Was Marx a degrowth communist?

by Diana O'Dwyer

Kohei Saito’s recent book, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism, is one of two recent Saito books to be translated into English. The second, Slow Down: How Degrowth Communism Can Save the Earth, was a bestseller in Japan and was published in English in January. Marx in the Anthropocene is a more scholarly work that seeks to prove, through close readings of Marx’s later writings, that he ended his life as a degrowth communist. Not surprisingly, this effort to resituate Marx as the long-lost grandfather of the degrowth movement has proved controversial (see here and here).

I’ll concentrate here on what I think are the two main arguments in Saito’s book that produce useful food for thought for socialists and environmental activists regardless of whether you think (or care!) if Marx was “really” a degrowth communist or not.

The productive forces of capital are not progressive

Saito argues that Marx re-evaluated his initial belief that capitalism was “historically progressive”. In other words he came to question the belief, commonly held by the vast majority of Marxists ever since, that the further development of capitalism is broadly beneficial because it develops the “productive forces”.

This is an umbrella term for the main elements in the production process that combine with human labour and raw materials to produce commodities or economic output. They include technology, machinery and techniques but also human knowledge, skills and health, the way workplaces are organised (e.g. artisanal production or production lines) — forms of management, engineering and natural conditions or the general health of the environment. The level of development of these productive forces has traditionally been seen by Marxists as indicating how “advanced” a society is.

Saito problematises this by emphasising that, for Marx, the level of development of the productive forces is both qualitative and quantitative. So it’s not just a question of how much output a given level of development can produce but also the quality of what is produced and whether the production process undermines or strengthens the basis for further development, in particular by damaging or enhancing the environment. In this regard, Saito highlights the distinctive character of the “productive forces of capital”, which he argues are neither neutral nor easily commandeered by the working class and turned to their ends.

Here he foregrounds Marx’s concept of the real subsumption of labour in Capital Volume 1. This refers to how “capital organises cooperation in the labour process in such a way that individual workers can no longer conduct their tasks alone and autonomously, but are subjugated to the command of capital”. It follows that the increase of productive forces under capitalism subordinates workers more and more to the command of capital, in particular through “the separation of conception from execution” (Marx in the Anthropocene, Cambridge University Press, 2022, p.148).

The classic example is the factory production line where each worker knows how to do their individual job, but not how it all fits together. Workers are deskilled and have little or no knowledge of how to source raw materials, transport or sell their products. Only the capitalist knows all this. Such problems are exacerbated when production chains are organised globally, with the involvement of several different capitalists overseeing different links in the chains, but none of them understanding it fully either.

Saito extrapolates from this to argue that it is the relations of production, or class relations, that determine the nature of the productive forces. So capitalist class relations — the exploitation of working class labour by capitalists — produce regressive productive forces that deskill and atomise workers — and also destroy the environment. Here Saito quotes the Hungarian Marxist István Mészáros:

[The] basic contradiction of the capitalist system of control is that it cannot separate ‘advance’ from destruction, nor ‘progress’ from waste – however catastrophic the results. The more it unlocks the powers of productivity, the more it must unleash the powers of destruction; and the more it extends the volume of production, the more it must bury everything under mountains of suffocating waste.


All of this means that it’s not enough to simply take the productive forces of capital into collective ownership to create socialism — to take over McDonalds and maybe change the menu a bit, or to socialise global banana production, as today’s productivist Marxists or fully-automated-luxury-communists would have us believe. The whole production process would need to be completely reorganised and much of it, like the fossil fuels or arms industries, would need to be scaled back or even destroyed. Such a reorganisation would likely decrease productivity by reversing specialisation or excessive division of labour and democratising the labour process.

There is a parallel here with Lenin’s advocacy of “smashing” the state rather than taking it over. The capitalist state is an inherently repressive institution so we have to smash it and build something new by taking whatever positive elements of it exist (like healthcare or education) and recombining them on a higher level. Saito’s argument implies that, as Michael Löwy has argued, we will need to do something similar with the productive forces of capital. Just like the capitalist state, repression and class relations are embedded right into them.

