Marxists and the Ecological Dimension: Is Marx’s Critique of Science and Technology Radical Enough?

By Mitchel Cohen

FOR YEARS, AS I’VE BEEN ACTIVE IN SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVE­MENTS I’VE WORKED WITH PEOPLE WHO CALL THEMSELVES MARXISTS. I taught an underground course at Stony Brook for 16 years called “Marxism for Beginners”. And the group that I founded with other students at Stony Brook in the late 1960s, the Red Balloon Collective, saw itself as an anarcho-marxist direct action organization.

And yet, as I became more and more involved in environmental and related issues, I found that the Marxists with whom I marched in antiwar demonstrations and social justice protests were nowhere to be found on certain issues and indeed were hostile to attempts to raise these issues with them. I also found that when I submitted articles about these issues to various “official” Marxist journals they would invariably be rejected, even though anarchist and progressive non-Marxist journals would publish these same articles and essays.1

After years of experiencing what I can only call a major blind­spot among these Marxists, I came to several not very complimentary conclusions. Despite the fact that all environmental issues have a working class component — Where are toxins dumped? Which communities are most affected by pollution? Who has the greatest capacity to fight on these issues due to their location at the point of production? — many Marxists have taken the position that this sacrifice is the price the working class as a whole has to pay for progress, a view that has isolated the Left and which is not very different from liberal capitalist ideology. For example:

* U.S. communist parties endorsed nuclear power plants in the 1950s and 1960s; they did not join the anti-nuke movement that came to a head in the U.S. in the late 1970s, and so missed out on organizing within it (a similar mistake Marxists make today concerning the 9-11 Truth movement);

* they also endorsed fluoridation of drinking water, believing the government’s assurances and as a result never realizing that fluoridation was actually a means for the burgeoning aluminum industry in the 1940s and 50s to get rid of its waste products by dumping them into the nation’s water supply;

* they endorsed mass vaccination of children for diseases that children in societies like ours should get, we want them to get so that they don’t get these diseases as adults where they are far more dangerous — diseases such as chicken pox, measles and mumps. (Children in impoverished or colonized countries, on the other hand, without access to healthy food, clean water and adequate sanitation, are victimized by these diseases. Measles, for instance, is among the top killers of young children in the so-called “Third World”);

* the Communist parties also endorsed mass spraying of pesticides and a pharmaceutical paradigm that led to the over-application of antibiotics;

* they continue to endorse the torture of animals by cosmetics companies like Gillette under the guise of “scientific research,” and refuse to hear, let alone heed, the wide-scale protests of young people involved in animal rights struggles and serve as “gate-keepers” ruling them out as part of the Left;

* they even uphold genetic engineering, again buying into the liberal capitalist rationalizations, as they did with the Rockefeller-sponsored Green Revolution, proposed as a technological fix for ending world hunger instead of examining the real causes of hunger to begin with.2

* they refuse to challenge the dominant medical/pharma­ceutical paradigm. In the early 1990s I was organizing with ACT-UP in New York City. Despite my pleadings with mem­bers of Marxist organizations, very few of them deigned to get involved with this gay-organized but not exclusive organization, perhaps the most dynamic, racially diverse and largest direct action group in recent City history.

* they accept technologically-driven “solutions” such as those proposed by former Vice President Al Gore, among others, to the environmental crisis, which only end up looping back into the system and feeding it further.

Take, for example, the ice that is melting at the north pole. You would think that everyone would be shocked and do whatever they could to prevent this from happening as this consequence of global climate change will be disastrous for — at the very least — people living in low-lying areas (like Manhattan), which will be flooded and wiped out. But oil companies are thrilled by this disaster because it provides them with the opportunity to hammer out new shipping routes and enhances prospects for oil drilling in the Arctic. Sound far-fetched? According to an article in The New York Times:

While an ice-free Arctic Ocean would most likely disrupt the global environment, researchers said, it could have pos­itive economic aspects. It could shorten shipping routes, for example, and expand the range of offshore oil drillers.3

