Green and red shoots

Arthur Tansley was a student in the Working Men’s College, a botanist, founder of the British Ecological Society.

The rise of the Labour party and the birth of a 'green consciousness'.

Those who saw capitalism as the enemy, and who blamed it for the degradation of both nature and the workers, were antagonistic towards the system and towards the parties which dominated it.

The collapse of the Conservative party in the opinion polls, and the prospect of their replacement by a Labour government in the next few years is a good moment to revisit the origins of the Labour party in the 1880s and 1890s.

Before then, high politics was dominated by a conflict between Conservatives on the one hand, and Liberals on the other, in which neither of the two parties were willing to concede the demands made by labour for an increase in the social wage - such as pensions, free education and health, and social welfare. Labour had to be independently represented in Parliament in order for those gains to be won.

What I will address in this piece is whether either of these two left camps, either the moderate Victorian Liberals or the socialists who gave birth to Labour, had in any meaningful sense a green consciousness, so that we could see their champions as contributing answers to the huge environmental crises of our own day?


One pioneering figure was the exiled German revolutionary, Karl Marx. A diligent reader of agricultural chemistry, physiology, and geology, Marx had a coherent idea of capitalism as a society at war with the natural world.

Capitalist farming, he argued, “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil.”

All progress in capitalist farming, he insisted, meant robbery, not just from the worker but the soil. “Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”

Marx accused capitalism of disturbing the metabolic interaction between mankind and nature. Against the wasting of the soil, Marx argued for the restoration both of human dignity and of the exhausted earth. 

“Even a society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.”


Were there any successors to this “environmental Marx” in either the Liberal or the Labour camp, between about 1880 and 1920?

Among the first rank of red and green pioneers, we can place the likes of William Morris, a follower of Marx who championed his ideas within the Social Democratic Federation and then the Socialist League, warning that with the destruction of the rights of labour at the hands of capital, “the very face of the earth” too was being destroyed, with nature disappearing “beneath a crust of unutterable grime,” being the detritus of alienated urban life.

Those who saw capitalism as the enemy, and who blamed it for the degradation of both nature and the workers, were antagonistic towards the system and towards the parties which dominated it.

“Wealth is what Nature gives us,” Morris wrote, “the sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment … all things which serve the pleasure of people.”

Another pioneer, the scientist Edwin Lankester, is best-known today for his contribution to the discovery that cholera was a water-born illness.

He was also a friend of the socialist left, and an advocate of women’s rights, and from the 1880s onwards, a prophet warning about the devastation of the maritime environment at the hands of industrial fisheries. “Our fishing industries are still barbaric; we recklessly seize the produce of the seas, regardless of the consequences of the method, the time, or the extent of our depredations.”


In a 1905 lecture titled Nature’s Insurgent Son, Lankester warned of the growth of mass epidemics, such as nagana disease, which he blamed squarely on the vices of imperialism: the transportation of species, urban congestion, and industrial monocultures.

One of Lankester’s students, Arthur Tansley was a student in the Working Men’s College, a botanist, founder of the British Ecological Society, and participant in campaigns to unionise scientists in movements including the National Union of Scientific Workers. Scientists in the older generation accused Tansley of “Botanical Bolshevism”.

There was, of course, a division of responsibility: the very best of the early British socialists were no more than fellow travellers to the growth of ecological consciousness among professional biologists.

Likewise, few of the radical scientists were more than occasional contributors to the great social movements of their day. But there was a degree of convergence between the socialist and green pioneers.

What though of Liberalism? Could the moderate left parliamentarism of the 1880s and 1890s produce any similar sense of the unsustainability of man’s destruction of nature?

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One point at which you can, just about, trace an alliance of sorts between some Liberals and the futility of resource extraction concerns the spread of empire.

While Liberals preferred not to see the destruction of the environment or of workers caused by British imperialism, they were attentive to the devastation wreaked by other countries’ empires.

Arguably, the important figure in this tradition is the anti-imperialist Liberal George Morel. One day in 1897 or 1898, a disturbing thought occurred to him. Morel took to studying the goods loaded and unloaded from ships sailing between Belgium and the Congo.

He saw vast quantities of rubber and ivory being unloaded in Antwerp, but nothing of any substance was sent out, beyond officers and firearms.

The realisation dawned on him that there could only be one explanation. For all the wealth produced in Africa, the people of the country must receive nothing in return. The wealth of the soil was being stolen from them.


Morel began to campaign against Belgian imperialism. In time, a vast popular moment followed him in warning of the harm done by Belgian imperialism.

Writers including the Anglo-Irish diplomat Roger Casement and the novelist Arthur Conan Doyle warned that Belgium was killing the people of the Congo, removing the hands of their victims, leaving hundreds of thousands of starve in order to support the extraction of rubber, mutilating forests, tramping banana fields, torturing the earth and its people at the same time.

The problem with the Liberal tradition was that for all the clarity with which it witnessed ecological devastation, when other nations were at fault, it showed no similar bravery when looking at the habits of industry at home or British capital in the empire.

You can find in the ranks of British Liberalism many people who dedicated their lives to spreading the British empire, while also propagandising against the threat posed by socialism.

One such Liberal gatekeeper was the journalist Horatio Bottomley, and after 1906 MP for South Hackney. A self-declared Radical (i.e. left Liberal) and follower of Charles Bradlaugh, Bottomley faced a recurring problem of workers from the local trades council threatening to run candidates against him.


He threatened the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union, and Hackney Trades Council with libel action. When miners went on strike during the First World War, Bottomley and John Bull insisted that any worker following them must be “arrested, treated as deserters and punished according to martial law.”

Bottomley was not merely an anti-socialist Liberal but also a champion of the untrammelled rights of capital to extract whatever it liked from nature. In his case, that took the form principally of advocacy on behalf of gold mining in the British empire.

Bottomley’s uncle Horatio Holyoake had emigrated from England in the 1840s, and become a gold miner in the Australian gold belt. From the 1880s onwards, Bottomley was a consistent champion of mining, insisting first as a journalist and later as a company proprietor that there were infinite riches waiting to be extracted from the British-owned colonies.

 “We own no mines,” Bottomley said, “we do not go mining, and speaking for myself personally I do not profess to understand very much about mining”.


And yet between 1894 and 1900 years, Bottomley, with offices in Broad Street Avenue near Liverpool Street, founded 37 mining companies, with a combined paper value in excess of £15,000,000.

When the environmentalists of the 1890s and 1900s looked at the world around the what the saw was a Parliament dominated by the rich. It was polarised between parties, there was a Liberal left just as there was a Conservative right.

Those who saw capitalism as the enemy, and who blamed it for the degradation of both nature and the workers, were antagonistic towards the system and towards the parties which dominated it.

They were not necessarily socialists. And yet the birth of labour offered them hope. It broke apart the deadening consensus of late Victorian society, and it opened the ways toward new theories, both red and green.

This Author

David Renton is a historian and barrister. His latest book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, tells the story of socialist and anti-socialist campaigns in Britain from the 1820s to the 1920s. It will be published by Routledge in November.

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