Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 24, 2020

Matt Huber, nuclear power, and the socialist beachhead

Filed under: Ecology,Jacobin,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 9:30 pm

This is a companion piece to the one I just wrote about Vivek Chibber calling upon DSA’ers to create beachheads in the working class. It too is based on a podcast interview, this time with Matt Huber, who has published a long article in Chibber’s magazine titled “Ecological Politics for the Working Class” that dismisses the need for ecological limits. Like Chibber, this Syracuse professor looks askance at the social class he belongs to: “The environmental movement in its current form is dominated by middle-class professionals.” So, his advice boils down to another version of Chibber’s—the environmental movement has to create beachheads in the trade union movement.

Since I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to plow through 10,500 words of Hubert’s prose, my advice is to watch the podcast above to get a handle on the sort of politics being purveyed in Bhaskar Sunkara’s publishing empire.

Huber’s environmental ideas flow from a rather dogmatic understanding of Marxism that revolves around the point of production. His beef with today’s environmental movement is that it is focused on consumption rather than production. He wonders why the left can’t understand something so simple. The capitalist class owns the means of production, like factories, mines, transportation, and power plants. If the working-class uses its class power against the owners to force it to stop burning greenhouse gases and polluting the air, water and soil, you are likely to see the kinds of changes that are so necessary. Implicit in this rather simplistic proposal is that DSA’ers would get union jobs in the most critical industries to persuade fellow workers to take direct action.

Specifically, Huber views the heavily unionized (relatively speaking) electricity-supplying sector of power plants as a place where a beachhead should be established. He names the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as a target for such an implantation. Now, if you got a job through someone you knew through the IBEW, it just might be in a nuclear power plant, where the union generally holds sway. What possibility would there be for the workers in such a plant, like Homer Simpson, taking militant action to shut it down? Zero.

But that’s no problem for Huber since he agrees with the IBEW that nuclear power is a key part of the Green New Deal. Here’s something from their media center:

In an age of shrinking bipartisanship and climbing global temperatures, the Nuclear Powers America Act might just be the bipartisan legislation the country needs to cleanly and reliably power future generations.

”The challenges we face in terms of the climate and the security and reliability of our energy grid go beyond political persuasions because they will impact us all, and the Nuclear Powers America Act is a strong example of finding a common sense solution that works for Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists and everyone else who cares about clean energy production,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson.

And here’s Huber making the same case in the DSA magazine:

There is evidence advanced reactors and recycling can solve many of the environmental worries of waste and meltdowns. The most credible objection to nuclear is cost, but this should not be the main criteria under a socialist program whose aim is decarbonization and production for social needs (and, like renewables, once nuclear plants are built the cost is very low).

It is remarkable that an energy expert like Matt Huber can recommend nuclear power with so little in his scholarly background to show for it. If you go to his Syracuse University website, you will find 41 peer-reviewed articles. Not a single one delves into nuclear power.

As it happens, nuclear power plants create radioactive waste material that remains toxic for 250,000 years. Since power plants generate 2000 tons of it a year, where to put it is a big problem. It might come as a big surprise that it is foisted on poor people, especially American Indians. However, the bulk of it remains inside the power plant where it is subject to deus ex machina events like earthquakes. The Diablo Canyon power plant is half-way down the California coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles ringed by a dozen earthquake faults. You know who owns it? None other than the Pacific Gas and Electric Company that has been partly responsible for the disastrous forest fires of the past few years.

Now, one might presume that none of this would be a problem if we overthrow capitalism and start building a communist world. The utmost standards of safety would be adopted with the vanguard of the working class led by Bhaskar Sunkara, Vivek Chibber and Matt Huber overseeing the alternative-energy grid from their offices in Washington. However, given the beachhead mindset of these guys, one doubts that they would urge militant protests to shut down such plants since they would alienate the Homer Simpsons who work there.

One doubts that someone guided by Matt Huber’s pearls of wisdom would cause any kind of ruckus in a power plant given the solicitous concern shown toward workers in his Catalyst article:

Whereas a class politics was always about offering a vision of increased overall welfare, ecological politics became a politics of less. André Gorz developed an explicitly eco-socialist standpoint centered on less: “The only way to live better is to produce less, to consume less, to work less, to live differently.” Over the years class and environmental politics were constantly at odds in the “jobs versus environment” debate. It was working-class loggers who opposed the protection of the spotted owl or the restoration of salmon runs in the Columbia River. As Richard White recounts, the bumper sticker “Are you an Environmentalist or do you Work for a Living?” became popular among rural working-class communities.

I don’t quite know to put this but even if workers have the power to bring capitalist production to a grinding halt, their consciousness has to change before hand. Perhaps comrade Huber has not read Lenin’s “What is to be Done”. It makes the case that revolutionary class consciousness is not something that arises spontaneously. It has to come from outside the workplace by conscious socialists:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.[2] The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia.

Much of Huber’s podcast is a diatribe against the professional management class (PMC) that is outside the working-class, just as Marx and Engels were. The idea that DSA’ers are going to get jobs working in a nuclear power plant and persuade workers to take militant actions against an employer who is paying them $65,000 per year is absurd. Of course, given his partiality toward nuclear energy, that will never be a problem.

It is, on the other hand, our problem that we have such bilge being promoted by the Jacobin/DSA in the name of socialism.


