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Why "ecosocialism"? Some Comments on a Word

by Ian Angus
Climate and Capitalism

I remember my shock when I heard that the respected Australian socialist newspaper Direct Action was being replaced by something called Green Left Weekly.

“Green Left?” I thought. “What does that mean?”

Maybe the term had been used before, but I had never heard it — and it just seemed wrong to me. Either it was redundant (you can’t be left without being green, and vice versa) or it meant adapting socialist principles to the ecology movement, most of which seemed pretty flaky to me. The name broke with hallowed tradition — it didn’t include any proper Leninist newspaper words, like Militant or Vanguard or Worker or Socialist. It was awkward to say — it just sounded silly.

I’m glad to say that my doubts were misplaced. The new name reflected a real shift on the Australian left, a convergence of revolutionary Marxists and a leftward-moving current in the green movement. The new newspaper has maintained a very high level of socialist analysis and commitment, but with much better coverage of environmental issues than is found in other socialist newspapers. Green Left Weekly has earned a worldwide reputation as one of the best socialist newspapers anywhere. Today, no one thinks that “Green Left” is redundant or awkward to say.

* * *

I offer that small reminiscence because today, seventeen years later, another new term is moving into the socialist mainstream, and, once again, there are doubts about whether it is appropriate, or necessary, or just silly.

The term is “ecosocialism.” The person who is challenging it is my Australian comrade Dave Reilly. The great irony, of course, is that frequently writes for Green Left Weekly.

Let me be clear: this is not the political debate of the century. Obviously I like the term — it has appeared in the heading of Climate and Capitalism since day one, and my email address is ecosocialism-at-gmail.com. But it is just a word. The issues we really need to discuss are political. What do we stand for? Above all, what do we do? If we get those things right, disagreements about the labels we use really don’t matter. This is a discussion of terminology, which (as I’m sure Dave would agree) is a side issue at best.

But since it has been raised ….

* * *

The discussion began an announcement of an international meeting of ecosocialists, which will be held in France in October. Dave Reilly kindly posted that announcement in his LeftClick blog. A reader asked, “ECO-socialism? What’s that?” and Derek Wall responded by pointing him to the Wikipedia entry on ecosocialism. Dave Reilly posted “What is ecosocialism?” on June 7 and amplified his post with a comment a few days later.

Dave argued that what we need to focus on is “trying to turn the greens red and the reds green” and deciding on program and action.

“So how is that advocacy improved if I say it’s ecosocialism? Is my argument improved if I employ an exotic word which by default also serves to mark my projected system off from already existing social isms?

“I mean, do we need another brand of socialism or for that matter yet another international? …

“My view would be that there is one socialism — the one you actually get by dint of struggle and such. And if it is a real socialism it's also a green or "eco" one. Derek Wall has written about green Venezuela and is very active in speaking to that topic. So my feeling would be that we can do a lot more for greening the left and lefting the green by being keener to talk up the Bolivarian process as a process that begins to prove how ecological socialism can be. …

“I'm not being picky in way of word play — but rather I see it as a tactical issue, not one so much about categories. Are we better served by developing a new brand of socialism as though the one we've got lacks all the attributes we need?”
My first reaction to this was surprise that Dave saw “ecosocialism” as “an exotic word” and “a new brand of socialism.” While not as venerable as “green left,” and certainly not a household word, the term “ecosocialism” wasn’t invented last week or even last year.

  • James O’Connor’s important 1991 essay, “Socialist Ecology” uses the terms “ecological socialism” and “socialist ecology” frequently, as do many other essays in his 1998 book Natural Causes. Those terms predate the contraction “ecosocialism” but mean much the same.

  • Joel Kovel (USA) and Michael Lowy (France) wrote and published An Ecosocialist Manifesto in 2001. It has been widely distributed and posted on many socialist and green websites.

  • Joel Kovel’s widely-read 2002 book, The Enemy of Nature, expanded on the concept of ecosocialism at some length. (I don’t agree with everything in the book, but it is absolutely essential reading for all left-greens and green-lefts.)

  • More recently, the British group Socialist Resistance has held two successful public conferences on ecosocialism, and has published a book called Ecosocialism or Barbarism. The U.S. journal Capitalism Nature Socialism has changed its subhead to include the word ecosocialism. The latest edition of Socialist Register includes essays about ecosocialism. There’s a session on “Ecosocialism versus Capitalist Ecosuicide” at the U.S. Social Forum at the end of this month.

