Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Marxism and the environment

This is an excerpt from the book Ecology and Socialism by Chris Williams and first published at International Socialist Review

“The analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms—these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.”
Frederick EngelsSocialism: Utopian and Scientific1

There is a widespread assumption among environmentalists that Marxism, as a “productivist” ideology, has little to say, and little concern, for the fate of the environment. Contrary to a common perception—much of it understandably based on the diabolical environmental depredations carried out in the name of socialism by the former Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, and China—Marx and Engels had a much more holistic view of humankind’s place in the environment.

The idea that Marx and Engels were obsessed only with the conditions of workers comes from all quarters, right and left. They are often portrayed as writers who, it is conceded, may have been ahead of their times with their insightful economic analysis of capitalism but were typical of nineteenth century men enamored of the wonderful powers of technology to solve all of society’s ills. Their only contention, it is argued, was that technology should be owned and controlled by the workers, not the capitalists. Thenceforth, it could be unleashed upon the planet for the furthering of the interests of the entire human race without a thought to natural limits.

According to this view attributed to Marx, through control of the means of production and mastery of nature mankind would be set free. Most often Marx’s ideas are described as “productivist” or Promethean after the Greek god Prometheus, who stole the technology of fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals. The Promethean view is shown to be true by selected excerpts from the writings of Marx and Engels and the evidence of “actually existing socialism” as it used to be in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and as it still exists in China and other “socialist” countries not known for their ecological stewardship, such as North Korea and Vietnam. Marxist scholars John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett have done much to refute this version of Marxism and the presumptive original sin of Marx and Engels with which all past and future socialist projects are taken to be tainted.2

This topic is important because we need not just a critique of the past but also a vision for the future, one that is rooted in historical experience and theoretical cogency that we can build on and develop. Just as socialism needs to be rescued from the distortions of some of its supposed practitioners, so the writings of Marx and Engels should be recognized for their usefulness in examining the natural world and human relationships to it. This is not to take every word of Marx and Engels as the gospel truth more than a hundred years after they wrote them. Rather it is to argue that the methodology of Marxism holds key insights into our relationship to nature that are extremely useful for understanding our place in the biosphere and interaction with it.

The language of socialism and the mantle of Marx and Engels were adopted by Stalin in the USSR, Mao in China, and other “socialist” societies not to further the course of socialism but to derail it. While going into detail on the nature of these regimes is beyond the scope of this book, it should be clear that if socialism means anything, it is the free association of the people who do the work raising themselves into power to collectively and democratically decide the future course of society.3 The workers and peasants who make the revolution should bear its fruits. That is, they democratically decide the direction of the economy and society in the interests of the vast majority; a society where production of goods is based on human need, not profit.

After the Stalinist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, nowhere has this been true of any society claiming to be socialist. Each society is run from the top down in the interests of a bureaucratic ruling elite who run the state as a one-party fiefdom. The interests of the ruling Soviet elite became associated with the interests of a state in economic and military competition with the West.

In other words, the same factors that propel capitalist production—the need to compete and drive out the competition—reigned within these regimes. Flowing directly from this came the need of each of these one-party states to constantly raise productivity and dispense with any environmental, democratic, or labor concerns in the manic drive toward economic and technological parity with the Western powers. It was the severe lack of power of the working class in the “socialist” countries, not its untrammeled freedom, which created the conditions for the extreme ecological vandalism seen there. As Stalin commented, what took the West one hundred years to accomplish, the Soviet Union would do in ten.4 This chapter will therefore explore the real legacy of Marx and Engels and subsequent Marxist thinkers as it relates to enhancing our understanding of the human social relationship to the natural world.

While life will evolve and biodiversity will eventually be reestablished on a planet that is 60ºC warmer than today, it will do so on a timescale vastly greater than human planning and life spans could possibly contemplate. It took fifty million years for biodiversity to recover from the Permian-Triassic mass extinction. In the interim period, 50 to 90 percent of species currently extant will die out as they will be unable to adapt fast enough to such rapid changes and the resulting breakdown in ecosystems within which these species are embedded. It is not just the overall amount of climatic change that will be so devastating to ecosystems, but just as importantly, the rate at which that change occurs. Alongside such drastic reductions in biodiversity, human misery will multiply. Mass migration, droughts, floods, wars, and famine will be endemic rather than periodic features of a greatly constrained human society.

Frederick Engels outlined over one hundred years ago the contradictions between an exploitative, short-term relationship of humanity to nature and the long-term problems that would inevitably engender:
Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centers and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, making possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy season… Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature—but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.5
Frederick Engels

This failure to take into account the long-term, unintended consequences of human actions reaches its height of contradiction under capitalism where both the scale of the destructive impact of these unintended consequences, as well as the scientific and material means to overcome them, develop in tandem. Writes Engels:
Classical political economy, the social science of the bourgeoisie, in the main examines only social effects of human actions in the fields of production and exchange that are actually intended. This fully corresponds to the social organization of which it is the theoretical expression. As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result.6
Today, all the solutions to climate change are already technologically feasible, and we have the means to implement them on a global scale, as well as the knowledge of what will happen if we don’t. We are being held back not because solutions don’t exist or money is not available, but because current social relations will not allow for them. As Leon Trotsky wrote in 1926:
I remember the time when men wrote that the development of aircraft would put an end to war, because it would draw the whole population into military operations, would bring to ruin the economic and cultural life of entire countries, etc. In fact, however, the invention of the flying machine heavier than air opened a new and crueler chapter in the history of militarism. There is no doubt now, too, we are approaching the beginning of a still more frightful and bloody chapter. Technology and science have their own logic—the logic of the cognition of nature and the mastering of it in the interests of man. But technology in itself cannot be called either militaristic or pacifistic. In a society in which the ruling class is militaristic, technology is in the service of militarism.7
Today, we clearly have governments overtly committed to militarism to extend the economic reach of their own national group of capitalists. As all mainstream predictions by the United Nations and the International Energy Agency point toward growing worldwide use of fossil fuel energy, waiting for real and meaningful solutions to emerge from governments guarantees humanity a desperate future and many species a short one. The raison d’être of capitalism is profit based on continual economic expansion. Capitalism has, in effect and in practice, alienated humanity from nature by privatizing the land and making all things into commodities—even pollution itself. On this alienation from nature, Marx explains, “As for the farmer, the industrial capitalist and the agricultural worker, they are no more bound to the land they exploit than are the employer and the worker in the factories to the cotton and wool they manufacture; they feel an attachment only for the price of their production, the monetary product.”8

Capitalism is an economic system profoundly and irrevocably at odds with a sustainable planet, as it requires ever-greater material and energy throughput to keep expanding. According to a 2000 study carried out by five major European and U.S. research centers:
Industrial economies are becoming more efficient in their use of materials, but waste generation continues to increase…Even as decoupling between economic growth and resource throughput occurred on a per capita and per unit of GDP basis, overall resource use and waste flows to the environment continued to grow. We found no evidence of an absolute reduction in resource throughput. One half to three quarters of annual resource inputs to industrial economies are returned to the environment as wastes within a year.9
Let’s dwell on that last sentence for a second: One-half to three-quarters of industrial inputs returned to the environment as wastes within a year!

