Leninism without the working class? The missing subject in Malm’s ecological revolution

Remarkably, Malm discusses factory takeovers without bringing workers in. Oil companies indeed need to be nationalized, as he asserts, and their resources turned into carbon capture facilities, machines, and personnel. When capital does anything to approximate the carbon capture (which scientists argue is required at a global level), it circulates the carbon back into the atmosphere. Not selling it would not be profitable, Malm demonstrates: businesses will not produce something they would afterwards have to sink into the ground. Only the state can sink carbon into the ground globally. However, the book does not include one mention of organizing or mobilizing the workers of these companies to carry out the necessary nationalizations. It appears that “we” are burdened with the nationalization. But who is going to run these companies after “we” nationalize them?

Ironically, Malm introduces the section where he discusses oil nationalization with an anti-bureaucracy, pro-democracy quote from Lenin, yet comes to rely so much on the state as his prose unfolds. Without any articulation of the social actors who could take on nationalization processes, the talk of democracy will be just talk. It might be objected that workers are so complicit in pollutant capitalism that they can’t be counted on. But negating that option goes nowhere towards nailing down an effective social replacement.

Then, there is the problem of the winter palace itself. Grabbing control of a second rate empire granted the Bolsheviks the chance to start a socialist experiment on a huge scale. But they knew everything would go to ruin if their institutions did not spread beyond Russia. Malm is incautiously sanguine that a revolutionary takeover might not produce similar bottlenecks today. But he is unspecific regarding the international form war communism will assume.

The eco-revolution is either global or it is nothing, but how do you accomplish global war communism in a world of a few imperial powers, perhaps a dozen effective nation-states, and many state-like yet ineffective entities? How many of these would you have to storm to even initiate a global process? There can be no immediate answer to this question, but it has to be confronted. And confront similar questions Lenin did, even if without any resolution.

“Storming the Winter Palace, 1917” – Valentin Alexandrovich Serov, 1938. | Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Left-wing communism

In sum, as we approach the end of Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, the proposed strategy starts to look less and less like Lenin’s historical practice. One might say, “Well, it is after all the twenty-first century. How could it resemble Lenin’s?” However, Malm’s strategy does vaguely resemble other twentieth (or even nineteenth) century revolutionaries, their names surfacing as he wraps up the book, and raising some troubling questions.

The more Malm quotes Lenin, the deeper the problem becomes. On pages 150-154, he repeatedly reminds us of Lenin’s quote regarding emergencies: we should act today, or even “this very night.” There is an issue with the time horizons of this section. Tonight? Metaphorically or really? What would happen if a band of ecological activists stormed a core capitalist state next week? Probably, not much would change. It would quickly be neutralized or get stuck in Trump’s famous “swamp.”

Taking over the state without involving organized workers is a dead-end. We of course cannot wait for the emergence of soviets or similar structures, where workers organize themselves and prepare a more democratic basis for storming the proverbial winter palace. But we can build cadres that will give them direction when such self-organizations begin to form. However, that will not be achieved through Luxemburgism, Blanquism, or Guevarism – the three historical references that Malm quickly throws into the mix at the very end of the book, without seriously exploring them. Seeing them so hastily invoked acts as a warning sign, since the sense of emergency in the absence of an organized working class and its cadres has so frequently led to self-defeating spontaneism and adventurism.

For an effective eco-Leninism

For an effective eco-Leninism, these three far left strategies need to be differentiated and handled with care. The first, I argue, should be seen as an ally. We need Rosa Luxemburg’s spirit and some of her mobilizing techniques. But they would not be sufficient without mass organization led by cadres. Luxemburg held deep objections to Lenin’s organizational and strategic methods. Nevertheless, effective organization that respects the autonomy of its component parts requires the absorption of Luxemburgism into Leninism.

The second far left option should always be rejected. Blanquism is mostly associated with top-down putschism. When it involves bottom-up action, that comes through professional revolutionaries electrifying the masses via provocative actions. Lenin’s critique of Blanqui’s professional revolutionary was directed at precisely that reliance on provocation and top-down action. The Bolsheviks organized and mobilized through (mostly) conscious debate, example-setting, offering concrete solutions to concrete problems, and education. Not through provocation.

As for the third option – many circumstances call for a Guevarist response (action, including violent action, by highly select cells). But it can’t constitute the backbone of an ecological revolution either. When cell action backfires, cadres, militants, activists, and communities must have a theoretically equipped organization to fall back on: an organization that can help them make sense of what went wrong and figure out what to do next.

Without the necessary cadres, any call that we should act “this very night” can only lead to the dead end strategies above. A more realistic timespan to lay the basis of a sustainable ecosocialism is at least five to ten years, the time it took Lenin to build his cadres. It might seem as if it can be done faster under today’s relatively more democratic and virtually connected conditions. But the global scale of organization needed will slow us down. Speculation aside, there are countless ecosocialist groupings throughout the world that need to be melded into a vanguard. That vanguard has to include workers from companies most key to an ecological revolution (or, whatever the social equivalent of workers might be). And one thing is for certain: these cadres will not be constituted overnight.

When Lenin wrote we have to act this very night, it was the autumn of 1917. He was speaking to people already in the middle of a revolution. That call came after 10+ years of organizing, and months of strategizing through the “soviet” landscapes of Petrograd and Moscow. It was a tactical, not a strategic call – though Lenin infamously lacked a working differentiation between the two, and it fell to Trotsky to link them, and decisively march on the Winter Palace.

If we don’t carefully balance a mass strategy with timely tactics, a too heavy recourse to left-communism could follow. Such an unfortunate turn of the movement could lead to decades of dispersion, demobilization, and demoralization, as it did in the United States after the 1960s, when, let us not forget, many of those spearheading American left-communism called themselves Leninists. In the case of today’s ecological movement, a decade of demoralization would be fatal.

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