Category Archive : Marxism

Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism

ALAN THORNETT, FACING THE APOCALYPSE. ARGUMENTS FOR ECOSOCIALISM, LONDON, RESISTANCE BOOKS & IIRE, 2019, 310 PAGES reviewed by Michael Löwy

This is an important book . One may disagree on some issues -e.g. population, which I do not believe should be a major concern for ecologists – but Alan Thornett arguments are a substantial contribution to ecosocialist thinking – and action. In clear and precise language, without academic jargon, his book is precious tool for the socio-ecological struggles of the future.

First of all Facing the Apocalypse is a powerful civilisational wake-up call : we must act, here and now, to prevent an ecological catastrophe (I prefer this term to « apocalypse », which has confusing religious meanings) of unheard proportions. Climate change, water shortages, mass pollution of land and sea, mass species extinction are some of the dimensions of a global ecological crisis. The consequences for human life can be devastating. Just to give an exemple : if we continue with « business as usual » for a few decades more, the melting of the global ice sheets will be inevitable and the main cities of human civilisation – for instance New York, Nairobi, Shanghai, New Orleans, Venice and Amsterdam -would be submerged by a sea rise of four to six meters. We have now entered , since the mid-20th Century, in a new geological age, the Anthropocene, where some basic aspects of the planet’s environment, such as the climate, are being changed by human activity.

Unfortunately, for most of the left, the ecological issue has been a low priority, often at the bottom of the heap. It is seen as an add-on, an optimal extra, not as a number one issue. The record of the main forces of the left during the 20th Century – Social-Democracy and Stalinism – is disastrous. While during the first years after the October Revolution there existed a strong ecological current in the USSR, Stalinism transformed the Soviet economy into a destructive productivist Juggernaut.

The hope for the future comes from the various movements of resistence against environmental destruction. Often indigenous communities are in the front line for the defense of land, forests and water against oil and tar-sand extraction or pipeline building: they are the most effective protectors of the planet’s ecosystems. Thornett pays hommage to Hugo Blanco, a towering figure of the indigenous struggles in Peru for 50 years, inumerous times arrested, threatened with death, exiled, and now a fierce campaigner for ecosocialism.

There are some important insights in Marx about the metabolic rift between humans and nature caused by the capitalist system. But one can consider William Morris as the first pionneer of ecosocialism, a new development in socialist theory and practice, whose main proponents in the 20th Century were Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Raymond William and Murray Bookchin, as well as, more recently, the ecomarxists John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett. For the moment, the Fourth International is the only international radical left current with an ecosocialist programm.

Alan Thornett defends certains positions which are not shared by most people in the radical left. For instance, he strongly believes in the importance of personal behaviour and individual responsability ; he favors certain kinds of carbon taxes ; and he thinks that the Paris COP 21 Conference, despite its weaknesses, should be defended and reinforced.

While most ecosocialists would agree to the need of immediate measures against CO2 emissions, even in the limits of the capitalist system, many are sceptical of carbon taxes as an efficient method. Alan Thornett believes that James Hansen’s fee and dividend carbon taxes could produce a big reduction in CO2 emissions, here and now.

However, Thornett’s most controversial proposition is that the planetary population growth is a serious ecological issue. In a honest recognition of the polemical nature of this viewpoint, he opens a space for discussion, inviting different pespectives to be voiced, in favour of his approach (Laure Mazur) or against it (Betsy Hartman, Derek Wall).

Is ecosocialism the only solution or is the capitalist system able to prevent catastrophe ? At the conclusion of the book Thornett writes :

“In the end, if capitalism is faced with the destruction of the planet’s capacity to sustain human life (…) they will finally act to resolve it. The problem is that they will leave it until it is too late to avoid massive destruction ; and they will carry it out by dictatorial means and at the expense of the most impoverished people in the planet “.