Capitalism simultaneously and of necessity exploits the land and the people and sacrifices the interests of both on the altar of profit. Philosophically, the approach that capitalism takes to the environment, and the attitude it forces us to adopt, is one of separation and alienation. As a species we are forcibly cut off from the land, separated from nature, and alienated from coevolving with it. It’s an attitude amply summed up by Marx in volume 1 of Capital:
Capitalist production…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil…. The social combination and organization of the labor processes is turned into an organized mode of crushing out the workman’s individual vitality, freedom and independence.… Moreover, all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology…only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.10
Marx and Engels viewed humans not as something separate from the environment, as capitalist ideological orthodoxy does, but dialectically interconnected. Writes Marx on the relationship between nature and humanity:
Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.11
The organism interacts with its environment while simultaneously the environment acts back on the organism. In the process, both are changed. The environment is no longer a passive object to be shaped at will by whatever life-form comes along, but plays a role in making the organism what it is. In this view, it is impossible to speak of any living thing, humans and their activity included, as anything but deeply enmeshed with each other, in a constant process of mutual interaction and transformation. Environmental niches don’t just pre-exist so that some happy organism that just happens to wander by at the right time can slot itself in. The very idea of an environment has no meaning unless we are talking about an organism’s relationship to it. For Marx and Engels, writing in The German Ideology, human activity had the potential to alienate all creatures from their environments:
The “essence” of the fish is its “being,” water… The “essence” of the freshwater fish is the water of a river. But the latter ceases to be the essence of the fish and so is no longer a suitable medium for existence as soon as the river is made to serve industry, as soon as it is polluted by dyes and other waste products and navigated by steamboats, or as soon as its water is diverted into canals where simple drainage can deprive fish of its medium of existence.12
Climate, and the earth’s ecosystem more generally, is dynamic and complex; it is best viewed as a process of many interacting factors. Every change feeds back and creates new effects on all actors. This leads to the concepts of tipping points and holism—both central within Marxism. Violent shocks to the system over relatively brief timescales have dominated previous climate swings, as have the revolutionary social changes that ushered capitalism onto the world historic stage.

Rapid changes to natural and social systems can be seen to operate in analogous ways. Stresses that accumulate in climate systems and human societies often do so without much outward sign until rapid and extreme changes seem to burst forth almost out of nowhere. Under the surface however, what seem like small, inconsequential “molecular” changes were taking place that eventually led to the radical and abrupt shifts to entirely new systems. In regard to climate change, this is the thesis of Fred Pearce’s book With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change.

In this sense, rapid climate change and revolutionary social change are analogous because they both exemplify the sudden transformation of quantity into quality. The great concern among scientists is that we are fast approaching just such a tipping point with regard to global climate. In the social realm, the great concern among many other people is that we are not approaching just such a corresponding social upheaval fast enough to prevent us from going beyond a systemic breakdown in a stable global climate.

To end the contradiction between humanity and nature requires “something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.”13 To truly end the exploitation of nature in the service of profit requires that the profit motive be excised from society in a revolutionary reconstitution by the majority on whose labor the system depends. The right to privately own the land and the means of production, which lies at the very root of capitalist economics and forces the population at large to work for a living at the behest of private capital, must be abolished. Only by holding land, along with the instruments of production, in common and producing to meet social need will the simultaneous exploitation of nature and humanity end. Only then can we interact with nature according to a conscious plan, utilizing the scientific knowledge and technique that we already possess to organize production and distribution on a completely new footing that thus establishes a more harmonious relationship between humanity and nature. The methodology developed and used by Marx and Engels offers insightful clues as to how to do that.

Socialist ecological thought since Marx

Marxism is a science, not a religion. As such it is a continually evolving body of thought, adapting and learning from new situations and knowledge. It is no surprise therefore to learn that several Marxists and socialists have made significant contributions to ecological thought.

The term “biosphere,” encompassing the entirety of an open system that supports all life and its interaction with the atmosphere and the energy coming from the sun, was coined in the 1920s by a leading scientist of the Bolshevik Soviet government, Vladimir Vernadsky. Vernadsky was one of the very first—in a prophetic speech in 1922—to warn of the dangers of the misuse of atomic power. In 1926 Vernadsky publishedThe Biosphere. This was before Soviet science became intensely productivist, anti-ecological and, in some important and notorious episodes, anti-scientific.

Well before James Lovelock’s rather mystical notions of Gaia and the earth as a self-regulating living organism, Vernadsky, in echoes of Marx, wrote in his book of the essential link and interconnection between all biotic and abiotic matter in shaping the earth:
Life is, thus, potently and continuously the disturbing chemical inertia on the surface of our planet. It creates colors and forms of nature, the associations of animals and plants, and the creative labor of civilized humanity, and also becomes a part of the diverse chemical processes of the earth’s crust. There is not substantial chemical equilibrium on the crust in which the influence of life is not evident, and in which chemistry does not display life’s work. Life is, therefore, not an external or accidental phenomenon of the earth’s crust…All living matter can be regarded as a single entity in the mechanism of the biosphere.14
Here the biosphere, encompassing all living and nonliving matter, is the system, human society is an interacting sub-system of that, and the economy a subsystem of human society, even if the key one through which society evolves. For conventional economists it is the exact reverse: the economy is the system; human society, and, to the extent that the biosphere is even considered, are both subsystems. This reversal gives rise to the idea, essential under capitalism, that the economy can expand without limits, that capitalism is a boundlesssystem. That this runs counter to the physical and biological laws of the universe goes without acknowledgment. The capitalist economy runs as a perpetual motion machine, the practical possibility of which was discredited in the nineteenth century with the enunciation of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. Nevertheless, in order to continue, it requires a belief system that suspends knowledge of those very laws even as it utilizes them in other spheres of scientific endeavor. Hence the entirely necessary but nonsensical notion under capitalism: the economy is essentially independent of nature.

Committed to the unity of theory and practice, the Bolsheviks did not limit themselves to theoretical reconceptions of a dynamic and interactive organic and inorganic world but actively supported little-known but nevertheless groundbreaking ecological practice. The Soviet Union, particularly through the leadership of Lenin while he was alive, and Lunacharsky while he was head of the People’s Commissariat for Education, Narkompros, (before his forced resignation by Stalin in 1929) were strong backers of an ecologically minded policy toward agricultural sustainability, biodiversity, and ecological research. This was in the face of the most desperate economic circumstances bequeathed to the young Soviet state due to the deprivations of the First World War and the unrestrained savagery with which the counterrevolutionary White armies and Allied Western governments prosecuted the ensuing three year civil war.

For a short period of time, studies in Soviet ecology blossomed as in no other country. That brief period was brought to an abrupt end when Stalin and the ascendant bureaucracy demonized “science for the sake of science” as a “bourgeois deviation.” Stalin insisted not only that true “proletarian science” must first and foremost justify itself in the interests of the economy, but also that scientific theory had as much to gain from “practice” as it did from the unearthing of scientific relationships. In other words, what was happening on the ground, with Trofim Lysenko’s infamous crop-yield experiments and theory of “vernalization,” for example, should be accepted by scientists because it was in the interests of Soviet agriculture, rather than critically examined for scientific soundness.15 Even science was not immune to the ideological manipulations and distortions required by Stalin as political considerations came to trump scientific conclusions.

Prior to the Stalinist counterrevolution, the Soviet Union in fact pioneered ecological theory and practice. The government was the first in the world to listen to its scientific and ecological researchers and implement a policy of setting aside large tracts of land, zapovedniki(nature reserves), that were completely inviolable to any form of human intervention other than scientific research.

There was to be no logging, animal hunting, or crop growing—even tourism was banned.

