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What Does Ecological Marxism Mean For China?: Questions and Challenges for John Bellamy Foster

Questions and Challenges for John Bellamy Foster

Zhihe Wang (zhihe_wang [at] postmodernchina.org) is the director of the Center for Constructive Postmodern Studies and professor of philosophy at Harbin Institute of Technology, and director of Institute for Postmodern Development of China, USA. Meijun Fan is a professor at the Humanities and Social Sciences College, Harbin Institute of Technology in China, as well as the program director of the Institute for Postmodern Development of China, in the USA. Hui Dong is associate professor, School of Marxism, at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. Dezhong Sun is associate professor, School of Politics and Administration, Wuhan University of Technology. Lichun Li is a PhD student in the College of Economics and Trade at Hunan University as well as associate professor, School of the Communist Party of China, Changsha, China.

Zhihe Wang’s article “Ecological Marxism in China,” which appeared in the February 2012 Monthly Review, demonstrated that Chinese interest in ecological Marxism has grown rapidly over the past two decades.1 Ecological Marxism is regarded by some scholars as “the most important resource for developing Chinese Marxist philosophy in the new age.”2 The practical, political, and theoretical reasons for its success include: pressing environmental issues facing China; the government’s call for ecological civilization; the many characteristics that ecological Marxism shares with traditional Chinese Marxism; and the support it has provided for China’s environmental movement.3

Numerous works by Western scholars, including Ben Agger, John Bellamy Foster, William Leiss, and James O’Connor, have recently been translated into Chinese. Interest in ecological Marxism in China also overlaps with interest in ecological work associated with the “constructive postmodernist” tradition, evolving out of Alfred North Whitehead’s work. The best-known practitioners of constructive postmodernism are John B. Cobb and David R. Griffin; the former is the author (with Herman Daly) of For the Common Good, as well as many other works. As of 2010, nine books, almost six hundred articles, seventy-five master’s theses, and fifteen dissertations have been written in China on ecological Marxism.

The thinker who initially ignited interest in ecological Marxism in China was James O’Connor, founding editor of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism and author of Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism. In comparison, John Bellamy Foster’s ecological Marxism was introduced relatively late. But recently it has drawn the greatest attention from Chinese Marxist scholars; as they say, “the latecomers surpass the old timers.” Our purpose here is to elicit a response from Foster on some of these developments in Chinese thought. For this reason we are concentrating on criticisms of his work, even though the response to Foster’s ecological Marxism in China has been overwhelmingly positive.

The Reception of Foster’s Ecological Marxism in China

Prior to 2006 few Chinese Marxist scholars noticed Foster’s work; one exception was Liu Rensheng’s article “Foster’s Studies on Marx’s Ecological Thought,” which was published in 2004. Widespread research on Foster started after 2006 when two of his books were translated and published: Ecology Against Capitalism (translated by Geng Jianxin and Song Xingwu and published by Shanghai Translation Press in 2006) and Marx’s Ecology (translated by Liu Rensheng and Xiao Feng, and published by Higher Education Press in 2006). In 2008, the first book on Foster’s ecological Marxism, Ecological Critique—A Study of Foster’s Ecological Marxist Thought by Guo Jianren, a young scholar at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, was published by The People Press, an important publisher in China. This book was based on Guo’s dissertation; it focused primarily on Foster’s ecological Marxism itself, and secondarily compared his thought to O’Connor and Alfred Schmidt. Another book on Foster, Critique, Construction, and Inspiration: A Study of Foster’s Ecological Marxist Thought by Kang Ruihua (a professor at the Liaoning Party School) and her colleagues, was published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Publishing House in 2011. Their work was supported by the National Social Science Foundation, and has a similar focus to Guo’s, with the addition of a chapter exploring the relevance of Foster’s work to China’s particular version of socialism.

In addition to these two books, 175 articles related to Foster have appeared.4 Some of these that directly discuss Foster’s work include: “A Theoretical Analysis of Foster’s Ecological Marxism” by Wang Yuchen (2006); “Ecological Civilization and Ecological Revolution” by Kang Ruihua (2007); “J. B. Foster’s Ecological Critique of Capitalism” by Xie Baojun and Li Jianjun (2008); “The Three Dimensions of Foster’s Ecological Marxism” by Yu Jinlong (2009); “Foster’s Ecological Ethics and its Inspirations” by Zhang Lemin (2010); “The In spirations Foster’s Ecological Marxism Offers to Us” by Chen Xueming (2011); and “On Foster’s Reconstruction of Marx’s Metabolic Rift Theory” by Du Xiujuan (2012).

