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Harvey, Leibniz and Marx

David Harvey's "Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference" surely has the distinction of being the
only Marxist study of ecology to draw inspiration from Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). While openly
admitting that Leibniz is a "deeply conservative theoretician in political matters as well as a foundational
figure in the rise of that German idealist tradition against which Marx rebelled," Harvey assures us that
Leibniz's relational approach to time and space has powerful implications for ecology. This article
explores the theoretical issues raised by Harvey's appropriation of Leibnizian dialectics, while attempting
to explain why Marx's rebellion against this idealist tradition was a precondition for understanding the
ecological crisis of today.
Although Leibniz is an unlikely candidate in many ways, Marxists have occasionally turned to nonMarxist dialecticians to help resolve thorny theoretical or political questions. Kevin Anderson makes a
convincing case that socialist support for World War One so disturbed Lenin that he launched an in-depth
study of Hegel's dialectics just to understand the contradictory processes taking place. Lenin also turned
to Hegel for insights into how a "break in gradualness" might occur. This Hegelian phrase suggested for
Lenin the possibility of revolutionary transformation.
Harvey considers Leibniz an important figure because of his contribution to the idea of internal relations.
This proceeds from the premise that everything in the world consists of smaller components, each in turn
yielding more subcomponents. For example, a neighborhood breaks down into buildings, and buildings
into apartments, and apartments into rooms, ad infinitum. Human beings also decompose, but unlike the
rest of nature they have consciousness of their place in the broader hierarchy. Through our metabolic,
social, political and cultural relationships, we internalize the world around us. Consequently, dialectical
inquiry becomes "the process that produces permanences such as concepts, abstractions, theories, and
institutionalized structures of knowledge" in the shifting terrain of politics and society. Starting from the
individual perspective in the time-space continuum, we strive to uncover deeper, universal truths. This is
a dialectics heavily tilted in favor of philosophical idealism.
Harvey's yearning for universals does not materialize out of thin air. It flows from his consultations with
Rover auto workers in Oxford, England, who sought outside help in drafting an economic plan to save
their plant. Harvey found himself odd-man-out among the group called in by the union. Everyone else
thought in terms of keeping the plant up and running, while Harvey questioned whether it was consistent
with the socialist vision to produce polluting automobiles. After losing all patience with him, a colleague
told him that he was nothing but "a free-floating Marxist intellectual who had no particular loyalties to
anyone." Harvey then searched within himself: "So where did my loyalties lie?" His book is an attempt to
come up with answers. He writes:
"What is it that constitutes a privileged claim to knowledge and how can we judge, understand,
adjudicate, and perhaps negotiate through different knowledges constructed at very different levels of
abstraction under radically different material conditions?"

Leibniz is supposed to help provide answers to these questions. His philosophy revolves around the
concept of monads, a term drawn from calculus indicating something irreducible and individual. A monad
is like a soul or an atom, except that it contains within itself all ideas about the external world, including
the relationships between objects on the time and space continuum, including itself. Harvey singles out
the following passage from Leibniz's writings presumably because it speaks to his quandary at the Oxford
Rover plant.
"And as one and the same town viewed from different sides look altogether different, and is, as it were,
perspectively multiplied, it similarly happens that, through the infinite multitude of simple substances,
there are, as it were, just as many different universes, which however are only the perspectives of a single
one according to the different points of view of each monad."
In a relativistic universe of space and time, we choose the version of reality that suits our needs. In
Leibniz's philosophy, god establishes such relationships, like an architect designs a building. Harvey
strips the deus ex machina from this theory of internal relations and replaces it with social and political
choice. This is not to say, however, that such choices will not clash with each other as they did at the
Rover plant. When colonial settlers and American Indians claimed the same geographical space, violence
broke out because their respective views of land-usage were mutually exclusive, as Harvey points out in
chapter ten of his work, an analysis we will revisit shortly.
Although Leibniz's theory of internal relations can not guarantee a successful negotiation between such
contesting viewpoints, they at least "can be used as a means to look more closely at the differentiation of
actual spatial and temporal orderings within and between different modes of production and social
formations." In other words, Leibnizian dialectics is a means to understanding and clarifying the world
around us, so as to allow the individual to make intelligent decisions. It functions like a searchlight or a
compass. Such an understanding of dialectics I would argue differs sharply from a Marxist dialectic
rooted in social/political praxis and in materialism.
Looking to Leibniz for inspiration is no sin. When Marx's friend Kugelmann gave him tapestries from
Leibniz's study as a birthday present, he shared his joy with Engels in a May 10, 1870 letter: "You know
my admiration for Leibniz." Leibniz's monads can appeal to Marxists because they are hubs of living
activity suggesting a world where everything is always evolving. Since there is no real distinction
between organic and inorganic monads, the continuity between all forms of matter is thus established.
Proposition 71 of Leibniz's Monadology states, "For all bodies are in a perpetual flux like rivers, and parts
are passing in and out of them continually." This echoes the Heraclitan understanding of the universe
cited approvingly by Engels in "Socialism, Scientific and Utopian":
"We see, therefore, at first the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the
background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move,
combine, and are connected. This primitive, naive but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that

