Essay: Ecosocialism and post-Marx Marxism

March 8, 2020

From the March-April 2020 issue of News & Letters

 by Franklin Dmitryev

Capitalism is robbing young people of their future and is threatening the world with climate catastrophe. That view has become much more common, both in the climate justice movement and among young people generally.

Where to turn, then? Socialism is growing in popularity, especially among people under 30, although its meaning is contested. Crucially, it carries the baggage of the destructive history of state-capitalist countries that called themselves Communist. The “socialist” welfare states present no real alternative, having accepted capitalism and not coincidentally being major emitters of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Since the late 1980s and especially in the last two decades, some activists and theoreticians promoted “ecosocialism” as the way forward. Besides having various meanings, it raises the question of how adding “eco” sets it apart. How can there be a nonecological socialism—especially one that has so turned into opposite that it wreaks massive ecological destruction?

Chicago Climate Strike, Dec. 6, 2019. Photo by Franklin Dmitryev

One thing they all lack is the concept of post-Marx Marxism as pejorative, beginning with Frederick Engels. Many want to revise Marx in light of the failures of state-capitalist regimes that called themselves “Marxist.”

Even anti-Stalinist post-Marx Marxists muddied the path to true liberation by evading the question of our age, what happens after revolution, and thus failing to give the movement ground with which to oppose counter-revolution coming from within revolution. Much of it even fell into the defense of supposed anti-imperialists such as Syria’s genocidal Bashar al-Assad.

If we are to re-create socialism for our day, a fundamental criticism of post-Marx Marxism is necessary—including its narrowing of Marx’s revolutionary humanism, his all-sided concept of human development as liberation, which encompassed the human relationship to nature, the relations between the sexes, and the abolition of the division between mental and manual labor.


Consider two of the most prominent ecosocialists, Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy, who co-wrote the 2001 International Ecosocialist Manifesto and were among founders of the International Ecosocialist Network in 2007. Their manifesto announced:

“We see ecosocialism not as the denial but as the realization of the ‘first-epoch’ socialisms of the twentieth century, in the context of the ecological crisis. Like them, it builds on the insight that capital is objectified past labor, and grounds itself in the free development of all producers, or to use another way of saying this, an undoing of the separation of the producers from the means of production.

“We understand that this goal was not able to be implemented by first-epoch socialism, for reasons too complex to take up here, except to summarize as various effects of underdevelopment in the context of hostility by existing capitalist powers. This conjuncture had numerous deleterious effects on existing socialisms, chiefly, the denial of internal democracy along with an emulation of capitalist productivism….

“Ecosocialism retains the emancipatory goals of first-epoch socialism, and rejects both the attenuated, reformist aims of social democracy and the productivist structures of the bureaucratic variations of socialism. It insists, rather, upon redefining both the path and the goal of socialist production in an ecological framework.”[1]

What is totally written out of this historical summation is the counter-revolution that came from within the Russian Revolution. The fact that revolutions as great as that ended up being transformed into opposite, into state-capitalism, and that these totalitarian regimes called themselves Marxist, only served to disorient genuine revolutionaries.

The “productivism” of these societies, their drive to industrialize no matter the cost to environment or to workers, did not stem from some alleged roots in Marx’s theory but from the law of motion of capitalism, which these states had no choice but to follow because the production relations were capitalistic.

Our ecosocialists draw the wrong lesson from history: lumping Marx in with Stalinist “productivism,” yet failing to grapple with how to prevent an ecosocialist revolution from turning into opposite.


Lowy makes clear his ambivalence toward Marx. On the one hand, “For Marx, the supreme goal of technical progress is not the infinite accumulation of goods (‘having’) but the reduction of the working day and the accumulation of free time (‘being’).” But right after this he lumps Marx together with Engels, charging them with productivism “to the extent that one often sees in Marx and Engels…a tendency to make the ‘development of the productive forces’ the principal vector of progress, along with an insufficiently critical attitude toward industrial civilization, notably in its destructive relationship to the environment….It requires that Marxists undertake a deep critical revision of their traditional conception of ‘productive forces’ and that they break radically with the ideology of linear progress and with the technological and economic paradigm of modern industrial civilization….

“Socialism would mean above all the social appropriation of these productive capacities, putting them at the service of the workers….

“The experience of the Soviet Union illustrates the problems that result from such a collectivist appropriation of the capitalist productive apparatus….

“What, then, is ecosocialism? It is a current of ecological thought and action that appropriates the fundamental gains of Marxism while shaking off its productivist dross” (Ecosocialism, pp. 2-3, 21, 6).

It turns out that what makes a socialist “eco” is criticizing Marx for “productivism.” It’s not post-Marx Marxism but Marx himself that is to be blamed and revised.

Trotskyist ecosocialists like Lowy are quick to criticize Marx but never rethink the fetish of the Plan that pervades Trotskyism. Planning, planning, planning is the overwhelming sense one gets from Lowy’s Ecosocialism, and not only in the chapter on “Democratic Planning.” It is the real answer, as long as this time ecosocialists make it democratic and stipulate that it take ecology into account.


