Revolutionary Reflections | Moving towards an ecological Leninism

The urgency of the climate crisis has led some on the left to turn what’s been called ‘Ecological Leninism’. Gus Woody assesses recent writings of some key left thinkers on the environment and asks whether this turn to Lenin offers a way forward for organising to stop the climate catastrophe.

Ende Geleande march in November 2019.
Photo: Jens Volle

Given the necessity of systemic change in the face of climate breakdown, it was only a matter of time before thinkers would look to the Russian revolution for insights. Over the last year, ecological Leninism has burst onto the scene in the works of several authors. Andreas Malm’s latest book Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency focuses on the concept, [1] Jodi Dean and Kai Heron have written of a ‘climate Leninism’, [2] and Derek Wall has written of Lenin’s importance to environmental movements in his latest book, Climate Strike. [3]

The diversity of perspectives on Lenin found among these authors necessarily poses a question – what exactly is ecological Leninism? By looking at each of their accounts, it becomes clear that each writer finds something different within the corpus of Leninism. Furthermore, there is much to still be developed if ecological Leninism is to grow into a distinct approach to planetary breakdown. Given the development of such a system of thought will require more than one author or piece, this article aims to reflect on several concerns which may become the bedrock of an ecological Leninism: the state, the party and movements, imperialism, and the philosophical underpinnings of Leninist materialism. The arrival of an ecological Leninism ultimately presents an opportunity to build on the analysis of ecological Marxists concerned with metabolisms and similar accounts of capitalism, and to concern ourselves with organising for revolutionary change.

The state of the party – Dean and Heron

Starting with Dean and Heron’s account, ecological Leninism is crucial to challenging dead ends in the environmental movement’s strategies. To do this, they attempt to disentangle the contradictions present within the variety of contemporary Green New Deal (GND) proposals. In general terms, these aim through state-led investment to repurpose national economies towards decarbonisation and redistributive policies.  Surveying plans from either side of the Atlantic, Dean and Heron point out that many GNDs still refuse to nationalise the industries necessary for large-scale decarbonisation. Furthermore, they point out that many retain a nationalist politics of growth, focused on creating new industries which may provide opportunities for employment, ignoring the continued extraction from the global majority such proposals seem to require.

Many GND organisers recognise these contradictions but adopted an attitude of critical support, particularly while the Sanders and Corbyn movements were seeking election on GND platforms. Dean and Heron don’t advocate complete rejection, nor a falling in line with a social-democratic GND. Instead they argue we need to organise for revolutionary socialism whilst recognising the necessity of seizing control of the state for decarbonisation implicit within many left-wing GNDs. Or as they phrase it – ‘stripping the policy’s reformist content away from its revolutionary form.’ In their view, the GND’s image of the state being used to finally confront the global emissions crisis requires a revolutionary leap which takes it away from its often-limited policy content.

By thinking through these issues around the GND, Dean and Heron affirm the need for environmentalists to abandon ‘state phobia’ and seriously engage with the possibility of a ‘state-led, centrally planned, and global response’ to the climate crisis—the ‘old’ Leninist revolutionary seizure of state power. They end by arguing for the need to build a revolutionary Leninist party, which is willing to seize the state for the working class and to use this apparatus to tackle climate breakdown. For Dean and Heron then, ecological Leninism centres on party building and the seizure of the state.

There is much to disagree with in their interpretation. Most notably, in their argument for the importance of the state, they point to an extract where Lenin states the ‘apparatus must not, and should not, be smashed’, [4] using this to suggest the importance of seizing the state for a top down centralized response to climate change. As Gareth Dale has pointed out, their use of Lenin’s argument against wrecking the state is a serious misquoting. [5] If one reviews the quotation, the apparatus in question which Lenin is talking about is the particular ‘accounting apparatus’ in the form of the state bank and similar bodies. Despite the use of this quote to side-line wrecking, there is still the issue of smashing the rest of the state apparatus and its replacement. What is left underexplored in this article by Dean and Heron, though they certainly believe in it, is this difficult task of replacing the bourgeois state with the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Herein we encounter a conundrum of ecological Leninism – how do we square the need for rapid changes to tackle climate change with the simultaneous need to smash the state and replace it with organs of workers’ control?

War communism – Malm

This leads us to Malm, whose ecological Leninism is focused predominantly on the period of War Communism and the struggles of the early Bolshevik regime to establish itself. Rather than Roosevelt’s New Deal period in the 1930s, to which GND organisers look for historical analogy, Malm argues decarbonisation would look more akin to the War Communism of the 1920s. Here, the Bolsheviks were surrounded by both imperialist powers and the forces of capital, as well as considering how to transform production. Today, any attempt at staving off climate breakdown will require a fight against fossil capitalists and imperialist states keen to pollute, as well as the struggle to wrest control of production.

In Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency Malm identifies three principles of Ecological Leninism as a political project. Firstly, ‘turning the crisis of symptoms into a crisis of the causes.’ In simple terms, just as the Bolsheviks sought to turn the imperialist World War One into a crisis for capitalism more generally, today ecological Leninism requires turning the chronic emergencies of climate disaster and zoonotic diseases into a general crisis for the capitalist system. In the face of escalating symptoms, there is a need to rapidly build for a revolutionary preservation of life.

