Green growth, degrowth and a humanist Marxism

by Liam Kruger • Published 13 June 2024

Capital…allows its actual movement to be determined as much or as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun. …everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in his secure hands. Après moi, le déluge! (After me, the flood!) is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation.

– Karl Marx[1]

Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.

– Walter Benjamin[2]

Capitalism is destroying the planet. A climate report released at the end of 2023 emphasises that “we are entering an unfamiliar domain regarding our climate crisis, a situation no one has ever witnessed firsthand in the history of humanity”.[3] Despite the propaganda in the capitalist press green energy is not being taken up fast enough to prevent catastrophes, and the elevated threat of extreme weather events can already be seen.[4]

Responding to the climate crisis and related environmental destruction is urgent, but politically contested. At the centre of this lies the key question: can the capitalist system be restructured to enable a sustainable future, or indeed any future for humanity at all? The climate movement is divided on this point. Advocates of green growth assert that the system merely needs to be responsibly managed – that with the right policies the economy and environment can be balanced. In contrast are those who argue that a change in the system of production is needed to solve the climate crisis. They understand, albeit to varying degrees, that it is the normal functioning of capitalism that results in climate change and environmental degradation. Within this anti-capitalist camp, however, there is no single coherent program for changing the world. Many have taken up degrowth theory, which insists that the economy must be shrunk to ensure it remains within environmental limits.

This article will engage with various green growth, degrowth and ecosocialist thinkers to try to construct a Marxist approach to these issues. Key questions relating to the nature of growth will be drawn out, as well as an understanding of science, and of labour as a means by which humans relate to the natural world. Given that most degrowth theorists base their assumptions on the creation of a post-capitalist society, issues arise surrounding the animating forces of such a society, such as what would drive it and, more fundamentally, how it can be achieved.

One question I want to address now is whether Marxists have anything to gain from engaging in debates on the nature of post-capitalist societies. A common, and not at all incorrect, response from revolutionary socialists is to assert that the solution to the climate crisis is a socialist revolution. And given the challenges to achieve such a feat, speculating about how to organise a post-revolutionary society is futile. However, through this article I hope to show that there is a lot to be gained by applying the Marxist method and historical approach to contemporary environmental debates, including on the nature of a social organisation under a speculative communist society. Doing so can shine light on key assumptions and conclusions of Marxism. These include the necessary distinction between universal and historically contingent human social relations, the nature of the forces of production, the ever-evolving relationship of human society to nature through changes in labour and science, and a Marxist understanding of growth.

I will begin by arguing why green growth is impossible under capitalism. Degrowth and its history will then be discussed, before I move on to some direct debates between socialist green growth and degrowth advocates and a critique of the attempted synthesis of Marxism with degrowth in the works of Kohei Saito. I will argue for the fundamental incompatibility of degrowth with Marxism, concluding with an analysis of science and labour under capitalism, and why a Marxist vision for a communist future is one motivated by freedom, not degrowth.

Green growth: Why capitalism cannot be sustainable

The vast bulk of organisations advocate a “green growth” perspective.[5] This includes the OECD, the United Nations Environment Program and World Bank, as well as many groups on the broad left. Despite their differences, green growth advocates tend to argue that there is nothing fundamentally incompatible between economic growth and environmental sustainability. Instead, they argue that it is a matter of proper policy and management as to whether a sustainable ecology can be maintained. Theoretically, green growth depends upon both significant government intervention into the economy to invest and regulate as required, but also the market mechanisms of capitalism encouraging new sustainable technologies.[6] Governments and corporations around the world claim to be growing sustainably, or at least suggest that they will transition to environmentally friendly practices over time as they invest in green technology.

However, the kinds of actions required for sustainable growth have not been undertaken.[7] The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are “far off track”, according to an official report.[8] No international agreement on climate emissions has been able to abate the steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Green New Deal (GND) policies amount to social democratic measures which seek to manage capitalism’s most destructive tendencies while maintaining profitability and capital expansion.[9] This basic fact – that capitalism is not sufficiently responding to the climate crisis – is no surprise when you consider the essential logic of the system.

Capitalism is a form of society which is characterised by a class of labourers who have no control over the means of production and must sell their labour power to survive. The class system is based on accumulation,[10] crises, commodity production and the production of surplus value by exploiting the working class.[11] For a capitalist firm to survive, it must not simply make a profit, but reinvest that profit back into production; to grow each year so as to keep up with new advances in the industry, speed up the rate of turnover[12] and enter new markets before its competitors.[13] When capital isn’t in the process of circulation or reinvestment it is reducing in value due to inflation or the depreciation of machinery. Because of these factors, both individual capitalist firms and even the total economies of countries must grow at a steady rate in order to be healthy. This growth is dependent on the exploitation of both labour power and the Earth’s natural resources.[14] It is also important to understand that capitalism isn’t just a system of private ownership of production, but one defined essentially by the relationship of the mass of the population to production.[15] It follows that an economy centrally planned by the state does not itself transcend capitalism if the relationship of the mass of the population is still that of exploited proletarians.[16]

Growth is a central feature of capitalism, and our institutions and economy are geared towards maximising it. This “growth paradigm” is a focus of the degrowth criticism of green growth. Degrowth advocates see the growth paradigm, “growth ideology”, or “growth imperative”[17] as the major barrier to a sustainable transition. This can take extremely idealistic forms, in that it is simply the Western ideology of growth or consumerism which must be combatted. On the other hand, some criticism of the growth imperative can take a systematic approach and point towards growth being essential to capitalism. In this form it is a critique which can point to and combat the source of the climate crisis – the global system of waged labour, competition, private accumulation and exploitation.[18] Degrowthers also argue that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – a measure of the monetary value of everything a country produces – is a key part of growth ideology, as it reduces all the different measures of a society’s functioning to a single number which values only the expansion of the economy, especially finance and extractive industries.[19] In addition, current growth has exceeded many of the limits corresponding to environmental and planetary boundaries.[20]

Because capitalism cannot exist without expanding and there are limits related to planetary materials and pollution, whether or not green growth is possible depends upon growth being decoupled from resource use and carbon emissions.[21] While some wealthy developed countries have achieved or are in the process of achieving decoupling of carbon emissions from GDP, this is only possible through the export of manufacturing and investment in renewable energy made possible through imperialism.[22] At a global scale, there is zero evidence that absolute decoupling of resource use from GDP is being achieved, and certainly not at the pace necessary to avoid climate destruction.[23]

One of the hopes of green growth advocates is that as new technologies develop, they will decrease the resource and energy cost of production as a whole. However, because of the logic of the capitalist system such hopes are ill-fated. The Jevons paradox is the phenomenon whereby increases in the efficiency with which a resource is used in production results in no change, or even an increase, in the rate at which that resource is consumed.[24] In degrowth literature this is known as a rebound effect.[25] The Jevons paradox reflects the contradictory functioning of capitalism, and is informed by the same logic as the tendential fall in the rate of profit.[26] When some new development makes production more efficient it becomes incumbent upon a capitalist firm not just to adopt the development, but exploit it to the fullest, buying new machinery, working labourers harder and so on. They must do this because of competition; if they do not adopt new technology and expand they risk losing market share and going out of business. New technologies have always resulted in an increase in resources use, in productivity and the destruction of nature.[27]

The other means by which new technologies are supposed to save capitalism from the climate crisis is through some breakthrough development which can solve some issue of unsustainable production or global warming. Proposed routes for these developments include nuclear energy, expanding recycling to encourage a more circular economy, carbon capture and storage, or forms of geoengineering. Nuclear energy is no environmentally friendly or sustainable solution, requiring immense resources use and producing a toxic byproduct.[28] Recycling, despite its potential, does little more than encourage the expansion of plastics.[29] And while carbon capture and storage – including sequestering excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and BECCS (Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) – will probably play some role in a sustainable transition,[30] the technology is largely unproven. For now, an over-reliance on BECCS in climate change mitigation targets tends to be an excuse to postpone action, leaving the problem for future generations to solve.[31] This is the basic logic behind most of green growth; do everything to keep the system running as normal, pushing action further and further into the future when supposed rapid advances in technology, aided by good government policy, will solve the crisis.

