Marx, Socialism and the Ecology
Students often reproached me for being theoretical. I never denied that. I always said then that you do not need to confuse the notion of praxis with that of practice. In my opinion, Marx connected theory and praxis in the real Aristotelian sense: for him theory was praxis.
— A. Th. Van Leeuwen
Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (KME) deals with how Marx conceived of the metabolism between humankind and nature. He shows the development in Marx’s thought concerning the relation between humankind and nature in capitalist society. In addition, he refers to the consequences of Marx’s ecological dimension for theorizing about a future socialist, communist society which led, for example, to Marx’s statement in his Economic Manuscript of 1864-65:
From the standpoint of a higher socioeconomic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in another man. 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 an improved state to the succeeding generations as boni patres familias. (cited on p. 173, here and below, emphasis in original).
In his “Acknowledgments,” Saito writes that KME is the English version of the German edition, which is based on his dissertation. In the German edition, he states that the inspiration for this book has its origin in his editing activity for Volume IV/18 (soon to appear) of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA²), which will contain Marx’s ecological notebooks.
Uncovering Marx’s Ecology
KME is an intervention in the contemporary debates about ecological problems within contemporary Marxism and about the significance of ecological elements in Marx’s critique of political economy.
Before engaging ourselves directly with Saito’s book it is good to be aware of what is at stake when we discuss the metabolism between humankind and nature: the living conditions of organic life on this planet.
Take, for example, water. It is one of the preconditions for organic life. When the supply of water is blocked or disrupted, this will have a great impact on organic life, for water is, as we all know, one of the bare necessities of life for human beings, other animals, and plants. Two recent events illustrate this impact on the living conditions of human beings.
The first event concerns the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. Reservoirs in Cape Town and surrounding areas are now less than a quarter full. The largest dam supplying water to the city, the Theewaterskloof Dam, is filled to only 11.3% of capacity. As Amitabh Sinha asks in her report in Indian Express, 26 February 2018, “Is it climate change?” And she continues: “Probably yes, although it is difficult to ascertain the impact of climate change over a small geographical region. The area is prone to fluctuations in rainfall, and climate change does accentuate the variability. According to professor Mark New, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Climate Change at the African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town, preliminary analysis suggests that three-year cumulative rainfall deficits (as in the current situation) have become five times more likely due to global warming.”
The second event is the Flint water crisis and its health consequences starting in 2014/ 2015. As the Editors of Access Science reported in 2017 concerning this event:
The water crisis that gripped the city of Flint, Michigan, in 2014 and 2015—and which is still felt to the present day—became one of the most notorious and scandalous public health disasters in recent United States history. The immediate cause was the contamination of the municipal water supply with toxic lead and dangerous bacteria, but the true cause is widely considered to be colossal mismanagement and unsound cost-cutting measures imposed on the city. Compounding the scandal is the fact that the population of Flint is disproportionately poor and African-American, suggesting to many critics that such mismanagement might not have occurred in a place with a wealthier, whiter population. Although the most acute health consequences of the crisis may be over, the long-term effects, particularly from the lead exposure, may take years to emerge.
With the water crisis in Cape Town there is talk of climate change and global warming and in Flint, of health disasters, mismanagement, and unsound cost-cutting measures, as well as their disproportionate impact on poor people and African-Americans in Flint.
These reported disruptions in the natural environment of humankind, in the relation between humankind and nature in capitalist society, are not random occurrences. We find them all over the world and they touch upon all aspects of organic life. Moreover, the number of these disruptions is growing. All aspects of the living conditions for organic life are endangered by the use of nuclear energy (Fukushima), the use of pesticides in agriculture, the cutting of forests (Amazon region), air pollution by motorized traffic and industry, global warming by CO² emission, etc. Actually, these events demonstrate that there is something fundamentally problematic in the relation between humankind and nature, the so-called metabolism between humankind and nature in capitalist society. These ecological problems are, besides war, the most frequent cause of great migration movements in the world.
Marx’s thought with regard to ecology has been neglected for a long time or has been misunderstood, both within and outside Marxism. Saito shows that Marx’s concern with the relation between humankind and nature is already present at an early stage of his thinking. But he also brings to the fore the notion that we can not really discover an explicit notion of ecology at this early stage.
As to the intention of KME, Saito writes,
…in this book I will demonstrate that Marx’s ecological critique possesses a systematic character and constitutes an essential moment within the totality of his project of Capital. Ecology does not simply exist in Marx’s thought— my thesis is a stronger one. I maintain that it [is] not possible to comprehend the full scope of his critique of political economy if one ignores its ecological dimension (pp. 13-14).
This is opposed to two lines of misunderstanding of Marx’s ecological thought.
First, there is the line of thinking that attributes to Marx a certain “Prometheanism.” This is a notion “according to which unlimited technological development under capitalism allows humans to arbitrarily manipulate external nature” (p. 9).
Saito refers to representatives of this line of thinking like John Passmore, who writes, “nothing could be more ecologically damaging than the Hegelian-Marxist doctrine” (cited on p. 9). He also mentions Thomas Petersen and Malte Faber, who write that Marx was “too optimistic in terms of his supposition that any production process can be arranged in such a manner that it does not incur any environmentally harmful materials” (cited on p. 10). Saito refers further to Hans Immler, who even argued that “due to its one-sided concentration on value and value analysis and due to its fundamental neglect of the physical and natural sphere (use values, nature, sensuousness),” Marx’s critique “remains unable to address and analyze… those developments of social practice that result not only in the most fundamental threats to life, but also represent decisive impulses toward a transformation of socio-economic reality, such as ecological politics.” For Immler there is no other conclusion than: “So forget about Marx” (cited on p. 10).
The Prometheanism interpretation concerning Marx’s ecology, writes Saito, is outdated when one considers the development of Marxist ecology in Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature (1999) and John Bellamy Foster’s Marx Ecology (2000). Burkett and Foster “convincingly showed various unnoticed or suppressed ecological dimensions of his critique of political economy and opened a way to emancipate Marx’s theory from the Promethean stereotype dominant in the 1980s and ‘90s” (p. 11). They are the founders of the notion of the “metabolic rift” (violation of ecological sustainability conditions) in the relation between humankind and nature. In addition, the work of Burkett and Foster has been an inspiration for Marxist ecological research in different areas, which has resulted in new research on eco- feminism, ecological imperialism and on climate change.
