Many on the left find a source of hope in the realignment of ‘green’ and socialist perspectives.footnote I believe they are right to do so, and I share the hope. But it remains true that important currents within Green politics and culture are hostile to socialism (as they understand it), whilst the response of the socialist left to the rise of ecological politics has, in the main, been deeply ambiguous.footnote1 In what follows I attempt to do two things: first, to demonstrate that these tensions and oppositions have deep roots in the most influential intellectual tradition on the left, and, second, to provide some new conceptual ‘markers’ which I hope will play a part in facilitating the growing Red/Green dialogue.footnote2 Although some participants in this dialogue (rightly, in my view) favour a revaluation of non-Marxian socialist traditions of thought and action,footnote3 this should not, I think, take the place of a continuing and rigorous exploration of the limits and resources of Marxism itself. As I hope to show, Marxism still has much to offer, and what it has to offer is unique to it. Moreover, where the mainstream of Marxist thinking has been wrong, or limited, its limitations have been both disastrous and widely shared, so that the effort of critical exposure is doubly worthwhile.

I shall start with the statement of a paradox. Marx and Engels thought of their philosophical positions as naturalist and materialist. They tended to regard modern science as potentially favourable to—even a necessary condition for—human emancipation, they considered their own work to be scientific, and they aligned themselves unequivocally with the naturalistic implications of Darwinism in the evolutionary debates of the 1860s onwards.footnote4 Numerous statements of the leading ‘threads’ or ‘premises’ of their materialist view of history are likewise unequivocally naturalistic. The famous 1859 ‘Preface’ (Marx):

These, and many other passages in the works of Marx and Engels attest to their persistent view of human social life as dependent upon nature-given material conditions. The requirement that humans must interact with their natural environment in order to meet their needs is a transhistorical feature of the human predicament. This position is even to be found, notwithstanding the residual idealism of much in the early works, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

This naturalistic thesis is complemented by a second—that the key to understanding the geographical variations and historical transformations in the form of human social and political life is to be found in the various ways in which these societies interact with nature:

If these are, indeed, central doctrines of historical materialism, then this is our paradox: ecology, considered strictly as one of the modern life-sciences, is the systematic study of the interrelations between populations of animals or plants and their organic and inorganic surroundings. Historical materialism presents itself precisely as an approach to the study of human societies in this perspective—as, in other words, ecology applied to human populations. Historical materialism, without distortion, could now be represented as a specific field within ecology: the ecology of the human species. Of course, this bold statement is open to a reductionist misreading. Compared with other animal species, humans are exceptionally adaptable vis-`-vis their environmental conditions of existence, and also possess the capacity for a generation-by-generation cumulative augmentation of their transformative powers. These and other features define the particularities of human ecology, and also determine the enormous causal importance of human environmental impacts on the ecology of other species. It is not my intention to deny any of this particularity of the human case. Although ecology is a generalizing science like any other, it deploys its general concepts in the analysis of the particularities in the environmental interactions of each species within its purview. This includes the human species no more, and no less, than the others.