The Podolinsky Myth: An Obituary Introduction to 'Human Labour and Unity of Force', by Sergei Podolinsky

In: Historical Materialism
John Bellamy Foster University of Oregon;, Email:

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Paul Burkett Indiana State University;, Email:

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The relationship between Marxism and ecology has been sullied by Martinez-Alier's influential interpretation of Engels's reaction to the agricultural energetics of Sergei Podolinsky. This introduction to the first English translation of Podolinsky's 1883 Die Neue Zeit piece evaluates Martinez-Alier's interpretation in light of the four distinct but closely related articles Podolinsky published over the years 1880–3. This evaluation also emphasises the important but previously underrated role of energy analysis in Marx's Capital. Engels's criticisms of Podolinsky are found to be quite justified from both political-economy and ecological perspectives. From the standpoint of Marx and Engels's metabolic and class-relational approach to production, Podolinsky's attempt to reduce use-value to energy is fraught with problems. Podolinsky's energy reductionism does not even come close to representing an alternative value analysis – let alone a groundbreaking perspective on ecological history – as was suggested by Martinez-Alier. Far from Marx and Engels's vision of communism as an ecologically sustainable and coevolutionary human development, Podolinsky's conception of human labor as an energy accumulation machine seems to uncritically mimic the standpoint of the capitalist interested in using nature only to extract as much energy throughput (work) as possible from the labour-power (potential work) of the worker.

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