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Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism

Kohei Saito Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. 2017. New York: Monthly Review, reviewed by Ted Benton.

This exceptionally clear and well-researched book is based on Saito’s dissertation, originally in German, and incorporates the results of his study of as-yet unpublished manuscripts and excerpt notebooks compiled during the last fifteen years of Marx’s life. Saito’s approach is closely aligned with that of Paul Burkett, John Bellamy Foster and their associates (Burkett 1988, Foster et al. 2010), well-known advocates of a view of Marx as an ecological thinker, who developed the concept of ‘metabolic rift’ to explain the contradictions between capitalism and external nature.

Saito uses the results of his own research to strengthen and extend the claims made by those writers. His key argument is that his predecessors in the ‘metabolic rift’ school of thought were able to demonstrate Marx’s ecological critique only through occasional passages of text. Saito’s research into Marx’s later writings, and, most especially, unpublished notebooks reveals the developing pattern of his reading of contemporary natural science, especially agronomy. Ecology was always central to Marx’s thinking, Saito argues, it was integral to his critique of political economy, and was understood by Marx as ‘the’ contradiction of the capitalist mode of production.


It might be necessary to set Saito’s important contribution in the context of the fairly arcane and technical debates among rival positions on Marx’s work and its relation to our own current attempts to understand the connections between socialism and ecology. First, there is a very widespread and long-standing interpretation of Marx’s view of history (shared by both admirers and opponents of Marx) that sees ‘progress’ as the long-run development of human productive powers and growing mastery of the forces of nature.

Capitalism is the culmination of this process, but also reaches its limits, resulting in its own self-destruction, to be followed by a communist future in which all are able to share in the abundance of wealth inherited from the advances of previous epochs. This is referred to by Saito and his associates as the ‘Promethian’ reading of Marx. They attribute this Promethean interpretation of Marx to other eco-socialists, who they refer to as ‘first stage’, by contrast with their own ‘second stage’ eco-socialism, which draws on an alternative reading of Marx as already an ecological critic of capitalism. For these ‘second stage’ eco-socialists, Marx can be drawn upon without critical revision as providing key concepts, and the methodological principles for addressing our own ecological crisis.


Saito’s Introduction sharply opposes his reading of Marx to what he sees as ‘stereotypical’ versions of Marx’s Promethianism, and dismissals of Marx’s value for ecological politics that he takes to have been general among ‘first stage’ eco-socialists. It might be argued that his dismissal of them is itself somewhat stereotypical – see later. Chapter 1 focusses on Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and shows that Marx was already putting the human relation to nature at the centre of his thinking, ‘alienation’ being rooted in a specifically modern separation of humans from nature.

However, the political economic aspects of the manuscripts are subsumed under a Feuerbachian philosophy which Marx quickly comes to abandon in favour of analysis of the dynamics of capitalism. Here, as chapter 2 explains, Marx continues to develop the key ‘formal’ concepts of political economy – abstract labour, value, capital, commodity, but always in recognition of the need to consider them in relation to the material processes and interactions involved in concrete labour processes and the production of use values.

In the Grundrisse and then in Capital itself, the key concept through which Marx designates this material dimension of capitalist political economy is ‘stoffwechsel ’, or ‘metabolism’. Saito points out that this concept, originally belonging to physiology, was widely used in Germany in the 19th century in a wider sense to characterise the interaction between living things and their material environments both at the level of individuals and species. Marx’s version of it was strongly influenced by Liebig (as already shown by Burkett and Foster), but Saito argues Marx develops the idea in a distinctive way – for instance in distinguishing the different reproductive rates of fixed and circulating capital.


This metabolic interaction between economic dynamics and the forces of nature is necessarily disrupted as capital accumulation meets material obstacles (from nature and labour) which it strives to overcome by ever-advancing technological domination. In doing so, however, it becomes mired in ever deeper and wider contradictions. However, thus far the analysis just shows the germ of a contradiction between capital accumulation and the forces of nature.

