Some Questions About Ecosocialism

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This article was submitted this as a comment on Joel Kovel’s article Why Ecosocialism Today? I am publishing it as a separate article because it raises important questions that ecosocialists need to consider carefully.

by Jeff White

Re: Joel Kovel’s “Why Ecosocialism Today?”

The title of this article is too modest: Kovel asks not only “why ecosocialism” but also the harder question, “what ecosocialism” – i.e., what exactly is the alternative to the neo-barbarism that is now portended? (I use the term “neo-barbarism” not to indulge in trendy prefixes, but to distinguish it from the term “barbarism” that Marx and Engels usefully employed to denote a very different period in the history of our species.)

Kovel is very conscious of the ecological failures of the workers’ states (“first-epoch socialisms”) of the last century. The fact that socialist revolution occurred on this planet first in relatively underdeveloped capitalist countries placed technological development at the top of the agendas of the workers’ states. For those transitional societies, there was an enormous chasm between the backward capitalist modes of production they replaced (and in most senses, inherited) and the Marxian communist society they nominally aspired to, a chasm made all the wider by their political and military isolation within a capitalist world and the consequent need to accommodate market-driven, commodity-based forms of production. Unable to maintain their momentum, and unable to transcend the twin imperatives of militarization and growth-based economics, they succumbed to bureaucratization and ultimately to collapse.

An ecosocialist society, Kovel notes, will have to be different from the failed workers’ states. There are no purely technological fixes: ecosocialism will have to change “the very character of production itself” into “a whole mode of production, one in which freely associated labour produces flourishing ecosystems rather than commodities.”

His article is far too brief, he concedes, to allow for development of these themes. But they have been developed elsewhere, notably in the writings of John Bellamy Foster, who has done more than anybody to demonstrate the centrality (not just the relevance) of the ideas of Marx and Engels to the ecosocialist project.

What it all boils down to is that the alternative to capitalist neo-barbarism is Marxian communism. Marx and Engels knew this. Rosa Luxemburg knew this. What Kovel and Foster tell us is not new, though it may be “news” to many.

But to say that ecosocialism/communism is quite unlike the workers’ states of the 20th century, as Joel Kovel notes, “raises far more questions than it answers.” I can think of several:

  • Is there a way of getting from capitalist neo-barbarism to a society “in which freely associated labour produces flourishing ecosystems rather than commodities” without going through a transitional phase? If not, what would this transitional phase look like, and how long would it be expected to last?
  • Given that Kovel himself has written in The Enemy of Nature that “there is no privileged agent of ecosocialist transformation,” who is to lead the world into this transitional phase – the working class, or somebody else?
  • Would it be possible to begin the process of reversing ecological damage during the transitional phase, as Cuba is attempting, or would that have to await the end of commodity production? Given the indivisibility of the global ecology, not to mention the globalized nature of capitalism, is it possible to contemplate “ecosocialism in one country”? “Ecosocialism,” say Kovel and Michael Löwy in their Ecosocialist Manifesto, “will be international, and universal, or it will be nothing.” Do we not then face the same prospect that bedeviled the 20th century workers’ states – worldwide socialist revolution or no revolution at all?
  • Above all, does the human race have time to avoid ecocatastrophe?