These areas, linked together in a nationwide network were to serve asetalony—baseline standards similar to the surrounding region that could be used to track how virgin nature existed in order to better understand how industrialized society was changing natural habitats in nonprotected areas. Russian ecologists similarly pioneered the idea that despoiled land could be rejuvenated through rational use and through the development of a regional plan on the basis of the study of etalony. It was Russian scientists who were among the first to consider the idea of plant distribution as communities (phytosociology) and initiated the concept of ecological energetics (trophic dynamics).

Two days after the October Revolution, the crucial decree “On Land” was passed, abolishing the ability of anyone to privately own “alienated” land. Because all land, forests, waterways, and natural resources were now publically owned, a rational plan for their sustainable use and renewal could be put in to action. Despite this, the journal Lesa respubliki (Forests of the Republic) reported that forests were being degraded by illegal logging and hunting and something needed to be done. In May 1918, in a meeting chaired by Lenin, the government responded by passing the decree “On Forests,” which created a Central Administration of Forests of the Republic to design a plan for reforestation and sustained yield. Forests were to be divided into an exploitable sector and a protected one. The purpose of the protected part was specifically to engage with issues of the control of erosion, the protection of watersheds, and the “preservation of monuments of nature.” Another law, the Forest Code, was adopted into law in 1923 which further enhanced the protected status of forests.

By January 1919, from a Soviet perspective, the civil war had reached its nadir. The continued existence of the worker’s and peasants’ government was in serious doubt. Bolshevik-controlled areas had been severely curtailed and the Red Army pushed back almost to the gates of Petrograd. The government was hanging by a thread as White armies crossed the Urals and seemed headed for the desperately beating heart of Soviet power. U.S., British, French, and Japanese troops occupied and controlled key Russian ports, and much of the fertile Ukraine and the south were under the control of the Germans. Despite the almost hopelessly dire situation, Lenin took time out to personally meet with the well-known agronomist, N. N. Podiapolsky, to hear about proposals for the first zapovednik.

As Podiapolsky recounts:
Having asked me some questions about the military and political situation in the Astrakhan region, Vladimir Ilyich expressed his approval of all of our initiatives and in particular the one concerning the project for the zapovednik. He stated that the cause of conservation was important not only for the Asktrakhan region, but for the whole republic as well, and that he considered it an urgent priority.16
Lenin proposed that Podialpolsky immediately draft national legislation on conservation for consideration. After submitting the legislation, Podiapolsky received the examined draft back from Lenin the very same day!

Once land was retaken by the Red Army, this decree, “On the Protection of Monuments of Nature, Gardens, and Parks” could eventually be signed in to law by Lenin in September of 1921. In May 1919 Lenin approved passage of the decree “On Hunting Seasons and the Right to Possess Hunting Weapons,” which prohibited hunting of endangered moose and wild goats and initiated closed seasons for hunting other animals in order to ensure sustainable yield.

In 1924, the All-Russian Society for Conservation (VOOP) was created through the Conservation Department of the Commissariat of Education to help build a mass social base for conservation and to incorporate conservation and the study of nature into school curricula. VOOP published its own journal, Okhrana prirody (Conservation), which carried vigorous debates inside its pages on critical academic issues in ecology, the history of ecological research in Russia, news from national parks in other countries, including translations of Theodore Roosevelt’s thoughts on Yellowstone, articles for and about children, special profiles on various endangered species, and articles for biological pest control and against monocultures. The journal even discussed the positive role shamans had historically played in ensuring sustainable yields of game in Siberian culture. Ecology as a separate field of academic study began to appear in Russian university curricula by 1924.

All this stood as law; academic debate and research flourished and popular organizations sought to further the rational use and study of nature with governmental support, even as the most far-reaching goals were constrained by the need to feed the people and earn foreign currency through fur and timber sales. These advances were circumvented, curtailed, and ultimately reversed by the requirements of Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, when unrestrained productivism was the order of the day and animals and plants were reclassified. Species, in a mirror image of the short-termism inherent to capitalism, were now to be classified either as “useful” to the most immediate needs of “socialist construction” or “harmful”—and therefore penciled in for extermination.

The early years of Soviet rule could not be more different from the usual picture of total disregard for the environment, leading to horrific pollution and environmental crimes. The entirety of Soviet ecological misrule is presented as a continuum from the modernizing despot Lenin all the way through to Chernobyl in a smooth unbroken line. In fact, the Soviet Union under Lenin and through the 1920s was characterized by a stunning series of pioneering ecological policies, education, research, and theorizing. Compare the enlightened policies sketched above with Maxim Gorky’s paean to the concept of the total “transformation of nature” inaugurated once Stalin had consolidated his rule through repeated purges in the 1930s:
Stalin holds a pencil. Before him lies a map of the region. Deserted shores. Remote villages. Virgin soil, covered with boulders. Primeval forests. Too much forest as a matter of fact; it covers the best soil. And swamps. The swamps are always crawling about, making life dull and slovenly. Tillage must be increased. The swamps must be drained…The Karelian Republic wants to enter the stage of classless society as a republic of factories and mills. And the Karelian Republic will enter classless society by changing its own nature.17
The ascension of Stalin, as in all other areas of post?revolutionary life, represents a clearly delineated rupture with the pioneering ecological policies and environmental research of the 1920s. Under Stalin, who had little use for any scientific theory if it didn’t ideologically justify party rule or enhance economic competitiveness with the West, meant that anyone charged with carrying out “science for science’s sake” automatically became a potential “wrecker”—the charge that precipitated trial, the gulag, execution, or frequently all three. The ecology movement, along with independent scientists, had to be broken and entire governmental departments purged, reordered, renamed, or simply abolished. To examine just the Ukraine, formerly a center of ecological research, every single voluntary scientific or professional society concerned with conservation or nature protection was terminated in the 1930s. Many were accused of cooperating with “counterrevolutionary nationalist groups,” due to their continued opposition to economic issues taking primacy over those of conservation. This amounted to a certain death sentence; more than a third of the Ukrainian Committee for the Preservation of Monuments of Nature were executed.

A British socialist, A. G. Tansley, who went on to become the first president of the British Ecological Society and in the 1930s coined the term “ecosystem,” a concept central to our modern understanding of ecosystems ecology, now an academic research field of its own. Tansley wanted to explain how his materialist conception of natural communities had become fused with all physical and chemical factors such as soil and climate and so came up with the term “ecosystem” to speak effectively of this dynamic equilibrium and essential unity. As he explained:
It is the systems so formed which, from the point of view of the ecologist, are the basic units of nature on the face of the earth. Our natural human prejudices force us to consider the organisms as the most important parts of these systems, but certainly inorganic “factors” are also parts—there could be no systems without them, and there is constant interchange of the most various kinds within each system, not only between the organisms but between the organic and the inorganic. These ecosystems, as we may call them, are the most various kinds and sizes. They form one category of the multitudinous physical systems of the universe, which range from the universe as a whole down to the atom.18
And, in an image of how Marxist dialectics can help us understand the constant motion and interconnectivity of life processes, Tansley goes on to explain how “the systems we isolate mentally are not only included as parts of larger ones, but they also overlap, interlock, and interact with one another.”19

The reason I bring up these examples is to illustrate that a central preoccupation of socialists, beginning with Marx and Engels, but including scientists and leading Bolsheviks from the 1920s among others, has been our relationship to the environment. Socialists have made serious and fundamental contributions to ecological or “green” thought and practice. In addition, socialists were thinking along these lines and were able to make these contributions precisely because they were socialists. Marxism provides by far the best framework for understanding the concept of sustainability.

