Revisiting the Debates on Man-Nature Relation in Marxist Tradition


This paper tried to locate the debate on man-nature relation in the Marxist tradition. It looks at Marx’s theory of alienation and dialectics and argues that his theory of alienation and dialectics is not limited to a critique of capitalist modernity but shows man’s alienation from nature. 

Developing on this thesis, this paper looks at Engel’s position on the place of nature in Marxism. We argue that Engels’s notion of ecological crisis in capitalism is a result of his idea of nature as above society as he argued in Dialectics of Nature. In Lukacs and western Marxism, Engel’s thesis of the dialectics of nature is criticised. We especially highlight how Engels’s notion of nature suffers the reification of capitalism. 


Nature occupies an important aspect of Karl Marx’s theory of capitalism but not in the way thinkers and intellectuals prior to Marx conceived it. Classical political economy – Adam Smith, and Ricardo – conceived nature as static, unchanging and infinite to be extracted for wealth generation and profit-maximisation. Similarly, romanticism (Baudelaire) as an artistic movement stood against the trauma of great interventions of industrial capitalism and the exploitation of nature that according to romanticists ideally should be left to itself. They thought of increasing alienation of mankind from nature as a result of the spiritual degradation of society that should be restored. On similar lines, Kantian formulation of ‘thing-in-itself’ is a theoretical boundary between nature (things or objects) and human society. ‘Nature’ according to these grand narratives is outside of the society and domain of thought that needs specialised scientific discourses – physical, chemical, biological, etc – ‘natural sciences’ that cater to developing knowledge about the complexes of nature. In all these formulations, nature is thought of as an opaque and at many instances a mystical entity that has its own autonomous domain which cannot be reached. With its own ‘“aws,” nature is completely outside of human comprehension and outside of social processes and social relations. But Marxism has a completely opposite view of nature.     

In Marxist tradition, there are two dominant positions on the idea of ‘nature’ represented by  (i) Georg Lukacs (Frankfurt School), and (ii) Engels’ ‘dialectics of nature’ thesis. It is argued by the former that ‘nature’ and the material world is integral to the social processes – class struggle. And the latter locate some amount of flexibility and autonomy with its own “laws of nature” vis-à-vis scientific laws of society. But before discussing the central points of differences among these two approaches in Marxism, let us formulate certain basic understanding widely shared by both of them. 

Dialectics and Alienation 

Marx’s doctoral dissertation on Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, dialectics is the central question. In his later writings, dialectics as a method of ‘negation of negation’ formed his basic mode of judgment. Marx’s Capital is premised on dialectics borrowed from Hegel by rejecting his idealist shell and replacing it with concrete social relations, mode of production and division of labour under capitalism. Engels’ dialectics is centred on the ‘materialist interpretation of history’, as Marx and Engels developed in “the German Ideology”. Marx’s Capital is a work that is reflective of the dialectical use of concepts like ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’ of commodities under capitalism. The ‘commodity form’ peculiar under capitalism Marx showed is the dialectical processes of capital-labour relations. Under capitalism, commodity forms the particular unit on which the universalising nature of capitalism as a system of production is realised. Marx showed this dialectic between commodity and production as the basis for other dialectical processes of surplus value and money, land and rent, agriculture and industry and so on and so forth. Marx’s systemic explanation of the workings and operations of capitalism is based on dialectics, what many have referred to as “materialist dialectics” because it entails a materialist explanation of contradictions of capitalist social relations as opposed to the abstract metaphysical preoccupation of Hegelian dialectics1.  

 Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (EMP) section on ‘Estrangement of Labour’ is on critique of political economy and ‘alienation’ under capitalism. Marx was also concerned with the relationship of man with nature under capitalism. In capitalism – man undergoes various forms of estrangement/alienation: First, alienation from the external world, that is nature, secondly, from other individuals and society, and thirdly, alienation from themself. 

