Title: Geography
Dictionary of Marxist Thought, 1983

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Dictionary of Marxist Thought


Geographical knowledge deals with the description and analysis of the spatial distribution of those conditions (either naturally-occurring or humanly-created) that form the material basis for the reproduction of social life. It also tries to understand the relations between such conditions and the qualities of social life achieved under a given mode of production.

The form and content of geographical knowledge depends upon the social context. All societies, classes, and social groups possess a distinctive 'geographical lore', a working knowledge of their territory and of the spatial distribution of use values relevant to them. This 'lore', acquired through experience, is codified and socially transmitted as part of a conceptual apparatus with which individuals and groups cope with the world. It may be transmitted as a loosely-defined spatial-environmental imagery or as a formal body of knowledge - geography - in which all members of society or a privileged elite receive instruction. This knowledge can be used in the quest to dominate nature as well as other classes and peoples. It can also be used in the struggle to liberate peoples from so-called 'natural' disasters and from internal and external oppression.

Bourgeois geography, as a formal body of knowledge, underwent successive transformations under the pressure of changing practical imperatives. Concern for accuracy of navigation in earlier centuries gave way later on to cartographic practices designed to establish private property and state territorial rights. At the same time the creation of the world market meant ' the exploration of the earth in all directions' in order to discover 'new, useful qualities of things' and so promote the 'universal exchange of products of all alien climates and lands' (Marx Grundrisse, p.409). Working in the tradition of natural philosophy, geographers such as Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Carl Ritter (1779-1859) set out to construct a systematic description of the earth's surface as the repository of exploitable use values (both natural and human) and as the locus of geographically differentiated forms of economy and social reproduction. By the late nineteenth century, geographical practices and thought were deeply affected by direct engagement in the exploration of commercial opportunities, the prospects for primitive accumulation and the mobilization of Empire and colonial administration. The division of the world into spheres of influence by the main imperialist powers also gave rise to geopolitical perspectives in which geographers such as Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) and Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) dealt with the struggle for control over space, i.e. over access to raw materials, labor supplies and markets, in direct terms of geographical control. In recent years, geographers have concerned themselves with 'rational management' ('rational' usually from the standpoint of accumulation) of natural and human resources and spatial distributions.

Two strongly opposed currents of thought stand out in the history of bourgeois geography. The first, deeply materialist in its approach, nevertheless holds to some version of environmental or spatial determinism (the doctrine that forms of economy, social reproduction, political power, are determined by environmental conditions or location). The second, deeply idealist in spirit, sees society engaged in the active transformation of the face of the earth, either in response to God's will or according to the dictates of human consciousness and will. The tension between these two currents of thought has never been resolved in bourgeois geography. The latter has, in addition, always preserved a strong ideological content. Although it aspires to universal understanding of the diversity of social life, it often cultivates parochial, ethnocentric perspectives on that diversity. It has often been the vehicle for transmission of doctrines of racial, cultural, or national superiority. Ideas of 'geographical' or 'manifest' destiny, of the 'white man's burden' and of the 'civilizing mission' of the bourgeoisie, are liberally scattered in geographical thought. Geographical information (maps, for example) can be all too easily used to prey upon fears and promote hostility between peoples, and so justify imperialism, neo-colonial domination, and internal repression (particularly in urban areas).

Marx and Engels paid little attention to geography as a formal discipline, but they frequently drew upon the works of geographers (such as Humboldt) and their historical materialist texts are suffused with commentary on matters geographical. They implied that the fundamental opposition in bourgeois thought could be bridged. They argued that by acting upon the external world and changing it we thereby also changed out own natures, and that although human beings made their own histories they did not do so under social and geographical circumstances of their own choosing. But Marx, evidently concerned to distance himself from determinist current in bourgeois thought, usually downplayed the significance of environmental and spatial differentiations. The result is a somewhat ambivalent treatment of geographical questions.

