Nature and work

Image: Kagan Bastimar


Notes on a hidden dialectic

Between May 22 and 27, 1875, the two currents of the German labor movement: the Social Democratic Workers' Party, led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, and the General German Workers' Union, led by Hasenclever, Hasselmann and Tolcke, celebrated their unification at a conference in the small German city of Gotha. The two parties wanted to unite in order to face the powerful German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck.

The Gotha Congress put an end to the division in the ranks of the country's working class. The draft program of the unified party was subjected to sharp criticism by Karl Marx who wrote at the beginning of May 1875, the Marginal Glosses to the Program of the German Workers' Party. What interests us, at first, is Marx's criticism of the opening sentence of the Program of the new German Workers' Party. The phrase is as follows: “Work is the source of all wealth and all culture”.

Categorically, Marx contests this proclamation saying: “Work is not the source of all wealth. Nature is both the source of use values ​​(and it is in these that, however, material wealth consists [factual]!) like work, which is itself nothing more than the externalization of a force of nature, the human labor force”.

Marx is incisive: work is not the source of all wealth. He can even accept this phrase “as long as it implies that the work is carried out with the objects and means belonging to it”.

In fact, Marx links the category of work to the issue of social control and ownership of the means of production. The sentence is correct as long as the work is carried out in a socialist society in which the objects and means belong to the associated producers: “That sentence is found in all children's manuals and is correct if it is understood that the work is carried out with the objects and relevant means”.

Discussing work without criticizing capital is surrendering to bourgeois ideology. Capital alienates work from Nature. Alienated from Nature, work cannot be the source of all wealth and all culture. First, work needs to emancipate itself from capital.

But let’s look at the phrase in the original German: “Die Arbeit ist die Quelle alles Reichtums und aller Kultur”. The German word “Which” means “source” or “source” in Portuguese. Its etymological origin comes from the Proto-Germanic “kwellaz“, which means “to sprout, to flow”. Like this, "Which” is a common term in the German language to refer to a natural source of water that springs from the ground.[I]

Therefore, “Work is the source of all wealth and all culture” – immediately – seems correct, but it is not. The incorrectness of the phrase is not just political, but semantic. The phrase induces semantic confusion between “source” and “mediation”. The correct phrase would be: “It is through work that all wealth and culture is produced”. Work – therefore – is not the “source”, but the “mediating activity” of social production. In this case, using “work” as “use of labor force” or even “purpose-oriented activity”, or even, work as “creator of use values, as useful work, […]a condition of existence of man , independent of all social forms, eternal natural need to mediate the metabolism between man and nature and, therefore, human life” (Ibidem.p.120).

It is true that the phrase is found – as Marx says – “in all children’s manuals” of the labor movement. That is, such a phrase is found in the beginnings – first steps – of the working class movement (which explains the meaning of “childish”. For example, here is the opening phrase of the Fundamental Principles of a proclamation by the Pipponden weavers' cooperative association (England) in 1832, reported by EP Thompson (1987: 396-397): “First. That labor is the source of all wealth: therefore, the working classes created all wealth. although the producers of wealth, instead of being the richest, are the poorest in the community: therefore, they cannot be receiving a fair reward for their work”.

Criticism of bourgeois phraseology

Marx bases his criticism in the following terms: “Work is not the source of all wealth. The nature [the nature] is the source of use values ​​(and it is in such values ​​that material wealth properly consists!), just as much as work is, which is only the externalization of a natural force, of human labor force” (Marx, 2012 : 23).

Material wealth [factual] are the use values, product (or not) of human labor[ii]. But Nature is the source of material wealth [factual] and the work that produced them. In fact, work is the “externalization of a force of nature” [die Äußerung einer Naturkraft], the human workforce.

