Paul Hampton reviews Derek Wall’s The Rise of the Green Left: Inside the Worldwide Ecosocialist Movement (Pluto Press, 2010)
Ecosocialism is a fudge. It is a swamp with little coherence and even less ground. This book is impressionistic, superficial and politically flawed. Despite a reputation for ecumenicalism, Derek Wall manages to manufacture a ‘common sense’ imbued with the worst elements of Stalinist necromancy. It is a work fit only for the recycling bin of history.
First, Wall has a fundamentally flawed conception of capitalism. For him, capitalism is centrally about growth. It is growth that he believes is the root of ecological degradation. This is not a Marxist conception of capitalism – i.e. one that is rooted in the exploitation of wage labour by capital. Readers who want a more rigorous Marxist political economy of ecological degradation will not find it in this book. And in fact a socialist economy would grow, to produce for human need, even as it would use resources more ecologically.
Second, Wall’s big idea is that ecosocialism rests on a conception of “the commons”, which he associates especially with indigenous communities. He appears to promote a vegetarian future of composted toilets, fustian smocks and cheerfully living off the land – not something that is likely to appeal to the bulk of urbanised humanity. Yet his existing models are no better. He believes that Chavez’s Venezuela is cultivating a “participatory form of socialism” (p.112); in fact Chavez presides over an oil-fuelled Bonapartist state capitalism. Evo Morales is “explicitly advocating ecosocialism” (p.109), despite running a bourgeois government. Cuba has passed “the most radical ecological reforms in the world” (p.113), despite refusing to allow independent unions and environment movements to organise. Laughably, he cites the John Lewis partnership (p.60) as an example of worker ownership, despite the complete absence of unions and the active hostility of management to unions in that firm. In short the alternative to capitalism he promotes is impoverished, miserable and unattractive.
The third area of confusion is over the social forces for socialism, though in a rare moment of candour, Wall admits that, “Green political theory has often been weak when it comes to the question of ‘agency’ and that for many Greens, “species interest replaces specific class interest” (p.134). The basic problem is his elevation of indigenous struggles, over and above those of workers.
Hugo Blanco’s preface states that “the most important task of the ecosocialist is to defend those at the vanguard of the struggle, the indigenous and peasants in general” (p.xiii). Wall states that “indigenous communities are acting as an increasingly self-confident and well-organised vanguard of ecosocialism right across our planet” (p.136). He believes mystically that “indigenous people and peasants have discovered ways of sharing land that are ecologically sustainable and promote real prosperity” (p.16) and “those most concerned to respect other species are often indigenous people” (p.65). Apparently “ecosocialism is the environmentalism not just of indigenous people, peasants and other communities who live directly from the land, but of the poor” (p.129-130). This is a Narodnik position – and a long way from working class self-emancipation.
Wall states that workers “are often dependent on industries that are polluting and destructive (p.132) and “benefit from polluting technology because it provides jobs” and so “will have little interest in environmental issues” (p.136). Ecosocialists must “engage with trade unions” (p.132), though it seems mainly to make links with indigenous people (p.137). Wall supports the Zapatistas, yet their strategy shows the limits of indigenous agency. Mexico has a large and militant working class, with a quarter of its population in Mexico City alone. Rather than build an alliance with auto workers, textile workers, miners and millions of other proletarians, the Zapatistas largely ignored them. They had pretty much nothing to say about the working-class (teacher-led!) uprising in the state of Oaxaca.
Wall cherry-picks his way through the history of the left to find antecedents for his ‘ecosocialism’. It is a partial, selective effort. Marx and Engels get the usual name-check (p.72), as do William Morris and Edward Carpenter (p.75-76). Astonishingly there is nothing about the socialist ecology of the German SPD before 1914, despite the contribution of August Bebel on town and country, energy and deforestation, Karl Kautsky on agriculture and population, and Karl Liebknecht on cars, as well as the social-democratic Friends of Nature organisation. Instead a salutary quote from Rosa Luxemburg waxing about songbirds opens the book.
There’s a nod toward Leninist Russia (p.77), but nothing on wider Russian Marxist contributions of Plekhanov, Bogdanov or Bukharin at the height of the revolution. Instead Trotsky is panned on the basis of a few paragraphs about moving mountains that he wrote in a book about literature. Perniciously, Wall ignores what Trotsky wrote about science and about waste and hyper-industrialisation. And there is no mention of the discussions on nature, geography and materialism among the Comintern (e.g. Wittfogel) in the 1920s.
Wall manages to discuss the Frankfurt school of Western Marxism (p.82) without mentioning Alfred Schmidt, whose book The Concept of Nature in Marx (1962) predated Rachel Carson and the rest of the separate environment movement that emerged in the 1960s. He at least admits that many earlier ‘ecosocialists’ such as Andre Gorz, Alain Lipietz, Rudolf Bahro and Daniel Cohn-Bendit did in fact reject socialism as they embraced ecology (p.88). However Wall simply fails to explain the disjuncture of socialism and ecology from the 1930s, or the central role of Stalinism in creating this schism. It betrays an ignorance of the history of socialism unparalleled for one trying to refound the entire tradition.
For all his apparent chumminess, Wall reserves particular venom for the revolutionary left. Apparently “the far left in many countries” – especially Britain and Argentina – is “isolated from society, divided over esoteric disputes and splintering with almost continuous motion” (p.125). Allegedly there exists a kind of “Leninist gnosticism” – i.e. search for a secret knowledge of transformation. We are allegedly “political sects too fixated on ideological purity to act” (p.127). Instead he prefers just about anybody else to the “arid sectarianism” (p.141) of the far left.
The extent of Wall’s political incoherence is witnessed by three stances. First, his columns for the Stalinist Morning Star, the paper of the Communist Party of Britain. He is happy to help give them the veneer of a paper of the broad left, while they continue to spout pro-Stalinist propaganda. Second, his explicit support for the Respect party, whose political raison d’etre was the uplifting of political Islamists – with disastrous consequences for Asian communities and the left. Third, his love-in with those chameleons Socialist Resistance, who manage to combine theoretical accommodation and bandwagon-jumping with the most passive absence of political drive.
Wall laughably claims that the Green Party of England and Wales has a “strong trade union group” (p.132). The GPTU group is largely without influence in the British trade union movement. In fact it has less influence than almost all the tiniest left groups. It has almost nobody elected to a leading position in a UK trade union body. It never has a political intervention, or a strategy for the winning a trade union struggle, or a rank and file project. Rather, it issues paper press releases, expressing general support for struggles over which it exercises no purchase.
This is well illustrated by the Vestas struggle last year. Wall blandly states that “a wide variety of left and climate activists supported them” (p.132). Despite having hundreds more members than the AWL, the GPEW managed to affect precisely nothing in the struggle. It took a group of revolutionary socialists, principally AWL members – Wall doesn’t mention us in his tour of ecosocialists or those he regards as sectarians, impractical people, hair-splitters etc – to help initiate, sustain and develop the struggle. If Vestas workers had looked to Green Left, they would have found precisely nothing, probably never have occupied their factory, and gone down without a fight