Marx, ecology and politics: An interview with Derek Wall
First published at Hampton Institute.
Devon: Where does this idea that Marx can be applied to the environment originate from? Kind of, if you can, give me sort of a history of Marxist thought being applied to the environment.
Derek: The ‘idea that Marx can be applied to the environment’ I think comes from Marx and Engels. While both wrote a huge amount, within their vast output they produced numerous statements of environmental concern. Engels, for example, wrote The Condition of the English Working Class in the 1840s. While this is near to the beginning of his writings it was already indicating that air and water pollution were an environmental threat. His notion of social murder encompassed hunger and poverty and such the effect of poisonous pollution, social murder is a concept that might cover the deaths from extreme weather we are already encountering from climate change.
In his ‘Letters from Wuppertal’ written back in 1839 Engels notes both air and water pollution as serious ills, ‘Work in low rooms where people breathe more coal fumes and dust than oxygen — and in the majority of cases beginning already at the age of six — is bound to deprive them of all strength and joy in life.’ He observed that the red colour of the river was a product not of battle but industrial pollution, the result ‘simply and solely to the numerous dye-works using Turkey red.’
At various points in Capital Marx addresses problems that might be identified by environmentalists today such as food additives and deforestation. Capital provides perhaps the clearest application of Marxist thought to the environment, when Marx notes in volume three of our duty to future generations:
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].
In turn Engels, while not using the then newly coined term ‘ecology’, reveals his understanding of the science, based on relationships between species, that can lead to unexpected effects. This is from his text The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man:
Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries.
I guess an early application of this Marxist ecology can be found via William Morris, the British poet, artist and revolutionary. Concerned initially with church conservation, which is perhaps far from radical environmentalism, he read Marx as a defender of the environment against the ravages of capitalism. Morris was active in Britain’s first Marxist organisation the Social Democratic Federation.
Also in Britain, excuse my bias as I live here, the Sporting organisation associated with the Communist Party undertook the Kinder Scout trespass in the 1930s. This was to demand that workers have access to countryside moorland that was monopolised by large landowners.
During the 1950s and 60s rising awareness of global environmental problems, starting with atmospheric nuclear testing, led to a growing environmental movement. Organisations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace originated in the late 1960s or early 1970s along with Ecology Parties in the same decade. A minority of writers made the connection between capitalism and environmental destruction. While an anarchist rather than a Marxist, New Yorker Murray Bookchin, writing under the pseudonym of Lewis Herber, drew upon a critique of capitalism to explain the origins of environmental problems, publishing Our Synthetic Environment in 1962, and other works in the 1970s and 80s. Anti-Marxist in his politics, Marxism did paradoxically inform his analysis of ecological problems.
The Frankfurt school of Western Marxists including Marcuse also began to consider ecological problems in this period. Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst, associated with the Frankfurt school, argued for an ecological politics, which drew upon Marx’s early Paris Manuscripts, showing how work under capitalism alienated us from the rest of nature. This is explained most clearly in his book To Have or to Be?
There are many individuals who have made some kind of link between Marx and Engels work and environmental concerns, however perhaps the most significant intervention in the late 20th century came from Fidel Castro at the 1992 environmental Rio conference. Castro was the first leader of a socialist country to stress the importance of ecological matters, and wrote extensively on the climate crisis and similar threats.
You quote John Kovel who notes that socialism, due to its thought occurring during industrialization, focuses on "the technological optimism of the industrial world-view, and its associated logic of productivism." In what ways do socialist states still perpetuate this idea? Or have some come to include the environment as a meaningful part of political thought?
I feel there is room for cautious optimism. The Soviet Union threw everything into rapid industrial development, often with ecologically damaging effects, a logic that would have continued if Trotsky had replaced Stalin. Having said this, the logic of productivism did provide the Soviet Union the material and technological resources necessary to defeat Hitler. Nonetheless on the whole one gets the impression that a race to outdo the USA in terms of economic growth inspired much Soviet economic development with negative results in terms of pollution and loss of biodiversity.
