By Kamran Nayeri, Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism, July 4, 2021
“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.”
“…[I]n Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
—- “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau, May 1862
“I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here, and still more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than at one of our party congresses. ”
—- Letter to Sophie Liebknecht by Rosa Luxemburg, Breslau Prison, May 2, 1917
"The ecosystem is not a machine, but a community of soveign beings, subjects rather than
objects. What if those beings were the drivers?"
--- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings
of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2013, p. 331.
This essay is a response to a question I was asked during a Zoom presentation and discussion about Ecocentric Socialism on May 7, 2021. The meeting was organized thanks to Mr. Farrokh Jafari and Ettehad-e Fadian-e Komonist (Fadian Communist Unity) who invited me. The presentation and discussion followed two earlier meetings they organized. In the first, Mr. Jafari introduced environmentalism and some of the environmental problems we face particularly in Iran. The second meeting was organized after a reading of two of my essays, “The Crisis of Civilization and How to Resolve It: An Introduction to Ecocentric Socialism” (October 2018) and “The Coronavirus Pandemic as the Crisis of Civilization” (March 2020), to discuss them and raise questions. These questions were then shared with me to prepare my presentation for May 7. The most important of these questions was this: “How does Ecocentric Socialism differ from other theories of socialism and ecosocialism?” Although I offered an outline of a response to this question in my Zoom presentation, it was clear that there is much more to be said in more detail. This is the task of this essay.
After an initial opening remark in which I focus attention on the problem of anthropocentrism, I will present textual arguments in Section 2 to demonstrate that anthropocentrism is a hallmark of human civilization for almost 5,000 years. Anthropocentrism is the key concept in environmental ethics, a discipline in philosophy that studies the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its non-human contents (Brennan and Yeuk-Sze, 2021; Padwe, 2019).
In Section 3, I will discuss how anthropocentrism arose as the reflection of alienation from nature as some groups of hunter-gatherers began to take up farming about 12,000 years ago in the process that is now called the Agricultural Revolution leading to the establishment of the first city-state civilizations about 5,000 years ago.
In Section 4, I will outline the main features of Ecocentric Socialism and how it differs from other socialist and ecosocialist theories including some key policy implications.
* * *
Since the 1960s there has been a growing understanding of the looming ecological-social crises. Currently humanity faces four existential crises: catastrophic climate change, the Sixth Extinction, recurring pandemics, and nuclear holocaust.
As the environmentalist movement emerged in response to these crises, some socialist thinkers and currents began to consider a response. Some have added environmentalist planks to their political platform. Some have renamed themselves “ecological socialists” to designate their interest and attention to ecological issues facing human society. A smaller fraction have gone further to develop ecological socialist theories to address and explicitly incorporate nature into socialist theorizing often using some interpretation of the work of Marx (e.g., O’Connor, 1998; Kovel, 2002; Bellamy Foster, Clark, and York, 2010; Löwy, 2015; Moore, 2015). (see endnote 1)
Broadly speaking, socialist and ecological socialist theories by design focus on “capitalism” and in the case of the latter they focus on tendencies in “capitalism” that degrade the environment leading to ecological crises. Most have argued that Marx’s theory needs modifications to address ecological crises. Foster et al. citing Marx’s ecological insights (Burkett, 1999, Foster 2000) in particular with reference to “metabolic rift” have argued that Marx’s theory is essentially ecological. Still, despite their theoretical differences and their varying assessments of Marx, all generally argue that capitalist accumulation (growth) is responsible for ecological crises, and some explicitly embrace a form of natural limits to growth as the immediate cause of ecological crises. What remains outside their purview is any theoretical and analytical consideration of the anti-ecological tendencies of all human civilizations many of which succumbed to ecological crises beginning with the Sumerian civilization(4500 –1900 Before Current Era-BCE). As an analogy, while it is necessary to theorize and analyze oppression of women in capitalist societies as social reproduction theorists have done, it is also necessary to understand the origins of patriarchy as did Friedrich Engels (1884). That is, to understand the root causes of ecological crises, we must search for their origins in human history. Just as the rise of patriarchy explains the origin of women’s oppression in all class societies, the rise of anthropocentrism concomitantly with the Agricultural Revolution that began about 12,000 years ago which was systematized and institutionalized in civilization explains domination and control of nature to plunder it, causing ecological crises.
All socialist theories and the bulk of ecosocialist theories are essentially theory of society as nature remains outside of their theoretical framework. When nature is considered, it is usually objectified and passive. Humans remains the sole agency in history. Moreover, the problem of anthropocentrism, key to environmental ethics, which I will argue is the manifestation of alienation from nature, is entirely ignored. A recent exception is Jason W. Moore’s theorizing which unsuccessfully attempted to revise Marx’s theory of history and "capitalism" to give agency to nonhuman nature. (Moore, 2015, Nayeri, 2016)
Thus, by-and-large all current socialist and ecological socialist theorizing have remained anthropocentric by design or by default (for my critique of one such theory, see, Nayeri 2015).
Ecocentric Socialism represents a clear break with this tradition of anthropocentric socialist and ecosocialist theory and practice in terms of philosophy of nature, theory of society and history, and practical politics to transcend anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization.
2. Anthropocentrism as a pillar of civilization
The modern era is unimaginable without the advances made in science and technology (see endnote 2) which formed the basis for the idea of progress in the eighteenth century Europe. (see endnote 3) Key advances in scientific and mathematical achievements in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries were in physics, astronomy, and mathematics, in particular the contributions of Copernicus (1473–1543), Galileo (1564–1642), Kepler (1571–1630), and Newton (1642–1727).
In her magisterial The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980), Carolyn Merchant, an ecofeminist philosopher of science, has provided a powerful critique of the Scientific Revolution showing how it replaced the feminine organic view of nature with a mechanical reductionist view that facilitated its exploitation by the rapidly expanding commercial interest and that in the process it contributed to further subordination of women. While socialists and ecosocialists typically view science as knowledge of nature and identify it with progress, philosophers of science still disagree on what exactly is the scientific enterprise and how it differs from a philosophy of nature. Merchant views science as a “methodology for manipulating nature which became a significant undertaking during the latter half of the seventeenth century.” (see endnote 4, Merchant, 1980, p. 186)
“Disorderly, active nature was soon forced to submit to the questions and experimental techniques of the new science. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a celebrated ‘father of modern science,’ transformed tendencies already extant in his own society into a total program advocating the control of nature for human benefit. Melding together a new philosophy based on natural magic as a technique for manipulating nature, the technologies of mining and metallurgy, the emerging concept of progress and a patriarchal structure of family and state, Bacon fashioned a new ethic sanctioning the exploitation of nature.” (ibid. p. 164, my emphasis)
Merchant also traces the ideology of scientific domination of nature to its Judeo-Christian roots according to which mankind lost the God-sanctioned domination of the Earth after Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. (see endnote 5) In the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Torah and the Christian Bible’s Old Testament, on the sixth day of creation God made mankind to rule the earth:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”(emphasis added)
Bacon turned medieval strictures against searching too deeply into God’s secrets into sanctions.
“Only by ‘digging further and further into the mine of natural knowledge’ could mankind recover that lost dominion. In this way, ‘the narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe’ could be stretched ‘to their promised bounds.’ ” (ibid. p. 170)
Some of what that entailed was outlined by Bacon himself in his utopian novel New Atlantis (1626). One goal was using technology to artificially recreate the natural environment. Another was the manipulation of organic life to create artificial species of plants and animals.
“‘We make a number of kinds of serpents, worms, flies, fishes of putrefaction, where of some are advanced (in effect) to be perfect creatures like beasts or birds, and have sexes, and do propagate. Neither do we this by chance, but we know beforehand of what matter and commixture what kind of those creatures will arise.’” (ibid. p. 183)
Making a “more perfect” humans logically follows. Merchant continues:
“That such experimentation on animals and the creation of new species was ultimately directed toward human beings was intimated by Bacon: ‘We have also parks and enclosures of all sorts of beasts and birds, which we use not only for view or rareness but likewise for dissections and trials, that thereby we may take light [i.e., enlightenment] what may be wrought upon the body of man. . . We also try all poisons and other medicines upon them as well of chirurgery as physic.’” (ibid. p. 184)
Merchant argues there has been continuity in scientific work to dominate and control nature ever since.
“In the New Atlantis lay the intellectual origins of the modern planned environments initiated by the technocratic movement of the late 1920s and 1930s, which envisioned totally artificial environments created by and for humans. Too often these have been created by the mechanistic style of problem solving, which pays little regard to the whole ecosystem of which people are only one part. The antithesis of holistic thinking, mechanism neglects the environmental consequences of synthetic products and the human consequences of artificial environments. It would seem that the creation of artificial products was one result of the Baconian drive toward control and power over nature in which ‘The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.’ To this research program, modern genetic engineers have added new goals—the manipulation of genetic material to create human life in artificial wombs, the duplication of living organisms through cloning, and the breeding of new human beings adapted to highly technological environments” (ibid., p. 186).
