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Imperialism is the arsonist: Marxism’s contribution to ecological literatures and struggles

Originally published: Abstrakt on 2021 by Derek Walls (more by Abstrakt)  | (Posted Aug 23, 2022)

Marxism’s contributions to ecological literature and struggles is a rich and contradictory field of discussion. Marxism in diverse ways has fed into environmental struggles and broader ecological politics. Broadly, I would argue that there has been a deepening appreciation of the ecological themes in the work of Marx and Engels in recent decades. Most significantly, and recently, there has been a shift towards debates around Eco-Leninism, with several different attempts to read the climate crisis through the insights of Lenin. However, specifically Green Party politics, in some states, has seen a movement of former Marxist-Leninists towards a revisionist understanding of politics, with revolutionary objectives being discarded. The way that Marxism’s contribution to ecological literatures and struggles has played out is also internationally diverse, my understanding is strongest when it comes to West European examples but the growth of militant environmental movements across the globe must be acknowledged.

One starting point is the example of the German Green Party. I heard an interesting story; I cannot comment as to whether it is true! An intern worked for a prominent elected German Green Party politician, I forget whether the politician sat in the Bundestag, the European Parliament or a Lander (regional parliament). The intern had been asked to go to the politician’s home while he was away on political business. Watering the plants, the intern was surprised to find a huge, in fact life size, poster of the Great Helmsman himself Chairman Mao, on the wall.

This anecdote has a serious side and illustrates a number of ways in which Marxism has informed ecological literatures and struggles. Most empirically and least significantly the German Greens can be seen as partly a product of anti-revisionist politics. It is also interesting to note how ecological movements and struggles have acted as a movement from Red to Green, a movement from Marxist-Leninist commitment to centre-ground revisionist reform politics. It also reminds us to examine in an open way a range of key Marxists, including Mao, Lenin, Marx, Engels, Trotsky, and Luxemburg in terms of their attitudes to nature.

Marx’s Ecology

A variety of academics and green political writers argued bluntly that Marxism had little to contribute to ecological struggles. Marx and Engels were defined as Prometheans concerned to use nature as an instrument to promote human progress. Communism was based in Marx’s work on rapid industrialisation with little thought for the consequences for the environment. Thus green or ecological political ideology provided a break from existing ideologies. Jonathon Porritt, a leading member of the British Ecology Party made such claims in Seeing Green in the early 1980s, arguing bluntly that communism and capitalism were two facets of a wider anti-ecological ideology,

dedicated to industrial growth, to the expansion of the means of production, to a materialist ethic as the best means of meeting people’s needs, and to unimpeded technological development. Both rely on increasing centralization and large-scale bureaucratic control and co-ordination. From a viewpoint of narrow scientific rationalism, both insist that the planet is there to be conquered, that big is self-evidently beautiful, and that what cannot be measured is of no importance. (Porritt, 1984: 44)

In turn the environmental record of socialist countries such the USSR was seen as both environmentally destructive and entirely consistent with such a Marxist anti-ecology based on the foundation of classic texts by Marx and Engels (Cole, 1993).

An alternative approach from the editors the academic journal Capitalism Nature Socialism (CNS) was to emphasise that Marx’s work is vital to ecological politics. This was based on an understanding that capitalism drives environmental destruction and thus green political economy inevitably demanded an articulation with anti-capitalism, if it was to provide a realistic chance of overcoming ecological problems. James O’ Connor developed this approach with his description of the ecological contradictions of capitalism, arguing that capitalism tended to degrade its possibility of existence by destroying nature. Without nature, capitalism could not survive, but the continued drive for accumulation, exploitation and profit tended to destroy nature (O’Connor, 1988). In turn, Joel Kovel, also associated with CNS, argued that economic growth tended to degrade the environment and that economic growth is functional to capitalism. In his book title The Enemy of Nature, he found the answer in capitalism. Kovel noted the distinction between ‘use values’ and ‘exchange values’, discussed by Marx in the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, was essential to creating an ecologically sustainable society. Thus by making goods to last longer and providing communal products for use, human prosperity could grow without the waste of capitalism. However, like Porritt and other green critics of Marx, Kovel argued that while Marx provided a necessary analysis to capitalism, Marxism was resistant to ecological themes,

