environment. Another was the manipulation of organic life to create artificial species of plants and animals.

“‘We make a number of kinds of serpents, worms, flies, fishes of putrefaction, where of some are advanced (in effect) to be perfect creatures like beasts or birds, and have sexes, and do propagate. Neither do we this by chance, but we know beforehand of what matter and commixture what kind of those creatures will arise.’” (ibid. p. 183)

Making a “more perfect” humans logically follows.  Merchant continues:

“That such experimentation on animals and the creation of new species was ultimately directed toward human beings was intimated by Bacon: ‘We have also parks and enclosures of all sorts of beasts and birds, which we use not only for view or rareness but likewise for dissections and trials, that thereby we may take light [i.e., enlightenment] what may be wrought upon the body of man. . . We also try all poisons and other medicines upon them as well of chirurgery as physic.’” (ibid. p. 184)

Merchant argues there has been continuity in scientific work to dominate and control nature ever since.

“In the New Atlantis lay the intellectual origins of the modern planned environments initiated by the technocratic movement of the late 1920s and 1930s, which envisioned totally artificial environments created by and for humans. Too often these have been created by the mechanistic style of problem solving, which pays little regard to the whole ecosystem of which people are only one part. The antithesis of holistic thinking, mechanism neglects the environmental consequences of synthetic products and the human consequences of artificial environments. It would seem that the creation of artificial products was one result of the Baconian drive toward control and power over nature in which ‘The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.’ To this research program, modern genetic engineers have added new goals—the manipulation of genetic material to create human life in artificial wombs, the duplication of living organisms through cloning, and the breeding of new human beings adapted to highly technological environments” (ibid., p. 186).

While Merchant views science and scientific enterprise as semi-autonomous, she also points out its complementary role in supporting the rise and dominance of the capitalist mode of production and the creation of the modern bourgeois civilization.  Whereas the German theologian Johannes Valentinus Andreae (1586 –1654) and Dominican friar Tommaso Campanella (1586-1639) had sought improvement of the lot of the peasantry, beggars, cottagers, and artisans,

“Bacon can be identified with the interests of the clothier capitalists, merchants, mine owners, and the state.” (ibid., p. 177)

As Clifford Conner explains in his A People’s History of Science (2005, p. 250), Thomas Kuhn, the highly influential philosopher of science, identified two distinct kinds of science, the “Baconian” and “classical physical.” Bacon urged a science built on the craftsmen’s arts. Merchant, a philosopher of science herself, concurs:

“The sixteenth-century groups that evolved the concept of progress are the same groups that right up until the present have pressed for increased growth and development: entrepreneurs, military engineers, humanist academics, and scientists and technicians….Humanist cocnerns are not only fully compatible with the improvement of the human condition through technological advance, but imply an environment filled with humans at the expense of nature.” (ibid, pp. 179-80, my emphasis)

Management of nature

As I will explain below, the idea of domination, control, and management of nature originated in the Agricultural Revolution that began 12,000 years ago.

Of course, the idea of “management of nature” is implied in the idea of domination and control and vice versa. To manage nature typically assumes some degree of domination and control over it.  Merchant devotes a chapter to the development of management of nature coincidental with the rise of Scientific Revolution.  In particular, she discusses Silva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions (1664) by the English writer John Evelyn (1620-1706). Scientific forestry followed a similar course in other Western European countries. Evelyn called for

“sound conservation practices that would contribute to steady economic progress.” (ibid., p. 237)  

Merchant goes on to discuss a similar trend in France under Louis XIV’s minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, who argued that

“France will perish through lack of woods.”(ibid. p. 240)

In Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998), James C. Scott argues that the modern state has an interest to simplify its social and natural domains.  He suggests the premodern state  was

“in many crucial respects, partially blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed ‘map’ of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to ‘translate’ what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view.” (Scott, 1998, p.2)

Scott continues:

“Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored. The organization of the natural world was no exception. Agriculture is, after all, a radical reorganization and simplification of flora to suit man’s goals. Whatever their other purposes, the designs of scientific forestry and agriculture and the layouts of plantations, collective farms, ujamaa villages, and strategic hamlets all seemed calculated to make the terrain, its products, and its workforce more legible—and hence manipulable—from above and from the center.” (ibid.)