While Merchant views science and scientific enterprise as semi-autonomous, she also points out its complementary role in supporting the rise and dominance of the capitalist mode of production and the creation of the modern bourgeois civilization. Whereas the German theologian Johannes Valentinus Andreae (1586 –1654) and Dominican friar Tommaso Campanella (1586-1639) had sought improvement of the lot of the peasantry, beggars, cottagers, and artisans, “Bacon can be identified with the interests of the clothier capitalists, merchants, mine owners, and the state.” (ibid., p. 177)
As Clifford Conner explains in his A People’s History of Science (2005, p. 250), Thomas Kuhn, the highly influential philosopher of science, identified two distinct kinds of science, the “Baconian” and “classical physical.” Bacon urged a science built on the craftsmen’s arts. Merchant, a philosopher of science herself, concurs:
“The sixteenth-century groups that evolved the concept of progress are the same groups that right up until the present have pressed for increased growth and development: entrepreneurs, military engineers, humanist academics, and scientists and technicians....Humanist cocnerns are not only fully compatible with the improvement of the human condition through technological advance, but imply an environment filled with humans at the expense of nature." (ibid, pp. 179-80, my emphasis)
Management of nature
As I will explain below, the idea of domination, control, and management of nature originated in the Agricultural Revolution that began 12,000 years ago.
Of course, the idea of “management of nature” is implied in the idea of domination and control and vice versa. To manage nature typically assumes some degree of domination and control over it. Merchant devotes a chapter to the development of management of nature coincidental with the rise of Scientific Revolution. In particular, she discusses Silva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty's Dominions (1664) by the English writer John Evelyn (1620-1706). Scientific forestry followed a similar course in other Western European countries. Evelyn called for “sound conservation practices that would contribute to steady economic progress.” (ibid., p. 237)
Merchant goes on to discuss a similar trend in France under Louis XIV’s minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, who argued that “France will perish through lack of woods.”(ibid. p. 240)
In Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998), James C. Scott argues that the modern state has an interest to simplify its social and natural domains. He suggests the premodern state was
“in many crucial respects, partially blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed ‘map’ of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to ‘translate’ what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view.” (Scott, 1998, p.2)
“Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored. The organization of the natural world was no exception. Agriculture is, after all, a radical reorganization and simplification of flora to suit man’s goals. Whatever their other purposes, the designs of scientific forestry and agriculture and the layouts of plantations, collective farms, ujamaa villages, and strategic hamlets all seemed calculated to make the terrain, its products, and its workforce more legible—and hence manipulable—from above and from the center.” (ibid.)
As Barker (2006, p. 2) notes today a relatively restricted range of crops and livestock first domesticated thousands of years ago feed almost all of the world’s population. Over 80 percent of the world’s tonnage of all crops is composed of banana, barley, maize, manioc, potato, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugar beet, sugar cane, sweet potato, and wheat. Only five large (over 100 pounds) farm animals are globally important: cow, sheep, goat, pig, and horse.
The bourgeois vision of Man’s Dominion over nature is now echoed in various ecomodernist visions as in “An Ecomodernist Manifesto:”(2015)
“To say that the Earth is a human planet becomes truer every day. Humans are made from the Earth, and the Earth is remade by human hands. Many earth scientists express this by stating that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans…
"….A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”
The Manifesto is the brainchild of the Breakthrough Institute founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Nordhaus broke environmentalism to write Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (2007). Shellenberger, an enterprising journalist, co-founded the Breakthrough Institute with Nordhaus in 2003.
There are clearly catastrophic problems with An Ecomodernist Manifesto and the mission of the Breakthrough Institute. First, while giving lip service to ecology it is deeply anti-ecological praising the Anthropocene, the Age of Mankind, that is by being unabashedly human-supremacist. They also embrace a Baconian-style domination and management of nature. Second, they celebrate the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization which has brought us the Anthropocene and its existential social and ecological crises. Third, they maintain the dualism between society and nature while promising— without any supporting evidence— future economic growth free of exploitation and degrading of nature, something they call “decoupling.” Throughout human history, all wealth has come from nature, including human nature. There can be no other source of wealth.
Socialist theory and practice also have been anthropocentric. The vision of human domination and control of nature is present in many socialist writings and anti-ecological practices have been prevalent in countries where governments have ruled in the name of socialism as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as well as China, Vietnam, and North Korea. (see endnote 6)
For the purpose of this essay, let me focus attention on the brazen anthropocentric vision of socialism offered by one of the most brilliant revolutionary socialist leaders, Leon Trotsky (for a detailed discussion of Trotsky’s anthropocentrism see Irvine, 2011)
The following passage is taken from chapter 8 of Literature and Revolution (Trotsky, 1924). The book is a classic in Marxist literary criticism. Trotsky discusses Russian literary trends between 1905 and 1917 and how concrete forces in society, both progressive as well as reactionary, helped shape the consciousness of writers at the time. The key issue Trotsky takes on is whether the Russian proletariat should shape a “proletarian culture” as previous ruling classes have done and as some other leaders of the Russian revolution advocated at the time or it should strive for a socialist culture as Trotsky advocated. This debate on culture was part of the much larger and more decisive debate that began after Stalin proposed his “theory” of socialism in one country in the fall of 1924 which called for developing socialism using internal resources of the young Soviet Republic while stabilizing international relations with the major capitalist countries. Trotsky and later the Left Opposition advocated world socialist revolution consistent with pursuing a world socialist culture. Trotsky’s anthropocentric vision of socialism presented in the book was never challenged in the debate that ensued.
“The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith”, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.
“Through the machine, man in Socialist society will command nature in its entirety, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth. The machine is the instrument of modern man in every field of life.”
Trotsky’s brazen anthropocentric vision of socialism was shared by the rest of the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party. For example, Nikolai Bukharin, considered the possibility of humans moving into the cosmos (Foster, 2020, p. 363) long before Carl Sagan and others called humans a multi-planet species and Elon Musk set out to colonize Mars for commercial purposes and Jeff Bezos commercialized space travel.
Further, Trotsky’s vision of socialism comes to life again in his highly critical study of Stalinism (Trotsky, 1936). While his criticism of social life under Stalinism is unsparing, he leaves out any criticism of the ecological impact of Soviet industrialization. The international Left Opposition which presented a revolutionary internationalist alternative to Stalinism and under Trotsky’s guiding hand formed the Fourth International in 1938 was likewise in agreement with his anthropocentric views of socialism. The newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, a leading party of the Fourth International for decades before its degeneration since the early 1980s, published the above quotation of Trotsky approvingly under the title of “Trotsky on the Future Socialist Society” in its August 1941 issue.
The anti-ecological policies of Actually Existing Socialisms and the Chinese and Vietnamese “socialisms” need no discussion here (for China's antiecological policies, see Smith, 2020). Thus, society-nature dualism has been rampant in socialist theory and politics. Why?
The reason is that the same dualism appears in the works of the founders of Marxian socialism. In Friedrich Engels’s widely popular Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) we find a similar view of socialism as in Trotsky’s:
“With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man's own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history — only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” (Engels, 1880, emphasis added)
This dualist vision of society and nature which in Engels’s view is a world historic elevation of the human condition,“kingdom of freedom,” assumes away all natural constrains on mankind as it brings nature under total domination and control: “The whole sphere of the conditions of life.…comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature…”
The anthropocentrism of Engels is rooted in the Marxian materialist dialectics as he himself explains:
“According to Hegel… the dialectical development apparent in nature and history — that is, the causal interconnection of the progressive movement from the lower to the higher, which asserts itself through all zigzag movements and temporary retrogression — is only a copy [Abklatsch] of the self-movement of the concept going on from eternity, no one knows where, but at all events independently of any thinking human brain. This ideological perversion had to be done away with. We again took a materialistic view of the thoughts in our heads, regarding them as images [Abbilder] of real things instead of regarding real things as images of this or that stage of the absolute concept. Thus dialectics reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought — two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents. Thereby the dialectic of concepts itself became merely the conscious reflex of the dialectical motion of the real world and thus the dialectic of Hegel was turned over; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet.”(Engels, 1886)
Thus, dualism in the Marxian theory is rooted in the idea of human exceptionalism as the sole agency which as I will explain in the next section is consistent with historical materialism.
Marx’s account of the pre-requisites for socialism likewise relies on further division of labor to achieve ever higher productivity of labor through the development of science and technology to provide the material basis for a socialist civilization as the “realm of freedom from necessity.” (Chattopadhyay, 2000; Nayeri, June 2018) All civilizations have been class societies organized to expropriate wealth from nature by exploiting working people. The Marxian vision is characterized by socialist mankind being relieved of compulsion to work thanks to much higher productivity of labor. However, material necessities to meet the needs of the population will still be expropriated from nature managed by the socialist society. (see endnote 7)
While the Marxian theory breaks with a mechanical and reductionist view of nature advanced in the Scientific Revolution, it, nonetheless, still remains anthropocentric and remains within the main trends of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution to modernity on key questions of human exceptionalism, rationalism, and progress made possible by the advance of science and technology (forces of production). Thus, Marx and Engels praise the bourgeoise for the development of science and technology and for advancing civilization: “… [B]y the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian nations into civilization.” (Marx and Engels, 1848) Some intellectual currents originating in Marxian theory have been critical of this vision as in the works of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School. (Jay, 1973/1996, Chapter VIII) (see endnote 8)
The notion of “barbarism” in the Western intellectual tradition is closely associated with notion of the “state of nature” in political theory “of the real or hypothetical condition of human beings before or without political association.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed May 26, 2021) It was used by social contract theorists such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632,-1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). This notion has been adopted in the Marxian literature without criticism as reflected in the often-used slogan “(eco)socialism or barbarism.” More informed Marxian scholars have subsequently disagreed. The noted anthropologist Eric Wolf (1982) points out that even in CE 1,400 much of the world population was “barbarians.” They included foragers, pastoralists, horticulturalists, and small-scale farmers who often used semi-nomadic forms of swidden agriculture and still hunted and gathered some of their produce. Vere Gordon Childe, one of the most prominent twentieth century archeologists spoke highly of “barbarians”: “Our debt to preliterate barbarism is heavy. Every single cultivated food plant of any importance has been discovered by some nameless barbarian society." (Childe, 1942/2016, p. 64). It must be added that civilization is nothing other than some form of class society organized to expropriate wealth from nature by exploiting masses of working people. (see endnote 9) Thus, to denounce barbarians and praise civilization is neither historically accurate nor politically progressive.