A further impetus to this research was the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2007, which proposed “creating an ecological civilization” to promote a harmonious relationship between citizens and nature by shifting the development model to energy- and resource-efficient, environmentally friendly industries, patterns of growth, and modes of consumption. Chinese Marxist scholars then started to explore the relevance of ecological Marxism to ecological civilization in China. They believe that “for creating a socialist civilization with Chinese characters” some of the more recent approaches to ecological Marxism, represented by Foster and others, have “important theoretical value and practical meaning.”5

The appreciative attitude of Chinese Marxists toward Foster’s ecological Marxism is clear. Prominent Marxist journals such as Marxism and Reality and Studies on Marxism have published numerous translations and writings on Foster’s work. Even Study Times, the newsletter of the preeminent Central Party School, published an article comprehensively and positively introducing Foster’s main points in Marx’s Ecology. Foster’s work is seen as providing “a new approach to understanding Marx’s thought.”6

Foster has developed good relationships in the Chinese scholarly community by generously sharing ecological Marxist literature over the years, as well as by his personal presence in China promoting interest in his work on ecological Marxism. In 2009, The Institute for Postmodern Development of China (a non-profit organization located in Claremont, California) and Soochow University co-sponsored the international conference “Critique of Capital in the Global Age” on January 10–13 in Suzhou, China. Foster delivered a keynote speech along with Dr. John B. Cobb and Cliff Cobb from The Institute for Postmodern Development of China. The conference attracted esteemed Chinese Marxist scholars such as Ren Ping, Feng Ziyi, and Chen Xueming, as well as important media such as Philosophy Studies and Social Sciences Abroad. Reports on this conference were published in key journals like Studies on Marxism and Philosophy Studies. After the Soochow conference, Foster presented a lecture series in China, which was also very well received.

Critiques and Challenges for Foster’s Ecological Marxism

Although Foster’s work in particular has elicited a good deal of applause in China, he also has his critics. According to Xu Yanmei, Foster’s treatment of Marx as a profound ecological thinker is out of line with the historical facts, because ecological concern never consciously entered Marx’s initial critique of religion nor his later critiques of capitalism. She points out that it is obvious that Foster places Marx’s earlier work like his dissertation on a par with Marx’s mature work.7 For Xu, Marx is a critical philosopher rather than an ecologist. Starting from a practical Marxist stance, Pu Xiangji argues that Foster has not eliminated dualism because he still understands “metabolism,” “production,” and “practice” in terms of the old materialism. Accordingly he is still stuck in the dichotomy of humans and nature, subject and object, which already had been subverted by Marx in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 by proposing the concept of practice and practical materialism. Pu’s conclusion is that Foster “has the old materialistic orientation.”8 Li Benzhu thinks that the effort Foster made to locate Marx’s main thought on an ecological level degraded Marx from a revolutionary thinker to an ecologist who criticized capitalism from a merely ecological perspective.9 Gao Huizhu appreciates Foster’s exploration of Marx’s ecology, but she does not agree with Foster’s treatment of metabolism as the fundamental key to Marx’s theory. For her, this misrepresents the essence of Marx’s ecology: Foster missed the point. Gao understands “objective activity,” that is, the concept of practice, as more fundamental than metabolism in Marx.10 For Zhang Xiangli and Leng Yunsheng, Foster equates Marx’s dialectical materialism with Epicurean natural materialism by “neglecting Marx’s understanding of nature as humanized nature.”11

There is value in such criticisms, which test and deepen Chinese studies of Foster’s ecological Marxism, and in our opinion, some of these criticisms are valid challenges which need attention. But some seem to stem from a misunderstanding of Foster’s thought. It seems that most critics hold a fixed frame of Marxism, whether called “practical Marxism” or “dialectical Marxism,” and they judge Foster’s ecological Marxism in terms of their own frames. We would like to pose these questions to Foster so that he can reply himself.

