Who will win green socialism: workers, or a vague alliance?



Paul Hampton

Paul Hampton reviews “The global fight for climate justice” (ed. Ian Angus)

I knew this book was going to be a mish-mash after Derek Wall wrote in his foreword that he was pleased it included a contribution from Hugo Blanco, “who was one of Che Guevara’s contemporaries”.

Blanco led a peasant uprising in 1961 as a Trotskyist. Guevara was at the time a leading member of a government that was locking up Trotskyists. Perhaps Wall missed Guevara’s comment, made in December 1964: “The Trotskyists have contributed nothing to the revolutionary movement and where they did most, which was in Peru, they ultimately failed because their methods were bad. That comrade Hugo Blanco, personally a man of great sacrifice, based [his position] on a set of erroneous ideas and will necessarily fail.”

Such confusion is particularly obtuse. The book, The Global Fight for Climate Justice: Anticapitalist Responses to Global Warming and Environmental Destruction (2009) is edited by the Canadian Trotskyist Ian Angus and published by Socialist Resistance, the erstwhile British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International (USFI).

The USFI has long permitted substitutes or locums for the workers’ movement to infect its political theory. Witness their view that “workers’ states” could be created by Stalinists in Eastern Europe (and China and Cuba) without the active intervention of the working class. The book contains four contributions from members of the Cuban state, a piece by the president of Bolivia and a statement by Hugo Chávez’s Latin American alliance ALBA. It carries over an approach that failed to account for post-war Stalinism into the emerging socialist ecology movement. Such a method will only poison the well.

Ecosocialist arguments

The book is not entirely a waste of trees. The collection has a genuine international flavour, bringing together voices from all over the planet. It includes important declarations from campaigns in the South and a piece by Tony Kearns making the case for climate change as a trade union issue.

Angus himself contributes at least two important articles. The most impressive is “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons”, a comprehensive demolition of Garrett Hardin, who provided the intellectual underpinnings for neoliberal free market environmentalism. Angus rightly argues that, “The tragedy of the commons is a useful political myth — a scientific-sounding way of saying that there is no alternative to the dominant world order”.

In “World Hunger, Agribusiness and the Food Sovereignty Alternative”, Angus explains the recent spike in food prices as the result of the end of the “green revolution” (in new agricultural techniques from the 1960s); climate change; agrofuels and oil prices. He also summarises the range of class struggles around food last year in Haiti, Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Egypt and elsewhere. Angus argues convincingly that there is no shortage of food in the world today, but that the global food industry fails to feed the hungry because it is organised to generate corporate profits.

The book is probably most useful as a negative critique of what passes for climate policy at present. It examines the ethanol scam, where food has been substituted for fuel. Several articles debunk trading in carbon permits, well satirised by the Website cheatneutral.com:

“When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere. Cheatneutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and NOT cheat. This neutralises the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience…When you use Cheatneutral, we’ll email you a Cheatneutral Offset Certificate, so you can prove to your loved one that your playing away has been successfully offset. Then you and your partner are both happy, a broken heart is mended, and you can feel good about yourself again, all thanks to Cheatneutral.”

The rationale for ecosocialism

The most substantial contribution in the book is an essay by Daniel Tanuro of the Belgian LCR-SAP, which was adopted by the USFI in February this year. The document has considerable merits.

First, it is sharply critical of the old Stalinist states for their carbon emissions. He refers to the specific responsibility of “really existing socialism” for the disruption of the climate: “Just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, Czechoslovakia was emitting 20.7 tons of CO2 per capita per annum and the GDR 22 tons per capita per annum. By way of comparison, the USA, Canada and Australia — the biggest emitters of CO2 in the developed capitalist world — were at that time emitting respectively 18.9, 16.2 and 15 tons of CO2 per capita per annum, for a considerably higher per capita GNP.”

Second, he outlines some of the Marxist political economy necessary to get a grip on climate change. He writes: “Competition pushes each owner of capital to replace workers by machines which, by increasing labour productivity, make it possible to obtain a super profit over and above the average profit, and thus to gain a competitive advantage. This race for technological rent, which accelerates with further development, accentuates the tendency of the system to overproduction, and consequently to overconsumption.

