The following article, reprinted from MR (Monthly Review) Online – and also published by the Poyang Lake Journal in China – is an extensive interview by three Chinese scholars with Professor John Bellamy Foster on the specificity of the ecological civilization project to China. Bellamy Foster is a significant and original Marxist theoretician and edits the long-established independent socialist journal Monthly Review. Much of his work in recent years has been devoted to exploring the synergy between ecology and Marxism.
The interviewers note that he opposes and refutes the severing of connections between Chinese ecological tradition and Marxism, in a way that would place the latter in opposition to Chinese traditional culture. Bellamy Foster contends that synergizing the various factors involved is a daunting task, “but I would immediately dispel the notion that… [it is] insurmountable by pointing to one of the foremost Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century: Joseph Needham.”
Bellamy Foster’s citing of Needham in this context is significant. The main compiler of the monumental, multi-volume series, Science and Civilization in China, in its obituary, the Independent newspaper described him as “possibly the greatest scholar since Erasmus.” Yet his contributions to Marxism remain largely overlooked by the left. According to Bellamy Foster, “For Needham, it was the dialectical vision of Karl Marx that was most crucial in creating a renewed ecological vision in the present day. But it was also necessary to draw on… traditional Chinese thought,” including Daoism, a method that Bellamy Foster also employs.
Developing his argument that it is specifically China’s socialist orientation that enables the country to be today’s pioneer in the development of an ecological civilization, Bellamy Foster notes:
“As Needham insisted, there are deep ecological roots in Chinese culture. Nevertheless, it is socialism with Chinese characteristics and ecological Marxism that have put the concept of ecological civilization on the agenda today in China in a way that is entirely absent in the capitalist world system itself… [President] Xi spoke of ‘socialist eco-civilization,’ involving ‘a new model of modernization with humans developing in harmony… [with] nature.’ Here he was acknowledging that there can be no true ‘global endeavor for ecological civilization’ unless it is at the same time a movement toward socialism.”
In contrast, Bellamy Foster notes that: “Although it is true that the notion of a Green New Deal has been raised by progressives in the West, that conception is usually seen as simply a Green Keynesianism or green corporatism… Moreover, while China has made moves to implement its radical conception of ecological civilization, which is built into state planning and regulation, the notion of a Green New Deal has taken concrete form nowhere in the West. It is merely a slogan at this point without any real political backing within the system. It was talked about by progressive forces and then rejected by the powers that be.”
In the course of the interview, Bellamy Foster develops his thinking on the process of urbanization and the evolving rural/urban balance in China, in the course of which he makes the important point that: “One of the extraordinary results of the Chinese Revolution that still persists today, but is not commonly understood in the West, is that despite the breakup of collective farms and the earlier communal structure, the land in China still is collectively owned by the rural population. In this sense, de-collectivization did not extend to full privatization. Agriculture is still to a considerable extent organized by village communities.”
Questioned on his assertion that “ecological communism cannot be truly realized if there is no environmental proletariat, Bellamy Foster takes issue with the historic influence of economism in socialist thought, explaining that: “The concept of the proletariat was economistically reduced to the industrial proletariat or industrial working class and commonly restricted to the urban population. Yet Marx and Engels themselves had a much wider conception of the proletariat, not restricted to, say, the role of factory workers. Nor did they see material conditions simply in narrow economic terms, but rather as encompassing the larger environment of the workers.”
This, he asserts, can be most clearly seen in Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England, and continues: “Contrary to myth, Marx and Engels were not anti-peasant but wrote a great deal supporting peasant class struggles. Moreover, the great socialist revolutions in Russia, China, and elsewhere, involved proletarian-peasant alliances… The ‘wretched of the earth’ today are struggling over material conditions that are as much environmental as economic, with changing environmental conditions an indirect product of world capital accumulation.”
All in all, this is a very serious and thought-provoking interview that merits careful reading.
