Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, November 25, 2006

On 'Eco-Marxism'

The news that self-declared 'Eco-Marxist' blogger Derek Wall has won the position of joint principal speaker of the British Green Party - along with another member of the 'Green Left' faction - is encouraging indeed. In the past the Green Party have been quite sectarian towards Respect - standing against Salma Yaqoob and George Galloway for example - and in Leeds the Green Party have even joined a Rainbow Alliance with the Tories and Liberal Democrats. The victory of two socialists shows that the majority of Green Party members reject the Party moving to the Right in such a way, and instead show that they want the Green Party to keep to its pacifist and environmental roots.

However, Derek Wall's victory means it is probably timely to discuss Wall's attempt to synthesise environmental or ecological concerns with Marxism to form 'Eco-Marxism' or 'Eco-Socialism'. As well as his blog, Wall has written a book entitled Babylon and Beyond: the economics of anti-capitalist, anti-globalist and radical green movements setting out his politics - which I admit that I have not read. However, a while back, I asked him why his analysis of Marxism in the book was written under the oddly titled chapter heading 'Imperialism Unlimited', given Marxists since Marx onwards had tended to be rather opposed in general to capitalist Imperialism - and indeed had been among its leading theoretical critics. Wall kindly responded by sending me what he described as 'a taster' of his argument - taken from Chapter 6 of Babylon and Beyond, and I propose to do now what I should have done when he sent me it - discuss it on my blog.

Derek Wall starts his chapter on 'Imperialism Unlimited: Marxisms' with a quote from the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez about manatees:

Captain Samaritano had an almost maternal affection for the manatees, because they seemed to him like ladies damned by some extravagant love, and he believed the truth of the legend that they were the only females in the animal kingdom that had no mates. He had always opposed shooting at them from the ship, which was the custom despite the laws prohibiting it. Once, a hunter from North Carolina, his papers in order, had disobeyed him, and with a well-aimed bullet from his Springfield rifle had shattered the head of a manatee mother whose baby became frantic with grief as it wailed over the fallen body. The Captain had the orphan brought on board so that he could care for it, and left the hunter behind on the deserted bank, next to the corpse of the murdered mother. He spent six months in prison as the result of diplomatic protests and almost lost his navigator’s licence, but he came out prepared to do it again, as often as the need arose. Still, that had been a historic episode: the orphaned manatee, which grew up and lived for many years in the rare-animal zoo in San Nicolas de las Barrancas, was the last of its kind seen along the river.

‘Each time I pass that bank,’ he said, ‘I pray to God that the gringo will board my ship so that I can leave him behind all over again.’
(Marquez 1989: 331-332)

After that slightly odd start (the relevance of which - like the title of the chapter I still cannot fathom), and a brief dig at just how many different Marxist organisations exist in the modern Marxist movement in Britain compared to the one unified Green Party, Wall decides to discuss Karl Marx:

Much of what he wrote in the nineteenth century is surprisingly robust. Marx can be amusing, exciting to read and is generally more subtle than many Marxists and critics admit. His core arguments, that capitalism is unjust, tends to keep expanding, and leads to alienation and to the growth of monopoly are at least clear. Yet some of the most important links between his ideas were never made. So for instance he argues that profits tend to fall and that capitalism is prone to recession, but he ‘did not develop a complete theory of crisis' (Went 2000: 65).

This kind of misses out probably the central aspect of Marx - that he grasped not only contradictions within the capitalist system but also that an international working class would be formed by the development of that system and would be forced to struggle against the capitalist class - the owners of the means of production. Marx saw before anyone that the working class would grow and inevitably be forced to politically organise itself independently - and in emancipating itself collectively this class would be the class which would emancipate the whole of society - it would be a revolutionary class.

Wall then moves onto Engels:

Engels, his co-author tried to reconstruct much of what Marx wrote after his death in 1883. Scraps of paper and crossed out paragraphs were put together to finish the volumes of Capital, his masterwork. One gets the impression that much of Theories of Surplus Value was scratched on to cigar packets left under his bed. Presenting Marx’s ideas so they would appeal politically to the working class, Engels emphasised the elements of Marx’s thought that suggested that capitalism was doomed and communism was inevitable.

I think this is kind of unfair on Engels, who like Marx insisted the possibilities ahead were either socialism or barbarism, but Wall does capture something here about the politics of the Second International which did so much to spread socialist ideas among the newly militant rising working class movements of Western Europe (we should not of course forget that much of the Second International was unfortunately quite Eurocentric).

