Ecological Marxism

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The role of James O’Connor

Giovanna Ricoveri et al.:

“The ecological crisis, in both capitalist and state socialist countries but for different reasons (Gare 1993), laid bare the inadequacy of Marxist approaches that insist on the development of the material forces of production (i.e. fossil fuel based industrialisation) as a prerequisite of achieving socialism. In fact, the development of forces of production predicated on a narrow understanding of technological progress has brought about the ecological crisis by means of sustained destructive impacts on the environment. By doing so, productive forces and conditions of production are themselves undermined. It was in an overall context of an increasingly discredited institutionalised Marxist orthodoxy in state socialist countries that, by the 1980s, O’Connor’s attention turned to the ecological crisis and its social causes. His materialist dialectical approach continued through forays into environmental issues and his efforts to rectify what he saw as the absence of systematic Marxist accounts of the ecological crisis. This was and is a collective effort that began with those who participated in the fateful 1988 seminar at University of California Santa Cruz that also gave rise to the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism (O’Connor 1988a). This germinal intellectual turning point oversaw the confluence of left-leaning ecological thought with a diversity of leftist anti-capitalist approaches, including variants of Marxism and feminism as well as early works by the likes of no less than Marxist environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster, current Editor of Monthly Review (e.g. Foster 1992, 1996). The creative and illuminating outcomes of this confluence and, to a large extent, interweaving of disparate currents are among the lasting legacies bequeathed to us (Kovel 2005; Salleh 1997; Turner and Brownhill 2006).

It cannot be sufficiently emphasised that James O’Connor was among the first in the English-speaking North American and European worlds to develop a Marxist theory of the ecological crisis. This search for a new approach is in keeping with a long Marxist tradition (excepting state socialist apparatuses), traceable to Marx and Engels themselves, of renovating theory in relation to concrete changes in society. O’Connor saw many different sets of relations drawn into the destructive vortex of capitalism. Hence, in keeping with Marx’s method, O’Connor deemed the processes whereby the conditions of production are undermined to be dialectical at multiple levels, including consciousness. The ecological crisis, as a transformation of nature, implies social transformation, such as the rise of environmental movements and the very recognition that classical Marxist conceptions are inadequate (O’Connor 1988a, 3–4). In this, he was long preceded by Marxist feminists and he never went far enough to encompass social reproduction processes fully in his empirical work. He instead did so in the course of his theoretical development. He was concerned about the dialectical reproduction of ecological processes (including natural resources), human beings and their self-realisation potential, social interconnectedness, and cultural processes.

Despite the label, ecological Marxism (just like ecofeminism or ecosocialism) is actually not about explaining or investigating ecosystems per se. Ecology did not emerge from Marx’s theories (which at most sought to explain why capitalist relations are both socially and environmentally destructive), nor have the overwhelming majority of ecologists ever draw from Marx (or Engels) to develop methods or theories. The ecology in ecological Marxism refers to movements and ideas about nature and how we (mainly in capitalist societies) relate to the rest of nature (see Haila and Levins 1992, ix). At least in O’Connor’s original estimation, the matter is about the intertwined contradictions associated with the ecological, personal, and communal conditions that capitalist relations treat as sources and sinks, sources that capitalists pretend are inexhaustible and sinks that capitalists pretend can be polluted or dumped on endlessly. In other words, the drive for the endless accumulation of capital—and the state apparatuses that support that drive—leads to the undermining of the very processes that enable the reproduction of capital. Profits are privatised, while costs are socialised and at the same time offset onto the rest of nature. The regular workings of capital generate conditions within which social reproduction itself can become unsustainable and environmental degradation becomes rife. This is also in full agreement with Marxist and socialist feminists like Nancy Fraser and Silvia Federici, who have long understood that personal conditions of life and communal conditions of production are central to these tendencies of capitalism to undercut the very social and ecological basis of its existence. It is also fully in agreement with ecological Marxists like Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster. Any rift among ecological Marxists is unjustifiable, as it cannot be explained by less or more adherence to Marx’s (and Engels’) original insights about the relationship between capitalist societies and the rest of nature.

To build a Marxian theoretical framework worthy of addressing the ecological crisis, O’Connor drew on Polányi’s understanding of Marx’s concept of conditions of production; that is, the concept of fictitious commodities. As Foster (and others) have pointed out, Polányi had already understood the natural and social impossibility of self-regulating markets.” (

Source: Capitalism Nature Socialism, Volume 30, 2019 - Issue 4, 2019

More Information


  • James O’Connor, Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism;
  • William Leiss, The Domination of Nature; and
  • John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology and Ecology Against Capitalism.