of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for
everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away."
However, what distinguishes Marxism from other philosophies is the emphasis it places on activity. The
universe is no longer an object for contemplation, but something changed by humanity, as it is constantly
changing us. As Marx puts it in the second thesis on Feuerbach, "The question whether objective truth can
be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the
truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-worldliness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the
reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question."
"This-worldliness" is just another term for those views of reality that are contingent on time and space in
the Leibnizian sense. For Marx, the problem is not determining which point of view more closely
approximates objective reality, but how political action might change reality. Contemplation takes a back
seat in Marxist dialectics: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is
to change it."
Furthermore, Marxist dialectics examines social classes, while a system based on monads excludes social
structures altogether. In Leibniz's philosophy, every object stands entirely on its own, whether god, animal
or plant. Marx's rebellion against seventeenth century metaphysics targeted not only idealism, but the
radical individualism that was closely associated with the ideological needs of the emerging bourgeoisie
as well. A marketplace rests on the notion that there are individual economic actors making rational
choices, so the philosopher will find ways to explain this as a universal state of affairs. As Marx said in
the Grundrisse, "Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the
relations within these individuals stand."
Harvey's reworking of Leibniz's theory of internal relations presumably provides insights into competing
demands on nature, such as the kind that arose at the Rover plant. Workers had a perspective of wellpaying jobs, while environmentalists had one of clean air. The problem with this approach is that it
suggests that the dilemma is of a subjective nature that better communications might meliorate. A Marxist
approach, free from idealistic embellishments, regards the problem at the plant as a contradiction rooted
in the capital accumulation process itself, only resolvable by abolishing private ownership of the means of
Where Harvey's methodology seems most egregiously off-base is in its treatment of a similar dispute, the
one that took place between New England colonists and Native Americans. He prefaces his analysis by
recapitulating his basic approach:
"To begin with, space and time, once they are set, are a primary means to individuate and identify objects,
people, relations, processes, and events. Location and bounding are important if not vital attributes for the
definition of the objects, events, and relationships existing in the world around us. To choose one ordering
principle rather than another is to choose a particular spatio-temporal framework for describing the world.

The choice is not neutral with respect to what we can describe. The absolute theory of space

and time

always forces us into a framework of mechanistic descriptions, for example, that conceal from view
important properties of the world (such as those of living organisms) that stand only to be revealed by a
relational view. To choose the wrong framework is to misidentify elements in the world around us."
With this guideline, he interprets the clash as one rooted in "conceptions" and "definitions." The settlers
used a "Cartesian vision of fixed property rights," while the Indians adhered to a more primitive outlook.
Hence, "the clash between these two social and ecological systems was a clash over naming as well as
over the relevant conceptions of space and time to be deployed in the definition of value." An alternative
interpretation of what took place in New England, put forward by Eric Wolf in "People Without History,"
centers on the mode of production, especially the fur trade. New England was a central repository of
beaver skins that had been hunted into near-extinction in Europe by the sixteenth century. Factories
turned the fur into felt, a necessary component of hats worn by all classes in European society. The New
England settlers bartered manufactured goods for beaver skins, especially with the Algonkin tribe. As one
beaver population was hunted out, fur hunters plunged deeper into indigenous territories in search of
another. This led to conflicts, including King Philip's War that erupted in 1675 and led to the virtual
extermination of the Algonikins.
This conflict, rooted in the capital accumulation process, ultimately led to European domination over the
rest of the world. This process not only led to the destruction of the Algonkin, it has also resulted in the
elimination of jobs throughout Europe, including the Rover plant. "Conceptions" and "definitions" are of
secondary consequence. They reflect deeper conflicts in the base of the capitalist system itself, which no
amount of theorizing about time-space relations can resolve. Harvey concludes his discussion on a wistful
note: "The relational theory not only helps explain why so many of us find ourselves wavering on the
frontiers between, for example, space and place or thing and flow, it also helps identify what it is we
might be wavering about." One would hope that David Harvey would put some distance between himself
and such wavering after his difficulties at the Rover plant.
Let us turn now to Marx's rebellion against the German idealist tradition. In "The Holy Family," Marx
identified with the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century--particularly its materialism--against
the preceding century's metaphysical investigations, including Leibniz's. While Marx gives credit to
seventeenth century thinkers, including Leibniz, for their breakthroughs in mathematics and physics, he
states that by the beginning of the eighteenth century, the positive sciences had divorced themselves from
philosophy leaving behind a metaphysics which "consisted only of beings of thought and heavenly
Although Marx upholds materialism here and elsewhere, it fell upon Engels's shoulders to fully explore
its implications. Engels is a convenient target for those twentieth century Marxists who lace their thought
with idealism. As Sebastiano Timpanaro writes, "This ostensible self-purification of Marxism is typically
concretized by a devaluation of Engels, who for many hold prime responsibility for the decline of
Marxism from its true philosophical heights to the depths of a 'popular philosophy.'" He continues,

