The joys and pitfalls of degrowth communism – Gus Woody reviews an important new book on ecosocialism.
Kohei Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene; Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2023), 292 pp, £29.99
Marx in the Anthropocene is the latest of a number of works from this author reading Marxism and modern socialist strategy in an ecologically rich way. It builds on Saito’s previous work, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, and his experience as the leading academic working on Marx’s ecological notebooks, which record Marx’s studies of natural science and ecological concerns in his final years.
The current work is a collection of essays dealing with different debates in Marxology and ecosocialist theory, ranging from Marx’s conception of the ‘metabolic rift’, through polemics against recent ecosocialist writers on the question of ‘nature-society’ relations, to the late Marx’s vision of what may be termed degrowth communism. Saito demonstrates the contemporary relevance of Marx in a time of ecological breakdown, stresses the possible alliance of socialists, workers and the environmental movement, and helps us better analyse where ecological breakdown comes from.
Marx and Engels as ecological thinkers
The earliest chapters demonstrate Saito’s skill for close sustained reading of Marx, Engels, and the Hungarian communist Georg Lukács. He begins with a general overview of the idea of the metabolism, the interchange between the capitalist mode of production and the wider biosphere. This is used to explore the idea of the metabolic rift, the idea that capitalism consistently undermines its wider ecological conditions – in Marx’s words, under capitalist production there emerges an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism.
Saito enriches this conception with the idea of metabolic rifts and shifts – the latter being capitalism’s (in the long run abortive) attempts to deal with ecological crises. He thus arms us with an understanding of how capitalism produces ecological breakdown over time and space, as well and an understanding of the various ways it attempts to put off crises, whether by focusing pollution’s effects on the colonised and victims of imperialism or attempting to introduce technologies as technofixes
He also explores something only lightly touched upon by other writers on metabolic rift theory – its relationship with a particular lineage of Marxism. In highlighting Hungarian communist thinkers Lukács and István Mészáros as the main developers of Marx’s theory of metabolism in the twentieth century, Saito makes clearer the history of this concept and its various applications over the decades.
The chapter regarding Engels’ contribution to ecological Marxism falls short, however. Saito somewhat retreats to the old myth of Engels as a separate creator of ‘Worldview Marxism’ responsible for many of the sins of crude interpretations of Marxism (pp 45-46). He does try to overturn the stereotype of Engels as the more engaged of the two with the world of natural science, and successfully argues that they had a different, but in many ways, equally sustained interest in the natural sciences. However, he gets a little lost in Marxology, extrapolating from differences in note taking to elevate Marx above Engels. While Saito succeeds in arguing that the Marx-Engels intellectual relationship regarding matters of natural science is more complicated than usually described, his treatment of Engels is unconvincing.
Dualisms, Monism, and all in between
Overall, Saito demonstrates his skill in the earliest chapters for close, sustained reading of thinkers – picking up on small differences to ultimately understand their wider intellectual contribution. It is therefore frustrating that he doesn’t extend that to the contemporary ecosocialist thinkers whose views he goes on to contrast with his analysis of ecological Marxism.
For several years, a debate has raged between ecological Marxists of various stripes around ‘dualisms’ and ‘monisms’. Jason Moore, in Capitalism in the Web of Life, critiqued ecological Marxists like John Bellamy Foster and others who use the concept of the ‘metabolic rift’ for their supposed dualism, arguing that their analyses require a separation between ‘society’ and ‘nature’ which prevents them fully understanding ecological breakdown as a problem of one unitary system. This then led to further debate, in particular Andreas Malm’s The Progress of this Storm, which attempted to argue for some version of an ‘analytical dualism’.
At one level, the issue is scholastic – it is a debate between different vocabularies to describe the interaction between nature and society. However, behind this are concerns of strategic and theoretical significance. Ultimately, how we analyse the development of environmental breakdown and its impact on society allows us to identify the possible resisting agents, the points of weakness they can best intervene in, and the forces that are interested in preventing this.
Saito spends much of Marx in the Anthropocene arguing for his own conception of ‘dualistic’ metabolic analysis, attempting to show that this is ultimately Marx’s (and to a lesser extent Lukács’) methodological approach. Consequently, a wide range of ecological Marxists and critical geographers of various stripes are upbraided for their lack of intellectual rigour.