Regarding the alienation of man from nature, Marx stated that labour of workers and the production of commodity are not possible without nature, i.e. the sensuous world (Marx 1844). Man creates the world around them through exercising their labour on ‘nature’. Land, resources, energy and physical materials are the “inorganic body” of man under capitalism which are transformed into products and commodities. The material production of man’s labour and its outcomes are appropriated from them and become something external to labour. 

Therefore, nature gets transformed into commodities with exchange value in the capitalist system, which is a result of labour. But as the processes of capitalist production become more organised, man gets alienated from nature. Capitalism creates conditions of alienation where nature becomes further distant from man. Nature ceases to remain immediate and organically linked to man and society and gets more distanced from society and mediated through the capitalist processes of production. As a result, nature becomes distant from society and appears as an alien and external entity. 

But the process of alienation of nature from man gets intensified in one condition, i.e. with the increasing alienation of man in society. Both these processes of alienation- alienation of humanity/man from nature and alienation of man with man happen parallel to each other (Horkheimer, 2004), and the great divide between human society and nature deepens. For Marx, therefore, it is the problem of alienation that creates the rift between nature and man. This is the basic premise so far discussed on which both Engels and Lukacs develop their ideas and conceptualisation of nature. 

Dialectics of Nature 

Engels was a lifelong friend of Marx and both developed many of their philosophical methods together. Dialectics and alienation were very fundamental concepts that shaped major contributions – Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Anti-Dühring, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, etc, marked the development of materialist dialectics.     

Engels’ Dialectics of Nature was published in 1883. John Bellamy Foster argues that Engels should be understood as one of the “foundational ecological thinkers” in modern times2. Foster argues Engels extended Marx’s theory of ‘metabolic rift’ in historical materialist notion of the ecological crisis. Engels contributed by providing a deep understanding and study into nature’s “universal metabolism”. Others have observed that Engels’s book has increased our awareness and conception about the many dimensions of ecological crisis. Paul Blackledge among others suggests that Engels’s Dialectics of Nature has revealed how contemporary ecological crises have roots in the “capitalist social relations”. Engels shows the dialectic of society and nature that helps clarify the nature of ecological crisis in contemporary times. Eleanor Leacock, a Marxist anthropologist observed that, Engels’s Dialectics of Nature helped in the later efforts to develop the conceptual basis for understanding “the complete interdependence of human social relations and human relations to nature” (Leacock 1972).

In Anti-Dühring, written in the 1870s, Engels highlighted how the capitalist class under its leadership was racing the society towards “ruin”. He projected how capital was unable to control the “productive forces” that had gone beyond its control. Capital, argued Engels, had developed into a destructive force that ruined environment and nature. Therefore, according to Engels it was either “revolution or ruin” that would put an end to the society. Later socialists like Rosa Luxemburg would echo Engels’s cautionary remark in her popular slogan – Socialism or Barbarism! Following Engels, Walter Benjamin in his “On the Concept History” would also make similar cautionary remarks about the modern capitalist society with his analogy of a locomotive train that would eventually fall in the abyss if not taken immediate action by pulling the brakes of the train, i.e. revolution. 

Engels also observed that capitalism created destructive tendencies that ruined nature and caused immeasurable epidemics, disease and deterioration of social health in general. The impact of these epidemics and natural calamities would mostly affect the working class and the poor. Engels in his the Condition of the Working Class in England published in 1844 argued that capitalism created inhospitable living conditions for the working classes with its periodic health crises and unemployment. But added to these systemic crises are the destructive environmental and epidemiological conditions in the large industrial cities like Manchester. The starkest claim of Engels that has remained forceful in his the Condition of the Working Class in England is the nature of crises capitalism creates in all its forms of the epidemic and health hazardous conditions of working class for which Engels hold capitalism as a system responsible for “social murder” inflicted on the whole of population.           

