How Green was Karl Marx? – On Kohei Saito and the Anthropocene

David Black

Summary: A review of Saito’s Marx in the Anthropocene — Editors

Kohei Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism. Cambridge University Press, 2022. Paperback: ISBN-13978-1-009366182.

The Anthropocene and the Limits of Productivism

Environmental activists, inasmuch as they pay any attention to Marxism, tend to dismiss it as ‘productivist’. It is not hard to see why. According to Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, written in 1859, revolutions happen when ‘the material productive forces of society’ become fettered by the existing relations of production and property: ‘The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.’  (MECW 29: 263)

As the basis for ‘historical materialism’, these insights were not completely original. As far back as 1656, James Harrington, the Cromwellian author of the utopian work, The Commonwealth of Oceana, argued that the dissolution of the Stuart monarchy in 1649 hadn’t come about because of the Civil War, but because the war was itself a result of socioeconomic changes: the transfer of lands from the Crown, aristocracy and Church to the gentry and yeomanry; and the freeing of tenants from military service to feudal barons. Furthermore, Harrington’s productivist ‘materialism’ served the interest of property owners, not the property-less such as the Leveller radicals: ‘industry of all things is most accumulative, and accordingly of all things hates levelling.’ [*]

The base-superstructure model may have been useful for explaining the rise of the capitalist classes and their historic ‘mission’ to destroy the fetters of the old feudal orders, as happened in the English and French revolutions. It does not, however, explain how commodified capitalism in the 21st century manages to destroy its own fetters and constantly shift the ground under its all-consuming totality.

Now that there is no longer any part of the biosphere left untouched by human intervention, the theory of Anthropocene denotes how climate and environment are influenced more by human activity than any other factor. This issue is addressed in Kohei Saito’s Marx in the Anthropocene.  Referencing Greta Thunberg’s denunciation of the ‘fairy tales of eternal growth’, Saito writes:

‘It is surely too naïve to believe that the further development of productive forces in Western capitalism could function as an emancipatory driver of history in the face of the global ecological crisis… capitalism is no longer progressive. It rather destroys the general conditions of production and reproduction and even subjects human and non-human beings to serious existential threat.’(2)

Fortunately, the 1859 Critique was far from being Marx’s ‘last word’ on the theory of historical progress. In fact, Saito argues, the totality of Marx’s writings – right up to his death in 1883 – provides crucial support, not for a reformist ‘ecosocialism’, but for the revolutionary idea of ‘de-growth communism’. What is new and original in Saito’s research is the use he has made of previously unavailable texts recently published by the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). Marx’s notebooks on geology, botany and agricultural chemistry were intended for use in completing his unfinished volumes II and III of Capital. They are concerned with ‘…various practices of robbery closely tied to climate change, the exhaustion of natural resources (soil nutrients, fossil fuel and woods) as well as the extinction of species due to the capitalist system of industrial production’.(4)

Marx’s theory of Metabolism addresses how the transhistorical, interactive relation of humans with the rest of nature undergoes a ‘metabolic rift’ which is historically specific to capitalism. The rift is an effect of the systematised ‘robbery’ of nature’s resources and the social oppression that enforces it.

Saito engages with a host of theorists, some self-described as faithful Marxists; others as critical-Marxologists. These include ‘Promethean’ productivists, left accelerationists who advocate ‘fully-automated luxury communism’, techno- feudalism theorists, ecosocialists, reformist green dealers and more. The book also covers the contributions on metabolism by István Mészáros, Rosa Luxemburg and György Lukács. Of these three only Lukács will be covered in this essay/review, as his ideas are crucial to Saito’s contention that Marx and Engels were not at all like-minded on the ontological relation between nature and humans.

