by Grant Brookes
Text of a presentation by Grant Brookes at the conference Socialism 2012: Class Struggle in Aotearoa, held June 1-3 in Wellington, New Zealand, sponsored by the Workers Party New Zealand.
I had some reservations, when I was asked to speak in this session, about an Ecosocialist Network in Aotearoa. Above all, because such a thing does not exist, outside of some preliminary discussions between a loose group of individuals.
But I was told, “Present the Idea. Take people on a journey.” So I thought, OK, I can do that.
So here is the idea: (unfurl banner)
The journey towards this idea which I’ll describe is both political and personal.
I have been introduced as speaking for the Ecosocialist Network Aotearoa and a member of the Workers Party. I hasten to say that although I am an advocate for an Ecosocialist Network and a member of the broad Marxist group which is the Workers Party, the views that follow are my own.
I’ll start with the political journey.
Ecosocialism – what’s in a name?
Marxism is a living, evolving movement.
When Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote their famous Manifesto in 1848, there was a name for the “spectre haunting Europe.” It was called “communism.”
However two decades later, when Marx engaged in building an organisation consistent with these ideas, the name of this structure didn’t have “communism” in the title. It was the International Workingmen’s Association, or “First International.”
The first political parties drawing on these ideas, which flourished in Europe from the 1880s, called themselves “social democrats.” The revolutionary party led by Lenin was the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.
After the First World War, Marxists around the world renamed themselves “communists”.
When the anti-colonial movements and the New Left and injected new life into the movement in the fifties and sixties, many Marxists who connected with this wave rejected the “Communist Party” tag. There was a splintering of labels. In the global North, a few identified themselves as specifically “Trotskyist”. In the South, “Maoist” was common. But in the Anglophone world at least, a catch-all name of “socialist” took on. Hence the name of this weekend conference – “Socialism 2012”.
The evolution of Marxism as a living movement is due in part to the fact that capitalism, as a social, political and economic phenomenon, is also an evolving global system. And it’s possible to trace the transitions and stages in the development of this system which led to the changing ways that Marxist revolutionaries identify themselves. I’ll say a little more about this later.
But for now, I want to argue that the sixties are over. Capitalism in the 21st century has entered a new phase. A terminal phase.
Capitalism in PERIL
Capitalism, as Marx identified, is a crisis-prone system. Throughout its existence, it has repeatedly suffered economic booms and slumps. It has spiraled into war. Its operations have provoked mass social instability and political rebellions. These crises have occasionally created objective conditions for Marxists to actively intervene in mass collective actions to try and overturn the system and lay the foundations for a new socialist society.
But today, for the first time in capitalism’s 500 year history, the system is beset by a uniquely destabilising set of intersecting crisis tendencies. The first letters of these five crises spell P-E-R-I-L. The following analysis draws on an essay in Unity journal, written by the relatively well-known local Marxist, Grant Morgan.
Profit – The last great economic boom of global capitalism, which delivered rising living standards and expanded production of useful things, came to an end in the early 1970s. Attempts to revive the economic system rapidly coalesced around the policy platform known as neoliberalism. This created three major shifts in the world economy – privatisation, globalisation and financialisation.
Resistance to neoliberalism tended to focus on privatisation and globalisation. But seen in hindsight from 2012, the most significant development was the massive expansion of financial speculation, as the major source of capitalist profit.
A whole new range of financial instruments were created as assets, with a host of esoteric and exotic names, such as the “mortgage-backed securities” which vaporised in the US in 2008, or derivatives, options, credit default swaps, and so on. These grew to be so important for capitalism that trade in financial instruments was 60 times the size of global GDP by 2010.
But what all these assets have in common is that their value is based on a claim to future revenue which has not yet been generated.
The archetypal form of this asset is the loan, where the creditor “owns” the right to repayments over the term of the loan. The massive expansion of the finance sector was based on the massive growth of debt.
The ending of this story can now be seen for what it is. The Great Financial Crisis, which began in 2008, rolls on and on as unpayable levels of debt are shuffled from here to there. Its historical roots in the neoliberal turn, and the historical realities which neoliberalism has engendered, mean that the GFC represents a profitability crisis for capitalism from which there is no clear escape, without exacerbating the other crises simultaneously facing the system.