However, for us, the more important challenge is: If capitalism is the cause of ecological crisis, as Foster claims, why is the ecological crisis in socialist China more severe than in many capitalist foreign countries?12 Thus far, few Chinese Marxists have been able to answer this question convincingly. One exception is an upcoming article titled “The Theories of Ecological Crisis of Foster and Constructive Postmodernism: A Comparison,” in which Professor Meng Genlong argues that there is something profound in Foster’s point that conceives capitalism as the cause of ecological crisis. But Meng too is unable to explain on the basis of Foster’s critique why serious environmental problems also happened in both the former Soviet Union and socialist China today. In contrast to Foster’s point of view, Meng thinks constructive postmodernism is more convincing in this respect because it attributes ecological crisis to modernity or the modern worldview, which radically separates humankind and nature.13 Both capitalism and socialism are victims of the modern worldview.

In our opinion, there is truth to points raised both by constructive postmodernism and ecological Marxism. Therefore, it is not necessary to set them against each other: they can be complementary. Given the arduousness and complexity of overcoming ecological crises and creating an ecological civilization, it is better for ecological Marxism and constructive postmodern thinkers to work together to find ways out of our ecological crisis. Both are needed to make the turn toward an ecological civilization. Understanding the commonality of the poisonous modern worldview to both capitalism and Marxism, Chinese ecological Marxists can avoid the fallacy of “turning ecological Marxism into a weapon” that only points at “foreign capitalist countries.”14 If foreign capitalist countries are seen as the main impediment to ecological civilization, as Huang Zongliang, a distinguished senior professor of Peking University, points out, what should we do now? Shall we just sit here “to wait for capitalism to die?”15

A more useful approach is to use methods of both ecological Marxism and constructive postmodernism concretely to analyze and deal with the severe environmental issues in China, as well as to criticize foreign capitalism. These challenges include resisting the worship of GDP and unthinking development, asking instead: “why develop, develop for whom, and develop how?”16 It is also necessary to rethink some basic principles of Marxism in terms of Foster’s ecological Marxism, such as worship of productive forces and the treatment of history as a linear process, i.e., the notion that China needs to realize fully industrialization or modernization first, and only then deal with the ecological issue to create ecological civilization or pursue postmodernization.17

China must find a way to resist the impulse to rush headlong into high-tech development and the exploitation of natural resources so as to be “competitive” in the world at the cost of the devastation of the environment, family life, and social well-being. This failure to promote harmony within human society, and between humans and the natural world, “becomes a serious problem in China.”18 Social issues like the exploitation of farmers and workers, the Foxconn suicide tragedy,19 the growing gap between the rich and poor, and bringing capital to the countryside also require ecological Marxist thinking to see them in the right light.

Recently, the head of Foxconn metaphorically referred to the one million employees working for him as a million captive animals. He actually consulted with the director of Taibei Zoo about how to manage these “animals.”20 Unfortunately, there were few Chinese ecological Marxists who spoke out against this ill treatment and dehumanizing discourse. Perhaps this explains Chinese scholarly criticism of Chinese ecological Marxists as “lacking question awareness.”21

Our hope is that by critically appreciating and absorbing Western ecological Marxism, Chinese ecological Marxists can criticize hegemony and the power of capital and courageously defend the rights of the poor and the weak. In fact, ecological Marxists can play a more important role in China through joining forces with mainstream Marxists “since China has not been completely controlled by plutocrats and the great transnational corporations yet,”22 although it is increasingly dependent on “foreign capital.”23 The large Communist Party of China (CPC), with more than 80 million members, possesses a great potential to resist the power of capital, overcome the ecological crisis, and begin to create an ecological civilization.

In his report to the 18th National Congress of the CPC, held from November 8–14, 2012 in Beijing, President Hu Jintao mentioned “ecological civilization” fifteen times. He said, “We must give high priority to creating ecological civilization, work hard to build a beautiful country, and achieve lasting and sustainable development of the Chinese nation.”24 In order to highlight the importance of ecological civilization in the socialist cause, the 18th Party Congress even decided to put “ecological civilization” in the CPC Constitution, an unprecedented move.25 In his speech at the press conference, Xi Jinping, the newly elected General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPC, claimed that the party “must serve the people wholeheartedly” and China “will walk toward a road to collective prosperity.”26 Prior to this speech, in his congratulation letter to the Asia Political Parties conference on “Development and Social Sharing,” held on September 4, 2011, he emphasized that “Development should be for people” and that “the fruits of development should be shared by all people.” No doubt he was suggesting that China will staunchly insist on taking the socialist road, “the road of common prosperity.”27

The Chinese encounter with ecological Marxism can be a great opportunity to evoke not only the critical spirit and care awareness of the poor and the weak—perspectives which are immanent in Marxism—but also the traditional Chinese consciousness of the oneness of human beings and nature, which has been lost for a long time in China. Without these enlightened attitudes, any blueprint for creating an ecological civilization will only be wishful thinking.

