Method in Ecological Marxism: Science and the Struggle for Change

By Holleman, Hannah | Monthly Review, October 2015 | Go to article overview

Method in Ecological Marxism: Science and the Struggle for Change


Holleman, Hannah, Monthly Review


In the short time available to me in this talk it is impossible to go too far with a discussion of the state of ecological Marxism as I understand it.1 However, I plan to discuss briefly a significant feature of the program of ecological Marxist analysis and practice of which I consider myself a part. Specifically, I will discuss the methodological commitments responsible for much of the strength and insight of the ecological Marxism associated with what John Bellamy Foster has called the "third stage of ecosocialism research.. .in which the goal is to employ the ecological foundations of classical Marxian thought to confront present-day capitalism and the planetary ecological crisis that it has engendered-together with the ruling forms of ideology that block the development of a genuine alternative."2 This, I believe, will interest scholars and activists working toward a deeper understanding of the world with the ultimate goal of changing it, and should interest those involved in debates regarding Marxian theory and praxis.

Ecological Marxism: Three Stages

Since ecosocialist thought developed as a distinct tradition of inquiry in the 1980s, we may identify three stages of its development.3 This is not meant to impose a linear periodization into which all ecosocialist work neatly fits, but rather to represent particular shifts in the focus of debate within ecosocialist thought over the last several decades. The first stage developed in the 1980s and early '90s under the hegemony of green theory, during a period of crisis in Marxism following the downfall of Soviet-type societies. While making important contributions to ecosocialist analysis, first stage ecosocialist thinkers often assumed Marx's work had no basis in ecological understanding, or believed his positions were Promethean and productivist-anti-ecological in the end. As a result of these assumptions, "the general approach adopted was one of grafting Marxian conceptions onto already existing green theory-or, in some cases, grafting green theory onto Marxism."4

Second stage ecosocialist analyses, in contrast, sought to recover the "radical roots of Marxian theory itself in order to build on its own materialist and naturalist foundations." Studies like Paul Burkett's Marx and Nature refuted "such first-stage ecosocialist views by means of a reconstruction and reaffirmation of Marx's own critical-ecological outlook." This work, and that of others, including Foster, "represented the rise of a second stage of ecosocialist analysis which sought to go back to Marx and to uncover his materialist conception of nature as an essential counterpart to his materialist conception of history." The main project of second stage ecosocialist thought "was to transcend first-stage ecosocialism, as well as the limitations of green theory, with its overly simplistic, idealistic, and moralistic emphases, as a first step in the development of a more thoroughgoing ecological Marxism."5

Today the importance of Marx's ecological and social critique is well recognized amongst scholars and within the movement itself. And Marxian analysis continues to develop in such a way that "a third stage of ecosocialism research" has arisen, building organically on-and overlapping with-the second. One of the most important features of this third stage of ecological Marxism is that in going "back to Marx's radical materialist critique," the recovered methodological insights of Marx's dialectic have informed work capable of penetrating much more deeply into the heart of the ecological and social crises of the current period than traditional green thought.6 It is a methodology rooted in a materialist conception of natural and social history, focused on specifying the dynamic processes of social and ecological transformation and their consequences as they develop historically. Moreover, it is committed to understanding the means and barriers to transcending the existing antiecological and inhumane social order. …

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