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Whose Planet? Why We Need Ecocentric Socialism

September 14, 2023

The author argues that ecosocialism must confront its own anthropocentrism and reground itself in an ecocentric politics based in animistic materialism.

Editors’ Note from SCNCC website: We publish below part of the introduction to Kamran Nayeri’s new book Whose Planet? Essays on Ecocentric Socialism. The book is available from online bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Amazon as well as brick-and-mortar bookstores.

This book outlines Ecocentric Socialism as a theory of humanity embedded in nature to understand and help solve social and ecological crises of the twenty-first century, especially the existential crises of catastrophic climate change, the Sixth Extinction, recurring pandemics, and nuclear holocaust. Aside from the obvious cases, scientists in related fields have come to a consensus that these are anthropogenic (human-caused) crises. However, natural scientists do not delve into how and why humanity interacts with nature in such pathological ways.

Dominated by liberal bourgeois currents that have refused to consider whether and how the social system may be responsible for these crises, the environmentalist movement despite some successes has failed to stop the crises as they continue to spread and deepen.

Thanks to Karl Marx’s critique of the capitalist mode of production, the socialist analysis of these crises has been richer as it ties environmental and ecological degradation to the dynamics of capitalist accumulation (for an early discussion, see Mandel 1977). However, the disastrous environmental record of the self-described “socialist” regimes, especially in the Soviet Union and more recently in China, has made it plain that “overthrowing capitalism” is insufficient for achieving and maintaining environmental and ecological health. Starting in the 1970s, some socialists have questioned aspects of Marx’s theory as ecologically unsound and have tried to amend and improve it in ways that are consistent with the well-being of the biosphere.

Whether these criticisms were based on valid readings of Marx became a controversy among some socialists and ecosocialists. By the turn of the twenty-first century, a few authors whose books have been published by Monthly Review Press (hereon, the Monthly Review authors) have provided a new reading of Marx. While initially it was argued that Marx had “ecological insights” (Burkett 1999; Foster 2000), more recently, it is suggested that Marx was in fact an ecologist and ecosocialist (Saito 2017).

While I consider their contributions valuable for a better understanding of Marx’s intellectual development and initially supported the focus on Marx’s notion of “metabolic rift,” I have considerable reservation about this. In Chapter 22, I have outlined these with a focus on Saito’s contribution which is generally agreed as a more developed form of a Monthly Review authors’ argument.

In addition, I consider any “reconstruction of Marx’s theory” of necessity as more of a theoretical development by its author(s) than “what Marx really said.” This must be clear from a century and half of debate on various aspects of Marx’s theoretical contributions. Aren’t there multiple interpretations of historical materialism, labor theory of value, theory of the proletariat, and of socialism, to name a few of the most important? There are even many more interpretations of “Marxism,” a label that, according to Engels, Marx opposed. The responsibility for turning Marx’s contributions into a doctrine and to open the door to a cult of Marx belongs to Karl Kaustky. By “cult of Marx,” I mean the tendency to explicitly or implicitly deny that Marx was a nineteenth-century revolutionary socialist intellectual giant, yet still a historical figure who could be a great teacher but cannot be used to explain multiple social and ecological concerns that humanity faces in the twenty-first century—thus, the propensity of the majority of socialist and ecosocialist intellectuals and political currents to claim that they represent the continuity with Marx as the label “Marxist” implies. In this book, where I use the words “Marxism” and “Marxist,” it is to denote someone else’s use of them rather than implying a clear intellectual or political current or “what Marx really said!”

Ecocentric Socialism radically differs from the two ecosocialist approaches discussed above: piecemeal criticism of Marx and attempting to amend his theory to develop ecosocialist theory and the rereading of Marx to argue that he has been misunderstood for a century and half and that he is a founding ecologist and a profound ecosocialist. Instead, I focus attention on the philosophical and methodological makeup of Marx’s theories. I will argue how and why Marx’s theory of society and history, historical materialism, and its application to the critique of political economy and the capitalist mode of production, the labor theory of value, are quite consciously anthropocentric in their construction and leave nature aside to focus on the dynamics of class societies, in particular, capitalist societies. As such, Marxian theory by design is not an integrated theory of society and nature despite Monthly Review authors’ claims. Piecemeal modifications of Marx’s theory also remain dualistic and anthropocentric.

