Critique of Saito's "Degrowth Communism"

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In the past few decades it has become clear that bourgeois civilisation is posing a grave threat to the natural conditions which provide the basis for human existence on the planet. It has also become more and more evident that the main factions of the ruling class are obliged to recognise the severity of the ecological crisis, and even its connection to the other main expressions of a society in decline, above all the flight into militarism and war[1]. This recently acquired “understanding” is not at all cancelled out by the fact that other parts of this same ruling class are retreating into an openly irrational and suicidal denialism regarding the danger posed by climate change and the pollution of air, soil and water. But neither recognition nor denial can hide the fact that the bourgeoisie is proving itself incapable of slowing down, let alone halting the juggernaut of ecological destruction. We can point in particular to the obvious and repeated failure of the spectacular COP conferences of the last few years.

This exposure of the powerlessness of the ruling class has generated the need for a kind of ideological compensation, notably on the part of the left wing of the bourgeoisie. Hence the rise of a kind of “Green Keynesianism”, the notion of a “Green New Deal”, in which the state, by penalising the worst polluters and investing in “sustainable” technologies, would not only be able to prevent climate change from getting out of control, but also to create green jobs and green growth – in short, a healthy green capitalism.

But there are also more radical voices who are quick to point out the shortcomings of this kind of greenwashed capitalism. Foremost among them are the proponents of “degrowth”. Writers like Jason Hickel[2] can easily show that capitalism is driven by the constant need to expand, to accumulate value, and that it must treat nature as a “free gift” to be exploited to the maximum as it seeks to subsume every last region of the planet to the laws of the market. Hickel therefore talks about the need for a transition to a post-capitalist economy[3]. Others, like John Bellamy Foster go further and more explicitly refer to Karl Marx’s growing interest in ecological questions in the later stages of his life, to what they call Marx’s “Eco-Socialism”[4]. But most recently, the books of the Japanese writer Kohei Saito, who is deeply versed in Marx’s later writings as a result of his engagement with the new edition of Marx and Engels’s complete works (the MEGA project) have attracted enormous interest and considerable sales, in particular, his most recent work, entitled Slow Down: How Degrowth Communism Can Save the Earth (2024). Whereas Saito’s previous books[5] were written in a rather academic style, this is a much more popularising effort which presents not only his key argument that Marx himself became a “Degrowth Communist”, but also outlines the steps which could lead to the adoption of Degrowth Communism today. And indeed, at first sight, he does indeed appear to be talking about communism as understood by the real, historical communist movement – a society of freely associated producers, where wage labour no longer exists. The fact that he aims to go beyond the term “Eco-socialism” (which implies that there can be and indeed have been forms of socialism which were not ecological, which were no less ecologically destructive than capitalism) and now talks about communism, is a response to a growing search for solutions which go to the very roots of today’s civilisational crisis. But a closer and more critical investigation of Saito’s argument shows that this is a response which can only lead to more false solutions.

Marx did not reject the materialist conception of history

As we have said, Saito is not the first to point out that the “late Marx” developed a strong interest both in ecological questions and in the communal social forms that preceded the emergence of class society and that continued to leave traces even after the rise of capital. What is specific to Saito is the idea that the study of these questions led Marx to an “epistemological break”[6], with what he calls the “linear, progressive view” of history, marked by “productivism” and “Eurocentrism”, and towards a new vision of communism. In short, Marx abandoned historical materialism in favour of “degrowth communism”. But Marx never adhered to a “linear, progressive view” of history. Rather, his conception was dialectical: different modes of production have gone through periods of ascent, where their social relations allowed for a real development of production and culture, but also periods of stagnation, decline, and even regression, which could lead either to their disappearance pure and simple, or to a period of social revolution which could usher in a higher mode of production. By extension, while a generally progressive movement can be discerned in this historical process, all progress has hitherto come at a cost: hence, for example, the idea expressed by Marx and Engels that the replacement of primitive communism by class society and the state was both a fall and an advance, and that the communism of the future would be a kind of “return at a higher level” to the archaic social form[7].