  • And I could go on.
At least in North America and Europe, “ecosocialism” has been in use for a while — it’s neither new nor exotic.

Of course frequent usage doesn’t make the word appropriate. Maybe it is just trendy nonsense. Maybe it will join pet rocks in the trash bin of short-lived fads.

But I doubt that will happen, because the increasing use of the term “ecosocialism” reflects two parallel developments in the real world:

  • There’s a growing current in the green movement that is turning to Marxism to find tools for understanding the ecological crisis, and are concluding that only socialism offers a way out.

  • And there’s a growing current in the Marxist left that has concluded that socialism will only succeed if it is based on sound ecological understanding and practice. Many argue that Marxism can be enhanced and extended by insights from the modern ecological movement.
Both groups include a wide range of views, but the trends are encouraging, as is the fact that many people in both currents were influenced to re-examine their views by the examples of Cuba and Venezuela.

Obviously I am in the second group. I’ve considered myself a Marxist for more than forty years, but my study of ecology — including Marx’s very important writings on the subject — began far more recently. I know I’m not alone in that. In most places the Green movement and the Marxist left simply didn’t mix until fairly recently. (Australia seems to have been an exception to that.)

The first time I used the term “ecosocialism” in an article, a comrade in Canada objected that it “suggests that socialism has been deficient in this regard.” I replied:

    “Precisely so! While concern for ecology was a fundamental part of Marx’s thought, and the Bolsheviks were certainly aware of the issue, the sad fact is that the Marxist left has ignored this issue for many decades. We need to correct that — and we need to do so publicly and explicitly.

    “Using “ecosocialism” … is a way of signalling loud and clear that we consider climate change not just as another stick to bash capitalism with, but as a critically important issue, one of the principal problems facing humanity in this century.”
    That can also serve as a reply to Dave’s objection to “developing a new brand of socialism as though the one we've got lacks all the attributes we need.” In the abstract, plain-old-socialism is fully committed to defending the environment. But in the concrete, most of the so-called socialist countries in the 20th Century had appalling environmental records, and most socialists outside of those countries either ignored the issue or argued that socialism would automatically solve all such problems so no special ecological program and analysis was necessary.

    If the term “ecosocialism” helps to distinguish us from that unfortunate tradition, then using it may do some good. If it encourages socialists to consider carefully how Marxist insights apply to ecological problems, and how ecological insights can strengthen Marxism, all the better.

    And if someone has a better name for this process of restoring and reinforcing the deep connection between Marxism and ecology, I haven’t heard it.

    * * *
    A final word on “Ecosocialist International” which is an informal working name for the organization that may ultimately emerge from the discussions we’ll begin in Paris in October.

    The email announcement of the meeting said that the name is “very much open to discussion.” I’m one participant who will argue against that name. Not because of “ecosocialism” but because to me the name implies something comparable to the great Internationals of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Even if that were desirable, we don’t have sufficient agreement on analysis, program, and strategy — let alone the human and other resources! — to establish such a body.

    What I hope will emerge from this process is a loose structure for communication and coordination among people who define their views as ecosocialist. Whatever name we choose should reflect that.

    The participants in the Paris meeting will undoubtedly disagree on many things — but as Dave Reilly says, the challenge before us is to “turn the greens red and the reds green,” and that’s a project that I hope ecosocialists (including those who don’t like the word) can work on together.

    8 Com:

    Dave Riley | June 14, 2007

    Thanks for the feedback on my rather rhetorical query, Ian. I've not stopped thinking about this issue since I last published on the topic/term/word.

    So I'll take up a few points:

    Green Left Weekly.

    Two adjectives that were first used in the eighties by the Dutch GreenLeft party --GroenLinks. It was a label made in heaven for the sort of merging that was sought between the green and the red. But as I had suggested the sort of discourse that was buoyed up by this linking has dissipated a lot since by a electoralism that has confused the agenda as so many green parties have embraced parliament as their primary strategy.

    So as we are being rebooted to rethink today by the massive carbon pressures, this interface is very relevant and its dynamical context makes a lot of sense -- (as I said) "turning the reds green and the greens red."

    However, I guess my feeling on "ecosocialism" was that it was a long way from that promise as it doesn't have its own inbuilt logic or its own adjectives. It is a category --almost separate or exotic.

    This may not seem important, I agree -- but to go out onto the streets and hold stalls and paint banners and such -- are we going to be better served by primping this "ecosocialist" notion?

