If socialism needs a prefix, it should be ‘revolutionary’ rather than ‘eco’

Continuing our series of articles and statements reflecting a wide range of Left Views on ecology, socialism, and ecosocialism. Permanent Revolution reviews Ecosocialism or Barbarism.

“Shaking off the productivist dross of Marxism”

Ecosocialism or Barbarism. Edited by Jane Kelly and Sheila Malone. Published by Socialist Resistance, London, 2006. £10, €15, ISBN 0-902869-97-3. 130 pages
Reviewed by Helen Ward.
from Permanent Revolution, Autumn 2007

Environmental challenges such as climate change have finally come to the top of the political agenda, with everyone from the Women’s Institute to George Bush putting forward their plans to save the planet. This book is the response from Socialist Resistance.

The timing of its publication is no accident. Both Socialist Resistance and their international organisation, the Fourth International, are in the process of a radical re-think with proposals to change their “political programme, perspectives and public profile towards being an anti-capitalist, ecosocialist organisation”.[1]

This move is based on a new perspective of catastrophic social and ecological crisis that demands an urgent response. “At the core of this change is the contention that free-market, privatising neoliberalism has over 20 years arrived at a new and deadly phase – what we call ‘savage capitalism’.” The book compiles a set of arguments for ecosocialism, ending with the eco-socialist manifesto drafted by Joel Kovel and Michael Löwy in 2001.[2]

Much of the book is a useful description of environmental problems, with a consistent argument that these are inherent in the capitalist mode of production and that they can only be resolved by a socialist solution rather than a series of reforms within capitalism. This argument is used to challenge the leadership of the environmental movement, in particular the various Green Parties.

“It is not a matter of contrasting “bad” ecocidal capitalist to “good” green capitalists; it is the system itself, based on ruthless competition, the demands of profitability, and the race for rapid profit, which is the destroyer of nature’s balance…Partial reforms are completely inadequate.” (p6)

In common with left greens including Joel Kovel [3] and Derek Wall [4], the book includes visions of a future without capitalism where people live in harmony with the environment, a transition,

“not only to a new mode of production and an egalitarian and democratic society, but also to an alternative mode of life, a new ecosocialist civilization, beyond the reign of money, beyond consumption habits artificially produced by advertising, and beyond the unlimited production of commodities, such as private automobiles, that are harmful to the environment.” (p7)

This green and pleasant vision is fine but why a new label, ecosocialism, to sum it up? It suggests that Marxist socialism per se is not “eco” and that ecologism is not “socialist”. The first article from Michael Löwy, an academic and long-standing member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) the French Section of the Fourth International, is called “What is ecosocialism?”:

“It is a current of ecological thought and action that appropriates the fundamental gains of Marxism while shaking off its productivist dross.” (p4)

The charge of productivism is the one constantly levied at socialists by Greens and ecologists. But is it true? Two examples are usually cited. First, that Marx described a fundamental contradiction in capitalism between the forces of production and the social relations of production, with the latter acting as a brake on the former; more specifically, that private capitalist property relations impede the rational, optimal exploitation of nature.

Marx argues for an expansion of the forces of production to be able to meet widespread need. This can clearly be interpreted as “productivist”, but that ignores both the context in which Marx was writing, and his related discussions of the way production should be used to meet human need rather than constantly expand capital and profit.

Indeed, as Löwy himself points out, “For Marx, the supreme goal of technical progress is not the infinite accumulation of good (“having”) but the reduction of the working day and the accumulation of free time (“being”).”

Marx is also accused of conflating expansion of productive forces with progress, but taking his writings in historical context this seems an unfair critique. There was a desperate need to expand production to meet the very basic needs of humanity. We can see how expansion of productive forces under capitalism has been contradictory, with the production of goods for profit rather than need, the expansion of unnecessary things that advertisers then have to persuade us that we need, and the production of luxury goods for a decadent layer of society. Nonetheless, the development of the productive forces, through computing, for example, does have huge potential for reducing the working day – but capitalist social relations obstruct this use of new technology.

The second example Greens cite of socialism’s “productivism” is the Soviet Union, China and other “socialist” states. Yes, the Soviet Union was “productivist”, with maximum volume of the goods being integral to their planning system than quality or usefulness of these products. But we need to reassert that this was not socialist – it was a distortion in which the transition to socialism was blocked by a brutal and bureaucratic dictatorship.

It seems that this charge is one of the reasons for the adoption of the “eco” label. The second is the primacy the ecological question attains for the FI in a set of catastrophist perspectives.

Löwy argues: “The ecological issue is, in my opinion, the great challenge for a renewal of Marxist thought at the threshold of the 21st century.” This, taken together with the prediction of imminent environmental collapse, leads them to adopt the new turn, and the addition of eco- is a way of signalling a break with the past.

