Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism by Kohei Saito — A Critique



  • The central theme of the book relates to Saito’s view that the crisis of capitalism arises primarily out of the contradiction between capitalism as a mode of production and Nature – and that the ecological crisis is the fundamental contradiction of capitalism. Taking a charitable view, one may be open to the possibility that Saito seeks to establish that Marx’s views are not at odds with his (Saito’s) interpretation of capitalism’s ecological crisis, based on substantial textual evidence that was perhaps overlooked earlier. However, Saito himself has a much more radical objective. He is arguing that Marx was indeed significantly shifting his position on the crisis of capitalism, from what we have understood it to be so far, as known through the three volumes of Capital, and the Grundrisse, where it arises from the internal contradiction of capitalism between the means of production and the relations of production. And that this shift had in fact been presaged even in Marx’s earlier writings, making itself ever more evident in fact after Volume I of Capital was done.
  • It is somewhat odd that this reinterpretation of Marx is not driven by any internal contradiction within the standard interpretation of Marx’s political economy. The contradiction that necessitates Saito’s re-interpretation is external, in that the standard interpretation is claimed to be unable to adequately comprehend the ecological crisis and hence we must go back to see what we have missed in Marx’s work. The debate on the theory of crises in capitalism, for instance, has also revolved around the question whether rival interpretations are theoretically and conceptually consistent, and not merely on questions of empirical adequacy. There does not appear any such “internal” contradiction that drives Saito’s argument.
  • Saito’s work has two parts. In Part I, Saito argues that there is an essential continuity between Marx’s view of ecology and Marx’s view of the political economy of capitalism, both being “metabolic” in character. In Part II, Saito argues that Marx consciously parted ways with any form of Prometheanism and “came to regard ecological crises as the fundamental contradiction of capitalism.” Most of the remarks below refer to Part I. Part II, in my view, is a misplaced attempt to construct an entirely new edifice of Marxist theory on the political economy of capitalism, beginning with a lengthy description of the contents of some of the texts that Marx studied, particularly on natural science, biology and agriculture, an attempt based almost wholly on margin notes and scattered quotations from Marx on these texts and with a generous dose of speculation regarding Marx’s thought based solely on Marx’s choice of texts and the subject matter therein that appears to have interested him.

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Overcoming “Subjectivism”: The Twin Dangers of Empiricism and Dogmatism



For Left movements and Communist Parties, whose goal is revolutionary transformation through radical political action, based on a Marxist-Leninist understanding of society, the danger of “subjectivism” is an ever-present one as the history of such movements and parties demonstrates. The issue has come to the fore in the Indian context over the question of the tactics of the Left movement during the last two decades. Subjectivism is contrasted to the correct understanding that is drawn from the “ground realities” or the “concrete analysis of concrete conditions.” The error of subjectivism is held to be characterised by one-sidedness in any assessment, attempting to understand reality based on some pre-conceived notions, or picking and choosing facts selectively to establish the validity of some pre-conceived notions.

The authority of Lenin and Mao is typically invoked on the question of subjectivism. But before we turn to their views, let us begin talking of it in our own simple language, with an elementary illustration. Continue reading

The Global Commons Today — Issues and Challenges


Keynote Address presented (slides are here) the International Conference on the Global Commons, organised by Department of Politics and International Relations, Pondicherry University and the Faculty of Law, Social and Political Sciences, University of Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris-Cite. Thanks to Prof. Mohanan for the invitation.

I don’t have a written talk. And I have also taken some slides from Tejal Kanitkar’s Manthan presentation for my use here  for making a different, though quite related, argument.



Q&A with Times of India on IPCC Special Report on Global Warming at 1.5 deg C



(The version appearing in print in the Times of India of 22nd Oct., 2018 is an edited down version of this full text from the interview by Sugandha Indulkar of TOI).

What, for you, were the most significant changes between the latest IPCC report on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade, and the earlier reports?

