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.

  • Saito’s use of metabolism as the fundamental concept is paralleled by the complete and striking absence of any reference whatsoever to Darwin in Marx’s thought. This, despite the well-known fact that Marx, writing to Engels, regarded Darwin as “the proof of our ideas in the natural sciences of our time.” The absence of Darwin is not fortuitous. For Marx and Engels, Darwin was decisive in overthrowing the metabolic perspective and replacing it by the dialectical notion of natural selection, that includes within it “stable” self-reproduction.
  • As Engels noted in his letter to Lavrov: Until Darwin’s time the very people who now see everywhere only struggle for existence (Vogt, Búchner, Moleschott, etc.) emphasized precisely cooperation in organic nature, the fact that the vegetable kingdom supplies oxygen and nutriment to the animal kingdom and conversely the animal kingdom supplies plants with carbonic acid and manure, which was particularly stressed by Liebig. Both conceptions are justified within certain limits, but the one is as one-sided and narrow minded as the other. The interaction of bodies in nature – inanimate as well as animate – includes both harmony and collision, struggle and cooperation.
  • The key problematic in Saito’s reading of Marx is that “metabolism” is no substitute for contradiction, surely the central dialectical concept for Marx. Saito’s attempt to establish metabolism as the central unifying notion through reference to the Grundrisse, is astoundingly forced. Even though Origin of Species was published only after Marx must have finished putting down what we know as the Grundrisse, it is evident that metabolism has only a peripheral role to play in Marx’s dialectical view of the political economy of capitalism. If it is exegesis we want, then one may point out that there are only 9 references to metabolism (or its variants), while the references to contradiction are far, far greater.
  • “Metabolism” is clearly only one aspect of the self-reproduction of any whole, whether of life, the economy, or society. What drives dialectical development is contradiction, that is internal to the whole. Marx’s great effort was to show how the entire structure of capitalism arose from the germ of the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value, and how capitalism was a contradictory whole, self-reproducing and yet carrying within its own crises and thus its own potential end.
  • So it is unsurprising that having erased almost entirely the internal contradictions of capitalism, all that is left for Saito to do is harp on external “opposition”, between Nature and capitalism, that he misidentifies as “contradiction”. Marx’s arguments in volume 3 of Capital, with agriculture as the chief example, show how this external “opposition” arises from the internal contradictions of capitalism. But to Saito, that external “opposition” is the crisis of capitalism. The contradiction between labour and capital and the former’s exploitation is merely the paradigm that is to be visited on Nature as a whole subsequently — while it would seem that the working class would eventually overturn capitalism and march towards a “society of associated producers” not so much for its own liberation as for the prevention of ecological catastrophe to save humanity. And this, claims Saito, was what Marx really intended to say, or at the very least was beginning to articulate. It is not enough for Saito to argue that this is where capitalism has brought humanity to today, a proposition that one may certainly debate. No, he insists, this is the essence of the crisis of capitalism and in Marx’s words!!
  • How does Saito see a metaphor for all of capitalism by examining only the way Marx grappled with the science of agriculture? It seems that Marx’s references to the analogous exploitation of “soil and the worker”, is read by Saito as much more than analogy, but an essential identity. It would seem to us that Marx is insisting here, as Lenin so repeatedly emphasized in his own writing, the significance of the development of capitalism in agriculture. But Saito appears to turn this on its head, and in his rendering, 19th century agriculture becomes the metaphor for the entire question of the environment of the 21st This is really going back to the romanticism characteristic of many streams of environmental thought – and we will find more occasions where this is apparent in Saito’s approach.
  • The evidence from Marx’s later Notebooks, written post the publication of the first volume of Capital, do not establish in any serious way, that Marx turned away from his earlier identification of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism. More of this later, when we comment on Saito’s understanding of “limits”.
