Response to "Programmatic Challenges of Ecosocialism" (Pre-Convention Document)

by Barry S.

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In Number 3 of the Solidarity pre-convention discussion bulletin, there are two submissions on ecology.

The first of these, by Steve B, Gene W. and Jessica L., is a draft resolution to be voted on at the convention. If this resolution were adopted, it would mark the abandonment by Solidarity of the core of the Marxist program.

What does the resolution replace Marxism with? In the name of the urgency of the need to avoid the danger of “the present mad rush over the cliff of climate change,” the resolution states that we “must be in the vanguard of those demanding that the necessary transformation of our present industrial culture begin to take place now. We cannot wait for ‘the revolution.’”

How do we do this? The resolution says, “In addition to demands on individual capitalist enterprises and on the state we will support, promote, and participate in the creation of alternative communities and experimental organizing models where groups of people (smaller or larger) attempt to begin living in ways that consciously separate themselves from an industrial culture, using less energy and more ecologically sustainable methods of production: organically growing their own food, for example, making their own clothing, participating in collective domestic work, child care etc. Such ‘prefigurative’ efforts begin to have a new vitality and importance in the age of global climate change.”

The resolution admits, “Traditionally, the Marxist movement has seen its goal of social revolution as counterposed to ‘utopian’ institutions of this kind. The argument has been that any attempt to live a life-style which extracts individuals or small collectives from the capitalist economy cannot issue an effective challenge to the bourgeois state and, therefore, allows that state and the system it upholds to continue its domination by default. According to this traditional vision, such alternative utopian communities either remain marginal and isolated or else, if they grow to any size and influence, end up having to play by the rules of the market which means that they are faced in the end with all of the contradictions of the capitalist system itself.”

But the resolution rejects this critique: “The impending ecological catastrophe gives such endeavors a new urgency and a popular appeal which goes well beyond anything that existed in the past.”

This is self-delusional nonsense. There is no broad movement to set up such utopian communities. This idea has support of at most a few thousand (probably much less) intellectuals who have yet to bestir themselves to try to actually launch such projects.

In addition, for Solidarity to turn its energies to trying to set up such collectives would mean abandonment of building a revolutionary socialist organization. The two goals are incompatible, as are the levels of energy to try to reach both.

This proposal falls into the category of schemes to transform capitalism without taking state power. The traditional Marxist critique of such schemes holds true today no matter the urgency of the ecological crisis, or all the other things capitalism is inflicting on us, including unending wars, world depression, impoverishment of most of the world and much of the U.S., the destruction of public education, massive attacks on democratic rights, etc. etc. all of which are of the utmost urgency.

The broadside attack on Marxism in this resolution goes beyond its substitution of utopian socialism in place of Marxist revolution.

The resolution finds the main problem not with the ownership and control of industry by private capital, but with industry itself. It advocates placing “considerable limits on the potential for the future evolution of industry and technology…. We reject the thesis (or perhaps better, the unstated assumptions) that the primary means by which we pursue a solution to polluting technology and industry is the further evolution of technology itself, and that the ‘productivity of labor’ can continue to grow exponentially without challenging our ecology. These ideas are false and completely out of tune with a contemporary scientific understanding.”

Whose “contemporary scientific understanding”? (I leave aside that the productivity of labor doesn’t “grow exponentially”.)

The resolution continues, “We therefore embrace the need to significantly substitute a ‘subsistence economy’ for an industrial economy, even if some industry may remain as a subordinate and subsidiary part of that process. We note that in ecosocialist circles ‘subsistence economy’ does not refer to the production of a bare minimum for survival (though that is a common misunderstanding). It is defined as local production for local use….Long-range exchange with other geographical regions will still take place, but it should become a strictly secondary economic activity.”

“Local production for local use” means a drastic curtailment of trucks, railroads, cargo ships and other means of transporting goods. Obviously steel production would be almost eliminated – or would the local communes adopt the “backyard furnaces” of Maoist delusion to produce tiny amounts of steel? In addition to suppressing domestic trade, it also means rejecting global trade, which would cause the greatest depression the capitalist world has ever known.

Would electricity still be produced? How? All renewable energy technology requires and rests on the existence of the web of industry and trade. Will there still be computers? How will they be powered? How will copper for wires be mined? Batteries require chemicals dependant on vast mining enterprises and world trade. How will the silicon materials that make computers work be mined, refined, made gaseous and deposited in tiny complicated circuits?

What about medicine? Can the sophisticated machines of modern medicine be manufactured without modern industry? How will drugs be produced? Perhaps the local communes will revert to only herbal medicines and praying?

If we combine these proposals with the “prefiguration” of an ecosocialist society contained in the resolution, which includes people “growing their own food” and “making their own clothes,” this is a formula for the drastic reduction in the standard of living to pre-industrial levels.

That could only be imposed on the working class by outside military force.

The resolution states that the present level of the productive forces is sufficient to achieve a world economy that could “create a society right now in which ‘from each according to her ability, to each according to her needs,’ might be established and sustained.”

This statement is false, but I won’t take that up here. More important, the resolution’s proposals to drastically deindustrailize amount to so wrecking the present level of the productive forces that the statement’s premise is abandoned, and therefore its conclusion.

Turning back humanity to pre-industrial levels would only mean the resurrection of “all the old crap,” and the perpetuation of class-divided society, not a fantastic utopian subsistence economy built on local communes, which could only exist in a few peoples’ heads, never in reality.

There is much more that is wrong with this resolution that I won’t take up. Suffice it to say that it should be voted down at the convention.

The spirit of this resolution is one of despair and pessimism about humanity. In contrast, we should continue to embrace the optimism about human potential in the quotation from Trotsky that the resolution disparages:

“Marxism sets out from the development of technique as the fundamental spring of progress, and constructs the communist program upon the dynamic of the productive forces. If you conceive that some cosmic catastrophe is going to destroy our planet in the fairly near future, then you must, of course, reject the communist perspective along with much else. Except for this as yet problematic danger, however, there is not the slightest scientific ground for setting any limit in advance to our technical productive and cultural possibilities. Marxism is saturated with the optimism of progress, and that alone, by the way, makes it irreconcilably opposed to religion.”

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