Historical materialism and anthropocentrism
Both the idea of class struggle in historiography and the idea of progressive stages in historical development of society were present in the intellectual history and theory in Europe before Marx and Engels. The notion of class struggle dates back at least to Giovanni Battista Vico (1668–1744) a Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Naples. The idea of stages of development in history dates back to at least eighteenth century. Ronald Meek in his Social Science and the Noble Savage (1976/2010) quotes Efimovich Desnistky, a former student of Adam Smith in 1761, who describes four stages of historical development in a lecture in Moscow University in 1781: hunting and gathering, pastoral, agricultural, and commercial. (Meek, 1976/2010, p. 5). Desnistky then goes on to suggest:
“Such an origin and rising of human society is common to all primitive people, and in accordance with these four conditions of peoples we must deduce their history, government, laws, and customs and measure their various successes in sciences and arts” (quoted in Meek, ibid.)
Meek attributes the earliest written discussions of the four stage theory to Montesquieu (1689-1755), Smith (1723-1790), and Turgot (1727-1781) .
Thus, the basic ideas for Marx’s and Engels’s historical materialism were in place in previous decades in the writing of authors they closely studied. Their genius lies in syntheses of these ideas into a superior theory of history. This is similar to how Charles Darwin forged his theory of evolution by natural selection.
How the main themes of what may be called the standard Marxian theory developed is uncontroversial. The 1840s proved decisive in forging what constitutes the Marxist theory of history, its application to the critique of political economy, the development of the theory of surplus value and the uncovering laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production leading to cyclical and secular crises that could pave the road to socialist revolution led by the industrial working class.
The proletariat as the “universal class” whose struggle for self-emancipation will emancipates all Germans (and of all humanity) appears in Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), although Marx himself notes: “The proletariat is beginning to appear in Germany as a result of the rising industrial movement.” Still, he goes on:
“In Germany, no form of bondage can be broken without breaking all forms of bondage. Germany, which is renowned for its thoroughness, cannot make a revolution unless it is a thorough one. The emancipation of the German is the emancipation of man. The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat. Philosophy cannot realize itself without the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realization [Verwirklichung] of philosophy. (Marx, 1843) (endnote 10)
It should be noted that Marx was still considering the problem of emancipation from a philosophical point of view. German unification came 28 years later in 1871 and industrialization sufficient for creating an industrial working class central to the mature Marxian theory was still decades away.
The decisive turn away from philosophy toward political economy came with the Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844. The final break with Young Hegelian current and Feuerubach’s sensuous materialism came in the “Theses on Feurubach” (1845) and The German Ideology (1845) which codified historical materialism. Marx then applied this methodology to the analysis of the capitalist mode of production. The first volume of Capital appeared in print in 1867 and after his death, Engels edited volume two (1885) and volume three (1894) and Karl Kautsky edited the three-volume Theories of Surplus Value (written in 1863 and edited and published in 1905-10). Engels (1883) considered historical materialism and the theory of surplus value as key intellectual contributions of Marx while stressing that he was first and foremost a revolutionary socialist. Marx himself recounts part of this journey in his “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). I take this standard account as the basis for the discussion of the Marxian theory in this essay.
In construction of historical materialist theory Marx and Engels relied on a philosophical anthropology which distinguished them from the prevailing bourgeois liberal idealist notion of human essence: “[T]he human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations” (Marx, 1845, The sixth thesis). They also defined their materialism by privileging “social humanity” as they focused on collective class actors as opposed to individual actors in history: “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.” (ibid., The tenth thesis). It must be recalled that Marx’s and Engels’s knowledge of history was limited to the then available published historiography, (see endnote 11) covering about 3,000 years. (see endnote 12)
On such basis, in The German Ideology (1845), Marx and Engels expand on these ideas:
“This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” (Marx and Engels, 1945, emphasis added)
Thus, historical materialism was by design anthropocentric because its focus is on the development of human society abstracted from nature and based on what Marx and Engels knew about history that was at most 3,000 years old. Today, we know that humanity is at least 300,000 years old. It can be argued that in fact our history is rooted in the Homo genus which is over 2.8 million years old (fire was controlled and used by Homo Erectus about a million years ago).
Marx and Engels themselves were aware of the limited scope of their theory of history. Thus they wrote in The German Ideology
“Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.” (emphasis added, ibid.)
Thus while it is true that Marx had “ecological insights” (Burkett 1999, Foster 2000, Saito, 2017), these were incidental to their main line of intellectual and political development of the Marxian theory as understood for well over a century. To follow their example, it is necessary to reconsider their materialist philosophy, dialectical methodology, philosophy of history, and theory of socialism by placing human history in its ecological context going back to the origins of life on Earth. Meanwhile, ecosocialists who follow Marx still insist on an “ecological civilization” in which some form of “sustainable development” is followed. (Foster 2017; Magdoff and Williams, 2017)
3. Anthropocentrism as alienation from nature
Alienation from nature
Anthropocentrism is alienation from nature and it lays at the base of civilization, that is, it historically precedes and enables social alienation beginning with the rise of private property, patriarchy, and the state. Alienation from nature emerged when groups of Homo sapiens sapiens (anatomically modern humans) began farming about 12,000 years ago in what is called the Agricultural Revolution. Homo sapiens had emerged and thrived as hunter-gatherers at least 300,000 years ago (see endnote 13) and after the last ice age the geological era of the Holocene with warmer climate began approximately 11,650 radiocarbon years before present. While climate change has been indicated as a key factor in why some hunter-gatherer groups took up farming other contributing factors are also indicated (see, “Farming” in Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology, accessed June 12, 2021). Farming presupposes systematic domestication of plants and animals (endnote 14) who are then managed in an artificial ecosystem called the farm. The farm and its domesticated species exist for the benefit of the farmer. The farmer becomes the subject and farm species the object. At the same time, all wild species who are outside of the dominion and control of the farmer are considered potentially dangerous and systematically eliminated. This practice has become systematic and more pervasive throughout 5,000 years of civilization.
Thus, the culture/nature dualism that characterizes all civilizations and is firmly rooted in modes of production that have emerged since Agricultural Revolution has become ingrained in various religious and secular ideologies. Civilization has become identified with culture as nature has increasingly receded into the background. While writing history of societies date back at least to Herodotus (c. 484 – 425/413 BCE), natural history is a recent field of study. In England, John Ray (1628-1705) is considered “the father of natural history.”
Early farmers struggled for existence for a few thousand years and their lives compared unfavorably to their hunter-gatherer cousins. (see endnote 15) But eventually they managed a sustained economic surplus. This economic surplus provided the material basis for social stratification and social alienation. Gradually private property, patriarchy, and the state emerged.
Case study 1: The epic of Gilgamesh
To illustrate this transition from ecocentrism of hunter-gatherers (more about it below) to anthropocentrism of early civilizations, I have examined the culture/nature relationship in the epic of Gilgamesh (Nayeri, November 2018), the first known long literary writing from the earliest civilization.
It is a series of Mesopotamian epic poems, woven together over time, that recount the adventures of Gilgamesh, the ruler of Uruk, who lived about 2,600 BCE. Uruk was located where the town of Warka is in today’s Iraq, about 250 miles south of Baghdad, and dates back to about five thousand years ago.
There is both continuity and discontinuity with ecocentric cultures of hunter-gatherers. Lingering ecocentrism appears in the form of polytheism where each god is tied to one or more natural force and in many imageries where reality and magic are intertwined and the future is foretold in dreams. Enkidu, the demigod created by Aruru, the goddess of fertility, to counterbalance Gilgamesh, himself a demigod, is made as a wild man living in the wilderness who protects animals from trappers and hunters. Likewise, Enlil created Humbaba to protect the Cedar Forest and its wild animals. So the gods even feel the need to protect nature against civilized humans by creating supernatural beings.
Uruk is already a stratified patriarchic society. Yet, Shamhat who Gilgamesh recruits to seduce the wild man Enkidu is also a priestess. While the epic does not mention a temple in Uruk the town of Eridu built near Uruk a little later had a temple.
It is difficult to differentiate Gilgamesh’s own attitude towards nature from the modern-day hunters, in particular, trophy hunters. He sets out to conquer the Cedar Forest and he slays Humbaba, its protector, largely for the thrill and glory of it. After he slays Humbaba, he sets out on a boat to Uruk carrying lumber from the forest for his palace and Humbaba’s head as a trophy. When he slays the Bull of Heaven, he cuts off its horn and hangs it in his palace. Enkidu, who was born a wild man, becomes hostile to wildness after he is tamed by Shamhat. He even urges Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba. Ordinary citizens of Uruk include farmers and herders who live off domesticated animals and hunters and trappers who live off wildlife. Their attitude towards the rest of nature is radically different from hunter-gatherers, who constituted the bulk of the 50 million humans who lived on the planet at that time and who surrounded the early outposts of civilization.
