Kohei Saito’s “Start From Scratch” Degrowth Communism

Kohei Saito’s degrowth rewrite of Marxist theory is not only incorrect — if taken seriously, it would lead to political disaster for both the socialist left and the environmental movement.

Aerial view of stranded boats in a channel that was closed off by dry conditions in Lake Cuitzeo at the Mariano Escobedo community, Michoacan State, Mexico, March 3, 2024. (Enrique Castro / AFP via Getty Images)

Almost every day, it seems as though the headlines deliver some fresh grim episode of the unaffordability of everyday life for millions of ordinary people, from greedflation to the housing crisis, from the soaring cost of education and health care to how roughly 60 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Across the advanced capitalist world for more than four decades, working people have suffered from slashed public services, deindustrialization, ever-more precarious jobs, and, in many sectors, stagnating or declining wages.

And yet, there is a growing number of environmentalists who say that as a result of the ecological crisis — from climate change to biodiversity loss — even these workers consume too much. They need to tighten their belt for the economy of the Global North to “degrow” in order to keep within planetary limits. To compensate these Western workers, there will be a bounty of new social programs and a shorter working week, degrowth supporters stress.

Nevertheless, overall, as workers in rich countries are participants in the “imperial mode of living” — partners with the capitalist class in the exploitation of the workers and resources of the Global South — they will have to, as the Japanese theorist of “degrowth communism,” Kohei Saito, puts it, abandon, “their extravagant lifestyle.” They are not exploited and precarious, but, Saito says, “coddled by the invisibility of our lifestyle’s costs.”

It seems at first glance incoherent to want American (or French or Australian or Japanese) workers to organize, potentially strike, and win higher wages while also telling them their lifestyles are not only extravagant, but downright imperial. This enthusiasm for degrowth ideology appears on the face of it neither compatible with socialist goals, nor trade unionism, nor the classical Marxist critique of capitalism.

Yet the ideas of Saito — who argues not merely for a marriage of degrowth and Marxism but that Marx was the original theorist of degrowth, bien avant la lettre — have found great favor amongst the non-Marxist green left and even self-described eco-Marxists as well.

So were the traditional socialist disagreements with Malthusianism (a belief in limits to growth) and classical Marxist calls for an “unfettering of production” from the irrational constraints of the market made in error? Given Saito’s popularity, it is worth interrogating such ideas. As we do so, we find that the incompatibility of degrowth and classical Marxism runs much deeper than this slander that workers in the developed world are imperialists whose everyday lives are a primary driver of “ecological breakdown.”

Slow Down

Kohei Saito is a philosopher and associate professor at the University of Tokyo. His first book, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, won the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize in 2018. In that publication, Saito draws from Marx’s scientific notebooks — in particular his notes on the writings of one of the founders of organic chemistry, the nineteenth-century German scientist Justus von Liebig, and their influence on Marx’s conception of metabolism and what he called an “irreparable rift” between urban biological waste and rural soil.

Saito’s main argument is that Marx became increasingly concerned about the natural limits to the capitalist development of agriculture. Unmentioned in the book is that many of those assumed limits were subsequently overcome by the development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, but Saito’s general point is that Marx was more concerned with ecological constraints than “Promethean’” accounts of his thought appreciate.

Saito’s notoriety has recently skyrocketed. His publication Capital in the Anthropocene sold five hundred thousand copies in Japan and has just been published in an English translation under the title Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto. In between, his other publication, Marx in the Anthropocene (2022), extends many of the same arguments made in his first book, and has garnered significant attention on the Left.

Throughout these texts, Saito makes clear the object of his attack on what he calls “productivist socialism,”, or an alleged misreading of Marxism that espouses a “‘Promethean’ (pro-technological, anti-ecological) advocacy for the domination of nature.” The assumption that if you are pro-technological you are also anti-ecological sits comfortably with the environmental ideology Saito aims to align with.

Saito concedes that it was not only nonsocialist environmentalist critics of Marxism who thought Marx embraced unlimited economic and technological development, but “even self-proclaimed Marxists admitted this flaw.” Initially, those whom Saito calls “first-stage ecosocialists” such as Ted Benton, André Gorz, and Michael Löwy conceded that Marx’s Prometheanism had been an error, or that Marx had lived at a time very distant from current understanding of environmental issues. As a result, Marxism needed to be corrected or at least supplemented with “ecological” analysis.

But in the 1990s and early 2000s, “second-stage ecosocialists,” notably John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, reexamined Marx’s texts and discovered “unnoticed or suppressed ecological dimensions” within his work. Marx didn’t need to be corrected after all!

Saito sees himself as the next step in this process of retreat from conventional Promethean Marxism, arguing not merely that there are a handful of dimensions of ecological understanding, but that in the 1870s, Marx underwent so radical a break in his theorization of capitalism that an ecological understanding of limits became the very foundation of his critique of political economy. Not only does Marx not need to be corrected with an understanding of natural limits, but the entirety of his critique is founded upon such understanding.

