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.

But it was precisely the application of this mechanistic Weltanschauung in the natural sciences to the social sciences that later formed the premise for the young Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács’ critique of reification and commodity fetishism in society.  This was the view adopted by both bourgeois economists and Bernsteinian Revisionists around the turn of the century.  They believed that society operated according to a series of timeless, mechanical laws that could be comprehended and controlled, just as in nature.  Lukács pointed out that this took for granted the notion that the laws peculiar to the capitalist social formation had always existed in every past society.  As Marx had already shown before him, such categories as “supply and demand” and “socially homogeneous labor-time” were only valid for describing one particular form of society, capitalism.  But these categories themselves were merely the transitory outgrowth of this social formation, and did not necessarily belong to prior modes of production:

The categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this [relative] kind.  They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e., commodity production.  The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes therefore as soon as we come to other forms of production.[6]

It is therefore invalid for economists and social theorists alike to claim that there are “eternal” laws that govern society in all ages, unlike the ones that are presumed to exist in the mechanistic view of nature.  In the case of commodity fetishism, a social relation between people becomes objectified as a permanent state of affairs that exists independent of their own activity,[7] as “just the way things are.”  Or, as Lukács put it, “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.”[8]

Lukács’ great contribution to Marx’s theory of man’s alienation from nature arose out of his recognition of this mysterious “quasi-objectivity” that social relations seemed to assume.  It was as if, through the alienation of commodities from their producers and their subsequent circulation throughout society, bourgeois social relations became a sort of “second nature.”  As Lukács explained it:

[M]en are constantly smashing, replacing, and leaving behind the “natural,” irrational, and actually existing bonds, while, on the other hand, they erect around themselves in the reality that they have created and “made,” a kind of second nature which evolves with exactly the same inexorable necessity as was the case earlier with irrational forces of nature (more exactly: the social relations which appear in this form).[9]

As a sort of nature in its own right, bourgeois economists and Bernsteinian Revisionists believed that they could set forth notions like “marginal utility,” “supply and demand,” and so on as inexorable laws of society.  These laws were thought to operate in a mechanical, predictable and unchanging fashion, in every society that has ever existed.  What is lost is the dialectical recognition that this system of social relations has come into being, and could just as easily pass away.  “In its mystified form,” Marx explained, “the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists.”  “In its rational form,” he continued, “it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.”[10]

Lukács’ discovery of this apparent “second nature” carries with it even further consequences.  For, entangled in this self-created “second nature,” man found himself further and further distanced from “first” nature.  The seeming immediacy of nature enjoyed in previous societies, where the wood he used to build his house came from the nearby forest, in which the meat he ate came from animals that he raised and slaughtered, or game that he hunted, became increasingly rare.  Instead, what humanity encountered was a system of commodities, goods imported from every corner of the globe, serially processed through a complex division of labor before arriving to their consumer in their finished forms. In other words, this nature, “second nature,” became the world to which humanity was immediately accustomed.  With the rise of capitalism, everything changed.  “In place of the old needs satisfied by home production we have new ones which demand the products of the most distant lands and climes for their satisfaction.  In place of the old local and national self-sufficiency and isolation we have a universal commerce, a universal dependence of nations on one another.”[11] Despite the extremely abstract character of this social totality, with its multiple layers of mediation, this complex system appears more familiar and recognizable than the sort of nature one encounters in the wilderness.

Even the experience of this sort of “primitive” wilderness is increasingly mediated under modernity.  They come in the form of artificially-designed parks established in the midst of huge cities, in zoos and nature reserves, in activities like hiking, rock-climbing, and even safaris.  The critical theorist Theodor Adorno recognized the patent falsity of the notion that these sites and pastimes could serve to reunite man, if only briefly, with nature.  “The more purely nature is preserved and transplanted by civilization,” he wrote, “the more implacably it is dominated.”[12] Humanity under capitalism can maintain the illusion that we are still at one and are in harmony with nature, but it is illusory nevertheless.  “Only the irrationality of civilization itself, in the nooks and crannies of the cities, to which the walls, towers, and bastions of the zoos wedged among them are merely an addition, can nature be conserved.  The rationalization of culture, in opening its doors to nature, thereby completely absorbs it, and eliminates with difference the principle of culture, the possibility of reconciliation.”[13] The parks, forests, and zoos can provide some comfort to a humanity yearning for its lost relationship with nature, but in the final analysis such artifacts (and yes, they are artifacts) can only serve as a reminder of the extent to which mankind has already transformed, and sometimes disfigured, nature.