This leads to the second principle of ecological Leninism – ‘speed as paramount virtue.’ We all know the 12 years to avert climate catastrophe projection made by the IPCC 1.5 report two years ago. If the atmosphere is like a bathtub rapidly filling with carbon which will remain there unless removed, ecological Leninism understands the urgency of reducing and ultimately reaching negative emissions; it demands revolutionaries who understand every second counts in the fight against barbarism.

Finally, Malm argues that the last principle of ecological Leninism, in a similar vein to Dean and Heron, consists of leaping ‘at any opportunity to wrest the state in this direction’ and turn society away from catastrophe towards direct public control. Crucially, his vision of this is not in line with the more optimistic vision of progressive GND proposals, or ‘luxury Communisms’. Instead, the idea of War Communism, of the Bolshevik state attempting to lead a transformation of Russian society whilst facing war, famine, and fuel shortage, reflects the sort of dire circumstances that any ecological Leninist regime would face. Attempting to mitigate and adapt will not be pretty, it may bring emancipation but will be hard work in difficult conditions. Here, Malm’s argument resembles similar sentiments expressed by Salvage’s editorial collective:

The earth the wretched would – will – inherit, will be in need of an assiduous programme of restoration. While we may yearn for luxury, what will be necessary first is Salvage Communism. [6]

In this Communism, caught between salvage and war, Malm goes further than Dean and Heron. Where their arguments against state-phobia lead them towards the necessity of the state apparatus’ growth, Malm rejects the Leninist doctrine of demolishing and replacing the state altogether. In his words – ‘all we have to work with is the dreary bourgeois state, tethered to the circuits of capital as always.’

War Communism here shifts to a violent pessimism, where all we can do is mobilise a variety of strategies to cut these tethers. Malm seems deeply sceptical about the possibility of the formation of alternative institutions of dual power. Ecological Leninism, contra Dean and Heron, need not imply a party or ‘any actual Leninist formations capable of seizing power and implementing the correct measures.’ The possibility – the urgent necessity – of building such formations is not really discussed, despite the very same pages recognising that these years of chronic emergency ‘can be expected to usher in pronounced political volatility.’

Malm attempts to have his ‘Lenin cake’ and eat it: he argues ecological Leninism should raise the consciousness of spontaneous movements and route them towards the drivers of breakdown, whilst he avoids really discussing how to approach Leninist organisation and the formation of working class power to rival the state. Malm falls into the trap of creating a dichotomy between waiting for revolution and acting within existing social movements to pressure the bourgeoise state. The possibility of working class agency that bucks these two categories is foreclosed.

This points to an absence at the heart of Malm’s ecological Leninism. It is a Leninism without a revolution of 1917, focused instead on the difficulties of the Bolshevik government during the Civil War and on Lenin’s wagers during the First World War. It has little to say about the act of building movements capable of intervening in revolutionary situations, tipping them towards revolutionary outcomes. At the same time, as Tugal has eloquently pointed out, Malm’s ecological Leninism is without a revolutionary subject. [7] Rarely in his book does Malm speak of the role of working class struggle within any ecological Leninist project, and as a result he seems pessimistic about the formation of working class power which could rival the state, laying the bedrock for a Leninist project. As Max Ajl points out:

One thumbs in vain through this book for any mention of the people who are not hypothetical, who are struggling in small, desperate, sincere, and hopeful ways for a better world. On this big, beautiful, desperate, poor, devastated planet are there no social forces which meet Malm’s standards for the subject or agent of ecological revolution or ecological Leninism? [8]

Ultimately, if climate Leninists are to retain the desire to smash and replace the bourgeois state, there is a need to analyse how actually existing working class and peasant movements may organise to build the institutions necessary for a situation of dual power. The question is how to build these bodies whilst simultaneously mobilising for maximum climate action in the present. Malm’s otherwise engaging work requires these insights to flesh out a programme of ecological Leninism suitable for our times.

Building the base – Wall

Wall’s writings on Lenin and the environmental movement might be seen as filling this gap in Malm’s work. In his recent Climate Strike and in other writings, Leninist strategic thinking is central. [9] In particular, the necessity of building bases of working class power, seen as essential preconditions of dual power. Wall’s is a practical account of Lenin; it looks to the ways in which Leninist thinking suggest revolutionaries should organise in the here and now.

In Climate Strike, Wall argues for a focus on building grassroots institutions that enable working class communities to come together – tenants unions, local food sovereignty groups, and more. Contra Dean and Heron’s need for a party, contra Malm’s need for speed, Wall argues for the slow construction of spaces of working class power. There are no shortcuts to revolution, and Wall argues this to its limit.

Wall’s ecological Leninism is focused on creating collectives able to oppose capitalism and the state, as well as adapt to climate change’s effects. Let us take tenants organising as an example of this ‘base-building.’ By organising renters, it creates a new formation of working class power capable of resisting landlords as well as producing a core of individuals who have grown in both militancy and organising skill. As these institutions grow, not only do they hopefully build a base of working class revolutionaries, but they create spaces where the working class can come together to discuss how climate change and capitalism effects their housing. The ideal situation is that through the long work of building these institutions it lays the bedrock of working class alternates to the state necessary for the Leninist project. Wall thus rejects the binary between revolution today or popular pressure on reformist institutions, arguing for the constant need to build for revolution.

There is still much work to be done on this particular aspect of ecological Leninism, not least because Wall often insists on applying it with the Green Party in view, despite the class composition of its supporters and its refusal to identify working class self-activity as the vehicle of revolutionary change. Furthermore, as Holmes has argued, Wall fails to specify the context under which this strategy could be adopted. This results in an elasticity to the concept of base-building, which allows it to become a hold-all term for any form of community organising.

Whilst Wall has a slower conception of ecological Leninism, focused on the hard slog of organising, it doesn’t entirely repudiate the need for urgent action, which requires more specificity around the practicalities of building for dual power over the coming years. A strategy geared to base-building risks becoming a new form of economism, as Lenin might have put it. There is a balance that must be struck, but Wall’s intervention is crucial in pointing to the dearth of institutions here in the UK at least which could be considered bases of working class power.

Three shades of Ecological Leninism

Each of these authors reads Lenin in different ways. Dean and Heron emphasise the party and state, Malm for speed and struggle under conditions of hardship, Wall for constant strategic organising. Each has shortcomings, but all are contributing to a useful development of—or rupture in—ecological theory and practice.

How should we reconsider Lenin’s corpus in these bad times? Just as John Bellamy Foster and others have excavated the concept of the metabolic rift from Marx, [10] is there a conceptual well to be found untapped in Lenin? I think not. It is not enough to find some kernel of an ecological worldview in Lenin, as much as his devotees love to talk of his reverence for nature. [11] If Leninism is an attempt to put theory into practice, the same must apply to its ecological variant. Ecological Leninism must be more than a theoretical extension of ecological Marxism, it must indicate the practices which a revolutionary eco-socialist movement are to adopt. Crucially, it also requires getting involved in actually existing movements, as there is no such thing as armchair Leninism.

To kick the glass case off Lenin’s corpse, dust him off, and dip him in green paint is hardly enough. If we are to not only build Leninism, but an ecological programme aimed at tackling the climate crisis, a synthesis must be achieved between Lenin’s thought and other relevant thinkers on Marxism and ecology. The pieces I’ve discussed above leave open the construction of many aspects of such a programme. Malm, Dean and Heron, and Wall have opened the space by which we may move towards it.

To begin developing a wider conception of ecological Leninism, to build on the excellent interventions of these authors, I wish to suggest several areas of Lenin’s thought which might be worth reinterrogating with an ecological view – the state, the relationship between movement, workers, and party, the centrality of imperialism, and finally wider concerns for the philosophy of nature and science. The elaboration and development of Marxist ecology in these areas may provide the bedrock for a revolutionary ecosocialist movement, and it should certainly not be left to one writer. As a result, the following is an attempt to indicate potential directions of travel that will build on Malm, Dean and Heron, and Wall, and hopefully furnish our society with something that can face the coming crisis.

1: The State

A century on from The State and Revolution, the capitalist state which Lenin spoke of is different in many ways. [12] Over the 20th century, countries like the UK saw a massive rise in state ownership and the provision of services like the NHS. Conversely, since the 1970s many nations have seen a continued rise in privatisation, with ‘public-private partnerships’ between business and the state reaching their sickly zenith in the UK, with the cronyism of key coronavirus contracts outsourced to the friends and family of Conservative MPs. Furthermore, the rise of global supply chains and new international bodies for capitalist states to interact has created a world where states are increasingly entangled and co-dependent, creating challenges for any revolutionary theory which aims for global impact. [13] There is therefore an urgent need to analyse the class nature of modern capitalist states and identify where and how the revolutionary working class are best to organise against it.

Luckily, Marxist theorising around the state has not stayed still since Lenin’s day. There has been Althusser, [14] Gramsci, [15] and the Miliband-Poulantzas debate about the class character of the state, [16] as well as the emergence of Open Marxist approaches. [17] As a result, in the words of Khachaturian, ‘Marxist state theory is largely an open-ended and intellectually pluralistic research framework.’ [18] Whilst I do not intend to comment on these different theories, I wish to point to certain considerations which suggest the urgency of an ecological Leninist theory of the state.

Firstly, the point pushed by both GND proponents and the ecological Leninist authors already discussed – the state apparatus has significant potential to be used as an instrument for rapid decarbonisation.

However, and this is where previous accounts still have direction to travel, there is the importance of understanding the state as a product of irreconcilable class antagonism. With Dean and Heron’s article not exploring the need to wreck the state, and Malm rejecting it outright, the question of what form proletarian control takes is crucial. Ecological Leninism requires focus on the transitional stage – the dictatorship of the proletariat, which as Lenin stated, ‘will create democracy for the people, for the majority, along with the necessary suppression of the minority.’

In the period of rapid decarbonisation which ecological Leninism aims to deliver, there is the twofold problem of creating worker control over society as well as the difficulty of ensuring the forces of fossil capital cannot exert influence. On the first, expanding proletarian democracy, there is much the Leninist tradition must learn from the Bolshevik experiment and the ways in which traditions of worker control like council communism have been critical of it. This is a valuable endeavour if used to move environmentalism away from the liberal conception of ‘climate assemblies’ towards climate councils and soviets of workers. Herein is why Wall and other Marxists’ work on base-building is crucial, as those who seriously talk about building institutions of worker control. Ultimately, ecological Leninism means learning from the failure of previous revolutions in creating institutions capable of wresting responsibility from the bourgeois state and dismantling it through practical and theoretical explanations of contemporary struggles where we see worker control emerging.

On the second issue of suppression, socialists must recognise that if a revolutionary movement seized state power, without continued international mobilisations, any decarbonisation effort will face new enemies of global capitalism – the IMF, the World Bank, etc. Studying how these institutions have been mobilised against socialist and social democratic states is crucial, as in addition to imperialist armies and governments, these bodies will attack any ecological Leninist regime. International eco-socialist solidarity is crucial, as repression from the enemies of a revolutionary eco-socialism risks making an ecological Leninist regime an island in a hostile sea. In this situation, the need for stability in the transitional period may lead Leninists to not only suppress their exploiters, but also any left-wing element which demands more from the regime, becoming a snake eating its own tail. In short, how to prevent violent autarky whilst regimes build for global eco-socialist revolution is a pressing issue.

Ultimately, the importance of an ecological Leninist understanding of the state will be to effectively draw a line between revolutionary socialists and compromise elements within the wider environmental movement who need to be won over to the revolutionary cause.[19] In the UK and the US, the past years have seen left environmentalists compromise with movements pursuing election to state power in the hope of action on the climate crisis. The failure of these movements indicates the foreclosure of the electoral route to climate action within bourgeoise state institutions, this demands a reckoning with the class character of the state. Given the need for Malm’s speed as a paramount virtue, Leninists must build on these experiences to begin elaborating their own programme’s confrontation with the beast that is the state apparatus.

2: The Party, the movement, and the agent

This points to a further urgent issue when moving towards an ecological Leninism, one that the preceding authors vary on– the organisation of revolutionary socialists and its relationships with mass movements. In particular, the ecological Leninists are split on the question of the party. Dean and Heron are open in their desire for an ecological Leninist party, Malm reads ecological Leninism as a collection of principles not implying an actually existing party, Wall is focused on the need for grassroots organising rather than any formal party. This reflects a wider crisis among revolutionary socialists, one that has extended through the long 20th century into the 21st, that of the ‘Leninist party’ and the different organisational models proposed for revolutionaries.

Outside of Dean and Heron’s calls for a party, both Wall’s Climate Strike and Malm’s upcoming How to Blow up a Pipeline focus on engaging with the variety of strategies environmentalists can take to disrupt fossil capital. Whilst both are certain to be crucial contributions, just as Lenin railed against the economist and terrorist strategies of simply organising around workplace conflicts or conducting isolated violent actions, there is still the tricky problem of creating an organisational form with the strategic acumen to transcend the limits of both.

Contra Malm, who in Chronic Emergency talks of ‘popular pressure brought to bear’ on the state, there is a need to think through how this ‘popular pressure’ is not co-opted by opportunist forces and remains revolutionary, international, and eco-socialist in its content and form. Just as Lenin in What is to be Done? points to the need for Marxists to organise to ensure that economic struggle is not seen as subservient for the need to organise and agitate for revolutionary socialism, today simply hoping for rising radicalism from ecological struggle is insufficient. Only through attempts to agitate and organise as a body of revolutionary socialists can these struggles be converted into a confrontation with fossil capital. But if we reject the reading of Lenin as party builder, as many contemporary eco-socialists do, where does this leave us?

Here, there is an urgent need for ecological Leninists to critically engage with the organisational failures of the groups that have adopted the Bolshevik banner in the long century since 1917. With a century where the centralist aspects of democratic centralism have been all too brutally wielded, now more than ever is a time for the comradely but disciplined development of revolutionary socialist organisation. Or in the words of Gittlitz, reflecting on the strange case of the Posadist International:

The challenge, then, is neither to recreate the revolutionary movements of the past, nor to totally revise their history, but to salvage the functional truth of their mission for the struggle ahead. [20]

It would be remiss of any ecological socialist to ignore the pioneering work of early anti-capitalist environmentalists like Bookchin, whose social ecology was deeply critical of Leninist, Trotskyist and other socialist party formations as they emerged in the US. [21] Bookchin of course, was just as comfortable critiquing anarchist organisational forms, attempting to steer a course between Marxism and Anarchism. Just as the Paris Commune was instructive to Marx and Lenin, modern ecological Leninists should consider the organisation of the revolution and state in Rojava, inspired by Bookchin and Ocalan. [22] Rojava contains within it lessons on striking a balance between the need for direct democracy and having a disciplined cadre, pointing to the many ways in which these needs are not necessarily contradictory. This is just one of many ‘ecological regimes’ which are attempting to grow today, and they should be used to inspire and develop contemporary Leninism.

Given the often-rapid nature of rebellion and wider social change, the difficulty of how any Leninist organisation relates itself to the spontaneous actions of the working class and other social formations rears its head. What has prevented analysis of this question in many quarters is the wider tendency of environmentalists being uncomfortable using class analysis in proposing key agents for a revolutionary movement. One of the first eco-socialist thinkers, Andre Gorz, famously said Farewell to the Working Class, as did Bookchin in his own way in Listen Marxist! [23] This reflected the reality that the ‘industrial working class’, a stereotypical creation of both left and right, has fractured and reformed in the increasingly global economy.

Yet recognising that the working class and peasants of 1917 are different from the working class and peasants of 2020 should not cow Leninists, it should inspire the further development of Marxist thought and our programme. Today we have traditions of racial capitalism, social reproduction theory and more to explain and identify revolutionary potential across the global working class. With this come new spaces to intervene, agitate, and form solidarity to organise a global revolutionary movement. Ecological struggle provides an opportunity to reformulate alliances between peasants, workers, land defenders, students and others exploited peoples, creating new avenues to analyse and shift the balance of class forces necessary for a revolutionary situation.

We see glimpses of this in what Naomi Klein calls ‘Blockadia’, the coalitions of students, leftists, and often Indigenous land defenders who oppose new fossil fuel infrastructure. [24] Transforming this opposition to particular pieces of fossil fuel infrastructure into a total and international opposition to fossil capitalism is crucial. Recent instructive work in this area is that of Arboleda, whose studies of Chile’s mining supply chains point to the emergence of revolutionary potential across peasants being proletarianized by mining, extractive workers racialized and faced with outsourcing, and wider movements for Indigenous sovereignty. [25]

There are no easy answers to the questions of revolutionary agents and revolutionary organisations, which Leninists of various stripes have tackled with mixed results over the last hundred years. However, rather than rejecting the concern or falling back onto the old cry of ‘the party’, ecological Leninists must work through the contradictions of organising in a warming world, with the weight of a thousand failed projects on our head. Perhaps the best summation of this project has been made by Mohandesi:

I suggest we think of the “party” as an organization among others, one defined by its articulating function, as that which unites disparate social forces, links struggles over time, and facilitates the collective project of building socialism beyond the state. [26]

3: Imperialism

Perhaps the largest parallel between Lenin’s thinking and the needs of modern ecological Marxism left under-analysed by existing accounts is the theory of imperialism. Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism presents an account of the imperialist states which powerfully analysed the causes and contradictions of their death project – World War One. [27] Today, the analysis of modern imperialism should aim to do the same, to turn the guns of ecological imperialism into the faces of global fossil capitalism.

Again, just as the form of the capitalist state has changed since 1917, so too has the emergence and form of imperialism. Imperialism as national acts of military expansion to secure resources has been joined by an array of techniques by which global capitalism secures its resource frontiers. In particular, the mechanisms by which international bodies like the World Bank and IMF reinforce and intensify core-periphery extraction have been studied extensively by Marxist geographers and ecologists. These insights need to be brought into the analyses of environmentalists and socialists alike.

At the same time, Marxists and revolutionaries in the years since have had to grow our thinking in the face of imperialist projects. Just as Lenin pointed out how capitalism in the early 20th century could not be analysed without an account of finance capital and imperialism, any eco-socialism is intellectually bankrupt without an account of how global fossil capital and climate breakdown depends on resource imperialism. Marxists can draw on Jason Moore’s historical accounts of resource frontiers, [28] Nick Estes’ writings on settler colonialism, [29] Fanon, [30] Sivanandan [31] – the list could go on. These works make clear that we cannot account for the climate crisis without accounting for the colonial project of frontier expansion and extraction. With a century of anti-colonial struggle and thought inspired by Marxists, there is no excuse for modern eco-socialists not to centre and build on these experiences in their analysis of climate breakdown.

As conflicts over certain resources, territories, and technologies emerge across the warming world, so too can we expect new forms of climate imperialism, which will pose challenges to an eco-socialist left. We see glimpses of this in demands to send European armies into the Amazon to prevent its burning, or in the increasingly complex geopolitics of Lithium mining for batteries and other renewable tech. Taking inspiration from Lenin and ensuring an account of modern imperialism is central to explaining environmental breakdown prevents socialists, particularly those in the Global North, falling for an imperialist environmentalism. Otherwise, ecological regimes could see themselves continuing extractive violence across the world. Such is the case with many accounts of the Green New Deal, which may talk of the exciting potential of batteries and electric transitions, but talk little of global empire’s continued extraction of rare earth minerals through violence and exploitation in the Global South.

This may require engagement with the thorny questions of degrowth and climate debt, which far too many so-called eco-socialists reject with strawman arguments. Certainly, within the varied literature on degrowth there is some utopian hot air, but there is also attention to its links to decolonisation and anti-imperialism. Global eco-socialist solidarity will require massive programs of repair and restoration to the damage caused by core nations to the periphery. There is a space open to develop an ecological Leninist degrowth, which looks like a fundamental reorganisation of the production and extraction which fuels destruction in the core, towards the reversal of core-periphery metabolic flows. Such a politics opens up a space to link up revolutionaries in the core with those in the periphery, united in their commitment to ending the politics of national growth and its often-inevitable extractivism.

Taking a lead from Martin Arboleda’s work on the political economy of mining, Planetary Mine, ecological Leninism should attempt to understand how the relations of global capitalism are determining the form and content of imperialism, and what our responses might be across the world. Through extensive analysis of the global mining supply chains and extraction on the ground in Chile, Arboleda is able to discuss the ways in which capitalist nations are interacting with each other, and how the theory of imperial powers which Lenin analysed must be updated to understand the different ways in which nations secure resource extraction. By expanding on work accounting for the effects and causes of contemporary imperialism like Planetary Mine and making it a core aspect of ecological Leninism, anti-imperialism can become a necessary feature of any transitional ecological Leninist regime.

4: Science, Nature and the philosophical foundations of ecological Leninism

A final question is that of the wider ways of approaching concerns like ‘nature’ and ‘science’ in ecological Leninism. After all, in his extensive philosophical work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Lenin attempted to sketch out an approach to matter, science and similar philosophical concerns which could be brought in line with Marxism. [32] In part a crude rebuke to rivals like Bogdanov, the work also became foundational to questions of science and philosophy within the Soviet Union, an important issue given the status of ‘scientific socialism’ Marxism-Leninism garnered. [33] At the same time, the wider translation of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks presented a wider and more nuanced approach to questions of dialectics, nature, and science, the developments of which should be crucial to ecological Leninism. [34]

Of course, the relations of science within nations like the USSR have been critically analysed in several spaces. Most notably, Loren Graham, [35] Helena Sheehan, [36] and others have pointed out how Lenin’s philosophy and its further bowdlerisation into the doctrines of ‘dialectical materialism’ influenced the scholarship and work of scientists across the world. Whilst this saw many leading scientific lights attempting to integrate Marxist philosophy with science studies, such as the British Social Relations of Science Movement in the 1930s, [37] it also saw controversies like the Lysenko affair. [38]

Whilst Marxists have gone back and forth on these particular historical incidents, there have been significant developments around the critical philosophies of nature and science during the 20th century. Histories of the social construction of nature and science, and how these categories are subsumed in processes of domination such as patriarchy, racism, and colonialism have exploded on the scene. Donna Haraway’s theories of cyborgs and situated perspectives, [39] with its own approach to theory and the partiality of viewpoints is a critical challenge to those constructing totalising theory today. At the same time, the critical realism of Bhaskhar also emerged as an approach to the gordian knot of knowledge and science. [40] These histories and philosophies should be counterposed and read with Lenin’s philosophical works, to tease out the revolutionary kernels which can be salvaged.

Ultimately, it must be recognised that the necessity of these interventions is due in part to the failures of the crudest readings of Empirio-Monism and other Marxist writings on science. As new discoveries in science and matter emerged across the last century, so too did nuances have to be developed against official accounts of Leninist philosophy. Such themes are most explicitly adopted in Caudwell’s Crisis in Physics, [41] but today even philosophy factories like Zizek [42] have produced works considering how dialectical materialism or any ‘Leninist’ account of matter, science and nature can keep up with the new discoveries of physics and science. Quantum mechanics, geo-engineering, biotechnology – all these disrupt interpretations of science and nature, which poses a problem to an ecological scientific socialism. Lenin’s turn to dialectics and his Philosophical Notebooks, given their traditional counterposing to Empirio-Monism, may be the space to square these new developments with a Leninist philosophical outlook.

With the rise of climate change, an ecological Leninism is forced to seriously grapple with these questions of science, nature, and the wider social ontology. Whilst this may seem a distraction compared to the above questions, I would suggest the very opposite. In questions of ecology, a binary has emerged between techno-optimist and techno-critical schools with regards to mitigation and adaptation. Let us paint crude pictures. One side focuses on a vision of eco-modernism, where technologies bring the potential for luxury and a restructuring of production towards liberatory and greener horizons. The other, adopts a wider rejection of technologies’ potentials, arguing instead for the necessity of a crude degrowth or in some case primitivism.

Now these are caricatures, but a good ecological Leninist theory should be able to steer a course between these two poles, rejecting their fundamentally misguided assumptions. Rather than focusing on the necessity or problem of science and its relationship with nature, ecological Leninism should return to questions of the social relations of science and nature. Technology is neither inherently liberatory or oppressive, instead it is the social relations of its production and implementation which determine its social effect. In short, contemporary ecological Leninism should, whilst adopting some form of critical realism in line with the broad thrust of Empirio-Monism, focus on how capitalism develops and mobilises forms of science and nature to the detriment of humanity. Starting from Lenin here, despite the many exceptional thinkers who have come since, is crucial precisely because Lenin sought to furnish Marxism with a wider philosophical foundation which could complement militant struggle. An ecological Leninism needs an underpinning which not only can explain the historic development of science and nature, but which can comfortably take lines in the current struggle.

Thus far, debates on the philosophical underpinnings of ecological Marxism have focused on the frustrating topic of dualisms and metabolisms. The volley of shots between scholars in this area, which don’t deserve rehashing, are a side distraction when it comes to the meat of an ecological Marxist worldview. Ultimately the response must be designing a historical and dialectical materialism which incorporates the insights of thinkers who have pointed to the role of a racialised and gendered capitalism in constructing certain sciences, technologies, and natures.

Conclusion

The introduction to Bellamy Foster and Burkett’s Marx and the Earth highlights what may be termed the ‘three stages’ of ecosocialist thought. [43] Put simply, the first consisted of the rejection of aspects of Marxism, to be supplemented by Green theory. The second saw the return of Marx: the excavation of his ecological thought in the metabolic theory championed by John Bellamy Foster and others. Finally, the third wave points to those who apply metabolic theory and its insights to specific situations and developments, the unleashing of the metabolism.

If we are to take seriously Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach, ‘philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’, then we need to put the theory of the metabolism to practical use. [44] Being able to explain particular ecological problems through Marxist metabolic theory still requires consideration of how to build a seriously revolutionary force. Metabolic theory may point to nodes, points, and flows in the metabolism where the proletariat can intervene, but it tells us little about how to get there. To put it crudely, there remains the absent question of ‘What is to be Done?’

