Ecological Marxism and the eco-logic of fossil capitalism | by Devan Pillay

by Oct 16, 2011All Articles

Do Marxists have anything to say about the natural environment and the crisis of sustainability? Has Marx been misrepresented by the many varieties of Marxism that have used his name over the past century?

During the height of the economic crisis, the president of a leading industrialised nation, France, questioned the growth/consumption paradigm based on the supposed abundant availability of natural resources, in particular fossil fuels such as oil. The sustainability of economic growth is in doubt because of the rapid depletion of non­renewable fossil fuels, and because of carbon emissions from the use of these fossil fuels in production and consumption processes, as well as general pollution of the air, soil and water.

This eco-logic of industrial capitalism (or perhaps more accurately, fossil capitalism) is an intimate web of economic and ecological processes that feed off each other, with very specific social consequences. While the social critique of capitalism (pivoted around the exploitation of labour) is associated with Marxist and neo-Marxist paradigms, the ecological critique has mainly been the preserve of environmentalists who have drawn inspiration from non-Western thought (including native American and eastern philosophical thought).

Indeed, Marx and the varieties of Marxism that flowed out of his thinking over the past century have usually been lumped together with other products of the Enlightenment. They allegedly share a similar anthropocentric belief in the domination of Nature (itself a product of Roman and Christian thinking), but departing from Christianity in its belief in the wonders of science and technology, and the idea of historical progress pivoted around economic growth, increased production and increased consumption. In other words, 20th-century Marxists and critics alike agreed that Marx did not care much for the natural environment.

John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett and a new generation of Marxist ecologists disagree.  They are adamant that, all along, Marx had a systemic approach to nature and to environmental degradation (Foster, 1999; Burkett, 2005)

– even if he gave prominence to the social crisis, given the pressing issues of his time. Had Marx lived today, and witnessed the extent of the ecological crisis, it is most likely that he would have placed equal emphasis on it alongside the social crisis.

Marx’s writings, from the time of his PhD thesis, contained a strong appreciation of nature. Indeed, Marx explicitly said that both labour and nature are the original sources of value.
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, Capital Vol. 1, cited in Foster, 2009: 176) [my emphasis]

This quote from the little-read Volume 3 of Capital reveals an explicit view of ‘sustainable development’ a century before the famed Brundtland Commission of 1982, which defined ‘sustainability’ as development that preserves the natural environment for future generations. According to Marx:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire 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, as boni patres familias [good heads of households]. (Capital Vol. 3)

Of course Marx goes way beyond Brundtland, which was a compromise between environmentalists who wanted real ecological sustainability, and big business which wanted continued economic growth. The end result was ‘sustainability’ that was subsumed under the growth imperative – allowing corporations to proceed with accelerated accumulation over the past 30 years, resulting in increased carbon emissions and heightened climate change – but under the cover of ‘greenwashing’.

Marx’s theory of the ‘metabolic rift’ between town and countryside, which he mentions in the Communist Manifesto, is also about the rift between humans and nature. Marx, unlike anthropocentric thinkers, saw humans as part of nature, and as such had to respect the laws of nature. A further aspect of this metabolic rift concerns the ‘isolation’ of rural communities from developments in the sciences and the arts in cities. Indeed, this observation of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, as social theorist Hal Draper discovered in the 1970s (Foster, 1999 and 2009), was mistranslated as the ‘idiocy of rural life’, and for the past century this has been quoted extensively as proof that Marx and Engels looked down upon the peasantry – giving force to the Promethean perspective that capitalist industrialisation was a necessary precursor to socialism/communism. As Foster (1999) argues, Marx at the same time as he wrote the Manifesto also expressed great admiration for peasant leaders such as Thomas Muntzer.

If all this was so self-evident, why has a century of Marxism gone by without ecology being at the forefront of Marxist thought? Well, as Marx once said, ‘I am not a Marxist.’ Nevertheless, according to Foster (1999), Marxists did address ecological issues in the early part of last century
– including Lenin, Luxemburg, Bukharin, and early Soviet scientists. However, after Lenin died, Stalin embarked on a rapid industrialisation path, and obliterated the ecological movement within the Soviet Union. The blind pursuit of industrial development at all costs, in the form of ‘state capitalism’, was little different from the production treadmill of the capitalist west – except that a bureaucratic bourgeoisie was at the helm. This path was celebrated by Soviet-inclined Marxists in the post-war race with the West.
While the horrors of Stalinism produced a wide range of responses from more democratically minded Marxists, few of these departed from the Promethean emphasis of Stalin. Indeed, as Foster (1999) observes, Western Marxism’s aversion to positivism and the natural sciences led to a neglect of Marx’s ecology, with a few exceptions like British Marxist Christopher Caudwell. It is only from the 1970s, with the rise of the environmental movement, that Marxists have begun to take ecology seriously again.

Marx, however, did expect the imminence of the socialist revolution, based on the social contradiction, as the working class movement began to emerge during his time. He thus focused more on the exploitation of labour as the gravedigger of capitalism, rather than the contradictions of nature. He devoted more attention to ecology in post-capitalist society, as a form of sustainable human development. This features prominently in the latter (but little understood) part of the Communist Manifesto, where explicit reference to the need for a metabolic restoration between town and country is made.

Is it important whether Marx had an ecological perspective or not?  Yes, for three reasons: firstly, to set the record straight, as Marx remains a foundational thinker within the social sciences; secondly, to provide a deeper analysis of the ecological crisis, and to point to possible limitations in current ecological thinking around the internalisation of environmental costs, without looking at the social relations of production (who owns and controls the economy); and thirdly, to build a broader red–brown–green alliance (of socialists, urban ecologists and conservationists) against fossil capitalism. Traditional Marxist groups need to revise their approach towards ecology, and environmental groups likewise need to see the inter-connections between environmental issues and capitalism as an economic system.

Marx’s vision of ‘communism’ was that of sustainable human development, where human beings lived as part of nature, not separate and above it. His ‘communism’, clearly, was not the state-dominated authoritarian experiment in ‘actually existing socialism’, where ‘democracy’ was emptied of most of its content. Does it include a role for the market and the state, or is it an ideal of workers’/citizens’ self-management in (presumably) small, local communities that will always remain an aspiration rather than a realisable utopia? These remain questions of struggle and further theoretical reflection, as an open-ended set of questions in keeping with Marx’s approach to continuous critical enquiry.
The transcending of capitalism is of course not on the immediate agenda – except in parts of Latin America, with countries like Bolivia under Evo Morales pursuing an explicit green socialist development strategy (Morales, 2009). Whether or not a ‘Green New Deal’ is pursued as a stepping stone towards more fundamental options in the longer term, it is worthwhile remembering these words of Morales:

For us, what has failed is the model of ‘living better’ (than others), of unlimited development, industrialisation without frontiers, of modernity that deprecates history, of increasing accumulation of goods at the expense of others and nature. For that reason we promote the idea of Living Well, in harmony with other human beings and with our Mother Earth. (Quoted in Foster, 2009: 35)

Burkett, P. 2006. Marxism and Ecological Economics, Leiden: Brill.
Foster J.B. 2009. The Environmental Revolution, New York: Monthly Review
Foster, J.B. 1999. Marx’s Ecology. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Morales, E. 2009. ‘How to Save the World, Life and Humanity’, in Ransom,
D and V. Baird (eds). People First Economics, Oxford: New Internationalist

Devan Pillay is associate professor in the Department of Sociolog at Wits University.

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