Review of Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy By Kohei Saito written by Hannah Holleman and first published at International Socialist Review
“Ecosocialism needs Marx,” Kohei Saito once wrote. In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, Saito shows why. Saito is associate professor of political economy at Osaka City University in Japan. In 2015, he earned a PhD in philosophy from Humboldt University in Berlin and spent time as a guest researcher at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities where he contributes to the editing of Marx’s natural science notebooks. This work and Saito’s familiarity with a range of international debates regarding Marxist theory and practice make possible his beautiful analysis of Marx’s ecosocialism, an analysis that should inform our struggle for revolutionary socioecological change.
In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, Saito traces the development (through published works, draft manuscripts, correspondence, and natural science notebooks) of Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism and of his vision of a new society emancipated from capital and therefore capable of establishing a wholly different relationship to the rest of nature. Building on the work of Marxist scholars such as John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Paul Burkett among others, Saito re-embeds Marx’s ecological critique within a broader political and intellectual project that deepened over decades.
Against readings that downplay or deny Marx’s contributions to ecological thinking, Saito shows that powerful ecological insight and analysis gained through intensive study of the natural sciences became central not only to Marx’s political economy and sociology, but also to his political project—what we now call ecosocialism.
One of the many exciting aspects of Saito’s book is that he takes what we learn from previous work on Marx’s ecology and adds a completely new chapter, literally and figuratively. In the chapter “Marx’s Ecology after 1868,” Saito reveals the extensive nature of Marx’s natural science studies after the publication of the first volume of Capital. Saito constructs his analysis based on previously unpublished notebooks made available by the important and ongoing work to compile a completed version of Marx and Engels’s collected works, called the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA).
The 1868 notebooks reveal Marx’s extensive engagement with scientific debates and developments in his time, especially the critical reception of Justus von Liebig’s provocative thesis that “the law of replenishment” was violated by modern transformation of how people lived and farmed. Liebig predicted that the consequent soil exhaustion would “threaten all of European civilization.” Marx integrated Liebig’s insight into his own analysis of capitalist agriculture as a system of robbery and spoliation.
This chapter is useful for many reasons. It provides new material on Marx’s broad engagement with intellectual and scientific developments across continents and demonstrates his extraordinary ability to put these in conversation with one another in order to arrive at his own critical understanding of what exists, as well as what is possible. In this we see Marx’s methodology for studying the world in order to change it.
As Saito writes, rather than develop a philosophical program based on abstract conceptions of what is and what ought to be, Marx “emphasizes the significance of a social and historical investigation with regard to how and why the objectively inverted world beyond human control emerges out of social practice, so that the material conditions for its transcendence can be understood.”
Saito documents Marx’s systematic study of scientists such as James F. W. Johnston, Liebig, and Carl Fraas, historians such as Georg Ludwig von Maurer, and political economists such as Henry Carey and Julius Au. He also draws on Marx’s correspondence with his contemporaries to show how his thinking changed over time with respect to Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion and expanded to include a sophisticated historical understanding of an array of ecological issues—from desertification to climate change—that now dot the syllabi of environmental studies courses around the world.
Marx linked these issues to a broader social analysis in a fashion far more advanced than anyone in his time. He produced one of the first explorations of ecological imperialism, ecological injustice, and what we now call “sustainability,” or how society may, as Saito summarizes, “consciously regulate the metabolic interaction between humans and [the rest of] nature.”
In other chapters, Saito brilliantly presents several key themes and innovations at the heart of Marx’s ecology. He begins the book with a discussion of Marx’s earlier understanding of the alienation of nature as marking the emergence of the modern, and how his thinking came to diverge from more romantic notions as well as from other popular philosophical and political currents of his day. He moves on to explain and contextualize Marx’s theory of the metabolism of political economy, as well as his own perspective on Marx’s Capital as a theory of metabolism.
Other chapters fill out our understanding of Marx’s study of Liebig and his broader concern with the ahistorical conceptions of soil fertility and ground rent in nineteenth-century bourgeois political economy. All of this is important reading, even for those familiar with earlier work on the same subjects. The way the book is written, from beginning to end, helps lay out the lines of analysis from seed to fruit, offering a way to think about how we might structure our own study and engage with current scientific and political developments in a deeper way in the service of advancing our social change efforts.