Many Greens also think that Marxism has scant regard for the eco-system, a criticism linked to the idea of productivism. In fact Marx and Engels both had quite a lot to say about the way capitalism mis-uses non-renewable resources and degrades the environment. But for Marx it was capitalism itself – a system wedded to accumulation for its own sake – that was responsible for this state of affairs and this puts an unbridgeable gulf between him and those Greens who believe that a benevolent form of capitalism can be built that lives in harmony with people and nature more generally.

Forerunners of Socialist Resistance have often promoted a red-green alliance, part of a rainbow coalition, but now propose a more strategic amalgam. “The convergence of these movements could form a new vision for society – ecosocialism”. And failure to advance ecosocialism will, the book argues, lead to barbarism.

So what new strategy and programme is being advanced to avert the possibility of barbarism? There are some good sections outlining the need to link the struggle for immediate reforms to the goal of revolutionary social change. Jane Kelly and Phil Ward correctly criticise the Green Party, arguing that “…the Greens do not differ fundamentally from social democracy in the belief that capitalism can be reformed”. (p51) They also recognise that the revolutionary programme for the environmental change is not well thought through – a position we would agree with, including in our own tendency historically.

In an attempt to start that programmatic re-elaboration, they look to ways to link socialist and green demands. At the heart is the idea that we strive for production for need rather than exchange – a basic socialist goal and one not possible to achieve under capitalism. But reforms are also needed in the short term: to reduce carbon emissions, promote renewable energy, insulate homes etc. The key programmatic question is how to apply the transitional method to achieve these. Kelly and Ward agree that transitional demands are needed, arguing that immediate reforms cannot be fully achieved “without the control of ordinary working people; issues of workers’ control, workers’ democracy and socialist solutions are paramount.” (p54) They also refer to the way that many socialist goals, such as socialisation of domestic labour through a revolution in the way we live, would be much more environmentally sustainable than the individualised consumption under capitalism.

But the laudable aim of developing a transitional programme is unfortunately not achieved either in the ecosocialist manifesto (pages 116-120), the resolution of the International Socialist Group from April 2006 (pages 68-73); nor in the recent Socialist Resistance conference document.

All of these programmes and manifestoes are actually limited to a progressive goal (socialism, or rather ecosocialism) and a series of mostly fine reforms, such as an end to airport expansion, “an international treaty that goes well beyond Kyoto”, “global action to help third world countries in sustainable development”.

But how? This is where transitional method should come in, but is lacking. At the heart of transitional demands is the linking of struggles for reforms with the struggle for power. The struggle for power is a fight against capitalism, which will be a vicious fight given the strength and resources of the state and international organisations that will defend their power to the death. This will take a revolution – a violent overthrow of the old order to have any hope of moving to the goal of socialism.

A transitional programme embeds this struggle in the fight over reforms. For example, the correct demand for cheap and integrated transport systems needs to be elaborated to include the role of workers in transport industries taking control of the planning and investment of their companies. They should link to local workers and users of transport to determine priorities.

These action committees would inevitably come up against the owners of the transport companies and the state that backs them up, and to win the battle the workers would need to take on larger issues of ownership and planning and, eventually, control over the local state.

Revolutionary socialists differ from reformist Greens and even the most militant eco-warriors on two key questions. The first is the question of the state. We understand that the state is not neutral and will have to be smashed. The Greens want to reform it and the eco-warriors want it to go away but are not in general willing to see the need for another form of power to replace it.

The second is the role of the working class. The most left of the Greens will see the workers’ movement having a role in eco struggles, but also see the obstacle of workers with vested interests in many polluting industries. “Ecosocialists know that the workers and their organizations are an indispensable for any radical transformation of the system,” writes Löwy. (p5) But that is not the same as understanding the primacy and centrality of the working class; the working class not as a constituent part of the ecosocialist coalition but as the leadership of it.

The lack of a discussion of the state in relation to revolutionary strategy, and of the centrality of the working class in any socialist movement is a major weakness in the ecosocialist project since it is on these issues that there will be most disagreements with many “greens”. Any new international party or movement for socialism, with or without a prefix, needs to be founded on a shared understanding of the state and the working class, otherwise it will shatter at the first test of real struggle where a choice between the interests and organisations of the working class is pitted against the corporations and institutions of the capitalist state, be they neo-liberal or even reforming “Green” liberals.

Developing a practical, working class response to climate change and other environmental threats is one of the most important challenges facing the left today. But we are certain that if socialism needs any prefix, it should be “revolutionary” and not “eco”.

[1] Socialist Resistance. “Savage Capitalism – The Ecosocialist Alternative”. IV Online magazine: IV392 – September 2007, on
http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1311[2] The manifesto is also available online www.iefd.org/manifestos/ecosocialist_manifesto.php[3] Kovel J (2002) The Enemy of Nature. The end of capitalism or the end of the world?. New York: Zed Books

[4] Wall D (2005) Babylon and Beyond. The economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements. London: Pluto Press

Posted in Books & Reports, Ecosocialism
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