Forged at the moment of industrialization, its [i.e. socialism’s] transformative impulse tended to remain within the terms of the industrialized domination of nature. Thus it continued to manifest the technological optimism of the industrial world-view, and its associated logic of productivism — all of which feed into the mania for growth. The belief in unlimited technical progress has been beaten back in certain quarters by a host of disasters, from nuclear waste to resistant bacteria, but these setbacks barely touch the core of socialist optimism, that its historical mission is to perfect the industrial system and not overcome it. The productivist logic is grounded in a view of nature that regards the natural world […] from the standpoint of its utility as a force of production. It is at that point that socialism all-too-often shares with capitalism a reduction of nature to resources — and, consequently, a sluggishness in recognizing ourselves in nature and nature in ourselves. (Kovel, 2007: 229)

Such perspectives from Kovel and O’Connor might be linked politically to the birth of popularisation of the term ecosocialism. Existing socialism and communism were anti-ecological, key texts might advocate a disregard for nature, so while socialism and/or communism were essential to ecological struggles, they need a prefix ‘eco’ to be distinguished from existing anti-ecological left alternatives.

I would argue that we have seen a sharp break from such perspectives, since the publication of US sociologist John Bellamy Foster’s book Marx’s Ecology. Foster argues, convincingly to my mind, that ecology is core to Marx and Engels’ project (Foster, 2000). Indeed an examination of Marx and Engels’ texts suggests an overwhelming concern with environmental issues. In turn their philosophy based on relationships derived from Hegel and perhaps Spinoza, is akin to ecology defined as a science of relationships. For example, in Capital vol 3 Marx notes,

Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the 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 the household]. (Marx, 1959 [1894]: 530)

Discussion of such seemingly contemporary themes of deforestation, pollution and food additives can be found in Capital.

Engels also focussed on ecological questions,

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, 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 the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture. […] 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 nature – but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws. (Engels, 1972)

Marx and Engels’ sustained meditations on the sciences including biology, brought them to consider environmental issues. The exploitation of labour was to them also allied to environmental threats to health and safety. Engels’s Condition of the English Working Classlooked at how a poor work place environment contributed to the degradation of workers.

John Bellamy Foster argues that ecological considerations were central to Marx’s construction of historical materialism. In turn, Marx’s notion of a metabolic rift between humanity and the rest of nature, has been used by Foster to conceptualise ecological crisis. Healing the rift is the answer to problems such as climate change, to the extent that humans master nature, we are mastering an element of ourselves rather than something alien. Thus while Marxists and other socialists might self-criticise their approach to ecological questions, the description of Marx and Engels as anti-environmental thinkers has been exposed as a myth. How, though, have Marxists engaged with green movements, and to what extent have Marx and Engels’ ecological assumptions informed practical struggles? Certainly since the 1970s Marxists have sometimes joined Green or Ecological political parties.

German Greens roots in Maoism

Specifically ecological political parties emerged in the 1970s. Broadly this was a result of the globalisation of environmental problems, reflected in scientific reports such as MIT’s Limits to Growth. The first Ecology Parties were found in the UK and New Zealand/ Aotearoa (Parkin, 1989). These to some extent were conservative institutions without a critique of capitalism or human exploitation. However, the emergence of broader and more radical social movements can be seen as leading a transformation from purely environmental parties to Green Parties. The anti-nuclear power and anti-nuclear weapons movements during the 1970s and 1980s helped create green political parties, the most significant being the German Green Party. The German Greens originated partly from the activism of anti-revisionists to seek a new source of intervention (Hülsberg, 1988: 51-53).

I am not sure if there was a distinct reason for anti-revisionists to get involved with the German Greens. It seems more that this was part of a general engagement of the German left. The story of the German Greens has been told many times: briefly, those on the left, involved in social movements, joined a platform to fight elections. Those who had been involved in the student movement, and some sympathetic to the Baader-Meinhof gang, joined environmentalists. At first the Greens were, in the words of an early leader figure Petra Kelly, ‘the anti-party party’ (Emerson, 2011: 55). Given the openness of the German electoral system, co-option was perhaps close to inevitable. Greens were elected on radical platforms but eventually joined coalition regional governments with the SPD, and the party over the decades has moved broadly to the centre right.

