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Can Socialism Save the Planet?

Fidel Castro’s passing late last year spawned a torrent of articles attempting to make sense of the legacy of Cuba’s experiment in socialism. On one side of the ledger proudly appears universal health care and quality education. On the other side lurks the violent oppression of political opponents and gruesome treatment of homosexuals early in his reign. Debates and polemics about other issues will continue for decades to come.

But one sphere where the island country deserves some esteem is the natural environment. Socialist Cuba managed to partially avoid the global trend of mounting environmental pressures during the second half of the twentieth century. With a fairly-stable population, Cuba witnessed a partial reversal of previous deforestation, better preservation of its coral reefs, and fewer threats to biodiversity than many parts of the world. The country stands out among both capitalist and communist nations as having only limped along toward the Anthropocene instead of charging forward into a new geological epoch.

Satellite photograph of the Zapata Swamp Biosphere Reserve in Cuba. Photo from NASA.

Satellite photograph of the Zapata Swamp Biosphere Reserve in Cuba. Photo from NASA.

Cuba’s environmental record should not give those on the Left much encouragement, however. This achievement in limiting ecosystem destruction came about despite Castro’s socialism, not because of it. Revolutionary leaders embraced an aggressive “conquest of nature” rhetoric and pursued the hyper-development common to modernizing states, which easily could have produced much worse results. Instead, isolation and poverty helped prevent a massive industrial push beyond its agricultural sector, which suffered from considerable pollution. Less destruction of the natural environment was in part a byproduct of the geopolitics that kept Cuba wedged between the Soviet Union and the United States. It also resulted from the economic devastation that came with the passing of the USSR.

Much has been written about the environment under communism and much of it has been unfair. Yes, there was ecocide in the USSR, but there has also been plenty of ecocide in the USA. I’ve spent years researching and writing about the environmental history of the Soviet Union, with one of my goals being to contextualize the Soviet experience within a global framework. Doing so compels one to disregard the kneejerk assumption that communism was worse for the natural environment. Some of the notoriously pollutive nickel mines in the Soviet Arctic, for instance, only became more destructive than Canadian operations in the 1970s. Research by historian Kate Brown has also shown that postwar nuclear production in both Richland, Washington, and Ozersk in the Ural Mountains exposed populations and landscapes to radiation risks in similar ways.

Backyard furnaces in China during the Great Leap Forward. Author unknown, 1958, via Wikimedia Commons.

Backyard furnaces in China during the Great Leap Forward. Author unknown, 1958, via Wikimedia Commons.

China fits this pattern as well. There is ample reason to mock Mao’s harebrained schemes to compel peasants to melt their wares in backyard furnaces, and it is morally necessary to condemn the immense human tragedy that resulted from the Great Leap Forward. However, it would be a mistake to attribute China’s contemporary environmental woes to communist experimentation. It was post-Mao capitalist development that propelled unbreathable cities to flourish and the country to overtake the US as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

But although communist countries don’t deserve the triumphalist condemnation of Cold Warriors for their inauspicious environmental records, there are still lessons to be learned from their environmental mistakes. Twentieth-century leftist governments contributed significantly to the perilous environmental situation in the world today. A way forward must entail earnestly attempting to make sense of this past.

Critical theorist Susan Buck-Morss does so by homing in on the excessive focus on industrial production in the USSR. “By adopting the capitalist heavy-industry definition of economic modernization…Soviet socialism had no alternative but to try to produce a utopia out of the production process itself. In making this choice, the Soviets missed the opportunity to transform the very idea of economic ‘development,’ and of the ecological preconditions through which it might be realized.” Essentially, by expanding productive forces above all else, Soviet communism followed the rapacious environmental logic of capitalism. Or, as philosopher Arran Gare observes, a “command economy continues the domineering orientation to people and to nature of capitalism in a more extreme form.”

Young construction workers at Russia’s Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine in 1943. Photo by Shagin, from the RIA Novosti archive via Wikimedia Commons.

