REDWeb Anniversary Series – “From Socialism to Eco-socialism – Turning Points On a Personal Journey Through The Marxist Theory of Socialism”

Saral Sarkar

At the beginning of the journey stood the most famous statement of Marx, which I read as a college student:

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”1

I was immediately faced with a dilemma. There was no need for me to interpret the world; that had already been done for us by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin et al. But, I thought, in order to be able to contribute to changing the world, I must at least understand it. The purpose was clear to me: to work for creating a socialist/communist society. But for understanding the world, I knew I must read a lot, at least a lot of Marx, Engels and Lenin, a lot a of history plus current affairs, and also a lot of modern Marxist literature on the social sciences.

For the average socialist/communist activist, however, it was the sheer volume of reading required for the purpose that posed the greatest difficulty. She must work to earn her livelihood, work for her conviction, and read a few of the relevant texts. As for me, I had the ambition, and I thought I also had the cerebral capacity, to read all the important works of Marx, Engels, Lenin et al. But being materially in the position of an average activist, it was clear to me in my early youth that I could only become an activist, not a Marxologist.

The Moscow Trials and Destalinization

The false convictions and executions conducted during the Moscow Trials revealed the repressive nature of Communism under Stalin.

In 1953 – I was then 17 and in college – I realized how little I knew, when I heard for the first time of the notorious Moscow Trials of 1936–1938,2 in which several famous leaders of the Russian revolution were accused of treason, convicted, and then executed. What was worse, I heard it from an anti-communist class mate. I was shocked to hear that Stalin, our great leader of those days, was the perpetrator of these and similar other crimes against several hundred thousand innocent and patriotic citizens and communists. When asked, my communist classmates said they had never heard of it before. But, they opined, it surely was imperialist propaganda.

I had started reading the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the course of this reading, I later got the official version of the story: the accused were traitors, agents of the enemy etc. This story haunted me for a few years. How could so many communist leaders and activists of the revolution have been traitors, I wondered. The issue was settled in 1956, when Khrushchev, in his secret speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU(B) confirmed the veracity of what was formerly dubbed imperialist propaganda.

1956 was a watershed year in the history of the Soviet Union as a thorough destalinization got underway in the country. It resulted in a huge, indescribable mental shock, not only for me, but also, I think, for all young communists of those days, who used to think of the Soviet Union as if it were a golden country, our materialized utopia. Thereafter, I began gradually distancing myself from the Soviet model of socialism.But among older communists, at least in India, there was no outbreak of disloyalty to the Soviet communist leadership. If asked, they used to say, in the general sense: if in the past mistakes have been made, then it is good that they are being corrected. For me, it was only a logical and rational reaction, not a satisfactory one. Was it simply a case of the leader making a few mistakes? It troubled me very much that the crimes were committed in the name of a communist revolution and in the name of defending a “socialist” state inspired by Marx and his theories. After all, Marx and Engels had endorsed use of force in their kind of revolution. In the concluding para of their Manifesto, they write inter alia, “The communists … declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of …”. We Indians knew that Mahatma Gandhi had strictly and on principle opposed any use of violence in our independence movement. Yet questions regarding ends and means had not crossed my mind before 1956.

Destalinization was also the cause and 1956 the time when my interest in Marx and Marxism began to wane. I began to wonder how could just two thinkers of the second half of the 19th century, however brilliant they might have been, have thought through all the problems of mankind, even those that would arise many decades after their death? It could not be, I thought further, that the results of their analysis of the situation prevailing in the 19th century were also valid in the 20th century. So I started taking an interest in other subjects and other thinkers too, e.g. the works of Keynes and Malthus.

Failure of the Russian and the Chinese Revolution

Both, the October Revolution (1917–1921) and the Chinese Revolution (1930s to 1949) were made or at least led by people who were communists and Marxists, at least they claimed they were inspired by Marxism. After success on the battlefields, they tried to build up in their respective countries a socialist society following economic and political principles they claimed were based on and/or derived from Marxism. In the long run both revolutions failed. The Russians and the Chinese themselves willfully reintroduced capitalism in their countries. The Russians openly confess to capitalism, whereas Chinese society is today in reality a capitalist one that is only ruled by self-styled “communists”.

