Mon Apr 22, 2024
April 22, 2024

Engels’ Ecological Dialectical Materialism

It is undeniable that Marx was deeply curious about the development of the sciences of his time. Not only the natural sciences but also the humanities, which was evident in his notebook on Lewis Henry Morgan, which eventually became the raw material of the book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, written in 1884 by Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). However, it was Engels himself who devoted most attention to the problems of science and the relationship between human beings and nature from the point of view of dialectical materialism, while Marx was absorbed in his research into political economy, unveiling the gears of capitalist exploitation.

By: Jeferson Choma

And both were partners in a project for independent organisation of the workers’ movement, based on a revolutionary programme as that presented in the Communist Manifesto or, later, the programme for the International Workingmen’ Association (I International).

It was the mature Engels who wrote Dialectics of Nature, an unfinished work that contains only notes and fragments for a never-ending book project. Even so, its passages and incomplete notes on how dialectical logic can contribute substantially to the understanding of natural processes, from a philosophical approach of science in the light of the revolutionary scientific discoveries he witnessed, are very interesting.

In the 20th century, this work was much criticized by authors such as Lukács and others influenced by the Frankfurt School. One example is Alfred Schmidt’s book The Concept of Nature in Marx, a doctoral work led by Max Horkheimer, in whose first chapter Engels is accused of falling into dogmatic metaphysics and presenting an interpretation of nature disconnected from all human praxis. Engels was also accused of “positivist deviations” since he – like the positivists [1] – sought to apply a method that was valid in both the social sciences and the natural sciences.

Most of the criticisms of Engels are devoid of any reference to or knowledge of natural sciences, which has resulted in the total impossibility of understanding in depth the ecological connections contained in his thought and that of Marx. Both were aware of the natural sciences and technological changes of their time. Schmidt, for example, cites Marx’s concept of metabolic failure at various times. However, he does so without bringing it down to earth, without relating it to the natural material conditions, and without explaining the historical context of its appearance in Marx’s thought [2]. In reality, his criticism is based on philosophical abstractions which, on many occasions, flirt with idealism.

However, in the criticisms made of Engels’ work, both by authors of the Frankfurt School and in Lukács, there is also a clear rejection of positivism and its arbitrary generalization of the methods of the natural sciences applied to the humanities, as was social Darwinism, a bourgeois reactionary ideology that served to “naturalise” the capitalist rule and workers exploitation. Not that Engels was positivist, the problem is that many Marxists of the Second International were greatly influenced by evolutionism.

Kautsky, for instance, understood Marx’s work as a synthesis between Marxism and Darwinism and that both had in common the fact that they were theories of evolution. In his interpretation of Marx, “[…] social development was placed within the framework of natural development, the human spirit presented as a part of nature, even in its most complicated and supreme manifestations.” [3]

The main theorist of German social-democracy conceived the laws of society as social laws, and Marxism simply as a means of scientifically searching for the laws of evolution and the movement of the social organism.

Much of this dogmatic materialism was rescued by Stalinism, and “DIAMAT” became a state ideology that served to corroborate a materialistic pseudo-science in the service of a hateful bureaucracy that had appropriated Soviet power. In a way, Stalinism created inverted positivism: if positivism sought to extract from the natural sciences an ideology to naturalise social relations, Stalinism ideologised natural sciences from politics.

The Lysenko case is one of the most repugnant episodes of the ideologisation of science in the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, Lysenko started a vile campaign of slander against Mendelian genetics, claiming that it was neither “dialectic” nor “materialist” and still had bourgeois deviations. The Soviet geneticists were even called “Trotskyite saboteurs” who defended a “bourgeois science,” the neo-Darwinism, that is, modern genetics. Instead, they promoted a self-styled “Soviet genetics” which denied the very existence of genes and valued “the environment”, the “external factors”. [4]

Stalinism transformed dialectical materialism into crude materialism dressed up as “dialectical” until it became a booklet that all scientists should reverence and sometimes quote some passage from Engels’ book [Dialectics of Nature] in search of a true “proletarian science.” Within the Soviet Union, the outcome for the sciences was catastrophic, especially in the field of biology, and elsewhere many scientists have moved away from dialectics by associating it with the scientific atrocities perpetrated by Stalinism.

