Wednesday, 5 October 2016

John Bellamy Foster: Two materialisms, two kinds of dialectics

In my previous post I pointed to some difficulties with Foster's attempt to extend the notion of dialectics to nature. However, there is a bigger problem with this attempt to which I will now turn. Contrary to his intentions, the attempt reproduces a methodological dualism that runs counter to his aim of a "unity of method". I explain why this is so in the first section below before turning, in the second section, to Foster's charge against Western Marxism that it lost touch with materialism and drifted in an idealist direction. As I discussed in my previous post, Foster claims that the price paid by Western Marxists for rejecting Engels's materialist dialectics was that they ended up in an idealist position and had to relinquish the study of nature to positivism. By way of ending, I suggest that this criticism is unfair and that Western Marxism offers theoretical tools for grasping the relation between nature and capitalism that are more useful than Foster thinks and that may be superior to his own.

Dialectics or monism? (Juan O'Gorman, Monumento funebre al capitalismo industrial)

A dialectics in relation to nature or a dialectics of nature?

Foster wants to demonstrate the possibility of a unity of method in the study of nature and society by showing that a similar dialectical method is applicable in both realms. How well does he succeed in reaching this aim? Broadly speaking, he seems to use two quite different strategies.

The first is to see dialectics as unfolding in the relation between humanity and nature. This strategy is consistent with his emphasis on the "metabolic rift" and with his idea of dialectics as a necessary element of human cognition in relation to nature. It is also consistent with Marx's emphasis that dialectics centrally involves human praxis, taken in a wide sense as including the way labour as a metabolism with nature is organized. Dialectics in this sense could be used to stitch together the two realms of society and nature, as long as the latter isn't viewed as a pristine realm existing independently of human action or human perception. Combined with the fact that capitalism has nowadays engulfed the entire globe, leaving practically no pristine wilderness behind, this argument goes a long way in ensuring the usefulness of dialectics in the study of nature. It is almost, but not quite enough, to achieve methodological unity. The problem for Foster is, firstly, that this sort of dialectics wouldn't be so very different from the "praxis"-centred dialectics of Western Marxism. Dialectics would basically still be seen as a property of human praxis. It's applicability to nature is a by-product of the socialization of nature in the course of the expansion of capitalism. Secondly, the problem remains of how to theorize the wholly non-human nature that existed earlier in history or that still exists out in space still remains.

The other strategy is to try to work out a dialectics of nature as such, showing how nature develops dialectically even without human interference. Foster admits that Marx himself tended to link dialectics primarily to human praxis, but argues that Marx nevertheless acknowledged the possibility of dialectics operating "ontologically" in nature itself. Engels's attempt to put forth a "dialectics of nature" was thus wholly legitimate when viewed from the standpoint of his and Marx's basic philosophical outlook. Foster believes, however, that Engels overemphasized the deterministic and mechanistic aspects of the dialectics of nature. To reconstruct a more openended dialectics of nature, Foster thus turns to Epicurus' atomistics and Darwin's theory of evolution, which he argues were bigger influences on Marx than the deterministic materialists of the Enlightenment period.

A problem with this second strategy, however, is that it tends to reinstate dualism. Foster appears to assign two separate dialectical methods for the two realms of society and nature. On the one hand there is a dialectics for society, which centrally includes praxis and subject-object interaction. On the other, there is a dialectics for nature, which would unfold on its own, without human involvement, in the manner of falling atoms or natural selection. As Lukács points out in History and Class consciousness these are two separate kinds of dialectics using different methods:
... the dialectics of nature can never become anything more exalted than a dialectics of movement witnessed by the detached observer, as the subject cannot be integrated into the dialectical process... From this we deduce the necessity of separating the merely objective dialectics of nature from those of society. For in the dialectics the subject is included in the reciprocal relationship in which theory and practice become dialectical with reference to one another (Lukács 1971: 207)*
Admittedly, one might argue that it's possible for Foster to hold on to the second strategy while avoiding dualism, provided that he manages to reduce the dialectics of nature and of society to a common denominator. That would enable him to claim that the same kind of dialectics is operative in both realms. To a certain extent, he tries to do this. An example is when he argues that the common ground uniting the study of nature and society consists in the use of dialectics as a tool for grasping "mors immortalis" (immortal death, i.e. neverending change). This search for a common ground, however, requires him to thin out the concept of dialectics considerably. This is problematical since it is unclear why the resulting abstract concept should be referred to as "dialectics" at all. The whirl of matter, conceived as falling atoms, hardly needs to be grasped through terms like negation or contradiction, central to Hegelian dialectics. Both of these terms are used by Hegel to point to the fact that the relation between the moments making up the whole can never be reduced to a common, "positive" or harmonious foundation. The Hegelian whole is always indelibly conflictual and torn.** What happens to this kind of negativity in Epicurus' theory of atoms? Although the falling atoms give rise to constant flux and hence to a state of neverending "mors immortalis", we seem to be less close to dialectics than to some form of monism.

