This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)
Merging aspects of different ideologies is not uncommon in the history of the world. Political leaders have always twisted, blended, and combined many ideas to impose their own schemes on their citizens. This is often done through the revamping of Marxist thought into some new variant of socialism. Perhaps one of the most significant of these variants is eco-socialism, with its relevance and novelty posing the biggest threat to mainstream political ideologies. In terms of the metaphorical political colour spectrum, eco-socialism blends the green with the red – not to produce a murky brown colour, but rather a refreshing and cutting-edge ideology combining two prevalent schools of thought. Essentially its main premise is that the expanding capitalist system is the sole cause of environmental damage to the world and, in order to save the planet, we must rid ourselves of it once and for all – to ensure ‘system change, not climate change’. This mirrors socialism’s ingrained condemnation of the destructive capitalist system, but equally represents the ‘green’ political view that heavily prioritizes the preservation of Mother Earth, above all other social justice or economic issues. And in the modern world, where catastrophic weather events and rising heat levels are fiercely escalating, the green-and-red concoction that eco-socialism provides is becoming even more attractive. But when did this all begin?
The ecological movement reached its climax in a completely different century to socialism. The establishment of International Mother Earth Day in 2009, the worldwide climate strikes that took place throughout 2019, and a general increase in environmental awareness worldwide, are all twenty-first century phenomena. This is years after the prime of socialism, which historians say peaked in the mid nineteenth up to the early twentieth century. The true origins of eco-socialism lie somewhere in the middle of all this, but some historians give credit to the father of socialism, Karl Marx, for sowing the seeds of eco-socialism long before this. Despite being focused primarily on revolution and seizing the means of production, Marx did point out the “metabolic rift” between man and nature, and discussed how society should take care of the planet for future generations, as was elucidated in Das Kapital, Vol. 3. And much like modern eco-socialism, he blamed the worsening environmental degradation all on capitalism, the exploitative system that ruins human lives and nature. Marx demonstrates this mutual belief that capitalism must be dismantled, and replaced with a system of common ownership of the means of production. Therefore, the so-called ‘origins of the origins’ demonstrate how traditional Marxist thought has contributed to the rise of eco-socialism in the late twentieth century, namely the 1970s.
But before we move on to the most pivotal decade in eco-socialist and environmentalist history, significant credit should be given to another so-called “early prophet” of eco-socialism – William Morris. Morris was a British anti-imperialist, revolutionary, and socialist of the latter part of the nineteenth century. His special and once unparalleled socialist mentality plays a central part in the origins of eco-socialism and some historians argue that he helped to construct the ideology altogether. Morris’ view was ahead of his time as, even in the 1880s and 1890s, he consistently acknowledged how damaging the impact of industrialised capitalism was on the environment, even before the recognition of the present ecological crisis. His 1884 lecture, ‘Art and Socialism’, shone a new light on this impact and ominously warned us that we would eventually be “choked by filth”, because of the destructive capitalist system and how it ravages nature. His bleak attitudes mimic the rhetoric of today, over one hundred years later, showing just how radical his thinking was – radical, but indeed right.
Thus, William Morris was an important figure in the early history of eco-socialism, as was Karl Marx himself. But the rise of eco-socialism, different from its origins, was defined by the environmental boom of the 1970s. The formation of both the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, and Greenpeace in this decade, represent a new surge in the strength of ecological engagement, due to a growing concern about the health of the environment. Yet most socialist movements throughout the nineteenth century, such as Soviet communism and the Labour movement in the West, had largely overlooked these newfound issues surrounding environmental health. Thus, the red and green ‘blend’ only originated in the 1970s, with the term ‘eco-socialism’ itself coined in the following decade – notably used in the key 1980 pamphlet ‘Eco-socialism in a Nutshell’. This became an important and central work in the history of the ideology, one that provided an alternative to the ‘doomster’ image that this new environmentalism had generated, and subsequently popularised the school of thought. From here, scholars began to pay attention to studying eco-socialism as a serious political theory; in 2001, Joel Kovel and Michael Löwy wrote “An Ecosocialist Manifesto”, and the following year, Kovel published the renowned book “The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?” – a seemingly self-explanatory work, but nonetheless advocating for transformation of the entire capitalist system so that the human race could actually survive the threat of climate change. Since this, eco-socialism has continued to ascend even higher, and gain more and more popularity worldwide.
That brings us to the final question: what is the future of eco-socialism? What will happen, and when – is an ecological revolution even likely? There are many questions like this to be asked, but generally speaking, its remarkably unique history, clear message and promising progress over the past fifty years suggest it is an ideology not to be dismissed.