Saito’s reading of Capital is that it provides the systematic analysis of the concrete character of this contradiction. Chapter 3 provides this analysis, which is based on a hitherto little-known Japanese interpretation of ‘abstract labour’ as not merely a social relation, but also as having material substance as an expression of the physiologically limited labour time available to any society.

On this interpretation, the drive for capital accumulation without limit predominates over, and cannot adequately take account of, the ‘concrete’ labour processes, materials and conditions upon which it depends. This necessarily results in exhaustion and degradation of the labour force and soil, as well as the living and non-living beings and processes that are drawn upon in the expansionary dynamic. Saito argues that the chapters in Capital on the working day and machinery and large-scale industry are places where Marx develops his analysis of the metabolism of capital and nature, but these have been over-looked by most commentators as of little theoretical interest.


Part two of the book, chapters 4 to 7, contains Saito’s distinctive contribution. Here he concedes that until the early to mid-1860’s Marx rejected the view of Ricardo, Malthus and others that investment in agriculture necessarily faces diminishing returns. Malthus had originally argued that the tendency of population to increase would always outstrip increments in agricultural productivity, making premature death from the ‘positive checks’ of disease and poverty inevitable. Though Malthus later moderated this view, both Marx and Engels continued to oppose its key premise, arguing that the potential for increasing agricultural productivity through scientific and technical progress was unlimited.

Saito shows that Marx’s reading of Leibig’s Agricultural Chemistry enabled him to recognise declining soil fertility, not as a general fact of nature, but, instead, as a result of the specifically capitalist form of division between town and country. This results in disruption of the cycles of soil nutrients, as the waste products of consumption are not returned to the soil, but cause disease and pollution in the urban centres. This can only be offset under capitalism by the application of artificial fertilizer, which not only increases costs, but leads to an escalating and ultimately unsuccessful scramble for material resources across the globe.

Intense engagement

Saito’s study of the notebooks compiled during the last 15 years of Marx’s life brings to light his intense engagement with agricultural science, geology and botany, so that from 1868 onwards he had become acquainted with critics of Leibig’s emphasis on inorganic nutrients, and in particular had become influenced by Fraas’s discussion of the role of climate, in the shape of warmth and moisture in the soil. This led him to an appreciation of the combined effects of deforestation through industrial development and intensive cultivation on local climates, and the reciprocal impact of climatic change on agriculture.

So, Marx was increasingly building a recognition of what we can now call ecology into his critical analysis of capitalism as a system whose inherent tendency is to disrupt its own naturally given and human-social conditions. There are passages in which Marx writes of the unsustainability of capitalism’s system of ‘robbery agriculture’ and calls for the rational regulation by the associated producers of human metabolism with the earth from the standpoint of the ‘chain of generations’.


This is a remarkable book which makes its case. I have just a couple of reservations. One is that Saito’s generosity in his reading of Marx is not extended to his reading of the so-called ‘first stage eco-socialists’. His own reading of Marx finds much in the latter’s writing up to the mid-1860s to justify the Promethean reading which he condemns. At the same time, his reading of his opponents is over-generalised and one-sided.

The late James O’Connor, for example, combined a critical relationship to some aspects of Marx with his development of the important concept of a ‘second contradiction’, which has much in common substantively with the position Saito develops out of his reading of the later Marx (O’Connor 1988). Saito criticises my own work for accusing Marx of a Promethean ‘flight from recognition of natural limits’. In fact my argument was that despite the evidence for an un-ecological reading of Marx, there was also a basis for an ecological one which I endorsed: e.g. ‘…Marx quite explicitly advocates ecological sustainability as a ‘regulating law’ which would govern socialist agriculture, by contrast with its capitalist form. This complements and continues a central theme of Marx’s early writings…’ (Benton 1989:83). It is unfortunate that Saito seems to have been drawn into the rather polarising and even sectarian tendency of some in the ‘metabolic rift’ school to dismiss, rather than engage constructively with, the work of others whose analyses are often quite close to their own.

