[Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières] - http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article4635

English > Theory > Ecology

Ecosocialism, democracy and planification

LOWY Michael


The exponential growth of attacks on the environment and the increasing threat of the breakdown of the ecological balance point towards a catastrophic scenario that puts in danger the survival itself of the human species. We are facing a crisis of civilization that demands radical change.

If capitalism can’t be reformed to subordinate profit to human survival, what alternative is there but to move to some sort of nationally and globally planed economy? Problems like climate change require the ’visible hand’ of direct planning... Our corporate capitalist leaders can’t help themselves, have no choice but systematically make wrong, irrational and ultimately - given the technology they command - globally suicidal decisions about the economy and the environment. So then, what other choice do we have than to consider a true socialist alternative?
Richard Smith

Ecosocialism is an attempt to provide a radical civilizational alternative, based on the basic arguments of the ecological movement, and of the Marxist critique of political economy. It opposes what Marx called the capitalist destructive progress [1] an economic policy founded on non-monetary and extra-economic criteria : the social needs and the ecological equilibrium. This dialectical synthesis, attempted by a broad spectrum of authors, from James O’Connor to Joel Kovel and John Bellamy Foster, and from André Gorz (in his early writings) to Elmar Altvater, is at the same time a critique of “market ecology”, which does not challenge the capitalist system, and of “productivist socialism”, which ignores the issue of natural limits.

According to James O’Connor, the aim of ecological socialism is a new society based on ecological rationality, democratic control, social equality, and the predominance of use-value over exchange-value. [2] I would add that this aims require: a) collective ownership of the means of production, - “collective” here meaning public, cooperative or comunitarian property ; b) democratic planning that makes it possible for society to define the goals of investment and production, and c) a new technological structure of the productive forces. In other terms : a revolutionary social and economic transformation. [3]

For ecosocialists, the problem with the main currents of political ecology, represented by most Green Parties, is that they do not seem to take into account the intrinsic contradiction between the capitalist dynamics of illimited expansion of capital and accumulation of profits, and the preservation of the environment. Hence a critique of productivism, which is often relevant, but does not lead beyond an ecologically-reformed “market economy”. The result has been that many Green Parties have become the ecological alibi of center-of-left social-liberal governments. [4]

As Richard Smith recently observed : “the logic of insatiable growth is built into the nature of the system, the requirements of capitalist production. (…) Each corporation, acting rationally from the standpoint of the owners and employees seeking to maximize their own self-interest, makes individually rational capitalist decisions. But the result is that in the aggregate, these individual rational decisions are massively irrational, indeed ultimately catastrophic, and they are driving us down the road to collective suicide”. [5]

On the other hand, the problem with the dominant trends of the left during the 20th century - social-democracy and the Soviet-inspired communist movement - is their acceptance of the really existing pattern of productive forces. While the first limited themselves to a reformed - at best keynesian – version of the capitalist system, the second ones developed a collectivist - or state-capitalist – form of productivism. In both cases, environmental issues remained out of sight, or were marginalised.

Marx and Engels themselves were not unaware of the environmental-destructive consequences of the capitalist mode of production : there are several passages in Capital and other writings that point to this understanding. [6] Moreover, they believed that the aim of socialism is not to produce more and more commodities, but to give human beings free time to fully develop their potentialities. In so far, they have little in common with “productivism”, i.e. with the idea that the unlimited expansion of production is an aim in itself.

However, there are some passages in their writings who seem to suggest that socialism will permit the development of productive forces beyond the limits imposed on them by the capitalist system. According to this approach, the socialist transformation concerns only the capitalist relations of production, which have become an obstacle - “chains” is the term often used - to the free development of the existing productive forces; socialism would mean above all the social appropriation of these productive capacities, putting them at the service of the workers. To quote a passage from Anti-Dühring, a canonical work for many generations of Marxists : in socialism “society takes possession openly and without detours of the productive forces that have become too large” for the existing system. [7]

The experience of the Soviet Union illustrates the problems that result from a collectivist appropriation of the capitalist productive apparatus : since the beginning, the thesis of the socialization of the existing productive forces predominated. It is true that during the first years after the October Revolution an ecological current was able to develop, and certain (limited) protectionist measures were taken by the Soviet authorities. However, with the process of Stalinist bureaucratization, the productivist tendencies, both in industry and agriculture, were imposed with totalitarian methods, while the ecologists were marginalised or eliminated. The catastrophe of Tchernobyl is an extreme exemple of the disastrous consequences of this imitation the Western productive technologies. A change in the forms of property which is not followed by democratic management and a reorganization of the productive system can only lead to a dead end.