But if humanity cannot be reunited with nature by such means, how can one ever hope to achieve this lost oneness with the world? The total flight from society and its network of unnatural relations (“into the wild”) is no less problematic, and almost assuredly more reactionary.  As Adorno’s colleague Horkheimer explained, “The doctrines that exalt nature or primitivism at the expense of spirit [i.e., civilization, society] do not favor reconciliation with nature; on the contrary, they emphasize coldness and blindness toward nature. Whenever man deliberately makes nature his principle, he regresses to primitive urges.”[14] More on this point later.

All this brings us to a point that dovetails neatly with the question posed at the end of my first blog entry on the subject: How is it possible to conceive of nature as a fundamentally social problem? For if indeed the social conception of nature is historically variable — i.e. it changes from epoch to epoch — how might the relationship between man and nature be reconceived so as to bring an end to their mutual alienation? The problem of nature must necessarily involve a transformation of the “second nature” constructed by society under capitalism.  This may, in turn, necessitate a transformation of the natural world from whence society sprang.  Nature must not appear to us as something entirely outside of us, as an autonomous thing-in-itself, even if it does possess certain laws and regularities of its own.  It must be recognized as inextricably bound up with society, such that its fate is tied with our own.  The reality of the estrangement must be acknowledged, the contradiction of nature and culture affirmed, so as to ensure that the problem is not denied or hastily written off as inconsequential.  A post-capitalist society must necessarily be free of all the contradictions that are inherent in capitalism, and a solution to this problem must therefore be sought.  Indeed, number of solutions have already been proposed.  But before we uncritically attach ourselves to this or that proposed solution, a review of the major positions is in order.  The next segment of this series will thus lay the groundwork for a radical critique of the various ideologies surrounding the relationship of man to nature by examining one of the central dichotomies to the debate: the nature/culture distinction.

[1] Marx, Karl.  Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.  From Early Writings.  Translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton.  (Penguin Books.  New York, NY: 1992).  Pg. 325.

[2] Ibid., pg. 328.

[3] Ibid., pg. 331.

[4] Horkheimer, Max.  “The Revolt of Nature.”  From The Eclipse of Reason.  (The Continuum Publishing Company.  New York, NY: 2004).  Pg. 72.

[5] Engels, Friedrich. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.  Translated by Barrie Selman.  From Marx & Engels: Collected Works, Volume 24 (1874-1883).  (International Publishers.  New York, NY: 1989).  Pg. 299.

[6] Marx, Karl.  Capital: A Critique of Political Economy.  Translated by Ben Fowkes.  (Penguin Books.  New York, NY: 1982).  Pg. 169.

[7] “The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things.  Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers.  Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social.  In the same way, the impression made by a thing on the optic nerve is perceived not as a subjective excitation of that nerve but as the objective form of a thing outside the eye.  In the act of seeing, of course, light is really transmitted from one thing, the external object, to another thing, the eye.  It is a physical relation between physical things.  As against this, the commodity-­form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within, which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this.  It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.  In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion.  There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race.  So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.  I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”  Ibid., pgs. 164-165.

[8] Lukács, Georg.  “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.”  From History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics.  Translated by Rodney Livingstone.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pg. 83.

[9] Ibid., pg. 128.

[10] Marx, Capital.  Pg. 103.

[11] Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich.  Manifesto of the Communist Party.  From Later Political Writings.  Translated by Terrell Carver.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 1996).  Pg. 5.

[12] Adorno, Theodor.  Minima Moralia.  Translated by E.F.N. Jephcott.  (Verso Books.  New York, NYL 2005).  Pg. 115.

[13] Ibid., pg. 116.

[14] Horkheimer, “The Revolt of Nature.”  Pg. 86.

8 thoughts on “Man and Nature, Part II: The Marxist Theory of Man’s Alienation from Nature

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  4. This is great!! Am writing my dissertation on the biophilia hypothesis and current human ‘disconnection’ from nature! Thank you :)

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