Can their failures be put down to flaws in the ideology called Marxism? As we mark the 200th birth anniversary of Marx this year, when his total theoretical-intellectual contribution to recent world history is being discussed, criticized, and celebrated, this question does need an answer. But before that come the questions (1) whether the vision of socialism that the Soviet Russians and the Chinese, the Cubans and the Vietnamese tried to realize – and thereby failed – was really the Marxist one, and (2) whether it was at all realizable. We should not seek an answer to them just in the academic sense of seeking truth for the sake of truth, but also and especially in the practical sense. For if we fail to get the right answer to these questions, we may, in our zeal, make many more mistakes: We may then pursue a wrong goal or choose the wrong path to reach the right goal, or we may make a wrong choice in regard to both.

 Marxian and Marxist

There are some disputes regarding the content of Marxism. Once, when he was told about a person who was claiming to be a Marxist while expressing views which he had never advocated, Marx replied in frustration: “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.”

“All I know is that I’m not a Marxist” – Karl Marx

Ever since, it has become useful to differentiate between the terms Marxian and Marxist. Marxian would mean: strictly based on what Marx himself has written. And Marxist would mean: based on Marxian thoughts as developed and presented by Engels, Lenin and later theoretician-adherents of Marx. For this reason, Marxist theory cannot be regarded as a monolithically consistent theory. Even in the works of Marx himself, inner contradictions and errors have been found by Marx scholars. No wonder! After all, Marx’s writing career stretched over some forty years. Also no wonder that some Marx scholars have reportedly found it necessary to differentiate between the writings of the young (early) Marx and those of the mature (later) Marx.

Fortunately, we can give a quick and short reply to the question put above (in connection with the crimes of Stalinist USSR and failure of the Soviet and Chinese Revolutions). Pure Marxists say, in the general sense: what has all that to do with Marx and Marxian theory? Nothing. None of the socialist/communist revolutions that have taken place till now has been a Marxian revolution. To give just one recently published example, Paresh Chattopadhyay, an eminent Marx scholar, wrote3 criticizing a description of the Cuban Revolution as a Marxist one:

“However, what kind of revolution are we speaking of? ….. we are invited to a Marxian kind of socialism. The rub is precisely here. Why is the need for bringing in Marx whose whole outlook on socialism is the exact opposite? To refresh our memory, there is no ‘socialist dictatorship’ in Marx’s universe of discourse. For Marx it is a postulate that the laboring people must emancipate themselves. This is the outcome of the ‘autonomous movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority’   . And this self-emancipation means the … establishment of a ‘union of free individuals’, which alone is socialism. It follows, secondly, that this is not the task of a group styling itself as the vanguard irrespective of the group’s revolutionary ardor and spirit of self-sacrifice.”

Critique of Pure Marx

 I trust Chattopadhyay’s scholarship. This must be a correct paraphrase of the Marxian ideal of socialist revolution (emancipation, as he also calls it.). This quote deals with the questions regarding who and how of a socialist revolution, i.e. the questions: who are the agents of the revolution (emancipation), and how do they go about it – before, during, and after the revolution proper? But it also shows how wrong, how unrealistic, and how utopian in the negative sense Marx has been. For, hardly any revolution that has been called proletarian, socialist, or people’s revolution, successful or not, could do without a leadership, most members of which usually came from classes other than the proletariat. Even the leadership of the Paris Commune of 1871, as far as I have learnt, did not come exclusively from the working class.

I believe, without a good leadership, any attempt to overthrow a hated regime or an exploitative-oppressive system can only end in defeat or a fruitless, chaotic rebellion – even if the crisis situation that triggered it had been favorable to such an attempt. I am of course saying these things without great knowledge of history. But I believe evidence to the contrary must be rare if it at all exists. Also for building a “socialist” society after a successful takeover of power, as, for example, in Russia after 1917 and in Yugoslavia after 1945, a strong leadership proved to be indispensable.

Revolutionary Proletariat?

