Geography Against Capitalism: Harvey avec Reclus

In jointly approaching Marxism and anarchism to draw from them intellectual and strategic resources for contemporary anti-capitalism can we avoid the tiresome alternative between the production of sterile doctrinal hybrids, on the one hand, and the neurotic revisiting of the primal scene of separation, on the other? The wager of this talk is that turning to anarchist and Marxist lineages in geographical thought might help us to avoid the dull commonplaces of polemic – whether this will define new frontlines or forge unexpected alliances, I shall leave as an open question. For one, a geographical perspective can serve to problematise the canonical distinction between the anarchist repudiation of state authority and Marxist arguments for the necessity of planning, by turning our focus on the broader spatial dynamics, inextricably social and natural, that should impinge on any discussion about the organisational forms taken by anti-capitalist politics or by post-capitalist social forms. The spur for this investigation is the positive reference to anarchist geography and specifically to the writings of Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus, made by David Harvey, the foremost Marxist geographer today. It is telling that Harvey’s celebration of the work of these two remarkable protagonists of the nineteenth-century anarchist movement has come in moments where the political vocation of geographical thought has been foremost in his mind: in his historical-materialist manifesto of 1984, published in The Professional Geographer, and in recent talks on ‘the right to the city’. In the 1984 text, Harvey provides a succinct definition of geography, binding action to explanation. ‘Geographical knowledge’, he writes, ‘records, analyzes and stores information about the spatial distribution and organization of those conditions (both naturally occurring and humanly created) that provide the material basis for the reproduction of social life. At the same time, it promotes conscious awareness of how such conditions are subject to continuous transformation through human action’ (Spaces of Capital, p. 108).

As Harvey details, this knowledge, while not reducible to the mere status of ideology or instrument, has for much of its history played an important role in serving patterns of action aimed at the reproduction and expansion of a constitutively exploitative, oppressive and geographically disruptive social form, capitalism. Whether mapping the globe for the purposes of navigation and territorial appropriation, describing ‘the earth’s surface as a repository of use values’, inventorying the diverse ‘human resources’ exploitable as labour, tracing geopolitical horizons and frontlines, rationalizing planning and location, or bolstering through cartography imaginaries of racial and civilisational supremacy, geography has been of signal importance for a social system in which – as Harvey has exhaustively demonstrated – the production, differentiation, localisation and destruction of space (and place) is crucial. The utilisation of geography, like that of other social and natural sciences, has of course gone hand-in-hand with a dynamic of specialisation and professionalisation, restricting the scope for reflection and critique. Harvey’s invocation of Kropotkin and Reclus as forerunners of a geography that could think capitalism against the grain is intended to outline an intellectual practice capable of treating the total or planetary reality of space as a condition for social reproduction, and consequently to link this understanding of space to potentially emancipatory political action. Kropotkin and Reclus show that geography ‘can become the vehicle to express utopian visions and practical plans for the creation of alternative geographies’ (p. 112), and it can do so by treating human, spatial and natural diversity not as a mere resource to be subsumed, mined or capitalized upon, but as the basis for forms of collective life not subsumed by capitalist valorisation. For Harvey, it was this spirit that lay behind the emergence, spurred by the insurgent movements of the 1960s and 70s, of a variegated radical geography centred on ‘the process of becoming through which people (and geographers) transform themselves through transforming both their natural and social milieus’ (p. 115). While ultimately in no doubt that, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, Marxism subsumes antagonistic or incommensurable critical perspectives without thereby replacing them, Harvey attends to the contrasts and shortcomings within the anti-capitalist camp. He writes:

Advocates for community cannot justify a stance of ‘community right or wrong’ if one community’s gain is another’s loss any more than environmentalists can reasonably proceed oblivious of employment consequences. Humanists, if they are to avoid the trap of narcissistic radical subjectivism, need a more powerful theory than agency and structure to grapple with macro-problems of money power, inflation and unemployment. Anarchists, while sensitized to ecological and communitarian concerns, lack the social theory to understand the dynamics of capitalism in relation to state power. Marxists come armed with a powerful theory but find it hard to cope with ecological issues or with a subject matter in which highly differentiated activities of individuals and social groups within the particularities of space and place are of paramount concern. (p. 115)