We distinguish elsewhere, produced nature [use values] and constituted nature [living work or labor power], this being what Marx highlighted above when he refers to material wealth and work (the externalization of a force of Nature), respectively . But Marx's critique of the Gotha Program is not an academic critique, but rather a political critique. Marx demands scientific rigor in the programmatic formulations of the revolutionary party, under penalty of surrendering to bourgeois phraseology[iii]: “But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phraseology to silence [verschweigen] the conditions that alone give some meaning to these phraseologies. Only because from the beginning man relates to nature [Natur] as owner, the first source of all the means and objects of labor, only because he treats it as something belonging to him, does his work become the source of all use values, therefore, of all wealth” (Marx, 2012: 23-24).

Nature — the first source of all means of labor and objects of labor — concerns the objective and subjective conditions of labor [produced nature and constituted nature]. It is the relationship between humans and Nature – whether they own/control it or not – that effectively gives meaning to the work activity. When we insert the category of labor force (“the externalization of a force of nature”) into this equation, we understand why an alienated Nature makes people strange [Entfremden][iv] the meaning of work to the extent that he – the worker – is part of it. Therefore, the true critique of capital is the critique of alienated Nature – including human labor itself as a natural force. The true emancipation of work is the emancipation of nature – and vice versa.

Why consider work as the source of all wealth is bourgeois phraseology [bürgerlichen Redensarten]? Marx says: “The bourgeois have excellent reasons for attributing to work this supernatural force of creation [übernatürliche Schöpfungskraft]; for precisely from the natural conditioning of labor it follows that the man who has no property other than his labor power necessarily becomes, in all social and cultural conditions, a slave to those who have appropriated the objective conditions of labor [gegenständlichen Arbeitsbedingungen]. He can only work with your permission, therefore he can only live with your permission.” (Marx, 2013: 24).

Marx states that the bourgeois have “excellent reasons” for proclaiming that work is the source of all wealth, portraying it as a “supernatural force of creation”. However, by hiding their ownership and control over Nature, including the labor force, the bourgeoisie cover up – hide or remain silent about [verschweigen[v]] – the true Nature (the objective and subjective conditions of the work). Therefore, it is up to the labor movement to “break the silence” about the political need for workers to truly become the source of all wealth, re-appropriating nature.

Leaving aside the discussion of ownership/control of objective/subjective conditions of social production is to make work a “supernatural force of creation”, because “creating” out of nothing is something…supernatural. The bourgeoisie – the owners of the objective conditions of work – also dominates the subjective conditions (the living force of work, the life of the worker) to the extent that, due to the alienation of workers from Nature, “it can only work with their authorization , therefore, you can only live with their authorization.” It is interesting that Marx – in 1875 – restores in a more mediated way through the categories of political economy – his critique of estranged labor elaborated by him back in 1844 (which demonstrates that it is false to conceive of an “epistemological cut” between the young Marx and the mature Marx: what exists is a critical improvement).[vi]

Let’s look more closely at the issue of nature and work. This is not a mere scholastic discussion, as most discussions are between Marxists and Marx's written lyrics, but rather a fundamental political discussion, considering that we live in the era of environmental collapse and the metabolic contradictions of capital.

Nature and work

Firstly, work is a mediative activity. To say “work” means to say – from Marx’s perspective – “a condition of existence of man, independent of all social forms, eternal natural need for mediation of the metabolism between man and nature and, therefore, of human life” (Marx, 2013: 120 ).

Marx says “one condition of man’s existence” – the other condition is nature. He also says about the work: “eternal natural need to mediate the metabolism between man and nature”. In this case, work is an activity of mediation – eternal – and “natural necessity”, that is, the force of Nature that mediates human activity with the outside world.

Let us digress into the category of work and its dialectic with nature in this passage from Chapter 5 of The capital: “Work is, first and foremost, a process between man and nature, a process in which man mediates, regulates and controls his material exchange with nature through his own action. He faces the very matter of nature as a power of nature. He sets in motion the forces of nature that belong to his corporeality – arms and legs, head and hand – to appropriate the matter of nature in a form usable for his own life. By acting, through this movement, on Nature outside of him and by transforming it, he simultaneously transforms his own nature. He develops the dormant powers within him and submits the play of his forces to his own control. We are not dealing here with the first, animalistic, instinctive forms of work” (Marx, 2013: 255).

