Convention Discussion: Nature Before Profits – Some History, Some Theory

BY: Len Yannielli| February 19, 2014
Submitted for discussion by the Environmental Working Group of the Communist Party USA

“No civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.”  — Rachel Carson

In mid-nineteenth century England, wife beating was one of the many scourges afflicting the populous. Thus when Karl Marx, and another friend from Germany, heard a cry for help by a woman along a roadway, they jumped into a throng of people to help out.

Upon realizing it was a more a case of drunkenness with no reason to intervene, the pair began to retreat. By then the crowd had closed in around them. A cry went out to get the “dammed foreigners.” Leading the attack on them was the very woman they had stopped to assist. Law enforcement intervened. The two immigrants beat a hasty retreat and vowed to better assess situations before physically leaping into the fray. (1)

Fortunately Karl Marx was much better at assessing political programs, and pointing out theoretical loopholes. A topic he wrote much about, to the surprise of many including on the Left, was nature. He was quick to criticize his German compatriots who left nature out of their writings and programs.

The Labor Theory of Value

His friend, Ferdinand Lassalle, caught Marx’s ire with this error of omission. Lassalle had claimed Labor was the source of all wealth. Marx rejoined with the opening lines of his Critique of the Gotha Program.

Labor 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 labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.

The Labor Theory of Value starts with nature. Before an item can have exchange value, it must have use value. Try to think of a commodity that has exchange value without a use value. There are none.

Nature cannot be disconnected from value, including exchange value. Comrade Virginia Brodine said it best in her seminal book, Red Roots Green Shoots. “As long as people live, they recreate labor power and therefore value. For nature to recreate value, its resources must be continually cared for and renewed.” This statement is based on labor power as a commodity.

A worker has a certain level of skills, her ability to do a certain kind of work. She then sells those skills, her labor power, like any commodity. Food, clothing, and shelter, and the average socially necessary labor time to generate them for the worker, must be factored into the total value. That determines her wage or salary. Included in this is the necessity of the working class to reproduce itself, as any living beings must, to survive and thrive.   

Materialism as the basis of our outlook.

A materialist outlook considers reality in all its changes and turns. Adam Smith and David Ricardo had previously developed the Labor Theory of Value. The Greek Epicurus and many others developed materialism as an outlook. Karl Marx gave it all a new and enlightened twist.

Marx put aspects of the Labor Theory of Value and a materialist outlook together. He made a profound historical observation. He noticed that the productive forces of any system e.g. feudalism, slavery, capitalism, tended to clash with the relationship between people in the production process.  This could be feudal lords and serfs, slaves and slave owners or capitalist owners of great wealth and workers.

Thus there is a built in conflict between social production and private ownership. This shows itself via serfs pressing for more productive land for their families, slaves taking over a slave ship, or workers striking for higher wages to support their families. When this conflict reaches a breaking point throughout their respective classes, the groundwork is laid for revolution.

The Theory of Natural Selection

Why were Marx, and cofounder of our outlook, Frederick Engels, so excited about Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection? Because the wealthy naturalist discovered how nature unfolds and develops.

Was it evolution he discovered? No. Darwin’s grandfather and others used both the term and its meaning before young Charles. The budding naturalist explained how evolution happened without invoking anything other than the real world. In other words, Darwin applied a materialist outlook to nature.

In a series of notebooks found behind a staircase after his death, Darwin explained how nature developed, just as Marx explained how society developed. There is a competition for resources e.g. shelter, food, space, between organisms of a species. Those best adapted to do this, e.g. slightly better vision or hearing, tended to survive and reproduce. Those who did not have the best adaptations, tended not to. Individuals with those better eyes or ears for example, and other survival attributes, sometimes resulted in new species.

So species come into the world and go extinct. Fossils tell us that the vast majority of species did just that. Marx discovered that socio-economic systems e.g. feudalism, slavery, and what we are witnessing in our lifetime, capitalism, do the same. Socialism is the new socio-economic “kid on the block.”

Charles Darwin knew the social and political explosiveness of his findings. He well knew Bruno was burned at the stake for his materialist thinking about the universe. Darwin kept his theory to himself until his working class brethren, Alfred Russell Wallace, wrote to him and showed he had independently come to the same theory. The wealthy naturalist published Origin of Species in 1859. Marx published Capital in 1864.

