merits of this discussion

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Nov 10 17:29:49 MST 2003

>The issue is bourgeois property relations.
>Melvin P.

Not exactly. The issue is civilization. The Peter Grimes article was
absolutely correct by identifying these sorts of contradictions as
pre-existing modern capitalism.

"Long before European imperialism conquered the existing agrarian empires
that were then dominating
the world, history had already been littered with the archeological
skeletons of collapsed prior agrarian empires. It used to be thought that
these earlier collapses were because of social phenomena such as civil and
class wars, whereas now we understand more and more that it was an
environmental thing. Just as the Mayans collapsed because of a series of
droughts; it seems the Harrappan civilization collapsed because of
deforestation; while the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Greek civilizations
probably fell due to a combination of deforestation and excessive
irrigation leading to poisonous levels of soil salinization. Therefore, it
seems the role of direct self-conscious human revolutionary action in the
collapse of these societies was less important than previously believed,
particularly by conventional Marxists. Instead, it now seems more
reasonable to infer that the social unrest documented as accompanying these
imperial collapses were a symptom of the process, not its main cause."

While Grimes blames conventional Marxists for not understanding these
problems, there is no doubt that Marx and Engels did. Engels wrote:

"Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human
victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on
us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results
we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different,
unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who,
in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to
obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the
forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying
the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the
Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so
carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by
doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their
region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their
mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it
possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during
the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware
that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading
scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over
nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing
outside nature -- but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to
nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in
the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able
to learn its laws and apply them correctly."


Conventional Marxist thought has tended to think of the tasks of socialism
in terms of removing the "straightjacket of production" and allowing a much
more expansive industrialization than a decadent capitalist system that was
likened to the doddering feudal system it replaced. Trotsky's "If American
Should Go Communist" is a classic expression of this:

"National industry will be organized along the line of the conveyor belt in
your modern continuous-production automotive factories. Scientific planning
can be lifted out of the individual factory and applied to your entire
economic system. The results will be stupendous.

"Costs of production will be cut to 20 percent, or less, of their present
figure. This, in turn, would rapidly increase your farmers' purchasing power.

"To be sure, the American soviets would establish their own gigantic farm
enterprises, as schools of voluntary collectivization. Your farmers could
easily calculate whether it was to their individual advantage to remain as
isolated links or to join the public chain."

In fact "gigantic farm enterprises" are the last thing humanity needs.
Bukharin was much more prescient than Trotsky in understanding the
ecological dimensions of Marxism. In my view, there are a whole range of
problems that can not be subsumed under cutting costs of production "under
20 percent'. They include:

1. The looming calamity of global warming which is *directly related* to
the modern industrial system, independent of the sociopolitical
organization that it rests on.

2. The growing dilemmas involved with food production, waste disposal, etc.
that are related directly to what Marx called the "metabolic rift".

3. The burden on the planet of *too many people*. I am explicitly raising
this idea in the face of a possible rejoinder that I am "Malthusian". In
all of the standard answers by conventional Marxists to this issue, the
underlying assumption is that the planet Earth can sustain unlimited
population growth. This is patent nonsense.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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