Section X: Reimagining and Reinventing Societies and Social Thought

Track 7: Reimagining and Reinventing Societies and Social Thought:Whitehead and Marx
Ouyang Kang and Philip Clayton, chairs
Mason Hall, Pomona College Campus

Marxism has not traditionally been associated with ecology, and centrally managed states that historically claimed to be Marxist have often had atrocious environmental records. Recently, however, a number of scholars have challenged the received view that Marx’s work, and Marxian theory more generally, are rooted in an uncritical acceptance of the domination of nature as a necessary basis for economic development. For example, John Bellamy Foster and others have argued that Marx’s work is intrinsically ecological and provides a firm foundation for the articulation of a radical ecological theory and practice. Other strains of thought within the Marxian tradition have much to contribute to ecological thinking, and to the theory and practice of environmental politics.

 In this working group we will draw upon ecological thought, constructive postmodernism, critical theory, process philosophy, and other trends in contemporary Marxian thought in order to uncover and explicate these connections. We believe that Marxism, in conjunction with other contemporary theoretical perspectives, can make a crucial contribution to the project of bringing about the urgently-needed transition to an ecological civilization. Part of our task will be to explore constructive connections between Marx and Whitehead. Clayton’s recent book on Organic Marxism offers one example, but many others will be considered as well.

 The evidence is now overwhelming that unrestrained capitalism has been the major cause of environmental degradation. Industrial pollution, the development of largely fossil fuel-based economies, and overconsumption and waste by the rich and the wealthiest (corporate) sectors of the populations within the most advanced Western capitalist countries have been the major factors driving the unsustainable levels of carbon emissions, which are now causing global temperatures to rise to dangerous and unsustainable levels. Unfortunately, the poor will bear the brunt of the resulting social, economic, and political crises. There will be no adequate response until we abolish government for the rich and establish governments that act for the common good.

 The main goal of this working group is to contribute to the development and articulation of a critical analysis of the contemporary environmental crisis. Among the most urgent tasks is the transformation of our economic, political and social relations on a global scale, so that these relations become more democratic, more just, and more in harmony with the natural world.

This track will function as a working group, not a set of isolated lectures. We have a core group of participants and invite others to join us as well. Currently confirmed are:

Gang Chen <>
Professor Zhizhang Du <>
Philip Clayton <>
Mark Dibben <>
Roger S. Gottlieb <>
Justin Heinzekehr <>,
Carol Johnston <>
Ouyang Kang <>,
Michael Perelman <>,
Joerg Rieger <>,
Michael Sukhov <>,
Jung Mo Sung <>

 Roger S. Gottlieb <> (Prof. Gottlieb heads his own track but may be present for some sessions. He is on the editorial board of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology.)

 Professor Ouyang Kang is also arranging for other Chinese scholars to participate in this working group.

 Each participant will have 30 minutes to present his or her contribution during one session. The remainder of the session (about 60 minutes) will include debate about the presentation and contributions by other participants.


Schedule (see Abstracts, below)

Friday, June 5th

11-12:30 AM: Common Section Lecture: William Connolly, “Extinction Events and Entangled Humanism.”

Session 1

2 PM: Roger S. Gottlieb, “Environmentalism as the Synthesis of Left Politics and Spirituality”

2:45 PM: Opening Discussion for the Working Group

Session 2

4 PM: Ouyang Kang, “Global Challenges and Wisdom Resources: Why Go back to Whitehead and Marx and What Can We Learn from Them?”

4:45 PM: Gang Chen.

Saturday, June 6th

Session 3

11-12:30 AM: From Unrestrained Capitalism to Government for the Common Good

11 AM: Joerg Rieger, “Why Movements Matter Most: A Conversation with the New Materialism

11:45 AM: Philip Clayton, “Organic Marxism: A Conversation with the Postmodern Age”

Session 4

2 PM: Dr. Carol Johnston, “A Whiteheadian Perspective on Global Economics”

2:45 PM: Justin Heinzekehr, “Mariategui and Whitehead: The Metaphysics of Local Marxisms”

Session 5

4 PM: Jung Mo Sung, “Commodity Fetishism and Critical Metaphysics”

4:45 PM: Zhizhang Du, “Several Dimensions of the Comparison of Whitehead’s philosophy of Organism and the Ontology of Marx’s Philosophy”

Sunday, June 7th

Session 6

11AM AM: Michael Perelman, “Karl Marx, China, and a Harmonious Civilization”

11:45 AM, Mark Dibben and Cristina Neesham, “Persons-in-Community in Whitehead, Smith and Marx: Exploring Marx’s Concept of Class through Adam Smith’s Concept of Social Order”

Session 7

2-3:30 PM: Michael Sukhov, “Critical Theory, the New Cosmology, and Climate Change: Toward an Integral Synthesis.”

