Ecosocialist Worldview

The Spectre Confroning Neoliberals and Pseudo-Marxists

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was certainly one of the greatest philosophers of the nineteenth century. Marx accused capitalism as the source of growing inequality between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in his theory of historical materialism. In crafting a novel world-view, Marx’s scholarship deconstructed the inner functioning of capitalism and its contradictions. Marx envisioned that these contradictions would obviously endanger the waning social order. But Marx had failed to accommodate properly some of his brilliant ecological ideas in his emanicipatory project which engendered ambiguities. Alex Night in his November 2010 article observed that Marx’s primary flaw was his blindly following the philosophy of Hegel that exemplify human society as constantly evolving to higher stages of more rational development. Considering capitalism as an “advance” led him to greet industrialization as the necessary material conditions for the “scientific domination of natural agencies”. Marx thus allegedly shares a similar anthropocentric belief with the capitalist ideology in the domination of Nature. But transcending Marxism cannot be accomplished without it. Marx’s theory of the ‘metabolic rift’ between town and countryside is about the rift between humans and nature. Based on this Marxian concept, Jason Moore in his 2011 papers, has developed the theory of capitalism as world-ecology, a perspective that bonds the accumulation of capital and the production of nature in dialectical unity.

Twentieth century experiences of applied Marxism, especially as practiced in the Soviet Union and in China, does not have any marked difference in plundering the ecology as liberal capitalism did in North America, Western Europe, or Japan. The Soviet Union in the 1920s had the most developed ecological science and activism. Lenin’s New Economic Policy was intended to introduce a temporary taste of capitalism in order to improve the economy so as to successfully introduce Communism, following the Hegelian-Marxian framework of linear progression. In 1928, Stalin replaced the New Economic Policy of the 1920s with a highly centralized command economy and Five-Year Plans that launched rapid industrialization and economic collectivization in the countryside. Stalin eradicated the ecological movement and purges under Stalin victimized some leading eco-Marxists. Soviet central planning promoted perverse incentives for the use of natural resources by not assigning them an economic valuation and provided no incentives to reduce the amount of pollution. The evidence demonstrates that the system of central planning was responsible for much environmental plunder in the Soviet Union throughout cold war and beyond. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Mir, the Russian peasant community, remained the basis for local administration and tax collection in the rural areas. With the imposition of collectivization in 1928–9 by Stalin, the Mir was abolished.

Plekhanov, ancestor of the Bolshevik Party, believed that the Mir was doomed to disappear as Russia was transformed by capitalist development. Stalin’s move was fundamentally against Marxian spirit. In a letter to Vera Zasulich, written in 1881 but published only in 1924, Marx wrote that “the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia”. He also stated that the “historical inevitability” of the evolutionary course depicted in Capital is “expressly restricted to the countries of Western Europe”. In the late 1940s, the Soviet government embarked on “The Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature” encompassing massive tree plantation across the steppe, erection of canals to bring fresh water from the Russian Arctic to semi-arid Soviet heartland, and converting grazing lands into arable ones under the stewardship of crackpot biologist Trofim Lysenko. Ultimately, Lysenko’s misguided theories doomed Stalin’s ‘Great’ plan with heavy tolls on nature and society. Judith Shapiro in her 2001 book Mao’s War Against Nature describes how during the Mao Zedong rule in China, the suppression of intellectual dissent following the ‘Hundred Flowers movement’ eliminated scientific critics, contributing to a series of policy actions with far-reaching environmental consequences, especially on China’s current population pressures and controversial hydro-power projects. Under the Great Leap Forward, the ‘war against Nature’ ransacked forests and ornitho-diversity to enhance the treadmill of production. The Cultural Revolution entailed the destruction of the Dianchi wetlands near Kunming. The Guardian (June 12,2012) has reported that vast swaths of Chinese soil are contaminated by arsenic and heavy metals which would be a bigger problem than air and water pollution, “with potentially dire consequences for food production and human health”. The Sino-Soviet ecological legacy has immensely damaged the cause of socialism in the global arena.

Neoliberal globalisation’s plans for the planet include Northern security targets, relatively underexplored sensitive regions like tropical forests. ‘Green’ credentials are deployed to justify accumulation by dispossession in the pretext of saving the nature. Thus the United Nations-sponsored Reduced Emission from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) prescribes market-based incentives for conservation, carbon sequestration, and payment of forest-ecosystem services. The prime movers of tropical deforestation, carbon-pollution and global warming are not addressed. REDD would transform land use and property relations and is potentially capable to plunder tropical socio-ecology involving eviction, human rights violations, fraud, and militarisation. The pollution of the air, land, or water and the disposal of wastes are costs normally passed on. Comprador ‘mainstream’ economics provides the intellectual foundation to externalize capital’s debt to nature and society, including future generations. Thus the stark choice once posed by Rosa Luxemburg returns as: Eco-Socialism OR Neoliberal and Pseudo-Marxist Barbarism!

Marx in his magnum opus Capital (Volume 1) had explicitly declared that labour as well as nature is the original sources of value. Capitalist mode of production develops and manipulates the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by concurrently undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker. In the latter part of The Communist Manifesto, Marx discussed ecology in post-capitalist society, justifying the metabolic restoration between town and country. Marx’s critique of political economy was based on the contradiction between use value and exchange value: “… the earth is the reservoir, from whose bowels the use-values are to be torn”. Extending Karl Polanyi’s metaphor of embeddedness, it is very much crucial in the contemporary world to assert that the society is embedded in natural environment. This is precisely why the radical Left prepares for Ecosocialism, a notion that embraces complementarity between environmentalism and socialism. The traditional Left, on the other hand, continues with its eternal faith in the productivist mode of production, with some reformist green measures without pondering the required radical measures. Their apathy to positivism and the natural sciences might have led them to desert Marx’s ecology.

Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Introduction,” O’Connor’s title article in the very first issue of Capitalism Nature Socialism in 1988, has had an enormous influence in shaping ecosocialism as a world-view. O’Connor postulates the second contradiction of capitalism,, in addition to the first one about capital’s tendency to overproduce vis-à-vis consumption, arising from capital’s growth-mania, causing degradation or depletion of “the condition of production.” Capital accumulation can be jeopardized by dangerously polluted natural conditions of production by global warming or increasingly depleted raw materials, etc.

The quest for sustainable alternatives requires critical understanding of society embedded in ecology and social metabolism of the capitalist mode of production. The idea for an Ecosocialist manifesto was jointly launched by Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy, at a September 2001 workshop on ecology and socialism held at Vincennes, France. It had declared that, “… the capitalist world system is historically bankrupt. It has become an empire unable to adapt, whose very gigantism exposes its underlying weakness. It is, in the language of ecology, profoundly unsustainable, and must be changed fundamentally, nay, replaced, if there is to be a future worth living.”

Western Ecosocialism discourse and movement can be judiciously integrated with down-to-earth indigenous wisdom and movements of the global South. The historic Latin American ‘indigenous socialism’ for Mother Earth’s rights could ably convince their progressive polity to implement ‘Latin Americanisation of Marxism’ that is critical for the contemporary warming world. It became possible to insert ecosocialist and degrowth-like concepts into the formal constitutions of the Bolivian and Ecuadorian states. The new statist Left of South America convened The Peoples World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights held in Cochabamba, Bolivia from April 19-22, 2010. Inaugurating the conference, attended by thousands of people coming from all over the world, Bolivian President Evo Morales described how the Indigenous peoples’ bondage with nature since antiquity had evolved the metaphor of Mother Earth as the prime mover of being part of the earth and envisioning an alternative model of human development. The Peoples Agreement, the outcome of Cochabamba peoples’ conference, has endeavored to envisage a path towards the good life (buen vivir) in an egalitarian society without materialistic growth challenging pseudo-Marxist orthodoxy and neoliberal arrogance. It promotes the idea of Living Well in harmony with other human beings and with our Mother Earth. For the first time “Mother Earth” has appeared in the Rio+20, June 20-21, 2012 negotiation text. This climax of world history may hopefully initiate the transcendence of ecosocialism world-view to be materialized in a concrete shape.

Arun G. Mukhopadhyay is formerly of Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. His current research interests are in Ecosocialist Worldview, Political Economy of India, etc. Apart from numerous publications in journals, etc., many of his papers have been accepted by international conferences held in Europe, North America, and Asia. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Arun.