Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Marxism and Ecology"

Michael Brie

John Bellamy Foster’s essay on Marxism and ecology starts with the thesis “Socialist thought is re-emerging at the forefront of the movement for global ecological and social changes.” Two important tasks are drawn from this thesis: “First, we must mount struggles for radical reforms in the present that challenge the destructive logic of capital. Second, we must build the broad movement to carry out the long revolutionary transition essential for humanity’s continued development and survival.” These are indeed the most urgent tasks of our time alongside the related duty to do whatever we can to stop and prevent wars and reduce violence.

But why is it so difficult to face these tasks? To answer this question, one should not forget Joseph Schumpeter’s lesson. This lesson is the other side of Marx’s critique of the accumulation of capital. Let me start with a short story told by Felix Somary, who met Joseph Schumpeter and Max Weber in 1918 in Vienna. Somary remembered,

The conversation had arrived at the Russian Revolution, and Schumpeter had expressed his pleasure about the fact that socialism…must prove its viability. Agitated Weber declared that…the Russians would suffer unprecedented human misery and the experiment would end in a terrible disaster. ‘I guess so’, Schumpeter said, ‘but this will be quite a nice laboratory for us.’ ‘A laboratory with human corpses heaping’, Weber went on. ‘This is like in all anatomic experiments’, Schumpeter said.1

Seventy years later, the successor of the Bolshevists, the Communist leadership of the Soviet Union, started to introduce reforms which reopened the way to capitalism in Russia after defeating Nazi Germany in the most terrible war the world has seen and withstanding the alliance of the most successful capitalist powers in the long Cold War.

To speak about the destructive logic of capital and to be silent about the creative logic of the same capital fails to address some parts of the aforementioned burning questions of socio-ecological transformation—concerning both the content of reforms and the forces to implement them. It was Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto who celebrated the revolutionary character of the capitalist mode of production. It was they who forecasted the fall down of the Berlin Wall:

The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.2

We must stress the global destruction that the endless capitalist growth-oriented accumulation creates. But we should be aware of the attraction this growth creates, the dreams of an American way of life for all it stimulates, the coalition it forms, and the followings it enforces. Climate change is pressing, but much more pressing are the demands of billions of people to take active part in the capitalist game. Overcoming capitalism implies changing the desires of billions of people.

Marx’s Capital is the most profound analysis of the capitalist accumulation process under the point of view of exploitation (of the workers, of land, of the colonial societies), and this concept has been extended to all spheres of human life and nature and all social forms (class, gender, race, body). In his rare description of a post-capitalist society, of early or later stages of communism, Marx took one condition for granted: the ability of these societies to innovate and form the basis for the free development of everybody as the condition of the free development of all. But what happens when the transformation beyond capitalism is destroying precisely this condition? If the space of freedom is abolished? If innovation is replaced by stagnation (the term Gorbachev used with regard to the Brezhnev time)? Other socialist or communist experiments (like in Yugoslavia or the Kibbutzim) shared the same fate. They were quit by the sons and daughters of their founders. Communist China started the largest project of building up a type of political capitalism ever. One may summarize these experiences with the words: who does not speak about the strengths of capitalism should be silent about socialism and socio-ecological transformation. Any alternative to the capitalist mode of development has to keep and reshape the innovative capacity modern society in its capitalist form realized for the first time in human history. And ecologists and socialists alike have to analyze this capacity to redirect it for the sake of socio-ecological transformation.

As Karl Polanyi wrote, “Industrial civilisation unhinged the elements of man’s being.”3 Labor power, land, raw materials, and knowledge are thrown and forced onto the market. They acquire a monetary form as wages, rent, interest, or price. At the same time, resources can be combined almost at will. So the separation has a creative side: it makes the “realisation of new combinations” of economic factors possible in the first place. This combination is the starting condition for the developmental capacity of bourgeois capitalist societies, as Schumpeter analyzed them.4 Bourgeois capitalist societies set free resources which can then be recombined, and they burst apart the cohesion of nature, life worlds, societal institutions, and culture. Almost every natural resource on the planet, all labor power in any community, all assets in whoever’s hands, and any form of knowledge are exposed to entrepreneurial involvement. Violence, this secret of every society, acquired a new goal and the new function of dispossession as the preparatory stage for recombination. The capitalist type of accumulation can be described—paraphrasing Schumpeter—as destructive creation.

John Bellamy Foster’s transformation includes concrete proposals of a transition from current neoliberal destructive creation to constructive destruction of the current mode of development, setting free the elements of a totally different mode of development. It would include an alliance of lower classes and solidarity-oriented middle classes, a way of production and life based on the luxury of the commons, solidarity forms of social and ecological oriented entrepreneurship, and a new type of democracy. Schumpeter’s lesson can be learned: for the sake of another world, let’s make another type of entrepreneurial combinations of the human and the natural resources possible. These new entrepreneurs—often cooperatives, peer-to-peer communities, solidarity networks—can become the avant-garde of a socio-ecological transformation. The world of tomorrow is dancing in the crisis-ridden capitalism of today. It depends on these forms of entrepreneurship of Commoners to make the world of tomorrow irresistible.

1.  Felix Somary, Erinnerungen eines politischen Meteorologen (München: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 1994), 179.
2. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in CollectedWorks, vol. 6 ([1848]; New York: International Publishers, 1976), 477–519.
3. Karl Polanyi, “On Belief in Economic Determinism,” Sociological Review 39, no. 1 (1947): 97.
4. Joseph Schumpeter, Business Cycles: A Theoretical, Historical and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process (London: McGraw-Hill Books, 1964).

Michael Brie
Michael Brie is a social philosopher at the Institute for Critical Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin and editor of the series Contribution to Critical Transformation Research.

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

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