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Discovering a Green Marx: Kohei Saito’s Marx in the Anthropocene

The days when Marx’s ideas were assumed to be incompatible with environmentalism and in need of greening are thankfully past. But of course, the degrowth debate is far from settled.

It’s always seemed a little strange that less has been said about the final 15 years of Marx’s oeuvre than any other period of his writing. In contrast, his early works—particularly the unpublished texts that came to be known as The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology—became objects of endless study after they were unearthed by Russian scholars. And equally so, the extensive notebooks that Marx wrote in the late 1850s in preparation for Capital (compiled as the Grundrisse) have proven an intellectual goldmine for those seeking connections between his youthful philosophical musings and his mature economic analysis. Marx published the first volume of his magnum opus Capital in 1867; by then, he had already written the bulk of manuscripts that would be posthumously edited into its second and third volumes.

Yet the years that came after, from 1868 until Marx’s death in 1883, are considered his least productive and consequently least-studied period, though he was still wrestling with urgent theoretical issues. During this time, Marx was focused on questions about potential pathways to communism—particularly after 1871, when the Paris Commune briefly flourished, only to be brutally repressed. A few years later, Marx penned a critique of the program presented in Gotha by the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany, in which he famously invoked the enduring socialist motto: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

In his last years, Marx searched for anthropological evidence of collective social relations in pre-capitalist societies. He read widely about non-Western and Indigenous peoples around the world; the annotations from these texts would later be compiled by the anthropologist Lawrence Krader into The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx. His final intellectual challenge came from Russian revolutionaries who wanted to know if he thought that the rural communes of the tsarist period could provide a foundation for socialism, allowing Russia to bypass capitalism entirely. Marx would reply: he thought this possible indeed. 

In Marx in the Anthropocene (Cambridge University Press, 2023), Kohei Saito attributes a newer theoretical framework to this late Marx: that of degrowth communism. Saito analogizes Marx’s thinking of that period to the current degrowth movement, which envisions a post-capitalist economy that can deliver a reconceived standard of social well-being while remaining within the natural limits of the biosphere. A number of books have already been written about Marx’s ecological consciousness and his critique of the “metabolic rift” between nature and society under capitalism. However, Saito’s work—both in Marx and the Anthropocene and his earlier book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism (Monthly Review Press, 2017)—stands out for its use of a copious collection of notes that Marx took after 1868 from his readings on biology, botany, chemistry, geology, minerology, and other fields of the natural sciences. These notebooks have only become available during the past decade as part of the second Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA²). Drawing on these newly discovered late works, Saito illuminates a formerly invisible dimension of Marx’s thought—and not a moment too soon as our world begins to catch flame.

The most controversial of Saito’s arguments (at least among some Marxists) is his assertion that after 1868, Marx ditched his initial conception of historical materialism. Saito maintains that late Marx’s writings reveal a decisive break with any sort of linear, evolutionary metanarrative in which history progresses in stages that are determined by the development of productive forces. This oft-cited thesis, succinctly summarized by Marx in his 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, posits that a contradiction between the social relations of production and advances in productive forces turns the former into “fetters,” and thus “begins a new era of social revolution.” This emphasis on productivity as the engine of change has been called “Promethean” for its ethos of domination over nature; certainly, it is also Eurocentric in its conception of what constitutes socioeconomic development. At this time, Marx replicated widespread, largely unquestioned assumptions: that progress was the result of technological innovation, and that Western Europe was the model for growth around the world.

