On Misunderstanding the Second Contradiction Thesis

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James O’Connor’s “second contradiction” thesis is widely misunderstood as an ecological crisis theory. Most of the criticisms of the theory derive from this misreading, including those which ignore relations between ecological, personal and communal conditions and those which see the “first” and “second” contradictions as materially distinct. O’Connor himself is partially responsible for the misreading, however. His writings tended to put the ecological out front, and his use of Polanyi’s romantic idea of “fictitious commodities” reinforced that tendency. The defense developed here rejects ecologistic readings, ties the second contradiction thesis backwards and forwards in O’Connor’s work, unpacks the meaning of “conditions” for Marx and O’Connor, and suggests that Neil Smith’s argument that capitalist second natural relations generate qualitatively new processes by which nature, human nature and space are produced would have served O’Connor better.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-35
Number of pages19
JournalCapitalism, Nature, Socialism
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2 2019


  • James O’Connor
  • Karl Polanyi
  • Neil Smith
  • conditions of production
  • ecological Marxism
  • ecologism
  • environmental marxism
  • second contradiction


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