This is in contrast with much of green thought that for far too long has neglected the issue of class and the nature of the economic system. Many people truly concerned with environmental degradation and global warming view sustainability through the lens of individual responsibility—working within the system to reduce one’s personal carbon footprint, biking to work, not eating meat, making sure to recycle, or not drinking bottled water. There is a focus on individual lifestyle changes in order to show in practice what an alternative, more sustainable life would look like and prefigure a sustainable world, one person at a time.

I am all for making those personal choices if you can, but it shouldn’t be confused with a political strategy that will actually bring about the change everyone wants to see. If we subscribe to lifestyle politics we then see ourselves exactly as corporate and political elites want us to see ourselves—as consumers. This is not where our power lies. It allows capitalism to go on as before, with more and more environmental damage and pollution, while we are lulled into believing we’re actually doing something—recycling is the classic case. If we view ourselves primarily as consumers, they will figure out a way to sell us crap. As they have successfully done with all of the new “green” merchandise, organic and “carbon-neutral” products, hybrid vehicles, and so on, which are doing nothing to challenge the competition-driven growth imperative hardwired into a system based on profit as its prime objective.

Marx was concerned with taking a long-term view of the earth over a century before the UN discovered a problem. In the third volume ofCapital he essentially defines sustainability thus:
From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of household].20
Nature and society cannot be seen as diametrically opposed but should co-develop with one another as natural history and human history become different aspects of the same thing. For Marx it was necessary to heal the “metabolic rift,” to use his term, created between humanity and nature by capitalism.

This article is excerpted from Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books 2010).

  1. Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Company, 1910) chap.
  2. See John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000); Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature; and Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009).
  3. For details on how Marxism became distorted by states calling themselves socialist and how the Soviet Union decayed into a state-run dictatorship of extreme exploitation and oppression see John Molyneux, What Is the Real Marxist Tradition? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003) and Anthony Arnove et al., Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003).
  4. “We are fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We have to make good this distance in ten years. Either we do this or they crush us.” Quoted in J. Miller, “A Political Economy of Socialism in the Making,” Soviet Studies 4, no. 4 (April 1953): 418.
  5. Frederick Engels, “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” inThe Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International Publishers, 2007), 260–61.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 317.
  8. Quoted in Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 132.
  9. Quoted in James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, The Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2008), 56.
  10. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 505–07.
  11. Quoted in Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 72.
  12. Ibid., 112.
  13. Engels, “Part Played by Labor.”
  14. Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere (New York: Nevraumont Publishing Company, 1998), 57.
  15. Trofim Lysenko was the director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences under Stalin. His theories of vernalization backed the disproven ideas of Lamarck concerning acquired characteristics. Lysenkoism has become synonymous with the idea of science and scientists backing certain scientific ideas based on their political expediency rather than their scientific rigor.
  16. Douglas Weiner, Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 2000), 27. Information in this section, including the Podiapolsky quote, is taken from here.
  17. Ibid. 169.
  18. A. G. Tansley, “The Ecosystem,” reprinted in Keeping Things Whole: Readings in Environmental Science (Chicago: Great Books Foundation, 2003), 191.
  19. Quoted in John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet (New York:Monthly Review Press, 2009), 159.
  20. Ibid., 181.

Monday, 29 August 2016

‘Progressive Alliance’ - Just too many fault lines make it Doomed to Failure

Written by Charles Gate

Caroline Lucas is simply the most significant individual that the Green Party (England and Wales variety) has ever had and yet many in the party are having difficulty with her belief that a ‘Progressive Alliance’ (PA) is either possible or desirable at this time of momentous political upheaval. Of course Lucas may well stress this is exactly the time when we need one. In order to have a PA you need a certain amount of consensus between parties and even among Green Party members. Does it exist? Can it be forged?

An emergency motion around these issues is being, hopefully, placed before Green Party conference and can be found here

Perhaps, it’s all in the title ‘PA’? Had it been called ‘The Alliance to get rid of the Tories’, it may have had more traction with people. It is quite clearly bunk to have a ‘progressive’ alliance with a party, the Lib Dems, who have just spent the first half of this decade in bed with the Tories; shafting the nation (they are yet to have their ‘Corbyn’ moment). The reality, though, isn’t whether the Lib Dems, the SNP or Plaid Cymru are on board with the PA; the crucial party is and always has been the Labour Party. All else is pointless unless the Labour Party is onside with a PA.

Of course, the Labour Party isn’t even onside with itself, let alone any other party. There is total melt down in relations between the more right-wing (the Blair/Brown side; the side that has most of the MPs and councillors in the party) and the left-wing Corbyn side (now comprising the vast bulk of the ordinary members).

Corbyn isn’t beyond political games and he has to play a ‘smart’ game within the Labour party, especially in Parliament. Three votes at the end of the last session of Parliament showed how Corbyn is prepared to operate and it generally wasn’t in favour of supporting PAs. The one on renewal of the Trident programme Greens applauded, because unlike the vast majority of Labour MPs, Corbyn voted against renewal. As a long time supporter of CND Corbyn could not be seen to play politics with the issue or else his entire ‘lefty’ credibility would have been blown out of the water, so he had to accept that the vast majority of Labour MPs would vote for renewal.

On two other bills he did play politics. One was the NHS Reinstatement Bill, to make the NHS fully public and drive out the private profit motive from the health service (something Andy Burnham and the last Labour government opened the NHS up to), the other bill on introducing Proportional Representation (PR) and votes for 16 year olds. Labour MPs were asked to abstain on the bills! Caroline Lucas was the lead MP on both bills.

Now Corbyn is not an advocate of PR, his mouthing on the issue is best described as lukewarm and he knew he couldn’t, even if he wanted to, persuade Labour MPs to vote for a system of PR, so an abstention vote saved Labour from being seen (we Greens and many others saw it though) as against opening up a wider and more democratic voting system within the UK.

The choice of Labour and Corbyn to abstain on the NHS Reinstatement Bill beggars belief, but yet Corbyn did knowing he couldn’t get his MPs to back the bill. Although during the recent Labour leadership campaign he called for the renationalisation of the NHS. This is a man in agreement on the issue with his members at large, but not in control of his MPs in Parliament.

The differences between Labour in Parliament and much of the party at large are irreconcilable and the party will split. In such circumstances a PA to get rid of the Tories is doomed to failure. Perhaps the only thing either side of Labour will learn from the debacle is that to get rid of the Tories, for most of the time, we need to introduce PR (PR doesn’t guarantee it, no more than it guarantees a Green government; PR is just more democratic and should be supported by people who believe in extending democracy). Eventually, the Tories, as all governments do, they will lose office more because of their own short comings than the positives of the opposition. When that occurs, most likely to another coalition government of sorts, will all the other parties stand-up and call for PR?

Corbyn will win the new election for the Labour leadership (just as Lucas/Bartley will win in the GP leadership contest) but his problems will start all over again. The vast majority of Labour MPs simply take no notice of him. Forming part of a PA is the last thing on Corbyn’s mind; he cannot even form an alliance with his own MPs. The scenario is this, Labour simply splits, details unknown at this time, but the outcome (unless a snap – we’re obviously running out of ‘snap’ now - general election is called) is a 2020 General Election where two versions of Labour are competing with each other, and what is on their mind isn’t a PA with each other, let alone anyone else, but the destruction of the other ‘Labour’ party is.

