On leftism and leftists, Reds and Greens

(this article was published in the Fall 2020 issue of Green Horizon Magazine)

There’s nothing formal (or formulaic) about it, but I think we can talk in terms of a modern broad progressive social change movement. Maybe it could be dated from the activism of the English Parliamentarians of the seventeenth century or the American or French revolutionists of the eighteenth century. They all expressed antipathy toward monarchs and emperors, employing a discourse (if not praxis) of democracy and equality.

During the European-wide ferment of 1848 the critique was extended to capitalist economic relations. Thereafter the movement was divided between reformists and those advocating a thorough-going kind of systemic change. It used to be phrased as “reform vs. revolution.” This article will make the case that, while reforms are not enough, “revolution” is a romantic fantasy that the movement should leave behind. Moreover, in considering how revolutionists have tended to conceive of systemic transformation as “socialism replacing capitalism via class struggle,” I’ll attempt to show why that orientation is misguided, even delusional.

The movement needs to get more sophisticated in its thinking. Along those lines, an encouraging transition of worldview started to emerge during the sixties. The appearance of works such as “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” by Murray Bookchin and “The Closing Circle” by Barry Commoner signaled the development of a new paradigm of leftism. It manifested as Green politics and the establishment of Green parties during the seventies. Those of us who thought the transition “from Red to Green” would sweep the movement were somewhat disappointed as the ensuing decades passed.

Observing how the ideological proclivity of the majority of the world’s Green parties inclines toward liberalism or socialism could be disheartening. But a profound paradigm shift takes time to take hold. A sage once opined: “A new worldview does not get accepted by persuading its opponents, but rather because its opponents eventually die off!”

At this point I want to address those who get their backs up when criticism is directed at “the Reds.” Their banners are red, their websites are drenched in the color red, etc., but if an “outsider” says Red they say they’re affronted about the “red-baiting.” Please. I call it many things — old-paradigm socialism, retrograde leftism, workerism, misguided theory, a nineteenth century worldview, etc. — but the idea of a Red movement has been understood since the cover of Das Kapital was that color in 1867. (It’s just one of those ironies of history that the news media in the United States, for some reason, assigned the color red to the very-anti-socialist Republican Party sometime about thirty years ago!).

I’m convinced that the transition of thought advocated by Deep Greens is happening — but slowly. The old ideologies, after all, have the force and momentum of decades, if not centuries, still propelling them. And much of the left has continued to believe in the imminent ascendancy of “working-class politics” until fairly recently.

This year’s US Green Party presidential candidate, Howie Hawkins, still thinks the objective is to “build a working-class party.” Read his literature. Why do I say it’s “retrograde”? Well, all the way back in 1970 Howie’s original mentor, Murray Bookchin, pointed out in a booklet titled Listen, Marxist: “ . . . to infect the movement of our time with ‘workerism’ is reactionary to the core . . . to barge in with the worn recipes of Marxism, to babble about the ‘role of the working class,’ amounts to a subversion of the present and the future by the past.”

Of course the Greens should appeal to wage earners, naturally we should stand up for labor rights, without question we should support strikes and all struggles against workplace exploitation. But we should have long ago transcended the kind of Red-leftist delusions reflected — fifty years after Listen, Marxist! — in the key ideological literature of Howie’s campaign.

Clearly there is a ‘working class’ in a sociological sense (wage earners) . . . what Marx called a “class-in-itself.” But the idea of that aggregation taking power and socializing the economy is dependent upon the idea that workers will gain a sense of collective agency and thus become what Marx called a “class-for-itself” . . . aware of and acting upon (a) their ability to extend democracy into the economic sphere, and (b) their “historical mission” to establish a classless society.

The most sophisticated Green theorists, from Bookchin onward, have recognized how wrong Marx was in this realm of his thinking. It shouldn’t require theorizing, though, it should be obvious just from observing who supports Bernie Sanders-type campaigns, who subscribes to Red-paradigm magazines like Jacobin: academics, college students and counterculturalist youth in general, public-sector employees, middle-class people in the semi-professions (teaching, tech, healthcare), public interest lawyers, declassed radicals, and ultra-liberal elites. Not so much “the proletariat.” Why? Working class oppression does not foster what Marx called “class-for-itself consciousness.” Rather, what it does is inhibit development of a sense of agency. Socialists want the workers to want to run their enterprises and run the economy. But actual workers are not very often inclined to think that way.

In this country, some workers who still identify with the Democratic Party voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries in 2016. Why? Because they disliked Hillary Clinton who, in their eyes, represented the cosmopolitan elites. Many of them wound up voting for Trump in the general election for the same reason.

