Sunday, 14 April 2019

What is the difference between Eco-socialism and Eco-anarchism?

I count myself as an eco-socialist, but there are various strains of this political philosophy. They range from the type of eco-socialism practiced in Venezuela and Bolivia, with a centralised government headed by a (male) leader, through to the Green New Deal proposals championed now by social democratic politicians in the US and UK (though first proposed by Green Parties in both these countries). To, at the other end, an anti-capitalist variety, to which I belong, which includes such figures as Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy, who co-authored the first eco-socialist manifesto.

But even within this strain there are different emphasis placed on some aspects of philosophy, chiefly, surrounding the centrality of Karl Marx’s writing on ecological matters. Writers at the Monthly Review such as James Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, insist that Marx was an eco-socialist, but others, like myself, are more loosely Marxist. So we first need to be clear what we mean by eco-socialism. Eco-socialism is an eco-centric socialism. I gave a talk about eco-socialism in London, where I defined the main component parts thus:

Metabolic Rift

Nature contains billions of ecosystems, all connected in a finely balanced way, to form what we might call the ‘ecosphere’. Capitalism disrupts and eventually completely ruptures this balance, setting off chain reactions which cannot be cured easily, if at all. Human beings are ecosystems too, and the way the system forces us to live, causes a rupture between us and nature and leads to illnesses like stress, depression and obesity.

And to those who say the ways of capitalism are ‘human nature’, then if this is true, why have we only been living this way for a few hundred years? The only thing natural about capitalism, is that it was invented by creatures of nature, us. And we can just as easily un-invent it – and we should.

Eco-socialist writer James Bellamy Foster has managed to link this to Karl Marx’s notion of an ‘irreparable rift’ between humans and nature, in volume three of Capital.

The Commons

Historically, in Britain and other western nations, people were forcibly removed from common land as it was enclosed, with violence employed, to drive the people off the land and into the capitalist factories in the towns and cities. And today the same thing is happening in developing countries.

By taking away people's alternative way of providing for themselves, they are left with no choice but to move into cities and work often 16 hours a day for meagre pay in factories, where health and safety is non-existent, and female workers are routinely harassed and molested.

When I visited Senegal in west Africa a few years ago, one day I spoke with some fishermen who complained about the factory ships from the European Union, Russia and Japan that were hoovering up all of the fish, so much so, that the local fisherman couldn’t catch enough fish anymore to earn a decent living. Here was a system of managed commons which had fed local people for thousands of years and provided a livelihood for the fishermen, destroyed by the capitalist factory boats. Robbing from the poor - to give to the rich.

You have probably heard of the ‘global commons’ on the internet, peer to peer sharing and free software, which eco-socialists welcome, with the possibilities it provides for living outside of the capitalist system, to some extent anyway.

Ecocentric Production

This is a quote from my favourite eco-socialist writer Jovel Kovel describing our vision of eco-socialism: ‘a society in which production is carried out by freely associated labour, and by consciously eco-centric means and ends’.

I think this phrase covers the production process under eco-socialism neatly. The ‘freely associated labour’ bit refers to the absence of surplus value, profit for capital.
Production would be for ‘use-value’, not ‘exchange value'. It will require useful workers only, doctors, nurses, teachers etc. and there will be no need for work such as pushing numbers around on a computer in a bank in the City of London, which is useless to humanity - and indeed harmful.

What is produced will be of the highest quality, and beauty, and made to last and be repairable. My laptop packed up last week and I put it in for repair. But they couldn’t fix it because they couldn’t get the replacement part – this laptop is only a little over a year old, but it is obsolete. Throw it away, and get another was the advice. This is purposefully a planned obsolescence, to drive demand for new production within modern capitalism.

In Green Party circles you hear a lot about sustainability, or sustainable production, but we eco-socialists prefer the word sufficiency, or sufficient production. Only as much as is needed will be produced, and no more. It should go without saying that the production process will be in balance with nature too.

Radical Democracy

Democracy in an eco-socialist society will devolve all decisions down to the lowest possible level. A series of assemblies, local, town, regional and at least at first, national. The assemblies will be freely elected and each assembly will be subject to recall from the level below, and assembly members should serve only one term. Eventually, the central state will be dissolved.

There are varieties of anarchism too, ranging from the individualist to collective types, but all tend to advocate horizontal leadership rather than hierarchical ones, and tend to pursue ‘statelessness’ as a central aim. Certainly at the left end of the anarchism spectrum the philosophy is anti-capitalist and truly democratic.

Eco-anarchism sits within the anarchist philosophy, it includes a critique of the interactions between humans and non-humans, as well just human ones and aims to bring about an environmentally sustainable anarchist society. Social ecology developed mainly by the writer and thinker Murray Bookchin, is part of this strain of anarchism and many eco-socialists count Bookchin as a part of our tradition.

Bookchin was at first a libertarian socialist, but moved to a more unambiguously anarchist philosophy, though he thought Marx’s thinking and writing was valuable, and was mainly at odds with the Marxist academic establishment in the US in 1960s, who he accused of crowding out anarchist thinking. 