To say this is all rather messy is an understatement and the mess is likely to lead, barring other political meltdowns, to 400+ Tory MPs in Parliament. Unfortunately the reconfiguration of the British ‘left’ is going to be slow and torturous. In the meantime the Greens have to decide do we continue to push for a PA that is unlikely to have any significant impact given present circumstances, or are we going to have to knuckle down and present out own unique selling points to the electorate. That might be best done by focusing on civil disobedience actions, such as anti-fracking, anti-nuclear ones etc and supporting workers in struggle against the Tories and ruthless employers.

Charles Gate is a member of Calderdale Green Party and a Green Left supporter

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The enemy is not the climate; it’s capitalism

Written by Michael Gasser and first published at Santa Cruz Ecological Justice

In a new article in the New Republic, founder Bill McKibben, probably the world’s most influential climate activist, argues that World War III has begun and that the enemy is climate change.

He goes on to say that we are losing the war, that we should learn from the experience of World War II, that by retooling industry as we did then we can win the war. In making this case, he is largely adopting the position that has been promoted since 2014 by The Climate Mobilization (TCM). A few days after McKibben’s article appeared, TCM’s co-founder Ezra Silk published an extensive “Victory Plan”, which outlines the steps needed to “restore a safe and stable climate”, “reverse ecological overshoot”, and “halt the 6th mass extinction”.

Before going on to say what I think is wrong with McKibben’s and TCM’s position, I want to make it clear that there is much that is certainly right about it. Above all, they recognize the seriousness of the crisis, the fact that many people who are aware of climate change under-estimate the seriousness, and the need for drastic action to solve the crisis.

The problem is that what they are arguing for is not nearly drastic enough. This is because their “war” is against nature, and as such it ultimately relies on technological fixes, rather than challenges to the political and economic system. McKibben rests much of his case on the well-known work of Stanford University engineer Mark Z. Jacobson and his colleagues, who have argued that renewable technologies could replace those based on fossil fuels in the United States within decades. While Jacobson has his critics, his work is undeniably important. What his work shows — and he himself agrees — is that the main obstacles to solving the crisis are not technological but rather political and economic. The question is who controls the technology.

If this is so, then we must look for the enemy elsewhere. In what must be the best-known of all books written on the climate crisis and its causes, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, author Naomi Klein spells it out pretty clearly. The enemy (of the climate and hence of us) is capitalism. Although Klein does not go into much detail about what she actually means by “capitalism”, a number of ecosocialist writers have filled this gap. For an excellent overview, suitable for those who know little about the science of climate change and/or little about capitalism, see David Klein and Stephanie McMillan’s  Capitalism and Climate Change: the Science and Politics of Global Warming. A common theme in this work and others, especially Richard Smith’s Green Capitalism: the God that Failed and Daniel Tanuro’s Green Capitalism: Why It Can’t Work, is that capitalism, by its very nature, is completely incompatible with a just and sustainable future. If capitalism has a “solution” for the climate crisis, one can only imagine a dystopian world where elites survive in isolated islands of livability, protected from the masses of climate refugees on the outside.

McKibben and TCM look to the mobilization that took place in the US during World War II as a model for how the US should now respond to climate change. Much as the US declared war on fascism then, they say it should declare war on climate change today. Silk believes that “America is capable of leading the world in this mobilization”.

As McKibben discusses (though in somewhat different terms), there was a division in the US ruling class in the years before the US entered the war, with some preferring to stay out of the European and East Asian conflicts, and others, including President Roosevelt, eager to be involved. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor gave Roosevelt the excuse he needed to pursue war on both fronts. McKibben also discusses the remarkable process by which US industry was retooled to support the war effort.

The ultimate result, of course, was the victory of the US and its allies.

But let’s not forget another outcome of the war effort: the ascendancy of the US to its unchallenged position as the dominant power in the world. Far from weakening the reigning political and economic system, Roosevelt strengthened it immeasurably. This was certainly no accident. Another outcome of the war was the greatly increased power of the US military, both within the US and the world.

If it is the political and economic system that is the problem, then we should not be seeking inspiration in a top-down campaign that served to strengthen that system, leaving it in a position to further devastate the environment and giving us the crisis we face today. Nor should we expect the leaders of the movement that is called for now to be wealthy politicians like FDR and his corporate allies. One only has to look at the outcomes of the annual UN Conference of the Parties meetings to see how hopelessly ineffectual the world’s economic and political leaders have been in addressing the climate crisis.

As Naomi Klein and others have shown, the ecological crisis coincides with other forms of oppression that are integral to capitalism, and those that are the most oppressed by this system are also those most likely to suffer the effects of climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. If World War III has already begun, then it is a war being fought mainly by these people, those in the Unist’ot’en camp in British Columbia defending their land against pipelines and natural gas; those in northern Greece struggling to keep gold mines out of their territory; those in Andhra Pradesh, India, battling the companies trying to create coal-fired power plants on their land; those in South Chicago who have fought to keep pet coke storage facilities out of their neighborhood.  It is these people and their allies elsewhere that should inspire us in the “war” that lies ahead, not politicians and “enlightened” capitalists.

History offers us many examples of people rising up against unjust systems — institutionalized racism, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism itself — sometimes in armed struggle, sometimes non-violently. History also teaches us that change does not necessarily happen in a linear fashion; crises can create the conditions for very rapid change. In other words, there is actually hope for the sort of revolution that is needed, a revolution that at a minimum will result in democratic control of the economy and a massive redistribution of income on a world-wide scale.

Silk is to be commended for his detailed and extremely useful discussion of the steps that would need to be taken under a full-scale climate mobilization. More than perhaps any other document, his Victory Plan shows the extent of what must be done. But Silk does not tell us how all of this could actually be accomplished within the existing political system. This is beyond the scope of his project: “speculation about the limits of ‘political acceptability’ in the neoliberal era should be left to historians, sociologists, and politicians”.

The choice in the end is simple. Can we win this fight
  1. within the system — by changing the Democratic Party, by hoping to elect “leaders” who will guide us through another mobilization, by expecting “America” to save the world again, by relying on corporate-controlled technology
  2. or only by changing the system — by participating in existing struggles for social justice, by building class consciousness as well as climate consciousness, by enlisting technology in the service of justice, by creating a world-wide network of grassroots movements and a planned global response that radically transforms existing governments, by ultimately taking on capitalism itself, the system that is behind it all?

Friday, 26 August 2016

Green Party Activists Voice Doubts about an Electoral Progressive Alliance

As counting begins in the Green Party leader and deputy leader elections, Caroline Lucas, one of the (joint) candidates for leader, has renewed her call for a progressive alliance of parties of the broad left at the next general election.

But not all activists within the Green Party agree with Lucas, and there is at the very least a degree of scepticism in the party about the viability of such an alliance.

The BBC piece quotes some of them:

David Williams, another leadership contender, said that while he supported of the idea of talking to other parties he believed Labour would not co-operate. He told the BBC: ‘We can make agreements I think with the Liberal Democrats, with Plaid Cymru, with the SNP but the advantages in terms of ousting the Tories as a result of that are quite marginal. They could be quite substantial if Labour would come along and join the alliance but I don't think they will.’

An Oxfordshire Green Party activist Hazel Dawe said a "progressive" alliance would be "a wonderful thing" but believed it was unachievable. She said: ‘I think there are a lot of obstacles to achieving it, not the least of which is that the Labour party is not committed to proportional representation.’

Clive Lord, veteran of the party and a candidate for the Green Party leadership this year writes on his blog:

‘I start from a sceptical position. Labour have understandably done their damnedest to destroy the Green Party wherever we show most signs of a breakthrough – Brighton, Norwich, Bristol, Oxford.’