Guo Jianren: Professor Foster, thank you for doing this interview. This is my first interview with you and, as far as I know, the first interview you have completed with an ecological Marxism scholar from mainland China. The honor is mine, especially as I have a fairly long acquaintance with your great works. Back in 2004, in my doctoral dissertation, I introduced your works on ecological Marxism in a systematic way to the Chinese Marxist academic readers. In the following decades, we have studied your ecological Marxism closely, and your important contributions have been recognized, examined, and disseminated further. Thank you again for giving this lecture on “Ecological Civilization and Ecological Revolution: An Ecological Marxist Perspective” at the invitation of the Sunshine Valley Cobb Ecological Institute. This interview will mainly follow the key points of your speech.
Your lecture begins with the dialectical connections among ecological civilization, ecological Marxism, and ecological revolution, viewed from both historical and practical perspectives. You demonstrate the importance of ecological socialism or ecological Marxism in the conception of ecological civilization, and point out that in non-socialist countries, people can only talk about ecological civilization in an abstract and empty way. You oppose and refute the cultural theorist Jeremy Lent’s interpretation of the conception of Chinese ecological civilization, which separates the connections between Chinese ecological civilization, socialism, and the Marxist ideological tradition, placing Chinese traditional culture in opposition to Marxism. This makes Lent’s analysis seriously inconsistent with the historical process and practical reality of China’s ecological civilization’s conceptional development. In contrast, your analysis leads to an issue that we are very concerned about. In relation to your ecological-materialism method developed on the basis of historical materialism and dialectical materialism, and in accordance with the theoretical research into ecological Marxism and Chinese ecological civilization, the question arises: How is this connected to ideological and cultural elements other than Marxism, such as achievements in natural science, incorporation of Chinese traditional cultural concepts, or the role of Whiteheadian organic philosophy? This is a critical issue for studies of ecological Marxism in China right now, and one in which there is an urgent need for theoretical breakthroughs. Under the guidance of President Xi Jinping’s thoughts on ecological civilization in China, the practice of eco-civilization is making progress day by day. China’s practice of rapid renewal in this area requires continuous progress in theoretical updating, so that the development of practice and theory are advanced at an accelerating synergetic pace.
John Bellamy Foster: Thank you for the kind words on my work. Your first question is a very daunting one: How do we talk about the relation of Marxism, and particularly ecological Marxism, to the natural sciences, Whiteheadian process philosophy, organic philosophy, and traditional Chinese culture, all at the same time? How can these forms of theory and practice operate in synergetic ways to promote an ecological civilization in China today? Does this not present us with irresolvable conflicts? There are, of course, considerable contradictions here, but I would immediately dispel the notion that they are insurmountable by pointing to one of the foremost Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century: Joseph Needham. Needham was: (1) a pioneer in biochemistry and the history of science; (2) a Marxian theorist who advanced our understanding of the dialectics of nature and society; (3) a proponent of ecological materialism, (4) an admirer of Whiteheadian process philosophy; (5) the greatest Western expert (Sinologist) on Chinese science and culture of his day; and (6) an advocate of traditional Chinese culture, particularly for its ecological conceptions, describing himself as an “honorary Taoist.” In Needham, all of the traditions that you mention were already united, if in a somewhat eclectic way.
Chinese science, Needham argued, had long embodied “an organic philosophy of Nature…closely resembling that which modern science has been forced to adopt after three centuries of mechanical materialism.” For Needham, it was the dialectical vision of Karl Marx that was most crucial in creating a renewed ecological vision in the present day. But it was also necessary to draw on Whiteheadian process philosophy and on traditional Chinese thought. Daoism, he explained, did not deny the need for action, but insisted that there should be “no action contrary to nature.” Needham thus argued for a dialectical ecological materialism that drew on numerous sources, all of which were antithetical to capitalism. I discuss Needham’s ideas in my book, The Return of Nature. He is a reminder that Marxism is not confined to social science, but also has a second foundation in natural science. In fact, the notion of dialectics within Marxism allows for no absolute division between natural and social science.
As Needham insisted, there are deep ecological roots in Chinese culture. Nevertheless, it is socialism with Chinese characteristics and ecological Marxism that have put the concept of ecological civilization on the agenda today in China in a way that is entirely absent in the capitalist world system itself. Without a movement toward socialist production, there can be no real movement towards a system of ecological civilization. Xi Jinping has spoken of the “global endeavor for ecological civilization.” Yet central to the view I presented in my talk was the notion that ecological civilization in today’s world requires is a strong commitment to socialism. Thus, in the same speech, Xi spoke of “socialist eco-civilization,” involving a “a new model of modernization with humans developing in harmony of nature.” Here he was acknowledging that there can be no true “global endeavor for ecological civilization” unless it is at the same time a movement toward socialism, as the harsh lessons of the Anthropocene Epoch, beginning around 1950, have shown. It is this bitter experience that teaches us that we must find another way.