Engels, Lukács and the Metabolism

The issue of a difference between Marx and Engels on the question of ‘nature’ was first raised by Lukács’s book, History and Class Consciousness, in 1923. Lukács, in attempting to rescue historical materialism from the distortions and vulgarisations heaped on it by Second International Marxism, traced the problem back to Engels’s formulation of dialectics in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (published in 1886):

‘The misunderstandings that arise from Engels’s account of dialectics can in the main be put down to the fact that Engels – following Hegel’s mistaken lead – extended the method to apply also to knowledge of nature.’ (75)

In Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, nature is divided into its material and conceptual aspects, which become increasingly unified as one stage of development arises necessarily from the other. Engels turns Hegel’s conceptual dialectic on its head to make the case that the object is determined not by its concept but by its own natural development in the objective world. This process is independent of human consciousness, which is seen as determined by its reflected object. Lukács sees Engels’s analysis as a lapse into metaphysical materialism, because it leaves out the ‘crucial determinants of dialectics – the interaction of subject and object, the unity of theory and practice, the historical changes in the reality underlying the categories…’ (24) Lukács questions the neutrality and objectivity of modern science:

‘When the ideal of scientific knowledge is applied to nature it simply furthers the progress of science. But when it is applied to society it turns out to be an ideological weapon of the bourgeoisie’. (77)

Engels’s Ludwig Feuerbach sees the discoveries of science as essentially in step with the forward march of scientific socialism. In Engels’s judgement of Hegel’s dialectical thought, especially his Science of Logic:

‘That which survives independently of all earlier philosophies is the science of thought and its laws — formal logic and dialectics. Everything else is subsumed in the positive science of nature and history.’(Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach – not quoted by Saito)

Engels even thought that science could refute the idealist ‘crochet’ in Kant’s epistemology: the problem of the ‘thing-in-itself’ as a barrier to concrete expansion of knowledge. Kant’s achievement had been to theorise the possibilities of pure mathematics and pure science, as developed by Newton. Having identified the active forces holding the universe in place, Newton described their laws in precise mathematical, quantitative terms. He did not, however, think it was possible to explain the nature of these active forces. Ultimate reality, consisting of what Kant calls things-in-themselves, eludes the grasp of scientific investigation in the same way that the existence of God is reduced to a ‘postulate’ – essentially unknowable, but socially necessary for validating moral law. Lukács, however, challenges Engels’s view that in Kant’s epistemology the problem of the thing-in-itself is a barrier to concrete expansion of knowledge: ‘On the contrary, Kant, who sets out from the most advanced natural science of the day, namely from Newton’s astronomy, tailors his theory of knowledge precisely to this science and its future potential.’ (History and Class Consciousness,132 – not quoted by Saito)

History and Class Consciousness was heavily criticised by theorists who had been schooled in Engelsian dialectical materialism. Lukács was accused of undermining ontological monism with a dualist approach that drove a wedge between natural science and social science; and of promoting an ‘”idealist” social constructivism of nature’. (79)

Lukács wrote a lengthy response to his critics (Rudas and Deborin) in 1926 entitled, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic. Lukács never published it (probably because the political climate within the Comintern was no longer conducive to philosophic debate) and the manuscript (which he believed to have been lost) was only discovered decades after his death in the archives of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. The loss of Tailism led many to misread Lukács’s formulations in History and Class Consciousness. ‘Tailism’ refers to those Marxists who passively follow the objective course of history as if it proceeds independently of human consciousness. Lukács, in defence of History and Class Consciousness in Tailism, insists that his criticism of Engels had not been an attack on dialectical materialism as such. As a monist, Lukács recognises that nature existed long before there were humans to think about it and discover its laws. He does not doubt that science is able to obtain objective and universally valid knowledge of nature. The problem is with the socially conditioned knowledge which passes for nature.  

As Lukács puts it in History and Class Consciousness:

 ‘But Engels’ deepest misunderstanding consists in his belief that the behaviour of industry and scientific experiment constitutes praxis in the dialectical, philosophical sense. In fact, scientific experiment is contemplation at its purest.’(85-86)

In Saito’s interpretation, the ‘contemplative attitude’ of modern science, ‘forgets its own social foundation in the capitalist society.’ (88) Saito notes that in support of ‘methodological dualism’, Lukács’s later work (Prolegomena: Zur Ontologie des gesellschaftlichen Seins. Vol. 1.) uses the young Hegel’s concept of the absolute as ‘identity of identity and non-identity’. In Lukács’s appropriation the identity refers to humans’ embeddedness in the universal metabolism of nature; the non-identity refers to the social properties which emerge out of the ‘natural’ state. (75, 91) Saito comments, ‘With this methodology, Lukács’s theory of metabolism provides a way of developing Marx’s “non-Cartesian” methodological dualism of Form and Matter as a critique of modern capitalist production.’ (7)

