Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy
308 pp, $29 pbk, ISBN 9781583676400
By Kohei Saito
Reviewed by Martin Levy, Communist Review, Autumn 2018
In our Spring 2018 issue (CR87, pp 14-17), we published an interview with American Marxist John Bellamy Foster about his new book, Marx and the Earth: An anti-critique, co-authored with Paul Burkett. As Foster makes clear in the interview, the book is the culmination of an intense discussion between the two generations of ecosocialists. The first generation, he says, combined Marxist ideas with green theories, producing a hybrid analysis and accusing Marx and Engels of having blind-spots in their conception or of having taken antienvironmental positions. A few even claimed that ecosocialism had superseded classical socialism as a paradigm. On the other hand, the second generation had made a U-turn back to classical historical materialism, in order to investigate the role of environmental analysis in the deep structure of Marx’s and engels’ critique of political economy. Burkett and Foster were the initiators of this development, with their respective books, Marx and Nature (1999) and Marx’s Ecology (2000).
A review of Marx and the Earth was promised in CR87, but is unfortunately still not ready. That is largely because of the publication of the present, very recent, title. The relevance of Saito’s book to the interpretation of Marx’s Capital, 150 years after the publication of volume I, and his challenge to deepen our understanding of Marx’s project, meant that other matters had to be put aside. By the same token, something more than a simple overview of Saito’s book was required – hence the length of this article, which should be considered more as a guide/summary than a review. it should be read alongside Rob Griffiths’ excellent series on Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today (CR84/86/87), which is now published as a single volume by Manifesto Press.
Saito is 31 years old and is currently at Osaka City University. The book is his own English version of the original German title, which in turn was based on his PhD thesis gained at the Humboldt University in Berlin. The depth of his investigations is astounding in one so young.
The subtitle, Capital, Nature and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, is a straightforward summary of Saito’s argument. He challenges the repeated criticism, since the 1970s, of Marx for “Prometheanism”, or “hyperindustrialism”, an alleged naïve acceptance of the common 19th century idea advocating the complete human domination of nature. Marx’s critics claim that he thereby neglected the destructive character immanent in modern industry and technology, and that in any case discussions of 19th century problems are of little relevance today – at best, Marx’s “metabolic rift between society and nature”, of which Foster spoke in his interview, means that capitalism is bad for the environment.
Saito’s book aims at a more systematic and complete reconstruction of Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism. Foster and Burkett, he says, sometimes give a false impression that Marx did not deal with the topic in a systematic way. In Part I of his book, the first 3 chapters, Saito seeks to reveal a clear continuity of Marx’s ecology with his critique of political economy; while in Part II, the last 3 chapters, he offers a more complete examination of Marx’s ecology than in the earlier literature, scrutinising the natural science notebooks that will be published for the first time in the Marx-engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2).
These notebooks, Saito says, display just how seriously and laboriously Marx studied the rich field of 19th century ecological theory and integrated new insights into his own dissection of capitalist society. He shows how Marx consciously departed from any forms of naïve Prometheanism, and claims that he came to regard ecological crises as the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production, with Stoffwechsel = metabolism as the key concept. This is an extraordinary claim for any Marxist, and we shall see to what extent it is justified.
Saito also says that Marx’s ecological critique is systematic and constitutes an essential moment within the totality of his project for Capital. He maintains that it is not possible to comprehend the full scope of Marx’s critique of political economy if the ecological dimension is ignored. To ground this, he explores Marx’s theory of “value” and “reification”, because these concepts reveal that Marx deals with the whole of nature as a place of resistance to capital, where the contradictions of capitalism are displayed most clearly.
‘ALIENATION OF NATURE AS THE EMERGENCE OF THE MODERN’
The key ecological motive, says Saito, is already present in Marx’s Paris Notebooks of 1844, from which the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (EPM) – never intended for publication – were abstracted. But it was only after a long, arduous process of developing the sophistication of his political economy, that Marx became fully conscious of the need to deal with environmental disaster as a limitation imposed on the valorisation process of capital.
