Kohei Saito’s new book asks: was Marx a degrowth communist? (Review)

Review of Kohei Saito's Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards a theory of degrowth communism, Cambridge University Press, February 2023. By Simon Hannah


The Guardian caused a stir on the British left when it reported in 2022 that a Japanese Marxist, Kohei Saito, had written a runaway best seller on degrowth communism. Many were eager to read an English translation. Marx in the Anthropocene is not exactly that book, but a more theoretical one which “builds on wholly new arguments with a more careful reading of materials and the reconstruction of key debates on Marxian ecology in recent years.” (Page x)

So this is a much more detailed academic look at debates within Marxology over Marx’s green credentials. If you are allergic to more academic books this one is still readable, and some of its arguments are very useful contributions to the debate on how to stop the capitalist death cult. 

Saito previously published a book in 2017 where he examined Marx’s notebooks to construct an ecological Marxism, one he argues Marx was working on when he died. (For this, Saito won the Isaac Deutscher prize in 2018.) Here he continues that theme. His basic argument is that there has been a political rift between the green movement and the left for too long, essentially characterising each other as either middle class crusties or Stalinist productivists ruining the environment. He hopes to reclaim a more ecological Marx free from claims of productivism (economic expansion for its own sake) or Prometheanism (being pro-technological, anti-ecological) as a way of healing this division.

In his analysis, Marx had a kind of ecological break after writing Capital Volume One. Readings of the Grundrisse from the 1850s as well as some of the more simplistic or vulgar explanations of historical materialism only as the “development of the productive forces” (e.g. The Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy 1859) indicated a one-sided view on production.

Saito argues that Marx abandoned productivity and Prometheanism in the late 1860s after publishing Capital Vol One and engaging in intense study of both ecological questions and pre-capitalist societies (173). This study of non-western societies shifted Marx from a Eurocentric view of historical materialism towards an interest in the particularities of different kinds of social development.

The failure to complete Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital however means Marx never got to properly integrate deeper ecological politics into his published work. Saito also criticises Engels’ editing of these books after Marx’s death, claiming that Marx’s more complex points were simplified due to to “an intentional “reconstruction” of its key elements in a way that was adjustable to and compatible with socialist and workers’ movements in his time.” (247) To be fair to Engels, though, Saito does criticise those in the Western Marxist tradition for “scapegoating Engels as a figure who founded a positivist methodology that led to Stalinism” (81), and he points out Engels was primarily driven by the desire to ensure Marx’s rather obscure economic work got a wider audience.

Marx mentions the idea of the metabolic rift with nature in a few places, but Jon Bellamy Foster and others have helped develop this concept more in recent years. This idea is also at the heart of Saito’s criticism of capitalism and this book is largely a defence of this concept against left wing critics like Jason W. Moore.

The three dimensions of the metabolic rift, as defined by Saito, are labour, spatial and temporal. The labour process under capital is transformed for the sake of creating value for capital to profit from, this transformation is a form of domination and control which is then extended from humans to nature. The spatial rift is the division between town and country and the waste that builds up in the city based on the extraction of nutrients from the land that are not replaced. The forests are cut down as the city expands. The soil is eroded and ruined by large agribusinesses. And the final rift is time—capital must accelerate its growth, reduce turnover times, and maximize productive efficiency. More cars, more planes, and new ways to speed up travel will keep the circuits of capital flowing.

Saito outlines how methods have been developed to help countervail these dimensions of the metabolic rift. For instance, the industrial production of ammonia helped overcome concerns about soil erosion by adding nitrogen to the earth. This was highly lucrative for capital, but the industrial process came with its own problems, requiring large amounts of gas and oil. Capital cannot heal the metabolic rift; it can only “shift the rift” (31). Though it has been very successful at shifting the rift for decades to ensure its survival, Capital is beginning to run out of options, hence the intensification of the contradictions between the environment and Capital towards an existential end point.

One of the key things western capitalism does to shift the rift is to transfer the burden of production expressly onto the global south. This allows us to have cleaner cities with less pollution while people are choking in and around factories below the equator. It also helps bind the working class of the global north to the idea that their consumerist lifestyle isn’t too bad because they cannot see its direct consequences. But even this is being eroded as heatwaves and flooding strike countries across the imperial world.

We must conclude that in today’s world capitalism is no longer progressive. It destroys the general conditions of production and reproduction and even subjects human and non-human beings to an existential threat. It cannot envisage a world beyond itself, so it is limited to green capitalism, trying to reduce carbon emissions by 2050, when it is probably already too late to stop catastrophic global warming. 