Case study 2: Modern day gardening
In January 2013, I joined a group of 33 volunteers in an intensive course to become a Master Gardner in Sonoma County, a program of the Agriculture and Natural Resources of the University of California Cooperative Extension that educates and advises home gardeners. In the October 2013 Newsletter of the Sonoma County Master Gardeners, in a regular column with useful examples of guidance my peers provide to home gardeners, we find the following recommendation on how to manage ground squirrels that interfere with gardening:
“Assuming that you would like to get rid of the squirrels, the best approach for most people is to trap them. Using poison bait is another option, but the possible collateral damage that can occur to other species is not something that you would want to see happen. Traps are available that work very well on squirrels and the only bait needed is regular peanuts. The only unpleasant part of trapping is the need to kill the squirrels, unless you want to take a long ride everyday to relocate them which is only dumping your problem onto someone else. Most accomplish the task of killing the squirrels by drowning them. If left in the trap, they will die fairly quickly if left in the sun, but this seems like a cruel thing to do since it takes time and is hard on the animals. Shooting them is another option, but then a lot of people don’t like using guns and it can get messy.” (quoted and cited in Nayeri, November 2014; emphases added)
There is no doubt that this response speaks in the language of war against another species. In this anthropocentric discourse, the ground squirrel who shares the same geographic location as the gardener is treated as an enemy to be extinguished. My Master Gardner colleagues were mostly older, female, and generally very nice and kindhearted fellows. The fact that they could prescribe such cruel methods against another species has little to do with their conscious ethical lives. It has to do more with the underlying unspoken anthropocentric ethics of our civilization that gives moral superiority to humans over any other species. So, if there is a conflict between our interests and theirs, it is they who will lose.
Moreover, California Master Gardeners agree to dispense advice based on scientific views of the Agriculture and Natural Resources unit of the University of California. But as we already know science itself is a means of domination and control of nature. In fact, the general sense of the advice on how to dispose of ground squirrels is taken from a pest note from the University's website. Thus, this war-like approach to “pests” is sanctioned by the university even though it runs entirely contrary to the discipline of ecology taught at the same university where native species are understood to be part of ecosystems, not pests.
The above example can be easily generalized to the entire activity of conventional gardening. Just visit the gardening section of any hardware store and look for shelves-full of war material against undesirable species of animal, plant, fungi, etc.
Thus, it is clear that anthropocentrism as alienation from nature arose out of the transition from hunter-gatherers’s subsistence living to farming as a mode of production. It is also a root-cause of our current ecological crises. The industrial capitalist civilization provides the most dangerous form of anthropocentrism because it is a globalized civilization which has taken science and technology to great heights enabling ever more domination, control, and exploitation of nature. It has brought us the Anthropocene (The Age of Mankind) and multiple existential crises that threaten much of life on earth.
4. Theory and Practice of Ecocentric Socialism
Ecocentric Socialism distinguishes itself from all other theories of socialism and ecosocialism by a conscious attention to the problem of alienation from nature as manifested in anthropocentrism.
Animistic ecological materialism
For about a decade, I have proposed a rethinking of the theoretical heritage of Marx and Engels that would do away with the dualism inherent in historical materialism by arguing for a theory of history deeply embedded in ecology (For the most recent statement, see Nayeri, 2020, October 2018; also see, Nayeri 2013). Central to my reconsideration is the ecological nature of humans and the scientific understanding of who we are and where we come from so that we can better understand where we are going.
We now know that life itself emerged out of inorganic matter and humanity’s lineage is from mammals, in particular primates, that eventually led to the emergence of the Homo genus over 2.8 million years ago and subsequently Homo sapiens who emerged at least about 300,000 years ago. That is, society has emerged out of biology which itself emerged out of physical and chemical properties of inanimate objects. It follows that we are not just the sum total of our social relations but instead we are the sum total of our ecological and social relations over at least 2.8 million years.
Humans as “collective organisms”
We are even more embedded in the web of life than we could have imagined only two decades ago. In recent decades, the study of the human microbiome, the collection of all the microorganisms living in association with human cells and organs, has advanced greatly, although our knowledge of their relationships is still at infancy.
“These communities consist of a variety of microorganisms including eukaryotes, archaea, bacteria and viruses. Bacteria in an average human body number ten times more than human cells, for a total of about 1000 more genes than are present in the human genome. Because of their small size, however, microorganisms make up only about 1 to 3 percent of our body mass (that's 2 to 6 pounds of bacteria in a 200-pound adult).” (National Institute of Health Human Microbiome Project, accessed March 17, 2020)
Although most biologists treat the microbiome as separate from the human body, they also acknowledge its essential role for our wellbeing:
“These microbes are generally not harmful to us, in fact they are essential for maintaining health. For example, they produce some vitamins that we do not have the genes to make, break down our food to extract nutrients we need to survive, teach our immune systems how to recognize dangerous invaders and even produce helpful anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off other disease-causing microbes. An ever-growing number of studies have demonstrated that changes in the composition of our microbiomes correlate with numerous disease states, raising the possibility that manipulation of these communities could be used to treat disease.” (ibid. emphasis added)
The socialist biologist Michael Friedman also notes:
“Some biologists conceive of our microbiota as a hitherto unrecognized organ or organs fulfilling important physiological functions and networking with other organ systems, while many microbial ecologists propose that we are not ‘individuals,’ but collective organisms comprised of the person (mammal) and its entire microbiome. Many other species are also collective organisms, termed holobionts, tightly bound by evolution ever since the earliest eukaryotic cells arose from fusions of independent prokaryotes (non-nucleated cells, such as bacteria).” (Friedman, 2018)
Lynn Margulis, the celebrated biologist and evolutionary theorist, with her co-author, Dorion Sagan (Margulis and Sagan, 2002), have argued for a theory of symbiosis which refer to mutual interaction involving physical association between “differently named organisms.” In the “Forward” to their book, the prominent evolutionary biologist Ernest Mayr writes: “At first considered quite exceptional, symbiosis was eventually discovered to be almost universal.” Donna J. Haraway (216), ecofeminist and a philosopher of the interaction between science, society, and nature, has made symbiosis a foundation of her view of social life.
Thus, in a biological sense, a human maybe considered a “collective organisms,” an organic whole that is greater than the sum of its multiple constituent parts. This view of humanity is much closer to the philosophical holism of Hegel (1817) promoted also by Marx that "the truth is in the whole." Indeed, recent research has found a correlation between gut microbiota and personality in adults (Han-Na Kim, et.al. 2018). If microorganisms in humans may affect even our personality, how could they not have an impact on our history as a species?
“The three classical biological explanations of the individual self––the immune system, the brain, the genome––are being challenged by the new field of microbiome research. Evidence shows that our resident microbes orchestrate the adaptive immune system, influence the brain, and contribute more gene functions than our own genome. The realization that humans are not individual, discrete entities but rather the outcome of ever-changing interactions with microorganisms has consequences beyond the biological disciplines. In particular, it calls into question the assumption that distinctive human traits set us apart from all other animals––and therefore also the traditional disciplinary divisions between the arts and the sciences.” (Rees, Bosch, and Douglas, 2019; empasis added)
In fact, humanity today is the sum total of our ecological-social relations shaped by the dynamic interrelation of four trends:
- The geophysical trend which recognizes that life has emerged from non-life and that we are an earthbound, oxygen-breathing, energy-using species dependent upon our physical environment – especially the atmosphere, soil, and temperature range - remaining compatible with human life. (see endnote 16)
- The transhistorical trend which recognizes and celebrates our continuity with other animals, in particular the primates. We are animals, mammals, an evolutionary cousin of the chimpanzee. Therefore, we share certain traits with them.
- The historical trend of our species, Homo sapiens, that goes back at least 300,000 years, including cultural heritage from earlier Homo genera: We inherited the knowledge to use of fire from Homo Erectus who controlled fir aboit a million years ago.
- The trend specific to the mode of production influences, i.e., capitalistically developed global culture today.
This view of the ecological nature of humans, as the interpenetration of multiple kinds of beings over very long period of natural and social history, validates yet another reconsideration of Marx’s philosophical anthropology. In the first thesis on Feuerbach , Marx writes: “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.” (see endnote 17) Thus, Marx’s materialism views humans as the subject, the agency, in our interaction with social and natural reality. This view persists among those who consider themselves as ecological socialist and even those who subscribe to Marx’s“ecological insights” despite a mountain of evidence that nonhumans also have agency.
