Should ecosocialists support or distance themselves from the author of This Changes Everything? Richard Smith and John Bellamy Foster discuss the prominent activist’s role.
Last month, after C&C published the interview with John Bellamy Foster titled, “We need a resistance movement for the planet,” Richard Smith posted a comment that questioned Foster’s positive comments about Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.
With Smith’s permission, we are now publishing his comment, with Foster’s reply, as a separate article. We encourage and welcome further comments on the issues raised in this exchange.
‘Naomi Klein is a liberal-radical, not an eco-socialist’
John, I’ve never really understood your take on Naomi Klein. How can you call Klein “the leading intellectual-activist in the radical climate movement in the United States and Canada” and go on about how she has “crossed the river of fire” to “become a critic of capital as a system” (as you said in your C&C review of Klein February 1, 2015)?
Naomi Klein is an eloquent liberal-radical investigative journalist. And she’s certainly a leading activist. But she is no eco-socialist. She’s not even an anti-capitalist. She almost never mentions capitalism. Watch her TV interview with Charlie Rose for example, or her talk at the “Festival of (so-called) Dangerous ideas” — I don’t recall even a mention of capitalism let alone a presentation of a critique.
The subtitle of her book “capitalism vs. the climate” was printed only on the back cover of the hardback edition of the book, almost as an afterthought. She presents no systemic analysis or critique of capitalism as a system whatsoever. What’s more, near as I can tell from her book she’s hostile to socialism. The only mentions of socialism in her book are negative: they identify socialism with Stalinism and authoritarianism (eg. pp. 133 and 179).
She’s critical of aspects and forms of capitalism: neoliberalism, market fundamentalism and so on. She criticizes “extractivism” and calls for “blockadia.” But she not only fails to put forward an eco-socialist or any kind of socialist alternative to capitalism, but she doesn’t even offer a coherent solution to our ecological crisis within the framework of capitalism. Anti-extractivism (whatever that is) is not anti-capitalism. And “blockadia” is hardly a “strategy.”
We certainly need prominent intellectuals who are critical of the system, and present coherent alternatives to capitalism, and suggest plausible strategies to get there. you are a leading intellectual of the eco-socialist movement, and there are others. Naomi Klein is a great anti-fossil fuel activist. But she’s a liberal-radical, not an eco-socialist. Why do you keep trying to paint her as something she is not and does not claim for herself?
JOHN BELLAMY FOSTER:
‘A critique of capitalism is deeply woven into Naomi Klein’s work’
Richard, thanks for your comments. Knowing your own excellent contributions to ecosocialism I can understand your impatience with those like Naomi Klein who you believe are not clear on the need for System Change Not Climate Change. Nevertheless, I think it is indisputable that she is “the leading intellectual-activist in the radical climate movement in the United States and Canada.”
You and I may not agree with everything that Klein says, but her influence and her radicalism, at the left end of the climate movement, are beyond question. No one else in the radical wing of the movement has anything remotely like her impact. She has, in William Morris’s phrase, “crossed the river of fire,” in her strong insistence that climate change is a problem rooted in capitalism.
Your concern that “Capitalism vs. the Climate” was relegated as an “afterthought” to the back cover of her book is misplaced. This was clearly a design choice: the front cover was designed to resemble a movement poster reading: “THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING.” It omitted not just the subtitle, but even the author’s name! Both appeared not just on the back cover but on the spine and on the title page. On the mass market paperback, the title, subtitle and author’s name are all on the front cover.
More important than cover design is the fact that a critique of capitalism is deeply woven into her work. It is the whole basis of her famous argument “The Right is Right,” that the fight against climate change is a threat to the system. Klein has been sharply attacked in the liberal media for attacking not just neoliberalism but capitalism itself.
Is Klein a socialist? Only she could answer that. But my view, based on reading her work and on conversations with her, is that she walks a fine line between social democracy and socialism/anarchism. That is no doubt one of the reasons that she is so effective at what she does on a movement level, and in getting past the media gatekeepers. She was a strong and open supporter of Bernie Sanders, who professes to be a socialist, but who you and I would describe as a social democrat. More important, she is openly anti-capitalist.
