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Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy

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Reveals the ideal of a sustainable ecosocialist world in Marx's writings

Karl Marx, author of what is perhaps the world's most resounding and significant critique of bourgeois political economy, has frequently been described as a "Promethean." According to critics, Marx held an inherent belief in the necessity of humans to dominate the natural world, in order to end material want and create a new world of fulfillment and abundance--a world where nature is mastered, not by anarchic capitalism, but by a planned socialist economy. Understandably, this perspective has come under sharp attack, not only from mainstream environmentalists but also from ecosocialists, many of whom reject Marx outright.

Kohei Saito's Karl Marx's Ecosocialism lays waste to accusations of Marx's ecological shortcomings. Delving into Karl Marx's central works, as well as his natural scientific notebooks--published only recently and still being translated--Saito also builds on the works of scholars such as John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, to argue that Karl Marx actually saw the environmental crisis embedded in capitalism. "It is not possible to comprehend the full scope of [Marx's] critique of political economy," Saito writes, "if one ignores its ecological dimension."

Saito's book is crucial today, as we face unprecedented ecological catastrophes--crises that cannot be adequately addressed without a sound theoretical framework. Karl Marx's Ecosocialism shows us that Marx has given us more than we once thought, that we can now come closer to finishing Marx's critique, and to building a sustainable ecosocialist world.

368 pages, Hardcover

First published October 24, 2017

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About the author

Kohei Saito

13 books110 followers
Kohei Saito received his Ph.D. from Humboldt University in Berlin. He is currently associate professor of political economy at Osaka City University. He has published articles and reviews on Marx’s ecology, including “The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture,” and “Marx’s Ecological Notebooks,” both in Monthly Review. He is working on editing the complete works of Marx and Engels, Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) Volume IV/18, which includes a number of Marx’s natural scientific notebooks.

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Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews
Profile Image for Andrew.
576 reviews122 followers
April 1, 2019
I'm guessing this book was not for me. For your reference, I am a public policy Master's student and a Marxist who is not totally opposed to anarchism. I'm currently taking a class on Contemporary Marxism in the lit department where we are discussing completely arcane concepts from many Italian authors, in addition to some classics like Black Marxism. Now that you know where I'm coming from, you know how to measure the rest of this review.

I understand what Saito is trying to do here. He badly wants to convince us that Marx cared about ecology. Which. . . okay?

In other words, let's say he succeeded (spoiler: I'm not saying he succeeded): then so what? Where does that leave us? What does it change? What does it matter? Nowhere does Saito say how this new revelation should shape our behavior going forward. He certainly doesn't explain how it should inform any modern ecological practices. If I'm not mistaken he doesn't actually reference praxis at all. This is as puzzling as it is disappointing in a book called Karl Marx's Ecosocialism which was written in 2017.

Let me repeat that statement: this is a book about ecosocialism WRITTEN IN 2017 which barely mentions the looming climate catastrophe. It is one of the most egregious examples of ivory tower head-up-your-own-assedness I've ever seen.

Ok, so maybe I'm being unfair here. Coming up with actionable steps to battle climate catastrophe was clearly not within Saito's stated scope for this project. I happen to think that makes his stated scope shitty, but hey that's a subjective call. A fairer question would be does Saito succeed within his scope? I'd argue that he doesn't.

Though I'm sure Saito himself would object to this characterization, he basically has two main claims. One is that Marx is unfairly maligned for his earliest writings in which he was cavalier about productivism, essentially ignoring the environmental impact of industrialization. The second is that he came to care deeply about ecology over the last decades of his life, which we would have seen if he had ever finished volumes 2 & 3 of Capital himself.

Saito mostly convinces on the first account, using Marx's notebooks to say that right around the time of the Communist Manifesto Marx began investigating agronomy and became extremely interested in soil health, deforestation, etc. Fine, I'll grant that. His earliest writings were written in ignorance and he changed his mind over time.

The second claim, however, is woefully unsupported. At the end of Part 2 I was left with the impression that the chief supports for this claim is that Marx really liked two agronomists named Liebig and Fraas. Which. . . okay? But Saito neglects to show where Marx incorporated these mens' beliefs outside of a few random passages in Capital and Grundrisse. And worse, he imputes meanings onto phrases that Marx used: -- "nature," "harmony," "unity," etc. -- which it's not at all clear that Marx meant in the same way we use them today. He certainly never mentions "sustainability" or "collapse" or "ecosystem." Ultimately, Saito wildly overstates his case that Marx was preoccupied with environmental issues.