A critique of the productivist ideology of “progress” and of the idea of a “socialist” exploitation of Nature appeared already in the writings of some dissident marxists of the 1930’s, such as Walter Benjamin. But it is mainly ecosocialism which has developed, during the last few decades, a challenge to the thesis of the neutrality of productive forces, which was predominant in the main tendencies of the left during the 20th century : social-democracy and the Soviet communism.

Marxists could take their inspiration from Marx’ remarks on the Paris Commune : workers cannot take possession of the capitalist state apparatus and put it to function at their service. They have to “break it” and replace it by a radically different, democratic and non-statist form of political power. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the productive apparataus : by its nature, its structure, it is not neutral, but at the service of capital accumulation and the unlimited expansion of the market. It is in contradiction with the needs of environment-protection and with the health of the population. One must therefore “revolutionize” it, in a process of radical transformation. This may mean, for certain branches of production, to discontinue them : for instance, nuclear plants, certain methods of mass/industrial fishing (responsible for the extermination of several species in the seas), the destructive logging of tropical forests, etc (the list is very long !). In any case, the productive forces, and not only the relations of production, have to be deeply changed - to begin with, by a revolution in the energy-system, with the replacement of the present sources -essentially fossile - responsible for the pollution and poisoning of the environment, by renewable ones : water, wind, sun.

Of course, many scientific and technological achievements of modernity are precious, but the whole productive system must be transformed, and this can be done only by ecosocialist methods, i.e. through a democratic planning of the economy which takes into account the preservation of the ecological equilibrium.

The issue of energy is decisive for this process of civilizational change. Fossile energies (oil, coal) are responsible for much of the planet’s pollution, as well as for the disastrous climate change; nuclear energy is a false alternative, not only because of the danger of new Tchernobyls, but also because nobody knows what to do with the thousands of tons of radioactive waist - toxic for hundreds, thousands and in some case millions of years - and the gigantic masses of contaminated obsolete plants.

Solar energy, which did never arise much interest in capitalist societies, not being “profitable” nor “competitive”, would become the object of intensive research and development, and play a key role in the building of an alternative energetic system. Entire sectors of the productive system are to be suppressed, or restructured, new ones have to be developed, under the necessary condition of full employment for all the labour force, in equal conditions of work and wage. This condition is essential, not only because it is a requirement of social justice, but in order to assure the workers support for the process of structural transformation of the productive forces. This process is impossible without public control over the means of production, and planning, i.e. public decisions on investment and technological change, which must be taken away from the banks and capitalist enterprises in order to serve society’s common good.

To quote again Richard Smith : “If capitalism can’t be reformed to subordinate profit to human survival, what alternative is there but to move to some sort of nationally and globally planned economy ? Problems like climate change require the ‘visible hand’ of direct planning. (…) Our capitalist corporate leaders can’t help themselves, have no choice but to systematically make wrong, irrational and ultimately - given the technology they command - globally suicidal decisions about the economy and the environment. So then, what other choice do we have than to consider a true ecosocialist alternative ?” [8]

In Capital vol. III Marx defined socialism as a society were ” the associated producers rationally organize their exchange (Stoffwechsel) with nature”. Only the producers ? In Capital vol. I, there is a broader approach : socialism is conceived as “an association of free human beings (Menschen) which works with common (gemeinschaftlichen) means of production “. [9] This second reading is much more appropriate : the rational organization of production and consumption has to be the work not only of the “producers”, but also of the consumers; in fact, of the whole society, with its productive and “non-productive” population, which includes students, youth, house-wifes, pensioned people, etc.

The whole society in this sens, and not a small olygarchy property-owners - nor an elite of techno-bureaucrats - will be able to choose, democratically, which productive lines are to be privileged, and how much resources are to be invested in education, health or culture. [10] The prices of goods themselves would not be left to the “laws of offer and demand” but, to some extent, determined according to social and political options, as well as ecological criteria, leading to taxes on certain products, and subsidized prices for others. Ideally, as the transition to socialism moves forward, more and more products and services would be distributed free of charge, according to the will of the citizens.

