Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Marxism and nature: Alfred Schmidt

Lately there's much written about Marx and the relation between his theories and environmentalism. The idea that Marx is a simplistic supporter of industrialism, a "Promethean" thinker with nothing of interest to say about nature can certainly be discarded. And it's not just the "early" Marx - where the theme of a reconciliation with nature, prominent in German Idealism, is still strongly felt - that offers inspiration to people today. Above all it is the writings of the "mature" Marx that seem to be central to those interested in how to think about the relation between nature and capitalism. On the one hand, eco-Marxists have highlighted how fruitful the concept of metabolism is for grasping the relation between nature and capitalism. On the other, there's also broad current of people who are inspired by Marx's ideas of how capitalist society itself takes on the appearance of a force of nature, as naturwüchsig or as a "second nature" (as Lukács would call it).

Today it is the eco-Marxists who seem to be gaining most of the attention, but there are in fact at least three great lineages in Marxism in regard to the theoretization of nature: apart from the eco-Marxists there are, firstly, critical theorists working with the legacy of the nature-conceptualizations found in thinkers like Lukács, Benjamin, Adorno and Marcuse. Secondly, there is a more loosely held together current which - for want of an established term - one might refer to as the "production of space"-paradigm where the works of Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey and Neil Smith are central.

Here I will turn my attention to Alfred Schmidt, central to the "critical theory"-tradition of studies of Marx and nature. Schmidt's most famous work is The Concept of Nature in Marx, which originated as a 1960 dissertation written for Horkheimer and Adorno. This has been hailed as a seminal study but has also been subject to scathing criticism by eco-Marxists such as Paul Burkett. Below I start by pointing to what I see as the important points in Schmidt's account before reviewing Burkett's criticism. My conclusion will be that although there are flaws in Schmidt's account, Burkett's criticism is grossly unfair.

To evaluate Schmidt's contribution, it is important to recognize that a prime target of his criticism is the conception of objective "dialectical laws" operating in nature independently of human praxis. In particular he singles out Engels's so-called "dialectical materialism" for incisive and relentless criticism. Following in the footsteps of his mentor Adorno, he sees such objectivistic philosophies as implying a reification of history that must be rejected in a properly dialectical approach. The kernel of his criticism is expressed in an impressive passage at the end of the appendix "On the Relation between History and Nature in Dialectical Materialism":
Hence, it is only the process of knowing nature which can be dialectical, not nature itself. Nature for itself is devoid of any negativity. Negativity only emerges in nature with the working Subject. A dialectical relation is only possible between man and nature. In view of Engels’s objectivism, in itself already undialectical, the question whether nature’s laws of motion are mechanical or dialectical is distinctly scholastic. (Schmidt 2014: 195).
The words conclude Schmidt's criticism of Engels. In contrast to objectivist conceptions, Schmidt points out that Marx himself held fast to a socio-historical view of nature as existing in dialectical interplay with human labor. It was nature in that sense which was the basis of his “materialism”, not the idea of objectively existing matter. Epistemologically too, it is through collective praxis or labour that we know nature, not as a reified conception of objective matter. Rather than nature existing objectively, Marx’s nature is thus a product or “social construction” as many would say today – albeit a product of praxis and labor rather than of discourse.

Schmidt's attack on Engels has an obvious political addressee. It was an attack on the orthodox Marxism of the Soviet Union. Engels's attempt to codify the dialectic by treating dialectical laws as natural laws prepared the way for the Stalinist dogma of the absolute objectivity of historical laws (ibid. 192). Marx's project, Schmidt argues, was very different and much more emancipatory.
[W]hen Marx wrote of the ‘natural laws’ of society... this had the critical meaning that men are subjected to a system of material conditions which is outside their control and triumphs over them as a ‘second nature’...While Marx wanted these laws to vanish through being dissolved by the rational actions of liberated individuals, Engels naturalistically identified the laws of man within those of physical nature. (ibid. 191f)
Maintaining a critical eye on both capitalism and Soviet-style communism was typical of Frankfurt School critical theory, and in general, Schmidt adheres rather faithfully to his critical theory-mentors. It's easy to feel the influence of Adorno in his criticism of the reification that occurs in idealism when concepts are lifted out of the context of human practice. Above all, it can be felt in the affirmation of the vision of an incurable “non-identity” between humanity and nature – a non-identity which remains even in communism (ibid. 28, 158, 162). This in contrast to the romantic ideas of alienation and unity with nature in the young Marx and in idealism.