As Barker (2006, p. 2) notes today a relatively restricted range of crops and livestock first domesticated thousands of years ago feed almost all of the world’s population. Over 80 percent of the world’s tonnage of all crops is composed of banana, barley, maize, manioc, potato, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugar beet, sugar cane, sweet potato, and wheat.  Only five large (over 100 pounds) farm animals are globally important: cow, sheep, goat, pig, and horse.   

The bourgeois vision of Man’s Dominion over nature is now echoed in various ecomodernist visions as in “An Ecomodernist Manifesto:”(2015)

“To say that the Earth is a human planet becomes truer every day. Humans are made from the Earth, and the Earth is remade by human hands. Many earth scientists express this by stating that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans…

“….A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”

The Manifesto is the brainchild of the Breakthrough Institute founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Nordhaus broke environmentalism to write Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (2007). Shellenberger, an enterprising journalist, co-founded the Breakthrough Institute with Nordhaus in 2003.

There are clearly catastrophic problems with An Ecomodernist Manifesto and the mission of the Breakthrough Institute.  First, while giving lip service to ecology it is deeply anti-ecological praising the Anthropocene, the Age of Mankind, that is by being unabashedly human-supremacist. They also embrace a Baconian-style domination and management of nature.  Second, they celebrate the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization which has brought us the Anthropocene and its existential social and ecological crises.  Third, they maintain the dualism between society and nature while promising— without any supporting evidence— future economic growth free of exploitation and degrading of nature, something they call “decoupling.”  Throughout human history, all wealth has come from nature, including human nature. There can be no other source of wealth.

Socialist Anthropocentrism

Socialist theory and practice also have been anthropocentric.  The vision of human domination and control of nature is present in many socialist writings and anti-ecological practices have been prevalent in countries where governments have ruled in the name of socialism as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as well as China, Vietnam, and North Korea. (see endnote 6)

For the purpose of this essay, let me focus attention on the brazen anthropocentric vision of socialism offered by one of the most brilliant revolutionary socialist leaders, Leon Trotsky (for a detailed discussion of Trotsky’s anthropocentrism see Irvine, 2011)

The following passage is taken from chapter 8 of Literature and Revolution (Trotsky, 1924). The book is a classic in Marxist literary criticism. Trotsky discusses Russian literary trends between 1905 and 1917 and how concrete forces in society, both progressive as well as reactionary, helped shape the consciousness of writers at the time. The key issue Trotsky takes on is whether the Russian proletariat should shape a “proletarian culture” as previous ruling classes have done and as some other leaders of the Russian revolution advocated at the time or it should strive for a socialist culture as Trotsky advocated.  This debate on culture was part of the much larger and more decisive debate that began after Stalin proposed his “theory” of socialism in one country in the fall of 1924 which called for developing socialism using internal resources of the young Soviet Republic while stabilizing international relations with the major capitalist countries.  Trotsky and later the Left Opposition advocated world socialist revolution consistent with pursuing a world socialist culture.  Trotsky’s anthropocentric vision of socialism presented in the book was never challenged in the debate that ensued.

Trotsky writes:

“The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith”, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.….

“Through the machine, man in Socialist society will command nature in its entirety, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth. The machine is the instrument of modern man in every field of life.”

Trotsky’s brazen anthropocentric vision of socialism was shared by the rest of the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party. For example, Nikolai Bukharin, considered the possibility of humans moving into the cosmos (Foster, 2020, p. 363) long before Carl Sagan and others called humans a multi-planet species and Elon Musk set out to colonize Mars for commercial purposes and Jeff Bezos commercialized space travel.

Further, Trotsky’s vision of socialism comes to life again in his highly critical study of Stalinism (Trotsky, 1936). While his criticism of social life under Stalinism is unsparing, he leaves out any criticism of the ecological impact of Soviet industrialization.  The international Left Opposition which presented a revolutionary internationalist alternative to Stalinism and under Trotsky’s guiding hand formed the Fourth International in 1938 was likewise in agreement with his anthropocentric views of socialism.  The newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, a leading party of the Fourth International for decades before its degeneration since the early 1980s, published the above quotation of Trotsky approvingly under the title of “Trotsky on the Future Socialist Society” in its August 1941 issue. 

The anti-ecological policies of Actually Existing Socialisms and the Chinese and Vietnamese “socialisms” need no discussion here (for China’s antiecological policies, see Smith, 2020).  Thus, society-nature dualism has been rampant in socialist theory and politics. Why?