This means that Foster's argument that we need to retain a dialectics of nature to ensure the possibility of a "unity of method" in the study of nature and society isn't convincing. Nor is his argument that rejecting the dialectics of nature implies handling over the study of nature to positivism. Contrary to his argument, it is probably the first strategy rather than the second that offers the best chances of tying together nature and society in a way that avoids both monism and dualism. If his aim is to surmount the dualism of nature and society dialectically, the first strategy is clearly sufficient to the extent that nature is thought of only as that nature with which human beings are in contact. The strategy also works fine if the main intention is to use dialectics as a critical tool (for example, in order to avoid the pro-capitalist implications of varieties of monism, like actor-network theory). Why, then, does Foster insist also on the second strategy? Presumably this is for the sake of "unity of method". But as I have argued, the argument that such unity is needed to avoid handing over nature to positivism is weak, since the insertion of a dialectics of nature next to a dialectics of society cannot effectuate such a unity of method. Instead it risks reinforcing a new dualism and raises question marks concerning in what sense this dialectics is really “dialectical” rather than monist.

What Foster should do then, in order to extend the applicability of dialectics to the study of nature and to weaken the hold of positivism in this area, is to emphasize the dialectics between nature and society – as he does in his theory of the metabolic rift - rather than to identify another dialectic (next to the praxis-oriented, social one) that is supposedly operative in nature independently of human beings. Ironically, the former strategy is very similar to the one employed by the Western Marxists that Foster is so keen on criticizing.***

Announcement of a 2011 public meeting with the participation of Foster

Can we be materialists without a dialectics of nature?

Foster argues that Western Marxism ended up in idealism since it jettisoned the idea of a dialectics of nature. Furthermore, its rejection of the dialectics of nature had the “tragic result” that:
... the concept of materialism became increasingly abstract and indeed meaningless, a mere ‘verbal category’, as Raymond Williams noted, reduced to some priority in the last instance... Ironically, given the opposition of critical, Western Marxism generally... to the base-superstructure metaphor, the lack of a deeper and more thoroughgoing materialism made the dependence on this metaphor unavoidable – if any sense of materialism was to be maintained. (Foster 2000: 8)
This characterization of Western Marxism is simplistic and grossly unfair. Let me just mention two obvious points.

To begin with, Foster disregards that materialism to Marx himself didn't primarily rest on a dialectics of nature (not even of the Epicurean kind). His materialism consistently emphasized the role of praxis, including the interplay between humans and non-human nature. This kind of materialism wasn't jettisoned by Western Marxists. The dialectics in relation to nature was retained; what was jettisoned was only Engels's dialectics of nature. The point here is the obvious one that emphasizing praxis doesn't equal idealism.

Secondly, Foster's criticism that Western Marxists hollowed out the concept of materialism and became dependent on the base-superstructure metaphor is completely off the mark in regard to, say, Adorno’s materialism. The latter is uncompromising anti-idealism: an attempt to think matter in a way that constantly resists thought's own idealistic tendencies. Rather than figuring as a mere abstract category, nature or matter is what dislodges and disrupts thought, shocking it into realizing its own untruth. From such a perspective, it goes without saying that relying on the base-superstructure metaphor would be idealism, an attempt to capture history in the net of reified concepts.

These two points are sufficient to show that other conceptions of materialism exist than Foster's. At the very least we should distinguish between the following two forms of materialism:

(1) Materialism as a conceptualization of how "matter" forms the essence of or determines the shape of other things, such as history or culture. In this form of materialism, matter functions as a principle or inner "essence" governing the development of society. It is eminently compatible with a philosophy of history and it borrows its form - the way it organizes its concepts - from the idealist system. The idealist system may be stood on its head, but otherwise retains its form since "matter" simply takes the place of the system's first principle. Paradoxically, "matter" functions as an idea, since it is presumed to go up seamlessly into its concept. This materialism is thus a mirror image of the idealism it tries to supplant; in fact it is basically an idealism in disguise.