GJ: In your speech, you take your own country, the United States of America, as an example, and analyze the measures taken the New Green Deal in ecological governance under the Western political system, as well as its incompleteness and infeasibility. In contrast, you discern the positive factors and methods such as socialist orientation, retaining some economic planning capabilities, national direction, collective values, and mobilization of traditional cultures, etc., in China’s process of building ecological civilization. You note that these practices are the concrete embodiment and manifestation of China’s “five-in-one” overall layout in the construction of ecological civilization. In this speech, you also mention the connection between the dominant political-economic logic and the effects this has on people’s lifestyles. We know in 2014, you republished The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism: An Elaboration of Marxist Political Economy, first published in the 1980s, in which your research on monopoly capital is also profound. Would you like to briefly explain your understanding of the general mechanism between political-economic logic and ecological civilization construction from the perspective of political reformation? Please share your more findings on this topic with the Chinese Ecological Marxist academic community.
JBF: The main question guiding my talk was why a far-reaching historical program such as that of ecological civilization could be introduced in China, while the very notion of the creation of an ecological civilization, particularly when viewed in terms of the scale of changes contemplated, was almost entirely absent from public discourse, even on the left, in the United States, Europe, and indeed, most of the world. Although it is true that the notion of a Green New Deal has been raised by progressives in the West, that conception is usually seen as simply a Green Keynesianism or green corporatism. That is, it is conceived as a narrow economic program, fully in accord with capitalism, aimed simply at the promotion of green jobs. It falls far short of Chinese aspirations for an ecological civilization, which are aimed at the development of the whole culture, as well as deep political-economic and environmental changes in which the formation of a more sustainable relationship between human beings and nature is emphasized. Moreover, while China has made moves to implement its radical conception of ecological civilization, which is built into state planning and regulation, the notion of a Green New Deal has taken concrete form nowhere in the West. It is merely a slogan at this point without any real political backing within the system. It was talked about by progressive forces and then rejected by the powers that be.
Both the current Democratic administration in Washington and their Republican opponents have rejected a Green New Deal program, even in name. Joe Biden ran partly on the basis of opposition to the progressive Green New Deal proposed by some Democrats. He promised the corporations and the wealthy that nothing fundamental would change. All of this is worlds away from China’s emphasis on ecological civilization, which is seen as at the core of the building of socialism. China, like other countries, of course is confronted with massive ecological contradictions. Yet, it has a roadmap for ecological transformation which is lacking in the imperial core of the capitalist system.
It is correct to see this as a question of differing political-economic systems and related in this respect to the theory of monopoly capitalism. The nations of what Samir Amin called the “triad”—the United States and Canada, Western Europe, and Japan—are all countries that are at the center of monopoly capitalism. This is capitalism in the age of giant corporate monopolies that are vertically and horizontally integrated, largely taking the form of conglomerates and making up the world’s leading multinational corporations that dominate the entire global supply chain. The theory of monopoly capitalism originated early in the twentieth century with the work of Rudolf Hilferding and V. I. Lenin, and was carried forward by many thinkers, including Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in the United States—most famously in their work, Monopoly Capital. It emphasized the effective banning of genuine price competition under monopoly capitalism, which is associated with indirect collusion between giant corporations who nonetheless continued to compete over the low-cost position and in areas like the sales effort (marketing). The result was a widening of the gross profit margins of the monopolistic corporations.
