Ecology and economism

Ben Lewis reviews Martin Empson’s Marxism and ecology: capitalism, socialism and the future of the planet Bookmarks, pp32, £1.50


In some ways, this Socialist Workers Party pamphlet is a useful read. Although it hardly presents a thoroughgoing critique of capitalism and its plundering of nature, it carries arguments, backed up by numerous figures and statistics, that many interested in climate change, particularly those new to Marxist ideas and concepts, will find useful.

The pamphlet’s main strength lies in its attempt to shift ‘green’ thought by highlighting Marx’s contribution to the ecological question and how his method centred on the “metabolic rift” between human beings and nature. This sees Empson making a fairly strong case against the “libel against the human race” that forms the basis of Malthusian arguments on climate change (p20). This is completely necessary, given that Marx is often treated either with disdain or distrust by the ecological movement. Quite correctly, Empson highlights how the Marxist contribution has been “forgotten or dismissed by many who want to save the planet” because of Stalinism and the cult of the five-year ‘plans’: “the crimes – including the ecological crimes – of those who claimed to govern in the name of Marx and Engels, particularly in the former Soviet Union” (p6).

It is also correct – in light of the petty bourgeois hysteria which postulates individual lifestyles, consumer behaviour and recycling habits as somehow holding the key to overcoming runaway climate change – for the pamphlet to stress that “the effect that we have as individuals pales into insignificance when compared to the damage wrought by the multinationals and by government policies. We need to examine the relationship between our society as a whole and the natural world upon which it depends” (p9).

As we will see, although the pamphlet is correct to investigate Marx’s contribution to tackling this question, the ‘Marxism’ that comrade Empson propounds leaves a lot to be desired – recapitulating, as it does, some of the ideas on humanity and nature that Marx and Engels fought tooth and nail.

Climate change

Comrade Empson places capitalism in its historical context, but fails to properly examine climate change in the same way. So, whilst correctly highlighting the havoc that climate change is already unleashing by pointing, for example, to 1998, the hottest year of the 20th century, he does not consider this in relation to the fact that the Earth’s climate has always, like all matter, undergone constant change. After all, there were many hotter years than 1998 in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

The problem with failing to do this is that it risks falling into a trap common within the green movement: that it is possible to ‘fix’ the climate at some ideal point, or to return to a certain pre-industrial level, when everything was apparently dandy.

This is not to say that “the human race” does not face “an environmental crisis like nothing we have ever lived through before” (p4). It is merely to recognise that the changing climate must be conceived in a manner that does not revolve around ‘stopping climate change’ (as if such a feat were possible), but that we must fundamentally alter our relationship with nature so that we can consciously control the anthropogenic aspect of it. Empson is therefore wrong to focus only on greenhouse gases and fossil fuels as causes of the warming of the planet – there are many other factors in operation that include ocean currents, sunspots, cloud cover, methane concentrations, as well as planetary movement. But perhaps comrade Empson is trying to keep things simple.

His critique of capitalism also appears rather partial. Although he argues that capitalism will never be able to heal the “metabolic rift” between humans and the natural world (p26), and quotes Marx to outline the theory of alienation, he brings this down to three reasons: its short-term nature, the competition at the heart of the system and the resultant inefficiencies, together with the externalisation of the cost to the natural world.

When it comes to competition, it would be truer to say that modern capitalism today operates through pseudo-competition and, as the law of value declines, there is an increasingly complex interpenetration with a (negative) anticipation of the law of the plan in a higher form of society. This is a minor point, but it seems that the factors that comrade Empson lists are more features of capitalist production than its essence.

At root, capitalism (generalised commodity production where labour itself is raised to the level of a commodity) is antithetical to the environment because in the destructive reproduction cycle, money-commodity-money, capital has no interest but to raise profitability and expand. Because of this, nature is not regarded as something to be cherished, but as a free resource to be plundered. In this sense it is also misplaced to talk of the “fossil-fuel economy” that has grown with capitalism (p26). Even if capitalism could mass-produce electric cars, this in itself would not solve its internal contradiction, which is that just like a shark, it must constantly move if it wishes to stay alive. The working class, which is in capitalism but not of it, must put forward another vision.

Wealth and workers

Now we come to the pamphlet’s major shortcoming. In the rather oddly titled chapter ‘Class and social justice’, Empson writes that “Under capitalism, workers produce all the wealth in society” (p23). This phrase is more or less directly lifted from the SWP’s ‘Where we stand’ column (the closest thing the SWP has to a programme!) printed in Socialist Worker every week.

The notion that “workers produce all wealth” is not a Marxist one, but a thoroughly bourgeois one that reduces “the workers” to a slave class. It is economism in Marxist clothing.

Firstly, it is patently wrong – there is the not inconsiderable output of the petty bourgeoisie and other subordinate classes, such as the peasantry. But this is not the crux of the matter, which is that nature itself is also a source of wealth. This is true in the sense that our very existence is predicated on it and therefore all of our “work” depends on it too. However, it is essential to appreciate that clean air and thriving wildlife and vegetation are enriching to our existence in and of themselves. This is hardly irrelevant in a pamphlet on ecology! To quote Marx, “Nature is just as much the source of use-values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour-power” (Critique of the Gotha programme).

It is astonishing that comrade Empson himself not only quotes Marx’s Critique of the Gotha programme, but also proposes it as one of the texts in the ‘recommended reading’ list at the end of the pamphlet. After all, it is precisely in this text that Marx takes Ferdinand Lassalle’s absurd notion that “workers create all the wealth in society” to task. And Marx could hardly be clearer: “Labour is not the source of all wealth” (original emphasis). Surely, having read comrade Empson’s (necessarily introductory) pamphlet, comrades will rush to get hold of this Marxist classic, where the above sentence will jump out at them.