In chapter 1, Saito examines these Paris Notebooks, now available in MEGA2 i/2 (EPM) and iv/2. He remarks on Marx’s early recognition of a conscious “unity” between humans and nature as a central task of communist society, and stresses Marx’s economic critique that the fundamental cause of alienation under capitalist production lies in the specific modern relations of the producers to their objective conditions of production, ie the historical dissolution of the original unity between humans and the earth. Itemising several types of alienation or estrangement which Marx discusses, still under the influence of Feuerbach’s abstract philosophical concept, Saito argues that the “emergence of a theory” in Marx’s notebooks must be understood in a close relation to Marx’s analysis of political economy, because his original theory of alienation is formulated in the process of a critique of it.
In an important paragraph in the Paris Notebooks, Marx discusses the total commodification of landed property as the completion of capitalist relations. Although he has no romantic illusions about feudalism – “the earth which is estranged from man and confronts him in the shape of a few great lords” (p 34) – Marx remarks that the feudal social relations are grounded on “personal” and “political” domination, which prevents capital from penetrating as an autonomous power. The fundamental characteristic of feudal production remains the unity of the producers with the land. With capitalism, the producers lose any direct connection with the earth and come to be separated from the original means of production. Saito identifies the beginning of Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism in the statement that
“Communism, as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement … is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and nature and man ….” (p 43)
Saito shows that Marx did not significantly alter this original fundamental insight, until Capital. There is a continuity through the Poverty of Philosophy (1847), the Grundrisse (1857-8), The Original Text of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1858) and even in the Economic Manuscript of 1864-65, the draft text for volume III of Capital:
“[T]he capitalist mode of production … completely separates the land as a condition of labour from landed property and the landowners ….” (p 46)
Marx, says Saito, never gave up on his view of the original unity of humans and nature, and regarded the negation of the negation here as the essential task of future society. He did, however, quickly abandon the philosophical conception of alienation, criticising in the
German Ideology Feuerbach’s treatment of “nature as such” as a pure fantastic construction. Feuerbach, says Marx, abstracts nature from existing social relations and so overlooks the historical formation of nature through the human activity of production, in which both humans and nature work upon and constitute each other.
‘THE METABOLISM OF POLITICAL ECONOMY’
Saito’s chapter 2 traces the formation of Marx’s concept of metabolism. This term, meaning the constant interaction of all living creatures with the environment, had been applied in physiology from the beginning of the 19th century; but the first formal treatise on the subject is often attributed to Justus von Liebig, in his Organic Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology (1st edition 1837; usually called Agricultural Chemistry) and Organic Chemistry in its Application to Physiology and Pathology (1842; usually called Animal Chemistry). Liebig depicted the constant interactive process of formation, transformation and excretion of various components within an organic body; and under his influence the concept of metabolism soon went wider, to analyse interactions within a certain environment. This found reception and became employed beyond natural science, in philosophy and political economy, where it was used to describe a social metabolism by way of analogy.
This was the case with Marx. He first uses the term three times, in a March 1851 London Notebook entitled Reflection (MEGA2, iv/8), to deal with the transhistorical character of the necessity to organise social production. However, because Marx wrote this before his first reading of Agricultural Chemistry, Saito abscribes the source of the term to a manuscript from Marx’s friend Roland Daniels, an “excellent scientifically educated doctor”, a member of the Communist League, and to whom Marx had dedicated The Poverty of Philosophy. Daniels, who tragically died in 1855 after suffering terrible conditions in prison, uses “organic metabolism” many times in his manuscript, to mean “simultaneous destruction and regeneration, through which … bodies maintain their individuality.”
Subsequently, during the process of writing the Grundrisse, Marx’s usage of “metabolism” becomes more general and systematic, in three ways:
- to deal with the incessant interaction between humans and nature, treating nature as the inorganic body of humanity and discussing the labour process as “metabolic interaction with nature”;
- as “metabolism of society”, in which he contrasts “changes of material” (Stoffwechsel), having to do with constant changes among use values in capitalist society, with “changes of form” (Formwechsel), signifying exchanges of economic forms between money and
commodity during circulation;
- to describe the “metabolism of nature”, denoting the modification of substances through oxidation and decomposition. This usage appears again in Capital, vol I:
“A machine which is not active in the labour process is useless. in addition it falls prey to the destructive power of natural metabolism.” (p 78)
In the Grundrisse, Marx also uses physiological concepts to distinguish between “fixed” and “floating” capital:
“In the human body, as with capital, the different elements are not exchanged at the same rate of reproduction, blood renews itself more rapidly than muscle, muscle than bone, which in this respect may be regarded as the fixed capital of the human body.” (p 92)
In society, the difference in the period of reproduction for capital is conditioned by the natural properties of each material, whether machinery, natural inputs or products. Marx later discusses this material limitation on the valorisation of capital with regard to the fact that circulating capital must be provided and replaced faster than fixed capital to continue the production process without interruption. The bigger the forces of production become, and the bigger the quantity of raw materials needed, the more unstable the entire production process becomes because it is more and more dependent on natural conditions. Here Marx points to the possibility of an economic crisis, partly due to natural conditions and partly due to the unregulated desire of capital for accumulation.
