Marxism and Environmentalism

An immediate problem faces any discussion of environmentalism and Marxism today. The first topic is popular across many different political perspectives; it engages journalists; and it "concerns" the general population. The second topic has become once again unpopular; journalists treat it as an object of obituary; few seem "concerned" about it. Yet, to ignore Marxism today makes no more sense than ignoring environmentalism did for most of the twentieth century. Class and class struggle are no more "solved" or "removed" from today's social agenda by the demise of the USSR than ecological crises were "solved" or "removed" by new laws and international commissions on the environment.

The writer Mark Twain once read his obituary in an American newspaper. His one-sentence reply to the newspaper’s editor said "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Marxism too has survived repeated obituaries across 150 years of its growth. Indeed, the Marxist concept of “uneven development” applies, as it should, to Marxism itself. So too does the concept of the universality of change: Marxism is always changing.

The multiplicity of theories and interpretation within the Marxian tradition, somewhat muted by the hegemony of the official Soviet interpretation, revived once that hegemony passed. New theorizations as well as reformulations of older theories are thriving in major new debates. Their objects include the very meaning of class and class analysis, the epistemological relation of Marxist to other social theories, new definitions and applications of Marxian value theory, the relation of Marxist theories to economic and other determinisms, to modernism vs postmodernism, and so on. New topics also concern a revived Marxist theoretical tradition. Environmentalism is important among them. 

Those celebrating the end of Marxism caricature it as one set of fixed, old ideas. They ignore the new Marxist theories and strategies taking shape over recent years. In contrast, this book invites environmentalists to gain from Marxists' new understandings of the relation between exploitation and ecological disaster. Environmentalists also have much to teach Marxists about important, long-overlooked aspects of capitalism's disastrous social costs. But the teaching most needed today is two-way, a mutual education in the new discoveries of ecology and environmentalism and the new discoveries in Marxist class and social analysis. The exchange that follows contributes to just such a project of mutual education.

Capitalism has always produced changes in its social and natural environments. These changes reacted back on capitalism to reinforce it or to undermine it. Usually, capitalism’s changes have both strengthened and weakened capitalism in different ways at the same time. For example, capitalism stimulates rapid technological change. On the one hand, this enabled capitalists to extract more surplus value from workers. Yet, on the other hand, it also often degraded the natural environment thereby incurring social criticism of and extra costs to capitalists. These challenged capitalist hegemony and drained capitalists’ surpluses. Similarly, capitalism has cultivated consumerism, which strengthens it by promoting product sales and by distracting workers from their exploitation on the job. Yet consumerism also provokes demands for higher wages and thereby problems for capitalists.

Technology, consumerism, environmentalism, and Marxism are, like all other aspects of capitalist societies today, arenas for conflict and struggle. Those who wish to develop these aspects in pro-capitalist directions, to enhance their capitalist-strengthening dimensions, confront those who have the opposite goals. Efforts to connect and ally environmentalism and Marxism thus face a difficult analytic task: how to sort through the contradictions inside each movement and between them to achieve the basis for an effective alliance.

Some writers reduce or altogether avoid the difficulties by proceeding as if either Marxism or environmentalism were one, single perspective or movement. In short, they deny or disregard the different, contradictory theories and strategies within both movements. Other writers do not avoid the difficulties. Their analyses focus on the internal contradictions within each movement, especially as they relate to the context of capitalism. To bring together environmentalism and Marxism, they begin by taking a position on the contradictions within both  movements. One of the several virtues of the exchange below is that it offers the reader a chance to examine how Marxist writers from different standpoints conceptualize the contradictions as they seek to ally environmentalism and Marxism.

A second virtue of this exchange is that it represents a certain maturation of the environmentalist-Marxist dialogue. Moving beyond mutual accusations that environmentalists ignore class/society or that Marxists ignore nature, this exchange is more complex and subtle. How does capitalism shape the relationships among people (society) and between people and nature? How are society and nature transformed by the capitalist mediation of their relationship? How do the changes wrought by capitalism in society and nature react back upon capitalism to change it?

The profound philosophic issues at stake in the debates inside environmentalism and Marxism - and the centrality of those issues to any effective alliance between them - are also becoming clearer. Benton’s realist argument focuses on the contradictions between capitalism’s economic imperatives and the natural limits that constrain it. He seeks to establish a tendency within capitalism to “destroy its own natural conditions of possibility,” what he calls “ecological crisis generation.” Benton wants a realist Marxism that corrects and supplements classical Marxism with an environmentalism focused on natural limits shaping capitalism’s evolution and demise.