Central to these studies is the approach of environmental crises as a contradiction of capitalism based upon the metabolic rift.
Saito discerns a second line of misunderstanding about Marx’s ecology in the theories of the so-called “first-stage eco-socialists.” Among its representatives he considers Ted Benton, André Gorz, Michael Löwy, James O’Connor, and Alain Lipietz. In their writings, there is in Saito’s opinion a persistent reservation toward accepting Marx’s ecology (p. 11). However, Saito does not elaborate on this, but proceeds to mention some of their newer adherents, who “recognize the validity of Marx’s ecological notions to a limited extent, but are claiming that his analysis was fatally flawed in its failure to be fully ecological and that his nineteenth-century discussions of the ecological problem are of little importance today” (p. 12).
Although Saito has a positive assessment of the contribution of Burkett and Foster in uncovering ecological dimensions in Marx’s work, he also remarks that “their analyses sometimes give a false impression that Marx did not deal with the topic in a systematic but only in a sporadic and marginal way” (p. 12).
By responding to the misunderstandings about Marx’s notion of ecology and by extending the uncovering of the ecological dimensions in Marx’s work by Burkett and Foster, Saito proposes to carry out a systemic and complete reconstruction of Marx’s ecology.
The book contains two parts. Part I, “Ecology and Economy,” shows that “it is thus necessary to reveal the immanent systematic character of Marx’s ecology, that there is a clear continuity with his critique of political economy.” In Part II, “Marx’s Ecology and the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe,” Saito will examine Marx’s ecology in a more complete way than the earlier literature by “scrutinizing his natural science notebooks that will be published for the first time in the new Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, known as MEGA²” (p. 12).
In these notebooks Marx recorded his studies of the natural sciences and of ecological questions in the nineteenth century, which he integrated into his analysis of capitalism. They show how “…Marx consciously parted from any forms of naïve Prometheanism and came to regard ecological crises as the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production” (p. 13).
Taking together these notebooks and Marx’s German Ideology, Grundrisse, and Capital Saito maintains: “… Marx examined how the historically specific dynamics of capitalist production, mediated by reified economic categories, constitute particular ways of human social praxis toward nature— namely the harnessing of nature to the needs of maximum capital accumulation— and how various disharmonies and discrepancies in nature must emerge out of this capitalist deformation of the universal metabolism of nature” (p. 15).
Critical Interlude: The Philosophy of Revolution, the Critique of Political Economy, and Conceptualizing the End of Capitalism
Important parts of the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (EPM) concern the relation between humankind and nature, mainly in capitalist society and partly during feudalism.
In the EPM, in the manuscript on “Alienated [Estranged] Labour,” Marx is writing about the alienation of human beings in capitalist society. Human beings are alienated from nature and from the products they create in the production process, are alienated in the activity they carry out to produce these products, and are alienated from themselves and from other people.
Saito refers to Marx’s notion of the alienation of the human being from nature as a key but implicit ecological notion. In the EPM, he writes, “Marx sees the reason for the emergence of modern alienated life in a radical dissolution of the original unity between humans and nature… capitalism is fundamentally characterized by alienation of nature and a distorted relationship between humans and nature.” That is why Marx comes to his “emancipatory idea of ‘humanism = naturalism’ as a project of reestablishing the unity between humanity and nature against capitalist alienation” (p. 14).
He goes on to write, “Marx in The German Ideology discerns the inadequacy of his earlier project, which simply opposes a philosophical ‘idea’ against the alienated reality” (p. 14). The reason behind this inadequacy is said to be Marx’s conclusion that he has to distance himself from Feuerbach’s philosophical schema. However, Saito notes, “Throughout the process of the development of his critique of political economy, Marx never gave up his 1844 insight in terms of the original unity of humans and nature” (p. 50). But Saito goes a step further in his evaluation of what he sees as Marx’s Feuerbachianism in the EPM. He goes so far as to extend Marx’s distancing from Feuerbachianism to one from of all of philosophy: “The German Ideology together with Theses on Feuerbach, documents the moment when Marx decisively distanced himself from philosophy and began to move forward to the non-philosophic conception of the unity between humanity and nature” (p. 51).
Let us look more closely at these interpretations of Marx and philosophy.
In his assessment of the 1844 EPM Saito conceives of Marx as “still very much influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach’s philosophy. As a result, he tended to connect his historical analysis with an abstract and ahistorical ‘human essence,’ and further, his critical understanding of the capitalist mode of production was not very profound. Nevertheless, Marx soon came to notice the theoretical limitations of Feuerbach’s philosophy of essence and succeeded in fully rejecting its abstract critique of alienation in his Theses on Feuerbach  and The German Ideology  and thereby establishing in 1845 a theoretical basis for his later research in natural science” (pp. 26-27).
Of course, when we compare Marx’s knowledge of the capitalist mode of production at the time of the EPM with his later research and findings in economics, we could say that his knowledge was not yet very profound. But it is equally true that he made a major step forward at the very beginning of his critique of political economy by questioning fundamentally the assumptions of classical political economy.
Saito is identifying Marx’s notion of alienation in the EPM almost entirely with Feuerbach’s philosophical notions. This would hold too for the notion of “species being [Gattungswesen)].”
In my opinion, Saito misses the point here.
In the EPM there are some undoubtedly Feuerbachian influences. We can in this context refer, for example, to Marx’s Preface to the EPM in which he writes about the positive contributions of Feuerbach. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm#Preface
But it is quite another thing, I think, to state that Marx, along the lines of Feuerbach, tended to connect his historical analysis with an abstract and ahistorical “human essence.” The error of such an interpretation of Marx as more-or-less Feuerbachian in 1844 can be discerned if we turn to an important section of the EPM, “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society,” where we read: “If man’s feelings, passions, etc., are not merely anthropological phenomena in the [narrower] sense, but truly ontological affirmations of being (of nature), and if they are only really affirmed because their object exists for them as a sensual object, then it is clear that…” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm
Marx specifies this with a list of five points. Particularly important here is the fourth of these, where he connects his notions of anthropology and ontology with practical philosophy: “(4) Only through developed industry—i.e., through the medium of private property—does the ontological essence of human passion come into being, in its totality as in its humanity; the science of man is therefore itself a product of man’s establishment of himself by practical activity.”
