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John Bellamy Foster: Ecology and the transition from capitalism to socialism

Walk Against Warming, Sydney, 2006.
Photo by Alex Bainbridge/Green Left Weekly

By John Bellamy Foster

[This article, which first appeared in the November 2008 issue of Monthly Review, is a revised version of a keynote address delivered at the “Climate Change, Social Change” conference, Sydney, Australia, April 12, 2008, organised by Green Left Weekly. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author’s permission. Watch and listen to Bellamy Foster’s presentation HERE. For more articles on Marxism and and the environment, click HERE.]

The transition from capitalism to socialism is the most difficult problem of socialist theory and practice. To add to this the question of ecology might therefore be seen as unnecessarily complicating an already intractable issue. I shall argue here, however, that the human relation to nature lies at the heart of the transition to socialism. An ecological perspective is pivotal to our understanding of capitalism’s limits, the failures of the early socialist experiments, and the overall struggle for egalitarian and sustainable human development.

My argument has three parts. First, it is crucial to understand the intimate connection between classical Marxism and ecological analysis. Far from being an anomaly for socialism, as we are often led to believe, ecology was an essential component of the socialist project from its inception—notwithstanding the numerous later shortcomings of Soviet-type societies in this respect. Second, the global ecological crisis that now confronts us is deeply rooted in the “world-alienating” logic of capital accumulation, traceable to the historical origins of capitalism as a system. Third, the transition from capitalism to socialism is a struggle for sustainable human development in which societies on the periphery of the capitalist world system have been leading the way.

Classical Marxism and ecology

Research carried out over the last two decades has demonstrated that there was a powerful ecological perspective in classical Marxism. Just as a transformation of the human relation to the earth was, in Marx’s view, an essential presupposition for the transition from feudalism to capitalism, so the rational regulation of the metabolic relation to nature was understood as an essential presupposition for the transition from capitalism to socialism.[1] Marx and Engels wrote extensively about ecological problems arising from capitalism and class society in general, and the need to transcend these under socialism. This included discussions of the nineteenth-century soil crisis, which led Marx to develop his theory of metabolic rift between nature and society. Basing his analysis on the work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig, he pointed to the fact that soil nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) were removed from the soil and shipped hundreds and thousands of miles to the cities where they ended up polluting the water and the air and contributing to the poor health of the workers. This break in the necessary metabolic cycle between nature and society demanded for Marx nothing less than the “restoration” of ecological sustainability for the sake of “successive generations”.[2]

In line with this, Marx and Engels raised the main ecological problems of human society: the division of town and country, soil depletion, industrial pollution, urban maldevelopment, the decline in health and crippling of workers, bad nutrition, toxicity, enclosures, rural poverty and isolation, deforestation, human-generated floods, desertification, water shortages, regional climate change, the exhaustion of natural resources (including coal), conservation of energy, entropy, the need to recycle the waste products of industry, the interconnection between species and their environments, historically conditioned problems of overpopulation, the causes of famine, and the issue of the rational employment of science and technology.

This ecological understanding arose from a deep materialist conception of nature that was an essential part of Marx’s underlying vision. “Man”, he wrote, “lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature”.[3] Not only did Marx declare in direct opposition to capitalism that no individual owned the earth, he also argued that no nation or people owned the earth; that it belonged to successive generations and should be cared for in accordance with the principle of good household management.[4]

Other early Marxists followed suit, although not always consistently, in incorporating ecological concerns into their analyses and embodying a general materialist and dialectical conception of nature. William Morris, August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin all drew on ecological insights from Marx. The Ukrainian socialist Sergei Podolinsky’s early attempt at developing an ecological economics was inspired to a considerable extent by the work of Marx and Engels. Lenin stressed the importance of recycling soil nutrients and supported both conservation and pioneering experiments in community ecology (the study of the interaction of populations within a specific natural environment). This led to the development in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s of probably the most advanced conception of ecological energetics or trophic dynamics (the basis of modern ecosystem analysis) in the world at the time. The same revolutionary-scientific climate produced V. I. Vernadsky’s theory of the biosphere, A. I. Oparin’s theory of the origin of life and N. I. Vavilov’s discovery of the world centres of germplasm (the genetic sources of the world’s crop plants). In the West, and in Britain in particular, leading scientists influenced by Marxism in the 1930s, such as J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal, Hyman Levy, Lancelot Hogben and Joseph Needham, pioneered in exploring the dialectics of nature. It is even possible to argue that ecological science had its genesis almost entirely in the work of thinkers on the left (socialist, social democratic and anarchist).[5]