  • It will be argued, in support of Saito’s view, that he does recognize that it is the exploitative nature of capitalist production, that leads to the ecological crisis of capitalism. However, in isolating one-sidedly the ecological crisis as the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, he sets aside, in effect, the internal contradictions of capitalism. In my view, this has little to do with Marx per se. Saito’s own view is that the ecological crisis is the foremost crisis, and that capitalism has exacerbated the contradiction of humanity and Nature to this breaking point. The other consequences of capitalism, such as persistent poverty, gross inequality, the inability to use science and technology to promote human well-being in general and not only in ecological terms, all of these are perfunctorily referred to, if at all. For Saito, sustainable interaction with Nature is the central motif of human well-being, with all else being secondary. This centrality recalls very much the way “development” has been straitjacketed into the theme of sustainability in the SDGs (in contrast to say Amartya Sen and others) in mainstream political discourse (where, for instance, poverty eradication is not recognized for its own intrinsic value, but has to be somehow forced into the notion of “sustainability”)
  • This centrality of the ecological concern in Saito, is even more apparent in Saito’s insistence on the limits imposed by Nature on capitalist production. One of the sub-themes of the book is to somehow establish that Marx recognized that Nature imposes some ultimate limits on capitalist production. This is really problematic at more than one level.
    • Dialectically viewed, especially as articulated by Hegel, limits are not absolute. It is in the nature of limits that they are overcome – there is nothing absolute about them. But this aspect, of overcoming, for any particular limit, is manifest only over time, and need not be apparent, at the moment of recognition of the limit. For Marx too, there is no disagreement with Hegel on this, anywhere in his work. Saito’s great insistence on trying to prove that Marx recognized some absolute limits, is really a distortion.
    • Curiously, Saito is stuck with forests and a pre-Haber-Bosch understanding of natural limits. Forests have been substantially saved by the development of fossil fuel use – otherwise what remains of forests would have vanished long ago. The ability to artificially fix nitrogen into chemical fertilizer is what transforms the discussion over the “metabolic rift”. What Marx was aware of in his time was limited by the science available – what about GMOs, precision agriculture and so on today? Both these examples illustrate how limits are overcome. Of course new limits always arise in place of old ones, the inevitable consequence of the finiteness of human action in an infinite (natural) world.
    • Saito’s view of “limits” appears quite linear. Soil may have its limits, but then productive forces may expand in a very different direction and not simply by overcoming soil exhaustion directly. Our two examples earlier are precisely of this kind.
    • It is certainly plausible to argue that Marx saw the exhaustion of the soil as a matter of serious concern. However, to be stuck with Marx’s original words on this question, also ignores completely the enormous development of science. Both the means to understand and comprehend in detail the question of soil (and not only soil but also the question of the biology of crop production and other aspects) as well as the means to remedy it have progressed significantly since Marx. Saito’s position actually harks back to that of the romantic tradition that Lenin so severely criticized, but indirectly stated in the complete elision of scientific development post-Marx (though Saito does state later that Marx did not accept any glorification of pre-capitalist production).
    • Saito indeed appears to try and fit Marx into the mold of a pessimist on technology, converging particularly in the context of the environmental question, which Saito clearly is. There is also a reductionist attitude to technology, characteristic of other approaches such as political ecology, as if technology were directly determined by the nature of the political and economic order. Science and technology do have a certain inner drive and a relative autonomy as one dimension of the productive forces, and that is relevant to the environmental question. Indeed, without science and technology, we wouldn’t know what
  • The third problematic aspect of Saito’s work, is the treatment of alienation. Saito is inclined to identify Marx’s concept of alienation as relating entirely to the contradiction between humanity (society) and Nature. This again seems a serious misreading of 1844. Throughout, Marx is always referring to alienations that go together, between mankind and Nature as well as man from man. This is truly so ubiquitous in 1844 that Saito’s one-sided reading is really very surprising. Marx makes it clear that communism is the basis of overcoming of BOTH these kinds of estrangement. And indeed this is the foundation of the possibility to transcend the conflict between man and Nature – or so the argument goes in the Paris manuscripts.