The only good thing in recent years is that the scale of the crisis forces a unity of green and red as a new form of resistance. On this, Saito cites Ellen Meiksins Wood, who was concerned in the 1990s that ecology couldn’t generate a subjective force because its scope was too universal. “Today’s situation concerning ecology looks quite different from Wood’s time precisely because the planetary crisis provides a material basis for constituting a universal political subjectivity against capital.” (4)

György Lukács to the rescue

Within the growing literature and politics of both environmentalism and socialism, there is a debate about the relationship between humans and nature. From Saito’s perspective, the ecological Marx had a monist conception of his theory of metabolism (humans as a part of nature). For his own general analysis, Saito is indebted to Istvan Meszaros and his work on social metabolism and the absolute limits of nature. The fundamental contradiction here is the totalising nature of capital that must accumulate by “continuously expanding and subordinating all aspects of the productive functions of both humans and nature to the imperative of capital accumulation.” (21) Capital cannot recognize the absolute limits of nature; it must strive to overcome and dominate it.

Nevertheless, there is still a lack of clarity over this question in Marxism. Recognising that the analysis of nature in Marx’s own writings was patchy (and that Engel’s Dialectics of Nature raises complications), Saito turns to György Lukács and his “methodological dualism” to fill the gaps. Saito devotes a whole chapter to Lukacs to structure a framework for tackling whether humans are in nature, of nature, or separate from nature. In a manuscript unpublished in Lukacs’s lifetime, The Ontology of Social Being, he describes this relationship using a Hegelian term—the identity of identity and non-identity.

The Ontology of Social Being,

In this context, what this means is that our identity is part of nature and rooted in the universal metabolism of nature, but also that human society has evolved a series of practices that do not exist elsewhere in nature. (91) Human society arises from nature but contains elements that demonstrate “qualitatively different properties.” 

This is the basis for understanding an ontological monism (meaning a theory of being based on one substance of wholeness), because we cannot be separated from nature and are entangled in it, but it requires a methodological dualism because there are important distinctions between humanity and nature that need to be theorized separately. In this sense, we can say there are laws of nature and laws of human economics that can be studied independently, but ultimately all human activity is rooted somehow in the metabolic relationship with the Earth.

What does all this philosophy mean? Essentially, because capital creates a system of totalisation, and because it therefore must expand and structure everything according to its needs, it continually rejects the non-identity of nature. It claims nature for itself and, as such, violates nature as an ecological system.

When a capitalist sees trees in a forest, all they see is potential lumber for sale or a space to be cleared for farming. Some modern capitalists claim to do carbon offsetting by paying for new trees to be planted elsewhere. Cutting down a forest that had been growing for hundreds or thousands of years to replace it with usually monocultural woods with little biological variety. Capital sees the retreat of the icecaps only as new opportunities for oil exploration below the sea. This destruction of non-identity is Lukacs’ understanding of the metabolic rift. Saito argues this is a better way to understand ecological crisis than Jason W. Moore’s theory of “world ecology,” because Moore is “too hasty” in his reading of Capital and accuses advocates of the concept of the metabolic rift of a kind of Cartesian dualism (instead of mind/body it is nature/people). This is a false reading of the concept of metabolic rift, according to Saito.

Saito also takes aim at the kind of techno-optimism he finds in Aaron Bastani, in particular the idea of fully automated luxury communism emerging from the productive forces immanent within capitalism. Or similarly, Paul Mason’s hope for a post-capitalist economy based on the aspects of society that can allegedly escape the dominance of capital, like online music, PDFs, and 3D printing. Saito disagrees with these “late capitalist utopians” (as Aaron Benanav describes them), because the acceleration of technology under capitalism “happens only in such a way that technical “progress” comes to exert an uncontrollable destructive power over the planet.” (136)

The techno-accelerationists on the left rely extensively on the fragment on machines from Marx’s unpublished notebook, the Grundrisse. There are a lot of excellent ideas and concepts in the Grundrisse, but these were mostly notes that Marx wrote in 1857/8 as he was beginning to work on Capital. Saito’s point is that there are concepts in Capital and later Marx that are far superior and more useful than his 1850s writings. The techno-utopians’ focus on an unpublished fragment is reminiscent of Althusser in the 1970s, who was so desperate to purge Hegel from Marx that he ended up identifying The Marginal Notes on Wagner of 1881 as the only pure Marxist document. 

The discussion in this section is one of the most interesting in the book because Saito must engage with the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy from 1859 to explain his view on the destructive nature of the productive forces. After all, isn’t Historical Materialism essentially an understanding of the evolution and then revolution of the productive forces as the “base” of society? Since the 1980s, Japanese Marxist theorists have developed a useful criticism of the under-developed nature of this short text by Marx, which is always used in Marxist beginners’ guide discussion circles as an intro to historical materialism, but that should possibly be reconsidered. 

After all, isn’t Historical Materialism essentially an understanding of the evolution and then revolution of the productive forces as the ‘base’ of society?