A second reservation I have is that the devotion to exegesis and defence of Marx’s political economy, while valuable in its own right, takes us only so far in thinking about the sorts of alliances that might be put together, and the transitional strategies and visions of a future sustainable and socially just society that might be feasible now. The ‘rational regulation by the associated producers of their metabolism with [the rest of] nature’ is a fine start – but maybe we need to add the material content to complement the abstract form?

None of this detracts from the standing of this book as a hugely valuable contribution to our understanding of the importance of Marx’s legacy for eco-socialist politics. It is a difficult read – but eminently worth the effort.

Benton, Ted 1992 Marxism and natural limits: an ecological critique and reconstruction. New Left Review 198:51-86.
Burkett, Paul 1999 Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s.
Foster, John Bellamy, Clark, Brett & York, Richard 2010 The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review.
O’Connor, James 1988 Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism. New York: Guilford

Climate, class, and revolting children

Radical action on climate change should be the many versus the few, not the young versus the old, writes Chris Saltmarsh.

The global wave of student strikes for climate action has come to the UK. We should unequivocally support these young people to have their voices heard, especially as the clock ticks in the 12-year countdown to implement measures to avoid runaway climate breakdown.

Holly Gillibrand, 13, has already instigated protests in Scotland and there are plans for a nationwide day of action on 15 February 2019. These actions come as tens of thousands of students have held similar strikes in countries across the world.

Students from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Japan, Switzerland, the UK and the United States have taken part, having been inspired by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg’s protests outside the Swedish Parliament.

Strong words

Thunberg’s protests coincided with the World Economic Forum 2019 in Davos, where elites gather to discuss how to keep markets ‘free’. Days before, 35,000 teenagers marched in Brussels, while students in Basel and Berlin planned sit-ins.

The narrative of the student-led protests has straddled two compelling lines. Naturally, they convey a strong sense of intergenerational injustice. The protests also lay blame for climate injustice primarily at the feet of the rich and powerful.

At the demo after thousands of Australian students brought Melbourne traffic to a standstill, 11-year-old Lucie Atkin-Bolton told crowds, “When kids make a mess, adults tell us to clean it up and that’s fair. But when our leaders make a mess, they’re leaving it to us to clean up.”

Greta Thunberg challenged UN leaders telling them, “you say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.” These are strong words that leaders need to hear. They decisively expose the hypocrisy between their moral intuitions and the consequences of their political choices.

From Davos, Thunberg told the BBC: “My message was that most emissions are caused by a few people, the very rich people, who are here in Davos.” She goes on to assign them “huge responsibility” for safeguarding future living conditions.

Holly Gillibrand of the Scotland protests recently said: “I am striking because we are running out of time. Thousands of children around the world should not be having to miss classes because of our leaders’ inability to treat the climate crisis as a crisis.”

Holly’s right. It’s indicative of the scale of climate breakdown’s injustices that children are forced to become activists. It shows how severely they’ve been let down by our current decision makers and those that have come before.

Intergenerational activism

These messages show how successfully the analysis of climate change as injustice has become entrenched. It is most starkly understood by disenfranchised children that we are already enduring the impacts of climate breakdown distributed disproportionately along the lines of race and class, experienced by those who contributed least to the crisis.

When climate justice narratives focus on intergenerational injustice, we distract from some of the contemporary realities of the crisis.

When winters get colder and fuel remains expensive, its older people who die. Landgrabs driven by capital’s desire for more coal mines or the displacement of people by flooding, drought and food insecurity are all harms afflicting people disproportionately in the global South today.

As well as her more radical messaging, Thunberg says, “We need to hold the older generations accountable for the mess they have created, and expect us to live with. It is not fair that we have to pay for what they have caused.”

But “older generations” have not acted – or have failed to act – as a homogenous bloc. It is a generation of the wealthy and powerful that have inflicted climate harms on the poor and colonised of their own generation as well as the next.

The younger generation too is not homogenously righteous. Those of it who inherit capital and end up running our society are equally likely to continue the bad work of those who precede them.

