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Since when has it been left wing to be green?

By Barry York - posted Wednesday, 12 November 2008


In the political discourse around green issues, the world outlook associated with various green groups is portrayed as left wing. This is largely because the green world outlook generally opposes capitalism, its leaders frequently use the rhetoric of the Left, are promoted as being left wing by the mainstream media, and usually identify themselves as being of the Left.

Moreover, many green leaders and activists were radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s and have genuinely left wing backgrounds. They see the green movement as a continuation of their previous left wing radicalism.

The measure of whether an outlook is on the Left needs to be assessed against criteria based on core values that have given meaning to the concept historically. Left wing traditions have never been green and, I would argue, the identification of the green outlook with left wing politics has only been possible over the past few decades because of the decline of the Left.

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Contrary to what right wing commentators declare, the green movement is not the Left in new form but a product of its absence as a significant force in contemporary politics. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. Green ideology has filled the vacuum created when the Left went into hibernation in the mid 1970s, after a spectacular rise during the second half of the previous decade.

What then are the core values that determine a left wing outlook, and what are the traditions of the Left in regard to nature and the non-synthetic environment?

The values of the Left are based on two interconnected qualities: opposition to oppression and tyranny (i.e., support for democracy and freedom); and enthusiastic support for material progress, for a world of (as we used to say in the communist party) “abundance for all”. These values have defined the Left since 1848, when Karl Marx issued the Communist Manifesto.

Marx, and the genuine Marxists, wanted to overthrow capitalism, not because it was supposedly bad for the natural environment, but because the key contradiction within it - between the social nature of production on one hand and private appropriation on the other - stood in the way of personal freedom for the workers and a real unleashing of the productive capacities of human beings.

Marx believed that “wage slavery” was based on exploitation and alienation, and that the workers should rise up and seize the means of production for their own ends rather than for the profit of the small group of owners. In a sense, Marx was a real supporter of “free enterprise”: but for the producers rather than the owners. There is nothing green at all in a Marxist position.

Marx’s comrade, Frederick Engels, compiled the booklet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific precisely to defeat the influence of the “greenies” (i.e. utopians) of his time. Marx and Engels established a left wing tradition that fully embraced - indeed waxed lyrical about - modernity and the achievements of industrial capitalism.

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Their opposition to capitalism, I repeat, was based on an analysis that saw it as retarding social and material progress. Their views on the relationship between progress and nature were consistent with the “Age of Reason” and the scientific revolution: nature, to the Left, has never been something with which to seek harmony and balance - let alone with which to live “sustainably”.

The classical Marxist view was expressed at the left wing lastsuperpower website in the following way:

The whole history of humanity is that we are a species that does not adapt its lifestyle to its environment but develops "unsustainablly" in ways that require transforming our environment our technological forces of production and our social relations of production. Our unsustainable development has already terraformed most of this planet so that it is no longer a "wilderness", substituted "synthetic" for "natural" products for everything we live on (including ancient things like domesticated wheat and other food staples) and will go much further both intensively here and extensively across the universe and at the same time it has totally transformed the way we relate to each other and will continue to do so.

Throughout our history there have been progressives wanting to speed up the movement forward and reactionaries demanding that we should live within our means. These ideologies are closely connected with the fact that ruling classes fear the instability and threat to their domination that goes with changes undermining our old mode of life while oppressed classes always want more from life than what their exploiters think they should live on.

According to Engels, the struggle for human liberation required the overcoming of the limitations placed on people by the natural environment. Science, technology, and politics were ways by which humans constantly created something new, rendering the old “unsustainable”.

It’s hard to imagine a more reactionary and conservative notion than “sustainability”, but it has permeated the psyche of the populations of the advanced industrial nations and has become a mantra. It is a “buzzword”, basically meaning let’s not take risks, let’s get cosy with nature rather than continue to transform it for our own benefit; as we have done since the harnessing of fire.

The green outlook’s opposition to capitalism does not qualify it as being on the Left because its opposition is to the industrial and social advances ushered in by capitalism. The greens look backwards to small-scale production, to a social system based on village/community life, to a society in which humans were more in touch with nature. This type of society has existed, prior to capitalism, during the feudal era. However, capitalism, as Marx enthusiastically asserted:

… has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kin. ( See: Karl Marx, Chapter 1, Communist Manifesto, 1848).

Support for turning back the clock to small-scale production based on village/community life found expression in Australia in the 1940s, with the publication of B. A. Santamaria’s The Earth, Our Mother. Santamaria was on the far right of politics and never renounced his support for Mussolini and the Italian fascists. It made sense that someone on the right would support such a backward social system, and bemoan the liberating consequences and direction of modernity because this was the tradition of the right.

Leftists are the ones who want to “overcome nature” rather than be submissive before it. We are the ones who want to reach for the stars!

To understand just how completely opposite to the left wing position Santamaria’s view was, and how completely opposite to the left wing view the green world outlook is today, one can consider Engels, writing in Anti-Duhring (1877). Engels speculates about the radical consequences of man finally confronting the material conditions of existence, and understands humanity’s mastery of nature as the key to its social liberation: the leap from the “kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom”.

… for the first time man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature because he has now become master of his own social organisation. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face to face with man as laws of nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man's own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, with full consciousness, make his own history - only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the humanity's leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

Not surprisingly, there are left wingers around the world who speak out against the green outlook. Their views are rarely heard in the mainstream media but their critiques can be read at sites such as Spiked Online and strangetimes lastsuperpower. Both are basically Marxist when it comes to the green issue. The UK-based editors of Spiked Online previously ran the journal Living Marxism. There are also occasional anti-green Marxist-influenced books, such as Austin Williams’ Enemies of progress: the dangers of sustainability and David McMullen’s Bright future, but these receive minimal publicity in the mainstream compared to the voices of doom and gloom.

Conclusion

OK, so there’s no left wing green tradition, and the greens are antithetical to left wing values. Who then are these green ideologues who are described as, and claim to be, left wingers?

To me, a new concept is needed to understand their politics and that concept is “pseudo-left”. The concept has been around for a few years now and has been used by public intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen. In Australia it is promoted by us bloggers at strangetimes.lastsuperpower. It is time for the “pseudo-left” descriptor to be taken up by many more people, so that the green outlook can be situated where it rightly belongs.

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About the Author

Barry York is an historian and writer who blogs at C21st Left. He rejects the current pseudo-left and regards himself as a leftist influenced by Marxism.

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