Darwin knew his theory applied to humans. Of course, before humans could evolve, soil, water and other wildlife had to be present on planet earth. Those prerequisites had their own evolution.

Our very origins, as well as our survival, were and are nature dependent.

Karl Marx savored his relationships with natural scientists. Two of them, both members of the Royal Society of London, were present at his funeral on March 17th, 1883. One of the mourners was the biologist Edwin Ray Lankester. While having no known working class affiliations, Lankester was an ardent defender of Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution.

An 1880 letter from Lankester to Marx reads, “I shall be very glad to see you. I have been intending to return to you the book you kindly lent to me.” These happenings suggest the importance Marx attributed to the natural sciences. (2) Frederick Engels developed this further with his seminal work, Dialectics Of Nature.


Both Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, along with being materialists, shared another ism. They were both abolitionists. They supported not just freedom for slaves but also equal rights.

There is considerable evidence now that abolitionism was a key-motivating factor in Darwin’s focus on evolution, especially human descent with modification. His insistence in one, single taproot to the human family tree meant that Africans and African Americans were human beings. It won him the wrath of slave owners who proselytized different origins for people of color as less than members of the human family. (3)

Marx’s and Darwin’s ideas were not just idyll musings. Marx’s grounded analysis of class struggles in the USA led to dock workers in England refusing to unload cotton from the slave south. Henry David Thoreau, influenced in part by the materialist ideas of Charles Darwin, actively involved himself in the abolitionist movement. When John Brown was murdered, Thoreau ran to the town green of Concord, Mass., and rang the church bells. It was his way of saying to his township, “Let’s see what we can do.”

Those who lived part or most of their lives as slaves made the most important contributions to ending slavery. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass used to bear his back showing the scars of the slavers’ whips. Here’s what Douglass had to say about all this in a 1883 speech.  (4)

I do not know that I am an evolutionist, but to this extent I am one. I certainly have more patience with those who trace mankind upward from a low condition, even from the lower animals, than with those that start him at a high point of perfection and conduct him to the level with the brutes. I have no sympathy with a theory that starts man in heaven and stops him in hell.

The Communist Party USA sees part of its roots in the multiracial Abolitionist movement.

Our materialist outlook enables us to see processes as organic wholes. Racism and it promulgation are a negative material force in history and currently. The movements against racism and for diversity are a positive material force. (5)


Just as a materialist outlook did not start with Darwin and Marx, nor did the dialectical approach as a way of thinking start with them.

When one of our founders, Frederick Engels, decided to expound on dialectics, he did not choose society. He chose nature to elucidate the inner workings of the dialectical method of thinking. Why? Because Engels knew our species evolved from nature and was part of it.

The other reason why Engels choose nature to elucidate dialectics is that nature puts these processes of development and change on exhibit for all to see.  

For example, there is an oppositional tug of war in a cocoon of a butterfly. There are those forces keeping the cocoon in tact and those pushing for the breakout change leading to a new, tipping point quality, for example as a Monarch Butterfly. Does the process always guarantee success? No. It guarantees a struggle of opposing forces.

Dialectics helps us understand change by focusing on process and the unity and struggle of opposing forces. Our own Virginia Brodine expounded on this very topic.  ” . . . our relationship with nature is a dialectical one. Progress in moving from subsistence to plenty can turn into its opposite when nature’s laws are ignored.”

Brodine exemplified this with the damage done to the arctic environment by the Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1989. Loss of wildlife and jobs in the fishing industry were the result.

Capitalism has supplied more examples, each time seemingly with ever-bigger disasters. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010, the nuclear power plant meltdown in Fukushima Japan, 2011, and the current chemical spill /water crisis in West Virginia, are among the latest examples of what happens when profits are placed before nature.

Climate change supplies dialectic examples in abundance. Imbalances in those forces, foisted on nature mainly by the burning of fossil fuels, have brought about new qualities on the ecosystem we call earth. Many scientists point to data indicating we are approaching new, tipping point qualities. (6)

Melting ice fields in northern latitudes are an example. This expands the amount of water in the Atlantic Ocean. Storms then impact our coastal areas in a bigger way e.g. flooding.