Monopoly capitalism, it is argued, tends toward high unemployment/underemployment, low utilization of productive capacity, and stagnant accumulation, resulting in a slow growth trend. This is associated with the overaccumulation of productive capacity in relation to demand and of the concentration of surplus at the top of society. The overconcentration of wealth and income at the top becomes itself a barrier to capital accumulation. The crisis tendencies of the society are therefore not due to problems in the generation of economic surplus (surplus value), but in its absorption through investment and consumption. This whole set of structural conditions makes economic (and ecological) waste functional for the system as a whole, resulting in an emphasis on wasteful forms of consumption and of use, all aimed at keeping the economy going while the most basic needs of much of the population (food, health care, housing) are not met or are grossly inadequate. Military spending becomes a major part of this waste economy. In recent decades, the growth of unproductive expenditures has been extended to a massive financialization of the economy or an increase in speculative debt expansion—not simply cyclically, but on a more or less permanent basis, leading to financial bubbles and ever-increasing financial crisis tendencies, in which that the state is compelled constantly to bail out capital at the expense of the rest of the community.
The great conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter once defended monopoly capital as embodying “creative destruction.” What we are seeing today, however, is the creative destruction of the entire world environment, extending to the planet itself. In such a system of catastrophic capitalist development, there is no room for the notion of an ecological civilization, even on the part of most leftist critics, because this would require “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large,” to quote from The Communist Manifesto. Such a reconstitution is in fact possible in ecological terms due to the waste, irrationality, destruction, and loss of human potential, all of which point to capacities of the society that are misused or lay dormant within the capitalist constellation of things. The answer is to promote a society geared to human needs and development, use values, and the protection of the environment, which, of course, requires a shift toward socialism.
GJ: In your speech, you emphasize the importance of Marx’s three concepts, “the universal metabolism of nature,” “social metabolism,” and “metabolic rift,” for the development of ecological Marxism, and point out that these three concepts are a trinity. Can these concepts be regarded as the development of the metabolic rift theory systematically expounded in Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, published in 2000? We understand China’s urbanization process is still going on, which partly means that the trend of population concentration from rural areas to urban still continues. However, rural revitalization in China has been promoted to an important strategic position, which requires the retention of a certain scale of population in the country. In addition, classic Marxist writers such as Marx and Lenin tend to believe that population dispersion is more favorable to the balanced development of economy and society and to the reduction of land exploitation. You have covered all these in this speech. Combining with your analysis of Marx’s three concepts—universal metabolism of nature, social metabolism, and metabolic rift—would you please provide constructive theoretical opinions on the relationship between China’s urbanization, rural revitalization, and the practice of ecological civilization?
JBF: When I wrote Marx’s Ecology, my emphasis was on Marx’s concepts of social metabolism and metabolic rift. Although it was always implicit in the argument that Marx had a universal conception of nature and of metabolism underlying this thought, this was not drawn out explicitly. Part of the problem was that the notion of the universal metabolism of nature was not as explicit in Capital. It was only when I did a careful study of his Economic Manuscript of 1861–1863, where the “universal metabolism of nature” was dealt with explicitly by Marx, that I realized the full dimensions of Marx’s analysis in this respect. This did not contradict the interpretation in Marx’s Ecology in any way, but it made Marx’s dialectical approach to ecological contradictions—associated with the metabolic rift—more evident. I developed this new understanding for the first time, I believe, in my article, “Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature,” in Monthly Review in December 2013. This was then carried further, together with Brett Clark in our article, “Marxism and the Dialectics of Ecology,” in the October 2016 issue of Monthly Review. There we combined Marx’s dialectic of the universal metabolism of nature, the social metabolism, and the metabolic rift with István Mészáros’s analysis of “The Conceptual Framework of Marx’s Theory of Alienation” in his book Marx’s Theory of Alienation, in order to clarify the dialectical relations. This, then, became the more unified understanding of Marx’s dialectic in this area, a view that is central to my new book, Capitalism in the Anthropocene.