The Second International Marxism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries enhanced the view that Marxism was a form of scientific socialism, a political version of physics based on laws of historical progress:
What distinguished Marxism in this context was its rare ability to link revolutionary fervour and desire for change with a historical perspective and a claim to be scientific. Almost inevitably, therefore, the inherited ideas were simplified, rigidified, ossified. Marxism became a matter of simple faith for its millions of adherents (McLellan 1980: 2).

Again, many of the parties of the Second International did have a religious flavour to them - but remember - they were operating often in conditions where they were struggling for basic democratic rights (many workers still did not have the vote - remember all women did not get the vote in England until 1928) but already the fact than many workers did have the vote was creating huge numbers of votes for independent labour parties for the first time ever. Moreover the Marxism of the Second International deserves more than this caricature - at their best the likes of Kautsky and Plekhanov for example were deeply impressive and original thinkers.

Anyway, Wall then passes over the failure of the Second International to oppose the First World War - which highlighted its reformist nature - as well as the birth of Soviet Power in the October Revolution of 1917 but leaps straight into an attack on Stalinism - which he blames on Leninism in the traditional manner:

Marx, whatever his faults as an individual and a thinker, has often been ill served by his disciples. The establishment of Communist Parties under Lenin and then Stalin turned Marxism into a dry dogma, a religion. The almost universally dismal political practices of far-left parties in the twentieth century, from Cambodia to Camden, have produced cartoon Marxisms, largely devoid of intellectual content.

Sadly, here Wall seems to have produced a cartoon picture of Marxism - one where Lenin is turned from the greatest rebel and dissident thinker of the twentieth century into a precursor to Stalin, one where outstanding Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci and Leon Trotsky - or indeed the heroic few who rallied to the Left Opposition around Trotsky at the time Victor Serge called 'midnight of the century' might as well have never been born for all the attention Wall gives to them.

Yet Wall now draws a distinction between 'Marxisms' - though sadly not the one between the vision of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky's democratic and revolutionary 'socialism from below' against Stalin's 'socialism from above'. Wall ignores that 'river of blood' dividing the Marxist movement completely, but instead sees the birth of 'academic Marxism' as more significant - quite brave given Wall is an Economics Lecturer himself - though those wanting to understand this trend more fully should read Perry Anderson's Considerations on Western Marxism.

...the dogmatism of the Marxist Parties led to a split between academic and activist Marxism. While some important Marxist intellectuals such as Gramsci and Althusser have been members of the Communist Party, or other far-left parties, or politically active in different ways, many more have enjoyed little or no real as opposed to theoretical participation. Academic Marxism has become a minor industry producing conference papers, books and doctorates. While there is nothing wrong with this and advances have been made, much theorising has been obscure and devoid of political implication. Some of the more obscure variants of Marxism with the least apparent connection to practice such as the Japanese Uno school are extremely important in providing detailed and sophisticated accounts of how modern capitalism works. While we may agree with Uno theorists that anti-capitalists ‘must not shy away from using abstract theory to make sense of the world’ there is a danger that academicisation may hide the contributions Marxism can make to real-life struggle (Albritton 1999: 181).

As Wall concludes: Marxism has become a tree with a thousand branches. Lenin invented the concept of the Communist Party, having split his Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks. Some pre-Leninist Marxist Parties like the DeLeonists exist as tiny political fossils, even today. Trotsky divided from Stalin to create the Fourth International; this has splintered many times and today one tiny group has launched a movement for a Fifth International. Mao also separated from the Stalinist orthodoxy. Fidel Castro, while a leader of an 'orthodox' Leninist Party once linked to Moscow has broadly combined guerrilla warfare strategy, third world nationalism and most recently environmentalism in his Cuban version. Euro communism, an exception to revolutionary hostility to capitalism, has been a distinct strategy of Communist Parties keen to prosper in parliamentary systems. Intellectual divisions include Western Marxism (a diverse and untidy tradition including the Frankfurt School), analytical Marxism, several varieties of post-Marxism, regulation theory, critical realist Marxist, etc. Marxist doctrine as developed by Marxist parties has sometimes functioned as a tactical weapon against others on the far left rather than a serious guide to action. Marxist parties may maintain their distinct identities in a small but crowded field through differences of ideology.