This is a notion of philosophy, in particular a philosophy of humankind as species being [Gattungswesen], which is very different from that of Feuerbach. Statements about natural species, nature, and transformation of nature, also from the EPM, indicate that he uses the term species with a meaning totally different from that of Feuerbach. He writes in “Alienated Labour”:
The life of the species, both in man and in animals, consists physically in the fact that man (like the animal) lives on organic nature; and the more universal man (or the animal) is, the more universal is the sphere of inorganic nature on which he lives. Just as plants, animals, stones, air, light, etc., constitute theoretically a part of human consciousness, partly as objects of natural science, partly as objects of art – his spiritual inorganic nature, spiritual nourishment which he must first prepare to make palatable and digestible – so also in the realm of practice they constitute a part of human life and human activity. Physically man lives only on these products of nature, whether they appear in the form of food, heating, clothes, a dwelling, etc. (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm
Marx proceeds to clarify his notion of nature: “The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganic body – both inasmuch as nature is (1) his direct means of life, and (2) the material, the object, and the instrument of his life activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm
What about The German Ideology? of 1846, two years later? Is Marx here negating philosophy or distancing himself from it?
In the part of The German Ideology in which Marx deals with the philosophical conceptions of the Young Hegelians and specifically with Feuerbach’s notion of philosophy, he writes:
When reality is depicted, philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge loses its medium of existence. At the best its place can only be taken by a summing-up of the most general results, abstractions which arise from the observation of the historical development of men. Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever. They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material, to indicate the sequence of its separate strata. But they by no means afford a recipe or schema, as does philosophy, for neatly trimming the epochs of history. On the contrary, our difficulties begin only when we set about the observation and the arrangement – the real depiction – of our historical material, whether of a past epoch or of the present. The removal of these difficulties is governed by premises which it is quite impossible to state here, but which only the study of the actual life-process and the activity of the individuals of each epoch will make evident. (my emphasis— K.L.) (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm#a2)
In writing that “philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge loses its medium of existence” Marx is departing from or distancing himself from the traditional notion of philosophy, philosophy as “apart from real history.” This conception of philosophy is present in the Young Hegelians and in Feuerbach, which results in their notion of changing society by reforming consciousness. Marx, on the other hand, is creating a new form of philosophy, a philosophy that is connected to real history and thus with the practical activity of individuals, a philosophy in which there is a unity of theory and praxis. Marx is already laying a strong basis for this new philosophy in the EPM. When one reads texts of Marx before the EPM, for example, in the German-French Yearbooks, one can see that he was already working to develop this new form of philosophy.
In the context of Marx’s Early Essays (mainly, but not only the EPM) it is relevant to cite what Raya Dunayevskaya writes to Erich Fromm in a letter of October 11, 1961:
What matters is their present cogency of and the need to discuss the Humanism of Marx concretely… I mean the discussion must be in terms of what Marx called the ‘abolition’ of philosophy through its ‘realization,’ that is to say, by putting an end to the division between life and philosophy, work and life, and the different intellectual disciplines and work as the activity of man, the whole of man, the man with heart, brain and physical power, including the sensitivity and the genius of arts.
Concerning the “realization” of philosophy, she refers to Marx’s remark in the “Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” (1844) to the effect that “you cannot abolish [aufheben] philosophy without realizing it.” Marx wrote, she adds, that “the practical political party in Germany demands the negation of philosophy” and that it wants to do so “by turning its back on philosophy and with averted face uttering a few trite and angry phrases about it.”
Interesting here is that while the date of publication of this Introduction was 1844, Marx actually wrote it in 1843.
We see thus that instead of leaving philosophy after the EPM, Marx is concretizing more and more his new philosophy in the Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology, a process of creation that, as I showed above, had already started even before the EPM.
This notion of this new form of philosophy can also be found much later in Marx’s work. In the Introduction to the Grundrisse (1857/58) he discusses philosophy in terms of a notion of totality:
The totality as it appears in the head, as a totality of thoughts, is a product of a thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way it can, a way different from the artistic, religious, practical and mental appropriation of this world. The real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before; namely as long as the head’s conduct is merely speculative, merely theoretical. Hence, in the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition. (my emphasis— K.L.) (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch01.htm)
Nor did he stop discussing his new philosophy after the Grundrisse, as can be seen in his reaction to Dühring’s review of Capital, Volume 1:
My relationship with Hegel is very simple. I am a disciple of Hegel, and the presumptuous chatter of the epigones who think they have buried this great thinker appear frankly ridiculous to me. Nevertheless, I have taken the liberty of adopting a critical attitude, disencumbering his dialectic of its mysticism and thus putting it through a profound change.
Thus, we see that all along the line in Marx’s diving into political economy, his critique of political economy is an activity within the framework of his new philosophy. And that is not without a reason.
Tomonaga Tairako writes (Philosophy and Practice in Marx, in: Congrès Marx V, octobre 2007):
The dialectic method is applied to the critique of political economy for the sake of his [Marx’s] interest in recognizing the importance of the praxis of individuals who are in their daily life caught in actually existent appearance. Thus, we are led to a new theoretical perspective on the problem of the historical overcoming of capitalism. According to this new perspective, the end of capitalism should not be argued in the limited framework of the critique of political economy. To discuss the historical ending of capitalism, Marx’s economic theory must be combined with a theory of the praxis of individuals. The theoretical transition from the critique of political economy to the theory of praxis is to be prepared by the theory of alienation.
This new form of philosophy is fundamental to Marx’s discussion about the transcendence of capitalism. A central point here is the unity of theory and praxis. Because of this, Dunayevskaya calls this new philosophy Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution.
Nature, the Natural Sciences, and Subjectivity
In connecting nature and the natural sciences, the Italian Marxist Angelo Baracca writes:
Humankind, in its (material and conceptual) productive activity, establishes a relationship with nature. What humankind really experiences and what is knowable for it is just this relationship between nature and social activity.” He emphasizes too the class determinedness of our research on and knowledge of nature: “Obviously nature, as a counterpart [to humankind— K.L] poses some restrictions but the kind of things, relations and laws that are investigated is determined in the first place by the social (class) relations dominating at the social level.