Obviously not all major figures or all developments in the socialist tradition can be seen as ecological. Soviet Marxism succumbed to an extreme version of the productivism that characterised early twentieth-century modernity in general, leading to its own version of ecocide. With the rise of the Stalinist system the pioneering ecological developments in the Soviet Union were largely crushed (and some of the early ecologically oriented Marxists such as Bukharin and Vavilov were killed). Simultaneously, a deep antipathy to natural science emerging out of an extreme negation of positivism led to the abandonment of attempts to theorise the dialectics of nature in Western Marxism, seriously weakening its link to ecology—though the question of the domination of nature was raised by the Frankfurt School as part of its critique of science. If today socialism and ecology are once again understood as dialectically interconnected, it is due both to the evolution of the ecological contradictions of capitalism and the development of socialism’s own self-critique.

Capitalism’s world alienation

The key to understanding capitalism’s relation to the environment is to examine its historical beginnings, i.e., the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This transition was enormously complex, occurring over centuries, and obviously cannot be fully addressed here. I shall focus on just a few factors. The bourgeoisie arose within the interstices of the feudal economy. As its name suggests, the bourgeoisie had its point of origin as a class primarily in the urban centres and mercantile trade. What was necessary, however, in order for bourgeois society to emerge fully as a system, was the revolutionary transformation of the feudal mode of production and its replacement by capitalist relations of production. Since feudalism was predominantly an agrarian system, this meant of course transformation of agrarian relations, i.e., the relation of workers to the land as a means of production.

Capitalism therefore required for its development a new relation to nature, one which severed the direct connection of labour to the means of production, i.e., the earth, along with the dissolution of all customary rights in relation to the commons. The locus classicus of the industrial revolution was Britain, where the removal of the workers from the land by means of expropriation took the form of the enclosure movement from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Under colonialism and imperialism an even more brutal transformation occurred on the outskirts or the external areas of the capitalist world economy. There all preexisting human productive relations to nature were torn asunder in what Marx called the “extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population”—the most violent expropriation in all of human history.[6]

The result was proletarianisation within the centre of the system as masses of workers were thrown out of work and moved to the city. There they were met by the capital being amassed through organised robbery, giving rise to what Marx called “modern industry”. Simultaneously, various forms of servitude and what we now call precarious work were imposed on the periphery, where social reproduction was always secondary to the most rapacious imperialist exploitation. The surplus forcibly extracted from the periphery fed industrialisation at the centre of the world economy.[7]

What made this new system work was the incessant accumulation of capital in one cycle after another, with each new phase of accumulation taking the last as its starting point. This meant ever more divided, more alienated human beings, together with a more globally destructive metabolism between humanity and nature. As Joseph Needham observed, the “conquest of Nature” under capitalism turned into “the conquest of man”; the “technological instruments utilised in the dominance of Nature” produced “a qualitative transformation in the mechanisms of social domination”.[8]

There is no doubt that this dialectic of domination and destruction is now spiraling out of control on a planetary scale. Economically, overall inequality between the centre and periphery nations of the world system is increasing together with the intensification of class inequality within each capitalist state. Ecologically, the world’s climate and the life-support systems of the entire earth are being transformed by a process of runaway global warming.[9]

In addressing this planetary environmental problem it is useful to turn to Hannah Arendt’s concept of “world alienation”, introduced fifty years ago in The Human Condition. “World alienation” for Arendt began with the “alienation from the earth” at the time of Columbus, Galileo, and Luther. Galileo trained his telescope on the heavens, thereby converting human beings into creatures of the cosmos, no longer simply earthly beings. Science seised on cosmic principles in order to obtain the “Archimedean point” with which to move the world, but at the cost of immeasurable world alienation. Human beings no longer apprehended the world immediately through the direct evidence of their five senses. The original unity of the human relation to the world exemplified by the Greek polis was lost.