Frankly, I do not believe that the capitalist system is able to ’resolve ’ the ecological crisis ; it has consistently shown its unwillingness to do so in the last decades, and the its leaders now elected, such as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, are the least inclined to take any measures. And soon, when the temperature rise arrives at 2°C, it will indeed be too late to stop the disaster. This does not mean, of course, that one should wait until ecosocialism arrives : mass popular mobilizations can bring about significant measures, opening the way for an ecological transition. As Alan Thornett argues, to force capitalism to make major changes is part of the struggle for ecosocialism…

You can order Facing the Apocalypse from Resistance Books

International Viewpoint

Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism

Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism; by Alan Thornett RRP £17. Pub. Resistance Books and Merlin Press.ISBN: 978-0-902869-91-2; 342pages, reviewed by Pete Murry

I’m not sure that Alan Thornett has written a totally comprehensive guide to Ecosocialism as an emerging political ideology in the second decade of the 21stcentury CE, or perhaps, the second or third century of the Anthropocene era. That task may need hindsight, and as argued throughout, that could be something we will not have the luxury to do in future.

Thornett is an important figure in the development of Ecosocialism, so this is a book written from a deep and urgent sense of commitment. It traces the intellectual roots of Ecosocialism in Marxism and other strands of radical thought, such as the work of Murray Bookchin, Hugo Blanco and the emergence of Green political ideologies and movements. To some extent this traces the author’s own journey from the productivism and blind faith in continual economic growth as progress that still characterises both capitalist and orthodox socialist perspectives on the world economy.

Multiple challenges

This book clearly details multiple reasons why such views are not only, no longer credible, but also deeply dangerous to the future of humanity and the interlinked ecosystem that it depends on. ‘Apocalypse’ in the title is not a rhetorical exaggeration and the multiple ways in which an accelerating apocalypse is starting to happen are addressed in this book with a refreshing lack of technical jargon.

Thornett covers not only the threat of human caused climate change, but many other ways in which industrialised human activities intensify ecological destruction. Pollution of water and rapid depletion of water resources, ocean acidification, aggregations of non-biodegradable garbage and other factors leading to species extinctions and dramatic losses of biodiversity; are only some of the areas which this book examines.

Controversial debates

One issue, which is not dodged, even though it is very controversial in Green and socialist discourses, is human population growth. Often any discussion of this issue has led to not always unjustified accusations of Malthusianism, misanthropy and racism. Thornett devotes a lot of attention to this issue, including. as appendices, debates on the issue with thinkers such as Betsy Hartmann, Laurie Mazur, Ian Angus and Derek Wall. Overall the case is made that, even ifpopulation growth, may, as on some projections, trail off by about 2050 to about 9.5bn, it is still a major factor driving the ecological threats that the book details. Therefore, it cannot be ignored, but it cannot be solved by compulsion, and any solution must involve extending the rights of women to control their own fertility.

This is an important book, an invaluable source for anyone interested in Ecosocialism. It is clearly written and thoroughly referenced and would probably make an excellent text to use in teaching ecological politics at degree and pre-degree level.

Suggested solutions

However, that is not its main purpose, it is a major contribution to the political debates and actions that must take to place in the struggle to contain and control the terrible global crisis that it so ably analyses. So, it does not just consider the origins of ecological dilemmas and ecosocialist perspectives, it also examines some suggestions towards solutions.

In Thornett’s view human ecological impacts pre-date capitalism and he also notes the vast, sometimes irreparable, ecological damage done by some productivist industrialising projects conducted by avowedly socialist regimes. ‘Maximalist’ arguments calling for an overthrow of capitalism before tackling ecological crisis are rejected.

Thornett argues instead for: “Reforms which are not necessarily reformist, […], Such as opposing fossil energy and demanding renewables.” (p.98). Amongst those reforms examined are carbon capture and storage, carbon taxes and possible alternatives, lifestyle changes and transportation issues.

Labour movement contests

From a British point of view the section on the contests around environmental politics that are currently going inside the British labour movement is a useful antidote to those right wing Greens who insist on seeing all Trade Unions and all of the Labour Party as completely unreconstructed advocates of industrial productivism and unceasing economic growth.

This review is only managing to scratch the surface of the many issues and arguments covered in the book; which is neither completely definitive nor flawless, but it is not meant to be. It is an important text in the continuing struggle for Ecosocialism. Obtain a copy by any means necessary.