Young construction workers at Russia’s Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine in 1943. Photo by Shagin, from the RIA Novosti archive via Wikimedia Commons.

These analyses from a Marxist tradition offer some insight into the environmental conditions of actually existing socialism. Concerning other parts of the world, the theorizing of Green Marxists such as James O’Connor and John Bellamy Foster, the political ecology of David Harvey, Mike Davis, and Michael Watts, and world-systems analysis also provide compelling ideas worthy of serious engagement. Marxist thinkers have attacked the elitism in certain strands of mainstream environmentalism and helped expose the complicity of conservation in imperial projects and indigenous displacements. Such critiques have been invaluable for any hope of achieving true social and environmental justice.

Thinking with Marx about environmental issues when the relevance is clear can be useful, but insisting on a Marxist paradigm raises major problems. “We have entered the twenty-first century still divided by a way of thinking inherited from the nineteenth,” writes Timothy Mitchell. His call to get over the common assumptions about modernity applies equally well to the need to look beyond a philosophy from a century and a half ago, well before the contours of our global environmental crisis had taken shape.

A recent project by McKenzie Wark reveals the deficiencies of spinning endlessly around a Marxist cul-de-sac. His Molecular Red sparkles with intriguing insights about the Anthropocene deduced from a close look at Soviet writers Aleksandr Bogdanov and Andrei Platonov and Californians Kim Stanley Robinson and Donna Haraway. Through a deep reading of these authors, Wark engages in activist literary criticism at its most curious and capacious. But his efforts to draw out new perspectives on the natural environment fall short. Aligned with a “labor point of view,” the natural world is simply seen as that which engages with human activity in a dialectic defined primarily by resistance and struggle. “[A]s labor presses down on nature, nature presses down even harder on labor.” This notion echoes the Promethean aphorism used by another Soviet writer, Maxim Gorky, to defend the supposedly redemptive power of forced prison labor. Echoing Marx, Gorky wrote: “Man, in changing nature, changes himself.”

Steel production in China during the late 1950s. Photo by Li Jiuling, 1957, via Wikimedia Commons.

Steel production in China during the late 1950s. Photo by Li Jiuling, 1957, via Wikimedia Commons.

Though it might eschew the misplaced confidence of Soviet communists in the state’s ability to easily balance social and environmental needs, Wark’s revised labor theory of value still leaves us with unacceptably anthropocentric conceptions of nature. Such a human-centered perspective glosses over the complexity and severity of environmental problems, which after all in the short term affect many non-humans on the planet much more significantly than Homo sapiens. A common Marxist commitment to completely collapsing the division between nature and society goes too far. Humans are always part of nature, but there is nature beyond the human. It might be inaccessible to us outside of thought, but non-human nature exists and should be accounted for independently. Nuclear reactions in the core of a distant star are only connected to me typing these words in the weakest possible sense.

To simplify, Marxism fails to shed light on environmental problems in two fundamental ways: capitalism is not the only reason for environmental destruction, and Marxist materialism does not adequately account for the material world.

The interlinked trends of ballooning population, ever-rising economic activity, and ceaselessly expanding energy use have placed unprecedented pressures on the earth’s natural systems since the nineteenth century. Capitalism is a big part of this story. Profit motive, the transformation of land and species (and increasingly water and air) into commodities, the relentless proliferation of industrial technologies, landscapes, and goods (whether they have any use value or not), and the class power that wealthy elites wield have all contributed greatly to ecological destruction and a perilously warming climate.

Yet not all growth is capitalist, as the twentieth-century communist experiments prove. Nor are the improvements in health and medicine that have enabled more people to live longer. Even in the energy sector, the technologies that have allowed coal, oil, gas, and atoms to be harvested are not reducible to an oppressive political economy; knowledge, science, and education, including in socialist countries, have played a part.

The illusion that the economic growth of the past seventy years can and should continue ad infinitum clouds thinking all around. Policy makers and business leaders have so cleverly morphed “sustainability” into a call for long-term economic development unhindered by environmental problems that genuine considerations of an exit ramp from unending growth rarely see the light of day. Regardless of their critiques of the environmental status quo, socialists also too frequently take continued abundance as a political prerequisite and too hastily dismiss anti-growth environmentalists as individualistic romantics or elitist technocrats.

