“The first true subversion since Marx.” So the late Michael Viney described the new ecological thinking in his first Another Life column from Thallabawn, Co Mayo, in 1977.
He mentioned a whole international subculture involving the energy crisis, the Club of Rome, Buckminster Fuller and Ralph Nader. “Like it or not, therefore, we find ourselves apprenticed to a movement of protest against waste and consumerism, energy monopolies, junk foods, the rape of earth and sea and the galloping cancer of the city.”
This ecological approach was a quiet but persistent theme of the column for 45 years. It informed Viney’s vivid observation and reporting on nature in Thallabawn, the detailed research he brought to it and his growing admiration for the work of James Lovelock, the scientist who originated the Gaia concept – writing from another cottage in Adrigole on the Beara peninsula in Co Cork. Viney described Lovelock’s Gaia as “an integrated, self-regulating Earth, its life working to maintain its existence ... according to the first law of ecology, that everything’s connected to everything else.”
Talking to Viney on his 90th birthday in March, I told him about a new book by a young Japanese scholar, Kohei Saito, which explores Karl Marx’s ecological thinking on nature, wealth, humanity and capitalism. The first edition of Marx in the Anthropocene, Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism in Japanese sold half a million copies, demonstrating the huge interest in alternative ideas about how to avoid the climate breakdown brought on by capitalism’s commitment to limitless production in a limited world.
I had promised to give Viney a copy when we next met but that, alas, was not to be; he died on May 30th. Over the years in Dublin and Mayo, we sometimes discussed – with his wife, Ethna – how the two subversions of ecology and socialism might be brought together after they sundered in the second half of the last century.
Marx also revised the Eurocentrism underlying his argument that the development of capitalist modernity in Britain and Europe held up a mirror other world regions must follow
Saito’s book explores this by a forensic examination of Marx’s late thinking from 1868 to his death in 1883 about the “metabolic rift” between nature and humanity under capitalism. The book documents how Marx’s intensive research on natural sciences and agriculture led him to revise his Promethean attitudes to capitalist production’s conquest of nature in his masterpiece, Capital. He had tended to assume a new socialist society could take over and apply its technology unchanged. Marx’s later belief was that this would, in fact, reproduce capitalism’s unsustainably destructive approach and its distorted or alienated arrangement of work, care and leisure.
Marx also revised the Eurocentrism underlying his argument that the development of capitalist modernity in Britain and Europe held up a mirror other world regions must follow. His new research convinced him instead that communal ownership and organisation of land and agriculture in those societies have vital lessons for new socialised ones.
A third linked revision of his thinking, about anti-imperial nationalism, was directly inspired from the Irish Fenian movement of the 1860s. He used to think it possible to overthrow the Irish unionist regime by British working class ascendancy. But in 1868 he wrote: “Deeper study has convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. That is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general.”
Saito’s research is important for debates between green and red movements in our time, given their growing agreement that a sustainable future for humanity is incompatible with capitalism’s relentless growth paradigm
The three revisions are a radical development in Marx’s thinking, coinciding with European capitalism’s expansion of its worldwide imperial control. Saito’s work is based on close study of Marx’s later working notebooks, only now being published. Marx died before he could publish much of his new thinking. Friedrich Engels, Marx’s lifelong partner, simplified, obscured or disagreed with their import when he edited the second two volumes of Capital. This was intended to make his work accessible to emerging European socialist movements. But it helped ossify orthodox Marxism’s Prometheanism – an environmental orientation that perceives the Earth as a resource at the disposal of human needs – and Eurocentrism in the hugely influential socialist and communist movements.
Saito’s research is exciting for anyone interested in the history of these ideas and the movements they influenced. It is important for debates between green and red movements in our time, given their growing agreement that a sustainable future for humanity is incompatible with capitalism’s relentless growth paradigm. Both movements are divided on degrowth, the idea that only a steady-state economy respects planetary limits.
In another true subversion Saito proposes that Marx was a degrowth communist by the end of his life. This new framing can still inspire radical movements to subvert capitalism.
Michael Viney might not disagree this week as reports of unprecedentedly high temperatures in Atlantic waters off Britain and Ireland caused by climate breakdown are linked to unseasonal heavy downpours. Those Atlantic storms he used to say have no menace in them now do.