Finally, geoengineering, which refers to methods which alter the Earth’s energy balance, is the most potentially disastrous. Geoengineering includes projects which could increase the reflectivity (albedo) of the Earth so that the amount of incoming solar radiation which reaches and heats up the surface of the planet is reduced. It includes things like whitening clouds or building massive mirrors to put into space or cover the surface of the ocean. These methods would mask the damage that carbon dioxide emissions are having on the atmosphere by counteracting the impact on heating, but they would do nothing for other effects such as ocean acidification and would have to be continually scaled up with atmospheric carbon dioxide. Even more dangerous is the sending of aerosols into the stratosphere to increase its reflectivity, which is also the geoengineering method most accepted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).[32] Stratospheric aerosols don’t just mask the effects of carbon dioxide and require constant upkeep to do so, they also could have a slew of other impacts on atmospheric chemistry and cloud formation.[33] Capitalism, a system driven by competition and prone to crises, cannot be trusted to maintain the massive feats of geoengineering which would be required to mitigate global warming.

It’s clear that green growth or sustainable development is impossible under capitalism, and that therefore, a solution to the climate crisis must radically challenge the logic of the system and do more than reform it. Degrowth purports to be one such radical challenge.

Degrowth as an alternative

As an area of academic development, degrowth is presently in a state of flux and evolution, with a few tendencies vying for influence. For the purposes of this article, only the more left-wing versions of degrowth will be addressed. Jason Hickel is the foremost representative of what can be termed socialist-technocratic degrowth. In his highly influential book Less is More, Hickel defines degrowth as “a planned downscaling of energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way”.[34] However, disagreements exist on the source of the growth problem, the exact form that degrowth takes, and how it can be achieved. To discuss this requires first outlining the history of degrowth.

For most of its history degrowth existed as an economic perspective prevalent only in academic circles. Décroissance (degrowth) was first used by the French intellectual André Gorz in a debate with Herbert Marcuse and others in 1972 to counter a government conference on economic growth.[35] From this first mention degrowth was counterposed to capitalist growth, questioning whether the system is compatible with a balanced Earth.[36] However, despite the term arising in the radical atmosphere after May 1968, it failed to develop into a coherent critique of capitalism and was limited to a counter-position to economic growth.[37] It wasn’t until a re-emergence in late 2001 that degrowth took on its modern definition with a special issue of the periodical L’écologiste (The ecologist) titled Défaire le développement, refaire le monde! (Unmake development, remake the world).[38] It was specifically the work of Serge Latouche which brought degrowth from mere economic decline into a more holistic questioning and restructuring of society.[39] However Latouche was no anti-capitalist.[40] He argues that degrowth is possible under capitalism as the drive to growth was a recent development after Fordism and Keynesianism, not an inherent feature of the system.[41] For the next decade, degrowth theory spread throughout European academic circles and developed theoretically,[42] only breaking out beyond the continent and the halls of universities from 2008–2018.[43] Many of the developments up to that point were then synthesised and popularised by Jason Hickel in Less is More, and subsequently there has been further attention to degrowth in the works of Kohei Saito, which will be discussed later.

Socialist-technocratic degrowth recognises the need to move beyond capitalism, but fails to articulate the form this transition could take beyond a set of radical policy measures. But before extrapolating this key criticism, there are a few weak arguments against this form of degrowth that should be clarified.

The most popular rejoinder to degrowth proposals is the truism that there are places in the world which do not bear significant responsibility for the climate crisis, and where a decrease in the scale of the economy would result in a large portion of the population not having their needs adequately met. However, degrowth asserts that while a net decrease in global resource use is required, not every society, nor every individual in the most affluent societies, need consume less. Hickel in particular[44] has placed great emphasis on decolonisation and how degrowth policies could allow for historically colonised nations to wipe away predatory debt arrangements with, and develop unhindered by, the West.[45] And for the developed world, while there would be a net decrease in material throughput and energy use, through redistributive measures the poorest should see an increase in their standard of living.[46]

This also addresses a second common challenge – that degrowth is another form of austerity that would decrease the living standard of working-class people. While empirically this is untrue with regard to the kind of degrowth argued for by Hickel, it still stands as a propagandistic barrier to degrowth being popularly accepted. Some degrowthers welcome this response, as it shows that degrowth is a term which cannot be coopted by capitalism, unlike something like “sustainable development” or a “just transition”.[47] Elsewhere degrowth is talked of less as a propagandist term and through a more scientific lens. But most interestingly degrowth is used as a wedge to push against the capitalist ideology of growth,[48] and if degrowth is seen as austerity then capitalist ideology still maintains too tight a hold for any slogan to really break capitalism in the first place. This is part of a broader strategy whereby degrowth, along with other appealing anti-capitalist policies, develops into a counter-hegemony to neoliberal capitalism, à la a particular reading of Italian communist Antonio Gramsci.[49] However, under capitalism the reality of degrowth – economic contraction – will always be against the basic interests of the working class, which is to increase their material standard of living, and so is effectively limited as a popular slogan.[50]

Finally, it’s argued that degrowth does not mean a return to primitive forms of technology but would in fact require widespread adoption and development of new, truly environmentally friendly techniques and machinery.[51] While these clarifications make degrowth less disagreeable, it is unclear what it adds to a revolutionary socialist strategy beyond an empirical argument for decreasing total resource and energy use in the immediate transition away from capitalism. This is especially true when considering the major proposed methods of application are technocratic and idealist.

In chapter 5 of Less is More, Hickel outlines “Pathways to a Post-Capitalist World”.[52] His proposals are based on an understanding that “capitalism is a system that’s organised around exchange-value, not around use-value”[53] and that therefore if society were more rationally organised it wouldn’t be directed at profit but fulfilling needs. Firstly, he that argues in order to rapidly slow down the rate of resource and energy use the global economy needs to end planned obsolescence and advertising, shift from ownership to usership, end food waste and decrease the size of environmentally destructive industries.[54] Then addressing the political problems such challenges to the current capitalist order would entail, Hickel resorts to explaining how the policies would rationally work. He argues that a degrowth transition would be accompanied by a jobs guarantee, while also reducing work hours.[55] Also, he contends, there would be a radical redistribution of wealth[56] and “decommodifying basic goods and expanding the commons”.[57] And finally Hickel utilises another tool of left-wing intellectual policy-making – Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)[58] – to answer potential questions about how degrowth projects will be funded.[59]

While Hickel recognises that there are forces in society with an interest in preventing these reforms, he appeals to an idealised democracy in which, because degrowth is in the interests of most people, it will be adopted despite the protests of the minority.[60] This is what separates Hickel’s perspective from a Marxist one. Hickel and other writers from his intellectual milieu see the problems of society as technical, and while they agree that there are systemic issues in the way society is organised, they believe these can be changed by properly outlining a more logical way of running things which benefits most people and will for this reason be possible.[61] He implicitly argues for the possibility that the system could be reformed away from its dependence on growth. For Marxists, the illogical organisation of production under capitalism is tied to the fact that society is not democratic, and that the capitalist class rules in their own interest, disregarding damage to the environment, or the will of the majority of working-class people. The only way to enact the kind of radical and anti-capitalist policies Hickel and other degrowthers advocate is through the self-activity of the working class, and a revolution which overturns the capitalist relations of production.

Hickel’s formulation of degrowth is one of the more serious in that it not only recognises the scale of change necessary to solve the climate crisis but also attempts to deal with the challenges of bringing about this change. However, the lack of a Marxist understanding of capitalism and the limit to reforms means that it cannot be anything more than a series of technocratic solutions to the ecological crisis. So socialist-technocratic degrowth does not offer a convincing alternative to capitalist green growth, but the empirical argument for the need to degrow generally is compelling, and degrowth advocates have not limited their arguments only to capitalist green growth.