Reprinted from Greenleft

Was Marx an ecologist?

KARL MARX, FRIEDRICH ENGELS, EXZERPTE UND NOTIZEN, MARX-ENGELS-GESAMTAUSGABE, IV, 18, DEGRUYTER, 2019, 1294pp reviewed by Gus Fagan

Was Marx an ecologist and does Marx’s theory offer a coherent theoretical and practical approach for ecologists in the 21st century? The publication, in the original language (mostly German), of Marx’s excerpts and notes on ecology from the mid-1860s may help to answer that question.

Ecologists have sometimes accused Marx and Marxists of an uncritical attitude towards industrial society and the damage it does to the environment. Marxists need to “break radically”, according to the French-Brazilian socialist, Michel Löwy, “ with the ideology of linear progress and with the technological and economic paradigm of modern industrial civilisation” (Löwy, 2005, 16). Although there are some on the Marxist left who would still agree with Löwy, it would seem that the belief that Marx offered a powerful and coherent approach to ecology has been gaining ground in recent decades. John Bellamy Foster, a prominent defender of a Marxist inspired ecology, claims that: “Few involved in ecosocialist discussions today doubt the importance of Marx’s foundational contribution to the ecological critique of capitalism” (Foster, 2016).

The question as to why this aspect of Marx’s historical materialism was either not known or forgotten for so long has a number of answers. The development of Marx’s thinking on ecology occurred in the last two decades of his life and many of his writings and notes from that time are still not published. The industrial orthodoxy of Second International Marxism as well as the technological optimism of the early Russian revolution and the dogmatism and industrial strategy of the later Soviet Union were also a factor. The Frankfurt School and other Western Marxist writers, very influential after the Second World War, were mainly interested in culture and aesthetics and rejected the idea that the Marxist dialectic could be applied to nature.

Although there were socialist ecologists in the 1960s and 1970s, well documented in Alan Thornett’s recent book, Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism (2019), it wasn’t until the 1980s, with the work of Marxists such as Ted Benton and Elmar Altvater, and the foundation of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, that the idea of a Marxist ecology began to take shape. The charge of “productivism” against Marx was challenged with greater theoretical rigour by John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology (2000) and Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature (1999). Both argued, in these and many publications since, that Marx’s analysis of capitalism was an ecological one. In Marx’s theory, the drive for profit and the accumulation of capital was based on an unlimited appropriation of natural resources which have a natural limit.

More recently, Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism sets out to demonstrate “the immanent systemic character of Marx’s ecology, that there is a clear continuity with his critique of political economy” (Saito, 2017, 12). What gives added interest to Saito’s claims is his use of what then were the still unpublished ecological notebooks of Marx from 1865 to 1868.

We’re familiar with the image of Marx sitting in the library of the British Museum making notes about what he had read and copying text by hand into his notebooks. Most of these notebooks consist almost completely of direct quotes from the books, articles, and newspapers that he was reading. They therefore didn’t attract much interest from Marx researchers. The gradual publication of these notebooks in the critical edition of Marx’s works, Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) throws light on how Marx worked, his sources of inspiration, and new ideas that he was developing.

In the mid-1860s, around the time of the publication of vol. 1 of Capital, Marx began to devote himself to an intense study of natural science, especially in the area of what we now describe as ecology. These ecological notebooks from 1864 to 1872 have now been published in Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, IV 18 (de Gruyter, 2019). This volume contains 820 pages of notes and excerpts, with an accompanying (separately bound) 470 pages of information and critical comment. Four notebooks, one from 1865/1866 and three from 1868, deal with agricultural chemistry, soil erosion, deforestation, botany, land rent, capitalist agriculture, climate, social relations in the countryside, as well as agrarian relations in pre-capitalist societies and colonialism.