These passages are quite rich and we will comment on them: (i) “Work is, above all, a process between man and nature”. Marx says “process”, but one can also say “metabolism” [stoffwechsell], which is process and interaction: exchange of matter.

(ii) […] a process in which man mediates, regulates and controls his material exchange with Nature […]”. Marx places three important categories: mediate, regulate and control. It is possible to mediate, without regulating and controlling; it can be regulated without controlling; control is the fundamental category for the working subject to overcome the alienation/estrangement/fetishism of capital. Socialism is the social form that is characterized by the control that work exercises in its material exchange with nature. It is not enough, therefore, to just mediate and regulate, as this can occur under capitalism, but rather to control the material exchange with Nature (Nature with a capital “N” [Nature] – that is: an expanded concept of Nature.[vii].

The text speaks of “material exchange” – that is, objective-subjective exchange, practical-sensible-spiritual exchange. The concept of “material” is – in this sense – broad. Thus, the control that humans must exercise over material exchange implies these various aspects of human activity.

(iii) “He faces the very matter of Nature as a power of nature”. In this sentence, the dialecticity of Marxian thought is visible. In another – clearer – translation we read: “He himself faces natural matter as a natural force” (Marx, 1996: p.297). In this last translation, where it reads “power of Nature” (with a capital “N”), it reads “natural force” – in this case, the sense that Nature is a power that humans face is lost. . “Natural matter” is a force, a power that we face.

Let us not forget that – as we will see later – humans are part of Nature (“he sets in motion the natural forces belonging to his corporeality […]”). Therefore, Nature does not only concern external nature, but there is also an internal nature that humans face (body and mind = subjectivity). Thus, we can say that “humans face their own internal nature [body and mind] as a power of Nature”.

(iv) “[…] the forces of nature that belong to its corporeality […]”

Here's the point: natural forces or the forces of nature also concern your corporeality. Marx uses an expanded concept of “body”, including arms and legs, head and hand. Body is everything that is moved – physically-spiritually – by work (the use of labor power). The idea of ​​Nature in the broader sense – which we have been using – becomes more visible. In this way, the need for social control over nature becomes more fundamental as a way of restoring the “metabolic fracture” (a topic we discuss elsewhere).

(v) “[…] By acting, through this movement, on Nature outside of it and by transforming it, it simultaneously transforms its own nature.[…]”. The nature – humans dialectic is exposed in this sentence: the “nature outside of him” (or the 'nature external to him', in another translation) is the external nature from which humans – when confronted through the activity of work – they transform (without knowing it?) their own nature (what we understand as inner nature, mind and body, or body in Marx's broader sense). In fact, external nature and internal nature make up the movement of objectivity and subjectivity of work.

Can we consider them one (nature)? Yes and no.

Yes, because the environmental collapse demonstrates that the degradation of Nature is another way of explaining the degradation of humans insofar as both make up the sociometabolism of capital.

No, because external nature has its specific legalities, laws of natural matter – as Marx said. Natural matter has “potentials lying dormant in it” that humans need to know in order to transform it, in short, understand “the play of its forces” to do the work.

We can extend this understanding not only to external nature, but also to internal nature, the nature of subjectivity – or rather, of social, political, historical praxis – with its own legalities that humans face and that need to understand “ play of these forces” so that they can modify them. Thus, the unity of Nature is the dialectic of identity and non-identity.

(vi) “[…] We are not dealing here with the first, animalistic, instinctive forms of work”. Marx recognizes that there are early forms of work that are still animalistic and instinctive. Even though they were “animalistically instinctive”, they were work – first or primitive forms. Everything we mentioned above also concerns these forms of work – after all, they were human work, albeit in a primitive form. The question remains: at what point did humans begin to distinguish themselves from non-humans? At what point did instinctive activity become work activity – which even in primitive forms were still animalistic instinctive? Marx does not address this in The capital. He is only interested in historically consolidated human work beyond (ontological leap) animal instinct.