(2) Materialism as a conceptualization of "matter" as alien to or outside our ideas. Being non-identical with the concepts we use to capture or master it, matter is capable of resisting, destabilizing and negating our ideas. Rather than being pictured as a principle or essence, it is seen as a force subverting the idealist system. It denies the idealist premise of constitutive subjectivity, the idea that thinking - as Adorno put it - has "supremacy over otherness" (Adorno 1994: 201). Often, this kind of materialism is wedded to the notion of dialectics as centered on praxis and the subject-object relation. The reason is that this is the way matter is encountered by the subject as it engages in attempts to change the world. This materialism finds its clearest expression in Adorno, but it also shows up elsewhere in Western Marxism. It is thus expressed by Fredric Jameson when he writes:
History is what hurts [...] This is indeed the ultimate sense in which History as ground and untranslatable horizon needs no particular theoretical justification: we may be sure that its alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them. (Jameson 1981:102)
Both of these types of materialism are present in Marx. On the one hand, he broke with German Idealism, turning from the realm of ideas to the material processes that subverted the idealist systems. On the other, he was also - as Foster shows - inspired by Epicurus and Darwin and supportive of Engels's attempt to extend dialectics to nature. After Marx, however, the two kinds of materialism parted ways. The former type found expression in Soviet-style "historical and dialectical materialism" while the latter type came to characterize much of Western Marxism. Intertwined with each type of materialism, a particular conception of dialectics took form: a dialectics of nature in the former case and a dialectics in relation to nature in the latter. The point at issue here is not which of these materialisms or types of dialectics represents "correct" Marxism. The point is rather that Foster is wrong in claiming that abandoning the dialectics of nature amounts to an abandoning of materialism as such.

So how about Western Marxism and nature?

So far, I've argued that Foster is wrong on two scores. Firstly, resurrecting a "dialectics of nature" is not the best way of bringing about the "unity of method" that he aims for. Secondly, rejecting this "dialectics of nature" does not amount to rejecting materialism per se. In this final section, I will argue that Western Marxism - and in particular the Frankfurt School - provides resources for a theoretization of nature that is not only at least as dialectical and materialist as Foster's, but also more sensitive and fruitful. To bring this out, however, it's important to recall that the Frankfurt School has much more to offer than the few works - mainly Alfred Schmidt's The Concept of Nature in Marx and Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment - on which Foster concentrates.

Let's start by returning to dialectics. Contrary to the impression Foster conveys, the Western Marxists that he criticizes didn't reject the attempt to understand nature dialectically as such. What they did reject was dialectics in the form of deterministic, objective "laws", whether applied to nature or society. The criticism of Engels's dialectics of nature was thus not primarily an attempt to limit the reach of dialectics to society. Instead, it involved a double move: First dialectics was freed from determinism by emphasizing its link to praxis. Secondly, as a consequence of this emphasis on praxis, dialectics was viewed as having its home in society rather than nature. However, the withdrawal from nature was not absolute. Theoretically, there is ample room for theorizing nature in a dialectical fashion - not, however, by subjecting nature to dialectical "laws", but by extending to nature the more open-ended and non-determinist dialectics Western Marxists had developed in relation to praxis.

How might such an attempt to theorize nature look? I will suggest, firstly, that the strong points in Foster's account of the relation between capitalism and nature can be addressed equally well from a Frankfurt School standpoint. Secondly, I will argue that the resources of Frankfurt School theory provide several important benefits that help us theorize nature but which are absent in Foster.

What I see as the great contribution of Eco-Marxists like Foster and Burkett is their clarification of how the logic of capital as described by Marx relates to environmental problems. They address this issue with admirable lucidity through their discussions of the metabolic rift and the way nature fails to register as value in capitalism. We can note, however, that none of these discussions presupposes a "dialectics of nature". Instead, they pinpoint the destructive consequences that capitalism has on nature and thus concerns the dialectics between society and nature. They thus build on the basic conception of a praxis-centred dialectics through which nature becomes increasingly mediated, which is central both to Marx and Western Marxism. Although no Frankfurt School critical theorist(perhaps with the exception of Schmidt) has addressed ecological issues as directly as either Foster or Burkett, I think a strong case can be made for arguing that critical theory possesses the theoretical resources for doing so. This also means that there is nothing in the critical theoretical conception of nature that makes it insensitive to environmental problems. It's not hard to find what might be called an environmentalist awareness in several writers - one thinks of Marcuse first of all, but other examples would include Horkheimer & Adorno, Benjamin and Bloch - who were close to or active in the Frankfurt School. As I've already argued, Schmidt's "promethean" interpretation of Marx isn't a celebration of industrialism or of mastery of nature, but should rather be understood as a Weberian, bleak prophesy.