Arendt noted that Marx was acutely aware of this world alienation from his earliest writings, pointing out that the world was “denatured” as all natural objects—the wood of the wood-user and the wood-seller—were converted into private property and the universal commodity form. Original or primitive accumulation, the alienation of human beings from the land, as Marx described it, became a crucial manifestation of world alienation. However, Marx, in Arendt’s view, chose to stress human self-alienation rooted in labour rather than world alienation. In contrast, “world alienation, and not [primarily] self-alienation as Marx thought”, she concluded, “has been the hallmark of the modern age”.

“The process of wealth accumulation, as we know it”, Arendt went on to observe, depended on expanding world alienation. It “is possible only if the world and the very worldliness of man are sacrificed”. This process of the accumulation of wealth in the modern age “enormously increased human power of destruction” so “that we are able to destroy all organic life on earth and shall probably be able one day to destroy even the earth itself”. Indeed, “Under modern conditions”, she explained, “not destruction but conservation spells ruin because the very durability of conserved objects is the greatest impediment to the turnover process, whose constant gain in speed is the only constancy left wherever it has taken hold”.[10]

Arendt had no final answers to the dire problem she raised. Despite tying world alienation to a system of destruction rooted in wealth accumulation, she identified it with the development of science, technology, and modernity rather than capitalism as such. World alienation in her view was the triumph of homo faber and animal labourans. In this tragic conception, her readers were called upon to look back to the lost unity of the Greek polis, rather than, as in Marx, toward a new society based on the restoration at a higher level of the human metabolism with nature. In the end world alienation for Arendt was a Greek tragedy raised to the level of the planet.

There is no doubt that the concrete manifestations of this world alienation are evident everywhere today. The latest scientific data indicate that global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels experienced a “sharp acceleration…in the early 2000s” with the growth rate reaching levels “greater than for the most fossil-fuel intensive of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emissions scenarios developed in the late 1990s”. Further, “the mean global atmospheric CO2 concentration” has been increasing “at a progressively faster rate each decade”. The most rapid acceleration in emissions has been in a handful of emergent industrialising countries such as China, but “no region” in the world is currently “decarbonising its energy supply”. All ecosystems on earth are in decline, water shortages are on the rise, and energy resources are becoming more than ever the subject of global monopolies enforced by war.

The “man-made fingerprint of global warming” has been detected “on 10 different aspects of Earth’s environment: surface temperatures, humidity, water vapor over the oceans, barometric pressure, total precipitation, wildfires, change in species of plants and animals, water run-off, temperatures in the upper atmosphere, and heat content in the world’s oceans”. The cost now descending on the world if it doesn’t radically change course is a regression of civilisation and life itself beyond comprehension: an economy and ecology of destruction that will finally reach its limits.11

Socialism and sustainable human development

How are we to meet this challenge, arguably the greatest that human civilisation has ever faced? A genuine answer to the ecological question, transcending Arendt’s tragic understanding of world alienation, requires a revolutionary conception of sustainable human development—one that addresses both human self-estrangement (the alienation of labour) and world alienation (the alienation of nature). It was Ernesto “Che” Guevara who most famously argued in his “Man and Socialism in Cuba” that the crucial issue in the building of socialism was not economic development but human development. This needs to be extended by recognising, in line with Marx, that the real question is one of sustainable human development, explicitly addressing the human metabolism with nature through human labour.[12]

Too often the transition to socialism has been approached mechanistically as the mere expansion of the means of production, rather than in terms of the development of human social relations and needs. In the system that emerged in the Soviet Union the indispensable tool of planning was misdirected to production for production’s sake, losing sight of genuine human needs, and eventually gave rise to a new class structure. The detailed division of labour, introduced by capitalism, was retained under this system and extended in the interest of higher productivity. In this type of society, as Che critically observed, “the period of the building of socialism…is characterised by the extinction of the individual for the sake of the state”.[13]