A number of prominent German Green politicians, for example, Ralf Fücks, a former mayor of Bremen; and Winfried Kretschmann, Minister-President Baden-Württemberg were originally active in Kommunistischer Bund West Deutschland. Perhaps the largest Maoist political party in what was at the time West Germany it took a decision to join the Greens en masse in 1982. Other anti-revisionists joined the Greens along with those closer to autonomist networks such as Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Kühn, 2005).

The relationship of green parties and ecological movements to Marxism has demonstrated contradictory tendencies. One has been a move from a more conservative environmentalism to great radicalism and commitment. For example, the British Ecology Party was founded by members of the right wing Conservative Party, however while Marxism has never been strong in the organisation’s history, it has broadly moved to the left (Wall, 1994). Typically in one recent leadership contest hustings, all the candidates insisted that they opposed capitalism (Jarvis, 2021). On the other hand, in the words of the East German eco-Marxist Rudolf Bahro, there has been a shift From Red to Green (Bahro, 1984). The German Greens are perhaps the best known example, as briefly discussed, but there are many others. For example, the Green Left in Holland are now a standard European Green Party, like the Germans, in the political centre, but they were created originally out of the dissolution of four Dutch left wing political parties including the Communist Party (Voerman, 2006: 80). This trend isn’t of course restricted to Greens, one thinks of the movement of the Dutch Socialist Party from Marxism to fairly standard social democracy. And as we know from Lenin, most socialist parties of Europe at the start of the first world war including the SPD ditched communism and supported their contending nation states. Certainly the German members of anti-revisionist organisations who joined the Greens have generally moved dramatically from Mao and Hoxha to accommodation with the Christian Democrats.

At times these contradictory movements are reflected in the work of a single individual. André Gorz, the French ecological theorist, acted paradoxically to promote a movement from red to green, and conversely from environmentalism to anti-capitalist commitment. Best known for his book Farewell to the Working Class, the former Marxist argued that class conflict was largely redundant and new social movements, including environmentalists, represented a force for potential change (Gorz, 1987). Thus he can be seen as giving textual support to the movement from anti-revisionism into social movements, into Green Parties and within the Greens moving apparently ever to the political right. Conversely his text Ecology as Politics, identified the economic drive to accumulate as the key source of ecological risk. Prefiguring Joel Kovel’s arguments by two decades, he argued that capitalism is the cause of environmental destruction. ‘’This is the nature of consumption in affluent societies; it ensures the growth of capital without increasing either the general level of satisfaction or the number of genuinely useful goods (‘use values’) which people have at any given point in time.’ (Gorz, 1980: 23) Gorz thus, amongst other authors, helped promote an anti-capitalist critique amongst some greens, which pointed back to Marx’s broad analysis of capitalism in Capital vol one.

Green Trotskyism?

One approach has been to argue that while Marx was green, the failure of much 20th century socialism to promote environmentalism could be placed at the door of Stalin and Stalinism. This seems to my mind a superficial approach, blaming an individual rather than engaging in sustained analysis. Equally it is difficult to find an environmental core in the work of Trotsky, who might be seen as Stalin’s main critic. Trotsky typically argued that communism was a project of perhaps rather brutally and crudely mastering nature.