Ultimately, Saito’s primary goal is to construct a new type of Marxism (or, as he would put it, recover what Marx had always intended) that insists on recognizing the existence of, and, crucially, submission to, these alleged fixed natural limits: “Since the earth is finite, it is obvious that there are absolute biophysical limits to capital accumulation.” He later refers to these as the “objective biophysical limits of the Earth” that technology can push back “to some extent,” but laws of energy and entropy are “objective facts, independent of social relations and human will.”

The adherence to fixed natural limits should immediately be recognizable as a species of neo-Malthusianism — the late 1960s movement that extended the concerns of the classical economist Thomas Malthus regarding the limitations of food and population to concerns about alleged natural limits tout court.

The neo-Malthusian revival was ushered in by the 1968 publication of Paul Ehrlich’s jaw-droppingly racist bestseller The Population Bomb — mortified at all the fleas, aggressive begging, public defecation, and “people, people, people” in the teeming slums of Delhi — that said that human population growth was outstripping the natural world’s ability to support us and predicted famines by the 1970s or 1980s at the latest would kill hundreds of millions, as well as the Club of Rome’s 1972 report, The Limits to Growth.

Lately, these concerns have been repackaged under the banner of nine critical “planetary boundaries” based on arguments made by researchers with the Stockholm Resilience Centre (climate change, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, land use change, and more), a literature Saito draws heavily on in making his case in Slow Down.

Saito, like most other degrowth advocates, wants to dispense with Malthus’s overpopulation thesis while holding on to its central notion of respect for limits: “If [the recognition of limits] counts as Malthusianism, then the only way to avoid the Malthusian trap would be the dogmatic denial of natural limits as such.” So long as the world retreats from economic growth, there need be no constraint on population.

However, the belief in a fixity to limits — whether of population or resources — misunderstands humanity’s condition. For it is not the case that humanity and our production only hit up against natural limits beyond a certain point; instead, humanity is already always and everywhere surrounded by natural limits, by constraints on what we can currently do.

It is science and technology, shackled to egalitarianism (or as midcentury Marxist Hal Draper put it, “Prometheus plus Spartacus”), that allows us to overcome those limits. Friedrich Engels famously critiqued Malthus in 1844 for that one element the latter had forgotten to consider: “[S]cience — whose progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population.” And what is true of science with respect to population is true of science with respect to the material and energy that population uses. (And, one might note in our era of space-faring, the Earth is also not the only possible source of energy or material resources.)

So, to make this concrete: one of the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s planetary boundaries is a limit to the amount of greenhouse gas that we can emit, largely as a result of the use of fossil fuels for energy, before causing average global temperatures to exceed those optimal for human flourishing. Put another way, the climate boundary represents a limit to the amount of fossil fuel energy we can use without severe harm. This energetic limit is all too real, but it is also contingent. When we fully shift to clean energy sources such as nuclear, wind, and solar, that climate-related limit on energy use will have been transcended. The only true, permanently insuperable limits that we face are the laws of physics and logic.

As we know all too well, such shifts are not automatic. The question for Marxists then, as we will see, is how relations of production can either inhibit or enhance the transcendence of limits.

Alienation From Nature

Saito’s writing often leans heavily on and attempts to extend the work of longtime Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster. Foster argues that, contrary to the widespread belief amongst Marxists that Marx was a celebrant of the industrial revolution, the old man had in fact developed a theory of “metabolic rift” much more critical of it.

Foster’s metabolic rift theory states that the capitalist mode of production has resulted in a breach in the normal, healthy interchange between society and nature. This breach is the source of all environmental problems we faced then and face now. Foster’s evidence for the idea that Marx had developed such a theory comes from a handful of footnotes and passages in notebooks from a few pieces of Marx’s writing, notably deep in the third volume of Capital.

Marx references the findings of Justus von Liebig on the drivers of soil fertility. He wrote that capitalism produces “conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”

In other words, capitalist urbanization creates a concentrated population whose wastes cannot be sustainably recycled to renew the soil. Liebig describes this dislocation as a robbery that leads to soil’s ultimate degradation.

Foster’s metabolic rift theory argues that Marx extended Liebig’s epiphany regarding soil fertility to the whole of the relationship between society and nature. The theory argues that capitalism’s demand for ever-expanding growth results in an irreparable overexploitation of soil fertility, and what goes for soil fertility goes for all natural processes. What drives capitalism to degrade soil fertility also drives all environmental degradation. Capitalism thus has disrupted natural processes, the way nature, or natural law, wants things to be — a disruption that works as a separation, or alienation, of humanity from nature, parallel to how workers are alienated from the product of their labor.

Saito however extends and inverts Foster’s position. Where for Foster, Marx’s critique of capitalism entails a theory of metabolic rift, for Saito, Marx’s “concept of metabolism” is “the foundation of his political economy.” It’s metabolism all the way down.

In Marx in the Anthropocene, once Saito has established “metabolism” as the core of ecological Marxism, he proceeds through what could only be described as a partisan review of thinkers such as István Mészáros, Rosa Luxemburg, Georg Lukács, and, crucially, Friedrich Engels. Saito evaluates each in terms of how well they appreciate the importance of metabolism.

