Paul Burkett: Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective

by tigermanifesto

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Paul Burkett wants to show that Karl Marx is not an anti-ecological figure. Marx and Nature is an interpretation of Marx and Engels’ own work on the subjects of class struggle, nature, and communism, functioning as an exploration of the ecological possibilities contained in Marx as well as an apologetic defence. As a starting gesture, I will say that this book will only be worthwhile to you if you are already invested in this debate and have some working knowledge of both Marx’s more significant texts and, maybe, some of the criticisms that have been levelled by ecologists against Marx’s communist ideas. If you are a Green activist or leftist who is just interested in the historical question of how well Red and Green approaches to politics have mixed since the nineteenth century, this will not satisfy your curiosity. Rather, it is an almost purely textual and abstract consideration of the problem.

Before moving into more detail, we should consider just how valuable a purely abstract consideration of Marx’s relationship to ecology might be to us. By treating Marx’s ideas as more or less self-contained and present in our own time, Burkett opens up possibilities for his investigation but also closes some off. As he does in this book, he can try to prove that Marx’s theories are not, in themselves, anti-ecological. By pushing the concrete history of 20th century Marxism to one side, he can try to reclaim an ecological dimension of Marx that remains uncultivated or ignored. On the other hand, he forbids himself the opportunity to examine why anti-ecological tendencies flourished among those claiming fidelity to Marxism for so long. He can point to pro-ecological possibilities in Marx, but cannot definitively establish why, in reality, those possibilities lay fallow and tendencies from the early 20th century to present-day “luxury communists” and accelerationists could grow while upholding many of the same basic tenets of Marx’s thought. So the value of the book’s high level of abstraction is that it can answer theoretical questions more precisely and show, perhaps, how Marx can contribute to present-day ecological struggles while relegating anti-ecological Marxisms and Marxists to a shadowy dimension beyond the text.

With that established, we only need to put down a few more points about the book to show how it both succeeds and fails to fulfill its initial promise:

1. Burkett is able to articulate why Marx is not an unalloyed anti-ecological thinker. He does this in a sensible way: recalling that, for Marx, both nonhuman natural processes and human labour are part of the same class of natural forces. Decisively refuting the idea of a pure nature, he notes how both Earth’s resources and human bodies become the playthings of capital, little sandboxes that can be reshaped or dug out to its heart’s content. Likewise, he successfully argues that Marx’s vision of the full development of human life under communism is not a consumerist fantasy. Rather, it contains a live possibility for the rational socialization of natural resources. Burkett’s Marxism is one that is not blindly industrialist or dismissive of traditional or indigenous knowledge systems and governing practices.

2. In later chapters, drawing not just on Marx but also on thinkers like Antonio Negri, Harry Cleaver, David Harvey, and André Gorz, Burkett shows how workers’ struggles cannot and should not remain in the realm of wage negotiations. They must press for the establishment of a more rational and democratic management of society, including socialized nature. Class struggle can, he argues, be articulated broadly to mean the advancement of all workers’ interests as a whole, including their interest in preserving nature.

3. Yet, I would argue, Burkett’s book can only prove that Marx is not anti-ecological to the bones. He cannot prove that Marx, brought into the realm of Green politics, is necessarily pro-ecological.  This would be a foolish argument since many if not most appropriations of Marx have been anti-ecological or at least ignorant of core environmental problems. A politicized or governing working class––the associated producers, as Marx names them––is not necessarily pro-ecological, and would, as Burkett wisely notes, require a shift into political values that concord with the flourishing of all living and nonliving processes. So although Burkett can give Red a place at the Green table, he does not prove that Red is always Green, and certainly not that Green must always be Red to be effective. Put another way, it remains for other books to try to make the argument that Marx and the entire tradition of thought he initiated is essential to a Green movement or a Green society. Perhaps, at this stage of history, that argument is impossible to make and requires a drastic shift in our current political situation to judge properly.

Revolution and ecological politics are not necessarily friendly to each other. We know this from hard-won experience. However, Burkett’s book, despite its limitations, is certainly valuable within a certain niche. It is, if nothing else, an intelligent and timely intervention within the study of Marx and how useful this nineteenth century might be to a time fraught with signs that life on Earth cannot continue to flourish much longer under the reigning capitalist system.

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