Pandemics, Climate Crisis, and “Ecological Leninism”

  • Marina Garrisi | 
  • February 7, 2021

The ecological emergency is underway. But Andreas Malm's interpretation of Lenin is not the solution.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Andreas Malm is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Lund in Sweden and an environmental activist. The author of numerous books in recent years, he is particularly interested in linking the question of the environmental struggle with Marxism. One of his recent books is Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency.[[Andreas Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (London: Verso, 2020).]]

Strategy in a Time of Chronic Emergency

Written in the heat of the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic in April 2020, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency is an attempt to explain the singular character of the global crisis precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Using the pretext of the “spectacular” dimension of the crisis, official declarations sought to make the pandemic seem like an accident emerging as a matter of course. As Malm writes,

The corona crisis came from the start with the promise of a return to normality, and this promise was unusually loud and credible, because the malady seemed far more external to the system than, say, the crash of an investment bank. The virus was the epitome of an exogenous shock (p. 4).

Contrary to the idea that the current crisis is some sort of interlude from which we could emerge in the short or medium term, Malm argues that a “return to normality” is impossible.

The book’s reception in France, only a few weeks before a new quarantine was imposed and in the midst of a global economic and social crisis, seems to confirm his diagnosis.

The first two parts of the book — “Corona and Climate” and “Chronic Emergency” — are a concise but convincing demonstration of the responsibility of the capitalist mode of production in the emergence and development of new pandemics. Since the appearance of the virus, many epidemiologists have pointed to the responsibility of bats (and/or pangolins) in transmitting the pathogens that caused SARS-Covid-2 in humans. Malm briefly summarizes why bats (chiropterans[[Translator’s note: Chiroptera is the scientific name of the order of night-flying mammals with forelimbs modified to form wings.]]) are a particularly important vector of pathogens. Their singular characteristics mean that bats have already been implicated in the transmission of several epidemics in the past (Nipah virus, likely Ebola, SARS-1, etc.), and that they are a decisive link in the transmission of SARS-Covid-2.

These mechanisms of zoonotic overflows[[That is, the transmission to humans of infectious diseases originating from another species.]] may have been mostly ignored throughout most of the world, but such scenarios were already being considered in the scientific sphere. Malm points out just how much this was the case: “If there was one feeling scientists working on zoonotic spillover did not express when Covid-19 took off, it was shock. A pandemic bursting out from bats is ‘just a matter of time,’ one team concluded in 2018” (p. 61).

In general, the scientific demonstration stops there, and the bat becomes the “prime culprit” of the Covid-19 pandemic. But Malm goes further up the chain of transmission to shed light on the factors that promote these zoonotic outbreaks and demonstrates that there is nothing “natural” or “accidental” about them.

That strange new diseases should emerge from the wild is, in a manner of speaking, logical: beyond human dominion is where unknown pathogens reside. But that realm could be left in some peace. If it weren’t for the economy operated by humans constantly assailing the wild, encroaching upon it, tearing into it, chopping it up, destroying it with a zeal bordering on lust for extermination, these things wouldn’t happen (p. 35).

Pointing to the responsibility of this economic logic, Malm implicates a particular process: deforestation.[[Deforestation actually contributes to the destruction of ecosystems and the disappearance of certain animal species, leading to a decrease in biodiversity. However, “higher biodiversity means lower risk for zoonotic overflow” (p. 41). Malm calls this the “dilution effect.” Moreover, deforestation is directly responsible for zoonotic overflow because of its direct impact on bats. He writes, “The stress caused by deforestation appears to crack the otherwise impervious defences of bats and trigger ‘pulses of viral excretion’ — episodes when viruses are shed en masse onto accidental hosts, who might well be humans” (p. 43).]]

So we find ourselves having moved a bit further up the chain of causality to a stage where bats seem to be more victims than culprits. Malm continues:

If deforestation drives zoonotic overflow in the early twenty-first century, we must ask: what drives deforestation? … In the new millennium, it is the production of commodities that chews up tropical forests. No more than four commodities — beef, soybean, palm oil, and wood products ... accounted for four tenths of the dramatically sped-up tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2011 (pp. 44–45).

