Socialism and Environment – Towards a Synthesis Beyond Marxism

At a time when a massive heat wave is claiming lives at an unprecedented rate in India, it is worthwhile talking about environment, even in the context of an admittedly “Bourgeoisie” environment day. There are a large number of NGOs, corporate social responsibility projects as well as political groups who clamor for attention over environmental issues. In the bigger scheme of things, certainly the corporate sponsored programs, that do not address larger issues that would expose the capitalist undercurrent of mainstream environmentalism, dominate the discourse. The Marxists and other leftists are at the forefront of theorizing over environmental concerns in the alternative paradigm. When we say alternative though, we must be a little careful, as there is a lack of idea of what a genuinely alternative blueprint will look like. It is this failure of mainstream leftists, particularly Marxists, to conceive of an alternative vision of a socialism that is ecologically and environmentally sensitive, that will concern us in the present article.

Man and Ecology

The many dimensions of ecology and environment

Marxian political economy and environment

At the very core of Marxism, is a kind of economic or class reductionism. The history of mankind has been one of class struggle – is the kind of typical reductionist approaches that we find in the writings of Marx and Marxists. Though there have been attempts by several Marxists to right these wrongs, the communist parties and their approaches to other kinds of exploitations related to caste, gender, environment are attempted to be reduced in one way or the other to class based explanations. Which is why we find overzealous Marxist dismissal of any attempt to grapple with the question of environment from an angle that is different from the “base-superstructure” model in which economy forms the base and the rest must be derived from the base.

For Marxists then, it is no surprise that environmental concern is limited to critiquing the capitalist economy’s “loot” or “culture of robbery” of natural resources. Pollution from factories? It is because of capitalists; their profit motive comes in the way of effluent treatment of waste water before it is released; their greed for increasing profit margins causes the destruction of forests and rivers which are exploited for resources. The examples of Monsanto, Cargill, Coca Cola and many other companies are bound to come up as evils who are destroying mother nature. There is no denying the fact that these companies and their stooges are in many ways responsible for the destruction of nature. However, what is the alternative paradigm through which we wish to build a system where environment will be protected from devastation?

Philosophical Underpinnings

To answer the question, we will have to look at the kind of philosophical view of an alternative that Marxists [in particular Leninists] have. For Marxists of today, the works by John Bellamy Foster about environment and ecology provide the ultimate political economy perspective from a Marxist angle. Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology” is especially famous because in this book he has allegedly restored Marx’s stature as someone who had a very deep understanding of ecological problems. Foster attempts to show how Marx, inspired by Epicurus, was hardly one who had the idea of a Prometheus who considered that man’s job was to conquer nature. Marx, Foster says, saw man and nature as part of one whole [a sort of dialectical holistic view] and hence there was no way that mankind could survive without maintaining harmony with nature.

Marx used the concept of Metabolic Rift [borrowed from Liebig] to show how a rift was developing between villages and cities. Agricultural produce and minerals required for production were being taken out in large quantities from villages to the cities, where they were being consumed. This was resulting in a depletion of the elements of the soil in rural areas, as what was being taken out was never being replenished. The Marxists of today hail Marx for using this concept to criticize the profit regime of capitalism under which environmental concerns can never be truly addressed.

Politics of Environmental Issue

All that is well and good. However, just the concept of metabolic rift is not nearly enough to understand the highly contested terrain of environment and ecology. Take for instance an example cited by Professor Subhashish Mukhopadhyay in a program# on environment awareness arranged on June 6th. He says that during the movements in the jute mills of West Bengal like Hanuman jute mill, Loomtex jute mill by workers for reopening the closed factories and for payment of their dues [like PF, gratuity, pension etc.], the workers have almost always taken the side of the owners whenever the issue of environmental damage was brought up by some other section of the society [in this case, a court]. The reason was pretty simple – both the owner of the factory as well as the workers in this case were concerned about a factory closing down over environmental concerns! One can obviously say how capitalism is making workers work against their “own interests” or at least making them choose between two [the environmental and employment] whereas socialism can solve both the concerns.

But Can Socialism Solve the Environmental Problem?

This brings us back to the leftists of today and their vision of an alternative paradigm, their definition of socialism. The mainstream Leninist left will typically uphold the former Soviet Union or USSR as some sort of model of a state in transition towards socialism. Several works[1][2] emerged during the 1980’s and 90’s that showed how environmental issues were sidelined in USSR, often to the detriment of the very working class that the regime ostensibly stood for. Researchers have shown how the militaristic secrecy helped keep the facts of environmental degradation away from public scrutiny. It was only through Glasnost when the Goskompriroda (the Soviet Environmental protection agency) records began to emerge that it became clear to what extent the leadership of the former Leninist state were responsible for damaging environment. Secret and prolific weapons testing, diversion of river water, rampant industrialization on ageing infrastructure and lack of proper implementation of environmental laws were a common feature in the former USSR. The cases of cover up of dumping nuclear waste irresponsibly and resulting in massive radiation from the Chernobyl disaster as well as the drying up of the Aral Sea because of state sponsored policies of water diversion are relatively well known. Lake Baikal, which was known for its biodiversity, was similarly polluted massively because of pollutants from factories. Another example is that of Sea of Azov, until after World War 2, the most productive body of water in the world, which saw a complete breakdown of its ecology because of oil pollution. The fish in the water died out thanks to the oil and this in turn also robbed the waterfowls of their food. The latter were also being slaughtered by machine gun toting soviet military personnel. Overgrazing and overuse of chemicals had rendered a large section of agricultural land barren. Many areas had huge amounts of air pollution as well. A case in point would be Czechoslovakia3, which had acquired the second worst environmental quality in Europe by 1989 and in fact, 83 percent of Czech inhabitants considered the environment of their living quarters to be unsatisfactory. According to World Bank, ‘‘For more than 40 years, the two republics of Czechoslovakia made minimal efforts to protect the environment.’’ Also, not only was the information on environmental degradation suppressed but so were instances of dissidence over the same [based on whatever knowledge people could amass through experience, presumably].