The revolutionary character of Latin American socialism today derives its strength from an acute recognition of the negative (as well as some positive) lessons of the Soviet experience, partly through an understanding of the problem raised by Che: the need to develop socialist humanity. Further, the Bolivarian vision proclaimed by Hugo Chávez has its own deep roots of inspiration drawing on an older pre-Marxian socialism. Thus it was Simon Bolívar’s teacher Simón Rodríguez who wrote in 1847: “The division of labour in the production of goods only serves to brutalise the workforce. If to produce cheap and excellent nail scissors, we have to reduce the workers to machines, we would do better to cut our finger nails with our teeth.” Indeed, what we most admire today with regard to Bolívar’s own principles is his uncompromising insistence that equality is “the law of laws”.[14]

The same commitment to the egalitarian, universal development of humanity was fundamental to Marx. The evolution of the society of associated producers was to be synonymous with the positive transcendence of human alienation. The goal was a many-sided human development. Just as “all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature”, so “the cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history”. Socialism thus appears as the “complete emancipation of the senses”, of human sensuous capacities and their wide-ranging development. “Communism, as fully developed naturalism”, Marx wrote, “equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism”.[15]

The contrast between this revolutionary, humanistic-naturalistic vision and today’s dominant mechanical-exploitative reality could not be starker. We find ourselves in a period of imperialist development that is potentially the most dangerous in all of history.[16] There are two ways in which life on the planet as we know it can be destroyed—either instantaneously through global nuclear holocaust, or in a matter of a few generations by climate change and other manifestations of environmental destruction. Nuclear weapons continue to proliferate in an atmosphere of global insecurity promoted by the world’s greatest power. War is currently being waged in the Middle East over geopolitical control of the world’s oil at the same time that carbon emissions from fossil fuels and other forms of industrial production are generating global warming. Biofuels offered up today as a major alternative to pending world oil shortages are destined only to enlarge world hunger.[17] Water resources are being monopolised by global corporations. Human needs are everywhere being denied: either in the form of extreme deprivation for a majority of the population of the world, or, in the richer countries, in the form of the most intensive self-estrangement conceivable, extending beyond production to a managed consumption, enforcing life-long dependence on alienating wage labour. More and more life is debased in a welter of artificial wants dissociated from genuine needs.

All of this is altering the ways in which we think about the transition from capitalism to socialism. Socialism has always been understood as a society aimed at reversing the relations of exploitation of capitalism and removing the manifold social evils to which these relations have given rise. This requires the abolition of private property in the means of production, a high degree of equality in all things, replacement of the blind forces of the market by planning by the associated producers in accordance with genuine social needs, and the elimination to whatever extent possible of invidious distinctions associated with the division of town and country, mental and manual labour, race divisions, gender divisions, etc. Yet, the root problem of socialism goes much deeper. The transition to socialism is possible only through a revolutionising practice that revolutionises human beings themselves.[18] The only way to accomplish this is by altering our human metabolism with nature, along with our human-social relations, transcending both the alienation of nature and of humanity. Marx, like Hegel, was fond of quoting Terence’s famous statement “Nothing human is alien to me”. Now it is clear that we must deepen and extend this to: Nothing of this earth is alien to me.[19]

Mainstream environmentalists seek to solve ecological problems almost exclusively through three mechanical strategies: (1) technological bullets, (2) extending the market to all aspects of nature, and (3) creating what are intended as mere islands of preservation in a world of almost universal exploitation and destruction of natural habitats. In contrast, a minority of critical human ecologists have come to understand the need to change our fundamental social relations. Some of the best, most concerned ecologists, searching for concrete models of change, have thus come to focus on those states (or regions) that are both ecological and socialistic (in the sense of relying to a considerable extent on social planning rather than market forces) in orientation. Thus Cuba, Curitiba and Porto Alegre in Brazil, and Kerala in India, are singled out as the leading lights of ecological transformation by some of the most committed environmentalists, such as Bill McKibben, best known as the author of The End of Nature.[20] More recently Venezuela has been using its surplus from oil to transform its society in the direction of sustainable human development, thereby laying the foundation for a greening of its production. Although there are contradictions to what has been called Venezuelan “petro socialism”, the fact that an oil-generated surplus is being dedicated to genuine social transformation rather than feeding into the proverbial “curse of oil” makes Venezuela unique.[21]

