Ecology and Socialism

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 90 - October 1989

This article continues FRFI's discussion of the rise of environmentalism and the attitude of socialists to this. ALWYN TURNER raises some of the fundamental questions which the left must deal with. For this reason we are pleased to publish it, although FRFI does not share all of the views expressed.

The seemingly irresistible rise of environmentalism both in Britain and elsewhere, concretised by the Green performance in the European Community elections in June, has thrown all established political organisations into some confusion. The issues themselves are nothing new - ecology has been moving to the forefront of radical politics for two decades - but the last year has seen them gain a new urgency. For many on the Left, the emergence of a radical party to the left of Labour that is capable of gaining a mass vote has offered a temptation to jump the green bandwagon alongside the Tories, the Labour policy reviewers, even the National Front (who now have their own 'ecological' group, Greenwave). Despite all the talk of a new agenda based on green socialism, however, there remains a fundamental and irreconcilable difference of philosophy between ecology and socialism.


That difference lies in the relationship between humanity and nature, a relationship that is critical to both green and socialist ideologies. For some ecologists, 'Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy' (Lynn White Jnr, 'The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis' in G de Bell ed. The Environmental Handbook New York, 1970), drawn from the Genesis creation myth in which God places human beings at the summit of creation, having power over all other life; human society is seen as engaging in a process of moving towards perfection/divinity, a process in which the rest of nature is peripheral. Here, claim ecologists, is the arrogance of humanity which has brought us to the current environmental crisis.

For socialists, however, today's world is the product of a protracted struggle by humanity against the limitations of nature; the relationship is not static - as depicted in Genesis -but dynamic. The critical phase in that struggle came with the development of agriculture, with the conscious attempt to plan for the future provision of food and to reduce the day-to-day pressures of finding sustenance. That phase of development in human social organisation produced, and was strengthened by, a psychological transformation in humanity, evident in the move from earlier religious beliefs in nature goddesses to a belief in gods that transcended and controlled nature. Marilyn French's account of the dawn of agriculture stresses the significance of the idea of control, the assigning of a religious value to a human attribute. The birth of agriculture, she argues, coincides with the birth of male-dominated religion:

'Because women had for millennia been associated with nature, had been seen as having special relation with it to which men were marginal, the new value [of control] gave men a centrality and power they had previously lacked. In addition, since the new god was transcendent, having power over nature without being touched by it, those who worshipped him claimed the same position: as their deity had power over the earth, men had power over creatures of the earth, animals and women. '(Marilyn French, Beyond Power: Women, Men and Morals London, 1986)

The division of humanity between men and women and the power structures that resulted thus reflected the initial decisive split between humanity and nature. Women were perceived as being more 'natural', part of an old order, while men held the hopes of the future and the building of a new world.

Throughout human history, the same division has been mirrored and multiplied - the oppressed have always been projected as being inherently more 'natural' than the dominant forces of society: the forces of progress, of science and of technology. The relationship between humanity and nature thus interacts with the subsequent class and other divisions in society, justifying and legitimising oppression, racism and imperialism.

For greens also, and particularly for deep ecologists, the birth of agriculture is the turning point in human history - the moment when human beings consciously began to assert control over nature, thus denying the essential interdependence of humanity and the environment. The process of destruction may not have begun until the North European agriculture revolution with the move away from scratch-ploughs, but the seeds for the present course of destruction are there in the alienation from nature. It is this that must be combated.

Ultimately, such a doctrine is doomed to failure - it requires an enormous shift in the mass consciousness, a rejection of the unique role of humanity and a denial of the basic human experience of life. Nonetheless, it may in the short term acquire some form of legitimacy which socialists must be prepared to challenge. The division of humanity and nature is a double-edged development, bringing not only the oppression of women and the justification of racism but also the material and cultural benefits that, in a fair society, could enrich the entirety of the human world. The solution to humanity's problems does not lie in the facile dismissal of such benefits, nor can the culture/nature dichotomy be resolved through the exclusive emphasis on natural 'values' on the other hand, does not disown the long struggle against the dictatorship of nature, but instead fights for the unity of all humanity in the continuing campaign for justice and freedom.


But while deep ecology is unlikely to make any long-term progress, the more conventional forms of environmentalism which argue for the safeguarding of natural resources for future generations, are surely going to play an ever more central part in mainstream politics. Such arguments are, of course, to be welcomed, since they are essentially based on the socialist principle of equality, albeit extended to allow for a temporal dimension. And in a genuinely environmentalist politics, this emphasis on equality has a global dimension that has all too often been absent from British socialism.

The current demand for green policies, products and programmes, however, jeopardises the radical edge of environmentalism. The establishment response to an ecology that actually challenges the very foundation of capitalism is to so distort green proposals that, far from environmentalism informing every other area of politics as Greens propose, it is instead broken up and its less controversial and least threatening elements subsumed into the ideal of the free (or slightly regulated) market.

Green politics is no longer an optional extra, but an integral part of giving the capitalist renaissance an acceptable face and thus ensuring its survival.

At its most sophisticated, this can seen in the rise to prominence of John Patten's advisor at the Department of the Environment, Professor David Pearce, with his image of a system in which the environment can be given an economic value, thus allowing one to balance the books between destroying irreplaceable natural assets and the creation of profit - 'We can get a monetary handle on these things.'

And the response from within the Labour Party is similarly to try to neutralise the green challenge without engaging its arguments. The soft Left adopt an attitude of green social democracy, calling for the use of tax reforms as a way of penalising companies and industries that offend against the environment, for central government to take a direct role in the planning of new industries, for trade unions to participate in planning - but all of it within the framework of a market economy, whose existence is unchallenged.

Meanwhile the Labour Left strives establish the connections between environmentalism and pre-Marxist forms of socialism, drawing on, for example, the writings of William Morris and the co-operativism of Robert Owen. In reality, however, the abandonment of the co-operativist option by mainstream British socialism left the nascent green socialist movement to ally itself to the anarcho-pacifist tradition, where it remains to this day: environmentalism has more in common with Tolstoy and Gandhi than it does with any branch of the Labour Party. There no likelihood whatsoever of the Labour leadership abandoning its entire history of centralised bureaucratic industrialism in favour of a libertarian community-based network that would replace the State in a green world. However much the Socialist Conference talks of the need for a new vision of a decentralised, co-operativist socialism, it is clear at the Labour Party is not the means to that end.


Despite the differences that exist between ecology and socialism, it should go without saying that the warnings of impending environmental catastrophe are relevant to everyone, and demand to be given a high priority in any political analysis. Whilst the timescale of the current crisis is unclear (the Friends of Earth were warning in 1969 that humanity had only five years to clean up its act), the issue is clearly pressing. It is not enough to adopt an ultra-leftist position that the environment can only be safeguarded in the context of a socialist revolution either in Britain or throughout the world (the WRP's 'ecology is just a bourgeois diversion'). Equally, however, socialists cannot afford to prioritise environmentalism to the exclusion of socialism (the Communist Party's 'New Fad for the New Times').

The critical question in relation to environmentalist strategy is the role of the State in achieving real change. The Greens are in a contradictory position of believing in the dismantling and decentralising of the State, whilst simultaneously working to try to force concessions from it: thus begging the question of why, if the centralised State can be used as a vehicle for progress, we should seek to remove it? The performance of the Greens in the EC elections is likely to heighten this contradiction; where the Green Party previously could only really be seen as a pressure group masquerading as a political party, the knowledge that it might be possible to achieve some electoral success has held out the hope that political power can be conquered within the traditional structures. Obviously such a task is extremely difficult in Britain's electoral system, but the victory of the Realto wing within die Gruenin indicates the way that Greens here may choose to go alliances and coalitions with mainstream reformist parties in an attempt to wield some political influence may have been ruled out for the present by the British Greens but they are sure to return.

