GREEN IS RED: The case for eco-Marxist politics

green red star

Daphne Lawless will present on Ecosocialism at our upcoming conference, Fightback 2013.

It seems to be common sense that socialism and green politics go together. “Green is red”, wrote English socialist Paul McGarr more than ten years ago. On the other side of the aisle, the Right often refer to the Green Party as “watermelons” (that is, red on the inside – secretly socialist). The Green Parties, for their turn, like to deny this connection, often declaring themselves “neither left nor right but out in front”. And many Marxists don’t want to have anything to do with this supposedly privileged middle-class movement for that very reason.

However, ecosocialism is – in brief – the idea that you can’t have green politics without red politics. That is: that you can’t have an environmentally sustainable society under capitalism and its almight profit motives. And you can’t have a socialist society which ignores ecological sustainability and quality of life in favour of producing mass quantities of consumer goods. I want to argue that, while ecosocialism has been for the last 25 years or so “the wave of the future”, it is now very much the wave of the present.

Marx and Ecology

Ecosocialism is the descendant of a Marxism which comes from “bottom up” – a Marxism which takes as its start and end point the lived experience of human beings on this planet. Marxism, as a philosophy which seeks to liberate humanity from alienation, is most widely known as the theory of how capitalism alienates the working class from the produce of their labour. But Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also discussed how it alienates human beings from nature.

The American socialist writer John Bellamy Foster has shown that Marx’s early writings are very clear that capitalism creates a “metabolic rift” between social systems and ecological systems. Through the town-country division of labour, natural resources, including the plant and animal kingdoms, waterways and space itself, become seen as inert objects waiting to be transformed into goods for profit. And of course this applied also to the workers themselves – the worker is not valued for her or his humanity, but only as a source of potential profit for the boss. Capitalism is a system of exploitation of all of nature – including people.

The increasing push for resources under industrial capitalism leads to both environmental damage and heightening of capitalist competition. For example, in 19th century England farming was transformed by the increased use of chemical fertiliser – but the increasing yield of crops led to soil degradation. Meanwhile, imperialist wars were fought over tiny islands rich in guano (bird droppings) which could be used to make fertiliser.

However, this also has an effect on human well-being. The growth of industrial cities led to an urban environment fouled and polluted as much as a rural environment – especially for the working masses who flocked to these cities from the country. We can see a very similar process (the wearing out of the countryside under exploitation combined with the growth of tenement cities) in modern China. Foul, cramped, soulless working and living conditions are as much a product of capitalist alienation as the expropriation of surplus value.

degradation of the Aral Sea

degradation of the Aral Sea

Soviet Russia’s eco-disaster

The first argument which is thrown back at ecosocialists is that the 20th century European and Asian states which called themselves socialist were hardly environmental success stories. This is true. But in this lies the fundamental difference between ecosocialism and these bureaucratically mismanaged state-run economies.

Just like capitalist economies, the Soviet Union was determined to push for economic growth at all costs – to keep up with the West and defend itself. Referring to industrialisation, Josef Stalin is reported to have said: “We must do in ten years what England did in a hundred”. And a process running at ten times the speed was ten times as brutal.

We need only mention a few examples – the mass famines following the collectivization of agriculture, which killed millions in the Ukraine. The Aral Sea in Asian Russia has virtually ceased to exist after the rivers feeding it were diverted for irrigation. Consumers stood in line for basic necessities while priority was given to building heavy machinery, space vehicles and nuclear weapons. And countries in the Soviet orbit – such as East Germany – became notorious for their greyness and dirtyness, due to burning cheaper “brown coal” (lignite) or using shoddy concrete.

No wonder that in the late 1980s, the workers didn’t lift a finger to defend these so-called “workers’ states”.Their actual, human needs were never a priority for their bureaucratic rulers.

Against productivism

So ecosocialism is opposed not only to free-market capitalism, but to productivism in all its forms – the push for economic growth, whether measured in profits or in raw production numbers, at all costs. Productivism is the triumph of the abstract (numbers of currency or objects) over the concrete (the real quality of life of the masses). Ecosocialism believes that socialism must run on a triple bottom line – not only must a new society restore political and economic power to the workers, but it must also work to heal social alienation and the alienation of humanity from the rest of nature.

So why is ecosocialism becoming so vital at this point in history? It’s well known that “Marx is back” since the near-collapse of financial capitalism in 2008 and the subsequent “recovery for the rich only”, which have laid bare the continuous reality of class warfare and exploitation. But the massive economic crisis only one of the problems facing the current world system.

PERIL syndrome

New Zealand socialist Peter de Waal came up with the concept of the “PERIL syndrome”. PERIL here stands for five integrated crises that capitalism faces at the current time. The Profitability crisis is only the first: there is also:
• an Ecological crisis involving global warming, polar melting and other such imminent fundamental changes to the environment;
• a Resources crisis as fossil fuels get rare, and battles loom over other scarces resources, such as rare-earth minerals in the Congo;
• a crisis of Imperialism as the United States and its allies such as Israel increasingly find it difficult to exert their hegemony over such up-and-coming economies as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa);
• a Legitimacy crisis as the veil is increasingly stripped away from the naked greed of the ruling classes, as the working classes in the rich countries are progressively stripped of their social gains, while the working classes in developing countries become aware of their potential collective power.

This combination of crises suggests that the global capitalist order is now fragile in a way it has not been since the Second World War. Some theorists – like the New Zealand socialist Grant Morgan or the Russian-American Dmitry Orlov – have gone as far as to argue that global capitalism is doomed to collapse within a few decades.