Behind this organized plundering of soils and forests, we find the same culprit: fossil capital, a term Malm uses to designate that fraction of capital that lives and benefits from the continued extraction of fossil fuels. In other words, it is indeed the big capitalist corporations that are primarily responsible for deforestation, the multiplication of zoonotic overflows and, consequently, the proliferation of new diseases that are fatal to humans.

At the end of this brilliant demonstration, Malm’s hypothesis of “capital as meta-virus and patron of parasites” (p. 78.) is indeed convincing. It also allows the author to establish a link between the emergence and development of a pandemic and the deepening of the climate crisis: “Fossil fuel extraction in tropical forests combines the drivers of climate change and zoonotic overflow in one bulldozer ... Fossil capital: parasite capital” (p. 106).

What remains is to draw logical conclusions from this demonstration. The first is that it would be naive to think that those who have caused our problems can solve them. Malm rightly reminds us that capitalists — that is, those who benefit directly from the capitalist mode of accumulation — are incapable of seeing in nature a value as such. Nature has value only as a “space of resources that has not yet been subjugated to the law of value” (p. 77, emphasis added). That is why the idea of a “green capitalism” is such an illusion. The second conclusion is that these catastrophes (pandemics, global warming, as well as the economic and social crises that accompany them) are in reality an intrinsic part of capitalist “normality.” The emergency is not an interlude but is chronic. In this sense, the return to (or, rather, the maintenance of) “the normal” that the various governments in power are trying to promise us would, in reality, be the surest way to condemn the 21st century to be nothing more than a new “age of catastrophes.”

Malm’s diagnosis will surely give us a few more sleepless nights. It in no way, however, invites defeatism. “Yes, this enemy can be deadly, but it is also beatable” (p. 128), he continues, provided that we activate the right levers, abandon any climatic fatalism that is a real performative contradiction, and get the radical Left out of its essentially curative — defensive, one might say — posture, which limits it, in the face of the crisis, to seeking “better palliative action.”[[“A left staying in its habitually defined social corner will only be capable of raising demands similar to ‘sea walls for all’ — better palliative action, but palliative. It will be overtopped” (p. 105). To outline a strategy that is up to the task of confronting the current crisis, Malm calls for a return to strategic thinking, understood as the “search for effective strategies of conscious intervention” p. 119). He defends the need to adopt a radical stance: “to be radical in the chronic emergency is to aim at the ecological roots of perpetual disasters” (p. 105). If in this quest socialism (understood in the sense of the theoretical and political tradition of Marxism) constitutes for the author a “seed bank for the chronic emergency” (p. 119), it is because it has shown in the past that it is an effective compass for thinking and intervening in situations of capitalist crisis.[[Malm refers in particular to the debates in German social democracy on the eve of World War I, when some within the workers’ movement began to abandon the idea of crisis as an inherent manifestation of capitalist development. This renunciation, first theorized by Eduard Bernstein, was based on the relative stability of the capitalist mode of production, which was still in full development in the second half of the 19th century. Malm aptly shows how, abandoning the crisis as the inescapable moment of capitalist development, “the idea of seizing power, smashing decrepit capitalism, and installing a completely different order had become redundant; instead social democracy could continue to grow in strength [and] piecemeal reforms” (p. 120).]]

Leninism and the Bourgeois State

“There has been a lot of talk about ecological Marxism in recent years, and with the chronic emergency over us, the time has come to also experiment with ecological Leninism,” Malm writes (pp. 147–48). As early as 2017’s L’anthropocène contre l’histoire (Anthropocene versus History),[[Malm, L’anthropocène contre l’histoire: Le réchauffement climatique à l’ère du Capital [Anthropocene versus history: Global warming in the age of capital] (Paris: Fabrique, 2017).]] Malm raised the need to think about an ecological emergency program, drawing inspiration from the actions of the Bolsheviks in 1917. Also in 2017, in a presentation at the “Thinking about Emancipation” conference, he sought to reclaim Lenin’s attachment to “wild nature” and its conservation. Referencing Lenin is nothing new for Malm, but in The Bat and Capital he takes the opportunity to develop what he means by “ecological Leninism.” Fundamentally, Leninism reflects in Malm a tension — not to reduce strategy to one-off and partial solutions (“dikes”) but, on the contrary, to seek ways for a global, radical ecological transition.