Ecology – This month marks 20 years since the Rio Earth Summit, which set up the framework to tackle climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet last year, greenhouse gas emissions were higher than ever. Rio has failed, and there is no realistic alternative for preventing climate change on the horizon.
According to professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, only around 10% of the planet’s population will survive if global temperatures rise by 4C. The current UK Met Office projections are that 4C could be exceeded by 2060, and 6C by century’s end.
Climate change is just one of the ecological crises threatening the survival of the world system. Others include:
- Species extinction.
- Loss of tropical forests.
- Destruction of ocean ecology.
- Disappearing supplies of fresh water.
- Despoilment of lakes and rivers.
- Detrimental effects of large dams.
- Toxic wastes.
- Acid rain.
- Urban congestion.
- World hunger.
The ecological crises collectively threaten the survival of the world’s productive population and exploitable natural resources – the twin sources of wealth on which capitalism depends.
Resources – Peak Oil is probably the best known resource crisis. It has been widely debated, including in the mainstream media. The idea of Peak Oil is that oil production in any given well, or region, expands up to a certain point, and then the rate of extraction tends to fall. The idea is debatable, in part because new technologies can make formerly inaccessible oil sources economically viable.
An awareness of Peak Oil in Washington impelled the US to war in Iraq, in a bid to secure control of the region with the largest known oil reserves. As this turned into a less-than spectacular success, attention turned to alternative sources of fossil fuels within North America, such as tar sands and natural gas accessible through fracking. Fracking has become a huge issue, as this method of extraction poisons groundwater.
Fossil fuels are by far the biggest energy source for capitalist expansion. Attempts to overcome the energy resource crisis facing capitalism are therefore exacerbating the ecological crisis in the world’s water systems.
Imperialism – The history of capitalism has also seen a succession of major powers, or hegemons, arise to play a stabilising role in the crisis-prone system. The first of these is a power largely forgotten today – the United Provinces, which is today known as the Netherlands. The British Empire is better remembered. As the system outgrew its home in Europe, the British state secured the conditions for the global expansion of capitalism.
Some time between World War One and World War Two, Britain’s hegemonic role was eclipsed by the United States. From backing the establishment of the international financial system at Bretton Woods, to the Marshall Plan to shaping the evolution of the United Nations; from military intervention against threats to the profit system, to bankrolling the IMF and World Bank to backing the World Trade Organisation and reflating the global economic through the Federal Reserve, the United States has clearly played an essential role in stablising the global capitalist system. Without it, capitalism’s in-built crisis tendencies would probably have collapsed the system already.
What’s equally clear is the the US role as global hegemon is coming to an end.
The rise of China is also widely discussed. China’s military and economic power is growing, even as the US declines. But while this will ensure the end of America as the global stabiliser, intractable internal difficulties will probably prevent China from ever becoming the new hegemon. These difficulties include:
- Unkind geography.
- Only moderate natural resources.
- Low agricultural productivity
- Unkind geography.
- Only moderate natural resources.
- Low agricultural productivity.
- Unbalanced economic development.
- General lack of purchasing power.
- Relative population decline.
- Contested political and bureaucratic structures.
- Chaotic legal and commercial frameworks.
- Restive ethnic minorities.
- Volatile urban majorities.
- Fierce North-South and East-West factionalism.
So what is the future? One theoretical possibility is a world government. But this would undermine the other feature of the geopolitical system necessary for capitalism – competing nation states. This feature allows capitalists to play nations and governments off against each other, to create the best conditions for profit and capital accumulation.
Therefore, the crisis in the global imperial order created by America’s decline is also threatening the very survival of the system.
Legitimacy – Finally, there is a crisis in legitimacy. Profit-making is much more efficient where there is a degree of consent from the working class. Repression is costly, destabilising and interferes with productivity. Yet as we are seeing in places as diverse as Greece and the Arab world, popular consent to being ruled as before is collapsing.