Andrew Cooper, from Kirkless Green Party and one of the deputy leadership candidates writing on The Norwich Radical says:

‘Labour needs to have a Progressive Alliance with itself before it can really contemplate having one with anyone else. Until Labour hopefully ‘settles down’ into some degree of stability we can’t progress matters with them.’

‘The other issue with Labour is that currently I am not convinced they have that much enthusiasm for Electoral Reform which is the principal rationale for the proposal. Too many Labour MPs and activists seem to be of the ‘one last heave’ brigade, that believe that if the undemocratic First Past the Post system works for them, then somehow that makes it legitimate. Electoral realities may make Labour wake up more quickly with a Party that is now decimated in Scotland and divided across the country. Another worrying sign was when Caroline Lucas’s 10 minute rule bill tabled last week on Electoral Reform was subject to a Labour Whip asking Labour MPs to abstain.’

Another Deputy Leadership candidate Alan Borgars writing on his blog states: ‘It would also deprive so many voters of the chance to vote for a forward-thinking alternative with new ideas and a genuine willingness to change our broken political and socio-economic systems in the UK…The Green Party can win elections without help, and indeed has had to. In fact, it was Labour we won Brighton Pavilion from in the first place back in 2010.’ Alan is a Green Left supporter.

Meanwhile, Ashford Green Party in Kent, passed motions sceptical about the Green Party joining a progressive alliance, and calling for the decision to made by members, not leadership figures in the party. One of the motions contains this paragraph:

‘Ashford Green Party is calling on the leadership and all other members of the party to immediately cease from claiming that the GPEW supports a progressive alliance until a policy is passed by conference or an internal referendum which gives all members a voice on the matter.’

Green Party member Charles Gate from Yorkshire, another supporter of Green Left comments on a post on the Bright Green blog on the issue:

‘First let me rename the ‘progressive alliance’ the ‘Evil Dead Alliance’ – EVIL for the lib dems (for those of you with short memories) who supported the Tories (The Evil Dead Alliance is aimed at Tories remember) for 5 long years of austerity – DEAD for the Labour Party who are not interested in anything but their own internal fighting and who ever wins the leadership that will just lead to continued in-fighting. The Labour party are probably lost for a generation as a meaningful force in politics, they may even be destroyed entirely – ALLIANCE, oh! that will be us the GP and Plaid Cymru...The Green Party leadership need to come up with something better – why not try, we are the Green Party, this is what we stand for?’

And finally a Green Party activist quoted on Left Foot Forward wrote:

‘Every time I hear ‘progressive alliance’ I hear the death knell of radical politics in the party. I hope I’m wrong.’

Personally, I’ve stated on this blog in the past that I would broadly agree to the progressive alliance idea, but I must admit, I’m pretty sceptical myself about whether it will actually happen in the end.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Local Government can nudge us towards Ecosocialism

Conservative run Forest Heath District Council in Suffolk has purchased a 12.4MW solar farm at Toggam Farm in Lakenheath, in their area. The farm is 17.5 hectares in size and has over 47,000 solar panels in operation. It becomes the largest publically owned solar farm in the UK and will produce enough electricity to power 3000 homes, plus cut the carbon footprint by the equivalent of 2000 cars.

The farm cost £14.5 million pounds but is expected to deliver £300,000 per year (over and above the cost of repaying the loan used to buy it), in revenue to the council during the first ten years and £700,000 per year thereafter. The revenue, at least at first, will come from selling power into the National Grid.

But the council has some longer term plans for selling the energy generated by the farm. Cllr Stephen Edwards, Forest Heath’s Cabinet Member for Resources and Performance said:

“In the future, the solar farm could provide energy to West Suffolk councils’ offices and our leisure centres, helping us and our partners to save money on energy costs on top of the income it will bring in, while further down the line there may also be opportunities to benefit our communities as well, although this is dependent on the energy market.

“We plan to lobby the Government to relax charges over the generation and supply of energy to local markets. If successful that could allow us to offer our own branded tariffs to local businesses, providing them for the first time with stable energy supply costs, which in turn would help support local economic growth.

“We would also like to be able to offer something similar to the vulnerable members of our community and will continue to explore how we can overcome the barriers in the market, in order to make this a reality.”  

Now, this is a Tory council, and the motivation for this initiative is driven by cuts to local authority funding from central government, but it does have the potential to become an outline sketch of a move towards ecosocialist practice.

Ecosocialism, or the strain of ecosocialism that I follow anyway, wants energy generation taken out of the hands of the large corporations with their large scale plants, and instead to be generated by local communities themselves, and shared in that community and perhaps with neighbouring communities. No profit motive involved. Energy supplied for need, not greed, you could say.

This has the benefit of reducing energy loss between remote power stations and the end users, which is a considerable waste of energy in the current set up. Also, it would allow us to push the corporations out of our lives, with their rip off prices and generally polluting forms of power generation.

Having local government take over this role of local generation, is not ideal, but it is better than what we have at present, and can be viewed as delivering similar benefits to community owned generation. It can also be viewed as a stepping stone to a fully ecocentric form of production.

The idea in Suffolk is to feed the electricity generated by the solar farm into the National Grid, which is wasteful and centralising, with the need for transmission from farm to power station and then onward to end users, but you can see from the quote from Cllr Stephen Edwards, they are looking at purely localised generation and use in the longer run.

This is an interesting development, full of potential for radical ecosocialists, and one which we should welcome, and look to build on in other areas of the country. 

Monday, 22 August 2016

Of course there are ‘Trotskyists’ in the Labour Party

Written by Dee Searle

The highly entertaining Labour leadership contest has taken a bizarre turn, with the Party’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson claiming to have evidence of “Trostkyist” infiltration into the Labour Party and Leader Jeremy Corbyn accusing Watson of talking “nonsense”. The reality is that they are both talking nonsense: of course there are “Trotskyists” in the Labour Party (and former Communists, anarchists, Liberals, Greens and even Tories – both signed-up members and ideological sympathisers, such as Tony Blair). Just as the Conservative Party contains various closet UKIPers, Bullingdonists and even the Monday Club which was founded in 1961, in the belief that the Macmillan government had taken the party too far to the left. That’s just the nature of politics.

But it’s also nonsense for Watson to claim that among the thousands of new Labour Party members who joined to support Corbyn are caucuses and factions that will “end up destroying the institutions that are vulnerable, unless you deal with it.” Apart from demonstrating a long-held and probably irrelevant fixation on one particular anti-Stalinist Russian (a young politically active friend asked, in all innocence: “who is Trotsky and why is he such a problem?”), Watson appears to be ignoring the history of the Labour Party.

Labour was created (rather than destroyed) when several left-wing groups, including the Independent Labour Party, the intellectual and largely middle-class FabianSociety, the Social Democratic Federation and the Scottish Labour Party, came together in the late nineteenth century. Their aim was to provide political representation to the growing urban proletariat and working class males, who had recently been given the right to vote.

Even in those early days the more radical elements gave the leadership grief. During the First World War, mainstream Labour supported Herbert Asquith’s Liberal-led war-time coalition government, whereas the Independent Labour Party was instrumental in opposing conscription through organisations such as the Non-Conscription Fellowship, while a Labour Party affiliate, the British Socialist Party, organised a number of unofficial strikes. 

Tensions between the Labour leadership and the party’s various tendencies and philosophies are the norm. Those of us not suffering short-term memory loss might well remember the 1980s and 1990s, when Labour Leader Neil Kinnock confronted the Militant tendency, a left-wing group, based around the Militant newspaper. Militant attempted to defy the leadership’s position by organising rebellions against a number of Conservative government initiatives, such as restrictions on local authority spending and the Poll Tax. Its leaders and most of its membership were expelled via a series of purges. Militant dissolved in 1991 and reconstituted itself as Militant Labour, which became the Socialist Party in 1997.

