Socialists, the environment and ecosocialism: a view from South Africa

Trevor Ngwane.

By Trevor Ngwane

November 19, 2009 -- There is an ecological crisis in the world and this crisis can be traced to capitalism. There is deforestation due to the trade in timber. There is climate change due to unsafe production methods.
The working class is the class that suffers the most from the ecological crisis. Working-class people are in the majority and their life conditions make them more vulnerable. Workers live in flimsy houses and shacks that are easily washed or swept away by strong rains and winds. When workers are sick or injured there is always not enough medical help for them.

Over the years not enough attention has been paid to this problem by socialists. What is worse is that some people who call themselves socialists have added to the ecological crisis, for example, the Soviet Union was responsible for one of the biggest nuclear accidents in human history in Chernobyl. The Chinese Communist Party continues to supervise the destruction of nature through its single-minded and ruthless adoption of capitalist production methods.

The distortions of Marxism and socialism whereby the values and standards of capitalism are adopted and pursued by “socialist states” needs challenging if we are to fight against the destruction of the environment by capitalism. In the 20th century it was Stalin with his theory of “socialism in one country” and the resultant imperative to compete with and match the West in productive and destructive capacity. He succeeded somewhat but in the process exploited and enslaved the very working class in whose name he ruled. In the 21st century we have to disagree with Hugo Chavez’s “petro-socialism” because the production of more oil might yield more petro-dollars but it means more carbon emissions.

Human beings are part of nature and socialism is humanistic. In today’s world this means there can be no genuine socialism unless it has an ecological component. To emphasise this some people have come up with the term “ecosocialism”. Other comrades have resisted this on the grounds that socialism is inherently ecological. Fine. I think that if calling it ecosocialism will focus our minds on the issue at hand then it is fine for socialists to embrace this new concept or use it when necessary. Remember the debate about “democratic socialism”? It was about the need to emphasise the democratic nature of socialism in the light of its distortions by “Marxist” dictators.

The failure of socialists to take a serious interest in ecological issues has two dangers. The first one is that after the Earth has been destroyed there won’t be a world where we can build socialism. The second danger is that “market environmentalism” will take over, thus sidelining socialists and ultimately leading to the destruction of nature including human beings.

“Market environmentalism” is the attempt to solve the ecological crisis without questioning the profit system – capitalism. The end result is that ordinary people think something is being done when in fact the problem gets worse. For example, the 1992 Kyoto Protocol deal adopted carbon trading as a mechanism for reducing carbon emissions. But since that day carbon emissions have increased and not decreased in the world. Another example is that of recycling. Many people do this but most of it does not help to reduce the problem because the same companies that pollute are often involved in the cycle of recycling.

The ecological crisis is an opportunity for socialists to reach wider layers of people because the environment affects everyone. Also, the ecological crisis can only be solved if the profit motive is severely restricted or eliminated altogether. Capitalism is incapable of solving the ecological crisis because it is the main culprit. Socialists can point this out in concrete ways and make concrete demands that are transitional in nature; drawing in more and more people and forcing the capitalists to either capitulate or show their true colours.

Already some capitalists are sponsoring a denialist message and getting exposed in the process. The obstacles to socialists embracing the ecological struggle are the following:

  • The historical distortions of (what is) socialism.
  • No tradition of taking up environmental issues or ignorance about these traditions e.g. the less known revolutionary anti-nuke movement.
  • Viewing environmental issues as “liberal” or “reformist” or “soft” e.g. the much ridiculed “save the whales” campaign, the disparaging if humorous reference to “tree huggers”.
  • Allowing the adherents of liberal ideology to define and appropriate environmental issues and struggles e.g. Greenpeace, “we are the experts”, “it is our issue”, a kind of division of labour in the struggle.
  • Ignorance by socialists of the seriousness, gravity and nature of the ecological crisis. For example: as a socialist do you know what exactly caused the tsunami?

The socialist/communist vision

Workers produce all the wealth. With their hands they make the things we need in order to live. They do this together. Collective production is the foundation of modern existence. Imagine if workers not only produced but also organised and controlled production, that is, instead of the bosses controlling and owning the wealth it was workers cooperating with each other in order to produce the things that they need. Imagine how this would allow the basic needs of everyone to be met. Life would be much better and happier. There would be no reason for anyone to oppress or dominate anyone because people, together, would control their lives and make sure that, through their direct control, no one is allowed to dominate, control, oppress or exploit anyone else. When that happens then people would become the best that they can be – and not the worst that capitalism makes them to be (competitive, aggressive and basically sub-human).

Socialism, by getting rid of the bosses’s system and private property, by reuniting producers to the means of production, lays the real possibility of society advancing to communism, the happy society without classes. In the 21st century, into this vision we must inject eco-awareness, what Joel Kovel calls “ecocentrism”, that is, respect for the world’s ecology. Joel Kovel's book The Enemy of Nature is essential reading.

We need to take active steps to address the global ecological crisis by, at a conceptual level, stopping to regard ecosystems as mere commodities to be exploited for profit. Nature is not the “environment out there” but rather -- as Jacklyn Cock has cogently argued in her book, The War Against Ourselves: Nature, Power And Justice: Nature, Power and Justice -- human beings are part of nature.