To impose a radical ecological transition on fossil capital (a transition that would begin, Malm says, with “the demand for nationalizing fossil fuel companies and turning them into direct air capture utilities should be the central transitional demand for the coming years (p. 143). Along with that, there should be “comprehensive, airtight planning” (p. 144). “And,” he writes, “if there is anything that will be needed on the right side of the equation in the chronic emergency, it is some degree of hard power” on the part of the state (p. 125). Indeed, it seems quite illusory to imagine that those who profit from the current organization of the capitalist mode of production will be peacefully persuaded to reverse the current state of affairs. To regain control, reorganize, and convert production, the existence of a certain type of state appears unavoidable. From this perspective, to back down on confronting the “problem of the state” is, fundamentally, to render oneself powerless to think about a transition on a macro scale — a scale that is, in turn, absolutely indispensable for thinking about transition within the framework of a global chronic emergency. This is what the anarchist currents refuse to understand, Malm writes; for them, fundamentally, “the state is the problem, statelessness the solution” (p. 122), but “we need (for a certain period of transition) a state. This is what distinguishes us from the anarchists — with Lenin” (p. 131).

At this stage, Malm’s argument seems convincing. It is indeed illusory to imagine avoiding a certain period of transition while putting an end to the monopolization of raw materials and means of production by capitalist corporations, which is a necessary condition for ending the plundering of nature and for reorganizing society. In his own time, Karl Marx ridiculed those who refused to use any form of authority by the working class in the name of a “purity of the eternal principles.”

More questionable, though, is the theoretical gesture that leads Malm to abandon Lenin’s way of resolving this very question of the state:

We have just argued that the capitalist state is constitutionally incapable of taking these [ecological transition] steps. And yet there is no other form of state on offer. No workers’ state based on soviets will be miraculously born in the night. No dual power of the democratic organs of the proletariat seems likely to materialise any time soon, if ever. Waiting for it would be both delusional and criminal, and so all we have to work with is the dreary bourgeois state, tethered to the circuits of capital as always. There would have to be popular pressure brought to bear on it, shifting the balance of forces condensed in it, forcing apparatuses to cut the tethers and begin to move. ... But this would clearly be a departure from the classical programme of demolishing the state and building another — one of several elements of Leninism that seem ripe (or overripe) for their own obituaries (pp. 151–52).

In his famous work The State and Revolution, published in the summer of 1917, Lenin sets out how the Marxist tradition, inherited from Marx and Engels, approaches the question of the state and the tasks of revolutionaries with regard to it, against certain attempts at theoretical “revisions” within the workers’ movement.[[Beginning with those of Karl Kautsky, a figure in German social democracy against whom Lenin later wrote The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.]] Lenin insists again on the fundamental idea that “the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; [an] ‘order,’ which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes.”[[Lenin, The State and Revolution, chap. 1, “Class Society and the State” (1917).]]

According to this conception, the state serves as “an instrument of exploitation of the oppressed class,” and it is therefore completely illusory to imagine that it can be turned against the interests of the class to which it responds. What Lenin defended explicitly is the strategic perspective of a confrontation with the state and its destruction, taking up a well-known formula of Marx’s according to which all revolutions have only perfected the state machine, but what matters is to destroy it. This does not mean, of course, that the destruction of the bourgeois state can be used as a watchword regardless of the situation,[[Defending the strategic perspective of destroying the bourgeois state and replacing it with the self-government of the exploited and oppressed has nothing to do with the logic of a “permanent offensive.” To explore these questions in greater depth, see Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920).]] but that revolutionaries must work with and guide the action of the masses in this perspective.