However, Marx also notes that capital has elastic powers, “allowing it, within certain limits, a field of action independent of its own magnitude”, and it constantly seeks to overcome natural limits by exploiting the whole world – and science – in search of new useful and cheap raw materials, new technologies, new use values and new markets. But this transcendence of limits can only be achieved “ideally”:
“[F]rom the fact that capital posits every such limit as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it; and since every such barrier contradicts its character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited.” (p 96)
Marx calls this the unity of opposing tendencies which are part of capitalism’s “living contradiction”, and it seems to me that this may be what Saito means when he claims that Marx came to regard ecological crises as the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production. Despite various creative innovations and rapid technological progress, capital brings more and more disturbances in the metabolic interaction between humans and nature. yet, as Paul Burkett remarked in his Marx and Nature, quoted by Saito:
“To put it bluntly, capital can in principle continue to accumulate under any natural conditions, however degraded, as long as there is not complete extinction of human life.” (p 97)
As we see, therefore, Marx’s analysis in terms of “metabolism” not only allowed him to understand the transhistorical universal natural conditions of human production but also to reveal the limits of appropriation of nature through its subsumption by capital. it was, says
Saito, an ongoing project which cost Marx time and energy, and prevented him from completing his magnum opus. But in his excerpt notebooks there are highly significant hints for his further theoretical development.
‘CAPITAL AS A THEORY OF METABOLISM’
Chapter 3 is quite difficult, requiring detailed reading as Saito attempts a systematic reconstruction of Marx’s ecology, as developed in Capital. Taking up Marx’s definition of labour (p 101) as a transhistorical process “by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature” (with nature as the “mother” of material wealth), Saito argues that Marx demonstrates that under capitalism the process can only be mediated in a one-sided manner. This arises from commodities having both use value and exchange value (by Saito, just called “value”), with the latter being determined largely by the quantity of abstract human labour involved. Here a physiological property of matter applicable to any society, namely abstract labour, becomes objectified as value, a purely social property of matter.
This leads Saito into Marx’s theory of reification, where the social relations between the producers’ private labours appear under capitalism as “material relations between persons and social relations between things”. This inversion causes not only alien, reified domination of the actions of individuals – “reification of persons” – but also the modification of human needs and rationality, ie “personification of things”. People gradually internalise a new subjectivity, on the basis of which they consciously come to obey the bourgeois utilitarian ideals of “freedom”, “equality” and “property”; while capitalists are forced by the logic of the system to reduce any ‘unnecessary’ costs, hence pressuring the labour force as much as possible, and constantly seeking to increase productivity without thinking of the sustainable reproduction of natural resources.
Modifications are not, however, limited to the human side, because Marx analysed capitalist transformations of the material world in various spheres, often neglected in discussions of his political economy. in the Grundrisse, he criticises the “fetishistic” misunderstanding that comes from identifying social characteristics with natural properties of things, pointing out that it is necessary to analyse as economic categories not only the “form” but the material itself, because natural properties can play a specific economic role in capitalism, eg the difference between “fixed” and “floating” capital. Noting that examination of the material side of a commodity, its use value, lies outside political economy, Marx however remarks that
“Use value falls within the realm of political economy as soon as it becomes modified by the modern relations of production, or … intervenes to modify them” (p 114),
and also that
“In many cases use value itself plays a role as an economic category. it is a ‘bearer’ par excellence, whose material properties are penetrated by economic relations.” (p 116)
Marx’s point is that capitalist modifications of material characteristics are not limited to people’s desires and behaviours, but extend to properties of the things themselves. His analyses of material and form point to the historical specificity characteristic to capitalist relations and even their contradictions. The process of transformation must be analysed not only from the perspective of capital but from the material side, especially in terms of the entire metabolic interaction between humans and nature.