Altogether, Saito offers something fresh for readers for whom these topics are familiar, as well as a clear, accessible analysis for readers unfamiliar with Marx or Marx’s ecological insights, but serious about socioecological change. The book also explains and intervenes in central debates in Marxian theory. All of this is truly wonderful to read.
But the reason I decided to write this review is not only for the book’s intellectual and scholarly merit. This work also helps address urgent questions confronting our movements at a time when we have no time to waste. In 2016 an international group of scientists published a paper in Nature Climate Change entitled “Consequences of Twenty-First Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change.” The article’s most breathtaking statement was that “policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems, and human societies—not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.”
New reports emerge every day documenting the advance of climate change, the mass extinction of species, the death of millions of human beings each year due to ecological degradation—234 times more deaths than those occurring in all violent conflicts around the world annually.
In spite of international environmental agreements, the unprecedented sophistication of science and technology, the emergence of the so-called green economy, and the miserable, well-documented consequences for life on the planet, the rate of degradation is not slowing, it is increasing. Every earth system is in decline and many of us can agree that capitalism is the problem—so why can’t we agree to get rid of it?
The critique of capitalism from the standpoint of ecology and social justice is mainstream enough. Influential scientists long ago, even before Marx, warned of the dangers posed to life on earth by this economic system geared toward infinite accumulation. Contemporary scholars and scientists continue to build on the vast body of research documenting the social and ecological harms of prioritizing profit over people and the planet.
More recently, large environmental NGOs and environmental movement organizations published statements recognizing capitalism as the source of our ecological crises. Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was an international bestseller translated into about twenty-five languages. The New York Times even ran an opinion piece entitled, “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid,” in which the author calls for a democratic socialist alternative.
Internalizing the widespread critique of capitalism, activists are offered many ways to think about change. First and foremost, elite reformers propose changing capitalism. From the World Bank to the UN, “inclusive green growth” and the “green economy” now supplement the “sustainable development” lexicon. While many activists and political groups condemn projects under these banners as maintaining the status quo, they adopt their own version of “green capitalism” as a result of their ideological commitments or calculations about political pragmatism.
As sociologist and activist Herbert Docena writes, many organizations (like 350.org, for example) have “gone on to amplify the reformist discourse by echoing their lines that the climate crisis is primarily caused by the lack of global regulation of capitalism; that it can be solved by enhancing such regulation; and that the ‘enemies’ are primarily, if not only, the fossil fuel companies or the ‘bad capitalists’ and the ‘bad elites opposing global regulation.”1
Law professor and social scientist Paddy Ireland notes, “It used to be the left who emphasized the limits to capitalism and the right who told us of its adaptability. Now, however, it is the right, believing themselves liberated from the credible threat of class struggle worldwide, who candidly stress the incompatibility of workers’ rights, [environmental regulations,] and welfare states with the elementary laws of capital (presented, of course, as “natural”), while the (erstwhile) left is reduced to insisting on the malleability and improvability of both capitalism and its corporations.”2
What becomes so clear in Saito’s rendition of nineteenth century debates and Marx’s own writing is that we have had all of these debates before. We have known about these problems for a very long time. Movements have tried making deals with the “good capitalists.” And where are we now?
Separating issues like climate change from the broader system that creates them, that immiserates lives and cannot stand still to take stock of the depletion of the earth’s life support systems, leads to a naive and Pollyannaish politics that can never confront the drivers of ecological harm or lead to a world that is more socially and ecologically sustainable and just. All of our historical experience affirms the truth of this statement.
Even if we were not confronting such an emergency with respect to life on earth, there are so many reasons to fight for a radically democratic, ecologically sane alternative to a racist, patriarchal, imperialist, winner-take-all system that concentrates wealth at the top, at the expense of the vast majority of the global population’s basic humanity.
Saito provides a way of seeing the broader picture Marx offers, which will help activists in this critical moment make the case that “there must be a radical change, with reified social relations replaced by conscious production realized through the association of free producers. Only this emancipation from the reified power of capital will allow humans to construct a different relationship to nature.”
1. Herbert Docena, “The Politics of Climate Change,” Global Dialogue 6, no. 1 (February 2016), http://isa-global-dialogue.net/the-politics-of-climate-change/.
2. Paddy Ireland, “Corporations and Citizenship,” Monthly Review 49, no.1 (May1997), https://archive.monthlyreview.org/index.php/mr/article/view/MR-049-01-1997-05_2/0.
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