Comments on the Two Ecosocialist Manifestos

Shane Hopkinson

The first ecosocialist manifesto was an attempt to introduce the notion of ecosocialism at a time when many people were wondering how the traditional left, with its focus on material progress and higher living standards for the working class and the poor could fit with measures to tackle the environmental crisis, which to many means lower living standards and a retreat from industrialisation.

By comparison, the draft second manifesto seems almost like a declaration of war.

It opens with:

“Humanity today faces a stark choice: ecosocialism or barbarism.”

Now this locates us clearly in the socialist tradition (with “eco” added, so something different as well) but I guess only insiders would get the reference to Rosa Luxemburg, elaborating on Engels, in the Junius Pamphlet:

Friedrich Engels once said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” What does “regression into barbarism” mean to our lofty European civilization? Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration — a great cemetery.

Now I have no problem with this approach, but without knowing the story, I wonder how many people coming perhaps to us for the first time would read it as a sort of ultimatum: you’re with us or with the barbarians. It continues then with a somewhat apocalyptic picture.

Again, people reading this aren’t likely to be complete amateurs but I don’t think that, for most people, the “stark choice” is that clear (nor the science). There is still a lot of “patient explaining” to do and presenting it in these Manichean terms means many people will simply say that there is no hope. Most people do not feel they have much choice at all in the face of global problems and in the absence of much in the way of anti-systematic movements.

Now compare that with the first manifesto:

The twenty-first century opens on a catastrophic note, with an unprecedented degree of ecological breakdown and a chaotic world order beset with terror and clusters of low-grade, disintegrative warfare that spread like gangrene across great swathes of the planet — viz, central Africa, the Middle East, Northwestern South America — and reverberate throughout the nations. In our view, the crises of ecology and those of societal breakdown are profoundly interrelated and should be seen as different manifestations of the same structural forces.

It seems to me that says something similar re eco-catastrophe but it is concrete (rather than catastrophic) and invites the reader to look at where, we think, the solutions may lie.

I think we’d have to explain more before saying that climate change is “an act of aggression by the rich against the poor” and while I agree that it is in “capitalism’s DNA”, that needs explaining too. If this is intended for insiders then fine (tho it hardly seems necessary), for outsiders it needs to be more transitional, I think.

I think the para that begins: “In our lifetimes, these assaults on the earth have accelerated …” is much better, tho the quantitative to qualitative change is insider-speak too. Again, it and the next two paras are better.

The next section, Capitalist Strategies for Change, is back to style of the opening — surely it is a surprise for most people that capital sets the terms of the debate — and terms like the “means of production of knowledge” make it sound like insiders talking. Again, there is the sense of an ultimatum — of people serving two masters. That may be well and good when we are on the verge of the final push to end the rule of capital but now … it reads like scolding scoundrels.

To say “there is every reason to doubt” after the other claims seems like preaching to the choir.

I think references to mechanisms are too specific but just feel like by the end of page two that we have succeeded only in making despair convincing. Surely something about “balance of forces” and resistance are essential … something about the new world being born in the womb of the old … with us as midwives should be much earlier.

The final section on “the ecosocialist alternative” is where we all want readers to end up — not with a sigh of relief that there is some slim hope — but with a recognition that they are able to become part of a process to make the world a better place. Again I think the style of the first manifesto — acknowledging errors of the past, building on past movements and acknowledging the problems we all face, is more inviting. The addition of gender (while a bit token) is a big improvement on the older version. Now look at the closing paragraphs.

In the first:

“No one can read these prescriptions without thinking, first, of how many practical and theoretical questions they raise, and second and more dishearteningly, of how remote they are from the present configuration of the world, both as this is anchored in institutions and as it is registered in consciousness. We need not elaborate these points, which should be instantly recognizable to all. But we would insist that they be taken in their proper perspective. Our project is neither to lay out every step of this way nor to yield to the adversary because of the preponderance of power he [sic!] holds. It is, rather, to develop the logic of a sufficient and necessary transformation of the current order, and to begin developing the intermediate steps towards this goal. We do so in order to think more deeply into these possibilities, and at the same moment, begin the work of drawing together with all those of like mind. If there is any merit in these arguments, then it must be the case that similar thoughts, and practices to realize these thoughts, will be coordinatively germinating at innumerable points around the world. Ecosocialism will be international, and universal, or it will be nothing. The crises of our time can and must be seen as revolutionary opportunities, which it is our obligation to affirm and bring into existence.”

In the second draft:

“This Manifesto is not an academic statement, but a call to action. The entrenched ruling elites are incredibly powerful, and the forces of radical opposition are still small. But those forces are the only hope that the catastrophic course of capitalist “growth” will be halted. Walter Benjamin defined revolutions as being not the locomotive of history, but as humanity reaching for the emergency breaks of the train, before it plunges into an abyss.”

I just can’t help but feel than the framing of the former is better. Again I don’t disagree with the general line of the document but I think it needs to be more transitional and explanatory. We are a tiny fraction of a movement — and this document originates as far as I can tell from outside the existing Green movements (like the Global Greens who are presently meeting in Rio).

We have learned to become suspicious of setting up “internationals” that are not based on real movements, so we should be clear how this discussion can serve as a means of clarification for us while presenting our ideas in the most transitional way — by making hope plausible.