Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Reconceptualising Socialism to Ecosocialism

This is an extract from a longer piece written by Hans Baer. The full text is posted at The Next System Project.

Numerous observers have viewed the collapse of Communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as an indication that capitalism constitutes the end of history and that socialism was a bankrupt experiment that led to totalitarianism, forced collectivization, gulags, ruthless political purges, and inefficient centralized planned economies. What these commentators often overlook is that efforts to create socialist-oriented societies occurred in, by and large, economically underdeveloped countries. Historically, Marxists or socialists have engaged in intense debates as to whether the transition from capitalism to socialism would occur vis-à-vis revolutionary change or more gradual change by way of reforms in various parts of the world. Revolutions involve sudden and radical social transformations and are often associated with varying levels of violence, as was the case with the American, French, Bolshevik, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions.

The efforts of Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolsheviks to develop the beginnings of the process that they hoped would result in socialism occurred under extremely adverse conditions, including constant external threat. Although the Bolsheviks, particularly under the dictatorial leadership of Stalin, managed to transform the Soviet Union into an industrial powerhouse by the 1930s, a variety of external forces, such as World War II and the Cold War, and internal forces, such as a centralized command economy and a political system of one-party rule, prevented the development of socialist democracy. With some modifications, the model of bureaucratic centralism was adopted by various other post-revolutionary societies after World War II, starting with China in 1949. The contradictory nature of Leninist regimes imploded first in Eastern Europe in 1989, particularly highlighted by the opening of the Berlin Wall, and in the Soviet Union in 1991. In the case of China, its Communist leaders embraced capitalist structures as a means of rapid development to the point that some scholars argue that it now constitutes a state capitalist society, entailing tremendous social inequalities and environmental devastation. The collapse of Communist regimes created a crisis for many leftists throughout the world. Many progressives had hoped that somehow these societies, which were characterized in a variety of ways, would undergo changes that would transform them into democratic and ecologically-sensitive socialist societies.

Democratic Socialism

Due to the shortcomings of efforts to create socialism in the twentieth century, the notion of socialism has been discredited in many quarters. This has prompted various progressive scholars and social activists who wish to preserve the ideals of socialism, such as collective ownership, social equality, and representative and participatory democracy, to refer to their visions of a better world in terms such as radical democracy, global democracy, and Earth democracy. Nevertheless, it is important for progressive people to come to terms with the historical discrepancies between the ideals of socialism and the realities of what passed for it. This is so they can reconstruct a viable global socialist system, with manifestations at regional and local levels, that is highly democratic rather than authoritarian, that ensures that all people have access to basic resources, and that is at the same time environmentally sustainable. It is my assertion that what I term post-revolutionary societies or what some term actually-existing socialist societies, exhibited, and in some cases still display, positive features. They also demonstrated, or still show, notable negative features. Unfortunately, all too many of the negative features have been tragic and horrific, to the point that they have discredited the notions of socialism and communism in the minds of many people.

Authentic socialism remains very much a vision, one which various individuals and groups seek to frame in new guises. Numerous Marxian scholars have asserted that socialism is inherently more democratic than capitalist societies could ever be and, thus, democracy is an inherent component of socialism. According to Ralph Miliband in Socialism for a Sceptical Age, three core propositions define socialism: (1) democracy, (2) egalitarianism, and (3) socialization or public ownership of a predominant part of the economy. Although some areas of a socialist society would require centralized planning and coordination, democratic socialism recognizes the need for decentralized economic, political, and social structures that would permit the greatest amount of popular participation in decision making. Socialist democracy would involve not only democracy in the workplace but also citizen involvement in the operation of educational institutions, health facilities, housing associations, and other organizations that impact people’s lives. Miliband envisions three distinct economic sectors:
  • a predominant and varied public sector;
  • a sizable cooperative sector; and
  • a sizeable private sector consisting primarily of small and medium companies that would play a significant role in providing various goods, services, and amenities.
In The Idea of Communism, Tariq Ali argues that twenty-first century socialism should include political pluralism, freedom of speech, access to the media, the right to form trade unions, and cultural liberty.