Answering the question of how to destroy and with what to replace the bourgeois state was made possible by the experiences of the Paris Commune in 1871 and, later, the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. These saw the development of independent working-class organs of struggle, real class tools for insurrection, historically called soviets (meaning “councils” in Russian). Reworked in these terms by Lenin, the revolutionary transition then takes on a singular form, that of a confrontation of two types of institutions responding to fundamentally opposed class interests: on the one hand, the capitalist state as an instrument of bourgeois domination; on the other, the soviets as organizations of the exploited and oppressed in struggle.

This particular form of the struggle for power is what has, since Lenin’s time, been called the hypothesis of dual power. He formulated it in a 1917 work based on the experience of the Russian Revolution:

This dual power is evident in the existence of two governments: one is the main, the real, the actual government of the bourgeoisie ... which holds in its hands all the organs of power; the other is a supplementary and parallel government, a “controlling” government in the shape of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of Petrograd, which holds no organs of state power, but directly rests on the support of an obvious and indisputable majority of the people, on the armed workers and soldiers.

If, therefore, Lenin effectively polemicizes with the perspective of the “abolition of the state” defended by the anarchists, it is not to avoid the moment of confrontation and destruction of the bourgeois state, but on the contrary to insist — in the footsteps of Marx and Engels — on the need to use, in a transitory way, a certain form of organized violence, that is to say, some form of state (in this case, a workers’ state, which is not quite a state any longer), to break the resistance of the bourgeoisie. Yet it is precisely this conception that Malm rejects in his formulation of ecological Leninism.

It is a strange theoretical operation indeed to strip from the Leninist strategy what is undoubtedly one its key points, and to do so by means of a “demonstration” consisting of only a few sentences. Instead of a strategy aimed at destroying and replacing the bourgeois state, the author invites us to “exert popular pressure” on institutions to “force” them to make breaks with the reproduction of the capitalist order. These are formulations that remain vague (we know neither how to exert this pressure nor what the ruptures in the bourgeois state would consist of) and a conception more reminiscent of those against which Lenin fought than those he defended.

To justify his theoretical gesture, Malm basically uses two lines of argument: pragmatism and skepticism. Pragmatism: because we must make do with what we have. Skepticism: because it is impossible to imagine anything other than what already exists. These “arguments” are reminiscent of those already raised by others, yesterday and today,[[See, for example, the debates of the 1970s with Eurocommunism on the abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat by the French, Spanish, and Portuguese communist parties. There is also the current debate in the American Left on the “democratic path to socialism,” in which some explicitly seek to rehabilitate a Kautskyist perspective as part of abandoning the need to confront the bourgeois state and to justify rallying to the Democratic Party. See, for example, Eric Blanc’s “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care),” the debate between Blanc and Charlie Post in “Which Way to Socialism?,” and the dossier devoted to this debate published by Left Voice.]] to abandon the necessity of destroying the bourgeois state: the “impossibility of thinking about the emergence of popular organs”; the “almighty legitimacy of the institutions of bourgeois democracy”; the “danger of despotism”; and so on and so forth. All these arguments are generally presented as obvious, allowing those who put them forth to save themselves from having to go to the trouble of offering rigorous proof. Malm himself readily admits, when questioned, that his conception requires clarification. What is more astonishing is that this defense of existing institutions as a horizon one could not reasonably get beyond comes up in a context in which, on the contrary, they increasingly appear as what they are — namely, profoundly authoritarian and anti-democratic. Instead of taking advantage of this situation to radicalize the distrust of these bourgeois institutions, Malm defends a perspective that could, paradoxically, end up being part of relegitimizing them.

