Those economic textbooks that discuss Karl Marx are almost certain to charge him with the gross error of ignoring the role of nature and natural resources in the economic process. Nonetheless, Marx has a legitimate claim as the first environmental economist, a direction that he took in the midst of the Civil War. Marx was both an economic victim of the Civil War and apparently a major force in determining its outcome. If this claim does not seem too outlandish, bear with me when I tell you that Marx was also an important figure in the Republican Party.
Originally, Marx was influenced by the Enlightenment notion that humans could use science to unlock the secrets of nature and thereby be able to produce an almost infinite output until the Civil War upended his life. England was absolutely dependent on slave-produced cotton from the American South, which was even more dependent on the revenue from cotton exports. Realizing the Confederacy’s dependence on cotton exports, the Union government went to great lengths to prevent the export of cotton from the South, leading to what became known as the cotton famine in England, which pretty much brought the textile industry to a halt.
In 1848, Europe experienced widespread uprisings that caused many governments across the continent to fall. Here again, Marx was an important figure. He edited a paper with the widest circulation in Germany, founded by a market-friendly German businessmen. The paper published two additions: one given to the censors for their approval and one for the public. Knowing that the government was about to shut the paper down, Marx published its last edition with a bright red headline: “No More Taxes.”
Marx quickly fled the country for Brussels. His aristocratic brother-in-law, who served as justice minister, detested his sister’s non-aristocratic husband of Jewish descent. He would use his influence to try to get Marx deported from whatever country he moved to. Spies were sent to find out bad things about Marx, but they reported back on a very kindly man instead.
Because of his journalistic prominence during the uprisings of 1848, Charles Anderson Dana, the editor of the powerful Republican newspaper, the New York Tribune, hired Marx to be its chief foreign correspondent. After the uprisings of 1848 were crushed, many of the most militant Germans prudently left the country. Many settled in Texas (a place that Marx considered moving to), Oklahoma and Ohio. The 48-ers, many of whom were followers of Marx, became very active in the Republican Party. Senator Carl Schurz, an acquaintance of Marx, became a powerful senator from Missouri, as well as Secretary of the Interior. The 48-ers sometimes get credit for having been the major force that tipped the nomination of the party’s presidential candidate to Abraham Lincoln. Mark Lause’s book, A Secret Society History of the Civil War, makes a powerful case for their contribution.
Marx was living in England at the time when that country seemed poised to enter the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. Marx had organized a group called the International Working Men’s Association. Marx called for a mass meeting in London to demand that the English avoid fighting for the protection of slavery, even though the working class was especially hard hit by the cotton famine, the elimination of which would make their impoverishment less extreme. In that respect, the workers’ immediate interest was for the English to defeat the Union government and allow for the free flow of cotton to the British factories. Instead, the workers advocated an ethical rather than economic option. Nonetheless, Marx spoke to the meeting of 3000 union men, who opposed the war.
The Republican Senator from Massachusetts, George Frisbie Hoar gave a powerful speech, which can be found in the Congressional Record, attributing England’s choice of neutrality during the Civil War to the International Working Men’s Association. In addition, Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of John Adams, the second president of the United States and the son of Charles Francis Adams, the son of John Quincy Adams and ambassador to England, also wrote in praise of the efforts of the International Working men’s Association.
Years later, John G. Nicolay, Lincoln’s private secretary, would confirm Marx’s role in his 1881 book, The Outbreak of Rebellion (Cambridge, Mass. Da Capo Press, 2005.) He compared the different response of the British working class to the war with the capitalist class. “And when the hour of distress and trial finally came to the industrial classes of England, the noble devotion of the Manchester cotton operatives to universal liberty put to shame and impotence the greedy cupidity of the cotton merchants of Liverpool.”
Similarly, Marx, in a leaflet supporting Polish independence, contrasted the German bourgeois liberals’ betrayal of Poland with the English workers’ support of the Northern war effort. Marx proclaimed: “The English working class has won immortal historical honor for itself by thwarting the repeated attempts of the ruling classes to intervene on behalf of the American slaveholders by its enthusiastic mass meetings, even though the prolongation of the American Civil War subjects a million English workers to the most fearful suffering and privations.”