Far from being “despotic” in itself, planning is the exercise, by a whole society, of its freedom : freedom of decision, and liberation from the alienated and reified “economic laws” of the capitalist system, which determined the individuals’ life and death, and enclosed them in an economic “iron cage” (Max Weber). Planning and the reduction of labor time are the two decisive steps of humanity towards what Marx called “the kingdom of freedom”. A significant increase of free time is in fact a condition for the democratic participation of the working people in the democratic discussion and management of economy and of society.

Partisans of the free market point to the failure of Soviet Planning to reject, out of hand, any idea of an organized economy. Without entering the discussion on the achievements and miseries of the Soviet experience, it was obviously a form of dictatorship over the needs - to use the expression of György Markus and his friends from the Budapest School – a non-democratic and authoritarian system that monopolized all decisions in the hands of a small oligarchy of techno-bureaucrats. It is not planning itself which led to dictatorship, but the other way round : the growing limitations to democracy in the Soviet State, and, after Lenin’s death, the establishment of a totalitarian bureaucratic power, led to an increasingly undemocratic and authoritarian system of planning. If socialism is defined as the control, by the workers and the population in general, of the process of production, the Soviet Union under Stalin and his sucessors was a far cry from it.

The failure of the USSR illustrates the limits and contradictions of bureaucratic planning, which is inevitably inefficient and arbitrary : it cannot be used as an argument against democratic planning. [11] The socialist conception of planning is nothing else as the radical democratization of economy : if political decisions are not to be left for a small elite of rulers, why should not the same principle apply to economic ones ? I’m leaving aside the issue of the specific proportion between planning and market mechanisms : during the first stages of a new society, markets will certainly keep an important place, but as the transition to socialism advances, planning would become more and more predominant, as against the laws of exchange-value. [12]

Friedrich Engels already insisted that a socialist society “will have to establish a plan of production taking into account the means of production, specially including the labour force. There will be, in last instance, the useful effects of various use-objects, compared between themselves and in relation to the quantity of labour necessary for their production, that will determine the plan”. [13] While in capitalism the use-value is only a means - often a trick - at the service of exchange-value and profit - which explains, by the way, why so many products in the present society are substantially useless - in a planned socialist economy the use-value is the only criteria for the production of goods and services, with far reaching economic, social and ecological consequences. As Joel Kovel observed : “The enhancement of use-values and the corresponding restructuring of needs becomes now the social regulator of technology rather than, as under capital, the conversion of time into surplus value and money”. [14]

In a rationally organised production, the plan concerns the main economic options, not the administration of local restaurants, groceries and bakeries, small shops, artisan enterprises or services. It is important to emphasize that planning is not contradictory with workers self-management of their productive units : while the decision to transform an auto-plant into one producing buses and trams is taken by society as a whole, through the plan, the internal organization and functioning of the plant is to be democratically managed by its own workers. There has been much discussion on the “centralised” or “decentralised” character of planning, but it could be argued that the real issue is democratic control of the plan, on all its levels, local, regional, national, continental and, hopefully, international : ecological issues such as global warming are planetary and can be dealt with only on a global scale. One could call this proposition global democratic planning; it is quite the opposite of what is usually described as “central planning”, since the economic and social decisions are not taken by any “center”, but democratically decided by the concerned population.

Of course, there will inevitably be tensions and contradictions between self-managed establishments or local democratic administrations, and broader groups of “concerned people”. Mechanisms of negotiation can help to solve much of such conflicts, but ultimately those directly concerned, if they are the majority, have the right to impose their views. To give an imaginary exemple: a self-administered factory decides to evacuate its toxic waste in a river. The population of a whole region is in danger of being polluted : it can therefore, after a democratic debate, decide that production in this unit must be discontinued, until a satisfactory solution is found for the waste control. Hopefully, in an eco-socialist society, the factory workers themselves will have enough ecological consciouness to avoid taking decisions which are dangerous to the environment and to the health of the local population… This does not mean, however, that the issues concerning the internal management of the factory, or school, or neighborhood, or hospital, or town, are not to be taken into their hands by the local workers or inhabitants.

