Karl Marx in the Times of Climate Change

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development. [Marx and Engels, ‘Preface’ to the 1882 Russian Edition of The Communist Manifesto; all emphasis added]

The above passage, jointly signed by Marx and Engels, appears at the end of the 1882 ‘Preface’ to the Russian edition of The Communist Manifesto. It also appears, towards the end of a decade-long engagement with the Russian social formation and the social formation of many Eastern societies like India’s. The detailed notes, excerpts and commentaries compiled by Marx, published later as The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, belong precisely to the end of this period, the years 1880-1882. Marx passed away the following year, in 1983.

The purpose of this brief tribute to Karl Marx is not to recount the story of this troubled engagement and the fate it suffered at the hands of the orthodoxy, for that work of documenting this story has been admirably accomplished by the Japanese scholar Haruki Wada and brought before us, some decades ago, through Teodor Shanin’s important work, The Late Marx and the Russian Road. (It was perhaps not entirely coincidental that Shanin was actually a British scholar of Lithuanian descent). Through their very important work we also come to know of the strange tale of the suppression and final publication of the four unsent drafts of letters to Vera Zasulich that Marx had penned in response to her question about the inevitability of capitalism and the place of the Russian peasant communes in the road to socialism.

My purpose in this brief tribute to Marx is to underline what I think can be called the ‘lesson of Marx’. We all know of the story (repeated to the point of banality), where Marx is supposed to have exclaimed in exasperation: ‘I am not a Marxist!’ What Marx’s changing relation to ‘the East’ – the contours of which continued to change for him (from Eastern Europe to Asia and Asiatic societies in general) – shows us is the picture of a thinker who does not shy away from putting his own theories and categories under the scanner and subjecting to thorough re-examination.

Even today there are Marxists in India and in ‘socialist’ societies like China, who believe that the only way to socialism lies through capitalism. Even today this belief in stagism and the ‘world-historical mission of the bourgeoisie’ holds such overpowering sway over many Marxists in India that they believe that unless agricultural peasant property is decimated and supplanted by industry, ‘history will come to an end’.

But here was Marx, very soon after the publication of Capital Volume I, already troubled by the criticism that he faced about having produced some trans-historical universal theory, revisiting many of his assumptions over and over again. Thus in 1877, in a letter to the editor of Otecestvenniye Zapisky, he had this to say:

The chapter on primitive accumulation does not pretend to do more than trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist order of economy emerged from the womb of the feudal order of economy. It therefore describes the historic movement which by divorcing the producers from their means of production converts them into wage earners (proletarians in the modern sense of the word) while it converts into capitalists those who hold the means of production in possession. In that history, “all revolutions are epoch-making which serve as levers for the advancement of the capitalist class in course of formation; above all those which, after stripping great masses of men of their traditional means of production and subsistence, suddenly fling them on to the labour market. But the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the cultivators. [emphasis added]

It is interesting how frequently and with great fervour so many Indian Marxists have taken recourse to the ‘theory of primitive accumulation’ as a precondition and concomitant of the universal history of capital. In this passage Marx does not even grace this narrative with the tag of a ‘theory’: according to him, the chapter merely traces the specific path by which the capitalist order emerged from the womb of the feudal order. Note that it is one thing to claim that, dazzled by the successes of the West and under the spell of the theology of neoliberalism, postcolonial elites are today pursuing the same trajectory of dispossession; it is entirely another to stamp ‘primitive accumulation’ with the ‘aura’ of an objective historical process which must inescapably be repeated, regardless of who is at the helm of power. Marxists then can only see themselves as powerless before this ‘objective law of history’.

Marx’s lesson, to my mind then, is to think fearlessly and critically. To be prepared to be able to subject one’s own dearly held beliefs to the most ruthless criticism when they fail to illuminate any longer, when they fail to guide practice – that is the key lesson of Karl Marx. Generations of Marxists understood the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach (‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point however, is to change it’) to mean a turning away from theory itself. It was as if Marx was arguing that now that they had the ‘ultimate truth’, revolutionaries should simply focus on mindless practice. That kind of practice can only ensue from a theological narrative where the truth is always-already known. Needless to say, this was a colossal misunderstanding of Marx. Quite apart from the specifics of what the theses on Feuerbach actually aimed to do, the simple fact that after writing them, Marx went on to write the fat tomes on Capital, ought to have told us that we were getting him wrong.

We could try a thought experiment: Imagine Karl Marx returned today to this world of ours that suffers today from a surfeit of ‘development’ and industrialization, where rivers are drying up and water is privatized; where the air he would breathe would be full of toxins and yet, there would be no revolutionary upsurge in sight. He would see the bizarre situation where Americans believing that climate change is a serious issue, would decline from 71% in 2007 to 44% in 2011 – leading to the even more bizarre election of the climate change deniers to power in the USA. He would see the farcical lengths to which regimes that swore by his name went in order to ‘develop capitalism’ – in China, in West Bengal and so on – all in the belief that they were laying the ground for socialism. What do we suppose his response would be? Would he endorse the ecological destruction being wrought in his name? Would he fish out stray sentences from his works and say, look I told you how important ecology and nature were but you did not listen? Or, if the above instances of his encounter with the East are any indication, would he own up some responsibility and go into a serious re-examination of the techno-fetishist and productivist bourgeois ideologies that his work also greatly reinforced?

My hunch is that Marx would have perhaps undertaken a full-scale reappraisal and recasting of his philosophy. And the most important, metaphysical/ philosophical question that he would have had to confront would have been the rethinking of Time. This would mean, first of all, rethinking the division of the ‘flat’ geographical spaces of societies into temporally differentiated modern/ premodern, capitalist/ pre-capitalist, forward/ backward sectors, where the fate of those represented by the second term/s was to inevitably be vanquished by those represented by the first. This would also mean a rethinking of the capitalism’s (and modernity’s) obsession with speed and temporal compression. Once you begin to see urban populations and indigenous people/ adivasis inhabiting the same time, you would deal with the latter differently, he would probably say. Climate change would also have underlined to Marx the importance of revisiting the techno-fetishism of modern regimes, which have led to greater and greater control of populations by governments, hence greater inequality and powerlessness.

That is the Marx I have known, that is the Marx I learn from. The eternal revolutionary.

4 thoughts on “Karl Marx in the Times of Climate Change

  1. Pritam Singh

    you are on the right track Aditya- I am hoping to go even further in reexamining the theory of historical materialism where each successive mode of production is considered superior to the previous one. From an ecological point of view, some aspects of pre-capitalist social formations are superior to capitalist ones.

    1. Aditya Nigam

      Thanks Pritam. I seriously think that is a task yet to be undertaken and worth doing. It is necessary to go beyond simply saying ‘Marx recognized the importance of nature/ ecology’ etc. The angle you are thinking of is, to my mind, the really productive one to explore.


    A nice tribute to Marx. With the present environmental problems and ruthless exploitation of naturals by industrialists and displacement of tribals over the world, Marx might have modified his ‘ revolutionary’ thoughts to conform to modern situation

  3. Pritam Singh

    Indeed it is really productive as you say Aditya and also very desirable historically speaking now but it is also very daunting

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