Fit only for the recycling bin of history

Submitted by PaulHampton on Fri, 15/10/2010 - 12:24

Paul Hampton reviews Derek Wall, The Rise of the Green Left: Inside the Worldwide Ecosocialist Movement (2010)

Ecosocialism is a fudge. It is a swamp with little coherence and even less ground. This book is impressionistic, superficial and politically flawed. Despite a reputation for ecumenicalism, Derek Wall manages to manufacture a ‘common sense’ imbued with the worst elements of Stalinist necromancy. It is a work fit only for the recycling bin of history.

First, Wall has a fundamentally flawed conception of capitalism. For him, capitalism is centrally about growth. It is growth that he believes is the root of ecological degradation. This is not a Marxist conception of capitalism – i.e. one that is rooted in the exploitation of wage labour by capital. Readers who want a more rigorous Marxist political economy of ecological degradation will not find it in this book. And in fact a socialist economy would grow, to produce for human need, even as it would use resources more ecologically.

Second, Wall’s big idea is that ecosocialism rests on a conception of “the commons”, which he associates especially with indigenous communities. He appears to promote a vegetarian future of composted toilets, fustian smocks and cheerfully living off the land – not something that is likely to appeal to the bulk of urbanised humanity. Yet his existing models are no better. He believes that Chavez’s Venezuela is cultivating a “participatory form of socialism” (p.112); in fact Chavez presides over an oil-fuelled Bonapartist state capitalism. Evo Morales is “explicitly advocating ecosocialism” (p.109), despite running a bourgeois government. Cuba has passed “the most radical ecological reforms in the world” (p.113), despite refusing to allow independent unions and environment movements to organise. Laughably, he cites the John Lewis partnership (p.60) as an example of worker ownership, despite the complete absence of unions and the active hostility of management to unions in that firm. In short the alternative to capitalism he promotes is impoverished, miserable and unattractive.

The third area of confusion is over the social forces for socialism, though in a rare moment of candour, Wall admits that, “Green political theory has often been weak when it comes to the question of ‘agency’ and that for many Greens, “species interest replaces specific class interest” (p.134). The basic problem is his elevation of indigenous struggles, over and above those of workers.

Hugo Blanco’s preface states that “the most important task of the ecosocialist is to defend those at the vanguard of the struggle, the indigenous and peasants in general” (p.xiii). Wall states that “indigenous communities are acting as an increasingly self-confident and well-organised vanguard of ecosocialism right across our planet” (p.136). He believes mystically that “indigenous people and peasants have discovered ways of sharing land that are ecologically sustainable and promote real prosperity” (p.16) and “those most concerned to respect other species are often indigenous people” (p.65). Apparently “ecosocialism is the environmentalism not just of indigenous people, peasants and other communities who live directly from the land, but of the poor” (p.129-130). This is a Narodnik position – and a long way from working class self-emancipation.

Wall states that workers “are often dependent on industries that are polluting and destructive (p.132) and “benefit from polluting technology because it provides jobs” and so “will have little interest in environmental issues” (p.136). Ecosocialists must “engage with trade unions” (p.132), though it seems mainly to make links with indigenous people (p.137). Wall supports the Zapatistas, yet their strategy shows the limits of indigenous agency. Mexico has a large and militant working class, with a quarter of its population in Mexico City alone. Rather than build an alliance with auto workers, textile workers, miners and millions of other proletarians, the Zapatistas largely ignored them. They had pretty much nothing to say about the working-class (teacher-led!) uprising in the state of Oaxaca.

Wall cherry-picks his way through the history of the left to find antecedents for his ‘ecosocialism’. It is a partial, selective effort. Marx and Engels get the usual name-check (p.72), as do William Morris and Edward Carpenter (p.75-76). Astonishingly there is nothing about the socialist ecology of the German SPD before 1914, despite the contribution of August Bebel on town and country, energy and deforestation, Karl Kautsky on agriculture and population, and Karl Liebknecht on cars, as well as the social-democratic Friends of Nature organisation. Instead a salutary quote from Rosa Luxemburg waxing about songbirds opens the book.

There’s a nod toward Leninist Russia (p.77), but nothing on wider Russian Marxist contributions of Plekhanov, Bogdanov or Bukharin at the height of the revolution. Instead Trotsky is panned on the basis of a few paragraphs about moving mountains that he wrote in a book about literature. Perniciously, Wall ignores what Trotsky wrote about science and about waste and hyper-industrialisation. And there is no mention of the discussions on nature, geography and materialism among the Comintern (e.g. Wittfogel) in the 1920s.

Wall manages to discuss the Frankfurt school of Western Marxism (p.82) without mentioning Alfred Schmidt, whose book The Concept of Nature in Marx (1962) predated Rachel Carson and the rest of the separate environment movement that emerged in the 1960s. He at least admits that many earlier ‘ecosocialists’ such as Andre Gorz, Alain Lipietz, Rudolf Bahro and Daniel Cohn-Bendit did in fact reject socialism as they embraced ecology (p.88). However Wall simply fails to explain the disjuncture of socialism and ecology from the 1930s, or the central role of Stalinism in creating this schism. It betrays an ignorance of the history of socialism unparalleled for one trying to refound the entire tradition.