We should embrace the energy brought by students taking radical action and use it to catalyse taking our wider organising to the next level. We also mustn’t lose sight of the primary antagonism in the climate crisis.

The rich are waging a class war on the poor and climate change is the symptom. It is not the older versus the young. Intergenerational solidarity is the way forward.

This Author
Chris Saltmarsh is co-director of Climate Change Campaigns at student activist network People & Planet. He tweets at @chris_saltmarsh.

Republished from The Ecologist

Trade Unions and Climate Change: An Interview with Clara Paillard

Trade unions are an important (if not the most important) instrument of power for working people, write Stephanie McDonagh and Anthony Killick. As such, they have, since their inception, posed a threat to capital because when people organise collectively they have the power to negotiate working terms: better conditions, better pay, the weekend and holidays. Without union organisation we would have none of these things.

Yet the trade union movement is not without its internal debates and contradictions. Because different unions represent workers in different industries, there are various interests at play within this broadly left-wing movement. These differences often require careful and patient negotiation and can often lead to bitter disputes.

Climate change is an issue that has brought about much debate within the trade union movement. This interview takes fracking as a primary example. Here Clara Paillard, president of the cultural section of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and a member of RedGreen Labour, talks about how in 2014 the PCS passed a motion to ban fracking. This motion also supports grassroots campaigns against the fracking industry, including support for peaceful direct action such as that which has been taking place at Preston New Road over the past two years.

As Clara points out, a further anti-fracking motion was passed by another trade union, Unite, in 2014. The case of Unite, which represents workers in the energy sector, is particularly interesting because the executive committee’s attempt to change the union’s policy against fracking was halted by the efforts of grassroots unions activists. The national executive committee and the Energy sector proposed motions more supportive of supporting the industry that were rejected by the conference, in favour of a more radical policy against fracking including campaigning for it to be banned. which included a ban.

This switch in policy shows how union activists working “on the ground” can work to re-calibrate the organs of working-class power towards paying greater attention to environmental issues and forming the radical climate policies that are needed to lessen the effects of corporate-induced environmental catastrophe on working people.

The labour movement has a long history of fighting environmental struggles. Stefania Barca, for example, explains how these originate from union members concerns over health and safety in the workplace, as well as anxieties about the health of the local community. Since then, labour movements across the globe have mobilised against polluting industries.

According to Barca,

“the conflictual relationship between labour and the environmental movement only developed during the eighties and was a historical artefact due to the political turnover of the Regan era” which aimed to keep “the two most powerful social movements in the country separated, for their alliance holds a potential for radical reforms”.

Yet there remains a disparity of opinion within the trade union movement. The GMB, which represents workers across nearly all industrial sectors, recently passed a motion in support of fracking. The reasons given for this are: 1) because of advantages of extracting gas in the UK and the opportunity to use it as a “national strategic asset”, which would also cut the environmental cost of importation, and, 2) the chance to create skilled jobs in the UK, rather than importing gas from places where workers are more exploited.

Conversely, there is lots of support within the trade union movement for a “just transition” away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, as outlined in particular by the One Million Climate Jobs campaign. As Clara points out, it is possible to convert the economy away from fossil fuels and create more climate jobs, just as it was possible to build a National Health Service after the second world war. The National Climate Service proposed by the labour movement would create climate jobs in the UK (that is, jobs that contribute to a reduction of carbon in the atmosphere) while preventing job losses through offshoring. In this respect the idea of a just transition also addresses the issue of climate justice (the idea that climate change is not only an environmental issue, but also a social issue, since the countries and people who are least responsible for it are paying a much higher price) and of global wealth imbalances, since fossil fuel industries often extract labour (as well as oil and gas) from areas where it can be found cheaply.

Against the pro-fracking position of the GMB, there is much more to be said for employing people in a potentially massive renewable energy sector than there is for advancing myths about job creation in socially and environmentally unviable fossil fuel extraction.