I'll stop there since I'm not being nice. I was unimpressed with both Saito's goal and his execution. I'm giving an extra star for his impressive research, which was clearly painstaking and comprehensive. It just frustrates me endlessly to see brilliant people expend valuable brainpower on such navel-gazing tasks.

Not Bad Reviews

Profile Image for Rhys.
709 reviews95 followers
July 10, 2019
A very interesting and well written book on the historical material condition in Marx's thought, and it is an important addition to the emerging ecosocialist movement.

"Recently, some ecosocialists, in contrast to Marx, have come to stress the 'monistic synthesis' of society and nature: “Not the separation from, but the terms of humanity’s place within nature, is crucial to understanding the conditions of capitalist renewal (if any) and crisis.” However, this understanding overlooks Marx’s original insight that the constitutive condition of the capitalist regime is the separation of humans from nature. The unity of humanity and nature exists transhistorically from an abstract general perspective, in that human labor not only always modifies nature, but is also a part of nature and conditioned by it. What Marx’s analysis shows is the historical deformation of the relationship between humans and nature in modern capitalist society, which is based on the alienation of nature. Marx investigates, as the primary task of his political economy, how this material condition of social production is transformed and deformed under capitalistically constituted social relations" (p.258).

Profile Image for Naeem.
388 reviews234 followers
April 15, 2019
Review of Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capitalism, Nature and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy

Saito shows that capitalism is the fount of our ecological problems. That therefore ecological problems are best understood through Marx’s framework. He wishes to overcome the stereotype held by many ecologists who see Marx as a naïve Promethean – as someone who believes that humans can overcome all natural limits. He builds on the work of John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett whose books revive the overlap between ecological concerns and Marxism. But Saito claims to go further by showing how ecological concerns are essential for Marx’s critique of political economy, his critique of capitalism, and his vision of the future.

The point for Saito is to show how ecology and Marxism are indispensable to each other:

"I will demonstrate that Marx’s ecological critique possesses a systematic character and constitutes an essential moment within the totality of his project of Capital. Ecology does not simply exist in Marx’s thought—my thesis is a stronger one. I maintain that it not possible to comprehend the full scope of his critique of political economy if one ignores its ecological dimension.” [I read this in a format that makes page numbers variable, so no page numbers, sorry.]

I found Saito’s analysis compelling and submitted totally to the details of his analysis. He re-reads notebooks written in the later parts of Marx’s life and shows that Marx’s Promethean optimism was supplanted by his extensive exploration of the natural sciences in order to show how capital accumulation is limited by nature itself. The book is clearly written and well argued. It also illuminates elements well beyond Saito’s explicit themes, for example: Marx’s takes on alienation, religion, value, technological development, and socialism/communism.

I find Saito convincing in the same way I find Foster’s and Burkett’s books compelling. The relationship between humans and nature is foundational for Marx’s entire corpus. Indeed, implicitly or explicitly, every philosophy has to come to terms with this relationship. It is just that Hegel and Marx are explicit with their takes on this relationship.

My problems concern Saito’s willingness, indeed his eagerness to remove the Hegelian elements in Marx’s work. My critique of Saito amounts to one claim: he underplays Marx’s commitments to showing the positive side of capitalism. Saito himself quotes Marx as wishing to show, “the great civilizing influence of capitalism.” And, yet this influence is downplayed by Saito in order to turn Marx into a figure made ready for contemporary popular needs.

If, as I suspect, Saito hides Marx’s Prometheanism, I wonder what might count as a defense of Prometheanism. I aim to provide one below.

Saito wants to analogized how capital treats labor with how capital treats nature. On the face of it, there is perhaps no problem here: both are subjected to the logic of profit making and capital accumulation; both are made subservient to the principle of quid pro quo; both are treated as “fictional commodities” – to use Polanyi’s language.