Degrowth vs socialist green growth

This section explores the debate between Jacobin contributor Matt Huber, representing a socialist perspective of green growth, and a number of degrowth proponents, most notably Giorgos Kallis. Kallis’ critique is targeted at socialists who accept capitalism’s deleterious impact on the natural world but suppose that if the growth were to happen under socialism it would, by some mechanism, be sustainable.[62] He also problematises growth as something with a quantitative meaning in a post-capitalist society, as a socialist economy would seek to maximise use-value, rather than having any measure of exchange value (GDP, typically).[63] A final key intervention is the argument that growth requires accumulation through exploitation; that a socialist society wouldn’t accumulate as it wouldn’t take surplus value from its workers.[64]

Matt Huber has long argued that the climate movement must appeal to and base itself in the working class.[65] His 2022 book, Climate Change as Class War, is a polemical work largely directed at the middle-class climate movement, and argues for a turn away from emphasising climate policies and towards empowering the working class as the solution to the climate crisis. He emphasises that the dominant discourse wrongly centres individual consumption choices rather than capitalism-enforced production, and that what is needed is not the utopian solutions of many climate-minded academics, but class war which puts power in the hands of the global proletariat.[66] While some degrowth advocates attempt to grapple with the political problems which stand as roadblocks to social transformation, much of what is published is unashamedly utopian.[67] Huber responds to these by invoking Friedrich Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, arguing against any utility to the imaginative futures described in works such as Half Earth Socialism by asking rhetorically: “[d]oes this utopianism yield a strategy to confront the political and economic power of the planet’s opponents – in the first instance, key sectors of the American ruling class?”[68] Adopting the label of a “socialist eco-modernis[t]”,[69] Huber confronts the charge that all growth is unsustainable by appealing to the creative power of the proletariat, arguing that “solving climate change requires new social relations of production that would develop the productive forces toward clean production”.[70] On this essential point Huber is correct – as will be expanded upon in the final sections of this article.

As for the other arguments Kallis makes of socialism requiring degrowth, Huber is consistent in mischaracterising the latter.[71] Huber’s primary issue with degrowth is that it is seen as a politics of less, whereas socialism must be emphasised as a politics of more.[72] To Hickel’s assertion that degrowth would mean shorter working hours, public wealth and a greater fulfilment of people’s need despite less stuff produced,[73] Huber sees that there will be less stuff and dismisses it as austerity.[74] However, Huber makes many useful criticisms of degrowth, powerfully demonstrating how degrowth makes a fetish of growth and in doing so hypostasises the concrete capitalist class into an abstract system rather than a concrete collection of companies, governments, and so on.[75] Huber also rightly argues that the decolonial emphasis territorialises responsibility for degrowing and hides the decisive class element, so that degrowthers see the world primarily in terms of Global North and Global South, rather than workers and bosses.[76] And it’s absolutely true that – in the words of degrowth proponent Timothée Parrique – “degrowth as a political movement has failed”.[77] This failure is primarily due to failing to move beyond its support base among middle-class intellectuals.[78] Despite these potent critiques, when dealing with the essence of degrowth Huber is arguing with a straw man.[79] By reducing degrowth to eco-austerity in strategy and therefore a political non-starter he is ignoring the relevant questions that the theory brings up, most importantly the nature of growth, which was the key question of Kallis’ criticism.[80]

Degrowthers’ responses to Huber’s criticisms were varied. The strategic problems in particular which are Huber’s main focus are well recognised,[81] as is the problem of degrowth only appealing to intellectuals and the middle-class.[82] The sharpness with which Huber emphasises the necessity of the working class for a radical transformation is also nominally accepted, as well as that of combatting capitalism in the realm of production.[83] However, Huber has been harshly criticised for his failure to truly engage with degrowth,[84] especially where there could be great agreement.[85] The potential for this is seen in a response to an earlier article against degrowth,[86] explaining that the “more” he is advocating for is not just material stuff, but more community and meaningful social interaction.[87] Also, despite his harsh criticism of degrowth for the same weakness, Huber fails to produce a strategy beyond vague allusions to class struggle and strikes. In the end he proposes many of the same policies as degrowthers,[88] as well as advocating for a Green New Deal.[89] While Huber speaks favourably of revolutionary transformation,[90] the maximum program he espouses is merely the state ownership of production.

Despite Huber’s green growth perspective being fundamentally correct – that the collective creativity of workers could allow for a sustainable development of production – his lack of a clear revolutionary perspective means he fails to articulate a method of achieving this. So his advocacy of green growth fails to break with the fundamental problems of sustainable development under capitalism. He also fails to articulate what this growth-based future society could look like.

While degrowth theory has moved closer towards socialism, with many advocates today being explicit about combining the two,[91] it is clear that these debates sorely need a clear revolutionary Marxist intervention. To date, the most significant intersection of degrowth theory and Marxism came with Kohei Saito.

Marx and degrowth communism

Marxist terminology and concepts are present throughout much of the degrowth literature, and a Marxist understanding of class was dominant in the socialist articulation of green growth, but neither make full use of the Marxist tradition in responding to the problem of climate change and ecological destruction. For much of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries Marxism was not widely considered conducive to an ecological understanding. This was due primarily to hostility to a class analysis from ecological thinkers in this period, reinforced by the productivist perversion of Marxism prevalent in the Soviet Union and China, and the abandonment of a dialectics of nature by the Western Marxist tradition after Lukács. In recent years however, there has been a resurgence and rediscovery of the Marxist ecological tradition, primarily through the works of John Bellamy Foster, in particular his 2000 book Marx’s Ecology, along with Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature from 1999.[92] They form much of the basis for Kohei Saito’s degrowth communism.

Saito’s works have drastically changed the terrain of degrowth politics, popularising a form of Marxism among advocates of degrowth theory. His book Slow Down: How Degrowth Communism Can Save the Earth sold over half a million copies within a year of publication in Japan; its most theoretical sections were adapted and expanded in the 2023 Marx in the Anthropocene (hereafter referred to as MitA), to immense praise. Jason Hickel stated that the work is “A masterpiece… herein lies the secret to post-capitalist transition… it will change [socialism and environmentalism] forever”. The attempted synthesis of Marxism with a degrowth perspective is the most controversial and noteworthy aspect of MitA.

Saito wants to establish Marx as a degrowth communist as the basis for theorising a future society which can reverse climate change and maintain sustainability. He argues that capitalism can no longer be seen as progressive as it destroys rather than develops the foundation for socialism, and that Marx recognised this late in life and began to reformulate his theory. It follows from this that the post-capitalist society would much more likely be a return to steady-state communes rather than an expansive productive society that has come to dominate the Marxist understanding of communism.

According to Saito, the case for Marx adopting a degrowth perspective develops from his study of natural science and primitive human societies after the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867.[93] On some fronts the argument is waged successfully, with Saito’s deep reading of Marx and Engels showing a serious transformation in Marx’s conception of history and society from unilinear, productivist and Eurocentric in his very early writings to one more thoroughly dialectical, ecological and most importantly for Saito, multilinear.[94]

Marx moving on from Eurocentrism is based on him not viewing colonisation as a barbaric yet progressive process which brings less developed societies closer to those of Europe,[95] and rejecting the “unchangeability of Asiatic societies”.[96] Productivism, for Saito, broadly characterises how the early Marx saw the forces of production developing within an old society, coming into contradiction with that society, and driving change towards a new one. But Saito sees this understanding as untenable today, as “the acceleration of productive forces will sooner or later make most of the planet uninhabitable before the collapse of capitalism”,[97] and argues that Marx himself “[abandoned] his celebration of the increasing forces of production [and] came to recognise that the sustainable development of the productive forces is not possible under capitalism”.[98] Marx’s transcending of a unilinear history is incontrovertible, as in MitA Saito develops Marx’s rejection of his earlier position that “the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future”,[99] to one that allows for multiple routes of development.[100] Ultimately for Saito’s argument, Eurocentrism, productivism and a unilinear history are all inextricably connected, and combine to mean that “Marx must have completely parted ways with ‘historical materialism’ as it had been traditionally understood”.[101]

