Marx on the environment: One Question, Marx at 200

Posted on One Question, May 7 2018.

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, to mark the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth on 5th May, we ask:

How has Marx influenced your thinking?

Responses from: Ursula Huws; Sven-Eric Liedman; Terrell Carver; Jayati Ghosh; Wolfgang Streeck; Frigga Haug; Lucia Pradella; Neil Faulkner; Lars T Lih; Esther Leslie; Guilherme Leite Gonçalves; Michael Roberts.

Ursula Huws

Professor of Labour and Globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. She has been carrying out pioneering research on the economic and social impacts of technological change, the restructuring of employment and the changing international division of labour for many years. She is currently researching work in the ‘gig economy’ in Europe in collaboration with FEPS and UNI.

Marx helped me understand how capitalism works. There are many developments he did not predict, but he bequeathed us tools to unpick the business models and explain the processes by which capitalism continues to expand and develop, and the creative-destructive way it lurches from crisis to crisis, transforming labour and everyday life along the way. As he put it in the Communist Manifesto, ‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones’.

Using his concepts, we can see how the continuous need for expansion drives a voracious appetite to seek out new sites of accumulation and how this sucks more and more aspects of human activity within the scope of the market, opening up new opportunities for making money out of them. To quote again from his Communist Manifesto, ‘The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere’.

For me, the concept of ‘commodification’ is key to understanding these dynamics. In Marx’s day, industrialists took activities that were previously based in the household, such as weaving, sewing, making cleaning materials and preparing food, and, turned them into standard commodities, forming the basis for huge new industries. New machines played a key role in this. In our own times, new commodities are being generated from art and culture and the exploitation of the natural world, as well as many other aspects of daily life and sociality. We are turned into customers, even for such basic aspects of subsistence as health, clean water and the ability to communicate. This locks us into an ever-greater dependence on the market. To change this situation we will have to find a collective way to say ‘No’!

Sven-Eric Liedman

Professor Emeritus of History of Ideas and Science at the University of Gothenburg. His comprehensive biography of Karl Marx was published in Swedish in 2015 and has recently been published in English as A World to Win (London & New York: Verso 2018).

Marx has played an important part in my life for a very long time. I started to read him in 1963 when I was still a young man. His early writings, most of all the so-called Economic-philosophical Manuscripts, made a deep impression on me. The concept of alienation (or estrangement) fascinated me, as it said something important about life and work in the 20th century (just as now in the 21st). As I see it today, however, the concepts of ‘character mask’ and ‘commodity fetishism’ are much more important both in Marx’s mature works and in Capital.

Today, it is often said that capitalists are so greedy. That is to diminish the problem. The concept of character mask is much more to the point. The capitalist has a constant hunger for increasing surplus value. This is part of his character mask as a capitalist. Without this hunger, he will disappear from the scene. Privately, he may be greedy or not, as a capitalist gets a ‘soul of capital’, as Marx says. In front of his employees he has ‘no soul in the breast’. Capitalism is first and foremost a question of power. This power is not constant, and it has increased enormously in the last 30 or 40 years. In many respects, the capitalism of today is very similar to Marx’s capitalism.

The concept of commodity fetishism is just as central both in Capital and in the present time. Outwardly, a commodity seems like a completely trivial thing. But if it is analysed, it turns out that it is ‘abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’, Marx says. A society dominated by capital produces its own kind of superstition, just as earlier societies did. Commodity fetishism is an inevitable result of a society marked by enormous cleavages between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. We, human beings, who are the real agents in society, seem lifeless in comparison to the commodities.

Today, economists of all kinds are talking about the market – the Market – in a pseudo-religious way. The market warns, the market is alarmed, the market approves… What does the market say about President Trump’s different decisions? The market dominates our world. It is a deity that everybody has to obey. To unmask this pseudo-divine power, we still need Marx.

Terrell Carver

Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, UK. He has published extensively on Marx and Engels, including textual studies, new translations and extensive commentary. His latest book is Marx from Polity Press in their ‘Classic Thinkers’ series, published in paperback in 2018.