Saito heralds Mészáros, in particular, as “he made a great contribution to properly comprehending Marx’s concept of metabolism as the foundation of his political economy.” Luxemburg meanwhile “comprehended” the metabolic rift at the “international level,” but she stumbled at the final hurdle insofar as she “formulated her theory of metabolism against Marx,” which is frowned upon in Saito’s project of proving Marx the ecological prophet.

Engels, whom Saito insists drifted from Marx’s degrowth awakening in the 1870s, is castigated for removing the word “natural” from the above-quoted passage on the “irreparable rift” (Marx’s original manuscript writes a “process between social metabolism and natural metabolism”). This single excision is Saito’s main evidence for claiming Engels was actively suppressing the centrality of Marx’s ecology to the Marxist project — resulting in a gulf emerging between the two thinkers. In a recent essay, even Foster is not convinced: “it is debatable that the removal of ‘natural metabolism,’ substantially changed the meaning of Marx’s original passage.”

Saito seems uninterested in what else these thinkers have to say — so long as they affirm the importance of metabolism. Lukács is praised for mobilizing the concept, but on the same page where Saito approvingly quotes him, he sounds much like the “Promethean” Marxists he derides. Lukács proclaims “socialist society is . . . the inheritor of all the tremendous achievements that capitalism has brought about in the field of technology.”

He is also uninterested in the dozens, even hundreds of other key thinkers within the Marxist canon and socialist movement, from Vladimir Lenin to Leon Trotsky, from Sylvia Pankhurst to Nikolai Bukharin, for whom Marx’s thesis that socialism would release production from the fetters of capitalism was obvious. It was elementary for Marxists that at a certain point in the development of the forces of production (basically scientific knowledge, technology, labor, land, and natural resources), they become constrained by the relations of production (the way that production is organized, which under capitalism means, roughly, owners of capital selling commodities on markets for profit and hiring owners of labor power in exchange for wages).

Social revolution then releases production from those constraints. This is central to the theory of historical materialism, but is no abstraction. During the pandemic, for example, it was in the interest of all humanity to produce COVID vaccines sufficient to inoculate all the world, but the interest of profit irrationally restricted vaccine production. Thus, as markets limit production to merely the set of things that are profitable, socialism always promised to be so much more productive than capitalism. Even for climate change, it’s quite clear many of the solutions exist but are insufficiently profitable.

But even Saito’s cherry-picking from the Marxist canon is a secondary failing to what is in effect turning Marx and the tiny handful of Marxists that Saito approves of into prophets, rather than the fallible human theorists they were. Just because they said something does not make it correct.

Capitalism’s Metabolic Rift?

So we have Saito’s consideration of Foster’s analysis of Marx’s report of Liebig’s discovery, and, elsewhere, Foster’s argument has been very widely accepted without much consideration of what Liebig said, or checking to see what contemporary soil scientists and biochemists might have to say about the matter.

Perhaps it is worth pausing and considering what metabolism actually means within biochemistry, what Liebig discovered regarding soil nutrition, and what ecologists and evolutionary biologists have to say about whether it is even possible for there to be a rift in or with nature.

For both Saito and Foster, Marx’s relevant transcribed passages here all relate to Liebig’s discovery that the chemical elements potassium, phosphorus, and, most importantly, nitrogen are essential for plants to grow. Today, we know that within all organisms (not just plants), via a series of chemical reactions, nitrogen becomes the base of RNA and DNA, and it also, along with other key ingredients, gets turned into amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, from which pretty much all tissues in an organism are made. In plants, nitrogen, along with other substances, gets turned into leaves and stems and everything else that makes up a plant. When animals eat those plants, the nitrogen in them is used to make our own proteins, DNA, and all the rest of our tissues as well.

Metabolism, or Stoffwechsel in German (literally “material change”), is a jargon word from biochemistry that refers to these and all other chemical reactions in an organism. Metabolism comes in two flavors: catabolism — breaking apart molecules, as happens when bacteria sever the tough triple bond of an N2 molecule of nitrogen — and anabolism — building up new molecules, as happens when plants and other organisms manufacture proteins, although all organisms do both catabolism and anabolism. Metabolism is simply the full complement of all these chemical reactions.

Liebig described the decline in soil fertility as a process whereby these chemical nutrients in the soil are taken up by plants, and then we humans and our domesticated animals in turn eat. So if there is no return of those nutrients to the soil from our excrement, urine, and bodies when we die, there is only one-way travel of the nutrients out of the soil: in essence from the countryside to the city and down sewers and out to the oceans. This is what Liebig, understandably, referred to as a form of robbery.

While Liebig is a giant of natural science and chemistry, Foster and Saito make a different kind of claim about the “robbery system”: it is historically specific to capitalism. This is the fulcrum of their entire approach to ecosocialism: if we can discover in Marx a theory of how capitalism, by necessity, destroys nature, we have a properly Marxist theory of why capitalism must be replaced with (eco)socialism.

