Programmatic Challenges of Ecosocialism (Pre-Convention Document)

by Steve B., Gene W., and Jessica L.

Posted June 9, 2013

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[Note: The following text is submitted by its authors as a draft resolution for our July convention. It has gone through a process of discussion in the ecosocialist working group, but responsibility for its contents rests with the signers—Steve.]

Part I—history and contemporary reality

In 2003 the Fourth International adopted a resolution titled “Ecology and Socialism.” (Find the text online here.) While not perfect this document does begin to develop a serious critique of previous Marxist practice. Others have also attempted to bring Marxism up to date on this question. The prevailing approach, however, has been limited to going back through Marx’s writings in order to look for those elements that acknowledged the ecological disaster being generated by capitalism during his time, along with the need for human society to develop in ways that were more in tune with nature. The focus is on recapturing this ecological Marx and finding in such a rediscovery a correct contemporary orientation.

That approach is inadequate on two grounds. (The FI resolution was at least a bit better, acknowledging some core problems with traditional Marxist thinking.)

1) The insights of the ecological Marx are considerable, important, and deserving of study. The Marxist method remains an essential tool that offers an indispensable guide for understanding the world of which we are a part, including its ecology. But we cannot expect to generate the fundamental reorientation we need today by simply quoting Marx, or by limiting ourselves to the specific concepts he was able to develop. Too much is new in our more recent experience with the ecological impact of human economy, also in the development of ecological science which has advanced qualitatively since the mid 19th century.

2) Virtually all wings of the Marxist movement, since Marx’s time, have developed an ideological perspective that runs counter to ecological thinking in important respects. If the goal of rediscovering the ecological Marx were to confront and uproot these elements of an anti-ecological ideological trend within Marxism itself we might be encouraged by the attempt. But this task seems to receive little or no attention from those who have been most actively attempting to defend Marx’s ideas themselves, as pure abstractions. Pursued in this way the ecological defense of Marx can too easily become an excuse to continue business as usual or, we might say, to do nothing.

Today an ecosocialist perspective must do more than project a traditional working-class-revolution-as-previously-conceived with a set of ecological principles grafted on to it. Sooner rather than later such an approach will confront a fundamental incompatibility (contradiction) and a serious challenge on that account from those who are taking the ecological challenge seriously. It is far better, therefore, for us to recognize and deal with this contradiction now, which manifests itself in two ways.

First, the Marxist paradigm, for generations, has told us that in order to achieve socialist norms of distribution (from each according to her abilities, to each according to her needs) human society first required capitalism to develop the productive forces up to the limit that capitalism could
possibly achieve. This would then be followed by a further development of the productive forces as part of the transition to socialism. That was a reasonable working hypothesis in the 19th century, even for most of the 20th. Today, however, we are forced to acknowledge that history has charted an alternative course. The extension of the life of capitalism far beyond anything that Marx ever dreamt of means that it has been able to surpass (by far) the limits of development that Marx and Marxists traditionally believed it would confront. Based on what capitalism has already achieved in terms of the level of productive forces (with the partial exception of finding adequate renewable and non-polluting sources of energy) we could, on a global scale, create a society right now in which “from each according to her ability, to each according to her needs” might be established and sustained. The primary changes we still need in order to achieve this are social, not material. There is no need for socialism to further expand the forces of production in order to create this kind of social system (with the exception indicated above).

Dueling concepts of “abundance”

Second, Marxists have also based their perspective historically on the idea of “abundance” as the solution to the unequal distribution of scarce goods and services in bourgeois culture. This concept actually comes down to us in two incompatible forms, each of which is problematic from an ecosocialist point of view though for different reasons:

One approach defines “abundance” as a virtually unlimited quantity and variety of goods generated by a continuous revolution in the productive forces (technology) generating a constant improvement in the productivity of labor. Here is how Ernest Mandel presented the matter in his Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory in 1968:

“Only in a society where labor productivity will be developed to its highest point, where an infinite variety of products will be available, will it be possible for man to experience a continuous expansion of his wants, a development of his own unlimited potential, an integrated development of his humanity.”

Trotsky, writing in The Revolution Betrayed, expressed it this way:

“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.”

The current crisis of ecology requires that we now simply reject this mode of thinking outright. There is some quite substantial “scientific ground for setting [a] limit in advance to our technical productive and cultural possibilities.” There will be no limitless expansion of goods and services under ecosocialism, no “infinite variety of products available,” because such a concept is incompatible with a sustained and healthy relationship between human society and the planet on which we depend—as well as because it is not really needed in order to establish what (elsewhere in the same book) Trotsky describes as the kind of norms of distribution that are commonplace in most families or in a decent boarding house.

