When I was younger climate change appeared worrying but distant, something that would be harmful to future generations, a matter of extreme concern but not an immediate problem. Today, climate change is here. June 2023 has broken record after record for high temperatures, and extreme weather is the new normal. We seem to be entering a room which is, perhaps, literally burning down. North America has been blanketed in smoke from forest fires, temperatures are so hot in parts of Europe that people are dying. We are in the hot 20s and likely to enter the hungry 30s, a decade where agriculture is disrupted and starvation stalks the world.
The duty of revolutionaries is clear. Capitalism generates climate change so we must make revolution and displace this mode of production, which in the words of the late great indigenous leader Hugo Blanco, is increasingly a mode of destruction. We must also work practically to cut emissions, taking on the suicidal might of big oil, while adapting to the negative effects of extreme and volatile weather. Without revolutionary theory, Lenin suggested, there can be no revolutionary movement. The task of theory in the face of climate crisis is to reflect, refine and generate concepts that better equip us to make both revolution and reform. This is increasingly a question, frankly, of survival. We must assess new published texts in terms of their utility in this regard.
One prominent contribution is the book Marx in the Anthropocene, subtitled ‘Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism’. Written by the Japanese academic and philosopher Kohei Saito, it has been widely praised as a new intervention examining Marx’s ecological thinking. Saito has written several books on ecosocialism, Marxism and climate change. It is worth reviewing Marx in the Anthropocene in terms of its material effects. In short, does it help or hinder efforts to create both the reformist and revolutionary forces and their subsequent effects to better survive the crisis we have entered?
Saito’s central argument is that much of Marx’s work is productivist and anti-ecological but that an epistemological break occurred, with the later Marx recanting his earlier views and embracing what might now be described as degrowth communism. Like Saul on the road to an ecological Damascus, Marx underwent a dramatic change of heart, moving from an advocacy of ever increasing and ever more polluting industrial growth to an embrace of sustainable ecological development, symbolised by the Mir, a form of Russian peasant commune. Marx, it might be said, moved like the East German intellectual Rudolph Bahro, ‘from Red to Green’.
The question for Saito is why Marx’s ecological turn was almost entirely forgotten in the late 19th century era of classical Marxism and continued to be ignored during most of the 20th century. The answer, according to Saito, is that Engels suppressed Marx’s ecological message and stressed a more productivist account.
Positively, Saito has provided an account of Marx’s ecological notebooks from the 1860s, which have only recently been published. Marx from his earliest days as a philosophy student would copy extracts from key books he was studying. The various notebooks produced through his life were unpublished and mainly made of hand copied extracts from the books under examination. They provide an interesting source of how his thinking developed but were never meant to be published and include relatively little of his own writing. Saito’s central ambition is to show that these notebooks indicate that Marx was passionately committed to investigating ecological matters.
The notion of a break in Marx’s thinking from when he was a youthful philosopher to a more mature thinker has long been controversial. The French philosopher Louis Althusser, drawing upon the work of another French thinker, Bachelard, identified an epistemological break between the young and the mature Marx, a shift to vulgarise a sophisticated discussion between a more philosophical and a more scientific Marx. This notion has divided Marxists and isn’t central to the debate about the ecological stakes of Marx’s thought, however it has been discussed in detail. The notion that Marx’s work saw a second sharp break is perhaps even more controversial. To repeat, this is the central argument in Marx in the Anthropocene, a Marx who rejected or sought to radically reconsider the historical materialism for which he is known. Ultimately, I don’t think Saito fully sustains his thesis here.
Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto show that class struggle will eventually create a communist society. A capitalist, globalised world will emerge, raising the productive forces, creating a class of workers who will serve as its grave diggers and lead to a bright shining communist future. The path of all societies was to move from rural slumbers to industrial exploitation.
Yet, as we know, Lenin argued that imperialism created a world system which could be broken at its weakest link, which might be some distance from the most industrialised societies. In the 20th century from the Russian Revolution to China to Cuba, communist revolutions have tended to be successful in less industrialised societies.
Mary Burns, a Manchester worker whose parents came from Ireland, was Engels’ long term partner and encouraged him to take a close interest in Britain’s exploitation of its first colony. A number of writers have suggested that both Engels and indeed Marx came to take a more contradictory and nuanced approach to industrial revolution and class consciousness. A shift takes place from seeing Ireland as being in some way being pushed in an Industrial direction by British interference to an understanding that Ireland would be the educator of the British in revolution, with Irish national liberation struggles acting as a lever for political developments in Britain.