Saito claims that nature “suffers” just like workers suffer. And, that as the necro-economics of capitalism create a kind of death for laborers, so also capitalism kills nature. I don’t think this analogy holds. We can ascertain human suffering by speaking directly with humans. Not so for nature; nature never tells us anything directly. Any understanding of nature’s suffering requires humans speaking for nature – a speaking which cannot be separated from particular human politics.

The second problem with this analogy is that while humans can die, we can even extinguish our own species (and many more besides). But this is not true for nature -- it cannot die. We can change nature, we can transform it, but we cannot kill it. Not only does this claim violate the first law of thermodynamics (not necessarily a problem for me since I don’t believe in the second law), it also misunderstands the enormity of nature relative to the human. If Saito means that humans can transform the planet so that it is no longer inhabitable by humans or even by all animal species then this is what he should say. The “death of the planet” is only a death for a limited part of nature, not for nature itself.

The question we can ask is why Saito is unable to say this. Why insist on the analogy between labor’s death and nature’s death? This loose use of language either betrays his otherwise tight argument. Or, it betrays his anxiously tight grip on making sure that a Marxian analysis does not slip towards Hegelian ideas.

How so? I will come to that. But first a third problem.

Saito admits that humans differ from other animals because their interaction with nature is self-conscious. Human interaction with nature is called “labor”:

“Marx argues that human beings are decisively different from other animals due to their unique productive activity, that is, labor. Labor enables a “conscious” and “purposive” interaction with the external sensuous world…”

“…it is only humans who are able to change their purposeful interaction with nature in the process of natural and social metabolism.”

Labor allows nature to be, as Saito says, “linked to itself;” and therefore labor humanizes nature. The following logic rests behind these claims, a logic that Saito implies but is uneager to expose:

Nature creates many species; nature creates the human species; nature creates the species that performs labor; labor allows nature to be “linked to itself”; and, labor “humanizes nature.” Therefore, nature creates a species whose purpose to transform and humanize nature.

Another way to say this is as follows: the teleology of nature and humans is bound together. Nature produces the species whose purpose it is to transform nature. Therefore, nature’s purpose is to transform itself via humans. Capitalism act as the dynamic force that brings this change into its hyperactive phase and most productive phase.

All this is implicit and often explicit in both Hegel and in Marx. Saito cannot make too much of this because, stated as such, there is no negative charge to capitalism’s transformation of nature.

Indeed, that charge can be read as positive in the following way: “Capitalism is the means by which nature transforms itself via human institutions. This transformation changes nature from being a brute fact which cannot be accounted for or known thoroughly into something that results from the aesthetic designs of humans. Humans can know nature because they have re-created it.”

It can also be read neutrally: “Capitalism is the means that nature uses to transform itself. However, we do not yet know if human design will change nature for the better or for the worse.”

It is this positive or neutral charge that Saito has to disavow if he is to keep faith with what he thinks of as Marx’s critique political economy. The positive or neutral relationship between capitalism and nature would, thinks Saito, go against Marx’s spirit, and certainly against the mainstream of ecological thinkers (except those taking an explicitly Hegelian line, such as James Lovelock, Frederick Turner, or Murry Bookchin).

For me, much depends on the temporal span within which we make these arguments. If the temporal span is long or infinite then Marx’s Promethean commitments come to full view. Marx rightly rages against the arguments for scarcity provided by Malthus and Ricardo. He understands that scarcity is created not by nature but by society, specifically by the commitment to hierarchy. It is hierarchy that creates scarcity. Displacing the construction of hierarchy to nature makes hierarchy eternal.

There is no denying these elements of Marx as they are a valuable part of his heritage. To his credit Saito highlights these parts of his work. Nevertheless, the grounding of scarcity in society presents a danger; it can make Marx seem a Promethean. Here Saito shows his trump card: those who would do so have to explain why Marx spent so much of his energies trying to find the limits of capital in nature in the later part of his life – the parts of Marx’s life that Saito examines so carefully.