Taming Frankenstein: 21st Century Utopian Socialism

Today’s ‘left accelerationists’ and ‘technological utopians’ draw their theoretical framework from Marx’s concept of the ‘general intellect’. In a section of the Grundrisse written in 1857/8, known as the ‘Fragment on Machines’, Marx conducts a thought experiment. Assuming a society consisting only of workers and capitalists, market competition compels capitalists to introduce new machines in order to increase the productive forces and thus acquire extra surplus value for greater profits. The capitalist innovators in productive technology increase their profits and drive their slower-moving competitors out of business. However, unless the scale of production expands more rapidly than the rate of increase in productivity, less workers will be employed. The increasing investment in fixed capital is accompanied by the lessening of value produced by workers in society as a whole. (143).

Marx terms the accumulated knowledge of this hypothetical capitalist society as the ‘general intellect’. This intellect is generalised to such an extent that the dominance of mental over mental labour – the dominance of what Alfred Sohn-Rethel terms the ‘autonomous intellect’, based on the Kantian transcendental subject – reaches a point at which the division itself is recognised to be anachronistic. So, as the development of social collaboration and free knowledge through automated technologies that reduce the amount of living labor destabilizes both the market mechanism and system of private property, the capitalist mode of production breaks down. Marx writes:

‘Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky high.’ (145)

This breakdown theory did not make it into Marx’s Capital Volume 1 or the never completed volumes II and III because Marx moved away from the Grundrisse’s emphasis on socialism arising sui genesis from the development of the forces of production. Marx left it out, according to Saito, because a decisive shift in his conception of history occurred sometime between 1863 and 1866. The key concept Marx chooses to emphasize in the unpublished draft chapter six of Capital Vol.I (‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’), is ‘productive forces of capital’. This is closely tied to two other concepts: ‘cooperation’ and ‘real subsumption of labour under capital’.

New developments in industry revolutionize the relations between workers and capitalists, signalling a shift from ‘formal subsumption’ of labour to ‘real subsumption’. In formal subsumption the capitalist, free of medieval fetters such as artisans’ guilds and restrictions on trade, simply gathers artisans and labourers under one roof, pays wages by the hour, and sells the produce at a profit. Formal subsumption also introduces division of labour, as in the pin factory described by Adam Smith.  Formal subsumption is the stage in which the capitalist extracts ‘absolute surplus value’, which can only be increased by making the working day longer, or by intensifying the labour, or by augmenting the workforce with women and children.

Real subsumption is associated with relative surplus value, which relies on reducing the price of labour power by means of an increase in the productivity. In this shift from manufacture to machinofacture the work is organised under conditions in which the independent labour of the individual is nullified. The capitalist, who now commands the means of production (objectified labour), employs living labour in an inversion of the ‘relation of subject and object’. Marx refers to this inversion as ‘a personification of the thing and a reification of the person’. Cooperation, in revolutionising and extending the division of labour, is enforced across whole industries and society as a whole: ‘To the extent that the worker creates wealth, living labour becomes a power of capital; similarly, all development of the productive forces of labour is development of the productive forces of capital’. (147-50).

The ‘automation utopians’ avoid the problem of productivism and technological determinism by focussing on populist electoral politics, and constructing a new ‘political subjectivity’ of forces for social change. (160) Saito warns that this concentration on the purely political concedes to capital the option of dealing with metabolic rifts through metabolic shifts, such as introducing geo-engineering ‘in the name of stewardship of the earth… to manage the entire ecological system at the cost of enslaving people – especially in the Global South through the metabolic shift – to heteronomous regulation by technologies.’ Capital is able to deal with problems by simply shifting them elsewhere. It can do so spatially by, transferring the robbery system to places in world beyond democratic oversight; and temporally, by leaving the problems and the human costs to be solved and paid for by succeeding generations.

