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Some Comments on Sandy Irvine’s ‘The Prophet Misarmed’

Ian Birchall

SANDY Irvine’s article ‘The Prophet Misarmed: Trotsky, Ecology and Sustainability’ (What Next? No.31) raises a number of questions that any Marxist must be prepared to answer. While I am not competent to discuss the more technical parts of the argument and the scientific evidence produced, I should like to comment on some of the points made.

For the most part the article adopts a tone of dialogue and seems to aim to win Marxists to common action with ecologists. The presentation of Trotsky is generally sympathetic, however critical. There are a few lapses (I thought the remarks on Trotsky’s children were cheap and unworthy of the rest of the article), but in general this attempt at constructive engagement is entirely to be welcomed.

The article makes two fundamental criticisms of Marxism whose validity must, I think, be accepted. Firstly, the Marxist tradition has not done sufficient work on ecological problems. And those problems have not been integrated into the Marxist view of the world. There is certainly a lot of work to be done there by Marxists if they are to produce an analysis and a programme for the twenty-first century.

And secondly it is indeed true that the traditional Marxist notion of “abundance” has been somewhat naïve. What Irvine calls the “cornucopian” standpoint does now seem rather implausible. It is clear that there are objective constraints as to the resources available in any society, and if a socialist society came into existence, these would have to be confronted. However, it should also be said that capitalism is a colossally wasteful system, which devotes enormous resources to activities that are useless if not positively pernicious – war, advertising, etc. To put an end to that waste would be a huge step forward for human society.

However, I felt that at a number of points Irvine’s analysis was misguided. Irvine rejects the idea of humanity as “conquerors of nature”. But I think there are a number of false dichotomies here. Irvine rejects the concept of “Progress” which he believes we have inherited from the Enlightenment. But surely his own position also implies a notion of progress. I think ultimately he shares with us Marxists the desire to replace the existing social order based on inequality, brutality and enormous suffering with one designed to increase the quality of human life and reduce unnecessary suffering. If he does not aspire to “progress” in that sense then there is no point doing anything; he might as well simply sit back and wait for the cataclysm that global warming will eventually bring. And we can’t go back to some pre-industrial paradise, real or imagined. The only way forward is to build on the best of what humanity has achieved.

Irvine rejects the view that “Progress consists, then, of transforming nature into forms that are imposed by human beings”, and the view attributed to Bacon that “The reason for trying to understand nature better is to command it the more”. But in fact Irvine’s own method seems to be remarkably similar to this.

It’s true that there is a certain amount of rather macho rhetoric used by the Bolsheviks about “mastering” nature. But ultimately what is at stake is the scientific method. And the scientific method, as developed since the seventeenth century, is about accepting nature – there are no miracles, no arbitrary acts of god, only natural laws which we can understand with ever greater precision. “Control” results only from recognition of necessity – we can’t abolish gravity, but by understanding it aright we can fly through the air.

And that is precisely the methodology employed by Irvine in his article. He deploys extensively the findings of scientific study in order to support his arguments and to advocate certain forms of social change. He is not rejecting “technology”, simply asking for a better-informed technology which takes more account of the long-term consequences of human action. Irvine indeed seems to accept this when he writes: “The connecting thread is an unsustainably narrow concept of efficiency … only attained at the unsustainable cost of bigger ‘inefficiencies’, once all human and environmental costs and risks are taken into account.” He doesn’t want to reject “efficient” technology, simply to adopt a broader definition of efficiency.

Likewise I am somewhat puzzled by the argument that “Ecologism puts first the Earth and its life-support systems, on which depend many species, not just people”. Leaving aside the moral argument as to whether one should prefer a human life to that of an insect, the basic fact is that the human species is the only species capable of appreciating the long-term consequences of its actions. I do not hear of foxes holding meetings to consider reducing the number of chickens they kill, nor of rabbits practising birth control. If human action is the cause of so many ecological problems, it is also clear that only human action can provide a solution. And Irvine agrees in practice, since he addresses his arguments to human reason.