Here I think my explanation of temporal span adds to Saito’s. Suppose we say that Marx worked within three temporal horizons. The first I have mentioned, the infinite abstract theoretical space of logic. Here, scarcity is created by social hierarchy the solution to which is the infinite abundance of human creativity. But Marx can be read to consider two other temporal spans. At first, he seemed to believe that the collapse of capitalism was imminent. When the revolutions around 1848 did not produce the kind of changes he anticipated, he pushed back his idea of how long it might take for capitalism to collapse. It was perhaps this search of this middle range temporal collapse that motivated his search for locating the natural limits of industrial agriculture via the study of the natural science, especially organic chemistry.

My explanation keeps intact, the Hegelian influences in Marx’s thought – especially the rejection of scarcity as nature-given (in the long run) while also explaining Marx’s commitment to a search for the limits of capitalism in nature (in the medium run).

One can have it both ways: Marx the Hegelian with a teleological view of human and natural history which validates human creativity and undermines the convenient assumption of natural scarcity. With Marx the profound critic of capitalism whose political economy and ecology are one.

Saito brings out the logical simultaneity of Marx’s ecology and his political economy. This is his gift to us. But to the degree that Saito feels it necessary to hide Marx’s Hegelian, teleological, and aesthetic themes, the cost of highlight Marx the ecologist is a loss of faith and confidence in Marx’s fuller corpus. This anxiety is the Lacanian Real of Saito’s book.

At the end of the day, I can boil down to these questions: does capitalism only “distort” human purpose? Or does it both “distort” and “realize” that purpose? To assert the distortion without exploring the realization is, I want to assert, to have misunderstood the difference between capitalism and capital. That is, it is not to have understood the difference between the becoming and the being, between the history and logic of wealth production.
Profile Image for Roberto Yoed.
658 reviews
September 15, 2022
Literally a copy of 'Marx's Ecology' by Bellamy Foster (both it's good parts and bad ones). The only things that change are the critiques to Engels and the history of Darwin's theory, but the anti-stalinist paradigm is alive and well.

Aside from these comments, there's nothing new on this ecological take of Marx.
Profile Image for Elliot VanHoy.
102 reviews2 followers
August 12, 2022

It is hard to see in what essential ways Saito's work differs from Foster's work 17 years prior, "Marx's Ecology." Saito admits Foster's influence on his work in the preface and proceeds in the introduction to argue that what distinguishes his reading is the recognition that Marx's ecological critique possesses a "systemic" and "essential" character to the economic critique present within Capital. Well....that's exactly what Foster argues as well. Saito writes, "I maintain that it is not possible to comprehend the full scope of Marx's critique of political economy if one ignores its ecological dimension" (p. 14). Again, at a structural argumentative level this is effectively no different than what Foster already did. I'm not trying to overshadow the particular content of Saito's work with this point but it's genuinely hard not to read this book and feel as if some of the major argumentative points are borderline plagiarism.

On it's own terms, Saito does a great job of navigating the differences between the Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Marx post German Ideology- Saito cleverly overcomes the Althusserian emphasis of a radical break between the young and late Marx by looking at the way Marx's concern with nature shifts from philosophical to physiological while still maintaining the same central concern (the metabolic rift, aka alienation, of nature and human). Saito also (and this is one area he significantly improves on Foster) situates Marx's ecological/material concerns within the New Reading of Marx (Heinrich, Postone, etc. etc.) and its emphasis on economic forms and value-theory as pure social constructions. Saito shows that this reading ultimately fails to make sense of Marx's value theory, his concern with materiality, and his obsession with natural and chemical sciences. Contra Heinrich and others, abstract labor is not only "social" (that is an objective abstraction of contingent historical social relations) but also material insofar as Marx is concerned with the transhistorical and material reality that every society must organize production and distribution at a societal level (that is to say abstract labor is always a transhistorical material reality of every society's distribution of finite labor. Saito's argument here takes place primarily in conversation and agreement with the Japanese interpretation of Marx's value-theory found in Kuruma). Saito convincingly argues that what properly distinguishes capitalism is not abstract labor per se but the reification of abstract labor as the measure of value and its irrational reification (as opposed to the rational distribution of labor). Thus, Saito both incorporates and transcends the New Reading by recognizing the crucial interplay of economic *and* material forms.

