Man and Nature, Part II: The Marxist Theory of Man’s Alienation from Nature

Still from Tarkovskii’s Stalker (1979)

When Marx wrote his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, he was likewise concerned with the problem of man’s (specifically, the worker’s) relationship to nature.  It was part of the worker’s fourfold alienation under capitalist modernity: his estrangement from nature, from the products of his labor, from other people, and from himself.  As Marx explained, with respect to nature: “The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world.  It is the material in which his labor realizes itself…”[1] However, as the products of the worker’s labor are expropriated, nature is reduced to a mere means of subsistence.  “In a physical sense man lives only from these natural products, whether in the form of nourishment, heating, clothing, shelter, etc.…Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say nature in so far as it is not the human body.”[2] The natural world is further and further removed from the worker, and arrives then only in a relatively processed, mediated form.  The immediacy of nature has been lost, and nature confronts humanity as an alien, unknown entity.  This alienation is exacerbated by the shared estrangement from nature that the individual sees in other men: “Every self-estrangement of man from himself and nature is manifested in the relationship he sets up between other men and himself and nature.”[3] Or, as the Marxist theorist Max Horkheimer would later put it, echoing Marx, “The history of man’s efforts to subjugate nature is also the history of man’s subjugation by man.”[4]

Clearly, the alienation felt by the Romantics toward nature was a real one, Marx recognized, but he did not see it as the result of some sort of spiritual downfall or fall from grace.  Rather, he understood it to be symptomatic of the rise of a new social formation — namely, capitalism.  That is to say, the alienation from nature that was registered ideologically (in poetry, philosophy, and art) by the Romantics was indicative of a deeper shift in the socioeconomic substructure of their time.

Although humanity’s alienation from nature was clearly a central concern of the young Marx, most of his later work was solely devoted to the analysis of class relations under capitalism and the critique of political economy.  It was thus Engels, rather, who would eventually take up the subject of nature again in his writings.  Not only in his 1883 Dialectics of Nature, a text that remains controversial within the annals of Marxist literature, but even in other works like Anti-Duhring and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels discussed the way in which humanity became further estranged from nature even as science began to discover its innermost workings.  For rather than encountering nature in an organic, holistic fashion, natural science was methodologically microscopic, isolating individual phenomena from their original context and observing their operation in abstraction from the whole.  This entailed, as Bacon had already himself admitted, a certain domination of nature.  And this, in turn, implied an equal degree of alienation from nature.  Engels explained the historical unfolding of this process as follows:

The analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as a legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.[5]

Although Engels himself repudiated the French materialists and natural philosophers like Bacon and Locke for their “metaphysical” approach to nature, and considered the mechanistic view of the world to have been superseded by dialectical thought, it was the mechanistic worldview that eventually won out in the field of the natural sciences.  It remains down to the present day — for better or for worse — the predominant mode of thought amongst the disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology.  This is a large reason why Engels’ later Dialectics of Nature has subsequently been so disparaged by scientists and philosophers, despite the fact that some of its content is both salvageable and valuable to Marxist literature.

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