Wednesday, November 20, 2013

1194. Ecology and Empire in Marx, Adorno, and Marcuse

In essence, I wish to examine the treatment of imperialism and ecology in the thought of Karl Marx, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse precisely because of the continued dire relevance of both such issues in our own day, some three decades now after Marcuse’s death. The importance of the philosophies of these three thinkers to my own development aside, I believe their critical-dialectical perspectives to hold great promise in positive and practical terms with regard to the ongoing struggle to overturn capitalism and so resolve the threats to oppressed humanity and non-human nature taken together. 
On Empire, or Imperialism
Marx’s views on imperialism are variable: though they generally can be said to be humanistic, they are also at times vague and outright problematic. For example, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels note that
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian [sic] nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”1
Similarly in Capital, Marx notes that the “more industrially developed country only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”2 Thus is seen the modernist progressivism which underpins a great deal of Marx’s thought, from its early stages in 1848 to maturity some twenty years later. However, providing an alternative perspective in Capital, Marx definitively identifies the original brutality through which the capitalist system arose, as in his concept of primitive accumulation:
“The discovery of gold and silver in America; the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population; the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies; the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”3
This insurrectional sort of humanism previously had informed some of the journalism Marx had engaged in for the New York Tribune from 1853 to 1858, when he examined from afar the dialectical processes taking place in British-dominated India. Though Edward W. Said famously included Marx’s articles on India within his condemnation of Orientalism, he seems indeed to have overlooked the humanism which pervaded Marx’s analyses in part: as Aijaz Ahmad notes, Marx was entirely precocious even compared with Indian nationalists in his call for an independence struggle against Britain in 1853, and he certainly welcomed the 1857-1858 Sepoy Mutiny.4 Indeed, as noted Indian Marxist E.M.S. Namboodiripad argues, in light of the putatively ongoing stagnation of Hindu society in the centuries before the Raj, British colonialism served as an “unconscious tool of history” which might have accelerated the dialectical negation of class and caste—this being a perspective he takes from Marx.5 In his writings on India, Marx was clearly influenced by Hegel, given his claim that life in India was “stagnatory and vegetative,” and that “Indian society has no history at all.”6 With regard to developments in India, Marx favorably welcomed the British introduction of the telegraph, the “free press,” “private property in land,” modern science, and railroads; moreover, he applauded the actions taken by individual British governors to suppress the sati custom, whereby Hindu wives were forced to commit suicide upon the death of their husbands.7 Elsewhere, though, Marx compared Britain’s victimization of Indians to that of the Irish under the British boot, and he claimed the “misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan [to be] of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before.”8 Even before largely inverting his uncritical take on the Raj with the coming of the Sepoy Mutiny four years later, Marx would already see confirmed in British colonial rule in India the “inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization.”9 Later in life, moreover, Marx committed himself to engaging in extensive anthropological and historical investigations of different regions of the world—Russia, India, Algeria, Indonesia, and ancient Greece, among others.10 In a famous exchange of letters with Russian militant Vera Zasulich (1881), Marx in fact endorses an alternative path to communism different from the seemingly deterministic model he had previously favored—that is, capitalist industrialization as pre-requisite for communism—in light of the regard in which he held the Russian mir.11 With Engels, Marx writes in the 1882 preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto that, to truly “pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership,” the Russian people must be aided by proletarian revolution in Western Europe.12 Given this comment, the two were rather prescient in forseeing the future of the Russian Revolution 35 years later, given the suppression of the German Revolution and numerous other antagonistic social movements in Central Europe in the years following WWI. On this point, whether Marx would have welcomed the ideology and tactics of Leninism and the course of the Russian Revolution before Stalin’s ascendancy is a debatable question, though I tend to hold that the anarchism which permeates Marx’s work—from the 1844 Manuscripts denouncing Hegel’s accommodation with State and capital to his libertarian analysis of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France (1871)—would likely have led him to have some trepidations about the Bolshevik line.13
