Sunday, 2 April 2017

Ecosocialism – from William Morris to Hugo Blanco

Written by Michael Lowy and first published at Transform Europe 

What is ecosocialism?

Ecosocialism is a political current based on an essential insight: that the preservation of the ecological equilibrium of the planet and therefore of an environment favourable to living species – including our own – is incompatible with the expansive and destructive logic of the capitalist system. The pursuit of ‘growth’ under the aegis of capital will in the short term – in the next decades – lead to a catastrophe without precedent in human history: global warming.

The planet’s ‘decision makers’ – billionaires, managers, bankers, investors, ministers, politicians, business executives, and ‘experts’ – shaped by the short-sighted and narrow-minded rationality of the system, obsessed by the imperatives of growth and expansion, the struggle for market positions, competitiveness, and profit margins, appear to be following the precept proclaimed by Louis XV a few years before the French Revolution: ‘après moi le déluge’. The Flood of the twenty-first century may take the form, like that of Biblical mythology, of an inexorable rise of the waters – the result of climate change and the melting of the world’s ice caps – drowning under its waves the coastal towns of human civilisation: New York, London, Venice, Amsterdam, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong.

Confronted with the impending catastrophe, what does ecosocialism propose? Its central premise already suggested by the term itself is that a non-ecological socialism is a dead-end and a non-socialist ecology is unable to confront the present ecological crisis. The ecosocialist proposition of combining ‘red’ – the Marxist critique of capital and the project of an alternative society – and ‘green’ – the ecological critique of productivism – has nothing to do with the so-called ‘red-green’ government coalitions of social-democrats and certain Green parties on the basis of a social-liberal programme of capitalist management. 

Ecosocialism is a radical proposal – that is, one that deals with the roots of the ecological crisis – which distinguishes itself both from the productivist varieties of socialism in the twentieth century – either social-democracy or the Stalinist brand of ‘communism’ – and from the ecological currents that in one way or another accommodate themselves to the capitalist system. A radical proposition that aims not only at the transformation of the relations of production, of the productive apparatus, and of the dominant consumption patterns, but at creating a new way of life, breaking with the foundations of modern Western capitalist/ industrial civilisation.

In this short essay we cannot elaborate the history of ecosocialism. Instead, we will briefly discuss the ideas of two important forerunners, William Morris and Walter Benjamin, and follow with a short survey of the rise of ecosocialism since the 1970s, with special attention to the Peruvian indigenous leader Hugo Blanco.

William Morris

William Morris (1834-1896) was a revolutionary socialist allergic to the productivist and consumerist ideology of modern capitalist civilisation. A brilliant and gifted intellectual, poet, novelist, painter, architect, and decorator, he occupies a singular place in the history of socialism in England. An associate of the very select Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose members included Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he was to become a socialist and the author, after 1880, of truly revolutionary political and literary works located somewhere between Marxism and anarchism.

In his famous 1894 article, ‘How I Became a Socialist’, he makes the following forceful statement, associating in one single combat art and revolution: ‘Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.’1

His best-known book, the utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890), proposes an imaginary vision of a socialist England in the year 2102. Unlike the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century, Morris retained a lesson common to Marx and the anarchists: utopia cannot be accomplished by abandoning the corrupt society to experiment with a harmonious life at its margins; the challenge is to transform society itself by means of the collective action of the oppressed classes. In other words, Morris was a revolutionary utopian and a libertarian Marxist. An entire chapter of the book – ‘How the Change Came’ – tells the story of the dramatic passage from ‘commercial slavery’ to freedom, through a civil war between communism and counter-revolution, ending with the final victory of the rebels.

Ecological economist Serge Latouche sees Morris as a forerunner of ‘de- growth’, but it seems more accurate to relate him to an ecosocialist position; in any case, unlike most socialists of his time, he already perceived the disastrous effects of the capitalist domination of nature. His passionate critique of capitalist civilisation seems more relevant today than the productivism which prevailed in the left for so long.