Marx and Engels had discovered the revolutionary proletariat very early in their life, much before the proletariat even became a sizeable class in Germany, and they did it purely deductively. They explained it in 1845 as follows:

“It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will be historically compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organization of bourgeois society today.”5

Three years later, in their Communist Manifesto, they apodictically proclaimed, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” Also apodictic was their assertion that “the working men have no country,” which was logically followed by the call “Working men of all countries, unite!” On this question, Lenin convinced me (and millions of other activists) more when he asserted that the laboring people cannot emancipate themselves through an autonomous movement of their own, because they lacked the will and the revolutionary consciousness required for this goal, which must be brought to them by a group of

To understand political history, it’s quite pertinent to figure out why the working class in the industrial West was reluctant to revolt against Capitalism.

professional revolutionaries. A few years before Lenin, Eduard Bernstein had maintained that proletarians of the industrially advanced countries of Europe did not even have any reason for willing to overthrow capitalism. He asserted that educated/trained workers/employees actually wanted to be integrated into the given system and rise within it.

For Lenin, Tito, Mao, and Ho-Chi-Min, and also for Fidel and Che, the primary, immediate, and urgent task had been to overthrow the hated oppressive regimes of their respective countries – in the case of China, Yugoslavia, and Viet Nam, these were even foreign imperialist invaders occupying the country. There was no question of trying this overthrow later, when the proletariat would have become the immense majority of the population. After fulfilling this immediate task, Lenin, Tito, Mao, and Ho, being communists, could not but try to build a socialist society on the ground and in the situation they found given. They could not have postponed this work in order to do it in the pure way as prescribed by Marx, i.e. waited until their country had achieved the industrial development level of Germany or Britain in the 1870s–1880s, their proletariat had become the immense majority of the population, and had also developed the right revolutionary consciousness.

Already, when I was a young student and had read the Communist Manifesto, I had some doubts on this point. It was wrong, I thought, to say “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” In any revolution, every revolutionary can lose her life or limbs. After a failed one, she can be incarcerated and lose her livelihood; her dependents can descend into a state of penury. To say that the proletariat (as a class) “have a world to win” is for the average proletarian too abstract a promise of compensation for the said concrete risks and sufferings. Only the inspired are willing to take them. It is alright for a manifesto to contain such high-flown words, but it is better to know that they do not correspond to the reality.

Also the sentence “The working men have no country” was nothing more than an assertion in extravagant words. How far-fetched, how unrealistic and hollow all these words were, was demonstrated just 31 years after Marx’s death, when, in the 1st

Working men from enemy countries fought against and killed each other with shocking ferocity in the First World War.

World War, the working men of the advanced industrialized countries of Europe not only did not prevent the war, but also, obeying their heads of state, readily went to the front to fulfill their patriotic duty, namely to kill the working men of their respective enemy countries.

Even after socialists/communists had made a revolution – alternatively, won a revolutionary antiimperialist war – and took over power in Russia, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, their armies, made up of their working men of all kinds (few proletarians in the Marxian sense), fought against one another, because of petty disputes (partly border disputes). So far as I know, generations of Marxist theoreticians have failed to devote enough attention to this aspect of human nature, which also socialist/communist idealists regularly fall victim to. Only Lenin may have been aware of this serious problem when he advocated the right of peoples to self-determination. In spite of this history, even today as always, in all countries, on May 1st demonstrations and rallies, one can observe socialists, communists, leftists mindlessly shouting vacuous slogans like “workers of all countries unite”, “long live international solidarity”.

I think some people make a revolution – let us modestly say they just revolt – when life under the prevailing conditions has in some sense or another become unbearable – objectively and materially for the broad masses, subjectively for highly sensitive (mostly) young people. Some of them – like Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky etc. – are cool, intellectual and analytical types, others, such as Mao, Fidel and Che, are more like daredevils. They revolt irrespective of whether the time is ripe or not, irrespective of whether the proletariat has understood its world-historic mission or not, irrespective of whether the proletariat joins the revolt or remains aloof. Mao led a communist revolution in an agrarian society, Che even tried to bring revolution to Congo and Bolivia, where there was no working class. Such people cannot just see exploitation and oppression happening and sit idly by.