China is advocating a policy of promoting ‘ecological civilisation’. Mao’s war on the sparrows sounds like a foolish aberration from a Communist sensitive to contradictions and well versed in philosophy! I have never visited China and I am loath to analyse a part of the world I am largely ignorant of. However, it is clear that the present Chinese government and Chinese people at all levels of society, like Engels, are aware that ecological problems can strike where they are least expected. It is good that China has agreed to stop funding foreign coal plants and huge efforts are going into expanding renewable energy. China is the world’s largest producer of solar panels too. Perhaps though this is a version of ecological modernism, expanding technological solutions, without working towards an economy that rejects ever increasing production. Electric cars, whose production and consumption are rising faster in China than perhaps any other part of the world, are imperfect environmental solutions. Nonetheless environmental considerations are at the core of economic development plans in the country. The rapid expansion of high speed rail, shames countries like the US and the UK, where the dominance of cars is unquestioned.
Cuba is perhaps the country closest to managing to create ecologically sustainable development on our planet, and is worthy of close study. Much has been written on this. During the special period in the 1990s when the fall of the Soviet Union made it difficult for Cubans to get cheap oil, a crash programme that reduced dependence on fossil fuels was instigated, with much success. Cuba shows that socialist countries potentially can achieve far more than capitalist states, when it comes to serious action on climate change.
Recently Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro's book Socialist States and the Environment: Lessons for Ecosocialist Futures has reassessed thinking about the environmental record of socialist states, suggesting that their record was much better than once thought. In the shadow of Cold War propaganda, everything was distorted, despite some serious environmental damage in the Soviet Union, there was also a programme of nature conservation. Just this week I have seen an interesting discussion of how Soviet scientists and planners in the 1970s responded to the Limits to Growth report, produced by MIT “Limits to growth” in communism? - cibcom.
In summary, while capitalism is innately ecologically destructive, for much of the 20th century socialist states also engaged in environmentally damaging practices, however learning has taken place since, while not unproblematic the practices in China are encouraging and those in Cuba lead the world when it comes to climate change action.
You write "Marx and Engels’ sustained meditations on the sciences including biology, brought them to consider environmental issues." Talk about Marx' and Engels' focus on the hard sciences. I find this interesting as they're often portrayed as people focused on sociology and economics.
Yes it is easily forgotten that they were obsessive in their concern to keep up with the most important developments in the natural sciences in their day. John Bellamy Foster has explored this topic in exhaustive detail in his book Marx’s Ecology. For Foster, ecology (even the exact term was not coined until later), is at the heart of Marx’s materialism. You can’t separate the science from the philosophy, perhaps there is more to the term ‘scientific socialism’ that is often assumed?
Noting that the Germany Green Party has left its original, radical roots and moved broadly over the decades towards a more center right line and how with the Dutch Socialist Party, too, has become a run-of-the-mill Social Democrat party, do you think that EcoMarxists or those who hold such sympathies should become involved with electoral politics or just shun it all together? In what ways are EcoMarxists interacting with mainstream political parties and electoral politics more generally?
West European Green and Left parties have indeed had limited success and often moved to the centre or the right. The trajectory of both the German Greens and, as you note, the Dutch Socialist Party, is perhaps particularly sobering, organisations moving from Marxist-Leninist roots to the center ground today. It is a sad irony that the German Greens were born out of the peace movement but are advocates of war, and even promoting fossil fuel extraction, at least, in the short term, to deal with the energy crisis caused by the conflict in the Ukraine. In Britain, things are a little different, the Labour Party here, despite a short respite under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has never been a radical party. Labour supported Empire, in the 1930s embraced the economics of austerity and at present under Keir Starmer are competing with the Tory government to show they are a pro-business party.