Red-leftists tend to be middle-class or upper-middle-class social-engineering types who have a heroic self-image of leading a working class revolution or cultivating liberatory movements among “the masses” or “the people.” They have a sense of agency, but the masses don’t. In a certain sense “the workers” know better. In my student Marxist days I used to go to factory gates at six in the morning and hand out my organization’s socialist newspaper. It was not well received. Later it occurred to me that the thought process probably went something like: “Good luck with your ideas about running the system democratically, no less socializing it. A bit of hubris on your part, there, kid.”

Along the same lines, most workers really couldn’t take Bernie’s “revolution” too seriously. Bernie Sanders has a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. His hero, Eugene Debs, came from a prosperous family (his father owned a textile mill and a meat market). Marx had a Ph.D. in philosophy. Lenin was a lawyer.

Howie Hawkins went to an Ivy League university (Dartmouth). He likes to wear a Teamsters shirt, but he didn’t seem to have much success trying to bring socialism to his union comrades at UPS. The delusions among Red-leftists about who the workers are and what the workers want is sorry to witness. It permeates Howie’s recent touchstone essay, “The Case For an Independent Left Party.” The latter contains whole passages that would make sense if referring to a Green Party. But, instead, Howie goes on and on about trying to build a “Workers Party.”

Worse, he conflates the two.

The ‘Green’ concept does have the potential for broad resonance throughout the population. The ‘Workers Party’ concept resonates among a tiny segment of marginalist old-style leftists. It’s vital that we base our praxis on an understanding of the distinction.

I believe you can distinguish a movement by its literature. Included in a Red/workerist bibliography you’d be likely to find (in roughly chronological order): Marx, Engels, Bakunin, Lenin, Trotsky, August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, Eugene Debs, Rosa Luxemburg, John Reed, Emma Goldman, Antonio Gramsci, George Lukács, Norman Thomas, Herbert Marcuse, Louis Althusser, Mao Zedong, Max Schachtman, Paul Sweezy, Isaac Deutscher, Frantz Fanon, Hal Draper, Erich Fromm, C. Wright Mills, E. P. Thompson, Michael Harrington, Howard Zinn, Stanley Aronowitz, Slavoj Žižek, Victor Wallis, John Bellamy Foster. That’s what my personal library looked like back when I was a student Marxist!

Those books are in boxes now in my attic. My own “Red to Green” transition started during the eighties, and my bookshelves have since become populated by the essential works of the eco-communitarian Green movement writers:

Nineteenth century: Henry David Thoreau, William Morris, Élisée Reclus, Edward Carpenter, Peter Kropotkin, John Muir.
Early- and mid-twentieth century: Ralph Borsodi, Murray Bookchin, Rachel Carson, Stanley Diamond, Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich, Robinson Jeffers, Leopold Kohr, Mildred Loomis, Aldo Leopold, Lewis Mumford.
1970s: Wendell Berry, Barry Commoner, Ernest Callenbach, Edward Goldsmith, Theodore Roszak, Marshall Sahlins, E. F. Schumacher, Gary Snyder.
1980s: Rudolf Bahro, Herman Daly, David Ehrenfeld, Chellis Glendinning, Petra Kelly, Ursula Le Guin, Carolyn Merchant, Stephanie Mills, Arne Næss, Fredy Perlman, Jonathan Porritt, Charlene Spretnak, Langdon Winner.
1990s: Gar Alperovitz, Andrew Dobson, Riane Eisler, Richard Heinberg, David Korten, Jerry Mander, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Daniel Quinn, John Rensenbrink, Wolfgang Sachs, Kirkpatrick Sale, Vandana Shiva, David Watson.
2000s: Samuel Alexander, Max Blumenthal, John Clark, Charles Eisenstein, Rob Hopkins, Caroline Lucas, Michael Shuman, Ted Trainer.

Some ecosocialists have an idea that our movement can take the literature of the traditional left as a core and then simply expand the critique by grafting on ideas from some of the above ecology-oriented theorists. They assert that our movement should be a hybrid; we should identify as “watermelons” (green on the outside, red on the inside). But I’ve become convinced that we’re really dealing with two profoundly different worldviews.

Most of the left still skews toward the Red. For example, the ‘Resources’ page of the web site of the Green Eco-Socialist Network references Jacobin Magazine but not Green Horizon Magazine. Deep Greens shouldn’t despair. Rather, I think we should appreciate how far things have come, how much we’ve already influenced the left. We should recognize that there is an unfolding process. During the transition, for better or worse, the “watermelon” idea will figure to have some appeal.