Of course there are powerful environmental movements within the centre of the system as well to which we might look for hope. But severed from strong socialist movements and a revolutionary situation they have been constrained much more by a perceived need to adapt to the dominant accumulation system, thereby drastically undermining the ecological struggle. Hence, revolutionary strategies and movements with regard to ecology and society are world-historical forces at present largely in the periphery, in the weak links and breakaways from the capitalist system.

I can only point to a few essential aspects of this radical process of ecological change as manifested in areas of the global South. In Cuba the goal of human development that Che advanced is taking on a new form through what is widely regarded as “the greening of Cuba”. This is evident in the emergence of the most revolutionary experiment in agroecology on earth, and the related changes in health, science, and education. As McKibben states, “Cubans have created what may be the world’s largest working model of a semisustainable agriculture, one that relies far less than the rest of the world does on oil, on chemicals, on shipping vast quantities of food back and forth… Cuba has thousands of organopónicos—urban gardens—more than two hundred in the Havana area alone.” Indeed, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report, “Cuba alone” in the entire world has achieved a high level of human development, with a human development index greater than 0.8, while also having a per capita ecological footprint below the world’s average.[22]

This ecological transformation is deeply rooted in the Cuban revolution rather than, as frequently said, simply a forced response in the Special Period following the fall of the Soviet Union. Already in the 1970s Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, one of the founders of Cuban ecology, had introduced arguments for “integral development, laying the groundwork”—as ecologist Richard Levins points out—for “harmonious development of the economy and social relations with nature”. This was followed by the gradual flowering of ecological thought in Cuba in the 1980s. The Special Period, Levins explains, simply allowed the “ecologists by conviction” who had emerged through the internal development of Cuban science and society to recruit the “ecologists by necessity”, turning many of them too into ecologists by conviction.[23]

Venezuela under Chávez has not only advanced revolutionary new social relations with the growth of Bolivarian circles, community councils, and increased worker control of factories, but has introduced some crucial initiatives with regard to what István Mészáros has called a new “socialist time accountancy” in the production and exchange of goods. In the new Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the emphasis is on communal exchange, the exchange of activities rather than exchange values.[24] Instead of allowing the market to establish the priorities of the entire economy, planning is being introduced to redistribute resources and capacities to those most in need and to the majority of the populace. The goal here is to address the most pressing individual and collective requirements of the society related in particular to physiological needs and hence raising directly the question of the human relation to nature. This is the absolute precondition of the creation of a sustainable society. In the countryside preliminary attempts have also been made to green Venezuelan agriculture.[25]

In Bolivia the rise of a socialist current (though embattled at present) embedded in the needs of indigenous peoples and the control of basic resources such as water and hydrocarbons offers hope of another kind of development. The cities of Curitiba and Porto Alegre in Brazil point to the possibility of more radical forms of management of urban space and transportation. Curitiba, in McKibbens’s words, “is as much an example for the sprawling, decaying cities of the first world as for the crowded, booming cities of the Third World”. Kerala in India has taught us that a poor state or region, if animated by genuine socialist planning, can go a long way toward unleashing human potentials in education, health care, and basic environmental conditions. In Kerala, McKibben observes, “the Left has embarked on a series of ‘new democratic initiatives’ that come as close as anything on the planet to actually incarnating ‘sustainable development.’”[26]

To be sure, these are mainly islands of hope at present. They constitute fragile new experiments in social relations and in the human metabolism with nature. They are still subject to the class and imperial war imposed from above by the larger system. The planet as a whole remains firmly in the grip of capital and its world alienation. Everywhere we see manifestations of a metabolic rift, now extended to the biospheric level.