I think that the argument that “the demand to abolish ‘all the distinction between town and country’” can be equated with urban sprawl is a trivialisation of an important point. For Marx rural life meant the peasant family living in isolation, working their land and having little contact beyond their own village. Towns meant people coming together for collective labour, experiencing many-sided contacts and having the potential to develop new ideas. Hence towns were the locus of social change. This was visible in 1848 and 1871 when the Paris workers presented the possibility of social transformation, but were suppressed by peasant forces. Of course in a world where the peasant may well have a television set if not a connection to the internet, the distinction is already being broken down. And most people want urban life. Even when tight migration controls are imposed, people succeed in moving from country to town, from poverty to (relative) prosperity.

So what is the root of the problem? Irvine concedes some validity to the socialist case: “Trotsky probably would have replied to the ecological argument that it is the drive to make profits that pushes things to breaking point. Conversely the replacement of commodity production by production for social use would (or, more precisely, might) ease the pressure. In many cases, he would have had a valid point. Yet the fundamental problem is not abolished.”

In particular he refers to the experience of the former USSR. He alludes rather contemptuously to the debate as to whether Russia was “state capitalist” or a “degenerated workers’ state”. Now I have some sympathy here, having spent rather more time than I would wish on such debates couched in the most sterile terms. But there is a real issue here.

Irvine seems to go along with Trotsky’s claim that there was a planned economy in the USSR, despite bureaucratic deformations. If that is true, then it is clear that a “planned economy” alone cannot solve the ecological crisis. If, however we argue that the essential dynamic of the Russian economy in the Stalin period was that it was surrounded by a capitalist world, and that the pressures of economic and especially military competition obliged it to pursue the forced industrialisation at breakneck pace which caused such catastrophic ecological damage, then that is a strong argument for claiming that the drive for profits is ultimately responsible for ecological crisis.

I don’t think Irvine provides any response to the Marxist argument that capitalism is dominated by the pursuit of profit; therefore competition always subordinates the long term to the short term, because the capitalist who fails to make profits in the short term will not live to see the long term. Thus even if capitalists are intelligent enough to see potential disasters caused by global warming (as undoubtedly some of them are) they cannot do anything more than make a few token gestures towards doing anything about it.

Take the question of cars. I agree absolutely with what Irvine says about the “unsustainable impact of car usage”. But what is to be done? Minor palliatives like congestion charging, taxation of polluting vehicles etc, will not be sufficient. The only way to start solving the problem is to radically reduce the number of cars made and sold. But such a solution is inconceivable as long as large privately-owned car companies exist. There will indeed be difficult problems to be solved even after capitalism is destroyed – but without smashing capitalism we cannot even begin to confront the problems.

But if Irvine has made some valid challenges to Marxism I think his case falls down when it comes to the positive proposals he makes. Traditional Marxism argued that capitalism created its own gravedigger, that the working-class, pursuing its own class interests, could be a universal class which would act in the interests of humanity as a whole by overthrowing capitalism. And this question of working-class agency is central to Trotsky’s major contributions to Marxist thinking, in particular the theory of Permanent Revolution and the writings on the United Front (of which Irvine has little to say).

Now Marx may have been wrong, and historical experience since 1917 shows that the working class has often failed to act as Marxists had hoped it would. But at least Marxism did confront the question of agency. The reason Marx rejected the Utopians, despite their main valid insights, was that they gave no account of the agency whereby society could be changed. Any advocate of a radical programme of social change that aspires to replace Marxism must offer some account of the agency of social change.

In these terms Irvine remains a Utopian. Thus he argues that the optimum population of the world would be around one billion – less than one sixth of the present figure. Now I’m not in a position to accept or reject his calculations. But what he gives no answer to is the question of how we might get there in the space of a few generations. Perhaps I haven’t thought of something, but it seems to me there would be no way of achieving this without such measures as compulsory sterilisation and euthanasia for the over seventies (or younger!!).

Now no political party that advocated such things would stand any chance of election. Democracy does not seem to rate particularly high in Irvine’s scale of values. But I very much doubt if a benevolent dictatorship could do it either. Dictators can only impose their will if they have a social base which has an interest in keeping them in power.