Political and theoretical integration, ‘a common frame of discourse’, is the cognitive and political imperative for Harvey, as radical geographers are faced with the restoration of class power – with its spatial and disciplinary dimensions – on a global scale. While never forgetting the spaces of hope of alternative geographical futures, the primary task here is one of realism (the absence of which Harvey faults dogmatic Marxism for) about the spaces of capital: ‘The world must be depicted, analyzed, and understood not as we would like it to be but as it really is, the material manifestation of human hopes and fears mediated by powerful and conflicting processes of social reproduction’ (p. 116). It is on this terrain that the invocation and critique of anarchist geography, and specifically of the work of Reclus, becomes especially interesting. I’d like to consider it specifically in terms of the question of geographical difference, and how this difference is articulated in terms of explanatory theories and political orientations.

Where Marx’s own work, and that of most of his heirs, tended to treat geographical differentiation as a form of concreteness that doesn’t directly impinge on the theory of the capitalist mode of production – a shortcoming that Harvey has spent some decades rectifying, namely with his theory of the ‘spatial fix’ – Reclus played a pioneering role in the kind of human and social geography capable of linking economic and political dynamics to geographies of difference. Harvey rightly notes the importance of Reclus’s anarchist orientation to his geographical practice. The political belief in the desirability and viability of a ‘vast federation of autonomous self-governing communities’ (p. 118), and the emphasis on free and spontaneous development against arbitrary territorial authorities, translates into a ‘profoundly geographical’ and highly decentralized thinking, linked to self-management, community control, ecological sensitivity and respect for freedom. This anarchist lineage within geography, Harvey’s argument suggests, is vital both epistemologically and politically; it brings social and geographical differentiation into the purview of social science and affirms the importance of militant particularisms and local spontaneities against the temptation of homogenising solutions. But for Harvey it is accompanied by a politically debilitating shortcoming: a tendency to empiricism about differences that translates into a lack of a totalising political strategy. So, while the theoretical power of Marxism is unmatched by an equivalent sensitivity to placedness (and its politics), attention to freedom and difference in anarchism is betrayed by a theoretical deficit. Whence Harvey’s pregnant question: ‘what would our political and intellectual world be like if Marx had been a better geographer and the anarchists better social theorists?’ (p. 120). To integrate geographical sensitivities into a historical-geographical materialism that would also be a partisan and popular practice turns out then to demand some kind of reckoning with the kind of anarchist thinking embodied in the figure of Elisée Reclus. I want to turn now to Reclus and ask whether and to what extent Harvey’s framing of the geographical tension and eventual complementarities between anarchism and Marxism is perspicacious.

That Reclus’s work attends to the wealth of difference in physical and ‘social geography’, to use his term, is a considerable understatement: aside from numerous articles, political pamphlets, and travel guides (including one of London), Reclus produced a trilogy comprising the two-volume La terre (1868–9), the nineteen-volume Nouvelle géographie universelle (1878–1894) and the six-volume L’homme et la terre (1905–8, published posthumously). These books, resting on Reclus’s emphasis on first-hand observation, voracious reading and drive to comprehensiveness more than fulfil Harvey’s description of geography as ‘record[ing], analyz[ing] and stor[ing] information about the spatial distribution and organization of those conditions (both naturally occurring and humanly created) that provide the material basis for the reproduction of social life’. Their articulation of the geological, morphological, biotic, and urban dimensions of geography, especially in the L’homme et la terre is formidable, especially for their attention to what Harvey calls the question of ‘becoming’. In Reclus’s words: ‘geography is not an immutable thing; it is made and remade everyday: at every instant, it is modified by the action of man’ (L’homme et la terre, p. 94). The importance of history to Reclus’s account is of particular interest, as he affirms both the multiplicity of trajectories and a unifying ‘evolution’. Here the problem of the geographer is inextricable from that of the historian: how is one to establish what – using an expression used before by Engels, in Anti-Dühring – Reclus calls the ‘parallelogram of forces’ (p. 478), which coheres a swarm of processes and wills into a global development or tendency?