It follows that there is little real prospect for the needed global ecological revolution unless these attempts to revolutionize social relations in the struggle for a just and sustainable society, now emerging in the periphery, are somehow mirrored in movements for ecological and social revolution in the advanced capitalist world. It is only through fundamental change at the centre of the system, from which the pressure on the planet principally emanates, that there is any genuine possibility of avoiding ultimate ecological destruction.

For some this may seem to be an impossible goal. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that there is now an ecology as well as a political economy of revolutionary change. The emergence in our time of sustainable human development in various revolutionary interstices within the global periphery could mark the beginning of a universal revolt against both world alienation and human self-estrangement. Such a revolt if consistent could have only one objective: the creation of a society of associated producers rationally regulating their metabolic relation to nature, and doing so not only in accordance with their own needs but also those of future generations and life as a whole. Today the transition to socialism and the transition to an ecological society are one.

1. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: Vintage, 1981), 959.
2. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1976), 636–39, Capital, vol. 3, 754, 911, 948–49.
3. Karl Marx, Early Writings (New York: Vintage, 1974), 328. Documentation of Marx and Engels’s ecological concerns listed above can be found in the following works: Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999); John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000); and Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, “Metabolism, Energy, and Entropy in Marx’s Critique of Political Economy”, Theory & Society 35 (2006): 109–56. On the problem of local climate change as it was raised by Engels and Marx in their time (speculations on temperature changes due to deforestation) see Engels’s notes on Fraas in Marx and Engels, MEGA IV, 31 (Amsterdam: Akadamie Verlag, 1999), 512–15.
4. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 911.
5. On ecological insights of socialists after Marx see Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 236–54. On early Soviet ecology see also Douglas R. Weiner, Models of Nature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988). On Podolinsky seek John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, “Ecological Economics and Classical Marxism”, Organisation & Environment 17, no. 1 (March 2004): 32–60.
6. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1973), 471–79, and Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 915.
7. On precarious work see Fatma Ülkü Selçuk, “Dressing the Wound”, Monthly Review 57, no. 1 (May 2005): 37–44.
8. Joseph Needham, Moulds of Understanding (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1976), 301.
9. Branko Milanovic, Worlds Apart (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); John Bellamy Foster, “The Imperialist World System”, Monthly Review, vol. 59, no. 1 (May 2007): 1–16.
10. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 248–73; Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 1, 224–63.
11. Michael R. Raupach, et al., “Global and Regional Drivers of Accelerating CO2 Emissions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 24 (June 12, 2007): 10289, 10288; Associated Press, “Global Warming: It’s the Humidity”, October 10, 2007.
12. See Paul Burkett’s “Marx’s Vision of Sustainable Human Development”, Monthly Review 57, no. 5 (October 2005): 34–62.
13. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, “Man and Socialism in Cuba”. Che was referring to bourgeois criticisms of socialist transition but it was clear that he saw this problem as an actual contradiction of early socialist experiments that had to be transcended. See also Michael Löwy, The Marxism of Che Guevara (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 59–73.
14. Rodríguez quoted in Richard Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator (London: Verso, 2000), 116; Simón Bolívar, “Message to the Congress of Bolivia”, May 25, 1826, Selected Works (New York: The Colonial Press, 1951), vol. 2, 603.
15. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 146, and Early Writings (New York: Vintage, 1974), 348, 353.
16. István Mészáros, Socialism or Barbarism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), 23.
17. A powerful critique of biofuel production has been authored by Fidel Castro Ruiz in a series of reflections over the past years. See
18. See Paul M. Sweezy, “The Transition to Socialism”, in Sweezy and Charles Bettelheim, On the Transition to Socialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 112, 115; Michael Lebowitz, Build it Now (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006), 13–14.
19. G. W. F. Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics (London: Penguin, 1993), 51; Karl Marx, “Confessions”, in Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), 140.
20. See Bill McKibben, Hope, Human and Wild (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1995), and Deep Economy (New York: Henry Holt, 2007).
21. Michael A. Lebowitz, “An Alternative Worth Struggling For”, Monthly Review 60, no. 5 (October 2008): 20–21.
22. McKibben, Deep Economy, 73. See also Richard Levins, “How Cuba is Going Ecological”, in Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Biology Under the Influence (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007), 343–64; Rebecca Clausen, “Healing the Rift: Metabolic Restoration in Cuban Agriculture”, Monthly Review 59, no. 1 (May 2007): 40–52; World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report 2006,, 19; Peter M. Rosset, “Cuba: A Successful Case Study of Sustainable Agriculture”, in Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederick H. Buttel, eds., Hungry for Profit (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999), 203–14.
23. Levins, “How Cuba is Going Ecological”, 355–56 in Lewontin and Levins, Biology Under the Influence, 367.
24. Lebowitz, Build it Now, 107–09; On the theory of communal exchange that influenced Chávez see István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 758–60. On “socialist time accountancy” see Mészáros’s Crisis and Burden of Historical Time (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008).
25. David Raby, “The Greening of Venezuela”, Monthly Review 56, no. 5 (November 2004): 49–52.
26. McKibben, Hope, 62, 154.


