Book Review: “Degrowth Communism” . . . or Regrowing the Commons?

Kohei Saito’s recent books have sold more than 500,000 copies in Japan. They, and this latest, draw heavily on Marx’s unpublished letters and notebooks as well as his published works.

Saito, Kohei. Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023

In his 2017 book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, historian Kohei Saito marshaled archival evidence against the charge that Marx was anti-ecological. Saito’s most recent book, published in English in February, is Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism. It bolsters earlier conclusions, defends his analyses, and discusses tendencies in Marx’s thought that are supportive of the concept of “degrowth communism.” Though Saito introduces this concept very late in the book, he does see it as a significant deceleration of production relative to wasteful capitalism. The degrowth Saito describes is indeed a deceleration from capitalist production, but it can nonetheless deliver a sustainable communal abundance to the majority in an ecosocialist society without exacerbating the climate crisis.

With the capitalist class willing to risk social collapse as a result of capitalism’s worsening climate crisis, some form of degrowth — accidental, planned or forced — is already on humanity’s agenda. Saito suggests that “degrowth communism” is consistent with an ecosocialist goal.

As in his former work, Saito’s newest book accesses not only Marx’s published works but also his largely unpublished research notebooks, which Saito helped edit as a visiting scholar for the Marx-Engels-Gesamptausgabe (MEGA2) project at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. The first Gesamptausgabe (MEGA) did not include research notebooks. Saito’s exhaustive analysis of the notebooks Marx kept (mostly on natural science and history) during research for the writing of Capital and the years afterward, shows what Marx was reading and contemplating as he prepared to publish the first and hoped-for additional volumes of his damning critique of capitalism.

Saito concludes that Marx is not anti-ecological. Rather, he maintains, it “is not possible to comprehend the full scope of his critique of political economy if one ignores its ecological dimension.” The notebooks show the evolution of Marx’s ecological thought as well as the integral nature of humanitarian concerns inherent in his critique of capitalism. As Saito puts it, Marx’s scientific research “led him consciously to abandon any reductionistic Promethean model of social development and to establish a critical theory that converges with his vision of sustainable human development.” In short, Saito writes, “Marx started to analyze the contradictions of capitalist production as a global disturbance of natural and social metabolism.”  

John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, István Mészáros and other writers have developed Marx’s argument concerning capitalism’s “metabolic rift,” even without reference to his notebooks. For Marx this is an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” between humanity and the rest of nature as a result of capitalism’s destruction of nature. These writers widened the understanding of metabolic rifts to include the myriad ways in which capitalism alienates human labor from its origins in nature, across the many planetary boundaries it threatens.

In Marx in the Anthropocene, Saito defends metabolic rift theorists from criticism by Jason Moore and others on the academic left who charge that the theory employs a “Cartesian dualism” that separates humanity from nature, rendering it unusable as a basis for ecological theory and practice. Saito cites a critique first elaborated by Georg Lukács. He writes that Lukács “integrated Marx’s concept of ‘metabolism.’ He successfully developed a Marxian methodology to thematize the tense relationship between humans and nature under capitalism. Lukacs’s ‘methodological dualism’— not ‘ontological [Cartesian] dualism’— elaborated in his Tailism and the Dialectic, is loyal to Marx’s own dialectical method of political economy.”

Saito and other rift theoreticians reveal a firm basis for Marxist ecology. Given the evidence, it’s a wonder there are still those who characterize Marx as productivist. Some simply have only a superficial acquaintance with his writings. But others have intentionally sought to discredit Marx by associating his thinking with the devastating productivism of the Soviet Union and China.

However, such vanguardist states were never socialist. Even calling them “actually existing socialism” (as do Saito and others) is a disservice to Marx and his conception of socialism. They were attempts to build socialism in countries lacking the industrial development and international support that might have enabled their growth into full-fledged socialist societies from the germ of the peasant commune. They resulted only in a new form of class rule: bureaucratic state despotism.

Saito considers Marx’s historical materialist understanding of the Grundrisse, Critique of Political Economy and earlier works as productivist, since they posit capitalism as a universal precondition for the rise of socialism. But here too the later notebooks reveal the evolution of Marx’s thinking. Marx, in what Saito regards as his reformulated historical materialism, still considered fully developed tools of production­ — capable of producing an abundance for all — as well as the full development of a working class, to be crucial for the self-emancipation of the working class from capitalist-class rule. Anything less runs the risk of reproducing the material conditions of scarcity under which class divisions arise and classes vie for supremacy.