    Thats' my hesitancy. I can tell you that out there among the swell, "green + left" works and as a linguistic tool such that I doubt that there is anything better available in English(or in Dutch?)

    However, I think that there is a current which can be defined as "ecosocialist "and I can see the wisdom in adhering to the term. I'd forgotten that there does exist elements within Marxism who aren't green & who are determined to keep the discourse on issues of class and such through an unfortunate habit of dismissing the whole green movement as middle class protest.

    So it's not true, I think, to assume that all socialists are green -- look at Alexander Cockburn!

    But where the REAL WORK needs to be done is on the "soft" issues of personal lifestyle, individual carbon footprint and such which were the core advocacies of so many greens. Their argument was that individual changes can make the difference and that socialism was a far off and unnecessary fantasy handicapped by celebratory notions of factory production. I guess William Morris had a point when he raged agaiinst the British Marxist sects as being too caught up notions of “gas and water socialism” .

    What I hope is emerging now is a rethink on that by both sides. A greater appreciation of the detail by socialists and a recognition by some greens that we have to address the core promise of socialist democracy and economy and planning.

    This isn't a mere word game of course as the thirty year history of the modern green movement had to straddle the 'problem" of the already existing socialisms of which people like Rudolf Bahro, a key green theorist, was a victim. And today the core dates for the development of ecosocialist advocacies are located AFTER the collapse of Communism and AFTER a period of time when the electoralist legacies of the German Green Party --as played out elsewhere --are found to be a bit wanting. So if people need a transitional moment to facilitate their new engagement I think that's fine -- even if it is called ecosocialism.

    I'm coming to this issue while caught up in the debate within the Socialist Alliance here on our primary environment marker of its emissions targets. We have already embraced the most radical green platform here in Australia -- as compared to the Greens for instance -- But our task isn't just about that--it's also about enriching perspectives with concrete politics -- about how we are going to reduce our carbon emissions to a very very low level in a very vary short period of time.

    One of the local ecosocialist theorist (according to Wikipedia), Ted Trainer, has been very congratulatory about our efforts so far.

    But what has been in play, and I think we need to state this bluntly, is that conservative currents in the green parties -- the "Realos" -- have worked very hard to expunge green platforms of any red seeding.Here in Australia green partying began with a purge. And of course the mantra has been sung over and over again that the greens are "neither left nor right -- but green!" What a cop out thats' been! So much a delightful code of political conduct that the same ideological massaging has been embraced by Blair Labour in the UK as its starting point -- neither left nor right but "what you get". En route unfortunately, green lifestylists have marked the reds down for their their rigid disdain of counter cultural and lifestyle issues...and their irrelevance! The reds in turn have dismissed the greens as localists contained by touchy feely processes who are determind to be apolitical.

    So it has been a confused exchange that has been distracted and biased so I guess a new agenda item --such as ecosocialism? --is useful to the degree that people seek an ism to identify with and to do their homework around in way of theory.

    My feeling is nonetheless that the sustainability and carbon solutions -- have no where to go but towards a socialist model of economy, control and democracy This is what is already happening because the lifestylists and counter culturalist have sustained and enriched an ecological perspective that we can all embrace in our quest to apply our politics not just locally, but nationally and internationally. And THAT is where the real dialogue is at: what is to be done? What HAS to be done?

    Like in Venezuela -- this 21st Century Socialism -- has a self evident logic that we can all share in so that there's not the competition as there once was but the creation of something we can all enrich with our own points of view and experiences.

    [I'll return to your blog and write a commentary on "dialectical biology" which is my hobby area sometimes.]

    Jim Jay | June 14, 2007

    I have difficulties with the term, although purely on an aesoteric level rather than a political one.

    I believe that any consistent socialist should have an understanding of environmental problems and how to combat them just as any decent green should have a strong analysis of capitalism and the fight for social justice. It doesn't always work that way of course.

    The problem with terms like ecosocialism - labels - is they tend to help abstract the debate rather than concretise it. At the end of the day it's not whether class struggle (for instance) is built into someone's political dictionary but whether they act as a class fighter. We need to bring down some of the barriers to unity and I think to create new terms that fence off ideas from one another could be problematic. Particularly when that term is one that sounds like it originated in a class room rather than the street.

    We should, in my opinion, be “trying to turn the greens red and the reds green” by bringing those currents together and where we can operating within those arenas - advancing green left perspectives and actions.

    To over intellectualise risks turning the whole thing into an academic subject with its own coda, jargon and potentially enclosed ideological spaces - and I think that's a danger we'd best avoid.