In his critique of political economy, from The Poverty of Philosophy through the writing of Capital Volume 1, Marx takes up the problematic of ground rent in capitalist society. In this research he picks up developments in the science of physiology that were derived from agricultural metabolic thought. As we consider the class determinedness of natural science in this respect, we should not forget that at the time “physiology” and “metabolic thinking” had arisen in a society where agriculture was predominant.
The concept “metabolism” dates to the 19th century, about the 1840s. It is one of the scientific results of the enormous capitalist development in industry — and above all in agriculture — in the first half of the 19th century. Agriculture certainly stimulated sciences like chemistry and physiology. According to Saito, when Justus von Liebig began to develop and use the concept of metabolism, Saito suggests that it did not reach beyond “an incessant process of organic exchange of old and new compounds through combinations, assimilations, and excretions so that every organic action can continue” (p. 69). Soon, however, Liebig gave this a broader meaning concerning the interaction of living beings with the environment as well. The concept in its broader meaning, that of the interaction of organic life with the environment, was going to play a dominant role as an analogy far beyond the natural sciences, in both philosophy and political economy. In Liebig’s more developed concept of metabolism, both chemistry and physiology are important elements. This is not surprising for a scientist who was also a manufacturer of artificial fertilizer.
Marx would take up the concept of physiology as he developed his critique of political economy and his research on the relations between humankind and nature. It would play “a central role in his [critique of- K.L.] political economy” in the Grundrisse and later in Capital, as Marx sought to understand “the dynamic and interactive relationship between humans and nature mediated by labor” (p. 63).
The first time Marx uses the term “metabolism” is in Reflection, an excerpt in his London notebooks of the early 1850s. This has already been published in MEGA² IV/8. His notion metabolism can be traced back to his reading of a manuscript by Roland Daniels, Mikrokosmos. Entwurf einer physiologischen Anthropologie (Microcosm. Outline for a Physiological Anthropology). Daniels, a physician and comrade of Marx, asked him to critique his manuscript, which Marx received in February 1851. This date is important, because it indicates that Marx had already become familiar with aspects of physiology before making his excerpts from Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry which he began in July 1851 (p. 73). Although Marx did in fact distance himself from most of Daniels’s ideas, the manuscript inspired him to use physiological concepts as analogies in his critique of political economy.
Marx was also acquainted with Wilhelm Roscher’s Principles of Political Economy (1854). Roscher also drew on physiological concepts in his studies of political economy. As Saito notes “Roscher calls these constant transformations of various materials in the everlasting process of production and consumption within a society Stoffwechsel (metabolism)…” Moreover, “though he contrasts ‘form’ and ‘material’ [economic form and the material manifestation of this economic form— K.L.], he is not able to abstract the pure economic exchanges of form between commodity and money, but instead confuses the role of exchanges of form with the transformation of matter” (pp. 76-77).
After describing these two sources for Marx concerning the concept of metabolism Saito notes, “His sources of inspiration are not so apparent after the reading of Daniels and Roscher because, following his own purpose of developing a system of political economy, Marx generalized and modified the concept as well” (p. 78). This gave later interpreters room to bring in other scientists as his sources. Saito mentions in this context Alfred Schmidt and Amy Wendling.
Schmidt’s Der Begriff der Natur in der Lehre von Marx [The Concept of Nature in Marx] (1993, 4th ed.) views Jakob Moleschott as a source for Marx’s engagement with metabolism. Feuerbach and Moleschott were close to each other in philosophical and scientific terms. Moleschott’s notion of metabolism, in Saito’s opinion, reduces all appearances in the world to the true materialist principle of essence, i.e., “matter”, in what, however, is more or less a form of Feuerbachian philosophy. This suggests that Moleschott’s notion of metabolism actually ends up in a Feuerbachian anthropology. This is why Saito sees Schmidt’s interpretation as an erroneous one.
As to Wendling, Saito notes that she holds in her Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation (2009) that Marx’s notion of labor in the 1840s is ontologically rooted because of the influence of Aristotle, Locke, Smith, and Hegel. In her analysis, Saito writes, Marx would develop another orientation in the 1850s. In her interpretation Marx “began to emphasize the ‘thermodynamic’ theory of value in contrast to Liebig” in agreement with Ludwig Büchner and Moleschott (p. 86). Wendling discerns in Liebig’s concept of metabolism only a notion of vitalism. Moreover, she overlooks its ecological component. Saito writes that there is not much proof of Marx’s engagement with the study of thermodynamics. But besides that, Wendling’s study, basing herself on Büchner as an inspiration for Marx’s transformation of his concept of labor, is flawed, in part because she refers to the English translation of Büchner’s Stoff und Kraft: Empirisch- naturwissenschaftliche Studien (1858), which has errors in the translation that take the edge off of her argument.
Saito concludes that Schmidt and Wendling downplay the role of Liebig’s conception of metabolism in Marx’s theory and that Wendling even elides the ecological dimension of Marx’s studies in the natural sciences.
Saito refers to two other scientific works from the areas of agronomics and physiology in order to refute the arguments of Schmidt and Wendling and to emphasize that physiology ‘was in the air’, but in a non-Feuerbachian way. These are the German physiologist and natural philosopher Carl Gustav Carus’s System of Physiology (1839) and agronomist and historian of agriculture Carl Fraas’s The Nature of Agriculture (1857). Since Carus was mentioned in Daniels’s manuscript and in his letter to Marx, Saito concludes that it is plausible that Marx knew of Carus’s notions about physiology. And although Marx would excerpt Fraas after 1868, it is possible that he had earlier knowledge of his physiological theories. The theories of Carus and Fraas correspond in any case with Marx’s integration of physiological aspects in the Grundrisse and Capital.
In developing his critique of political economy, Marx uses physiology as analogy and this has an ecological dimension. Marx will begin to study in depth the production process (the nature of capital and of wage labor) under capitalism and the relation between the earth and human beings in this process. He will compare these relations to those of precapitalist social formations and will point to the consequences of this relation for a future society no longer based upon value production.
Already in the Grundrisse, Marx analyses value and use value. Here, he refuses to restrict himself to questions concerning “form,” such as “What is a commodity?” or “What is value?” but also delves into questions of “matter.” As Saito writes, “Marx’s systematic analysis of economic categories includes the process by which economic form determination by capital actively modifies the material dimension of the world, but at the same time repeatedly confronts various limitations” (pp. 91-92). Marx also uses physiology in the Grundrisse in an analogical way in order to get grip on the difference between “fixed capital” and “circulating capital” as parts of constant capital:
The particular nature of use value, in which value exists, or which now appears as capital’s body, here appears as itself a determinant of the form and of the action of capital (cited on p. 93).