Socialist planning is therefore grounded on a democratic and pluralist debate, on all the levels where decisions are to be taken : different propositions are submitted to the concerned people, in the form of parties, platforms, or any other political movements, and delegates are accordingly elected. However, representative democracy must be completed - and corrected - by direct democracy, where people directly choose - at the local, national and, later, global level - between major options : should public transportation be free ? Should the owners of private cars pay special taxes to subsidize public transportation ? Should sun-produced energy be subsidized, in order to compete with fossile energy ? Should the weekly work hours be reduced to 30, 25 or less, even if this means a reduction of production ? The democratic nature of planning is not contradictory with the existence of experts, but their role is not to decide, but to present their views - often different, if not contradictory - to the population, and let it choose the best solution. As Ernest Mandel wrote : “Governments, parties, planning boards, scientists, technocrats or whoever can make suggestions, put forward proposals, try to influence people. (…) But under a multi-party system, such proposals will never be unanimous : people will have the choice between coherent alternatives. And the right and power to decide should be in the hands of the majority of producers/consumers/citizens, not of anybody else. What is paternalistic or despotic about that ?” [15]

What guarantee is that the people will make the correct ecological choices, even at the price of giving up some of its habits of consumption ? There is no such “guarantee”, other than the wager on the rationality of democratic decisions, once the power of commodity fetichism is broken. Of course, errors will be committed by the popular choices, but who believes that the experts do not make errors themselves ? One cannot imagine the establishment of such a new society without the majority of the population having achieved, by their struggles, their self-education, and their social experience, a high level of socialist/ecological consciousness, and this makes it reasonable to suppose that errors - including decisions which are inconsistent with environmental needs - will be corrected. [16] In any case, are not the proposed alternatives - the blind market, or an ecological dictatorship of “experts” - much more dangerous than the democratic process, with all its contradictions ?

It is true that planning requires the existence of executive/technical bodies, in charge of putting into practice what has been decided, but if they are under permanent democratic control from below, they are not necessarily more authoritarian than, say, the administration of the post-office services. The experience of participative budgets in Brazil, at a local and even provincial level, is, inspite of its obvious limitations, an interesting example of such direct democratic practices. Of course, one cannot expect the majority of the people to spend all their free time in self-management or participatory meetings; as Ernest Mandel commented, “self-administration does not entail the disappearance of delegation, it combines decision-making by the citizens with stricter control of delegates by their respective electorate”. [17]

There is no room here for a detailed discussion of other conceptions of planning, such as “market socialism”, social ecology (Murray Bookchin), etc. Just a few words about Michael Albert “participatory economy” (parecon), which has been the object of some debate in the Global Justice movement. This conception has some common features with the one here proposed - eco-socialist planning – such as : opposition to the capitalist market and to bureaucratic planning, a reliance on worker’s self organisation, anti-authoritarianism. There are however some serious shortcomings in this proposition , which seems to ignore ecology, and assimilates “socialism” to the bureaucratic/centralized Soviet model.

Michael Albert idea of participatory planning is based on a complex institutional construction : “The participants in participatory planning are the workers’ councils and federations, the consumers’ councils and federations, and various Iteration Facilitation Boards (IFBs). Conceptually, the planning procedure is quite simple. An IFB announces what we call “indicative prices” for all goods, resources, categories of labor, and capital. Consumers’ councils and federations respond with consumption proposals taking the indicative prices of final goods and services as estimates of the social cost of providing them. Workers councils and federations respond with production proposals listing the outputs they would make available and the inputs they would need to produce them, again, taking the indicative prices as estimates of the social benefits of outputs and true opportunity costs of inputs. An IFB then calculates the excess demand or supply for each good and adjusts the indicative price for the good up, or down, in light of the excess demand or supply, and in accord with socially agreed algorithms. Using the new indicative prices, consumers and workers councils and federations revise and resubmit their proposals. (…) In place of rule over workers by capitalists or by coordinators, parecon is an economy in which workers and consumers together cooperatively determine their economic options and benefit from them in ways fostering equity, solidarity, diversity, and self-management. “ [18]

The main problem with this conception - which, by the way, is not “quite simple” but extremely elaborate and sometimes quite obscure – is that it seems to reduce “planning” to a sort of negotiation between producers and consumers on the issue of prices, inputs and outputs, supply and demand. For instance, the branch worker’s council of the car producing industry would meet with the council of consumers to discuss prices and to adapt supply to demand. What this leaves out is precisely what constitutes the main issue of ecosocialist planning : a reorganization of the transport system, radically reducing the place of the private car. Since ecosocialism requires entire branches of industry to disappear - nuclear plants, for instance - and the massive investment in small or almost non-existent branches (e.g. solar energy) how can this be dealt by “cooperative negotiations” between the existing units of production and consumer councils on “inputs” and “indicative prices” ?