If Marx is wrong on this question – and in my opinion he is correct – then comrade Empson should at least try to explain why. Yet, just as with all complicated and ‘grey’ areas of theory that necessitate open and honest discussion if our class is to become equipped with the theoretical weapons to forge a new society, the SWP sweeps this under the carpet as potentially embarrassing or harmful to ‘the movement’ (read the SWP apparatus). But those who actually take the time to critically read Marx’s Critique will find that Lassalle’s formulations, lambasted by Marx, are almost a photocopy of the SWP’s ‘Where we stand’.

Not that Tony Cliff, Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos, Martin Smith, John Rees or even comrade Empson actually sat down and consciously drew inspiration from Lassalle. This historical reflex represents a manifestation of bourgeois ideas in the working class, that, given the nature of bourgeois society and the subordinate position of the working class, constantly re-assert themselves. There are good reasons for this too. As Marx puts it, “The bourgeoisie have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labour; since precisely from the fact that labour is determined by nature, it follows that man, who possesses no other property than his labour-power, must in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour. He can work only with their permission, hence live only with their permission” (Critique of the Gotha programme).

Similarly, the Empson pamphlet tends to define the working class not as sentient, thinking and emotional beings, but as mere wage-slaves – typical of economistic thought more generally. So, while points are made against the environmental movement’s distrust of “working people”, comrade Empson concludes, in a criticism of environmental campaigners such as George Monbiot: “Ignoring thousands of workers whose jobs are at risk will result in them being alienated from the environmental movement. This is why social justice is so important to the debate about a future sustainable society” (p21). This utterly fails to establish why the working class is key.

For Marxism, the working class is the revolutionary class not because of its strength at the point of production, but because of the fact that it is separated from the means of production and thus there is a need among the class as a whole (all those dependent on the wage fund) for collective and voluntary organisation, serving as a signpost to a higher form of society. It is this emphasis on this kind of working class self-organisation that the SWP – and the economistic left more generally – lacks.


Thus for the SWP the solution to runaway climate change and overcoming capitalism is to be found in trade unionism and mobilising workers merely around jobs, pay and conditions – with the tightly-knit bureaucratic centralist sect pulling the strings from behind closed doors. What is missing from this argument is the political action that is needed: the type of programme the working class as a whole should advance, both nationally and internationally, in its own independent interests. For the SWP, the solution lies in ‘the movement’ and the CC’s ‘right line’ or ‘correct transitional method’.

The danger with this approach, however – especially in light of the immediate and serious threat posed by runaway climate change – is that it turns the left into cheerleaders for, or ‘the best builders’ of, the green movement. Socialist Worker’s headline for its ‘blue wave’ edition, ‘People power can save the planet’, is just one example of this simplistic, populist approach. This is quite explicit in the pamphlet: “Every victory for the movement is one that makes the world a better place, but is also one that strengthens the confidence of ordinary people to change the world” (p29).

This embodies the problem of economism. Instead of high politics around the programme of Marxism becoming hegemonic by leading the struggle of all oppressed sections of society in the battle for democracy, the working class is either drowned out by or pulled behind the politics of other classes: petty bourgeois or bourgeois forces that have recently discovered their ‘green’ credentials, reactionary forces that wish to see world population drastically reduced, or technoquacks who wish to fire dust into the upper atmosphere. The ‘programmophobia’ that has engulfed the left has left us vulnerable to all sorts of alien, anti-working class ideas and values. Historically this has seen us bowled over by black separatism, feminism and other outlooks of the petty bourgeoisie.

There can be no tailing of the green agenda and its partial, naive and sometimes even deeply reactionary critique of humanity and nature – we must develop a Marxist programme for these questions. Comrade Empson is not forthcoming here. Whilst towards the end of the pamphlet he comes up with some supportable demands – “massively improved public transport systems”; “better provisions for cyclists and pedestrians and over time we would redesign our towns and cities”; “collective social institutions like free crèches and laundrettes” (p24) – these certainly do not amount to a radical shift away from market imperatives towards the principle of need.

Moreover, they seem detached from any discussion of how to achieve “a truly sustainable society … where production was organised rationally in the interest of people and planet” (p24). This is doubly true of the SWP’s lack of democratic demands. Yet without democracy the working class cannot rule nor achieve a society which is rational, planned and sustainable. What about our own organisations and instruments of struggle? It seems a bit cheap that Alex ‘Stalinicos’ is quoted to ridicule the faux democracy under capitalism, yet he is a central figure in a leadership that presides over a party regime that has hacked into emails, expelled comrades over the telephone and ensured that dissenting voices are excluded from conferences.

This is not just a cheap swipe. The party we fight for, the manner in which we organise now, is inseparable from the sort of society we wish to see, in which democracy flourishes and the law of conscious, controlled planning from below sweeps away the chaos of the market. As such, the party and its structures are a political question. But none of this is mentioned – just a quick allusion to the soviet/mass strike line that passes as a strategy for working class power.

Thus, although there are a few nods towards the working class as the basis for thoroughgoing social change, the pamphlet is not able to offer a partyist alternative – a programme for the proletariat to fashion itself into a class fit to rule and to usher in a society rid of the malfunctioning madness of capitalist production. As such, what we see is economism parading as Marxism – spontaneously created ideas under capitalism substituting for the political economy of the working class.

What is needed is not the confining of theory to the anointed few, while the rank and file are encouraged to tail this or that movement and their alien ideas in the search for a short cut, but a mass Marxist perspective. And that is clearly missing from Empson’s pamphlet, which underlines that, although John Rees and his allies might now be gone from the central committee, their popular frontist movementism certainly has not

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