The problem is twofold. First, it is not clear what Marx or Liebig describes can be seen as specific to capitalism at all. Liebig’s notion of robbery describes processes that arise with urban civilization wherein elites command labor and resources from a rural periphery that has existed for millennia. One can find this dynamic in as varied a context as ancient Rome or Mayan civilization (both of which ran into ecological problems related to urban exploitation of the resource periphery).

One could argue plausibly that capitalism turbocharged urbanization (with its characteristic feature of an urban proletariat), but this does not identify some force intrinsic to capitalism explaining ecological problems. It is a difference of degree from previous societies.

Secondly, metabolic rift theory suffers from an unscientific belief in a balance of nature, that there is a set way for nature to be, and that capitalism is upsetting this balance. The history of life on Earth is not one of fragile balance at all, but instead a story of constant dynamic change. From the first mass extinction event caused by cyanobacteria’s production of molecular oxygen to multiple incidents of global warming driven by massive volcanism, the planet has never stopped experiencing changing conditions, in turn driving perpetual evolutionary change and all the extinction and speciation that entails.

So as far as the rest of nature is concerned, whatever we humans do, via the capitalist mode of production or otherwise, from combustion of fossil fuels to the invention of plastics, is just the latest set of novel evolutionary selection pressures.

Our behavior — those novel selection pressures — can however threaten ourselves. There can certainly be a disruption of ecosystem services upon which humans depend. Agricultural soil fertility decline, climate change, or nitrogen pollution and so on are threats to us humans, but are not, and cannot be, a rift with a balance of nature that does not exist. And again, human activity that inadvertently undermines ecosystem services is not unique to capitalism. Indeed, the mass extinction of late-Pleistocene megafauna likely due to human overhunting or competition for resources — of the likes of woolly mammoths, sabretooth cats, and Steller’s sea cow — predates not just civilization, but sometimes the emergence of Homo sapiens, for it began with our hominin relatives.

Moreover, there is a misrepresentation of the story of Liebig. Within agronomic science, Liebig is formative, but not for arguments regarding robbery of the soil. Instead, he is known as the “father of fertilizer.” He did not just alight upon the unidirectional nature of the flow of nutrients within agricultural production, but used this discovery to figure out how it could be corrected.

Due in large part to his development of nitrogen-based fertilizer and then, in the first decade of the twentieth century, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch’s development of their process that turns atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, famines have receded as a recurrent problem in human history. Globally, as a result of the spread of these innovations and allied techniques of irrigation, high-yield cereals, mechanization, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides of the Green Revolution, famines in Asia largely came to an end in the 1950s. Famines as exist today, primarily in Africa, are entirely political rather than the consequence of any robbery of the soil.

Critics of the Green Revolution rightly decry its form under corporate control and its devastation of smallholder peasant agriculture. Yet, the former ignores the possibility a laborsaving mechanized agriculture could take under different (socialist) relations of production, and the latter neglects how this is exactly what Marx predicted as a precursor to socialism (a prediction that has largely become more true after his death).

The Haber-Bosch process may be carbon-intensive, drawing as it does upon natural gas as its source of hydrogen input; farming nutrient runoff in the absence of regulation and appropriate infrastructure can cause harmful offshore algal blooms. But the solving of problems creates new problems that then need to be solved. For classical Marxists, we can immediately spot how this problem-solving can run into trouble: if solving the problem is profitable, then great, but if it’s unprofitable, then even if a solution is known, it will not be solved.

Capitalist society is not a rational society where allocation of resources is decided democratically in pursuit of solving collectively identified problems, but decided by the pursuit of profit maximization. However, this analysis does not require an addendum or correction regarding economic growth driving any metabolic rift.

Did Marx Abandon Traditional Historical Materialism?

In both his recent two books, Saito spends considerable time targeting the partisans of what he calls the new “Utopian Socialism”: those, such as Aaron Bastani, Nick Srnicek, and Alex Williams, who argue that capitalist technological development is paving the way for a socialist future of abundance (often dubbed “Fully Automated Luxury Communism.”) The irony, as we shall see, is that it is Saito who promotes exactly what Engels himself called “utopian socialism” in localized agriculture and ecological municipalism.

Saito claims these thinkers are trapped in early versions of Marx’s thought (he blames the Grundrisse of 1857–58 and the canonical 1859 “Preface” to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy). To substantiate this, Saito pronounces that Marx actually abandoned this earlier vision of “historical materialism” by the time of the publication of Capital’s first volume in 1867 and into the 1870s.

It can’t be overstated how bold these claims are in Marx in the Anthropocene. Saito declares that new conceptions “compelled Marx to abandon his earlier formulation of historical materialism,” that “he was no longer able to endorse the progressive character of capitalism,” and that “Marx must have completely parted ways with historical materialism as it has been traditionally understood.” Saito says this abandonment was existential for Marx — “It was not an easy task for him. His worldview was in crisis” — and later compares this damascene conversion to Louis Althusser’s controversial notion of an “epistemological break” between Marx’s earlier, Hegelian and humanist writings and his later, properly scientific Marxism.