For someone concerned with the ‘social question’ of inequalities in wealth and power, Marx’s thinking says it all, and more. The ‘Communist Manifesto’ of 1848 presented me with a convincing historical sweep through the development of capitalism as a market-driven revolution in law, politics, and intellectual life that supplanted the European middle ages, thus creating the modern world. Marx’s text also linked the expropriation of meso-America with the gold-driven massive boost to European economic expansion, thus linking colonialism and slavery directly with the trade and industry that conventional accounts also celebrate. Marx’s view that imperialism was central to this process, rather than an inexplicable lapse from ‘home country’ production and exchange, was thought-provoking.

While many intellectuals have been attracted to, and worked within, conventional Marxisms, my scepticism about these varied constructions – and my enthusiasm for Marx’s own writing, especially in German – led me to consider the extent to which what he said is accurately reflected in the propositions and ‘laws’ through which Marxisms are understood. My activity – which involved extensive research into the Marx-Engels intellectual relationship – enabled me to clarify exactly why I was so attracted to Marx’s intellect in the first place.

Marx’s commentaries on 19th-century politics are exhilarating, so I found, when I embarked on new translations from first editions, supplanting posthumous, over-intellectualised versions still considered ‘standard’. Marx for me is the theorist of Occupy, the global movement to expose the hypocrisy and corruption in today’s capitalism that whitewashes ever-growing inequalities, exploitation and suffering – systematically depicted for the first time in the ‘Manifesto’. That work says it all with no requirements to understand Hegel, complex philosophies, obscure ‘dialectics’ or anything but a factual narrative, blistering critique and vivid imagery. It is brilliant on YouTube!

Jayati Ghosh

Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has authored and/or edited a dozen books and more than 180 scholarly articles, most recently Demonetisation Decoded: A Critique of India’s Monetary Experiment (with CP Chandrasekhar and Prabhat Patnaik) (Routledge, 2017), the Elgar Handbook of Alternative Theories of Economic Development (co-edited with Erik Reinert and Rainer Kattel) (Edward Elgar, 2016), and India and the International Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

The most important insight that I use (explicitly or implicitly) all the time is the distinction between labour and labour power, which in turn generates the idea of the nature of exploitation in capitalism. Then there is the idea that capital is not simply a ‘factor of production’ embodied in equipment and finance, but essentially a social relation between those who own/control capital and those who have nothing to sell but their labour power.

The significance of these concepts has been further deepened by an understanding of commodity fetishism: the idea that, under capitalism, relations between people become mediated by relations between things, that is, commodities and money. The overwhelming focus on exchange value (rather than use value) means that exchange value gets seen as intrinsic to commodities rather than being the result of labour. Market-based interaction becomes the ‘natural’ way of dealing with all objects, rather than a historically specific set of social relations. This in turn determines not only how people work and interact, but even how they perceive reality and understand social change. The urge to acquire, the obsession with material gratification of wants and the ordering of human well-being in terms of the ability to command different commodities, can all be described as forms of commodity fetishism. The obsession with GDP growth per se among policy makers and the general public, independent of the pattern or quality of such growth, is an extreme but widespread example of commodity fetishism today.

Marx spoke of the creation of the world market, which we now call globalisation, as the natural result of the tendency of the capitalist system to spread and aggrandise itself, to destroy and incorporate earlier forms of production, and to transform technology and institutions constantly. Uneven development persists, even though the locations of such development may have changed. The tendencies for the concentration and centralization of production have very strong contemporary resonance. Similarly, primitive accumulation is a hugely useful concept, not just for understanding the past, but for interpreting the present.

Another concept that I find very relevant is that of alienation. For Marx, this was not an isolated experience of an individual person’s feeling of estrangement from society or community, but a generalised state of the loss of control by workers over their own work, because they cannot control their workplace, the products they produce, or even the way they relate to each other. Such alienation is blatantly obvious in factory work, but it also describes work that is apparently more independent, such as activities in the emerging ‘gig economy’ that still deny workers effective control despite the illusion of autonomy

Wolfgang Streeck

Professor emeritus of sociology. From 1995 to 2014 he was Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany. His latest book is How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System (Verso, 2016).