But Saito sees additional insights in Marx’s five drafts of his 1881 response to Russian socialist activist/writer Vera Zasulich concerning the necessity of capitalism. These drafts, with Marx’s notebooks, show that he had not only shed all vestiges of productivism, but also those of Eurocentrism. As a result of his studies of Russian peasant communes, Marx wrote Zasulich that capitalism was a necessity on the road to socialism only in the countries of Western Europe. Ultimately, Marx thought the Russian peasant communes — and, Saito notes, others like them in the “global south” — might provide a historical basis for socialism despite their lack of developed means of production, if only international support existed to assist the transformation.

Since World War II, US capitalism as a political and economic system has ruthlessly consolidated its hegemony and forced capitalist relations into every corner on Earth in a neoliberal drive to boost flagging profits and stomp out domestic and international opposition. This greatly accelerated capitalism’s destruction of nature in general and the climate crisis in particular. As capitalist control of the means of life has grown, public spaces, services, and institutions have been minimized and privatized for the benefit of the owners of the economy. As Saito sees it, returning this stolen social wealth to the people — as well as the vast wealth expropriated daily as a result of the exploitation of working people — is the task of “degrowth communism.” Though Saito leaves it unsaid, a better phrase might be “regrowth of the commons.”

Reversing capitalist evisceration of social wealth requires the building of a new ecosocialist society. “Degrowth communism as a variant of ecosocialism,” writes Saito, “aims for a post-scarcity society without economic growth. It aims to rehabilitate the abundance of common wealth against the artificial scarcity created by capital [for the majority].” Establishing communal ownership of the means of production and democratic control by the overwhelming majority in society will finally give the choice of what to produce, how much to produce and under what conditions to produce it to the people who actually do the work. That is an ecosocialist goal of sustainable production for human needs rather than the never-ending profit-motivated growth capitalism finds necessary.

While Saito calls degrowth communism a “political project,” it must be more than that in order to ensure working-class control. In an epoch in which capitalism’s destruction of nature places humanity and the rest of life on Earth on the brink of extinction, we must build an economic democracy — built with the organized force of working people — in which private ownership of the means of life is fully abolished. Capitalism requires infinite economic growth on pain of extinction, primarily to benefit the richest in society. In a caring socialist society, however, only sustainable production to benefit society as a whole can be a measure of “progress” on our finite Earth.

Both of Kohei Saito’s recent books have sold more than 500,000 copies in Japan. That popularity as well as his scholarship are hopeful assets in building a Marxist approach to both degrowth and ecosocialism in our attempts to survive the climate crisis.

Ken Boettcher was a 25-year editorial staff member of The People, the journal of the Socialist Labor Party, which ceased publication in 2009. Ken writes on ecosocialism, Marxism, and the climate crisis and recently joined the editorial board of System Change Not Climate Change, where you can also find some of his academic papers. He earned a master’s degree in history in 2021 from California State University, Stanislaus.

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  • As opposed to the techno-optimists’ claim we can have it all- gdp growth and high levels of consumption- using renewable energy (I’ll include Mark Jacobson here), I agree with the author that “some form of de-growth” is on the agenda. For me, dismissing Marx as “productivist” reminds me of the “originalist” position on the U.S. constitution, which is to say, a distraction from Marx’s revolutionary thesis. Great thinkers evolve.

    To me, the argument that working classes are unable to distinguish a sustainable “de-growth” from neoliberal austerity is both condescending and a blockade on the path to a truly eco-centric ecosocialism. Workers will accept the need for thrift if they know it will be proportionately applied to the wealthy.

    • I agree with what you say in your first paragraph. The characterization of Marx as productivist misses the whole point of his economic critique of capitalism, especially in Das Kapital and, as Saito points out, even more so in his research notebooks. As I said in my review, those who characterize him as such either have only a superficial acquaintance with Marx, or are in fact anti-Marxists who base their idea of Marxism on the horrors of bureaucratic state despotism.

      Saito does not argue that workers will have a hard time distinguishing between neoliberalism and the economic democracy of ecosocialism. He argues that the majority in society needs to take back the resources stolen from the commons in the period of neoliberalism and devote those resources to the common good, which will be needed more than ever as we seek to rehabilitate Earth and build a sustainable society. If that society still has the wealthy and the poor characteristic of capitalism it will not be sustainable and it will not be socialism. “Socialism,” as the American Socialist Daniel De Leon defined it, “is that social system under which the necessaries of production are owned, controlled and administered by the people, for the people, and under which, accordingly, the cause of political and economic despotism having been abolished, class rule is at end. That is socialism, nothing short of that.”

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