Saito maintains that a dramatic about-face is apparent in the post-1868 writings: “Finally discarding both ethnocentrism and productivism, Marx abandoned his earlier scheme of historical materialism.” Saito describes this transformation of late Marx’s thought as a kind of epistemic break, invoking the same term that Louis Althusser used to describe Marx’s original leap in 1845 from philosophy to historical materialism. Marx’s departure from ethnocentric notions of social development was already apparent in his studies of non-Western societies, particularly in the Ethnological Notebooks and his letters on Russian communes. Saito further reveals how, at the same time, Marx was intensifying his study of the natural sciences in order to deepen his critique of capitalism’s metabolic rift with the planet. Pre-capitalist forms of what Marx called “indigenous communism” were coming into focus as small-scale models of egalitarian social relations based on sustainable connections with nature. Having overcome ethnocentrism and productivism, Saito argues, Marx died having reached a position congruent with that of modern degrowth communists.

The modern environmentalist movement, which emerged in the later decades of the 20th century, would widely dismiss Marx as a relic of Promethean thought who erroneously equated social progress with control over nature. Greens generally regarded him as an outmoded figure with unreconstructed views of productivity and technology. It certainly didn’t help that actually existing socialist states had industrialized with a reckless disregard for nature, or that labor unions in capitalist nations prioritized demands for jobs and higher living standards over the environment. Marxism and environmentalism were often assumed to be antithetical political ideologies, reflecting a division between red and green movements that endured through the end of the 20th century.

Even eco-socialists who utilized Marx’s concepts in advocating for alternatives to capitalism were still reluctant to view him as an environmentally conscious theorist whose ideas might inform their movement. It was largely accepted that Marx and Marxism needed an ecological perspective grafted on to the critique of political economy—to be “greened.” One consistent objection was that Marx failed to recognize the natural limits of economic growth and did not account for how resource depletion and ecological devastation can imperil the accumulation of capital. The eco-socialist journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, started in 1988 at the University of California, Santa Cruz, would play a significant part in this greening of Marx and Marxism. The journal’s founding editor, James O’Connor, proposed that a “second contradiction of capitalism” arises when factoring in the rising costs from the exploitation of natural and social conditions of production. The prevailing assumption was that Marx’s ideas on their own were an insufficient foundation for eco-socialism—they needed to be amended with additional sources of contradiction and infused with a green perspective.

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The consensus about Marx’s lack of ecological consciousness would be broken by two significant works of scholarship published around the turn of the century. John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology (2000) revisited his philosophical turn to materialism in relation to nature and science, an intellectual trajectory Foster traced back to the young Marx’s dissertation on Epicurus. Meanwhile, Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature (1999) reconstructed the ecological dimension of Marx’s value analysis, emphasizing nature’s contribution to production and the potential for crisis stemming from capitalism’s “externalities.” By drawing out the elements of ecology in Marx’s philosophy and economics, Foster and Burkett issued complementary challenges to their eco-socialist contemporaries. Instead of adding an ecological viewpoint to Marx’s thought, Foster and Burkett insisted it had been there all along.

Following Foster and Burkett’s lead, 21st-century scholarship has fruitfully utilized Marx’s notion of metabolism (Stoffwechsel) to describe the interaction of nature and society, along with the rift opened by capitalism’s robbery of land and labor alike. Marx’s critique of this metabolic rift has since been invoked in numerous studies of urgent environmental issues. Saito’s research using the post-1868 notebooks in the MEGA² has furnished additional material that can offer a deeper understanding of Marx’s ecological thought. The fourth section of the MEGA²—yet to be completed—collects the annotations, excerpts, and comments in Marx’s personal notebooks. Saito estimates that a third of these notebooks were written in the last 15 years of Marx’s life; among those, more than half examine subjects in the natural sciences.

Saito’s findings from these manuscripts were presented in the second half of Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, which was honored in 2018 with a prestigious award for Marxist scholarship, the Deutscher Memorial Prize. Marx in the Anthropocene also draws on the late notebooks in the MEGA², but it addresses a wide spectrum of issues related to a rapidly growing subfield of literature on Marxism and ecology. Saito initially developed some of these ideas while writing an earlier book published in Japan, Hitoshinsei no Shihonron (Capital in the Anthropocene)—a surprising commercial success that has sold a half million copiesMarx in the Anthropocene engages further with current forms of radical ecological thought, as Saito builds a case for degrowth communism.