Adorno, though greatly marked by Marx’s work and Marxist critique, does not share the humanism which led Marx to take a dialectical view of imperialism, nor is it evident that he integrated much concern for the exercise of domination over non-European peoples in his day from other critical sources, such as Rosa Luxemburg. In general terms, it would seem that Adorno concerned himself principally with the question of anti-Jewish prejudice and violence amidst the evidently traumatic experience of the Nazi regime and the Shoah. If we consider Adorno’s psychological and sociological studies of prejudice and racism, moreover, his revolutionary contributions should not likely be doubted: with Horkheimer, he frames the fascist hatred of Jews as emanating from pre-existing liberal-capitalist society in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), and his later investigations into the Authoritarian Personality (1950) are similarly radical in anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist terms. Hence it is somewhat strange that Adorno never extended his concern for racism and prejudice to analyses of global capitalism, material inequality, and the clearly brutal exercise of Euro-American power against non-European peoples in the two and a half decades following WWII, a timeframe corresponding to the remainder of Adorno’s lifetime. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, the continent of Africa is mentioned in a thoughtful reflection on the domination exercised against non-human animals—under imperial capitalism, herds of elephants and giraffes are reduced to mere “obstacles to the landing of bombers in the latest war”—yet Adorno and Horkheimer make no direct mention of Africa’s humans here.14 In a less than liberatory fashion, Adorno begins his 6 June 1967 lecture by mentioning the “terrible threat to Israel” and the “countless Jews [there] who have fled a horrifying fate” as posed by the beginning of the Six-Day War; it does not seem to occur to this critical theorist par excellence that the war in fact began with Israeli aggression against Egypt.15 But perhaps such a culturally nationalistic perspective could already be seen in his and Horkheimer’s denunciation of Gamel Abdel Nasser as the “fascist chieftain who conspires with Moscow” following the 1956 Suez Crisis.16 In less reactionary terms, though, two years after the Six-Day War Adorno discusses the “horror of the napalm bombs” dropped by the U.S. military in Vietnam, and in his lectures on metaphysics he clearly locates the U.S. devastation of that country and its people as being a crime which belongs within the fascist continuum responsible for Auschwitz.17 Such statements on Adorno’s part demonstrates the profound disregard in which he held U.S. militarism, and his position here is undoubtedly more legitimate than that of Horkheimer, who defended the U.S. war effort as a means of inhibiting the expansion of Maoist influence in the world. This is not to say that Adorno expressly supported the Vietnamese resistance, given his criticism of the “unspeakable Chinese-style tortures” performed by the Vietcong, as communicated in correspondence to Marcuse in 1969; unlike Marcuse, Adorno never translated his repulsion at the war in Vietnam into concrete resistance or activism.18 This marked failure on Adorno’s part may well have had to do with the tumultuous relationship he and Horkheimer were experiencing at that time with contemporary radical-left movements in Germany, which for their part overwhelmingly seem to have aligned themselves with the Vietnamese Communists. Then, in August 1969, Adorno died unexpectedly.
As is well-known, Marcuse for his part considered many of the national-liberation efforts of his day to be principal factors in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. A number of his most famous books and addresses positively cite the revolutionary developments in Cuba and China as encouraging signs of progress—in this sense, it would be interesting to see how Marcuse might have reacted to the increased Stalinist/Maoist bureaucratization of those societies. Another question is to what extent Marcuse was aware of highly negating developments such as massive famine under Mao, or how well-known such realities were at the time—for this I have no answer. Self-evidently, Marcuse is very famous for his passionate activism against the Vietnam War during his tenure as professor at UCSD—an effort for which he suffered considerably, given the numerous death-threats directed against his person, which in fact led his graduate students to rotate shifts as his protection detail.19 On the question of Israel, Marcuse may well be termed a Zionist, though not in the fascist-aggressor sense we see today: for him, the foundation of Israel, which he felt sought to “prevent a recurrence of the concentration camps [and] the pogroms,” forms “part of the struggle for liberty and equality for all persecuted racial and national minorities the world over.”20 Marcuse visited historical Palestine with his wife Inge in 1971 to expressly study the Arab-Israeli conflict at first hand, and rather than limit themselves only to engaging with Israel and Israelis, the pair traveled to Nablus to discuss matters with Palestinian intellectuals under occupation.21 Raymonda Hawa Tawil, a Palestinian who observed these interactions, paraphrases Marcuse as saying that, though he “had always felt sympathy toward Jews suffering persecution,” he “could find no sympathy for Jews who persecute others.”22 Indeed, in the article which he composed for the Jerusalem Post after his visit, entitled “Israel is Strong Enough to Concede,” Marcuse clearly acknowledges the great “injustice done to the native Arab population” in the founding of the Israeli State: born through the “displacement of the Palestinian people,” the power of settler-colonial Zionism “proceeded without the rights and interests of the native population” in mind.”23 In this sense, Israel’s genesis was “not essentially different form the origins of practically all states in history: establishment by conquest, occupation, discrimination.”24 Moving forward in practical terms, Marcuse in