The reason is that the same dualism appears in the works of the founders of Marxian socialism.  In Friedrich Engels’s widely popular Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) we find a similar view of socialism as in Trotsky’s:

“With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history — only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” (Engels, 1880, emphasis added)

This dualist vision of society and nature which in Engels’s view is a world historic elevation of the human condition,“kingdom of freedom,” assumes away all natural constrains on mankind as it brings nature under total domination and control:

The whole sphere of the conditions of life.…comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature…” 

The anthropocentrism of Engels is rooted in the Marxian materialist dialectics as he himself explains:

“According to Hegel… the dialectical development apparent in nature and history — that is, the causal interconnection of the progressive movement from the lower to the higher, which asserts itself through all zigzag movements and temporary retrogression — is only a copy [Abklatsch] of the self-movement of the concept going on from eternity, no one knows where, but at all events independently of any thinking human brain. This ideological perversion had to be done away with. We again took a materialistic view of the thoughts in our heads, regarding them as images [Abbilder] of real things instead of regarding real things as images of this or that stage of the absolute concept. Thus dialectics reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought — two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents. Thereby the dialectic of concepts itself became merely the conscious reflex of the dialectical motion of the real world and thus the dialectic of Hegel was turned over; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet.”(Engels, 1886)

Thus, dualism in the Marxian theory is rooted in the idea of human exceptionalism as the sole agency which as I will explain in the next section is consistent with historical materialism.

Marx’s account of the pre-requisites for socialism likewise relies on further division of labor to achieve ever higher productivity of labor through the development of science and technology to provide the material basis for a socialist civilization as the “realm of freedom from necessity.”  (Chattopadhyay, 2000; Nayeri, June 2018)  All civilizations have been class societies organized to expropriate wealth from nature by exploiting working people. The Marxian vision is characterized by socialist mankind being relieved of compulsion to work thanks to much higher productivity of labor.  However, material necessities to meet the needs of the population will still be expropriated from nature managed by the socialist society. (see endnote 7)

While the Marxian theory breaks with a mechanical and reductionist view of nature advanced in the Scientific Revolution, it, nonetheless, still remains anthropocentric and remains within the main trends of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution to modernity on key questions of human exceptionalism, rationalism, and progress made possible by the advance of science and technology (forces of production). Thus, Marx and Engels praise the bourgeoise for the development of science and technology and for advancing civilization: “… [B]y the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian nations into civilization.” (Marx and Engels, 1848)  Some intellectual currents originating in Marxian theory have been critical of this vision as in the works of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School. (Jay, 1973/1996, Chapter VIII) (see endnote 8)

The notion of “barbarism” in the Western intellectual tradition is closely associated with notion of the “state of nature” in political theory “of the real or hypothetical condition of human beings before or without political association.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed May 26, 2021) It was used by social contract theorists such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632,-1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).  This notion has been adopted in the Marxian literature without criticism as reflected in the often-used slogan “(eco)socialism or barbarism.” More informed Marxian scholars have subsequently disagreed. The noted anthropologist Eric Wolf (1982) points out that even in CE 1,400 much of the world population was “barbarians.” They included foragers, pastoralists, horticulturalists, and small-scale farmers who often used semi-nomadic forms of swidden agriculture and still hunted and gathered some of their produce. Vere Gordon Childe, one of the most prominent twentieth century archeologists spoke highly of “barbarians”:

“Our debt to preliterate barbarism is heavy. Every single cultivated food plant of any importance has been discovered by some nameless barbarian society.” (Childe, 1942/2016, p. 64).

It must be added that civilization is nothing other than some form of class society organized to expropriate wealth from nature by exploiting masses of working people. (see endnote 9) Thus, to denounce barbarians and praise civilization is neither historically accurate nor politically progressive.

Historical materialism and anthropocentrism

Both the idea of class struggle in historiography and the idea of progressive stages in historical development of society were present in the intellectual history and theory in Europe before Marx and Engels.  The notion of class struggle dates back at least to Giovanni Battista Vico (1668–1744) a Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Naples.  The idea of stages of development in history dates back to at least eighteenth century.  Ronald Meek in his Social Science and the Noble Savage (1976/2010) quotes Efimovich Desnistky, a former student of Adam Smith in 1761, who describes four stages of historical development in a lecture in Moscow University in 1781: hunting and gathering, pastoral, agricultural, and commercial. (Meek, 1976/2010, p. 5).  Desnistky then goes on to suggest:

“Such an origin and rising of human society is common to all primitive people, and in accordance with these four conditions of peoples we must deduce their history, government, laws, and customs and measure their various successes in sciences and arts” (quoted in Meek, ibid.)

