Marx, Value and Nature


John Bellamy Foster

aoul Peck’s 2017 film The Young Karl Marx opens with a quiet scene of poor “peasant proletarians,” men, women, and children, dirty and in rags, gathering dead wood in a forest. Suddenly they are attacked by a troop of mounted police armed with clubs and swords. Some of the gatherers are killed; the rest are captured. The scene then cuts to Karl Marx, age twenty-four, in the Cologne offices of the Rheinische Zeitung, where he was editor, writing an article on “The Debates on the Law on the Theft Wood.” He penned five instalments under this title from October to November 1842, and it was this more than anything else that brought the Prussian censors down on the newspaper and its talented young editor and writers. In the film, we see the young Marx and his associates debating the course that had led them to defy both the Prussian state and their own liberal industrialist paymasters. Marx was intransigent; there was no other possible path. As he later explained in his famous 1859 Preface to a Critique of Political Economy, it was his attempt to address the expropriation of the customary forest rights of the poor that first drove him to the systematic study of political economy.word to apply to the message of Marx.

The criminalisation of forest usufruct was a major issue in Germany at the time. Questions regarding the expropriation of land/nature and of human beings never ceased to occupy Marx in his subsequent works, appearing in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and in his two great discussions of “so-called primitive accumulation” in the Grundrisse and Capital.

As Marx explained in The Poverty of Philosophy and in the Grundrisse, all human society rests on free appropriation from nature, which is the material basis of labour and production. This is another way of saying that all society depends on property. There can be no human existencewithout the appropriation of nature, without production, and without property in some form.

In the classical Marxian perspective, it is precisely because human history has created a mode of production (capitalism) that alienates the metabolic relations between human beings and nature, thereby creating a metabolic rift and rupturing the conditions of ecological reproduction, that we can hope to restore that essential metabolism—through a revolutionary overturning of the capitalist integument and the creation of a new, coevolutionary material reality. This is Marx’s core ecological message.

For a full read of this brief, click here or on the picture to download the pdf file.


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