1990s >> 1996 >> no-1097-january-1996

Ecology and Socialism

According to a recent pamphlet the only reaction socialists have ever had to green issues is to jump on the bandwagon of popular concern for the environment for our own ends. This article is the first of our two-part reply.

    “There is a yawning chasm between a politics of ecology and that of all major traditions of socialist theory and practice. This is the case both at the level of values — anthropocentrism versus an Earth-centred ethics — and of policy — especially limits-to-growth versus expansionism.”

So writes Sandy Irvine in a recent polemical pamphlet Red Sails in the Sunset – An Ecopolitical critique of the Socialist Inheritance. Published by the Campaign for Political Ecology, a conservative-minded group that has broken away from the Green Party on the grounds that it has become too left-wing by advocating social improvements that the Earth can’t afford. Irvine is also editor of a magazine called Real World, a title chosen to convey that all those who think in terms of improving people’s standard of living, whether by reform or by revolution, are hopeless Utopians because the Earth can’t sustain this; in the real world only sacrifices, cuts and belt-tightening are on the agenda.

Socialism and Socialism

Irvine has his definition of socialism: “what was said and done by the majority of those who have called themselves socialists “. That’s a possible definition, but in that case we’re not socialists since in Britain the majority of those who have called themselves socialists have been supporters and members either of the Labour Party or of the Communist Party and the various Trotskyist groups. For these people socialism has meant state ownership (nationalisation) and/or state intervention, what we would call state capitalism, and it is essentially against these policies as a way of solving the current ecological crisis that Irvine is arguing. Since we have never advocated or supported nationalisation and state control we would appear not to be involved. However, Irvine specifically lumps us in with the rest of them since “for a taste of British socialist politics” he specifically recommends people to read the Socialist Standard — we can agree with that of course — alongside, among others, Socialist Worker, Militant, New Left Review, Marxism Today (a bit difficult, since it no longer exists) and Living Marxism. He also mentions that he once debated against us.

Naturally, we object to being lumped in with these advocates of state capitalism, but Irvine attempts to deal with this objection in advance by saying that “there always will be, of course, those whose response to any criticism of socialist theory or practice, is the mantra ‘but that’s not true socialism ‘. At this point, words become meaningless “.

We do indeed say “but that’s not true socialism” since, in our view, socialism does have a definite logical and historical meaning. But this doesn’t mean that words become meaningless. The word “socialism” rather becomes meaningless if everyone who calls them self a socialist is accepted as being a socialist. Irvine doesn’t quite go that far, but only argues that socialism is whatever a majority of those call themselves socialists have stood for. But he can’t have it both ways: he can’t include us in his criticism of socialism when we are not part of that majority.

Maybe the definition of socialism we adhere to has become (thanks largely to the 70-year period of rule of Leninist State capitalism in Russia) a minority one, but up until the first world war it was probably the majority view: that socialism is a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, where the state and government over people will give way to democratic self-administration and where the money-market-profit economy, will give way to production solely and directly to satisfy human needs without buying and selling. They certainly had differences about how to get there but this was what Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, William Morris, Bebel, Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and even Lenin and Stalin (before 1917) and Keir Hardie (some of the time) meant by the term.

Irvine is mistaken in another of his references to us. One of his points is that those who call themselves socialists have had three types of reaction to the issue of environmental destruction: (1) disinterest (continuing to shout “the right to work”, “no cuts”, and “kick out the Tories”); (2) opportunistic exploitation (jumping on the bandwagon started by the Greens) and (3) denunciation of environmentalists (for being Not-In-My-Backyarders and people with a comfortable standard of living who urge poorer people not to increase their consumption, etc.).

To illustrate the second type of reaction he writes in a footnote:

    “After the success of the Greens in the 1989 Euro elections, there was a sudden flurry of meetings up and down the country with titles like ‘Environmental Crisis —the Socialist Answer’. I took part in one such debate with the Socialist Party of Great Britain in Newcastle at that time.”

The facts are otherwise. The debate took place on 1 June 1987, the title was “Green Revolution or Socialist Revolution?”, and we had our own candidate standing against, among others, the Green Party in Newcastle in the 1989 Euro-elections. In any event, someone who, like Irvine, was a Trotskyist in the 1960s and 70s (as he himself reveals) and a Green in the 1980s and 90s is not in any position to lecture others about swaying with the wind or following the herd.

Who’s a band-wagoner?

Long before environmentalism began to become a big issue in the 1960s, members of the Socialist Party had been aware of the problems of pollution. One reason for this is that we are materialists and recognise that humans are material beings who depend entirely for their survival on what they get from their material environment, particularly food. Without being so simplistic as those 19th century German materialists who declared “man ist wass man isst”, (“one is what one eats”) and who attempted to explain human behaviour in terms of what people ate — of course, it is social factors that are the most important ones involved in human behaviour — many Socialist Party members realised that what you ate was bound to have some effect on your health, and so were concerned about the chemical pollution of food. Many became vegetarians or food reformers of one kind or another. One (Horace Jarvis) wrote a book Food Faking Exposed that was published in 1958.

When the writings on ecology of the American anarcho-communist (and another ex-Trotskyist) Murray Bookchin became easily available in Britain in the late 1960s, we immediately recognised the importance of what he was saying. He then wrote under the name of Lewis Herber (we had already noticed his article “The Problem of Chemicals in Food” that appeared in 1952 in the Contemporary Issues, a magazine produced by some former German Trotskyists who had come to reject Leninism). Two of his articles, “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” and “Towards A Liberatory Technology”, both written in 1965 (but not published in Britain until 1966 and 1967 respectively) circulated amongst Socialist Party members with the second being commented on favourably (both are included in Bookchin’s book Post-Scarcity Anarchism).

Here was someone who was expressing much of what we thought ourselves about the matter. That not only was pollution and environmental destruction caused by the profit system but also that it was the science of ecology that explained the processes by which pollution and environmental destruction resulted from releasing waste substances into the rest of nature at a rate and in amounts that it could not cope with; that science and technology, far from causing the problem, provided the knowledge and techniques that could be used to solve it given the right social framework; and, last but not least, that this framework was a less centralised society that produced to meet human needs not for profit, which could only be done in a stateless, moneyless communist society. Naturally, Bookchin being an anarchist, we had major disagreements with how he envisaged the establishment of such a society. (He wrote another article, criticising the vanguardists, called “Listen Marxist!”, but which should have been called “Listen Leninist!”. Our reply, “Listen Anarchist!”, appeared in the March 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard.)

In June 1971 we published an article “Ecology: the First Decade” which ended:

    “Why does pollution occur? A small amount is due to ignorance or miscalculation. A small amount is unavoidable given present technology and population. But the immense majority is due to the economic network. People pollute because it is in their economic interests to do so.

    It is sometimes claimed, though, that the problem arises from a wrong attitude to nature. This has some truth, though it will not do as a complete explanation. The attitude to nature, and the economic system, are interlinked. The present growth of ecological awareness is full of hope, for it encourages a mentality which considers total processes rather than isolated fragments.”

So, if we jumped on any bandwagon (which we didn’t), it would have to have been at the very latest towards the end of the 1960s — well before the Ecology Party (now the Green Party) was formed in 1973 and at a time when Irvine himself was going around shouting “no cuts” and “kick out the Tories” and even “Labour to power on a socialist programme.”

Ecology is a science — the study of the inter-relations between living organisms and between them and their non-living environment — and, as we pointed out in the 1971 quote above, one that emphasises treating the subject matter as a whole and recognising the interdependence and interconnectedness of the various parts as well as the fact of continuous change. This approach is in fact the best approach for all fields of scientific study. It is known to socialists as the dialectical approach and, as ecology happens to emphasise this more than some other sciences, this was an additional reason as to why it appealed to socialists when knowledge about ecology became more widespread in the 1960s.

But ecology is a science and not a political doctrine. This was why the original name of the Green Party — the Ecology Party — was absurd. They might just as validly, and only slightly less ridiculously, have called themselves the Chemistry Party or the Biology Party. It was also rather arrogant, in claiming that the science of ecology gave exclusive backing to their policies, which after all were only reformist policies to be applied within the profit system (more anti-pollution laws and investment, and other legislative and tax changes).

Adam Buick

(Next month we conclude our reply to Irvine’s criticisms.)

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