I think there is a relation between this dialectic of ecology and the question of urbanization versus rural revitalization in China. You are right that Marx, Frederick Engels, and Lenin tended to emphasize the need for dispersal of population to rural areas. Placed in this context, China’s plans for further rapid urban growth have raised all sorts of ecological questions. Would such potentially hyper-urbanization enlarge the metabolic rift in China? This is a question I have myself asked. The massive reliance on migrant labor for production in the export zones is a related issue to how the rural/urban disjuncture is to be managed. I have been encouraged, though, by China’s rural reconstruction movement and, more recently, by its rural revitalization program. One of the extraordinary results of the Chinese Revolution that still persists today, but is not commonly understood in the West, is that despite the breakup of collective farms and the earlier communal structure, the land in China still is collectively owned by the rural population. In this sense, de-collectivization did not extend to full privatization. Agriculture is still to a considerable extent organized by village communities. In recent years, China has shifted back to the lessons of Marxian political economy. With only 7 percent of the world’s arable land, China is able to feed 20 percent of the world’s population. In the decade between 2003 and 2013, it increased its grain production by 50 percent. Between 2013 and 2019 the number of towns with supply and marketing cooperatives, designed to improve resource distribution in rural areas, increased from 50 percent to 95 percent. Recently, China was able to eradicate extreme poverty across the country, largely in rural areas. In the urban sector, the Communist Party of China (CPC) under Xi’s leadership has been calling for the construction of more ecological cities. These developments reflect the recognition of a dialectic in this area that has long been part of Marxist theory. The contradictions remain, however, and huge efforts have to be made to overcome them. China is seeing many ecological struggles currently in rural areas combatting pollution. But there seems to be a symbiosis here with the strong priorities of the society itself, which offers hope of further progress.
GJ: In the part of the speech regarding “revolutionary ecological socialism and the future,” you mention that ecological communism cannot be truly realized if there is no environmental proletariat, because to refer simply to ecological civilization, ecological Marxism, and ecological revolution, is not enough; we must talk about the agents of change. You have explained this in your Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution, published this year. Would you please give more specific explanation about the environmental proletariat for Chinese readers in this interview? For example, what are the characteristics of the environmental proletariat? What are the similarities and differences between the environmental proletariat and the economic proletariat? What is your meaning in saying that the environmental proletariat is the most basic and prime subject of ecological revolution to realize ecological communism?
JBF: The notion of the environmental proletariat is meant partly as a corrective in our understanding of the proletariat in history and Marxian theory, and also as a way of understanding emerging historical conditions this century. An aspect of the economism that plagued much of socialist thought—including Marxist theory—was not only a de-emphasis on the political and cultural, but also a narrowing of the material conditions to the economic, industrial, and technological aspects characterizing capitalist society. The concept of the proletariat was economistically reduced to the industrial proletariat or industrial working class and commonly restricted to the urban population. Yet Marx and Engels themselves had a much wider conception of the proletariat, not restricted to, say, the role of factory workers. Nor did they see material conditions simply in narrow economic terms, but rather as encompassing the larger environment of the workers.
This wider conception of the proletariat is most evident in Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England, which viewed the proletariat primarily in terms of environmental conditions, directing attention to epidemiological conditions, such as the spread of disease, urban pollution, housing, injuries, class-based mortality rates, etc. Engels was writing right after the famous Plug Plot Riots, as they were called in England at the time, and in the context of the radical Chartist movement. Adopting an environmental and epidemiological approach, he wrote of the “social murder” at the working class, referring to the much lower life expectancy of workers and the refusal of capitalist society to address the conditions that lay behind this.
Although for years the working class in socialist circles was viewed almost exclusively in terms of industrial action, I think this broader conception of what we can call the environmental (not simply economic) proletariat, already present in classical historical materialism, points to the larger reality in which class consciousness—and particularly revolutionary class consciousness—grows. It encompasses also issues of the social reproduction of workers in the family. And it is from this perspective that we can understand alliances, especially in the Global South, among the working class, including proletarianized agricultural laborers, landless workers, and the peasantry. Contrary to myth, Marx and Engels were not anti-peasant but wrote a great deal supporting peasant class struggles. Moreover, the great socialist revolutions in Russia, China, and elsewhere, involved proletarian-peasant alliances. If we look at things culturally as well, an ecological materialism of the kind emphasized here fits well with the cultural materialism of figures like Raymond Williams.