You can watch the interview with Clara here.

Further reading:

Clara Paillard (2018) Fracking, climate change and the labour movement. RedGreen Labour. Available at:

GMB Debates not bribes needed on fracking []

Ruth Hayhurst (2015) GMB union votes on “moral duty” to frack for UK shale gas []

Stefania Barca (2012) On working-class environmentalism: a historical and transnational overview. Interface: a journal for and about social movements, Vol 4(2): 61-80. Available at:

In Landmark ‘Necessity Defense’ Trial, Valve Turners Will Argue Saving the Planet Justified Tar Sand Pipeline Shutdown

“If we really go out there and sit down in front of the machine, eventually they can no longer operate it. And at this point, that is our only option.”

Three activists whose landmark trial is set to begin in Minnesota state court on Monday for their 2016 multi-state #ShutItDown action—which temporarily disabled all tar sands pipelines crossing the U.S.-Canada border—will argue the action was necessary because of the threat that fossil fuels pose to the planet.

Rejecting a challenge from state prosecutors in April, an appeals court ruled that the “valve turners” can present a “necessity defense“—and bring in top climate experts to testify. In June, the Minnesota Supreme Court denied prosecutors’ petition to appeal that ruling.

The necessity defense “is a plea that, yes technically we committed a crime, but we did it to prevent a greater harm,” explained Annette Klapstein, a retired attorney from the Seattle area and one of the valve turners on trial.

“We cannot work through our political system, because its values are nothing but profit,” she told The Nation. “We live in an oligarchy, not a democracy.”

“It’s very much in the interest of the capitalist political system to make us feel powerless, to make us feel that we can’t do anything,” she added, but “ultimately, they cannot win if we do not consent. If we really withdraw our consent, if we really go out there and sit down in front of the machine, eventually they can no longer operate it. And at this point, that is our only option.”

Klapstein and Emily Nesbitt Johnston are facing felony charges under Minnesota law for shutting down Enbridge Energy’s Line 4 and Line 67. While Benjamin Joldersma, who assisted them, also faces charges in the case, the state has dropped trespassing charges against videographer Steve Liptay.

The Nation reports that Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens and Harvard Law School’s Lawrence Lessig are among the expert witnesses slated to testify. Dr. James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who has been called “the father of modern climate change awareness,” and co-founder Bill McKibben will also testify in case, according to the activist group Climate Direct Action.

“These people deserve our respect and support,” McKibben said on Twitter about the valve turners in Minnesota on Friday.

This will be the first of the valve turner cases where those on trial can present a necessity defense, as judges in three states have barred fellow activists from doing so. In Washington, Ken Ward was found guilty of second degree burglary after his first trial ended with a hung jury. The judge used a “first-time offender waiver” to sentence him to two days in jail, which was fulfilled by time in custody after he was arrested for the 2016 action.

In North Dakota, Michael Foster was convicted of two felonies and a misdemeanor, and sentenced to three years in prison, though he only served six months and was released in August. Sam Jessup, who livestreamed Foster’s action, was convicted of a felony and a misdemeanor, and received a two-year deferred sentence with supervised probation. In Montana, Leonard Higgins was found guilty of a felony and misdemeanor. He received a three-year deferred sentence.

Common Dreams

Going beyond ‘The Green Transformation’

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party has taken significant steps away from the soft-neoliberalism of Tony Blair, towards a more interventionist economic strategy, aiming to boost productivity, redistribute wealth and power from the rich to the poor and tackle the great problems of the 21st century, writes Andrea Grainger

Chief among those problems is climate change and other forms of ecological devastation. During this year’s Labour conference the party released a new paper; The Green Transformation [1], laying out labours solutions for these problems.

The plan focuses on three environmental problems; Climate Change, Air and Water Quality, and Biodiversity, and on six policy areas; Housing, Energy, Water, Transport, International policy, and Farming, Fishing and Wildlife.