There was intense interest, in the 19th century, in Europe and North America, in the problem of soil erosion and deforestation that was emerging with the advent of large-scale capitalist agriculture. At the same time, there were big advances being made in agricultural chemistry. Before the 1860s, Marx has assumed that modern agricultural science would resolve the problem of soil replenishment. In The Poverty of Philosophy, written in 1846, he wrote that at “every moment the application of chemistry is changing the nature of the soil and geological knowledge is just now, in our days, beginning to revolutionize all the old estimates of relative fertility” (Marx, 1973, 162). These advances in the knowledge of soil chemistry coming from the natural scientists, as well as the increased use of fertilizer, promised big improvements in agricultural production and soil replenishment. But this optimism didn’t last.

A major influence on Marx’s more radical ecological views in the 1860s was Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). Liebig was a professor at the University of Giessen (the university is now named after him) and he is often described as the father of modern agricultural chemistry. Liebig made important breakthroughs in organic chemistry and in 1840 published his Die organische Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agricultur und Physiologie (Organic Chemistry and its Application to Agriculture and Physiology).

The ecology notebook from 1865/1866, 220 pages in the present text, was finished before the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867. As a result of Marx’s reading of Liebig, he added some strong statements on capitalist agriculture. He wrote, for instance, that the “union of agriculture and industry” under capitalism led to greater urbanisation which concentrated “the historical motive power of society” but, at the same time, “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth. … Capitalist production therefore only develops the techniques 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, 1976, 637-638). In a footnote in Capital vol 1, Marx wrote that one of Liebig’s “immortal merits” was to have developed “the destructive side of modern agriculture” (Marx,1976, 638). The extracts in Marx’s notebook are mainly from the 6th edition of Liebig’s book from 1862 where he described the destructive aspects of modern agriculture as “robbery cultivation” (Raubbau). And nowhere was this “robbery economy” (Raubwirtschaft) more developed than in North America (141).

Marx’s response to Liebig’s critique of capitalist agriculture was to throw himself into the study of everything that was being written by the natural scientists of that time on agriculture and the environment. He wrote to Engels on 13 February 1866: “I have been going to the Museum [British Library] in the day-time and writing at night. I had to plough through the new agricultural chemistry in Germany, in particularly Liebig and Schönbein, which is more important than all the economists put together” (Marx and Engels, 1988, 227).

The Swedish Marxist, Sven-Eric Liedman, whose biography of Marx appeared in English in 2018, comments on Marx’s “endless reading and composition of excerpts”. […] above all, no gaps in knowledge could be left open” (Liedman, 2018, 475). In 1866, when Marx was reading Liebig and others on agriculture, his notes which Engels would later assemble to form volume 3 of Capital, were already on his desk.

One of the unanswered questions about Marx has been why he published so little in the 1870s after the publication of vol. 1 of Capital. The notebooks, many of which are still to be published, will probably help to answer that question. Marx, according to Liedman, “continued reading and taking notes as if he himself were immortal” (Liedman, 2018, 475). The German socialist and friend of Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht, wrote about Marx’s interests in this period: “Especially on the field of natural science, including physics and chemistry, and of history, Marx closely followed every new appearance, verified every progress; and Moleschott, Liebig, Huxley – whose popular lectures we attended conscientiously – were names mentioned in our circle as often as Ricardo, Adam Smith, McCulloch and the Scottish and Irish economists.” (Liebknecht, 1965, 81)

If there was any doubt previously about whether this ecological aspect was in any way central to Marx’s thinking, the now published notebooks, from 1865/66 but especially from 1868, show clearly how important this was for Marx, more important than “all the economists”. And there are still many unpublished notebooks from the 1870s. The ecological problems that concerned Marx were different from but not unrelated to the problems of today. The notebooks suggest that the idea of ecological crisis would have played a more central role in Marx’s theory had he been able to finish publication of the final two volumes of Capital which were edited and published by Engels after his death.

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx wrote that the “universality of man [Menschen, gender neutral but traditionally translated into English as “man”] manifests itself in practice in the universality which makes the whole of nature his inorganic body” (Marx, 1975, 328). This relation between humans as a species and the rest of nature was a key part of Marx’s thinking from the beginning. He later used the concept of metabolism (Stoffwechsel) in his analysis of labour. Labour is a process by which humans ‘regulate and controls the metabolism between themselves and nature’ (Marx, 1976, 283). Even exchange is seen as a process of “social metabolism”.