Saito rightly understands the key concept in these debates is the status of the “productive forces.” Traditional historical materialism recognizes that this theory of history assumes capitalism to play a progressive role in history through its in-built tendencies to develop the productive forces — harnessing not only laborsaving machinery, but also more social and cooperative divisions of labor and collective forms of scientific knowledge. This development creates the material conditions and socialized production systems that could for the first time in history begin to abolish scarcity and thus lay the foundation for security and abundance for all.

Saito’s reading of Marx’s texts in Capital and beyond — particularly the notion of the “real” subsumption of labor to capital — hinges on the argument that Marx began to understand technology and machinery as purely a product of capitalist social relations. Consequently, what Saito calls “the productive forces of capital” will actually be of little use in a socialist future. Saito claims they will “disappear together with the capitalist mode of production.” He even goes as far as to say when it comes to technology, socialism will need to “start from scratch in many cases.”

To be fair, Saito also contradicts this view in isolated spots in the text, with caveats that appear to affirm the more standard Marxist position: “Marx without doubt recognizes the positive side of modern technology and natural sciences, which prepares the material conditions for the establishment of the ‘realm of freedom.’”

This incoherence inserts a plausible deniability to the text. It permits Saito to say that we cannot continue to use technologies tainted by capitalist social relations, for class relations are frozen within such technology, and then, when challenged regarding the primitivism to which this argument necessarily leads, to wave such concerns away by stating that some of those technologies will of course continue to be used in any just society. But if some “capitalist” technologies can indeed continue to be used after the Degrowth Revolution, then this vitiates Saito’s real subsumption thesis.

And even if we ignore that contradiction, what would be the criteria to decide which are the technologies that can be used and which cannot? Saito relies on Gorz’s distinction between “open” and “locking” technologies. Here we find various anti-modernist critiques of technology that sit outside the historical materialist (or even Enlightenment) tradition dating to the 1960s and 1970s, from “Buddhist economics” writers such as E. F. Schumacher, with his “small is beautiful” arguments favoring decentralized but vaguely defined low-tech “appropriate technologies” (a conception that immediately rules out any public health care system, with its necessarily attendant vast scale and technical complexity), to theologians such as Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich, with their opposition to modern medicine and industrial society tout court.

Characteristically, Saito tells us, “A prime example of a locking technology is nuclear power”; a technology that more and more recognize must play a crucial role in tackling both climate change and air pollution.

Yet one might ask for someone committed to the democratization of production: Who is Saito to determine ahead of time which technologies are “open” and which are not? In this, he shares the creeping impulse of other degrowth thinkers to declare ahead of democratic deliberation that some forms of production are “necessary” and others “less unnecessary.” But that’s not up to academic ecostrategists.

With respect to Saito’s retconning of the Marxist tradition, we must interrogate the evidence he presents for Marx’s abandonment of traditional historical materialism and its description of the necessity of the development of the productive forces. The answer is: very little. He points to a passage from Marx’s preface to Capital where he only speaks of “the capitalist mode of production, and the relations of production that correspond to it” for the notable absence of the inclusion of the productive forces (Saito would suggest Marx now believes the latter are subsumed in the social relations of capital).

This is indeed in contrast to the famous 1859 preface in which the relations and forces of production are seen as two distinct concepts. Yet, if Saito believes this is evidence Marx abandoned the 1859 view, why does Marx later in Capital quote the 1859 preface itself in a footnote calling it “my view”?

In the footnote, Marx does excise mention of the productive forces, but later in Capital he often affirms their centrality to a socialist future. In Chapter 24, he discusses how capitalists tend to “spur the development of society’s productive forces, and the creation of those material conditions of production which alone form the real basis for a higher form of society in which the free and full development of every individual forms the ruling principle.”

Leapfrogging Capitalism

Yet Saito’s most prominent argument is not that Marx abandoned historical materialism in Capital, but rather after its publication into the 1870s he became a “degrowth communist.” Again, the evidence he presents for this is incredibly thin, or as another review put it more stridently, “There is, to put it bluntly, no basis for these claims.”

One can simply turn to the Critique of the Gotha Program, published as late as 1875, to see Marx continuing to articulate firmly classical visions of historical materialism. Marx claims that communism can only be understood as it “emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Later Marx famously declares,

In a higher phase of communist society . . . after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

Note that Marx keeps saying “only” after the productive forces are developed is communism possible.

So what is Saito’s evidence? There are a series of passages from texts from the fields of geology, botany, and agronomy that Marx copied into notebooks demonstrating a growing concern about loss of soil fertility, but the bulk of Saito’s claims is based upon a single letter from Marx to a Russian socialist, Vera Zasulich, near the end of his life in 1881, and upon his wider study of the Russian agricultural communes or mir systems.