Opposed to Benton, Grundmann offers what he calls a humanist interpretation of Marxism in which traditional historical materialism remains the basic way to theorize the complex interaction between nature and economy. A key part of Grundmann’s argument holds that interaction to be open-ended; that is, technology and economy transform nature in multiple contradictory ways (including what nature is and how people variously conceptualize it). Instead of Benton’s natural limits producing ecological crises as an inherent tendency of capitalism, Grundmann invokes a more dialectical interaction between nature and economy that includes the possibility of a communist technology that is respectful of nature, “worthy of human nature,” and consistent with “self-realization.”

As Vlachou shows in her article, one can read Benton and Grundmann as revising and extending a debate between realist and humanist Marxisms that has swirled around many topics for decades. Realists build their arguments around the independent reality of the objects they see; they insist on that reality as valid equally and absolutely for all viewers regardless of their standpoints, perspectives, or theoretical frameworks. Benton wants thereby to establish the real natural limits constraining capitalism and any possible socialism. Humanists a la Grundmann counter by insisting on the cultural dependence and hence relativity of all concepts of what is real. Grundmann conceives communism as the possible overcoming of natural “constraints” in so far as it installs a “rational” technology which will reconcile nature and human economy. The authors therefore differ over the reality of nature and how nature and society (both capitalist and socialist/communist) interact.

Vlachou proceeds beyond her critical, epistemological reading of Benton and Grundmann to offer an “overdeterminist alternative” approach to linking Marxism and environmentalism. She opens up the space for dialectical interactions of economy and nature that refuse to fix or limit the possibilities of those interactions. Nature, human and otherwise, rationality, and all the other basic terms of debate become interdependent and ever-changing. This represents a radical opening up of the debate from the limits imposed by both Benton and Grundmann. Second, she introduces briefly the concept of class in surplus terms –terms either ignored or marginalized by Benton and Grundmann as indeed so many other writers on Marxism and the environment have done.

By way of conclusion, this matter of class analysis warrants a few lines. There is a strong tendency within the Marxist tradition still to treat class as a concept that has a universally agreed definition (within or even also outside the tradition). Yet that is patently not true.

Some Marxists define class in terms of property and power (those who have one or the other or both versus those who do not), while other Marxists define class very differently in terms of the production and distribution of surplus labor? The different definitions of class yield very different class analyses and strategies for class transformation – just as different definitions of nature do likewise for environmentalist analyses as Benton and Grundmann show.

These basic definitions are not inconsequential fine points. They are central to discussions and alliances between environmentalists and Marxists and also to the struggles within and thus the futures of both movements. Suppose Marxists realized conceptually and strategically that the degradation of nature was an assault on the human community comparable to exploitation (i.e. to the production of a surplus by people other than those who produce it). Suppose environmentalists realized conceptually and strategically that the damage to the human community done by pollution was comparable to that done by exploitation. Each movement would retain its specific, priority focus in analysis and action: their respective “entry points”. An alliance might be built if each movement would acknowledge that the social changes it sought include eliminating both kinds of damage.

Movements would ally to strengthen their conjoint efforts while recognizing that their different priorities could occasion conflicts over strategies and tactics - something that all alliances experience. Instead of interminable and unproductive contests over which social outrage – pollution or exploitation – was the worst, the most basic, the last-instance determinant of social change – the focus of alliance might be how to connect, combine, and ally the movements to eradicate them both.

A concluding parable. Once upon a time, people believed that the advance of civilization necessarily entailed the domination of the natural environment. Likewise, people believed that the advance of civilization necessarily entailed systems of production in which one group of people (slaves, serfs, and proletarians) produced a surplus necessarily appropriated and invested by another group (masters, lords, and capitalists). Finally, people believed that the advance of civilization required vesting all political power in a king and all familial authority in a patriarch, daily prayers to a deity, and the nuclear biological family.

However, many of us believe now that civilization can and did advance without kings, patriarchs, prayer, or nuclear families. What social movements proved about kings, patriarchs, prayer, and nuclear families can also be proved about exploitation and environmental degradation.


[published in Greek translation as "Introduction to the Interchange between Society and Nature" in A. Vlachou (ed.) Nature, Capital and Society, Athens: Kritiki, 2007, pp. 109-114.


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