For all his apparent chumminess, Wall reserves particular venom for the revolutionary left. Apparently “the far left in many countries” – especially Britain and Argentina - is “isolated from society, divided over esoteric disputes and splintering with almost continuous motion” (p.125). Allegedly there exists a kind of “Leninist gnosticism” – i.e. search for a secret knowledge of transformation. We are allegedly “political sects too fixated on ideological purity to act” (p.127). Instead he prefers just about anybody else to the “arid sectarianism” (p.141) of the far left.

The extent of Wall’s political incoherence is witnessed by three stances. First, his columns for the Stalinist Morning Star, the paper of the Communist Party of Britain. He is happy to help give them the veneer of a paper of the broad left, while they continue to spout pro-Stalinist propaganda. Second, his explicit support for the Respect party, whose political raison d’etre was the uplifting of political Islamists – with disastrous consequences for Asian communities and the left. Third, his love-in with those chameleons Socialist Resistance, who manage to combine theoretical accommodation and bandwagon-jumping with the most passive absence of political drive.

Wall laughably claims that the Green Party of England and Wales has a “strong trade union group” (p.132). The GPTU group is largely without influence in the British trade union movement. In fact it has less influence than almost all the tiniest left groups. It has almost nobody elected to a leading position in a UK trade union body. It never has a political intervention, or a strategy for the winning a trade union struggle, or a rank and file project. Rather, it issues paper press releases, expressing general support for struggles over which it exercises no purchase.

This is well illustrated by the Vestas struggle last year. Wall blandly states that “a wide variety of left and climate activists supported them” (p.132). Despite having hundreds more members than the AWL, the GPEW managed to affect precisely nothing in the struggle. It took a group of revolutionary socialists, principally AWL members – Wall doesn’t mention us in his tour of ecosocialists or those he regards as sectarians, impractical people, hair-splitters etc - to help initiate, sustain and develop the struggle. If Vestas workers had looked to Green Left, they would have found precisely nothing, probably never have occupied their factory, and gone down without a fight.

Ecology is central to socialism, as socialism is to ecology. But ecosocialism, as conceived by Derek Wall, is an obstacle to the recomposition of a serious left around rational politics.

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Submitted by guenter on Fri, 15/10/2010 - 19:51

a very necessary article to clear the illusions some people have with this vaguely term of "ecoscialism". Are they, in UK still a part of the green party? in germany, the greens did move so much to the right over the years, that their ex-ecosocialist wing is separately organised since long and indeed nothing more than a small sect. i think, its the same picture in many countries.
in germany, the greens are pushed these days by bourgeois, who realise the total intellectual bankrupty of their classical parties CDU&FDP (both together just 1/3rd of the votes in the present opinion-polls.)
"ecosocialism" is a rather dying ideology. strange enough, the ex-IMG since a short time sticks to it.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 18/10/2010 - 10:27

Hi Guenter,

What is the ecosocialist group in Germany called?

In Britain, the "ecosocialists" are in Green Left, a grouping within the Green Party, and in Socialist Resistance, the British section of the Fourth International (the ex-IMG). They are very close and I imagine that if the Green Party ever became too inhospitable for Green Left (which is unlikely as they passively put up with pretty much anything from the Green leadership) they would mostly join Socialist Resistance.

I should stress that we in the AWL have no particular objection to the term "ecosocialist". If people want to call themselves that, fine. It's rather the politics and practice that this term has come to represent in the movement today.

I attended a joint GL-SR school last year, where in addition to the soggy politics, no Vestas worker spoke, Workers' Climate Action was quite specifically not among the many, many groups invited and the person they got from Climate Camp was not from the left-wing of that movement, but someone who comrades in Climate Camp described as not anti-capitalist at all. Quite illuminating! Here is our report.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by guenter on Mon, 18/10/2010 - 19:51

hi sacha: the ecosocialists in germany since their break from the green party are a very small, frankfurt-based cultist sect, organised around and dominated from their female "macho" jutta ditfurth, who once was a quite prominent figure of the greens.their name is "ökolinkx"; in their frankfurt-base, ditfurth won 0,9% of the votes.-

some other "ecosocialists" ended up around the magazines "konkret" or "jungle world", which are pushing the line of the "antigermans" or "antinationals"; a rather bizarre sect, shifting from ultraleft to ultraright, with an ideology thats difficult 2 explain and may be a german phenomeon only:
long ago, they came from k-groups, who rightly stressed the independent role of german imperialism ("the main enemy is in the own country"-karl liebknecht) , rejecting the CP-point of view, that germany is only a US-colony.then they used the israel-issue and the fact of left antisemitism to strongly denounce ANY critic on israel as antisemitic, and then they also rejected any critic on USA, cause USA is the only friend of israel, as they say. they agree with the wars against afghanistan and iraq, cause it is "against islamic fascism". they wish that israel may blew up iran. they go to leftwing demonstrations with US- and Israel-flags and attack physically those who oppose war and USA. moreover, any critic on capitalism is antisemitic as such in their eyes. still calling themselves as communists, they seek alliances against muslims with le pen in france or the england-defense-league. they applauded sarrazin´s book against immigrants. they shifted from "anti-germans"to defend germany´s nationalism.they simply make a plus nowadays whereever they made a minus in the past.

