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New Left Review I/187, May-June 1991

Reiner Grundmann

The Ecological Challenge to Marxism

Contemporary Marxism has responded in a number of ways to the challenge posed by ecology. Broadly speaking, three currents of thought can be distinguished. [*] I wish to thank Robin Blackburn, Diane Elson, Norman Geras and Maurice Glasman for their comments and criticism. The first I shall call the ‘Marxist dissident’ response. Its proponents have abandoned central elements of Marx’s theory, claiming that the new questions posed by ecology cannot be solved within its theoretical framework. The most prominent author here is Rudolf Bahro. [1] See Rudolf Bahro, From Red to Green, London 1984. Opposed to this group we find a tendency which aims to defend central elements of that theoretical corpus. I shall call this current ‘Marxist orthodoxy’. [2] See, for example, Ernest Mandel, ‘The Generalized Recession of the International Capitalist Economy’, Inprecor, 16 January 1975. Between them we can locate a third group of authors who think that ecology in fact presents a serious challenge to Marxism, but who are at the same time convinced that ready-made answers are contained within Marx’s thought. This position suggests that Marx himself was a Green, albeit a Green malgré lui. I think this position amounts to wishful thinking. [3] See Wolfdietrich Schmied-Kowarzik, Das Dialektische Verhältnis des Menschen zur Natur. Philosophiegeschichtliche Studien zur Naturproblematik bei Karl Marx, Freiburg 1984. Ted Benton recently advanced in these pages a reconstruction of historical materialism which incorporates an ecological dimension. [4] See Ted Benton, ‘Marxism and Natural Limits: An Ecological Critique and Reconstruction’, nlr 178, September–October 1989, pp. 51–86. His attempt avoids the pitfalls and lacunae of all the above-mentioned approaches. He asserts that ‘there is much in the overall corpus of Marxian historical materialism which is readily compatible with an ecological perspective.’ [5] Ibid., p. 63. But he also aims to show that historical materialism has to be reformulated and reconstructed. His main concern is to emphasize that Marx, and Engels, did not sufficiently consider the limits that nature imposes on the development of humanity and society. [6] Ibid., pp. 71–73. Marx’s conception, according to Benton, ‘exaggerate[s] the potentially transformative character [of productive labour processes] whilst under-theorizing or occluding the various respects in which they are subject to naturally given and/or relatively non-manipulable conditions and limits.’ [7] Ibid., p. 73. This, according to Benton, is the main reason for the paradox that ‘the basic ideas of historical materialism can without distortion be regarded as a proposal for an ecological approach’, [8] Ibid., p. 55. while at the same time there exists ‘so much bad blood between Marxists and ecologists’. [9] Ibid. Benton’s solution to the paradox emphasizes an ambiguity within Marx’s thought: ‘My central argument is that there is a crucial hiatus between Marx’s and Engels’s materialist premisses in philosophy and the theory of history, on the one hand, and some of the basic concepts of their economic theory, on the other.’ [10] Ibid. Most important is Marx’s ‘insufficiently radical critique of the leading exponents of classical political economy, with whom he shared and from whom he derived the concepts and assumptions in question.’ [11] Ibid., my emphasis.

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