Ecological War Communism

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From an interview of Andreas Malm by Jacobin magazine:

  • Q: "Speaking of utopias, you appear to dismiss outright the arguments made by left accelerationists and supporters of Fully Automated Luxury Communism and instead put forward the idea of “ecological war communism.” Can you explain your arguments here?

AM: I find the whole idea behind these techno-utopian perspectives to be completely juvenile and out of touch with material realities. The notion that we are on the verge of a realm of unprecedented material abundance is one that cannot be rationally sustained given the severe material constraints that are closing in upon us in virtually every respect, including soil depletion, diminishing freshwater cycles, and rising sea levels. Even if we were to cease all emissions in this very moment, we would face severe climatic repercussions for a long time to come.

I develop the idea of ecological war communism in the book as a counterpart to the long-standing idea that World War II provides a model for countries to follow in dealing with the climate crisis, a notion that has recently resurfaced in the discourse surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. My argument is that while World War II mobilization provides a useful analogue, it has some limitations, not the least of which is that the war effort was based on the prodigious consumption of fossil fuels and that it left the position of the capitalist class largely intact.

Addressing the climate crisis and preventing zoonotic spillover, meanwhile, requires emergency action that goes against the vested interests of very powerful factions of the dominant classes and facilitates the rapid transformation of economies. War communism provides an analogue that can be played with — not in the sense of copying everything that the Bolsheviks did during the Russian Civil War, any more than the example of World War II leads us to address global warming by dropping another atom bomb on Hiroshima. Rather, war communism provides an example of a rapid, state-driven transformation of production and the organization of the economy in the face of massive opposition from the dominant classes. A green transition will also require a degree of coercive authority to be imposed on fossil fuel companies that have so far done everything in their power to postpone and obstruct climate change mitigation.

* DM: You build on this by calling for an “Ecological Leninism” in the book. Can you explain what you mean by this?

AM: Given that capitalism will need to be challenged for any meaningful transition to occur, the socialist legacy offers a set of resources to draw upon. The problem with social democracy is that it has no concept of catastrophe — rather, it is premised on the opposite, namely the notion that we have time at our disposal and history on our side, meaning that we can move by incremental steps toward a socialist society. Whatever its historical veracity, this is certainly not the case now. We find ourselves in a situation of chronic emergency, with crises striking at an accelerated rate and thereby imposing a completely different timeline than that faced by, for example, Swedish social democracy during the 1950s and 1960s. It is therefore necessary to look to part of the socialist legacy that has an idea of catastrophe. Anarchism is also insufficient to this task, given that it is, by definition, hostile to the state. It is incredibly difficult to see how anything other than state power could accomplish the transition required, given that it will be necessary to exert coercive authority against those who want to maintain the status quo.

The obvious choice when looking for a tradition that has a concept of using state power in a situation of chronic emergency is the anti-Stalinist Leninist tradition. Built into this tradition is also an insight into the dangers and contradictions of state power that arises from the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution. The whole strategic direction of Lenin after 1914 was to turn World War I into a fatal blow against capitalism. This is precisely the same strategic orientation we must embrace today — and this is what I mean by ecological Leninism. We must find a way of turning the environmental crisis into a crisis for fossil capital itself."