A second view of “abundance” is more modest, thinking about the problem simply in terms of a “saturation of demand” rather than a limitless supply of everything imaginable. Once every human being can be assured of access to anything and everything s/he might reasonably desire, including those things needed for a meaningful leisure (educational opportunities, recreation, etc.) then the socialist norm of “to each according to her needs” can be established.

Consider the following passage from Paul Burkett in his article titled “Marx’s Vision of Sustainable Human Development”. Burkett offers us a different Ernest Mandel who has, by the time he writes his book Power and Money (published in 1992), shifted from one concept of “abundance” to the other:

“As Ernest Mandel points out, this social and human developmental approach to need satisfaction is quite different from the ‘absurd notion’ of unqualified ‘abundance’ often ascribed to Marx, that is, ‘a regime of unlimited access to a boundless supply of all goods and services.’ Although communist need satisfaction is consistent with a ‘definition of abundance [as] saturation of demand,’ this has to be located in the context of a hierarchy of ‘basic needs, secondary needs that become indispensable with the growth of civilization, and luxury, inessential or even harmful needs.’ Marx’s human developmental vision basically foresees a satiation of basic needs and a gradual extension of this satiation to secondary needs as they develop socially through expanded free time and cooperative worker-community control over production—not a full satiation of all conceivable needs.” [Note: the quoted words in Burkett’s passage are, according to his footnote, from both Mandel and another author, Howard J. Sherman writing in the Review of Radical Political Economics (Winter 1970).]

A sampling of contemporary Marxist literature will demonstrate that there are many who use “abundance” in the sense indicated here (saturation of demand), even though others still favor the “full satiation of all conceivable needs” approach. But even given its more modest interpretation, the concept of “abundance” runs up against a no less intractable difficulty today. The extension of the life of capitalism noted above has resulted in something else, in addition to the development of the productive forces to a degree unimagined and unimaginable in Marx’s time. It has also led to the development of a demand for material things that extends far beyond our capacity to saturate it. The “secondary needs that become indispensable with the
growth of civilization” (emphasis added) have exploded around us in the last half century. It is impossible to saturate those needs that have already (seemingly) become indispensable without destroying the planet in the process. We therefore require a conscious collective effort to reduce demand, lower the expectations that are constantly created and recreated—in a way that is purely artificial, but which nevertheless has real and lasting impact—by a 21st century consumer culture. Without this the ecological limits of the earth will inevitably be violated even if we successfully eliminate private profit and the continuing need of capitalism to expand production (and therefore demand) even further.

The fact is that ecosocialism simply does not need everyone to have her/his own private automobile (we do not, in fact, need for anyone to have a private automobile) nor a big screen TV in every room of the house, private swimming pools, meat three times a day, and much else. All or most socialists who begin to take an interest in questions of ecology today no doubt understand this truth, especially when it is stated in such an exaggerated way. But there is a need to do more than understand. We must actively inscribe this approach at the top of our banner as we attempt to revolutionize society. We should place it in the forefront of our consciousness, and of everyone’s consciousness if we can. Consumerism does not actually satisfy the emotional needs of those who possess so much stuff, and a genuinely fulfilling human life style will be more easily achieved without it. What we need instead is an expansion of collective educational, artistic, and recreational possibilities which can be fully developed even while we drastically reduce the production of material goods.

Programmatic implications

We must, therefore, insert two fundamental propositions into our program today, noting that this represents a revolutionary shift in the traditional Marxist paradigm:

1) The current forces of production (with the partial exception of energy sources which will have to be significantly developed during a transitional period) are more than sufficient to create a human society which takes from each according to her abilities and provides for each according to her needs. We no longer view a further expansion of the productive forces (taken as whole) as a necessary task, an essential part of the socialist transition. Nor is this a prerequisite to the establishment of socialist forms of distribution. Indeed, whole branches of the economy that have become highly developed under capitalism (industrial agriculture and meat production, arms manufacture, private automobiles with their accompanying infrastructure, million-dollar sports and entertainment along with much else) need to be eliminated, while others (such as the use of plastics, air travel, etc.) will at the very least have to be dramatically scaled back.

This does not mean there will be no change or evolution in the productive forces in an ecosocialist world. Scientific knowledge will continue to advance, and with each advance in scientific knowledge the potential for new technologies appears—things that might make human existence more secure, healthier, more comfortable. Certainly the specific forms that production takes in bourgeois society will change dramatically so that an ecosocialist culture can begin to serve human needs (the need for human equality first of all—across geographic spaces/nationalities, ages, genders, physical abilities, and a whole range of other divides that currently prejudice our economic choices) rather than private profit. We insist, however, that whatever alteration/evolution of the productive forces takes place within the context of ecosocialism, it will have to be in accord with our second programmatic principle:

2) All forms of technology and industry that will be maintained/developed by an ecosocialist society, along with our level of consumption, must rely solely on renewable and non polluting inputs, including energy, also produce zero waste—so that a future economy can develop in a sustainable and self-regulating way, requiring no external state or other forms of compulsion.