I would suggest an ecological Leninism is the shift here. The fourth wave of ecological Marxism. One which speaks of aiming to seize power, moving swiftly to tackle the climate crisis, and doing so as revolutionaries. The preceding comments are brief dips into the pandora’s box opened by this term. But to summarise the potential directions of travel:

  • What is an ecological Leninist understanding of and approach to the capitalist state? What does the ecological dictatorship of the proletariat look like?
  • What is the organisational form of ecological Leninism? What are the strategic priorities and programmes adopted by such a body towards mass movements?
  • What is the ecological Leninist conception of modern imperialism? How does this analysis contribute to the development of global ecological revolution?
  • What is bedrock of ecological Leninism’s worldview? How does ecological Leninism approach the gordian knots of ‘nature’ and ‘science’ in ways that promote the transition to an ecological society?
  • Finally, the thread that runs through all the above questions. How does an ecological Leninism learn from the successes and failures of past Leninist analyses and projects? How does ecological Leninism seriously attempt a synthesis between traditional Leninism, the changing nature of the world, and the insights on these question since Lenin’s death?

There is a chance that any ecological Leninism, if it does answer the above questions and build on the insights of the 100 years since War Communism, would be unrecognisable to the Bolsheviks. Perhaps this is for the better. But the project of putting ecological Marxism into practice, of building an ecological movement which moves from tackling specific symptoms towards a revolutionary strategy, may as well start with Lenin.

[1] Andreas Malm, Corona, Climate, and Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, 2020, Verso Books, London, 1st Ed.

[2] Jodi Dean and Kai Heron, Revolution or Ruin, 2020 – https://www.e-flux.com/journal/110/335242/revolution-or-ruin/

[3] Derek Wall, Climate Strike: The Practical Politics of the Climate Crisis, 2020, Merlin Press, London, 1st Ed.

[4] Lenin, Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power, 1917 – https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/oct/01.htm

[5] Gareth Dale, Global Fever, 2020 – https://www.rs21.org.uk/2020/09/14/global-fever/

[6] Salvage Editorial Collective, The Tragedy of the Worker: Towards the Proletarocene, Salvage #7, November 2019 – https://salvage.zone/editorials/the-tragedy-of-the-worker-towards-the-proletarocene/

[7] Cihan Tugal, Leninism without the working class? The missing subject in Malm’s ecological revolution, Open Democracy, October 2020 – https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/leninism-without-the-working-class-the-missing-subject-in-malms-ecological-revolution/

[8] Max Ajl, Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, The Brooklyn Rail, November 2020 – https://brooklynrail.org/2020/11/field-notes/Corona-Climate-Chronic-Emergency

[9] In addition to Climate Strike – Derek Wall, Why Greens should be learning from Leninism, Bright Green, August 2020 – http://bright-green.org/2020/08/28/why-greens-should-be-learning-from-leninism/

[10] John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, 2000, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1st Ed. In addition to this, the most insightful and all-encompassing account of Marx’s ecological thought is Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, 2017, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1st Ed.

[11] There are several writings on Lenin which point to his hiking or previous camping. Though not anything like a devotee of Lenin, a good introduction to this topic is Fred Strebeigh, Lenin’s Eco-Warriors, The New York Times, August 2017 –  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/07/opinion/lenin-environment-siberia.html

[12] Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1918 – https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/

[13] Such themes are confronted to some extent by Colin Barker’s writings on the national character of states and needing to think through capitalism as a theory of many states. Colin Barker, A note on the theory of capitalist states, 1978, Capital & Class 4 – http://www.marxists.de/theory/barker/capstates.htm

[14] Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, 2014, Verso Books, London, 1st Ed.

[15] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 1971, International Publishers, New York, 1st Ed. In particular, the section ‘State and Civil Society’.

[16] Ralph Miliband, The State In Capitalist Society, 1969, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1st Ed. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 1978, New Left Books, London, 1st Ed. A useful intervention around this debate is Bertell Ollman, Dialectical Investigations, 1993, Routledge. Chapter three of this work points to the intersection of different Marxist approaches to the state, extracts of which are here https://www.nyu.edu/projects/ollman/docs/di_ch03.php

[17] This term of course denotes a variety of thinkers in a very loose way, but the places to start would be the four volumes of Open Marxism published by Pluto Press – https://www.plutobooks.com/pluto-series/open-marxism/

[18] Rafael Khachaturian, The State, Legal Form, June 2020 – https://legalform.blog/2020/06/29/the-state-rafael-khachaturian/

[19] This is not ‘compromise’ in some moralistic sense, but in the strategic sense of attempting to exert force within only existing elements of the state apparatus, which tends towards a certain politics. For an exemplary analysis of this in practice see JS Titus, New Labour, Old Racism, Frightful Hobgoblins, December 2020 – https://frightfulhobgoblins.medium.com/new-labour-old-racism-a384e4203262

[20] A. M. Gittlitz, I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs, and Apocalypse Communism, 2020, Pluto Press, London, 1st Ed. It may seem counterintuitive to interrogate the Posadists, but one of the surprising aspects of Gittlitz’s book is just how much there is to learn from the failure of this project, and what it means for revolutionary organizing today.