Let me illustrate the deep and, I think, quite crucial imprint of Adorno's idea of "non-identity" on Schmidt with a few quotations. Schmitt thus writes that to Marx, nature is "that which is not particular to the Subject" (ibid. 27). While Hegel’s thought is in unity with itself, "[i]n the Marxist dialectic the reverse is the case: it is non-identity which is victorious" (ibid. 28). The struggle with nature means "that classless humanity will also be confronted with something ultimately non-identical with itself" (ibid. 86). Since nature will always confront us as something non-identical to ourselves, labour requires the suppression of instincts (ibid. 137). Nature will never be "completely ‘made’ by us", "even in a truly human world there is no full reconciliation of Subject and Object" (ibid. 158). Finally, "nature’s co-production with labour always includes the fact that what men have in mind always remains utterly foreign and external to it. Even under socialism" (ibid. 162).

Schmidt's rejection of the idea that the end of capitalism might also bring about an end to the non-identity between humankind and nature is one of the more controversial points in his book. Even in socialism, he writes, people will still have to work and struggle with nature:
With socialism, nature’s objectivity does not simply disappear... but remains something external, to be appropriated. In other words, men will always have to work. (ibid. 71)

Since the realm of necessity will continue to exist as long as human history, men will always be compelled to behave towards nature in an essentially appropriative, interfering, struggling manner. (ibid. 157)
This sober vision of the future is, he claims, Marx's own. Unlike the young Marx of the Paris Manuscripts who hoped for a humanization of nature - claiming that communism was "the definite resolution of the antagonism between man and nature" (quoted in ibid. 128) - the mature Marx of Capital realized that nature would always remain a "realm of necessity" and that the struggle with it couldn't be abolished. Schmidt tops off this stern interpretation with a couple of dramatic sentences:
In later life he no longer wrote of a ‘resurrection’ of the whole of nature... Nature is to be mastered with gigantic technological aids, and the smallest possible expenditure of time and labour... When Marx and Engels complain about the unholy plundering of nature, they are not concerned with nature itself but with considerations of economic utility. (ibid. 155)
In a passage alluding to Engels's famous warning about the "revenge" of nature ("Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us"; Engels 1883), he writes:
The exploitation of nature will not cease in the future but man’s encroachments into nature will be rationalized... In this way, nature will be robbed step by step of the possibility of revenging itself on men for their victories over it. (ibid. 155f)
So communism would simply mean a perfected domination over nature? I believe Schmidt is too un-nuanced here, or at least leaves too many things unexplained, and I will return to this interpretation later and discuss it a bit further in connection with Burkett's criticism.

We should note, however, that despite his rejection of romantic utopias of a restored unity with nature, Schmidt is clearly not proposing a simple continuation of the industrialist exploitation of nature we have seen in history so far. In a passage that again makes me think of Adorno, he hints at the peace that would characterize a more reconciled relation to nature:
What could be salvaged from the idea of such a very naive relation to nature... is the hope that when men are no longer led by their form of society to regard each other primarily from the point of view of economic advantage, they will be able to restore to external things something of their independence, their 'reality' in Brecht's sense. In such a society, men's view of natural things would lose its tenseness, it would have something of the rest and composure which surrounds the word 'nature' in Spinoza. (ibid. 158).

Burkett's criticism

That eco-Marxists are critical of Schmidt is not surprising. After all, they want to show Marx's usefulness for a "green", environmental politics. That means that they want to show how the exploitation of nature is centrally involved in capitalism's contradictions. In particular, eco-Marxists like Foster and Burkett have made important contributions by showing how capitalism depends just as much on exploiting nature as on exploiting labour. The difference is that while labour is reflected in the production of what counts as "value" in capitalism, nature is not. Nature remains a "value-less" free lunch as long as it is not scarce, meaning that it contributes to use-value without contributing to exchange-value. Furthermore, they also show that both modes of exploitation were considered central by Marx himself. Any Marx-interpretation that presents Marx as insensitive to nature, as a "promethean" supporter of industrialism, is thus bound to come in for criticism

Schmidt, with his scorn for "romantic" Marx-readings, certainly at times gives the impression that Marx wouldn't see any problem at all with exploiting nature. Predictably, Burkett's criticism is vehement. Schmidt, he claims, inadequately analyses the contradictory and exploitative character of value and capital – in two ways: Firstly, he overlooks the possibility that capitalism will generate an ecological crisis that will undermine itself - the fact that “capitalism is the first society capable of a truly planetary catastrophe due to a tendency to ‘undermine the conditions of its own exploitation’”. Secondly, “Schmidt’s interpretation falsely undermines certain grounds for pro-ecological working-class politics” (Burkett 1997: 174). Let me state at once that in regard to these two points, I agree with Burkett. Schmidt is indeed not interested in reading Marx as a proto-environmentalist.