At the same time, the melting ice spreads cooler water into lower latitudes.  This leads to cooler air temperatures at times, particularly in coastal areas like New England. So climate change can pull in different directions at the same time, warmer in some places and cooler in others.

Natural history provides examples just how rapid climate changes can be. About 12,500 years ago, a giant ice sheet in the Great Lakes area broke. This unleashed frigid water that flooded parts of North America. These same waters rushed into the Atlantic, cooled the atmosphere above it and resulted in a mini ice age in Europe. This had a profound effect on the human family at that time.

The single greatest global problem and threat to the environment is war and war preparations. Agent Orange use in the U.S. War in Vietnam killed an area the size of Massachusetts. Genetic damage among ensuing generations has occurred among the Vietnamese.

The burning of the oil fields during Iraq War I is a more recent example. Both Iraqi and U.S. forces suffered the respiratory consequences. No one entity uses more nonrenewal resources than the U.S. Military. All these examples may pale in face of the dangers of spent radioactive material that spew radiation for 1,000s of years.

The explanation of war and its extreme environmental consequences are to be found in the bowels of capitalism. The tendency of rates of profits to fall send competing capitalist elements around the globe seeking to stop this trend. Going to places whose people are not in a position to defend nature is their “solution.”

An unfortunate example now is the so-called “pivot to Asia.” The U.S. Administration is deploying up to 60% of its military force there. Why? It is looking to exploit natural resources such as oil and gas.

War and war preparations along with peace and peace making construct one dialectical whole. The resolution of this contradiction in favor of peace is of major importance to the many who place nature before profits. Here lies the material basis for cooperation between the labor, peace and environmental movements. The blue-green alliance is one result that needs much more attention in our work both on state and local levels.

Socialism has the best chance to do it right vis a vis the environment. Its thrust for social solidarity and raising the cultural/educational level of all the people can only bode well for the environment. Of course, there are no guarantees. Immersion in environmental struggles would be the best determiner of a Left and peoples movement with a deep environmental consciousness.


The above theories and history lays part of the basis of our central slogan – People and Nature Before Profits. As mentioned above, nature is on both sides of that formulation. Here we have to tip our collective hat to two creative women comrades. It was out of the electoral campaigns of Joelle Fishman in the 1970s and 1980s on Communist tickets for congress and mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, that the slogan People Before Profits rang out.

It was Virginia Brodine’s experiences in environmental struggles stretching back to the 1950s through the 1990s that led her to insist that nature be added to our central slogan. Was it because of the nuclear partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979? Or was it because of the Chernobyl nuclear fire, Soviet Union, 1986? Was it because of the threatened extinction of the Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest? Or was it because of lead abatement struggles?

While these events brought much to light about the environment, class and racial aspects of environmental struggles, it was when combined with Brodine’s deep theoretical probing that she reached the conclusion that nature and the environment had to be included in our day-to-day work.  The slogan People and Nature Before Profits was born.

Women have played prominent roles in the environmental movement. Rachel Carson was a leader in the struggle against pesticides. So effective was Carson as a spokesperson for the environment and in battling chemical companies, that she came under fire during the cold war. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, in a letter to Dwight Eisenhower, wrote, “Why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics?” “. . .probably a communist.”  

Rachel Carson’s political maturation is evident in the following 1963 statement. “The modern world worships the gods of speed and quantity, and of the quick and easy profit, and out of this idolatry monstrous evils have arisen.” (7)

Is it because women have played major roles in environmental struggles that have held back the Left and the CPUSA from recognizing the central importance of this arena of class struggle? Pitting environmental struggle against other forms is incorrect, whether from the environmental side or from the side of other movements and struggles.

Nature did exist before people but people did not exist before nature. People evolved, not only in a natural setting, but also out of nature.

Forgetting the central place of nature in economic development proved costly to some former socialist experiments.  Mistakes around environmental concerns e.g. air pollution in former Eastern European socialist countries, water issues in the former Soviet Union, particularly Lake Baikal and the Aral Sea, also gave propaganda coups to counter revolutionary forces. China, while uneven at times, and developing socialist countries such as Venezuela, are showing that these mistakes are being studied and new solutions to environmental concerns being applied.