Till now, in highly developed industrial countries like Germany, England etc., the working class has rejected the revolutionary role assigned to them by Marx and Engels. In Germany, their party, the Social-Democratic Party (SPD, founded in 1863–1875) pursued the reformist strategy advocated by Eduard Bernstein. In 1959, it even accepted capitalist market economy in their new program called the Godesberg Program. In Britain, the Labor Party, formed between 1893 and 1900, never explicitly accepted Marxism as its political philosophy, but was for a long time regarded as a constitutional socialist party in some sense. In the 1990s, however, it became an arch protagonist of neoliberal capitalism.

It would be interesting to go deeper into the question why, in Russia, in 1917ff, the relatively small proletariat made the revolution together with soldiers of a demoralized army, while in Germany, in the Autumn of 1918, the very large proletariat and soldiers of a defeated army refused to heed the call for revolution (except in Munich, Bavaria). This is not the right place for that enquiry. But a few words from Leszek Kolakowski’s exposition on Bernstein’s revisionism can be quoted as a short answer:

Leszek Kolakwski’s critical analysis revealed the formation of new social classes and novel forms of privilege under state socialism.

“When Bernstein started writing, the real wages of the German working class had risen for a long time, and it had won numerous social security benefits and a shorter working day. … Of course, … there was still no universal suffrage in Prussia, … but the elections and the political mobilization as well as the relative power connected with them offered the prospect of a successful struggle for the republic and even assumption of power. … The real experience of the working class in no way supported the [Marxist] theory according to which their situation within the limits of capitalism was basically hopeless and not susceptible of improvements. … The history of revisionism does not support the [Marxist] claim that there is a natural revolutionary attitude in the working class … that results from its very situation as a seller of labor power and incurable victim in this system of alienation. … The traditional [Marxist] belief in the revolutionary mission of the proletariat was put into question. … Revisionism robbed the socialist doctrine of the noble pathos of the ‘final battle’ and total liberation.”7


Part II

How much Marxism has gone into my Eco-Socialism?

As regards Marxian/Marxist theory, it is a bit difficult for me to answer the question put above, because I have read only some, not all, of the works of Marx and Engels. Much of my knowledge of their theory is based on reading secondary literature written by well-known Marxists of earlier decades (Sweezy, Mandel. Leontiev, Kolakowski, Vranicki etc.). I, moreover, never believed that intelligent people and scholars of the twentieth century could not study and understand the problems of their century without always asking what Marx had exactly written about an issue. After all, the authors of Limits to growth,8 such an important book for our century, were not known for their Marx scholarship.

Agents of Change?

 The leaders of the previous revolutionary changes may or may not have come from the ranks of revolutionary proletarians, but without a good leadership overthrow of any capitalist, feudal, imperialist or any other sort of oppressive-exploitative regime would not have been possible. Whether the societies they built up thereafter could be called “socialist” has been a disputed question, which I cannot take up here.

People who have some knowledge of history know what political role the “working class parties” (sometimes called social-democratic ones) and their proletarian members have played in the highly developed industrial countries as well as in the less developed ones, such as India. Above, in part I, I have given a short pointer to that role. What we read there applies all the more

In general, Trade Unions have preferred to negotiate within the existing system rather than confronting capitalism or exploring an alternative to it.

to the trade unions. Sometimes, of course, they defied the wishes of the leadership of their respective parties, but fighting against capitalism has never been at the top of their agenda. In the developed world, they had already explicitly accepted capitalism, calling the system a “social market economy” and their relationship with capitalists “social partnership”. What they fought for has always been higher wages, better conditions of work, and defending their existing jobs, in short, for their own private and class interest. Occasionally, in the past, in the recent past, and at the present, even their national interest got top priority.

For me, all that means that today and in the near future, we cannot really think of the proletariat to be the chief agent of any radical transformation of capitalist society into some kind of a socialist one. For capitalism in the highly industrialized countries of Europe and America is still capable of maintaining a superficially democratic form of governance with many freedoms and a standard of living of averagely skilled workers that is many times higher than that of averagely skilled workers of underdeveloped countries. It is no wonder then that at least in the USA, such workers understand themselves, and are also understood by others, as members of the middle class. They have a strong interest in defending this system.

