- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Sunday, 22 January 2012 07:38
- Written by Ian Angus
Edited text of keynote presentation by Ian Angus to the Climate Change Social Change conference in Melbourne, Australia, October 2, 2011. First is a full-length video version. Second is the text. Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism, and co-author, with Simon Butler, of the new book Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis.
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How to make an ecosocialist revolution
by Ian Angus
Meetings such as this play a vital role in building a movement that can stop the hell-bound train of capitalism, before it takes itself and all of humanity over the precipice. Building such a movement is the most important thing anyone can do today – so I’m honored to have been invited to take part in your discussions.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx predicted that unless capitalism was eliminated the great productive forces it unleashed would turn into destructive forces. And that’s exactly what has happened.
Every day we see more evidence that capitalism, which was once the basis for an unprecedented wave of creativity and liberation, has transformed itself into a force for destruction, decay and death.
It directly threatens the existence of the human race, not to mention the existence of the millions of species of plants and animals with whom we share the earth.
Many people have proposed technological fixes or political reforms to address various aspects of the global environmental crisis, and many of those measures deserve serious consideration. Some of them may buy us some time, some of them may delay the ecological day of reckoning.
Contrary to what some of our critics claim, no serious socialist is opposed to partial measures or reforms – we will actively support any measure that reduces, limits or delays the devastating effects of capitalism. And we will work with anyone, socialist or not, who seriously wants to fight for such measures. In fact, just try to stop us!.
But as socialists, we know that there can be no lasting solution to the world’s multiple environmental crises so long as capitalism remains the dominant economic and social system on this planet.
We do not claim to have all the answers, but we do have one big answer: the only basis for long-term, permanent change in the way humanity relates to the rest of nature, is an ecosocialist revolution.
If we don’t make that transformation we may delay disaster, but disaster remains inevitable.
As the headline on Climate and Capitalism has always said: “Ecosocialism or barbarism: There is no third way.”
But what do we mean by ecosocialism? And what do we mean by ecosocialist revolution?
What is ecosocialism?
There is no copyright on the word ecosocialism, and those who call themselves ecosocialists don’t agree about everything. So what I’m going to say reflects my own perspective.
Ecosocialism begins with a critique of its two parents, ecology and Marxism.
Ecology, at its very best, gives us powerful tools for understanding how nature functions – not as separate events or activities, but as integrated, interrelated ecosystems. Ecology can and does provide essential insights into the ways that human activity is undermining the very systems that make all forms of life possible.
But while ecology has done very well at describing the damage caused by humans, its lack of social analysis means that few ecologists have developed anything that resembles a credible program for stopping the destruction.
Unlike other animals, the relationship between human beings and our environment can’t be explained by our numbers or by our biology – but that’s where ecology typically stops.
In fact, when ecologists turn to social questions, they almost always get the answers wrong, because they assume that problems in the relationship between humanity and nature are caused by our numbers or by human nature, or that they are just a result of ignorance and misunderstandings. If only we all knew the truth, the world would change. All we need to do is to tinker with taxes and markets, or maybe advertise birth control more widely, and all will be fine.
The lack of a coherent critique of capitalism has made most Green Parties around the world ineffective – or, even worse, it has allowed them to become junior partners in neoliberal governments, providing green camouflage for reactionary policies.
Similarly, many of the biggest green NGOs long ago gave up on actually building an environmental movement, preferring to campaign for donations from corporate polluters. Because they don’t understand capitalism, they think they can solve problems by being friendly with capitalists.
In contrast, Marxism’s greatest strength is its comprehensive critique of capitalism, an analysis that explains why this specific social order has been both so successful and so destructive.
Marxism has also shown that another kind of society is both possible and necessary, a society in which destructive capitalist production is replaced by cooperative production, and in which capitalist property is replaced by a global commons.
What we now call ecology was fundamental to Marx’s thought, and, as John Bellamy Foster has shown, in the 20th century Marxist scientists made major contributions to ecological thought. But on the whole, the Marxist movements of the 20th century either ignored environmental issues entirely, or blithely deferred all consideration of the subject until after the revolution, when socialism would magically solve them all.
What’s worse, some of the worst ecological nightmares of the 20th century occurred in countries that called themselves socialist. We only have to mention the nuclear horror of Chernobyl, or the poisoning and draining of the Aral Sea, to make clear that just eliminating capitalism won’t save the world.
Now there is an easy answer to that – we could just say that those countries weren’t socialist. They were state capitalist, or something else, so criticism of their environmental crimes is irrelevant. But green critics will rightly call that a cop-out.
People in the Soviet Union and the other soviet bloc countries thought they were building socialism. And for most people worldwide that was what socialism looked like.
So whether we call those societies socialist or give them some other label, we need to answer the underlying question: what makes us think that the next attempts to build socialist societies will do any better than they did?
Our answer has two parts.
The first is that eliminating profit and accumulation as the driving forces of the economy will eliminate capitalism’s innate drive to pollute and destroy.
While mistaken policies and ignorance have caused some very serious ecological problems, the global crisis we face today isn’t the result of mistaken policies and ignorance – it is the inevitable result of the way capitalism works.
With capitalism an ecologically balanced world is impossible.
Socialism doesn’t make it certain, but it will make it possible.
The second part of the answer is that history is not made by impersonal forces. The transition to socialism will be achieved by real people, and people can learn from experience.
This is demonstrated in practice by Cuba, which in the past 25 years has made huge strides towards building an ecologically sound economy, and which has repeatedly been one of the few countries that meet the WWF’s criteria for a globally sustainable society.
The lesson we must learn from that achievement and from the environmental failures of socialism in the 20th century is that ecology must have a central place in socialist theory, in the socialist program and in the activity of the socialist movement.
Ecosocialism works to unite the best of the green and the red while overcoming the weaknesses of each. It tries to combine Marxism’s analysis of human society with ecology’s analysis of our relationship to the rest of nature.
It aims to build a society that will have two fundamental and indivisible characteristics.
- It will be socialist, committed to democracy, to radical egalitarianism, and to social justice. It will be based on collective ownership of the means of production, and it will work actively to eliminate exploitation, profit and accumulation as the driving forces of our economy.
- And it will be based on the best ecological principles, giving top priority to stopping anti-environmental practices, to restoring damaged ecosystems, and to reestablishing agriculture and industry on ecologically sound principles.
A sentence in John Bellamy Foster’s The Ecological Rift precisely and concisely explains ecosocialism’s reason for being.
There, in three sentences, is the case for building a movement to save the world, the case for an ecosocialist revolution.
As I’ve said, it will not be easy, but I cannot think of a more important and worthwhile cause.
Working together, we can put an end to capitalism, before it puts an end to us.