Marx was not a Greeny
There is a prevailing view that being left-wing means being green. We are all meant to be watermelons — green on the outside and red on the inside. This is a view that I totally reject and I have covered the issue to some extent in the recent video on economic growth.
Staking a claim to be the biggest watermelons are people who call themselves “ecological Marxists”. They claim that if Marx were around today he too would be a greeny. In their view he would be like them and support organic agriculture and a steady state economy based on renewable resources that would provide everyone with so-called “sufficiency”. In such a world, the economies of the poor countries would increase a bit while those of the rich countries would shrink a lot. The most notable exponent of this view is John Bellamy Foster, the editor of The Monthly Review. He goes through the writings of Marx and tortures them until they deliver what he wants.
Foster draws our attention to a number of Marx’s views that you could use to start building a case that he was a Greeny. Marx was concerned about the destruction of natural stocks of fertile soil, forests and fish that were needed by future generations. He also commented on how consumption often included frivolities that reflected people’s alienation rather than real needs and that human thriving requires more than increased consumption. Foster also correctly points out that when Marx talked about mastering nature he did not mean destroying it but mastering its laws and harnessing it accordingly. However, from here on the argument begins to get really weird.
Foster tries to extract greenness from the fact that Marx was a materialist who believed we lived in a material world where we depended on plants and animals for food, water to drink and air to breath. This is a rather silly argument given that you would be hard to find someone who disagrees with this view.
Foster also misconstrues Marx’s constant reference to the fact that capitalists are compelled by the forces of competition to accumulate capital in order to survive. He tries to make out that Marx actually disapproved of this phenomenon. In fact, Marx’s view was that this is what made capitalism superior to previous class societies where the ruling class wasted all the surplus value on conspicuous consumption. Instead of being compelled to accumulate these societies were compelled to stagnate. By reinvesting most of the surplus value, capitalism delivers economic and social progress.
Foster also picks up on Marx’s analysis of the contradiction between town and country. In the separation of town and country, Marx was concerned about two things. Firstly it stunted the brains of those in the country and ruined the physical health of those in the city. Secondly it meant a break in the nutrient cycle as human waste and food scraps were not returned to the farm but instead dumped in rivers and oceans. This transfer of people from the land to cities was an inevitable part of capitalist development. Capitalist farming needed less workers and the cost to the soil and to workers of concentrating the latter in the cities was of no concern to industrial capitalists.
However, these contradictions are being resolved without having to spread the population evenly over the landscape. High density living in large cities can now be quite healthy and comfortable. Living in the countryside no longer means being cut off from the world, given modern modes of transport and communications. This modern transport can also truck in fertilizer, be it human waste, animal manure or the synthetic kind that is now produced in abundance. Indeed, the present concern is excessive nutrients and resulting emissions into ground water or the atmosphere. The best hope for dealing with this under present capitalist conditions is through increased regulation and better management including greater adoption of precision farming.
The greening of Marx of course requires Foster to explain away how Marx and Engels talked about communism unleashing the productive forces. He claims this thoroughly un-green viewpoint was confined to their youthful less mature writings. This is simply not true. Marx in Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875 and Engels in Anti-Duhring of 1877 both express pro-growth views. I have provided the relevant quotes in the comment section below.
In the video on economic growth, I argue firstly that far greater levels of material output are needed for communism because it has to be based on shared prosperity rather than shared poverty and secondly that there are no environmental or resources constraints that prevent us from achieving high and increasing levels of global prosperity. I have provided a link to that video below.
Referred to in the video
In part I of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875 we read:
Let us take, first of all, the words “proceeds of labor” in the sense of the product of labor; then the co-operative proceeds of labor are the total social product.
From this must now be deducted: First, cover for replacement of the means of production used up. Second, additional portion for expansion of production. Third, reserve or insurance funds to provide against accidents, dislocations caused by natural calamities, etc.
And further down in Part I we read:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
Then in Engels’ Anti-Duhring of 1977 we read: .
The expansive force of the means of production bursts the bonds that the capitalist mode of production had imposed upon them. Their deliverance from these bonds is the one precondition for an unbroken, constantly accelerated development of the productive forces, and therewith for a practically unlimited increase of production itself. Nor is this all. The socialised appropriation of the means of production does away, not only with the present artificial restrictions upon production, but also with the positive waste and devastation of productive forces and products that are at the present time the inevitable concomitants of production, and that reach their height in the crises. Further, it sets free for the community at large a mass of means of production and of products, by doing away with the senseless extravagance of the ruling classes of today and their political representatives. The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialised production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties — this possibility is now for the first time here, but it is here.