The Eco-Socialist Debate

What is Eco-Socialism?

Saral Sarkar

Few days ago I read a longish interview that Prof John Bellamy Foster, had given to a leftist journal called Left Voice (LV). Prof Foster is a renowned American Marxist scholar and a leading eco-socialist theoretician. Among many other things, he expressed in the interview his high regard for Naomi Klein, who had, 2-3 years ago, published a best-seller entitled This Changes Everything—Capitalism vs. the Climate. That would not have been any problem for anybody. But Prof Foster also said : "She is aligned with eco-socialism". What the phrase "aligned with" actually meant was not clear. So Richard Smith, another renowned American eco-socialist, took it as meaning Klein is an eco-socialist. According to Smith, who has read Klein's 576 page book, she is not an eco-socialist. He criticized Prof Foster for thinking so, probably meaning thereby also that Foster was thus diluting the content of eco-socialism. Thereafter several comments appeared in the website of the forum the Simpler Way. I too published there my first quick response to the debate. Below I am posting a revised and expanded version of my response.

It is not really important to know whether or not Klein is an eco-socialist. There are probably a few hundred leading, prominent and intellectual activists in the movement to prevent the worsening of climate change (call it whatever you will) or any other popular environmental movement. It is not possible to know what all they have written or said or done. Many people join such one-point movements because they support the movement's particular limited cause demand something or prevent something. That is good. Also we eco-socialists should join them if we think they deserve our support. But parallel to such popular one-point movements, it is necessary to build up a really eco-socialist movement. Only in such a movement, if and when it emerges, will it be useful, even necessary, to know who is a true eco-socialist. For that, however, it is necessary first to have clarity about the essential points and convictions of eco-socialism.

In the early 1970s, when I read the book Limits to Growth, I had exactly such a thought as Klein expressed in the phrase "this changes everything". I was in those days a supporter/friend of political activists, whose parties and groups were roughly called CPI (Marxists-Leninist).Their basic theory ("ism") was called, broadly speaking, Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Tse-Tung-Tliought. The common point between them and me was only that they and I were all socialists.

After reading Limits to Growth, I exclaimed : My God, if that is all true, then it changes everything. But was it all true? What I read there was, for me at least, convincing. After all, nobody could deny that non-renewable resources are limited and would sooner or later be exhausted, that even renewable resources such as fresh water and fertile land are available in limited supply. And one could see that even in a poor, rock-bottom low-wage country like India not everything could be recycled. Every city had to have a waste disposal site. A few years later, I read in a serious German journal that even Soviet communist scientists had said that the conclusions of the report to the Club of Rome were irrefutable. I thought: well, then it is impossible to build up a socialist society in India. I/we had in those days no other conception of a socialist society than the one we had received from Marx, Lenin, Mao and their disciples: (put briefly) in regard to production, prosperity through development of the productive forces; in regard to distribution, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need; in regard to exercise of power, governance through the associated producers etc. It was simply a conception of cornucopian socialism.

That was the beginning. I started distancing myself from Marxism, Leninism and Maoism, although I and the Marxist-Leninist-Maoists I knew remained friends at the personal level. More thinking and more reading led me to eco-socialism. All that took place in the 1970s, before any knowledge of climate change existed. Now think of this: Klein, a 45-year-old highly educated Western journalist, suddenly had her awakening in the second decade of the 21st century, when she learnt something about climate change, and she concluded that capitalism is the enemy of our planet's climate. And she wrote a 576-page book on the subject. .And there is so much tam-tam about it.

Let us now come to the essential points of eco-socialism. They are the convictions that : (1) there are limits to growth—not only to economic but also to population growth; (2) we have already overshot these limits to a dangerous level; (3) there are no technological solutions to the global resource and pollution problems; (4) therefore the world economy must now be subjected to a process of deliberate contraction and gradually brought to a sustainable steady state; (5) this contraction must proceed in a planned way, otherwise human societies would collapse one after the other; (6) both the burdens and benefits of economic contraction must be distributed equitably: otherwise citizens would not accept the planned contraction; (7) the goal must be to roach a sustainable and egalitarian steady-state economy and society at a much lower level than today's.

Taken together, these essential points/convictions may be called eco-socialism. Let those who have read Klein's book now say whether she may be considered to be aligned with eco-socialism. I have more important things to do.

However, before concluding this text, I would like to point out a few flaws in this debate between Bellamy Foster and Smith.

(1)  Smith maintains, both in the title of his critical comment and further down, that "Klein is... not an eco-socialist". But Bellamy Foster has reduced the question to "Is Klein a socialist?" That is not good for creating clarity. For if the two terms did not mean different things, there would not have been any need to coin the new term eco-socialism in the first place.

The determinant element in the concept eco-socialism is the prefix eco. And that means the rejection of industrialism. To be a good socialist one only needs to reject capitalism. But to be an eco-socialist one must also reject industrialism as a future perspective for mankind, and agree to a program of de-indusirialization (often clumsily called de-growth)—of at least the overdeveloped countries to start with. I do not see this difference taken up in the debate. (It won't do, however, if you agree merely to transfer the excessively polluting and resource-and-labor-intensive industries to China, India and other relatively under-developed countries, and then import the products of the same industries for consumption at home.)

(2) Bellamy Foster writes that Klein defended "Hugo Chavez's 21st century socialism in Venezuela." This information is irrelevant for the debate. No sensible person could ever think that "Hugo Chavez's 21st century socialism" was socialism. I always called it petro-socialism, which totally depended on the country's oil bonanza. Chavez only distributed the revenues from it more equitably. As a result of this good deed, Venezuelans forgot how to produce food on their own land. Chavez was a good man, that's all.

(3) Also irrelevant, not important, is the information that "she [Klein] is openly anti-capitalist". One can rail at capitalism and yet not be a socialist. Example : Pope Francis of Rome. Moreover, even if one is a socialist, one is not necessarily aligned with eco-socialism.

Vol. 50, No.4, Jul 30 - Aug 5, 2017