In the past, Marxian political economy has tended to give, at best, passing consideration to environmental factors, but historically there have been exceptions to this tendency. Various Marxian theorists, including Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, E.P. Thompson, and André Gorz have served as precursors to present-day eco-socialism. Over the past three decades or so, various leftists have become more sensitive to the environmental travesties that have occurred not only in developed and developing capitalist societies but also in post-revolutionary societies. Indeed, John Bellamy Foster argues in Marx’s Ecology that Karl Marx himself recognized that capitalism is in a metabolic rift with nature.

Eco-socialism seeks to come to grips with the growth paradigm inherent in capitalism and to which post-revolutionary societies in the past subscribed and still do today; a case in point is China. Foster, in The Ecological Revolution, asserts revolutionary change entails both political-economic and environmental considerations. Eco-socialism has made some headway among Marxist scholars in China. Ariel Salleh, an Australian sociologist, has served as a long-time proponent of socialist eco-feminism and Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva asserts, in Earth Democracy, that all beings, human and nonhuman, have a natural right to sustenance, and that a just society is based on a living commons and economic democracy.

Democratic Eco-socialism

The concept of democratic eco-socialism constitutes a merger of the earlier existing concepts of democratic socialism and eco-socialism. It is imperative that progressives reinvent the notion of socialism by recognizing that we live on a planet with limited resources that must be more or less equitably distributed to provide everyone with enough, but not too much. As delineated in Medical Anthropology and the World), a textbook that I co-authored with Merrill Singer and Ida Susser, democratic eco-socialism entails the following principles:
  • an economy oriented to meeting basic social needs—namely adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, health, and dignified work;
  • a high degree of social equality;
  • public ownership of the means of production;
  • representative and participatory democracy; and
  • environmental sustainability.
Democratic eco-socialism rejects a statist, growth-oriented, productivist ethic and recognizes that humans live on an ecologically fragile planet with limited resources that must be sustained and renewed as much as possible for future generations.
The vision of democratic eco-socialism closely resembles what world systems theorists Terry Boswell and Christopher Chase-Dunn in The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism term global democracy, a concept that entails the following components:
  • an increasing movement toward public ownership of productive forces at local, regional, national, and international levels;
  • the development of an economy oriented toward meeting social needs, such as basic food, clothing, shelter, and health care, and environmental sustainability rather than profit making;
  • the eradication of health and social disparities and the redistribution of human resources between developed and developing societies, and within societies in general;
  • the curtailment of population growth that in large part would follow from the previously mentioned conditions;
  • the conservation of finite resources and the development of renewable energy resources;
  • the redesign of settlement and transport systems to reduce energy demands and greenhouse gas emissions; and
  • the reduction of wastes through recycling and transcending the reigning culture of consumption.
Democratic eco-socialism constitutes what sociologist Erik Olin Wright in Envisioning Real Utopias terms a real utopia, a utopian vision that is achievable but only through much theorizing and social experimentation. As the existing capitalist world system continues to self-destruct due to its socially unjust and environmentally unsustainable practices, democratic eco-socialism seeks to provide a vision to mobilize human beings around the world, albeit in different ways, to prevent ongoing human socioeconomic and environmental destruction.

While Stalin adhered to the notion of building “socialism in one country,” what developed in the U.S.S.R. for complicated reasons—historical, social, structural, internal, and external—was the creation of a highly authoritarian and draconian social system that made a mockery of the notion of Marxian socialism. In keeping with Trotsky’s notion of the “permanent revolution,” the creation of socialism requires a global process, the beginnings of which we may be seeing rekindled in the guise of the Bolivarian Revolution in Latin America (albeit an experiment with numerous contradictions) and the emergence of new left parties in Europe, particularly Syriza in Greece which came to power earlier in 2015 and Die Linke, the farthest left party in the German Bundestag. As global capitalism continues to find itself in economic and ecological crisis as it lurches into the twenty-first century, humanity faces the challenge of how to shift from an ongoing trajectory of human and planetary destruction. As the existing capitalist world system continues to self-destruct due to its socially unjust and environmentally unsustainable practices, democratic eco-socialism provides a radical vision to mobilize people around the world to struggle for the next system.