The argument in the Preface is that the mode of production (slavery, feudalism, capitalism, etc.) is made up of the productive forces (what you use to make stuff) and the relations of production (how you organise that work). The productive forces grow over time, causing a contradiction between them and the relations of production, meaning that the economic basis of society is rapidly developing but the political and social structure that was based on it cannot keep up. At some point, “these relations turn into their fetters,” holding back change. This is when massive social shifts happen, like a revolution. The classic example is the French Revolution, where the French bourgeois class organised with the oppressed masses to overthrow the feudal regime and create a political and economic system that better suited them because they felt the political regime of the old aristocracy and monarchy was holding them back.

This historical perspective is important to left accelerationists because it corresponds to their techno-determinist reading of productive forces. Everyone has a smart phone, and technology is breaking down barriers, but the capitalist legal and political system based on old-fashioned production is now a fetter on the forces of production, so it is time to burst the fetters and usher in the world of post-work. The distinct problem with this is that it lacks any central role for class struggle, as indeed was absent from Marx’s Preface in 1859. Marx doesn’t mention class struggle as the key driving force of history in the Preface, unlike his and Engels’ description in 1848 from the Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” 

Saito’s reading of Marx is that what was written in the late 1850s lacked key concepts that went on to appear in Capital. It is dangerous to assume that Marx was a genius whose every sentence is timelessly correct; he was constantly reading, evolving his ideas, debating them with comrades, and engaging in polemics to clarify his thought. Yes, there are internally consistent arguments in Marx’s early writings (around capital, human alienation, class struggle, and so on), but the more complex ideas that went into Capital were yet to be developed. 

One of the primary shifts between the Grundrisse and Capital is the introduction of the Hegelian ideas of “form” (Form) and “matter” (Stoff), which Saito argues is subsumed by capital as an essential part of the organisation of labour and therefore forms an essential component of the relations of production. It isn’t enough for a capitalist to just build a factory and put 500 workers in it; their work must be subsumed by the regime of capital. The worker is subordinated by the capitalist and comes under their command (at least by proxy through managers or foremen working on their behalf). 

This leads to the other concept in Capital that barely features in Grundrisse, the idea of cooperation as an essential part of the relations of production. Saito refers to Sadao Ohno, who made this point in the 1980s, that Marx had an underdeveloped theory of the productive forces in the 1850s. Of course cooperation in labour is transhistorical, humans have worked together to build cities since we built Çatalhöyük in ancient Anatolia in 7500 BCE. But there is something specific about how capital organises us as human beings which is important in Marxism.

Cooperation is the basis of what Marx calls the real subsumption of labour by capital, which “changes the mode of production itself, so that the capitalist mode of production is a specific mode of production” (MECW 30: 262) The real subsumption of labour by capital is when labour is completely dominated by capital, production cannot happen without the capitalist class, the land owning peasants, and the artisans and guilds are gone, replaced by proletarians forced to sell their labour if a capitalist has created a workplace nearby for them.

Workers become dependent on capital. More complex operations and divisions of labour render workers even more alienated, reducing them to smaller operations or relegating them to generalised work that is less well paid. This matters because it is part of Marx’s criticism of the productive forces and directly challenges techno-utopians who focus on productive forces just being good because they can make computers and stuff. 

All of this might sound abstract, but it boils down to how we cannot separate the means of production from the relations of production and treat them as distinct categories. This is because of the way capital reorganises human life and labour is profoundly detrimental, alienating and environmentally degrading. As such, it is wrong to isolate the “means of production,” like new tech, and just argue for this to continue to be developed as a path to post-capitalism. The key to understanding the capitalist mode of production is to shift the dynamic described in the Preface from the forces of production determining the relations of production to “the relations of production determine productive forces,” as argued by Tomonaga Tairako (156). 

What drives this worldview? Saito argues that the techno-utopians have given up on class struggle, or they no longer see in it the primary agency to really change the world, and so they fill the void with technology. They end up as left populists or electoralists, themselves victims of a form of capitalist realism that denies the centrality of working class revolutionary activity as the basis for emancipation. It is a prioritisation of the political sphere as somehow independent and puts huge illusions in the neutrality of parliament and the state to affect radical change. 

These productive forces-centred approaches have a long history in Marxism. Saito argues that Engels never quite grasped, or didn’t agree with, Marx’s argument about the real subsumption of labour by capital, and therefore the crushing unity of the productive forces and relations of production. Rather, he continued to treat the forces of production as an independent variable. (159) It is clear that this critical appraisal is also a damning indictment of Dengism and the belief that you can just develop the productive forces as a path to socialism, especially under capitalist conditions.  

The criticism of Bastani’s and Mason’s approach is useful, but the focus on techno-determinism is perhaps also one-sided. Arguably, they are strictly determinists, full stop. Their perspective on the growth of productive forces (whether AI/robotics or “the network” or a kind of internet of things) is symptomatic of a lack of revolutionary agency in general, deflected instead into the electoral sphere or Mason’s latest replacement for the working class (currently a “democratic NATO”).