“Overproduction and overconsumption inevitably imply an increase in the volume of material production. This in its turn requires increased appropriation of resources (in particular energy), on the one hand, and more extensive dumping of waste, on the other hand. The tendency to dematerialisation, to efficiency in the use of resources and to the transformation of waste into raw materials can slow down this overall movement, but not prevent it.

“A stationary capitalism is a contradiction in terms: since capitalist economy has as its goal the production of value, i.e. in a general and abstract form of exchange values, it flows from this that capitalism, according to Marx’s formula, knows no limit other than capital itself.”

However, I think Tanuro concedes too much in his critique of Marxist ecology. He argues that, “The saturation of the carbon cycle and the exhaustion of non-renewable resources signifies that, unlike in the past, the emancipation of the working class can no longer be conceived without taking into account the principal natural constraints.” He adds, “The major ecological error of Marx is thus not to have regarded nature as an unlimited reserve of resources to be exploited, but not to have applied his own concept of ‘rational management of exchanges’ to the particular domain of energy, whereas he had applied it to the domain of land... The successors of Marx bear an important responsibility for the fact that the concept of ‘rational management of the exchanges of matter between humanity and nature’ and the related problems of separation between town and country were forgotten in the 20th century.”

Classical Marxism did not explicitly connect the use of fossil fuels with climate change. This is not surprising, given that the scientific hypothesis was not verified as an immediate problem until the 1950s. However, early classical Marxists did recognise the possibility of resource depletion and did acknowledge natural limits.

Discussing the attempts by Podolinsky to base the labour theory of value on energetics, Engels drew attention to the way capitalist production is “a squanderer of past, solar heat”. He told Marx on 19 December 1882: “As to what we have done in the way of squandering our reserves of energy, our coal, ore, forests, etc., you are better informed than I am. From this point of view, hunting and fishing may also be seen not as stabilisers of fresh solar heat but as exhausters and even incipient squanderers of the solar energy that has accumulated from the past.” (MECW 46 1992)

On 9 June 1881, Paul Lafargue wrote to Jules Guesde about a new battery which by storing electricity. Lafargue asserted “might enable us to change the movement of the wind, rivers, and tides into electricity which could be carried anywhere one wished to be turned back into light, warmth and movement? What revolutionary times we live in! The least revolutionary are the revolutionaries”. (Derfler, Paul Lafargue and the Founding of French Marxism, 1842-1882, 1991)

In Women and Socialism, first published in 1879 and reprinted and updated over the next thirty years, August Bebel expressed a similar view of electricity. He also recognised the potential of solar energy, quoting the optimism of scientists of his day and expressed the hope that “a few square miles in Northern Africa would suffice for the requirements of a country like the German Empire”. He wrote:

“According to this, our anxiety that we might at some time lack fuel, is removed. The inventions of the accumulators would make it possible to store a large quantity of force away for future use at any time and place; so that, besides the power furnished by sun and tide, the power furnished by the wind and by mountain torrents, which can be obtained only periodically, might be stored and applied. So there may finally be no human task for which motor power cannot be supplied if necessary. Only by the assistance of electricity has it become possible to employ water-power on a large scale.” (1910)

Bebel speculated that by the year 2000, “there would be no coal-mines and, accordingly, no miners’ strikes. Fuel would be replaced by chemical and physical processes”. He argued that “The problem of industry consists in finding sources of power that are inexhaustible and can be renewed with the least possible amount of labour”.

He recognised the dependence on coal, and that “the coal is difficult to obtain, and the supply is diminishing daily”. Instead, “it becomes necessary to utilise the heat of the sun and the heat inside the earth. There is good reason to hope that both these sources will find unlimited application. Thereby the source of all heat and of all industry would be made accessible. If water-power were also applied, all imaginable machines might be run on the earth”. (1910)

