Debate

The significance of Naomi Klein: An ecosocialist exchange

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.

Richard Smith is author of Green Capitalism. The God that Failed. John Bellamy Foster is co-author, with Paul Burkett, of Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique, which is now available in paperback.


RICHARD SMITH:
‘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.

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7 Responses to The significance of Naomi Klein: An ecosocialist exchange

  1. Silverman May 14, 2017 at 4:02 pm #

    It looks to me like JB Foster looks for broad theoretical resonances. I applaud him for that. But I would also like to see more attention paid to “capitalism” as a concept. Do we really know what “capitalism” is? Isn’t it a little bit too long-lived and resilient to be merely about classes? I think capitalism dissolves classes; it does not further a strict class division. Now it is, only because the world is unable to reform it. So I am that most hated of all things, the capitalist-reformist. Too many persons assume that they know what “capitalism” is, and then they go on from there, completely sure that “capitalism” is some one-dimensional thing. It is a lot subtler than that. I have tried to discuss a few things in the past, with the editor of C&C. I think there are issues to be worked out, in this regard. (J. Silverman))

  2. ufuk May 8, 2017 at 5:34 pm #

    Another important point about her and mckibben whom I respect as a writer and a serious, dedicated person is their relationship to science. There is a tendency of ‘activists’ to delegate the scientific matters completely to scientists themselves and take their words as gospel. That is inherently undemocratic, I think. Activists or social scientists who are immersed in climate change should learn the science itself and not take ‘scientists’ word blindly. Anyone who spends enough time on any complex scientific topic should know that scientific findings are always ambigious an there are always great uncertainties. Mainstream climate activists accept main stream science as gospel, I see no justifiable reason for that. An example is so called carbon budget that klein and mckibben constantly talk about. The concept of a carbon budget is developed in most part by economists not climate scientists. And the linear path IPCC drew that a carbon budget depends upon for feasibility doesn’t match with the reality. Planet’s climate system is non-linear, it is chaotic. that is meaning of broecker’s famous quote: “climate system is a beast and we’re poking it with sticks.” This ‘solution’ bothers me because it looks like these leaders want the peasants to act but not to know. If there is anything you can learn from modern science it is that you should trust no one especially no experts.

    Please forgive my impudence if all these seem irrelevant to your discussion.

  3. ufuk May 8, 2017 at 5:20 pm #

    there is no doubt that she is a talented writer and investigative journalist. She has an unusual ability to present ‘radical’ ideas in an offhand, acceptable way to bypass the usual ideological barriers. that is an important talent but is no proof of a great theorist. In fact most of her ideas were argued and developed earlier and more rigorously by the european thinkers of post war period. I think journalist should be the standart her work should be judged by.

    She is currently in the board of directors of 350.org. 350.org is funded by rockefeller brothers fund and ceres. this is what ceres say about themselves: “Ceres is a sustainability nonprofit organization working with the most influential investors and companies to build leadership and drive solutions throughout the economy.” You might say that wouldn’t condemn all the organizations they support. I don’t know much about practical politics but it is enough to instill suspicion.

    She and her filmmaker husband seems to me like a couple of talented entrepreneurs who saw an opening in a certain niche; activism and developed their products very successfully. Activism is good for the movies and it is good for a journalist. That is where her theoretical rigor becomes important, her writing is more towards selling books than building an original, encompassing, conceptual analysis. She is a journalist and that is what journalist can do to get ahead.

    –>

  4. Martin Empson May 5, 2017 at 2:13 pm #

    The contribution of Naomi Klein to the development of the environmental movement cannot be overstated. There are two aspects to this, firstly as an enthusiastic activist, encouraging others to participate in the struggle for stronger action on climate change. Her second, perhaps more important role, is the encouragement of the movement down a path of what might be called anti-capitalism.

    She has not done this from outside; indeed, the growing radicalism of the movement pre-dates Naomi Klein’s recent book This Changes Everything, and Klein is the first to show how she has learnt from activists and the movement. But she has also helped to shape that movement, giving confidence to anti-capitalist voices within it, and encouraging people to view capitalism as the source of the problem.

    Klein doesn’t call herself a socialist, but if we focus on this we miss the essential importance of Klein’s role. She has helped encourage the environmental movement to new highs. She has helped an anti-capitalist discourse grow with in the movement, which in turn creates an enormous space for revolutionary ideas. In fact, the socialist left has much to offer the movement within the space Klein has helped create. A vision of mass participatory democratic planning is essential to how a sustainable world would work, and is attractive to millions of people sick of capitalism’s failures.

    The worst mistake the revolutionary left could do would be to start from our differences with Naomi Klein, not the majority that we agree on. I am minded of the comment by Lenin when confronted with critics of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland against British colonial rule: “Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”

  5. Patrick Bond May 5, 2017 at 10:58 am #

    I know all three people in this exchange, and have great respect for them. Wonderful for climate&capitalism site to carry this. I think John put it very well in setting out – with such comradely prose – not only the anti-capitalist content but also the extremely sophisticated tap-dance around ideology that anyone in Naomi’s position must learn. And few come anywhere close to pulling the political-economic-ecological debate leftwards as does Naomi, it’s an amazing skill she’s developed.

    And what John testifies about Thabo Mbeki’s police attacking the Joburg march right outside my university front gate just before the 2002 W$$D is right on target, too – so we hope for many more visits and solidarity from the comrades [on a day where nearby in Durban, the World Economic Forum-Africa is being infiltrated by misguided civilised-society folk trying to prevent it from being ripped into self-oblivion by the two local corrupt factions of extreme capitalist greed].

  6. David Jones May 5, 2017 at 10:09 am #

    As an eco-socialist who lives and organizes in a very conservative region of the US (which Richard is soon to visit!) , I can attest to the effectiveness of Klein’s approach in forcing liberal/progressives to at least question their assumptions. The open critique of capitalism, impermissible five years ago, is now widely heard among “environmentalists”, even those who would have identified as “conservationists”. Occupy and Bernie have certainly contributed, but Klein’s book was a real opening.

    That said, much of that critique tends to confuse “green capitalism” with system change. While Richard’s work and other eco-socialist interventions seem to resonate with the young, those over thirty struggle the most with the radical implications. Klein’s book is the gateway to usher them in but developing a praxis of on-the-street activism and the “ecosocialist alternative” Foster speaks of is now critical.

  7. Judith Watson May 4, 2017 at 6:16 pm #

    There were two reviews of This Changes Everything in the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, that readers may find of interest.