2:45 PM: Open Discussion.

Session 8

4-5:30 PM: Closing Session

Abstracts for Section 10, Track 7

“Reimagining and Reinventing Societies and Social Thought”

Friday, June 5th

2 PM: Roger S. Gottlieb

Professor of Philosophy, Department of Humanities and Arts, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA 01609

Contributing Editor: Tikkun Magazine

Editorial Boards: Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion

Journal of the Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture

Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology

Environmentalism as the Synthesis of Left Politics and Spirituality”

The idea of inescapable social structures — first of exploitation (Marxism) and then of oppression and marginalization (identity politics of race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) — form an essential strand in understanding the root causes and unequal distribution of the consequences of the environmental crisis. Simultaneously, however, nearly 3000 years of spiritual teachings about attachment and self-delusion are necessary to understand both the experienced ideology of contemporary industrial society and the subjectivity of the political actors seeking to make fundamental changes.

With its guiding goal of respect and care for all of life (as opposed to the more limited constituencies of earlier progressive movements) and its emphasis on the cultivation of personal virtues of self-understanding, acceptance, gratitude and compassion (yet without the narcissism which haunts too many spiritual tendencies), environmentalism combines these disparate yet mutually reinforcing wisdoms into what is perhaps the best hope we’ve got for social and personal transformation.

4 PM: Ouyang Kang

Director of Institute of Philosophy

President of Institute of State Governance

Huazhong University of Science and Technology

P. R. China

Global Challenges and Wisdom Resources: Why Go back to Whitehead and Marx and What Can We Learn from Them?”

The argument of the paper unfolds in three parts. (1) We need more wisdom to face the challenges. The Challenges we are facing in the world and in our time can be divided, philosophically speaking, into three relationships or levels: between human beings and nature, between people and society, and between individuals and their minds. While humanity is actively promoting the modernization in the world and enhancing the process of globalization, at the unconscious level we are also involved with the extremely serious challenges that we are facing. Corporately, we have the strong feeling that we are lacking enough wisdom to meet the needs of our state governance, not to mention the good governance of the planet as a whole. That is the reason for us to try to find something which is useful to us today.

(2) Why go back to Whitehead and Marx? There are many wisdom resources that can help us in history; why should we go back to Whitehead and Karl Marx? Why think that their ideas are still alive and meaningful after their death and up to the present time? There are many reasons. One of the most important is that, within Western philosophy and culture, these two thinkers inherited and enlarged the tradition of process thought, which had been developed from ancient Greece to Hegel. The main difference between them may be that Whitehead conceived process philosophy primarily in the context of nature, science, and mathematics, whereas Marx conceived process thought primarily from the angle of the human sciences and their more practical concerns with social and economic questions. It’s because we are today facing extremely complex problems at the intersection of nature, human being, and individual existence that we need to draw from both of them now.

(3) What Can We Learn from Whitehead and Marx? There are many common points we can learn from Whiteheadian thought and Marxism, including process thought, the philosophy of organism, holism, theories of social harmony, and models of human development. However, one also finds distinct contributions from the two of them. Marx seems mainly to use process thought as a methodology to analyze processes of evolution in nature, society and the human spirit, seeking a rational and viable pathway for human liberation. Whitehead focuses more on process thought, developing it as a special field within philosophy, namely process philosophy. Because of the differences between their times and their countries, Marx paid more attention to practical dimensions of the social struggle and to the practice of revolution, whereas Whitehead paid more attention to the theoretical construction of process philosophy. If we can really understand both of their wisdoms and combine them together, we may find better ways to develop ourselves more rationally and efficiently.

4:45 PM: Gang Chen.

Saturday, June 6th

11-12:30 AM: Shared session: “From Unrestrained Capitalism to Government for the Common Good”

Joerg Rieger, Why Movements Matter Most: A Conversation with the New Materialism

Both process thinkers and new materialists understand the limits of philosophical idealism and the need to focus on material reality in non-deterministic ways. As new appreciation for the transformative potential of material reality is emerging in various fields, this presentation will focus on the contributions made by material reality as shaped in the worlds of social and religious movements.