In sum, Saito does not significantly advance Foster's original thesis. He does however ground Marx's ecology more deeply in the project that is Capital, and for that it's worth the read. It is hard not to see this book as scholastic- that is it becomes significantly tedious in it's examination of manuscripts and exegesis of The Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (the entire second half of the book is an examination of Marx's correspondence, notes, manuscripts, etc. found in this critical edition of Marx's writings). It's hard to imagine anyone reading this book beyond those seriously invested in Marx scholarship and that's unfortunate.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,165 reviews709 followers
December 12, 2022
Like I've said before, I just don't think we should be taking any advice on modern society from a guy who died before the invention of the zipper.* Marx died in 1883, so he technically could have been aware of the CO2 greenhouse effect (which was discovered in the 1860s), but even if he did know about it, there's no way Marx (who was rather famously pro-industrialisation!) gave a single shit about it.

*The concept that would eventually lead to what we now know as the modern-day zipper began around 1851 with Elias Howe's patent for an "Automatic Continuous Clothing Close," although it wasn't until ca. 1891-1893 when the "Clasp Locker" patent was filed by Whitcomb Judson. However, the modern zipper design only dates from 1913, c/o Gideon Sundback. This is a very simplified history, but the point is that Marx isn't really very relevant on ecological issues.
Profile Image for HappyHarron.
31 reviews18 followers
December 25, 2017
Fantastic analysis, refutes many popular conceptions about Marx's Prometheanism and theory of history. A must read for those interested in not only current scholarship on Marx but how Marx can contribute to leftist eco-politics today.
Profile Image for Jacob Wilson.
122 reviews2 followers
December 31, 2022
Certainly a comprehensive and relatively concise survey of Marx's ecological thought. Useful and interesting especially when dealing with the tensions and development of Marx's consideration of the 'metabolic' processes of production and consumption.

It does however, spend a significant portion of the text delving deeply into Marx's sources; giving a particularly deep account Liebig. This was a bit dense and dull for a reader who was searching not for Karl Marx's commentary on the 19th century fertiliser debates, but on his "Ecosocialism". Definitely valuable, but for those seeking the latter, sticking to the early chapters and concluding ones will do.
Profile Image for Zack.
187 reviews3 followers
November 18, 2022
A pretty interesting book about Marx’s ecological thinking. The political conclusions it draws — how we should organise, what we should demand — are not particularly Marxist or good. And Saito has not convinced me of the importance of his approach. Yet worth reading, as some good stuff from there: about the context and context of Marx’s writings, even if you don’t agree with all of Saito’s conclusions from this history. I need to read the Foster books.

In order to avoid this negative evaluation of Marx’s intellectual legacy, in this book I will demonstrate that Marx’s ecological critique possesses ​a systematic character and
constitutes an essential moment within the totality of his project of Capital. Ecology does not simply exist in Marx’s thought—my thesis is a stronger one. I maintain that it not possible to comprehend the full scope of his critique of political economy if one ignores its ecological dimension. In order to ground this statement, I will explore Marx’s theory of “value” and
“reification” (Versachlichung), because these key categories reveal that Marx actually deals with the whole of nature, the “material” world, as a place of resistance against capital, where the contradictions of capitalism are manifested most clearly. In this sense, Marx’s ecology not only constitutes an immanent element for his economic system and for his emancipatory vision of socialism, it also provides us with one of the most helpful methodological scaffolds for investigating the ecological crises as the central contradiction of the current historical system of social production and reproduction. The “precious heritage” of Marx’s theory can only be appreciated completely with his ecology.

It seems to me that the profit motive is a sufficient explanation of the ecological destructiveness of capitalism. That Marxism offers value as a theory of how to overthrow capitalism; and short of that to win change. Nor am I convinced of the “stronger thesis”.

The profit motive, restated: “the unbounded drive of capital for valorization erodes its own material conditions and eventually confronts it with the limits of nature.”

Saito touches on how alienation is linked to the relationship between humans and nature, which capitalism helps to sever. In feudalism serfs had an intimate relationship to the land. However alienation isn’t so big in his published work, and indeed was abandoned. “[P]rivate property as the dominion of reified relations of commodity and money emerges out of a loss of the original unity between producers and their objective conditions of production.”

I’m unconvinced by the positive potentials of small scale individual agriculture.

Marx sees humanity as part of nature. Nature as man’s inorganic body. Human activity is acting on nature. Nature still does work independently.