With regard to capitalism, the Marx of the Communist Manifesto pointed to the enormous development of productive capacities made possible by the rise of bourgeois society. Again, these advances came at the cost of the ruthless exploitation of the proletariat, but the struggle of the latter against this exploitation laid the foundations of a communist revolution which could place the new productive forces at the service of humanity. And even at this early stage in the life of capital, Marx was impatient to see such a revolution, identifying the crises of overproduction as signs that capitalist social relations had already grown too narrow for the powers of production they had unleashed. The defeat of the 1848 wave of revolutions led him to revise this view and to recognise that capitalism still had a considerable career ahead of it before a proletarian revolution would become possible. But this did not mean that every country and every region of the world was condemned to go through the exact same process of development. Thus, when the Russian populist Vera Zasulich wrote to him in 1881 to ask his view about the possibility that the Russian mir or agricultural commune could play a role in the transition to communism, Marx posed the problem in the following terms: while capitalism was still in its early stages in large parts of the world, “the capitalist system is past its prime in the West, approaching the time when it will be no more than a regressive social regime[8].  This meant that the objective conditions for a proletarian revolution were fast maturing in the centres of the system, and that if it came about, “then present Russian communal land ownership can serve as a point of departure for a communist development[9].

This hypothesis did not entail an abandonment of the method of historical materialism. On the contrary, it was an attempt to apply this method in a contradictory period where capitalism was simultaneously showing signs of historic decline while still disposing of a very large “hinterland” whose development could temporarily stave off its growing inner contradictions. And, far from advocating or supporting this development, already expressed in the imperialist drive of the major powers, Marx saw that the sooner the proletarian revolution broke out in the industrialised centres, the less pain and misery would be inflicted in the peripheries of the system. Marx did not live to see all the consequences of imperialism’s conquest of the planet, but others who took up his method, such as Lenin and Luxemburg, were able to recognise, in the early years of the 20th century, that capitalism as a whole was entering its epoch of decline, thus posing the possibility – and the necessity - for a world-wide proletarian revolution.

The same concern informed the “late” Marx’s burgeoning interest in the ecological question. Stimulated by his readings of scientists such as Liebig and Fraas, who had become aware of the destructive side of capitalist agriculture (Liebig termed it “robbery agriculture”), which in its hunger for immediate profit was exhausting the fertility of the soil and wantonly destroying the forests (which Marx already noted was having a deleterious effect on the climate). If the development of capitalism was already undermining the natural basis for the production of life’s necessities, then perhaps its “progressive mission” was drawing to a close – but this didn’t invalidate the method which had been able to recognise the positive role played by the bourgeoisie in overcoming the barriers of feudalism. Furthermore – and Saito is well aware of this, having shown it in his earlier works - Marx’s preoccupation with capitalism’s impact on the relationship between humanity and nature did not come from nowhere: its roots can be found in the notion of man’s alienation from his “inorganic body” in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, a notion further elaborated in the Grundrisse and Capital, notably in the idea of the “metabolic rift” in the latter work. By the same token, the recognition that communist society would have to overcome the rigid separation between town and country can be found both in the early writings of Marx and Engels, and in the period of Marx’s inquiry into agricultural science, when it was seen as a precondition for restoring the soil’s natural fertility. Elaboration, development, criticism of outmoded ideas – but no “epistemological break”.

Only the class struggle leads towards communism

There is much more that we could say about Saito’s actual vision of communism. In particular, it relies heavily on the notion of the “the commons”, implying that precapitalist communal forms still have a substantial existence in present-day capitalism, and could even serve as a kind of nucleus for the communist transformation. In fact, it had already become apparent in Lenin’s day that imperialist capital was fast completing the work carried out in the period of “primitive accumulation” - the destruction of communal ties and the separation of the producer from the land. A century or more later this is even more evident. The vast slums that surround the mega-cities in the peripheries of the system testify both to the devastation of old communal forms and decadent capitalism’s inability to integrate vast number of the dispossessed into the “modern” network of production.

This idea that the new society could be built in the shell of the old reveals what is perhaps the most fundamental distortion of marxism in Saito’s book. To be sure, Saito criticises the “Green New Deal”  - both because of its reliance on “top down” measures imposed by the state, and because it does not address the problem of capitalism’s need for endless “growth”, which is incompatible with maintaining a healthy natural environment. Against this, Saito insists that the new society can only come out of a social movement “from below”. For Marx, communism was the real movement of the working class, beginning from the defence of its class interests and leading towards the overthrow the existing order. For Saito, by contrast, the social movement is a conglomeration of different class forces – alongside attempts to set up small expressions of “the commons” in the neighbourhoods of today’s cities, such as Detroit, he refers to interclassist protests like the Yellow Vests in France, protest groups which from the very start are situated on a bourgeois terrain, like Extinction Rebellion, a sprinkling of workers’ strikes, the “citizens’ assemblies” set up under the aegis of Macron in response to the Yellow Vest protests. In short, not the class struggle, not the struggle of the exploited to break free of the capitalist organs which keep them under control (such as the trade unions and left parties), not the emergence of communist consciousness as expressed in the formation of revolutionary minorities.