Discussing the material character of abstract labour is thus not a diversion from the theme of Marx’s ecology, because considering the concept as a purely social category makes it much harder to explain why capitalist domination destroys various dimensions of the universal metabolism of nature more devastatingly than ever. The strict opposition between “nature” and “society” excludes the influence of economic determinations over the material dimensions. An analysis of Marx’s project thus needs to include, says Saito, the material world as a central object of study. This analysis is primarily about how capitalist production, by the logic of reification, organises a social practice increasingly hostile to nature, finally destroying the metabolic interaction with humans.
The fact that humans work upon nature under the primacy of value might not at first seem so ecologically unfriendly. However, the problem of this reified mediation appears more distinctively with the emergence of fully developed capital, as value now becomes the goal of production. Since both labour power and nature are important for capital only as ‘bearers’ of value, capital neglects various aspects of these, often leading to their exhaustion. In chapters of Capital volume I on ‘The Working Day’ and ‘Machinery and Large-Scale industry’, Marx carefully illustrates the destructive uniqueness of capitalist production, as it affects the labourers, but at the same time illustrates the possibility and necessity of regulating the formal logic of capital’s valorisation from a perspective of the material side of labour power – eg shortening the working day, providing the labourers with technological education.
In illustrating the labour process, Marx does not neglect the fact that nature is working together with humans – the two “original factors” of the metabolic interaction. Thus, if production is organised under the primacy of abstract labour in a one-sided manner, we can infer that it leads to exhaustion of natural power as well as labour power. in various places in Capital, Marx points to the connection between the two original factors as he considered the wasteful use of both, even if he does not consider the waste of natural resources in as much detail as labour power. This is understandable, says Saito, because Marx planned to deal with the problem of natural powers in the chapter on ‘ground rent’ in volume III of Capital, but the manuscript remained unfinished. He talked about this plan explicitly in his Economic Manuscript of 1864-65:
“[T]he whole investigation of the extent to which natural conditions influence the productivity of labour independently of the development of social forces in production, and often in opposition to them, belongs to our consideration of ground-rent.” (p 130)
In his Manuscripts of 1861-63 Marx explains why capitalist production inevitably and boundlessly exploits nature. Here the differentiation between the “formal” and material aspects becomes decisive:
“[A]ll those productive forces which cost nothing… as well as the forces of nature whose application does not give rise to any costs … enter into the labour process without entering into the valorisation process.” (pp 130-1)
Science is appropriated by capital. New materials and auxiliary materials can reduce the constant part of circulating capital and increase productivity with lower costs. Hence there emerges a tendency of capital towards brutal exploitation of the free forces of nature, and a global competitive race after cheaper natural resources.
Capital attempts to compensate for the tendency of the rate of profit to fall with mass production of cheaper commodities and use of cheaper natural resources.
However, these countermeasures only impose more burdens on nature, and clearly cannot last for ever. in a post-1868 economic manuscript (MEGA2 II/4.3 – a volume dealing with various manuscripts for Capital volumes II and III), Marx writes:
“[The] increase of labour’s productive force serves only as compensation of decreasing natural conditions of productivity – and even this compensation may be insufficient ….” (p 134)
Hence it is clear that, in his theory of value, Marx is far from optimistic about sustainable capitalist development, and criticises how the one-sided mediation by abstract labour of the metabolic interaction between humans and labour exhausts and desolates the forces of labour and nature.
‘LIEBIG AND CAPITAL’
But, asks Saito, why did Marx so intensively study natural sciences? We can surmise, he says, that this was in order to analyse the contradictions of the material world as a result of its modification by capital. in the second half of the book, Saito explores the development of Marx’s views throughout his life, examining the MEGA2 materials in particular. These include all 8 original manuscripts for volume II of Capital, and the original manuscript for volume III, revealing some important differences between Marx and engels. The fourth section of MEGA2, when complete, will publish Marx’s excerpts, memos and comments in personal notebooks, often the only source that allows us to trace Marx’s theoretical development after 1868. During the last 15 years of his life Marx produced one third of his notebooks, of which more than half deal with natural sciences.
Saito’s chapter 4 examines the development of Marx’s theory of ground-rent, which he defined in Capital volume III as payment from the capitalist farmer to the landowner. However, the term had a long prehistory before that, going back to Ricardo, who assumed that, if plenty of land was available, then the best would be cultivated first, with less favourable land having to be farmed as the population increased. Agricultural prices would then rise, with the owner of the best land receiving the benefit as differential rent. But, abstracting from concrete reality, Ricardo developed his law of diminishing returns, that not only would there be a constant retreat to less fertile soils, but that there would be diminishing production from successive capital investments on the same land.