Saito begins by tracing the suppression and rediscovery of Marx’s metabolic theory. From his reading of Capital he extricates new concepts of the metabolic rift, lending it three dimensions along with three corresponding methods for shifting (but never resolving) the crises created by these rifts. Saito explains that Marx’s ecological critique was unknown for so long in part because David Riazanov, the Russian editor of the first MEGA, had neglected to publish the late notebooks, dismissing their annotations as “inexcusable pedantry.” He attributes the revival of Marx’s theory of metabolism to the Hungarian political philosopher István Mészáros, initially in his Deutscher Prize Memorial Lecture of 1971, and more systematically in his mammoth tour de force Beyond Capital (1995). Saito also maintains that Rosa Luxemburg correctly utilized the notion of metabolism in theorizing the exploitative relationship between capitalist centers and pre-capitalist peripheries around the world—although she originally presented this as a critique of Marx’s Capital.

The question of whether Marx and Engels differed from one another in their thinking about nature and science is a source of division among Marxists. The orthodoxy that began to congeal in the late 19th century viewed them interchangeably, treating Engels as an infallible interpreter of Marx’s ideas. However, Western Marxist dissidents insisted there were crucial differences. Whereas Engels applied dialectics to an understanding of nature as a whole (an approach later codified into an official Stalinist ideology of dialectical materialism), Marx employed dialectics solely to analyze human affairs: matters of society and historical change.

Today’s eco-Marxists typically find more confluence than conflict between Marx and Engels. For instance, Burkett claims he “was unable to find a single significant difference in Marx’s and Engels’ respective materialist and class-relational discussions of natural conditions.” Foster likewise treats Engels’s dialectical analysis of nature as if it were a perfectly consistent extension of Marx’s thinking. But Saito, on the other hand, argues that some significant differences emerge when revisiting Capital in light of the post-1868 notebooks in the MEGA². Most importantly, Saito shows how Engels edited a key passage in Capital, Volume III, in which Marx originally distinguished between social and natural metabolism within agriculture. Engels omitted the words “natural metabolism” and changed the reference from “soil” to “life.” Saito maintains that this editorial intervention is indicative of their differing views on the concept of metabolism, which Marx had appropriated from Justus von Liebig’s studies of soil depletion in capitalist agriculture. He concludes that Engels failed to fully appreciate the intellectual pivot around the concept of metabolism that characterized Marx’s thought in his late studies of the natural sciences.

György Lukács was the most prominent Marxist intellectual that found reason to firmly distinguish Marx’s dialectical method from Engels’s. In his groundbreaking History and Class Consciousness, Lukács admonished Engels for his attempt to extend dialectics to the knowledge of nature, given that Marx had limited its reach to the human realms of history and society. History and Class Consciousness would become a foundational text of Western Marxism. After it was published in 1923, Lukács came under attack from the Comintern orthodoxy; a faithful member of the Hungarian Communist Party, Lukács would eventually recant some of the more heretical ideas in the book.

Saito, however, challenges the prevailing interpretation of Lukács as a thinker whose absolute separation of society and nature trapped him in a kind of methodological and ontological dualism. He argues that Lukács effectively utilized the concept of metabolism in ways that were consistent with Marx and could be further developed as a basis for Marxist ecology. For textual evidence, Saito points to Lukacs’s defense of History and Class Consciousness in a manuscript that was not discovered and published until 1996, Tailism and the Dialectic. He insists that Lukács’s approach to the nature-society relationship was dialectical rather than dualistic (in Hegelese, natural and social conditions coevolve as “unity-in-separation” or the “identity of identity and non-identity”). Having exhumed a metabolic theory from Tailism and the Dialectic, Saito argues that Lukács presents a critical alternative to both classical Cartesian dualism and the nature-society monism that has more recently emerged in connection with the green movement.

The second part of Marx in the Anthropocene reckons with a range of ideas that have arisen to address our age of global ecological crisis. The theory of metabolism and the non-identity of nature provide the foundation for Saito’s critique of this spectrum of contemporary thinkers. A familiar target is Jason W. Moore, who has criticized the concept of metabolic rift as a kind of Cartesian dualism that schematically replicates the separation of nature from society. Saito also takes aim at proponents of the “production of nature”—i.e., those who emphasize the social construction of our perceptions of natural forces while dismissing or downplaying the environmental limits to socioeconomic development.

This perspective originated with among some Marxists who suspected environmentalism had been infected with neo-Malthusianism; today, it is espoused by self-proclaimed ecomodernists, like those associated with the Breakthrough Institute. Although this chapter surveys a disparate collection of ecological thought, Saito addresses them as forms of “monism” because they all theoretically dissolve the nature-society binary from one direction or another. He presents the theory of metabolism as a superior, dialectical method of conceiving this connection between nature and society: inseparable but irreducible, co-evolving in a relationship rife with conflict and contradictions.

Saito’s next chapter engages with the current vision of post-capitalist society that has been dubbed “fully automated luxury communism.” Marxists with this perspective imagine a future world of abundance and free stuff, which will be able to minimize human labor as a result of advances in automation, digital technologies, information sharing, and artificial intelligence. Saito objects that this amounts to a new brand of utopian socialism, influenced by a revival of Promethean thinking among some of today’s Marxists.

Their vision of a totally automated society that has greatly diminished the need for labor draws theoretical inspiration from a section of Marx’s Grundrisse known as the “Fragment on Machines.” In it, Marx suggests that with the increasing automation of production under capitalism, the material wealth of society becomes unmoored from the value created by labor—in his words, “the creation of real wealth comes to depends less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed.” This contradiction contains the seeds of a crisis that could lead to the collapse of capitalism. Automation and investment in fixed capital unintentionally open new possibilities for post-capitalist societies, in which people could enjoy more free time while collective knowledge is accumulated in what Marx called the “general intellect.”

Saito opposes this post-capitalist imaginary of automation and abundance. Marx, he explains, quickly abandoned the line of thinking found in the “Fragment on Machines.” Beginning in his economic manuscripts of the early 1860s, Marx introduced a crucial distinction between “formal” and “real” subsumption. Whereas formal subsumption involves capital taking advantage of preexisting labor practices, real subsumption is a more comprehensive transformation of the productive forces and social relations that constitute the mode of production. Under these conditions of labor’s real subsumption under capital, the growth of productive forces is a means of deskilling the workforce, subjecting them to surveillance and time discipline while placing control of the labor process in the hands of management.

In short, the real subsumption of labor under capital makes it increasingly difficult to separate the relations and forces of production in the way that Marx did during the late 1850s; instead, social relations of domination are baked into technological and organizational “innovation.” Saito maintains that Marx had begun to turn away from his materialist conception of history, which suggested that productive forces could simply be expropriated and made into instruments of emancipation. On the contrary, a revolution against capital would require a thorough demolition and reconstruction of the technical and organizational foundations of society.

Saito unfurls his full vision for degrowth communism in the third and final part of Marx in the Anthropocene. Here, he draws on the fourth section of the MEGA²: Marx’s post-1868 notebooks about the natural sciences, which were published only recently and remain untranslated. Saito asserts that this period represents a “great transformation” in late Marx’s thinking that departs from his previous perspective on historical materialism. He situates these notebooks in the context of late Marx’s research on non-Western collective societies (the Ethnological Notebooks) and his correspondence with Vera Zasulich about Russia’s rural communes. Saito concludes that Marx’s ideal of post-capitalist society changed during these years, as he transcended the trappings of Eurocentrism and Promethean productivism en route to something analogous to degrowth communism.