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 19/10/2010 - 10:37

So they are essentially what some on the left say - wrongly - that the AWL is?

We know some young German leftists who come from the anti-German current and now live in Britain. I would say they are on the more Third Campist end of it, yet they are still very influenced by the pro-Israel, pro-US, "anyone against Islamic fascism" position (of course I am describing how I understand the logic of their position and practice, not the slogans they themselves would raise). One of them, for instance, had an Israeli flag as his Facebook "profile picture" during the Gaza war last year! Not good, to put it mildly.

Interestingly the German comrade who introduced them to us is (or was) much better, much more Third Campist, but he lives back in Berlin now.


Submitted by guenter on Tue, 19/10/2010 - 14:25

this current fully supported the act against the ship, this act of piratery. they said, this was a fully islamistic action, and non-islamists on the ship whether where naive or gave their name to cover-up what it really was.

Submitted by guenter on Thu, 21/10/2010 - 00:12

hi paul,
reading ur last posting i wondered if i missunderstood your article. (my english isnt perfect). i thought you was not so positive bout this vaguely term of ecosocialism. what i find important to stress, is, that "nature-human-relations" was the last thing what really interested this so called green partys. they used it as a vehicle to gain votes, but once they had their ministers for environment affairs, they did nothing to stop industrial giants with polluting the air or poisoning the rivers by putting their chemicals into there.
the green party was a vehicle or bridge for middle-class and upper-middleclass ex-radicals, to make their way back into the bourgeois and conservative families, they did come from.
the green party in germany, when in power with SPD, started the war against yugoslawia and made heavy social-cutoffs ("hartz 4"). still, people have much illusions bout them. their vagueliness does help them to speak with different tongues to different people.

Submitted by guenter on Thu, 21/10/2010 - 00:19

P.S.: i meant to say, that since it was self-evident for the classics of marxism, to care about environment,as you said, i would reject an fashionable extra-term "ecosocialism" for revolutionary socialists. one can see within the "socialist resistance", that the adaptation to this term made them more revisionist, more vaguely in general.

Submitted by stuartjordan on Thu, 21/10/2010 - 10:34

I agree with Paul but think this is still very vague. For instance, we can say that capitalism is ecologically destructive because it is about pumping out surplus value from workers and that it is anarchic. However, productive activity to produce use-values would still run into the problems of finite resources. To take a very minor example, an ecologically sustainable society would not be able to produce certain plastics. There is a finite amount of oil and these plastics are not recyclable. So we would have to imagine a world without plastic. This argument could be extended to all sorts of minerals and metals that are currently easily mined, but will run out in that easily accessed form. Is it possible to imagine abundance without these essential building bricks of our current use-values?

I think these problems are surmountable but need more thought. Reflection on these issues has led many communists to give up on the idea of a classless society based on an abundance of use-values. This is presumably one reason why they call themselves ecosocialist rather than ecocommunist- they limit their aims to a kind of Castroite "socialism".

Submitted by guenter on Thu, 21/10/2010 - 13:14

you are right, stuartjordan, but i would reject an term "ecocommunist" either. as i said, marxism did care about environment since his early beginnings, so the greens and ecos shall not act, as if they would have newly found the egg of the columbus. in discussions with them i always notice their great surprise, "what, marx did write something bout nature? and engels even had a book with nature in title??" (the dialectics of nature). they simply dont know, they are as anticommunist as others. i dont wanna compromise with non-socialist terminology.

Submitted by PaulHampton on Sat, 23/10/2010 - 15:40

In reply to by guenter

Hi Guenter,

Just to clarify, I maintain my critique of ecosocialists and Greens in general - especially from Green parties - as unable or unwilling to engage with working class politics.

However I do also think that Marxists can still learn from those who raise ecologial concerns, even when they are a long way from class politics e.g. the environmental movement that grew from the 1960s and of course young climate activists today.

In a sense the ecosocialists are worse than environmentalists, young climate activists etc. Most ecosocialists consciously theorise and propagate anti-working class politics, while feinting left. Hence the need for a sharp critique. I hope that's a bit clearer.


Submitted by guenter on Sat, 23/10/2010 - 16:12

Most ecosocialists consciously theorise and propagate anti-working class politics, while feinting left. Hence the need for a sharp critique (paul)

thats what i meant to say.

i dont know how much marxists can learn from ecologists, and iam not sure, if ecosocialists are even more worse than the official green parties (in germany, the ecosocialists are surely much more leftwing than the green party), but yes, they even provide a bigger theoretical confusion.

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