this essay calls for a peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Republic (Egypt & Syria) which would entail the latter’s recognition of Israel and a “settlement” of Palestinian refugees, whether that be in pre-1948 Palestine or in a Palestinian State existing alongside Israel.25 Though his terms for peace include full Western access to the Suez Canal, Marcuse’s recommendations are not the standard liberal-colonialist tripe of his day (or our own), for he argues that the shape and direction of a future Palestinian state must be decided through Palestinian self-determination. Marcuse sees his recommendations as “interim solutions,” and he ultimately expresses hope for an “optimal solution” whereby Arabs and Jews would live together as “equal partners” in a Middle Eastern “socialist federation.”26 Finally in these terms, one of Marcuse’s very last lectures in life was given in the Mexican bordertown of Mexicali—a destination which the septuagenarian Marcuse reached with his Mexican assistant after a “trip which few Norteños of any age would have made,” according to George Katsiaficas.27
Ecology and Nature
In recent years, a great deal of focus has been placed on Marx’s supposedly critical insights into environmentalism, his humanistic exposition of capitalist alienation and its dialectical transcendence through communism aside. The main theorist pushing this alternative reading of Marx has been John Bellamy Foster, author inter alia of Marx’s Ecology (2000), The Ecological Revolution (2009), and The Ecological Rift (2010). In my view, Foster’s argumentation is far from convincing in terms of claiming Marx as an ecologist. Notwithstanding the critical importance of the anti-capitalist analysis of environmental destruction which Foster advances, his assumptions seem greatly to exaggerate the extent to which Marx concerned himself with ecological questions. Most of Foster’s elucidations of Marx’s supposed contributions to environmentalism are composed of a few passing comments the communist theorist makes regarding the adverse effects capitalist agricultural processes have on soils—yet no attempt is made to supply more varied and consistent utterances on Marx’s part which concern themselves with environmental matters, because such an effort would prove largely fruitless.28 True, the young Marx does favorably cite Thomas Münzer’s declaration that, under the rule of private property, “all creatures have been turned into property,” while they must “become free”—he even argues that the capitalist “view of nature” implies “real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature.”29 But this statement is rather peripheral to the argumentation in the essay in which it is found, “On The Jewish Question.” While Marx evidently defines communism in his 1844 Manuscripts as “the genuine resolution of the conflict between [humanity] and nature” as well as among humans, one should likely make a distinction between the young Marx and his mature self in these terms, for references to environmental issues account for only a tiny fraction if we consider Marx’s ouevre as a whole.30 In my view, communist humanism vastly outweighs concern for ecology in the primacy of Marx’s social philosophy. Instead of an ecologist, on my account, Marx was largely a Promethean who held a relatively positivist—that is, uncritical—view of industrialism; I believe Adorno was right to declare that Marx wanted to “turn the whole world into a giant workhouse.”31 It is not for nothing that Marx condemned the “brutalizing worship of nature” he claimed as being evident in the traditional village life of pre-Raj India; he was clearly offended that in Hindu society, “man, the sovereign of nature” would “f[a]ll down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.”32 It is important not to confuse Marx’s modernist progressivism with the utopian romanticism of Charles Fourier or Friedrich Schiller.
Adorno’s philosophy is manifestly permeated with concern for the destructive effects capitalism and civilization have had on non-human nature. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer claim the effort to dominate external nature to have been central to the very emergence of human reason: subjected to the exercise of reason, nature is degraded to “mere material, mere stuff to be dominated.”33 The result is that the animal comes to “know only irrational terror and the urge to make an escape from which he is cut off”; subjected to human dominion, “[t]he whole earth bears witness to the glory of man [sic]”:
“Unreasoning creatures have encountered reason throughout the ages—in war and peace, in arena and slaughterhouse, from the lingering death-throes of the mammoth overpowered by a primitive tribe in the first planned assault down to the unrelenting exploitation of the animal kingdom in our own days.”34
Adorno and Horkheimer clearly express their disgust with vivisection, consumption of animal flesh, zoos, and loss of biodiversity; using the example of captive circus lions who perish in a fire, they denounce the instrumentalization of animal life, noting prevailing bourgeois standards to consider such deaths as mere “capital losses to their owners.”35 Adorno will carry on such critical animal-liberationist perspectives throughout his lifespan, coming to endorse vegetarianism in his 1963 summer lectures.36 Indeed, in his celebrated 1962 lecture “Progress,” Adorno presents a revolutionary definition of historical progress, whereby this is to be attained only once humanity experiences an “awakening” which allows it to “becom[e] aware of its own indigenousness to nature” and so “brin[g] to a halt the domination it exacts over nature.”37 Lastly, in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory (1970), Adorno continues with these utopian socialist musings, noting that the experience of natural beauty “recollects a world without domination”; moreover, he notes that, “under transformed relations of production,” technology could be employed to “assist nature” by reversing its destruction and even “on this sad earth [to] help it to attain what perhaps it wants .”38