As a student of sociology in Frankfurt at the end of the 1960s, I encountered Marx early. Unfortunately, however, nobody prevented me from getting in at the wrong end: the first chapters of Capital. This was too abstract for a twenty year-old from the provinces, with a pent-up need for concrete real-world experience.

It was only much later that I returned to Marx, when I was teaching at an American university, UW-Madison. There I became aware of the breathtaking complexity of Marx’s Hegel-trained conceptual apparatus, which surpasses everything that was produced at the time and later in social science, and which is uniquely suited to observe and represent conflicts, dilemmas, or ‘contradictions’ in social life. On this background I realized why the attempt had failed and had to fail to develop a theory (and practice) of the social-democratic governance of ‘modern’ societies with the help of a functionalist sociology and empiricist political science.

This time, my entry was the historical chapters of Capital, especially on the working day and on ‘primitive accumulation’, as well as Marx’s political writings. From them one could learn what sociological theory could and should do and how much our academic sociology had sacrificed in its functionalist-idealistic and post-modernist turns. When I tried in several books after 2008 to come to terms with the rise of neoliberalism since the 1970s and its human and political consequences, I benefited greatly from the Marxian template of a historical political economy, concerned with trajectories rather than snapshots.

The experience convinced me that sociology must avoid being reduced to micro- and survey research or to an aestheticizing system-functionalism à la Luhmann. It should let itself be reminded by Marx and his tradition of the central role of the economy as a historical driving force and political power centre – which mainstream sociology has downgraded to an ‘economic subsystem’, so it could turn it over to either standard economics or the ‘Marxists’ (to which Marx did not want to belong).

Frigga Haug

Professor Emerita in Sociology and Social Psychology, University for Economics and Politics, Hamburg. She was a founder of memory-work research, with her early leadership in the field reflected in the ground-breaking Female Sexualization: A Collective Work of Memory. Her research has ranged from automation and work culture, to social science methodology and learning, to other areas of women’s studies. Her most recent books are: Rosa Luxemburg’s Art of Politics (2007); The Four-in-one-perspective: Women’s Politics for a New Left (2008); The Path Explored While Walking: Marxism-Feminism (2015), Self-change and Changing the Circumstances (2018).

This year, when Marx’s 200th Birthday is remembered, I am already 80 years old. After a long life of working in the universities of different countries, learning and teaching, continuously studying and rereading Marx, I can summarize that I can hardly imagine any useful scientific work in the social sciences and philosophy, at least for myself, without Marx.

Most influential was his insistence on contradictions as the driving force of all development. This discovery allows you to stop thinking in the boring and also dangerous patterns of enemy and friend, good and bad, and instead to study driving forces, form alliances, and intervene in changes by changing things yourself. Thereby you no longer think of history as a collection of dead facts, but can see fights, forces and counterforces, and even how you yourself are part of it, not just an object. This was especially influential in my life working with women and for women’s liberation, because they are far too often seen or see themselves as passive victims of men, of capitalism, of relations outside of them, as though they can do nothing themselves.

If you look at my writings you can easily see that one of my first internationally influential essays, ‘Women: Victims or Actors’, followed by my method of ‘memory-work’, bear witness to my energetically studying Marx’s ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ over and over again, transferring them into research and politics for women’s liberation at the same time.

If you study Marx’s questionnaire for workers, you can criticize it because it has far too many questions and thus takes too many hours to respond. But at a second glance you see his invention, that he does not make workers objects of research by asking for their superficial opinions, but immediately makes them researchers of their lives, their workplaces, their situations, and their position in society. I adopted this procedure in my sociological seminars in adult education with great success. Not only did I get more insight into the issues at hand, but at the same time included students and changed their attitude towards learning – the possible use of their studying for all, and thus at the same time their self-confidence.

