When Marxian analyses of contemporary issues are presented, one of the implicit or explicit questions I sometimes hear is “Why Bother with Marx?” Disparaging commentators often repeat intellectually suspect dismissals of Marxist traditions via worn references to the USSR. Such references are old, tired ways of dismissing or attempting to discredit not only Marxism as an intellectual tradition, but also movements and ideas in general seeking to transcend the barbarity of capitalist society.
The United States—the country in which I live and where such commentary is routine—has a long history of ideological and violent repression of domestic and international movements working toward transition away from the inhumanity and ecological rapaciousness of the system of capital. As the leading economic and military defender of the system, the US, in tandem with elites elsewhere, has vanquished the democratic hopes of millions around the world when they dared, even through the ballot, to bring forward a more humane, egalitarian, democratic, and in some cases ecologically-oriented politics, attempting to overcome centuries of elite oppression and exploitation.
It is not only acceptable but also encouraged within this context to dismiss lines of thought that connect to the history of transformative movements and related intellectual traditions. Without any real engagement or study, even scholars are comfortable mischaracterizing, attacking, or simply dismissing attempts to draw on the great advances of these movements, both in thought and action, in order to see the continuities and contributions to our struggles today.
Marx obviously did not invent socialism, nor did he posthumously instigate the Russian Revolution. He was, however, active within and dedicated to the revolutionary movements of his era confronting the consequences of what Karl Polanyi famously called “The Great Transformation.” Moreover, in reference to Russia, for anyone serious about transformative social change, there is much to learn regarding how regular people organized collectively to transform a brutal social system, even if the revolution was defeated and the society took on characteristics unfortunately resembling some of the worst excesses and practices supported in and by capitalist societies. This loss, then what happened during perestroika and glasnost, and other examples, like the counterrevolutionary attacks of the so-called neoliberal period, should serve to forewarn those working toward a Great Transition. There is no end point for transition—whatever is accomplished must be defended, as all history of social change shows.
One reason Foster’s work is important, within the context I described above (not limited to the US), is that in recovering and clarifying intellectual history, we learn about the real interplay between ideas and socio-ecological change. Beyond his work on Marx and Engels, Foster has clarified much of the origins and development of our current ecological and economic thinking and the relation of these to political movements. This is so important for scholars and activists wading through politically motivated distortions of intellectual traditions, including ecology and Marxism, and the co-opted textbook versions of our great progressive movements.
By recovering intellectual history, we gain perspective on the milieu and commitments that allow some to see farther than others in not taking anything about the present for granted, the intellectual freedom of being unafraid to engage the “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”1 It is instructive for scholars and activists to understand the insights born of a methodological and theoretical approach unbound by the false separation between what we think and do, between science and the struggles for change. We gain insight into how we might build upon earlier advancements in understanding of the complex relationship between human and societal development, and the broader developments of natural history. And we learn to think about ways to bring this understanding to bear on efforts toward socio-ecological change.
Foster and others whose work benefits from familiarity with a broad range of intellectual and activist traditions, and their interrelation, also do something else for contemporary struggles. Criticisms of Marx’s work, and often by proxy all those (from the Dalai Lama to Naomi Klein) who are open about their intellectual debt to Marxian critique or traditions which have opened up new lines of inquiry and thinking by challenging superficial, reductionist, ahistorical, elitist modes of thought in the society at large, in political circles, and in the academy, often rely on profound mischaracterizations or ignorance of his work. Foster makes it increasingly difficult for such mischaracterizations to play the role of bludgeon to get would-be activists in line with more “acceptable” ideas and movement goals, those that do not threaten the status quo and are incapable of leading toward a truly great transition.
So, in response to the “Why Bother” dismissals, I ask readers to consider, “Why Not?” Who stands to lose by learning from those who committed their lives to struggle and a deeper understanding the world in which we live? The earth itself and 99% of its inhabitants have everything to gain from understanding more of our history, including why there is such ideological attack on Marxism, and the relation of this to why they are not taught anything, even if they live in a nominal democracy, about transformative social movements past or present, and how we build one today capable of meeting global challenges. As in the early conservation movement, those committed to their own privileged positions in the global economy will go to great lengths to avoid a more revolutionary environmentalism. They have the most to lose by deepening existing links between socialism and ecology. The rest of us have a world to win.
1. Karl Marx, Letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843, in Collected Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1843-44, vol. 3, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09-alt.htm.