To make this case, which is essential to claims about Marx’s degrowth communism as it argues that progress is not tied up with productive power,[102] Saito has to invoke an extremely strict and inflexible definition of historical materialism in which the relations and mode of production in a society are mechanically driven by changes in the forces of production, and that there are therefore definite stages of society that must be passed through.[103] Thus, when developments in production are destructive – as is seen with anthropogenic climate change – and a more developed class society is not necessarily more progressive than what came before, historical materialism no longer holds. In contradistinction to this crude conception, historical materialism must be understood not only in the brief ways which Marx and Engels spoke of it,[104] but as the method of dialectics applied to history. Understood this way historical materialism is not incapable of such recognitions as a multilinear history or contradictions in productive development and the social relations or ecological damage they engender, but centres such discoveries and correctly emphasises them as the driving forces of change through history.[105]

Saito’s main evidence for Marx abandoning historical materialism is in applying his reading of early human societies and confronting the problem of development in Russia; it is through this process that Marx supposedly comes to a new conception of communism.[106] In his unsent correspondence with Russian socialist Vera Zasulich, Marx argues that Russia can skip the capitalist phase of development through the pre-capitalist commune formations and adopting the advances from the West. In his own words from the first draft of the letter:

[T]hanks to the unique combination of circumstances in Russia, the rural commune, which is still established on a national scale, may gradually shake off its primitive characteristics and directly develop as an element of collective production on a national scale. Precisely because it is contemporaneous with capitalist production, the rural commune may appropriate all its positive achievements without undergoing its [terrible] frightful vicissitudes. Russia does not live in isolation from the modern world, and nor has it fallen prey, like the East Indies, to a conquering foreign power.[107]

Saito interprets the letter and drafts not only as Marx articulating a new means of advancing towards communism, but necessarily because of this a new form of communism which supersedes the productivist ideas he held previously and can be based on communal peasants instead of the working class.[108] Rather, what Marx is attempting to do here is to apply historical materialism to a very peculiar historical circumstance in which a primitive mode of production prevails in a society while not being under the control of a more advanced power. Zasulich was directly appealing to Marx to answer whether Russian socialists should accept capitalist development, with all the exploitation and expropriation of primitive accumulation,[109] or whether they can skip to socialism. Marx responds, invoking a primitive form of the historical materialist concepts of combined and uneven development and permanent revolution,[110] that Russia can skip capitalist development only if aided by revolution in Western Europe and by adopting the “positive achievements” of capitalism already developed there. What these positive developments refer to is not in the text itself, and Saito limits them to productive technologies;[111] but applying a robust historical materialism makes it clear Marx also means the cooperative relations of production that the capitalist mode of production induced.[112] With this reading the conclusion no longer follows that Marx comes to a different conception of communism: it is still fundamentally based on socialised production and the working class. In addition, it is also clear that the development of the forces of production is still required for moving beyond capitalism, and that they will be harnessed by the collective working class to meet human needs. In fact, Marx’s limited and unpublished analysis was proven wrong less than 30 years later in 1905, when the working class played the dominant political role despite still being a tiny minority. Although it is also true that in those years between Marx’s draft letters and the revolution Russia underwent dramatic changes in the forces of production and the development of capitalism.

Finally, we come to the case Saito makes for Marx being a degrowth communist, which similarly relies upon a particular interpretation of the late Marx. Saito can point to no direct evidence that Marx advocates a “steady-state economy”,[113] the necessary formulation to have a degrowth vision for communism.[114] While Marx’s understanding of primitive steady-state societies had shifted since his negative comments on the unchangeability of the Asian communes, as Saito argues,[115] there is no indication that Marx thinks Western economies “consciously need to ‘return’”[116] to the archaic equality of steady-state communes in a higher form. Simply put, in MitA Saito shows that Marx developed an appreciation for the stability of archaic societies, including the rural communes of Russia, but the link from this to adopting a steady-state economy as the basis for communism is missing.[117]

An additional part of Saito’s project is providing an answer as to why Marxism has not been seen as ecological; why the USSR and China have had such a devastating environmental record, and why many Marxist theoreticians adopt a productivist view in which the goal of socialism is to expand humanity’s productive power and that this itself would solve any ecological problems. He argues that the USSR and China were always going to develop into state capitalist nations because the form their Marxism took was one based on increasing material abundance. This is stated clearly in Slow Down, along with an incredibly apologetic tone in his application of Marxism.[118] Saito wants to make use of a particular interpretation of the late Marx, while rejecting much of his early writings and that of the tradition after him. To do this, Saito invokes a rift between Marx and Engels in which Engels’ negative influence on the subsequent socialist movement is to blame.[119] Saito bases this on Engels’ vision of post-capitalism being one of exponentially expanding and effectively infinite production, which Marx supposedly distanced himself from and “pointed to the need for social equality and sustainability”.[120] It is then Engels’ version which is taken to be orthodox Marxism because of the understanding that Engels was responsible for natural science in their division of labour[121] and suppressing Marx’s ecological thinking in favour of his own dialectics of nature.[122]

This is not a unique argument;[123] many different left-wing traditions trace some theoretical failure to Marx’s greatest collaborator. But Saito is particularly sharp in making his case that it was Engels’ crude application of dialectics to nature that resulted in him missing Marx’s more empirically derived conclusions on the concept of metabolism.[124] While it can be reasonably argued that there were differences between Marx and Engels,[125] on the question of the dialectics of nature, communism[126] and philosophy they were in fundamental agreement.[127] Saito’s argument culminates with Engels’ editing of the third volume of Capital to remove any reference to natural metabolism,[128] a weak basis for claims about the supposed wholesale suppression of Marx’s ecological thinking.[129] Further, the claim that Marx had a different vision of communism than Engels rests on the conclusion that Marx was a degrowth communist. If this assertion, lacking any textual evidence, is rejected, all that is left is differences in emphasis which do not constitute a break between the two thinkers. As for explaining why the nominally Marxist USSR and China have poor ecological records, it is because they are simply capitalist states beholden to the same logic of accumulation and exploitation of nature and the working class. They took this particular form of state capitalism not because of a particular form of Marxism as Saito argues, but because the basis for working-class democracy was destroyed in Russia.[130]

In his attempt to green Marxism Saito seeks to go beyond the pragmatic adoption of degrowth and heavy emphasis on planning by the likes of Bellamy Foster[131] to a more theoretical synthesis of the two, rooting it in the supposed adoption of degrowth communism by the late Marx. But Saito cannot show any direct evidence for Marx as a degrowth communist. Nor does he fully apply the total breadth of Marxist theory to questions of degrowth and ecology. And in doing so, Saito invalidates the vast majority of Marx and Engels’ intellectual output, as Matt Huber and Leigh Phillips argue: “All that’s left in its ashes are idiosyncratic readings of Capital, some sparse notebooks copying disconnected passages from agricultural texts, and the letter to Zasulich”.[132]

Humanist Marxism

For the purposes of this article humanist Marxism does not mean any particular tendency, but an emphasis on alienation and freedom that is for some only associated with the early Marx but is actually present throughout his late works. Humanism is the belief in the potential for a united human race and the ability for us to work collectively towards united interests.[133] This starting point is compatible with the Marxist argument that the proletariat has the potential to develop into the universal class which embodies the interests of all humanity.[134] Humanism can be the basis to reject responses to the climate crisis which assert that humanity will always be divided, or that certain forces such as an innate sense of competition will preclude collective efforts. But Marxism can take humanism further, transcending the liberal enlightenment humanism[135] through a dialectical materialist understanding of humans’ nature to labour; to consciously, creatively and collectively change our environment.[136] Contra Hegel, Marx located alienation and its solution in the material world, and it is only through transforming the way that labour is performed that people can be truly free.[137]