The communist movement that coalesced after the 1917 Russian revolution also articulated similar views. In 1923 the Communist International published a primer. A Short Course of Economic Science had been written by Bogdanov in 1897 and was revised with Dvolaitsky in 1919. In the final chapter it argued that the “exhaustion of the main sources of steam power, coal and oil” was “inevitable”. This led to “the necessity for the transition to electricity”, and this will “create the possibility of making use of all waterfalls, all flowing water (even the tides of the oceans), and the intermittent energy of the wind which can be collected with the aid of accumulators, etc”. It added that: “A new and immeasurably rich source of electrical energy, infinitely superior to all other sources of electrical energy, has also been indicated, viz., atomic energy, which is contained in all matter.” (1923)

We can agree that Lenin’s formula for socialism (“Soviets plus electricity”) is inadequate today, unless the power comes from renewable sources. But for all the rhetoric about the need for a “cultural revolution”, Tanuro becomes vague and incoherent on what exactly revolutionary socialists should be flagellating ourselves for. He argues that, “it is not enough to affirm that socialism must integrate ecological questions, in other words that socialists must better include the ecological dimension, develop ecological demands and take part in mobilizations in defence of the environment”. Instead, he says cryptically, “the real challenge lies rather in integrating the socialist project into the global ecology of the terrestrial super-ecosystem”.

Tanuro partially answers his own criticism. As he puts it: “From the end of the 19th century, the invention of synthetic fertilisers seemed to have solved the problem of the fertility of soils, a key component of the ecological reflexion conducted in Capital”. Similarly, given that climate change was not considered widely as a significant global crisis with massive effects until the 1950s (Arrhenius and Callender both saw it as positive) and peak oil not conceived until the 1960s, it is no wonder that “the authors of the Communist Manifesto did not see that the capitalist rush to exhaustible fossil sources would inevitably lead humanity into an energy path with no way out”.

The other element missing is a sense of historical perspective. Classical Marxists saw energy problems as something way off in the future, and something which socialist societies would have the democratic and technological means to tackle. Few revolutionary socialists in 1909 would have foreseen another century of capitalism, never mind its persistence into the 21st century. Such a perspective was rational for the time. We however have to deal with the consequences of the longevity of capitalism and with the effects of Stalinism, which uncoupled ecology from socialism.

Where Tanuro has a point is that socialists today have to live in current realities — and hence why we cannot simply read off our answers from our predecessors. I think it is true that most socialists did not foresee the significance of climate change for 21st century politics until relatively recently. Uncertainties with the science, other battles to fight but more importantly the weakness of the left since the 1970s have been the major reasons for this. Self criticism on this front is fine — but it is not necessary to throw out much that is positive in the Marxist tradition, or to adopt the facile self-definition of eco-socialists.

The limits of ecosocialism

The book also contains the Belem eco-socialist declaration, formally launched at the World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil earlier this year. It was commissioned by the Paris Ecosocialist Conference of 2007, and written by Ian Angus, Joel Kovel, Michael Löwy and Danielle Follett.

A manifesto by four more or less Trotskyist-influenced long-time leftists might be expected to produce something special. The truth is that the product is poor. The declaration attributes the causes of climate change to capitalism and makes a very general case for socialism. But there is not even a superficial analysis of the basic political-economic drives of capitalism that give rise to climate change. It contains many errors of fact and many dubious interpretations. It is no literary inspiration. It has glaring silences and omissions.

The declaration panders to kitsch-leftism without adding clarity. It starts with a quote from Evo Morales, president of Bolivia. It is decidedly odd for a socialist manifesto to begin with a quote from the head of state of a bourgeois government, albeit one in conflict with sections of the bourgeoisie. The declaration also states: “The impact of the ecological crisis is felt most severely by those whose lives have already been ravaged by imperialism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and indigenous peoples everywhere are especially vulnerable.” Climate change has already hit people hard in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, though not uniformly so (e.g. Brazilian biofuel farmers). But climate change also affects the “North” — witness the heat wave in Europe in 2003 — or the floods in New Orleans.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the declaration is the absence of agency. The whole point of Marxist analysis of class societies and the positing of socialism as the rational alternative that grows out of capitalism, is to find within the system the social force with the power and interest to free itself and through that struggle, the whole of humanity. Marx argued that the working class was that force — his entire lifework and those of his most ardent followers are simply inexplicable without the axis of class struggle and the organisation of a labour movement.