There are a number of factors (religion, inheritance laws, status of women) which affect population levels, but the only proven method of reducing the birth rate is raising the standard of living. Many European countries now do not have a birth rate high enough for replacement levels.

(And I am bemused by Irvine’s indignation at Trotsky’s views on eugenics. If the world’s population is to be drastically reduced, would it not make sense for the remaining population to be fit and healthy – indeed, if we can locate the genes, should we not ensure that they be cooperative and non-greedy types? Irvine’s moral indignation here fits badly with the rest of his argument.)

So what do we do? Whether or not Irvine’s proposals are valid, how could they be put into practice? If working-class agency is rejected, then what, other than moral exhortation, remains?

Irvine advocates that “humans must all learn to tread more lightly and to ‘share smaller pies’.” But how? Any party with a programme of “smaller pies” would be condemned to electoral oblivion. (“Smaller but better pies” might be a winner, but the better would have to be very carefully spelt out.) The Green Party has undoubtedly made a real impact on ecological awareness – but it generally campaigns on relatively minor matters like “more recycling bins” rather than on “We shall take away your cars”. (Most Greens I know drive cars. I don’t. Does Irvine?)

And any regime trying to impose “smaller pies” would not only have to block the profit drive, but also introduce a very considerable degree of egalitarianism. During and just after the Second World War people did to some extent (though not as much as sometimes claimed) accept austerity in the name of fighting a common enemy. There was a much higher level of recycling (we called it “salvage”). But there were also punitive taxes on higher incomes and the ruling elite had to adopt a degree of asceticism (I recall in my childhood being told that the King had only five inches of water in his bath).

It is just possible people might accept similar constraints in the “war” against global warming – but only if there were some attempt at equality of sacrifice. As long as rich parasites like Cherie Blair and David Beckham are allowed to flaunt their wealth, ordinary working people will see no reason to abandon their consumption habits. A radical redistribution of wealth would be a necessary precondition for a major change in consumption patterns. And that cannot be achieved under capitalism.

So I am not very impressed by the accusation that the Socialist Alliance was guilty of staggering “idiocy” because it did not put saving the planet at the top of its list of demands. The Socialist Alliance was an electoral alliance, and any electoral force has to begin with where people are and not with where they ought to be. If “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself” then that is inevitable. But I suspect that is another bit of Marxism Irvine wants to abandon.

But while some section of the left such as Respect are trying hard to give greater importance to the question of climate change (George Galloway frequently discusses it on his popular radio show which reaches an audience far wider than that of the conventional “left”), Irvine prefers to dismiss us all as “idiots”. He is thus adopting a position of standing outside the movement and taking up a position of denouncing all those who do not go all the way with the “correct” programme. That, unfortunately, is the tradition of the worst epigones of Trotsky.

So what hope is there? It is possible that anti-imperialist struggles in the Middle East and Latin America, combining with the revival of working class struggle in Europe and the USA (e.g. last year’s French strikes) will develop into a movement powerful enough to finish off capitalism once and for all. Of course all the ecological problems would remain, but the drive for profit would have been stopped, and the possibility of a genuinely democratically planned economy would exist. It is easy to be sceptical about such a scenario, but it seems to me the only hope going and still worth fighting for. And the traditions and experience of the anti-Stalinist left (in which Trotsky remains a key figure) have an important role to play in this fight.

Otherwise Irvine will probably be proved right (unfortunately he will drown along with the rest of us). Nature will take its revenge. Global warming will lead to massive submersion of territory, huge population movements, and, as a result, almost certainly disastrous war for the remaining territory. This may destroy human civilisation altogether – Marx’s “common ruin of the contending classes” or Luxemburg’s “barbarism”. Or after colossal suffering and disaster, a much reduced human population might decide to adopt a more rational and cooperative way of organising itself.

To sum up, Irvine has posed some vitally important questions for Marxists – but he has failed to provide any alternative solutions that could be translated into practical politics.