In an article from 1884, ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’, he describes the commodities produced by capitalist commercialism as ‘miserable makeshifts’ and adds the following comment, whose strong ecological dimension was quite unusual at the time:

These things [...] I will for ever refuse to call wealth: they are not wealth but waste. Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it , [...] works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man [...] – all things which serve the pleasures of people, free, manly and uncorrupted. This is wealth.2

Morris categorically rejects the Protestant work ethic: ‘the semi- theological dogma that all labour, under any circumstances, is a blessing to the labourer, is hypocritical and false’ – a ‘convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others’, that is, the ruling parasitical classes. Labour is only good when ‘due hope of rest and pleasure accompanies it’, which is not the case in capitalist civilisation: ‘how rare a holiday it is for any of us to feel ourselves as part of Nature, and unhurriedly, thoughtfully and happily to note the course of our lives [...]’. To render labour attractive it has to be liberated from the tyranny of capitalist profit, thanks to the appropriation of the means of production by the community; labour will then respond to the real needs of the body – food, clothing, lodging – and of the spirit – poetry, art, science – and not the requirements of the market. After the revolution, labour time will be substantially shortened, because ‘there will be no compulsion on us to go on producing things we do not want, no compulsion on us to labour for nothing’.3

In his 1884 lecture, ‘Art and Socialism’, Morris argued that only by a socialist transformation, putting an end to the inexorable rules of Capitalist Commerce, can we overcome the present sad condition, when ‘our green fields and clear waters, nay the very air we breathe, are turned [...] to dirt. [...] Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die – choked by filth.’4 Ahead of his time, by his criticism of the false needs created by commercialism, of the social and environmental disasters generated by industrial capitalism, of the ‘repulsive’ labour at the service of profit, and of the poisoning of nature by capitalist dirt, William Morris can indeed be considered an early prophet of ecosocialism.

Walter Benjamin

Like William Morris, Walter Benjamin was one of the few Marxists in the years before 1945 to propose a radical critique of the concept of ‘exploitation of nature’ and of civilisation’s ‘murderous’ relationship with nature.

As early as 1928, in his book One-Way Street, Benjamin denounced as ‘imperialist’ the idea of the domination of nature and proposed a new conception of work as ‘the mastery of relations between nature and humanity’.5

Archaic societies also lived in greater harmony with nature. In ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’ (1938) Benjamin calls into question the ‘mastery’ (Beherrschung) of nature and its ‘exploitation’ (Ausbeutung) by humans. As the nineteenth-century anthropologist Bachofen had already shown, Benjamin insists that ‘the murderous (mörderisch) idea of the exploitation of nature’ – a dominant capitalist/modern concept from the nineteenth century on – did not exist in matriarchal societies because nature was perceived as a generous mother (schenkende Mutter).6

For Benjamin – as for Friedrich Engels and the libertarian socialist Élisée Reclus, both interested in Bachofen’s writings – it was a question not of a return to the prehistoric past but of putting forward the prospect of a new harmony between society and the natural environment. Only in a socialist society in which production will no longer be based on the exploitation of human labour, ‘work [...] would no longer be characterised as the exploitation of nature by man’.7

In the Theses ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940), his philosophical testament, Benjamin hails Charles Fourier as the utopian visionary of ‘a labour that, far from exploiting nature, is capable of extracting from it the virtual creations that lie dormant in her womb’ (Thesis XI). This is not to say that Benjamin wanted to replace Marxism with utopian socialism; he regarded Fourier as a supplement to Marx and he insisted on the importance of Marx’s critical notes on the Gotha Programme’s conformist stance on the nature of work.

For social-democratic positivism – typified by Joseph Dietzgen – ‘the new conception of labour amounts to the exploitation of nature, which with naive complacency is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat’. This is ‘a conception of nature which differs ominously from the one in the Socialist utopias before the 1848 revolution’, observes Benjamin, and one which ‘already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism’.8

In Thesis IX ‘On the concept of History’, Walter Benjamin characterised the destructive progress that accumulates catastrophes as a ‘storm’. The same word ‘storm’ appears in the title (which almost seems to be inspired by Benjamin) of the latest book by James Hansen, a NASA climatologist and one of the world’s foremost specialists on climate change. Published in 2009, the title of the book is Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. Hansen is no revolutionary, but his analysis of the coming ‘storm’ – which is for him, as for Benjamin, an allegory for something much more menacing – is impressive in its lucidity:

Planet Earth, creation, the world in which civilization developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shorelines, is in imminent peril. The urgency of the situation crystallized only in the past few years. We have now clear evidence of the crisis […]. The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself – and the timetable is shorter than we thought.9

Ecosocialism since 1970

The truth of the matter is that during most of the twentieth century the dominant streams of the labour movement – trade-unionism, social- democracy, Soviet-style communism – with few exceptions, ignored ecological issues. On the other hand, ecological movements and Green Parties – except for some smaller leftist currents – had no sympathy for socialism.

