Why we can’t sign the Belem declaration

Posted in PaulHampton's blog on Fri, 02/01/2009 - 21:49,

The antinomies of eco-socialism

The Belem eco-socialist declaration was published last month. It will be formally launched at the World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil later this month. It was commissioned by the Paris Ecosocialist Conference of 2007, and written by Ian Angus, Joel Kovel, Michael Löwy and Danielle Follett. The latter two are supporters of the USFI, Angus an editor of the Canadian Socialist Voice and Kovel an ex-Green now in Solidarity in the US.

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. In short, it is no basis on which to take forward discussions between socialist and ecologists.

1) The declaration 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.

2) It 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”. 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 fightback. Left in the air, this is more likely to demoralise.

3) It panders to kitsch-leftism without adding clarity. For examples it 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.” Yes, climate change has hit people hard in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, though not uniformly so (ask the Brazilian biofuel farmers for example.) But climate change also affects the “North” – witness the heat wave in Europe in 2003, which killed 30,000 – or the floods in New Orleans.

4) In its (justifiable) haste to attack market mechanisms, the declaration makes some silly mistakes. For example it states that under Kyoto, “Polluters are not compelled to reduce their carbon emissions, but allowed to use their power over money to control the carbon market for their own ends”. It states that the Bali talks in 2007 “avoided any mention of the goals for drastic carbon reduction put forth by the best climate science”. We have no trust in either of these agreements – but neither statement is entirely true, nor are these points the most telling arguments against them.

5) The declaration mentions “productivist socialism” without explanation. There is considerable evidence that the classical Marxist tradition, from Marx and Engels through the second and early third internationals, were not productivist at all. The early Bolshevik regime had a respectable record on ecology for its time (see Douglas Weiner’s book, Models of Nature). Stalinism in Russia (1928-91), Eastern Europe (1945-89) and China (since 1949) on the other hand perpetrated all manner of ecological nightmares. It is necessary to call things by their right names – Stalinism, not socialism was the problem in these class societies. It has contemporary relevance too: Venezuela claims to be socialist, yet it is based on oil. The authors’ don’t even proffer the contradiction.

6) 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 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 privileged agent of socialism (Kovel is quite explicit about this in his book, The Enemy of Nature).

7) Finally, the demands around which to mobilise are disjointed. The declaration rightly states that “To theorize and to work toward realizing 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 declaration asks that signatories “endorse the analysis and political perspectives” outlined. No doubt some well-meaning people will sign the document. But such unity is a heap of sand. Without more clarity and a more coherent method, calls for eco-socialism will remain largely hot air.

Belem eco-socialist declaration

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