ICOR WEBINAR ON ENGLES

30 March 2021

Dear Comrades! Today we are commemorating Comrade Engels at a critical juncture. The world, the entire humanity, is now entered in what is called the anthropocene epoch. That means the planet’s ecosystem is in an unsustainable situation and commemoration of Engels and his great works assumes paramount significance in this context. We know that as co-author of Marx, Engels had published many works jointly with Marx. However, in pursuance of the relevance of our present discussion, let me confine to the importance of Engels as the leading Marxist theoretician and pioneer in applying dialectical materialism not only to political economy and history but even to nature, science and society.

There is an oft-repeated allegation that Marxism’s concern was only with economy and not environment and ecology and that it was oblivious of the destructive impact of capital accumulation on nature. As such, postmodernists, post-Marxists and even neo-Marxists together with liberals and NGO theorists are working overtime to put the stamp of technological optimism, materialistic determinism, etc. on Marxism.  But this is a baseless allegation. From the very beginning, the concern of both Marx and Engels was not only on the exploitation of workers but also on the plunder of nature by capital. For instance, in Capital Volume I, Marx has clearly pointed out how the two sources of human existence, i.e., labour and nature (soil) are made unsustainable or destroyed by the onslaught of capital.

In fact, Engels in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England published in 1845 had taken up this issue in a detailed manner. In this classic work, Engels while explaining capital‘s brutal exploitation of workers under the factory system, had brilliantly explained the horrendous environmental and epidemiological conditions imposed by Industrial Revolution. Engels in his book has beautifully explained how capital accumulation is associated with periodic epidemics, toxic contamination, pollution, and all around devastation of the working class including poor nutrition and high mortality rate arising from high levels of environmental and ecological destruction as capitalism advanced. That is, the idea of Engels that capitalism has always been connected with ecological destruction and plunder of nature was not casual but inalienable to Marxism from the very beginning. And Engels could be seen carrying forward this perception in his 1878 book Anti-Duhring too.

Of course, after the death of Marx in 1883, Engels had to edit and complete Capital Vol. II and Capital Vol. III (respectively published in 1885 and 1894) along with organising and publishing the uncompleted notes of Marx as Theories of Surplus Value also known as the Fourth Volume of Capital.  Engels had to take up this huge task while performing his critical role as the foremost authority, theoretician and propagandist of Marxism including his task of organising the working class till his death in 1895.

Therefore, Engels did not get enough time to concentrate on the book Dialectics of Nature which he started to write in 1872. Even though he worked on it for 10 years, that is up to 1882, it remained an unfinished work, and after the death of Marx, Engels had little time to concentrate on it. Hence before his death, Engels entrusted the manuscripts of Dialectics of Nature to Bernstein who was not interested in publishing it. However, in 1924, Bernstein handed it over to Einstein who could grasp the importance of the book. As suggested by Einstein, it was Riazanov who first brought out a rudimentary form in 1927 and a final form appeared in 1935, and ultimately, the full fledged edition of Dialectics of Nature with JBS Haldane’s Preface was published in 1939. According to Haldane, who admired Engels‘ application of dialectics to physical and natural sciences, had Engles’ method of thinking which no environmentalist at that time could even think been known earlier, the transformation of ideas in science would have been smoother and beneficial both for scientists and activists. 

Of course, mechanical materialists and positivists have alleged that Engels in Dialectics of Nature had emphasised on materialist conception of nature instead of history and have criticised Engels for, what they said, not taking dialectical materialism in the proper perspective.  Such a criticism is far-fetched since, as Haldane pointed out, while exposing the destructive dimensions of unhindered encroachment on nature, in Dialectics of Nature Engels himself had highlighted the interrelationship among science, nature, society and development from a dialectical-historical perspective. For, drawing lessons of the so called development ranging from ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece and Asia Minor and Middle Ages to Colonialism, Engels vividly explained how human intrusion in to nature and destruction of forests that reached its zenith in the irreparable damages to tropical forests in Africa and Asia had destroyed the very basis of human existence. Underlying in this analysis is a dialectical link between oppression and exploitation on the one hand and destruction of nature on the other. Of particular relevance in this context is Engels’ reference to the so called primitive accumulation that Marx explained in Capital and the environmental degradation associated with it. 

Though Dialectics of Nature was published after Lenin, the Marxist perspective on development that called for a harmony with nature had been there in Lenin’s agenda from the very beginning. As a reflection of this approach, vast tracts of protected land called Zapovedniks were kept forever wild as acknowledge-ment of environmental protection, and Lenin himself signed this into a law in 1921 to put the same on legal footing. This trend continued such that even when Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, it had 330000 square kilometres of Zapovedniks. And in the industrialisation debate of the 1920s, though this perspective on ecology was there, a one-side emphasis on development and theme of Catching up with the West slowly got prominence followed by the entry of American experts and Fordist methods of factory organisation in to Soviet Union in the 1930s. After the 1970s, the so called modernistic conceptualisation that development is an absolute principle got official acceptance in China too.

 As such, by the 1970s when the collapse of welfare capitalism coupled with mounting environmental problems pushed imperialism into a an irreversible global crisis, even official agencies like the UN and a whole set of NGOs were forced to come forward putting forward certain reformist propositions for the environmental question along with neoliberal prescriptions. However, on account of the ideological political setbacks suffered by the International Communist Movement, in spite of the Marxist contributions of Engels in this regard, the Left could not take up the required task in the proper perspective.  On the other hand, together with unhindered financial speculation which is the major form of neoliberal accumulation, unhindered plunder of nature also became a major avenue of super-profit by corporate capital. And with the turn of the 21st century, as I have mentioned in the beginning, this has now driven humankind to an ecological catastrophe quite characteristic of an anthropocene epoch which is manifested in the frequent emergence of zoonotic viruses, the latest being COVID-19.

In this critical situation, it is indeed heart-warming that Engels works pertaining to science, nature and society are getting more attention from both Marxists and different sections of well-meaning people the world over. The ecological consequences of capital accumulation under colonialism that Engels unravelled especially in Dialectics of Nature under colonialism in the 19th century have grown further and become horrific now. Thus together with the commodification of labour, neoliberal corporatisation has now accomplished a commodification of nature too. Therefore, in conformity with the positions already laid down by Marx and Engels, the working class and oppressed people today have to strive for a de-commodification of both labour and nature. 

Under today‘s profit-led development paradigm, the sustenance of humankind is at stake on account of the onslaught of capital both on labour and on nature. It is from this perspective that CPI (ML) Red Star in its Party Program has incorporated the contradiction between capital and nature and ranged it along with the other major contradictions including that between capital and labour. Therefore, along with the resolution of the other major contradictions, resolving the contradiction between capital and nature has also become the task of communist revolutionaries and the International Communist Movement as a whole. With these words, let me conclude, comrades.

Thank you.  Revolutionary Greetings to All.

(Presentation by Comrade PJ James)

The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.