But neither Engels nor his book bears any responsibility for this grotesque deformation or for the fact that Stalinism attributes ideological norms to scientific research. On the contrary, Engels’ notes are a declaration of war against mechanical and reductionist views of nature, and not just against idealistic forms of thinking in the natural sciences. Against crude materialism, Engels presents a dialectical view of human-nature relations and also of the very way one sees natural processes. A view radically opposed to reductionism which sees phenomena in isolated fragments and therefore has properties to be studied in isolation. “The whole of nature accessible to us,” explains Engels, “forms a system, an interconnected totality of bodies, and by bodies we understand here all material existence extending from stars to atoms.

Engels opposes ordinary materialism to dialectics as a heuristic method, useful for a more refined view of the complexity of nature and the sciences that study it. Not by chance, his work influenced many decades later a whole generation of Anglo-Saxon biologists, such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin, who polemised against current forms of scientific reductionism, such as sociobiology that explains behaviors such as racism and aggression as genetically determined.

It is important to note that at the time Engels wrote his notes, the development of the productive forces of capitalism, philosophy, and the natural sciences were increasingly distant from each other, and the tendency toward specialisation was increasingly crystallised. Philosophical discussions were seen as mere speculation. Justus von Liebig, a German chemist who influenced Marx so much in the development of the concept of metabolic failure, blamed philosophical speculation for delaying the progress of natural sciences in Germany for more than 50 years. [5]

In this sense, Engels sought a rapprochement of philosophy and science, and his work sought to mobilise the best of the logical categories of Hegelian dialectics to expose an original philosophical approach to natural processes.

It was in this work that Engels fought against the notion of the immutability of nature and argued that matter is in permanent transformation and that there are abrupt changes, or leaps, in the course of natural processes. That is why he was so enthusiastic about Darwin: he saw in him someone who finally presented a conception that nature had a historical development. In fact, his well-known assertiveness regarding the transformation of quantity into quality influenced the notion of development “by leaps” present in Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium. [6]

An example of the sophistication of his thinking is the fact that Engels is the first to see in Darwin’s theory the practical explanation of the internal link between chance and necessity. So he explains:

“Darwin in his epoch-making work set out from the widest existing basis of chance. Precisely the infinite, accidental differences between individuals within a single species, differences which become accentuated until they break through the character of the species, and whose immediate causes even can be demonstrated only in extremely few cases, compelled him to question the previous basis of all regularity in biology, viz., the concept of species in its previous metaphysical rigidity and unchangeability. Without the concept of species, however, all science was nothing. All its branches needed the concept of species as a basis: human anatomy and comparative anatomy – embryology, zoology, paleontology, botany, etc., what were they without the concept of species?” [7]

There is no definite purpose in the evolution of life. The process does not always take place with the aim of forming more complex or more “evolved” organisms. Natural selection does not work like an engineer who acts under a project and seeks perfection. There is no defined plan.

The appearance of new species is related to the variability of organisms. Variations that occur randomly and are inherited by their descendants. Such characteristics become predominant in successive generations of a population of organisms that reproduce, while other characteristics become less common and may disappear.

There is no pre-directed way for a variation to lean towards more favourable characteristics. On the contrary, in general, variations in new organisms do not result in adaptive advantages to the environment, and their fate is inexorably their extinction.

However, there are casual variations which may result in some adaptive advantage, and this organism will survive and pass its characteristics on to its descendants. As Stephan Jay Gold states, “evolution is a mixture of chance and necessity—chance at the level of variation, necessity in the working of selection.” [8]

Engels, nature, and history

With regard to nature, understood as biogeochemical processes, Engels shared Marx’s vision. In The German Ideology, both criticised the limitations of Feuerbach’s static materialism, underlining his inability to perceive the world as a process, as a matter understood in a continuing historical formation, including the relationship of nature with practical human life.

Marx and Engels agree with Feuerbach on the primacy of external nature, which is independent of human existence and is perceived by our sensory capacity. However, both German thinkers go much further. For Feuerbach, nature is merely contemplative. He ignores the fact that sensory perception is made by real historical men. Marx and Engels explain this:

He [Feuerbach] does not see how the sensuous world around him is, not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is a historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and its intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs. […] The cherry-tree, like almost all fruit-trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age it has become “sensuous certainty” for Feuerbach.” [9]

In this way, the sensory world itself no longer exists in its original form, since it has become the repository of the activity unleashed by successive generations of men, that is, the environment itself, nature, has been continually transformed by human action. About this nature conceived by Feuerbach, Marx and Engels say ironically: “[…] today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin) […].”