Labour being the basis for Marxist theory contributes to the depth of the ecosocialist theory of the metabolic rift[138] – it is because labour is alienated under capitalism that the relationship between humanity and nature is not rationally managed by the former, and that there is an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism”.[139] This brings into question exactly how labour will change post-capitalism, and answering this invokes the topic of universal and historically specific human relations. Simply, this distinction refers to whether relations in human societies apply to every form of social organisation, and are in this case universal, or whether they are limited to a particular social formation and are historically specific. The distinction permeates any discussion of human essence and the form of future socialist or communist societies but is rarely directly addressed. To start with, it is clear that through the discussion of the human relationship with nature that metabolism is a universal condition of human existence – that is, that producing and reproducing social life will occur under every form of human social organisation. It also follows then that labour, the means by which humans interact with nature, is historically non-specific and essential to being human.[140] On the other hand, relations such as commodities, capital, exchange value, the division between mental and manual labour and many more are products of class society and liable to be sublated or abolished in post-capitalist societies. The most important historically universal social relation for the potential for a degrowth Marxism is that of necessary and “free” labour. A lengthy exposition comes late in Capital, Volume III:

[T]he realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life, so must civilized man, and he must do so in all forms of society, and under all possible modes of production… Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialised man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis. The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.[141]

This quote contains many of the main arguments of this article: that humans are a part of nature with a unique relationship to it managed by labour; that properly managing this human social metabolism with natural metabolism requires rational organisation through socialised work; that the “development of human powers” is the goal of human society and an end in itself; and finally that achieving this end means decreasing the realm of necessity and maximising the realm of freedom;[142] practically through the reduction of the working day. Saito also uses this quote in Slow Down as a means of counterposing a Marxist understanding of freedom to a bourgeois one,[143] but in doing so he removed the line “accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature”. In context, this sentence clearly indicates that the realm of necessity must be achieved with as little energy – labour time – as possible, so that freedom can be expanded. This a significant example of Saito wilfully misreading and misinterpreting Marx’s revolutionary humanism to come to his degrowth communist conclusion. However, as useful as the Marx quote is to expand some of these ideas surrounding freedom, it does not directly refute Saito’s case for a transformation of Marx’s thought. What it does do is provide a counterposition to Saito’s interpretation of the late Marx, in which he adds nuance and transcends some of the crudeness of his earlier productivism but maintains and strengthens his notion of freedom.

In every human society there will be a section of the day which consists of necessary labour, that which is directed towards reproducing society (food, clothes, waste, the means of subsistence), and a section which is free, which could be scientific, artistic, etc. and is the true location of our species being. Regardless of the fact that labour will become “life’s prime want”,[144] such a division will still remain and be the primary contradiction by which a communist society continues to develop, in that it works to decrease time spent on necessary labour and expand the time that is truly free. The point that the proletariat works to expand its own freedom is a consistent emphasis in Marx, not some abstract goal, but imputed from the self-activity of the working classes as they take steps towards realising their humanity.[145] This, and the further development that sees workers not just fighting quantitatively to decrease their working day but qualitatively to change the nature of work to better suit their needs, are the humanism at the heart of Marxism.[146] People would work both to expand truly free labour and transform necessary labour to be as dignified and “appropriate to (our) human nature” as possible. Expanding the realm of freedom is the driving force of a socialist transformation and communist society which values not labour power, but free time.[147]

With a humanist understanding of what motivates the working class, or associated producers under communism, Saito’s attempt to synthesise Marxism with degrowth can be rejected. This is because unlike Bellamy Foster, who adopts degrowth as a mere practical necessity,[148] Saito makes a principle out of the potential necessity and develops a position in which Marxism envisions a society motivated not by freedom, but by maintaining a steady-state economy so as to be in harmony with nature.[149] While Saito and Hickel maintain that their visions of degrowth would result in decreased labour time, this is a product of ending capitalism generally. In MitA, Saito echoes Hickel when making the case that his vision of degrowth communism doesn’t limit but fully realises freedom through the transcendence of artificial scarcity and people being “free from the constant pressure to earn money thanks to the expanding common wealth”.[150] It is inarguable that relative to capitalism people would have greatly expanded individual wealth and freedom by any measure, but their degrowth societies would still require more labour than a more traditionally understood socialism or communism. For instance, Bellamy Foster accepts that labour would have to substitute for fossil fuel-derived energy,[151] greatly increasing the necessary labour society would need to perform. And Saito’s steady-state formulation has no interest in expanding the freedoms people could enjoy under communism, whether by investing in production towards making necessary labour more “worthy and appropriate for human nature” or decreasing the necessary labour required at all.

The failure of writers mentioned in this article to realise some aspect of Marxist theory is because many are not revolutionary Marxists, instead being various flavours of Marxian economists, post-Marxist world systems theorists, or academics using Marxology to attempt to develop a solution to the climate crisis, but missing the theory of international working-class revolution which is what really defines Marxism.[152] Therefore, attempts to combine Marxism with degrowth typically come with a revision of the orthodox Marxist understanding of class, such as Bellamy Foster’s reclassifying the working class as an “environmental (or ecological) proletariat”.[153] His attempt to include such groups as youth, women, indigenous populations and peasants as necessarily proletarians transforms the working class into a populist morass with no unifying social relation to production.[154]

While Saito never concretely advocates a political program in MitA,[155] his activism amounts to lifestylism, having used the money from his book sales to purchase land and do degrowth work on it.[156] In Slow Down, however, Saito is much clearer in advancing his reformist politics. Through the book Saito advocates for municipalism and cooperatives, with multiple references to “mutual aid and trust”.[157] While workers are mentioned, ultimately for Saito it is a disambiguated citizenry which is the agent of change. His decentring of the working class shows that he is not thoroughly applying Marxism to the climate crisis, but rather a narrow sliver, improperly interpreted. In the conclusion of Slow Down Saito invokes the idea that only 3.5 percent of a population is needed for major social change,[158] and goes on to explain that this percentage can be achieved through:

A workers’ co-op, a school strike, an organic farm – it does not matter the form it takes. You might run for office to become a part of the municipal government. You might act as part of an environmental NGO. You might join with your neighbours to start a citizen-run electric company. It would be a major step to demand that the enterprise that employs you put in place strict environmental policies. Bringing about the democratisation of production and the shortening of work hours, for example, must include the participation of labour unions. Signature-collection actions should be started that lead to more declarations of climate emergency; movements must be developed to demand that the richest elites pay their fair share. So doing, mutual aid networks will arise and be forged into something truly mighty.[159]

As this quote shows, where these authors do deal with the working class directly, it is often in an extremely limited way. Hickel advocates an alliance between environmentalists and the working class, as the latter have “much more political leverage”.[160] Bellamy Foster’s overwhelming emphasis is on planning,[161] rather than the self-activity of the working class (informed by his position that China is a fundamentally different kind of society to capitalist).[162] And Saito lacks a Marxist analysis when it comes to questions of trade unions and cooperatives, among other things.[163] For many of these writers, the revolutionary role of the working class is lost, reduced to the need for the mass of the population to be won over to the idea of degrowth so that it can be passed democratically.[164]

The next step is to discuss the concept of growth and how production can be expanded without environmental destruction.

Growth and the forces of production

Up until this point growth has basically referred to material throughput, and for discussing growth under capitalism this has been sufficient. However, the definition is unscientific and circular in how it can actually be applied to an understanding of degrowth. For an economy to grow sustainably it must be able to decouple resource use from GDP, or the scale of the economy must be able to increase without a corresponding increase in resources. It therefore follows that an economy can grow only when it does not grow. One recourse to this problem is to limit growth to a measure effectively of exchange value under capitalism (GDP) and concede that no quantitative measure of growth exists post-capitalism in an economy directed towards the production of wealth or use value. Such an approach effectively gives up on answering the legitimate challenges degrowth poses as to the limits and source of growth under communism. Against this position, Marxism offers a transhistorical and scientific understanding of growth, rooted in the humanism and ecological theories discussed in this article. This understanding can then be developed and solidified through a Marxist conception of science and its practical embodiment in the forces of production,[165] made fully realisable through unalienated labour and making possible a growth-based communist society.