Marx struggled with this problem for a long time. In the Poverty of Philosophy, he accepts Ricardo’s theory of differential rent, but not the supposition of diminishing returns, pointing to a possibility of great improvement in soil productivity by instalments of capital. in a letter to engels in 1851, he still refutes the “diminishing returns”, worrying that, if Ricardo is right, then Malthus’s theory of absolute overpopulation will prove correct too.
In the Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63, Marx again intensively engages with Ricardo’s ground-rent theory. He carefully goes into concrete calculations of differential rent so that it can be flexibly extended and generalised to include cases that start with fertile soils and proceed to less fertile ones with increasing productivity of labour. He also formulates, in contrast to Ricardo, the possibility of absolute ground-rent. The organic composition of capital (c/v, the ratio of constant to varying capital) is lower in agriculture than in industrial branches, due to the lower degree of mechanisation, so by selling agricultural products it is possible to attain higher profit than the social average. The surplus profit that arises from the difference of value and production price constitutes the source of absolute rent.
In Marx’s plan of 1861-63 for volume III, the theory of differential rent is subordinated to absolute rent. At this point he still has a theoretical blind spot on soil exhaustion, attributing its cause to the lack of application of both machinery and natural sciences, which can come with capitalist development. But the Economic Manuscript of 1864-65 (the draft adapted by Engels for volume III of Capital) is different: differential rent comes first and has a more important position than absolute rent. Marx includes a new discussion of the law of diminishing returns, and a new treatment of natural fertility, due to his reception of Liebig’s theory.
In volume I of Capital, Marx criticises Liebig for supporting the law of diminishing returns. However, in the Economic Manuscript of 1864-65, Marx writes:
“On the declining productivity of the soil when successive capital investments are made. Liebig should be consulted on this question.” (p 152)
Did Marx change his view between volumes I and III? No, says Saito, because Marx worked again on volume I after writing the manuscript of volume III.
Until at least the 1850s, Liebig shared the popular optimistic idea of the rapid and boundless progress of agriculture. However, in the 7th edition of his Agricultural Chemistry, in 1862, he recognises that there are natural limits to agricultural improvements, particularly the finite amount of available mineral nutrients in the soil and the finite absorption ability of roots and leaves.
Marx in fact changed his understanding in 1865-66 through his study of Liebig’s 7th edition, as discussed below. Saito refers to a notebook of Marx’s in the Marxengels Archive at the international institute of Social History in Amsterdam (MEA, Section B 106), where Marx made notes on Liebig’s book, remarking on Liebig’s recognition of limits, and demonstrating Marx’s interest in the results of experiments that report a non-proportional increase in soil productivity. But, says Saito, what Marx is criticising in volume I is not Liebig’s scientific deductions, but his belief in an affinity with James Mill’s dogmatic vulgarisation of Ricardo’s law of diminishing returns. Liebig’s discoveries allowed Marx to treat the problem of diminishing productivity in agriculture without falling into
Saito says that Marx in 1865 deepened his own insight that nature cannot be arbitrarily subordinated and manipulated through technological development, and that instead social production must be radically reorganised. in the chapter on ‘Large-Scale industry and Agriculture’ in Capital volume I, Marx points to the disturbance of natural metabolism in the sense of robbery of soil fertility, and disturbance of social metabolism in the sense of destruction of the urban and rural worker. That was not just an aside. in the Economic Manuscript of 1864-65, Marx writes:
“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its occupiers, its beneficiaries, and they have to bequeath it in any improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias.”
This paragraph is also quoted by John Bellamy Foster in his interview in CR87.
‘FERTILISER AGAINST ROBBERY AGRICULTURE’
Saito’s chapter 5 aims to trace the development of Marx’s critique of political economy more precisely up to 1867, as a prelude for revealing his project thereafter. We learn that, already in his Manchester Notebooks of 1845, Marx had written about the possibility of advancing natural fertility of soils, based on his reading of James Anderson’s 1801 book, A Calm Investigation of the Circumstances That Have Led to the Present Scarcity of Grain in Britain. This Scottish agronomist and practical farmer problematised the “great waste of manure”, and unmistakeably criticised Malthus. in his 1851 London Notebooks Marx made extracts from an earlier book by Anderson, and later cited passages from it in his Manuscripts of 1861-63: in opposition to Ricardo and Malthus, Marx continued to value Anderson’s ideas about using drainage and manures.