In terms of Harvey’s claim about the coupling of an attention to difference and a deficit of theory in anarchist geography, it is important to stress that Reclus does not shy away – as the titles of his works make plain – from thinking in planetary or totalising way. L’homme et la terre incessantly acknowledges a global convergence, an emancipatory globalisation which it is the task of the geographer to understand and of political agitation to both assume and enact. A ‘revolution in thought’ (p. 30) is needed to break with the political-geographic fetishism and ethnocentrism that treats borders and their authorities as given. This thinking is at once ecological and political. Reclus, in a rather dated organicist metaphor, famously referred to man as ‘the consciousness of nature’, but this translates into something much more sophisticated and of contemporary relevance than a sub-Hegelian holism. Human beings have ‘become, by force of association, veritable geological agents [who] have transformed in different ways the surface of the continents, changed the economy of rivers, and modified climates themselves’. As a recent commentator remarks, this entails a ‘dialectical responsibility’ toward nature, linking social organisation to the management, reparation and even beautification of nature (see Pelletier; similar themes can be encountered in John Bellamy Foster’s idea of an ecological revolution repairing the metabolic rift generated by capitalist accumulation). It also involves moving beyond empiricism to a theoretical grasp of ‘the globe as an historically and spatially interrelated system subject to discoverable laws’ (Fleming, p. 115). If Reclus can be said to belong to the world of nineteenth-century positivism, this is a positivism that combines ‘an investigation of the laws contributing to the maintenance of the existing order and a search for the laws which challenged it’ (p. 117–18).

The context for this assumption of geological agency is an understanding of planetary unification as a social process, currently evolving under the aegis of capitalism, but perverted by this very motor. As Reclus writes in L’homme et la terre: ‘The theatre expands, because it now embraces the entirety of lands and seas, but the forces that were struggling within each particular state are equally those that struggle throughout the whole earth. In each country, capital tries to control workers; likewise, on the world’s greatest market, capital, grown beyond measure, indifferent to all the ancient borders, tries to make the mass of producers work for its profit, and to guarantee for itself all the consumers of the globe, savages, barbarians, as well as the civilised’ (quoted in Giblin, pp. 26–7). This opens up the important question, raised by Harvey, as to whether Reclus has a theory of capitalism’s geographical operation. Though the emphasis on observation is paramount in his work, and capitalism is treated more as a form of authoritarian expropriation than as a more systemic mode of production and exploitation, Reclus’s work does contain some remarks that prefigure the kind of geographical treatment of the concrete effects of capitalism’s real abstractions, namely the value-form, which we find in Harvey. Reclus will write of the dollar as ‘the master of master: it is by virtue of it that men are differently distributed on the surface of the earth, distributed here and there in towns and countryside, in fields, workshops and factories, that they are pushed and pulled from job to job like the pebble from shore to shore’ (L’homme et la terre, p. 546). Not just the distribution and circulation of human beings is involved but the very transformation of the earth. As Reclus writes: ‘All economic oscillations of society which affect the classes of workers and capitalists, noble or bourgeois, are represented in the soil and modify the network of dividing lines’ (p. 568). He is also attentive to the transformations in capitalist forms which affect geography and urbanisation, for instance the increasing deterritorialisation of property, less and less attached to territory and increasingly subsumed by finance (p. 582). In all of these domains, as well as in that of the ecology itself, it is the ‘social question’ as a whole that demands the attention of both the geographer and the militant. For this very reason science and revolution cannot be sundered. As Reclus puts it: ‘We now know that there is a social science and we count on using it against our enemies to hasten the day of liberation’ (Évolution & Révolution, p. 46).

In sum, it is possible to say that while both his positivism and his anarchist politics may have made Reclus sceptical of the kind of movement from the abstract to the concrete delineated by Marx’s method, he nonetheless recognised – in a way not fully acknowledged by Harvey – the need to integrate geography and the study of capitalism in an understanding of the production of both nature and social difference by a mankind now become, in his increasingly pertinent formulation, a ‘geological agent’ (an agency that, echoing Marx, precludes any concessions to Malthusian theories of ecoscarcity). Neil Smith’s claim, that the ‘geography of capitalism is more systematically and completely an integral part of the mode of production than was the case with any earlier mode of production’ (p. 134), can find some support in Reclus’s work. Indeed, it could be argued that the treatments of urbanisation, territorial change, and capitalist globalisation contained in Reclus’s ‘social geography’ are better accounted for precisely by the kind of theory of uneven development and the nature/society dialectic proposed by Marxist geographers such as Smith and Harvey, than by Reclus’s own three laws of development, to wit: the ‘class struggle’, the search for equilibrium and the sovereign decision of individuals. What’s more, Reclus’s focus on increasing solidarity as the only real motor and mark of ‘progress’ dovetails with much Marxist thinking on cooperation and the socialisation of production, just as it refuses any seclusion of liberation to zones separated from planetary development. As he wrote, reflecting on his own attempt to live under no authorities in Colombia: ‘Never will we [anarchists] separate ourselves from the world to build a little church, hidden in some vast wilderness. Here is the fighting ground, and we remain in the ranks, ready to give our help wherever it may be most needed’ (quoted in Fleming, p. 48; see also Maitron, vol. 1, pp. 407–8). Reclus’s critique of anarchist colonies and milieux libres is of particular interest today, when some of the more bold and invigorating tendencies on the left are returning to the idea of the ‘commune’.