In terms of the present day, where the planetary ecological crisis is increasingly becoming the leading factor governing material conditions, it is inevitable that an environmental proletariat (conceived in the broadest sense, in which we can also include the ecological peasantry) will emerge, and in fact is emerging. The “wretched of the earth” today are struggling over material conditions that are as much environmental as economic, with changing environmental conditions an indirect product of world capital accumulation. These developments are occurring in such a way that it is often impossible to distinguish the economic from the environmental causes of the material conditions in which the working classes live. If there are food shortages it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between economic and environmental causes, and the same with water shortages. But the important thing is to recognize that these deteriorating material conditions are due to the social order of capitalism, which also blocks attempts to alleviate them, promoting social murder. The struggle against these material-environmental conditions will inevitably serve to unify and overall strengthen the working classes, a phenomenon that we can see all over the world—perhaps most especially Latin America—where an alliance is emerging in some countries, though full of contradictions and complexities, between traditional socialist struggles arising from a working-class base and the related struggles of the Indigenous people. Here the unity being forged is very much an ecosocialist one.
In China, too, we can see the significance of the environmental proletariat (and ecological peasantry) in movements all over the country. But it takes a different form since the environmental struggle is directed not so much against the CPC itself or the Chinese government, but at powerful local authorities and private capital, reflecting the complex, hybrid nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics. In China, given its revolutionary tradition, there is a mass line connecting workers to the CPC and the state, and the environmental conditions of the workers have in recent years been a crucial part of the process of synergetic change taking place. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the challenges. The low-lying delta of the Pearl River and the Guangdong industrial region from Shenzhen to Guangzhou is vulnerable to sea-level rise. This could especially affect working populations, undermining the environmental conditions of workers in the region. Rural revitalization, insofar as this accounts for the needs of the peasantry and peasant struggles, raises issues of material conditions that are as much environmental than narrowly economic. Everywhere in China today, and at all levels, there are enormous efforts being made to restore the environment.
GJ: China’s ecological civilization construction is an important part of global ecological governance and is also an important constructive force in the inevitable evolution of human civilization after the earth enters the Anthropocene. Could you please share with Chinese readers your views on the relationship between China’s ecological civilization construction and global ecological governance, and the relation between this ecological civilization construction and the great transformation of human civilization?
JBF: My talk, as I have indicated, focused on the problem that while the notion of ecological civilization has become a real force in China, it hardly exists elsewhere, outside of a few other socialist-oriented countries. It is interesting that the notion of ecological civilization arose first in the 1980s the Soviet Union, which was a post-revolutionary society—obviously with its own contradictions—but also generating, as Russian philosopher and cultural theorist Kati Chukhrov has ably demonstrated in her Practicing the Good, a level of social consciousness, that at its best was considerably more advanced than that of Western capitalism. The point here is that ecological civilization, certainly in the form advanced in China, requires a movement toward socialism for it to make headway. The inverse of this, though, is also true—a struggle for an ecological civilization necessarily gives added impetus to a movement toward socialism. China’s role in promoting ecological civilization as a stage in the development of socialism can be seen as its greatest gift to the world at present in terms of environmental governance.
Zhang Haiyan: Thank you, Professor Foster, for your wonderful speech, which brought us the vivid progress of Marxist thought with Western academic characteristics. It is clear that the Marxist classics mentioned in your speech already included ecological thoughts, like the universal metabolism of nature and social metabolism. This not only proves again that Marx’s thought reflected the social reality of his times, authentically and comprehensively, but also has a very enlightening significance for China’s current socialist practice. As early as our Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE), Chinese traditional society had the consciousness that “the four people—gentlemen, farmers, craftspeople, and merchants—are the keystone people for the country.” The classification and various living standards of “gentry, farmers, craftspeople and merchants,” as well as “three religions and nine streams,” were an important reality in the daily interaction of Chinese traditional society. I believe this is also the social-cognitive foundation for the immediate and wide social resonance and localization of Marxist thought on classes and classes struggle in China in the first half of twentieth century. However, according to Chinese traditional wisdom, the four-people division of society, into gentry, farmers, craftspeople, and merchants, is the same as the five-organ division of the human body: heart, liver, spleen, lung, and kidney. It does not simply refer to the strata of a country or the organs of a body, but refers to the different occupations, responsibilities of functional roles. Together, there is a wholesome entity with the integrity and self-consciousness of a family, a country, or a human being.