 Based on Engels’s studies of the destructive material conditions of capitalism, Marx developed his study of environment and epidemics in Capital. Marx developed his theory of “metabolic rift” in capitalism resulting from the “periodical epidemics” and the destruction of soil and land. 

Engels developed his theory that man is a part of ‘nature’. This thesis Engels is referred to as “proof of dialectics”. It is important to note Engels developed a naturalist and evolutionary notion of ‘nature’. ThisFoster argues in today’s context, Engels’s “proof of dialectics is to be understood as “ecology is the proof of dialectics."3 Engels was also critical of the environmental destruction caused by colonialism.  

Engels viewed nature as a whole on which humanity or society was located. His critique of bourgeois sciences for the 18th and 19th centuries was that they thought of society outside of nature. For instance, in Francis Bacon’s understanding, nature is presented as some kind of entity that should be subjected and conquered by humans. Engels criticises this position as this was an attempt to include nature and environment within the laws of capitalist accumulation in the early phase of industrial capitalism. Engels cautions such notion of “conquering nature” thesis of the erstwhile bourgeois theorists as symptomatic of senselessness and meaninglessness and argues that such “victory” over nature would only lead to “revenge of nature”: 

“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first” (Marx, Engels).

Engels gives the examples of Mesopotamia, Greece and Asia Minor to substantiate his point about the destruction caused by the people in those societies to nature through their ecological devastation of natural resources like – forests, land,  water, dairy industry, etc, that would have negative effects for generations to come in these societies. 

“Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly”. (Marx) (emphasis added)

It is alleged by Marxist ecological thinkers like Foster that ‘western Marxism’ completely abandoned Engels’ dialectics of nature thesis. As a result, study of nature and natural sciences have completely remained outside the framework of historical materialism. Nature and natural sciences has gone at the other extreme of the realm of mechanical and positivist sciences. This has happened especially in the post-World War II era, and ironically at the time when the ecological movement started advancing in the political landscape as a force.  

Reification of Nature under capitalism and “Lukacs Problem”

Lukacs developed a very complex critique of mechanical understanding of society and nature. In relation to Engels, he had a critique that Engels developed an “undialectical” notion of nature where in society is thought to be a part of nature. Critiquing the inadequate theorisation on the importance of dialectics, Lukacs shows how Engels’ Anti-Duhring, which shaped much of what we know as “materialist dialectics”, was “inadequate” or “even flawed” (Kadarkay, 1991) Because, Lukacs argues, Engels failed to show and mention the “most vital interrelation”, i.e. the “dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process”. (Kadarkay, 1991) Further, Lukacs criticises Engels for his failure to show the interaction (dialectical) between society and nature in historical process. 

In other words, according to Lukacs, Engels’ notion of dialectics is limited to thought alone and never “touches” object (reality) and practical action of masses and therefore remains “contemplative” and fails to become practical. Lukacs provides some historical examples of this problem from Marx’s times. Like Machists’ “obedience to laws”, as formulas not very different than “bourgeois or contemplative materialism” of the 19th century. The 18th century classical economists and various tendencies of fatalism, dogmatism and voluntarism and such movements were marked by their “undialectical” and “unhistorical” assessment of the capitalist mode of production. According to classical political economists, economic concepts like ‘law of value’, ‘socially necessary labour time’, ‘exchange value’ etc. are eternal concepts applicable across universal history in all modes of production. But the point Marx pointed out in his critique of political economy is that these concepts explain only the particular phenomenon of capitalism because it emanates from the concrete social and economic historical conditions of capitalism. Similarly, Lukacs develops his idea of ‘reification’ under capitalism as a process where commodities and objects appear as forms autonomous and above the social relations. In capitalist reification commodities and institutions appear to the individuals as independent and natural entities that hide the real social relations and processes that produced such commodities, institutions and products in general. Therefore, capitalism creates its own fetishism of “facts” and objectivity and their definitions depending on the historical development of division of labour and its contradiction with capital. For instance, under capitalism, the reification of human relations is posited in the form of economic relations. Economic “facts” become the scientific basis under capitalist society. Therefore, according to Lukacs, science itself is the outcome of a particular economic relation defined by capitalism. Knowledge retains the reified effect of the capitalist system. Facts and knowledge appear as truth under capitalism. In capitalism, the most unscientific nature of knowledge of a seemingly scientific method lies in its “failure to see and take account of the historical character of the facts on which it is based” (Kadarkay, 1991).