As Michael Löwy notes, Marcuse undoubtedly shares the “romantic revolutionary” perspectives of his comrade Walter Benjamin, and Adorno to a degree—for he expresses a “nostalgia for precapitalist Kultur” as a cipher which rejects industrial-capitalist technology and the destruction of nature.39 This concern can be clearly seen in Marcuse’s earliest written work, his dissertation on the German Artist Novel (1922). Though Marcuse seems to have suppressed environmental concern in some of his work in the 1930s—his treatment of the nature-domineering philosophy of René Descartes in “The Concept of Essence” (1936) is far from critical—it is very clearly evident in Eros and Civilization (1955), wherein Marcuse integrates Kant’s aesthetic theory with the mythological figure of Orpheus to suggest that, in a future emancipated society, nature and the non-human should be taken not as objects of exploitation and manipulation but rather as intrinsically valuable: they are simply to be treated as “’just what they are,’ ‘being-there,’ existing.”40 Marcuse is famous for his advancement of such a romantic image of liberation as advancing sensuousness and tranquility; it is indelibly linked to his concern for humanity’s reconciliation with nature. Like Adorno, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man (1964) argues for overthrowing human cruelty to animals, naming their “ill-treatment” as part of the capitalist “Hell.”41 In Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972), Marcuse dedicates an entire chapter to the question of “Nature and Revolution”: here, he advances the puzzling idea that “to campaign for universal vegetarianism” would seem misguided amidst the depth of suffering “inflicted by man [sic] on man.”42 Yet he argues reasonably that “no free society is imaginable which does not […] make the concerted effort to reduce consistently the suffering which [humanity] imposes on the animal world.”43 Generally, Marcuse in “Nature and Revolution” comes to identify the non-human world as an “ally” in the struggle against the triple domination exercised by capitalism: that over self, other humans, and nature.44 Endorsing the concept of the “liberation of nature,” Marcuse joins Adorno in arguing for the re-orientation of science and technology toward the end of assisting it, and, though he clearly prefers the Marxian concept of a “human appropriation of nature” to capitalism’s destruction of it, he nonetheless criticizes Marx for reflecting a “hubris of domination” in considering nature as an object to be controlled.45 He here restates his Kantian alternative of a nonexploitative relationship with nature, as originally formulated in Eros and Civilization.
1Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), available online at
2Karl Marx, “Preface to the First German Edition,” Capital Vol. 1 (1867), online at
4Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory (London: Verso, 1992), 236.
5Ibid, 238.
6Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 12 (New York: International Publishers, 1974-2004), 132, 217.
7Ibid, 218, 181.
8Ibid, 126.
9Ibid, 221.
10Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 196-236.
11Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).
12Marx and Engels, “Preface to the 1882 Russian Edition,” online at
13Maximilien Rubel, “Marx, theoretician of anarchism” (1973), online at
14Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 251.
15Qtd. in Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), 452.
16Ibid, 413.
17Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” New Left Review 1, no. 233 (January–February 1999): 127.; Adorno, Metaphysics: Concepts and Problems, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (1965; repr., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 101.
18Adorno and Marcuse, op. cit, 127.
19Herbert Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, 93.
20Ibid, 54.
21Raymonda Hawa Tawil, My Home, My Prison (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), 231-2.
22Ibid, 232.
23Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, 54.
24Ibid, 54.
25Ibid, 56.
26Ibid, 56.
27Herbert Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, p. 197.
28John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and the Global Ecological Rift,” MRZine, 28 November 2007, online at
29“On the Jewish Question” (1844), available online:
30Qtd. in Lawrence Wilde, “The creatures, too, must become free: Marx and the Animal/Human Distinction” (2000), available at
31Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 57.
32Marx and Engels, op. cit, vol. 12, 132.
33Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 97.
34Adorno and Horkheimer, op. cit, 245-6.
35Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 208-9.
36Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002)
37Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (1962; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 90-91.
38Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 1997), 66, 68.
39Michael Löwy,“Under the Star of Romanticism: Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse,” in Revolutionary Romanticism, ed. Max Blechman (SF: City Lights, 1999), 209.
40Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 165.
41Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 237.
42Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 68.
43Ibid, 68.
44Ibid, 59.

45Ibid, 61, 69.

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