The concept of metabolism (Stoffwechsel) was used by Liebig and the natural scientists in the 19th century in the context of physiology and biochemistry and it described biochemical processes of exchange within organisms, for instance the conversion, within the body, of organic matter into energy or the chemical interactions between plants and the soil. All living things are part of this metabolism and sometimes this can break down, for instance, when more is taken out of the soil than is returned, or when plants and trees can’t absorb the amount of carbon dioxide that’s being produced. We then have a ‘metabolic rift’. Marx used the concept of social metabolism in the 1860s in dealing with the ecological crisis created by what some describe as the “second agricultural revolution” of the 19th century.

For Marx, human metabolism with nature was mediated by labour and was therefore linked to the particular mode of production prevalent at the time. He therefore saw Liebig’s “metabolic rift” as a specifically capitalist contradiction. In volume 3 of Capital he states this explicitly: “the moral of the tale…is that the capitalist system runs counter to a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system” (Marx, 1991, 216).

Another scientist that interested Marx, especially in 1868, was Karl Nikolaus Fraas. What was interesting in Fraas’s approach to agriculture was his strong emphasis on the effect of agriculture and deforestation on climate and climate change. Marx read and copied from Fraas’s 1847 publication, Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit (Climate and Plant World Over Time) and his 1852 Geschichte der Landwirtschaft (History of Agriculture). Between 1837 and 1842, Fraas had been director of the Royal Gardens in Athens and until 1847 professor of botany at the university in Athens. Having returned to Germany in 1847 he taught agricultural chemistry at the university in Munich.

What Fraas attempted to demonstrate was that the environment and the natural conditions of production were undermined by human civilization and especially by agriculture. He condemned deforestation because “in a region which possesses a very acid and sandy soil, or furthermore even calcareous soil, deforestation counts as the most powerful cause of creating heat” (622). He researched plant growth in ancient Greece and Rome and concluded that climate change was linked to cultivation and deforestation and that the latter have led historically to the creation of deserts and collapses of civilizations. Fraas wrote in Klima und Pflanzenwelt that “humans change the world of nature, on which they depend, in so many ways and to a much greater extent than is commonly realized. In fact, humans are able to change nature to such an extent that it is later completely unable to provide what is needed … There is no hope of changing this.” (Fraas, 1842, 59)

Marx was very impressed by Fraas and wrote to Engels on 25 March 1868 that Fraas’s book was “very interesting, especially as proving that climate and flora have changed in historic times. […] The whole conclusion is that cultivation when it progresses in a primitive way and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois of course he does not arrive at this), leaves deserts behind it… ” (Marx and Engels, 1988, 558).

Marx’s solution, of course, was neither reliance on scientific solutions nor pessimism about the future but rather an end to the capitalist system and a socialist society in which “ the associated producers govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control…accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature” (Marx, 1991, 959).

Directly after Fraas, and probably because Fraas had praised him, Marx read Georg Ludwig von Maurer, a jurist and legal historian who taught German and French historical jurisprudence at the University of Munich. Between 1856 and 1871 he wrote an 11-volume legal history of property rights among the early German people. Marx made extensive notes from Maurer’s 1854 book, Einleitung zur Geschichte der Mark- Hof- Dorf- und Stadt-verfassung und der offentlichen Gewalt (Introduction to the History of the Constitution of the Mark, Farm, Village and Town and its Public Authority). Maurer defended the theory that among the early German people there existed a social order in which collective working and collective ownership of the land predominated. The administration of affairs was carried out by communal (mark) organisations. This social system maintained a sustainable agriculture.

