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New Left Review I/178, November-December 1989


Ted Benton

Marxism and Natural Limits: An Ecological Critique and Reconstruction

Many on the left find a source of hope in the realignment of ‘green’ and socialist perspectives. [*] I would like to acknowledge the helpful criticisms of earlier drafts of this article by Michael Redclift. I believe they are right to do so, and I share the hope. But it remains true that important currents within Green politics and culture are hostile to socialism (as they understand it), whilst the response of the socialist left to the rise of ecological politics has, in the main, been deeply ambiguous. [1] A classic expression of this ambiguity was H.M. Enzensberger’s seminal ‘Critique of Political Ecology’, New Left Review 84, March/April 1974, reprinted in Enzensberger, Dreamers of the Absolute, London 1988. Five themes recur in the ‘traditional’ socialist critiques of ecological politics. The first, my focus here, equates the ecological perspective with neo-Malthusianism and rejects it as a ‘natural limits’ conservatism. The second sees in green politics a generalized and reactionary opposition to industrialism and technology as such, thus deflecting attention from the specifically capitalist character of environmental destruction. The third theme, closely connected with the second, accuses the ecologists of deflecting attention from class and regional inequalities in resource use and environmental destruction, in the name of a universal ‘human interest’ in environmental sustainability. Fourthly, this, like all ‘general interest’ ideologies in class societies, is a mask for particular interests: in this case an alliance of technocrats with affluent rural middle-class activists who share vested interests in ecological scare-mongering, and/or in the defence of a privileged minority life-style. Finally, ecological priorities are sometimes seen as elite preferences, matters of aesthetics or taste, which privileged minorities impose on the rest of a population, many of whom lack fulfilment of their more basic needs. The notion of a hierarchy of needs or wants, in which environmental preferences may be acknowledged, but assigned lower priority than more ‘basic’ needs for shelter, food and security, is deeply ingrained in ‘traditional’ left responses to environmentalism. Green hostility or indifference to socialism tends to focus on the disastrous environmental record of the ‘actually existing’ socialist societies of eastern Europe, and/or the record of the western social democratic parties in governmental office. The Marxist tradition is widely condemned for its ‘productivist’ values. The ‘eco-libertarians’ among the West German Greens (see W. Hülsberg, ‘The Greens at the Crossroads’, New Left Review 152, July/August 1984, pp. 24–5, and The German Greens, Verso, London 1988, ch. 8) are particularly hostile to the fusion of ecological and socialist perspectives, but there is a more widely diffused tendency for ‘green’ writers to represent ecological politics as transcending the whole traditional opposition of left and right in politics: ‘Both are dedicated to industrial growth, to the expansion of the means of production, to a materialist ethic as the best means of meeting people’s needs, and to unimpeded technological development. Both rely on increasing centralization and large-scale bureaucratic control and co-ordination. . . . For an ecologist, the debate between the protagonists of capitalism and communism is about as uplifting as the dialogue between Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ (Jonathon Porritt, Seeing Green, Oxford 1984, p. 44). In what follows I attempt to do two things: first, to demonstrate that these tensions and oppositions have deep roots in the most influential intellectual tradition on the left, and, second, to provide some new conceptual ‘markers’ which I hope will play a part in facilitating the growing Red/Green dialogue. [2] This dialogue has produced a considerable, and rapidly growing literature. In Britain, a highly successful national ‘Red and Green’ conference was held in London in May 1988, and much useful dialogue takes place in the periodical literature—most especially in New Ground, published by the Socialist Environment and Resources Association. The recent book by Martin Ryle, Ecology and Socialism, London 1988, includes an excellent survey and development of this literature, arguing persuasively that an ecological perspective is compatible with a wide range of social and political ideologies; the link between socialism and ecology has to be forged, it cannot be taken as ‘given’ or obvious. Pioneers of this project include B. Commoner (e.g. The Closing Circle, New York 1971, and The Poverty of Power, London 1976), A. Gorz (e.g. Ecology as Politics, London 1980 and Paths to Paradise, London 1984) and R. Bahro (e.g. From Red to Green, Verso, London 1984, and Socialism and Survival and Building the Green Movement, London 1986). J.L. Thompson (see ‘Preservation of Wilderness and the Good Life’, in R. Elliot and A. Gare, eds., Environmental Philosophy, Milton Keynes: Open University, 1983) makes out a valuable case for an eco-socialist reading of H. Marcuse. The late Raymond Williams authored an influential pamphlet entitled Socialism and Ecology (sera, no date) and gave considerable attention to ecological issues in his Towards 2000, Harmondsworth 1985. Attempts have been made to synthesize ecology with other political perspectives, such as anarchism and feminism. The most widely known of the former are the works of M. Bookchin (see his Post-Scarcity Anarchism, London 1971, and (cont.) The Ecology of Freedom, Palo Alto 1982), whilst the classic work on the latter theme is Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, London 1982. Although some participants in this dialogue (rightly, in my view) favour a revaluation of non-Marxian socialist traditions of thought and action, [3] See, for example, Bahro, From Red to Green, esp. pp. 218–220 and 235. Raymond Williams, too, draws attention to a distinctively British tradition of environmental criticism of industrial capitalism, some of it explicitly socialist in orientation. See his Socialism and Ecology (op. cit.) and Culture and Society 1780–1950, Harmondsworth 1961. this should not, I think, take the place of a continuing and rigorous exploration of the limits and resources of Marxism itself. As I hope to show, Marxism still has much to offer, and what it has to offer is unique to it. Moreover, where the mainstream of Marxist thinking has been wrong, or limited, its limitations have been both disastrous and widely shared, so that the effort of critical exposure is doubly worthwhile.

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