Here, Saito brings to the fore the material aspect of capital in Marx’s critique of political economy. This is important for the relation between humankind and nature in capitalist society. This is because, with this notion of Marx, we touch upon the so-called “elastic power of capital,” which is based on “various elastic characteristics of the material world that can be both intensively and extensively exploited according to capital’s needs” (p. 95). That is why “capital exploits the whole world in search of new useful and cheap raw materials, new technologies, new use values, and new markets, and it develops new natural sciences so that neither bad seasons nor resource scarcity bring about difficulty for capital accumulation” (pp. 95-96). Although KME focuses mainly on agriculture, it is clear that the material side of capital includes all capital in the productive sphere.
Saito writes that the analysis of these concrete manifestations is beyond the scope of KME and restricts his study by pointing to the fact that capital “reinforces its tendency to exploit natural forces (including human labor power) in search of cheaper raw and auxiliary materials, foods, and energies on a global scale” (p. 96).
At this point, Saito concludes that the above considerations can “provide the basic idea that the natural conditions of production can impede capital accumulation.” Moreover, Marx is going to study the natural sciences in order “to understand which properties of the ‘material sides’ can be used for the sake of an effective capital valorisation and what works against it” in order “to comprehend the possible resistance against capital from the perspective of the material world” (p. 97).
If we consider impediments to capital accumulation from natural conditions, we have to do with a specific phenomenon in terms of crisis. That is why Saito turns to Marx’s notions of value and reification in Capital. In Capital, Marx states that value is a social construction and he “calls value a ‘phantom-like objectivity’ because abstract labor cannot be materially objectified after abstraction of all concrete aspects. It appears only in a ‘phantom-like’ manner” (p. 107). However, abstract labor is not only social; it also has a material aspect: it is “physiological because it plays a social role in a transhistorical [trans-epochal] fashion in any society” (p. 108). Saito does not refer here to what Marx in this context emphasizes and we should not forget, the “practical importance” of value production at a certain stage of social development:
This division of a product into a useful thing and a value becomes practically important, only when exchange has acquired such an extension that useful articles are produced for the purpose of being exchanged, and their character as values has therefore to be taken into account, beforehand, during production. (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm#S4)
For Saito, what is of prime concern is that “Marx’s point is that a certain material aspect of human activity, in this case labor’s pure physiological expenditure, receives a specific economic form and a new social function under capitalistically constituted social relations” (p. 109). This has important consequences for the metabolism between human beings and nature in capitalist society: “Since social production is nothing but the regulation of the metabolic interaction between humans and nature, value is now its mediator, which means that the expenditure of abstract labor is primarily taken into account in the metabolic process” (p. 109).
Although, as we saw, Marx already in the Grundrisse had pointed to the significance of “matter” and in Capital emphasizes too the material dimension for his critique of political economy, this issue “was largely underestimated in recent debates within Western Marxism” (p. 100). In these debates, there was only the theorizing of the “form-aspect” of political economy. Or, as in the theory of Alfred Sohn-Rethel (p. 118), the material dimension was opposed to the social dimension in capitalist society. Moreover, all these “form” theoreticians explained the creation of value in capitalist society through the exchange of commodities. This occurred after the production process, as opposed to Marx’s notion that what is central is that “their character as values has therefore to be taken into account, beforehand, during production.” (See above). It will be clear that when one negates the material dimension in the critique of political economy, one loses sight of the development of Marx’s concept of ecology.
In order to analyse more closely the material dimension of labor power and capital in the metabolism between humankind and nature in capitalist society, Saito uses KME to introduce the theory of the Kuruma School. It holds that in capitalist society there is a “real contradiction: that in spite of the mutual dependence of all producers the labors of individuals… must be carried out as a matter of fully private calculations and judgements” (p. 106). Thus, one of the most important elements in this theory is bringing to the fore the notion of reification in Capital, emphasizing that “Human practice is inverted into the movement of labor products and dominated by it, not in a person’s head, but in reality” (p. 111). This will have a great influence on the consciousness of people when capitalist society develops. It will bring about “a new model of modern subjectivity, which internalizes the ‘rationality’ of this inverted world, so that ‘Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham,’ as Marx bitingly characterizes the capitalist market, become absolutized as the universal norms, without taking into account the fundamental inverted structure of this society…” (p. 112).
This process of inversion and internalization is one side of the working of value, labor power and capital in capitalist society.
There is, however, another side of the “inverted structure of this [capitalist] society” to which Saito refers. He writes: “The main problem of capitalist eco-crises is not just that capitalism…, will sometime in the future suffer from the increasing price and lack of raw materials (and a possible corresponding falling rate of profit) and will no longer efficiently satisfy human needs.” The crux of this other side is here: “Rather, the problem lies in the subjective experience of alienation, ensuring that the capitalist mode of production undermines the material foundation for sustainable human development due to the metabolic rift” (my emphasis-K.L.) (p. 136). To illustrate such a subjective experience of alienation, Saito refers to two chapters in Capital, Volume 1, “The Working Day” and “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry.”
In the case of “The Working Day,” the class struggle about the length of the working day is involved. Saito writes that “the limit of the labor day cannot be derived from the formal logic of capital alone, and that is why the restriction of the power of reification must be imposed through an external compulsion.” Saito adds that for Marx, this struggle to restrict the length of the working day is “strategically of great importance precisely because it consciously transforms the social practice that unconsciously bestows the power of reification” (p. 126).
As to “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” Saito bases himself on Harry Braverman, who writes that the “dominance of capital is not simply based on its monopoly of the means of production, but rather on its monopoly of technology and knowledge” (p. 127). This point by Braverman is open to discussion. In any case, what matters is that the real subsumption of labor under capital ensures that the workers are deprived of their skills and thus of their subjective capacities. The incessant revolution in the production process in capitalist society contains, however, a dialectical moment: It “creates the conditions for all-sided mobility, variety, and flexibility of these workers…” Thus, we see “emerge the social necessity for publicly financed institutions for training workers’ skills and knowledge” (p. 128).