A notable exception to inner-Labour Party agitation was the New Labour years, which were the culmination of a project in the 1990s by the right of the party, gathered around Tony Blair and influencers such as Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown, to rid themselves of turbulent elements through changes to the constitution and imposition of leadership-approved right-leaning and/or compliant Parliamentary candidates – hence the conflict between Corbyn and much of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Corbyn and supporting MPs, such as John McDonell and Diane Abbott, are largely survivors from pre-Blair times.

The uncharacteristically less unruly New Labour brought electoral success between 1997 and 2005. But following defeats in 2010 and 2015, the benefits of New Labour’s rightwards drift were questioned, resulting in Corbyn’s election as Leader and (to the horror of the “modernisers”) a potential return to Labour’s broad church of numerous philosophies and groups.

Even the most hard-hearted impartial observer can understand the frustration of Watson and his sympathisers in the Parliamentary leadership and National Executive that the radicals they thought they had eradicated are now re-emerging via the Socialist Party and other left-wing groups such as the Trade Unionist and Socialist CoalitionLeft Unity, the Socialist Workers Party and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. Members of many of these groups are active in Momentum, the grassroots organisation founded in 2015 shortly after Corbyn’s original election to the Labour leadership, which is campaigning vigorously for his re-election.

The Labour leadership’s response has been to return to some good old tried-and-tested banishing, for example via the (so far) successful bid by the Labour Party’s National Executive to bar some 130,000 new members, who joined less than six months ago, from voting in the forthcoming poll between Corbyn and challenger Owen Smith for the Labour leadership. The imposition of a freeze date was ostensibly to reduce the administrative burden of verifying thousands of new members. However, Labour General Secretary Iain McNicol admitted at the Court of Appeal hearing that Labour was concerned about members joining with the sole purpose of voting in the election rather than participating in the party more widely. Both Corbyn and Smith’s camps are firmly of the view that the majority of new members joined to support Corbyn.

It’s ironic that while Tom Watson and his allies attack the idea of left groups organising within the party, Labour organisers consistently call on members of other parties nationally and locally to vote for or join Labour to “kick out the Tories”. They seem to miss the logic that when a party tries to claim hegemony over left-leaning voters, members of left-wing groups might want to join and influence the party that purports to represent their interests.

They have also so far dismissed the more honest and fool-proof, if longer-term, solution to entryism: proportional representation (PR) for general elections, which would enable different political strands to openly present their platforms to voters rather than trying to influence the one apparently left-of-centre party. It’s not such an unthinkable concept. PR, in a variety of guises, is used to elect Parliaments in 21 out of 28 Western European countries. Each produces a parliament that more closely reflects the democratic preferences of the electorate than Britain’s archaic first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and, arguably, results in richer political debate in and outside parliament.

Labour did not support the alternative vote PR system proposed in the 2011 referendum. Some prominent Labour Party figures, such as John McDonnell, have since called on the party to support PR but most leading party figures still oppose it, despite the Conservatives winning the 2015 General Election based on support from just 24 per cent of those eligible to vote. Of particular dismay to Labour was the result in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party won 56 of the 59 seats based on 50 per cent of the vote.

The official reasons given by Labour for opposing PR include the possible loss of MPs’ local accountability if the constituencies are too large, the impact of boundary changes and the likely increase in Parliamentary representation for far-right parties such as UKIP. An unofficial (but probably more relevant) reason is that the party’s organisation and political positioning in recent decades has been based on playing the FPTP system for all its worth by winning over floating voters in key marginal constituencies. Hence the suppression of left-wing debate and focus on middle-ground, middle-England politics. It would be a major shake-up for Labour to develop genuinely progressive, innovative policies to try to win over hearts and minds in PR-based elections. Even worse, PR might mean having to share power and forge alliances with the wide range of Socialist, Communist and Green parties typical of many European parliaments.

Yet, Labour’s leadership might have to overcome its distaste of PR if it is to stand a chance of forming a government in the foreseeable future. The substantial pro-Brexit vote among Labour supporters in the EU referendum and the rise of UKIP indicates that the party may no longer be able to count on victory in formerly safe Labour seats outside of London and the South-East. Similarly, support for the SNP in former Scottish safe Labour seats remains strong.

And, possibly most importantly for this most navel-gazing of parties, it might be the best way of reducing the numbers of turbulent priests in the party’s supposedly multi-denominational broad church.

Dee Searle is a member of the Green Party Executive Committee and founding editor of Red Pepper magazine and a Green Left Supporter

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The ecosocialist imperative - Review of Michael Lowy's book Ecosocialism

Written by Hannah Holleman and first published at International Socialist Review

Ecosocialism is an important introduction to Marxist strategies to stop environmental destruction. It assumes even greater importance since the 2015 United Nations summit on climate change in Paris demonstrated the inability of capitalist states to provide a solution to the ecological crisis. Despite years of protests and lobbying at such summits, environmentalists have failed to influence the masters of the system. It is time for environmentalists to adopt a new theory and strategy.

Löwy lays out the ecosocialist alternative to capitalism. Ecosocialism asserts that “only a collective and democratic reorganization of the productive system could . . . satisfy real social needs, reduce labor time, suppress useless and/or dangerous production, and replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.” All of society’s productive forces must be subject to “a democratic, ecosocialist plan.”

Löwy traces the development of ecosocialist ideas, particularly since the 1970s. This overview provides a useful introduction to the development of Marxist thinking on the environment, especially for those new to the subject. Löwy stresses that while reforms are necessary, they are not a solution to capitalism’s ecological crisis. Ecosocialists must convince their fellow activists to connect the struggle for immediate change to a more substantive socio-ecological transformation. In the short term, we must fight for reforms such as the construction of public transportation instead of new automobile infrastructure, and a ban on toxic substances in the water, soil, and atmosphere; we must reject the system of debt and neoliberal structural adjustment imposed on countries around the world, and take measures to address unemployment, such as reducing work time.

However such reform efforts are insufficient to create an ecologically sustainable society. They address neither the root causes of ecological crises, nor keep pace with the destructive tendencies of the system. We have to connect the movements for reform to a broader strategy of revolutionary change.

“The struggle for ecosocial reforms can be the vehicle for dynamic change, a ‘transition’ between minimal demands and the maximal program,” Löwy writes, “provided one rejects the pressure and the arguments of the ruling interests for ‘competitiveness’ and ‘modernization’ in the name of the ‘rules of the market.’” He makes the point that “each success, even if limited, if won through collective action, is a step in the right direction and, above all, an advance in the people’s acquisition of consciousness and self-organization—the main conditions for transcendence of the system.”

As an alternative to the anarchy of the capitalist system, one goal of ecosocialism is “global democratic planning.” Often the concepts of socialism and planning are equated with centralized state bureaucracy. Löwy provides an important clarification. The point of ecosocialist planning is the extension of democracy into the economic sphere so that the working class can collectively define its own needs and make rational decisions about production.

Under capitalism, corporations and their states organize production based on profitability. Historically the working class has won improvements in working conditions and wages, introduced some aspects of worker control in a small percentage of factories, and attempted to address issues of racial and gender inequality. However the global ruling class ceaselessly attacks the modest gains that have been won. Global trade agreements make it easier for corporations to relocate if profitability is impacted by local regulations to protect the environment and worker safety. Companies use the threat of relocation to impose harsh labor conditions and ecological costs onto local communities.