The Good

Underlying Labour’s plans is their new industrial strategy, with £250 billion of spending over the next ten years. This pays for programmes to insulate Britain’s housing stock, electrify and expand our railways, plant millions of trees, build renewable power stations, and establish science and innovation funds to develop sustainable farming techniques. At conference, Jeremy Corbyn promised to create 400,000 new green jobs.’

Labour combines this green strategy with steps towards a more democratic and decentralised economy, particularly through the nationalisation of the railways and water services, and the creation of locally owned energy networks.

Labour is also supporting the young, and small businesses, with support for small-scale fishing and free bus passes for under 25s. This expands on their commitment in the last manifesto to reintroduce the agricultural wages board and to support small farmers against big supermarkets.

In terms of the party’s foreign policy they are promising to divest foreign aid from fossil fuel projects and to support a green transition in poorer countries.

Labour’s climate change plan commits them to aiming for not more than 1.5 degrees warming, and cutting carbon emissions by 2050 to zero, as strongly urged by the recent IPCC report.

The Bad

Labour industrial strategy, while a significant improvement, is still limited by a mistaken view of public finances which came from the right and has become mainstream. Since Milton Friedman developed his ‘monetarist’ economics in the 1970s, and former Labour Prime Minister Callaghan adopted it as Labour Party policy, Labour has never really challenged it.
Britain can afford to be spending much more than £25 billion a year, and creating many more jobs. The Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union group has developed proposals for one climate million jobs. [2]

And while Labour has plans for democratising energy, water and transport, they lack similar proposals for food. The ‘Peoples Food policy’ sets out how this might be done, through the creation and financing of local food councils, and the active participation of communities and farmers in DEFRA’s policy making. [3]

Labour’s policies for food and wildlife also lack any mention of land. Urban sprawl, land hoarding and intensive farming practices each cause significant pressure on Britain’s land, that need to be addressed with a powerful Land Value Tax.

The report mentions ‘Ending our reliance on finite resources’, but only considers fossil fuels, plastic and food waste. There is no mention of minerals and metals here, or in any other Labour report.

The party has not yet made any attempt to respond to the ‘peak minerals’ crisis that many environmentalists are trying to draw attention to. Responding to this would mean moving towards a ‘circular economy’ in resources, with large-scale investment in recycling, and eco-design regulations to force companies to develop products to last a long time, and be recyclable at the end of their life.

Beyond this, there is also no sign that Labour is taking the ecological limits to growth seriously. Many of their plans involve reducing the resource intensity of our economic activity. While this is necessary, it’s not sufficient to protect the planet. As William Jevons first pointed out one-hundred and fifty years ago [4], increasing the efficiency of resource use drives down the cost for consumers, leading to higher consumption, and faster resource depletion.

To ensure the protection of our planet, we must have hard caps on the use of certain resources. Caps on carbon emissions, caps on resource extraction, caps on deforestation and pollution levels. So far Labour has only agreed to caps on fishing, so huge space remains for our planet to continue being ruined.

On carbon emissions, Labour’s plans are relatively ambitious, but also very risky. The latest IPCC says that if all countries decarbonise at the same rate, and reach zero emissions by 2050, then we give ourselves a 50% chance of preventing 1.5 degrees temperature rise. A 50% chance of catastrophic climate change is still very high, so Britain under a Labour government should be aiming for more. And it is very likely that some countries will not meet this target, so if we are seriously committed to 1.5 degrees, britain will need to pick up the slack.

As well as a faster plan, Labour also needs a clearer long-term structure. What is going to be the enforcement mechanism moving forward? How will Labour incentivise a rapid transition, and penalise companies that fail to follow through? Labour could establish some kind of strict carbon budgeting, or introduce laws protecting the environment and punishing ecological damage. Both of these would let businesses plan ahead, and make long-term investments to decarbonise in the time allowed.


Labour’s plans are a good step forward, but are still limited to tackling the problems most known to the public, within the framework of the financial restrictions allowed by mainstream economic theory. There is need for much greater radical rethinking of economics to ensure protection of the planet.