In 1876 Marx was still studying Maurer (three notebooks from that year with excerpts) as well as in 1882, the year before his death. Stimulated by Maurer’s work, he wanted to examine the metabolism between humans and nature in pre-capitalist and non-Western societies. Hence his interest in the Russian village commune. In 1870-71, Marx taught himself Russian so he could engage directly in the debates and the research being carried out in Russia. As Marx’s wife, Jenny, wrote to Engels in January 1870: “He has begun to study Russian as if it were a matter of life and death.” A decade later, in 1881, he corresponded with Vera Zasulich on this issue. He wrote to Zasulich that societies in Western Europe and North America were “in conflict with the working masses, with science, and with the very productive forces which it generates, – in short, a crisis that will end with its own elimination, through the return of modern societies to a higher form of the “archaic” type of collective ownership and production” (Shanin, 2018, 1193). Marx, by now, was long convinced that ecological crisis could not be fixed by science or modern chemistry but by fundamental changes in the forces and relations of production.

These are just some of the natural scientists and historians that Marx was studying in the year after the publication of Capital vol. 1 and which are documented in MEGA IV vol 18. Some others were the English agriculturalist John Lockhart Morton, the German economist and philosopher Eugen Dühring, the French economist and agricultural historian, Leonce de Lavergne, the American economist Henry Charles Carey, and many others.

The publication of Marx’s ecological notebooks will be of great interest to scholars researching this area of Marx’s theory and will certainly demonstrate that Marx himself had more than a passing interest in ecology, that he was, in fact, seriously involved in understanding and responding to this “metabolic rift” which he came to see as one of the contradictions of the capitalist system. But how exactly Marx’s concept of social metabolism, his ecological critique of capitalism, fits into his account of labour and his theory of value is still a matter of debate among Marxist ecologists.

References

Burkett, Paul. 1999. Marx and Nature, a Red and Green Perspective, New York: St Martin’s Press.

Foster John Bellamy. 2000. Marx’s Ecology. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fraas, Karl. 1847. Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit. https://archive.org/details/klimaundpflanze00fraagoog/page/n7.

Liebknecht, W. 1965. “Karl Marx zum Gedächtnis”, in Mohr und General. Erinnerungen an Marx und Engels. Berlin: Dietz.

Liedman, Sven-Eric. 2018. A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx. London: Verso.

Löwy, Michel. 2005. What is Ecosocialism? Capitalism Nature Socialism (16, 2).

Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital Vol 1. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital Vol 3. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 1973. The Poverty of Philosophy. New York: International Publishers.

Marx Karl. 1975. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), Early Writings. London: Penguin Books.

Marx and Engels. 1988. Collected Works, vol. 42. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Marx and Engels. 1989. Collected Works, vol. 24. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

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

Shanin, Teodor. 2018. 1881 Letters of Vera Zasulich and Karl Marx, The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 45, No. 7.

Thornett, Alan. 2019. Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism. London: Resistance Books.

2 August 2019

International Viewpoint

From Marx to Ecosocialism

Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism. Capitalism, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy By: Kohei Saito New York, Monthly Review Press, 2017 and Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism By: Victor Wallis Toronto, Political Animal Press, 2018 reviewed by Michael Löwy

There is a growing body of ecomarxist and ecosocialist literature in the English-speaking world, which signals the beginning of a significant turn in radical thinking. Some Marxist journals, such as Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, Monthly Review and Socialism and Democracy have been playing an important role in this process, which is becoming increasingly influential. The two books discussed here—very different in style content and purpose—are part of this “Red and Green” upsurge.

Kohei Saito is a young Japanese Marxist scholar and his book is a very valuable contribution to the reassessment of the Marxian heritage, from an ecosocialist perspective. It justifiedly polemicises with those authors (mainly but not exclusively German) that denounce Marx as “Promethean,” productivist, and partisan of the industrial domination of nature. But Saito also criticises, in the introduction, what he defines as “first stage ecosocialists,” who believe that Marx’s 19th Century discussions on ecology are of little importance today: this would include, among others, Alain Lipiez, Daniel Tanuro, Joel Kovel and…myself. This seems to me a bit of an artificial construction… Lipietz calls to “abandon the Marxist paradigm,” the three others consider themselves to be Marxists, and whatever their criticism of (some of) Marx views on nature, do not comsider his views as “of little importance.” Since this issue is mentioned, but not really discussed in the book, let us move on….

