Saito shows that towards the end of Marx’s life, his thought shifted quite radically in respect to all three of these dimensions. When poring over Marx’s notebooks from the 1870s and 1880s, Saito noticed that the German communist, who we would suppose would be busy completing the second and third volumes of his masterpiece, Das Kapital, was in fact reading biology, chemistry, and geology. This was not a leisurely pastime, an old man’s crossword puzzles. He had not forgotten the unfinished volumes. Rather, he was deepening his understanding of what he was coming to see as the fundamental contradiction of capitalism: its tendency to ravage and despoil nature, to saw off the branch on which it sits. He recognized that the productive forces, as Saito puts it, “do not automatically prepare the material foundation for new post-capitalist society but rather exacerbate the robbery of nature.” And with exploitative practices come instrumental ideologies: the reification of the natural environment, positing it as dumb resources for use rather than as a realm of vital life within which we coexist. Humanity’s alienation from nature, which Marx had discussed abstractly in his early works, was now redescribed, with the benefit of new findings from the natural sciences, as the metabolic rift.
The development of Marx’s ecological critique, Saito reveals in an astute and indispensable passage of Marx in the Anthropocene, was tightly connected to his re-evaluation of the progressive character of capitalist modernity, including his earlier optimism on technology and economic growth and on the potential of capitalism to bring emancipation to colonized peoples. When Marx “jettisoned productivism as the essential component of his view of human history,” Saito argues, he had to also reconsider the other side of the same coin: Eurocentrism. If industrial capitalism demolishes the natural world, devastates communities, and plunders and brutally subjugates the Global South, the sense in which the high-tech West can in any way represent history’s vanguard was called into question. Against this backdrop, Marx began to reconsider the process of communist transition, notably in his 1881 Letter to Vera Zasulich. It is only one letter, but one of significance that Marx redrafted again and again. In it, he advocates a return of modern society to the “archaic” type of property found in Russia’s communes, and rails against the suppression by British colonialists of indigenous communal land ownership in India. The letter should be read, Saito concludes, as the crystallisation of Marx’s “non-productivist and non-Eurocentric view of the future society,” a view that is best characterised as “degrowth communism.”
That Saito reads Marx as a degrowth communist is eye-catching, but it should not come as a bolt from the blue. It builds on decades of extensive research that has steadily undermined the perception that Marx was simply a booster for economic growth and material progress. Before Saito’s book, some were familiar with the “ecological Marx”: a critic of the growth paradigm and of the trampling of nature under capitalist “progress,” an advocate of careful stewardship of the environment—including a concern of environmental limits and a commitment to emancipation not only of the working class but of “the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth.” However, given that for well over a century, Marxists have gravitated toward projects for overseeing capitalist states (social democracy, Stalinism), with the growthphilia and biophobia that these invariably entail, Marx was generally read through a productivist lens, with his “degrowth communist” side prismed out. This has even influenced translations of his work into English.
In view of the weight of these readings — the leaden presence of which, we shouldn’t forget, drew from the massive power of capitalist states — Saito is sensible to formulate his case adamantly, even provocatively. In response, some have sought to rebut his thesis with productivist quotes from Marx. Yet these are invariably from his earlier work, which is to miss Saito’s point. His case is not that Marx avoided all productivism and techno-utopianism but that he evolved. The more he learned of ecology and the ecocidal power of capital, the more he turned to “green” and anti-colonial positions—initially “eco-socialism” (the subject of Saito’s first book) and, in his final years, “degrowth communism” (the subject of Marx in the Anthropocene). Those today who share Marx’s philosophy, having seen more of capital’s Earth-shattering power than he, would logically follow the same trajectory.
I’ve been immensely impressed and largely persuaded by Saito’s trio of books on Marxism and degrowth, but on two points I would like to probe a little.
First, Saito raises the question of why, if Marx proposed degrowth communism, Marxists historically have tended instead to endorse “productivist socialism.” His answer is entirely textual and Engels-centric. Friedrich Engels “largely determined”—no less—“the course of Marxism in the 20th century.” This is a staggering claim, and one that sits uncomfortably with the facts—which is why the chapter on Engels in Marx in the Anthropocene has a pernickety feel. By Saito’s own admission, Engels co-wrote (or at the very least signed his name to) texts that he flags as “degrowth communist,” notably the 1882 preface to a Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto. Moreover, Saito is critical of the earlier (pre-Capital) Marx himself for his “productivist socialism.” All this has left this reader puzzled as to why culpability for Marxist productivism is piled exclusively on the quill of Engels. Would not a materialist response to the question make more sense? It could begin with the absorption of Marxist theory, from the 1870s onward, into projects that rest either on an accommodation between classes within capitalism (such as trade unions) or on the management of capitalist states (by social democracy and the various official “Communisms”).
Secondly, we should turn to Saito’s treatment of political strategy and the capitalist state. Saito’s books are formidably sharp and thorough in their delineation of capitalism in its economic and ecological and imperial aspects. He persuasively mobilizes Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen’s concept of the “imperial mode of living” to portray the world’s division between a dominant North with its unsustainable consumption levels based on resource transfers from, and the environmental ruination of, the Global South. But when turning to politics, and in particular the capitalist state, the grip falters. Nor does Saito explore how Marx’s conception of agency—workers in struggle, with allies from other oppressed classes and populations—could be updated and reimagined today. How can the goal of degrowth communism be squared with the strategy of proletarian revolution? What obstacles confront it and how can they be addressed?