Given the insidious, self-protecting nature of capitalism and the industrial system, here’s the question I’d like to pose to the Left: Are the Marxist and Anarchist anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-Statist frameworks sufficient for turning back and repairing the destruction wrought on the natural environment, or is something more required — the overthrowing of the technological industrial system itself? We need to think more carefully about technology, its history and its relation to capitalism and revamp our strategies accordingly.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx & Engels explain that the internal dynamic of capitalism, its need of a constantly expanding market for its products

chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connect­ions everywhere. … The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of ex­tinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it com­pels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.4

That snapshot — “the cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls” — stuck in my mind the very first time I read the Manifesto. We discussed it in SDS and in the Red Balloon Collective at Stony Brook. In a nutshell, it outlines the mechanism un­derlying capital’s propulsion to colonize whole areas of the globe geographically and supplant prior forms of pro­duction with forms more conducive to the extraction of raw materials, exploitation of labor, establishment of foreign markets, and the dominance of capitalist ideology – chief among them, “Pro­gress” and what we are told is “the Good Life”.

Take, for instance, this 1995 story in the New York Daily News, which reports that two subway trains crashed in New York City. The driver was killed and dozens of passengers were seriously injured. The News describes the scene as follows:

The nearly 200 passengers aboard the J and M trains survived two harrowing ordeals yesterday — first the crash, then a nail-biting rescue marked by panic and chaos high above the East River. … The crash left the suddenly terrified passengers stranded 15 feet above the inner roadway of the Wil­liams­burg Bridge at a point where the aging bridge rises about 100 feet above the east side of the swirling East River.

The first rescue workers arrived about 10 minutes after the collision. By then, a man in a business suit who was in the same car as [Eva] Grimes [a diet technician from Brooklyn] was beside himself with fear and screaming incoherently.

”He was cursing and banging on the walls,” Grimes said. “He was saying, ’I’ve got to get to work! I’ve got to get off this train! I’ve got to go make money.’ ” 5

For workers under capitalism there’s only one thing worse than being exploited — not being exploited. Despite all the riches of this country, it is far more disastrous being unemployed in the United States than in any other “developed” capitalist society. So much of the politics of the left has revolved around the demand for jobs. “Money for jobs, not for war!” was one chant that predominated the antiwar movement. The kind of job doesn’t seem to matter.

How quickly Marxists forget the history of working class resistance around the world to the imposition of wage labor itself, and the wrenching and twisting of people’s lives to make them fit into the factories capitalism needed for mass-production. In a society in which one needs money to buy basic necessities and pay rent, of course people end up willing to accept a job — that is, wage labor; but it is only in recent years that acceptance of the reality of needing a job under capitalism has been seen not only as a necessity but as desirable, as part of human nature.

I recently had the privilege of grading final papers for more than 60 of NYU Professor Bertell Ollman’s students in his class on utopias. The readings included a section from the Communist Manifesto. One of the most difficult ideas for the students to grasp was the systemic, built-in nature of capital­ism’s exploitation and expropriation that accrues regardless of the desires of individual capitalists. In paper after paper I needed to point out that capital’s vast expansion, its mad denuding of forests and its privatization of everything we hold as beautiful, occurs whether individual capitalists like it or not. Except for certain instances, individual capitalists can’t do anything ab­out this so long as they wish to remain competitive with other capitalists in that industry — that is, so long as they choose to remain capitalists. The system takes on a life — or rath­er, a death — of its own. The destruction of the natural environment is inevitably as much a part of capitalism as is the polarization of wealth — the tendency for the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer, and the oceans to fill with plastic while the ice-caps melt. This is all fundamentally a con­se­quence of what economists call the “natural motion” of capitalism and not just of evil policies (evil though they may be) or individual greed.

Bertell Ollman explained all this to his students. Yet, as evidenced in their final papers, they still had a tough time separating the systemic nature of capitalism from the volition of its practitioners and their psychological dispositions.