Since the emergence of the human species, therefore, a process of transformation of nature has begun, where there is no natural environment that has not been affected by the history and culture of the different societies that have emerged in the course of civilization, and each historical formation has presented a specific way of relating to nature. Hence Marx’s famous phrase, “nature without man is nothing” falling short of frequent idealistic interpretations.

Nature has its own development commanded by a biogeochemical process, independent of human action. But since the emergence of the human species, our history has been intertwined with the history of nature. Thus, argues Marx, man has always had before him “a historical nature and a natural history.

Years later, Engels takes up this discussion in an even more explicit way:

For we live not only in nature but also in human society, and this also no less than nature has its history of development and its science. It was therefore a question of bringing the science of society, that is, the sum total of the so-called historical and philosophical sciences, into harmony with the materialist foundation, and of reconstructing it thereupon. But it did not fall to Feuerbach’s lot to do this. In spite of the “foundation”, he remained here bound by the traditional idealist fetters […].” [10]

The Ecological Engels

But Engels was also noted for his ecological concerns and the destruction of the environment caused by capitalist society. These concerns are made explicit in his famous manuscript, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, in which Engels presents an instigating understanding of the role of labour in human development. He refutes the one-sided view that our evolution was driven by a growing brain. Bipedalism allowed the development of the brain and hands; human hands freed themselves so that human beings could transform nature and themselves. The development of the hands is seen by Engels as “one member of an integral, highly complex organism. And what benefited the hand, benefited also the whole body it served […].”

It is necessary to make some reservations to Engels who suggests in his manuscript Lamarckian notions such as the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Only in the 20th century will Mendelian genetics totally refute these ideas. But we should not pay less attention to his dialectical approach. Nature is seen as a whole, a complex of reciprocal exchange relations, including between biotic and abiotic organisms and their intimate connection, as Darwin had demonstrated and later developed by biology and geology itself.

Like Marx, Engels also saw that labour mediated the relationship of metabolism between human beings and nature. The process of labour is the universal condition of the metabolic relationship between human beings and nature. But unlike other animals, there is a purpose, intentionality in the realisation of human labour. If an animal destroys any vegetation without being aware of this action, the human being destroys vegetation to sow and cultivate the soil; domesticates useful plants and animals to the point of leaving them unrecognisable, and transfers them from one region to another, modifying an entire ecological system, transforming the landscape, appropriating territories. In this way, he establishes coevolution of his environment and the creatures he has transformed.

In this relationship, human beings affirm their own objectivity and subjectivity, they modify the environment and, at the same time, themselves. It is through labour that human beings broaden their horizon, since by their action every natural element, every potential contained in it, shows properties hitherto ignored. It is enough to remember the ancestral domestication of plants or even our present understanding of the energy contained in a hydrogen atom.

By acting on nature and transforming it, human beings deepen bonds of sociability among members of society, multiply mutual assistance, promote common cooperation, and transmit this knowledge to future generations. Imagine, for example, what it was like for the first human beings to invent a simple canoe, which broke down hitherto insurmountable natural barriers and enabled them to open up new horizons, breaking down hitherto insurmountable geographical limits. This totally transformed their mentality about the world and their relationship with nature. But the invention of a simple canoe, however rustic and primitive its design, requires mobilising and coordinating the efforts and experiences of an entire social group to build it: choosing (or recognising) a suitable timber, moving people to cut it, printing on it with human labour what was previously thought of in the brain, the appropriate ways for it to float, resisting the storms and long crossings, etc.

Making a tool like this has awakened aptitudes hitherto unknown to those men and women, transformed the relationships between them, transformed the individual, society, their vision of the world, their relationship with nature, language, and the species itself. In the same way, hunting activity or the invention of agriculture also left humans more skillful, intelligent, and astute.

