Commentary on Marxism and Ecology: Common Fonts of a Great Transition
John Bellamy Foster’s writings, including the present one, have done much to bring to us fresh insights into Marx’s thoughts on environment, in itself valuable given that the stereotypical image of Marx and the record of many regimes and movements claiming to be “Marxist” have little place for ecological sensitivity. For that, I am grateful. My comments below are in the context of an overall agreement with Foster’s key message.
Perhaps in the case of any activist-scholar like Marx, who writes prolifically and with complexity, and who evolves in these writings over his lifespan, one can find some elements of virtually all social concerns at one place or the other. I can think of Gandhi in the same terms. But in such a situation, one question to be asked is, how central was ecological thought in Marx? If it was, why has “orthodox” Marxism hardly ever acknowledged it? If it was not, is it fair to portray Marxism as a powerful ally of the ecological movement? I am not well-read enough to have inclinations towards an answer, so I am only asking these as questions. It seems to me that Foster’s description of the rift between Russian and Western “Marxists” is part of the answer, but given that many other crucial parts of what Marx wrote and said have not gone into oblivion as much as the environmental part has, I wonder if the other part of the answer is that it simply was not as central as, say, class struggle. Here in India, orthodox Marxists have not only ignored, but actually looked down upon, environment and ecology as a central concern, which has led to great difficulties in bringing together potentially revolutionary movements of various kinds. (This, of course, is not the only cause: narrow environmentalism that does not look at class, caste, and gender inequities has played its role too.)
While I am fully convinced that a Marxist approach of the kind Foster presents is important to the struggles for a saner world, I am not convinced that it by itself is sufficient, nor that it is always necessary. Powerful arguments towards sustainability and social justice also come from ethical standpoints that have other origins, e.g., spiritual thinking and living (I am deliberately not saying “religious,” as that has dogmatic and rigid institutional connotations).
In this context, I would like to make two points. First, a purely materialist approach (noting that this has nothing to do with materialism of the capitalist/accumulative variety) has its limitations, for I think humanity’s relationship to/within nature and to itself goes beyond what is purely material, and that non-material relations are a powerful stimulus towards ethical behavior towards all life (and even non-life). It seems to me that indigenous peoples have so far been the most sustainable on earth, relative to all other peoples, and they have a deeply spiritual view of their own place in the universe that underlies their respectful treatment of the earth. This may not necessarily be in contradiction with Marx’s version of materialism, but it certainly does not seem to be central to it, and has also certainly been displaced by most people and regimes calling themselves Marxist.
Second, although Foster says it is socialists who will play a leading role in the Great Transition, I would add that there will be—and, in fact, already are—a number of others who could not (except by a major stretch) be called socialists, such as indigenous peoples’ movements or spiritual movements. Of course, this is not meant as a critique of Foster, for he has not said “only” socialists, but as a reminder of a crucial dimension to question of who will lead the way to a saner world.
In this sense, I do think that the following statement needs to be critically examined: “Ecology as we know it today thus represents the triumph of a materialist systems theory.” If Foster is referring to “ecology” as the scientific study of ecosystems and the environment, then I have no quarrels. But if he is referring to an ecological worldview, with all it entails regarding our relationship with the earth (and other species), then its origins are certainly not restricted to materialism. I guess this also depends on who Foster means by “we” in the above statement. Who is “we”? If it means those of us who may be part of formal academic circles, then fine. If it means “all of us,” as in, for example, “all those in the environmental movement,” then not fine. An ecological worldview for an indigenous person in the Amazon, or a traditional fisherperson on India’s coast, would not arise from a “materialist systems theory,” but from a material and spiritual connection with the forest, sea, and wildlife around them. The above would be encompassed in a Gandhian perspective, and while this is not the place for an extensive Marx vis-à-vis Gandhi discussion, let me pose a quick a question for Foster: How would an indigenous or other traditional community perspective, or a Gandhian perspective, both of which arrive at ethical behavior via routes broader or other than materialism, be viewed by an ecologically resurrected Marx?
This is not only an academic discussion, but also a very practical one. Many movements in the world are inspired by such worldviews, just as many are by Marx’s views, and there is a desperate need for all of them to collaborate if we are to have any hope of defeating both centralized state power and capitalist corporate power. If they—we—can go beyond our assumed (or maybe sometimes real) differences or dualisms and see essential commonalities, this would be more possible.
Finally—and this may sound minor but is not—I think we who want a fundamental transformation of the world need to go beyond the language of “sustainable development.” I recognize that Foster means it more in the sense of “qualitative, collective, cultural,” but the term is now so heavily impregnated by the “green economy” and even “green growth” approaches that are predicated on more and more material and energy flows that I think we have to debunk and replace it. There are many ancient and new terms now being adopted by movements around the world more in the rubric of “well-being” that can be explored.
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