Is “ecosocialism” an unnecessary addition to left vocabulary?
by Ian Angus
I remember my shock when I heard that the respected Australian socialist newspaper Direct Action was being replaced by something called Green Left Weekly.“Green Left?” I thought. “What does that mean?”
Maybe the term had been used before, but I had never heard it — and it just seemed wrong to me. Either it was redundant (you can’t be left without being green, and vice versa) or it meant adapting socialist principles to the ecology movement, most of which seemed pretty flaky to me. The name broke with hallowed tradition — it didn’t include any proper Leninist newspaper words, like Militant or Vanguard or Worker or Socialist. It was awkward to say — it just sounded silly.
I’m glad to say that my doubts were misplaced. The new name reflected a real shift on the Australian left, a convergence of revolutionary Marxists and a leftward-moving current in the green movement. The new newspaper has maintained a very high level of socialist analysis and commitment, but with much better coverage of environmental issues than is found in other socialist newspapers. Green Left Weekly has earned a worldwide reputation as one of the best socialist newspapers anywhere. Today, no one thinks that “Green Left” is redundant or awkward to say.
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I offer that small reminiscence because today, seventeen years later, another new term is moving into the socialist mainstream, and, once again, there are doubts about whether it is appropriate, or necessary, or just silly.The term is “ecosocialism.” The person who is challenging it is my Australian comrade Dave Reilly. The great irony, of course, is that Dave frequently writes for Green Left Weekly.
Let me be clear: this is not the political debate of the century. Obviously I like the term — it has appeared in the heading of Climate and Capitalism since day one, and my email address is ecosocialism-at-gmail.com. But it is just a word. The issues we really need to discuss are political. What do we stand for? Above all, what do we do? If we get those things right, disagreements about the labels we use really don’t matter. This is a discussion of terminology, which (as I’m sure Dave would agree) is a side issue at best.
But since it has been raised ….
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The discussion began an announcement of an international meeting of ecosocialists, which will be held in France in October. Dave Reilly kindly posted that announcement in his LeftClick blog. A reader asked, “ECO-socialism? What’s that?” and Derek Wall responded by pointing him to the Wikipedia entry on ecosocialism. Dave Reilly posted “What is ecosocialism?” on June 7 and amplified his post with a comment a few days later.
Dave argued that what we need to focus on is “trying to turn the greens red and the reds green” and deciding on program and action.
“So how is that advocacy improved if I say it’s ecosocialism? Is my argument improved if I employ an exotic word which by default also serves to mark my projected system off from already existing social isms?
“I mean, do we need another brand of socialism or for that matter yet another international? …
“My view would be that there is one socialism — the one you actually get by dint of struggle and such. And if it is a real socialism it’s also a green or “eco” one. Derek Wall has written about green Venezuela and is very active in speaking to that topic. So my feeling would be that we can do a lot more for greening the left and lefting the green by being keener to talk up the Bolivarian process as a process that begins to prove how ecological socialism can be. …
“I’m not being picky in way of word play — but rather I see it as a tactical issue, not one so much about categories. Are we better served by developing a new brand of socialism as though the one we’ve got lacks all the attributes we need?”
My first reaction to this was surprise that Dave saw “ecosocialism” as “an exotic word” and “a new brand of socialism.” While not as venerable as “green left,” and certainly not a household word, the term “ecosocialism” wasn’t invented last week or even last year.
- James O’Connor’s important 1991 essay, “Socialist Ecology” uses the terms “ecological socialism” and “socialist ecology” frequently, as do many other essays in his 1998 book Natural Causes. Those terms predate the contraction “ecosocialism” but mean much the same.
- Joel Kovel (USA) and Michael Lowy (France) wrote and published An Ecosocialist Manifesto in 2001. It has been widely distributed and posted on many socialist and green websites.
- Joel Kovel’s widely-read 2002 book, The Enemy of Nature, expanded on the concept of ecosocialism at some length. (I don’t agree with everything in the book, but it is absolutely essential reading for all left-greens and green-lefts.)
- More recently, the British group Socialist Resistance has held two successful public conferences on ecosocialism, and has published a book called Ecosocialism or Barbarism. The U.S. journal Capitalism Nature Socialism has changed its subhead to include the word ecosocialism. The latest edition of Socialist Register includes essays about ecosocialism. There’s a session on “Ecosocialism versus Capitalist Ecosuicide” at the U.S. Social Forum at the end of this month.
- And I could go on.
At least in North America and Europe, “ecosocialism” has been in use for a while — it’s neither new nor exotic.
Of course frequent usage doesn’t make the word appropriate. Maybe it is just trendy nonsense. Maybe it will join pet rocks in the trash bin of short-lived fads.
But I doubt that will happen, because the increasing use of the term “ecosocialism” reflects two parallel developments in the real world:
- There’s a growing current in the green movement that is turning to Marxism to find tools for understanding the ecological crisis, and are concluding that only socialism offers a way out.
- And there’s a growing current in the Marxist left that has concluded that socialism will only succeed if it is based on sound ecological understanding and practice. Many argue that Marxism can be enhanced and extended by insights from the modern ecological movement.
Both groups include a wide range of views, but the trends are encouraging, as is the fact that many people in both currents were influenced to re-examine their views by the examples of Cuba and Venezuela.
Obviously I am in the second group. I’ve considered myself a Marxist for more than forty years, but my study of ecology — including Marx’s very important writings on the subject — began far more recently. I know I’m not alone in that. In most places the Green movement and the Marxist left simply didn’t mix until fairly recently. (Australia seems to have been an exception to that.)
The first time I used the term “ecosocialism” in an article, a comrade in Canada objected that it “suggests that socialism has been deficient in this regard.” I replied:
“Precisely so! While concern for ecology was a fundamental part of Marx’s thought, and the Bolsheviks were certainly aware of the issue, the sad fact is that the Marxist left has ignored this issue for many decades. We need to correct that — and we need to do so publicly and explicitly.
“Using “ecosocialism” … is a way of signalling loud and clear that we consider climate change not just as another stick to bash capitalism with, but as a critically important issue, one of the principal problems facing humanity in this century.”
That can also serve as a reply to Dave’s objection to “developing a new brand of socialism as though the one we’ve got lacks all the attributes we need.” In the abstract, plain-old-socialism is fully committed to defending the environment. But in the concrete, most of the so-called socialist countries in the 20th Century had appalling environmental records, and most socialists outside of those countries either ignored the issue or argued that socialism would automatically solve all such problems so no special ecological program and analysis was necessary.
If the term “ecosocialism” helps to distinguish us from that unfortunate tradition, then using it may do some good. If it encourages socialists to consider carefully how Marxist insights apply to ecological problems, and how ecological insights can strengthen Marxism, all the better.
And if someone has a better name for this process of restoring and reinforcing the deep connection between Marxism and ecology, I haven’t heard it.
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A final word on “Ecosocialist International” which is an informal working name for the organization that may ultimately emerge from the discussions we’ll begin in Paris in October.The email announcement of the meeting said that the name is “very much open to discussion.” I’m one participant who will argue against that name. Not because of “ecosocialism” but because to me the name implies something comparable to the great Internationals of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Even if that were desirable, we don’t have sufficient agreement on analysis, program, and strategy — let alone the human and other resources! — to establish such a body.
What I hope will emerge from this process is a loose structure for communication and coordination among people who define their views as ecosocialist. Whatever name we choose should reflect that.
The participants in the Paris meeting will undoubtedly disagree on many things — but as Dave Reilly says, the challenge before us is to “turn the greens red and the reds green,” and that’s a project that I hope ecosocialists (including those who don’t like the word) can work on together.