The London Notebooks in fact contain research from various agronomic science books, with an emphasis that only a conscious management of the soil could realise a great advance in agricultural productivity. Marx makes no serious critique of the rapid decrease in soil fertility then occurring in capitalist agriculture, seeming to ascribe the problem to precapitalist and primitive societies. His optimism continues in excerpts from Liebig and from review articles in The Economist about James F W Johnston’s book, Notes on North America.
By careful experiments, Liebig had debunked the so-called “humus theory”, which wrongly assumed the direct contribution of well-decomposed plant residue as the source of plant food, absorbed through roots. His “mineral theory” by contrast emphasised the essential role of soil inorganic materials, which can be exhausted by cultivation, and so must be restored as much as possible by such methods as fallowing, crop rotation, clover and adding manure, bones or manufactured fertiliser. Johnston, a Scottish chemist and geologist, also argued that the farmer can change the character of the land itself, preventing exhaustion by putting in the proper substances at the right times.
Liebig originally considered that ammonia salts were among the minerals which needed to be added to attain a larger crop yield. However, in the 5th edition of his Agricultural Chemistry, he reversed that opinion, prompting a fierce debate with english agronomists John Bennet Lawes and Joseph Henry Gilbert. in a document also in the Marx-engels Archive (Section B 93), Marx notes Liebig’s response that addition of ammonia does indeed increase yields, but only temporarily, as it leads to the more rapid exhaustion of other minerals. in fact, Saito says, Liebig was keen to emphasise the merits of his own mineral fertiliser, so it is not surprising that he did not develop a critique of robbery agriculture until the late 1850s.
Marx’s view only changed with Capital, reflecting his reading of the 7th edition of Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry. His excerpts (MEA, Section B 106, see above) trace Liebig’s changed view, notably his criticism of the widespread neglect of the “law of replenishment”, and the argument that short-sighted increase in production is nothing but robbery of the soil:
“Each land”, says Liebig, will inevitably becomemore infertile not only by continuously exporting its crops, but also by uselessly wasting the products of metabolism that accumulate in large cities. … it is clear to everyone that labour as such gradually but
constantly makes the soil poorer and exhausts it in the end.” (p 198)
Marx’s critique, in Capital volume I, of the disturbance of the metabolic interaction between humanity and nature is clearly based on the above passage.
Liebig also goes on to criticise Great Britain for robbing all countries of their fertility (like modern imperialists, we
“She has already ransacked the battlefields of Leipzig, Waterloo and the Crimea for bones. She has ploughed up and used the skeletons of many generations accumulated in the catacombs of Sicily. And she still destroys yearly the food for a future generation of three and a half million people.” (p 198)
Liebig warns against diminishing returns, but now separates himself from Ricardo by identifying the problem as a specifically modern one, which is the reason why Marx found the theory so attractive. He was thus prompted to read again Johnston’s Notes on North America, concentrating this time on the passages describing soil exhaustion due to robbery agriculture (MEGA2 ii/4.3; MEA Section B 106). In Capital volume I, he characterises North America as the manifestation of the destructive dimension of capitalist production:
“Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.”
In his manuscript for volume III of Capital, Marx also writes that the “metabolic rift” between society and nature results in “a squandering of the vitality of the soil, and trade carries this devastation far beyond the bounds of a single country” (p 206). He may have had in mind Liebig’s criticism of the robbery of guano, for fertiliser, from South American islands, but he may also have been thinking of imports of North American, Irish and Indian products. In Capital volume I he comments that:
“[I]t must not be forgotten that for a century and a half England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.” (p 207)
While, in his Economic Manuscript of 1864-65, he writes that:
“Insofar as English trade has had a revolutionary effect on the mode of production in India, this is simply to the extent that it has destroyed spinning and weaving, which form an age-old and integral part of [the] unity of industrial and agricultural production, through the cheapness (and the underselling) of English commodities.”
By integrating Liebig’s critique of robbery agriculture, Marx therefore deepened his ecological critique of capitalism (and, we may say, colonialism). Saito accepts that Marx hardly wrote again on this theme after volume I of Capital. But he argues that, given the intensive study on such matters, it is inconceivable that Marx suddenly abandoned further research on ecological questions.