There have been mass crises of legitimacy in the socio-political capitalist system before – such as after the bloodbath in the trenches from 1914-1918, or in the Great Depression of the 1930s. In these cases, legitimacy was able to be re-established, through the New Deal and welfare state governments of the late 1930s.
But would a massive programme of public spending and borrowing like this be possible today, without seriously exacerbating the profitability crisis of financialised neoliberal capitalism? I don’t think so.
Marxist organisation today – an Ecosocialist Network
Based on all this, it should now be clearer why I think Marxists today should consider a new name to describe our project – ecosocialism.
It’s possible that some people will identify with this name for entirely different reasons than those outlined above. This is to be warmly welcomed. What’s not so welcome is if Marxist groups simply chuck in a few references to the environment and rebadge their existing organisational structures and practices as “ecosocialist”.
The previous transitions in Marxism have not only involved different ways of identifying ourselves. They have also meant new ways of organising, based on social, political and economic shifts in the capitalist system, and on lessons learnt from mass struggles.
So the First International was based on the growth of legal trade unions in Europe, and the growing cross-border mobility of labour. Its founding conference discussed the lessons of industrial struggles where foreign workers had been imported to break strikes.
The name – International Workingmen’s Association – fitted an organisation formed to promote international trade union solidarity. This reflected Marxist ideas applied to organisation, under the conditions of capitalist development at the time.
The social democratic parties of the later 19th century, on the other hand, were formed to take advantage of new space for working class political action, opened up through trade union agitation. These parties were organised for electoral activity, and stood candidates in parliamentary elections. For a time, Marx had believed that socialism (at least in Britain) could be achieved in this way, through the ballot box. Again the name – “social democracy” – reflected living Marxism, in the given context.
I’ll finish this brief historical journey with Lenin. The organisation he theorised and led, best known by the nick-name Bolshevik Party, was build under different conditions again. There were no mass legal trade unions in Russia a hundred years ago. In fact, most of the population were not engaged in wage labour. There were very few of the political freedoms enjoyed by Marxists in Western Europe. Russia was a dictatorial monarchy.
Lenin is rightly celebrated by Marxists, as the leader of the most significant – even if short-lived – attempt to create socialism in world history.
But I no longer really claim to know what Lenin really thought and did all those years ago. The reason is because most of what I have learned about Leninism has come from organisations claiming to follow his model. But what I have come to realise is that these organisations have transmitted a bastardised form of Leninism.
How could it be otherwise, when organisations claiming to be based on the Leninist model have been built under very different conditions of capitalist development from those existing in pre-1917 Russia?
Leninism today broadly consists of a small core of highly trained activists, all schooled to think and act the same way in most situations. This set-up is highly conducive to the emergence of cult-like socialist grouplets around a charismatic authority figure.
Which brings us to a few comments on ecosocialism.
Last year, the prominent Canadian ecosocialist Ian Angus was the keynote speaker at the Climate Change, System Change conference organised by the Australian Socialist Alliance.
His topic was, “How to Make an Ecosocialist Revolution.”
“A lesson we can learn from the 20th century, is that monolithic socialist grouplets do not turn into mass movements. They stagnate and decay, they argue and they split, but they don’t change the world.”
I think many of us here have had ample experience to confirm this.
“Ecosocialism is not a separate organization. It is a movement to win existing red and green groups and individuals to an ecosocialist perspective.
“Our ecosocialist programs define who we are, they are the glue that holds us together. But within that broad framework, we need to understand that none of us has a monopoly on truth and none of us has the magical keys to the ecosocialist kingdom.”
Given this, there is not a lot I can or should say about the precise form or programme of an Aotearoa Ecosocialist Network, which is not even in existence yet.
I will simply say this. The Ecosocialist Network must agitate for measures which address the impact of the five intersecting crisis tendencies of terminal capitalism on the global majority. And it must do so in a way which draws the broadest possible layer of people into collective action.