Capitalism is not the first society to grow. However, in all pre-capitalist societies, class-divided or not, which are driven only by meeting the needs of subsistence of the masses and potentially of luxury consumption for the ruling class and their armies, growth could not expand in the explosive, exponential way it does under the present social system. This is due to the fact that the surplus was not systematically reinvested into production, and therefore growth of an economy was dependent upon growth of the population. Capitalism is different because the surplus is put back into production, to increase the productivity of labour through investment in constant capital. Through this analysis a number of factors in growth can be distinguished: population, labour hours and labour productivity. It is clear that if any country grows a greater population, has its citizens work more hours, or improves its process such that it is more productive, all else remaining the same, it has grown in all three instances.

Just as Marx had a specific and scientific analysis of value under capitalism, but at times hinted at the possibility of a transhistorical conception of value,[166] a transhistorical notion of growth can be grasped based on a function of labour hours (which also embodies population size and is itself the locus of value) and that labour’s productivity. This is also the essence of the forces of production; that they are past labour, and the appropriation of natural resources, embodied in some form which increases the productivity of future labour. The forces of production are therefore the concrete form of one half of the growth equation. In this way growth is not just based on labour, but also on nature, in that the way productivity increases is through nature being used in the labour process to augment the work itself. Growth is therefore intimately linked to natural and social metabolisms,[167] with all forms of unsustainable growth being predicated on using nature to bolster labour productivity beyond the rate at which nature can reproduce itself; in producing a metabolic rift. We then return to the problem of sustainable growth requiring decoupling from resource use.

Every form of human social organisation has had some limit to its growth, often framed historically as a maximum population or holding capacity. Throughout history each of these has been surpassed due to advances in class society, the corresponding forces of production, and a greater understanding of science or humans’ relationship with nature. The limits to growth under capitalism are the same as previous limits in that they are not absolute, but relative and dialectical. While the sustainable level of atmospheric carbon dioxide does present itself as a breakpoint beyond which the Earth’s natural metabolism would be disrupted, or that there is a limit to the land which can be transformed for human use, these are not limits to growth universally, but in particular.[168] Under capitalism, with its metabolic rift and competitive drive precluding serious counteraction, these limits can and certainly will prevent further growth. What is unique about capitalism is that its scale of production pushing up against these limits is threatening more than just stagnating growth, but utter collapse. However, if society were reorganised around collective ownership, the associated producers could realise the relativity of these limits, growing through other means. Where practical they could actively counteract the damage done by capitalism to the planet. These limits include those associated with being confined to planet Earth. Key to the conception of the malleability of limits to growth is expanding the forces of production.

Expanding here cannot just be quantitative, but qualitative. Contrary to the crude understanding of Marx’s historical materialism, in which each form of class society is surpassed when it becomes a fetter on the scale of production, the humanist reading of Marx makes it clear that the sense in which capitalism is a fetter on production is through the alienation of the labourer; separating humans from the product of their labour and their species being. This is also the way that Marx advanced upon basic productivism in which the “domination over nature to achieve an abundance of wealth”[169] is celebrated. A number of counterpositions can be confronted with this interpretation.[170] Firstly, Bellamy Foster asserts that the quantitative side of production no longer needs to be developed as it did in Marx’s age,[171] but that to meet human needs in today’s age requires massive investment of labour and resources into actively combating climate change.[172] In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that the working class will seize “all capital from the bourgeoise…to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible”.[173] Saito would say that this is an example of Marx’s early productivism, but interpreted through a humanist lens and in a broader context, Marx and Engels’ argument here is primarily about meeting our species being through the expansion of production. Society’s problems will be solved by mobilising our collective creative power through productive labour. Marx’s early writings can fall into productivism because the expansion of productive powers appears as both the teleological goal of society and therefore the measure by which one society is more progressive or advanced than another, making it possible to read him as approving colonialism in some instances. However, it is clear that the late Marx recognises the contradictory nature of capitalist development and values productivity only insofar it is a necessary component to expanding human freedom; humanism – but only when free of the limitations of capital.

Degrowth also rests on an assumption that human needs are finite,[174] but Marx argued that after meeting human necessity, the goal of human society is to continue to expand the realm of freedom indefinitely. As for Kallis’ argument that growth would require exploitation,[175] this fails to appreciate how a socialist or communist society would be fundamentally different from capitalism, as people would freely contribute their surplus labour towards increasing the common wealth after labour has become life’s prime want – there would be no motivation nor possibility for exploitation without private ownership and appropriation. Capitalism has exploitation and surplus value or profit, communism has free time or surplus labour which would be willingly “reinvested” towards bettering society.

Finally, Saito makes a compelling case that the forces of production developed under capitalism cannot be completely subsumed into socialist or communist society,[176] given that certain techniques and entire industries are unsustainable or contrary to the goals of a post-capitalist society.[177] Apart from using this as evidence of Marx abandoning historical materialism, he further argues that capitalism does not prepare the conditions for a sustainable economy. This misinterpretation stems from the same place as his interpretation of Marx’s letters to Zasulich: a lack of appreciation of the working class as the force which can reappropriate the forces of production towards useful ends.[178] Certainly the forces of production embodied in the creation of tanks and missiles would have no place; but factories can be retooled, products recycled, and so on.

For example, there is a factory in Melbourne which is involved in the production of F-35 fighter jets; but while these end products would never exist in a rational society, the heat-treatment that goes into their production could potentially find new and expanded civilian use. Capitalism makes it appear that the productive forces only develop for the benefit of capital, but this is a mystification of what is in actuality the embodiment of human powers,[179] which can be reappropriated by rational and cooperative labour. In short, Saito saps the contradictory nature of the development of the forces of production under capitalism and their potential to be used under socialism.[180] The final step to elucidating this possibility is a discussion of science, and how it can be radically transformed only after moving beyond class society.

Science: under capitalism and beyond

The possibility of growth and the expansion of the forces of production without ecological destruction depends upon understanding the nature of science and how it can be radically transformed in a future society. Our ability to interact with nature must be understood at a qualitatively different level such that productivity or population can expand without either an increase in resource use or while expanding the resource pool. So, while it is clear that under capitalism resources are primarily allocated in search of expanding profits, regardless of environmental cost, it is not enough to say that by reversing this under a communist society continued growth is therefore possible. The intellectual products of a society do not happen at random or due to the unique genius of particular individuals but are themselves products of the economic relations of the society the ideas develop out of. Marx famously argued that: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”,[181] but the ways in which class society determines the possibility of ideas goes far beyond just the ruling ideas. The British Marxist Christopher Caudwell explored the effects of bourgeois society on culture, literature and science.[182] In his incomplete work The Crisis in Physics, Caudwell showed the limits of a bourgeois mechanical conception of natural science and how a dialectical method is necessary to develop beyond roadblocks around problems such as those of determinacy,[183] the position of humans in nature,[184] and metaphysics broadly.[185] Under capitalism, science is studied according to the reified logic of the mode of production.[186] The disciplines are separated despite the totality of the natural world;[187] phenomena are understood as isolated and static, when in reality they are interacting and in constant motion;[188] there is a decisive division in society between scientists and workers (mental and manual labour);[189] and the scientific method rests on a positivistic assumption, not appreciating the dialectical relationship the activity of interacting with nature has on knowing.[190] These all limit the ability of science to reach a true understanding of nature under capitalism, but there are many more socially determined limits.

John Desmond Bernal, like his contemporary Caudwell, was a communist scientist keenly interested in the interaction between politics and science.[191] He believed that a materialist dialectic was the most powerful tool not just for understanding society, but also for making scientific discoveries.[192] In The Social Function of Science, Bernal uses his scientific expertise to develop the fundamental limitations of bourgeois science discussed above, but also to elaborate the various ways capitalism inhibits scientific inquiry. These range from obsolescence, patents, inter-industrial competition and international secrecy,[193] to problems of the efficiency of scientific research surrounding poor pay, conditions, and management,[194] and finally the role science has in war.[195] There are near limitless ways to describe how a capitalist organisation of science and society results in innovation being limited, and many practically stem from capitalist class relations generally. As much as an individual scientist can be seen to have more freedom in their labour than a typical worker, they are still subject to the same forces of capital such as competition and exploitation that stand in the way of creative work for the rest of the labouring population. Science can therefore be transformed in the same way as all other forms of labour, through a revolution in the mode of production.