‘MARX’S ECOLOGY AFTER 1868’
Saito’s chapter 6 is devoted to an analysis of Marx’s notebooks from 1868 alone, as later notebooks must wait for full publication of section iv of MEGA2. yet even in that year, Marx continued to study natural science books, including some highly critical of Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion. From the titles which he was reading, it is clear that he was aware of a sharp debate which had been generated over Liebig’s thesis of the neglect of the “law of replenishment”. Furthermore, he may well have been concerned that Liebig was getting close to Malthus’s position, in his pessimism that a dark future was in store for European society once the supplies of guano were exhausted. it is noteworthy that for the 2nd edition of Capital in 1872-73, Marx deleted his statement that Liebig was more insightful “than all the works of modern political economists put together”, replacing it with “His historical overview of the history of agriculture, although not free from gross errors, contains flashes of insight” (p 219).
Of particular importance in Marx’s studies was Carl Nikolaus Fraas, an agricultural physicist who emphasised “climatic influences” on vegetation and human civilisation. A heated controversy developed between Fraas and Liebig after 1864, with Fraas arguing that climatic conditions must be taken into account: when they are favourable, cultivation can take place without exhaustion of the soil even if minerals are not returned by humans – which is why traditional agriculture under tropical or subtropical conditions is often sustainable.
He offers an image of sustainable agriculture in Europe where the power of nature itself takes care of the replenishment of soil nutrients.
At the end of his 1857 book The Nature of Agriculture, Fraas directly criticises Liebig, arguing that: (1) there were ancient civilised societies such as Greece and Asia Minor, where people conducted sustainable agriculture without any manure; (2) even if farmers sell their products in the market, they also receive various materials useful for soil replenishment from “brewery, distillation and limekiln”; (3) robbery practice does not exist in forestry; (4) Liebig underestimates the importance of fallow, which is a state of weathering and thus allows more plant nutrients to be available; and (5), regarding Chinese agriculture, even Liebig admits the possibility of increasing agricultural productivity together with an increase of population.
Fraas argues that replenishment of soil minerals takes place naturally and artificially in various places. He does not negate the possibility of soil exhaustion, nor the usefulness of mineral fertiliser, but he regards Liebig’s position as exaggerated. There are other ways, he says, in nature itself to replenish the soils, namely “through weathering, alluvion, irrigation, meteorous materials in rain and meteoric dust, and usage of refuse in manure and excrements.” Alluvion consists of a silt that contains a rich amount of mineral substances, and Fraas suggests constructing canals and water gates so that silt in river water is regulated to cover the fields. Chemical fertiliser, he says, is not a panacea, but only a “climatic adjustment”.
Marx read several of Fraas’s books, making excerpts (MEA Section B, 107 & 111) and commenting positively in a letter to engels on 25 March 1868. Saito says that Marx realised another vision of sustainable agriculture, pointing to the possibility of using the power of nature to enable a rational arrangement of the metabolism between humans and nature. This, suggests Saito, is the probable reason why Marx in 1868 saw the acute necessity for more study of natural sciences.
But Marx was interested in Fraas not only for his critique of Liebig. in the letter to Engels he writes of Fraas’s “unconscious socialist tendency”, referring to the latter’s 1847 book, Climate and the Plant World Over Time. While Liebig argued that robbery cultivation led to the downfall of ancient civilisations through desertification, Fraas says that climatic influence is much more important for vegetation than soil composition, which is essentially determined by humidity, temperature and rain. Using various botanical examples, Fraas tries to show that slow accumulating changes in local climate have a significant impact on human civilisation, because the increasing temperature and dryness of the air are unfavourable for local plants. He sees a significant role for human societies here:
“Great damage to natural vegetation in a region results in a deep transformation of its entire character, and this modified new state of nature is never so favourable to the region and its population as before ….”
Native plants become extinct or migrate, the flora changes, and gradually steppes or deserts are formed. As summarised in Marx’s letter to Engels, and as documented in Marx’s 1867 notebook (MEA, Section B, 112), Fraas argues that deforestation is the most significant cause of desertification, in that it generates rising temperatures and lower humidity, whereas
“The forested areas covered by vegetation retain moisture more firmly and are less heated up by sunlight than infertile areas. [As a result], they also attract more rainfall, and thus these areas are not just cool but also distribute refreshing cool airstream to hot
surrounding areas.” (p 243)
Saito notes that today’s scholars do not necessarily agree with Fraas’s claim of the link between climate and civilisation, but he makes the point that it was Fraas’s work which enabled Marx to widen his theory of metabolism, leading him to study natural sciences more intensively in the 1870s. Reading Fraas’s work, Marx rightly thinks it necessary to investigate much more thoroughly the negative aspect of the development of productive forces and technology, and their disruption of natural metabolism with regard to other factors of production.