Philip Clayton, Organic Marxism: A Conversation with the Postmodern Age

Karl Marx and the movements he has inspired challenge the fundamental assumptions of the 1% of the global population that holds 99% of its resources and power. Not surprisingly, the economic and political ruling classes have vilified Marx and Marxism in every way that they can. Without a doubt, there were flaws in the thinking of Marx and the practice of Marxism. But a surprising number of these were tied to modernist assumptions in Marx’s work and can easily be modified with the help of Whitehead and postmodern thought. Similarly, most flaws in Marxist practice can be traced to people in power who put their interests above the interest of the common good. The issue then is not how but whether. The global environmental crisis poses a simple question for humanity: will communities and nations adopt principles and economics and politics “for the common good” rather than national and international policies that favor the wealthy at the expense of the poor?

2 PM: Dr. Carol Johnston

A Whiteheadian Perspective on Global Economics

The idea that we can actually make a difference and help to transform global economics for the sake of a healthier and more just world sometimes seems impossible. It is a daunting task that will not be done quickly, easily, or by only a few. But if Adam Smith and his contemporaries could nudge the social/economic trends of their day with their compelling ideas, we can do our best to do the same. Process thought can help us to understand, and to value as fact, that every entity makes a contribution, however modest, and that contribution matters – each affects the whole universe.

In this paper I outline what it means to think from a Whiteheadian perspective about economics and acting Responsibly. The paper will critique capitalism from a Whiteheadian perspective, and then critique Marxism from a Process Perspective. We will then consider some alternative assumptions and values for transforming economics.

2:45 PM: Justin Heinzekehr

Mariategui and Whitehead: The Metaphysics of Local Marxisms

There is perception, especially in the United States, that Marxism has finally demonstrated its failure as a political and economic alternative to capitalism. In fact, rigid, dogmatic versions of Marxism have indeed proved to be inadequate in circumstances different from those with which Marx himself was familiar. For example, precisely because Latin American countries could not develop Marxism along orthodox economic trajectories, third-world Marxists had to think more creatively about the application of Marxism in new cultural contexts. Jose Carlos Mariategui, for instance, explicitly integrated Marxism with indigenous culture and religion, and for that reason was extremely influential in Latin American socialist movements. To successfully integrate Marxism with his Peruvian culture, Mariategui had to reinterpret Marx’s determinism and materialism, while remaining true to the basic spirit of Marx. Writing simultaneously in the United States, Alfred North Whitehead was developing a philosophy that provides us with exactly those elements that have been missing in more dogmatic forms of Marxism: non-determinism, an emphasis on creativity and locality, and an integration of ideology, culture and religion with a materialistic worldview. Though the connections between Marx and Whitehead have been underappreciated, Whitehead’s thought provides a necessary philosophical ground for culturally-appropriate alternatives to capitalism, such as Mariategui’s Marxism.

4 PM: Jung Mo Sung

Commodity Fetishism and Critical Metaphysics

One of the central ideas of Process Philosophy is to replace “substance” as a basic category of metaphysics with a notion of an “actual occasion” (or actual entity), which is not an enduring substance, but the process of becoming — drops of experience, complex and interdependent.

On the other hand, one of the key critical concepts of Marx’s thought for our day is “the commodity fetishism.” This concept allows us to overcome the vision of commodities and capital as substances, which can be accumulated without limit, and to analyze goods as they move through the process of production, distribution and consumption through the market. Furthermore, the notion of commodity fetishism shows the inversion that occurs in economic processes, where social relations in the market seem to be among commodities and not among human beings. Marx says commodity “is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

The critique of commodity fetishism enables us to discover the religious dimension of capitalism —the spirit that fascinates a large part of the world and justifies the perverse mechanisms that sacrifice human lives and the environment on behalf of unlimited accumulation of wealth.

Without a critical metaphysic, which goes beyond the notion of substance as a basic category and the myth of unlimited accumulation, it is not possible to propose an alternative civilization that is ecologically and socially sustainable and fair. For that, a dialogue between those two schools of thought seems to be essential.