This might appear distant from Saito’s thesis, however the assumption that Marx held a simple progressive view of industrial development with productive forces creating the basis for communist revolution, has been questioned from an examination of Marx’s texts from a variety of directions. Marx’s ethnological notebooks show that instead of completing Capital he studied indigenous societies (Krader 1972).
Marx and indeed Engels were dialectical thinkers. Intentionally or not, this seems lost in Saito’s account. Capitalism, in any text from Marx and/or Engels, is the best thing and the worst thing. It raises industrial production which has the potential to fulfil human needs and tends to create a unified working class. However it is hugely exploitative of both human beings and the rest of nature. It produces tendencies that give rise to the potential for revolutionary change and transformation, however there are counter tendencies too and Marx and Engels were keen to examine alternative paths.
It is wrong to see Marx’s thought as, say, anti-ecological at one point followed by a sudden break which provides a turn to de-growth communism. Ecological themes continue through his life, from the Paris Manuscripts via Capital and into his later writings. Engels was also keenly engaged in ecological questions. For example, noting:
Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture. […] Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws. (Engels 1973: 291-292)
So was Marx a degrowth communist all along? Well, we can answer both affirmatively and that this matters less than Saito suggests. After all, Marx in Capital volume one, states ‘Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!’ (1976: 742). What else do we need to say about degrowth? Marx identifies the obsessive demand in capitalism for blind accumulation of exchange values and profit at the expense of everything else.
There are important debates to be had about communism, industrial production and degrowth but Saito comes across as a thinker who has identified abstractly what they see as a correct political position and then measures other thinkers in regard to how closely they have come to this ‘correct’ position. The better a thinker mirrors what we already believe, the better they are. Proust observed:
‘He was, indeed, in the habit of always comparing what he heard or read with an already familiar canon, and felt his admiration quicken if he could detect no difference. This state of mind is by no means to be ignored, for applied, to political conversations, to the reading of newspapers, it forms public opinion and thereby makes possible the greatest events in history.’ (Proust 2000: 469)
Degrowth in the context of a maturing industrial society in the 1860s had different implications to degrowth in the context of the 21st century. Of central importance is a scepticism that a society should have a goal of ever-increasing accumulation with profit being the goal. Marx promotes such scepticism, identifies the contradictory effects of capitalism in both published and unpublished works. Marx also writes extensively about ecological matters. In the context of the 19th century ecological matters were high on Marx and Engels’ agenda, however it is perhaps unsurprising that readers of Marx did not in the 19th century place central importance on their insights in this regard. We can dismiss the notion of a productivist anti-ecological Marx by reading a variety of his texts, the key now is how we make revolution in the face of a fast-developing climate crisis.
Alain Badiou has produced, I think, a useful discussion of how we define Marxism, asking what is the object that Marx and other Marxists seek to discuss.
“Marxism is neither a branch of economics (theory of the relations of production), nor a branch of sociology (objective description of 'social reality'), nor a philosophy (a dialectical conceptualization of contradictions).” It is, let us reiterate, the organized knowledge of the political means required to undo existing society and finally realize an egalitarian, rational figure of collective organization for which the name is 'communism'.” (Badiou 2012: 8-9)
Saito is right to draw attention to Marx’s ecological notebooks but fails, I feel, to draw out the contradictory dialectical nature of Marx and Engels’ work. The central task, I would suggest, is how we create the conditions for ecosocialist revolution. Marx’s work isn’t a mirror, but he helped to produce a system of thought and a range of concepts that provide tools with which to smash the mirror of capitalist reality to aid in the subsequent creation of a new society. The smell of smoke, the forest fires, the droughts and record-breaking temperatures remind us that this task is ever more urgent.
Derek Wall is the author of numerous books including Hugo Blanco: A Revolutionary for Life! (The Merlin Press, 2018), Elinor Ostrom's Rules for Radicals (Pluto, 2017), Economics After Capitalism (Pluto, 2015), The Rise of the Green Left (Pluto, 2010) and The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom (Routledge, 2014). He teaches Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London and was International Co-ordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales.
Badiou, A. (2012) The Rebirth of History. Verso. New York.
Engels, F. (1973) The Dialectics of Nature. International Publishers: New York
Krader, L. (ed) (1972) The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx. Van Gorcum: Assen, Netherlands.
Marx, K. (1976) Capital Vol 1. Penguin books: Harmondsworth
Proust, M. (2000) In Search of Lost Time: III The Guermantes Way. Vintage Books, London.Saito, K. (2023) Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.