Western Marxism, Lukacs is often regarded as the founder, locates such reification under capitalism as central in understanding nature. It is this approach to nature and ecology that eco-Marxist Foster has referred to as the ‘Lukács problem’ since this argument is presented with much force in the writings of Lukács. But Foster sees this not limited to Lukacs alone but characteristic of the Frankfurt School. Foster in his Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000) argues that Western Marxism had failed to come in terms with natural sciences, due to its socio-historical notion of dialectics that cannot be applied to nature. Therefore, Foster argues, western Marxism gave way to positivism in natural sciences. Hence, it was idealist in its approach towards nature and left no space for understanding the ecological devastation and crisis created by capitalism.   

Lukacs criticises Engel’s notion of dialectics of nature. According to Lukacs, man’s alienation from nature was rooted in the process of reification in which social relations appeared in the form of “quasi-objectivity”. The result of the process of reification through which “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people”(Lukacs, 1971).  

Lukacs called this process of reification and alienation of man from nature under capitalism as “second nature”. Man in capitalism is increasingly alienated from the “first” nature that is the previous historical modes of production where humanity lived close organic relation with nature and environment. In the ‘first nature’, men lived and cohabited with nature. But as the process of reification and alienation intensified under capitalism, so was the distance of man and society from nature increased. 

Lukacs’ critique of Engels is that the latter’s attempt to develop ‘dialectics of nature’ is inapplicable to nature. Even the apparent “primitive” character of nature is mediated through the modern capitalist processes of production and reification. On Engel’s major argument about the place of society and humanity in nature, Lukacs’ point is the opposite. He argues that what Engels argued about the society’s location in nature is the exact opposite where nature is part and construction of the social relation under capitalism. In political terms one can argue that Lukacs places nature as the outcome of the class struggle in capitalism where there is a constant contradiction between capital and labour. Lukacs’ critique of Engels is that the latter places nature as a static entity over and above social relations of capitalism, and the class struggle. Therefore, according to Lukacs, nature is not above society as an overarching entity with an objective place of its own. Rather nature should be placed in a particular historical phase of society, i.e. in capitalism. This understanding, according to Lukacs, would provide a holistic idea about the relationship between society and nature and man’s position vis a vis environment.


In this paper, we discussed the major debate on the question of man-nature relationship. We highlighted Marx’s concept of alienation. It was argued that alienation as a concept is not only a critique of the capitalist economic system, but we showed how under capitalism there exists alienation of man from nature. Engels’s concept of ‘dialectics of nature’ helped the discourse on ecological Marxism. His accounts on the destructive forces of capitalism have an immense impact on ecology and nature. 

Western Marxism, on the other hand, criticised Engels’s notion of ‘dialectics of nature’. We argued that “Lukacs problem” or Lukacs’s critique of ‘dialectics of nature’ thesis showed how it suffered from ‘reification’, where nature is seen as an entity above the society and not as a part of social relations in capitalism and the class struggle. 

In contemporary times, ecological crisis has emerged as the immediate political question. The climate changes, global warming and the effects of rising sea levels have not only threatened capitalism, but also threatened the whole of human existence on earth. Therefore, a Marxist ecology rooted in Engels’s diagnosis of capitalist destruction of the planet based on the historicist approach of Lukacs is how we can go forward. The recent theorisations in the left have posed even new questions of global inequality and ‘climate action’ led by activists like Greta Thunberg are emerging with new possibilities for the future.  

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