Against Productivism: Marx and Metabolism

20th century ‘Western Marxism’ is rooted in Lukács’s analysis of reification and commodity fetishism in History and Class Consciousness. And because Western Marxists concerned themselves with cultural critique, they were sympathetic to Lukács’s apparent screening off of natural science from social and cultural issues. But this, according to Saito was only apparent, because Lukács suppressed his integration of Marx’s concept of ‘metabolism’ by not publishing Tailism and the Dialectic.

Marx’s own interest in metabolism dates from 1851, when he first encountered the writings of Justus von Liebig on organic chemistry. Liebig’s research into modern agricultural techniques found they were creating a ‘metabolic rift’ between humans and nature by exhausting the nutrients of the soil. Liebig accused the British Empire of operating a ‘robbery system’ in Ireland that took more from nature than it put back.

Saito explicates Liebig’s later influence on Marx’s writings on the transformation of the transhistorical labour process into the capitalist valorization process. Temporally, capital negates what Liebig termed the ‘law of replenishment’: the most fundamental principle of ‘rational agriculture’, that demands the return of the minerals absorbed by harvested plants to the original soil. Spatially, the metabolic rift exacerbates the ‘contradiction between town and country’, with urban sprawl polluting waterways with waste from agricultural produce, which in previous times would have been ‘given back’ to the soil. In his original manuscript of Volume III of Capital, Marx writes,

‘[In] this way [large-scale landownership] produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process between social metabolism and natural metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of the soil. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, and trade carries this devastation far beyond the bounds of a single country. (Liebig).’

Saito considers how Engels’s ‘edit’ modifies this passage:

‘…[large-scale landownership] produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself .’ (26)

Saito points out that by omitting the term ‘natural metabolism’, Engels obscures Marx’s dualist method of distinguishing between the primary and the second-order mediation of metabolism. Also, ‘soil’ is changed to ‘life’. This is significant because whilst Marx in Capital praises the ‘immortal merits’ of Liebig’s theory of metabolism, Engels is dismissive of Liebig’s more general ideas on biology. Whereas Liebig had no credible explanation of the evolution of organic life from inorganic matter, Engels says (correctly) that ‘Life is the mode of existence of protein bodies, the essential element of which consists in continual metabolic interchange with the natural environment outside them’ (57).

Engels’s historical materialism does not nihilistically propose that ‘freedom’ consists of the unlimited domination of nature (‘necessity’) by productive forces. As he puts it in Dialectics of Nature, ‘Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us.’ (55) Although Engels can be accurately described as an ecosocialist, in his modification of Capital the main role Engels assigns to ‘metabolism’ is ‘not as an ecological analysis of capitalism but as a demonstration that this objective law penetrates the whole of nature encompassing both inorganic and organic beings.’(57)

Saito sees Marx’s theory of metabolism as the key to the significance of his notebooks on natural sciences, which were written after 1867, when Capital, was published:

‘Hints for imagining the unwritten part of Capital exist in these little-known notebooks… Simply put, Marx aimed at comprehending how disharmonies in the material world emerge due to modifications of the universal metabolism of nature by the reified power of capital.’ (61-62)

Politically, Marx was not fully satisfied with Liebig’s analysis, tending as it did towards a pessimist brand of Malthusianism. Marx extended his studies to the writings of other scientists. One of them, agronomist and Greek scholar Carl N. Fraas’s Climate and Plant World over Time warned against excessive deforestation. On this, Marx writes to Engels:

‘The conclusion is 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!’ (62)

Communal Organisation in ‘Primitive’ Societies

In 1868 Marx read Ludwig von Maurer’s study of ancient Germanic society and noted how soil productivity increased under sustainable production through communal regulation of the land and its products. Gareth Stedman Jones is dismissive of Marx’s praise for Maurer, and points out that Fustel de Coulanges attacked Maurer’s work as a romantic and nationalistic idealization of the Teutonic tribes, based not on empirical research, but on classical works such as Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Tacitus’s Germania. Stedman Jones sees a similar lapse into romanticism in Marx’s attraction to Lewis Henry Morgan’s writings on early forms of social and political organisation in Europe and customary tribal relations among indigenous Americans. The lapse is to be explained, according to Stedman Jones, by the retreat of the tide of revolution in the 1870s, after the fall of the Paris Commune. (197)

