Rupert Darwall

Why Marx would have been a denier

Make no mistake, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would have given short shrift to global warming and environmentalism in some of their most colourful prose.

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Make no mistake, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would have given short shrift to global warming and environmentalism in some of their most colourful prose. As Sherlock Holmes explained to the Scotland Yard detective, there is the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. But the dog did nothing. ‘That,’ Holmes replied, ‘was the curious incident.’

Who heard the Marxist bark? In the history of global warming, that dog was classical Marxism, a Promethean doctrine that argued for the strengthening of man’s power over nature. It is hard to conceive of the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union being a party to global carbon emissions treaties on ideological grounds, let alone during a strategic race to bury the West.

Scratch a green, and not too deep you’ll find the argument that humans are the cause of the planet’s woes — an idea which can be traced back to the English economist Thomas Malthus and his 1798 essay on population which earned him enduring fame, and for Marxists, notoriety. In it, Malthus argued that whereas the means of subsistence grow arithmetically, the human population tended to expand geometrically; war, famine, pestilence and other disasters bringing the diverging line of population growth back to the subsistence line.

Marx and Engels would have none of it. In an 1865 letter, Marx called the essay a ‘libel against the human race’. Twenty years earlier, Engels described it as the most open declaration of war by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. If modern environmentalists preaching restraint and vegetarianism can sound sanctimonious, Marx was there first.

Most of what he called the population theory teachers were Protestant parsons. Malthus himself was a rare celibate parson in what Marx called the English State Church, where most had taken the injunction to be fruitful and multiply to ‘a really unbecoming extent’.

Marxists believed in science and progress. Paradise on earth was in the future, not some sort of misty, bucolic past. (According to Engels, industrialisation had pulled the working class out of a vegetative state ‘not worthy of human beings’.) ‘What is impossible for science?’ Engels asked. The technological forces of modern bourgeois society would raise the productive power of each individual, he wrote. Under capitalism, the problem was not the physical limits of production, but that the poor could not afford what was produced.

During the Cold War, the communist bloc had no interest in the environmental questions that were moving up the agenda of the West. Of the 152 international experts selected ahead of the United Nations Stockholm conference in 1972, 19 were from the US, 13 from the UK and only six from the Soviet Union (Scandinavia had three more). There were none at all from China.

The collapse of communism 20 years ago revealed the full extent of the environmental degradation which had gone hand in hand with the system’s indifference to human misery. The rise of the environmental movement did not kill Marxism. Its demise was a pre-condition for environmentalism to attain the global dominance it has today.

Rupert Darwall’s book, Global Warming: A Short History, is being published by Quartet Books in Spring 2010.