Unconvinced of the ongoing necessity of the term “metabolism”, or “,etabolic interchange”, or of Saito’s claims of how we should think about “abstract labour” or “private labour”; nor of his reference to “the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”; nor the “periphery vs core” stuff.

The history of the debates about soil degradation/productivity loss is very interesting. Talking about mineral depletion, deforestation (as direct cause?), climatic change, and more.

Saito makes a reasonable defence of Marx against the accusation of promethianism. And for Marx’s serious interest in ecology.
An interesting critique of overly hegelian readings of Marx.

The “alternative routes to ecosocialism” stuff is silly.

Quotes to revisit, some of which I’m unsure if I agree with:
Here it is important to understand that to refer to the limits of nature does not mean that nature would automatically exert its “revenge” on capitalism and put an end to the regime of capital. On the contrary, it is actually possible for capitalism to profit from the ruthless extraction of natural wealth indefinitely, destroying the natural environment to the point that a large part of the earth becomes unsuitable for human occupation. In Marx’s theory of metabolism, nature nonetheless possesses an important position for resistance against capital, because capital cannot arbitrarily subsume nature for the sake of its maximum valorization. Indeed, by attempting to subsume nature, capital cannot help but destroy, on an expanding scale, the fundamental material conditions for free human development.

If one does not take the section on ground rent into account, one faces a risk of an even greater misunderstanding. Without correctly understanding the fundamental cause of
alienation, it is not possible to recognize Marx’s vision of transcending it. Only if one comprehends the estrangement in capitalist society as a dissolution of humans’ original unity with the earth does it becomes evident that Marx’s communist project consistently aims at a conscious rehabilitation of the unity between humans and nature.

Furthermore, Marx argues that in the “pre-bourgeois relation of the individual to the objective
conditions of labor” an individual can appear as a “working subject.” It is precisely in this form of the subjectivity of the pre-bourgeois working subject that Fukutomi found the potentiality for the free development of individuality of laboring serfs as direct producers. Even if the serfs remained subjugated to personal dominance and their existence was reduced to the objective condition of production itself, they nonetheless maintained a
certain independence and freedom of activity in the production process, thanks to the unity with the earth, and accordingly, they could appropriate the fruits of labor for themselves in the form of small-scale operations. Here existed the material basis for the
“free development of individuality” as it flourished during the transition to capitalist landed property when producers actually got emancipated from personal dominion in the aftermath of the collapse of feudalism.

Thus the humanist interpretation of The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts turns out to be one-sided, because though Marx preserved a certain economic insight ​attained in 1844, he also quickly gave up his philosophical conception of alienation, which he borrowed from Feuerbach and Moses Hess. The fact that Marx abandoned Feuerbach’s anthropological philosophy was of significance with regard to his ecology as well because his new critique of philosophy in Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology prepared the theoretical basis for a more adequate understanding of the historical modifications of the relationship between humanity and nature. Why did Marx have to abandon his earlier Feuerbachian schema, while he kept his economic insight? How did Marx reconceptualize the relationship between humans and nature?

Thus the concept of metabolic interaction between humans and nature is the vital link to understanding Marx’s ecological exploration of capitalism. Nevertheless, the concept was often totally neglected or subordinated to his analysis of specifically capitalist social relations, and even if it was discussed, its meaning was not correctly understood. In this situation, it is helpful to contextualize the concept of metabolism within the natural scientific discourse in the nineteenth century to avoid confusion in terms of its multiple meanings in Marx’s critique of political economy.

Writing against this claim in Capital, Isaak Rubin’s interpretation has found a wide audience, and a number of Marxists such as Michael Heinrich, Riccardo Bellofiore, and Werner Bonefeld today argue that abstract labor is neither material nor transhistorical, but a purely social form of labor characteristic only of the capitalist mode of production. Against this dominant current, it is necessary to emphasize that Marx’s theoretical aim in chapter 1 of volume 1 of Capital is often not correctly understood, and this leads to the claim that Marx’s theory is fundamentally “ambivalent.” Actually, a consistent interpretation of Marx’s explanation of abstract labor is not only possible but also all the more important in the current context because it constitutes the theoretical basis for a systematic analysis of his ecology. As I will argue, ecology provides an eminent example of how the focus on the materiality of abstract labor can open up an attractive and productive reading of Marx’s value ​theory. In this context, it is worth taking a look at an important Japanese interpretation of Marx presented by Samezo Kuruma and Teinosuke Otani.

