Essay: Saito’s ecosocialism rejects Marx’s philosophic moment

From the July-August 2018 issue of News & Letters

by Ron Kelch

…if we look more closely at the description of alienated labour we make a remarkable discovery: what is here described is not merely an economic matter. It is the alienation of man, the devaluation of life, the perversion and loss of human reality…As the result of an idea about the essence of man and its realization, evolved by Marx in his dispute with Hegel, a simple economic fact appears as the perversion of the human essence and the loss of human reality.
—Herbert Marcuse

Nature is the human’s inorganic body…That the human’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for the human is a part of nature. In estranging from the human (1) nature, and (2) the self, the self’s own … life activity, estranged labor estranges the species from the human …The whole character of a species…is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is the human’s species character. Life itself appears only as a means to life.
—Karl Marx

In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (Monthly Review Press, 2017), Kohei Saito brings to light some of the volumes of Marx’s unpublished research and growing concern over capitalism’s deleterious effect on the environment. Marx had prepared the first edition of Volume I of Capital for publication in 1867. Many of these notebooks were part of Marx’s research for Volumes II and III of Capital, which he partially prepared but never completed.

The movement against capitalism’s destruction of the environment at first dismissed Marx’s view of socialism as a hostile theory. Since then there has been a growing body of “ecosocialist” work on the relevance of Marx’s theory and concept of socialism to saving the environment. Though burdened by an anti-philosophical bias, Saito shows how totally organic Marx’s critique of capitalism and his socialist vision of the future are to reconnecting with the material world in a way that meets the challenge of today’s ecological crisis.

Saito returns to Marx’s 1844 writings and “the relationship between humans and nature as the central theme of his famous theory of alienation.” Unfortunately, the “famous theory of alienation,” from which Marx critiqued all, pre-capitalist and capitalist, human development becomes related only to “modern alienated life.” Saito counterposes “modern alienated life” to the “radical dissolution of the original unity between humans and nature” (14).

The “original unity,” which Saito cites from Marx, is “between the worker and conditions of labour” in various pre-capitalist forms, which become separated under capitalism. Marx’s “negation of the negation” here becomes “the positive rehabilitation of the original unity on a higher level” (50). Saito claims that Marx’s 1857 Grundrisse replaces philosophy with the concept of labor’s “metabolic interaction with nature” that can restore “original unity” (67). The Grundrisse takes up the way all such pre-capitalist unity is “mediated” by the community and its diverse forms of social relations (CW 28, 409). Saito ignores Marx’s ruthless criticism of each of these forms. Above all, the unity of pre-capitalist communal forms is “predetermined for the individual,” constraining both her relation to nature and to “co-workers.” This constraint drives the dissolution of multiple and diverse pre-capitalist forms, lacking a concept of the “free and full development, either of the individual or of society” (CW 28, 410-11).

This critical view of pre-capitalist forms in the Grundrisse resonates with the philosophic moment inherent in Marx’s “famous theory of alienated labor.” Citing Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm as examples, Saito takes issue with humanist Marxists for whom “alienated labor” is a philosophic breakthrough. Saito’s argument is not only with humanist Marxists. It is with Marx’s 1844 view that “private property” and “the external relation of the worker to nature and himself” is not the cause but rather the “consequence” of alienated labor (34; CW 3, 279-80).

Saito counters that no one has gone further than “cause and effect”—the reciprocal reinforcement between “private property” and “alienated labor”—as they search “in vain to find…the exact historical and logical genesis of alienated labor” (35). Marx’s concern, however, was not a point of “genesis,” especially from the perspective of an infinite series of causes and effects. Marx’s concern at that point, given the estrangement that exists, was how “this estrangement [is] rooted in the nature of human development.” That means beginning not from external forms like property but the contradiction with labor itself (CW 3, 281). “Human development,” as Marx had already indicated, proceeds through given barriers to human essence, barriers to specifically human “life activity” which is “free, conscious life activity.” This determination of human essence is not one with which the human being ever “directly merges” (CW 3, 276). In other words, the nature of “human development” is human essence asserting itself in the face of given mediations.

Karl Marx

Saito’s “Original Unity” Breaks with Marx’s Universal

Saito breaks with Marx’s philosophic universal, repeating the myth that identifies Marx’s universal with Ludwig Feuerbach’s “species being” because of their use of the same expression. Marx’s 1844 philosophic moment begins from a universal human essence that continuously particularizes itself. Feuerbach’s static concept of “species being” lacks any critical engagement with politics or any actual “ensemble of social relations.” Modern or otherwise, all specifically human social relations, says Marx, owe their very existence to the mediating “power of abstraction” (CW, 30:232). Saito cites Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach’s species being which knows human relations only as fixed universals like “love,” designated by religion as divine attributes (58), but falsely says Marx had this view in 1844 (32). Abstractions attributed to the divine are themselves not fixed and have their own history and, in any case, are not Marx’s universal. Marx’s universal, human essence or “species being,” never directly merges with any stage of development, let alone any fixed attribute of the divine, and is always in the process of particularizing itself.

Saito brings to light some of Marx’s unpublished immersion in the then-new empirical data on capitalism’s effect on the environment, particularly Justus Freiherr von Liebig’s studies on the failure of industrial agriculture to replenish the life-sustaining capacity of the land. Saito is not the first to pose an “original unity” in the face of new empirical data confronting humanity under the regime of capital. Humanity’s future then becomes a return to the past on “a higher level.”