In spite of sometimes displaying a certain triumphalist tone in his lines about the achievements of civilization, something typical of his time, which watched at overwhelming speed the scientific discoveries, Engels reveals at the same time a deep ecological consciousness identifying the limits of nature. He was fully aware that he was witnessing great revolutionary technical innovations that would transform the world. But he also warned of ecological problems caused by many of these innovations and inventions that could even result in the disappearance of species and ecosystems. In a warning tone about the supposed human realm of nature, he wrote:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory, nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were […] thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. […] Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.” [11].

At a time when humanity is beset by a pandemic caused by the commercial appropriation of nature and by climate changes that threaten all civilization, these words sound prophetic, and they have tried to arouse a just alarm in the midst of a society drunk with the ideology of progress.

Engels knew that the development of the sciences served the masters of capital, increasing the appropriation of relative surplus-value. But he never presented a one-sided view disapproving of the advances of science, since it could serve as a way of overcoming human alienation from nature: “But the more this progresses the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body […].” [12]

But to believe that scientific development alone will save us from environmental catastrophe, allowing a more regulated relationship with the environment, is as naïve as to blame scientific development for environmental imbalances. Engels already warned about this: “This regulation, however, requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.” [13].

The profound dialectical conception of the dynamics of natural systems is in perfect harmony with what Ernst Haeckel called Ecology in 1866. But, as we have seen above, the study of ecosystems needs to take into account the historical development of societies. The “anthropic factor” should not be a mere accounting abstraction on the imbalance of an ecosystem’s energy flow. It is necessary to explain the reason for the imbalance of the energy flow, which lies in the explanation of how a society is structured, in the struggles between social classes, in economic interests, and in the power relations that govern the appropriation by ruling classes of a fraction of the earth’s crust.

After all, who is the Anthropos responsible for global warming and the destruction of ecosystems on a global scale that neither Engels nor Marx could imagine?

The development of our understanding of nature reinforces Engels’ warning: “we do not reign over nature like a conqueror.” Pandemics and climate change caused by capitalism demand the need to overcome this system based on the exploitation of labour and nature. They demand the creation of a socialist society, revolutionising social relations and productive forces so that human beings overcome their alienation from the product of their labour and recognise themselves as part of nature, the one that thinks about themselves.


[1] Positivism is a philosophical current that emerged in France in the 19th century with Auguste Comte and was developed by thinkers as Herbert Spencer and Émile Durkheim. Positivism claims that society needs to be studied with a rigorous “impartial scientific method.” To this end, it applies the same method used in the natural sciences for the study of social sciences. Durkheim, for example, compared society to a biological organism, “a system of organs in which each has its own particular role.” Certain organs have a special and privileged situation, which is natural for the proper functioning of every organism. In this way, positivism justified class privileges and the established social order. Darwinism served this ideology when concepts like “survival of the fittest” were imported into the social sciences to justify class dominance.

[2] To learn more, read:

[3] KAUTSKY, Karl. The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx, chapter II. Summary of Natural Science
and the Humanities. <>

[4] Lysenko despised many aspects of Darwin’s theory of evolution and suggested an evolutionary approach based on the ideas of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck of the early 19th century. That is: that organisms could acquire traits in their lives and pass them on through heredity to their children. Rooted in the argument that the change of genotype is the result of external influences, of the environment, Lisenko went to war against Mendelian genetics and against the botanist Nikolái Vavílov, his most notable defender. This theory, however, was already absolutely overcome at the time and totally lacking empirical evidence. Most evolutionist biologists, like Vavílov, argued that in evolutionary processes the characteristics of a living organism were genetically inherited from its ancestors.

[5] UTZ, Konrad, SOARES, Marly Carvalho (Org). A Noiva do Espírito: Natureza em Hegel. Porto Alegre: EDIPUCRS, 2010.

[6] To know more: GASPER, Phil. Dialectic Biologist Stephen Jay Gould. In: Marxismo Vivo nº6, November 2002. Online version: <>

[7] ENGELS, F. Dialectics of Nature. <>

[8] GOULD, Stephen Jay. Ever Since Darwin. Prologue. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

[9] MARX, K. ENGELS, F. German Ideology. Part 1: Feuerbach. <>

[10] ENGELS, F. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy. In: <>

[11] ENGELS, F. Dialectics of Nature…

[12] Idem.

[13] Idem.

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