The idea of an ecological socialism – or a socialist ecology – only began really to develop in the 1970s, when it appeared, under different forms, in the writings of certain pioneers of a ‘Red-Green’ way of thinking: Manuel Sacristán (Spain), Raymond Williams (UK), André Gorz and Jean-Paul Déléage (France), Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner (US), Wolfgang Harich (German Democratic Republic), and others.

A few words on André Gorz, perhaps the most influential of these pioneers of ecosocialism: an existentialist philosopher – a friend and follower of Jean-Paul Sartre – with a strong Marxist background, André Gorz attempted, from the 1970s, to bring socialism and ecology together, building on their common opposition to capitalist productivism and consumerism. 

In a 1980 essay he wrote: ‘Only socialism can break with the logic of maximal profit, of maximal waste, of maximal production and consumption, and replace it by economic common sense: maximum satisfaction with minimum expense.’ The idea of extra-economic and non-market values is foreign to capitalism. ‘It is, however, essential to communism, but cannot take form as positive negation of the dominant system unless the ideas of self-limitation, stability, equity, and gratuity receive a practical illustration [...].’10

Although the following will mainly address the eco-Marxist tendency, one can also find radically anti-capitalist analyses and alternative solutions that are not too far from ecosocialism in Murray Bookchin’s anarchist social ecology, in Arne Naess’s left version of deep ecology, and among certain ‘de-growth’ authors (Paul Ariès).

The word ‘ecosocialism’ apparently began to be used mainly after the 1980s with the appearance, in the German Green Party, of a leftist tendency which called itself ‘ecosocialist’; its main spokespersons were Rainer Trampert and Thomas Ebermann. At the same time the book The Alternative, by the East German dissident Rudolf Bahro appeared, which develops a radical critique of the Soviet and GDR model, in the name of an ecological socialism. During the 1980s the US economist James O’Connor developed a new Marxist ecological approach in his writings and created the journal Capitalism, Nature and Socialism. During the same years Frieder Otto Wolf, Member of the European Parliament and one of the main leaders of the German Green Party’s left wing, co-authored with Pierre Juquin, a former French Communist leader converted to the Red-Green perspective, a book called Europe’s Green Alternative,11 which one might call the first ecosocialist European programme. 

Meanwhile, in Spain, followers of Manuel Sacristán such as Francisco Fernández Buey, developed socialist ecological arguments in the Barcelona journal Mientras Tanto. In 2001, the Fourth International adopted an ecosocialist resolution, Ecology and Socialist Revolution, at its world congress. In the same year Joel Kovel and the present author published an International Ecosocialist Manifesto, which was widely discussed and inspired the foundation in Paris in 2007 of the Ecosocialist International Network (EIN). A Second ecosocialist manifesto, addressing global warming, the Belem Ecosocialist Declaration, signed by hundreds of persons from dozens of countries, was distributed at the World Social Forum in Belem, State of Para, Brazil, in 2009. A few months later, during the UN International Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, the EIN distributed an illustrated comic strip, Copenhagen 2049 to the hundreds of thousands demonstrating under the banner ‘Change the System, not the Climate!’.

To this one has to add, in the US, the work of John Bellamy Foster, Fred Magdoff, Paul Burkett, and their friends from the well-known North- American left Journal Monthly Review, who argue for a Marxist ecology; the continued activity of Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, under the editorship of Joel Kovel, the author of The Enemy of Nature,12 and, more recently, of Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro; the young circle of activists called Ecosocialist Horizons (Quincy Saul), who recently edited an ecosocialist comic-strip Truth and Dare (2014); not to mention many important books, among which one of the most inclusive is Chris Williams’s Ecology and Socialism (2010). 

Equally important, in other countries: the ecosocialist/eco-feminist writings of Ariel Salleh and Terisa Turner; the Journal Canadian Dimension, edited by ecosocialists Ian Angus and Cy Gonick; the writings of the Belgian Marxist Daniel Tanuro on climate change and the dead-end of ‘green capitalism’; the research of French authors linked to the Global Justice Movement, such as Jean-Marie Harribey; the philosophical writings of Arno Münster, an ecosocialist follower of Ernst Bloch and André Gorz ; the recent Manifeste Ecosocialiste (2013) published by the French Parti de Gauche (Left Party); and the European Ecosocialist Conferences which took place in Geneva (2014) and Bilbao (2016).

While the attitude of the communist and the green parties towards ecosocialism have been cool – for diametrically opposed reasons! – discussion of the ecosocialist thesis has recently begun to appear in their newspapers and journals. The same applies to the Party of the European Left, which approved, in 2014, a resolution sympathetic to the ideas of ecosocialism.