Albert’s model mirrors the existing technological and productive structure, and is too “economistic” to take into account global, socio-political, and socio-ecological interests of the population, the interests of the individuals, as citizens and as human beings, which cannot be reduced to their economic interests as producers and consumers. He leaves out not only the State as an institution - a respectable option - but politics as the confrontation, at the level of global societies, of different economic, social, political, ecological, cultural and civilizational options.

The passage from capitalist “destructive progress” to socialism is an historical process, a permanent revolutionary transformation of society, culture and mentalities - and politics in the sens just defined cannot be but central to this process. It is important to emphasize that such a process cannot begin without a revolutionary transformation of social and political structures, and the active support, by the vast majority of the population, of an ecosocialist program. The development of socialist consciousness and ecological awareness is a process, where the decisive factor is peoples own collective experience of struggle, from local and partial confrontations to the radical change of society.

This transition would lead not only to a new mode of production and an egalitarian and democratic society, but also to an alternative mode of life, a new ecosocialist civilization, beyond the reign of money, beyond consumption habits artificially produced by advertising, and beyond the unlimited production of commodities that are useless and/or harmful to the environment.

Some ecologists believe that the only alternative to productivism is to stop growth altogether, or to replace it by negative growth - what the French call décroissance - and drastically reduce the excessively high level of consumption of the population by cutting by half the expenditure of energy, by renouncing to individual houses, to central heating, to washing machines, etc. Since these and similar measures of draconian austerity risk being quite unpopular, some of them play with the idea of a sort of “ecological dictatorship”. [19]

Against such pessimistic views, socialist optimists believe that technical progress and the use of renewable sources of energy will permit an unlimited growth and abundance, so that each can receive “according to his needs”.

It seems to me that these two schools share a purely quantitative conception of - positive or negative - “growth”, or of the development of productive forces. There is a third position, which seems to me more appropriate : a qualitative transformation of development. This means putting an end to the monstrous waste of resources by capitalism, based on the production, in a large scale, of useless and/or harmful products : the armaments industry is a good example, but a great part of the “goods” produced in capitalism - with their inbuilt obsolescence - have no other usefulness but to generate profit for the great corporations. The issue is not “excessive consumption” in abstract, but the prevalent type of consumption, based as it is on conspicuous appropriation, massive waste, mercantile alienation, obsessive accumulation of goods, and the compulsive acquisition of pseudo-novelties imposed by “fashion”. A new society would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, beginning with those which could be described as “biblical” - water, food, clothing, housing - but including also the basic services : health, education, transport, culture.

Obviously, the countries of the South, were these needs are very far from being satisfied, will need a much higher level of “development” - building railroads, hospitals, sewage systems, and other infra-structures - than the advanced industrial ones. But there is no reason why this cannot be accomplished with a productive system that is environment-friendly and based on renewable energies. These countries will need to grow great amounts of food to nourish their hungry population, but this can be much better achieved - as the peasant movements organised world-wide in the Via Campesina network have been arguing for years - by a peasant biological agriculture based of family-units, cooperatives or collectivist farms, rather than by the destructive and anti-social methods of industrialised agro-business, based on the intensive use of pesticides, chemicals and GMOs.

Instead of the present monstruous debt-system, and the imperialist exploitations of the resources of the South by the industrial/capitalist countries, there would be a flow of technical and economic help from the North to the South, without the need - as some Puritan and ascetic ecologists seem to believe - for the population in Europe or North America to “reduce their standard of living” : they will only get rid of the obsessive consumption, induced by the capitalist system, of useless commodities that do not correspond to any real need, while redifining the meaning of standart of living to connote a way of life that is actually richer, while consuming less.

How to distinguish the authentic from the artificial, false and makeshift needs ? The last ones are induced by mental manipulation, i.e. advertisement. The advertisement system has invaded all spheres of human life in modern capitalist societies : not only nourishment and clothing, but sports, culture, religion and politics are shaped according to its rules. It has invaded our streets, mail boxes, TV-screens, newspapers, landscapes, in a permanent, aggressive and insidious way, and it decisively contributes to habits of conspicuous and compulsive consumption. Moreover, it wastes an astronomic amount of oil, electricity, labor time, paper, chemicals, and other raw materials - all paid by the consumers – in a branch of “production” which is not only useless, from a human viewpoint, but directly in contradiction with real social needs.

