Marxism vs anarchism: how can we save the environment?

23 May 2021
Grace Hill

The scale of the climate crisis is driving a renewed interest in anti-capitalist politics, especially among young people. It is self-evident that radical action is needed to shut down the fossil fuel industry and reverse global warming and that, without it, the future of humanity is bleak.

But not all anti-capitalist politics are created equal. Despite a convincing veneer, anarchism fails to offer a radical alternative to capitalist environmental destruction. It provides no guide to defeating capitalist power, nor an effective strategy for reorganising society in a sustainable way.

There are many varieties of anarchism. Two that primarily concern themselves with the environment are “green anarchism” and the ideas of Murray Bookchin.

Green anarchism is famous for its nihilism, primitivism and anti-civilisation perspective. John Zerzan, one of the most prominent anarcho-primitivist authors, argues that civilisation, technology and specialised labour are at the root of society’s tendency toward environmental destruction. Zerzan wrote that human domination of nature was “set in motion 10,000 years ago, when our ancestors began to domesticate animals and plants. In the 400 generations of human existence since then, all of natural life has been penetrated and colonized at the deepest levels”. Civilisation, he writes, “has always been imposed, and necessitates continual conquest and repression”. The solution? “Technology and its accomplice, culture, must be met by a resolute autonomy and refusal that looks at the whole span of human presence and rejects all dimensions of captivity and destruction.”

Zerzan argues that civilisation must be ended, and humans must look back to gatherer-hunter societies in order to restore balance with the natural world and to end human alienation from nature. Undifferentiated human civilisation, not capitalism in particular, is to blame, and as such we all share collective culpability for the environmental crisis. Modern medicine, computers and the production of anything on a large scale: all of it must be destroyed or reversed to save our species.

The founder of anarchist social ecology, Murray Bookchin, provides a less absurd anarchist perspective. His social ecology theory centres on tensions within modern society as the cause of environmental destruction, but tensions that arise as a result of particular characteristics of society, rather than its basic structure of class domination. These include the oppressive hierarchies of class, sexism or ageism, or the tendency of capitalism to concentrate and centralise production. In Post-Scarcity Anarchism, for example, Bookchin wrote:

“A century ago it would have been possible to regard air pollution and water contamination as the result of the self-seeking activities of industrial barons and bureaucrats. Today, this moral explanation would be a gross oversimplification ... a more serious problem than the attitude of the owners is the size of the firms themselves—their enormous proportions, their location in a particular region, their density with respect to a community or waterway, their requirements for raw materials and water, and their role in the national division of labor.” So it is the scale of capitalist production, rather than its subordination to profit, that for Bookchin is the key problem.

This reflects anarchism’s tendency towards liberalism. Bookchin builds on the work of the 19th century Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, whose theory of mutual aid put forward an alternative, liberal view of history against Marx’s historical materialism. Rather than history being shaped by class struggle, Kropotkin argued, it was a struggle between hierarchy, authority and centralisation on the one hand, and institutions of mutual aid representing freedom on the other. Kropotkin was a supporter of working-class struggle but saw the roots of domination not necessarily being exploitation and ruling class power, but people’s acceptance of authority and resulting lack of self-reliance. Kropotkin held up the peasant commune as an example of a cooperative alternative, in counter-position to workers’ power.

Marxism has an entirely different view of the causes of environmental destruction and the action needed to end it. In Capital, Marx argued that the relationship between humans and the natural world is mediated by labour: human labour is, “first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces that belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement, he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way, he simultaneously changes his own nature”.

In primitive communist societies, human labour was collective and voluntary. The emergence of social classes a few thousand years ago, which created a divide between labourers and a non-labouring class that controlled the process and products of labour, changed people’s relationship with their labour, and therefore also with nature. Both became alienated.

Human society thus became a more and more destructive force, and with the advent of capitalism, this became catastrophic. Productive powers unimaginable generations ago have been unleashed, creating enormous potential for human freedom. But the subordination of these powers to the profit motive causes terrible harm, both to people and to the environment they depend on for survival. Today, environmental destruction threatens the lives of millions of people.

Marxism identifies the culprits of climate change as the capitalist class, the economically and politically powerful minority that orders society according to the logic of capital accumulation and their own enrichment. Capitalists control the coal mines, the factories and the transport systems, operating them in the most profitable way possible regardless of the harm done to the planet. Competition dictates that they put profit ahead of all else, which, predictably, leads to human and environmental disaster.

Marxists’ and anarchists’ different understandings of the cause of environmental destruction leads to different strategies to end it. For Marxists, the working class is the only social force with the power to and interest in challenging the power of the capitalist class and defeating it. Capitalism has brought them into a huge global network, in which workers’ labour is linked together in a complex chain. To be effective, workers’ struggle must ultimately be collective and international.