Hugo Blanco

It would be a mistake to conclude that ecosocialism is limited to Europe and North  America; there is, in fact, lively ecosocialist activity and discussion in Latin America. In Brazil a local Ecosocialist Network has been established, with scholars and activists from various parties, unions, and peasant movements; in Mexico there have been several publications discussing ecosocialism. And recently (2014) there have been ecosocialist conferences in Quito and Caracas. Last but not least there is a growing interest in ecosocialism in China where the books of John Bellamy Foster and Joel Kovel have been translated, and several conferences on ecosocialism have occurred in the last few years organised by Chinese universities.

But ecosocialism is not only a matter for scholars and intellectuals; in many countries social activists and popular leaders are taking an interest in it. Indigenous communities in Latin America are presently in the forefront of the socio-ecological struggle against the destruction of forests and the poisoning of rivers and the land by oil and mining multinationals. One of the main leaders of these movements of anti-systemic resistance is the Peruvian indigenist revolutionary fighter and ecosocialist Hugo Blanco.

Initially affiliated to the Fourth International, in the early 1960s Hugo Blanco organised a large peasant movement in the Convención Valley in Peru, which had its own armed self-defence brigades. Arrested by the police and condemned to death, he was saved by an international campaign of solidarity which included Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Bertrand Russell. Several times elected to parliament, he was forced into exile by Fujimori’s dictatorship in 1992. After his return to Peru he joined efforts with the Confederación Campesina de Perú (CCP), the major Peruvian Peasant Union. Today Hugo Blanco’s main reference is the Mexican Zapatista movement; he is the editor of the periodical Lucha Indígena and despite being over 80 years old still in the front lines of indigenous struggles in Peru.

During the last decade Blanco became increasingly interested in ecosocialism, which he saw as the continuation of the collectivist traditions of the indigenous communities and their respect for Pachamama, Mother Earth.13 He signed the Belem Ecosocialist Declaration and, heading an indigenous Peruvian delegation, took part in the International Ecosocialist Conference which took place in Belem after the World Socialist Forum of 2009. He has often argued that the indigenous communities, in Latin America and elsewhere, have practiced ecosocialism for hundreds of years.


It is important to emphasise that ecosocialism is a project for the future, a horizon of the possible, a radical anti-capitalist alternative, but also, and inseparably, an agenda for the here and now around concrete and immediate proposals. Any victories, however partial and limited, that slow down climate change and ecological degradation, are ‘stepping stones for more victories’ – they ‘develop our confidence and organization to push for more’.14 There is no guarantee of the triumph of the ecosocialist alternative; there is very little to be expected from the powers that be. 

The only hope lies in the mobilisations from below, as in Seattle in 1999, which saw the coming together of ‘turtles’ (ecologists) and ‘teamsters’ (trade-unionists) and the birth of the Global Justice Movement; or as in Copenhagen in 2009, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered around the slogan ‘Change the System, not the Climate’; or in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2010, when 30,000 delegates from indigenous, peasant, trade-union, and ecologist movements from Latin America and the world participated at the People’s Conference on Climate Change, whose document denouncing the imperialist destruction of Mother Earth echoes Walter Benjamin’s writings from the 1930s.

1. William Morris, ‘How I Became a Socialist’ (1894), Political Writings, ed. A.L. Morton, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1979, p. 243.
2. Morris, ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’, Political Writings, p. 91.
3. Morris, Political Writings, pp. 96, 97, 107.
4. Morris, ‘Art and Socialism’, Political Writings, p. 116.
5. Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings (trans. J. A. Underwood), London: Penguin, 2008, p. 87.
6. Walter Benjamin, ‘Das Passagen-Werk’, Gesammelte Schriften (GS), Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, VI, 1, p. 456.
7. ‘Das Passagen-Werk’, I, p. 47.
8. Benjamin, ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’, GS, I, 2, pp. 698-699.
9. James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and our Last Chance to Save Humanity, New York: Bloomsbury, 2009, p. IX.
10. André Gorz, Ecologica, New York : Seagull Books, 2010 (Paris: Galilée, 2008, pp. 98-99).
11. Montreal: Black Rose, 1992.
12. Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?, London and New York: Zed Books, 2002.
13. See his book Nosotros los indios (We the Indigenous), Buenos Aires: Herramienta, 2010.
14. Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010, p. 237.

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