Science puts into our hands the means of satisfying our material needs. It gives us also the ideas which will enable us to understand, to co-ordinate, and to satisfy our needs in the social sphere. Beyond this science has something as important though less definite to offer: a reasonable hope in the unexplored possibilities of the future.[196]

Following this quotation from the final chapter of The Social Function of Science, Bernal outlines the historic role of capitalism in the early development of science, and argues that capitalism must now be overcome if science is to fully develop its social function.[197] The new form it takes for Bernal is essentially one which is united with labour; where science is the embodiment of human collective activity and the essence of the development of our species. This comes with embracing dialectical materialism, the unity of manual and mental work,[198] and the realisation of unalienated labour. Under communism science becomes the realm in which human development occurs.

The kind of society where this new science can take hold is one in which the models showing the need to decrease material throughput do not apply. The kind of technological innovations that would come from a society of associated producers, working collectively towards meeting human needs, faces none of the social challenges posed by capitalism. Natural limits still exist, but their relatively would be realised directly through the development of human abilities to effectively infinitely increase efficiency and the pool of resources that could be drawn from.[199] This is not to say that growth will be constant; there may be long periods of effective stagnation as some limit constrains growth until some new development comes along. Additionally, under a society of associated producers that there would be great care for how humans impacted upon nature.[200] A communist society would not dominate nature in the way capitalism attempts to,[201] but in some form of managed harmony.[202] Engels wrote in The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man:

[A]t every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.

And, in fact, with every day that passes we are learning to understand its laws more correctly… But the more this happens the more will men not only feel but also realise their oneness with nature.[203]

Rather than the passive harmony imagined in Saito’s degrowth communism, humans’ unalienated creative powers could be directed towards expanding the realm of freedom while rationally managing natural metabolism. Some glimpses of this future were seen in the early years of post-revolutionary Russia,[204] but it can only truly be realised within an advanced communist society.[205] Contrary to the proponents of degrowth,[206] it is not a simple faith in future technologies that allows for a belief in growth communism, but in the abilities of a cooperative and unalienated humanity to master nature through collective labour and science. This mastery is evidently not in the sense of a master over a slave, as humans wouldn’t lord over nature but remain a part of it, but mastery in the way a tradesperson masters their craft. Communist society would have an intimate knowledge of and interrelation through labour with the natural world, shaping it to fit their needs, but while managing nature and maintaining sustainability for future generations.

To summarise: the possibility of a communism with growth rests on the revolutionary transformation of science that would occur in a society of associated producers. Just as past human societies have had their capacities expanded through innovative technologies and social organisations, the rational and collective control of our environment under communism would allow the continual transcendence of each relative limit that may be imposed.


To conclude I want to imagine a deep future communist society: one in which the laws of nature are so well understood that human society has completely conquered the challenges of the present – hunger, cold, climate change and so on. Motivated only by the human ethic of increasing freedom, this society could harvest the resources of entire planets, the energy of stars, without there being some dramatic revenge of nature, thanks to our collective scientific mastery. People will spend their free time labouring, but the necessary labour of ensuring everyone is housed, fed, clothed and so on is driven down to the absolute minimum. This would free up people to work creatively and scientifically, advancing upon old techniques of production to further decrease the necessary labour or spending their time dedicated to the arts. This is not a utopian future, but one based on the material interests of the working class. It is incompatible with the actual utopian and anti-human degrowth vision of the future, in which people are somehow motivated by maintaining limits on their own freedom and incapable of growing without destroying the environment.

To be clear, this scenario does not discount the reality of relative physical limits and boundaries that would have to be worked within. And this is especially the case for a post-revolutionary society in the short and medium term, where net degrowth may very well be a necessary feature of the transition from capitalism, in a not dissimilar way to how a workers’ state would temporarily require a military force. However, this is not something that can be prescribed, it must be left up to the collective decision of the international working class who make the revolution, no matter how compelling modern research is on the need to degrow our capitalist economy. It is on this limited basis that Marxist theory has anything to gain from degrowth; the synthesis attempted by Saito amounts to making a principle out of potential necessity and distorts Marx and Marxism to do so.

Despite there being nothing to add to Marxism from degrowth, I hope that this article shows the utility of a deep engagement with contrary perspectives on the climate crisis, and even of speculating about the nature of a communist society based on a Marxist understanding of nature and humans’ relation to it. And through analysing the ongoing debate between degrowth and green growth a number of key points emerge, including a development of the distinction between universal and historically contingent relations, a discussion of production and science, and the centrality of freedom to the Marxist theory of international working-class revolution. It is this last point, the humanist essence of Marxism, that makes any form of degrowth incompatible with the socialist and workers’ movements.


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[1] Marx 1976, pp.380–1.

[2] Benjamin 2003, p.402.

[3] Ripple et al. 2023.

[4] Ripple et al. 2023.

[5] Li, Dong and Dong 2022.

[6] For a history of green growth and how it is a distinct phase of political discourse from sustainable development (they are collapsed together for the purposes of this article), see Dale 2015.

[7] Vogel and Hickel 2023.

[8] UN DESA 2023.

[9] Saito 2024a, pp.31–2; Garnham 2020.

[10] Hickel 2022, pp.84–88.

[11] Marx 1981, pp.1019–21.

[12] Marx 1978, pp.200–29.

[13] D’Amato 2014, pp.51–80.

[14] Marx 1976, pp.636–639.

[15] See Chapter 1, “Socio-economic relations in Stalinist Russia”, in Cliff 1964.

[16] D’Amato 2014, pp.171–174; see also Binns, “The Theory of State Capitalism” in Arnove et al. 2017.

[17] Delves 2021.

[18] Dale 2015.

[19] Hickel and Hallegatte 2021; Klitgaard 2023; Roberts 2020.

[20] Persson et al. 2022; Rockström et al 2009; Nebel et al 2023.

[21] Parrique et al. 2019.

[22] Hickel et al. 2022a; Saito 2024a, pp.14–15, 42–43.

[23] Hickel et al. 2022a.

[24] Saito 2024a, pp.43–4.

[25] Saito 2024a, pp.43–4.

[26] Marx 1981, pp.317–48.

[27] Hickel 2022a, pp.154–7.

[28] Williams 2016; Garnham 2020.

[29] Hasselbalch et al. 2023.

[30] Fajardy et al. 2021.

[31] Hickel and Kallis 2020.

[32] Masson-Delmotte 2018.

[33] Cziczo et al. 2019.

[34] Hickel 2022a, p.29.

[35] Parrique 2020, p.172.

[36] Saito 2024a, pp.77–78.

[37] Parrique 2020, p.176.

[38] Parrique 2020, p.176.

[39] Flipo 2008.

[40] Bellamy Foster 2011a.

[41] Bellamy Foster 2022a, pp.363–72.

[42] Parrique 2020, p.207.

[43] Parrique 2020, pp.220–1.

[44] Hickel 2021a.

[45] Hickel 2021b.

[46] Millward–Hopkins 2020.

[47] Kallis and March 2015.

[48] Hickel 2021c.

[49] Hendrickx 2023.

[50] Molyneux 2022.

[51] Hickel et al. 2022b; Hickel 2023a.

[52] Hickel 2022a, p.205.

[53] Hickel 2022a, p.208.

[54] Hickel 2022a, pp.205–22.

[55] Hickel 2022a, pp.223–6.

[56] Hickel 2022a, pp.227–31.

[57] Hickel 2022a, p.231.

[58] See Kelton 2020 for an overview of MMT.

[59] Olk et al. 2023.

[60] Hickel 2020a, pp.245–50.

[61] While Hickel does advocate for mass activity, as in Hickel 2022b, it is clear that the bulk of his work is oriented towards providing solid policy proposals that convince regular people, rather than the self–activity of workers being the solution.

[62] Kallis 2019a.

[63] Kallis 2019a.