I don’t think it is adequate to say abandon all electoral politics. Alternative socialist strategies haven’t been effective either in Western Europe, the generation that produced the German Greens were the generation involved in the Bader-Meinhof gang, which can hardly been seen as successful intervention. In other parts of the world, particularly Latin America, the left have made some progress through the electoral route. While this has not been uniform and has led to compromises, the success of left parties in Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and more recently Colombia is encouraging.
Rudi Dutschke, the German socialist, argued that there should be ‘a long march through the institutions’, in practice the institutions have generally marched over the left, crushing hopes…sadly this is largely the lesson of the German Greens. I am most inspired by the base building approach of groups like Philly Socialists and near to where I live the Welsh Underground Network. Building community revolutionary capacity through practical action and solidarity. Capacity building is also a means of creating community self-defence in the face of the rising environmental crisis and the growth of the far right.
Ecosocialist engagement with electoral politics, where it has occurred, is varied. In Australia the Socialist Alliance have elected local councillors. The example of Nick Origlass, in the 1980s, a pioneering ecosocialists who left the Australian Labor Party, over toxic waste plans, has been an inspiration to such Australian ecosocialists. He was eventually elected Mayor of Leichhardt, Sydney. He defeated motorway building plans through a working class community, created participatory council meetings and reclaimed land for community use. There is a good account of his work in the Australian Dictionary of National Biography here.
So maybe some progress is possible with electoral work but yes more often than not electoral politics has institutionalised those on the left rather than allowing institutional transformation. Some ecosocialists are involved in Green or Social Democratic Parties. The HDP in Turkey is a good example of where more radical electoral politics has been linked to popular struggles, although this mainly Kurdish Party has been subject to much repression. The situation is different in different parts of the world.
What are some of the responses of EcoMarxists to climate change, especially given the fact that we have very possibly hit the point of no return regarding major environmental changes? (For example, we hit that point with ocean temperatures in 2014.)
When I first became interested in green politics in the 1980s climate change seemed to be a distant problem, now it is an immediate threat. Every day apparently brings news of more extreme weather. In the summer here where I live in Southern England, I witnessed the highest temperatures of my lifetime. The future is now.
One response from ecosocialists has been to go back to Lenin, if capitalism is destroying the world, a more strategic approach is surely necessary. Andreas Malm, Kai Heron and Jodi Dean and others have been arguing that Lenin provides inspiration in an age of climate crisis. There is a good outline of the debates around Lenin, climate change and ecosocialism here.
Andreas Malm in his recent book How to Blow up a Pipeline argues that the desperation of the situation demands that we take direct action against oil extraction.
There is perhaps an increasing realisation that climate change rather than being an accidental consequence of business as usual which can be approached with technocratic solutions is part of a war. With oil and fossil fuel companies on one side of the conflict and the rest of humanity and nature on the other. So, while not specifically ecosocialists, the approach of the British organisation Just Stop Oil using direct action against oil companies is to be applauded.
Of course, workers' plans to convert ecological damaging mining and manufacturing into alternative sources of production is another element of ecosocialist strategy. The Lucas Plan in Britain and the Green Ban trade union campaigns in Australia are examples.
Where can people learn more about Ecosocialism? What are some good books, podcasts, or videos, you would recommend?
Kali Aukuno is a good source of ecosocialists activism; maybe start with his interview here.
John Bellamy Foster, while he doesn’t use the term ecosocialism, feeling socialist traditions at least from Marx are innately ecological, has produced numerous books, articles, podcasts, etc. MR Online which he works with is a very good source for numerous articles on ecosocialism. Green Left in Australia and Climate and Capitalism are also excellent.
Of the numerous books on ecosocialism, I still think Alan Roberts' The Self-Managing Environment from 1979 is the best, although a bit difficult to track down. People might also be interested in my biography of the great Latin American ecosocialist Hugo Blanco published by Merlin Press.
Finally I must mention Max Ajl’s work, rooting ecological socialism in the struggles of the South, breaking the Eurocentric and North American bias of much of the left. His book A People’s Green New Deal is essential reading. There is a useful interview with him from my comrades at Ebb Magazine here.