A case in point is the Invisible Committee’s text The Coming Insurrection, the object of intense attention on the part of libertarian activists, the French State,  and the American media (in the surreal ‘advertisement’ of which it was the object in right-wing commentator Glen Beck’s Fox show). Not only is renewed debate on the collective experimentation of everyday life to be welcomed, especially by contrast with nebulous figures of messianic transfiguration; L’insurrection also raises some important questions for a radical left which conceives of capitalism as an unacceptably destructive system and views crisis-management as an unappetizing and doomed vocation. Rather than an ephemeral image of a glorious tomorrow or a utopian enclave, the commune is envisaged simultaneously as a collective experimenta­tion of politics and as an instrument for a political action which is not merely instru­mental but existential, or ethical. Among other things, the emphasis put on the density of real relations – as against the issues of identity and representation that allegedly bedevil parties, groups, collectives and milieus – gives a concrete political meaning to friendship, over against the obsession, whether prudish or prurient, with the commune as the site of sexual exchange. Another classic motif, that of self-reliance, is given a contemporary twist: the commune is presented as a way of gaining and practising the kind of know-how (medical, agricultural, technical) to allow one to depend no longer on the metropolis and its forms of ‘security’ – in other words, to ready oneself for real crisis, as communistic survivalism prepares for capitalist apocalypse. One cannot gainsay the force and interest of concrete utopias, however minimal or marginal, nor deny the all too familiar truth – once again laid bare by this case – that the modern capitalist nation-state does not suffer alternatives gladly. The young activists and intellectuals at Tarnac, in this regard echoing if not necessarily following L’insurrection qui vient, have certainly shown that even very simple experiments with egalitarianism and emancipation can sow real political relations and solidarities. But, especially at a moment when the political question of the public is so crucial – whether we are speaking of uni­versities, hospitals, banks, or indeed trains – the opposition between the commune and the metropolis is a false one, as is, to borrow another dichotomy from L’insurrection, the one between hegemony and horizontality. I will return to this in the concluding comments, by considering the role that a geographical, infrastructural realism may play in our strategies of liberation. For the time being it is worth reflecting on what the anarchist Jura Federation wrote of these experiments in 1877:

The Jura Congress considers the communist colonies as incapable of generalising their action, given the milieu in which they develop, and further to realise the social revolution: as propaganda action, the fact of these communist colonies has no importance due to the failures they are all too often bound to suffer in contemporary society, and remains unknown by the masses just like the numerous attempts of this type already carried out in previous epochs. The Congress therefore does not approve these experiments, which can take the best elements away from revolutionary action. (Maitron, p. 407)

Returning to Reclus, his criticism of the milieux libres did not take away from the fact that he was as firm as his friend and comrade Bakunin in his repudiation of what he perceived as the authoritarian socialism of Marx and his followers. Without delving into the history of the dispute, can we say something about these political questions on the basis of how they impinge on the question of geography? After all, as Harvey’s own remarks intimate, the Marxist critique of a theoretical deficit in anarchism is also the critique of a political limitation. Perhaps the point at which Reclus is closest to Marx is in his anti-voluntarist belief – despite the conviction in individual sovereignty – in the link between material trends and radical change, or, in his terminology, between evolution and revolution. As he declared in a speech from 1880 (recently republished in France, it should be noted, with a preface by Olivier Besancenot, spokesperson for the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste), ‘Revolutions are forced consequences of the evolutions that preceded them’ (p. 38), a view not so far removed from Marx’s remarks about productive forces breaking the integument of relations of production. But can this revolution bypass the state? For Reclus, it signals a passage to a new mode of evolution, marked by ‘direct action by the freely expressed will of men who associate themselves for a determinate work, without preoccupying themselves with the borders between classes and between countries’ (L’homme et la terre, p. 512). But is this freedom of association so straightforward? Attention to certain ecological and geographical aspects of Reclus’s own reflection suggest otherwise. One of his main points of condemnation of capitalism, shared with contemporary ecosocialists, lies precisely in its unregulated and haphazard character. Under capitalism, Reclus suggests, we are governed by chance, incapable of planning and managing our metabolism with nature in a scientific way. The use, maintenance, reparation and conservation of the earth can’t be left to the destructive whim of profit-seeking. ‘All this apparent chaos of forces in struggle, from the humble farmer with his furrow to the opulent capitalism with harvest in a thousand corners of the globe at his disposal, has as its fatal result to lead to a disordered production, without rule or method’ (p. 586).