The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming at 1.5 degrees, to give it its official title, is particularly noteworthy because it was in response to a specific request from the Parties to the Paris agreement. For the first time in the Paris agreement the limit of 1.5 degrees centigrade of global warming above pre-industrial levels was mentioned as a goal that countries should strive to achieve. Hence a special report from the IPCC was called for.  Subsequently, in designing the outline of the report, it was agreed that it would look at the methods of achieving these goals; involving, mitigation options and consequences of adaptation even to 1.5 degrees of warming. It would also examine the differences between mitigation and adaptation for a 1.5 deg and 2 deg target for limiting global temperature rise, while keeping up the goal of sustainable development. So in this respect, the report was significantly different.

With respect to specific details,  the report makes it very clear that the difficulty of reaching the 2 deg target  was less steep compared to achieving the 1.5 deg  target. At the current rate of emissions, of about 42 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, the cumulative emissions permitted for the 1.5 deg target would be reached very quickly — between 10 to 30 years from now on. For the first time, the report introduces a widespread role for negative emissions arising especially through methods of removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Some of these methods have been field tested on a limited scale, but by and large the scale on which they are required for a 1.5 deg limit are significantly very difficult, some would say impossible, to achieve.

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Why Science and Reason belong to the Left.


Talk delivered at EMS Smrithy 2018, Thrissur. Dedicated to the memory of comrades Dutt Mash and Murali Mash.


This note argues that genuine radical politics has an instinctive affinity to science and reason, whereas right-wing ideologies, especially those anchored in religious fundamentalism or varieties of obscurantism are fundamentally threatened by them. It points out that this requires some care in our view of what is meant by science and reason, going beyond mere empiricism or instrumental views of reason. We point out the significance of the bourgeois revolutions of Europe and the Enlightenment in the advance of a critical attitude to religion and the displacement of religion from its predominant position of an earlier era. The note specifically underlines the importance of the work of Marx and Engels in making science and reason intrinsic to being Left by establishing the foundations of a thorough-going scientific understanding of societies, and particularly through their scientific analysis of capitalism and its system of exploitation. We also argue that the crux of why science and reason belong to the Left lies in the transformative nature of the science of society that Marx and Engels developed, a science that was as much a science of social transformation as a science of society.

The note also discusses some of the challenges to science and reason in the contemporary period. It also, in particular, discusses briefly the recourse to anti-science and anti-rational views current among many variants of environmentalism and environmental thought.


The title that was originally intended for this talk was “Why science and reason threaten Right-wing ideologies.” On reflection though one felt the need to change it, partly because of a certain confusion and ambiguity that has come to attend, in recent times, the answer to the “dual” question, posed in the current version of the title. Even among those who would agree that right-wing ideologies are threatened by science and reason, and the evidence that they are has never been more stark in some respects, there are some who hesitate to stand behind the assertion that science and reason belong to the Left. To put it more bluntly, there is a marked reluctance among some on the Left to take ownership, as it were, of science and reason. Hence it appears necessary to address both questions if we are indeed to do justice to the original one.

Under the broad rubric of the Right in politics, one may of course identify a wide range of political formations and their ideologies, with fascism and extreme religious fundamentalism at one extreme, and including various shades of authoritarian rule that deny or restrict democratic rights to a significant degree, or formations that promote various kinds of majoritarianism, directed at different minorities depending on the context. In the particular context of India, one should note also the close connection between caste oppression and caste discrimination and the religious mind-set associated with most variants of Hinduism. In a more general sense, the term Right has been used for any reference to political formations that seek to preserve the status quo or are opposed to social and economic reform. Historically, this has encompassed those that sought to deny the active entry and participation of the working people in politics, the preservation of the hold of religion on various aspects of personal and social life, the denial of voting rights to women, regular encouragement to socially exclusionary policies – the list is virtually endless.

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“Spontaneous System” or Dialectical “Totality”?


Recently some Marxist writers in India have started claiming that one of Marx’s fundamental contributions to the study of capitalism was “his insight into a basic characteristic of the system, that it is a spontaneous system. ” This is a rather curious formulation, especially in the year of Marx’s bicentenary, since neither Marx or Engels ever used the term. This merits the following observations:

1) Marx uses the word spontaneously in two senses in his work. In the Grundrisse, he predominantly uses it in the sense of referring to the beginning of some phenomenon, meaning arising of its own accord, as contingency rather than necessity. Later when the phenomenon or process of self-reproduction establishes itself, then the spontaneous (or natural which he uses alongside) becomes transformed into the historical presupposition (or precondition).

