Friday, 10 March 2017
20th Century Socialism took the Eco out of Socialism
You could, no doubt, write a long book along the lines, and some have, that my headline suggests, but this a short blog post, so I can’t really go into huge detail here. It is a summary. However, I hope this blog stimulates some debate, and maybe encourages some to think about socialism differently.
There have been threads of socialist thought, and ecosocialist thought, going back hundreds if not thousands of years, but the concept really, self-consciously, began around the 1820s and 1830s.
Around this time, of the industrial revolution, capitalism started to resemble the economic system we see today. The factory workers would soon realise their strength within the system, as well as their weakness, and a way of thinking about the way capitalism worked began to form out of necessity.
Later in the nineteenth century, Karl Marx emerged as the most important socialist thinker and writer, and his three volume work Capital, became the basis for much of what socialism stood for, and what it was against. In fact, it was mostly about what it was against, capitalism that is, in what was a brilliant and radical critique of how the system exploits those who only have their labour to sell.
Marx is a somewhat controversial figure for ecosocialists, with some thinking he was essentially a productivist, whilst others arguing that he was misinterpreted, and Marx was at heart ‘green.’ The American ecosocialist writer, James Bellamy-Foster, has developed an impressive thesis with the work he has done on identifying Marx’s theory of capitalism causing a ‘metabolic rift’ between humanity and nature. Taken from Marx’s volume 3 of Capital, and building on his earlier Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Bellamy-Foster says this is a "mature analysis of the alienation of nature."
Personally, I take the view that Marx’s thinking and writing was of its time and perhaps more crucially, it is incomplete. I can certainly see that Marx had a green side to him, and much of this is demonstrated in his volume 3 of Capital, where ecosocialists find encouragement.
Take this quote from the same volume of Capital which most ecosocialist will be familiar with, but maybe other socialists will not be:
“From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”
The Russian revolution in 1917 made socialism flesh, and in the early days of the revolution, it had ecosocialist content, such as the conservation of land and the integration of production at sustainable levels. And Lenin introduced national parks to the country.
Arran Gare, in Soviet Environmentalism: The Path not Taken writing about Lenin says he ‘interpreted Marxism in such as way as to acknowledge the limitations of the environment, and of the existence of dynamics within nature with which humanity must accord.’
This concern with ecology did not last though, under pressure internally and externally from enemies of the revolution, understandably in many ways, socialism in Russia took a productivist path in competition with capitalism. The economic advances made in a relatively short time, from near feudal economy in 1917 to putting the first man in space by 1961, was impressive. But this all came at a cost, to the environment and in the lack of freedom and democracy, not forgetting the brutality of the regime too. It also sowed the seeds of the eventual demise of these societies.
Marx’s concept of a free association of producers, which is accepted in the anarchist political tradition also, which he explored in, yes, you guessed it, volume 3 of Capital, is completely absent from the 20th century socialisms that came into being, led by Russia (USSR).
What Marx meant by this is a relationship among individuals where there is no state, social class or authority, and no private property of the means of production. This gives individuals the access to the means of production enabling them to freely associate, and produce their own conditions of existence and fulfill their individual and creative needs and desires.
The 20th century socialisms all relied on the Party-state as the active force directing the revolution. They used the centralised state to direct accumulation by political means rather than the economic incentives that capitalism uses for the same purpose. What has been called state capitalism was the result. It was not socialism, in the true meaning of the philosophy, which to be fair these states realised, but they saw it as a staging post along the way to socialism, when in fact it was the wrong pathway completely.
A pathway that led to ecological destruction on a scale that was even worse than that of capitalist nations, as well as being rigid and authoritarian.
Ecosocialism is an attempt to return socialism to the right pathway, but this means going back to the beginning in terms of theory, there is no short cut. The ecosocialist revolution, if it comes, will not only come from the bottom up, rather than be directed from above, it will need to stay grounded at the bottom, to refresh and democratise the revolution as it proceeds. No vanguard party, no Party-state. A democratic, decentralised socialism with ecological rationality.
This is what ecosocialism is, and what socialism should have always been.