In his History of Political Economy, Samezo Kuruma (along with his co-author Yoshiro Tamanoi) explicates the specific characteristics of commodity production, pointing to “private labor” as the key to comprehend the modern relations of production. By doing so, Kuruma follows Marx’s explanation in Capital about the social division of labor based on “private labors. ” Marx writes:
“Objects of utility become commodities only because they are the products of the labor of private individuals who work independently of each other. The sum total of the labor of all
these private individuals forms the aggregate labor of society.Since the producers do not come into social contact until they exchange the products of their labor, the specific social
characteristics of their private labors appear only within this exchange. In other words, the labor of the private individuals manifests itself as an element of the total labor of society only
through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and, through their mediation, between producers.”

Marx clearly argues that only products of labor made by “private labors” carried out by “private individuals” become commodities. The concept of “private labor” should not be
confused with labors that are ​carried out by individuals in isolation from social production just for the sake of private enjoyment and hobby. Rather, the concept characterizes those labors that are a part of the social division of labor (in which people are dependent on others’ products) but nonetheless carried out “independently of each other, ” without any social arrangement, so that producers must produce without knowing what other individuals actually want.

Marx’s illustration of the labor process does not neglect the fact that nature is working together with humans, as he clearly designated both labor and the earth as the two “original factors” of the metabolic interaction between humans and nature. The powers of both labor and nature function as common transhistorical elements in all types of production.

he did not elaborate on the squandering of natural resources in as much detail as the cruel exploitation of labor power. This ​is understandable in that Marx planned to deal with the problem of natural powers in the chapter on “ground rent” in volume 3 of Capital, but its manuscript remained unfinished.

At this point, it is possible to articulate a hypothesis addressing a remaining question of Marxism: Why did Marx so intensively study the natural sciences? Marx engaged in serious
studies of a wide range of books in the fields of natural science, we can surmise, in order to analyze the contradictions of the material world as a result of its modifications by capital. To
ground this hypothesis, the second part of this book ​investigates Marx’s treatment of agriculture, focusing on agricultural chemistry, geology, and botany. In this context, the German agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig plays a central role.

In the discussion in this book, it has become clear that a popular critique of Marx’s utopian and anti-ecological thought is nothing but a retrospective projection of the Promethean idea of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries imposed on Marx’s materialist thought.

Considering the history of debates on ecology, it is important to emphasize that Marx consistently bestowed a central role in his critique of modern society to the problem of the “separation” of humans from the earth.

Among Marx’s writings, it is possible to find various clear arguments that indicate his strong interest in ecological problems. If the statement that Marx’s ecology is only of secondary importance for his critique of political economy was accepted as convincing for a long time, the reason can be partially found in the tradition of Western Marxism, which primarily dealt
with social forms (sometimes with an extreme fetishism of Hegel’s Science of Logic), while the problem of “material” or “content” was largely neglected. If the “material” becomes
integrated into his system, Marx’s texts open the way to ecology without much difficulty.

See https://workersliberty.org/metabolism...
Profile Image for Colin.
20 reviews2 followers
March 31, 2021
Wow what a book.

I can't think of more important subject matter to concern yourself with in this day and age. Capital's constant search for profit and expansion threaten the only planet we can call home. Although he wrote almost 200 years ago no one has quite so dissected capitalism as Karl Marx. Love him or hate him his impact is undeniable as his ideas are still a topic of heated debate to this day.

Kohei Saito is clearly an expert on Marx and Marxism. The premise of this book is that Marx has been critiqued as being a Promethean, but Saito disagrees and uses previously unpublished Marx notebooks to show how Marx was formulating an ecological critique of capitalism, but unfortunately was unable to finish Capital to include it.

Warning! This is a person's PhD thesis. It is fairly dense. If you are not at least somewhat familiar with Marx and his theories it would be best to save this one for later. I consider myself pretty well versed in Marxism and I still spent a fair amount of time researching other philosophers and Marxists mentioned in the text. In addition to normal philosophers that will be discussed in a text like this you will also encounter a pretty big chunk of discussion of 19th century German agricultural scientists, mainly Justus von Liebig and Carl Fraas.