The final chapter presents degrowth communism as a possible future of shared abundance, wherein the measure of wealth will be sharply distinguished from the value-form of capitalism. The point of departure is Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation: the enclosure of the commons represents the original negation of the metabolic interaction between nature and humanity. An anti-capitalist revolution would accomplish the negation of this negation, restoring our original unity with nature on a higher level and at a larger scale. Wealth would be redefined as the use-values provided by nature and society, rather than an “immense collection of commodities,” as Marx wrote in the famous first line of Capital. Whereas privatization and commodification create the artificial scarcity that is endemic to capitalism, degrowth communism would entail an abundance of this social and natural wealth shared in common.

From this perspective, Saito reconsiders some of Marx’s most well-known passages about communism. These statements have been widely understood as evidence of Marx’s Promethean faith in the growth of productive forces. In particular, his Critique of the Gotha Programme, with its famous call to satisfy “each according to his needs,” can be interpreted as a demand for unlimited material abundance to be consumed by everyone, irrespective of natural capacity. And yet alternatively, Saito maintains that this statement may also be read from a non-productivist perspective, reconceiving the measure of abundance as what Marx called common or cooperative wealth (genossenschaftlicher Reichtum).

Similarly, Saito reassesses Marx’s oft-quoted discussion of freedom and necessity in Capital, Volume III’s chapter on “The Trinity Formula.” Again, this passage is often understood as an appeal to expanding the realm of freedom through automation and the domination of nature, which could shorten the working day and thus minimize the realm of necessity. But Saito insists that it is possible to maximize freedom and leisure time without concomitantly increasing productive forces—especially when we grasp that overcoming necessity is not only a matter of natural limits, but also of capitalism’s artificially imposed austerity and scarcity. In sum, novel readings can be elicited from these passages from Marx when the categories of abundance, scarcity, freedom, and necessity are understood in terms of social relationships and our metabolic interaction with nature, rather than restraining the interpretation to narrow, technical issues of productive capacity.

Marx in the Anthropocene is a book with tremendous significance for our historical moment, but it is certainly not without its shortcomings. Saito’s argument is logically persuasive, but his textual support is thin; he arrives at strong conclusions based on short passages from unfinished works and relies heavily on Engels’s editorial interventions in Marx’s manuscripts. But while it may be dangerous to read too much into incomplete manuscripts and notebooks, the fact is that Marx left behind a largely unfinished (perhaps unfinishable) body of work. In itself, the unfolding of his ideas represents a historical process, as different generations have discovered and further developed insights from fragmentary texts, placing them in dialogue with the challenges and conflicts of their own times. Marxists have found the version of Marx they needed for their particular moment; today’s eco-Marxists are no different.

Back in 1907, Otto Bauer heralded the 40th anniversary of Capital, Volume I by reflecting on how he and his contemporaries, unlike their predecessors, had benefited from access to its posthumously published second and third volumes. At issue was the cancerous growth of capitalism into an imperialist monopoly stage dominated by international finance and joint-stock companies. Whereas revisionists like Eduard Bernstein insisted that these developments had rendered Marx’s analysis outdated, Bauer responded that to the contrary, a richer understanding of Marx’s dialectical method had been made possible by tracing the reciprocal interdependence and increasing complexity of his categories as they evolve over the three volumes of Capital. Bauer insisted that this reconstruction of Marx’s method in relation to Hegel’s dialectics was the key to keeping Capital relevant for a new era.

Decades later, the discovery and dissemination of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 provided the intellectual underpinning for Western Marxism, and would later shape the reception of Marx’s ideas among the New Left generation. The complete edition of these notebooks, written in Paris when Marx was 26, was first published in German in 1932. As they were read and assimilated by scholars like Herbert Marcuse, the Manuscripts not only supplied the missing link between Marx and Hegel but also offered a humanist alternative to Soviet Marxism. Not coincidentally, they were either ignored or disparaged as immature works by Comintern scholars, and were later omitted from German and Russian editions of Marx and Engels’s collected works. David Riazanov, the founder of the Marx-Engels Institute who first uncovered the 1844 Manuscripts, was arrested by Stalin’s secret police, accused of assisting a Menshevik counter-revolution, deported to a forced labor camp, and executed in 1938.