His ideas have been taken up and are presently being practised in the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria, known as Rojava. The Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council, joined to form the Kurdish Supreme Committee and the People's Protection Units militia were established to defend their territory. Eco-socialists find great encouragement and inspiration from this experiment, and see it as very similar to what a future eco-socialist society might look like.

There were disagreements between socialists and anarchists in the nineteenth century, with, for example, William Morris the British socialist, who eco-socialists count as one of our own, clashing with anarchists at the Social Democratic Foundation. But the divide really opened up in the twentieth century, mainly because of the successful socialist revolution in Russia and the way it developed, into a nasty authoritarian state with an empire of states around the world and a very powerful military.

Eco-socialists hold the same sort of view as anarchists of this twentieth century, actually existing socialism, and think that the Russian revolution took socialism in the wrong direction, away from a truly libertarian path socialism had promised, and Marx wrote about. Marx’s ideas on ‘freely associated labour,’ was nowhere to be seen in the USSR or the other actually existing socialist states.

After the necessary anti-capitalist revolution, a peaceful one hopefully, eco-socialists believe that some sort of ‘central state’ will be needed, which is not the view of anarchists, by and large, but this should be time limited. I think central direction will be essential, to set in train a process which will lead to eco-socialism, but its aim should also be to dissolve itself as soon as possible, certainly in no more than ten years, and probably less than this.

I know that many anarchists are wary of socialists calling for ‘left unity’ and with good reason. Too many present day socialists are unreconstructed, and often shamelessly so, that eco-socialists despair of them too. So, I’m not really calling for a unity with these types of people and their philosophies, but I would ask that anarchists take a fair look at eco-socialism, particularly eco-anarchists. In my view, there are so many similarities between the two philosophies, and not many differences.


  1. Good contribution to the discussion. And please consider my own:

  2. Benjamin Tucker cited historian Ernest Lesigne on this in Liberty 5.16, no. 120 (10 March 1888), pp. 2-3, 6.

    “There are two Socialisms.
    One is communistic, the other solidaritarian.
    One is dictatorial, the other libertarian.
    One is metaphysical, the other positive.
    One is dogmatic, the other scientific.
    One is emotional, the other reflective.
    One is destructive, the other constructive.
    Both are in pursuit of the greatest possible welfare for all.
    One aims to establish happiness for all, the other to enable each to be happy in his own way.
    The first regards the State as a society sui generis, of an especial essence, the product of a sort of divine right outside of and above all society, with special rights and able to exact special obediences; the second considers the State as an association like any other, generally managed worse than others.
    The first proclaims the sovereignty of the State, the second recognizes no sort of sovereign.
    One wishes all monopolies to be held by the State; the other wishes the abolition of all monopolies.
    One wishes the governed class to become the governing class; the other wishes the disappearance of classes.
    Both declare that the existing state of things cannot last.
    The first considers revolutions as the indispensable agent of evolutions; the second teaches that repression alone turns evolutions into revolution.
    The first has faith in a cataclysm.
    The second knows that social progress will result from the free play of individual efforts.
    Both understand that we are entering upon a new historic phase.
    One wishes that there should be none but proletaires.
    The other wishes that there should be no more proletaires.
    The first wishes to take everything away from everybody.
    The second wishes to leave each in possession of its own.
    The one wishes to expropriate everybody.
    The other wishes everybody to be a proprietor.
    The first says: ‘Do as the government wishes.’
    The second says: ‘Do as you wish yourself.’
    The former threatens with despotism.
    The latter promises liberty.
    The former makes the citizen the subject of the State.
    The latter makes the State the employee of the citizen.
    One proclaims that labor pains will be necessary to the birth of a new world.
    The other declares that real progress will not cause suffering to any one.
    The first has confidence in social war.
    The other believes only in the works of peace.
    One aspires to command, to regulate, to legislate.
    The other wishes to attain the minimum of command, of regulation, of legislation.
    One would be followed by the most atrocious of reactions.
    The other opens unlimited horizons to progress.
    The first will fail; the other will succeed.
    Both desire equality.
    One by lowering heads that are too high.
    The other by raising heads that are too low.
    One sees equality under a common yoke.
    The other will secure equality in complete liberty.
    One is intolerant, the other tolerant.
    One frightens, the other reassures.
    The first wishes to instruct everybody.
    The second wishes to enable everybody to instruct himself.
    The first wishes to support everybody.
    The second wishes to enable everybody to support himself.
    One says:
    The land to the State.
    The mine to the State.
    The tool to the State.
    The product to the State.
    The other says:
    The land to the cultivator.
    The mine to the miner.
    The tool to the laborer.
    The product to the producer.
    There are only these two Socialisms.
    One is the infancy of Socialism; the other is its manhood.
    One is already the past; the other is the future.
    One will give place to the other.
    Today each of us must choose for the one or the other of these two Socialisms, or else confess that he is not a Socialist.”

    - For me, the Marxist ideology that colonised the word 'socialism' is the former, whereas anarchism - which also held claim to the word 'socialism' is the latter.

  3. So, what is the form of government to solve the issues? I like the evolutionary approach. For the U.S.A. it means to me recapture of the commons from the corporations.
    A societal based carbon fee and dividend with a data distribution system to the dividend holders monthly.