Although Marx and Engels praised Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection(1859) I do not find any evidence that they appreciated its paradigm shattering significance in undermining the dominant religious (Judo-Christian) anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism. Darwin not only debunked the Christian creation story of the book of Genesis, he also demonstrated how all species are in reality kins and the web of life in his theory of evolution is not hierarchical. Unlike Marx’s and Engels’s historical materialism built upon the four-stage theory of history that presumes progress, Darwin’s theory does not entail progress in any sense, unless one considers the tendency towards more complexity as “progress.” For Darwin himself, the rising complexity produced “higher level” species but not “better” species in any sense. Moreover, Darwin went even further by arguing that humans are not qualitatively different from “higher animals”: “We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.” (Darwin, 1871/1981, p. 105)
The philosopher James Rachel adds:
“In thinking about non-humans, Darwin said, we have always under-estimated the richness of their mental lives. We tend to think of ourselves as mentally complex, while assuming that ‘mere animals’ lack any very interesting intellectual capacities. But this is incorrect. Non-humans experience not only pleasure and pain, but terror, suspicion, and fear. They sulk. They love their children. They can be kind, jealous, self-complacent, and proud. They know wonder and curiosity. In short, they are much more like us, mentally and emotionally, than we want to admit.” (Rachels, 1990: 57)
We now know much more than Darwin did about the inner lives of other species. Richard Seymour (2021) recounts a number of ways nonhuman animals display qualities typically reserved for humans. Wildlife cherish their freedom. Seymour cites from the literature a number of cases where wildlife in captivity broke out by undoing locks, bolts and nuts, etc. Among them two dozen monkeys who broke out of the Berlin zoo, and an orangutan name Ken Allen who broke out of the San Diego zoo. When they brought in a female orangutan to amuse Ken, she too broke out by unbolting the door. Seymour argues that some nonhuman animals also have culture. As an illustration, he cites the case of golden lion tamarinds who were released from their captivity into Poço das Antas Biological Reserve in south-east Brazil. They died of snake bites, bee stings, and starvation. Conservationists eventually learned that to release captive wildlife into a new habitat requires staging their releases to enable them to learn before becoming fully capable to live on their own. Seymour writes: “..[L]iberation is not as simple as escape. These animals had been drawn into a complex social relationship with their human handlers and needed to be allowed to negotiate their way out of it.” He goes on:
“The work of biologists, philosophers, ecologists and popularizers like Donald R Griffin, E O. Wilson, Marc Bekoff, Eva Meijer, Carl Safina, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Peter Wohlleben, Frans De Waal and others has brought to human consciousness the complex varieties of animal consciousness and emotional life. They have told us that certain animals use words (rather than merely imitating them), that fruit bats have names for one another, that dolphins in the wild call one another by name, that sperm whales communicate their identity to one another with rapid bursts of clicks, known as ‘codas’. So powerful and penetrating are their sonar clicks, Carl Safina writes, ‘that sperm whales can likely see what many things look like inside, as if X-raying them.’ They have told us that prairie dogs have a complex, open, language-like communication system that allows them to describe any humans nearby down to their size, clothes, hair color, and any objects they’re carrying. They have shown that animal communities have moral codes in which those who play foul are sunned, and that the specificities of the code varies between community not just species. Even what we call ‘instinct’ cannot be mechanical. The rabbit may be ‘programmed’ for flight when a predator is near, but if her line of flight displayed no creativity, no contextual awareness, she would be eaten.
“They have told us that chimpanzees have fashion trends. Primatologists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen observed this when Julie the chimpanzee started to wear a blade of grass in her ear, and other chimpanzees began to follow her. They have told us that monkeys and birds have the same mirror neurons that humans have, cells that appear to be involved in empathy and self-consciousness. They have found that whales have the same spindle cells that humans have, the cells that allow us to love and suffer emotionally, only they have many more of them and have had them for longer. That elephants and corvids hold funerals, and that whales and red deer grieve. That dolphins play games with objects found in the ocean, and that they spend more time playing than hunting. That cephalopods experience emotional, not just physical, pain. That cetaceans display rapid eye movement when they sleep, suggestive of dreaming.
“Whales have been dreaming, that is, for almost fifty million years before humans arrived. That vast ‘whale brain’ of which Heathcote William rhapsodizes. We are speaking, not merely of cognition, but of consciousness, of beings capable of love, play and mourning. Not merely of mechanical chirruping, gesturing, clicking, calling, scent-emission and dancing, but of complex and often generative systems verging on what we call language. The animal, contra Heidegger, is not ‘poor in the world’.” (ibid.)
Since the latter part of the 1970s, social and environmental scientists and those in science and technology studies among others have broadened their field of vision to include multiple agencies in society and history by calling for new materialisms. For example, Wadham asserts:
“Critical Theory pioneered the theorization of human-animal relations, helping establish that agency extends beyond the human world. Nonhuman agency is now widely accepted within the ‘new materialisms’ and beyond but there are growing calls for more critical approaches that consider why and how such agency is mobilized. These calls effectively bring together the concerns of ‘old’ and ‘new’ materialisms.”(Wadham, 2020)
To go beyond the Cartesian concept of agency identified as consciousness and rationality necessary for action, let’s recall that a human actor is enabled by other beings without which his/her action would not be possible or will not lead to the intended outcome. Bread has been central to the formation of early human settlements, hence civilization. But baking bread requires not only a baker but also flour, yeast, water, oxygen, and fire. Thus, there can be no baker if there is no grain (e.g. wheat) or no mycelium (a fungi), or a source of water, or air, or an oven. Thus, baking bread is only possible through some specific relation between all such factors. The agency is in these relationships, not in each contributing factor, including the baker. But the web of ecological social relations extends even further as each factor itself is due to multiple other factors coming together in untold number of ecological/environmental or ecological social set of relations.
Humans get an average of 48 percent of their calories, or food energy, from grains. People first began eating grains about 75,000 years ago in western Asia. These grains, including einkorn and emmer, were ancestors of today's wheat. Thus, the history of humanity is deeply ingrained with grains, especially wheat. I have already discussed how to be human means to be a multi-organism species and how each of these organisms themselves are formed through symbiosis, that is, intermingling of other organisms. We know that climate change was a key contributing factor for some hunter-gatherer bands to take up farming leading to the world historic Agricultural Revolution. Scientists think that lightning sparked chemical reactions in Earth’s early atmosphere. The early atmosphere contained gases such as ammonia, methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide. Scientists hypothesize that this created a “soup” of organic molecules from inorganic chemicals. Thus began a chain of actions and reactions resulting to early life forms.
Thus, to place humanity in its ecological context nonhumans must have agency understood as the movement generated by inter relationality of two or more beings that can result in an emerging property. Certain fields of history, such as environmental history and natural history explicitly demand attention to the non-human actors (e.g., Thorpe, Rutherford, and Sandberg, 2018). Let us recall that Marx and Engels themselves were aware that a full-fledged historical materialism must include nonhuman environment to explain human history but they set that aside as their focus was narrowly on social classes and their dynamic relations in a given mode of production.
Graeme Baker (2006, pp. 38-39), the prominent archeologist and a scholar of the Agricultural Revolution, argues that the emergence of farming coincided with the “domestication of the mind,” which I call alienation from nature characterized by the rise of anthropocentrism to replace ecocentrism of hunter-gatherers.
Our forgager ancestors saw themselves deeply embedded in the world around them. We know that from anthropological studies of the contemporary forager populations. Most modern-day foragers are characterized by animistic or less commonly totemic belief systems. In the former, non-human animals are not just like humans, they are persons. Their environment is a treasure house of personage, each with language, reason, intellect, moral conscience, and knowledge, regardless of whether the outer shape is human, bird, reptile, or plant. Thus, the Jivaro people of eastern Ecuador and Peru consider humans, other animals, and plants as persons (aents), linked by blood ties and common ancestry (Descola, 1996). Animistic belief systems commonly do not have words for distinguishing between people, animals, and plants as separate categories, using instead classification systems based on terms of equality rather than the hierarchies of modern-day Linnaean taxonomies. (Howell, 1996) The totemic systems of Australian Aborigines are ceremonies and rituals that stress an abstract linear continuity between the human and non-human communities. Animals are the most common totems, signifying a person’s or group’s identity or distinctiveness, but though they may be good to eat or food for thought, they are not considered social partners as in the animistic belief systems.
The forager world is animated with moral, mystical, and mythical significance. (Carmichael et al., 1994) It is constructed and reconstructed through the telling of myths, which commonly include all kinds of animals as humans, changing shape between one and the other. In addition to the present world inhabited by humans and non-human-beings, there is a supernatural world. In many forager societies, shamans mediate between the lived and supernatural worlds, entering and conceptualizing the latter, commonly through ecstatic experiences. (C.L. Martin, 1993, p. 14) (citations are taken from Barker, 2006, p. 59)
I submit that these ecocentric worldviews are closer to what science now knows about the inner lives of animals, plants, fungi, even entire forests in which the roots of its trees are connected by a network of mycelium that enables inter-tree communication. Mycelium is the same agent (yeast) that makes bread, a staple of humanity since the dawn of civilization.
Thus, I call for an animist materialism, a materialism that view each being on Earth as part of a network of animate and inanimate beings who in combination create ecosystems which in turn enriches life within and without it through connections with other ecosystems that together makes a living planet. In this materialism, all being are actors as no actors can act alone.
This sort of materialism is already in the making. Donna Haraway draws attention to the work of Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and his notion of multinaturalism and perspectivism.”
“Working with Brazilian Amerindian hunters, with whom he learned to theorize the radical conceptual realignment he called multinaturalism and perspectivism, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro wrote, ‘Animism is the only sensible version of materialism.’ I am not talking about people like me—or kids like Nuna— 'believing' in the spirit world. Belief is neither an indigenous nor a 'chthulucenean' category. Relentlessly mired in both internecine and colonizing disputes of Christianity, including its scholarly and civic secular forms, the category of belief is tied to doctrine, profession, confession, and taxonomies of errors. That is, believing is not sensible. I am talking about material semiotics, about practices of worlding, about sympoiesis that is not only symbiogenetic, but is always a sensible materialism. The sensible materialisms of involutionary momentum are much more innovative than secular modernisms will allow. Stories for living in the Chthulucene (see endnote 18) demand a certain suspension of ontologies and epistemologies, holding them lightly, in favor of more venturesome, experimental natural histories. Without inhabiting symanimagenic sensible materialism, with all its pushes, pulls, affects, and attachments, one cannot play Never Alone; and the resurgence of this and other worlds might depend on learning to play.” (Haraway , 2016, p. 88)
Given the limited scope of this essay, I can only argue the need of developing such materialism in which history in not limited to human history nor is materialism focused on the human agency but instead a materialism that give agency to all beings in a dynamic ever changing reality that existed long before humanity emerged and will still exist long after humanity goes extinct.