What is Degrowth communism for Saito?

The aim of the book is to reconcile the rift between red and green politics and contribute to building “a new Front Populaire (Popular Front) in defence of the planet in the Anthropocene.” He doesn’t deal further with his idea of the popular front, but within socialist history, this strategy was based on an alliance between the working class and “progressive” capitalists, which always saw the workers being subordinated to the interests of capital.

The aim of the book is to reconcile the rift between red and green politics, and contribute to building “a new Front Populaire (Popular Front) in defence of the planet in the Anthropocene.”

Elsewhere he criticises “the one-sided focus on a political struggle that pivots around electoral politics without challenging the economic structure and consumerist ideas that continue to constrain our political imaginary”, (138-9) which seems quite a superficial criticism of capital’s ideology. The thrust of Saito’s book is anticapitalist in quite a fundamental way, so this way of framing the political nature of the resistance is odd. 

The fundamental difference between eco-socialism and degrowth communism is that, for Saito, eco-socialism allows for sustainable economic growth post-capitalism, whereas degrowth communism argues for no further growth under any system. (209) It is possible to have a socialised form of social production that is still hugely damaging to the environment, so the goal of a post-capitalist society must be one of reducing harmful and wasteful economic activity. 

The battle between commodified private wealth and the richness of communal wealth is the key fight between capitalism and socialism. Capital encloses and privatises; it turns what is all around us into commodities to be sold. Saito’s conception of socialism begins with a fight for universal public services and an expansion of the social wage, and then it escalates to a fight against capital itself. Abundance under socialism is not amassing things to surround ourselves with, but abundant public goods: libraries, swimming pools, parks, schools, health care, a shorter working week, and more time to relax. There will still be personal possessions under socialism, but the accumulation of them will no longer be the driving force of our lives. 

Marx argued that there are two kinds of scarcity under capitalism: natural and social. Natural scarcity is about the literal physical limits of the Earth—how much oil and drinkable water, coal, and trees exist. No human system can overcome these natural limits, though we can sustain them and use them in non-exploitative ways. The scarcity of social wealth, however, is directly the result of capitalism. Individuals enrich themselves by making public goods scarce and then charging you for them. Capital is built on scarcity and control. 

There are five specific proposals for a degrowth communist politics of transition in Marx in the Anthropocene:

  1. Production for use-vales and not exchange values helps reduce waste.
  2. Reduction in unnecessary labour and the working day helps eliminate needless economic activity.
  3. Increased workers autonomy and self-actualization as a step towards the ‘realm of necessity’.
  4. “[T]he abolition of market competition for profits in degrowth communism also decelerates the economy”, (which is a point from Benanev’s book Automation and the Future of Work).
  5. Abolition of the division of labour between mental and physical work, and the unity of workers in the production process as formal equals.

These are a useful framing of a general post-capitalist approach to political economy but whether they are specific to or uniquely connected to a perspective of degrowth communism is maybe something of a stretch.

Concluding points

Humanity is facing a battle to save our futures from destruction by capital. But not enough of us are aware of the seriousness of the danger, or if we are we feel paralysed to fight it. How do you stop climate change when it is embedded in the very basis of our society, and our society presents as a totality of everything? Unpicking this knot of contradictions is central to building a mass movement around socialist politics and Saito’s book is a useful contribution to saving Marx from the productivist and pro-tech advocates who are misdirecting their efforts.

Saito is a little sparse on some of the specifics, however, and although he roots his argument in the idea of a working class reorganisation of society, he doesn’t explicitly spell out the kind of political struggles that will be necessary to realise it, though his criticism of left electoralism and the obsession over productive forces as a neutral factor is useful. 

However, some of his claims about the basis for Marx’s degrowth communism require something of a leap of faith. Saito manages to spin out a very engaging hypothesis from a private letter to Vera Zasulich about the Russian peasant communes and a reference to communal wealth in the Critique of the Gotha Programme; whether you think that is the basis of Marx as a degrowth communist is perhaps a matter for debate. Although to be fair, the title of the book is “towards a theory of degrowth Communism,” so if this is considered an intervention into the debates which can be expanded, this thesis has useful points. 

It is a shame that this wasn’t the book that was a bestseller in Japan, as it would have been interesting to read that version of Saito’s arguments before he wrote this more academic version. The hope now is that with the Doomsday clock already at 90 seconds to midnight in early 2023, the closest to a human-made global catastrophe, we can popularise the idea of a revolutionary change in society, one where we heal the metabolic rift through the conscious social planning of production and distribution. 

Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards a theory of degrowth communism, By Kohei Saito Cambridge University Press, February 2023.

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Simon Hannah is a socialist, a union activist, and the author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: the fight to stop the poll tax, and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution.


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