Meek attributes the earliest written discussions of the four stage theory to Montesquieu (1689-1755), Smith (1723-1790), and Turgot (1727-1781) .

Thus, the basic ideas for Marx’s and Engels’s historical materialism were in place in previous decades in the writing of authors they closely studied.  Their genius lies in syntheses of these ideas into a superior theory of history.  This is similar to how Charles Darwin forged his theory of evolution by natural selection.

How the main themes of what may be called the standard Marxian theory developed is uncontroversial. The 1840s proved decisive in forging what constitutes the Marxist theory of history, its application to the critique of political economy, the development of the theory of surplus value and the uncovering laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production leading to cyclical and secular crises that could pave the road to socialist revolution led by the industrial working class.

The proletariat as the “universal class” whose struggle for self-emancipation will emancipates all Germans (and of all humanity) appears in Marx’s  A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), although Marx himself notes:

“The proletariat is beginning to appearin Germany as a result of the rising industrial movement.”

Still, he goes on:

“In Germany, no form of bondage can be broken without breaking all forms of bondage. Germany, which is renowned for its thoroughness, cannot make a revolution unless it is a thorough one. The emancipation of the German is the emancipation of man. The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat. Philosophy cannot realize itself without the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realization [Verwirklichung] of philosophy. (Marx, 1843) (endnote 10)

It should be noted that Marx was still considering the problem of emancipation from a philosophical point of view.  German unification came 28 years later in 1871 and industrialization sufficient for creating an industrial working class central to the mature Marxian theory was still decades away.

The decisive turn away from philosophy toward political economy came with the Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844.  The final break with Young Hegelian current and Feuerubach’s sensuous materialism came in the “Theses on Feurubach” (1845) and The German Ideology (1845) which codified historical materialism. Marx then applied this methodology to the analysis of the capitalist mode of production. The first volume of Capital appeared in print in 1867 and after his death, Engels edited volume two (1885) and volume three (1894) and Karl Kautsky edited the three-volume Theories of Surplus Value (written in 1863 and edited and published in  1905-10). Engels (1883) considered historical materialism and the theory of surplus value as key intellectual contributions of Marx while stressing that he was first and foremost a revolutionary socialist.  Marx himself recounts part of this journey in his “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).  I take this standard account as the basis for the discussion of the Marxian theory in this essay.

In construction of historical materialist theory Marx and Engels relied on a philosophical anthropology which distinguished them from the prevailing bourgeois liberal idealist notion of human essence:

“[T]he human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations” (Marx, 1845, The sixth thesis).

They also defined their materialism by privileging “social humanity” as they focused on collective class actors as opposed to individual actors in history:

“The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.” (ibid., The tenth thesis).  

 It must be recalled that Marx’s and Engels’s knowledge of history was limited to the then available published historiography, (see endnote 11) covering about 3,000 years. (see endnote 12)

On such basis, in The German Ideology (1845), Marx and Engels expand on these ideas:

“This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” (Marx and Engels, 1945, emphasis added)

Thus, historical materialism was by design anthropocentric because its focus is on the development of human society abstracted from nature and based on what Marx and Engels knew about history that was at most 3,000 years old. Today, we know that humanity is at least 300,000 years old. It can be argued that in fact our history is rooted in the Homo genus  which is over 2.8 million years old (fire was controlled and used by Homo Erectus about a million years ago).

Marx and Engels themselves were aware of the limited scope of their theory of history. Thus they wrote in The German Ideology

“Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.” (emphasis added, ibid.)