“Citizens of the USSR are obliged to take care of nature and protect its wealth.” Soviet poster from 1979.

“Citizens of the USSR are obliged to take care of nature and protect its wealth.” Soviet poster from 1979. Source.

In the final decades of the Soviet Union, this reluctance to confront growth appeared in the mismatch between the frequent discussion of environmental issues in the official press and the expanding levels of industrial output. In factory towns throughout northern Eurasia, residents would read newspaper articles exhorting them to protect their “green friend” while they manufactured evermore steel and coal. A more recent example comes from Hugo Chavez’s socialist endeavor in Venezuela. While he talked about climate change as an evil of capitalism, his government maintained oil production as the central focus of its economy.

The belief that environmental problems can simply go away with the overthrow of capitalism not only belies history, but also hinders sober thinking about the future. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything astutely diagnoses the scale of the climate problem and smartly insists that adequately addressing it will involve challenging the capitalist world system. Yet her Pollyannaism about the outcome is unnerving. It is hard not to agree with mainstream liberal Elizabeth Kolbert, who, in her critical review of Klein’s decidedly radical book, saw much less reason for hope than despair. Humans seem more likely to be another victim of the sixth extinction than to miraculously overcome the vulgarities of capitalism and environmental crisis in one fell swoop. Agitating for a better tomorrow cannot blind us to the darkness on the horizon.

Another environmental inadequacy of Marxism comes from an insufficient and misdirected materialism. Influential strands of Marxism share with Freakanomics an obsessive focus on the economy. Wealth, class, commodities, and access to resources encompass the bulk of these materialist concerns. While this materialism might be more grounded than some of the postmodern flights into theories of materiality, it is still not about the ground. The dirt of history matters, not just in an abstract sense or as an economic input, but through its raw physicality that renders people much smaller and less significant than they are used to thinking themselves. And this dirt can’t just be swept into a dustbin.

An amalgam of neo-materialist approaches—some that follow scientific insights closely and others that develop distinctive theories of non-human actors affecting society—have gained traction in the humanities recently. The autonomy of matter is the central concern here. Maggots, mountains, mice, milk, and meteorites can interfere in human livelihoods; they are not, nor will ever be, subject to complete control, whether through technology, exploitation, or will. They certainly will never be reducible to mere economic objects.

Some making this claim go further to try to insist that a more grounded materialism clearly directs us toward a more promising politics. I won’t go that far, since the implications are open to debate. Taking a different materiality seriously comes primarily from the need to consider the autonomy of non-human nature in order to even have a chance of getting the assessment of the environmental situation right. Yet this still means that a revised materialism is a key step toward developing the appropriate political approach to the natural world.

“The forest must be guarded!” Soviet poster from the 1970s.

“The forest must be guarded!” Soviet poster from the 1970s. Source.

What might that approach be? For one thing, there is a need to re-engage with strands of anti-growth environmentalism, while setting aside the parts that disregard the well-being of poorer populations. Productive new visions not based on producing more can hopefully emerge from such an endeavor.

Paying more heed to the anarchist vision of maximizing freedom by minimizing hierarchy could also help, at least if this reduced hierarchy includes non-humans as well. Of course, individual consumption choices will never suffice to stave off environmental crisis, no matter how much one reduces one’s ecological footprint. But small-scale, naturally embedded egalitarianism is a critical tool.

Systemic changes are also necessary and here is where socialism still has something to contribute. Global and local networks of just distribution can come into better view, and how to create them can become clearer, when people more readily acknowledge the multidimensional character of environmental problems and better appreciate the omnipresent influence of our surrounding physical reality.

Featured image: “Save the Tree of Life!” Soviet environmentalist poster. Source.

Andy Bruno is Assistant Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Northern Illinois University and a Community Associate of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Nature of Soviet Power: An Arctic Environmental History (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Website. Contact.

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