In the context of this dialectical moment Marx is discussing in Capital “the establishment of technical and agricultural schools, and of ‘écoles d’enseignement professionnel,’ in which the children of the working-men receive some little instruction in technology and in the practical handling of the various implements of labour.” And he adds: “There is also no doubt that such revolutionary ferments, the final result of which is the abolition of the old division of labour, are diametrically opposed to the capitalistic form of production, and to the economic status of the labourer corresponding to that form.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch15.htm#S9)
Capitalists are always searching for surplus value, but they are mostly interested in extra surplus value. They can gain it when they are able to organize the production process so that their commodities are produced with a quantity of labor time that is below the social average.
Besides the increase of productivity, manifested in social life as division of labor, cooperation, and machinery, capitalists can increase productivity by using natural forces. According to Marx, this shows “how use value, which originally appears to us only as the material substratum of the economic relations, itself intervenes to determine the economic category” (cited on p. 131).
I wrote above about Saito’s reference to the elasticity of capital and its consequences. He proceeds here by stating: “Marx’s ecological critique shows that a certain use value of nature is deeply modified under capitalism in favour of valorization, and that the elasticity of nature is the reason for capital’s intensive and extensive exploitation of nature” (pp. 132-133). Saito concludes: “The cause of modern ecological crises is not the insufficient level of technological development but economic form determinations of the transhistorical process of metabolic interchange between humans and nature” (p. 133).
It is true that the historically specific determinations are the cause of these ecological crises. In this context, it is, however, not so much the “insufficient” level of technological development as instead the capitalist class-determined nature of technology and science that make an important contribution to these types of crises. Such considerations actually confirm the contradictory nature of capital.
Thus, in its quest for profit (the money expression for surplus value), capital is indifferent to both the living conditions of the laborers and the ecological consequences in nature for humankind.
We saw that Saito takes up the other side of the inverted structure of capitalist society by referring to two chapters in Capital, “The Working Day” and “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,” in which we discover the potential, or the revolutionary ferment pointing toward a human society which is really sustainable, i.e., a society that is producing on a non-value basis.
Saito writes that the transition to such a society, an alternative to capitalist society, will not come automatically, but requires socialist theory and praxis.
It is here that I would like to draw attention to the relevance of Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution to which I referred above. This new form of philosophy — and not Marx’s leaving of all philosophy behind — opens up the way to a type of subjectivity that we need for the transition to a human and sustainable society as an alternative to capitalist society.
Dunayevskaya characterizes this type of subjectivity as “one which rests on ‘the transcendence of the opposition between the Notion and Reality,’ [it] is the subjectivity which has ‘absorbed’ objectivity, that is to say, through its struggle for freedom it gets to know and cope with the objectively real. Its maturity unfolds, as Marx put it in Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic, ‘when actual corporeal Man, standing on firm and well rounded earth, inhaling and exhaling all natural forces…does not depart from its “pure activity” in order to create the object… We see here how thorough-going Naturalism, or Humanism, distinguishes itself both from Idealism and Materialism, and, at the same time, it is the truth uniting both’” (Marxism and Freedom, p. 327, from Ch. 17 on Mao Zedong, added for the Japanese edition).
Marx in 1865 and 1868: Investigation Oriented Toward Sustainability in Production
The issues taken of by KME have not been exhausted by the above discussion, not by a long way. I have already referred to Marx’s research on ground rent in capitalist society and what it meant for the development of his critique of political economy. We saw the growing concretization of his insight into the material limits for capital accumulation and the possibility of the coming into being of a new revolutionary subjectivity.
That is part of the story. In what follows, I will examine how Saito investigates Marx’s engagement with ground rent in capitalist society with respect to sustainable production and how this is connected with these material limits and with the new subjectivity.
Marx was planning to write extensively about ground rent in Capital, Volume 3, but he never completed it. That is why Engels edited Volume 3 on the basis of Marx’s manuscripts. The “unfinished” character of Volume 3 holds for the whole of Marx’s critique of political economy.
The way in which Marx deals with ground rent under capitalism, Saito writes, does provide insight into “how Marx came to recognize the environmental unsustainability of the capitalist mode of production as the contradiction of capitalism, and to urge realizing sustainable production in the future society” (p. 142).
By tracing the way that Marx investigated ground rent in capitalist society in the context of sustainable production, Saito will use all of Marx’s work that is presently available. In particular, he will guide us through MEGA² section II, which contains Marx’s “economic” publications and manuscripts from 1857/58 onwards, connected with the Capital project. He also uses MEGA2 section IV in which Marx’s excerpt notebooks have been published. Moreover, he turns to the handwritten Marx Engels Archives (MEA) for still-to-be published materials and to marginal notes from Marx’s private library. The economic manuscripts in section II, the excerpts in section IV, and the MEA and marginal notes are of great relevance for an understanding of how Marx developed his way of thinking about sustainability in production.
The beginning of Marx’s engagement with ground rent can be found in his critique of the political economy of Ricardo not long after the EPM. In The Poverty of Philosophy of 1847, writes Saito, Marx is “arguing similarly [to Ricardo] that the owners of produce of fruitful soils can attain a surplus due to the price difference compared with production under unfavourable conditions” (p. 144). This surplus is differential ground rent. However, Ricardo is also writing about “diminishing returns”, i.e., that “the additional investment of capital on the same lands cannot compensate the various different natural fertilities because the output does not increase proportionally to the investment but only at a decreasing rate…” (p. 143). Marx does not agree with this last aspect of Ricardo’s theory. He sees possibilities to increase the productivity of agriculture from science and technology. In this sense, he is optimistic and fits in the tradition of an optimistic view as to the power of science and technology that was so dominant in the first half of the 19th century. Marx will hold to this optimistic view until 1865.
Saito remarks that as late as the Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63, Marx still assumes that “agricultural production could increase its productivity with the application of modern natural sciences and technologies, as in industrial production, without much difference” (p. 150).
Marx was looking assiduously for a solution of the ground rent problem. We can see this in the plans he made in the Economic Manuscripts 1861-63 and in the Economic Manuscript of 1864-65, where he writes about differential ground rent I and II and absolute ground rent (pp. 147-151).
Saito emphasizes that it is important to note here that Marx is not yet addressing the problem of “soil exhaustion,” the “material” side of ground rent. Before 1865, he is engaged with the question of ground rent in the economic area. Thus, he is analysing the “form” side.