[64] Kallis 2019a. Here Kallis has an interesting discussion of Marxist terminology as historically specific to analysing capitalism, while the terms “accumulation” and “surplus” are more universal. A similar discussion will occur later in this article.

[65] Huber 2019a.

[66] Huber 2022a.

[67] See Vettese and Pendergrass 2022 for the most overt example of this tendency.

[68] Huber 2022b.

[69] Huber 2022b.

[70] Huber 2022b.

[71] Ahern 2022.

[72] Huber 2023a.

[73] Hickel 2019.

[74] Huber 2022a, p.119.

[75] Huber 2022a, pp.120–1.

[76] Huber 2022a, pp.121–2.

[77] Parrique 2020, p.204.

[78] Huber 2022a, pp.114–6, 120, 124–6.

[79] Suzelis 2022.

[80] Kallis 2019b.

[81] Huber 2023a.

[82] Pineault 2019.

[83] Maher and McEvoy 2023.

[84] Parrique 2021; Holgersen 2023.

[85] Maddrey 2022; Katz-Rosene 2023a.

[86] Huber 2019b.

[87] Huber 2019c.

[88] Maddrey 2022.

[89] Huber 2022a, pp.137–66.

[90] Katz-Rosene 2023b.

[91] Löwy et al. 2022; Murphy and Spear 2022; Löwy 2020; Miller-McDonald 2021.

[92] The 2014 edition will be cited in this article.

[93] Saito 2023a, pp.171–7.

[94] Saito 2023a, pp.177–90.

[95] Saito 2023a, pp.182–5.

[96] Marx in Capital, Volume I, cited in Saito 2023a, p.184.

[97] Saito 2023a, p.172.

[98] Saito 2023a, p.181.

[99] Marx in Capital, Volume I, cited in Saito 2023a, p.184.

[100] Saito 2023a, p.186.

[101] Saito 2023a, p.182.

[102] Saito 2023a, p.209.

[103] Saito 2023a, pp.171–3.

[104] The context Marx was writing in meant that his emphasis when speaking of historical materialism was on the forces of production as the basis for a materialist conception of history contra the idealist historiography of his various bourgeois and utopian contemporaries.

[105] Novack 2002, pp.211–28.

[106] Saito 2023a, pp.190–6.

[107] Marx 1881.

[108] Saito 2023a, pp.199–210.

[109] Marx 1976, pp.874–95.

[110] Novack 2002, pp.75–105; originally Trotsky 1906 and Trotsky 1931.

[111] Saito 2023a, p.208.

[112] For more evidence of Marx not abandoning historical materialism late in life, see the final paragraph of chapter 51 of Marx 1981, pp.1023–4 (Capital, Volume III), where he discusses with much nuance how production is essential to the transformation of the social form of production.

[113] Saito 2023a, p.208.

[114] Hampton 2023.

[115] Saito 2023a, p.208.

[116] Saito 2023a, p.208.

[117] Gibson and Empson 2023.

[118] See Saito 2024a, pp.88–9 for an example of this.

[119] Bellamy Foster 2023a.

[120] Saito 2023a, p.209.

[121] Saito 2023a, pp.45–51.

[122] Saito 2023a, pp.61–8.

[123] Sheehan 2017, pp.53–60.

[124] Saito 2023a, pp.65–6.

[125] See Roso 2023, Dunayevskaya 2018, pp.241–76 and Blackledge 2020 for a discussion of some of these.

[126] Engels read Marx drafts of his Anti-Dühring and Marx contributed a chapter to it; see Bellamy Foster 2022c.

[127] Sheehan 2017, pp.48–53.

[128] Huber and Phillips 2024.

[129] See the postscript in Bellamy Foster 2023b.

[130] See Harman, “How the revolution was lost” in Arnove et al., 2017.

[131] Bellamy Foster 2023b.

[132] Huber and Phillips 2024.

[133] Fromm 1966, pp.vii–xiii.

[134] Lukács 2017, pp.123–74.

[135] Bellamy Foster 2023c.

[136] Novack 1973, pp.39–56.

[137] Dunayevskaya in Fromm 1966, pp.68–83; Dunayevskaya 1975, pp.53–66; Novack 1973, pp.81–103.

[138] Bellamy Foster 1999; Bellamy Foster 2000, pp.155–63.

[139] Marx 1981, p.949.

[140] Engels 1876.

[141] Marx 1981, pp.958–9.

[142] Novack 1973, pp.136–50.

[143] Saito 2024a, pp.173–4.

[144] Quoted in the first section of The Critique of the Gotha Programme, in Marx and Engels 1949, p.23.

[145] Dunayevskaya 1975, pp.87–91; Burkett 2014, pp.133–43.

[146] Phillips and Dunayevskaya 1984; Dunayevskaya 1975, pp.266–87.

[147] Hägglund 2020, pp.212–69.

[148] Bellamy Foster 2023b.

[149] This reading is derived from much of the second half of Marx in the Anthropocene, but primarily parts III and IV of the concluding chapter, “The Abundance of Wealth in Degrowth Communism”; Saito 2023a, pp.226–44.

[150] Saito 2023a, p.234.

[151] Bellamy Foster 2023b; Huber 2023b.

[152] Molyneux 1983.

[153] Bellamy Foster 2022c.

[154] Molyneux 2022.

[155] McNeill 2023.

[156] Saito 2023b.

[157] Saito 2024a, pp.212–4, 216–7, 232–3.

[158] Saito 2024a, p.236.

[159] Saito 2024a, p.237.

[160] Hickel 2023b.

[161] Bellamy Foster 2023b.

[162] Bellamy Foster 2022c.

[163] Dale 2023.

[164] Gibson and Empson 2023.

[165] Bernal 2010 (1905), pp.24–9.

[166] Henderson 2013, pp.89–97.

[167] Saito 2017, pp.63–79, 99–137.

[168] Huber and Phillips 2024.

[169] Saito 2023a, p.231.

[170] Hughes 1995.

[171] Bellamy Foster 2023b.

[172] Huber 2023b.

[173] Marx and Engels 1962, p.53.

[174] Tsuda 2021.

[175] Kallis 2019a.

[176] Hannah 2023.

[177] Saito 2023a, pp.136–67.

[178] Gibson and Empson 2023.

[179] Marx 1976, pp.439–54.

[180] Molyneux 2022.

[181] Marx 1846.

[182] Caudwell 2018, pp.143–56.

[183] Caudwell 2017, pp.131–48.

[184] Caudwell 2017, pp.55–90.

[185] Caudwell 2017, pp.22–54; see Sheehan 2017, pp.350–83 for a more complete discussion.

[186] Lukács 2017, pp.88–123.

[187] Sheehan 2023.

[188] This includes a failure to appreciate the history necessary to understand anything.

[189] Untermann 1905, pp.107–26.

[190] Novack 2002, pp.155–66.

[191] Sheehan 2007.

[192] Sheehan 2017, pp.309–16.

[193] Bernal 2010 (1939), pp.138–55.

[194] Bernal 2010 (1939), pp.98–125.

[195] Bernal 2010 (1939), pp.163–90.

[196] Bernal 2010 (1939), p.408.

[197] Bernal 2010 (1939), pp.408–16.

[198] Meaning that there is no distinction between the practical labour of interacting with nature, and the theoretical act of planning and interpreting this interaction.

[199] Işıkara and Narin 2023.

[200] Burkett 2014, pp.239–56.

[201] Kandelaars 2016.

[202] Burkett 2014, pp.225–30.

[203] Marx and Engels 1949, pp.82–3.

[204] Sheehan 2017, pp.162–5; Kandelaars 2016.

[205] See Sheehan 2017, pp.213–40 for the rise and fall of the early Soviet philosophy of science.

[206] Boscov-Ellen 2023.

New movement, new debates: The contested politics of climate change 

Sarah Garnham assesses the new climate movement and makes a case for a revolutionary perspective.

Marxism and the natural world

There is a logic inherent in the humanism of Marxism that generates an overarching commitment to environmental conservation, writes Michael Kandelaars.