Marx’s Critique of Enlightenment Humanism:
A Revolutionary Ecological Perspective

John Bellamy Foster

he fact that Karl Marx was the foremost revolutionary critic of Enlightenment humanism in the nineteenth century can scarcely be denied. No other thinker carried the critique of the Enlightenment’s abstract, egoistic Man into so many areas—religion, philosophy, the state, law, political economy, history, anthropology, nature/ecology—nor so thoroughly exposed its brutal hypocrisy. But Marx’s opposition to Enlightenment humanism can also be seen as transcending all other critical accounts down to the present day in its distinctive character as a dialectical and historical critique. His response to bourgeois humanism did not consist of a simple, one-sided negation, as in the Althusserian notion of an epistemological break separating the early and mature Marx. Instead, it took a more radical form in which the substance of his original humanist and naturalist approach was transformed into a developed materialism. The result was a simultaneous deepening of his materialist ontology, which now took on a definite, corporeal emphasis focused on the conditions of human subsistence, together with the extension of this to the historical realm in the form of a practical materialism.

Marx’s analysis was thus unique in offering a higher synthesis envisioning the reconciliation of humanism and naturalism, humanity and nature. Rather than stopping with a mere antithesis (as in most contemporary “post” conceptions), the object was the supersession of those material conditions of the capitalist mode of production that had made Enlightenment humanism the paradigmatic form of bourgeois thought. This radical rejection of bourgeois humanism was integrated with the critique of colonialism, where capitalism was seen as walking “naked” abroad, exposing its full barbarism. In this regard, Marx’s revolutionary response to Enlightenment humanism helped inspire the later critiques by such anticolonial thinkers as W. E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and Aimé Césaire, all of whom called for the development of a “new humanism.”3

Recent research into the ecological foundations of Marx’s thought, particularly his conception of the metabolism of humanity and nature mediated by social production, has brought out more fully the depth and complexity of Marx’s overall critique of capitalism’s alienated social metabolism. This line of investigation demonstrates that, far from being anthropocentric, or succumbing to the Enlightenment notion of the conquest of nature, his vision encompassed the wider realm of what he called “the universal metabolism of nature.” This included an appreciation of other life forms and his critique of environmental destruction in his famous theory of metabolic rift, giving rise to what can be called a revolutionary ecological perspective.

Post-humanist (including so-called new-materialist) thinkers have recently sought to challenge Marx’s metabolic vision and revolutionary ecology in general by promoting a phantom-like world of “dark ecology,” hyperobjects, and vitalistic forces. However, such irrationalist views, as we shall see, invariably fail to address the fundamental criterion of the philosophy of praxis: the object is to change the world, not simply to reinterpret it.


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