“Socialism or Barbarism”? What the Communist Manifesto says about climate change

Regular readers will know that my columns sometimes take a philosophical turn. I do this because, as any writer must, I am constantly reading to supplement and refine my knowledge of the world and of ideas.

Today I want to return to one of my favourite short books that will be familiar to some of you and perhaps horrifying to others. I am, of course, as the title of this piece suggests, referring to The Communist Manifesto, authored by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels and first published in 1848.

manifesto cover

My interest in delving back into this text flies in realising the value and importance of a particular passage that is often overlooked. Perhaps this particular paragraph is not considered important because it occurs very early, before the main arguments are fleshed out, but it is a reminder that there is nothing inevitable or pre-determined about revolutionary struggle.

[In] a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

It is the final stanza here that has caught my attention: “the common ruin of the contending classes”. What Marx and Engels want us to know at this point is that while the class struggle is inevitable, there is no certainty as to the outcome.

Engels returned to this point in his 1878 work critiquing the ideas of the German social democrat Eugen Dühring, funnily enough in a pamphlet published as Anti-Dühring, in which he argued that the bourgeoisie could no longer determine the exact course of history, as it had done during its own revolutionary period:

its own productive forces have grown beyond its control, and, as if necessitated by a law of nature, are driving the whole of bourgeois society towards ruin, or revolution.

Other Marxists have since taken up this point, Rosa Luxemburg famously coined the aphorism ‘socialism or barbarism” to describe the stark choice facing the European working classes during the First World War. According to reliable sources, Luxemburg was paraphrasing another German revolutionary, Karl Kautsky who wrote in 1892, who wrote:

“As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.”

Global warming – our “common ruin”

This problem has not gone away. In fact, it is safe to say that the “common ruin of the contending classes” confronts us squarely in the form of human-induced global warming. The reason for this is precisely what Engels was talking about: the ruling class has lost its ability to harness the productive forces of capitalism for social good, and the incessant drive for profit that motivates the capitalist class is careening out of control towards environmental disaster.

According to some credible estimates we have less than 20 years to halt the damaging effects of CO2 and begin reversing disastrous climate change.

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Believe it or not, Marx and Engels were acutely aware of the fragile relationship between human society and nature that is developed through humans’ labour. The natural world can be nurtured or exploited via this relationship.

The source of all sustenance and value in any economic system first and foremost relies on human labour to extract the means of subsistence from the environment. If this is done in harmony with nature then an environmental balance is maintained. Capitalism is about exploitation, socialism is about nurturing, conserving and enjoying nature.

Engels noted this in a work composed in 1883 called The dialectics of nature in which he wrote that the relationship between humans and nature is a process of mutual constitution and change:

“with the rapidly growing knowledge of the laws of nature the means for reacting on nature also grew; the hand alone would never have achieved the steam engine if the brain of man had not attained a correlative development with it, and parallel to it, and partly owing to it.”

If, as it is in a capitalist political economy, the relationship is one of unbridled exploitation, such that humans are alienated from nature, then this lack of balance will lead us into ecological disaster.

Marx wrote about this precarious balance many times, describing humanity’s relationship to nature as a metabolic process. Human labour enacted upon nature provides societies with their means of subsistence and future development, but in true dialectical fashion, this relationship changes humans, societies and nature itself.

Contemporary Marxists embrace this feature of Marx’ writing and use it to argue for a class-based solution to the environmental crisis. It is not overpopulation that is killing the planet, it is over-production of commodities on the basis of the extraction of surplus value, profit and wealth for the few and at the expense of the many.

This is the “metabolic rift” that has alienated nature from us. Marx wrote about it in relation to Nineteenth Century agriculture depleting the natural productive capacity of soils and the contamination of urban rivers due to poor sanitation and unregulated dumping of chemical waste by the burgeoning manufacturing industry.

Capitalism thrives on nature’s destruction

The situation today is no better. In fact, we can argue that it is worse. Not only are we continuing to deplete the soil through intense agricultural practices, industrialised farming requires pesticides and herbicides that are leaving behind a toxic residue.

The nuclear power industry means that there are ever-expanding stockpiles of radioactive waste being left all over the planet for future generations to clean up. The accident at Fukushima, largely forgotten among all the other global horror stories, is a constant reminder that capitalism’s relentless push for progress only further alienates nature.

Capitalism is the cause of the environmental crisis, it can never be the solution. It is capitalism that creates our alienation from nature by severing the direct relationship between producers, raw materials and the products of their labour.

The exploitation and laienation of labour is the result of the fact that the working class that does not own or control the means of production, but that is compelled to work for the benefit of the capitalist class. This alienation of  labour is the basis of our alienation from nature.

Thus, we are returned to the possibility of either common ruin and a descent in barbarism on one hand, or the successful revolutionary transition away from capitalism towards a socialist society in which the metabolic symbiosis between human society and nature can be restored.

As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, modern capitalism “is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”.

Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed…And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? [By] paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.

However, there is hope, capitalism creates the conditions for its own revolutionary overthrow:

But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons — the modern working class — the proletarians.

Marx and Marxists talk about the centrality of class politics and the class struggle to the process of historical change. However, there is no predetermined outcome. As Marxists, we know that political consciousness is a key ingredient to any successful revolution.

The power of the working class lies in its overwhelming numerical strength when compared to the one per-cent that make up the ruling elite. The power to change the world for the better lies with the working class because it is the group that has the most to gain by returning to a symbiotic relationship with the natural world.

However, there is a catch. The working class and its allies have to be self-conscious and understand both the necessity of revolution and its mechanics in order to win.

Today we are confronting climate collapse. This is the hideous face of Twenty-first Century barbarism.

Only a conscious revolutionary working class can lead the struggle to prevent this from being the reality we bestow on future generations.

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