Where Lowy hails from Trotskyism, Kovel came out of the Greens. His big criticism of Marx is for “foreshortening of the intrinsic value of nature.”[2]

The deep ecology concept of “intrinsic value” is a subjective attribute of human morality and psychology, passed off as an objective, transhistorical attribute of nature—in other words, a kind of fetishism:

“This original, intrinsic value, may be thought of as the primary appropriation of the world for each person….intrinsic value is a kind of ablation of our productive power; that is, we intrinsically value the nature that we have done nothing to, that will always stand and beckon, that is our primordium and cosmos…both sensuously immediate and eternally beyond our ken and grasp.” (Enemy of Nature, p. 212)

Trying to correct Marx’s concept of value by introducing “intrinsic value” as a spiritual essence, outside humanity and beyond history, culminates in the mystification of Nature as Subject. It goes back to an old idea that environmental destructiveness is due to an “anthropocentric” attitude, so we must put nature at the center. That leads to displacing subjects of revolution, who can only be humans. This is no way to help spontaneous revolts of workers and other groups of people develop into the self-organization of a new society.

One result is that the abolition of the division between mental and manual labor is missing from sketches of the new ecosocialist society, whether that be in Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature or in the ecosocialist manifestos. Yet the need to begin breaking down that division even before the revolution, and certainly during and after it, is one of the foremost lessons of 20th Century revolutions.

In contrast to the formula that “ecosocialism [is] a struggle for use-value,”[3] Marx’s socialism was never about use-value over exchange-value. He drove deeper to the forms of labor that produce use-value and value: concrete labor and abstract labor. This two-fold nature of labor in capitalist society is “crucial to an understanding of political economy,”[4] yet it plays no part in ecosocialist theory. Without it, a theory cannot center on human activity, as alienated labor, as struggle against alienation, as the goal of a new society based on free self-activity.


Raya Dunayevskaya

The impulse to rethink what socialism and Marxism mean is surely correct. The best ecosocialists, like Kovel, are reaching for a philosophical basis for such rethinking, but get in their own way when they assume that productivism is part of Marx’s theory.

That Stalin’s USSR could not be considered a workers’ state, let alone any kind of socialism, should already have been clear by the time he signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler’s Germany in 1939. It was this shock that forced Raya Dunayevskaya to begin rethinking the predominant assumptions about Marxism.

Working out the theory that Russia had become state-capitalist, she highlighted the lack of “political and social rule” by the working class, as against the common Marxist fetish of nationalized property and state plan supposedly making it non-capitalist. This quickly led her to Marx’s 1844 philosophic moment, his concept of alienated labor and the self-activity of the worker as key, and his opposition to “vulgar communism.”[5]

The total contradiction of counter-revolution coming from within the revolution spurred her to question what had become of Marxist thought. This led to recognizing Marx’s work as a philosophy of revolution in permanence and disentangling it from what post-Marx Marxism has made of it.

Where ecosocialists always single out capitalism’s “need for growth” (Ecosocialism, p. 84; Enemy of Nature, pp. 38-47), Dunayevskaya renewed Marx’s absolute general law of capitalist accumulation, reflecting the domination of dead labor (capital) over living labor.[6] She showed this happening in Stalin’s Russia, with production of capital goods outdistancing consumer goods—the trend ecosocialists see as “productivism”—as a sign of the counter-revolution.

Marx, she saw, split the question of the plan into two, theorizing the duality of “the despotic plan of capital against the cooperative plan of freely associated labor.”[7] Lowy cites Trotskyist theoretician Ernest Mandel as an authority on “democratic planning,” with only the mild criticism that “until the late 1980s he did not include the ecological issue as a central aspect of his economic arguments” (Ecosocialism, p. 106 n. 9). Dunayevskaya, however, exposes “Mandel’s utter perversion” of Marx’s Capital, which Mandel linked to Russian state-capitalism and separated from workers as subjects and the goal of freely associated labor..[8]

Today’s climate struggles contain an implicit rejection of the notion of development corresponding to capitalism’s law of motion. The answer given by most post-Marx Marxists, planning and nationalization, hardly rises to this challenge, even if a promise to be democratic and ecological is added. Nor does substituting Nature as subject solve anything. What is needed is the kind of totally new human relations that could provide a basis for a rational, unalienated, freely self-determined human relationship with nature.

To achieve the new vision and new direction needed to sustain and advance ecosocialism, its challenge to the capitalist concept of development has to directly oppose the dialectical inversion of subject and object, and root itself in the potential of the self-developing human being. Marx’s dialectical approach, as a total philosophy, as reinterpreted for our day by Marxist-Humanism, is indispensable for arriving at that goal.

 [1].  The manifesto and some other important collective ecosocialist declarations are reproduced in Michael Lowy, Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe (Haymarket Books, 2015). The quoted passage appears on pp. 80-81.

[2].  Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (Zed Books, 2007), p. 232.

[3]The Enemy of Nature, p. 215. Similarly, Lowy declares: “The very idea of socialism—contrary to its miserable bureaucratic deformations—is that of production of use values” (Ecosocialism, p. 2).

[4].  Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (Penguin Books, 1990), p. 132.

[5].  See chapter 9 of Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution: Selected Writings by Raya Dunayevskaya (Haymarket Books, 2018).

[6].  See Franklin Dmitryev, “Ecosocialism and Marx’s Humanism,” Aug.-Sept. 2009 N&L.

[7].  See Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today, chapter 6.

[8].  See chapter 6 of Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution in Permanence for Our Day: Selected Writings by Raya Dunayevskaya (Haymarket Books, 2019).


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