So let me now turn to what I see as the strengths of a critical theoretical approach. These are at least three. Firstly, one of the prime contributions of critical theory has been its dialectical approach to the very categories of nature and society. Here the idea of a "second nature" arising from the human-made, capitalist environment is central. Arguably, the most refined dialectical treatment of this process can be found in the works of Lukács (in relation to reification), Benjamin (from the vantage-point of Naturgeschicte, or the history of nature) and Adorno (here I'm thinking in particular of his essay “Die Idee der Naturgeschichte”). In connection with this, there are also quite wonderful analysis among several critical theorists on the ambiguity of the concept of "nature", which on the one hands stands for that with which reconciliation must be achieved but which, on the other, is also itself a reified category, prone to romanticization as well as ideologization in the sense that it can be used to present what is changeable and historical as timeless and necessary.

Secondly, this sensitivity to the ambiguity of our ways of thinking about nature also allows for a variety of approaches. To get a feeling for this variety, we can return to Foster's discussion of the dialectics of nature. As we recall, he suggests that such a dialectics would be suitable to the study of nature for a variety of reasons: it acknowledges the self-consciousness of at least part of nature, it helps us understand the unceasing change ("mors immortalis") of nature, and it does justice to the fact that dialectics always shapes our perception of nature. All of these aspects of nature are also taken account of in critical theory. The idea of nature as a possible subject is strongly present in Marcuse and it also informs the discussion of mimesis in the Dialectic of Enlightenment as well as Benjamin's discussions of nature's language and muteness. Indeed, there is a forceful utopianism built up around the liberation of or reconciliation with nature in critical theory that is much more pronounced than in Eco-Marxism but which connects up with the idea of "self-consciousness" that Foster touches upon (I discuss this briefly in this post on Daniel Cunha and the notion of the anthropocene). The idea of "immortal death" is approached by Benjamin through the lens of the historicity of nature (see his discussion of Naturgeschichte in connection with the theme of nature's decay in Baroque drama). Finally, the idea of dialectics as a necessary heuristics for apprehending nature is developed by Adorno, in whose hands it turns into a philosophy guided by the "primacy of the object" (Vorrangs des Objekts), even to the extent that the "logic of disintegration" triggered by object's resistance to thought is welcomed by the subject as an opportunity for its own liberation.

The third point is perhaps the theoretically most important one. In this post, I have tried to show how Foster struggles with dualism, arguing that unless we allow for a dialectics of nature we will have to hand over the study of nature to positivism. I have already indicated that I believe this is wrong. Nevertheless, the question remains how critical theory should deal with the natural sciences. Isn't Foster (and others like Steven Vogel) right, after all, that it is a severe theoretical weakness to argue that dialectics is needed to combat reification and then refrain from criticizing the "reifying" methods of natural science when applied to nature? Critical theory, I would argue, offers a way out of this conundrum which is far more promising than Foster's proposed solution.

Foster's solution, as we recall, is to attempt to resurrect a "dialectics of nature". I've already identified a number of weaknesses with this attempt. The chief weakness is perhaps that in trying to reconstruct a logic or principle behind nature's movement, it attempts in a too direct fashion to challenge natural science on its own turf - in effect, imitating it and competing with it. The dangers of this position is that it would end up in mere pseudo-science.