While advertisement is an indispensable dimension of the capitalist market economy, it would have no place in a society in transition to socialism, where it would be replaced by information on goods and services provided by consumer associations. The criteria for distinguishing an authentic from an artificial need, is its persistence after the suppression of advertisement (Coca Cola !). Of course, during some years, old habits of consumption would persist, and nobody has the right to tell the people what their needs are. The change in the patterns of consumption is a historical process, as well as an educational challenge.

Some commodities, such as the individual car, raise more complex problems. Private cars are a public nuisance, killing and maiming hundreds of thousand people yearly on world scale, polluting the air in the great towns - with dire consequences for the health of children and older people - and significantly contributing to the climate change. However, they correspond to a real need, by transporting people to their work, home or leisure. Local experiences in some European towns with ecologically minded administrations, show that it is possible - and approved by the majority of the population - to progressively limit the part of the individual automobile in circulation, to the advantage of buses and trams. In a process of transition to ecosocialism, where public transportation - above or underground - would be vastly extended and free of charge for the users, and where foot-walkers and bicycle-riders will have protected lanes, the private car would have a much smaller role as in bourgeois society, where it has become a fetish commodity - promoted by insistent and aggressive advertisement - a prestige symbol, an identity sign - in the US, the drivers license is the recognized ID – and the center of personal, social or erotical life. [20]

It will be much easier, in the transition to a new society, to drastically reduce the transportation of goods by trucks - responsible for terrible accidents, and high levels of pollution - replacing it by the train, or by what the French call ferroutage (trucks transported in trains from one town to the other) : only the absurd logic of capitalist “competitivity” explains the dangerous growth of the truck-system.

Yes, will answer the pessimists, but individuals are moved by infinite aspirations and desires, that have to be controlled, checked, contained and if necessary repressed, and this may need some limitations on democracy. Now, ecosocialism is based on a wager, which was already Marx’s : the predominance, in a society without classes and liberated of capitalist alienation, of “being” over “having”, i.e. of free time for the personal accomplishment by cultural, sportive, playful, scientific, erotic, artistic and political activities, rather than the desire for an infinite possession of products. Compulsive acquisitiveness is induced by the commodity fetishism inherent in the capitalist system, by the dominant ideology and by advertisement : nothing proves that its is part of an “eternal human nature”, as the reactionary discourse wants us to believe.

As Ernest Mandel emphasized : “The continual accumulation of more and more goods (with declining “marginal utility”) is by no means a universal and even predominant feature of human behavior. The development of talents and inclinations for their own sake; the protection of health and life; care for children; the development of rich social relations (…) all these become major motivations once basic material needs have been satisfied”. [21]

As we have insisted, this does not mean that there will not arise conflicts, particularly during the transitional process, between the requirements of the environment protection and the social needs, between the ecological imperatives and the necessity of developing basic infra-structures, particularly in the poor countries, between popular consumer habits and the scarcity of resources. A class-less society is not a society without contradictions and conflicts ! These are inevitable : it will be the task of democratic planning, in an ecosocialist perspective, liberated from the imperatives of capital and profit-making, to solve them, by a pluralist and open discussion, leading to decision-making by society itself. Such a grass-roots and participative democracy is the only way, not to avoid errors, but to permit the self-correction, by the social collectivity, of its own mistakes.

Is this Utopia? In its etymological sense - “something that exists nowhere” - certainly. But are not utopias, i.e. visions of an alternative future, wish-images of a different society, a necessary feature of any movement that wants to challenge the established order ? As Daniel Singer explained in his literary and political testament, Whose Millenium ? , in a powerful chapter entitled “Realistic Utopia”, “if the establishment now looks so solid, despite the circumstances, and if the labor movement or the broader left are so crippled, so paralyzed, it is because of the failure to offer a radical alternative. (…) The basic principle of the game is that you question neither the fundamentals of the argument nor the foundations of society. Only a global alternative, breaking with these rules of resignation and surrender, can give the movement of emancipation genuine scope”. [22]