Most influential for my own research, therefore, were Marx’s dialectics. Dialectic ceased to be a strange and unknown word with a higher meaning for some insiders. It became the method of studying everyday life, as well as social developments at large. It meant looking at how everything is in motion, studying the side that was facing the direction of the process and trying to support it. This is how you can effectuate change and thereby change yourself. And this is how I still teach and do politics with Marx.

Lucia Pradella

Lecturer in International Political Economy at King’s College London. She is the author of Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy (Routledge, 2015) and L’Attualità del Capitale (Il Poligrafo, 2010), and co-editor of Polarizing Development: Alternatives to Neoliberalism and the Crisis (University of Chicago, 2015).

It is no exaggeration to say that Capital has been central to my life since the early 2000s, pushing me to move from Italy, first to Berlin and then to London, on the tracks of Marx. In the wake of the anti-globalization and anti-war movements, I spent several years trying to understand how Marx’s Capital can help us make sense of global processes of impoverishment and crisis, and inform our struggles.

Marx’s journalistic articles and writings on India, China, Russia, the United States and Ireland were of great help in this. They show his sustained engagement with the history and politics of colonialism and anti-colonial resistance. It was with great surprise and excitement that I realized that these articles are just a small part of what Marx actually wrote about colonialism. In 2007 I worked at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, at the project of the complete edition of Marx’s and Engels’s writings, and I “discovered” some of Marx’s 20,000 print page long notebooks (if and when they are fully published, the notebooks alone will look like a new Collected Works).

These notebooks show that non-European and pre-capitalist societies were certainly not peripheral to Marx’s research project and politics. They helped me realize what an inexhaustible source of knowledge Capital is and put in question the view that it examines English capitalism as a national economy. Reading Capital in the light of these notebooks and articles on colonialism shows rather that Marx was critically analysing an imperialist system whose development leads to the impoverishment of a stratified but still unitary world working class.

This international perspective also illuminates the sources of workers’ collective power, linking struggles against exploitation and struggles against imperialism, dispossession, and racism. Needless to say, in our present political context this perspective is even more important.

Neil Faulkner

Historian, archaeologist, and political thinker. Author of numerous books, including A Radical History of the World (Pluto, forthcoming), Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right (Public Reading Rooms, 2017), and A People’s History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto, 2017).

I could answer this question in a dozen different ways. Marx is one of a handful of thinkers who have transformed the way we understand the world. He ranks with people like Darwin, Freud, and Einstein.

Marx’s subject was history itself. He founded the scientific study of human society and social development. This involved an extraordinary synthesis of three main intellectual currents: British economic theory, French political theory, and German philosophical theory – three currents rooted in ‘the dual revolution’ represented by, on the one hand, the Industrial Revolution, and on the other, the French Revolution.

All three currents were partial perspectives. The British economists were in denial about the social costs of capitalism. The French political activists were seeking explanations for the failure of 1789 to achieve social transformation. The German philosophers sensed the imperfection of the world, but were incapable of moving from the realm of critical ideas to that of political action.

The Marxian synthesis was an astonishing intellectual achievement. It involved identifying the working class created by the Industrial Revolution as the potential agent of the universal human emancipation which the French Revolution had failed to deliver. And it involved turning German philosophy’s understanding of the contradiction between the ideal and the real into a programme of action based on the class struggle of working people.

Marx, in effect, solved the riddle of history. He showed that thousands of years of exploitation, oppression, and violence could be brought to an end through the mass collective action of working people in the context of an industrial society with the capacity – for the first time in history – to satisfy all basic human needs. He discovered the potential agent of universal human emancipation and a world of equality, democracy, peace, and sustainability. He showed us a possible future worth fighting for.

Lars T Lih

Adjunct Professor at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal. Author of Lenin (Reaktion Books, 2011) and Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ In Context (Haymarket, 2006).

As a historian, my quest is to trace the connection between Marx and the Marxist movement that culminated in the revolution of 1917. I am not interested in saving Marx from the Marxists by, say, arguing that Engels or Kautsky or Lenin didn’t grasp Marx’s subtle dialectic. From my perspective, then, the heart of Marx’s outlook is a world-historical narrative: the proletariat as a class has a mission, a grand historical task: to acquire state power and use it to establish socialism. Everything in Marx flows in to or out of this central contention.