  • However, Marx clearly rethought the last bit in the Gotha Programme, where he inclines to the view that in communist society the only remaining contradiction is that of humanity and Nature. In my view, this is excellent, since it exorcises the last remaining Hegelian remnant, the attribution of any kind of finitude to Nature. As mentioned above, human action on Nature will always be finite action in an infinite world, however much the scope of the finite may expand in communist society, having gotten rid of ideological residues. Soviet society, in my view, fell very much into this Hegelian error, in their understanding that the removal of the uncertainty of capitalist production (through planning) would also remove all uncertainty and any dialectical movement between truth and error in the realm of science and technology in production. Thus the later lack of innovation and the retardation of the development of productive forces in the post-WWII era.
  • Saito, with his predisposition, meta-theoretical or foundational one may say, to the limits that Nature imposes on the development of productive forces, simply does not see this complexity. The end result is his one-sidedness of emphasizing only the human – Nature estrangement.
  • Saito also misses the extent to which Nature is not simply an external given, but increasingly, as Marx emphasizes, Nature taken in hand and fashioned by human/productive activity. So for Saito, the Anthropocene only inspires fear, whereas one may argue that it is a call on humanity to take the first steps to overcome the estrangement between humans and Nature.
  • A fourth point, contra Saito, is that he misses the import of his own citation of Marx on the importance of the struggle for a shorter working day. Saito also does not take account in any serious way of Marx’s remarks on how the advance of machinery in different sectors of production goes hand in hand with the extension of the Factories Act to that sector. If the “relentless exploitation of soil and labour” could be overcome with respect to labour through the development of machinery, surely capital could do that too with respect to natural resources. So Saito, in severely overestimating the “limits” of Nature on the development of production, misses the point that the over-riding drive of capitalism is profit and accumulation, and not in any direct sense the exploitation of natural resources. Shades of Rosa Luxemburg here perhaps, as also the prevailing winds of “primitive accumulation”, the latter making an appearance in an implicit way, especially in Saito’s discussion of “robbery” agriculture.
  • Saito’s repeated invocation of “robbery” from Leibig, is also a return to a “primitive accumulation” type of viewpoint, as has now become so common. While Marx refers to the irrational use of natural resources under capitalism, for instance in agriculture, Saito’s constant juxtaposition of Marx’s remarks against Leibig’s robbery, suggests a connection that seems far too speculative and not borne out by any direct comment from Marx.
  • Saito’s project of recasting Marx turns into standing Marx on his head, when it comes to the subject of Malthus. At one point Saito argues that Marx changed his critique of Ricardo and Malthus from the original argument based on an “optimistic” view of the general possibility of the development of productive forces. Instead, Saito argues, Marx moved, inspired by Leibig, to showing how Ricardo’s and Malthus’ law of diminishing returns was an error in that it located the exhausting character of contemporary agricultural production in natural laws, rather than seeing it as the consequence of the specific nature of capitalist production. But, Saito argues, this only goes to show that Marx did accept the notion of natural limits to production, though not in the form that Ricardo and Malthus put it.
  • The second part of the book is less about Marx than about lengthy accounts of what Marx read and what he excerpted in his notes. Saito’s project depends a great deal on deciphering what he claims are Marx’s changing views on the subject, through inferences drawn mainly from what Marx was reading and the excerpts that he put down from those texts. Little of this it appears is directly supported by Marx’s own text. This turgid account requires more study, but there is little, it seems to me, to support any fundamental reinterpretation of Marx’s views, and to suggest that Marx turned towards a fundamentally ecological critique of capitalism, or that Marx regarded the ecological contradiction as the fundamental contradiction of capitalism.
  • It is also difficult to take this methodology seriously. Saito argues for a substantially radical re-interpretation of Marx, based significantly on a close reading of Marx’s notebooks of a later period, only recently made available through MEGA. That an exegetical exercise, drawn from the notebooks, should be essential to reinterpreting Marx in such thorough fashion seems extraordinary, especially after a hundred and thirty-five years of Marxist theory and practice since Marx himself passed on. Surely, one would need something more substantial than the simple assertion that this was made necessary by Engels’ selective interpretation in the compilation of Marx’s later volumes of Capital together with the neglect of the all important Notebooks by earlier generations of MEGA editors.


Still very scattered, I am afraid. And I have not examined at his invocation of Kuruma’s notion of “private labour” as the starting point of his analysis.


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