2) In Capital, Marx uses it in the sense of the objective reality of processes in society including economic, social, etc, that take place behind the actors’ back as it were, without the actors’ being aware of it.

3) It has been suggested that “spontaneous system” means that the system is driven by its own “immanent tendencies”. That is true of any mode of production. In fact it is true of any totality, because there is nothing “outside” a totality. In this sense to call capitalism a spontaneous system is a tautology, unless a “god” or something like that interferes from outside, which makes matters even worse.

4) In this view, “spontaneous system” is used to suggest that the capitalists as a class have very little or no freedom within capitalism to choose different courses of action. This is patently untenable since the trajectory of capitalist growth varies widely across countries with very different implications for societies and peoples.

5) At the same time, the underlying logic of capital constantly reasserts itself and is realized through the actions of actors, including both capitalists and the working class. Thus the struggle for the length of the working day is part of the working of capital and not a struggle happening outside of the logic of capital. The “spontaneous system” view therefore has a one-sided view of the tendencies in capital’s development and does not see its inherent contradictory development.

6) The dialectical view of the whole or a “totality” is a much richer view, showing how the abstract and the concrete are related, showing how the individual and the universal are related, showing how the whole and the parts are related. Understanding totality in a dialectical way involves the painstaking tracing of the development of the whole in all its richness of detail from the essence, with its unity of opposites. Marx puts down the key elements of this approach in the section titled Method of Political Economy in his Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

7) The “spontaneous system” view however follows really the path of metaphysical abstraction, where understanding totality amounts to a jump from some microeconomic explanations to a set of macroeconomic explanations (emptied of detail), where the former may eventually even be given up in favour of the latter. It is in this kind of abstraction that Marx appears the same as Keynes at the macro level while admittedly different at the microlevel. In this view Keynes may be forgiven his neglect of exploitation since he really understood, at least partially, some aspects of the spontaneous system of capitalism.

7) It is Marx’s view of totality that leads to the concept of absolute rent as Lenin so simply explains and no idea of spontaneous system will be of any use in such an explanation. Similarly the transformation problem or how, in a full capitalist economy, values are transformed into prices, can be understood only in a dialectical view of “totality” that Marx works out in the Grundrisse and explains (through the efforts of Engels) in volume 3 of Capital. This has been understood and explained by a host of Marxist economists and even by some mainstream economists such as Baumol.

8) In the year of Marx’s bicentenary our task, in my humble opinion,  should be to revisit and relearn Marx’s dialectical viewpoint primarily from his study of capitalism in Grundrisse and Capital and stand up to the renewed attempt to draw metaphysical conclusions from a dialectical Marx.

Facing up to Hindutva — Can a Left-Congress Alliance be the Key?


Many commentators, in the mainstream and social media, have been urging the Left to indicate clearly its willingness to align with the Congress in the parliamentary elections due next year. . Several of them, who have harping on the theme for some months now, turned harshly critical when the CPI(M), following its central committee meeting, announced on January 21, 2018 that it was against electoral tie-ups in any form with the Congress. A substantial part of such commentary emerges from sections who believe that the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019 is of such over-riding importance that all other political considerations should be put aside. Alongside such a view, many of them also drive the critique of BJP to ever shriller heights with increasingly extreme characterisations. Any attempt to inject some sobriety or realism into such assessments is met with the charge that the depth of the danger is being downplayed, suggesting panic rather than a serious assessment of a way forward.

Any serious assessment must obviously begin from the acknowledgement of the basic and obvious point that the CPI(M) has always made – that the roots of the rise of Hindutva in its current form lay in substantial measure in the nature of Congress rule and in particular the UPA governments of 2004 to 2014. And, as the CPI(M) further argues, given the hold that Hindutva has obtained on Indian society as a whole, across various spheres of national life, mere electoral defeat, is hardly the key to halting its advance. Without mass mobilisation on issues that affect the people and without convincing a substantial section of the inability of Hindutva to meet their aspirations, without a mass movement for secular and democratic advance, banking on electoral arithmetic alone is likely to be of little use and indeeed diversionary. It is also clear that such mobilisation cannot have unity with the Congress party as its basis, when the alienation of the people at large from it has formed the very basis of the rise of Hindutva.