The first English translation of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was published in 1959, just in time to influence a generation of New Left intellectuals in Britain and the U.S. The philosophical musings of young Marx in Paris presented a more humanist vision of communism, but also established the basis for an all-encompassing critique of alienation in daily life under capitalism.

For a generation who sought radical social change but were disillusioned with Communism, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 were a revelation. Raised in the midst of unprecedented affluence, this cohort would find that the concept of alienation was applicable not only to the estrangement of labor they experienced at work but also to the growing commodification of their consumption, leisure, public space, and time. These revelations called for nothing less than a revolution of everyday life.

Marshall Berman—the Marxist intellectual best known for his dissection of modernity and modernism in All That Is Solid Melts into Air—recalled an endearing anecdote: as a teenager in 1959, he bought 20 copies of the Manuscripts and distributed them as gifts for Hannukah. Berman recounted the day he walked into a bookstore near Union Square in New York City and found them priced at 50 cents apiece:

“…For the next several days I walked around with a stack of books, thrilled to be giving them away to all the people in my life… ‘Take this!’ I said, shoving the book in their faces. ‘It’ll knock you out. It’s by Karl Marx, but before he became Karl Marx. It’ll show you how our whole life’s wrong, but it’ll make you happy, too. If you don’t get it, just call me anytime, and I’ll explain it all. Soon everybody will be talking about it, and you’ll be the first to know.’”

In our time, we might say that Saito is among a cohort of intellectuals in search of another sort of Karl Marx, one that comes after 1868. If, for Berman, the Manuscripts were written by Marx before he became “Marx,” then perhaps Saito can be said to be looking for a Marx of the time after.

The publication of Marx’s late notebooks in the MEGA² has been a boon for 21st-century scholarship. A list of keystone texts on the subject would include Kevin Anderson’s Marx on the Margins (University of Chicago, 2010), which reconstructed Marx’s perspectives on colonialism, ethnicity, and nationalism by examining the later manuscripts and his lesser-known journalistic works on non-Western societies. Likewise, Heather A. Brown’s Marx on Gender and the Family (Brill, 2012) made a contribution by drawing from Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks on pre-capitalist societies to illuminate his views on patriarchy and women’s oppression. Just as is the case in matters of ecology, these issues of colonialism, racism, gender, and patriarchy are self-evidently crucial for the social movements of our time—and yet it was long assumed that Marx had nothing significant to say about them. Once again, Marxists are resuscitating the Marx we need for the struggles of our historical moment.

The vision of degrowth at the heart of Marx in the Anthropocene is rapidly becoming a central point of contention on the left. In its summer 2023 special issue, Monthly Review—the venerable socialist magazine currently edited by John Bellamy Foster—endorsed an eco-socialist program of planned degrowth and sustainable human development. However, degrowth has also found vociferous opponents who, in the name of socialism, continue to emphasize the development of productive forces and denounce environmentalism as a form of austerity and doom-mongering. What is different today is that Marx has become an indispensable character in the conversation—far from being consigned to obsolescence, he has returned as a revered figure, in whose work interlocutors on sides of the degrowth debate have sought intellectual sanction. Saito’s intervention is deeply compelling, and will prove instrumental in bringing Marxist analysis in line with the present-day understanding of degrowth. The days when Marx’s ideas were assumed to be incompatible with environmentalism and in need of greening are thankfully past, thanks in no small part to Saito’s contributions. But of course, the degrowth debate is far from settled—and the struggle to recover a reading of Marx that can more comprehensively illuminate the crises of our time will continue.

Ryan Moore teaches Sociology and is the author of Sells like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture, and Social Crisis (NYU Press).

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