Saito argues that: 

 “when the ‘productive forces of capital’ must be transformed into ‘productive forces of social labour’, the transfer of ownership alone does not solve the problem. If the separation of ‘conception’ and ‘execution’ continues, a bureaucratic class would rule general social production instead of capitalist class, so the alienated condition of the working class would basically remain the same. Environmental destruction would also continue under bureaucratic rule.”


Arguably, this was a big part of what happened in the Soviet Union. For Saito, the concept of the real subsumption of labour demonstrates “Marx’s recognition that the further development of ‘productive forces of capital’ does not lead to the establishment of a post-capitalist society” (p.208). So, “Today’s (eco)socialism cannot simply utilize the productive forces of capital as the basis for a future society.” (p.158).

Under degrowth communism, only those productive forces compatible with a radically democratic ecosocialist society would be developed, and often more qualitatively than quantitatively. So rather than continuously expanding production and consumption through developing more efficient machines for churning out more disposable products, or developing better algorithms for predicting which particular disposable products people might want to buy, instead protecting nature or improving human health would be prioritised as qualitative development of productive forces.

This would be consistent with Marx’s understanding of the relationship between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. Satisfying material needs lays the basis for the flourishing of human freedom under communism. Unlimited growth in the productive forces, which is driven by the pursuit of profit under capitalist class relations rather than human needs, is not necessary. On the contrary, Marx saw “the shortening of the working-day” — with the inevitable reduction in potential output that would entail — as the “basic prerequisite” for the “development of human energy” characteristic of “the true realm of freedom”.

Marx’s studies of the natural sciences and communal societies 

Saito’s second main argument is that Marx’s studies towards the end of his life reflect an attempt to sketch out an alternative socialist future that would not be based on continued development of capitalist productive forces. To this end, he focused his attention on the natural sciences (such as geology) and pre-capitalist societies, including ancient Rome, India, Algeria, Latin America, the Iroquois in North America and Russian agrarian communes. 

According to Saito, at the same time as Marx’s attitude towards the development of the productive forces under capitalism changed, so did his attitude towards pre-capitalist, communalist societies. Previously, he had regarded them as inferior to capitalist societies but now he saw elements in them that were superior. He realised that these could be recombined with the positive aspects of capitalist economic development to create a new society on a higher plane of human development: 

“even though the productive forces of mark association are much lower than Western capitalist societies, they are ‘superior’ in that they had a much more conscious regulation of their metabolic interaction with nature, simultaneously securing social equality and soil fertility. This was the source of their long-lasting natural vitality. Since productive forces of capital do not provide the foundation for a post-capitalist society, Marx was prompted to argue that Western societies need to learn different ways of organizing metabolism from these agrarian communes”


This also led Marx to reconsider his earlier assumption that all countries would go through the same stages of modernisation in their development, through capitalism, to socialism and communism. Like Lenin and Trotsky, he came to conclude that capitalism did not have to develop fully before there could be a socialist revolution. The pièce de résistance of Saito’s argument here is a letter Marx wrote to the Russian socialist Vera Zasulich in 1881, which goes on to advise her that:

“the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia. But in order that it might function as such, the harmful influences assailing it on all sides must first be eliminated, and it must then be assured the normal conditions for spontaneous development.”


For Saito, Marx’s letter is “the crystallization of his non-productivist and non-Eurocentric view of the future society” and shows that he “recognized that the persistent stability of communes without economic growth is the underlying foundation for realizing sustainable and egalitarian metabolic interaction between humans and nature” (p. 8; 208).

Saito’s argument in the book is exhaustively well-researched and quite convincing while you are reading it. But I’m fundamentally not all that interested in what Marx “really” thought because I don’t think that automatically makes it the correct position to have now. What’s more interesting is whether Marx’s ideas can be illuminating and useful with regard to the social and ecological disasters we are faced with now and building emancipatory movements capable of addressing them.

From that perspective, I think the two main arguments examined here are useful — in sketching out the kind of revolution against capitalism and the kind of future ecosocialist society we need. A revolution that does not simply “take over” capitalism in some kind of superficial “regime change” that leaves much of the underlying production processes and rationales intact, but a revolution that means a complete reorganisation not only of production, but of values and value, and how human society is organised.

This article first appeared in Rupture, magazine of the Irish eco-socialist organisation RISE, and is republished here with their kind permission.



Diana O'Dwyer works as a researcher for People Before Profit in Ireland and is a member of the RISE network.

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