Marx’s conception of nature


According to Marx, nature by itself, which means as a self‐contained entity, does not exist for man. Nature as a given is an abstraction, more precisely, for man, it is sheer externality. It is only through man’s (self)conscious, active and changing relation to his natural environment that it becomes for him a specific (concrete) externity. For „primitive” man, nature was an immediate living environment and as such the source of life and death. By man’s becoming, primarily through labor, a self‐conscious and authentic human being, nature becames for him a concrete otherness and his natural being acquired a human dimension. It is about the relation of man to nature and the concrete historical character of that relation which depends on the degree of man’s liberation from nature. Without his active and changing relation to nature, man cannot acquire the notion of nature as such, nor can he acquire the notion of himself as a specific natural and authentic human being.

The thesis that „nature is a social category” (Marx) means that a concrete, historically conditioned, sociability is the basis of a concrete relation to nature and that as such it is a starting point for understanding man’s relation to nature. The same can be said both for capitalism and for other social‐economic formations: sociability is based on labor. The characteristics of the capitalist labor make it akin to previous forms of labor: it is a means for liberating man from his dependance on the elements of nature and the mode of development of man’s creative powers. In other words, through labor, man ensures survival and  opens  spaces  of  freedom.  The  specific  character  of  capitalist  labor  conditions  the specific character of sociability and thus a specific relation of man to nature. According to Marx, capitalist labor is based on the absolutized principle of profit and it insists on the increasingly more productive exploitation of nature. It causes alienation of man from nature by depriving him of nature as the „object of his production”. Marx overlooked the fact that capitalist labor does not only involve „possession” and „use”, but also destruction of nature, which means that it makes man increasingly dependent on a mutilated nature. Ultimately, man’s relation to himself, other people and nature is not mediated by „alienated labor”, but by  the  destructive  nature  of  the  capitalist  way  of  reproduction.  Since  nature  is  man’s „anorganic body” (Marx), the destruction of nature is at the same time the destruction of man as a natural and therefore a human being. In the process of capitalist reproduction, man is „alienated” not only from himself and his „organic” nature, but, by becoming a tool for the reproduction of capital, he is degenerated as a natural and human being. At the same time, the destruction of nature produces an ever bigger existential crisis, which affects the overall social life and which, ultimately, leads to the destruction of humanity.

In modern times, the relation to nature and the conception of nature are conditioned by the specific character of capitalist mastering over nature by capitalistically developed productive forces. In the contemporary world, the governing relation to nature and man appears in the form of a totalizing commercialization of nature and society. It is about a „consumer society” dominated by destructive labor and consumerism with a destructive and totalitarian character, which means that the capitalistically conditioned life has turned into the destruction of nature and man. If we depart from Marx’s most important methodological postulate that the „anatomy of man is key to understanding the anatomy of a monkey”, then „consumer society”, as the highest level in the development of capitalism, is the starting point for determining the sociability which mediates between man and nature. And this historical period is missing from Marx’s critique of capitalism.

Marx does not come to the concept of nature relative to the destructive capitalist practice, based on the capitalist mode of development of the productive forces, which processes nature by reducing it to the space of the reproduction of capital and destroys its life‐creating potential,  but  on  the  basis  of  human  practice  as  a  process  of  change  that realizes the emancipatory potential of the material world. In fact, it is only relative to the ever increasing possibility of the destruction of the living world that nature becomes for man what in its essence it really is: a life‐creating whole. Sociability does not only involve man’s concrete relation to nature, but also nature as a life‐generating whole and man as a life‐creating  being, who  is  an  integral  part  of  nature.  Nature  is  a  specifically  organized matter with its own „dialectic” of development, which conditioned man’s becoming the highest form in the development of matter. It has an authenticity, which man must respect in order to survive as a living and a human being. Man’s relation to nature is possible because nature is an authentic life‐generating whole and is conditioned by its character, i.e, by the character of man as a natural being. Nature as a life‐generating whole is a concrete material world for man and, as such, is, above all, the living environment which conditions man’s development as a physical, intellectual, erotic, life‐creating, historical, aesthetical, social, visionary, libertarian being… Man’s authenticity as an emancipated natural being is directly conditioned by nature’s authenticity as a life‐creating (generative) organic whole. Man „carries” nature in his body and draws strength in the natural environment in which he lives. Changes in nature directly affect man as a natural (physical) and human being. The ever more dramatic consequences of the capitalist destructive relation to nature indicate that man can survive only as its life‐creating part. This was realized, as long ago as the middle of the 19th century, by the Chief of the North‐American Seattle tribe, who, together with his people, directly experienced the ecocidal and genocidal nature of capitalism.