Too often our central slogan is truncated to its earlier beginnings as simply People Before Profits. In a sense this is a give-up. It says that working people won’t understand why we include nature in our central slogan. This seems to happen in urban environments with higher concentrations of people of color. Is there a tint of white chauvinism here?

One of the important environmental movements in our country is the transition movement. At its heart is converting to renewal energy sources and low carbon footprints. The main action centers on stopping the Keystone XL (XL means express line) pipeline. It would transport 800,000 barrels per day from oil sands in Canada to Texas refineries. The processes here would contribute mightily to climate change.

The group, which focuses on stopping climate change, has grown to 530,000 members since this battle erupted. How militant is this movement? When one green organizer, from a decades old environmental group, heard of a call for civil disobedience in front of the White House on this issue, he cynically replied, “Yeah, right, you’ll get like 40 people at the most.” Twelve hundred showed up and were arrested. (8)

One strand of transitioning is community gardens. This includes an effort to eat local, healthier produce, support local/regional organic farmers, and tend away from the worst features of agribusiness. A Mexican and an African American lead this effort in my town. Cuba has a strong transition movement.

Nelson Mandela led a similar community garden movement while in prison on Robbins Island and in Pollsmoor Prison. Mandela also used nature in his writings as symbols of hope. (9)

Some mornings I walked out into the courtyard and every living thing there, the sea gulls and wagtails, the small trees, and even the stray blades of grass, seemed to smile and shine. It was at such times when I perceived the beauty of even this small, closed-in corner of the world, that I knew someday my people and I would be free.

Mandela also addressed the importance of a slogan (10).

A slogan is a vital link between the organization and the masses it seeks to lead. It should synthesize a particular grievance into a succinct and pithy phrase, while mobilizing people to combat it. It should capture the imagination of the people.

We need to link our work across the board in all arenas of struggle with the need for fundamental social and economic transformation to save humanity. Environmental struggles are an important link in the chain of a truly transformative movement. We need to unite environmental struggles with our class struggle organizing and class struggle organizing with the environmental movement. At some point, socialism will be moved to the front burner.

Nature lays the material basis for life on our planet. It is integral to the labor theory of value. Its beauty sustains us even in the most trying of circumstances. The environment abounds with examples of struggle, most with class conflict at their core. Our slogan, People and Nature Before Profits, must be there. Let’s capture the imagination of the people.

  1. LaFargue, Paul & Wilhelm Liebknecht. 1943. Karl Marx – His Life And Work Reminiscences. International Publishers: New York, p. 48-9.

  2. Bart, Nick. “Lessons in outreach from… a funeral?”, People’s Weekly World.  August 14 – 20, 2004.

  3. Desmond, Adrian & James Moore.  2009. Darwin’s Sacred Cause – How A Hatred Of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views On Human Evolution. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.

  4. Douglass, Frederick.  1883. It Moves: or the Philosophy of Reform. Library Of Congress,  

  5. Markowitz, Norman.  Fall 2013.  A Course in  American History from a Marxist Perspective

  6. Brodine, Marc.  “The Dialectics Of Climate Change.”  Political Affairs.  2007  Sept./Oct. 

  7. Foster, John Bellamy. 2002. Ecology Against Capitalism. Monthly Review Press: New York. p. 24.

  8. Wheaton, Sarah. “Pipeline Fight Lifts Environmental Movement.”   New York Times, 1/25/2014 P.9-11.   

  9. Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk To Freedom. Amazon Kindle Edition.  p.505.

  10. ibid.  p. 166.

The views and opinions expressed in the Convention Discussion are those of the author alone. The Communist Party is publishing these views as a service to encourage discussion and debate. Those views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Communist Party, its leading bodies or staff members. The CPUSA Constitution, Program, and all its existing policies remain in effect during the Convention discussion period and during the Convention.

For details about the convention, visit the Convention homepage
To contribute to the discussion, visit the Convention Discussion webpage

30th National Convention, Communist Party USA
Chicago | June 13-15, 2014



    Len Yannielli is professor emeritus, Naugatuck Valley Community College, Waterbury, Conn. He was the 2009 National Association Of Biology Teachers Evolution Educator of the Year.

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