As I have explained already, the Marxian theory is focused on the humanist project of emancipation through a socialist revolution led by the industrial working class. Thus, there is no environmental ethics in the Marxian theory or even in the ecological socialist theories. Marx’s discussion of the metabolic rift is an argument about the fertility of soil undermined by capitalist agriculture with a promise that under socialism rational application of soil science will maintain soil fertility for continued productive use. There is no criticism of agriculture as a mode of expropriation of wealth from nature, of objectification through domestication of plants and animals, of the use of science and technology and machinery in agriculture. Thus, society/nature dualism and anthropocentrism remain.
Let me also note that even prominent naturalists and biologists like Darwin and E. O. Wilson remained anthropocentric in their outlook (see endnote 19), with accumulation of knowledge about nonhuman animals and expansion of ecological understanding of life ecocentric ethics have developed.
Rachels (1990) has used Darwin’s theory to argue for moral consideration for all animals. He recalls that before Darwin the doctrine of “dignity of man” (or human superiority over the rest of nature) was defended either by the claim that “man is made in the image of God” or by the notion that “man is a uniquely rational being.” Rachels painstakingly debunks both of these arguments in light of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. To replace the “dignity of man” doctrine, Rachels proposes the concept of “moral individualism.”
“How an individual should be treated depends on his or her own particular characteristics, rather than on whether he or she is a members of some preferred group--even the ‘group’ of human beings...This means that human life will, in a sense, be devalued, while the value granted to non-human life will be increased.” (Rachels 1990:5)
By “devaluation” of human life, Rachels means the process of dethroning human beings as the apex of creation. It should be understood in the sense of leveling of hierarchical value systems as in the case of the fall of Apartheid in South Africa. It was not so much “devaluing” the lives of white South Africans as it was for equality of all regardless of their "race." In a true sense, the eradication of Apartheid also elevated the lives of white South Africans! It would be so by overcoming anthropocentrism, it would be de-alienation of civilized humanity from nature.
Among other contemporary philosophical contributions informed by Darwin’s teachings and advances in biology is Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) that is a milestone in the animal rights literature. Singer takes a utilitarian approach derived from Bentham and Mill to argue for certain rights for sentient beings which he identifies with the capacity to experience pain or pleasure. Tom Regean in The Case for Animal Rights (1983) adopts a Kantian deontological approach to make a case for animal rights. However, as Gary L. Francione (Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation, 2008) shows neither Singer nor Regan have overcome the Western philosophy's anthropocentric worldview in relation to the moral status of animals. He argues that the fundamental human rights are based on freedom for individuals that denies their commodification. Francione then maintains that commodification of nonhuman animals denies their freedom and to rid society of institutionalized animal exploitation we must abolish commodification of animals.
In “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” Christopher D. Stone (1972), a law professor, argued basing himself on Darwin for legal standing for natural objects.
“In Descent of Man, Darwin observes that the history of man's moral development has been a continual extension in the objects of his ‘social instincts and sympathies.’ Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later, he came to regard more and more ‘not only the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellowmen’; then ‘his sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed, and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals .... “ (Stone, 1972)
Arnes Naess (2008, pp. 230-51), the Norwegian philosopher builds on Spinoza who held that God and Nature argued for what came to be called Deep Ecology that adopts an ecocentric approach to the world. He called his own philosophy, Ecosophy T, close to the animistic worldview of our forager ancestors. (see endnote 20) He argues that every living being, human or not, has an equal right to live and flourish (Naess, 1989, pp. 164-65), a right that is not conditional on how humans perceive it. According to Naess, each person has her own ecosophy (philosophy of nature) that can become ecocentric based on experience and contemplation. To suggest just one example of such ethical approach to nature, he and George Sessions, also a philosopher, proposed an Eight Point Platform (1984) for the Deep Ecology movement that seeks to address the planetary crises. They are as follows:
- The wellbeing and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.
- Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
- Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
- The flourishing of human life and culture is compatible with a substantially smaller human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires a smaller human population.
- Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
- Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
- The ideological change will be mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasing standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between bigness and greatness.
- Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.
Naess and Sessions invited others to draft their own platform or adopt theirs with revisions as they like. Their point is that there can be and there are many ecocentric views of the world and all can contribute to healing of the 12,000-year-old rift with nature.
I would place Deep Ecology’s teachings in the context of what we can learn about our place in the world from recent developments in history called Big History (Christian 2004, Brown 2007, Spier 2010; for more information see the International Big History Association website). Big History aims to place human history in the context of the history of the universe. One advantage gained in David Christian’s view is a better understanding of increasing complexity from the Big Bang to the present human society.
Finally, let me cites the naturalistic ethics of Native Americans. Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass (2013) provides a marvelous presentation of it. Kimmerer who is a botonist show us how Native American view of ourselves and our relationship with the rest of nature is superior to the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization's scientific mechnical and reductionist view. Among many things the reader learns is why it is wrong to call nonhumans "it" a term of objectification. She argued how much better our relationshio with the rest of natural world would be if we began each day with the the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. She argues for a cultural of receiprocity and gratitude and a gift economy to replace market economy.
Table 1 offers a summary of differences between the Marxian theory and Ecocentric Socialism on some key issues.
In previous essays, I have offered critical discussion of key aspects of socialist theory (Nayeri, 2020) as well social actors that can contribute to the transition from the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization to a future Ecocentric Socialist humanity and some of its key features. (Nayeri October 2018; Nayeri March 2020). I have also outlined a suggested program of action for the early phases of Ecocentric Socialism in the United States (Nayeri, October 2018, section entitled “Ecocentric Socialism”; Nayeri 2017) as well as a discussion of strategy and tactics (Nayeri July 2017; Nayeri October 2017). To close this essay, I will touch upon four key implications of Ecocentric Socialism that sets it apart from theories of socialism and ecosocialism: The theory of history, dismantling all power relations, volunteer simplicity and simplification of social and economic life, and the need for a culture of being and loving.
Comparison of Ecocentric Socialism and Marxian theory
“human society, or social humanity.” [exclude the natural world by design]
Animistic ecological materialism [explicitly based on the natural world]
Sum total of social relations shaped by the dominant mode of production.
Sum total of eco-social relations shaped by the dynamic interrelation of three trends: (1) The transhistorical trend which recognizes and celebrates our continuity with other animals, (2) The historical trend of our species, Homo sapiens, that goes back at least 300,000 years, (3) the trend specific to the mode of production influences (as in Marx’s theory).
Historical span considered
Written history as was known in mid-1840s, subsequently augmented to include periods covered by early anthropology.
3.7 billions years since the emergence of life, Homo genus that began over 2.8 millions years ago,, and emergence of Homo sapiens 300,000 years ago.
Theory of alienation
A labor theory of alienation in the capitalist society
A theory of alienation from nature rooted in systematic domestication and farming beginning about 12,000 years ago resulting in systematic economic surplus and social differentiation and alienation.
Historical agency and focus of theory
Struggle of social classes throughout written history
Ecological interaction of animate and inanimate nature since the emergence of life; in class societies, struggle of social classes as well as non-class struggles inside and outside civilization, including struggle for the rights of Mother Earth and nonhuman beings.
Main analytical catagories
Forces of production, relations of production, Base and superstructure, dialectics
Ecological-social forces of production and forces of destruction, Eco-social relations of production and dialectically interacting base and superstructure
Socialism as the process of undoing of alienation (conceived of as a labor theory of alienation)
Undoing of all alienation originating in alienation from nature which has resulted in all forms of social alienation
Reverence for the natural world
Theory of history
Ecocentric Socialism’s theory of history will focus attention on the dynamics of ecological social forces and relations of subsistence and production for the entire history of the Homo genus going back 2.8 million years. As Marx and Engels set aside the natural context of social life in their construction of historical materialism, they focused attention on forces and relations of production. This carries over to Marx’s critique of political economy which centers on the capitalist mode of production to develop a theory of exploitation of the working class (theory of surplus value) and uncovering of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy so conceived. As I have already discussed the current pandemic and its impact on the world economy falls outside the Marxian theory of crisis (Nayeri, March 2020).
The recent welcome attention to Marx’s discussion of metabolic rift and subsequent discussion of ecological rift by Foster, Clark, and York (2010) would not break out of the problems inherent in historical materialism and Marxian theory of capitalism for a number of reasons. First, Marx’s discussion of “metabolic rift” is a critique of capitalist agriculture where soil fertility is undermined in the interest of making a profit. “Marx argued that it was necessary to ‘restore’ the soil metabolism to ensure environmental sustainability for the generations to come.” (Foster, Clark, and York, 2010, p. 46). Foster and his colleagues have expanded Marx’s critique to the entire scope of today’s ecological crises by calling them “ecological rift.” It is clear that “metabolic rift” nad "ecological rift" are what ecologists call ecological disruption or if warranted ecological crisis. Thus, the new language does not add ecological insight to what we already know.