One of the great qualities of this work is that it does not treat Marx’s work as a systematic body of writing, defined, from the beginning to the end, by a strong ecological commitment (according to some),or a strong unecological tendency (according to others). As Saito very persuasively argues, there are elements of continuity in Marx’s reflection on nature, but also some very significant changes, and re-orientations.

Among the continuities, one of the most important is the issue of the capitalist “separation” of humans from earth, i.e., from nature. Marx believed that in pre-capitalist societies there existed a form of unity between the producers and the land, and he saw as one of the key tasks of socialism to re-establish the original unity between humans and nature, destroyed by capitalism, but on a higher level (negation of the negation). This explains Marx’s interest in pre-capitalist communities, both in his ecological discussion (for instance of Carl Fraas) or in his anthropological research (Franz Maurer): both authors were perceived as “unconscious socialists.” And, of course, in his last important document, the letter to Vera Zassoulitsch (1881), Marx claims that thanks to the suppression of capitalism, modern societies could return to a higher form of an “archaic” type of collective ownership and production. This is a very interesting insight of Saito, and very relevant today, when indigenous communities in the Americas, from Canada to Patagonia, are in the front line of the resistance to capitalist destruction of the environment.

However, the main contribution of Saito is to show the movement, the evolution of Marx reflections on nature, in a process of learning, rethinking and reshaping his thoughts. Before Capital (1867) one can find in Marx writings a rather uncritical assessment of capitalist “progress”-an attitude often described by the vague mythological term of “Prometheanism.” This is obvious in the Communist Manifesto, which celebrates capitalist “subjection of nature’s forces to man”and the “clearing of whole continents for cultivation”; but it also applies to the London Notebooks (1851), the Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63, and other writings from those years. Curiously, Saito seems to exclude the Grundrisse (1857-58) from his criticism, which is not justified, considering how much Marx admires, in this manuscript, “the great civilizing mission of capitalism,” in relation to nature and to the pre-capitalist communities, prisioners of their localism and their “idolatry of nature”!

The change comes in 1865-66, when Marx discovers, by reading the writings of the agricultural chemist Justus Von Liebig, the problems of soil exhaustion, and the metabolic rift between human societies and the natural environment. This will lead, in Capital vol. 1 (1867)—but also in the two other, unfinished volumes—to a much more critical assessment of the destructive nature of capitalist “progress,” particularly in agriculture. After 1868, by reading another German scientist, Carl Fraas, Marx will discover also other important ecological issues, such as deforestation and local climate change. According to Saito, if Marx had been able to complete volumes 2 and 3 of Capital, he would have more strongly emphasised the ecological crisis, which also means, at least implicitly, than in their present unfinished state, there is no strong enough emphasis on those issues.…

This leads me to my main disagreement with Saito: in several passages of the book he asserts that for Marx “the environmental unsustainability of capitalism is the contradiction of the system” (p.142, emphasis by Saito); or that in his late years he came to see the metabolic rifts as “the most serious problem of capitalism”; or that the conflict with natural limits is, for Marx, “the main contradiction of the capitalist mode of production.”

I wonder where Saito found, in Marx’s writings, published books, manuscripts or notebooks, any such statements…they are not to be found, and for a good reason: the unsustainability of the capitalist system was not a decisive issue in the 19th Century, as it has become today: or better, since 1945, when the planet entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene. Moreover, I believe that the metabolic rift, or the conflict with natural limits is not “a problem of capitalism” or a “contradiction of the system”: it is much more than that! It is a contradiction between the system and “the eternal natural conditions” (Marx), and therefore with the natural conditions of human life on the planet. In fact, as Paul Burkett (quoted by Saito) argues, capital can continue to accumulate under any natural conditions, however degraded, so long as there is not a complete extinction of human life: human civilisation can disappear before capital accumulation becomes impossible.…

Saito concludes his book with a sober assessment which seems to me a very apt summary of the issue: Capital remains an unfinished project. Marx did not answer all questions nor predict today’s world. But his critique of capitalism provides an extremely helpful theoretical foundation for the understanding of the current ecological crisis.