Thus while it is true that Marx had “ecological insights” (Burkett 1999, Foster 2000, Saito, 2017), these were incidental to their main line of intellectual and political development of the Marxian theory as understood for well over a century. To follow their example, it is necessary to reconsider their materialist philosophy, dialectical methodology, philosophy of history, and theory of socialism by placing human history in its ecological context going back to the origins of life on Earth.  Meanwhile, ecosocialists who follow Marx still insist on an “ecological civilization” in which some form of “sustainable development” is followed. (Foster 2017; Magdoff and Williams, 2017)

3. Anthropocentrism as alienation from nature

Alienation from nature

Anthropocentrism is alienation from nature and it lays at the base of civilization, that is, it historically precedes and enables social alienation beginning with the rise of private property, patriarchy, and the state.  Alienation from nature emerged when groups of Homo sapiens sapiens (anatomically modern humans) began farming about 12,000 years ago in what is called the Agricultural Revolution.  Homo sapiens had emerged and thrived as hunter-gatherers at least 300,000 years ago (see endnote 13) and after the last ice age the geological era of the Holocene with warmer climate began approximately 11,650 radiocarbon years before present.  While climate change has been indicated as a key factor in why some hunter-gatherer groups took up farming other contributing factors are also indicated (see, “Farming” in Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology, accessed June 12, 2021). Farming presupposes systematic domestication of plants and animals (endnote 14) who are then managed in an artificial ecosystem called the farm.  The farm and its domesticated species exist for the benefit of the farmer. The farmer becomes the subject and farm species the object. At the same time, all wild species who are outside of the dominion and control of the farmer are considered potentially dangerous and systematically eliminated. This practice has become systematic and more pervasive throughout 5,000 years of civilization.  

Thus, the culture/nature dualism that characterizes all civilizations and is firmly rooted in modes of production that have emerged since Agricultural Revolution has become ingrained in various religious and secular ideologies. Civilization has become identified with culture as nature has increasingly receded into the background.  While writing history of societies date back at least to Herodotus (c. 484 – 425/413 BCE), natural history is a recent field of study.  In England, John Ray (1628-1705) is considered “the father of natural history.”

Early farmers struggled for existence for a few thousand years and their lives compared unfavorably to their hunter-gatherer cousins. (see endnote 15) But eventually they managed a sustained economic surplus.  This economic surplus provided the material basis for social stratification and social alienation. Gradually private property, patriarchy, and the state emerged.

Case study 1: The epic of Gilgamesh

To illustrate this transition from ecocentrism of hunter-gatherers (more about it below) to anthropocentrism of early civilizations, I have examined the culture/nature relationship in the epic of Gilgamesh (Nayeri, November 2018), the first known long literary writing from the earliest civilization.

It is a series of Mesopotamian epic poems, woven together over time, that recount the adventures of Gilgamesh, the ruler of Uruk, who lived about 2,600 BCE.  Uruk was located where the town of Warka is in today’s Iraq, about 250 miles south of Baghdad, and dates back to about five thousand years ago.  

There is both continuity and discontinuity with ecocentric cultures of hunter-gatherers.  Lingering ecocentrism appears in the form of polytheism where each god is tied to one or more natural force and in many imageries where reality and magic are intertwined and the future is foretold in dreams. Enkidu, the demigod created by Aruru, the goddess of fertility, to counterbalance Gilgamesh, himself a demigod, is made as a wild man living in the wilderness who protects animals from trappers and hunters.  Likewise, Enlil created Humbaba to protect the Cedar Forest and its wild animals.  So the gods even feel the need to protect nature against civilized humans by creating supernatural beings.  

Uruk is already a stratified patriarchic society. Yet, Shamhat who Gilgamesh recruits to seduce the wild man Enkidu is also a priestess.  While the epic does not mention a temple in Uruk the town of Enkidu built near Uruk a little later had a temple.

It is difficult to differentiate Gilgamesh’s own attitude towards nature from the modern-day hunters, in particular, trophy hunters.  He sets out to conquer the Cedar Forest and he slays Humbaba, its protector, largely for the thrill and glory of it.  After he slays Humbaba, he sets out on a boat to Uruk carrying lumber from the forest for his palace and Humbaba’s head as a trophy. When he slays the Bull of Heaven, he cuts off its horn and hangs it in his palace.  Enkidu, who was born a wild man, becomes hostile to wildness after he is tamed by Shamhat. He even urges Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba.  Ordinary citizens of Uruk include farmers and herders who live off domesticated animals and hunters and trappers who live off wildlife. Their attitude towards the rest of nature is radically different from hunter-gatherers, who constituted the bulk of the 50 million humans who lived on the planet at that time and who surrounded the early outposts of civilization.