Marx’s remarkable immersion in vast and various areas of empirical data as they emerged has disoriented post-Marx Marxists beginning with Friedrich Engels. In his 1880s Ethnological Notebooks (EN), Marx submerged himself in the latest anthropological studies, including pre-capitalist forms of the man/woman relationship. Marx’s critical view of the pre-capitalist communal form was a continuity with the way, in 1844, he illuminated the universal of human essence by singling out not “labor” but the man/woman relationship as the most fundamental. While appreciating how in some ways the role of women in pre-capitalist communal forms was in advance of modern society, Marx was also careful to point out the limits on women’s free development. His critical appraisal noted how even relatively egalitarian forms of social division of labor in the gens were prone to dissolution and transformation into opposite or caste.

Raya Dunayevskaya traced the stark contrast between Marx’s EN and Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, produced after Marx’s death and supposedly based on EN. Dunayevskaya’s observation on the vast amount of new anthropological data that Marx absorbed at the end of his life also applies to Marx’s submerging himself in all the studies on capitalism’s ruinous effect on the land: “no greater ‘empiricist’ ever lived than the great dialectician, Karl Marx.” Overwhelmed by empirical data, Engels, like Saito today, turned to an original unity, ending Origin of the Family with Lewis Henry Morgan’s view of “the future being just a ‘higher stage’ of primitive communism.”

“Genesis” of Modern Alienation and Marx’s Method of the “Power of Abstraction”

Marx’s Capital poses no infinite series of causes and effects, no ambiguity about the “exact historical and logical genesis” of modern alienation. The absolute “genesis” is capitalist society’s conceptual “cell,” the commodity-form of the product of labor “itself” (BF, 164), which historically emerged as barter in the interstices of pre-capitalist forms. The way Marx laboriously traces, through the “power of abstraction” (BF, 90), the minutiae in the logical self-differentiation of this cell was largely ignored or even berated by post-Marx Marxists. Yet Marx captured the whole course of human development and the absolute contradiction in “modern alienation” out of what seemed at first to be a benign form.

Through the commodity’s immanent logic human labor became a commodity; and people, possessing only their labor power, must sell it in order to live. Workplace life activity becomes merely a means to life, ruled by the alien imperatives of capital accumulation. This self-alienating, “phantasmagoric” reality is present with the embryonic beginnings of the commodity-form, in as much as commodity producers relate to each other through an abstraction, average labor time or socially necessary labor time, embodied “in” the commodities they create. “The commodity-form,” writes Marx, “and the value-relation of the products of labor within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this” (BF, 165).

Capitalist reality is a hyper-subjective, total disconnect from material limits. Concern over material limits had to be introduced externally whether that was the protracted struggle for a normal working day when capitalism, in its beginnings, used up three generations of workers in one; the ongoing brutalization of the human through domination of capital in the workplace; the pauperization and wanton discarding of those humans when not needed; or concern about laying waste to the environment. The “power of abstraction” led Marx to the commodity-form’s absolute opposite, “freely associated labor” in which the “social life-process,” including humans’ metabolism with nature, becomes “transparent” (BF, 173).

Raya Dunayevskaya

Marx’s Freedom Idea and Multidimensional Revolution in Permanence

In his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program (CGP) Marx’s very first point is to criticize the way the Left of his day, the Lassalleans, mirrored capitalism’s hyper-subjective view of labor by claiming all wealth comes from labor, forgetting nature (CW, 24:81). Marx had hailed the Parisian masses who in 1871 organized their social production in a new non-state communal form. In the CGP Marx turned to organizational principles for a post-capitalist society. One principle piqued Marcuse’s interest in an exchange with Dunayevskaya: “…after labor, from a mere means to life, has itself become the prime necessity of life” (CW, 24:87). In addressing what happens after a revolutionary transcendence of the inverted reality of the commodity-form, Marx returns to his 1844 philosophic moment—life activity as freely determined in distinction from life activity as a mere means to an end.

In his 1844 philosophic moment Marx singled out the type of “negation of the negation” that is explicitly not defined by one’s opposition to an existent abstraction, even opposing an abstraction as daunting as the value-form or private property. Only through negation of the negation in the form of a “self-referred negation” does “self-deriving…positive humanism” emerge. This is the real “act of…emergence of species-consciousness and species-life.” The idea as human “life activity” is no longer disembodied from the whole human being as Marx felt it became with Hegel (CW 3:342) and Feuerbach (CW 5:3).

Today, when the survival of humanity is in question, from ecological suicide to war from the militarization of the mind, the struggle for new human relations pervades all aspects of everyday life activity—in relations with nature, in the classrooms, in homes, on the streets, in workplaces. A unifying dialectic is found in Marx’s concept of human essence itself as the absolute opposite of humanity’s alienated forms of social being. Marx’s revolution in permanence was never more relevant in standing for the self-expanding, never-ending Idea of recognizing one’s and the other’s humanity in freely determining that everyday activity. This goes beyond any stagification, including even making revolution the goal of the movement.


Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution
by Raya Dunayevskaya

Rosa Luxemburg

This book discovered a trail to our age in Marx’s “new moments” on new paths to revolution, on new concepts of man/woman relations, and on philosophy of revolution as inseparable from organization.  TO ORDER YOUR COPY, CLICK HERE.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *