Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 16, 2009

Leon Trotsky and Ecology

Filed under: Ecology,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

In the latest issue of What Next?, an online socialist magazine based in Great Britain, there’s an article titled The Prophet Misarmed: Trotsky, Ecology and Sustainability by Sandy Irvine. The gist of Irvine’s criticism is that Leon Trotsky was clueless on the environment based on a passage in “Literature and Revolution”, as well as other writings, that includes the following:

The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing ‘on faith’, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad….

According to Irvine, this kind of Promethean hubris can be found across the ideological spectrum, something undoubtedly true. Keep in mind that the broad cultural context for the Russian Revolution was futurism, which lent itself to all sorts of grandiose schemes about mechanizing the entire world. It was also the context for Italian fascism and it would be difficult to distinguish between futurist art in Soviet Russia and Mussolini’s Italy in the early 1920s.

Irvine also charges Trotsky with upholding the kinds of “stagist” conceptions that were characteristic of the Second International in its decline:

In Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto, Trotsky duly refers to the lands of Asia, Latin America and Africa as “backward countries”. Not for him any pause to consider whether their cultures – or at least aspects of them – might offer equally valid paths of development and perhaps more sustainable ones. Not surprisingly, then, he refers to Ghandi as “a fake leader and false prophet” (Open Letter to the Workers of India, 1939). Indeed, his writings often display a deep contempt for non-urban ways. “The entire future work of the Revolution will be directed towards … uprooting the idiocy of village life”, he writes in Literature and Revolution. He similarly sneers at “peasant-singing intelligentsia”. Urbanism is the only future: “the city lives and leads”. (For some reason, he even takes a swipe at “home-brew”: presumably the only politically correct pint is one served from giant state breweries!)

While I would be the first to take umbrage at the suggestion that “non-urban” ways should be condemned out of hand, you have to put Trotsky once again in his historical context. The Russian countryside was not something to be idealized. Peasants were illiterate, in poor health, and worked like mules. In the context of the 1920s, the drive to socialize farming was progressive just as it was in Cuba after 1959. Health improved, literacy was achieved, and the conditions of work became more humane. The real issue, however, is not about life-styles over “home-brew” but how to integrate the town and the countryside. Trotsky was not noted for understanding the issues raised by Karl Marx in his examination of the problems of soil fertility (not the “soil erosion” alluded to by Irvine) but his urban prejudices are almost besides the point in coming to grips with the underlying problems. Being tolerant of rural ways will not get us out of the intractable problems facing humanity in the 21st century. The only solution is abolishing the distinction between town and country, a goal that is not given its proper weight in Irvine’s analysis.

Irvine’s main complaint with Trotsky, and Bolshevism in general, is the genuflection to industrialization and Progress:

The new USSR proudly displayed its new symbols of this model of Progress. They included lines of electricity pylons striding over hill and dale (Lenin once defined socialism as “Soviets plus electrification”). It was also embodied in massive dams that sought to tame once wild rivers. The virtually useless White Sea-Baltic Canal, opened in 1933, was another such symbol, one costing tens of thousands of lives. The towering skyscraper building too symbolises this model of Progress (many Russian and East European cities are still scarred with giant emblems of Soviet Gothic architecture). Trotsky did strongly criticise certain means used by Stalin but he made fewer criticisms of the goals.

Once again, Irvine packs contradictory elements into the same critique. Is there something wrong with electricity pylons striding over hill and dale? When I was involved with Tecnica in the late 1980s, one of our volunteers was featured on Ted Koppel’s Nightline television show, which devoted a half-hour to the organization that the FBI had linked with espionage. He was an electrical engineer who practically single-handedly kept Managua supplied with electricity after a contra attack on a pylon.

We also worked with another volunteer named Ben Linder who was constructing a small hydroelectric weir in Northern Nicaragua until he was murdered by the contras. His goal was to allow poor peasant families to have lights and other electrically-generated amenities for the first time in their lives. Was this wrong?

Irvine’s case would be better made if it wasn’t directed against adopting models of Progress, but in analyzing why so many of Stalin’s gigantic projects ended up so poorly. This, of course, would require much more of an engagement with social and economic forces rather than jeremiads against the attempts of a beleaguered Soviet government to rapidly industrialize in the face of both “democratic” and fascist threats to its existence.

Fundamentally, Irvine’s approach is idealistic, seeing environmental destruction as a function of bad ideas rather than the historical process unleashed by capitalism and sustained by a USSR that had suffered a counter-revolution. He writes:

Trotsky’s views on the environment and land use conform to the dominant mindset of the last two hundred years. “Non-human nature” has been perceived as mere raw material, there to be managed and manipulated, as people see fit. Wild rivers, for example, are waiting to be “harnessed” and virgin forests “harvested” or otherwise “put to work”. This worldview came to dominate the minds of many of society’s critics, not just defenders of the status quo.

To put it bluntly, you might as well go back to the Old Testament in trying to ascribe blame since the very first chapter of Genesis is just as anthropocentric as Trotsky:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

This indeed was the dominant theme in Green ideology until Marxists began to reconfigure the relationship between the material world and ideas about that world. Rather than looking for bad ideas to blame, Marxists sought to analyze the environmental crisis in terms of the mode of production. For example, Marx understood the soil fertility crisis of the 19th century as the logical outcome of an industrial farming that separated the production from their traditional fertilizer sources. Despite the introduction of chemicals into farming under the auspices of the Green Revolution, this crisis has not been fully resolved. It was only through the re-integration of the town and the country that this would be possible. This for Marx and Engels was not a question of life-style, but rather overcoming the metabolic rift.

In light of this, it is rather disconcerting to have a look at the 125 books mentioned in Irvine’s bibliography and see not a single reference to John Bellamy Foster or Paul Burkett, the two Marxists who have done more than any others to re-establish Karl Marx’s ecological dimensions.

Perhaps the only question that still bothers me at this point is why the editors of a Marxist journal would have bothered to publish an article that so clearly departs from historical materialism. As the environmental crisis of the 21st century deepens, there will have to be major attempts to both theorize the challenges we face correctly and to offer informed opinion based on familiarity with the science. Sandy Irvine’s article unfortunately fails on both grounds.


  1. Irvine’s analysis is mostly nonsense, yeah, but Trotsky really was stone-dead wrong about the peasantry. However unencouraging conditions in the Russian countryside may have been, he really dropped the ball in extrapolating those conditions into a hard-and-fast rule that “the peasantry cannot take independent political action”. Particularly in South America, the small peasantry was if anything more revolutionary on average than the official “working class” which had in many cases been fully co-opted into a privileged echelon of the system. The primary places where you got the working class playing a revolutionary role were in the immediate postcolonial societies of Africa and bits of Asia, where urban workers had been effectively “lumpenized” by years of white privilege.

    This isn’t to idealize the peasantry, of course. Both classes of the exploited are eminently corruptible and placable; the question of which one has been “more” so on the whole in history is a matter of quantitative balancing and is hardly interesting for theory, dependent as it is on so many contingent circumstances.

    Comment by Steve — March 16, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

  2. “Sustainability” is a meaningless word that is often thrown around in academia, similar to “equity” or “diversity”. You’ll find many a centrist and right-winger nodding in approval for these slogans.

    A good part of the environmental movement has the smell of Tolstoy’s romanticism of the noble savage/peasant. A key failure of capitalism is its inability to increase domestic demand (as an economic term that is separate from need) in the developing world. Even China has this problem. Most of the world needs more consumerism quite frankly, or at least – more purchasing power. They do not need lectures on austerity, masquerading as “sustainability”, from people who already have nice lives.

    Comment by purple — March 17, 2009 @ 7:07 am

  3. The “latest issue” of What Next? is July 2007 … and no sign of another. In practice, the magazine has printed some interesting material but at the end of the day has served mainly as Bob Pitt’s route from Healyism to a roughly Eurocommunist left Labourism. Irvine’s purported critique of Trotsky is in substance a ‘pure-Green’ critique of Marx of the sort popular in this milieu.

    Comment by Mike Macnair — March 17, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

  4. I didn’t realize when I wrote this that the magazine was defunct, but I feel that it was still worth addressing some misconceptions that are still very much with us.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 17, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

  5. “Sustainability” is a meaningless word that is often thrown around in academia, similar to “equity” or “diversity”.

    You might as well say the same thing about “socialism”. I don’t worry much about what middle-class environmentalists like Bill McKibben are writing. I am defending a Marxist approach to the subject. In the final analysis, production can only take place if it is sustainable. For example, the production of greenhouse gases will make future production unsustainable. In fact, I agree with McKibben on this even though we have completely different ideas on how to organize the economy.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 17, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

  6. Not only What Next? but also Revolutionary History and New Interventions have not produced editions over that period.
    I think it would be more profitable to realise that there is a continuing malaise of the UK far-left and to address that problem than make factional comments about Bob Pitt.

    Comment by NollaigO — March 18, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

  7. I think it is appropriate to criticise Trotsky on ecology. However Sandy Irvine ignores the strong ecological tradition in Marxist thought. Sandy was a full timer for the IS in the UK but became one of the key Malthusians in the Green Party of England and Wales in the late 1980s before setting up a ‘neither left not right’ organisation the ‘Campaign for Political Ecology’.

    Ecosocialists in the Green Party over here, regularly challenge such ideas…What Next? is a useful publication in general though.

    I can’t see how a ‘pure green critique’ that ignores capitalism can be sustained…there is a lot of interest in the UK from a very diverse political organisations in ecosocialism…

    Comment by Derek Wall — March 21, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

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