Whenever studying a new topic, whether in school, at university, or independently, one takes notes in a notebook, often transcribing large sections of another article or book that are of interest or important to remember. The process of this transcription is both an aide mémoire (for writing assists in the retention of facts) and a resource to be used later on. But it cannot be said that mere transcription is an endorsement of what is transcribed.

Yet Saito repeatedly posits Marx’s note-taking from these fields as proof of Marx’s endorsement with very little commentary directly from Marx himself supplementary to the transcriptions that might support such a claim. In the absence of Saito providing such supplementary commentary (or readers taking considerable time to read the notebooks for themselves, in their various languages), how can we know whether there is any such endorsement at all?

It is essential that Saito provide this proof, for extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. As Saito himself asks: “If Marx really did propose degrowth communism, why has no one pointed it out in the past, and why did Marxism endorse productivist socialism?” If the whole of the Marxist canon endorses “productivism,” this means that the reading of Marx and Engels’s writing by thousands, indeed millions of socialists for some 175 years was in error.

In the Zasulich letter, which went through many drafts, Marx says the communal forms of production in the Russian agricultural communes could allow Russia to transition directly to communism without the need to pass through capitalism. It should be noted this view contrasted with perhaps more rigid interpretations of historical materialism at the time, stressing the need for all societies to first pass through presocialist stages of economic development.

In his abandoned first draft, Marx also claims communism might learn from communal property as a “higher form of the most archaic type — collective production and appropriation.” But Saito draws an unsubstantiated inference from Marx’s admiration of the Russian commune: because these communes were relatively static developmentally — and represented a “a stationary and circular economy without economic growth” — Marx thought communism could also abandon growth and embrace the kind of steady-state economy advocated by twentieth-century Malthusians such as Herman Daly. From this inference, Saito makes the further, remarkable leap that “Marx’s last vision of post-capitalism is degrowth communism.”

In another wild claim, Saito says Marx’s secret studies of ecology (before the science of ecology had emerged) prevented his closest friend and collaborator Engels from even knowing that Marx had become a “degrowth communist.” Saito even refutes Engels’s own claim that Marx read and approved of his strongly historical materialist texts like Anti-Dühring as not “credible.”

But, once again, the evidence that Marx’s letter to Zasulich is evidence of Marx’s degrowth turn is entirely unconvincing. In examining the first draft of the letter, we find that Marx states that any revolutionary transition to communism in Russia based on the commune would have to take advantage of the capitalist development of the productive forces: “Precisely because it is contemporaneous with capitalist production, the rural commune may appropriate all its positive achievements without undergoing its [terrible] frightful vicissitudes.”

Lest we think Marx is claiming communism will entail small-scale localist agriculture, he also says in this draft: “The commune may gradually replace fragmented agriculture with large-scale, machine­ assisted agriculture particularly suited to the physical configuration of Russia.”

In other words, the Russian mir could leapfrog capitalist development because capitalist development had occurred elsewhere, in the same way that many poor countries have jumped directly to adoption of mobile phones without having to pass through the stages of telegraphy or landlines. At no point in any of the drafts did Marx suggest humanity as a whole could have taken a noncapitalist path through to communism.

And to treat Marx as the social scientist he considered himself to be and not the ecological prophet Saito wishes him to have been is to treat his arguments the same as that of any other mere mortal: hypotheses to be tested against evidence in the real world. In really existing Russia, the small size of the working class and the technological backwardness of the peasantry, of the mir or otherwise, turned out to be the single greatest barrier to construction of Soviet socialism.

Upon the 1917 revolution’s final release of the peasantry from feudal servitude, peasants had no incentive to produce a surplus sufficient to feed workers in the city. The grim prodrazverstka during the civil war, the return of markets under the New Economic Policy, and Joseph Stalin’s forced collectivization and the resulting famines were all different efforts at overcoming this underdevelopment. Evidence from history shows that regardless of what Marx thought about the mir, leapfrogging historical stages of development proved to be impossible.

We should admit that Saito presents a vision of “abundance” in degrowth communism that no socialist should disagree with: defined most notably by a bounty of free time for individual and social development. But Saito downplays how central Marx’s view was that such abundance was only possible on the basis of the massive revolutions in the productive forces developed by capitalism — most notably laborsaving technology developed by capitalism.

Under capitalism, the gains from any laborsaving technology have almost exclusively been reserved for the owners of production: fewer workers for the same output (thus lower costs and higher profits) rather than more holiday for the same number of workers for the same output. Under socialism, however, society could democratically choose whether, for the same number of workers, we want more production for the same hours, or the same amount of production for fewer hours. But socialism still needs those laborsaving technologies to have been developed.

No Need to Reinvent Marxism

What is going on here? It seems this is a desperate attempt to contort Marx and Marxism into a post-1970s environmental and degrowth ideology. To do so, we must accept that everything Marx and Engels wrote together in the 1840s (and indeed Engels’s more popular articulations in the 1870s and 1880s), like the German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto, is a product of a flawed Promethean Marxism. All that’s left in its ashes are idiosyncratic readings of Capital, some sparse notebooks copying disconnected passages from agricultural texts, and the letter to Zasulich.

