Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 17, 2019

Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

Filed under: Bukharin,Counterpunch,DSA,Ecology,Jacobin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm


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.

– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)

For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that is correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

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  1. I don’t see how you personally can know about DSA members swallowing New Deal mystique or whatever, since you’re not in it or around it. In any case, Huber’s perspective is a minority perspective. See DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group for a decidedly anticapitalist statement of what a “Green New Deal” should involve:


    For the average person, who’s never even heard of Keynesianism, “New Deal” means something like “serious pro-people reform,” not “saving capitalism.” Let’s not fetishize a title.

    Comment by jschulman — May 17, 2019 @ 7:33 pm

  2. Your comment reminds me of Doug Henwood’s New Republic article that is based on the opinions of unidentified DSA members. My concern is with high profile people like Meagan Day who wrote “Pooling society’s resources to meet people’s basic needs is a tenet of social democracy, one that’s been advocated domestically by much of the labor movement and many of its political supporters among New Deal and post-New Deal liberals. This is a vision we share.” I have a different take on the New Deal but I am a Marxist after all. I guess the big problem is people like her and Eric Blanc speaking in the name of Marxism when they spend much of their time and energy justifying a vote for liberal Democrats (that, after all, is what A. O-C is).

    Comment by louisproyect — May 17, 2019 @ 7:51 pm

  3. I’m always bemused when sniffy, superior types invoke “the average person.” How do these seers get their visions–telepathically? Dollars to doughnuts jschulman didn’t actually perform a survey or actually take the average of anything measurable. And WTF would being average have to do with anything anyway? Average in what sense? I’ll bet jschulman doesn’t consider herself the least bit “average.”

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 17, 2019 @ 8:09 pm

  4. Even before the SWP went through its late 1980’s transition, it was dismissive of environmental principles. I remember a lively debate in the 1976 internal discussion bulletins regarding environmental issues, and the party position was hostile to it. My own experience around those in the SF bay area Trotskyist movement confirms the sense of what Mr. Proyect has said here: that there is a gap in consciousness around this issue; and that it might be a result of Trotsky’s own ideas on it. For me, this is also indicative of a mindset in that movement, which is more focused on superficial memorizing of the dictates of their prophets than seriously understanding the lessons contained in “Dialectics of Nature”. I also accessed the DSA link provided by JSchulman and note that DSA, an organization that contains well intentioned activists while failing to make a break from capitalist politics, fails to mention nuclear power and its link to weaponry in its statement on environmentalism.

    Comment by Peter Turner — May 17, 2019 @ 8:19 pm

  5. “I’ll bet jschulman doesn’t consider herself the least bit “average.”

    Please. I’m average as all hell, as far as my income goes. And male, BTW. And not “superior” to anyone else in the world, not even you.

    Do you really think the STATISTICALLY average person has ever heard of Keynesianism? Some of you rrrevolutionary types just hear what you want to hear.

    “I guess the big problem is people like her and Eric Blanc speaking in the name of Marxism when they spend much of their time and energy justifying a vote for liberal Democrats (that, after all, is what A. O-C is).”

    Funny how real-world contemporary liberals (Nancy Pelosi and her llk) consider her too far left, then.

    “I guess the big problem is people like her and Eric Blanc speaking in the name of Marxism when they spend much of their time and energy justifying a vote for liberal Democrats.”

    And Lenin said vote for the Cadets if that’s the best that can be done. The U.S. political structure is more fucked up than it is in any other bourgeois democracy. That’s why leftists run as Democrats — it’s either that or, nine times out of ten, you may as well not have run at all. When you come up with a convincing strategy for 100% independent political action, let me know. But you won’t, I expect.

    Sorry, comrades. It’s either dirty break or no break. I wish it was otherwise, but “Men make history but not in conditions…”

    Comment by jschulman — May 17, 2019 @ 11:25 pm

  6. And Lenin said vote for the Cadets if that’s the best that can be done.

    I can’t tell who you are plagiarizing, Mike Ely or Pham Binh.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 17, 2019 @ 11:57 pm

  7. If climate catastrophes lead to less industry or technology, less urbanization and even population decline, how does that affect Marxist theory of stages of development?

    Comment by Feldman — May 18, 2019 @ 1:54 pm

  8. I wonder why a photograph of a Soviet Russian actor playing Bukharin is used in the stead of one of Bukharin?

    Comment by Roman — September 18, 2019 @ 10:39 am

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