What follows from the assertion of a world-historical mission? The imperative of enlightening the proletariat and preparing it organizationally to carry out its mission. In the words of Karl Kautsky: ‘the task of Social Democracy [the mass Marx-based movement prior to World War I] is to make the proletariat aware of its task.’

What follows from this self-imposed task of enlightening and organizing the proletariat? The imperative of nation-wide political activity. John Rae, a non-Marxist British economic historian, underlined this crucial implication in 1883, the year of Marx’s death: ‘No more secret societies in holes and corners, no more small risings and petty plots, but a great broad organization working in open day, and working restlessly by tongue and pen to stir the masses of all European countries to a common international revolution.’

What follows from the imperative of nation-wide activity? The necessity of political freedom, that is, free press, free assembly, free association. Kautsky’s 1893 axiom had a foundational impact on Russian Social Democracy: ‘These freedoms are light and air for the proletariat; he who lets them wither or withholds them – he who keeps the proletariat from the struggle to win these freedoms and to extend them – that person is one of the proletariat’s worst enemies.’

What follows from the necessity of political freedom? The need for a thorough-going democratic revolution in countries marked by the absence of political freedom – say, for example, Russia. What follows from this secondary but crucial historical task of a democratic revolution? The search for appropriate class allies to carry it out. And on this question, the Russian Social Democrats split, with Mensheviks placing a wager on the (hopefully) progressive liberal bourgeoisie, and the Bolsheviks placing a wager on the (hopefully) revolutionary peasantry.

This chain of logical implications holds until October 1917, when the takeover of state power by a Marx-inspired party changes the equation. We (Marxists and non-Marxists alike) have strangely lost sight of the profound impact of these ideas on all Marxist revolutionaries in the generation following Marx’s death.

Esther Leslie

Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck University, University of London. Her books include various studies and translations  of Walter Benjamin, as well as Derelicts: Thought Worms from the Wreckage (Unkant, 2014), Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Fluid Form (Reaktion, 2016) and Deeper in the Pyramid (with Melanie Jackson: Banner Repeater, 2018).

Marx has no bounds. In ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ (1843), Marx writes of the ‘revolutionary daring which flings at the adversary the defiant words: I am nothing but I must be everything.’ Marx is everything, and knows himself to be nothing. Marx eschews the pernickety bureaucratic file cabinet mentality. He thinks of everything: soil and electromagnetism and value, religion, literature, minerals, fashion, bleaching and clock making, physiology, ideology, historical process.

He writes and thinks from the perspective of natural science and philosophy – in that regard he carries over something cosmically attuned from the thought and poetics of the early 19th century – and he meshes this with the modern analytical modes of political economy and mathematics, the power of nothing and something.  This weave is used to sift out corrupted and compromised thinking and actions, and what remains are elements directed at partisanship, on the part of the oppressed and exploited, not as victims and recipients, but as the potential authors of their own lives.

Marx produced all types of writing. There were the smallest fragments, as in ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, not intended to be published, but a working out of thoughts. There was the pamphlet and Manifesto form that sought to reach different audiences, the widest possible, those agitating or wishing to. There was the library fat tome, written part mockingly, against those whose words he détourned, so that they might be called on as witnesses for the prosecution, and also part carefully, forensically, so that we might know with sober senses where we stand and fall and rise again.

These multiple registers, this fear or scorn of no forum, this writing into voids and fullnesses, to everyone and no one, is something I have – willingly or not – emulated. Marx has an immense imagination, but one that cleaves tightly to the world, like all the best artists. Marx has humour and horror. He can move from the crust of the earth erupting to political agitation to feminine and proletarian ferment to the darkness of political reaction and the marshalling only of hope. I too have always wanted to move fluidly yet with crystalline images across the entirety of everything, to bring back into wholeness that which a cynical mind, a weltfremd one, has ripped apart.