It is simply wrong to say that she identifies socialism with Stalinism and authoritarianism. The two pages that you cite don’t demonstrate that. On page 133 she criticizes “state socialist governments” disconnected from the people. On page 179 she rejects “Soviet-era socialism” while defending Hugo Chávez’s 21st century socialism in Venezuela. The fact that she wants to distinguish herself from socialism of the Stalinist variety is not in my view, a criticism of her, and hardly constitutes proof that she is anti-socialist.
By the way, in her book she is generous in acknowledging ecosocialists, including, among others, a half dozen Monthly Review authors. This is not a sign of someone who seeks to distance herself altogether from ecosocialists.
Regardless of whether Klein is a socialist in some formal sense, we have to ask, do we want a movement that is limited to advanced ecosocialists, or a broader movement that can actually be effective today? Obviously ecosocialists should seek to sharpen the critique within the movement, and our contribution is vitally needed, but does this mean we should separate ourselves from the broader radicalism? Klein is trying to pull the movement in a more radical direction. Maybe our role as ecological Marxists is to stay to the left of those like Klein, while supporting and working with them. After all, we want to stop climate change, not just write books about it — and that means being part of the movement that actually exists.
Klein did not coin the terms “extractivism” or “Blockadia.” These are terms in the movement struggle that preceded her. She gives them a larger meaning, trying to put them in a wider, if still movement-based, critique. You are right that her strategy comes down to “Blockadia,” which stands for the climate-change resistance movement itself. But how is this different than the classic revolutionary call (often meant symbolically) to “Raise the Barricades,” adjusted for our time? If she does not always articulate this explicitly in terms of an ecosocialist strategy, it is because her strategy is rooted in the real movement as it exists today.
I’m not saying that I would not like to see Klein direct her analysis more systematically against capitalism, and develop explicit ecosocialist alternatives. For me, she doesn’t go far enough in her critique. Doubtless her next book will mirror the growing radicalization of the struggles on the ground, and will be still more critical of capitalism.
Meanwhile, there is a lot for you and I, and others like us, to do in developing a revolutionary ecological approach, building on ecological Marxism. It is our job “in the movement of the present, to also take care of the future of the movement” which will have to become ecosocialist if the world is not to descend into ecoexterminism.
Let me end with a personal story.
I first met Naomi Klein at the World Summit for Sustainable Development (billed as the Second Earth Summit) in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002.She was then mainly a critic of neoliberalism and an anti-globalization activist, but she was not afraid to attack capitalism, nor did she distance herself from socialists, with whom she clearly identified. About a thousand of us joined in a candle-light anti-privatization march on August 24, 2002 led by international figures (including Klein) and by socialists from the Soweto and Alexandra townships.
We were headed to Jan Vorster Square, the location of a police station notorious for its detentions and deaths under apartheid. But we were brought to a stop soon after we started. I was fairly far back in the line and suddenly the crowd turned around and started running. The police, outfitted in military gear, had thrown percussion grenades and three people were injured, one Canadian activist suffering serious injuries. A small number of us decided to regroup and to go forward. When I got to the front there was a police line with assault rifles pointed in our direction a few feet away. We were sealed off from behind as well.
Klein was at the very front sitting in a circle, displaying nonviolent resistance, and was playing a key role in holding it all together. Some of the most famous left figures in the world (I will not name names) had fled, but not Klein. She disregarded the danger and took her stand with the people of Soweto and Alexandra. I remember thinking at that time that she was the kind of leader that the movement needed—if she would once embrace the issue of capitalism versus the climate. Seven years later, at the time of the Copenhagen debacle, she did. Her book, with its subtitle attacking capitalism, came five years later. The System Change Not Climate Change movement needs leaders and she has made herself into one. We need others like her.
Some related articles on Climate & Capitalism:
- Naomi Klein: ‘Only mass social movements can save us’ by John Riddell
- Reflections on Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ by John Foran
- The liberal attack on Naomi Klein and ‘This Changes Everything’ by John Bellamy Foster & Brett Clark