Socialism and Environment Essay

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Raymond Williams collected notes on the usage of particular words that he felt were socially and politically significant and published a set of essays about them in his 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Williams’s reputation as one of Britain’s foremost socialist intellectuals of the 20th century no doubt explains why the term socialist is one of the keywords he included. About the variations, usage and meanings of the term, Williams suggested that by the 1840s, socialist and socialism were associated with notions like cooperative, mutualist, associationist, societarian, phalansterian, agrarianist, and radical. He also pointed out that as late as 1848, Webster’s Dictionary defined socialism as “a new term for agrarianism.” As useful as Webster’s is for seeing the link between socialism and the environment, the main elements of what we today call socialism have existed for many centuries ranging from Plato’s Republic to Moore’s Utopia.

The political history of socialism is most directly embedded in Marxist discussion about alternative models of political economic organization. It is rooted within our collective intellectual imagination as a result of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’s publication of the Communist Manifesto (1848) and Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (written in 1875; published in 1891). While they are seen as very different notions in the present day, socialism and communism were once synonymous. It was V.I. Lenin who pointed out in his State and Revolution (1917) that in The Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx suggested that socialism was a first, or lower, phase of communist society. As communism grew in character through its supporters, the differentiation between socialism and communism became more distinct.

Many socialists drawn to communism in its early history disagreed on how it could be implemented in society. Some of these early socialists included Charles Fourier, Ferdinand Lassalle, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon. They and others disagreed about centralized versus decentralized control of resources, private property relations, the degree to which egalitarianism should be implemented, and family and community organization structures. While agrarian issues were at the core of early socialist tensions, ecological issues were not as central as they should have been.

Raymond Williams also included the term ecology in his Keywords. While the term is widely attributed to Ernest Haeckel’s use during the 1870s-referring to notions of habitat-Williams also points out a curious utilization of the term by Henry David Thoreau in 1858. Thoreau’s earlier use, which

was a more socially-oriented use, better foreshadowed the connections between socialism and ecology that were seen in the 19th and 20th centuries. Also regarding the connections between socialism and ecology, Williams mentioned H.G. Wells’s use of ecology to suggest economics was a branch of ecology, that is, the ecology of human society.

These linkages were central to Marx’s theory about capitalism. Building on von Liebig’s (1840) notion of metabolism, he articulated the physical and social processes through which individuals transform their local environments. In Marxist parlance, metabolization is at the heart of the relationship between human survival and the emergence of commodity production. As such, this relation is vital for understanding the production and commodification of nature, especially those resources that are explicitly shaped for consumption. Within Marx’s theory, although unfortunately absent from most of the history of Marxist theory, nature is the definitive metabolic manifestation of preconceived forms of collective human labor.

While Marx was plainly aware of the ecological foundations that were both necessary to support society and at the same time fueled capitalism, many people associated with socialism have failed to make some of the important connections between socialism and ecology. One of the most important contemporary thinkers to flesh out some of these connections has been James O’Conner, who started the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism in 1988. O’Conner has spent many years working to explain notions of ecological socialism, or ecosocialism, as both an intellectual and political endeavor.

O’Conner’s explanation for the need of a theory of ecosocialism relates to the contradictory way in which socialists have theorized ecological resources and relations. He starts his justifications by pointing out that socialists often focus on capitalism’s subordination of use value to exchange value and concrete labor to abstract labor. In turn, O’Conner points out that socialist struggles have tended to focus on higher wages, shorter hours of work, full employment, rent control, and other social mechanisms that relate to distributive justice. Instead of distributive justice, O’Conner suggests socialist critiques of capitalism should lead to forms of productive justice. The end result of this contradiction has been that socialists have mounted a qualitative theoretical critique of capitalism, and at the same time responded with a quantitative political project.

O’Conner’s notion of ecosocialism is geared toward theories and political movements that organize production for need, not profit. Central to his proposition is what he calls the “second contradiction of capitalism,” which is fundamentally a crisis related to the destruction of nature as a contingent condition of production. What becomes clear through O’Conner’s theorizing of ecosocialism is that consumption without production is really the antithesis of the production/consumption relation. Diminished expenditure on production conditions in various kinds of environments represents O’Conner’s second contradiction of capital, whereby underproduction of production conditions result in fiscal and ecological crisis. This contradiction within capitalism diminishes the vitality of the capitalist system, ultimately leading to collapse via the contraction.

There are many different kinds of theoretical and political treatments of socialism within contemporary society. While social democratic countries are evidence of the possibility that some socialist notions can prevail, present day dominance of neoliberal capitalism and corporate plundering of nature and society both make the future of socialism less likely and at the same time more necessary. Just as O’Conner’s theorizing of ecosocialism has helped the Left evolve, more work is needed to incorporate the broad diversity of social and ecological struggle that will foster continued forms of socialism in the future.


  1. Justus von Liebig, Principles of Agricultural Chemistry, With Special Reference to the Late Researches Made in England (Walton and Maberly, 1840);
  2. James O’Conner, Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism (Guilford, 1998);
  3. Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Oxford University Press, 1983).

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