Part of this difficulty has to do with the way we are brought up in the U.S. and thus the mental constructs that language both articulates and shapes. The rapacious ramifications of capitalist competition and industrialization are rarely ascribed to systemic forces, but to the motives of greedy individuals. This upbringing, ingrained through 8-12 hours a day of mind-numbing TV-watching and another 6-7 hours per day dociled in school into a compliant ritalin-drugged spectator rather than an active “shaper” of the world, conditions who we become years later and generally can only be thwarted, by-passed or subverted (rarely overcome) by participating in direct action social movements with other people – Revolution as therapy, both for the individual and for societal institutions that are fundamentally insane.6 Our minds, like our bodies, are being colonized, and this extends to all facets of daily life including language. What can they mean by the “natural” motion of capitalism? And, for that matter, how about that “organic” composition of capital? Must be good for you, it’s organic!

Avocado Tree

Even an avocado tree

Longs to be free.

In its white plastic tub

Its slender green stem

Bends toward the window

Its leaves grow all on one side

Its whole body twists and strains.

From some distant past each cell remembers

Sunlight flowing freely all around

A warmth that moved slowly to bathe

One side at morning

The other at evening.

In its watered pot its green soul dimly aches

For gentle drops of rain

Splashing on its leaves.

People see its struggle and say


Some of the papers I examined for Bertell Ollman’s class on socialism and utopian thought brilliantly eviscerated capitalism while the authors reflected on their own lives. But in many others, the author clearly had little appreciation for the fact that very different ways of living and integrating with Nature exist in this world. I wondered “What is going on in this person’s mind that they have no conception of the fundamentally different ways of looking at life that existed in the past as well as in different cultures today that have not yet been fully colonized and assimilated into the empire of global capital?” Some of the students were unable to get out of their own heads, at least to the extent needed to acknowledge their assumptions and question the world around them, and their own part in it. And they transplanted those assumptions — the things they take for granted without even knowing it — onto other societies and ways of seeing. “But if you didn’t have cell phones or email back in the 60s, how did you update your Facebook?,” a friend’s teenage daughter once asked me, without betraying the slightest sense of irony.

Similarly, the NYU college students appeared unable to know of, let alone appreciate, different cultures’ qualities of life, ways of eating, making decisions, growing food, having sex, raising children, and relating to other people and the natural environment. To some extent, this is true for many of the Marxists I’ve met as well. Nevertheless, vestiges of these alternative ways of experiencing the world persist not only elsewhere among, say, the remaining Mayan peoples of Chiapas and indigenous people in the South Pacific, but as residual memories within our own minds, our own relationships, a sort of “dual consciousness”. It is from this parallel universe that spring our hopes for the possibility of another world.


1Some would even be published or referenced in books, such as Brian Tokar, Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering, Zed Books, London, 2001.

2Mitchel Cohen, The Politics of World Hunger, Red Balloon Collective, 1992. See also Jimmy Carter’s letter to the N Y Times on August 26, 1998, in favor of genetic engineering.

3Walter Gibbs, “Research Predicts Summer Doom for Northern Icecap,” The New York Times, July 11, 2000.

4Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Appleton-Crofts, pp.13-14.

5New York Daily News, June 6, 1995.

6See Mitchel Cohen, Fears and the Art of Neurosis Maintenance, The Whole World Is Watching … Television, and A Headful of Ideas that are Driving me Insane..

7Sing a Battle Song: Poems by women in the weather underground organization, 1975. Speaking about language and the way we think: With what perverse irony did some ali­en­ated urban planner in Queens decide to cross Union Turnpike with Utopia Parkway? And, as long as we’re speaking about highways, did you know that the first mention of the automobile was in the Bible? Remember, God drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden in his Fury. (ba-dumm)


One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  • Robbie says:

    It seems that every ideology under the sun has its share of hypocrites and backsliders. A perfect system would take this into consideration, pre-emptively co-opting the co-opters from the getgo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *