To link Marxism and ecological transition may seem at first like trying to bridge two entirely different movements and discourses, each with its own history and logic: one having mainly to do with class relations, the other with the relation between humans and the environment. However, historically socialism has influenced the development of ecological thought and practice, while ecology has informed socialist thought and practice. Since the nineteenth century, the relationship between the two has been complex, interdependent, and dialectical.… This essay unearths the deep ecological roots of Marx’s thought, showing how he brought an environmental perspective to bear on the overarching question of social transformation. From there it traces the evolution of Marxian ecology, illuminating its profound, formative link to modern ecological economics and systems ecology. It concludes with the wider project of building the broad and deep social movement required to halt and reverse ecological and social destruction.
Humanity today is confronted with what might be called the Great Capitalist Climacteric. In the standard definition, a climacteric (from the Greek klimaktēr or rung on the ladder) is a period of critical transition or a turning point in the life of an individual or a whole society. From a social standpoint, it raises issues of historical transformation in the face of changing conditions. In the 1980s environmental geographers Ian Burton and Robert Kates referred to “the Great Climacteric” to address what they saw as the developing global ecological problem of the limits to growth…. I will use the term the Great Capitalist Climacteric here to refer to the necessary epochal social transition associated with the current planetary emergency. It refers both to the objective necessity of a shift to a sustainable society and to the threat to the existence of Homo sapiens (as well as numerous other species) if the logic of capital accumulation is allowed to continue dictating to society as a whole. The current world of business as usual is marked by rapid climate change, but also by the crossing or impending crossing of numerous other planetary boundaries that define “a safe operating space for humanity.”
Monopoly Capital was the principal Marxian, and indeed radical, political-economic work to be published in the 1960s, written by the two most prestigious Marxian economists in the United States and perhaps globally. It grew out of the critique of militarism and imperialism and economic waste as much as out of economic crisis. It was one of the first major works to focus on multinational corporations. Its final chapter emphasized the “irrational system” and was influenced by [Paul] Baran’s early background with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. All of this made it extremely influential with the New Left in the United States, particularly its more radical, socialist wing. A good indication of this is Assar Lindbeck’s 1971 mainstream attack on what he called The Political Economy of the New Left, which focused almost entirely on Monopoly Capital.
It is now a universal belief on the left that the world has entered a new imperialist phase.… The challenge for Marxian theories of the imperialist world system in our times is to capture the full depth and breadth of the classical accounts, while also addressing the historical specificity of the current global economy. It will be argued in this introduction (in line with the present issue as a whole) that what is widely referred to as neoliberal globalization in the twenty-first century is in fact a historical product of the shift to global monopoly-finance capital or what Samir Amin calls the imperialism of “generalized-monopoly capitalism.”
Soviet ecology presents us with an extraordinary set of historical ironies. On the one hand, the USSR in the 1930s and ’40s violently purged many of its leading ecological thinkers and seriously degraded its environment in the quest for rapid industrial expansion. The end result has often been described as a kind of “ecocide,” symbolized by the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the assault on Lake Baikal, and the drying up of the Aral Sea, as well as extremely high levels of air and water pollution. On the other hand, the Soviet Union developed some of the world’s most dialectical contributions to ecology, revolutionizing science in fields such as climatology, while also introducing pioneering forms of conservation. Aside from its famous zapovedniki, or nature reserves for scientific research, it sought to preserve and even to expand its forests.
On October 20, 2012, less than two weeks after being reelected to his fourth term as Venezuelan president and only months before his death, Hugo Chávez delivered his crucial El Golpe de Timón (“Strike at the Helm”) speech to the first meeting of his ministers in the new revolutionary cycle. Chávez surprised even some of his strongest supporters by his insistence on the need for changes at the top in order to promote an immediate leap forward in the creation of what is referred to as “the communal state.” This was to accelerate the shift of power to the population that had begun with the formation of the communal councils (groupings of families involved in self-governance projects—in densely populated urban areas, 200–400 families; in rural areas, 50–100 families). The main aim in the new revolutionary cycle, he insisted, was to speed up the registration of communes, the key structure of the communal state.
Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything [argues that the source of the looming crisis from climate change] is not the planet, which operates according to natural laws, but rather the economic and social system in which we live, which treats natural limits as mere barriers to surmount. It is now doing so on a planetary scale, destroying in the process the earth as a place of human habitation.… In the age of climate change, Klein argues, a system based on ever-expanding capital accumulation and exponential economic growth is no longer compatible with human well-being and progress—or even with human survival over the long run.… In this way Klein…signals that she has now, in William Morris’s famous metaphor, crossed “the river of fire” to become a critic of capital as a system.… [This] has led to a host of liberal attacks on This Changes Everything, often couched as criticisms emanating from the left. These establishment criticisms of her work, we will demonstrate, are disingenuous, having little to do with serious confrontation with her analysis. Rather, their primary purpose is to rein in her ideas, bringing them into conformity with received opinion. If that should prove impossible, the next step is to exclude her ideas from the conversation.
István Mészáros is one of the greatest philosophers that the historical materialist tradition has yet produced. His work stands practically alone today in the depth of its analysis of Marx’s theory of alienation, the structural crisis of capital, the demise of Soviet-style post-revolutionary societies, and the necessary conditions of the transition to socialism. His dialectical inquiry into social structure and forms of consciousness—a systematic critique of the prevailing forms of thought—is unequaled in our time. No less a historical figure than Hugo Chávez referred to him as the “pathfinder” of twenty-first century socialism.… The role of this foreword is to help to put his system of thought as a whole, and this book in particular, in their historical contexts, while illuminating some of the distinctive concepts governing his analysis.
Every book more than a few years old needs to be seen within the historical context in which it was written—works of social science most of all. Re-reading Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature today, nearly a decade and a half after its first publication, reminds me of how different in some respects the historical context was then, at the end of the twentieth century, from what we face today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century.… A decade and a half ago the contribution of Marx and Marxism to the understanding of ecology was seen in almost entirely negative terms, even by many self-styled ecosocialists. Today Marx’s understanding of the ecological problem is being studied in universities worldwide and is inspiring ecological actions around the globe.… These changes are of course connected. As the environmental problems engendered by capitalist society have worsened, the necessary movements of ecological defense have radicalized and spread across the face of the planet.
Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s has it been so apparent that the core capitalist economies are experiencing secular stagnation, characterized by slow growth, rising unemployment and underemployment, and idle productive capacity. Consequently, mainstream economics is finally beginning to recognize the economic stagnation tendency that has long been a focus in these pages, although it has yet to develop a coherent analysis of the phenomenon. Accompanying the long-term decline in the growth trend has been an extraordinary increase in economic inequality, which one of us labeled “The Great Inequality,” and which has recently been dramatized by the publication of French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Taken together, these two realities of deepening stagnation and growing inequality have created a severe crisis for orthodox (or neoclassical) economics.