I have had occasion often to realise that my Marx is not everyone’s Marx – and enough people have bleached the colour from him, from his ideas. Who and what he is has to be argued for again and again, and arguing for it is a manifestation of his purported influence, his extendibility. Marx as a whole, no epistemological breaks or accords from analytical philosophy. Marx who is re-encountered and reimagined by being brought into life, the Marx of the National Council of Labour Colleges or trade union day schools, of Bishop Brown and Joseph Dietzgen, and also of the Surrealists, the Situationists, the Association of Musical Marxists and the Psychedelic Bolsheviks.

Guilherme Leite Gonçalves

Professor of Sociology of Law at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) and Researcher at the Brazilian Council of Research and Development. He is interested in critical sociology, particularly in issues of social control and inequalities. His current research focuses on the recovery of the critique of political economy in the sociology of law.

How can we understand modern capitalist society without the theories of value or money? Without regarding the concept of commodity fetishism? Is it possible to analyse the last decade without considering the notion of fictitious capital or crisis?

Marx investigated the essential structures of capitalist dynamics, which allowed him to offer a far-reaching theory. At its core, he described the operationalization of a contradictory relationship: in capitalism, the stated social cohesion denies social disaggregation, transforming it into an unstated assumption. Through this notion, Marx sheds light on the mechanisms of a system that generates wealth and poverty, growth and unemployment, savings and debt. Such a critique of capitalism is succeeded by a sequence of categories drawn from empirical facts. Regardless of the confirmation of such categories, the critical thinking remains. There is always a living element, not likely to be quantified, in denied disaggregation. Its indeterminacy enables Marx’s readings to go in multiple directions.

But did Marx leave us a theory of society?

His categories lead us to respond affirmatively, while his critique of capitalism does not. Recall that Capital’s subtitle is Critique of Political Economy. Marx accepts the postulates of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, drawing a set of contradictions from their own conclusions. This is an immanent critique. That is, it applies the criterion inscribed in the theory to be criticized, showing that this criterion comprehends the opposite of what was stated. Thus, Marx’s description of the contradictory character of capitalism is demonstrated on the basis of the contradictions drawn from the very postulates of the classical economists. There is in Marx’s critique a parasitical sense.

Is there a positive principle of emancipation?

In only a few sentences; a needle in the haystack. Marx has formulated a critical theory of analytic vocation. He assumes that the norm is a constituent part of its material existence. His premise is the unity between the real and the rational and that the ‘ought’, simply, ‘is’. Marx does not compare the normatively indicated by the modern project with a supposedly deviant reality. That is: in its operation, the principles of freedom and equality produce their opposite. If the ‘ought’ is already accomplished amidst the violence of the capitalist system, then what remains? A critical analysis of capitalism.

Marx’s analysis, creative use of contradictions, and critical method have always influenced my thinking, while my research seeks to operationalize his categories.

Michael Roberts

Marxist economist who has worked in the City of London for over 30 years. He is author of two books: The Great Recession: A Marxist View (Lulu, 2009) and The Long Depression (Haymarket, 2016).  He blogs at

For me, Marx’s greatest influence on my thinking is his materialist conception of history. It explains so much about how human beings got where they are now and where they can go. As Marx said, ‘men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ In the last analysis, economics and class struggle determine social ideas and actions. And nothing stays the same: ‘all that is solid melts’, said Marx.

This reminds us that the conventional wisdom of mainstream economics asserting capitalism and markets as an eternal and immovable system of human social relations is nonsense. Marx’s critique of political economy based on his laws of value, accumulation and profitability explains why we face regular and recurring financial and production crises that destroy people’s lives; why we face the permanent threat of war globally; rising inequality of wealth and income; and now global warming that is set to destroy the planet.

It is this economic analysis that is his most compelling influence on me. Capitalism is now a barrier to human progress and welfare. And, contrary to the conventional wisdom of mainstream economics and the politicians of capital, Marx shows that any fundamental change in social relations to improve the lot of humanity requires the replacement, not reform, of the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism has not always been the dominant form of human social organisation and it won’t be in the future. But to end it and make change for the better requires conscious social action: ‘up to now philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’


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