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Synthesis/Regeneration 22   (Spring 2000)

Growing the Red/Green Paradigm:
Ecological Socialism in Root and Branch

by Walt Contreras Sheasby, Green Party, Los Angeles County

Profound turning points in social theory have always been in response to wrenching crises in society, and the growing threat of global ecological disaster is sweeping together and coalescing critical viewpoints. These are exciting times for the growing number of students and activists who are bringing together "red" and "green." Several new books are making the eco-socialist paradigm a serious contender against the sterile flatlands of capitalist culture and ideology. For the most part this new theory remains unseen by the sated and drowsy academic intellectuals who have feasted, or so they thought, on the end of history.

Yet this new theory deals with an issue at the root of critical thinking, the perennial contradiction that reappears throughout history: Humanity is part of Nature::Humanity is not part of Nature. It is a very old dilemma, but with a new urgency, and all of the books reviewed here confront it by means of dialectics rather than formal logical absolutes.

Several new books are making the eco-socialist paradigm a serious contender against the sterile flatlands of capitalist culture and ideology.

This year we have the publication of at least two eagerly awaited books: John Bellamy Foster's book, Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature, due out in March from Monthly Review Press, will be a powerful and radical intervention into environmental sociology, as well as bringing Marx's ecological roots to the forefront of socialist theory. The University of Oregon sociologist is co-editor of Organization and Environment, a journal from Sage Press, as well a regular contributor to Monthly Review.

Foster has already highlighted "Marx's Theory of Metabololic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology," in the American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 105, No. 2, Sept. 1999: 366-405), and his new book promises to be the most probing analysis yet of the metabolic basis of sustainability, described as "a rising conceptual star" in the International Handbook of Environmental Sociology (Edward Elgar, 1997). Until recently, little attention was paid to Marx's use of the concept, adapted from the cell theorist Theodor Schwann and the organic chemist Justus Liebig.

Another book due out later this year is Joel Kovel's manifesto of political ecology, The Enemy of Nature, which attacks the system of capitalism in a way that goes far beyond progressive critiques of corporate excesses. Kovel lays out a consistent call for a radical reconstruction of society and restoration of the environment. For Kovel, the liberation of nature is inseparable from the emancipation of labor, or what Marx called the free association of producers. In ecological labor, or praxis, concrete labor is differentiated from its object, but not split apart from it, unlike the abstract labor of commodity production.

As Kovel said in an April 1997 Workshop on Ecological Socialism organized by the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, "The unboundedness of a dialectical (=socialist = ecological) process is one of organic flow; the unboundedness of capital is like the spasmodic and uncontrollable growth of a cancer." Kovel developed this Hegelian dialectic of differentiation-in-action in contrast with splitting-in-action in his book, History and Spirit: An Inquiry into the Philosophy of Liberation (Glad Day Books, 1999), one of the few Marxian texts since Ernst Bloch and Erich Fromm to deal seriously with the concept of Spirit.

For those interested in the latest branching out of Critical Theory in both its Psychoanalytic and Hegel-Marx dimensions into the new Political Ecology, his forthcoming Enemy of Nature, which brings together new and previously published chapters, many available on the internet, promises to be a major contribution to red/green philosophy.

One of the influences on his recent work is the former student of Georg Lukacs, Istvan Meszaros, whom Kovel thinks has surpassed his mentor. A hefty and difficult magnum opus by Meszaros, Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition (MR Press, 1995), has had a major influence on ecological socialism without attracting any attention in the bookstores, although his earlier work from 1970, Marx's Theory of Alienation (Prometheus, 1986), was very widely read and is still available as a reprint. Meszaros, a philosopher emeritus at the University of Sussex, has brought his unrivaled dialectical analysis to bear on the most vexing political and economic issues of contemporary global capitalism.

...it will depend on the eco-socialist currents to link the...discordant voices of protest against environmental degradation into a coherent force of solidarity.

For the reader who wants an introduction to the history of dialectical thought in the socialist movement, and especially the thorny issue of the Nature and Human interelationship, the only work that is both readable and not over-simplified is The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition by John Rees (Routledge, 1998).

But for a work that focuses specifically on the relation of Human and Nature in Marx's thought, especially in his mature economic writings, there is nothing that comes close to Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (1999) by Paul Burkett, a young economist at Indiana State University. In reconstructing Marx's theory (particularly from recently published economic notebooks), Burket challenges any number of left critics of Marx, including Rudolf Bahro, Ted Benton, Geoffrey Carpenter, Jean-Paul Deleage, Andre Gorz, Enrique Leff and others. Burkett's tour de force, as Foster calls it, completely shifts the terrain of discourse on Marx and the meaning of the Nature-Human metabolism, and brings the issue of the use-value of the commodity form to the center of the ecological crisis.

The latter is a theme explored in many ramifications in James O'Connor's watermark anthology, Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism (Guilford, 1998). One of the great deans emeritus of Marxian economics, he is at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and is the founder of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology published since 1990.

He and Burkett have disagreed on whether there are two distinct types of contradiction in capitalism, an ecological crisis of the conditions of production and consumption, as well as an economic crisis of accumulation of capital, or whether these are two sides of the complex, contradictory way that capitalism relates use values and exchange values.

This is an issue which goes to the heart of the red/green project. In a letter, James O'Connor says, "We now agree that the distinguishing mark of ecosocialism compared with plain socialism is that ecosocialism pays as much attention to the use value side of things as to the exchange value side (or, seen one way, to the qualitative as to the quantitative)...." He also notes that, "Traditional socialism didn't problematize capitalist technology, while the new left did, then the greens generalized the work of the new left." But the really novel aspect of Natural Causes is the consideration of "Uneven and Combined Development" in relation to spatial and temporal crises affecting the flow of limited use-values from tap to sink, from resource extraction to disposal of pollutant and waste. O'Connor suggests a new way of looking at the unsustainability of global capitalism that links rigorous ecological analysis with the rationale of resistance struggles in both the center and periphery of the empire.

Ultimately, it will depend on the eco-socialist currents to nourish a movement that is able to link the varied and often discordant voices of protest against environmental degradation into a coherent force of transnational and pancultural solidarity.

Burkett, Paul (1999), Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective, New York: St. Martin's Press, $45.00.

Foster, John Bellamy (1999), Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature, New York: Monthly Review Press, $18.00.

Kovel, Joel (1999), History and Spirit: An Inquiry into the Philosophy of Liberation, Warner, NH: Glad Day Books, $21.95.

Kovel, Joel (2000), The Enemy of Nature [forthcoming].

Meszaros, Istvan (1986), Marx's Theory of Alienation, New York: Prometheus.

Meszaros, Istvan (1995), Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition, MR Press.

O'Connor, James (1998), Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism, New York: Guilford Books, $19.95.

Rees, John (1998), The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition, London and New York: Routledge, $24.99.

Note: Order your books from friendly outlets like
Eco Books, 192 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 623-2698. email: info@ecobooks.com

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