Although Marx makes no direct reference to Fraas in his later economic manuscripts, he continued to read about deforestation, and the influence of those studies are visible in the second manuscript for Capital volume II.
He was conscious of the danger not only of a wood shortage but of a changing climate. in the same manuscript he also analyses the p problem of material limits in the shortening of capital’s turnover in stock farming, with calves being sold at “a week and ten days old”, ie before they reach “the economic normal ages”, because the farmers don’t want to pay to rear on milk.
At the outset I said that Saito aims to show that Marx, in the course of his theoretical development, consciously departed from any forms of naïve Prometheanism, and came to regard ecological crises as the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production; and that one cannot comprehend the full scope of Marx’s critique of political economy if the ecological dimension is ignored.
In the Manifesto of the Communist Party Marx and Engels write that
“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, have created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground ….”1
They go on to talk of the proletariat, having become the ruling class, centralising “all instruments of production in the hands of the state, …and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.”2
It is clear that Marx, as a result of his studies, did depart from this early simple optimism about subjugating nature, although in his Paris Notebooks he had already described communism as “the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and nature and man”. Furthermore, there are elements of an ecological approach among the ten immediate communist measures in the Manifesto:
“7. … the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
8. … establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.”3
However, these are just elements, and, taken in the context of the totality of Marx’s writings at the time, it is clear that it took him many years of study before he fully appreciated the depth of capitalism’s disruption of the metabolism between humanity and nature.
For me, Saito does indeed demonstrate that one cannot comprehend the full scope of Marx’s critique of political economy if the ecological dimension is ignored. But I am unconvinced by Saito’s claim that it was as a result of getting to grips with environmental issues that Marx was ultimately unable to complete his magnum opus. Saito certainly provides evidence for the wide range of Marx’s natural science reading which was related to his project.
But after 1867 Marx was of course also engaged in many other areas – the international Working Men’s Association, defence of the Paris Commune, attempting to give leadership to the German Social-Democrats etc – as well as undertaking historical studies as part of the
development of his political economy, all of which interfered with his ability to complete Capital.4
I am likewise sceptical of the claim that Marx came to regard ecological crises as the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production. The unity of opposing tendencies, which is part of capitalism’s “living contradiction”, includes not only that between capital and nature, but between capital and wage-labour. And while capital always has to seek new ways to overcome natural limitations, the resistance of nature is passive and necessarily unconscious. The resistance of wage-labour, initially unconscious, can become increasingly conscious until capitalism is overthrown.
It is this part of capitalism’s “living tradition” which is ignored by first-generation ecosocialists and their supporters. And just as legal measures in the interests of workers’ health require a conscious labour movement to carry them forward, and cannot be secure until the rule of capital is overthrown, so too must it require the organised power of the working class to challenge capital’s unbridled destruction of the environment. Both aspects are essential for the working class because they limit capital’s ability for expansion and so strengthen the working class’s own relative position.
It goes without saying that the specific environmental issues faced by Marx could in no way be expected to be the same as today. in particular, while John Tyndall in 1859 had established the experimental basis for the idea that carbon dioxide (CO2) helped regulate climate through the ‘greenhouse effect’, it was only in 1896 that Svante Arrhenius proposed (and somewhat favourably!) that CO2 from fossil fuel combustion could lead to global warming.5 Nonetheless, Saito does show that Marx was aware of the potential risks of damaging climate change from unconstrained human activities.
All in all, Saito’s book is a valuable asset for understanding that it is capitalism which is the main danger to the environment, through capital’s drive for expansion that regards both labour power and nature as resources to be exploited without consideration of the consequences.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- K Marx and F engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Collected Works, vol 6, p 489.
- bid, p 504.
- bid, p 505.
- P N Fedoseyev et al, Karl Marx: A Biography, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1989, p 417ff.
- J Bellamy Foster and P Burkett, Marx and the Earth, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2017, pp 101-2.