However, ecosocialism doesn’t necessarily hold to this apocalyptic scenario. Whether globalised capitalism is sustainable – and what social order or orders might replace it – is a question which has an objective as well as a subjective factor. The crises mean that the global order must change and compensate – but the balance of class forces will determine exactly how that comes about.

eco socialism

Socialist organisation for human beings

So how shall ecosocialists organise? The first point to answer is that the last thing that ecosocialists in New Zealand want is another “sect”. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels said that communists do not form another party opposed to working-class parties. Similarly, ecosocialists have not been forming groups opposed to other socialist groups.

Some existing socialist parties – such as the Left Party in France or the Socialist Alliance in Australia – have explicitly declared themselves “ecosocialists”. But in the rest of the world, ecosocialists are forming networks for discussion and common action, while still working within the existing left, socialist and green parties. The concrete form this take depends on the circumstances. For instance, the Green Left in England continues to work within the Green Party, whereas ecosocialists in New Zealand have largely abandoned our own Greens, especially since Sue Bradford was defeated within that party.

But the crucial distinction is that ecosocialism – being based on the concept of ending the alienation of the whole human being, not just from the means of production – is careful to not perpetuate that alienation within its own structures. The “sect” model of organisation which has been standard on the small-group radical left in the developed countries has become a dead end. A holistic view of politics, such as that which ecosocialism provides, argues that no organisation can shut itself off from capitalist society and claim to be proof against its abuses.

We must increasingly admit that the actually-existing radical left is not an affirming and nurtuing place for workers, in particular queer, non-white and female workers. We are all familiar with recent scandals – here and overseas – with sexually abusive behaviour in radical organisations. This happens in organisations which have sucked in the productivist logic of capitalism – where comrades are “burned for fuel” to fulfil the schemes of a self-perpetuating leadership.

Therefore, ecosocialism isn’t just about adding ecological demands to our existing Marxist programmes. It’s about a method of organisation which is sustainable on the human level for revolutionary cadre – which neither burns them out or turns them into automatons carrying out leadership commands. This is perhaps the main reason why I think it is good for ecosocialists not to separate themselves from other radical parties – that not only does ecosocialist politics complement rather than challenge socialism-from-below, but ecosocialist organisational principles can save many good activists from being burned out and alienated by small-group leaders gone berserk.

Where to from here?

The Green Party in New Zealand has completely abased itself before the profit motive. It is now the party of “greenwashing”, of middle-class consumer activism, of the relatively well-off under capitalism seeking some kind of moral basis for their consumption habits. The voting numbers for the Greens in South Auckland show how relevant this is to the working class.

Socialists must challenge Green politics from the left, showing how ecological issues are of top relevance to the quality of life of working people. But we must also challenge bureaucratic and schematic politics from a holistic viewpoint – “green is the tree of life”, said Lenin quoting Goethe, and socialism which exploits activists and crushes their spirits is nothing worthy of the name.


  1. Working with the great theorist of the biosphere, Vladimir I. Vernadsky – a liberal who fled the 1917 revolution but returned when he saw that Lenin was no monster – Lenin helped set up the world’s first ever nature reserve, an area of land where no capitalist exploitation was permitted. Of course, all this was lost in Stalin’s counter-revolution. Vernadsky’s book “The Biosphere” was republished in an English translation in 1998 by Copernicus. It shows what truly cosmic ideas (i.e. scientifically grounded yet more mind-expanding than any drug or postmodern fantasy) were generated in Russia at that time, ideas utterly travestied by the “Leninism” of Stalin and the “burn-you-out” sects with immoveable leaders …

  2. Thanks for this useful article. I agree with you that it is no good just “adding ecological demands to our existing Marxist programmes”. In order to avoid that pitfall, we need to think seriously and deeply about much of the underpinning of our socialist ideas. Over the last couple of years I have been trying to develop some discussion on relevant issues at Please visit! For example, while I agree with you that productivism is a bankrupt ideology, there are many other issues that we need collectively to work on: about socialist approaches to technology (the “productive forces” that socialists used to so love picturing as an automatic driver towards revolution), about exactly HOW capital distorts the relationship with nature (and the fact that such distortions long pre-dated the emergence of capitalism and were also present in pre-capitalist hierarchical societies). About organisation, I’d question the very idea of “revolutionary cadre”. Isn’t the subject of history the working class, the masses of people? “Revolutionary cadre” can not overturn hierarchy and exploitation and remake human society’s relationship with nature; people, acting and deciding collectively, can.

    • “I’d question the very idea of “revolutionary cadre”. Isn’t the subject of history the working class, the masses of people? “Revolutionary cadre” can not overturn hierarchy and exploitation and remake human society’s relationship with nature; people, acting and deciding collectively, can.”

      Agreed in part. Revolutionary cadre on their own can’t overturn this system.

      However, part of capital’s power is ideological / structural / hegemonic. Organisation for improved conditions becomes bureaucratic; struggle for political power falls under the wing of the state; capitalism remains intact.

      People also don’t just come to revolutionary ideas without revolutionary theory (at the risk of tautology). Without organised revolutionaries acting as a “memory of the class,” without preparatory work, revolution won’t just happen.

      Wrote something on this a couple of years ago that might be of interest, some of the comments with Grant and Daphne (who weren’t in Fightback at that point) are interesting:

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