Workers can’t establish a new exploitative society, because to win power they must take collective control of production. The factories, laboratories and power plants that keep society running cannot be operated by individuals, but require mass cooperation to function. Because of this, workers’ struggle has a tendency towards democracy—collective control ensures collective participation, without which the workers’ movement is weakened.

Workers’ victory requires workers’ ascension to political power, via the overthrow of the capitalist state and its replacement with a state based on workers’ own democratic institutions. This is required both to combat inevitable counter-revolution and to undertake the task considered impossible by anarchists—democratisation of all human labour. Unlike a capitalist state, which reinforces the illegitimate authority of a minority over the majority, this state is one based on workers’ democratic institutions and exists to impose the authority of the majority—a legitimate authority—over society.

Contrast this with the solution proposed by the green anarchists: “uncivilising”. To change the world, grow your own food, cease adherence to social norms and give up “civilising” influences on your life. This strategy doesn’t challenge the state or capitalist power.

Bookchin famously critiqued this lifestyle-ist individualism, but fails to put forward a viable alternative strategy. He regards workers’ revolution as impossible because, in his view, workers have a stake in maintaining capitalism. “The proletariat,” he writes, “like its plebeian counterpart in the ancient world, shares actively in a system that sees its greatest threat from a diffuse populace of intellectuals, urban dwellers, feminists, gays, environmentalists—in short, a trans-class “people” that still expresses the Utopian ideals of democratic revolutions long passed”.

He argued that his experience in the workers’ movement led him to conclude that what Marx saw as the possibility for workers’ power in fact reflected their inability to overthrow the system: “The workers’ movement never really had a revolutionary potential. The factory, which is supposed to organise the workers..., mobilise them, and instil in them the class consciousness that is to stem out of a conflict between wage labour and capital had in fact developed habits of mind of the worker ... that serve in fact to assimilate the worker to the work ethic, to the industrial routine, to hierarchical forms of organisation, and that no matter how compellingly Marx had argued that such a movement could have revolutionary consequences, in fact, such a movement could have nothing but a purely adaptive function, an adjunct to the capitalist system itself”.

Bookchin rejects the revolutionary role of the working class, a position common to the anarchist tradition. His vision of an alternative society is thus little more than a scaled-down, decentralised series of municipalities, rather than global democratisation of labour and production. The alternative “diffuse populace” he looked to has no comparable social power to that of the proletariat and lacks the characteristics to make it an inherently collective class. While Bookchin correctly critiques lifestyle anarchism, focusing on the “diffuse populace” is itself a version of individualism, the problem that underpins lifestyle-ism.

Rejection of the working class’s revolutionary role also underpins another common characteristic of anarchism: a fixation on direct action, carried out by relatively small groups. For Marxists, direct action is one tactic of many which can be used to achieve an objective, ultimately workers’ power. For anarchists, it’s both tactic and objective. By refusing to acknowledge authority, and expressing that through direct action, you deny it legitimacy and build your own strength.

One of the most active green anarchist groups, Earth First, made its name scaling trees to prevent logging, even sometimes driving metal spikes into the trunks, injuring workers who cut and processed the wood. The masses get the privilege of watching the spectacle and maybe being radicalised by it—if they aren’t caught in the crossfire. This action is as important as mass action by workers, as far as most anarchists are concerned. Even those anarchists who support unions and strikes, without an orientation to achieving workers’ power, frequently alienate potential allies and provoke state repression without any means of defence. Their orientation encourages a tendency to dismiss the mass of workers as hopelessly conservative or in need to enlightenment from above. Anarchist luminary Emma Goldman expressed it best: “Always, at every period, the few were the banner bearers of a great idea, of liberating effort. Not so the mass, the leaden weight of which does not let it move ... the majority cares little for ideals or integrity. What it craves is display”.

The features of the climate crisis include huge deforestation, the dependence of all essential production on the fossil fuel industry and rising sea levels threatening hundreds of millions of people. The profits of every capitalist, even the “green” ones, depend in some way on fossil fuel energy, fossil fuel-powered transit and on every part of the natural world being treated as an exploitable resource.

Once the capitalists have been defeated, a huge feat of global cooperation will be necessary so that people’s needs can be met in a sustainable way. We’ll need to redistribute existing resources to the world’s poorest, and also reorganise and rebuild agriculture, transport, energy and construction on a whole new basis. This means using the existing global production capability, but for a different purpose. Nothing short of global proletarian cooperation, and subsuming the whole world under proletarian control, will suffice to make this a reality. Marxism is the politics of working-class power that provides a road map to this goal. Anarchism can offer only the non-solutions of localism, elitist minority action, rejection of the possibility of democratising the human relationship with nature on a mass scale and, most damningly, opposition to the democratic rule of the workers.

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.