4:45 pm: Du Zhizhang

Several Dimensions of the Comparison of Whitehead’s philosophy of Organism and the Ontology of Marx’s Philosophy

When compared, Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and Marx’s philosophy of ontology reveal some important differences. First, concerning the world (nature), Whitehead thought nature is a living organism, while Marx thought that the world is material and the material is the motorial. Second, concerning the relationship of man and nature, Whitehead believes that man is a part of natural organisms, whereas Marx thought that the person is the subject and nature is object — indeed, that nature is an object that humans seek to understand and remold. The third difference concerns human activities. Whitehead conceived human activities as the natural process of life in the universe, while Marx believed that human activities lie in understanding and transforming the world. Fourth, regarding value orientation, Whitehead believed that the goal of human activity is to recover natural vigor and vitality, whereas Marx believed that human activity is intended to get to the realm of freedom from the kingdom of nature. Although there are many differences, Whitehead and Marx reach the same goal eventually; they offer different routes toward human civilization. When we formulate their common goal, it is ecological civilization, where man and nature live in harmony.

Sunday, June 7th

11AM: Michael Perelman

Karl Marx, China, and a Harmonious Civilization”

11:45 AM: Mark Dibben, University of Tasmania, Australia, and Cristina Neesham, Swinburne University.

Persons-in-Community in Whitehead, Smith and Marx: Exploring Marx’s Concept of Class through Adam Smith’s Concept of Social Order”


In this paper, we build on previously published work (Neesham and Dibben, 2012) which demonstrated the similarity between Smith, Marx and Whitehead as philosophers most interested in the nature of human experience, to argue both that our understanding of Smith is too market oriented and that, indeed, Marx paid very close attention to Smith concept of social order in developing his concept of class.  While the full genealogical analysis should involve all translation steps, including the literal ones, we will show Smith was a key source in his analysis. In summary this proceeded as follows: direct reference to Smith’s concept, then – in the same paragraph – logical continuation of the idea, sometimes using more radical language (new terms)to capture the idea, and sometimes revealing new implications.  Marx read Smith in English but wrote his notes in German, so what we have is posthumous translation (by ‘strangers’) of these notes back in English. Further, we argue it is of crucial historical importance, particularly in the context of current process thought re-interpretation of Marx in the light of traditional understandings of Smith, to note that economic theorists have chosen to put the full weight of Smith’s Wealth of Nations contribution on one mention of self-interest (WN: 39) and one mention of the invisible hand (WN: 331), instead of his concept of social order. This concept has its moral foundations in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and finds economic expression in The Wealth of Nations. It also constitutes the most coherent foundation for the argument that the two works (TMS and WN) are an integral part of the same philosophy; it is another expression of a persons-in-community thesis. As such, we don’t need to rethink Marx, but we do perhaps need to rethink Smith; his thinking (as opposed perhaps to the early commentators who cherry-picked from him) can genuinely contribute to an Ecological Civilisation founded on Whiteheadian process thought.

2 PM: Michael J. Sukhov

Critical Theory, the New Cosmology, and Climate Change: Toward an Integral Synthesis

This paper brings seemingly disparate theoretical insights to bear upon the current global environmental crisis in ways that suggest new perspectives on the challenges humanity faces. A critical reading of some of Karl Marx’s writings indicates certain limitations in his conception of historical materialism; however, there are other tendencies in Marx, as well as in Western Marxism more generally, that imply a more comprehensive, transcendent view of human beings, one that emphasizes their integral interconnection with the natural world, as well as their situatedness within a larger context that incorporates some notion of that which is “beyond” the realm of labor and necessity under capitalism. Meanwhile, groundbreaking developments in physical and evolutionary cosmology and related fields over the past three decades have enormously increased our knowledge of the cosmos, resulting in new theories about its origins and development, as well as new evolutionary narratives about the place of the Earth (including humanity and its other living systems) in the 13.7 billion- year history of the universe. In its wake, this “new cosmology” has spawned whole new areas of theory and research dealing with the cultural, social, psychological, spiritual, and ecological-political ramifications of this new understanding, as well as its implications for how we should live our lives, organize ourselves politically and economically, and interact with the natural world.

When the insights and understandings gained from this new knowledge are brought to bear upon our current global environmental crisis in creative dialogue with recent developments within Critical theory as well as elements of the Western philosophical tradition more generally, they create the possibility for the development of new perspectives on the global problems that humanity presently faces.