Anti-systemic movements are sure to be a permanent feature of the world’s political landscape so long as capitalism remains a hegemonic political-economic system. Various anti-systemic movements, particularly the labor, ethnic and indigenous rights, women’s, anti-corporate globalization, peace, environmental, and climate movements, have an important role to play in creating a socio-ecological revolution committed to both social justice and environmental sustainability. Anti-systemic movements are a crucial component of moving humanity to an alternative world system, but the process is a tedious and convoluted one with no guarantees, especially in light of the disparate nature of these movements.

Transitional System-Challenging Reforms

Reforms, despite the best of intentions, are often problematic in that they may serve to stabilize capitalism, as has repeatedly been the case around the world. In light of this reality, André Gorz in Socialism and Revolution differentiates between “reformist reforms” and “non-reformist reforms.” He uses the term reformist reform to designate the conscious implementation of minor material improvements that avoid any alteration of the basic structure in the existing social system. Between the poles of reformist reform and complete structural transformation, Gorz identifies a category of applied work that he labels non-reformist reform. Here he refers to efforts aimed at making permanent changes in the social alignment of power. In reality, the distinction between these two types of reforms is sometimes hard to distinguish. But one distinction might be whether they are initiated by the powers-that-be or whether they are initiated by the working class, various other subaltern groups, or anti-systemic social movements.

The transition toward a democratic eco-socialist world system is not guaranteed and will require a tedious, even convoluted path that anti-systemic movements will have to play a central role in creating. Marx viewed blueprints as a distraction from the political tasks that needed to be undertaken in the present moment and, indeed, pressing issues are paramount. But history tells us that there always will be immediate struggles that must be addressed. I often find that when people ask me what it would take to make a transition to a democratic eco-socialist world system, they are seeking some basic guidelines on how to move forward beyond merely bumbling along haphazardly a step at a time.

While not seeking to create a blueprint per se for creating an alternative world system, which will be manifested in different ways in the many societies around the world, in this essay I delineate the following system-challenging reforms to facilitate a transition from the present existing capitalist world system to a democratic eco-socialist world system:
  • creating new progressive, anti-capitalist parties designed to capture the state;
  • implementing greenhouse gas emissions taxes at the sites of production that include measures to protect low-income people;
  • increasing public ownership, socialization, or nationalization in various means of production;
  • expanding social equality within and between nation-states and achieving a sustainable global population;
  • building workers’ democracy;
  • creating meaningful work and shortening the work week;
  • achieving a net-zero-growth economy;
  • adopting energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, and green jobs;
  • expanding public transportation and massively diminishing reliance on private motor vehicles and air travel;
  • developing sustainable food production and forestry;
  • resisting the culture of consumption and adoption of sustainable and meaningful consumption;
  • introducing sustainable trade; and
  • building sustainable settlement patterns and local communities.
These transitional steps constitute loose guidelines for shifting human societies or countries toward democratic eco-socialism and a safe climate. But it is important to note that both of these phenomena will entail a global effort, including the creation of a progressive global climate governance regime. My litany of proposed transitional reforms is a modest effort to contribute to an ongoing dialogue and debate as to how to move forward from the present impasse in which the world finds itself today. The application of my suggested transitional reforms will have to be adapted by many countries, both developed and developing, around the world. Furthermore, my suggested transitional reforms are not exhaustive of possible changes necessary for creating an alternative world system.


  1. What happened to the classical definition of socialism as a non market stateless society in which you freely give according to your ability and freely take according to your need, "Actually existing socialism" nothing but capitalism administered by the state. Thanks but no thanks!

  2. Ecosocialim is getting back to the type of society that you mention, although there are some differences within ecosocialist thinking.Real socialism is ecosocialim.