"Engels was much more sensible than Marx of the necessity to come to terms with the natural sciences, to
link 'historical' materialism (in the human sciences) to physical and biological materialism--all the more
so, at a time when Darwin had opened the way to an historical understanding of nature itself."
David Harvey cites Engels as an advocate of a "strong version" of dialectics, which has "come in for
considerable criticism in part because of its association with ideas of teleology and doctrines of
emergence and immanence which appear almost deterministic." Anxious not to make such errors, Harvey
takes up the Leibnizian theory of internal relations as part of an effort to define a fresh, new dialectics that
"avoids many of the problems which Engels bequeathed and readies abstract discussion of dialectics as a
set of principles for dissolution into a flow of argument." Unfortunately, what Harvey leaves behind is the
materialism that grounds the core philosophy of Marxism. His dialectics does not differ qualitatively from
those of non-Marxist thinkers as he freely admits. He groups Marx with Hegel, Heidegger, Foucault,
Ricoeur and Derrida--all practitioners of "dialectical modes of thought." However, it is only Marx who
combines materialism with his dialectics. Furthermore, the Marxist dialectic is permeated with an
understanding that there are sharp contradictory tendencies within nature and society that generate crisis
and can only be resolved through struggle.
Harvey's dialectics, when finally applied to ecology, lacks these dimensions entirely. Instead nature
appears as a network of processes, relationships and flows that are always changing like a grand
kaleidoscope. Not only does he draw from Leibniz, he also enlists Alfred North Whitehead, whom he
quotes as follows: "Nature is always about the perpetual exploration of novelty." Harvey is correct in
conjoining Leibniz and Whitehead, since they have very similar philosophical agendas. They build
systems around a world that is a grand repository of objects organically and logically connected with one
another, where everything has a final purpose. This leads to a view of ecology that virtually excludes
anything that is crisis-ridden. Not even New York City can be regarded as unnatural since it represents a
system of productively interrelated natural and social processes. New York City, which Harvey
characterizes as an "ecosystem," looks more like a happy, industrious beaver dam than an insane urban
sprawl generating cancer alleys, transportation breakdown, tuberculosis epidemics and other ecological
In the final analysis Harvey's inexplicable denial of looming planetary ecological catastrophe rests firmly
on Leibnizian metaphysics, a point that has not generally been made in scholarly venues. If Harvey is
correct that nature consists of nothing except transformations and relationships, then presumably nothing
can be done to destroy it, as indicated in his criticism of the thinking behind the title of John Bellamy
Foster's "The Vulnerable Planet." Leibniz says almost the same exact thing.
"Thus there is nothing waste, nothing sterile, nothing dead in the universe; no chaos, no confusions, save
in appearance. We might compare this to the appearance of a pond in the distance, where we can see the
confused movement and swarming of the fish, without distinguishing the fish themselves."