Kovel argues that we need “ecocentric” production processes rather than capitalism’s profit-driven production. Kovel calls for a struggle to replace the capitalist mode of production with ecosocialism. He defines this new mode of production in this way:

Ecosocialism [is] that society in which production is carried out by freely associated labour and with consciously ecocentric means and ends.

Some ideas on the way forward

To avoid losing the reader’s attention and to be as clear and short as possible I have organised this section in point form:

  • Socialists need to explore carefully the notion of ecosocialism. In this respect we must engage with Joel Kovel’s writing on the subject, among others. We are fortunate in that he will be giving talks in South Africa very soon. Those who can must attend his talks, and if possible record them so that they can be shared with a wider audience of socialists. I think it is important to call on all socialist groups to include the ecological crisis and the ecosocialism in theory discussions and in study groups. Social movement and trade union education and discussion should be asked to do the same. Left intellectuals with access to students and the thinking public should expound these ideas and engage the masses. Ordinary people need to put their stamp on our vision of a future ecosocialist society.
  • We (socialists and other progressives) need to encourage the social movements, trade unions, youth and other mass organisations that we work with to take up environmental struggles. We need to identify issues and campaigns that can help the working class learn more about the ecological crisis. This will involve taking up new issues or identifying an ecological component in present struggles. Some examples of such issues and possible struggles are the following:

- The fight against ESKOM [South Africa's electricity commission] building more coal power stations to make electricity.

- The promotion of the development and use of renewable energy as opposed to fossil fuels.

- The struggle against dumping that is harmful to the environment and the people e.g. fighting for proper garbage collection and cleaning of open spaces in townships and informal settlements.

- The fight against pollution e.g. Iscor on the Vaal, Engen in south Durban, the burning of industrial tyres on the East Rand, etc.

- The fight against capitalist marketing that promotes destructive mass consumption

- The fight against the use of the private car and the struggle for adequate and affordable public transport.

  • The left must develop a set of demands that can unify the struggle around the ecological crisis.
  • We need to popularise our perspective and demands through slogans e.g. Keep the oil in the soil! Keep the coal in the hole! Keep the tarsands on the land!
  • The left must link up with environmental groups e.g. the newly formed Environmental Justice Now! South African chapter.
  • We need to demystify and simplify environmentalism and ecocentrism in order to couch it in workers’ language and align it to workers’ concerns.
  • We need to include ecological issues and demands in left platforms e.g. the Socialist Green Coalition election platform in the last elections and the call by the Conference for a Democratic Left.
  • We need to produce a generic/seminal pamphlet on the environment and the socialist approach to the ecological crisis. Such a pamphlet should explain eco-socialism in a practical way which links it with current struggles in the country and the world.


This very brief paper has set out to explain the basic argument why socialists should take up environmental issues and why there is a need to systematise this into a vision of ecosocialism. It is short in order to be read and understood quickly. There are many aspects which have been left out, for example, an assessment of the idea of the ``commons''and how this can be construed to be an advance on the “human rights discourse”.

Another important discussion left out is the current global economic crisis which the great Immanuel Wallerstein, who recently toured South Africa, suggests has announced the death knell of capitalism.
In writing this I tried to avoid preaching to the converted; my imagined target audience is “a fresh mind”, say, a young person still learning the ABC of the struggle, or an older comrade who has been too busy struggling on the ground to give much thought to these issues.

To such comrades I say: the time has come to take up the struggle to save the Earth and to safeguard nature from capitalist destruction and its structured ignorance. Animals and plants are part of nature. Human beings are also part of nature, they too inhabit the Earth. We need a vision of a world where humans, animals, plants, forests, rivers, mountains, valleys and all other aspects of nature live harmoniously together.

We cannot turn the clock back to the idyllic and uncomplicated stage of primitive communism. But we can embrace the idea of ecosocialism and struggle to realise it practically in order to advance to communism – the classless society.

[This is a slightly edited version of a paper presented to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation conference, ``The Global Crisis and Africa: Struggles for Alternatives'', Randburg, South Africa, November 19, 2009. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Trevor Ngwane's permission.]

Submitted by Abu Ammar (not verified) on Mon, 11/30/2009 - 17:50


Much of what Trevor says here, speaking from Africa, is compatible with what the World Socialist Movement has been advocating as a radical Marxist non-Leninist ensemble of parties since the SPGB was set up in 1904.

WORTH CHECKING OUT This movement embraces Luxemburg's critiques of Leninism, a lot of Trotsky's critique of Bolshevism under Stalin, what Left Oppositon communists in Germany in the KAPD and people like Paul Mattick and Otto Ruehle were saying in the '20s and '30s, non-Bolshevists like Pannekoek and much more.
It is surprising that WSM is not attracting working-class ecosocialists looking for a kind of Marxist socialism untainted by Bolshevism, or the constant celebration of Trotsky and 4th international micro-vanguards. Also surprising that people like Kovel (and Wallerstein) are not aligned with WSM, helping to build it. No existing socialist movement is more opposed to capitalism, its progressive reform, and a world of separate nation-states than WSM. Its roots in part in William Morris's Marxism open the door wide to an ecocentric international anti-authoritarian revolutionary socialism, where class-struggle anarchists who look to Emma Goldman can also feel at home.