Now, if we tell them that in a future eco-socialist society, all, including skilled workers, will have to forgo many of the comforts and privileges that they today take for granted, they will curse us and wish to send us to hell. This has been my experience in Germany. Here, workers and their trade unions have always been the strongest opponents of the ecology movement. The proletariat’s political behavior in such countries may change if capitalism there loses the said capability, e.g. in a severe crisis of whatever nature. But in which direction they will then push society is anyone’s guess. It may be in the revolutionary socialist direction, or in the direction of fascism.

Crises and Collapse of Capitalism?

 Once, between 1929 and 1933, modern capitalist economy faced a severe crisis and stood on the verge of collapse. No society was then transformed into a socialist one. But in one fascists took over power. Now how probable is such a crisis in our days, or in the foreseeable future? After Marx’s death, four Marxian or Marxist crisis theories were in circulation. About two of them there has been some doubt as to whether Marx himself propounded them or his followers derived/developed them from his writings. The other two were creations of Marx himself.

The Breakdown theory

In vol. 3 of Capital, in a passage on the process of centralization of capital, Marx wrote: “This process would soon bring about the collapse of capitalist production … .”9 But this passage, according to Paul Sweezy, is nothing more than a description of a tendency, since Marx speaks in the same breath about “counteracting tendencies which continually have a decentralizing effect by the side of the centripetal ones”. Nowhere else did Sweezy find in Marx’s works “a doctrine of the specifically economic breakdown of capitalist production.” (ibid:192). However, there is another longish passage in Capital, Vol. 3, which is worth noting in this context. Marx writes:

“The true barrier to capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-valorization [i.e. getting returns and capital accumulation] appear as the starting and finishing point, as the motive and purpose of production; production is production only for capital, and not the reverse, i.e. the means of production are not simply means for a steadily expanding pattern of life for the society of the producers. The barriers within which the maintenance and valorization of the capital-value has necessarily to move – and this in turn depends on the dispossession and impoverishment of the great mass of the producers – therefore come constantly into contradiction with the methods of production that capital must apply to its purpose and which set its course towards an unlimited expansion of production, to production as an end in itself, to an unrestricted development of the social productive powers of labor. The means … comes into persistent conflict with the restricted end, … . If the capitalist mode of production is therefore a historical means for developing the material powers of production … , it is at the same time the constant contradiction between this historical task and the social relations of production [i.e. capitalist relations among members of society] corresponding to it9a

Some Marx scholars think that this key passage in Marx’s writings, which is his quintessential characterization of capitalism, can be interpreted as a theory of ultimate breakdown of the system. It has to be noted that Marx wrote it while presenting and elaborating on his famous Law of the Tendential Fall in the Rate of Profit. It is logically correct to conclude that if this law is a secular tendency, which Marx insisted it was, then sooner or later the rate of profit will fall to such a low level, that, for most capitalists, it won’t any more be interesting to invest their money in industry – in spite of all the “counteracting forces” that Marx also described.

Another point to be noted here is that Marx enumerated among his counteracting forces “more intense exploitation of labor”, “reduction of wages below their value” [possible because of competition among workers] and generation of “the relative surplus population” (i.e. unemployment). It is logical to conclude from this that Marx had a Pauperization Theory, that he thought universal pauperization of the working people would also contribute to the eventual breakdown of capitalism. In the passage quoted above Marx himself speaks of “dispossession and impoverishment of the great mass of the producers.” And pauperization theory logically leads to an under-consumption theory, which can also be called the (relative) over-production theory

A widespread revolution is yet to materialize and capitalism has displayed a survival capacity far beyond what Marx had anticipated.

I cannot here again discuss these Marxian and/or Marxist theories nor the criticisms thereof.10 Suffice it to say that the fact that 135 years after Marx’s death, capitalism has not broken down yet, and the fact that, on the contrary, it has now conquered the whole world, and even reconquered the lost territories – the USSR, Eastern Europe, China and Vietnam,10a – should actually give rise to the conjecture that the famous Law of the Tendential Fall in the Rate of Profit, the basis of all these theories mentioned above, was itself fundamentally flawed. I had this suspicion when I, as a young man, first read about this law. I did not then dare express it. I thought I had not read enough. So I just put a question mark on the margin of the book, and continued to live and work as a socialist with this suspicion in the back of my head.