From a socialist perspective, such an approach is doomed to failure since it is based on a false analysis of where power is located in a bourgeois democracy. Once it is recognised that the secret State, operating through the civil service, the military, the financial institutions, the judiciary, industry and the monarchy and justified by the mass media, is the true seat of power, then any pretensions to seek progress through the electoral framework that conceals the State are clearly shown to be futile. The anti-authoritarian side of ecology implicitly recognises this, though its voice is often inaudible in the reformist clamour of those demanding change at any price. Socialists must stand firm on the principle that this State will never be the agent of progress, that it is inherently incapable of reforming itself and that it must consequently be swept away.

But there are areas of common ground that can usefully be explored beyond environmentalism's parliamentary ambitions. The areas for analysis and action that ecology has produced must be taken up.

Socialists must argue, for example, alongside radical Greens, that transnational companies are the major enemies of both the environment and humanity. Even if Britain, either alone or in the company of other West European countries, elected a Green government, its actions would be limited not only by the State but also by the fact that the transnationals would simply export their attacks on the environment in their quest for profits. The exploitation of the South - the effects of which are made visible in both human and environmental terms in single events such as the Bhopal chemical massacre as well as in the continuing deforestation of South America and the Pacific islands - is beyond the control of single governments. If humanity is to survive (let alone progress), it is imperative that the power of the transnationals be destroyed. Here environmentalism can be expanded from its immediate area of concern to merge with the more established Left theme of support for those fighting for self-determination. To take one specific case, the blow that would be struck against the economic imperialism of the transnationals by the socialist liberation of South Africa would have positive ecological as well as political effects.

Similarly the campaign against nuclear power, if put into the context of the wider military-industrial complex, can be a meeting point for socialists and environmentalists in a more powerful way than has existed before. The fight against nuclear power and the exposure of its links with nuclear weaponry, by focussing attention on the influence of the military machine, offers possibilities of reducing its authority to the benefit of the entire world.

Perhaps less obviously, the attacks by environmentalists on the role of the Catholic Church in blocking effective birth control programmes offers the possibility for socialists to broaden the attack into an assault on the reactionary role played by Catholicism throughout the world and an analysis of the role played by superstition in the hindering of social and political progress.

Most importantly, the political establishment must not be allowed to seize the issues of environmentalism. The emerging conventional 'wisdom' is that the real threat to the future of the world comes from developing countries - a racist position being espoused by those who have spent the last decades doing their utmost to exploit the Southern nations. At the same time, the Western establishment is congratulating itself on the rush towards capitalism by East Europe, thus opening new markets for companies eager to offload products considered too sensitive for ecologically-aware consumers in the West.

The connections between cultural, economic and military imperialism and the threats to the environment need to be made explicit and campaigns around the issues built, preferably in conjunction with Greens. The effects could be twofold to develop the public consciousness of the continuing role of imperialism in the world, using current Green awareness as a springboard, and simultaneously to protect and extend the radical perspectives of environmentalism as the lure of power becomes ever more manifest in a drift to the centre.

In other areas, the Left clearly needs to learn from the connections made by the Greens. The fact that it took the Greens to point out the part that the consumption of meat and cash crops played in the exploitation of the South is to the discredit of the Left. It is precisely this ability to link personal action with global concerns that has ensured the relevance of environmentalism and its success amongst radical youth.

It is then crucial for the Left to ensure that the revolutionary implications of ecology are not lost as the mainstream attempts to assimilate the issue. Anti-imperialism, anti-racism and anti-capitalism are all implicit to a greater or lesser extent in ecology, but they are vulnerable in the search for compromise, and are potentially threatened by the Left as well as the Right.

Many socialists, for example, heralded the refusal by dock-workers to handle cargoes of toxic waste as a major victory. Whilst any linking of workers' action with environmentalism is to be applauded, the absence of an anti-imperialist dimension in the wider struggle means that such cargoes are liable to be dumped in southern countries made desperate for foreign capital by the pressures of the international market, but lacking any facility for disposing of the waste.

If the potential of environmentalism to challenge the establishment is to be realised, it is imperative that the Left fights to uphold the basic principles of socialism, whilst seeking to unite the campaign for a sustainable world with the struggle for the emancipation of the international working class. Today more than ever, the old self-serving nationalist tradition of British socialism is no longer simply a millstone around the neck of the British worker but a reactionary and dangerous trend that threatens life throughout the world.  


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