Victor Wallis agrees with the ecosocialists such as John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett who emphasize the ecological dimension of Marx. But he also acknowledges that there are illusions in the “technological neutrality” of the capitalist productive forces in some of his writings.

In any case, the object of his outstanding book is not Marx as such, but the Marxist perspective of a Red-Green Revolution. Being a collection of essays, the chapters do not follow a precise order, but one can easily detect the main lines of the argument.

The starting point is the understanding that capitalism, driven by the need to “grow” and expand at any cost, is inherently destructive of the environment. Moreover, through ecological devastation and climate change—the result of fossil-fuel emissions of CO2 gases—the capitalist system undermines the conditions of life itself on the planet. “Green capitalism” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms: it offers only false solutions, based on corporate interests and a blind faith in the “market,” such as “biofuels,” the trade in “emission rights,” etc. A typical exemple of “green capitalism”: the monitoring of global environmental measures has been entrusted, by the ruling class, to the World Bank, which invested 15 times more on fossil-fuel projects than on renewables.…

Radical measures are the only realistic alternative: a revolution is needed to overcome the environmental threat to our collective survival. The aim is an ecosocialist society, without class domination and with life in balance with the rest of nature. Of course there are risks involved in any revolutionary enterprise, but the risk of keeping things as they are is much greater…Long term species survival is contingent upon a nearly 90 percent reduction in the burning of fossil fuels. This requires to a sharp break with capitalist priorities: accumulation, profit-making, commodification, “growth.” A key component of the ecosocialist project is conscious democratic planning, reorganizing production and consumption around the real popular needs, and putting and end to the waste inherent to capitalism with its artificial “needs” induced by the advertising industry, and its formidable military expenditures. Democratic planning is the opposite of the Soviet model of top-down directives: the identification of planning with Stalin is a dangerous relic of Cold War demagogy, which could obstruct ecological conversion.

Ecosocialism requires also some key technological choices, for instance privileging renewable energies (wind, solar, etc.) against fossil-fuels. But there is no purely technical solution: energy use must be reduced, by sharply reducing wasteful consumption.

Victor Wallis insists, and this is one of the most valuable insights of his book, that ecosocialism, as a long-term objective, is not contradictory with short-range measures, urgent and immediate ecological steps: they can, in fact, reinforce and inspire each other. Similarly, to oppose local ecological communities to the global political struggle is pointless and counterproductive: both are necessary and provide mutual support.

Which are the forces that will lead this struggle for social and ecological change? In one of the essays, Wallis insist on the centrality of the working-class—in spite of the present anti-ecological position of most union leaders (in order to “protect jobs”). Is the working-class the “implicit embodiment of ecological sanity” (unlike its present leaders)? Is it the only force capable to bring together all constituencies opposed to capitalism? I’m not so sure, but I think Wallis is right to emphasise that class oppression concerns the vast majority of the population—and therefore a radical change cannot take place without its support.

But there are also other social forces engaged in the process of resistance to the capitalist onslaught on the environment: for instance, the indigenous communities. This is another very important contribution of this book: to show that indigenous communities—direct victims of the capitalist plunder, a global assault on their livelihoods—have become the vanguard of the ecosocialist movement. In their actions, such as the Standing Rock resistence to the XXL Pipeline, and in their reflections—such as their Declaration at the World Social Forum of Belem in 2009—“they express, more completely than any other group, the common survival interest of humanity.” Of course, the urban population of modern cities cannot live like the indigenous, but they have much to learn from them.

Ecological struggles offer a unifying theme around which various oppressed constituencies could come together. And there are signs of hope in the United States, in the vast upsurge of resistance against a particularly toxic racist, mysoginist and anti-ecological power elite, and in the growing interest, among young people and African Americans, in socialism. But a political revolutionary force, able to unify all constituencies and movements against the system is still lacking.

International Viewpoint

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.

Context

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.

Promethianism?

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.

Disruption

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.

Distinctive

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’.

Reservations

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.

References
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