Moreover, the skepticism that guides this conception (“no dual power of democratic organs of the proletariat seems likely to materialise any time soon, if ever”) testifies to at least two areas of confusion. The first is that we are not starting from scratch: there already exist, in part, embryos of workers’ democracy within bourgeois democracy, such as the unions. These embryos of workers’ democracy are, of course, more and more integrated into the state apparatus, and increasingly thinned out, but they still organize certain strategic sectors of our class and can (and should) be reoriented and extended as such, completely independent of the state, in the service of a revolutionary strategy. Second, posing the problem in an abstract or somehow “beyond time” way prevents us from seeing that, as Malm himself reminds us, time accelerates in moments of political crisis to the point where “to paraphrase Lenin, it’s as though decades have been crammed into weeks, the world spinning in a higher gear, leaving every forecast liable to embarrassment” (p. 3). This is all the more so since the pandemic and the resulting global crisis are developing in a context in which we are witnessing a return of the class struggle on an international scale. In short, refusing to abandon the perspective of dual power in no way amounts to twiddling our thumbs while we “wait” for “another form of state” to fall from the sky. That would be, in effect, criminal. Rather, it requires that we grasp the dynamics and contradictions at play in a situation to radicalize them and orient them according to that perspective. Otherwise, we risk reducing Leninism to a simple provocative formula and falling back on a purely institutional strategy.

Sabotage or Worker’s Control?

Taking seriously the strategic perspective Malm defends requires that we explore his book published a few months earlier, How to Blow Up a Pipeline,[[Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline (London: Verso, 2021). Translator’s note: The quotations in the original version of this article are from the French version of the book, Comment saboteur un pipeline, which was published in June 2020. For this article, the quotations are taken from the recent English-language version.]] which the author himself considers to be complementary to The Bat and Capital. Whereas the latter focuses, as we have just seen, on the question of the state, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is devoted to discussions with the environmental movement, particularly Extinction Rebellion, which the author criticizes for having trapped itself in an impotent “strategic pacifism.”

“At what point do we escalate?” Malm asks as an opening question. “When do we conclude that the time has come to also try something different?” (p. 8).

Harnessing the legacy of past struggles, Malm distinguishes between different types of violence and demonstrates that it can have an emancipatory potential when it attacks structures of domination. To break with the “unbending business-as-usual approach, taking emissions ever higher, and confounding hopes for mitigation” (p. 66), he defends as a preferred tactic the perspective of sabotage: “announce and enforce the prohibition. Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices” (p. 67). This centrality the author gives to the tactic of sabotage gives the book its title; it is, after all, a manual — theoretical and practical — intended for the radical climate activist.

While I share the possibility and even the necessity of a “diversity and plurality of tactics” (p. 116), which the author defends, the effectiveness of sabotage as a preferred tactic seems questionable.

The first question to ask is undoubtedly sabotage of what? Which “CO2-emitting devices” should be destroyed first? Should we attack “private consumptionor “the production of fossil fuels”? (pp. 84–85). A bit of both, no doubt, given that Malm writes “consumption is part of the problem, and most particularly the consumption of the rich” (p. 85).

Malm is correct to raise the existence of an “unequal ability to pollute” (p. 85), using the words of Dario Kenner,[[Dario Kenner, Carbon Inequality: The Role of the Richest in Climate Change (London: Routledge, 2019).]] and over the next couple of pages he offers a number of figures to demonstrates that it is by no means a falsely homogenous “humankind” that is responsible for the climate crisis. But by not answering the question whether we should attack consumer goods or production, he fails to point out the primary responsibility of capitalist corporations in the release of the emissions that are destroying the planet.

To take only the case of France, the oil and gas company Total is undoubtedly exemplary of these “superpolluters” to which we owe the deepening of the climate crisis. As the 19th-largest polluter among companies in the world, the French multinational alone emits more than two-thirds of the CO2 emissions produced in France, or more than 311 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2015. Rather than calling for an undifferentiated attack on consumer goods and production, shouldn’t we denounce the 100 global companies that emit 70 percent of the carbon discharged in the world? Should they not be explicitly considered as the “number-one enemies” of the climate movement?

Let’s now consider these megapolluting companies: Can sabotage be the preferred weapon with which to confront them? “We must destroy Total!” Of course, but how?

It is astonishing that while Malm considers socialism to be a fertile “seed bank” of strategy, he doesn’t say a word about the methods of struggle with which the working class has historically put a stop to “business as usual”: strikes and the occupation of factories and enterprises. While his book reviews a “plurality of tactics” and actions taken by the climate movement (even devoting several pages to a campaign in Sweden to puncture the tires of SUVs), he says absolutely nothing about the existence of workers who, because they occupy a decisive place in the labor process, have considerable strength to break the “infernal cycle” of capitalist production.