There is simply no way to avoid the fact that this second requirement will place considerable limits on the potential for the future evolution of industry and technology, in addition to imposing a drastic reduction of the present-day wasteful and polluting consumerist/industrial life style to which all the world seems to aspire at the moment. We reject the theses (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 simply grow exponentially without challenging our ecology. These ideas are false and completely out of tune with a contemporary scientific understanding.

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—making this, rather than the production of commodities for sale, the backbone of economic life. Long-range exchange with other geographical regions will still take place, but it should become a strictly secondary economic activity. There are, of course, great challenges here—especially for those who have become so used to a “global economy,” but also simply objective difficulties that flow from unequal distribution of water and other resources (for example). We do not assert this as an absolute, therefore, and perhaps it will not even be a universal. But it should, nevertheless, constitute the core of ecosocialist thinking. The transformation of economic life in Cuba over the last several decades stands as a model of what is possible.

Finally, the goal of ecosocialism cannot be limited to halting the ecological destruction of the earth. We have to take whatever measures are needed/possible to restore and replenish the ecology of our planet, which is the source of all life and therefore of human life. A future ecosocialist society must live by the credo of those indigenous cultures which have formulated the principle of sustainability to seven generations.

Control over vs. collaboration with nature

Even the most friendly ecological reading of Marx must confront the fact that his thinking is rooted in the idea of human control and domination over nature as the alternative
to nature’s domination over human beings. Consider the Communist Manifesto where Marx and Engels talk about “the subjugation of nature to man,” or Capital where Marx tells us that “labor is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process thru which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.”

An ecosocialist assessment should make a conscious break with this way of putting things. Our new paradigm should seek a mutual collaboration between human beings and nature, searching primarily for technologies that can attempt to work with natural processes in a symbiotic fashion, thereby promoting the needs of both elements in this duality without either one “controlling” the other.

Part II—The Crisis of Ecology and Revolutionary Work in the USA

We are not, therefore, simply adopting “ecosocialism” as another area of work. Solidarity has created an “ecosocialist working group.” But if we approach this new collective as we generally approach our working groups (that is, as a collaboration of comrades engaged in a compartmentalized and self-contained activity) we will have failed to do what needs to be done. Similarly, we are not looking primarily for specific campaigns and activities related to ecology in order to promote them and get involved—though we are seeking campaigns and activities which we might promote and get involved in. We should be attempting, rather, to integrate an ecosocialist consciousness into everything Solidarity does as an organization, from labor work to our thinking around national liberation struggles and questions of gender equality.

1) The most immediate question we face is the capitalist system’s continuing need to expand simply in order to remain viable, which leads inexorably to the present mad rush over the cliff of climate change. Discussion of and action on this question is far more pressing even than considering our vision of an ecosocialist future. We have no illusions that the ecosocialist revolution is right around the corner. But the tipping points for runaway global warming probably are. Thus all of the industrialized nations of the world, with the USA foremost among them, must begin an urgent cutting back on the use of fossil fuels and other ecologically destructive practices (such as industrial agriculture and meat production) which contribute to climate change. Ecosocialists 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.”

The points raised below intersect with virtually every area of public political activity that revolutionaries are, or are likely to be, engaged in.

a) The need to drastically cut back and thereby eliminate humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels and other polluting industrial practices is primarily a collective and social necessity, which can begin with demands for the elimination of military production and other economic sectors that are pure waste from a social point of view. Thus agitation around an end to the arms economy, closing the School of the Americas, etc., can begin to take on a new, ecological dimension and thereby appeal to an even broader set of allies. We need to develop a substantial list of genuinely transitional demands, such as the nationalization of all energy resources and industries, a requirement that those responsible for pollution and environmental damage pay 100 percent of the cost of clean-up and restoration, etc.

b) In the labor movement we can begin to suggest a reinvention of the goals of unions, workers’ centers, and similar formations, no longer focused exclusively (or even primarily?) on questions of jobs, wages, and working conditions for their own members. We need to develop a comprehensive list of things that can be put on the bargaining table in addition to, or perhaps in lieu of, such traditional demands, or else simply implemented by unions themselves as stand-alone social projects. We begin here, however, with a partial list:

  • Corporate funding of union-sponsored (and controlled) food coops, urban farms, community gardens, community supported agriculture, and similar institutions with free memberships for union members and their families, reduced-rate memberships for others in the community;
  • Creation of free or low-cost child care and elder-care services/cooperatives;
  • Proposals for the conversion of every industry toward more ecological alternatives (pollution controls, use of alternative energy sources, production of goods and services that can reduce fossil fuel emissions and other forms of waste on a social level, etc.)
  • Reverse the traditional capitalist trend—also, until now, projected by us as the socialist trend—toward the substitution of dead labor (technology, generally dependent on fossil fuels) for living labor. Given the combined crises of unemployment and ecology the continuation of this trend is a social absurdity. We propose the employment of more workers, using an increase in human labor as a substitute for fossil fuel consumption wherever possible. This is most dramatically the case today in agricultural production but could also have a significant impact in construction and virtually all forms of manufacturing.
  • In light of the ecological crisis, and also just because it will allow workers to live a more human life less dominated by time-on-the-job, a collective social reduction in the work week is more important at this stage than an increase in wages for most organized workers in the USA—especially if unions also begin to focus on the development of social institutions such as child care, food coops, etc. The labor movement should begin an active educational campaign explaining why this is so important and emphasizing its ecological necessity, implemented either through legislation or negotiated as part of a collective bargaining process in individual enterprises.

c) In communities across the nation we can also begin to suggest demands on state and local governments, that they promote and support similar measures—making access to new kinds of services available and providing opportunities for those who would otherwise be unemployed to engage in meaningful labor to help support themselves, their families,
and their communities. We should promote substantial public investment (similar to the anti-smoking campaigns waged in recent years) to educate people about questions of diet and food choices, use of plastics, recycling, and similar questions which require a series of changes in the way individual citizens behave in order to collectively create a qualitative social change.

2) 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.

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.

Today the situation has changed in three important ways:

  • The impending ecological catastrophe gives such endeavors a new urgency and a potential popular appeal which goes well beyond anything that existed in the past. They are also needed right now in a certain objective sense, since human beings are in danger of losing precious knowledge and experience that used to be preserved in traditional agricultural practices or handicrafts and passed down from generation to generation. “Modern” human beings don’t know how to save seeds or produce our own climate-change resistant crops anymore. We no longer know how to take care of and replenish our soil. These movements represent efforts, from the bottom up, to reclaim this lost knowledge and are therefore deserving of our support.
  • The extremity of the divergence between actual human needs and the wasteful practices (of modern food production and the consumer-culture in particular) creates a far greater space that can be effectively occupied by alternative forms of production and distribution. Such an alternative life-style can, today, extract itself more effectively from the domination and control of the market economy which surrounds it. Once again there are significant challenges here, many difficulties and pitfalls. Far more efforts of this kind are launched than succeed. We are not asserting, therefore, that this is now an easy or simple task. We are merely saying that there are greater possibilities than there have been in the past. Conscious ecosocialists should be working with others who are attempting to overcome the difficulties, just as we work with those who are attempting to overcome the difficulties of generating a democratic and class-struggle labor movement.
  • There is now a most urgent need for the simple propaganda aspect of such endeavors—demonstrating in practice that an alternative to consumerism is not only possible, but can actually provide a more meaningful and human existence in ways that most of the population (of the industrialized world, at least) is simply incapable of imagining at the present time.

Thus we should reject any counterposition of the kinds of “political” struggles that revolutionary Marxists have traditionally prioritized, on the one hand, and efforts at a “prefiguration” of the new society we are attempting to create on the other. The old idea that we have to change the social and material conditions first before we try to change human behavior needs to be reconsidered and abandoned. We should see both of these things as profoundly political, and profoundly revolutionary, in a world that is otherwise headed for a climate meltdown.

3) There has never been a lull in struggles of indigenous peoples to defend and protect their land and their rights to
live in traditional ways, but with the new crisis of climate and ecology such efforts are gaining increased recognition on a global scale. Connecting with, supporting, and most of all learning from these struggles is an essential task, especially for those of us who come from Western traditions that have, up to now, been saturated with a worship of “progress” (based on technology) and of an industrial culture. The life styles that continue to be championed by many first nations peoples, like the prefigurative possibilities just discussed, stand as a clear example that there is a viable alternative, one that offers all of us the potential for a meaningful and fulfilling life that is not based on the pursuit of material wealth or consumer goods.

4) We do not know whether even the kind of radical program we are attempting to develop here will be sufficient. Some of the more extreme predictions seem to suggest that it is already too late. But we have to hope that we do still have time to make a difference and proceed accordingly. And we know for certain that if human beings today fail to act with as much urgency as we can muster, there is no hope for the future of our species. It is this sense of an urgent need to radically rethink the way things are presently done in our capitalist economy that we must bring to all of our discussions in every milieu where we are active, attempting to convince masses of people that they should join us in calling for any and all immediate steps, as well as for the ecosocialist future which is the only thing that can save our planet.

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