Capitalists decide what goods and services workers will produce, and the conditions under which they will produce them. Workers then confront the products of their labor as consumers in a marketplace of commodities. As consumers, workers exercise limited choice, in a context that is heavily conditioned by advertising. Löwy highlights advertising as a key mechanism of the rule of capital and a driving force in the global ecological crisis.

Advertising pollutes our physical and psychological landscape. Advertisers promote the idea that the choice between Coke and Pepsi is a meaningful one, while disguising the absence of real choice and democracy at the core of the global system of production. Ecosocialists see the “suppression of harassment by advertising” as a necessary step toward creating the “conditions under which people can, little by little, discover their real needs and qualitatively change their ways of consumption.”

While some environmentalists blame the ecological crisis on over-consumption and individual consumer choices, Löwy argues that we need to examine the root causes of consumption. Calling for a limit on aggressive advertising “is an environmental duty” that challenges the logic of capital, and allows us to wage “the fight for a different civilizational paradigm.”

How do we link the immediate struggles for environmental reform to the long-term goal of revolutionary transformation? Löwy answers this by pointing to specific examples of popular struggle such as The Forest People’s Alliance to stop the destruction of the Amazon. Chico Mendes, the socialist and union organizer, united rural workers and indigenous communities into a solid movement against multinationals and local landowners.

The Forest People’s Alliance fought against the dispossession of indigenous people, the clear-cutting the forests for lumber, and the further establishment of plantations and ranches. While destruction of the Amazon continues, and Mendes himself assassinated, Löwy explains the importance of learning from the work of the Alliance. It points a way toward “alternative models of development, symbolized by models of socio-environmentalism that combine sustainable management of natural resources with the valorization of local practices and knowledge.”

Löwy concludes the book with a broader discussion of the Indigenous environmental struggle mainly in Latin America. He shows how these movements have shaped leftist governments in Latin America and confronted domestic as well as multinational corporations. He briefly discusses cross-sector meetings such as the World Social Forum and the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba. However, since the book targets an English-reading audience, it would have been useful to include a discussion of Indigenous struggle in the Global North. The book could also have benefited from a concluding chapter to draw out the lessons of rural struggles in Latin America for readers who are unfamiliar with this history.

While he makes a spirited case for ecosocialism, Löwy does concede to the claim that Marxism has a so-called “productivist” tendency that privileges industrial development over the environment. He cites the Soviet Union as an example. In reality, the Soviet Union’s notorious ecological crisis and its lack of workers’ democracy demonstrate how little it has in common with the tradition initiated by Marx and Engels.

As John Bellamy Foster demonstrated in Marx’s Ecology, Marx and Engels developed a profound ecological critique of capitalism and bourgeois ideas about “progress” that come at the expense of the environment. Nevertheless, Ecosocialism is a useful introduction to the subject. Löwy provides short-term movement goals that oppose the logic of capital, and calls for broader social transformation to establish a democratically planned socialist society that puts people and the planet first.

Friday, 19 August 2016

US Liberal Hate for the Green Party

This post has shades of what is happening here in the UK Labour Party

Written by Margaret Kimberley and published at Counterpunch

Liberals have joined Hillary Clinton’s “big nasty tent” in a very big way. They have moved far beyond the usual rationales for sticking with the Democrats and are now carrying on a full-fledged hate fest. Their targets are Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and her running mate Ajamu Baraka, who is also a Black Agenda Report editor and columnist.

The screeds have become more and more extreme and defy the run of the mill rationales that progressives use to justify remaining within Democratic Party lines. Holding one’s nose and voting for the “lesser evil” democrat is passé. So is fear of Republican judicial appointments. Concern for abortion rights doesn’t cut it anymore.

Liberals are no longer going through the motions of criticizing the Democrat. Instead they openly show love for Hillary Clinton and disdainfully pile on Stein and Baraka with fury. The blog Wonkette called Jill Stein “cunty” and “a mendacious nihilist piece of shit.” The site Very Smart Brothas declared that a vote for Stein was akin to putting it in the trash. They also threw in a dig at Cornel West because he dared to criticize Barack Obama. The Huffington Post chose to deride Green Party convention delegates because they ate at McDonald’s. Gawker tried to link Ajamu Baraka to holocaust denial. His unassailable human rights credentials didn’t mean much when the media decided to go into attack mode.

The list is long and will get longer between now and Election Day. The degree of antipathy is actually quite useful. It tells us why the Green Party is so important and why liberals are such a dangerous enemy.

They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They spend years wringing their hands because Republicans control state legislatures but when the recently released DNC emails show that the party starves local races of money they say nothing. When they spoke up at all they made a big deal about a spurious Russian hacker connection to Donald Trump.

There is no longer any pretense of claiming a desire for systemic change or even calling themselves progressives. They are “with her” — as the slogan goes — and her illegal activities and record of mass killing don’t dissuade them from supporting her.

Liberals don’t want the Democrats to change. They cling to a bizarre hope for reform, nibbling around the edges while keeping the criminals in charge. They prefer to look down their noses at Trump supporters or consider themselves the cool kids in the high school clique. When they have an opportunity to make history and begin the process of dismantling the hold of the Democratic Party they instead become quite vicious on their behalf.

Donald Trump is the perfect foil for their con game. His open appeals to racism and unpredictable statements and behavior give them an excuse to do nothing except make excuses for the very crooked Mrs. Clinton.

They don’t even feign concern when Republicans who contributed to Chris Christie and John Kasich start doling out dollars to Hillary. They long ago gave up on fighting for peace and just as the name Trump is a one-word attack ad, questions about foreign policy turn into harangues directed against Vladimir Putin.

Liberals have sided with the ruling classes and resist anyone pointing out the truth. While they falsely accuse Jill Stein of being anti-vaccine, even after she clearly stated she was pro-vaccine, American police departments keep up their body count. The United States risks war with China and Russia and unemployment is still high. But they say nothing about any of those issues. They cheerlead for Hillary Clinton just as they did for Barack Obama and will say nothing against her once she is in office.

The election of 2016 will be a notable one in history but for all the wrong reasons. Millions of people voted for the not-so-left wing Bernie Sanders who wasn’t serious about denying Clinton the nomination. Yet it must be said that they wanted change within the Democrat Party. He left his followers high and dry and made the case for the people who feared and scorned his half-hearted campaign.

While Democrats were confused about what made a candidate a progressive, the Republicans were following a new leader. Donald Trump was a political novice who used free media attention and blatant appeals to white nationalism to win the nomination. But Trump makes statements which don’t sit well with the Republican establishment. He went on record saying that the trade deals beloved by the duopoly are harming American workers. He asked reasonable questions about United States/Russian relations. He was then used to invent numerous lies about the Russian president, who was already demonized by the media and the ruling classes.

Liberals are now quite deranged and applaud a woman who will crush their feeble agenda as soon as she says the oath of office. Progressives and big money Republicans are now on the same page and that is why Stein and Baraka face so much scrutiny and so many big lies.

The Green Party’s existence is proof that the Democratic Party emperor has no clothes. The logical progression of success for the Greens is the end of the party which claims to be more inclusive and the champion of working people and human rights. It does none of those things while the party which actually articulates these policies has been designated an enemy.

In this case the enemies of the enemy are most definitely our friends.
Margaret Kimberley writes the Freedom Rider column for Black Agenda Report, where this essay originally appeared.