Based on the Notes, Saito denies that Marx was regressing into romanticism; rather, he was actually reaching for an idea of degrowth communism founded upon the radical abundance of communal wealth. In the modern world, degrowth communism could be achieved because the abundance of common wealth could be multiplied by abolishing the artificial scarcity of commodity production and by sharing social and natural wealth.(236) Saito gives five reasons why communism increases the chance of repairing the metabolic rift.

Firstly, whereas capital, in its drive for unlimited growth, makes and sells non-essential and harmful products as long as they make a profit, the abolition of the law of value would allow the reallocation of resources to essentials such as care and real luxuries such a art, sport and travel.

Secondly, abolition of the law of value would eliminate unnecessary labour, especially energy and resource-consuming ‘bullshit jobs’.

Thirdly, degrowth communism would transform the remaining realm of necessity to make the content of work more attractive.

Fourthly, the abolition of market competition for profits would de-accelerate the economy and ease pressure on the biosphere.

Finally, as Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme says, in communism, ‘after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want’, there would be no more ‘enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and thereby also the antithesis between mental and physical labour.’ Saito suggests that in communism, ‘Through collective decision-making processes, workers have more room to reflect upon the necessity of their products, egalitarian relations of class, gender and race, and environmental impacts.’ (241-42)

It has been claimed that Critique of the Gotha Program is an argument for productivism, because it says that the ‘productive forces’ will be increased  when ‘all the springs of common/co-operative/communal wealth flow more abundantly.’ Saito, however, suggests that such a development of productive forces is not equivalent to merely quantitative increases in production of the same commodities as under capitalism;

’This reorganization of the labour process may decrease productivity by abolishing the excessive division of labour and making labour more democratic and attractive, but it nonetheless counts as the “development” of productive forces of social labour because it ensures the free and autonomous activity of individual workers.’ (233)

Theories of History

In February 1881, Vera Zasulich wrote to Marx from Geneva, asking him whether ‘the [Russian] rural commune, freed of exorbitant tax demands, payment to the nobility and arbitrary administration, is capable of developing in a socialist direction’ or whether ‘the commune is destined to perish’. As it happened, Marx was deeply concerned at this time with the issue of rural communism: he had been reading Maxim Kovalevsky’s Common Landownership: The Causes, Course and Consequences of Its Decline, Lewis H. Morgan’s Ancient Society, James Money’s Java, or How to Manage a Colony, John Phear’s The Aryan Village in India and Ceylon and Henry Maine’s Lectures on the Early History of Institutions. Marx’s first draft reply to Zasulich states:

‘If the revolution takes place in time, if it concentrates all its forces to ensure the unfettered rise of the rural commune, the latter will soon develop as a regenerating element of Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries enslaved by the capitalist regime.’

The use of the word ‘superiority’ in this context suggests to Saito that Marx’s view of history had changed by 1881, in that he explicitly acknowledged the power of Russian rural communes to bypass capitalist modernization. Saito refers to Kevin B Anderson’s ‘path-breaking investigation of Marx’s Notebooks’ in Marx at the Margins; on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies. Saito quotes Anderson’s argument that late Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks, in creating ‘a multilinear and non-reductionist theory of history’; analyzed ‘the complexities and differences of non-Western societies, and … refused to bind himself into a single model of development of revolution’. Saito comments,

‘Only by looking at the problems of both Eurocentrism and productivism does a completely new interpretation of the late Marx become compelling. That is, not that the paths to communism became plural but that Marx’s idea of communism itself significantly changed in the 1880s…’

Saito adds,

‘Furthermore, even if Anderson determinedly rejects the old dogma of Marxism, it is undeniable that his entire polemics pivot around a Eurocentric/linear vs postcolonial/multilinear view of history. In a sense, they are still confined by the very traditional paradigm of historical materialism… To put it bluntly, Marx’s primary interest was not to establish the law of history [or]… test the applicability of his law.’  (199)