Why capitalism can’t meet human needs

Socialism is the answer to

Why capitalism can’t meet human needs

Published Oct 26, 2008 10:10 PM

Three-quarters of a million workers have already been laid off this year, bringing the official total of unemployed to over 9 million. Trillions of dollars in retirement funds have been wiped out in the stock market in the last few months. Over 10,000 households a day are being foreclosed, and evictions are rampant. Money for student loans has dried up. Credit card debt is at a record high. Unemployment is rising along with food, utility and gas prices. Production and sales are falling relentlessly. The forecast is for things to get worse—a lot worse.

All the most powerful financial officials and political leaders of the richest capitalist countries in the world have tried to stop the devastating advance of this economic storm. They have failed. The crisis feels like a force of nature. It brushes aside trillions of dollars in bailouts for the banks and keeps going. It is taking down everything in its path–homes, jobs and workers’ lives.

But this crisis is not a force of nature. It is the force of the capitalist system in crisis.

This crisis began when the housing bubble burst. Capitalist banks were lending money to profit-seeking real estate developers to build houses. The same banks were lending money to mortgage companies to make as many loans as they could. The goal was to boost profits.

Soon there were more houses than the workers and the middle class could buy. The prices of homes fell. Mortgages could not be refinanced. Workers could not pay the steep increases in interest rates built into their loans. Banks stopped lending. Millions of households went into foreclosure.

Put simply, people became homeless because there were too many houses! Not too many houses that were needed or already here, but too many houses that can be sold at a profit. Furthermore, the workers who build homes and all the workers who make the things that go into homes are losing their jobs because these homes can no longer be sold at a profit.

That is the essence of all the capitalist crises that have occurred since the first crisis in 1825. It is the crisis of overproduction.

The global financial meltdown was triggered by the bad mortgage debts sold around the world. But what turned those debts into bad debts, in the final analysis, was the overproduction of housing.

Now the crisis of overproduction is sweeping the auto industry. From the auto industry and the housing industry it is spreading throughout the economy. The stock markets are plummeting because the financial bailouts, the pumping of trillions of dollars into the banks, cannot stop the capitalist economic crisis.

Capitalism reinforces exploitation, inequality

Why is this inevitable? Under the capitalist system there is private ownership of the entire global means of production by a tiny group of millionaires and billionaires. Production goals are set inside each corporate empire in secret by the executives, who are their corporate agents. The goal is to amass maximum profits. But no company knows how much can really be sold at a profit.

On a corporate level production, is planned. On a society-wide level, production is socialized globally but completely unplanned. This is called the anarchy of production. This is what inevitably leads to overproduction.

The crisis is also inevitable under capitalism because the workers are an exploited class. The lower their wages are, the higher the bosses’ profits. Profits consist of unpaid labor. The bosses take the products, services and infrastructure created by the workers, sell them on the market, pay the workers as little as possible and keep the rest. Every capitalist tries to lower wages to gain higher profits.