The reversal in his analysis as to the quality of the soil comes in 1865 when Marx makes extensive excerpt notes on Liebig’s Chemistry and Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology (7th ed., 1862).
Marx had read and excerpted other works of Liebig from before 1862 concerning his chemical analyses of the soil. In particular, Marx’s consideration of his solution for the exhaustion of the soil, “the necessity of replenishing all nutrients taken out from the soil by plants” through fertilizers, served only to strengthen Marx in his opinion that science and technology could counter the diminishing returns notion of Ricardo (p. 197). Thus did Marx handle at this time, before 1865, Ricardo’s notion of diminishing returns in agriculture.
In 1865, Saito writes, “Marx returned to studying natural sciences in order to gain a more up-to-date scientific foundation for his own investigation of ground rent” (p. 152). In a letter to Engels of February 13, 1866, Marx discusses the relevance of the work of the agricultural scientists Liebig and Schönbein: “I had to plough through the new agricultural chemistry in Germany, in particular Liebig and Schönbein, which is more important for this matter than all the economists put together…” (p. 152).
Marx did read Liebig’s 1862 edition meticulously, where he wrote “about the non-proportional increase of crops” in spite of manure or artificial fertilizer, but Liebig did so ambivalently compared with the earlier editions. Saito emphasizes that Marx did not overlook this ambivalence and that he “cautiously integrated the point into his political economy in order to oppose a scientific explanation to the ungrounded suppositions of the Ricardian school” (p. 159).
By the time of his 1862 edition, Liebig changes his position on replenishment. He now argued, “the shortsighted increase in [agricultural] production is nothing but robbery of the soil” (p. 197). Saito writes that “Liebig now harshly criticized the violation of the natural law of replenishment as a crime against humanity” (p. 198). Marx picked up on this changed perspective concerning the nature of replenishment and as a result, “Marx in 1865 deepened his own insight that nature cannot be arbitrarily subordinated and manipulated through technology” (p. 160). Now Marx concluded that the diminishing returns “as an abstract presupposition of the Ricardian school” are in fact “a specific manifestation of capital’s contradictions” (p. 174).
Equally important in Marx’s thinking at this time is that “he was now clearly conscious of the importance of investigating the different causes of diminishing productivity in agriculture” (p. 160). This shows at the same time Marx’s critical distance from Liebig and that he was open minded about other natural causes of diminishing returns besides those detected by chemistry. We can infer from this that Marx was generalizing and modifying his own concept of metabolism.
We saw above that Marx in the chapters “The Working Day” and “Machinery and Large- Scale Industry” in Capital, Volume 1 also touched on ecological issues. The domination of capital concerns not only the factory system but also reaches into agriculture. That is why “it produces various discordances in the material world by disturbing the natural metabolic interaction between humans and nature” (p. 197).
According to Liebig in the 1862 edition, the modern division of labor, in particular the division between town and country, is responsible for the disruption of the cycle of plant nutrition. This made the import of fertilizer and the development and application of artificial fertilizer necessary. But the import of fertilizer as guano (the excrement of sea birds native to South America) and bones is a question of long distance transport and this deepens the rift in the natural and social metabolism on a global scale. In the U.S., the heavy use of guano as fertilizer will result in the so-called “Guano Islands Act” and will also be the cause of a war. Saito refers to the “Chincha Islands War (the so-called Guano War)” (1864–1866), for example (p. 204).
The large-scale character of capitalist agriculture and industry will eventually disrupt increasingly the metabolism between humans and nature. Here, Saito introduces the term “ecological imperialism.” This ecological imperialism will run up against the material limits of nature, and in this sense, it will deepen the problem of capital accumulation and contribute to the crisis of capitalism on a global scale. Saito interprets Marx’s counterstrategy as follows: “Precisely because nature has limits, the social interactions with nature must be consciously regulated by society” (p. 212).
This demand cannot be fulfilled under reified social relations, under the value and surplus value producing relations that are characteristic for the capitalist mode of production.
As to the conscious regulation of nature by society, Saito refers to a passage in the Economic Manuscript 1864-65 where Marx speaks of “the realm of freedom” and “the realm of natural necessity.” In this text fragment, Marx writes that “the realm of freedom begins only when labour determined by necessity and external expediency comes to an end…” But this “realm of freedom” is grounded in “natural necessity.”
Note that Marx conceives of “natural necessity” as a dynamic concept, i.e., that natural necessity expands with human needs in all forms of society. That is why Marx states: “Freedom, in this sphere [of natural necessity- K.L.], can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern their metabolic interaction with nature rationally, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; … But this always remains a realm of necessity.” And for the true realm of freedom, Marx states, “The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite” (cited on pp. 213-14).
Although Saito rightly brings to the fore the importance of the relation between the “realm of freedom” and the “realm of natural necessity” in the context of Marx’s notion of sustainable production, we have to be careful with his assessment that
“Marx without doubt recognizes the positive side of modern technology and natural sciences, which prepares the material conditions for the establishment of the ‘realm of freedom’ by enabling humans to produce various products in a shorter time” (p. 214).
For let us here not forget that the creation of products in capitalist society has to do with commodity and money fetishism and producing in a shorter time has to do with exploitation. That is why it is not without good reason that Marx speaks of alienated labor and alienation in capitalist society. Moreover, modern technology and natural science are class-determined, i.e., they are impregnated by capital. On this aspect Saito sheds insufficient light, although he does write about the productive forces in capitalism as the “productive forces of capital” and he adds: “Rather, the cultivation of the subjective capacity for conscious and sustainable control of production is essential for the concept of productive forces, viewed from a wider, more rational standpoint” (p. 215). But he does not fully address the need for a totally different types of technology, natural science, and productive forces for a new society based upon conscious and sustainable human control of production.
Marx expressed, in the first (1867) edition of Capital, Volume 1, a high esteem for the notions of Liebig and wrote that Liebig’s “historical overview of the history of agriculture, although not free from gross errors, contains more flashes of insight than all the works of modern political economists put together” (cited on p. 218). In later editions, the second German one of 1873 and the French one of 1872-75, Marx will soften this high esteem because he finds that Liebig’s pessimism as to the developments in modern agriculture “gets close to Malthus’s theory of absolute overpopulation” (p. 224).