Case study 2: Modern day gardening

In January 2013, I joined a group of 33 volunteers in an intensive course to become a Master Gardner in Sonoma County, a program of the Agriculture and Natural Resources of the University of California Cooperative Extension that educates and advises home gardeners.  In the October 2013 Newsletter of the Sonoma County Master Gardeners, in a regular column with useful examples of guidance my peers provide to home gardeners, we find the following recommendation on how to manage ground squirrels that interfere with gardening:

“Assuming that you would like to get rid of the squirrels, the best approach for most people is to trap themUsing poison bait is another option, but the possible collateral damage that can occur to other species is not something that you would want to see happen. Traps are available that work very well on squirrels and the only bait needed is regular peanuts. The only unpleasant part of trapping is the need to kill the squirrels, unless you want to take a long ride everyday to relocate them which is only dumping your problem onto someone else. Most accomplish the task of killing the squirrels by drowning them. If left in the trap, they will die fairly quickly if left in the sun, but this seems like a cruel thing to do since it takes time and is hard on the animals. Shooting them is another option, but then a lot of people don’t like using guns and it can get messy.”  (quoted and cited in Nayeri, November 2014; emphases added)

There is no doubt that this response speaks in the language of war against another species. In this anthropocentric discourse, the ground squirrel who shares the same geographic location as the gardener is treated as an enemy to be extinguished. My Master Gardner colleagues were mostly older, female, and generally very nice and kindhearted fellows.  The fact that they could prescribe such cruel methods against another species has little to do with their conscious ethical lives. It has to do more with the underlying unspoken anthropocentric ethics of our civilization that gives moral superiority to humans over any other species.  So, if there is a conflict between our interests and theirs, it is they who will lose.

Moreover, California Master Gardeners agree to dispense advice based on scientific views of the Agriculture and Natural Resources unit of the University of California.  But as we already know science itself is a means of domination and control of nature.  In fact, the general sense of the advice on how to dispose of ground squirrels is taken from a pest note from the University’s website.  Thus, this war-like approach to “pests” is sanctioned by the university even though it runs entirely contrary to the discipline of ecology taught at the same university where native species are understood to be part of ecosystems, not pests.

The above example can be easily generalized to the entire activity of conventional gardening. Just visit the gardening section of any hardware store and look for shelves-full of war material against undesirable species of animal, plant, fungi, etc.

Thus, it is clear that anthropocentrism as alienation from nature arose out of the transition from hunter-gatherers’s subsistence living to farming as a mode of production. It is also a root-cause of our current ecological crises. The industrial capitalist civilization provides the most dangerous form of anthropocentrism because it is a globalized civilization which has taken science and technology  to great heights enabling ever more domination, control, and exploitation of nature.  It has brought us the Anthropocene (The Age of Mankind) and multiple existential crises that threaten much of life on earth.


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1. John Bellamy Foster’s important book Socialism and Ecology: The Return of Nature (2020), a sequel to his Marx’s Ecology (2000), remains outside of the purview of this essay.  In this book, Foster examines “Marxism’s critical association with the development of ecology as a political subject” according to Professor John Vandermeer. This is in line with his other earlier important work, Marx’s Ecology (2000).  In both of these Foster painstakingly excavates “ecological insights” in Marxist writings as a way to help develop “dialectical materialism” as a philosophy of society and nature. As admirable and useful is his undertaking, it sets aside the problem of anthropocentrism in mainstream “Marxism” which is as I show in this essay is by design or otherwise is part of socialist theorizing and practice.

2. For the purpose of this essay, I define technology as applied science. 

3. Whether some ancient philosophers proposed a doctrine of progress is a matter of scholarly contention, see, Bury 1932, p. 11; Nesbit 1994, p. xi.  However, it is clear that the figures of antiquity who exerted the most influence on later thinkers did not believe in progress in any robust sense. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, February 7, 2021.

4. The botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) offers a similar critique of science basing herself on her Native American culture. See, the chapter “Leaning the Grammar of Animacy.”

5. Known as “The Fall,” according to the Book of Genesis, God expelled Adam and Eve from Garden of Eden after they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge on Eve’s persuasion. One of God’s first commandments to them was not to eat from the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge.

6. I set aside Cuba where the idea of domination and control of nature and its management prevails like everywhere else but certain ecologically aware currents have been significant, mostly outside of the general policies of the government. 

7. For a discussion of the theory of need in Marx, see Heller, 2018. Also, see, Burkett 2005 as well as Foster’s essay “The Meaning of Work in a Sustainable Society,’ (2017). I would take exception with Foster’s endorsement of “Morris’s famous proposition that ‘Art is man’s expression of his joy in labor.’” Creative work, he argued, was essential to human beings, who must “either be making something or making believe to make it.”  While creative work is certainly joyous not all joy is due to labor. The simple act of observing wild birds gave Rosa Luxemburg much joy.  The true sense of joy is our connection with nature outside and inside of us whether through work or not.  

