The Connection of Mind and Nature: Marx’s 1878 Notebooks on Geology

Martin Hundt

A review by a German Marx scholar of the newly published Vol. IV/ 26 of the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (Complete Writings). Marx made these notes, some of which bear upon ecological issues, in 1878. This was just before his Ethnological Notebooks on non-Western and precapitalist societies, in which he studied numerous indigenous peoples. – Editors

[Trans. by Karel Ludenhoff and David Black, with Sandra Rein and Kevin Anderson. Originally appeared in Neues Deutschland (Berlin), May 24th, 2012]

The appearance of a new MEGA volume [IV/ 26] – What was Marx looking for in geological studies?

These texts were in the archives for 134 years: at first in the archive of Friedrich Engels, and thereafter for a long time in the archive of the SPD [Social Democratic Party] in Berlin. It was [Soviet Marx editor David] Riazanov, in 1925, who first pointed out their significance. In 1933 they were rescued from the clutches of the Nazis — and taken to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and London.

The Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) began the editing of these documents in 1980, but in 1989 the editing process had to be stopped. It started again in 2003. Nowadays it matters “only” to understand their meaning, their place in the totality of Marx’s work.

Given the general way that Marx’s work was understood in the twentieth century, it would have been shocking for many to find out that the author of The Communist Manifesto and Capital, volume 1 had engaged in an intensive study of geology –- and whose notes of excerpted material now comprise nearly 657 printed pages.  The excerpts include many complex drawings and extended chemical and statistical tabulations; there are, however, scarcely any of Marx’s own remarks in the notes.

Why did he do this, instead of completing volumes 2 and 3 of Capital? Was he already too ill at the age of 60 for serious theoretical labour? Did he like to divert himself? Was he tired of political economy? To ask such questions means to misunderstand Marx. For on the one hand there always are conditions of nature connected with labour, and on the other hand geological and agrochemical issues which were connected with ground rent and thus with the further development of Capital, volume 3.

Above all, however, Marx was a comprehensive thinker, who was interested – as were Aristotle, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel – in an understanding of nature which aimed at a totality. Already in the “Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts” (1844), Marx ascertained: “The natural sciences developed an enormous activity and appropriated an ever increasing substance. Philosophy was as alienated from them as they were alienated from Philosophy.” And he criticised “the science of History”, because it only casually allows for the sciences of Nature (MEGA I/ 2, p. 271 [see also Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) 3, p. 303]). One can find similar remarks in The German Ideology (MEW, Bd.3, S.21 [see also MECW 5, p. 31]). This attitude was completely in line with the thinking of Goethe, whom Alexander von Humboldt said prompted a renewal of  “the alliance which in the childhood of humanity was entwined with the thread of Philosophy, Physics and Literature.”

Marx tried to avoid this separation; he studied until the end of his life the sciences of nature; not only geology, but also physiology, chemistry, mathematics and other sciences (although the excerpts on physiology and chemistry already are found in MEGA IV/25, the excerpts on Mathematics have not yet been published in the MEGA; there exists only a largely ignored Russian edition in the original language; Moscow 1968 [there was also shorter English edition].

As early as 1851 Marx concerned himself, in his so called London excerpt notebooks (“Londoner Heften”), with the works of the agricultural chemists Johnson and Liebig (MEGA IV/9) and, in the until now unpublished parts of these notebooks, with geological works of Joseph B. Jukes, in which we find the notion of “geological formation.” A later work of this last author, which Marx excerpted extensively, can be found in the now published MEGA volume [IV/26]. And if one takes note of the excerpts from Johnson in 1851, one finds the same accurate textual reproduction, and the same drawings of geological stratifications, as in those of 27 years later.

This lifelong concern with the natural sciences had for Marx not only the meaning of the appropriation of knowledge in the broadest sense, but were for him also an example of scientific methodology. The best-known example of this is his theory of social formations, coined as such for the first time in 1852  (MEGA I/11, S.97), which as a notion had been built directly upon geology. In Critique of Political Economy we read: “Just as one should not think of sudden changes and sharply delineated periods in considering the succession of the different geological formations, so also in the case of the creation of the different economic formations of society.”(MEGA II/3.6, S. 1972  [see also MECW 33, p. 442 — Economic Manuscript of 1861-63]). This has been ignored by later interpreters, despite Marx’s returning to the comparison between the geological and historical order of formations once more in the Drafts of his letter in 1881 to Vera Zasulich (MEGA I/25, S.219-242).

In the total breadth of Marx’s studies, the natural sciences, geology and palaeontology perhaps had a significant impact, for they had demonstrated long before Darwin’s insights into the origin of species, how volcanoes, floods and other events shaped the countenance of the earth in a natural process over millions of years. Through the petrified remains of extinct animal and vegetable species, these scientists demonstrated that animals and vegetables were not created in six days, as we read in the Bible.  Their work also showed the evolution of the animal and plant species over time.

The present edition mentions in the introduction many interesting details about this side of Marx’s process of creating, and also about the rare fortune he had, to have as teacher in mathematics and physics at the Gymnasium at Trier a man who studied in Paris with Cuvier, Lamarck, Laplace and Alexander von Humboldt. Unfortunately missing in the Introduction is Marx’s intensive interest in 1851 in a work of genius: “Mikrokosmos. Entwurf einer physiologische Anthropologie”, by Ronald Daniel, a friend of Marx from Cologne. But also of importance is the reference to the marginal notes in the books of Marx’s library, which show Marx’s concerns with environmental changes created by people.

It is impossible to sufficiently assess the enormous labour which was performed in the editing of this text, with deciphering [the handwriting], introduction, correction index, and elucidations, etc. by the editors Anneliese Griese, Peter Krüger, Richard Sperl and numerous others. In the Introduction to this volume they abstain from elucidations about current problems in relation to the environment, environmental problems which Marx also already touched upon in these excerpts. When Marx writes for example — “The extinction of species is still progressing (man himself the most active exterminator). Or new species, since the existence of man, problem still unsolved”– then he speaks to the present-day state of sciences with regard to the exterminations of species.

But these excerpts are no stone quarry of quotes; rather they point to the methods of work of a great, many sided, and uniquely industrious scholar.

Karl Marx: Exzerpte und Notizen zur Geologie, Mineralogie und Agrikulturchemie. März bis September 1878. MEGA, IV. Abt., Bd. 26. Herausgegeben von der Internationalen Marx-Engels-Stiftung Amsterdam. Akademie Verlag Berlin 2011. 2 Bde. 1104 S., geb., 168 €.


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