But several years later, when I read the late Paul Sweezy’s book on Marxian economics, I found my suspicion confirmed. Sweezy, himself a famous Marxist, had pointed out the flaw as early as in 1942. For lack of space, I cannot here present his (and my) argumentation in detail. Just this:

“Marx was hardly justified, even in terms of his own theoretical system, in assuming a constant rate of surplus value simultaneously with a rising organic composition of capital.”11

In short, the enormous gains in labor productivity that capitalist production achieved and is today still achieving thanks to automation and the microelectronic revolution have made it possible that, in the industrial countries, large-scale impoverishment is today a thing of the past. At the most, one can today only speak cautiously of relative impoverishment. These huge gains in labor productivity have allowed capital to accept the higher wage demands of workers and enabled the state to be generous to the unemployed and the unemployable. Marx and Engels knew that these gains went hand in hand with losses in the sphere of ecological balance, also. But, that is another matter.

If and when Marx’s prediction comes true, i.e. capitalism breaks down because of its inner contradictions, and if we, for the sake of argument, ignore the ecological and resource-related crises, then Joseph Schumpeter takes over with his theory of creative destruction.12 That is what happened in the 1930s, and again in 2008ff.

Is the Situation Today Ripe for Socialism? Limits to Growth.

When the great financial crash of 2008 led to the Great Recession and another Great Depression, many Marxist leftists thought this could be the final crisis of capitalism. Others thought Marx was right after all. A renewed interest in reading Capital was observed. Ten years after 2008, I feel like quoting Schumpeter. In 1943, he wrote:

“The capitalist or any other order of things may evidently break down – or economic and social evolution may outgrow it – and yet the socialist phoenix may fail to rise from the ashes.13

The Great Depression of 2008ff did not prove Marx right, but instead it was Bernstein whose analysis was more apt. As during the Great Depression of the 1930s, this time too, the proletariat of the highly industrialized countries failed to deliver – even those of the worst-hit countries like the USA, Greece, Spain and Italy.14 They did not make any move whatsoever to overthrow capitalism. Today, in such countries, capitalism is of course not thriving, but it is also not dead. Marx, it seems, was totally wrong in writing, “The true barrier to capitalist production is capital itself.” Is then capitalism an immortal system?

It may not be so, because in the meantime, a new barrier has been discovered, namely limits to growth, which, if translated into Marxist jargon, would read limits to accumulation, limits to capitalist production. And these limits are – unlike Marx’s idea that capital itself is the true barrier – not a mere theoretical construct. They are concrete and tangible limits to the carrying capacity of

The neoliberal onslaught has hollowed out the earth and fundamentally destroyed its capacity for renewal.

the earth: (1) limits to the availability of renewable and nonrenewable resources needed for industrial production, (2) limits to the capacity of our natural environment to absorb or, alternatively, neutralize pollutants produced by us humans such as CO2 (the Earth’s sink function), and (3) the limit to the number of humans that can live on the earth without ruining the ecological balance of its biosphere.

However, they are not only a barrier to capitalist production, but to any kind of industrial production, also of the socialist kind. And all environmentally conscious humans, I presume, know of reports by serious scientists that say we have already overshot many of these limits. And journalistic reports show that many human societies have already collapsed, and many others are fast approaching collapse.

Prospects for Eco-Socialism

After reading Limits to growth, I realized that this discovery was of an import to economics, politics and socio-economic policy comparable to that of the Copernican discovery of the heliocentric movement of the planets. Like the latter, it demanded of us a wholesale paradigm shift, namely from the until then prevailing growth paradigm to what I call the limits-to-growth paradigm.15 The thought occurred to me that limits to growth may be the real and ultimate barrier that will cause the breakdown of capitalism. It later enabled me to come to a different and better understanding of the causes of the breakdown of the Soviet model of socialism.16 It meant for me that we must now bid farewell to development of productive forces as well as to economic growth and concentrate our efforts on economic sustainability, which would require economic contraction in (at least) the highly industrialized countries.