Classical Marxism already offers a sufficient explanation of the relationship between capitalism and environmental problems. There is no need for any amendments to or reinterpretations of Marxism via a specious archeology of footnotes and notebooks.

Under commodity production, what is beneficial is not always profitable and what is profitable is not always beneficial. If it is profitable to restore nutrients to soil, capitalists will do so; if it is not, they will not. Any private producer of the item that causes an environmental problem has an incentive to keep producing it and prevent legal or social efforts to stop them.

This is why we see fossil fuel companies lobby against emissions mitigation legislation, bankroll climate denial, and even — as in the case of Volkswagen’s dieselgate — engage in criminal behavior.

There is also no incentive for private actors to develop or produce technologies that we know to be beneficial but happen to be unprofitable, or even insufficiently profitable.

Under socialism, however, once such a threat to ecosystem services resulting from a particular technology, substance, or practice is discovered, the main limitation on switching away from such technologies is how fast engineers can devise novel technologies that can provide the same benefit but without the harm.

There are a number of industrial sectors that are both vitally socially necessary and carbon-intensive, such as aluminum and cement production, for which we still don’t really have many good clean alternatives, or at least alternatives that cover the whole of the sectors. Yet markets are often poor at the blue-sky research and development needed to solve these problems. A socialist society, in principle, is more able to allocate economic capacity toward such innovation, as well as to use industrial policy to take innovation from lab bench through to widespread deployment.

Additionally, the price mechanism within markets is poor at resolving economy-wide coordination. The aim is to make a profit, not to solve a problem that has been identified by society. Decarbonization requires a radical reorganization of electricity, transport, industry, agriculture, and buildings along similar timelines. The adoption of electric cars and heat pumps has to occur in sync with the build-out of new clean electricity generation (so that there is neither too much nor not enough electricity generating capacity). Even as we sunset production of petroleum for combustion purposes, we will still need some oil production, and cannot turn it off tomorrow, but markets struggle to provide an incentive to maintain adequate extraction and processing capacity as demand declines. This will be especially true as we approach zero emissions.

The case study here may be climate change, but similar mismatches between market incentive and society-wide problem-solving occur across all environmental problems. Indeed, this misalignment of price signals and societal values occurs across all problems regardless of whether they are environmentally related (as, for example, during the pandemic with respect to personal protective equipment production and distribution, allocation of ventilators, vaccine development, and production of inputs to vaccine production).

The solution then to more rapidly and adequately dealing with any novel problem we encounter, environmental or otherwise, is steadily moving away from market allocation and shifting toward democratic economic planning. Degrowthers consistently misdiagnose the core problem of capitalism as “growth” when in fact it is the lack of social control over production and investment decisions. When we attain such control, we may indeed choose to grow many socially useful forms of production (and degrow others).

So long as economic growth, of either the capitalist or socialist variety, is held responsible for environmental problems, Saito’s neo-Malthusian ideology serves as a useful distraction for capitalists from the true source of the inability to adequately deal with such problems, the anarchy of the market, and the solution to such problems: socialist planning.

This solution thus also prompts the question: What force in society is best placed to bring about this liberation?

Where Is the Working Class in Ecological Transformation?

In the end, it should be clear that whether Karl Marx was a secret “degrowth communist” does not matter much in informing our political strategy today. The key question — for either classical socialists like us or Saito’s vision of degrowth communism — is: What agent of change could actually deliver the transformations we agree are necessary to address climate change and other ecological problems?

In Slow Down, Saito offers his own view in the final full chapter “The Lever of Climate Justice,” in which he praises “ecological municipal reform movements” like that of Barcelona’s “Climate Emergency Declaration” targeting growth as the core culprit (no surprise that Barcelona is the epicenter of degrowth academia). Saito also proposes an urban life rooted in “the creation of an economy focused on local production for local consumption” (via a profile in the New York Times we learn Saito himself gardens on a local urban farm “about one day a month”) and small-scale worker cooperatives.

Saito also sees this primarily not as a battle between classes of workers and capitalists, but global regions: “the injustice of socially vulnerable people in the Global South countries bearing the brunt of climate change although the carbon dioxide was emitted, for the most part, by the Global North, which brought on this disaster.”

When it comes to who in the Global North is responsible, Saito is more liable to point at himself and other workers than capital: “Our rich lifestyles would be impossible without the plundered natural resources and exploited labor power of the Global South.” In terms of organizational power to deliver the transition we need, Saito also looks far afield from Japan toward Global South peasant organizations like Via Campesina and campaigns for “food sovereignty.”

The chapter reads like a laundry list of buzzwords of the (largely ineffectual) left around the turn of the millennium: commons, autonomous zones, mutual aid, and horizontal solidarity.

The urbanized utopia of small-scale gardens (which recent research has shown to be six times more carbon intensive than conventional agriculture), mutual aid, and public housing with solar panels surely sounds good to Saito’s likely readership: cosmopolitan, professional-managerial class urbanites. Yet, strikingly absent from this chapter, and indeed Saito’s recent two volumes, is any mention or role for what is the core agent of Marxist politics: the working class (in Slow Down the phrase only appears four times in passing).