But although Liebig is now pessimistic about agricultural development, “at the same time his earlier optimism seems still to exist” (p. 224). Henry C. Carey and Eugen Dühring will pick up this optimistic element in their opposition to Malthus. The different interpretations of Liebig’s 1862 edition resulted in a debate in the second half of the 1860s, in which Friedrich Albert Lange and Julius Au would be key participants and during which Marx would study their contributions (pp. 225-227).
As for Marx’s assessment of the standpoint of Lange and Au, Saito refers to a letter of Marx to Kugelmann on June 27, 1870, in which Marx concludes that Lange and Au “were, like Roscher, trapped in the national economic myth of realizing sustainable agriculture through fluctuations in market prices” (p. 227).
I mentioned above that Saito pointed out that Marx in 1865 was open minded concerning other natural causes of diminishing returns than the ones detected by chemistry. This open mindedness to other natural causes takes a concrete form in his notebooks from winter 1868. They “reveal how his theoretical horizon enlarged after confronting the heated debate on the validity of Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion, which prompted him to pursue research in the field of natural sciences such as chemistry, botany, geology, and mineralogy in the following years” (p. 218).
The outstanding scientist in Marx’s investigation into sustainable production will be the agronomist Carl Fraas.
Saito mentions an impressive list of publications by Fraas (p. 228). He also refers to a letter of Marx to Engels of March 25, 1868, where Marx characterizes Fraas as an all-round scientific genius. In this letter, Marx characterizes Fraas as a “Darwinist before Darwin,” “a thoroughly learned philologist …and a chemist, agronomist, etc.” Marx also notes in this letter Fraas’s notion that “cultivation— when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois he naturally does not reach this point) — leaves deserts behind it, Persia, Mesopotamia, etc., Greece. So once again an unconscious socialist tendency! …His history of agriculture is also important” (p. 229).
Saito writes that these remarks about Fraas in this letter are the only discussion by Marx about the content of Fraas’s work. For other information on Marx’s engagement with Fraas we have to turn to his excerpt notes and the marginal notes in his library.
Fraas approaches agriculture mainly through “agricultural physics.” He is not opposed to chemical analysis of the soil, but he criticizes Liebig in arguing that agricultural chemistry should not be overemphasized.
Saito emphasizes that Marx’s comment about Fraas, especially his “unconscious socialist tendency,” has to be seen above all in relation to Fraas’s book Climate and the Plant World Over Time (1847), which is based on Fraas’s “experience and research during his stay in Greece as a director of the Royal garden in Athens and professor of botany at the University of Athens (1835-1842)” (p. 239). Fraas’s book gives an historical analysis of “the influence of climate changes on humans and plants over a long historical period” and it results in the “provocative thesis that cultivation conducted by humans brings a climate change, which in the end counts as the most important factor for the decay of civilization” (p. 239). After studying agricultural developments in Persia, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Greece, he concluded that the desertification in these old civilizations was above all the product of “deforestation.” Another result of his studies was the theory that replenishment of the soil exists “in nature itself” (p. 236). Fraas thinks here in particular of the process of alluvion. Marx picked this notion up and recorded in his notes on Fraas a passage where the latter wrote of the formation of alluvion in an artificial manner as “the most radical means to cultivation” (p. 237).
It is now clear that for Marx, “Fraas’s theory contributes to understanding the deepening of metabolism rifts” and that “Liebig’s critique of the robbery system [of the soil- K.L.] does not entirely cover the destructive tendency of modern production” (p. 250). That is why “Marx, reading Fraas’s work, rightly thinks it necessary to study 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” (p. 250).
I do not know whether Saito realizes that by using the term “necessary,” he is bringing to the fore a philosophical element of Marx’s thinking about the metabolism between humans and nature. For the term “necessary” raises the question “necessary for what?” It points to Marx’s overall vision on the relation between humankind and nature and its future, which demands a concept of human beings and nature within his notion of totality.
The conclusion for Fraas is that climate change is an important element in ecology, that the human being “is able to change nature to such an extent that later it completely malfunctions…” and further: “There is no hope of overcoming this reality” (cited on p. 248). Fraas’s conclusion about the role of the climate is based upon his analysis of old civilizations. His bringing to the fore of the climate factor “makes Marx aware that this development [that social production is not possible without the cooperation of the external sensuous world–K.L.] of modern capitalist production accelerates the disturbance of metabolism between humans and nature due to a more massive deforestation than previously in human history” (p. 248).
Fraas had, as we saw, a pessimistic view. He sees cultivation accompanied by commerce and industry as the biggest enemy of nature. “In opposition to Fraas,” Saito writes, “Marx thinks it possible and necessary that the harmony between civilization and nature should be realized by the conscious collective governance of the metabolism by the associated producers” (p. 249). In Marx’s vision, there is an alternative to the disturbance in the metabolism, but as he wrote in the above-mentioned letter to Engels, Fraas as a bourgeois naturally does not reach this point.
Marx did not stop studying natural science literature with Fraas’s writings. Concerning deforestation, he read and excerpted in 1868 the writings of a lot of other natural scientists in the field of agriculture. Saito refers for example to John D. Tuckett and Friedrich Krichhof, both of whom wrote along the lines of Fraas on the consequences of deforestation.
In 1868 it is clearer than ever for Marx that out of his investigations in political economy and natural sciences, as John Bellamy Foster’s argues, “the capitalist system must be judged as irrational from a perspective of sustainable human development” (p. 97).
Important in Marx’s vision for now and in the future is the possibility of a humanist alternative to capitalism. This alternative is well established on both philosophical and scientific ground: a society based on non-value production by associated producers who consciously control their production, who create their realm of freedom out of the realm of necessity, a society that is human and in which production is sustainable.
In this context I have to say that Saito has written a great book by analyzing and describing the inter-connectedness of Marx’s critique of political economy and his study of the natural sciences, and in pointing to Marx’s concept of sustainable production in a future human society. I say this even though, as discussed above, I have reservations about Saito’s notion of Marx’s departure from philosophy.
KME shows in addition the incredible richness and breadth of Marx’s thought and I can recommend it to everyone interested in being grounded theoretically for the struggle to uproot capitalist society.
Karel Ludenhoff is an Amsterdam-based labor activist and writer on Marxist theory.