The implication of Marx’s thought for the ecological crisis

By David McLellan / 11-03-2021 / Chinese Social Sciences Today
David McLellan is an Emeritus Professor of Political Theory from the University of Kent. 
In the 1840s, Marx had a fairly straightforward view about progression towards socialism and communism. It was in stages: feudalism, capitalism, socialism, communism. And building on his ideas about the Asiatic mode of production, particularly in the Grundrisse, we can see that Marx developed alternative modes of discussing this. This becomes particularly clear in the last decades, two decades of Marx’s life, where he became extremely interested in Russia. We see this, for example, in such writings as the The Communist Manifesto. However, it seems to me that in the 1850s, Marx began to modify this view, and to come to the opinion that there might be different ways, different paths by which to attain socialism and communism. We can see this partly in his discussion of the Opium Wars of Britain and China. In the first one, the First Opium War, he was much in favor of Britain. In the Second Opium War in 1860, he was much in favor of China.
Marx’s thought on communism
In reply to a lot of questions from Russian Marxists, he developed a view which said that it was possible that the Russian rural commune might provide an alternative path towards socialism and communism. This can be seen in his letters to Vera Zasulich and his letter to Mikhailovsky as well, where he said Mikhailovsky really had tried to foist upon Marx some kind of suprahistorical philosophical theory, whereby all nations were destined to attain socialism and communism. And Marx said he had no such theory. His views about the progression of capitalism, he stressed, were confined to his views about the development of Western Europe. And he was very loath to say that all nations had to follow the path which Western Europe had outlined. And so here we have a different path, a multipolar path towards socialism and communism, that Marx developed in his later years.
Now, secondly, I want to talk about, or my current research is devoted to thinking about, the nature of a communist society. It is well known that in the critique of the Gotha Program, Marx said that a communist society inscribed on its banners “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” And I have been researching lately into the notion of need. What is the society which is based upon needs?  It is not a society which is based upon wants. Wants are limitless, needs are not limitless. This does not of course mean that needs don’t develop themselves. They do develop. 
The corollary of that is that the notion of equality doesn’t have a place in a communist society. Equality is essentially a bourgeois concept. If you take the needs that people have in a communist society, they can be enormously differentiated. 
Implications for eco-crisis 
So, you can’t argue really, and Marx says this in the Critique of the Gotha Program, you can’t argue for any kind of equality in a communist society. It just doesn’t have the appropriate place there. Now, you might ask, and I am beginning to think about this sort of question, about what sort of implications these considerations that I’ve been outlining have for the current ecological crisis. This is immeasurably important because the current ecological crisis is so far the biggest crisis that has recently or at any time affected humanity. And the only way of coping with this crisis is to concentrate on the matters which I’ve previously discussed, that is what is the kind of society which is based upon need, and what is the path towards it. Now, when we consider Marx’s eco-socialism, and I think that you can find in Marx considerations of the way in which capitalism depletes the planet, and the way in which some kind of a socialist society is the answer to ecological crisis in one way or another, or in the recent book by the Japanese scholar Kohei Saito which refers to Marx’s eco-socialism would be a case in point. So, what I am concentrating on is the consideration of Marx’s alternative path towards communism. And secondly, the nature of a communist society, which is based upon needs, can give us some picture of the kind of society which could answer the kind of problems which confront us when we think about ecological crisis. 
And all this is to say, finally, that the kind of discussion and the kind of investigation into Marx’s ideas about socialism and communism and the path toward socialism and communism are not merely of an academic nature, in order to just find out what Marx really meant and what he actually said, although this is a worthwhile enterprise, certainly. What I want to say is that it is not only a worthwhile enterprise to engage in these sort of academic pursuits, but it is also of relevance to the kind of problems that confront us today. And the more that we can investigate what Marx said about this, and meditate on what he said, and try and carry forward his insights into what might constitute the progress of humanity, the more we will be able to confront the biggest crisis, which confronts us at the present time. 
This is an excerpt from David McLellan’s video speech at The International Academic Forum in China 2021 in Beijing in mid-October.