Second, Marx’s “metabolic rift” critique is an instrumentalist and anthropocentric because its concern for a healthy soil for superior agricultural output is for human use. There is no interest in a healthy soil except from a humanist point of view. Thus, Foster, and his coauthors write: “The ecological rift is, at the bottom, the product of a social rift: the domination of human being by human being. The driving force is a society based on class, inequality, and acquisition without end.” (ibid. p. 47).
Third, the proposition associated with "metabolic rift" and "ecological rift" is that capitalist accumulation is responsible for ecological problems. But this much hasbeen proclaimed by the socialist movement without any reference to “metabolic rift.” (see, for example, Mandel, 1977, p. 178) In fact, some Marxists (Mandel is again an example) have already written about how acts of production are at the same times acts of destruction (See Nayeri, April 2018)
Fourth, there is no criticism of the idea of domination and control of nature through science and technology and specifically in agriculture in current discussions of “metabolic rift” or “ecological rift” or any other ecosocialist theories and in Marxist writings before it. While in Marx’s free associated producers mode of production social relations become unmediated, that is, un-alienated, the same does not seem to hold for interactions with nature because an appeal is made to the scientific knowledge to rationalize and manage nature for human benefits. As such, not only humanity remains alienated from nature, given that science and technology have a tendency to specialize, it is doubtful that any society of associated producers can enable all its members to be armed with the necessary scientific knowledge to contribute directly to the management of such interactions with the rest of nature. There would be a need for a group of scientists and technologists to decide or at best help others decide how to manage nature. Not only managing nature implies its objectification which runs contrary to the ideal of de-alienation from nature, this entails a need for an elite that runs contrary to the ideal of a classless society.
Finally,“metabolic rifts” and “ecological rifts” have been with us since the dawn of civilization. Sumer, the first civilization, collapsed due to salinization of soil. Of course, the dynamics of class societies matter as they are social formations to expropriate wealth from nature through exploitation of working people. But the primary reason, alienation from nature which conditioned and was conditioned by the Agricultural Revolution beginning 12,000 years ago is still the root cause of social alienation. To do away with social alienation, we must do away with alienation from nature, hence the idea of domination and control, that is, management, of nature.
The idea that nature has value in and of itself without any benefit to humanity is at the center of this discussion. Let Rosa Luxemburg, an exception among leading Marxists who began a break with anthropocentrism, explain. In a letter written to her friend Sophie Liebknecht from the Breslau Prison on May 2, 1917 she wrote: “I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here, and still more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than at one of our party congresses. ” (emphasis added)
In the same letter, Luxemburg expresses concern that her comrades in the German Social Democratic Party would not be understanding of her feelings for the natural world. She writes about wildlife as an end in themselves not as object of utility for humans and she describes the misfortune of the north American indigenous populations as being similar to the misfortune of songbirds in Germany. Pay attention to her criticism of science, technology, agriculture, and modernity:
“Yesterday I was reading about the reasons for the disappearance of songbirds in Germany. The spread of scientific forestry, horticulture, and agriculture, have cut them off from their nesting places and their food supply. More and more, with modern methods, we are doing away with hollow trees, waste lands, brushwood, fallen leaves. I felt sore at heart. I was not thinking so much about the loss of pleasure for human beings, but I was so much distressed at the idea of the stealthy and inexorable destruction of these defenseless little creatures, that the tears came into my eyes. I was reminded of a book I read in Zurich, in which Professor Sieber describes the dying-out of the Redskins in North America. Just like the birds, they have been gradually driven from their hunting grounds by civilized men. (ibid.)
She goes on identifying herself not with her fellow humans but with wildlife:
“Sometimes, however, it seems to me that I am not really a human being at all but like a bird or a beast in human form. I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here, and still more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than – at one of our party congresses. I can say that to you, for you will not promptly suspect me of treason to socialism! You know that I really hope to die at my post, in a street fight or in prison.” (ibid.)
A century later, I have found negative reaction from my socialist and ecosocialist friends that Luxemburg feared when I have spoken up in defense of nonhuman species and Mother Nature and advocated ecocentrism opposing manifestations of human superiority and anthropocentrism.
Ecocentric Socialism is based on unconditional love for nature and Mother Earth. It calls for unmediated loving of and respectful relation with the rest of nature, not one determined by rational calculations informed by science and technology. Thus, Ecocentric Socialism advocates a combined cultural and social revolution that begins from the wombs of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization to transcend it in the direction of oneness with the rest of nature and social harmony.
Dismantling all power relations
A.J. Muste, a pacifist labor and socialist leader, once argued that: “There is no road to peace, peace IS the way.” All politics is about power relations. We live in a vast web of power relations. Socialists and ecosocialist movements often condemn such power relation in capitalist society when they oppose classicism, racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, imperialism, etc.
Yet, socialist and ecological socialist movements have been largely blind to human domination of nature. Just one example should suffice. In just one year, 2011, for which statics are available, the international meat industry slaughtered 58,110,000,000 chicken, 2,917,000,000 ducks, 1,383,000,000 pigs. Other farm animals slaughtered for the meat and poultry markets numbered in hundreds of millions each: 654,000,000 turkeys, 649,000,000 geese, and guinea fowl, 517,000,000 sheep, 430,000,000 goats and 296,000,000 cattle (Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014, p. 15). In the same year, over 156 million tons of seafood (capture and aquaculture) was consumed worldwide (FAO, “World Fisheries Production,” accessed June 2, 2014). There is also “exotic food” that in the United States includes alligator, alpaca, armadillo, bear, beaver, bobcat, caiman, crocodile, camel, coyote, capon, dove, frog, iguana, kudu, lion, llama, monkey, muskrat, opossum, otter, ostrich, pale, quail, turtle, venison and zebra meat (see, for example, this marketplace for mail order exotic food). Other countries and cultures have their own choice of meat. In China, Korea and the Philippines cats and dogs are eaten. Japanese prize whales as food. The French eat horse meat. In Africa, bushmeat is treasured.
Ecocentric Socialism proclaims: without animal liberation there will be no human emancipation! Without doing away with alienation from nature there will be no end to social alienation. In this, Ecocentric Socialism finds common ground with anarchist tradition set by Élisée Reclus (2013). as John P. Clark puts it:
"[A]narchy consists of the critique of all systems of domination and the struggle to abolish those systems, in concert with the practice of free, non-dominating community, which is the real alternative to these systems. Anarchy is the entire sphere of human life that takes place outside the boundaries of arche, or domination, in all its forms – statism, nationalism, capitalism, patriarchy, racial oppression, heterosexism, technological domination, the domination of nature, etc. " (Santoro, 2014)
Reclus was a pioneer in critical thinking about humanity's reltionship with the rest of nature. In his essay, ‘The feeling for Nature in modern society" (2013, chapter 5, first published as an essay in 1866), he dealt with the relationship between humanity and nature suggestiong a goal of reaching a harmonic equilibrium between society and the rest of nature.
Of course, as Marxian socialist theory teaches us, we must do away with all power relations among people as well. But that cannot happen unless we also embark on the path to dealienation from nature.
The Marxian theory of socialism envisions a society of plenty: to each according to her needs from each according to her ability. At the same time, human development is associated with free time. These are predicated on a highly advanced division of labor hence a highly technological society. But social dealienation in a technologically complex society seem unlikely for two reasons. First, as we know science and technology are used mostly for domination and control of nature which runs counter to the ideal of dealienation from nature. Second, a high technology society cannot become socially dealienated as it will depend at least on a scientific and technological elite.
Ecocentric Socialism favors a different approach by gradually reducing domination and control over nature as part of the process of de-alienation from nature. At the same time, it views un-alienated work in a subsistence or low-impact production economy to provide basic necessities for human wellbeing and development as enlightening and necessary for de-alienation from nature. The need for science and technology will decrease over time to a minimum to secure a healthy, enabled, small human society.
While the idea of volunteer simplicity has been around for a long time, it is the degrowth movement, an offshoot of the Green movement, which proclaims:
“[W]e have to produce and consumer differently, and also less. That we have to share more and distribute more fairly, while the pie shrinks. To do so in ways that support pleasurable lives in resilient societies and environments requires values and institutions that produce different kinds of persons and relations.” (Kallis, et.al., 2020, p. 5)
Ecocentric Socialism shares a similar approach while taking notice of the uneven world development. According to the World Bank about 85% of the world live on less than $30 per day and 63% live on less than $10 per day. Clearly, much of the world resources are used in the Global North by the well-to-do population. Thus, Ecocentric Socialism emphasizes the need to transfer wealth and know-how from the Global North to the Global South which will require ecologically sound economic growth to ensure basic needs for all.
There is much to learn from indigenous cultures about the wisdom of contentment and gratitude as our moral compass in our ecological socialist relations. (Kimmerer, 2013, chapter “Allegiance to Gratitude').
But social simplicity must also be combined with much smaller human societies engaged in activities sufficient to ensure wellbeing and human development.
Exponential human population growth has accompanied the rise of capitalism from 1 billion in 1802 to 7.9 billion in 2019, projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. A growing population is part of the calculus of valorization of capital as surplus value comes from unpaid labor time so the ever growing mass of profit will require an ever growing workforce. But the same workforce will also provide the much needed consumers for the conversion of commodity capital into money capital to restart the process of accumulation on an expanding basis.