Here we find the same skepticism regarding the ability of the working class to play a decisive role in the ecological transition, and in this case of the workers at Total. Rather than defending the unity of the climate movement with these workers in attacking the French giant, Malm ultimately defends a substitutionist perspective by promoting sabotage of the pipelines. It is a strategy that is very likely to become locked into a minority perspective — instead of seeking to forge alliances — and that also seems likely to have little consequence for a conglomerate like Total, which has sites in nearly 30 countries.

Recently, Total management — the true leader of French imperialism in Africa — announced its plan to close its refinery in Grandpuits[[Translator’s note: Grandpuits is a municipality in France’s north-central Seine-et-Marne department.]] on the pretext of leaks in the Île-de-France pipeline. The company is stepping up its activities in Africa while disguising its shift toward green energy in France as a way to capitalize on pro-environment sentiments. Are such acts of sabotage intended, again, to “pressure” the French imperialist state to nationalize and convert Total’s activities, as Malm seems to imply? Is it really reasonable to think that the French state would decide to challenge the interests of one of the biggest French capitalist conglomerates when, on the contrary, it has been increasing its giveaways to big business in the context of the crisis? Moreover, in recent decades, has capital not shown itself to be increasingly intransigent, always demanding ever-greater efforts of that sort in exchange for even just a few crumbs? How can we imagine, then, that a state at the service of capital would take measures to break with that very state of affairs?

We find ourselves at the same impasse Malm spells out but that he has also locked himself into: by its nature the capitalist state cannot take such measures. Waiting or pretending that it can do so would be criminal.

By refusing to consider the workers of these companies as subjects capable of confronting the interests of their management, Malm deprives himself of a potentially considerable strategic force to think out, concretely, the paths of a true ecological Leninism. Rather than defending the centrality of sabotage as the way to break the infernal “business-as-usual” cycle, shouldn’t we return to the tradition of revolutionary Marxism? This makes the strike the decisive weapon with which the exploited class can not only put a stop to “capitalist normality” but also, when it becomes active, demonstrate that another mode of operation is possible. And who better than those who are directly and daily confronted with fossil capital to outline the concrete paths of an ecological and social transition? Who better than these workers to envisage the means with which to reorient and convert production and activities so they are no longer in the service of private accumulation but instead in the service of the majority, with respect for the dignity of each person and the preservation of the planet?

In an interview with RP Dimanche about the closure of his refinery, Adrien Cornet, a Grandpuits worker, said on this subject:

We always begin from the premise that the energy unions would like to fight body and soul to preserve refining and production based on fossil fuels, which is not at all the case. We are aware that we have to go beyond fossil fuels. I am 30 years old. I have two small children. I understand the need to protect the planet. ... What I often say is that tomorrow I could become a permaculture worker. I would like that very much! … To give a very concrete example, when the refinery in Flanders was closed, the FNIC [National Federation of Chemical Industries] carried out a very comprehensive hydrogen project. It was very successful. What was missing was a collective balance of power, particularly through public opinion. In 2010, environmental awareness was not as developed. Today, the ecological emergency is on everyone’s mind, and we have to put this issue at the center of public debate.

Isn’t there not, in this way of concretely linking social and environmental interests, in the outline of a conversion by and for the majority, something like ecological Leninism that we should seek to explore and develop?

Conclusion

Malm’s work offers what are undoubtedly valuable tools for understanding, from a Marxist perspective, how the development of the climate crisis is leading and will lead to future global crises — just as Covid-19 has done. His contributions make it possible to analyze the decisive role played by fossil fuels in capitalist accumulation and reproduction and rightly remind us that the revolutionary struggle cannot relegate climate and environmental concerns to a position of secondary importance. While I do not share how he deals with the strategic debates that he helps to raise again, his theses deserve to be read and discussed.