Notes

Please note that all works referenced here are in Chinese, except those that appeared in Monthly Review by Zhihe Wang, and by Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett.

  1. Zhihe Wang, “Ecological Marxism in China,” Monthly Review 63, no. 9 (February 2012): 36–44.
  2. Guo Jianren, Ecological Critique: A Study of Foster’s Ecological Marxist Thought (Beijing: The People Press, 2008), 9.
  3. Zhihe Wang, “Ecological Marxism in China.”
  4. This data comes from the China Academic Journal Data Base, accessed October 1, 2012.
  5. Lu Changan and Chen Chao, “Foster’s Marx’s Ecology,” Liaoning Journal of Liaoning Administration College 6 (2010): 60–61.
  6. Wang Ximan, “Foster’s Marx’s Ecology,” Study Times 416, December 18, 2007, 9.
  7. Xu Yanmei, A Study of Ecological Marxism (Beijing: Social Sciences Document Publishing House, 2007), 240.
  8. Pu Xiangji, “Foster’s Marx Philosophy in the Context of Ecology: The Old Materialistic Orientation in Marx’s Ecology,” Philosophical Trends 5 (2008): 57–64.
  9. Li Benzhou, “Foster’s Ecological Critique from Ecological Marxism and its Perspective of Existence Theory,” Southeast Academic Research 3 (2009): 4–12.
  10. Gao Huizhu, “On the Origin of Marx’s Ecological View—Discussing With Foster,” Academic Journal of Lingnan 3 (2010): 99–102.
  11. Zhang Xiangli and Leng Yunsheng, “On the Theoretical Rift of Foster’s Metabolic Rift Theory,” Xian Social Sciences 1 (2011): 21–22.
  12. Huang Zongliang, “Seeking Ways to Save the Crisis of Human Existence: Foreword to A Study of Foster’s Ecological Marxist Thought,” in Kang Ruihua, et. al., Critique, Construction, and Inspiration: A Study of Foster’s Ecological Marxist Thought (Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Publishing House, 2011), 7.
  13. Meng Genlong, “The Theories of Ecological Crisis of Foster and Constructive Postmodernism: A Comparison,” Philosophical Trends, forthcoming.
  14. Zhihe Wang, “Ecological Marxism in China.”
  15. Huang Zongliang, “Seeking Ways to Save Humankind from Existence Crisis,” 5.
  16. Ibid, 8.
  17. Cui Weiqi, “How Possible to Move Beyond Modernity?,” Study and Exploration no. 1 (2008): 31–34.
  18. Guo Jianren, Ecological Critique, 8–9.
  19. Foxconn is a Taiwanese run company that produces components for Apple products. Recently seventeen employees committed suicide, one after another.
  20. Guo Taiming Metaphorically Referred to his Employees as Animals, but the Unions in Mainland China are Indifferent,” China Forum, October 12, 2012, http://club.china.com.
  21. Jia Xuejun, “The Current Status of and Comments on Foster’s Ecologial Marxism Studies,” Journal of Xinyang Normal College 1 (2011): 19–22.
  22. John B. Cobb, Jr., “Foreword,” in Huibin Li, Xiaoyuan Xue, and Zhihe Wang, eds., Marxism and Ecological Marxism (Beijing: Central Bureau of Compilation & Translation Press, 2008), 3.
  23. Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett, “China, Capitalist Accumulation, and Labor,” Monthly Review 59, no.1 (May 2007): 17–39.
  24. Hu Jintao, “Speech at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China,” November 8, 2012, http://v.china.com.cn.
  25. Xinhua News Agency, “The Closing Session of 18th Congress Agreed to Write Ecological Civilization into Party Constitution,” November 14, 2012, http://news.china.com.
  26. Xinhua News Agency, “Xi Jinping’s Press Conference,” November 15, 2012, http://cpc.people.com.cn
  27. Xi Jinping, “Congratulations Letter to the Asia Political Parties Conference on ‘Development and Social Sharing,’” September 4, 2011, http://cpc.people.com.

Essays in this series…