Anderson, however, refers to a ‘theory of history’, not the ‘law of history’. The only other reference to ‘law of history’ comes earlier on in Saito’s text regarding Lukacs’s critique of Engels’s ‘positivism’: ‘…if a laboratory experiment is understood as the dialectical practice, as Engels seems to believe, its application to society would lead to a mechanistic understanding of the objective law of history.’ (85) This Engelsian view is surely one that Anderson ‘determinedly rejects’. In Marx at the Margins, Anderson refers, for example, to Marx’s ‘The Future Results of British Rule in India’, published in 1853, as having ‘strong Eurocentric overtones’ in seeing the English ‘mission’ as both  ‘destructive’ and ‘generating’; and the conquest of India by superior force as due to ‘an eternal law of history.’ (Marx at the Margins, 22) Anderson shows how Marx’s later views on India contradict this position.

In Hegel’s case, a universal theory or a philosophy of history is based on the dialectic of freedom and reason. History had shown that selfish, impulsive desires served as more effective ‘springs of action’ than ‘benevolence’ of a ‘liberal or universal kind’. Hegel rejects as ‘vain’ all attempts ‘to solve the enigmas of Providence’, or to explain the evil, vice and ruin that marks world history as purely ‘the work of mere Nature’ without taking into account the human factor. For ‘the Human Will — a moral embitterment — a revolt of the Good Spirit (if it have a place within us) may well be the result of our reflections.’ (GWF Hegel, The Philosophy of History, §24)

Marx and the Norodniks

In February 1881, Marx wasn’t just reflecting on his ethnological studies of ‘archaic’ forms of rural communism. He was also concerned with the impact of his ideas on Russian revolutionaries, who were very activated by ‘the Human Will — a moral embitterment — a revolt of the Good Spirit’.  Marx was somewhat disarmed by the invitation from Zasulich to clearly state his views on the peasant rural communes in the pages of her organisation’s paper – hence the four drafts he made before writing his reply. Zasulich’s party, Black Repartition, was led by intellectuals who looked to historical materialism for validation of their position that capitalism was coming to Russia and that there would be no effective base in the peasant communes for socialist politics. The leaders were Geneva-based exiles, whom Marx was somewhat disdainful of because they exuded the over-cautious quest for respectability that was already evident in west European social democracy. Black Repartition emerged following a split in 1879 in the Land and Liberty party. Their adversaries in the split were the Narodniks, who went on to found People’s Will. In contrast to the legalistic tactics of Black Repartition, the Narodniks were fighting the Czarist state with a terrorist campaign. But the Narodniks were also serious thinkers, who drew their ideas from leading intellectuals whose works were studied closely by Marx, notably  HerzenChernyshevskyLavrov and Mikhaylovsky. Marx admired the Narodnik cadre, because they were active, courageous revolutionaries.

When the Narodniks carried their agitation to the countryside, they found that the mass of the peasants were under the sway of Czar-worship, enforced by a repressive state and by an Orthodox church which was especially hostile to the Narodniks’ militant feminism. The intensification of the Narodniks’ terrorist campaign was intended to break the passivity of the peasantry by attacking the State and thus exposing the mirage of its invincibility.

On 8 March 1881, Marx sent a cautiously worded reply to Zasulich. After initially writing a 4,500-word draft, he had whittled it down to 350 words, the main point being that his analysis in Capital provides ‘no reasons either for or against the vitality of the Russian commune.’ He elaborates:

‘But the special study I have made of it, including a search for original source­ material, has convinced me that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia. But in order that it might function as such, the harmful influences assailing it on all sides must first be eliminated, and it must then be assured the normal conditions for spontaneous development.’