What ultimately emerges from Malm’s strategy as developed in his last two books is the combination of direct action, presented as radical (with sabotage apparently the preferred tactic), and a form of “pragmatic reformism.” Behind this combination we find the same will to “pressure” the capitalist state. As Malm himself admits, “The aim [of sabotage campaigns] would be to force states to proclaim the prohibition and begin retiring the stock” (p. 69). The basic idea is that there can be no other agents of environmental transition than the existing capitalist state: “At the end of the day, it will be states that ram through the transition or no one will” (p. 59).

Although I do not share this logic, it does have a certain coherence. Behind the abandonment of the perspective of dual power and that of ignoring the methods and tactics of the class struggle, there is the same ousting of the working class as a revolutionary subject capable of carrying, in alliance with the other exploited and oppressed strata, the advent of another society. As far as I know, Malm has not taken the trouble to explain or justify this deep skepticism regarding the revolutionary potential of the workers.[[Many others before Malm have ventured to decree the death or disappearance of the proletariat as a revolutionary subject, whether because they see it as having been defeated once and for all by capitalist offensives or as having been integrated definitively into bourgeois hegemony. On this topic, see, for example, Emmanuel Barot, “Ordre bourgeois, pouvoir et néo-utopisme” [Bourgeois order, power, and neo-utopianism], Révolution Permanente, May 26, 2015; Emmanuel Barot and Juan Chingo, “Enjeux conceptuels et débats stratégiques sur la révolution à venir: au sujet du dernier essai du Comité Invisible, ‘A nos amis’” [Conceptual issues and strategic debates on the coming revolution: On the subject of the last essay of the invisible committee, “To our friends”], Révolution Permanente, March 13, 2016; and Emmanuel Barot, “Révolution, contre-révolution et autoritarisme en démocratie bourgeoise. Retour sur Marcuse” [Revolution, counterrevolution, and authoritarianism in bourgeois democracy: A return to Marcuse], Révolution Permanente, November 15, 2016.]] It is surprising to see this happen again at a time when we are witnessing a tremendous return of the class struggle on an international scale.

Be that as it may, this strategic hypothesis ultimately fails to embody a genuine “ecological Leninism,” even though that is the conception Malm promotes. In fact, his conception runs a very strong risk of infusing social movements with the politics of the current reformist formations that present themselves as radical despite never posing the perspective of going beyond the capitalist system. And this is what leads Malm to declare in Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency that the social-democratic formations “might be our best hope, as they have just been for a couple of years. Nothing could have been better for the planet than Jeremy Corbyn becoming the prime minister of the UK in 2019 and Bernie Sanders winning the presidency of the U.S. in 2020.”[[Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, 121.]]

To the contrary, because it is so urgent to solve the problem of “socialism or barbarism,” no confidence should be placed in the imperialist states or emerging political formations that propose to resolve the social and environmental crisis within the framework of the capitalist system. Rather than hoping to force the enemy on its own terrain, it seems far more sensible to maintain the perspective of a Leninism that does not compromise on the need to confront and overcome the bourgeois state. As Emmanuel Barot wrote on the occasion of the centenary of the Russian Revolution, “To ‘rethink’ dual power in order to ‘re-take’ power cannot mean — any more today than it did yesterday — applying ritualistic formulas that mechanically transpose the (so-called) ‘model’ of 1917. But the strategic question of the conditions of destruction of the bourgeois state, whatever its singular physiognomy, remains intact.”

In the context in which the class struggle has made its big comeback on the international scene, it is necessary to recognize the strategic place of the working class, defend its alliance with the environmental movement, and seek to intervene everywhere and relentlessly around a program to establish sovereignty over production by freely associated workers, independent of the bourgeois state, and conversion of all polluting companies, in connection with environmental associations and organizations. At a time when capitalists and their states everywhere are expanding layoffs and closures, such a perspective can serve as a compass for revolutionary activists to intervene concretely in reality and defend a radical communist and environmentalist program.

First published in French on November 28, 2020, in RP Dimanche.

Translated by Scott Cooper

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

PAST ISSUES