8. Max Horkheimer in his The Origins of Bourgeois Philosophy of History argues a similar point of view with regards to the Renaissance: “…[T] Renaissance view of science and technology corresponded  to political domination. The new conception of the natural world as a field of human manipulation and control, he argued, corresponded to a similar view of man himself as an object of domination. The clearest exponent of this view in his eyes was Machiavelli whose political instrumentalism was used in the service of the bourgeois state.” (Jay, 1973/1996, p. 572). 

9. Wikipedia defines civilization as any “ complex society that is characterized by urban developmentsocial stratification, a form of government, and symbolic systems of communication (such as writing).Civilizations are intimately associated with and often further defined by other socio-politico-economic characteristics, such as centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labour, culturally-ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacismmonumental architecturetaxation, societal dependence upon farming and expansionism.”

10. It must be noted that over time, the socialist movement has forgotten that Marx’s project was emancipation of humanity, not just the proletariat. The proletariat for Marx was the social agency to facilitate this emancipation for itself and for the rest of humanity.  Similarly, over time, the vanguard party or other such mediation was substituted for the proletariat. 

11. In a footnote to the 1888 English edition and 1890 German edition of the Manifesto Engels commented on the sentence that read “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” wrote: “In 1847, the pre-history of society, the social organisation existing previous to recorded history, all but unknown. Since then, August von Haxthausen (1792-1866) discovered common ownership of land in Russia, Georg Ludwig von Maurer proved it to be the social foundation from which all Teutonic races started in history, and, by and by, village communities were found to be, or to have been, the primitive form of society everywhere from India to Ireland. The inner organization of this primitive communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Lewis Henry Morgan’s (1818-1861) crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of the primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes. I have attempted to retrace this dissolution in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, second edition, Stuttgart, 1886. [Engels, 1888 English Edition and 1890 German Edition (with the last sentence omitted)] 

12. We now know writing was invented some 5,500 years ago.   

13. Homo (from Latin homō ‘man’) is the genus that emerged in the (otherwise extinct) genus Australopithecus that encompasses the extant species Homo sapiens (modern humans), plus several extinct species classified as either ancestral to or closely related to modern humans (depending on the species), most notably Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis. The genus emerged with the appearance of Homo habilis 2.3–1.65 million years ago (mya). 

14. Domestication can be defined as “the evolutionary process whereby humans, modify, either intentionally or unintentionally, the genetic makeup of a population of plants or animals to the extent that individuals within the population lose their ability to survive and produce offsprings in the wild” (Blumler and Byrne 1991, p.24, cited in Barker 2006, p. 2).

15. “Contrary to earlier assumptions, hunters and gatherers—even today in the margin of refugia they inhabit—are nothing like the famine-stricken, one-day-away-from-starvation desperados of folklore.  Hunters and gathers, in fact, never looked so good—in terms of diet, their health, and their leisure.  Agriculturalists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad—in terms of their diet, their health, their leisure.” (Scott, 2017, p. 9-10) 

Dedication:  This essay is dedicated to Mother Earth who has given us life and sustains all the beauty that surrounds us.

Acknowledgment:  I am grateful to R. Hassanpour for correcting many grammatical and typing errors and to Farrokh Jafari for comments that helped improve the narrative. Deep gratitude to Fred Murphy who edited the latest version and provided substantively to my argument.  They bear no responsibility for any remaining errors and shortcomings and the argument presented in this essay.

Kamran NayeriIn a sense, every human being is in search of her place in the world. Mine has taken me through socialism, that I began to discover in 1971, to ecological socialism, that I have begun to help define since 2009 in my own writings and by selection of posts in Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism (OPITW). My view of ecological socialism has been inspired by those who like Henry David Thoreau believe that “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” In June 2017, I collected my own writings from OPITW and established Kamran Nayeri’s Writings blog to facilitate their access to anyone interested. My own view of ecological socialism, ecocentric socialism, stands apart from all hereto anthropocentric socialist and ecosocialist theories. To save the world, we must love it–Mother Earth and web of life of which we are a tiny part.

Originally published by Our Place in the World

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