Towards an Alternative Vision

It follows therefore that just pointing fingers at capitalism alone will not provide us with the solution. It is also why I disagree with the likes of Ashish Lahiri (well known leftist public intellectual in West Bengal, India) who say that the issue of environmentalism is rooted or embedded in class divisions. What he actually meant to say is that the ill effects of environmental degradation are almost always squarely imposed on the poor and toiling masses. This is certainly correct. But it does not necessarily follow and as is backed by empirical evidence just touched upon, that a “socialist” state of some sort will be doing better in terms of its environmental footprint. As the example of Soviet Union shows, the developmentalist and anti-environmentalist doctrine that “more production will lead to improvement in the lives of the masses” can be perfectly consistent with a degenerate ‘socialist’ state like the USSR.

What then is the solution? While no readymade blueprint can be proposed, it is clear from the discussion so far that the political process of decision making, knowledge sharing and basic ideals of democracy are important to arrive at a consensus that can accommodate the multiplicity of views over the environmental issue. There is the hardcore Marxist Leninist view, that sees nature as a form of “resource” for human beings instead of respecting biodiversity and harmony with nature per se (i.e. a rather anthropocentric view of nature). There is the eco-feminist view which sees the domination of nature by man as a gendered form of domination (nature is seen as the weak female counterpart) – it therefore argues for a feminization of our view of nature. In other words, we should stop exploiting nature just as men should stop exploiting women through patriarchal institutions.

Various forms of socialist libertarian, anarchistic and eco-socialist views also exist. Notable among them is the concept of social ecology by Murray Bookchin, one time anarchist and now a “communalist”. His views will be typically read as “idealist”, given the spiritual overtones his writings often contain. Even then, he has some interesting observations to make on the nature of man-on-environment domination. He says that human beings relate to themselves through webs of hierarchies [which can be called Kyiarchy4] based on race, class, ethnicity, gender, caste and so on. Then they superimpose these hierarchies in their relation with nature as well, resulting in what we can call the “metabolic rift”, a concept also used by Marx. Bookchin clearly points out how capitalism has come to epitomize the culture of domination5, subordination and hierarchies and hence how under the latest stage of profit seeking, mankind has come to be engaged in this relation of exploitation of nature.

But unlike Marxists, he doesn’t stop there. He says that the very fundamental disconnect and exploitative relation with nature has to be undone if we are to save ourselves from the path of devastation. Therefore, just the occasional opposition to nuclear plant here or raising slogans over pollution by capitalists there will not do – we have to bring about a revolutionary transformation of the way we conceive society and social relations themselves. To achieve the same, he offers us the political tool called confederal democracy, a form of direct democracy that is based on mutual respect and outcomes based on sensitive engagement and deliberation. While Bookchin offers examples from some “pre-capitalist” societies where the modern day hierarchies are not present and where there is no need even for coining a term for “equality”, we can take heart from the fact that the ongoing revolutionary upsurge in Kobane/Rojava6 as well as the Chiapas Zapatista Movements are said to be either inspired from the kind of confederal socialism that Bookchin favored or are reminiscent of this vision.


  1. The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union. By Boris Komarov
  2. Troubled Lands – The Legacy of Soviet Environmental Destruction by D.J Peterson
  3. Enforcement of Environmental Protection Laws under Communism and Democracy, Dietrich Earnhart, Journal of Law and Economics, vol. XL (October 1997)
  4. Kyriarchy in Wikipedia
  5. Toward an Ecological Society, Murray Bookchin

#. Paribesh Bishayak Seminar (Seminar on Environment), 6th June, by KNS.

By Kisholoy


One thought on “Socialism and Environment – Towards a Synthesis Beyond Marxism

  1. Anthropocentric view of environment is no doubt an extension the hierarchial and even exploitative mindset that we as human beings live with in human society in various forms, the idea of ‘considering’ environment only if it affects us in some direct way is but equivalent to treating environment / nature as something at service of mankind ( just like the capitalist rhetoric of ensuring that much welfare of workers which is necessary for keeping capitalist interest intact and otherwise treating workers as means of ensuring capitalists’ well being) , knowing and admitting this really necessitates the more radical approach of reducing our ‘consumptions’ to the bare minimum and suiting us the Human beings to Nature and not the vice-versa , this calls for re-thinking the entire ‘arrow-headed’ project of Modernity/Industrialisation /Development etc , but still , knowing and admitting all these , I as a Human Being do not find it appealing to forsake the Anthropocentric view altogether , I will consciously treat the hierarchies that operate within the human society differently from the hierarchy that operates between Man and Nature , the alternative paradigm should definitely strive towards lesser and lesser intervention of Nature by reducing our endless thriving towards better living , and that will have to go beyond the known Marxist model , but that does not mean that I will be ready to forsake all the hard earned fruits of Modernity ( many of which are at the expense of nature) and restore myself as yet another wild animal , in a super-honest zeal of demolishing all hierarchies…..I, as a human being, will oppose intra – human hierarchy as that harms the interests of human society , but as regards Man – Nature hierarchy I will not subscribe to forsaking this in its entirety and that too for Human interest ….. Yes, i the Human being will remain a ‘Capitalist’ over Nature in the long run without any claim of not being so……

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