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Climate Action and the North–South Divide: An Assessment of COP23



At COP23 in Bonn, notwithstanding the United States’ announcement of its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the developed countries remained united in diluting or reneging on their commitments to developing countries, particularly on the issues of finance, and loss and damage. In a concerted pushback, the latter obtained a few important procedural gains, including bringing back to the negotiations the issue of equityin the implementation ofthe agreement.

Published in Economic and Political Weekly, 23rd Dec., 2017, vol. 52, Issue no. 51.


Following the general celebration that attended the signing of the Paris Agreement, the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at Marrakech in November 2016 was already something of a let-down, coinciding with the election of Donald Trump, the arch proponent of climate inaction, to the presidency ofthe United States (US). A year later, with the expected announcement of the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement having come true, COP23 (Bonn, Germany, 6–17 November 2017) began with two interrelated issues being of keen interest. One was what the attitude of the US would be in the negotiations, since, by the terms of the Paris Agreement, it would be three years before their withdrawal would take effect. The second was the progress that would be made towards the implementation of the Paris Agreement under the circumstances and who would be, as the global media would have it, the “climate leader” in the event of the withdrawal of the US.

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Dialectics — Towards an elementary understanding

DIALECTICS — Towards an elementary understanding
(Dialectics being understood in the sense of Marx)

i) Dialectics can be (should be?) characterised as the study of self-reproducing and evolving “totalities” or “wholes”.

ii) This definition is based on the meaning of “motion” for totalities as opposed to elementary phenomena such as balls, bullets or stones. Motion is dialectically understood as the contradiction of “being there” and “not being there” in both space and time for simple objects. Self-reproduction and evolution are the two corresponding aspects (corresponding to being there and not being there respectively) of the contradiction characterising the motion of a “totality”.

iii) Without a world “being there”, there will be nothing to comprehend, understand and act upon. At the same time, “not being there” is essential to change. A world in motion is not a world in ceasless “flux”, a fleeting world where there is nothing to hold on to. 

iv) Dialectics is the proper study of materialism when the world (both natural and social ) is in motion. Traditional presentations of materialism tend to assume a static and unchanging objective reality. In the presence of motion, categories such as essence, existence, objective reality, and so on have to be interpreted carefully taking account of motion, change and development. Categories such as “coming-to-be” or “coming-into-existence” cannot be made sense of in traditional materialism and need a proper grasp of dialectics. For instance, In traditional presentations of materialism, “coming-to-be” and “to-be” are routinely considered identical, whereas this is not in general true.

v)The negation of the negation is fundamental to understanding the nature of “totalities”, otherwise “totalities” as a category, and more generally materialism itself, will be metaphysical and abstract. The same holds for the fundamental unity of opposites (contradiction and ground) — without the unity of opposites, totalities will be without determinations and empty.

vi) The true meaning of possibility and necessity and their dialectical relationship is understood only in the context of self-reproduction and evolution (Darwinian evolution being the classic example of this). And it is only in this context can we make sense of the relationship of structure and agency in the social world.

vi) The very notion of “totality” or “whole” can only come by going beyond the illusion of the world as a fragmented, unconnected multiplicity, as we immediately apprehend in our perception. And it is only through seeing the world as made of totalities can we see how the illusion arises.

There, I have this off my chest and put down in writing. There is obviously hell of a lot more to be said, but this is perhaps a beginning.

[[ I am grateful to Ganesh KN for the opportunity to speak on the subject of Dialectics and Capital at the EMS Academy on 30th Nov. It helped me in clarifying these thoughts and moving my attempt to understand dialectics forward — even if, regretfully, participants may not have found the presentation upto their expectations. The above are some highlights of what I picked up in preparing for the presentation.]]

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