His critiques on several occasions miss the mark. For example, Saito critiques British geographers Noel Castree and Neil Smith as theorists of the ‘production of nature’ school, eliding key differences in their conceptions. In addition to often conflating the two, very different, theorists he argues their conceptions are marked by its one-sided focus on how society works upon nature (p110), understating the ‘non-identity’ of nature, wherein ecological processes also impact ‘society’. However, this ignores Neil Smith’s leading contribution as a scholar of ‘disasters’, in which he stressed both how ecological processes impacted society and how society mediated the impact disasters had.
Similarly, in his critique of American historian Jason Moore, Saito ultimately attempts to paint him as a follower of the French philosopher Bruno Latour. Whilst an exceptionally common claim, the evidence for this is scant, especially given much of Moore’s own theory of the Oikeios (the inter-relationships between species and environment) is developed as an alternative to and critique of Latour’s project. For example, Moore explicitly critiques the fashionable approach of declaring oneself in favor of a flat ontology in which nothing necessarily causes anything else, citing Latour as the leading theorist of this. Moore’s arguments deserve a serious sustained critique on their own terms, rather than the elision with Latour that Saito (and others) repeatedly fall into.
Overall, Saito argues that Marxists should commit to an ontological monism, seeing society is part and parcel of the wider natural system, but that on an analytical level, we should retain the categories of nature and society. This overstates his differences with the other theorists, who certainly in the case of Moore argue far too strongly for the eradication of all dualisms, but share a lot of common ground with Saito – just using different and often deeply obscure vocabularies. Because of this, the work of deciding whose understanding of nature-society relations best lets us strategise against ecocidal capitalism is still left to be done.
Despite these difficult middle sections, Saito’s final chapters on degrowth communism rescue the work, elevating it to a far more enriching level. Here, Saito explores Marx’s intellectual trajectory in the aftermath of writing the first volume of Capital.
After 1867, having sent Capital off into the world, Marx failed to complete his planned further volumes. Saito argues this was not simply the result of declining health, nor lack of effort on Marx’s part, but rather that Marx had fundamentally reinterrogated some elements of his previous thought and was attempting to break with them in completing his works. Saito argues, following his earlier book, that this is reflected in the ecological and various other notebooks that Marx spent his final years working on.
The product of Marx’s intense study of ethnography and natural science was an epistemic break that, whilst fruitful, threw up new intellectual challenges that prevented him successfully completing Capital. Marx’s late engagement with non-Eurocentric modes of living and with ecological literature allowed him to attempt avoiding the more linear, productivist, and Eurocentric alleys that his work could have been trapped in. Saito, following the subtitle of his earlier work, thus stresses the unfinished nature of the critique of political economy – Marx sketched out many of the crucial elements but much more must be built on that edifice.
Here Saito brings out something of a positive programme, which he argues Marx most likely approaches in his final break, around the idea of degrowth communism. Crucial for this is the idea of communal wealth, the development of labour and nature in abundance. As opposed to the trashing of the biosphere and our bodies as workers, communism aims for the negation of this – a uniting of a two together in a social formation that develops them both in line with the metabolism of society and nature.
He argues that communism is best placed to do this given the following five reasons:
- The aim of social production shifts from profit to use-values. (p 237). Rather than producing a ridiculous number of useless and often harmful commodities, communism focuses on necessities.
- This consequently allows for a reduction in the working day, by eliminating unnecessary labour and sharing the remaining work among everyone. (p 238).
- Furthermore, where work must continue, production for use aims to increase workers’ autonomy and make the content of work more attractive. (p 239).
- Relatedly, the abolition of market competition for profits in degrowth communism also decelerates the economy. (p 240).
- Finally, degrowth communism is a system of democratic participation, wherein there is the active participation of workers in deciding what, how, and how much they produce. (p 241).
Thus, through his engaged Marxology, Saito has transformed the spectre of degrowth. Rather than a Malthusian bogeyman, he unveils a vision many can latch onto. Instead of the breakdown of ecological conditions and society, we aim for a world where needs are met, where labours are reduced, made democratic, and ecological limits are respected. This vision is a triumph.
 New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017
 Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, (London: Penguin Books, 1981), p 949.
 London: Verso Books, 2015.
 London; Verso Books, 2018
 Moore, Capitalism in the web of life, p 39.