Then, however, Burkett resorts to heavier artillery, an assault so furious and sweeping that it seems to aim at the total demolition of Schmidt's work. Schmidt's interpretation thus:
... lapses into an uncritical determinism similar to that of official (Stalinist) Marxism. This determinism unjustifiably naturalizes capitalism’s exploitation of nature while bypassing the systemic basis for an eventual merging of Red and Green anticapitalist movements. (ibid. 164) 
In Schmidt’s hands, Marx’ vision of communism becomes an anti-ecological industrial utopia. (ibid. 165)
The first thing that strikes one as odd in this criticism is Burkett's seamless assimilation of Schmidt into "official (Stalinist) Marxism". This assimilation recurs in several places in Burkett's text (for instance when he writes that "Schmidt’s analysis… encapsulates the best and the worst of official Marxism’s stance on Marx’s environmental implications” (ibid 164). But this is clearly a weird assertion considering that Schmidt's entire book is dedicated to an attack on such "official Marxism" (for a few passages where he explicitly criticizes such Marxism, see e.g. Schmidt 2014: 39f, 108).

What Burkett appears to miss completely is that Schmidt's dialectical approach (which was mainstream in critical theory when he wrote his book) has an inbuilt allergy to objectivism or determinism of the kind associated with Soviet style "official Marxism". Accusing Schmidt of "lapsing into an uncritical determinism" is thus a fundamental misreading. Schmidt himself explicitly rejects all teleology in Marx. What determines history is not any predetermined laws, but human praxis – this is a message that Schmidt emphasizes again and again as central in Marx. To claim, as Burkett does, that Schmidt's account is “similar to official Marxism’s objectivist emphasis on desocialized productive forces as the motor of social evolution” (ibid. 165) is simply incredulous.

It's hard to fend off the suspicion that the Burkett's misunderstandings might stem from insufficient familiarity with the tradition of critical theory (which is only acknowledged in a brief footnote, without any attempt to interpret Schmidt in view of his place within it). Let us scrutinize a bit closer Burkett's accusation that Schmidt accepts the industrialist view of nature in orthodox Marxism and resigns himself to the impossibility of reconciliation with nature. Now while it is true that Schmidt is suspicious of all ideas of a resurrected unity of humankind and nature, it is crucial to realize that this is not because he affirms industrialism in the form it has taken in capitalist countries or in the Soviet Union. Furthermore, it is most certainly not because he is an adherent of Soviet-style "official Marxism". If anything, the reason is rather to be found in his adherence to Adorno’s philosophy of non-identity. Following Adorno, he is simply issuing a warning that not even post-capitalist society will bring about any perfect unity or "identity" in the relation to nature, and that any reconciliation that may be had must build on relinquishing the drive to identity. To miss this is a grotesque misreading. To put it bluntly: Schmidt rejects the romantic idea of wholeness, but that is not the same as embracing Soviet-style industrialism. Not Stalin, but Adorno is behind it.

But isn't Burkett at least correct in condemning Schmidt for embracing a form of industrialism, in the form of the necessity of a continuing struggle with nature? Burkett correctly quotes Schmidt’s statement that even a future communist society would exploit nature (and Burkett maliciously adds: “a projection similar to that promulgated by Stalin”, ibid. 170). But what he fails to tell us is that Schmidt never claims to endorse this vision of the future. Indeed, his view is unmistakably bleak, almost Weberian. To call this akin to Stalin or official Marxism is a joke.

What Schmidt should be criticized for isn't embracing a "promethean" Soviet-style industrialism, but refusing to come up with a clear explanation of how his own idea of a post-capitalist struggle with nature would differ from the Soviet variant. This is where Schmidt's weak point is. He seems to have recognized this himself, after finishing the work, since he feels the need to provide a clarification in his preface. There he states that what Marx wanted was not just a quantitative increase in man’s mastery over nature, but:
... mastery by the whole of society of society’s mastery over nature. This mastery would certainly still depend on the functions of instrumental reason. But since it would ‘finalize’ these functions, and subject them to truly human aims... society’s mastery over nature would thereby be freed from the curse of being simultaneously a mastery over men, and of thus perpetuating the reign of blind natural history. (Schmidt 2014: 13)
This clarification, however, doesn't really go very far and it certainly doesn't justify the more dramatic passages in the work itself where Schmidt seems to equate communism with a drive to "master nature with gigantic technological aids" and so fully "rationalize" its domination over nature that nature is "robbed step by step of the possibility of revenging itself on men for their victories over it" - all formulations that suggest a kind of merciless warfare against nature. The fact that human beings must work, or that nature must remain a "realm of necessity", doesn't mean that their relation to nature must be one of perennial warfare or domination. There is simply nothing in Schmidt's argument that suffices to justify the idea that the relation to nature must take that form.