    Dave Riley | June 14, 2007

    I forgot one other point I meant to make in my extremely discursive address to --or at least around --the topic...and that was that a lot of green theory and activity in this country grew out of the anarchist movement and in that greening a lot of the hostilities of anarchism were imported also. So a lot of the debates, as I recall them, were formatted by that perennial divide as it was played out in contemporary issues. Here the core adaptation that was logged in the transition was to reclassify the state and embrace it, not as the enemy of libertarianism, but an enabling state. This of course opened up green politics to a sharp parliamentary focus.

    So there was this separatism that I guess projects like Green Left Weekly tried to bridge. The irony is that GLW has I think been rather successful in doing just that. It HAS establish that perspective and engagement zone and has garnered a lot of important environmental journalism to its credit.

    It would have been preferable that maybe something else could have been achieved in way of a more formal and organisational coming together but that didn't happen...but there were some very exciting beginnings such as the 1991 "Green Alliance" campiagn for the Brisbane City Council.

    But now? Who knows? Suddenly things are all rather serious and there's a lot of people and groups looking for allies and comrades.

    I guess my round about point is that this merging is about politics and people in motion and is not dependent so much on labeling. It's not theoretical so much at all, because the key part is in the doing and the doing as much as you can in partnership with others.

    At the moment the Socialist Alliance here strives for and sometimes attains working alliances with the Greens and we usually support Green candidates ahead of most everything else(except our own of course). There are some SA members who are ALSO members of the Greens although that's proscribed in their rule book.We don;t care what other party peope are in -- Greens , ALP, Marxian outfit, etc it's fine by us.

    And here in Brisbane it was the SA that instigated and primarily organised the Environment Day Protests here last week.

    I'm trying to point out that there exists this comfortable merging with green issues that doesn't really need the label to foster it into being.It's not seen as separate from any other area of activity.

    But I guess, it needs to be said that some of us have been straddling the red and the green for over 15 years.

    AN | June 17, 2007

    I think it is a mistake to seek unity between the Greens and socialists.

    if we are to define greens as those who put environment as their first concern, then there is no necessary correlation with social justice, and on a global scale the Green Partoes are not part of the left - In France for example they suppoted the EU constitution including the obligation for every state to increase its military spending, and commitment to privatisation. In germany they stand for privatisation, nuclear energy and support for German military involvement in bombing Serbia, and noe occupation of Afghanistan. In ireland they have just agreed to prop up a right wing government, in exchange for almost nothing.

    What i do think is that the left should recognise that in so far that the Greens promote concern for the envonment they are progressive, and we should seek every opportunity to work to promote that progressive agenda.

    It is worth pointing out that across Europe, the Greens are less successful than the communist or post-communist radical left in almost every country, and in many countries much less successful - we should not only look at the not English speaking lands.

    Also the left has to become green. We are uniquely placed to do so, becaue we oppose the profit system that drives destruction of the environment.

    AN | June 17, 2007

    That should read that the German greens "now support occupation of Afghanistan. "

    Dave Riley | June 17, 2007

    Afghanistan? And so too do the Australian Greens inasmuch as we can tie them down.But then , so too does the ALP and by default its crew of ALP lefties.

    There is no dispute over the SO OFTEN political preferences of the Greens and their "realos" politics. Look at Ireland. But they exist as a political phenomenon that for the past 25 years rose up as a historical substitute to a new parties of the left. They coulda become the sort of mass party outside the bourgeois majors that we think is a good thing to become.

    But you are wrong to generally dismiss green parties as a unity partner because you don't like their politics.

    We had the same debate here in the SA four or five years ago and even the ISO came around. Their original argument was a preference for the class base of the ALP here as it created a qualitative different formation and opportunity. I fear that so much of the British left is enamoued with schematic class blinkers like that such as so little of it entertains a considered orientation to the green parties. As I have pointed out before, socialists were agents in the creation of the green party formations here so a lot of us know the animal and its ecology from very close quarters,

    The Greens here have maybe 2000-4000 members and among those are activists moving left, burnt out exers from far left parties, folk leaving the ALP to a a point further left, etc -- in fact many of the attributes the British SWP would like to think is the role of Respect.

    It is also the case that it is hard to generalise on the politics of the greens here because that varies from state to state. OUR problem is that they are very much in our way. They dominate the electoral space to the left of Labor --a space that they own, that may be shrinking, but which has for the past 4 years been stable at about 6-7%. In some states they almost outpoll the Liberal Party in some urban regions and in some inner city seats they pull in 20-25% of the first preference vote.There is no way forward for the SA here without negotiating that issue as the leftward veering voting pattern prefers Greens first and still separates the SA from the issues they may vote Green for.