If social relations are indeed determinant of the relation and use of the environment, a view in which Reclus anticipates the likes of Harvey, Smith and John Bellamy Foster, then, it could be argued, the question of the political forms adequate to challenging and overcoming capitalism becomes far more complex than the seizure or not of state power, the repudiation or not of authority. Here the question of theory does come into focus. Not only is it necessary, as Smith lays out, to understand the contradictory dynamics of differentiation and equalisation that determine capitalism’s mode of production and its geographical and natural impacts, it is also significant to treat political authorities and institutions as themselves geographical entities, veritable components of our ecosystems that can’t be simply ignored or bypassed in the search for liberation. The state, conceived to include not just a monopoly of violence but public services, infrastructures, and so on, is not just a crucial factor in the reproduction of capital and its associated social forms, it is also a geographical fact of no little political importance. Harvey points this out as a crucial political problem for any geography of freedom: ‘The proper management of constituted environments … may therefore require transitional political institutions, hierarchies of power relations, and systems of governance that could well be anathema to both ecologists and socialists alike. This is so because, in a fundamental sense, there is nothing unnatural about New York city and sustaining such an ecosystem even in transition entails an inevitable compromise with the forms of social organization and social relations which produced it’ (Justice…, p. 186). Viewed in this light geography can serve not just as an inventory of social differences and an understanding of their reproduction (as well as an explanation of the production of social homogeneity), it can also operate as a realist science of the spaces of capital that any attempt to generate spatial strategies of liberation cannot but contend with. Neither dogmatically scientific nor complacently utopian, such a geographical view of emancipatory politics can also allow us to ask questions of anti-capitalist strategy and alternatives to capital which are not mired in debates about authority and freedom that, whatever their original merits, related to different geographies, ecologies and political economies than the ones we’re confronted with today.


Works cited

Béatrice Giblin, ‘Élisée Reclus : un géographe d’exception’, Hérodote, special issue on Elisée Reclus, 117 (2005): 11–28.

Gary S. Dunbar, Elisée Reclus: Historian of Nature, Hamden, CT: Archon, 1978.

Marie Fleming, The Geography of Freedom: The Odyssey of Elisée Reclus, Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1988.

David Harvey, Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

David Harvey, ‘On the history and present condition of geography: an historical materialist manifesto’ (1984), in Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001.

David Harvey, ‘The Right to the City’, Fifth Annual Lewis Mumford Lecture on Urbanism,

City College, NY, 30 April 2008, available at: <;.

Jean Maitron, Le mouvement anarchiste en France, vols 1 and 2, Paris: Maspero, 1975.

Philippe Pelletier, ‘La géographie sociale d’Elisée Reclus’, Le Monde diplomatique, January 2009.

Elisée Reclus, L’homme et la terre. Histoire contemporaine (1905), vols. 1 and 2, ed. B. Giblin, Paris: Fayard, 1990.

Elisée Reclus, Évolution & Révolution, introduced by Olivier Besancenot, Paris: Le Passager clandestin, 2008.

Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space, 3rd edition, Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2008.

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5 Responses to Geography Against Capitalism: Harvey avec Reclus

  1. Pingback: Cartographies of the Absolute « Arts & Cartography Workshop: Mapping Environmental Issues in the City

  2. Pingback: Urban Omnibus » Experimental Geography – on view through 8/24

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  4. Nadine Willems says:

    This post is really interesting. I am working on Reclus’s influence in pre-war Japan and would like to exchange some more info. How can I contact you?

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