The best the declaration can do is to state that “The most oppressed elements of human society, the poor and indigenous peoples, must take full part in the ecosocialist revolution”. There is a token mention of “Other potential agents of ecosocialist revolutionary change [which] exist in all societies” and that: “The struggle of labour — workers, farmers, the landless and the unemployed — for social justice is inseparable from the struggle for environmental justice.” This is hardly an advance over utopian socialism; implicitly it rejects the claim the working class is the agent of socialism (Kovel is quite explicit about this in his book, The Enemy of Nature). Although the editor and publishers of the book believe that the working class is one of the three social forces that can stop climate change, the book has no industrial strategy — for example around workers’ control of emissions. Their pursuit of youth is largely rhetorical, and their preference is clear from the statement, “The indigenous peoples are at the cutting edge of this struggle. Ecosocialists must now follow their lead”.

Finally, the demands around which to mobilise are disjointed. The Belem declaration rightly states that “To theorise and to work toward realising the goal of green socialism does not mean that we should not also fight for concrete and urgent reforms right now.” However few of its demands are transitional in the sense of seeking to mobilise the working class to fight for reforms that also begin to challenge the basis of capital’s rule. Thus there is no demand for cutting working time, nor for workers’ control. There are also some less coherent calls, such as the “progressive replacement of trucks by trains” and some reactionary ones, such as the call for “local food sovereignty”.

The Belem declaration, like the book itself, is imbued with catastrophism: “Quantitative change is giving way to qualitative transformation, bringing the world to a tipping point, to the edge of disaster”; “At worst, human life may not survive”. The central slogan of Climate and Capitalism, the website run by Angus and on which some of these articles have appeared, is: “Ecosocialism or Barbarism: there is no third way”.

Angus states that the slogan “Socialism or Barbarism” originated with the great German revolutionary socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg. In fact it was a conception with a long history in German social democracy — it can be found in Engels (1887, MECW 26) and in Kautsky’s commentary on the Erfurt Program, (1892): “As things stand today capitalist civilisation cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.” (The Class Struggle, 1910)

In fact the book is characterised by an overwhelming catastrophism, an apocalyptic foreboding that is, to my taste, more paralysing than motivating. The talk of disaster merely betrays the frustration experienced by many campaigners that so little has been achieved relative to the enormity of the tasks we face. Fear might scare people and change some attitudes, but it will not necessarily increase active engagement or change the world. There is widespread agreement about the dire consequences of climate change; extrapolating this to the end of the world — without any substantial argument — is unlikely to motivate a great fight back. Left in the air, this is more likely to demoralise.

Derek Wall lauds the book’s apparent “non-sectarian approach” in his foreword. But this masks a deeply divisive “consensus”. Apart from large hangovers from the Stalinist tradition, the book is premised on the disjuncture of “anti-capitalist” and socialist responses. Thus apparently all the contributors consider capitalism to be the problem, while they can happily disagree on whether socialism, eco-socialism, Cuban Stalinism, Bolivarian Bonapartist “socialism” or reformed capitalism is the answer. Such theoretical confusion actually offers little to the millions worldwide who care about climate change and are beginning to mobilise around the issue.

Rosa Luxemburg was fond of another metaphor that is appropriate for ecological critique, describing her centrist opponents as “the swamp”. In 1913, in “After the Jena congress”, she quoted this passage by August Bebel from 1903, which makes the point rather well as a verdict on this book:

“It is forever the same old struggle — the left here, the right there, and between them the swamp. These are the elements who never know what they want, or rather, never say what they want. They are the ‘wise guys’ who always ask: what’s going on here, what’s happening there? They always feel where the majority is, and then go with them.

“We have these types in our party too. In these proceedings, a whole number of them has come into the light of day. We have to denounce these comrades. Yes! Denounce them, I say, so that the comrades know what semi-people they are. At least I can struggle with the man who defends his position openly — I know where I am with him. Either he wins or I do, but the lazy elements who always suppress themselves and go out of the way of every clear decision, and always say that we are all united and are all brothers — these elements are the worst of all! These are the ones I combat the most.” (Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political and Literary Writings, Revolutionary History, 10, 1, 2009).