Through the machine, man in Socialist society will command nature in its entirety, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. (Trotsky, 1941: 5)

Having said this Trotsky did argue that ‘man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth. In turn there have been some manifestations of environmentally aware Trotskyism. The present Fourth International, from Ernest Mandel’s line, is explicitly ecosocialist in nature. Its various national sections are highly engaged in ecological work. In Britain, Alan Thornett of Socialist Resistance, which is associated with this Fourth International, produced a detailed account of an ecosocialist approach to climate change (Thornett, 2019). Polemics from others in the Fourth International have explicitly criticised Trotsky for failing to address ecological issues, unlike Marx and Engels (Tanuro, 2015)

The existence of numerous Trotskyist internationals can be confusing, although of course this is a feature of other forms of Marxism. It is possible that the Mandelite Fourth International was influenced by Pabloite strands of thought. The Greek Trotskyist Michel Pablo split the Fourth International in the 1960s but his comrades re-joined in the 1990s (Coates, nd). During the 1970s they were strong advocates of what might be seen as an ecosocialist approach. Strongest perhaps in Australia, a leading Pabloite, the physicist Alan Roberts, published The Self-Managing Environment in 1979 (Roberts, 1979). Drawing on both Marx and Freud it criticised the kind of consumer capitalism theorised by Marcuse and other Western Marxists. Roberts’ argument was that a lack of democratic involvement including an absence of workers’ control, led to a frustrated demand for consumer goods. The less we participate and have the ability to shape our life experience, the more we compensate by consuming wasteful goods. The ecological crisis is seen as a product of capitalist growth, growth in consumer capitalism is environmentally destructive. A self-managed socialist society is thus an ecosocialist alternative. Roberts also produced a strong critique of neo-Malthusian environmentalists who blamed ecological problems on over population rather than capitalism. Other chapters in The Self-Managing Environmentcovered the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ arguing that rather than acting as a metaphor for environmental destruction as suggested by the right wing biologist Garrett Hardin, commons had been seized by force and enclosed.

Nick Origlass, a leading Pabloite, engaged in local government ecosocialism, creating his own independent Labour Party in Leichhardt Municipal Council in Sydney to win local power and challenge toxic waste dumping in his community (Greenland, 1988). Australia also saw the creation of the green ban movement, where trade unionists in the Building Workers Union refused to work on construction projects that damaged the environment (Koffman, 2021).

Another Trotskyist figure passionately involved with ecosocialist politics is the Peruvian revolutionary Hugo Blanco. While Blanco retains fraternal links with the Fourth International, his present politics is closer to that of the Mexican Zapatistas. He publishes the newspaper Lucha Indigena and is also an active support of the Rojava Revolution. Originally an agronomy student, he studied in Argentina, he led a peasant uprising in the early 1960s which successfully gained land reform. During his many decades of activism he has become increasingly engaged in ecological and indigenous struggles (Wall, 2018). As I write, he is in his 80s but remains a leading ecosocialist thinker and activist.

Green Cuba

While Socialist states have been criticised on their ecological policies during the 20th century, Cuba has proved a sharp exception. Since the early 1990s, Cuba has pursued policies to drastically reduced climate change emissions and to protect the environment in a variety of ways. The reason for Cuba’s overt and strong turn towards environmental protection is twofold. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Cuba was no longer supplied with cheap oil after 1990. This led to a severe crisis, in the context of a continuing US blockade, resulting in what has been termed the ‘Special Period’. Thus a sharp reduction in the consumption of oil was vital so as to ensure the survival of Cuban society (Plonska and Saramifar, 2019). In turn, and apparently irrespective of this necessity, Fidel Castro became deeply engaged in ecological concerns and debates. At the 1992 UN Rio conference on the international environment he made the case for green policies, noting:

An important biological species – humankind – is at risk of disappearing due to the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural habitat. We are becoming aware of this problem when it is almost too late to prevent it. It must be said that consumer societies are chiefly responsible for this appalling environmental destruction.

With only 20 percent of the world’s population, they consume two thirds of all metals and three fourths of the energy produced worldwide. They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air. They have weakened and perforated the ozone layer. They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer.” (Castro, 2016)

Cuba has been so successful at introducing environmentally friendly policies that it has regularly been cited as the world’s best example of sustainable development. Agriculture has been partially decarbonised, with a push to grow using organic farming. There has been significant investment in renewable energy including wind turbines. Buses have been promoted as a means of reducing dependence on oil to power cars. In 2019, Cuba topped the Sustainable development index promoting economic activity that was ecologically sustainable (Trinder, 2020).

Indeed the supposedly anti-ecological record of the Soviet Union and other socialist states has recently been challenged in a detailed comparative study (Engel-Di Mauro 2021). While Cuba’s environmental policies are increasingly well know, it is perhaps often forgotten that the Soviet Union in its earliest years was also lauded as an environmental model. Under Lenin, National parks were opened and animal conservation was promoted (Stahnke, 2021). In recent years the notion of eco Leninism has become noted by diverse writers. Andreas Malm the Swedish academic has argued that to overcome the climate crisis we need to return to Lenin. He has argued that the urgency of the climate crisis might mean embracing an approach similar to the war communism of the early years of the Soviet Union (Malm, 2020).

Marxism as a guide to ecological alternatives

So how do we draw this all together, moving from cataloguing various manifestations of ecological Marxism to constructing a political alternative? I have briefly sketched some articulations of Marxism and ecological movements/literatures but this is a vast field and I have left much out. There are four themes I would like, in conclusion, to at least note 1) The commons 2) Working class productivity 3) Anti-imperialism, and finally 4) the role of Leninism in promoting transition.

The commons, a notion of collective ownership, most extensively explored in recent years by the Nobel Prize winning political economist Elinor Ostrom is essential to tackling ecological problems (Ostrom 2019). It is also a recurring concept in the work of Marx and Engels. Capitalism is a driver of ecological destruction, the notion of collective ownership of resources in contrast creates the possibility of shared prosperity and sustainability. Marx’s observation that we are not the owners of the Earth and should leave it in a better state for future generations, noted above, is a useful starting point for a green political economy. The Marxist aspiration for a society based upon the ensemble, the collective and creative interaction of all of us, for example, promoted by the British musician and revolutionary Cornelius Cardew is pertinent (Norman, 2019).

Climate change and other severe environmental problems demand working class solutions. The productivity and creativity of workers is vital to ecological alternatives. The often forgotten history of working class environmental politics demands study. I noted above the example of the Australian Green Ban movement in halting environmentally damaging building projects. Workers produce and can produce alternative sustainable futures, the concept of workers’ plans for ecological production is important (Hampton, 2015).

Anti-imperialism is another important dimension. Thomas Sankara (2018) reminds us that imperialism is the arsonist that burns the forests .There are numerous movements that link anti-imperialism with ecological politics, stretching from indigenous social movements in Latin America to the Rojava Revolution. Another useful contribution from Andreas Malm is his insight into how fossil fuels were the historical product of colonial exploitation and capitalist accumulation (Malm, 2016). The Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui argued that land was at the heart of struggles for autonomy in the face of colonial domination (1971). This is a theme taken up by Max Ajl who argues ‘Eco-socialists have to start from the basic demands of colonised peoples: namely national liberation. The Palestinian liberation struggle is one of the few, but not the only, remaining ‘classical’ national liberation struggles, which aims to break foreign settler control over the land.’ (Hancock, 2021).

In a wide ranging survey of ecology and Leninism, Lenin’s significance to ecological movement can be seen as ranging from an analysis of imperialism to an embrace of base building and dual power strategies (Woody, 2020). Lenin’s strategic analysis might be of value in theorising how to build political organisations that can overcome the ecological crisis (Wall, 2020). Leninism is, out of a number of important Marxist contributions to ecological debates, to my mind potentially the most important. Lenin’s contribution was to investigate how in a specific context we make revolution. There is a growing awareness that capitalism is the key driver of climate change and other ecological ills. Transforming society and transcending capitalism can be seen as essential to human survival, the critical investigation of how we do so can be advanced by an open reading of Lenin’s words and work. Lenin helped make history in a very different world to ours, so his insights cannot be crudely cut and pasted on to contemporary reality but re-reading his texts is vital. The French philosopher Alain Badiou notes that, ‘We must conceive of Marxism as the accumulated wisdom of popular revolutions, the reason they engender, and the fixation and precision of their target’ (Bostells, 2011: 280). We need precision in tackling an accelerating and many sided ecological crisis, Marxism, read with care and acted upon materially, will guide us.

Derek Wall teaches political economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, is a former international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales, and is active in the Marxist Centre.


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