Ecocentric Socialism will work for empowerment and education of women and for democratic family planning to gradually but dramatically reduce human population. Humans are not only part of megafauna but also the top predator due to our ability to use science and technology and ability to mobilize large groups to dominate and control nature to expropriate wealth from it. We must undo this malignant relation of domination and control over nature which requires reducing human population to come more in line with the population size of other megafauna. Ecocentic Socialism celebrates an unaliented humanity. It is quality of human life not how many of us are on the planet that matters.
For a culture of being and loving
While I have presented a rational argument for Ecocentric Socialism, it is not just a rationalist argument. In fact, to save the world, we must love the world. Ecocentric Socialism is about loving the world of which we are just a small part. Its politics is to do away with all power relations, its appeal to scientific knowledge is to do away with scientism and technology worship. Ecocentric Socialism is not just a theory but a practical guide to life even in the midst of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. Its goal is to end a relatively brief anthropocentric detour in the long history of humanity. The transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, an idealist, insists that nature is primary and society secondary when he writes: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” Thus, he proclaims: “In wildness is the salvation of the world.” (Thoreau, 1862) Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013, "Mishkos Kenomagwen : The Teachings of Grass") contrasts indigenous knowledge of working with sweetgrass with objectifying and reductionist methodology of science to understand why the plant flourshing where harvested by natives and why it is diminshing where it is not. A people rooted in the rest of nature can help it thrive while anthropocentrist colonial settlers have undermined it.
Ecocentric Socialism is rewilding the world, including our own human world as we learn how to feel safe and happy in the bosom of Mother Earth as our ancestors did for two million years (Nayeri, May 2017).
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1. John Bellamy Foster’s important book Socialism and Ecology: The Return of Nature (2020), a sequel to his Marx’s Ecology (2000), remains outside of the purview of this essay. In this book, Foster examines “Marxism’s critical association with the development of ecology as a political subject” according to Professor John Vandermeer. This is in line with his other earlier important work, Marx’s Ecology (2000). In both of these Foster painstakingly excavates “ecological insights” in Marxist writings as a way to help develop “dialectical materialism” as a philosophy of society and nature. As admirable and useful is his undertaking, it sets aside the problem of anthropocentrism in mainstream “Marxism” which is as I show in this essay is by design or otherwise is part of socialist theorizing and practice.
2. For the purpose of this essay, I define technology as applied science.
3. Whether some ancient philosophers proposed a doctrine of progress is a matter of scholarly contention, see, Bury 1932, p. 11; Nesbit 1994, p. xi. However, it is clear that the figures of antiquity who exerted the most influence on later thinkers did not believe in progress in any robust sense. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, February 7, 2021.
4. The botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) offers a similar critique of science basing herself on her Native American culture. See, the chapter “Leaning the Grammar of Animacy.”
5. Known as “The Fall,” according to the Book of Genesis, God expelled Adam and Eve from Garden of Eden after they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge on Eve’s persuasion. One of God's first commandments to them was not to eat from the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge.
6. I set aside Cuba where the idea of domination and control of nature and its management prevails like everywhere else but certain ecologically aware currents have been significant, mostly outside of the general policies of the government.
7. For a discussion of the theory of need in Marx, see Heller, 2018. Also, see, Burkett 2005 as well as Foster’s essay “The Meaning of Work in a Sustainable Society,’ (2017). I would take exception with Foster’s endorsement of “Morris’s famous proposition that ‘Art is man’s expression of his joy in labor.’” Creative work, he argued, was essential to human beings, who must “either be making something or making believe to make it.” While creative work is certainly joyous not all joy is due to labor. The simple act of observing wild birds gave Rosa Luxemburg much joy. The true sense of joy is our connection with nature outside and inside of us whether through work or not.
8. Max Horkheimer in his The Origins of Bourgeois Philosophy of History argues a similar point of view with regards to the Renaissance: “…[T] Renaissance view of science and technology corresponded to political domination. The new conception of the natural world as a field of human manipulation and control, he argued, corresponded to a similar view of man himself as an object of domination. The clearest exponent of this view in his eyes was Machiavelli whose political instrumentalism was used in the service of the bourgeois state.” (Jay, 1973/1996, p. 572).
9. Wikipedia defines civilization as any “ complex society that is characterized by urban development, social stratification, a form of government, and symbolic systems of communication (such as writing).Civilizations are intimately associated with and often further defined by other socio-politico-economic characteristics, such as centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labour, culturally-ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon farming and expansionism."
10. It must be noted that over time, the socialist movement has forgotten that Marx’s project was emancipation of humanity, not just the proletariat. The proletariat for Marx was the social agency to facilitate this emancipation for itself and for the rest of humanity. Similarly, over time, the vanguard party or other such mediation was substituted for the proletariat.
11. In a footnote to the 1888 English edition and 1890 German edition of the Manifesto Engels commented on the sentence that read “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” wrote: “In 1847, the pre-history of society, the social organisation existing previous to recorded history, all but unknown. Since then, August von Haxthausen (1792-1866) discovered common ownership of land in Russia, Georg Ludwig von Maurer proved it to be the social foundation from which all Teutonic races started in history, and, by and by, village communities were found to be, or to have been, the primitive form of society everywhere from India to Ireland. The inner organization of this primitive communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Lewis Henry Morgan's (1818-1861) crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of the primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes. I have attempted to retrace this dissolution in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, second edition, Stuttgart, 1886. [Engels, 1888 English Edition and 1890 German Edition (with the last sentence omitted)]
12. We now know writing was invented some 5,500 years ago.
13. Homo (from Latin homō 'man') is the genus that emerged in the (otherwise extinct) genus Australopithecus that encompasses the extant species Homo sapiens (modern humans), plus several extinct species classified as either ancestral to or closely related to modern humans (depending on the species), most notably Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis. The genus emerged with the appearance of Homo habilis 2.3–1.65 million years ago (mya).
14. Domestication can be defined as “the evolutionary process whereby humans, modify, either intentionally or unintentionally, the genetic makeup of a population of plants or animals to the extent that individuals within the population lose their ability to survive and produce offsprings in the wild" (Blumler and Byrne 1991, p.24, cited in Barker 2006, p. 2).
15. “Contrary to earlier assumptions, hunters and gatherers—even today in the margin of refugia they inhabit—are nothing like the famine-stricken, one-day-away-from-starvation desperados of folklore. Hunters and gathers, in fact, never looked so good—in terms of diet, their health, and their leisure. Agriculturalists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad—in terms of their diet, their health, their leisure.” (Scott, 2017, p. 9-10)
16. I would like to thank Fred Murphy for this suggestion.
17. Foster and Burkett (2017, p. 79) following Maurice Mandelbaum, define nineteenth century materialism “of which Marx and Engles were among the greatest representatives” by the following propositions: “that there is an independently existing world; that human mind does not exist as an entity distinct from the human body; and that there is no God (nor any other nonhuman being) whose mode of existence is not of material entities.”
18. Haraway eschews referring to our current epoch as the Anthropocene, preferring to conceptualize it as what she calls the Chthulucene, as it more aptly and fully describes our epoch as one in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked in tentacular practices. The Chthulucene, Haraway explains, requires sym-poiesis, or making-with, rather than auto-poiesis, or self-making.
19. Darwin’s daughter, Francis, wrote: “Two subjects which moved my father perhaps more strongly than any other were cruelty to animals and slavery.” Yet, when Darwin was asked about his position on the anti-vivisection he wrote: “I quite agree that it is justifiable for real investigation on physiology; but not for mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror, so I will not say another word or I shall not sleep tonight.” (Rachels, 1990, pp. 212-14). E. O. Wilson writes: “[H]umanity is far and away life’s greatest achievement. We are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and—who can say?—perhaps the galaxy….We will soon create simple organisms in the laboratory. We have learned the history of the universe and look almost to its edge.” (Wilson, 2012, p. 288)
19. Darwin’s daughter, Francis, wrote: “Two subjects which moved my father perhaps more strongly than any other were cruelty to animals and slavery.” Yet, when Darwin was asked about his position on the anti-vivisection he wrote: “I quite agree that it is justifiable for real investigation on physiology; but not for mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror, so I will not say another word or I shall not sleep tonight.” (Rachels, 1990, pp. 212-14). E. O. Wilson writes: “[H]umanity is far and away life’s greatest achievement. We are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and—who can say?—perhaps the galaxy….We will soon create simple organisms in the laboratory. We have learned the history of the universe and look almost to its edge.” (Wilson, 2012, p. 288)
20. One of my reviewers suggested that should I delineate how Ecocentric Socialism differs from Deep Ecology. After all, he argues, Deep Ecology is not socialist. If he as a reader understands this, why is there a need for me to stress the point? In this essay as in my earlier writings I have drawn of ideas from traditions, thinkers, and writers who are not socialist including hunter-gatherers, indigenous cultures, various philosophers and ethicists, etc. Why should Deep Ecology pose and exception? In this essay, I cite Naess’s and Sessions’s Eight Point Platform of Deep Ecology because I believe it provides a simple uncontroversial ecocentric guide to everyday life. As such it is also incompatible with the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. In fact, in my earlier writings I count Deep Ecologists as allies in the Ecocentric Socialist revolution (see, Nayeri, October 2018).
Dedication: This essay is dedicated to Mother Earth who has given us life and sustains all the beauty that surrounds us.
Acknowledgment: I am grateful to R. Hassanpour for correcting many grammatical and typing errors and to Farrokh Jafari for comments that helped improve the narrative. Deep gratitude to Fred Murphy who edited the latest version and provided substantively to my argument. They bear no responsibility for any remaining errors and shortcomings and the argument presented in this essay.