The cult of nature in „primitive peoples” was based on their fear of natural forces. In the Native‐American Chief, it is not the fear of natural forces that is the basis of a cultish relation to nature, but the natives’ existential dependancy on nature and their fear of white colonizers, who destroy the living world and thus the foundation of their survival. His cult of nature does not  express  his  fear  of  nature,  but  his  feeling  of  gratitude  because  nature enables his people to live and to survive. Nature acquires the status of a beneficent mother, who supplies her children with air, water, food, light, warmth… For the Native‐American Chief, nature is not just simple matter, but a life‐creating organism. Hence, he anthropomorphizes or personalizes not only animals, but also mountains, rivers, prairies… Nature is not a raw material and, as such, the object of processing and usage, it is rather a life‐creating whole and, as such, a „great being” from which man originated. Man is not the „master and possessor of nature” (Descartes), nor someone who, by way of labor and conquered natural forces (technique), turns it into useful objects (Marx), but a „thread in spinning wheel of life”. The world is a life‐creating organic whole, where everything is connected through mutual conditioning. The survival of the whole is conditioned by the survival of its parts, which are existentially interdependent, whereas the survival of each part is conditioned by the survival of the whole. At the same time, nature represents a peculiar womb, where man can survive only as its organic part. The Chief indicates that it is not only the body but, together with the body, the entire animate and inanimate nature that represents man’s selfness. The Chief’s belief that nature is the „spinning wheel of life“ and that man is „but a thread” indicates the ontic dimension of nature and that man can survive only as a part of nature and if nature as a whole is not threatened. A life‐creating pantheism is the basis of the ontological conception of nature and man as a natural being. The life‐ creating character of nature as a life‐creating whole is the basis, boundary and landmark of human activity. At the same time, for the Native‐American Chief, the human community is not a specifically social, but a natural community and as such a mere part of nature as a life‐ generating whole. Consequently, man is not a social, but a natural being.

The Chief does not talk about liberation of man from natural elements, and man’s certain existence is not achieved by conquering them but by complete subjection to natural forces. Nature is not man’s „enemy”, it is not a „source of danger and uncertainty”, it is not „wild” and „cruel”, but, as a life‐generating whole, it makes man more noble. The Chief is not starting from a „progress” and „emancipation”, but from the endangered living world and man,  and,  in  that  context,  from  the  destructive  relation  of  capitalism  to  nature,  which appears in the shape of European colonizers, and thus to man as a part of nature. His naturalism does not have a libertarian and visionary, but a conservative and adaptive character. He does not strive for a world of free people, but to preserve a life where man is completely subjugated to nature. His approach to nature has an anti‐exploitatory and, at the same time, an anti‐emancipatory character. In the Chief, nature’s life‐creating potentials are not manifested by human creative and cultivating practice. For him, the life of a man who is in complete harmony with natural processes is at the same time in a noble (life‐creating) relation to nature. In that context, there appears the native religion that is, in fact, a deification (and thus eternalization) of the life of man as an integral part of nature, wheares, by way of man’s life activity, natural processes have an antropological manifestation. The North‐American native is the embodiment of a man who lives in complete „unity” with nature and as such is the highest possible (natural) form of man. It is precisely by living „at one” with nature that man asserts his human nature and vice versa: the breaking of that unity with nature leads to man’s deformation as a natural and thus a human being and to the destruction of life (humanity). Humanism is reduced to a deified naturalism.

The notion that man is a libertarian being is the starting point of Marx’s relation to nature. From there it follows that man’s relation to nature is based on the conflict between determinism and freedom: nature is non‐freedom – man is freedom. Unconstrained nature restricts man’s freedom and threatens his survival. The purpose of history is to liberate man from natural determinism and promote his becoming a free human being – which means an emancipated natural being. According to Marx, man in a natural state is a mere attribute of nature and as such its slave. At the same time, his existence is constantly threatened since he is not able to produce food, to create a safe shelter, to cure himself… Marx sees in the liberation of man from his subjugation to natural forces and his liberation from mere naturalness (by overcoming man’s instinctive nature through the development of universal creative powers and thus man’s becoming an emancipated natural being) the basic precondition for human freedom and, at the same time, the basic precondition for ensuring humanity’s certain existence. There is no „reconciliation” with nature as long as man does not  conquer  natural forces.  Nature  acquires  the  possibility  of  being made  „rational”  by man’s acquiring control over it through the development of productive forces. Capitalism, as an order which establishes man’s power over natural forces and uses them as a means to turn nature into useful objects, creates the possibility for a „leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom” (Engels), which means for a leap from an uncertain to a certain existence. On the historical road to freedom, nature is reduced to the object of processing, while the capitalist development of productive forces has a revolutionary and thus a progressive character.