I don't have my copy with me while I'm writing this review, but there is some absolutely golden things tucked away in these pages if you're willing to put in the time. Our collective future could literally depend on people encountering and grappling with ideas like these.

4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Neal Spadafora .
90 reviews2 followers
January 2, 2023
This book is great for what it aims to be: a textual and comparative analysis of Marx's lifelong writings on nature's relation to political economy. In putting Marx in conversation with other 19th century natural scientists, Saito unearths Marx's developmental and evolving perspectives on humanity's interaction with nature. Far from the Promethean Marx we have all heard of, Saito illustrates a Marx who is cognizant of nature's limits and humanity's reliance on nature. I found particularly insightful, though not entirely convincing, Saito's 'materializing' of value-theory. I struggled to find the point in materializing value-theory. Perhaps Saito understand's Bonefeld, Heinrich, and others' have developments of value-theory in such a way that I do not.

Nevertheless, this book is not so much a 'how can Marx's critique of political economy enlighten our understanding of today's climate crisis,' as it is a showing that Marx's critique of capital depends on his theories of metabolism and nature. I know that this was Saito's dissertation, so there is a portion of the book that demonstrates his familiarity with the literature; and as such, his further works will hopefully use Marx's theory of metabolism to better understand contemporary climate issues.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Pedro.
65 reviews2 followers
July 26, 2022
The author did extensive work in this critique of a critique. Many of the works referenced and quoted within this book aren’t currently translated into English. Although this was very content heavy and possessed many technical terms used by Marx and others of his time, it provided some valuable insight into Capitalism and how Marx’s theories evolved overtime. A portion of it is dedicated to how climate change and deforestation plays a pivotal role in negatively impacting agriculture. This information was already being discussed and theorized as early as the 1850s! I definitely want to reread this down the road after diving into other works. I may read Marx’s Capitalism next to see direct references to eco-socialism.
Profile Image for Harry Allard.
100 reviews6 followers
March 21, 2020
Convincingly illustrates Marx's development of ecological ideas, and his recognition of the importance of mankind's metabolism with nature. Really shows Marx's scientific curiosity, which differs greatly from many later, dogmatic communists. Interesting to read Marx's changing understanding of agricultural failure, deforestation, and even climate change. Shatters the claims of a rigid, anthropocentric Prometheanism in Marx's worldview, and highlights the ahistoric nature and short-sightedness of an un-ecological, blindly production-focused communism.
Profile Image for Mariles Jorge.
6 reviews
March 17, 2021
This text develops the history of marx thoughts on ecology. You can divide it in 3 parts marx thoughts pre capital era, while writing capital and after capital. Marx early work was pretty much promethean but as Saito writes that quickly changed while writing capital and even more after writing it. I wouldn't really recommend this book as I think you need the full context of marx works and the arguments developed in response and by marx works.
18 reviews
June 29, 2021
not convinced on centrality of ecology but great overview of ecological work in Marx and connection between value theory and ecology via agricultural chemistry of metabolism. more about agricultural chemists than marx at parts. emphasizes material or content against form bro you are straight up acting reunified rn
Profile Image for Humphrey.
580 reviews22 followers
September 20, 2021
Compelling if not excessively revelatory; Saito provides new sources and situates his account well amid ongoing debates on Marx and ecology, but I can't help but think that the writers that he corrects are sensitive readers of Marx to begin with.
6 reviews2 followers
February 18, 2022
Um livro fantástico e que trabalha de maneira interessante as diferentes fases de Marx. Fulcral no que toca à crítica da demanda pelo desenvolvimento das forças produtivas e recupera uma crítica ecológica ao capitalismo
269 reviews21 followers
May 31, 2023
A difficult read, but worth it. The question is the author stretching Marx a bit to make his point. Too much time spent on arguments and other theories. I think the point is made that Marx recognized the major contradiction between capitalism and nature.
Profile Image for Jordan.
35 reviews5 followers
April 21, 2018
Meticulously researched and well-argued account of Marx's ecological thought with special attention paid to his notebooks and letters.
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