"And so I have judged that if the animal never begins naturally, neither does it end naturally; and that not
only will there be no birth, but also no complete destruction, no death, strictly speaking. And these
reasonings, which are a posteriori and derived from experience, agree perfectly with the principles which
I have deduced a priori above."
In distinction to Leibniz's idealist dialectic, Marxism does take into account the very chaos and
confusions that are produced by the capitalist mode of production. After all, what are these terms but
synonyms for the contradiction and crisis are at the heart of the Marxist dialectic? Lenin sought to
reintroduce these categories into a Marxism that had cast them aside during a decades-long, peaceful
expansion. In many ways the ecological crisis that we face today threatens us as much as imperialist war.
It is trench warfare rather than Leibniz's fishpond that should serve as a paradigm.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the aftermath of the horrible destruction brought on by Hurricane
Mitch in Central America. Tens of thousands of peasants lost their lives needlessly as flooding was
intensified by nearly a half-century of deforestation tied to the expansion of cattle ranching and other
forms of export agriculture.
When a wealthy rancher needed new land for his herds, they often hired gangs to go out and burn and
slash wooded areas. A more common practice, however, was to con the poor campesino into acting as an
accessory. This took place all across Central America. The campesino was allowed to farm the land just
long enough to allow the tree-stumps to rot, at which time they were evicted to make room for cattle. A
dispossessed campesino either migrated to the city or deeper into the forest, especially mountainous areas
where the competition for land was less severe. When mountainsides are stripped of the tree cover, there
are fewer obstacles to the sort of devastating flooding that accompanied Hurricane Mitch. Furthermore,
there is mounting evidence that global warming has intensified hurricanes both in frequency and in
power. The use of internal combustion engines in advanced industrialized countries contributes
disproportionately to the greenhouse effect, which leaves poor, underdeveloped countries like Honduras
or Bangladesh vulnerable to the ravages of hurricanes or monsoons.
Engels was on the right track in trying to tie together natural and social processes. While it was necessary
to reject Stalinism's dogmatic attempts to wed natural science to "dialectical materialism," there was a
kernel of truth in Engels's investigations. By showing the materialist basis for history, society and the
natural world holistically, and how they interact dialectically, he provided a foundation for a Marxist
approach to ecology. It can help us understand how disasters like Hurricane Mitch are not "natural" at all,
but rooted in the capitalist mode of production.
Voltaire, a leading figure of the eighteenth century French enlightenment, was traumatized by the Lisbon
Earthquake of 1755, the Hurricane Mitch of his era. This led him to disavow belief in a supreme being
and to stake out his opposition to Leibniz's belief that we live in "the best of all possible worlds." Leibniz
turned up as the comical Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's "Candide," whose profession that everything in the
world serves some higher purpose is belied by the catastrophes that meet Candide at every step. In

grappling with Leibniz's boundless optimism, Voltaire turned to the Deist Pierre Bayle, whose materialist
skepticism served as an antidote to the previous century's belief in a well-regulated universe. In the poem
The Lisbon Earthquake: an inquiry into the maxim, 'whatever is, is right,' Voltaire writes:
Plato and Epicurus I disclaim. Nature was more to Bayle than ever known: What do I learn from Bayle, to
doubt alone? Bayle, great and wise, all systems overthrows, Then his own labors to oppose.
Marx also lavished praise on Bayle in "The Holy Family" because he "prepared the way for the
acceptance in France of materialism and common-sense philosophy" through the "skeptical disintegration
of metaphysics." Bayle expressed the tendency in French materialism that flowed directly into socialism.
And "above all, he refuted Spinoza and Leibniz."
If not for eighteenth century materialism, Marxism would have failed to come into existence. It makes far
more sense to connect with these traditions than those of the previous century, which Marx and Engels
struggled to supersede. Seventeenth century idealism continued to reappear in many guises in Marx and
Engels's century, most of all in Feuerbach's philosophy. The struggle to reassert materialism was not just
an academic exercise for Marx and Engels, nor should it be so for us. In the final analysis, only
materialism of this sort can provide the analytical tools for understanding and resolving ecological crisis.
Kevin Anderson, "Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism: a Critical Study," U. of Illinois, Urbana, 1995; Ch.
5 especially deals with WWI and Lenin's Hegel studies.
David Harvey, "Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference," Blackwell, Cambridge, MA, 1996
Leibniz, Philosophical Writings, Dent, London, 1973
Eric Wolf, "Europe and the People Without History," U. Cal., Berkeley, 1982
Sebastiano Timpanaro, "On Materialism," Verso, London, 1975
--Louis Proyect