According to the North‐American Chief, the struggle for survival is not based on the Social Darwinist principle of the „war of all against all” (on which liberal capitalism is based), but on the co‐existence of all with all, including both animate and inanimate nature, which enables man’s survival. Instead of a „perfectioning” of the animal species according to the principle of the „survival of the fittest”, the dominant principle is that the survival of each living being is the basic condition for the survival of all, whereas the survival of living beings is viewed in the context of the survival of the natural living environment. According to Darwin, living beings mutate while adapting to their surroundings, and those who do not manage to adapt must perish. The Chief has in mind a harmonious co‐existence of living beings and man’s active adaptation to the natural conditions in which he lives, which means that he has in mind man’s struggle to prevent changes in nature and the living world which will call his survival into  question.  His  interpretation  of  the relation between man and nature does not appear relative to natural processes, but relative to a new mode of interacting with nature and thus to people living in nature brought by the white man (capitalism). The white man is the one who disturbs the existential balance in nature, which is based on the co‐existence of living beings and the natural (living) environment, and thus jeopardizes the survival of animals and humans. It is no longer about man’s mutation being conditioned by his adaptation to the natural living environment, but about the capitalist mutation, which is conditioned by man’s adaptation to the technical world through technical means and in a technical way. It does not bring about the perfecting of the human race, but it rather leads to its degeneration and destruction. Darwin is concerned with the origin and development of animal species; the Chief is concerned with the threatened existence of animal species and man. Nature becomes the unique living (life‐creating) organism and acquires an integrating ontological dimension though the idea of a „mother” as the „spinning wheel of life“.

Marx’s „humanism‐naturalism” does not only appear relative to sheer nature, but (just as with the Chief) relative to capitalism. „Humanism” is not only the overcoming of the natural order,  but  also  of  the  social  order  based  on  people’s  struggle  for  survival.  The critique of the natural state becomes the critique of liberal capitalism, which is based on Social Darwinism. A ruthless struggle for survival between animal species, the „right of might” – all that is derived from the „natural state” and becomes a „natural” excuse for capitalism as well as proof of its eternal character. Marx overlooks the specific character of the capitalist struggle for survival. In nature, the struggle for survival is the basis of the survival and development of the living world. It conditions the existential totality of the living world and the development from lower to higher life principles, which means the creation of qualitatively new living forms: it has a life‐creating (generative) character. In capitalism,  the struggle  for  survival  is  led  by  way  of  the  absolutized  principle  of performance with a quantifying character, which is based on the principle of an endless increase  in  profit.  The struggle  for  victory  (elimination)  which  is  achieved  through  an increased quantitatively measurable performance is the capitalist way of „overcoming” natural selection. Capitalist Darwinism is a capitalistically degenerated natural selection, based on the absolutized principle of quantitatively measurable performance (market‐ profit), meaning, on the destruction of the generative (life‐creating) character of natural selection, which offers the possibility of creating higher living forms – a new quality of life. Instead of creating new forms, capitalism destroys the existing living forms and degenerates man by depriving him of naturalness (denaturalization) and humanity (dehumanization). Actually, it destroys man as a living being and turns him into a robot, while turning nature and society into a technical world. The capitalist struggle for survival does not have a life‐ creating, but a destructive (annihilating) character. In monopolistic capitalism, ruled by the principles „Big fish devour small fish!” and „Destroy the competition!”, there is a final struggle with the principle „Competition breeds quality!”, on which „progress” in liberal capitalism is based. The struggle for survival is sublated by the destruction of life. It is not based on the struggle among people for survival, but on the struggle for survival among capitalist concerns, which means that the struggle is not guided by the existential needs of human beings, as is the case in nature, but on inhuman interests of capitalism, which are oppossed to life. It is not driven by poverty, but by acquisition of profit and the development of a „consumer society” based on that process, where creation and acquisition of commodities become a way of destroying man as a cultural and biological being, and as a part of nature. Ultimatelly, competition does not only involve elimination of the weaker, but also destruction of man as a living being and nature as a life‐generating whole.

