Marx and ecosocialism

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By Michael Löwy*

Traditional ecologists often dismiss Marx as “productivist” and blind to ecological problems. A growing body of eco-Marxist writing has been developed recently in the United States, which sharply contradicts this common sense. The pioneers of this new line of research were John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, followed by Ian Angus, Fred Magdoff and others; they contributed to transforming the Monthly Review in an eco-Marxist magazine. His main argument is that Marx was fully aware of the destructive consequences of capitalist accumulation for the environment, a process he described through the concept of metabolic breakdown. Someone may disagree with some of the interpretations made about Marx's writings, but these researches were decisive for a new understanding of his contribution to the ecological critique of capitalism.

Kohei Saito is a young Japanese Marxist academic who belongs to this important eco-Marxist school. His book, published by Monthly Review Press, is a very valuable contribution to the reassessment of the Marxist heritage from an ecosocialist perspective.

One of the great qualities of his work is that – unlike many other scholars – he does not treat Marx's writings as a systematic set of writings, defined, from beginning to end, by a strong ecological commitment (as some have), or by a strong non-ecological tendency (according to others). As Saito very persuasively argues, there are elements of continuity in Marx's reflection on nature, but there are also some very significant changes, and reorientations. Furthermore, as the subtitle of the book suggests, his critical reflections on the relationship between political economy and the environment are “unfinished”.

Among the continuities, one of the most important is the question of the capitalist “separation” between men and the earth, that is, nature. Marx believed that in pre-capitalist societies there existed a form of unity between the producers and the land, and he saw it as one of the key tasks of socialism to re-establish the original unity between men and nature, destroyed by capitalism – but on a higher level (denial). of denial). This explains Marx's interest in pre-capitalist communities, whether in his ecological discussion (eg by 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, with the end of capitalism, modern societies could return to an elevated form of an “archaic” type of collective ownership and production. I would argue that this belongs to the “anti-romantic capitalist” moment in Marx's reflections… In any case, Saito's interesting insight is very relevant today, when indigenous communities in the Americas, from Canada to Patagonia, are at the forefront of resistance to the capitalist destruction of the environment.

Nevertheless, Saito's main contribution is to show the movement, the evolution of Marx's reflections on nature, in a learning process, rethinking and reshaping your thoughts. Before'The capital (1867), one might find in Marx's work a rather uncritical assessment of capitalist "progress" - an attitude often described by the vague mythological term "Prometheanism". This is obvious in Communist Manifesto, which celebrates the capitalist “subjugation of the forces of nature to man” and the “clearing of entire continents for cultivation”; but this also applies to London notebooks (1851), at economic manuscripts from 1861-63, and to other writings of those years. Interestingly, Saito seems to exclude the floorplans (1857-58) of his criticism, an exception that, in my view, is not justified, considering how much Marx admires, in this manuscript, “the great civilizing mission of capitalism” in relation to nature and pre-capitalist communities, prisoners (from its localism and its “idolatry of nature”)!.

The change comes in 1865-66, when Marx discovers, through 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 take, n'The capital vol. 1 (1867) – but also in the other unfinished volumes – to a much more critical assessment of the destructive nature of capitalist “progress”, particularly in agriculture. After 1868, through the reading of another German scientist, Carl Fraas, Marx also discovered other important ecological issues, such as deforestation and alteration of the local climate. According to Saito, had Marx been able to finish volumes 2 and 3 d'The capital, he would have emphasized the ecological crisis more vehemently – which also implies, at least implicitly, that in its current unfinished state there is not strong enough emphasis on such issues…

This brings me to my main disagreement with Saito: in several passages of the book he states that, for Marx, “the environmental unsustainability of capitalism is a contradiction of the system” (p. 142, author's emphasis) – or that in his later years he came to see metabolic disruptions as “the most serious problem of capitalism”, or that 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 of these statements... They cannot be found, and for good reason: the unsustainability of the capitalist system was not a decisive issue in the 1945th century, as became today; or rather, since XNUMX, when the planet entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene. By the way, I believe that the metabolic rupture, or the conflict with natural limits, is not a “capitalism problem” or a “system contradiction”; it's 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. Indeed, as Paul Burkett (cited by Saito) argues, capital can continue its accumulation under any natural conditions, however degraded, so long as there is not a complete extinction of human life: civilization can disappear before capital accumulation becomes if impossible...

Saito concludes his book with a sober assessment that seems to me to very aptly summarize the problem: The capital (the book) remains an unfinished project. Marx did not solve all questions, nor did he foresee today's world. However, his critique of capitalism provides an extremely useful theoretical basis for understanding the current ecological crisis. Therefore, I would add, ecosocialism can draw inspiration from Marx's reflections, but it must, with the changes of the Anthropocene era in the XNUMXst century, develop a completely new, eco-Marxist, way of coping.

*Michael Lowy é director of research at Scientific Research National Center

Translation by Marina Bueno

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

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