    Thats' a fact. So the challenge is: what to do about it? What tactics should we pursue?

    And we have done some various interventions in partnership with these greens and we'll do more while being often supportive and and other times critical. And when they do wrong we say so and try to foster a public debate.

    Our political problem is that there is no organised left political current in the Greens so we have to make do with a sort of generalist perspective. with the aim of impacting on the greens and steering them away -- or a least a section of the Greens -- away from the sort of politics that was played out in Dublin last week.

    We have, and the left has, no choice for the simple fact that they OWN a copyright on a colour and any greening of the left has to negotiate that fact as I've in part been trying to explain. It's not just about changing your theory, but about changing your practice.

    The associated issue is that the Greens aint just green. Here they took off in the wake of the 2003 Iraq exercise as they were seen as the antiwar party..and they were antiwar.So it is also issues of social justice and the like that they have embraced such that the territory on the left is broader than just environmentalism. I get the feeling you want to mark off the greens as a sort of Liberal Democrat formation but for the moment, here their platform is on paper anti-capitalist although no one would deploy such a word starting with "c" as part of it.

    And people of the left -- the amorphous milieu of trendies and serious types alike --in turning away from Labor ARE VOTING GREEN --- they're not voting for us yet I can tell you. The Greens are their first choice -- the party that at least electorally they identify with. And generally, even the soc groupuscules who want to ignore the SA, will call for a first preference vote for the Greens followed by the ALP . They do that because to do otherwise would be sectarian.

    And then there is the clincher: any future party of the left here has to include a gaggle of people among whom may now be Greens members. So we are very open to engagement and partnerships with the Greens but, as is the case, are often thwarted by their extremely narrow electoralism they pursue. So a left"green engagement is crucial to politics on the ground and regroupment politics here in the Antipodes..

    AN | June 18, 2007

    I don't disagree with that Dave.

    We centainly need to recognise that Greens are almost always progressive over the environmental agenda, and on that reaosn alone need to be part of any broad progressive movements and coalitions.

    They can also play a vital role on other progressive social issues.

    My point is that I am scepitcal whether they are ever going to be part of a left regroupment, becaasue they are a different political project from that shared by the political left.

    Dave Riley | June 18, 2007

    OK, I can see that. But I'd also consider that the "political left" does not share a regroupment agenda such that it is very difficult to presume that this left -- at least what's currently organised in various outfits -- would be any more regroupable than a group of greens.

    However, the left is focused on the party question to the extent that it
    enhances at least the debate around the coming together option. The Greens, in contrast, have a crude anti-partyish perspective that is enhanced by such shibboleths as consensus decision making as an overpowering modus operandi.

    But then, I have to say we don't know the answer because neither is proven in practice in our own environments.While I'm cognizant of the European green parties experience I'm not sure, just yet, whether I can generalise on the current as keenly as you do. There was a unique situation in post war West Germany that facilitated a Green Party patent -- the divided country, the ban on the Communist Party after the war,the nazi destruction of workers oragnisations, the Brandt brand of social democracy, etc which enabled a sort of indigenous development which in being replicated elsewhere has taken on other formulations. And in Germany the rise of the Left Party cannot be separated from the survival and renewal that occurred in the PDS in the East.

    In France the Green Party , I guess, is marked off within a plethora of other left and moderate left vehicles ranging from the SP, French CP to the LCR et al without the particular social democratic experience we've had to endure in our two countries.

    But the over-riding one it seems to be for these green parties is a parliamentarist road which over time -- long or short -- fosters a situation where these formations cease to have activist roots and orientations.

    These are liberal parties with, in many instances, utopian aspirations which become soon enough formatted by capitalism.

    To my mind THAT'S the divide -- not so much that they are green and not red or left. The realos vs fundoes divide is as relevant to the left as it is to the greens.

    What's fascinating here in regard to that is that despite the sudden panic surge over global warming the Greens aren't rocketing up the polls. They're stationary. Whats' happening?

    So the question has to be an open one as to how any broad response to global warming politics is going to pan out and, I guess, what formations may be needed or thrown up. I'm also suggesting that in anecdotal terms the SA here is drawing to itself Greens members and ex Greens because of political issues like these.

    So to say: they aren't part of a regroupment agenda would be myopic or premature.

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