The collective action of the capitalist class, aided by the state, has driven down the wages and living standards of the multinational working class in the last thirty years. Under the system of capitalist exploitation wealth flows to the top, and the level of inequality is obscene.

The top 1 percent of the U.S. population, the super-rich who have all the levers of power in society, owned 34.3 percent of the wealth in 2004. The bottom 90 percent owned 28.7 percent. The top 400 individuals owned $1.26 trillion in 2006, up from $470 billion in 1995.

Racism and national oppression play a major role in the distribution of wealth under capitalism. The African-American, Latin@, Asian and Native peoples had the least to begin with and will suffer the most under the blows of this crisis. For example, the median wealth (that is, savings and other assets) of households by race in 2004 was $140,700 for whites, $20,600 for African Americans and $18,600 for Latin@s. (See graphs.) This means that in this developing capitalist economic crisis the oppressed have almost nothing to fall back on to cushion the low wages, the layoffs and the foreclosures.

Oppression and economic discrimination also fall on women and lesbian, gay, bi and trans people under capitalism. Like racism, the bosses use sex and gender bias as a way to divide and conquer. The growing witch-hunt against undocumented workers has the same poisonous, divisive goal. How else could 1 percent of the population dominate the workers and oppressed other than by sowing division and disunity?

Class unity is the nightmare of the ruling class. As the present crisis engulfs wider and wider sections of the workers, the potential for bringing about that unity is growing stronger.

The drive for profit and exploitation here at home is the same drive behind war, occupation and intervention abroad. Trillions of dollars have been given to the military to protect corporate interests in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Pentagon is nothing more than an enforcer for U.S. capitalism around the world–from the Persian Gulf to Southern Africa to the Pacific and the Caribbean. And as capitalism expands, it brings environmental destruction in its wake.

It is becoming clearer every day that capitalism as a system has got to go. A system in which people are homeless because there are too many homes must go. A system in which workers are losing their jobs and being plunged into poverty because they have produced too much wealth is a system that must be destroyed. A system which cannot provide jobs and education but imprisons 2.4 million people, the majority of them Black and Latin@, is bankrupt and does not deserve to continue another day.

If Cuba can do it, why not the U.S.

It must be replaced by a system where production takes place for human need, not for profit. The class that produces the wealth, the multinational working class, should own and distribute that wealth.

Trillions of dollars are now being used to bail out the banks and fund the Pentagon under capitalism. Under socialism, that money would guarantee that everyone would have a decent job and income, free health care, affordable housing, free education, low-cost transportation, healthy, reasonably priced food and much more. The well-being of the multinational working class would be the goal of society, not their exploitation as it is under capitalism.

If this sounds utopian, the fact is that socialist Cuba, poor as it is, with all its difficulties, has gone a long distance toward establishing these rights for the Cuban people. How is it possible that a country that was impoverished by centuries of Spanish and then U.S. colonial rule and that has lived for 50 years under a U.S. blockade, could guarantee more economic rights to its people than U.S. imperialism with its $11 trillion economy?

Why is it that the Cuban people have a longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality rate than oppressed people living in Harlem, Chicago’s South Side, Los Angeles or the barrios of this country? The answer is that Cuba abolished capitalism, destroyed the capitalist state in a revolutionary struggle and took the road toward socialism.

The present economic crisis is bringing increased suffering to the workers in the U.S. and is spreading around the capitalist world. It demonstrates clearly the need for a mobilized, militant, mass working-class fightback.

The bosses want to push the crisis of their system onto the backs of the workers and the oppressed. But the ultimate goal of the working class must be to turn their fight into a struggle to abolish capitalist private ownership of the tremendous wealth that the workers have created.

The end of private ownership of the means of production would mean a vast increase in the personal property and social property of the workers. Right now, private ownership is strangling humanity and destroying the planet.

The final goal must be to eliminate economic crises, exploitation, oppression and war once and for all. The only way to do that is to establish a socialist society—free from greedy bosses and inequality—here and worldwide.

Articles copyright 1995-2008 Workers World. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.

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