In critical theory, there is a useful model for how to think nature dialectically without having to imitate or compete with natural science. Rather than trying to provide an "objective" description of impersonal laws operative in nature or society, critical theory has always viewed its own task as bringing out contradictions, sharpening our awareness of them, and thus strengthening the opposition to oppression and exploitation. Theory, then, is supposed to be practical and emancipatory. In relation to nature, this means that the task of theory is not to imitate natural science, but to sharpen our awareness of how we, as subjects, are related to nature and how we may relate to nature in our praxis. What Adorno calls constellations are a particularly useful tool for thinking dialectically about nature. Constellations are concepts that "encircle" the object, illuminating it from various directions without necessarily being fixed in a logical relationship to each other. The concepts may well negate each other. Rather than logical consistency, what holds a constellation together is its ability to do justice to the internal inconsistency of its object. Bits and chunks of natural science too may be included in the constellation. Thinking dialectically isn't to do the work of natural science but to insert these bits and chunks in a useful and illuminating way, without letting them take on the status of absolutes or "reifying" them. This way of thinking about the applicability of dialectics to nature is not only preferable to the rigid separation between two realms, that of nature and that of society, with each realm possessing its own proper method. It also shows why the rejection of a "dialectics of nature" doesn't have to imply a rejection of all attempts to think dialectically about nature. Foster's claim that it does is incorrect - and this is quite obvious the moment one starts to think about it.

So to conclude what is already a far too long post:

1) Foster's attempt to secure "unity of method" by reinstating an upgraded version of the dialectics of nature fails. Rather than overcoming dualism, it tends to reinforce dualism by assigning one kind of dialectics to society and another to nature.

2) Foster's charge that Western Marxism abandoned materialism and ended up in idealism doesn't hold. Foster ignores the existence of other forms of materialism than his own.

3) Western Marxism offers resources for theorizing nature that are more promising than Foster's proposed dialectics of nature. These include theoretical tools for grapsing the historicity of nature. They also include the idea of "constellations" which help us see that it is possible to think dialectically about nature without having to imitate and compete with natural science, as a dialectics of nature would have had to do.

Capitalism, from Jardin d'Alice during COP21 in Paris 2015


* Some commentators have seized on this passage to argue that here Lukács acknowledges the possibility of a dialectics of nature (Foster 2016: 412f; Foster et al 2010: 219; Rees 1998: 245; see also the discussion in Rees 2000: 30f). This is true, but must be weighed against the fact that dialectics elsewhere in History and Class Consciousness dialectics is invariably linked to praxis and described as essentially taking place between subject and object. As Vogel points out, Lukács leaves the assertion that nature is dialectical "entirely without foundation" since he fails to provide any clue as to how such a dialectics could be known (Vogel 1996: 19). Regardless of this acknowledgement, the crucial point is that Lukács insists that the the two kinds of dialectics are different and hence cannot provide the foundation for a "unity of method". A similar remark can be made in regard to Marx. Even if it is true that Marx saw social metabolism simply as a set of relations within a larger universal metabolism (Foster 2000: 414), this is not enough to underpin a "unity of method" for the study of these two metabolisms.

** This is true also of the apparently "subject"-less movement of capital in Marx. The logic of capital is antagonistic in the sense that conflict is irreducible. As Postone points out, capital fulfills the role of the “spirit” in the dialectics of Marx’s Capital.

*** In some formulations, Foster himself seems to prefer the second strategy. This can be seen in Foster (2013), an article in which he explicitly addresses the question of how his version of materialist dialectics relates to Engels. But here too there are vacillations. Foster first criticizes those Western Marxists who rejected the "dialectics of nature" by referring to how even Lukács recognized the validity of a “merely objective” dialectics of nature. Strangely, however, he then goes on to defend a praxis-centred dialectics focusing on the relation between man and nature: “Lukács and Mészáros thus saw Marx’s social-metabolism argument as a way of transcending the divisions within Marxism that had fractured the dialectic and Marx’s social (and natural) ontology. It allowed for a praxis-based approach that integrated nature and society, social history and natural history, without reducing one entirely to the other.” Here Foster fails to notice that this praxis-based approach to nature is precisely what we find in the kind of dialectics offered by Alfred Schmidt and that it is fundamentally different from the “merely objective” sort of dialectics he just referred to which we also find in Engels and which Foster tries to reconstruct based on Epicurus.


Adorno, T. W. (1994) Negative dialektik, Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp.

Foster, John Bellamy (2000) Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Foster, John Bellamy (2013) “Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature”, Monthly Review 65(7): 1-19.

Foster , John Bellamy & Clark, Brett & York, Richard (2010) The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Jameson, Fredric (1981) The Political Unconscious. Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Lukács, Georg (1971) History and Class Consciousness. Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London: Merlin Press.

Rees, John William (1998) The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition, London: Routledge.

Rees, John William (2000) "Introduction", pp. 1-43, in G. Lukács, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, London: Verso.

Vogel, Steven (1996) Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory, Albany: State University of New York Press.

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