Now to try and unravel all this seems to Wall to be a mission too far. 'For the reasons outlined above any serious review of Marxist anti-capitalism will be something of a roller-coaster ride. The Marxism that effortlessly linked exploitation, class struggle, capitalist crisis and communist victory is no more.' Yet that Marxism has never been totally vanished - it is indeed as John Molyneux argued in 'What is the real Marxist tradition?' (a work one wishes Wall had read or would read) the key to understanding all the different 'Marxisms' that have emerged since - as one can judge them on the key formulation of Marx: 'The emancipation of the working class must be the conquest of the working class itself'. One can therefore relate how Stalin, Mao, Castro, the Fifth International, Che Guevara, Western Marxism etc stand on this principle, judge them accordingly and find them a betrayal, perversion or distortion of the Marxism of Marx.

To be fair, Wall then does discuss some of the best thinkers in Marxism around today, for example discussing Alex Callinicos, a leader of Britain’s largest far left group the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and his An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (2003) 'which provides an example of how Marxist political groups have tried to understand globalisation and interact with the wider anti-capitalist movement'. Yet he discusses Callinicos alongside Fidel Castro, former President of Cuba, who according to Wall 'combines the contradictory strands of Marx’s own writings to show that the development of a global market has both costs and benefits. His ideas can be read in On Imperialist Globalization: Two Speeches (2003)'. Indeed Wall told me that 'the best stuff I read' on Marxism 'came from Castro who looked at how capitalism/globalisation builds the foundations of a future socialist society by raising the forces of production and how they need to be transcended to get to an ecosocialist society based on use values'. One wishes that rather than reading Castro's speeches Wall had instead gone to Cuba to see the true nature of Castro's attempt to build 'an ecosocialist society based on use values' - as modern Cuba has nothing in common with Marx's vision of Communism (though this is not to say Marxists should not defend the Cuban state against US Imperialism).

While praising Marx as a thinker, one wishes Wall would read more of Marx and less of 'Marxists' like Castro. Marx himself, as John Bellamy Foster has shown, did take environmental questions seriously - there is arguably no need to be an 'Eco-Marxist' if one understands what Marx himself had to say on the question - and then try and develop that tradition of thinking. As Marx himself put it in Capital:

Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as good heads of the household.

I would need to read more of Wall's book before I could decide whether 'Eco-Marxism' was destined to be yet another perversion of Marxism - though going by Wall's crude lumping together of Lenin and Trotsky with Stalin and Mao the signs are not good. Yet clearly debates between Marxists and environmentalists are healthy, and obviously it is vital that the unity achieved in the Campaign against Climate Change needs to be deepened. The election of 'Ecosocialists' to the leadership of the Green Party will hopefully strengthen the cooperation between socialists and environmentalists in Britain - and stop the current moves towards what EP Thompson called Exterminism among our rulers. Yet if we are going to inflict a defeat on our rulers on this question, and indeed every other question, then 'Eco-Marxism' is not enough - we need to go back to the real Marx - the Marx of what Wall calls 'class struggle' and 'communist victory'. Sadly, I rather doubt my local branch of the Green Party - currently in bed with Tories and Liberal Democrats - would ever sign up to that.

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At 8:58 pm, Blogger Louis Proyect said...

Wall sent me a review copy of his book but I have not gotten around to it. I wonder why he wanted me to review it since I am a fairly high profile defender of the view that Karl Marx was an early environmentalist, especially around the question of soil fertility. I should add, however, that my views on this are not my own but simply a repeat of what John Bellamy Foster has written. I may get around to Wall's book if for no other reason that it should be answered properly.

At 9:02 am, Blogger Derek Wall said...

the quote doesn't make sense with out the second from Albritton, I am contrasting more 'instrumental' and structural marxisms. and having some magic realism fun in the process.

The whole book is an examination of different kinds of radical economics.

would you like the green or ecosocialism chapters to review?

At 11:40 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Derek - If you are happy to send me either the Green or ecosocialist chapters, then great - sure I'll try to get round to them at some point. Thanks.

I like magic realism fun, don't get me wrong, but I think sometimes using language in this way can be a leap too far to be really helpful to explaining complex things - using manatees to critique one type of Marxism seems to me to be one such leap.

Louis - I agree, Wall's book does deserve to be answered fully at some point - though by a Marxist with a better grasp of economic theory than me though.

At 5:22 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...could be worse


At 4:11 pm, Blogger Derek Wall said...

remind me snowball of your email, are you in yorkshire? I am doing a meeting in feb in huddersfield for yorkshire green party members!

At 5:01 pm, Blogger Snowball said...


I am in Leeds not Huddersfield...


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