Unlike the North‐American Chief, who regards man as a part of nature and who creates a mythological bond between man and nature, for Marx, man has become an emancipated natural being by acquiring the ability to have, as a specifically creative and liberating  being, an  evolving  relation  to  nature.  Hence  the  idea  of  the  humanization  of nature elaborated in Marx’s Economic and Phylosophic Manuscripts of 1844. According to Marx, nature does not have its life‐creating authenticity and ecological unity; it is rather reduced to chaotic processes. Marx deals with the idea that nature has an ontic dimension, which means that the conception of nature is independent of man’s concrete historical relation to it and thus has a non‐social and non‐historical character. When writing about the „destructiveness” of capitalism (in Outline of a Critique of Political Economy), Marx has in mind the overcoming of the „idolatric relation to nature”, since „capital constantly revolutionizes everything by destroying the obstacles which prevent the development of productive  forces,  expansion  of needs,  diversity  of  production  and  exploitation  and exchange of natural and intelectual forces”. (1) Marx overlooks the fact that capitalist destruction of the idolatric relation to nature, which he welcomes, does not have a life‐creating and emancipatory, but an anti‐existential character. To deal with the idolatric relation to nature which relies on the „revolutionary” character of capitalism means, at the same time, to deal with nature as a life‐creating (generative) whole, and man as but an organic part of it. In „primitive” prehistoric as well as precapitalist forms of life, man, in spite of his subjugated position relative to nature, lived, developed and survived – just as the living world on Earth. After two centuries of living under capitalism, humanity is on the brink of the abyss. Considering the scope of the destruction caused by capitalism, it can be concluded that, in terms of existence, even the most primitive human communities are superior to capitalism. Hence it is no surprise that an increasing number of people turn to religions that  have an  idolatric  relation  to  nature.  In that  context,  the  letter  of  the  Seattle  Chief became something of a icon particularly because it, in an exceptionally vivid and visionary way,  indicates  the  tendencies  in capitalist  development  that  lead  to  the  destruction  of nature and man. In the contemporary world, the issue of the North‐American natives’ perishing has become the issue of humanity’s survival. This is what has brought the Chief’s letter so close to an growing number of people, who rightfully view the perishing of life on the planet as their own perishing.

The philosophy of life of the Seattle Chief comes from the life philosophy of North‐ American natives: the way of ensuring existence conditioned their relation to nature. They do not treat nature based on the labor used to turn nature into useful objects; they treat it as users of nature’s gifts (gatherers and hunters). By living as part of nature and being unable to change it and thereby ensure their existence, natives were particularly vulnerable when it came to disturbing the established balance in nature. Their relation to buffaloes is indicative of their attitude. They were vitally concerned about a decrease in the number of buffaloes and killed only as many as was necessary to ensure their existence. The way in which American capitalism destroyed North‐American natives indicates the true nature of capitalism: genocide over the natives is based on an ecocidal relation to the living environment. The economic expansion of capitalism, which means turning nature into an economic space through its technicization, brought about a systematic destruction of nature and thus the destruction of indigenous peoples. American natives were primarily destroyed by the elimination of their living environment beginning with the animal species on which they depended. Starting from that fact, the Chief arrived at a truth with a fatal significance for humanity: that which befalls animals, befalls man as well. The Chief’s „prediction” does not have a religious or speculative, but an empirical character: it is based on the immediate life experience of the North‐American natives. By living in unity with nature, they experienced the ecocidal nature of capitalisam in the most dramatic way and thus were able to understand its essence and its consequences, which will enevitably befall humanity with the destruction of nature. As far as towns are concerned, they are totalized capitalist spaces and thus are capitalist ghettoes. In towns, nature is shrunken into „green spaces”, into a surrogate for the natural environment, which is ogranized on the principles of technical rationality and escapist functionality.

By trying to create a model based on the life of North‐American natives toward which contemporary man can strive, fanatical „naturalists” overlook important „details” of the life of North‐American natives that do not fit into the idyllic picture they are trying to create. A direct existential dependency on nature conditioned the relations among native tribes. Their attempt to protect the territory that represented their living space (above all, their hunting grounds) led to constant fights. Native tribes were in a state of constant warfare that led to extermination. It directly affected the way of life, customs, morals and religion of North‐American natives. The role model of young natives was not a peace‐loving and reasonable man, but a „great warrior”, who bravely fights for the survival of his tribe and ruthlessly deals with members of enemy tribes. European colonizers skillfully used the conflicts among indigenous peoples – by siding alternately with one or another – in order to subdue and exterminate them. The currently much‐idealized life of North‐American natives was, in fact, one of the causes of their downfall. It was only when man managed to ensure his existence through labor, and thus liberate himself from direct dependency on nature, that real social conditions for a peaceful co‐existence of peoples were created. The creation of a class society prevented the pacifist potential of the human community, whose survival is based on labor, from being realized.


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