Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Marxism and Ecology"

David Barkin

John Bellamy Foster has presented us with an exciting challenge: a fight for equitable and sustainable human development. In his short essay, at once informative and formative, Foster again enters into a gladiator’s arena, well-armed and good natured, to attempt to slay the dragons among the more enlightened, but not necessarily more willing, to motivate us to abandon the shackles of systemic immobility.

Having worked for more than a half century among peoples engaged in creating new worlds for themselves, I would like to report on how the marriage of ecology and Marxism is alive and well, thriving among the hundreds of millions who have deliberately chosen to remove themselves from the binds of the international marketplace and the national institutions that continue to attempt to ensnare them. Throughout the world, communities are joined in regional, national, and international alliances to protect their systems of governance, their quality of life, and the ecosystems on which we all depend. These peoples are not involved in "rear-guard" actions to simply remember the past, their customs, and their heritage; while not all Marxists or even ecologists, they are generally knowledgeable participants in modern societies in which the seemingly inexorable advance of capital and national integration is attacking their very means of sustenance and the ability to defend their organizations and societies.

The remarkable quality of Foster’s essay is that it offers us an insight into the dynamic processes of the advance of knowledge and understanding. Although he finds many clues for his ongoing efforts to promote the marriage of ecology and Marxism in the work of scholars of the nineteenth century, we can only appreciate their significance today, as Luxemburg said in 1903 would happen (mentioned by Foster). Likewise, we are finding that many of the inherited cosmologies and traditions of the peoples forging their new “post-capitalist societies” (as I label them) today draw on the rich fount of wisdom transmitted through centuries or millennia. In spite of the fact that well-respected scholars are proposing the need for a “post-normal science” (Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz), “post-development” (Arturo Escobar), or “epistemologies of the south” (Boaventura de Sousa Santos) that go far beyond the tepid innovations offered by efforts at inter- or transdisciplinary collaborations, most discussions do not move beyond the confines of intercultural exchanges.

Unfortunately, a profound chasm continues to pervade the initiatives to generate a genuine “dialogue among knowledge systems” (dialogo de saberes, as we say in Spanish). Many of these new approaches are coming from the Global South, where myriad societies are resisting the intensifying efforts to integrate them into the homogenizing process of “internationalization.” Some of this resistance is taking the form of violent confrontations that often confound a struggle for resources and power with efforts to defend and extend the reach of these different cosmologies; these are not always the appropriate arenas for melding the principles of ecology and Marxism. Elsewhere, however, peoples are strengthening their social organizations and political structures to assure their capability to govern themselves and to maintain their autonomy, while also reorganizing their productive systems, gleaning knowledge from the frontiers of scientific and technical innovation to improve their ability to supply their own needs and to exchange with their allies. They are building societies based on solidarity and equity, sustainable within their limits and their ability to defend against the incursions of the land grabbers, miners, water companies, and energy consortia who covet their resources, their territories, and their reserves of “cheap” labor. Throughout Latin America today there are literally thousands of confrontations between these parties in conflict—encounters that are costing the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people actively involved in these defensive actions.

These post-capitalist societies are not the idyllic communes or kibbutzim of a past epoch, with starry-eyed colonists occupying territories that often were not their own. No, these societies are comprised by men and women defending the territories they inherited or were granted after fierce struggles with the latter-day inheritors of a colonial or neo-colonial past. When we read of the new triad proposed by Paul Raskin in the original GTI report, “quality of life, human solidarity, and ecological sensibility,” I cannot but think of these societies, fighting “tooth and nail” to defend the very essence of their lives, against the imperatives of seemingly unstoppable capital accumulation, often as part of a new wave of “sustainable development”: REDD+, renewable energies, and efficient delivery of social services, components of the green economy package that will be so unsuccessfully negotiated at the forthcoming Paris meeting of the Parties (COP 21).

Lest I be accused of rhetorical bombast, I would like to end this comment with a few references to some societies actually engaged in the transformations to which I alluded. There are the communities organized in more than 70 countries as part of the Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Areas and Territories Network. The international peasant movement, Vía Campesina, engages more than 100 million people in 164 organizations in 73 countries. The Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil (which is part of the Via Campesina) has about 1.5 million members. Tens of thousands in the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (Mexico) are reclaiming their traditions of yore, and the Zapatista movement in Chiapas has successfully organized more than 500,000 people in southern Mexico to achieve the objectives mentioned above. Of course, there are also the indigenous peoples in the Andes and the Amazon, the First Nations in Canada, and their brethren in the United States of America. In India, we read of the activities of literally hundreds of millions of people in communities actively forging their own alternatives, often informed by a Gandhian heritage, while the New Rural Reconstruction Movement reports the resistance of several hundred million Chinese also seeking to build a more benign way of life, in place of the penury of recent and past epochs. There are, of course, hundreds or thousands of other examples throughout the world some of which I have spoken about in some of my own writings. These organizations are not the stereotypical inheritors of past “socialist” movements, nor can they be the leaders of a future world revolution. Rather, they are taking the principles that Foster is explicating one step further, enriching them with their store of spiritual and practical knowledge and experience, to prosecute the courageous struggles that are essential for the great transformation. For the members of the GTN, they pose a challenge: Can we abandon the confines of our institutions and even the societies that are rapidly destroying the very basis of human existence?

David Barkin
David Barkin is a professor at the Metropolitan University in Mexico City, with a focus on ecological economics, alternative paradigms for society, and the problems of indigenous societies.

Cite as David Barkin, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Marxism and Ecology," Great Transition Initiative (October 2015),

Back to Publication

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.