Here, I also saw a new kind of necessity and justification for socialism: A socialist society, because it would be egalitarian, would be an ethically better one and hence more desirable. And only such a society, because it would be planned, could guarantee that no person of working age would go without gainful employment, even in a contracting economy. And only such a socialist society can guarantee that an employed person would also be doing socially useful work. Only in such a society would it be possible that working people would accept policies designed for deliberately reducing production and consumption, for saving the earth. This new conception of socialism should be called, I thought, eco-socialism.

Marx and Engels had known a lot about the ecological problems and damages that arise from capitalism (actually from industrialism of any kind). But because they did not see any limits to development of productive forces, they did not take them seriously for their own vision of socialism. Engels expressly wrote:

“… after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realize and hence to control even the more remote natural consequences of at least our day to today production activities.”17 (emphasis added)

This defect was also noted by Ted Benton,18 a famous Marx scholar, who, in connection with the hostile attitude of Marx and Engels toward Malthus and his law of population, writes of a

“… defect in Marx’s economic thought” … which “derives, rather, from an insufficiently radical critique of the leading exponents of Classical Political Economy. … It is plausible to see this failure as in part due to a mystificatory feature of capitalist economic life itself, but it is also connected with a general, politically understandable, reluctance on the part of Marx and Engels to recognize nature-imposed limits to human potential in general, and to the creation of wealth in particular. …”
For political reasons, … Marx and Engels were strongly, and understandably, predisposed against ‘natural-limits’ arguments, ….”.

However much understanding one might have had up to 1972 for this politically motivated attitude of Marx and Engels, today, the Marxist conception of socialism based on stubborn refusal to recognize unpleasant realities must be regarded as obsolete.

While working on my book on eco-socialism, I was very surprised to find, that Mahatma Gandhi, who was neither known for scholarship nor for scientific thinking, needed only common sense to come, in 1928, to the conclusion for which scholars and scientists needed to wait until 1972. He wrote:

“The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [Btitain] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”19

Yet, it was Marx from whom I got the clue to the theoretical thought that eco-socialism might succeed where earlier socialisms based more or less on his and Engels’ theory failed. Marx wrote in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore, mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since … it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.”20

I interpreted the quote as follows: The capitalist social order has not perished yet because until now, there has been enough room in it for all the productive forces to develop. Today, however, this issue is irrelevant. For against the background of the global ecological crisis and rapidly dwindling resources, the global economy, especially the advanced industrial economies, must contract to a sustainable level. That is the task today. Technologically, its solution is easy. There is no need to develop new technologies. But there is a political need to conceive (which is difficult) new relations of production that would allow, indeed facilitate, the fulfillment of this task. Eco-socialism is one such conception. It was conceived in the womb of the existing society and has, now, gained remarkable maturity.

At this point comes up the question whether this interpretation of mine is at all in consonance with the original quotation, which expresses one of the main points of the theory of history of Marx and Engels. It is obviously not. Marxists have always maintained that private capitalism had become a fetter to the development of productive forces and that the fetter must be shattered. Take, for instance. the following two quotes from Principles of Communism, an early work of Engels:

“It is clear that, up to now, the forces of production have never been developed to the point where enough could be developed [produced?] for all, and that private property [i.e. capitalism] has become a fetter and a barrier in relation to the further development of the forces of production.”


“… though big industry [large-scale industry] in its earliest stage created free competition, it has now outgrown free competition; … for big industry, competition and generally the individualistic organization of production have become a fetter which it must and will shatter;”21

But now we are saying the productive forces have developed so much that they have become destructive; so they must be fettered and thus prevented from developing further.

I would like to express this inconsonance with a beautiful quote from Walter Benjamin, a famous Marxist literary critique of the 1930s, who, in a different critical political situation, wrote:

“Marx says revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But perhaps it is entirely different. Revolutions are perhaps the attempt of humanity travelling in a train to pull the emergency brake.” 22

Eco-socialism is the most important step in the direction of earth’s regeneration.