  1. “once nuclear plants are built the cost is very low”

    Not sure what the gentleman is talking about. Here’s a couple of reports from a year ago:

    1) Failing nuclear industry pushing for $23 billion federal bailout

    2) And here’s another piece about that nuclear industry request for bailout:

    Nuclear Industry’s $23 Billion Bailout Request Shows Why It Should Have ‘No Role to Play’ in Solving Climate Crisis: Study

    3) And here’s a study on nuclear waste and its disposal.

    FULL REPORT (Nov. 13, 2020):
    What Congress Needs to Know About Pending Nuclear Waste Legislation

    Excerpt on storage problems and hazards:
    “As of the end of 2018, 82,358 metric tons of SNF (Spent Nuclear Fuel) were stored at 119 sites in the United States. Currently, there are 95 nuclear power plants operating in 29 states and generating 2,900 metric tons of SNF annually. Thirty-eight reactors in 30 states are in various stages of decommissioning. About 48 percent of U.S. power reactor fuel is stored in 3,200 casks, of which 600 are at permanently closed sites.

    “Heat from radioactive decay is a major safety concern. Heat from decay is enough to melt the zirconium cladding around the spent fuel and destabilize a geological disposal site. Spent fuel requires significant cooling before it can be disposed of underground. The decay heat and radioactivity of spent fuel drop significantly after 100 years but can remain dangerous. Preventing decay heat from reaching dangerous levels can require up to 300 years of active ventilation of the repository.”

    Excerpt on just repackaging costs of stored SNF:
    “Existing SNF will have to be repackaged because the current generation of dry casks was intended for short-term on-site storage and not geological disposal. The cumbersome nature of the casks, high decay heat, and a high density of spent fuel rods make them too dangerous.

    “Costs of repackaging at a centralized storage site are large. According to the Energy Department, the per-assembly cost for a standardized transportation and disposal canister (STAD) ranges from $33,400 to $112,000.”

    Comment by Reza — November 25, 2020 @ 12:18 am

  2. As Reza’s numbers show, nuclear power is about as sustainable as fracking. But I’d double down on both of them for energy before I’d endure a world where socialism’s future rested on the laurels of Sunkara’s empire.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 25, 2020 @ 12:39 am

  3. If DSA were successful in creating a deep and robust political consciousness within the working class of 21st century America, bad recommendations aside, what would they do with it? Convert the demand for systemic change into political support for the Democratic Party. The Democrats might well embrace a revival of nuclear power, because the features of nuclear power – big industrial project that is supported by the power industry, government guarantees required, mass Wall Street financing and the prospect of profits for big donors – fits well into their view of how the United States should manage challenges. Benefits for labor, and actual environmental improvements will not occur, but by the time this is realized DSA will be too committed change course, and actual eco-socialist advances will not be realized.

    Comment by Michael W Turner — November 28, 2020 @ 12:24 am

  4. I haven’t This is a pretty bad faith argument you’ve put up towards the article. Your previous CounterPunch article deals with the article similarly. Nuclear energy is not mentioned even once in the article, but the bulk of your comments are on other works of his.

    As someone interested in this realm of the left, his critique is valid. The environmental movement is white, middle-class and liberal. Huber says the only true agent of change for the environment is the working class and their organizations (not narrowly just the IBEW or energy industry unions, but all of them). Yes some unions are conservative (as the left has always dealt with), but that doesn’t change where power lies. It shows your disdain for Huber since it seems like even as a Marxist you disagree with this point in this article. If you actually don’t agree with this or think this is too simple, I’m happy to listen. You have a good grasp of some of the ideological battles of the ecological crisis, but you seldom analyze the forces to carry out the task.

    Comment by Sankara — November 30, 2020 @ 2:14 am

  5. It doesn’t matter that nuclear power is not mentioned in his article. Anybody claiming to be an environmentalist that supports nuclear energy is a fraud. This is the provenance of all the anti-working class bastards that operate out of inside-the-beltway think-tanks that make the Sierra Club look like Bolsheviks. I am sorry that you are not bothered by his support for nuclear power plants but I am not surprised. The first time I ran into pro-nuke Marxists was back in the early days of Marxism on the Internet. The only self-proclaimed revolutionary socialists that backed nuclear power were the people that went on to start Spiked-Online and an utterly insane German Maoist sect that when it wasn’t boosting nuclear power was issuing homophobic screeds.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 30, 2020 @ 3:14 pm

  6. I agree that Huber’s stances on nuclear and ecological limits should makes people’s head tilt. But unlike you, I don’t take a position on nuclear energy as some sort of political litmus test like Kronstadt – a holdover of sectarianism that I’ve learned to look down on from your own writings here. Is James Hansen, the most important NASA researcher that rung the bell on climate change, a conniving enemy of the environment as well? He supports nuclear too. Or can we agree that you can be wrong on some issues and still provide insight on other issues? I guess your own habits gotten from the sects and the dysfunctional left we’ve been around for so long are a hard thing to overcome.

    Regardless, it’s too bad you haven’t engaged with the article, it serves as a useful summary of different actors within the environmental movement. The politics espoused are nothing like the silly sects you talk about, and instead are what you call dogmatic Marxist arguments like you mention in your post. He says the engaging the working class in environmentalism through their own organizations is what will lead to change, not liberal NGOism. Seems like a simple Marxist analysis, not dogmatic to me. Why do you think it’s dogmatic?

    Comment by Sankara — December 3, 2020 @ 12:35 am

  7. Is James Hansen, the most important NASA researcher that rung the bell on climate change, a conniving enemy of the environment as well? He supports nuclear too.

    If he spoke in the name of Marxist orthodoxy, you’re damned right I’d lash into him.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 3, 2020 @ 12:42 am

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