For example, Marx often made it sound as though there was a simple, unilinear historical progression from one mode of production to another. But he also accepted that Asiatic society possessed a distinctive mode of production, in part shaped by the need to build and maintain large scale irrigation projects in semi-arid environments. He also later attacked those who transformed his 'historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism into an historico-philosophical theory of the general path of development prescribed by fate to all nations', and argued that he had merely sought to 'trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist economic system emerged from the womb of the feudal economic system' (letter to Otechestvenniye Zapiski, November 1877). Even in Western Europe, considerable variation existed because of the uneven penetration of capitalist social relations under local circumstances showing 'infinite variations and gradations in appearance'(Capital III, ch.47).

Marx also sought an analysis of capitalism's historical dynamic without reference to geographical perspectives on the grounds that the latter would merely complicate matters without adding anything new. But in practice he is forced to recognize that the physical productivity of labor is affected by environmental conditions which in turn form the physical basis for the social division of labor. (Capital I, ch.16). The value of labor power (and wage rates) consequently vary from place to place, depending upon reproduction costs, natural and historical circumstances. Differential rent can also in part be appropriated because of differentials in fertility and location. To the degree that such differentials create geographical variation in wage and profit rates, Marx looks to the mobilities of capital (as money, commodities, production activity, etc.) and labor as means to reduce them. In so doing he is forced to consider the role of geographical expansion - colonization, foreign trade, the export of capital, bullion drains, etc. - on capitalism's historical dynamic. He accepts that geographical expansion can help counteract any tendency towards falling profit rates but denies that the crisis tendencies of capitalism can be permanently assuaged thereby. The contradictions of capitalism are merely projected onto the global stage. But Marx does not attempt any systematic analysis of such processes. A planned work on crises and the world market never materialized.

Marx's commentaries possess a unifying theme. Though nature may be the subject of labor, much of the geographical nature with which we work is a social product. The productive capacities of the soil, for example, are neither original nor indestructible (as Ricardo held) because fertility can be created or destroyed through the circulation of capital. Spatial relations are also actively shaped by a transport and communications industry dedicated, in the bourgeois era, to the reduction of turnover time in the circulation of capital (what Marx called 'the annihilation of space by time'). Distinctive spatial configurations of the productive forces and social relations of capitalism (investment in physical and social infrastructures, urbanization, the territorial division of labor, etc.) are produced through specific processes of historical development. Capitalism produces a geographical landscape in its own image, only to find that image is seriously flawed, riddled with contradictions. Environments are created that simultaneously facilitate but imprison the future paths of capitalist development.

Subsequent Marxist work often failed to appreciate the subtly nuanced 'geographical lore' omnipresent in Marx's and Engel's texts. Lenin's Development of Capitalism in Russia is an early exception. The dominant tendency was to view nature and hence geographical circumstance as unproblematically social. Karl Wittfogel's attempt (1896 - ) to reintroduce geographical determinism into Marxist thought, though itself seriously flawed, reopened the questions of the relations between mode of production and environmental conditions. The practical requirements of reconstruction, planning, industrial and regional development in the Soviet Union also led to the emergence of geography as a formal discipline within a Marxist framework. A deep and almost exclusive concern with the development of the productive forces on the land was associated with an analysis in which the concrete development of such productive forces was seen as the moving force in a geographically differentiated social history. This style of thinking flowed westward, mainly through the work of French geographers such as Pierre Georges (1909- ).