The socialist and ecological utopia is only an objective possibility, not the inevitable result of the contradictions of capitalism, or of the “iron laws of history”. One cannot predict the future, except in conditional terms : in the absence of an ecosocialist transformation, of a radical change in the civilizational paradygm, the logic of capitalism will lead the planet to dramatic ecological disasters, threatening the health and the life of billions of human beings, and perhaps even the survival of our species. * * *

To dream, and to struggle, for a green socialism, or, according to some, a solar communism, does not mean that one does not fight for concrete and urgent reforms. Without any illusions on a “clean capitalism”, one must try to win time, and to impose, on the powers that be, some elementary changes : the banning of the HCFCs that are destroying the ozone layer, a general moratorium on genetically modified organisms, a drastic reduction in the emission of the greenhouse gases, the development of public transportation, the taxation of polluting cars, the progressive replacement of trucks by trains, a severe regulation of the fishing industry, as well as of the use of pesticides and chemicals in the agro-industrial production. These, and similar issues, are at the heart of the agenda of the Global Justice movement, and the World Social Forums, a decisive new development which has permitted, since Seattle in 1999, the convergence of social and environmental movements in a common struggle against the system.

These urgent eco-social demands can lead to a process of radicalisation, on the condition that one does not accept to limit one’s aims according to the requirements of “the [capitalist] market” or of “competitivity”. According to the logic of what Marxists call “a transitional program”, each small victory, each partial advance can immediately lead to a higher demand, to a more radical aim. Such struggles around concrete issues are important, not only because partial victories are welcome in themselves, but also because they contribute to raise ecological and socialist consciousness, and because they promote activity and self-organisation from bellow : both are decisive and necessary pre-conditions for a radical, i.e. revolutionary, transformation of the world.

Local experiences such as car-free areas in several Europen towns, organic agricultural cooperatives launched by the Brazilian peasant movement (MST), or the participative budget in Porto Alegre and, for a few years, in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul (under PT Governor Olivio Dutra), are limited, but interesting exemples of social/ecological change. By permitting to local assemblies to decide the priorities of the budget, Porto Alegre was - until the left lost the 2002 municipal election - perhaps the most attractive experience of “planning from bellow”, inspite of its limitations. [23]

There have also been a few progressive measures taken by some national governments, but on the whole the experience of Left-Center or “Left/Green” coalitions in Europe or Latin America has been rather disappointing, remaining firmly inside the limits of a social-liberal policy of adaptation to capitalist globalisation.

There will be no radical transformation unless the forces commited to a radical socialist and ecological programm become hegemonic, in the Gramscian sense of the word. Time is working for change, because the global situation of the environment is becoming worse and worse, and the threats closer and closer. But time is runing out, because in some years - no one can say how much - the damage may be irreversible.

There is no reason for optimism : the entrenched ruling elites of the system are incredibly powerful, and the forces of radical opposition are still small. But they are the only hope that the catastrophic course of capitalist “growth” will be halted. Walter Benjamin defined revolutions as being not the locomotive of history, but the humanity reaching for the emergency breaks of the train, before it goes down the abyss… [24]


1. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vomume 1, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, pp. 529-530.For a remarkable analysis of the destructive logic of capital, see Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature. The End of Capitalism or the End of the World ?, New York,; Zed Books, 2002.

2. James O’Connor, Natural Causes. Essays in Ecological Marxism, New York: The Guilford Press, 1998, pp. 278, 331.

3. John Bellamy Foster uses the concept of “ecological revolution”, but he argues that “a global ecological revolution worthy of the name can only occur as part of a larger social - and I would insist, socialist - revolution. Such a revolution (…) would demand, as Marx insisted, that the associated producers rationally regulate the human metabolic relation with nature. (…) It must take its inspiration from William Morris, one of the most original and ecological followers of Karl Marx, from Gandhi, and from other radical, revolutionary and materialist figures, including Marx himself, stretching as far back as Epicurus”. (“Organizing Ecological Revolution”, Monthly Review, 57.5, October 2005, pp. 9-10).

4. For an ecosocialist critique of the “actually existing ecopolitics” - Green economics, Deep ecology, Bioregionalism, etc - see the above mentioned book by Joel Kovel, Enemy of Nature ch. 7.

5. Richard Smith, “The Engine of Eco Collapse”, Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, vol. 16, n° 4, december 2005, p;p. 31, 33.