To conclude these critical notes we can say that the correct sentence is: “The source of all wealth and all culture is nature”; or even, as Marx pointed out, “labor as owner/controller of the means of production and means of subsistence, and as a force of nature, is the source of all wealth and all culture”.

What Marx meant was that in a society in which nature is alienated from work, as in a capitalist society in which private ownership of the means of production prevails, work cannot be the source of all wealth and culture.

The workforce is the externalization of natural strength. As long as it is a commodity and is alienated from producers, nature will be alienated from living work, the naturally necessary mediation between humans and nature. Therefore, the relationship between humans and nature, understood as an objective and subjective condition of all social production, is a necessary determination to understand the meaning of work itself.[viii] Discussing the social relations of production – which includes relations of ownership and control of the means of production – is fundamental to understanding the meaning of work as a social category and most importantly: Nature as the source of all material wealth.

A discussion of work that does not take into account the social relations of production and therefore, the relations – of ownership/control – of humans with nature, is a “supernatural” discussion, thus functioning as bourgeois ideology in the sense of bourgeois phraseology that it hides the capital-relationship (which means that most sociology and psychology of work has surrendered to bourgeois ideology when it refuses to criticize capital).

*Giovanni Alves He is a retired professor of sociology at the Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP). Author, among other books, of Work and Value: The new (and precarious) world of work in the 21st century (Editorial Project).[]


MARX, Karl (2013). Capital: Critique of political economy. Book 1. Translation by Rubens Enderle. Boitempo editorial: São Paulo. []

_________(2012) Gotha program critique. Translated by Rubens Enderle. Boitempo editorial: São Paulo. []

THOMPSON, EP (1987) The making of the English working class. III, The strength of the workers. Translated by Denise Bottmann. Peace and Land: Rio de Janeiro. []


[I] Some words related to Which in German include: spring water = spring water; Quellgebiet = area of ​​springs; Quellkuppe = summit of a spring.

[ii] “A thing can have use value without being value. This is the case when its usefulness to man is not mediated by work. This is the air, the virgin land, the natural fields, the raw wood, etc.” (Marx, 2013: 118)

[iii] Marx does not use the term “bourgeois ideology”, but rather “bourgeois phraseology” which hides [verschweigen] the true understanding of the relationship between Nature and work. In this case, one can understand the concealment as being the movement proper to bourgeois discourse produced by social conditions fetishized of bourgeois society.

[iv] In German, the word Entfremden means “to alienate”, “to move away from”, “to become alien to”.

[v] The etymology of the word “verschweigen” in German goes back to the combination of “ver” (strength of the prefix) and “Schweigen” (silence). The combination of these elements results in the meaning of “keeping silent” in Portuguese.

[vi] For an elaboration of the expanded concept of Nature from the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, see my article on the Crítica do Capital blog.

[vii] See my article on the Crítica do Capital Blog: “Environmental collapse and immanent critique of capital”: .

[viii] One of the dimensions of Nature according to Marx is what we call “produced nature”, that is, the objective world, inorganic nature, the system of objects that have use value, that is, they are useful to humans. The air, the virgin land, the natural fields – for example – were not mediated by human labor, but, according to Marx, they have use value (Marx, 2013: 118). It has social utility for humans to the extent that it is an objective condition for social reproduction. Although they were not produced by human labor, they were produced by natural metabolism independently of humans. They are useful to the extent that they are important for ecological balance, being objective conditions of social reproduction. But the capitalist mode of production constantly transforms nature according to its needs. Alienated Nature – the Nature of capital – despises such ecological conditions, because – as capital produces its nature (nature as a social product), it devastates it, transforming the air, virgin land and natural fields, in value and capital.

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