The study of imperialism and the world market (a topic which Marx had left untouched) introduced a more explicitly spatial imagery into Marxist thought in the early years of the twentieth century. Hilferding, Lenin, Bukharin, and Luxemburg dramatically unified themes of exploitation, geographical expansion, territorial conflict and domination, with the theory of accumulation of capital. Later writers pursued the spatial imagery strongly. Centers exploit peripheries, metropolises exploit hinterlands, the first world subjugates and mercilessly exploits the third, underdevelopment is imposed from without, etc. Class struggle is resolved into the struggle of periphery against the center, the countryside against the city, the third world against the first. So powerful is this spatial imagery that it freely flows back into the interpretation of structures even in the heart of capitalism. Regions are exploited by a dominant metropolis in which ghettos are characterized as 'internal neo-colonies'. The language of Capital (the exploitation of one class by another) tends to give way in some Marxist work to a compelling imagery in which people in one place exploit those in another. There was, however, very little in this Marxist tradition which grappled with the concrete processes whereby class antagonisms are translated into spatial configurations, or with the way in which spatial relations and organization are produced under the imperatives of capitalism.

New life was breathed into these questions during the 1960s, as the radical critique of bourgeois geography gathered strength. The attempt to reconstitute formal geographical understandings from a socialist perspective had some peculiar advantages. Traditional bourgeois geography, dominated by conservative thinkers attached to the ideology of empire, was nevertheless global, synthetic and materialist in its approach to ways of life and social reproduction in different natural and social environments. It was a relatively easy target for criticism and lent itself easily to historical materialist approaches. Yet there was little to appeal to in Marxist geographical thought and only a brief flurry of an indigenous radical tradition in the anarchism of Elisée Reclus (1830 - 1905) and Kropotkin (1842 - 1921).

The radical thrust initially concentrated on a critique of ideology and geographical practice. It called into question the racism, classism, ethnocentrism and sexism in geographical texts and teaching. It attacked the dominantly positivist stance of geographers as a manifestation of bourgeois managerial consciousness. It exposed the role of geographers in imperialist endeavors, in urban and regional planning procedures directed towards social control in the interests of capital accumulation. It sought to uncover the hidden assumptions and class biases within geography through a thorough critique of its philosophical basis.

But it also sought to identify and preserve those facets of geography relevant to socialist reconstruction and to merge the positive aspects of bourgeois geography with a reconstituted understanding of the geography buried in Marx's and Engel's texts. The more mundane techniques - from mapping to resource inventory and analysis - appeared usable (as the Soviet experience had shown), but were too close to bourgeois practice for comfort, and the assumption of their social neutrality was troubling. Something more was needed. Bourgeois geographers had long sought to understand how different peoples fashion their physical and social landscapes as a reflection of their needs and aspirations and they had also shown that different social groups - children, the aged, social classes, whole cultures, - possess different and often incomparable forms of geographical knowledge. It was a short step to create a more dialectical view, based on Marx's thesis that by acting upon and changing the external world we change our own natures. From this a new agenda for geography could be constructed - the study of the active construction and transformation of material environments (both physical and social) through particular social processes, together with critical reflection on the geographical knowledge (itself contributory to those social processes) which resulted. It follows that contradictions within a social process (such as those founded on antagonism between capital and labor) are necessarily manifest in both the actual geographical landscape (the social organization of space) and our interpretations of that landscape.

Marxist geographical inquiry is in its infancy in the West. It seeks the reformulation of bourgeois questions, and new perspectives on Marxist theory and practice. It seeks deeper insights into how different social formations create material and social landscapes in their own image. It explores how capitalism transforms and creates nature as new productive forces embedded in the land and sets in train irreversible and often damaging processes of ecological change. It examines how spatial configurations of productive forces and social relations are created and with what effects - uneven geographical development, the spatial integration of world capitalism through the geographical mobility of capital and labor. It seeks to explain how the exploitation of people in one place by those in another (peripheries by centers, rural areas by cities) can arise in a social formation dominated by the antagonism between capital and labor. It investigates how spatial organization (e.g. segregation) relates to all reproduction of class relations. Above all, geographers seek understanding of how crises are manifest geographically, through processes of regional growth and decay, inter-regional competition and restructuring, the export of unemployment, inflation, surplus productive capacity, degenerating into inter-imperialist rivalries and war.