We had an era after liberation when all strata of society sincerely took part in the class struggle, known as the Cultural Revolution, but the operation of that logic soon arrived its end, and we have returned to the construction of a harmonious society now. Now, in the era of critical ecological crisis, what kind of people, group, or functional role do you understand as “ecological proletariat”? As the leading important subjective class reflecting the class contradictions in this era, what revolutionary actions shall the “environmental proletarians” take to realize their revolutionary ideas? Who or what is the target of this revolution? Will this plunge the world into a new dualism that process thinkers clearly oppose? What event will you see as an official kick-off signal or action for this ecological revolution? What kind of process will this revolution be and what kind of outcome will it have?
JBF: I appreciate this historical view and your opposition to the idea of a new dualism in China, which, as you say, “process thinkers” oppose. My argument on the environmental proletariat was not directed at China primarily, but rather at the still dominant capitalist world economy and the class and movement struggles all over the globe, which are now increasingly interconnected with the crisis of the planetary environment. Given the level of economic exploitation and imperialism directed at the Global South and the vast inequalities at the world level, the wretched of the earth have no choice but to rebel. These revolts will, insofar as they crystalize, will, I have argued, increasingly take the form of an emerging environmental proletariat, directed first and foremost at material survival, but ultimately aimed at sustainable human development. This is a new specter haunting capital. These developments are far too complex and dynamic to be seen simply in dualist terms. Rather, we have to perceive it as a spiral or a dialectical movement.
In China, precisely because it is a post-revolutionary society engaged in building socialism with Chinese characteristics, the nature of the struggle is quite different. China has incorporated the goal of ecological civilization into its constitution. Traditional Chinese values and socialism with Chinese characteristics have come together in the promotion of environmental values. There are all sorts of ecological struggles taking place in the society, many of these emanating directly from the populace (workers and peasants), who often find themselves in conflict with local authorities and private interests—China’s battle against corruption is relevant here too—in their pursuit of the wider societal goal of ecological civilization. This process of the development of ecological civilization and the positive role that the CPC and the Chinese state have played in the present period in its promotion is usefully discussed by John Cobb in China and Ecological Civilization: John B. Cobb in Conversation with Andre Vitchek.
We don’t know if China will succeed in overcoming its immense ecological contradictions. For example, it is faced with the gargantuan task today of rapidly reducing its enormous dependence on coal. But rather than worrying about China’s struggle to create an ecological civilization, I worry with it, and with the struggles of the Chinese people as a whole.
Meijun Fan: An ecological civilization also requires the transformation of education. It is clear that the current education system does not fit with the aims of ecological civilization. You have been teaching in universities for years, what is the main problem of the current education system? How it can be changed?
JBF: To speak of education for ecological civilization is to envision a revolutionary transformation in our whole way of thinking and way of life. At no point has capitalist “modernity,” or the culture of capitalism, been compatible with a view of civilization that is ecological. Rather, the dominant world order is conceived as an economic regime rooted in the endless accumulation of capital before anything else, promoting destructive competition, coupled with class (and monopoly) power, rooted in the pursuit of individual self-interest. Yet, ecological civilization necessarily points in a very different direction, involving limits on accumulation, competition, monopoly, and individual aggrandizement in the interest of the wider community, which includes community with the earth.
These differences can be seen in education itself. The dominant forms of education, arising out of capitalism, now taken to even further extremes under neoliberalism, emphasize hierarchical structures of learning, reductionist frames of thought, a complete rejection of all historical and critical thinking, imperial ideologies, unrestricted competition, elitism, privilege, and money as sole the measures of success. Education itself is increasingly brought directly into the market and the corporate model, training individuals simply for “competitive success.”
In contrast, education for ecological civilization would demand close acquaintance with the two great forms of knowledge: science and art. Science has to be seen as Marx viewed it, in terms of Wissenschaft, that is, embracing diverse forms of knowledge-systems based on reason and observation, extending well beyond the very narrow, restrictive conception of science that now prevails. Critical, dialectical, and historical thinking are indispensable, along with nurturing the ability to use the past to transform the present in order to create a qualitatively new future. Much of this means recovering knowledge that was lost or buried in the capitalist era, as well as resurrecting subterranean views. In this respect, a wide range of critical visions should be cultivated, including revolutionary Romantic and utopian visions, as well as socialism, and particularly Marxism, and numerous revolutionary vernaculars. Ecology, it should be understood, had its origins primarily in the work of socialists and radicals. Attention to the great variety of traditional and Indigenous cultures around the world is equally vital. Education should be understood as dialogic, in which students and teachers learn together as much as possible. Thus, there should be a vast opening up in the educational sphere, making education itself a revolutionary process aimed at both universal goals and the immediate needs of the population. Above all, what is required is imagination and the belief in community both with each other and the earth.
