Feedback from Paul Burkett on Marxism, ecology and the American Indian

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Nov 6 16:23:07 MST 1999

I want to thank Louis Proyect for circulating his review of my book
and John Bellamy Foster's article.  Except for a couple minor
points mentioned below, his summary of the two works and his agenda
for future work seem both fair and valuable.  I agree that the
stance of Marxism on indigenous peoples and natural conditions is
crucial both politically and analytically (two things that should
never be separated), and that Marxists have not done enough solid
work on this question.  In my own book, I only dealt with it by way
of considering the possible use of both pre-capitalist production
technologies and pre-capitalist social mechanisms for managing
common pool resources in a post-capitalist society (see my Chapter
14: "Nature and Associated Production").  This is a question on
which the thinking of Marx evolved considerably during his
lifetime.  Louis is quite right to point out that it is only part
of the problem -- and probably not even the most important part
politically.  Of more immediate importance is how Reds (especially
Green Reds) relate their thinking and politics to existing indigenous
societies in the here and now.

In the last connection, I certainly do not believe that the spread
of capitalism in the Amazon (especially in the form of intensified
materials extraction, agribusiness operations etc.) represents some
kind of clear advance over precapitalist production either
ecologically or socially.  This is related to my interpretation of
Marx's stance on capitalism versus precapitalism.  My book never
says that capitalism represents an unambiguous advance in terms of
people-nature relations even "in theory."  What I did say (by way
of interpreting Marx's position) is that capitalism creates a
certain potential for less restricted, richer and more variegated
relations between people and their natural and social environment.
However, capitalism can never realize this potential.  That is what
communism does.  (See Chapters 11- 14 of my book.)

Also, it seems a bit unfair for Louis to complain about my having
"cited approvingly" David Harvey's book which takes certain
questionable positions on the ecologic of certain indigenous
societies.  For one thing, my book never cites Harvey's book,
although it does cite one of Harvey's articles (from the SOCIALIST
REGISTER) which was reprinted in his book.  More to the point, when
I cite Harvey it is in a completely different context not directly
connected to the indigenous peoples question.  Hence, it appears to
me that Louis is using a rhetorical tactic of guilt by association
-- a tactic lacking analytical or political substance in this
particular case.  It is, moreover, a tactic not required to support
Louis's larger point, which I wholeheartedly agree with -- the need
for Marxists to expand their world-views and their political and
intellectual work to organically connect up with the concerns of
indigenous peoples.  On this issue, I agree with Louis, not Harvey.

Finally, I also agree with the need to bring in the question of
energy and global warming into Marxist ecology.  Elmar Altvater has
done some interesting work in this area (see his book, THE FUTURE
OF THE MARKET), and my own book discusses the consistency of Marx's
environmental crisis analysis and value-theoretic approach to
capitalism with an analysis of global warming (see my Chapter 9,
which also deals with Marx's approach to materials suppy crises in
capital accumulation).

In sum, my disagreements with Louis seem to be mainly rhetorical
and scholarly; we agree on the issues of political and analytical
substance.  It would be a shame if the former were to fog over the
latter.  Thanks again, Louis.  Paul Burkett

Louis Proyect
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