A week before he sent this letter, the Narodniks had assassinated Czar Alexander II. Marx and Engels, who hated Russian Czarism more than any despotism in the world, celebrated the assassination and hoped, as did the Narodniks, that it might even spark a revolution. It didn’t, and in response the Russian state unleashed a wave of repression. Nevertheless, 10 months later, in the January 1882 preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels claim that, as ‘Russia forms the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe’, the new Czar, Alexander III, was ‘a prisoner of war of the revolution’ holed up in the Great Gatchina Palace at Saint Petersburg. They conclude:

‘Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?  The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development. ‘

Saito comments: ‘Thus, Marx and Engels cautioned that the Russian communes could not only avoid going through the capitalist stage but even demanded that they initiate communist development by sending “the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West”.’(195-96) Saito, referencing Haruki Wada’s Marx, Engels and Revolutionary Russia, points out that this was contrary to Engels’s position of 1875, which emphasized the need for a Western proletarian revolution as a condition for the success of Russian revolution. (212-13) Saito writes:

‘By carefully investigating the reason why he had to study pre-capitalist societies and natural sciences at the same time, a new and surprising possibility of interpreting Marx’s letter to Zasulich emerges: Marx ultimately became a degrowth communist’(173)

Saito sees in Marx’s correspondence and research during his last years an ‘epistemological break’ (‘in the Althusserian sense’) in which he ‘finally’ rejected Promethean productivism: ‘The degrowth communism that Marx was hinting at in the last stage of his life was not an arbitrary interpretation, considering his passionate endorsement of the Narodniks.’(209) But if this rests on the claim that Marx saw peasant communes in Russia, India and elsewhere as the definitive field of class struggle in those lands, which would act as the ‘signal’ for revolution by the proletariat of the West, it has to balanced against his speculation that the two could ‘complement’ one another, with the implication (which Saito would presumably accept) that both would have to be revolutionised by a non-productivist, humanised path of modernisation.

The impoverishment of the peasantry by encroaching capitalism and the growth of intensely exploitative industrial production meant Russia was in a state of permanent social crisis, which raised the likelihood, sooner or later, of revolution. How and when it might come could not of course be prophesized. Marx was keen to clarify his ideas in the context of subjective-objective developments in Russia, in which the Narodnik left was itself in a state of long-term crisis. For, if the survival of the peasant communes couldn’t be sustained, as seemed increasingly likely, then the terrorist tactics would have to be re-assessed. In 1887, Aleksandr Ilyich Ulyanov of People’s Will was convicted of making dynamite bombs in a failed plot to assassinate Czar Alexander III and was hanged along with four co-conspirators. His younger 17-year old brother was the future leader of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

To conclude, Saito has provided a well-documented and readable case to show that Marx, from the early 1860s onwards, moved away from the original formulation of what was to become known as ‘historical materialism’ (the term was adopted by Engels from Plekhanov after Marx’s death) and that he became increasingly anti-productivist. Saito has done a great service in showing how Marx conceptualized communism in a new way as a vision of the future. He does not show, however (and I allow that this probably wasn’t his intention), how Marx was also concerned with the politics of getting there.

[*]David Black, ‘From Habakkuk to Locke’, International Marxist-Humanist, Sept 2012


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1 Comment

  1. Bella

    According to Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, written in 1859, revolutions happen when ‘the material productive forces of society’ become fettered by the existing relations of production and property: ‘The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.’ (MECW 29: 263)

    Fully democratic, working-thinking production, is enslaved by relations between things: money, and labour treated as a commodified thing, as an object, denied subjectivity with our agency suppressed eg anti-trade-union violence.

    The master’s capitalist system of production, within its abstract math calculations, denies the different social roles each side of the equals sign (=) and thus glosses over and/or lies, consciously or unconsciously, that anything like equality is a reality within the factory.

    In the equation: x money = y hours of homogenous labour units; capital plays the universal equivalent role. Its way of being, its system of self-expansion (M-M=), its fetishism of commodities dominates as within a monotheistic state.

    y hours in the relative, active role must actively seek out a buyer for our only saleable commodity that we own – our labour-power.

    Human development is thus enslaved by this frozen dichotomy. A deluded belief that this dominating, unlimited power of accumulating ever more wealth, that now dominates politics and government increasingly dangerously, and proto-fascistically, can solve social problems.

    These mind forged manacles can be liberated with the aid of a philosophy of revolution that we create between ourselves as new human relations entwined with, and based within freedom struggles from environment, to strikes, to Black Lives Matter, to feminism