Marx took no personal credit for this momentous meeting. Instead, he wrote: “the English working class has won immortal historical honor.” MECW 19, p. 297). Had England joined the war, in all likelihood, the Union would have been defeated. Perhaps someday Karl Marx’s head will be carved out from the rocks of Mount Rushmore.
Unfortunately, Marx’s career with the Republican Party was cut short by another economist, who might also claim some credit as the first environmental economist. Henry Charles Carey was the son of Matthew Carey, a rather anti-British bookseller and printer until his criticism of the government made him flee to Paris to avoid prosecution in England. There he met Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis De Lafayette, who gave him $400 to begin a new publishing company after he arrived in the United States. Matthew Carey was the first American political economist and the first major publisher in the country. Henry worked for his father’s business, which immersed him in the popular published works of early America.
Henry Carey wrote the economic section of the first platform of the Republican Party. He also wrote for the Tribune. During the Crimean war, Marx supported the British and opposed the Russians, which he identified as the major force behind reactionary politics in Europe. Carey, whose father barely escaped a criminal conviction in Britain, was violently anti-British, which was a core principle in all of his work. Carey opposed the United States’ Western expansion. Instead, he wanted industry to be concentrated on the eastern seaboard, where it would promote commerce, meaning localized trade, whereas Western expansion would lead to the production of goods for trade, which for Carey meant exports and imports, which, in turn, meant doing business with the hated English. In contrast, Marx accepted the importance of international trade.
Marx, who backed the wrong side in the Crimean war, became Carey’s enemy. Carey employed a Polish aristocrat to censor Marx’s contributions to the paper. This practice proved successful and Marx lost his job and was once again pushed down into destitution.
Frederich Engels reassured his friend and colleague, “As for being thrown out of the Tribune, you need have no worries. We are too firmly ensconced there. Furthermore, to the Yankees, this European politicizing is mere dilettantism in which he who writes best and with the greatest espirit comes out on top” (Engels to Marx, August 6. 1852. in Marx and Engels 1982a, 147). Moreover, Engels counseled Marx that all the American Whigs were protectionists (Ibid.), which was not meant as a compliment.
Later, Marx proudly informed Engels: “Mr Tribune has given special prominence to a note about my 2nd article on Gladstone’s Budget, drawing the attention of readers to my ‘masterly exposition’ and going on to say that nowhere have they seen ‘a more able criticism’ and ‘do not expect to see one’. [Marx to Engels, 2 June 1853; in Marx and Engels 1982, p. 331] Marx’s early articles caught the attention of the Tribune readership. For example, John Bright, the famous British free trader, told the Parliament: “He had seen articles perhaps better written with more style, but never any that had a better tone. . . . [After singling out Marx’s work], [h]e ventured to say that there was not at this moment a better paper than that. [Marx 1853c, p. 176; citing The Times, 28 June 1853]
Earlier, Henry Carey was among those who took notice of Marx’s work. He sent Marx a copy of his book, Harmony of Interests (Marx to Engels, 30 April 1852; in Marx and Engels 1973: 28, p. 68). Later, he mailed Marx his Slavery at Home and Abroad, in which Marx was repeatedly cited as “a recent English writer” and “a correspondent of the New York Tribune” (See Marx to Engels, 14 June 1853; in Marx and Engels 1975, p. 78).
Unlike Marx, who specifically hoped to undermine the support for Carey’s ideas, Carey gave no public evidence of having any particular interest in opposing Marx’s work. In fact, he even expressed respect for Marx’s contributions to the Tribune.
Now, to environmental economics. The terrible consequences of the cotton famine made Marx much more realistic about the importance of nature. His immature idea about the taming of nature to allow for virtually unlimited production, no longer make sense to him. Marx he became deeply concerned with the ecological crisis tendencies associated with soil depletion. In 1866, the year before the first volume of Capital was published, he wrote to Engels that in developing the critique of ground rent in volume three, “I had to plough through the new agricultural chemistry in Germany, in particular Liebig and Schönbein, which is more important for this matter than all the economists put together.” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 42 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 227.
Although the advances in modern agronomy suggested the possibility of massive improvements in farming. He praised Liebig’s work with its “flashes of insight,” which revealed “the negative, i.e., destructive side of modern agriculture” Marx C1, note p. 638. Over time, Marx became more skeptical of some parts of Liebig’s analysis.