Modern leftists and the environment by Harry Holmes
In recent years, it seems that all over the globe, activists can be found trying to prevent some ecologically destructive project going ahead. In the UK, we have the battle against fracking. In North America, campaigners are fighting the expansion of oil projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline. Meanwhile, environmental campaigns in Latin America have had deadly consequences, such as in Brazil where Nazildo dos Santos Brito, an activist campaigning against palm oil, was recently shot dead. One could travel the world creating a maddeningly never-ending list of such controversies, with many of the environmental activists identifying with some branch of leftism, be it socialism or some of its 20th century offshoots.
Despite this widespread climate activism, the nature of these disparate protest movements highlights a crisis in contemporary left-wing environmental thinking: the inability to articulate a vision of what an environmentally positive society will look like and the necessary demands for such a future. In each example, activists are merely reacting to the imminent threat of environmental disaster on their doorstep, rather than constructing positive theories for the future. This lack of vision compounds with the prevailing view that Marxist and socialist theories fail to appreciate nature, and that they are too human-centred to provide anything useful to a planet facing environmental catastrophe. In short, Marxist ideas are often seen as useless for 21st century environmentalism.
It is in this search for a constructive environmental politics of the left, that in 2015, McKenzie Wark, known for their work on digital activism, published Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. More recently, we have seen the publication of The Progress of This Storm by Andreas Malm, his latest project fresh from his runaway success Fossil Capital, the radical history of the energy transition from water to fossil fuels. What unifies these books is that they provide some vision of society and nature that could create a constructive left-wing environmental politics, precisely the vision the left must search for.
Molecular Red begins in revolutionary Russia with the figure of Alexander Bogdanov, who, prior to dying from a self-tested blood transfusion, repeatedly clashed with Lenin over socialist theory. Wark shows how Bogdanov’s ideas were developed by the writer Platanov, whose novels focused on Soviet workers and their experiences of rapid industrialisation. Suddenly, we leap forward in time to the United States in the late 20th century, where the focus shifts to Donna Haraway, who is known for her work on the philosophies of science and nature. Wark then finishes this journey with the thinking of Kim Stanley-Robinson, the acclaimed author who explores environmental themes through science-fiction. Focusing on these four historical figures makes Molecular Red a strange mixture of socialism, science-fiction, and environmentalism.
Through this motley bunch of characters, Wark traces a thread of theory which focuses on the worker’s perspective to build an environmental and socialist theory from below rather than above. Only with this shared grassroots vision can we fight those forces who seek to continue polluting, a collective Wark memorably dubs the “Carbon Liberation Front”, a humorous twist on the environmental Animal and Earth Liberation Fronts. In sum, Molecular Red demands a non-hierarchical environmental movement, centred around the worker perspective with interdisciplinary thinking towards some vision of an environmental utopia.
The Progress of This Storm begins with a firing line of in-vogue environmental philosophies which Malm believes undermine leftist thinking about the environment. He expresses his distaste at theories which say we are beyond nature or need to abandon nature, as they seem to negate the fact that society causing a catastrophe in nature. He also attacks theories which attempt to ascribe agency to nature beyond that which humans endow it, arguing that imbuing natural disasters with agency weakens the claim that fossil fuel companies are responsible for them.
Malm sees a separation between nature and society as fundamental to a proper understanding of the climate crisis. He argues that the opposition between capitalism and the planet is already identified by those environmental movements working to prevent destructive projects. For Malm, theory needs to return to the historical materialism of Marx. Only once we develop a theory of ‘climate realism’ that acknowledges how the relations of production have created our fossil fuel economy and how they govern its continued exploitation of nature, can we recognise our terrifying position and organise a revolutionary ecological movement. The Progress of This Storm sees a correct understanding of how capitalism has caused our climate crisis as a framework which can hold polluters to account.
Clearly both authors have quite a different vision for what the left’s environmental politics should look like, but both books are similar in that they act as an introduction to past environmental and socialist thought. While Wark searches for alternative ideas that never pierced the mainstream, Malm attacks popular and new academic ways of understanding the environment, before returning to traditional socialist sources. Together, these texts form a primer for ideas both too influential and historically side-lined in modern environmental thought.
One unsettling thing about both books is the fact that they seem to have an underlying pessimism about mankind’s ability to prevent the climate crisis. Malm faces destruction on two fronts: the storm of natural disasters and planetary warming referenced in the title, as well as the natural destruction he sees from the current form of global capitalism. Wark is more hopeful, but they see their work as rescuing thinkers from the dead Soviet empire and what they see as a dying American one. It’s notable that a lot of Wark’s focus is on Kim Stanley-Robinson's Mars Trilogy, a three part-epic which is both science fiction and discussion of the ethics of geo-engineering. In both these books, there remains the depressing recognition of the failure of climate mitigation thus far, and the implicit hope that there must be a place for adaptation and survival in leftist theory going forward. This is going to hurt, and the left needs to recognise that.
These books are not a blueprint for surviving the climate crisis, but a theoretical basis for doing so.
Do these books provide a clear conception of what an ecological society should look like in the 21st century? Not entirely. There is ambiguity about what the Malm and Wark actually want us to do. We still do not know where efforts are to be concentrated and how to ensure the success of environmental socialism. This was never their goal, however. Both authors, in their own distinct ways, are trying to shine a light into the near future and show how the left should resuscitate and reform socialist and progressive theories. These books are not the blueprint for surviving the climate crisis, but a theoretical basis for doing so.
Malm and Wark don’t completely succeed in this endeavour. These are not general manifestos, works of mobilisation or the like, but rather an attempt to create some theory at what seems an impasse for the left. As such, both are full of the jargon Marxism is often accused of carrying. Neither book is an easy read, and few people without an interest in philosophy or politics will pick them up. Despite this, they are worth the effort to consider what they could mean for the left’s relationship with the planet.
An environmentalist in the 21st century can often feel like they are failing to change anything, that nobody is listening, and that they are the last barrier against Wark’s Carbon Liberation Front. Malm represents the focus on the science of climate change and the rage one feels at those who ignore it, whilst Wark represents the more hopeful and idealist bent of environmentalists and our interest in alternative ways of thinking.
So, whilst environmentalists worldwide block pipelines, roads, and mines, it might be worth giving these two books a read, albeit after a hard day of protests. With increased political polarisation worldwide, and with it the return of socialist ideas to the mainstream, it seems more important than ever that environmentalism can claim a niche in the socialist movements of the 21st century, lest it be left out of their programs for government. While The Progress of This Storm and Molecular Red are not perfect, they show us that the ghost of Marx may still be an ally of modern environmentalism as we attempt to survive this century.
Harry Holmes reads for a BA in Jurisprudence at St Catherine's College, University of Oxford. He is interested in ecological philosophy and politics.