One of the clearest proofs that Saito is not talking about the class struggle as the lever of communism is his attitude to the Indignados movement which appeared in Spain in 2011. This was a movement based on a proletarian form of organising – the mass assemblies – even if the majority of its protagonists saw themselves as “citizens” rather than proletarians. Within the assemblies, there was a battle between those organisations like “Democracy Now” who wanted the assemblies to revitalise the already existing “democratic” system, and a proletarian wing which defended the autonomy of the assemblies from all expressions of the state, including its local, municipal tentacles. Saito praises the “Movement of the Squares” but at the same time pronounces in favour of channelling the assemblies towards the formation of a municipal political party, Barcelona en Comu, and the election of a radical mayor, Ada Colau, whose administration has put forward a series of “democratising” measures and ecological declarations. Furthermore, the Barcelona experiment has given rise to the “Fearless Cities” movement, which aims to apply the same model in a number of other cities around the world.

This is not the international extension of the workers’ struggle – a precondition for the communist revolution – but a structure for the recuperation of authentic class combat. And it is based on the rejection of another fundamental element of the communist project, the lesson that Marx, Engels, Pannekoek and Lenin drew from the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871: that the task of the proletariat, the first step in its revolution, is to dismantle the existing state machine, not just its armies, its police and its central government apparatus, but also its municipal councils and other forms of localised control. For Saito on the other hand “it would be foolish to reject the state as a means of getting things done, such as the creation of infrastructure or the transformation of production” (Slow Down, p 232) What this boils down to is a “Green New Deal” from below, not the revolutionary overthrow of existing conditions.

The proletarian revolution and the end of capital accumulation

This is not the place to go into immense challenges that will face the working class once it has taken power into its hands and has begun the transition to communism. Clearly the ecological question will be at the centre of its concerns, and this will require a series of measures aimed at the suppression of the drive to accumulate and its replacement by production for use - not merely on a local scale but across the entire planet. It will also demand the dismantling of the gigantic apparatus of waste production which feeds into the climate disaster: the arms industry, advertising, finance, and so on. As we have shown elsewhere[10], previous marxists from Bebel to Bordiga have also talked about overcoming the mad rush fuelled by the accumulation process, of “slowing down” the hectic pace of life under capital. But we don’t describe this as “degrowth” for two reasons: first, because communism is the basis for a true “development of the productive forces” with an entirely new quality, compatible with the real needs of humanity and its metabolism with nature. And secondly, because talking about degrowth in the framework of the existing system –and Saito’s “communism” does not escape this – can easily be used as a justification for austerity administered by the bourgeois state, as a reason for the working class to cease its “selfish” struggles against wage or job cuts and get used to reducing its consumption even more.




[1] See our Update of the Theses on Decomposition (2023), International Review 170

[2] Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, 2020

[3] However, Hickel’s critique of the Green New Deal doesn’t go very far: for him the 1930s New Deal encouraged growth “in order to improve people’s livelihoods and achieve progressive social outcomes…early progressive governments treated growth as a use-value” (p94). In reality, the aim of the New Deal was to save capitalism and prepare for war….

[4] For example Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, 2000

[5] Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy 2017; Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism, 2022

[6] Saito borrows this term from Althusser, a very sophisticated apologist for Stalinism, who applied it to what he saw as the shift from the youthful, idealistic Marx of the 1844 manuscripts to the hard-nosed scientist of Capital. We have argued against this here: The study of Capital and the foundations of Communism, International Review no.75. If there was such a rupture, it took place when Marx broke with radical democracy and identified with the proletariat as the bearer of communism, around 1843-4

[7] For example, in the conclusion to Engels’ origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

[8] See The Mature Marx - Past and Future Communism, International Review 81

[9] ibid

[10]  See Bordiga and the Big City, International Review 166



Marxism and Ecology