Deep Greens need to have patience. Again, keep in mind that the Red worldview has been predominant on the left since the nineteenth century. The movement may now be in an extended period characterized by the kind of ideas expressed in Victor Wallis’ Red-Green Revolution (2018). If that’s the case, we should proactively participate in Red-Green coalitions, encouraged by the fact that our emphasis on ecology, community, sustainability, and decentralization is gradually being embraced. There are signs that the process is accelerating. A Slate article by Joshua Keating in July (“In Europe, Green Is the New Red”) noted that “in several European countries the Greens appear on the verge of eclipsing old-school socialist or social-democratic parties as the main electoral voice of the left.” How encouraging!

Of course, Europeans have more experience with socialism and therefore more skepticism about it. It wouldn’t be surprising if this turned out to be the last generation of leftists, worldwide, to take the idea of “working class revolution” seriously. Observing ecosocialists trying to meld the Red and the Green, what we may be seeing is a last gasp attempt to cling to the old. Joel Kovel, a founding father of that current, went to great theoretical lengths to buttress his case that we’re at the beginning of a new epoch of socialism: “Proto-green ideas were there in Marx, and you can find them if you look hard enough, but it didn’t occur to Marx to emphasize humanity’s alienation from nature. The issues of his times made him focus on labor exploitation. If he were writing today I’m sure he would highlight the need for a new, eco-centric mode of production” (paraphrased from “The Transition to Ecosocialism: The Ecological Crisis and the Future of Capitalism,” Kovel’s presentation to the Historical Materialism Conference at The New School in New York in May, 2011).

Meanwhile — for all the justifiable discussion about paradigms, worldviews, perspectives, and agencies — there’s a fundamental issue of practical programmatic concern to everyone in our broad social change movement: what to do about the socially and ecologically irresponsible concentrations of wealth and power in the extant corporations and nation-states? Not only do Reds feel that they know the answer, but that answer constitutes the very essence of socialism: The large productive enterprises must be taken out of private hands (they must be socialized via nationalization or municipalization or cooperativization) and the nation-states must deepen democracy by extending it into the economic sphere.

Regarding the latter, it’s a righteous sentiment, and to the extent that any headway in that direction can be achieved, great, but it should be clear by now why the Robin Hahnel/Michael Albert advocacy of “participatory economics” on a national scale has gotten no traction whatsoever. Complex, technocratic modern economies can never be “of, by, and for” the people. Few any longer even contemplate the absurd idea of democratic direction of a national economy.

But the dominance of the corporations can and must be reined in. There are three ways to go about it: regulation, socialization, and underminization(!). The Green movement can be viewed as post-socialist in view of the fact that it developed within a context of dawning recognition that socialization has issues of its own. It’s for that reason that Greens are (or should be) more nuanced when addressing the question of property relations. The left has been reticent about confronting the obvious fact that socialization works out well in some circumstances but not in others. So: At the macro level the corporations might in some cases be tightly regulated and in other cases be socialized. We should understand that neither of those prescriptions is a panacea. Ultimately the function, authority, and power of the behemoths (which cannot possibly conform to the Green principle of being “community-based”) must be undermined at the micro level by people opting to turn their backs on all the institutions of the Leviathan and go local.

After two hundred years of knocking its head against a wall and not making much progress, the left ought to come to terms with the fact that the governments, economies, and technologies of the industrial state cannot be democratized or humanized. Yes, reforms can be won — and every reform is worth fighting for. But the thoroughgoing Green transformation that’s so badly needed will only come about through piece-by-piece, place-by-place, building of the new society within the shell of the old.

In 1902 Lenin famously asked: “What Is To Be Done?” He’d be surprised to hear our current answers:
* recognize the importance of scale as an independent and critical factor;
* deconcentrate wealth and devolve power by decentralizing the extant polities and economies;
* encourage bioregional diversity in place of the current globalized monoculture;
* elect Greens to office in order to: (a) win the reforms advocated in the Green Party platform, and (b) foster the creation of cooperatives, alternative currencies, CSA’s, Transition Towns, ecovillages, and alternative institutions in general.

We surely can’t rely upon Republicans or Democrats to enable such grassroots praxis. Conservatism and liberalism have both been part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Socialism, the supposed alternative ideology, has not had much of a track record, either. Which indicates that we need to let go of the Red “working class to power” perspective. The truly transformational idea of “the greening of society” suffers when identified too closely with old-style, retrograde leftism. Instead, our movement needs to — patiently, but persistently — keep shifting the paradigm.


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Steven Welzer

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).