Today, only eco-socialism can actively pull the emergency brakes to stop the destructive course of the locomotive of industrialism. For this task, however, the proletariat is not the right agent. Proletarians are trained and want to drive locomotives, and drive them as fast as possible. Their vision, if it is at all a kind of socialism, is cornucopian socialism. Erich Fromm, the famous social psychologist, who also admired Marx very much, thought that today there are “only two camps: those who care and those who don’t care.”23

Today, humanity has come to a point where Marx’s theory of history reaches the end of its tether, and another theory of history takes over, that of Arnold Toynbee.24 When collapse of our current civilization stares us in the face, the issue is not whether or how we can further develop the forces of production, but whether we can meet the various challenges and transform, through contraction, our civilization into a sustainable one. I think with eco-socialism that is possible, but not with Marxian/Marxist socialism with its Promethean productivism.

Saral Sarkar was a member of the German Green Party. He writes about alternative politics and radical ecology. In the 1980s, the United Nations University commissioned Sarkar to write an authoritative historical study of the Green-alternative Movement in West Germany. The result of this study was published by the United Nations University Press (Tokyo) as a two-volume work – Green-Alternative Politics in West Germany – in 1993 and 1994.  Sarkar is also the author of The Crises of Capitalism –A Different Study of Political Economy. Berkeley: Counterpoint. 2012. He blogs at


Notes and References


  1. Marx: Theses on Feuerbach. In Marx-Engels: Selected Works. Vol.1.Moscow 1977. P.15.
  2. These were the show trials, in which several top leaders of the CPSU (B), such as Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, Bukharin etc. were found guilty of treason, sentenced to death, and subsequently executed.
  3. Paresh Chattopadhyay: “A Brief Note on Subrata Bagchi’s write up “Che Guevara …..”. in Frontier, 14.07.2014. Kolkata.
  4. (emphasis added)
  5. (not used)
  6. Marx and Engels: The Holy Family, in Collected Works, Vol. 4. Moscow. P.37.
  7. 6. (not used)
  8. Kolakowski, Leszek (1978/81) Die Hauptströmungen des Marxismus. Vol.2. Munich. P. 133f. (Tr. SS)
  9. Meadows, Donella and Dennis et al.: Limits to Growth – Report to the Club of Rome. London.1972.
  10. quoted in Sweezy, Paul M (1942) The Theory of Capitalist Development. New York: P.191.

9a. Marx: Capital Vol.3; translated by Fernbach. Penguin. P. 358f.)

  1. I have done that in my book The Crises of Capitalism. Berkeley, 2012.

10a. See my article on Vietnam’s return to capitalism:

  1. Sweezy (see note 9), P. 102.
  2. see Schumpeter; Joseph Alois (1912/1934) The Theory of Economic Development. Cambridge, MA.USA.
  3. Schumpeter, Joseph Alois (1943) Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. London. P. 56f.

14. See my essay Understanding the Present-day World Economic Crisis – An Eco-Socialist Approach.

  1. see Kuhn, Thomas (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago. I used and explained the terms in my book

Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanities Fundamental Choices. London (Zed Books). 1999.

  1. See Chapter 2 and 3 of my above mentioned book (note 15).
  2. Marx & Engels (1976) Selected Works (in 3 Volumes) Vol. 3. Moscow.
  3. Ted Benton: “Marxism and Natural Limits: An Ecological Critique and Reconstruction”, in New Left Review, I_178, Nov.–Dec. 1989.
  4. Gandhi, quoted in

Bandyopadhyay, Jayanta and Vandana Shiva (1989) “Political Economy of Ecology Movements”, in Ifda dossier 71, May/June.

  1. Marx: Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In Marx-Engels: Selected Works, Vol. 1. Moscow. 1977.
  2. Engels: Principles of Communism : Quoted from internet:
  3. Walter Benjamin, quoted in

Fetcher, Iring (1980) Überlebensbedingungen der Menschheit. Munich.P. 8).

  1. Fromm, Erich (1979) To Have or to Be. London.P.196.
  2. Toynbee, Arnold is the author of the monumental work A Study of History. (I have not read the 12 volumes, but some articles on his theory of history.)



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1 thought on “REDWeb Anniversary Series – “From Socialism to Eco-socialism – Turning Points On a Personal Journey Through The Marxist Theory of Socialism””

  1. Dr Sanjeev Kulkarni

    Very good analysis. Gave me a lot of new insights. Also gave a lot of strength to my convictions and actions.

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