The jury is out on the lessons of contemporary mass struggles such as the Arab Spring and Occupy, as these have not yet led to the large-scale creation of political forces to overturn capitalism. However, despite this important caveat, they have shown that networks which are less hierarchical, more diverse and decentralised are extremely effective in mobilising broad sections of the population today.
I don’t see this ecosocialist idea as incompatible with the concept of a combat propaganda group, discussed by Mike this morning – or with belonging to the Mana Movement, of which I am a proud member. In fact, one of the false legacies of so-called Leninism is the idea of the “vanguard party”, a single monolithic organisation to monopolise political leadership and lead the working class to victory.
In its place, current conditions of terminal capitalist crisis require overlapping and intersecting groups and parties. An ecosocialist network is an essential part of that nexus.
A personal journey
I’m coming up on 20 years as a Marxist activist. The group I joined as a student in Dunedin in 1993 traced its intellectual roots to the radicalisation of the 1960s, and especially to the peak of the revolutionary wave in 1968.
This was a kind of a sweet coincidence. They were the metaphorical children of ’68, and as someone born in that year I was a child of ’68 literally.
The group identified as “revolutionary socialist”, “Leninist” and more-or-less “Trotskyist”. It was part of an international grouping of like-minded organisations, based around the Socialist Workers Party in Britain.
The need to organise internationally had been recognised in the Marxist movement since day one. So it was initially stimulating for me to be part of the SWP’s international network, having access to thoughts and experiences of socialists from around the world. The SWP was rightly credited with playing a leading role in mass opposition to the Iraq war.
But along with the other members of Socialist Worker New Zealand, I increasingly became aware of problems.
The news we got through these channels was filtered. It wasn’t obvious at first, until we started getting news from other sources, like the Australian Green Left Weekly.
The filtering, and analysis, was based on dogma. In Marxist terms, dogma consists of viewing the world through past certainties, or orthodoxy, rather than observing and analysing actual events and system-level tendencies in the here and now. The truth, therefore, is decided on in advance, then the facts are marshaled to support it. And as we came to realise, the SWP truth is based the revealed word of a small group of canonical thinkers in the Trotskyist intellectual dynasty.
A revolution in Nepal successfully overthrew an entrenched monarch – a world historic event you would have thought. But if you blinked, you would have missed the luke warm coverage in the SWP’s publications. The real problem, you see, was that the Marxists leading the revolution weren’t Trotskyists like them.
This rigid dogma led the SWP to reject the significance of the mass radicalisation which swept Latin America over the last decade, and to denounce people like Hugo Chavez as opponents of genuine socialism.
We asked for a debate inside our international tendency about Chavez. It was met with stony silence. Dogma and democratic debate, you see, are incompatible.
The SWP’s dogma led them to pull out of the RESPECT Party, wrecking England’s most successful electoral formation involving Marxist leadership in generations. They did this, essentially, because RESPECT wasn’t “pure” enough for them.
When we pointed this out, we were attacked. And members of the SWP who agreed with us were expelled. After the death of the overwhelmingly dominant authority figure of Tony Cliff, there was a jostling of position for the role of the new Great Leader.
The purges rolled on and on, at all levels of the party, so that now there are just two members remaining on their central committee from when I was in Britain a decade ago.
This week I see that they are calling on SYRIZA, the Greek anti-capitalist party currently leading in the polls, to abstain from forming a government if they win this month’s election. This would mean squandering the best chance for decisively breaking the hold of austerity in Europe and opening up new historical possibilities for the world.
This frankly idiotic position is essentially based on a dogmatic view that there’s only one path to socialism – theirs – and this doesn’t involve winning elections.
These brief sketches of major political debates around the SWP are necessarily caricatures, but they get the broad outlines right.
This personal experience, shared by others in Socialist Worker New Zealand, led us to wind up the organisation with that name at our final conference in January of this year.
Speaking for myself, the conclusion is that organisations born out of the sixties need to be appreciated for what they are – the children of their times. Like the First International, the social democrats and the Communist Parties before them, they have made inestimably large contributions to humanity.
But they are no longer capable of taking Marxism forward for the masses today, in the terminal phase of capitalist development. For that, we need an Ecosocialist Network.