6. See John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology. Materialism and Nature, New York, Monthly Review Press, 2000.

7. F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, Paris, Ed. Sociales, 1950, p. 318.

8. R.Smith, Ibid. p. 35.

9. K.Marx, Das Kapital, Berlin, Dietz Verlag,, 1968, vol. III, p. 828, vol. I, p. 92. One can find similar problems in contemporary Marxism; for instance, Ernest Mandel argued for a “democratically-centralist planning under a national congress of worker’s councils made up in its large majority of real workers”. ( “Economics of Transition Period”, in 50 Years of World Revolution, Pathfinder Press, 1971, p. 286). In later writings, he refers rather to “producers/consumers”.

10. Ernest Mandel defined planning in the following terms : “ An economy governed by a plan implies…that society’s relatively scarce resources are not apportioned blindly (“behind the backs of the producer-consumer”) by the play of the law of value but that they are consciously allocated according to previously established priorities. In a transitional economy were socialist democracy prevails, the mass of the working people) democratically determine this choice of priorities”. (“Economics of Transition Period”, p. 282).

11. “From the point of view of the mass of workers, sacrifices imposed by bureaucratic arbitrariness are neither more nor less ‘acceptable’ than sacrifices imposed by the blind mechanisms of the market. These represent only two different forms of the same alienation.” (“Economics of Transition Period”, p. 285). We are often going to quote from the writings of Ernest Mandel, because he is the most articulate socialist theoretician of democratic planning. But it should be said that until the late 1980’s he did not include the ecological issue aa a central aspect of his economic arguments.

12. In his remarkable recent book on socialism the Argentinian Marxist economist Claudio Katz emphasized that democratic planning, supervised from bellow by the majority of the population, “is not identical with absolute centralisation, total statisation, war communism or command economy. The transition requires the primacy of planning over the market, but not the suppression of the market variables. The combination between both instances should be adapted to each situation and each country.”. However, “the aim of the socialist process is not to keep an unchanged equilibrium between the plan and the market, but to promote a progressive loss of the market positions”. (C.Katz, El porvenir del Socialismo, Buenos Aires, Herramienta/Imago Mundi, 2004, pp. 47-48.

13. Anti-Dühring, p. 349.

14. Joel Kovel, Enemy of Nature, p. 215.

15. E.Mandel, Power and Money, p. 209.

16. Ernest Mandel observed : “We do not believe that the ‘majority is always right’ (…). Everybody does make mistakes. This will certainly be true of the majority of citizens, of the majority of the producers, and of the majority of the consumers alike. But there will be one basic difference between them and their predecessors. In any system of unequal power (…) those who make the wrong decisions about the allocation of resources are rarely those who pay for the consequences of their mistakes (…). Provided there exists real political democracy, r eal cultural choice and information, it is hard to believe that the majority would prefer to see their woods die (…) or their hospitals understaffed, rather than rapidly to correct their mistaken allocations”. (“In defense of socialist planning”, New Left Review, n° 159, October 1986, p. 31.)

17. E.Mandel, Power and Money, p. 204.

18. Michael Albert, Participatory Econopmics. Life After Capitalism, London, Verso, 2003, ch. 9.

19. Ernest Mandel was sceptical of rapid changes in consumer habitts , such as the private car : “If, in spite of every environmental and other argument, they [the producers and consumers] wanted to maintain the dominance of the private motor car and to continue polluting their cities, that would be their right. Changes in long-standing consumer orientations are generally slow - there can be few who believe that workers in the United States would abandon their attachment to the automobile the day after a socialist revolution”. (“In defense of socialist planning”, p. 30). While Mandel is right in insisting that changes in consumption patterns are not to be imposed, he seriously underestimates the impact that a system of extensive and free of charge public transports would have, as well as the assentiment of the majority of the citizens - already today, in several great European cities - for measures restricting automobile circulation.

20. Ernest Mandel, Power and Money. A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy, London, Verso, 1992, p. 206.

21. D. Singer, Whose Millenium ? Theirs or Ours ? New York, Monthly Review Press, 1999, pp. 259-260.

22. See S. Baierle, “The Porto Alegre Thermidor”, in Socialist Register 2003.

23. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, Vomume I/3, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980, p. 1232.

* This text has been published, under a somehow reduced form, by “the Socialist Register 2007”. Some corrections introduced by the editors are not included here.