[21] Janet Biehl (Ed), The Murray Bookchin Reader, 1999, Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1st Ed. A significant portion of Bookchin’s writings can be found on theanarchistlibrary.org but one of the most crucial works is Listen, Marxist!, 1969 – https://www.marxists.org/archive/bookchin/1969/listen-marxist.htm.

[22] The Internationalist Commune of Rojava, Make Rojava Green Again, 2019, Dog Section Press, London, 1st Ed.

[23] Andre Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class, 1982, Pluto Press, London, 1st Ed.

[24] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, 2014, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1st Ed.

[25] Martin Arboleda, Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction Under Late Capitalism, 2020, Verso Books, London, 1st Ed. This book is exceptional in its breadth and seeks to reanalyse the role of both the state and imperialism in contemporary resource extraction, whilst not claiming ecological Leninism, it strikes me as the work closest to the scale needed for an ecological Leninist project.

[26] Salar Mohandesi, Party As Articulator, Viewpoint Magazine, September 2020 – https://viewpointmag.com/2020/09/04/party-as-articulator/

[27] Lenin, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1917 – https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/

[28] Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, 2015, Verso Books, London, 1st Ed. Despite the back and forth since around dualisms and metabolisms, Moore’s deep historical insight provides crucial opportunities through its discussion of frontiers to integrate the history of imperial expansion into our account of climate change.

[29] Nick Estes, Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance, 2019, Verso Books, London, 1st Ed.

[30] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1963, Grove Press, New York, 1st Ed. In addition to this, the recent publication of Alienation and Freedom, 2018, Bloomsbury, London, 1st Ed, contains a treasure trove of possible insights.

[31] Ambalavaner Sivanandan, Communities of Resistance: Writings on black struggles for socialism, 1990, Verso Books, London, 1st Ed.

[32] Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1909 – https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/

[33] The particular aspects of this critique are increasingly being reassessed in several works; McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, 2015, Verso Books, London, 1st Ed and James White, Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov, 2019, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 1st Ed. The translation of Bogdanov’s work by the Alexander Bogdanov Library will hopefully bring future fruitful engagement with the different ways Bogdanov may be useful today.

[34] Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, 1933https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/cw/volume38.htm

[35] Loren Graham, Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union, 1972, Knopf, New York, 1st Ed.

[36] Helena Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, 2017, Verso Books, London.

[37] Perhaps the book that attempts to cover this group in more details is Gary Werskey, The Visible College: Scientists and Socialists in the 1930’s, 1978, Viking Press, New York, 1st Ed. This movement is ripe for reassessment, especially given the importance of climate change and other areas of science to society’s development.

[38] There is a dense literature around Lysenko. One of the most effective discussions of ‘Michurinism’ is Dominique Lecourt, Proletarian Science? The Case of Lysenko, 1977, New Left Books, London, 1st Ed.

[39] Donna Haraway, Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, Feminist Studies, 1988, Vol 13, No 3, 575-599 – https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066 In addition to this the best summation of Haraway’s work can be found in Donna Haraway, Manifestly Haraway, 2016, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1st Ed. There is some healthy scepticism of many ‘post-humanist’ thinkers in socialist circles, in the case of Haraway particularly due to her turn towards anti-natalism, an excellent summary of which is Sophie Lewis, Cthulu plays no role for me, Viewpoint Magazine, May 2017 – https://viewpointmag.com/2017/05/08/cthulhu-plays-no-role-for-me/. For socialists, I think it is a case interrogating and developing the thought of the young Haraway over the old Haraway, rather than the entire rejection of the corpus some are quick to engage in.

[40] Roy Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science, 2007, Verso Books, London. A great place to start with Bhaskar’s extensive writing is Andrew Collier, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy, 1994, Verso Books, London, 1st Ed.

[41] Christopher Caudwell, The Crisis in Physics, 2007, Verso Books, London.

[42] Slavoj Zizek, Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism, 2015, Verso Books, London, 1st Ed. Whilst interesting, if we are to reintegrate new developments in science with any Leninist philosophy, such psychoanalysis heavy works are not a good place to start.

[43] John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique, 2017, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 1st Ed. Of relevance here is the Introduction section on the ‘Three Stages of Ecosocialist Analysis’.

[44] Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, 1845 – https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for this very timely and thought provoking article! Here is my own critique of Heron and Dean’s article: http://theearthisnotforsale.org/dsrev_revolution.pdf. I take reloading Lenin now in the form of ecological Leninism to be summed up as follows;
    1) As you and Malm note, acting before we run of time to prevent climate catastrophe (over 1.5 deg C warming)
    2) Strategically using divisions among factions of capital to defeat militarized fossil capital. As I read it, winning this defeat is central in Andreas Malm’s argument in his Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. But strategically we must begin now contesting power in the capitalist state, a struggle for a just green recovery from the deep global crisis, as a path to a Global Green New Deal as an arena for ferocious class struggle. We can’t afford to wait until capitalism is terminated on our planet, which if the 1.5 deg C warming limit is breached will potentially come with the collapse of civilization rather than an ecosocialist future. We discuss this challenge in depth in our 2019 book The Earth is Not for Sale, and in my new book, The Global Solar Commons, free download at https://www.theearthisnotforsale.org/solarcommons.pdf.

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