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):

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite social relations which are indispensable and independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. . . . The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of the social, political and intellectual life.footnote5

Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power.footnote6

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself—geological, oro-hydrographical, climatic and so on. All historical writing must set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.footnote7

The labour-process. . . . is human action with a view to the production of use-values, appropriation of natural substances to human requirements; it is the necessary condition for effecting exchange of matter between man and Nature; it is the everlasting Nature-imposed condition of human existence, and therefore independent of every social phase of that existence, or rather, is common to every such phase.footnote8

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: