Australian socialists debate ecosocialism

By Ian Angus

December 13, 2011 -- Climate and Capitalism (Canada) -- Should ecologically concerned socialists call themselves ecosocialists? Members of the Socialist Alliance are conducting a public policy debate.

Is there a need for the word “ecosocialism”? Does it mean something substantially different from socialism without the prefix? Will using it help to build the left? Or is it an unnecessary and dangerous concession to greens who lean to liberalism and anarchism?

Here at Climate and Capitalism, we gave our answers to those questions long ago, by putting the words “Ecosocialism or barbarism: there is no third way” at the top of every page.

But on that question we are in a minority. While the word “ecosocialism” is used by growing numbers of green lefts and left greens, it is still very far from being universally accepted.

Of course, it is just a word. What’s important is the idea that in the 21st century the fight against environmental destruction and the fight against capitalism are inextricably linked – neither can succeed without the other. The label anyone chooses to apply to that concept is far less important.

Still, we think that “ecosocialism” expresses that concept better than any other, so we have been pleased to see a discussion on this subject develop in the Socialist Alliance, the largest socialist organisation in Australia.

Most left groups insist that members keep their internal disagreements and debates behind closed doors and carry a common party line in public. The Socialist Alliance has taken the unusual – and in my opinion totally positive – step of carrying on political discussions in public. Any member can write articles for its public online discussion bulletin, Alliance Voices.

The following are the discussion articles on ecosocialism published so far. I’ve included brief descriptions of each article, but haven’t tried to summarise them fully.

Socialism or Ecosocialism?  

Adam Baker (Brisbane) argues that the “ideology of ecosocialism” is actually a form of anarchism or liberalism that socialists should oppose. Ecosocialists are hostile to Cuba, and equate the ecological problems of the Soviet Union with those of capitalism. They reject building a revolutionary party and the need to create a workers’ state. “The Socialist Alliance should move to distance itself from the ecosocialist movement, ecosocialist ideology and ecosocialist policies. In a word, ecosocialism should be scrapped.”

Why we don’t need ecosocialism

Sam Bullock (Brisbane) agrees with Adam Baker. “We need to be wary of the reformism in ecosocialism. We need a fight to overthrow capitalism by going back to the ideology of Karl Marx, not by using a fly-by-night movement.”

Why we need an ‘ecosocialist’ movement

Jim McIlroy (Brisbane) argues that “the term 'ecosocialism' is now a vital instrument for reconstructing a mass socialist movement in the current world political situation”. Socialists are a tiny minority on the world stage, and we need to find ways to present socialist ideas to mass audiences: “ecosocialism” isn’t a magic bullet, but it may help us win a hearing in the global environmental movement.

Ian Angus on the term ‘ecosocialism’

Peter Boyle (Sydney) publishes (with my permission) a letter I wrote to him about Adam Baker’s article. “Rather than engaging with what ecosocialists actually say and do, most of Adam’s article is devoted to setting up and knocking down a straw man … He makes these very serious charges without a single quotation from or reference to any actual ecosocialist source.”

The ecological disaster that was the USSR

Renfrey Clarke (Adelaide) argues that Adam Baker underestimates the seriousness of  environmental devasation in the USSR. “There’s no point in trying to dress up the Soviet bureaucracy as anything except what it was: a grossly irresponsible clique that pursued its corporate advantage with little regard for damage to nature or to the health of the population.”

‘Eco’socialism: it’s like ‘democratic’ socialism

Zane Alcorn (Newcastle) outlines a number of ways that, in his view, Adam Baker and Sam Bullock misunderstand ecosocialism: “they have a misplaced conception that the ecosocialist movement is populated by reformists and represents a political dead end, or a trap or something”. Calling the Socialist Alliance ecosocialist doesn’t mean abandoning socialism but “re-emphasising the importance we place on the ecological question”.

Members of the Socialist Alliance have another three weeks to submit pre-conference articles and comments to the pre-convention discussion. C&C will follow this debate particularly closely.

All of the submissions so far have been well worth reading, both for the exchange of the role of ecosocialism in building the left today, and as an example how the left can carry on an open and intelligent debate without downplaying or concealing real differences.