Fan: Many audiences who listened to your wonderful lecture are Chinese college students. Do you have any suggestions for them? What special contribution they can make to an ecological civilization in your view? Your input is highly appreciated.
JBF: In responding to what contributions Chinese college students might make with regard to the question of ecological civilization, I would like to point to the coincidence of two major historical developments: (1) the recovery and elaboration around the world of Marx’s theory of metabolic rift leading to contemporary ecological Marxism (or Marxian ecology), and (2) the emergence in China of the notion of ecological civilization, inspired in large part by Marxism, but also drawing thousands of years of Chinese culture. How these two major developments can be brought together is a crucial question for theory and practice.
In this century, we have seen a renaissance of radical ecological thought resulting from the recovery and elaboration of Marx’s theory of ecological crisis or his analysis of the metabolic rift. This has developed hand in hand with a return to Engels’s conception of the dialectics of nature, long rejected by the “Western Marxist” philosophical tradition but now increasingly recognized as an indispensable element of a materialist and dialectical view. These two developments, each of which are boundless in their implications, are revolutionizing our understanding of today’s planetary ecological crisis, generating the powerful critical tradition of ecological Marxism, which is currently developing on every continent.
Over same period the concept of ecological civilization came to prominence in China, beginning around 2002. In Hu Jintao’s landmark speech to the 17th National Congress of the CPC in 2007, the notion of ecological civilization or system-wide ecological transformation was presented primarily in terms of the principle of “harmonious” development, drawing on a concept deeply embedded in traditional Chinese culture, as exemplified by Daoism and Confucianism. However, ecological civilization was also depicted as a defining element of socialism with Chinese characteristics, requiring a transition away from the expropriation of nature endemic to capitalist modernity and pointing to the need for worldwide social transformations. It was thus closely related from the start to the Marxist critique of capitalism. Xi has made it clear in a speech on October 31, 2019, that Marxism provides “the system for promoting eco-civilization.”
My advice to Chinese students, then, is to work on synthesizing these two traditions of Marxian ecological thought—recent developments in Marxian ecology and China’s theory and practice of ecological civilization—in order to bring more clarity to both. It seems as if Chen Xueming was seeking to undertake that task a decade ago in his book The Ecological Crisis and the Logic of Capital, a book that I found quite important, while the all-around possibilities for achieving that goal are much greater than they were at that time. Many of the concepts of ecological Marxism (or Marxian ecology) could be utilized to develop a wider, more dialectical and materialist conception of ecological civilization, which should be the goal, since it is here that the future of China and the world as a whole ultimately resides. The theory of metabolic rift could be especially helpful in conceptualizing China’s ecological civilization and the need for what Marx called the “restoration” of the metabolism between humanity and nature.
To suggest this, though, is not to in any way downplay the importance of Chinese culture, the product of thousands of years of civilization. In the same October 2019 speech, in which Xi indicated that Marxism was the means of promoting an ecological civilization, he also quoted the ancient Chinese adage related to Daoism: “When the Great Way rules, the land under Heaven belongs to the people.” The Dao De Jing conveys both a holistic world view and has been characterized as a work of “critical naturalism”—similar to ancient Epicureanism in the West, which so influenced Marx. The Dao De Jing promotes a philosophy of constancy as “returning life” that resembles modern notions of homeostasis.
To be holistic is [to join with] Heaven
To [join with] Heaven is [to follow] the Way
[To follow] the Way is to last long.
[Then] life is not in danger of extinction.
There is, in my view, no fundamental conflict in Chinese Marxism deriving its concept of ecological civilization from ancient Daoism, while combining this with Marxist ecological materialism. This could well be the secret of ecological civilization with Chinese Marxist characteristics.