When Saito mentions the working class at all, it is often with derision as participants in “the imperial mode of living.” But, it is the precarious masses of the working classes — too exploited and overworked to find time for urban gardens — who form the vast majority of society and thus the base of any large-scale political movement to address the ecological crisis.

In the concluding chapter of Slow Down, Saito acknowledges the movements he celebrates are small but places his hope in the so-called 3.5 percent rule, from a paper that claimed that successful movements only need 3.5 percent of the population to achieve success (a scholastic evasion of the necessity of mass politics if there ever was one). In the end, Saito simply hopes a diverse set of actions will add up to world-changing power: “A worker co-op, a school strike, an organic farm — it doesn’t matter the form it takes.” It doesn’t matter?

While the working class as a whole must form the basis for a mass environmental politics, we also need a targeted strategy that acknowledges climate change in particular enrolls a specific sector of workers Saito says almost nothing about: a group of workers with an interest in, considerable power over, and deep knowledge about the very energy, extractive, transport, building, infrastructural, and agricultural sectors that need to be transformed. That is, the industrial workers who build, maintain and operate them.

They have an interest in ensuring that the clean transition is a just one, that no one on the front lines of fossil production is left behind. Most projections of the volume of new, clean electricity required to fully decarbonize the global economy are between a doubling and a quadrupling of current generation. The volume of material mined from out of the earth is likely to decline as we decarbonize (due to the sheer gargantuan mass of coal that is extracted compared to all other mineral resources), but the number of mined materials and mine workers is expected to skyrocket.

So long as those mines have militant trade unions winning strong health and safety standards, local environmental protections, and good wages, this is a huge boon to workers and the economic development of their communities. Even in aviation, perhaps the most difficult sector to clean up after cement production, the pathways to making it sustainable likely include greater numbers of air traffic controllers, retraining of pilots and ground staff in clean fuels and battery safety and servicing, and alterations to flight attendant schedules. Saito, however, doesn’t center unions at all, preferring worker coops instead. In fact, he states outright that trade unions are often “subsumed by capitalists” in their efforts to appropriate part of the fruits of capitalist growth.

The emphasis on industrial workers (including the many accountants, janitors, clerks, baggage handlers, cafeteria staff, booking agents, and drivers — and the aforementioned flight attendants — that one might initially miscategorize as service workers) is not due to some masculinist romanticism, but instead due to pure strategic priority. It is these workers who have the greatest depth of combined formal and tacit knowledge about these climate-relevant industrial systems (often more even than the managers of these systems), and thus are much more aware of which climate policies and technologies are likely to work, and which ones are likely to break down, than the army of professionals in academia, green NGOs and think tanks, and media.

Most importantly of all, they have the power to include decarbonization and just transition demands in their collective bargaining, backed up if necessary with withdrawing their labor and going on strike.

And this means all industrial workers on the front lines of the ecological transition: regardless of race, ethnicity, or region in the world; not just “environmental justice communities”; not just indigenous people; and not just workers in the Global South. When Saito (and others) dismiss workers and trade unions in the Global North as partners in the ecological exploitation of the developing world via their participation in the “imperial mode of living,” they are cutting themselves off from a critical force that can drive a more rapid clean transition both at the ballot box and via collective bargaining (backed up with the threat of industrial action).

It is a basic error to believe that workers in the Global North exploit people in the Global South, that there is an “imperial mode of living.” This is just a repetition of long discredited theory of a “labor aristocracy,” the flawed notion that workers in developed countries are paid off by the “superprofits” extracted from lower-paid workers in the developing world.

In fact, there has been a “global class war” of capital against all workers across the planet, and all those workers have much in common and a shared interest in combating capitalist rule. Saito and others do capital’s work by creating hardened geographical wedges dividing the international working class against itself.

But Saito’s critique is also inward looking and guilt ridden. The opening pages of Slow Down are littered with references to “our rich lifestyles” and “our comfortable lives.” It is clear that Saito sees himself, and his readers, as part of the problem: “Our way of life is, in fact, a terrible thing. We are complicit in the Imperial Mode of living.”

All of this then, from the emphasis on the limitations of markets to the leverage and knowledge of industrial workers and their capacity to withdraw their labor, should be immediately recognizable as derived from the Marxist conception of the centrality of the working class to political transformation.

There is no need to add any “eco-” prefix to Marxism to explain our predicament. Classical Marxism’s explanation and concomitant prescription for correction are already sufficient. There is no need to move to a steady-state economy, to slow down technological development, to decentralize production, to retreat from globalization to the local “bioregion,” to return to more “appropriate” technologies, to abandon “megaprojects” or extraction, or to critique an “imperial mode of living” or a “metabolic rift” with the rest of nature that do not exist.

Marxism already has a sufficient explanation of the causes of environmental problems, prescription of how to fix them, and description of who has the power and interest in bringing such changes about, all the while never once abandoning the socialist project of human liberation.