Moreover, one might argue that using Adorno's philosophy of non-identity to underpin such a vision of the future is perverse. Adorno never one-sidedly condemned only those who romantically longed for wholeness and reconciliation. He was just as vehement in his condemnation of the opposite standpoint, that of the cold and rational "identity-thinking" that suppressed the instincts and feelings. Being locked in seeming opposition, these two standpoints were both reified, blind to the fact that they generated each other and thus constituted two sides of the same coin. In affirming the rational pole of this opposition, Schmidt takes leave of Adorno's more dialectical approach and becomes much more "Weberian" than his master ever was. To summarize (and drastically simplify), one might say that Schmidt's criticism of the idea of unity is due to Adorno while his rather bleak vision of communism is due to Weber. Stalin is involved in neither.


Burkett, Paul (1997) “Nature in Marx Reconsidered: A Silver Anniversary Assessment of Alfred Schmidt’s Concept of Nature in Marx”, Organization & Environment 10(2):164-183.

Engels, Friedrich (1883) Dialectics of Nature, Marx Engels Internet Archive. 

Schmidt, Alfred (2014) The Concept of Nature in Marx, London: Verso.

Alfred Schmidt

Postscript: Foster's criticism of the Frankfurt School (2016-10-06)

In this postscript I want to briefly address some of the criticism John Bellamy Foster - another of the "stars" of Eco-Marxism together with Burkett - has directed at Alfred Schmidt and the Frankfurt School in recent articles (above all in Foster & Clark 2016 but also Foster 2016). Compared to Burkett, his criticism is less sweeping and more nuanced. At least there is no attempt to assimilate Schmidt into Soviet style "official Marxism". But there are still a surprising plentitude of misreadings or questionable interpretations.

Firstly, Foster & Clark (2016) call Schmidt a determinist, despite Schmidt's oevre being based on a rejection of the determinism of Engels and subsequent Soviet-style Marxism.

Secondly, they claim that Schmidt misses "the full significance of Marx’s historically specific critique of the capitalist value form, in which value, emanating from labor alone, was in contradiction to wealth, deriving from both nature and labor" (Foster & Clarke 2016), which is a strange assertion since Schmidt explicitly acknowledges that nature contributes to use-value but not value/exchange-value.

Thirdly, they claim that Schmidt attributes to Marx a conception of nature as "passive and mechanical", which again is not true since Schmidt explicitly states that to Marx humans are part of nature and human labour power is a force of nature (Schmidt 2014:16).

Fourthly, I don't agree with Foster & Clark's argument that the Frankfurt School lacks the idea that the increasing domination of nature is a contradictory process. At least when it comes to "inner nature" the idea of this process generates contradictions is clearly central to Horkheimer & Adorno and there is no reason why their analysis couldn't be extended to include contradictions in regard to external nature as well, since the latter is, after all, just as "non-identical" to concepts as inner nature.

Finally, I'm not happy with Foster's claim that Schmidt and Horkheimer & Adorno make Marx an anti-ecological Enlightenment figure. He accuses them of disregarding that, for Marx, the goal was never industrialization or technological mastery of nature per se. Communism to Marx was not a society aimed at endless quantitative expansion (exchange value) but at the fulfillment of qualitative needs (use value). Here, Foster is entirely right about Marx, but I'm not so sure he's right about the Frankfurt School. To be sure, it's easy to find passages in Schmidt and other authors of the Frankfurt School that portray socialism in gloomy colours as a society where technology has subjugated nature. To interpret these passages correctly, I believe one must recall the historical context. The Frankfurt School's "pessimism" regarding the ability of socialism to relieve the domination of nature reflected a time when few or no positive alternatives were available. There was no way out, and certainly not Soviet-style communism. Therefore, the task was to maintain a relentless "negative" criticism rather than to indulge in speculations about the possible reconciliation with nature in a genuinely communist society. In fairness, one might add here that Foster's failure to appreciate this stance is understandable. Perhaps the Frankfurt School was a bit too absentious in regard to pointing to alternatives to the existing order and this made it difficult to see what room their criticism of Stalinism left for a genuine communist Utopia. Only rarely - above all in the writings of Bloch, Marcuse or Benjamin - do we see attempts to portray this Utopia more directly, and in these passages it becomes evident how much the Utopia they were hoping for was at odds with existing Soviet-style socialism.


Foster, John Bellamy (2016) “Marxism in the Anthropocene: Dialectical Rifts on the Left”, International Critical Thought 6(3): 393-421.

Foster, John Bellamy & Clark, Brett (2016) “Marx’s Ecology and the Left”, Monthly Review 68(2).


  1. Hej,
    jätteintressant. Du borde länka till detta antingen i värdeform gruppen eller i gruppen om kritisk teori. Det ser ut som om du inte kommit in i den senår, men jag ska lägga in dig.

    1. Tack, kul med uppmuntran! Jag är inte så aktiv på FB men jag ska testa att länka.


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