But why is a focus on anthropocentrism essential to ecosocialist theorizing? Consider the development of the feminist movement and theory and how they could not have evolved to maturity without taking on androcentrism, the propensity to center society around men and men’s needs, priorities, and values and to relegate women to the periphery (Lerner 1986, pp. 12-13, 15, 36). As I document it throughout the book, in particular in Chapters 2, 15, and 19, anthropocentrism has been the bedrock of civilization for 5,000 years and present in religious and secular forms, including in socialist theories. Even Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution dethroned humans as the apex of creation, was anthropocentric. Science and technology have also been developed largely to dominate and control nature for human purpose. So, the common vision among socialists and ecosocialists that humanity will “manage nature” to maintain “ecological balance” is anthropocentric. Thus, to understand how, when, and why anthropocentrism arose and its pervasiveness as an ideological pillar of civilization for the past 5,000 years is absolutely necessary for ecosocialist theorizing.

The year 1845 proved a critical juncture for Marx’s and Engels’s theoretical development. In his Theses on Feuerbach (1845), Marx contrasts his materialism in opposition to Feuerbach’s. Criticizing Feuerbach’s philosophical anthropology, Marx proposes his own: “[T]he human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” He then contrasts his materialism with those of political economists and liberal philosophers: “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.” Let me stress that Marx clearly limits human nature to “the ensemble of the social relations.” Nothing about human physical being and natural environment is considered. Also, Marx’s materialism in the construction of historical materialism is similarly focused on “social humanity.”

In the construction of historical materialism in The German Ideology (1845), Marx and Engels relied on Marx’s view of human nature and materialism in Theses on Feuerbach. They themselves explicitly acknowledged the shortcoming of their approach:

“Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself—geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.” (emphasis added)

The focus on humans to the exclusion of nonhumans is also clear in Marx’s labor theory of value. As I demonstrate in Chapter 21, Marx’s theory of surplus value focuses attention on the exploitation of wage workers in the capitalist mode of production, abstracting from exploitation of nonhumans that also contribute to the creation of surplus value.[i] That is, surplus value is in fact produced in part through exploitation of nonhuman nature, which has not been noticed or has simply been ignored by Marxists. The political implication of this finding is tremendous. The proletariat in Marx’s theory of socialism is the universal class which emancipates humanity as it emancipates itself. If my argument is correct, the proletariat will not be liberated unless the nonhuman nature which is also subordinated and exploited in all class societies is liberated as well. Yet, there are no Marxists currents that have made nonhuman liberation a part of their theories and political program. The problem of exclusion of nature in Marx’s theory of history and society has been noticed earlier. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School sought to conceptually integrate society and nature in the Marxian theory, relying on philosophy (Jay 1973/1996, Chapter VIII). Perry Anderson (1983) followed up with his critical review of historical materialism. Ted Benton (1993) focused attention on animal rights, and Jason W. Moore (2017) attempted, in my opinion unsuccessfully (Chapter 8), to theoretically integrate society and nature. Thus, the dualism between society and nature remains in the socialist and ecosocialist theorizing.

It is well known that beginning in 1845, Marx increasingly replaced philosophy with science. Thus, I do not find it surprising that Monthly Review authors find “ecological insights” in Marx’s writings as he pursued learning and incorporating natural sciences into his own view of the world. However, there is no indication that Marx and Engels ever developed their historical materialism as an integrated theory of society and nature necessary for ecosocialist theorizing. The reason is obvious: the required fund of knowledge for such theorizing have only come together since the middle of the twentieth century, mostly in biology, archeology, and anthropology.

The theory of Ecocentric Socialism outlined in this book is my attempt to follow Marx’s and Engels’s advice in The German Ideology to use the latest in the development in sciences to provide an integrated theory of society and history that is adequate for understanding the systemic existential ecological crises of the twenty-first century. Some of its key features are as follows:

  • An ecological theory of human nature. Thanks to recent discoveries about the microbiome, we now know that humans are collective organisms that have been co-evolving with microbial communities, trillions of bacteria, viruses, yeasts, protozoa, and fungi. The microbiome affects our gut, which affects our brain. Also, the brain affects our gut, which affects our microbiome. Disruptions to the gut microbiome, say by infection or a change in diet, can trigger reactions in the body that may affect psychological, behavioral, and neurological health. In brief, who we are and how we think and feel and behave, is partly the result of the dynamic interactions between human cells and bacteria, viruses, yeasts, protozoa, and fungi that live as part of us.
  • A much longer view of history which places society in its natural context. This new knowledge about our ecological nature must be placed in the context of the dynamics of the following trends: (1) The geophysical trend which recognizes that life emerged from non-life 3.7 billion years ago and that we are an earthbound, oxygen-breathing, energy-using species dependent upon our physical environment—especially the atmosphere, soil, and temperature range remaining compatible with human life, (2) the evolutionary transhistorical trend which recognizes and celebrates our continuity with other animals, (3) the evolutionary trend culminating in the genus Homo going back 2.5 million years and the emergence of Homo sapiens at least 300,000 ago, and (4) the recent historical development since the rise of farming 12,000 years ago and class societies (civilization) about 5,000 years ago.
  • Animistic materialism. The Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries developed in tandem with commercialization of the world and later with the rise of the capitalist mode of production effectively suppressed animistic views of nature prevalent across the world in favor of a mechanical view of nature. This included even the science of ecology. As a Native American and a professional biologist, Robin Wall Kimmerer (2023, p. 331, emphasis added) has put it this way: “The ecosystem is not a machine, but a community of beings, subjects rather than objects. What if those beings were the drivers?” In socialist and ecosocialist theories also, despite allusions to “dialectics of nature,” humanity is the sole subject in “history.” Animistic materialism and its philosophic gaze, that I call ecocentrism, gives agency to all animate and inanimate beings as manifested in their interrelationship. Ecocentric Socialism is built on animistic materialism. Whereas socialist and ecosocialist theories by and large are based on the Western scientific approach to nature, Ecocentric Socialism shares animistic views of nature with hunter-gatherers and Indigenous Peoples of the world that are surprisingly much closer to what we know about the natural world and our place in it since Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the current knowledge of what makes us human. The difference is fundamental, in that, the anthropocentric socialist and ecosocialist theories and policy proposals generally share the idea of a “sustainable society” where the socialist humanity will manage ecosystems wisely. In animistic views of nature, humanity can never become managers of nature, and attempts to do so on a large scale will create ecological crises as we know from 5,000 years of civilization. Instead, humanity must live in nature left to its own devices if we want it to thrive. All animistic views of nature, including Ecocentric Socialism, begin from love for and adoration of Mother Nature and all its offspring as our kin.
  • A historical theory of alienation. Like Marx’s theory of socialism, Ecocentric Socialism is a theory of human emancipation from all forms of alienation. However, it also provides a historical theory of anthropocentrism as the ideological manifestation of alienation from nature that begins with the rise of farming about 12,000 years ago.
  • Ecocentrism as environmental ethics. The Marxian theory and theories of socialism and ecosocialism lack any environmental ethics flowing from their constitution. If they include any form of environmental ethics, it is an ad hoc addition. Ecocentric Socialism is built on the foundation of animistic materialism, and ecocentrism is its environmental ethics.
  • An interdependent theory of socialist and cultural revolutions. Ecocentric Socialism builds on the mode of production theory for the period since the rise of farming and civilization. However, it focuses attention on both ecological and social (hereon, ecosocial) forces and relations of production. Its social agencies, action program, and the theory of transition also differ from those of Marxian socialism in important ways. Ecocentric Socialism is an interdependent socialist and cultural revolution; neither can develop without the other.
  • A paradigm shift. In summation, Ecocentric Socialism presents a new philosophic gaze and a paradigm shift compared to the existing socialist and ecosocialist theories.

References

  • Anderson, Perry. In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. 1983.
  • Benton, Ted. Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights & Social Justice. 1993.
  • Burkett, Paul. Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective, 1999.
  • Foster, John Bellamy. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, 2000. 
  • Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950. 1973/1996.
  • Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. 2013.
  • Mandel, Ernest. From Class Society to Communism: An Introduction to Marxism. 1977.
  • Moore, Jason W. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. 2015.
  • Saito, Kohei. Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. 2017.

Kamran Nayeri

In a sense, every human being is in search of her place in the world. Mine has taken me through socialism, that I began to discover in 1971, to ecological socialism, that I have begun to help define since 2009 in my own writings and by selection of posts in Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism (OPITW). My view of ecological socialism has been inspired by those who like Henry David Thoreau believe that "In wildness is the preservation of the world." In June 2017, I collected my own writings from OPITW and established Kamran Nayeri’s Writings blog to facilitate their access to anyone interested. My own view of ecological socialism, ecocentric socialism, stands apart from all hereto anthropocentric socialist and ecosocialist theories. To save the world, we must love it--Mother Earth and web of life of which we are a tiny part.

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