Socialist states and the environment
Theoretical and methodological reflections
The International Manifesto Group sponsored on July 24, 2022, a Webinar on Socialist States and the Environment, which focused on Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro's 2021 book, Socialist States and the Environment: Lessons for Ecosocialist Futures, published by Pluto Press. Engel-Di Mauro is Professor at the Geography Department of the State University of New York, New Paltz.
The panelists included: Max Ajl, associated researcher with the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment; Ipsita Chatterjee, associate professor in the Department of Geography, University of North Texas; Peng Zhaochang, Fudan University in Shanghai; Ingo Schmidt, academic coordinator of the Labour Studies Program at Athabasca University, Canada; and Dimitri Lascaris, lawyer, journalist, activist and former candidate for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada. The moderator of the Webinar was Radhika Desai, Director, Geopolitical Economy Research Group, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada, and convener of the International Manifesto Group.
The Webinar stimulated my reading of Engel-Di Mauro’s book, and my commentary today reflects on the book, with some reference to the commentaries of the panelists.
Summary of findings
Engel-Di Mauro seeks to expose the massive disinformation campaign with respect to the supposedly disastrous record of state-socialist countries in regard to the environment, a campaign that is driven by ideology and that violates fundamental rules of empirically based observation. He develops a comprehensive, empirically based comparative study that is more in harmony with accepted scientific methodology.
On the basis of this comparative observation, he concludes that state socialism “can have and has had ecologically and socially beneficial effects.” It is logical that this be so, inasmuch as taking state power has the advantage of making possible effective coordination.
In the Soviet Union, for example, environmental priorities and the science of ecology were evident from the beginning. Programs of soil conservation and reforestation were developed; city planning included green spaces and public transportation. Environmental consciousness was well developed, and by the 1980s, hundreds of environmental groups were developed that were critically and politically engaged. As a result, noxious emissions were lower than in the USA. In general, the net environmental impact during the period of the Soviet Union was positive.
At the same time, socialist Cuba is “an ecological model for the rest of the world.” Cuba initiated ecological programs in the 1960s with reforestation and the expansion of protected areas, such that Cuba today has a network of protected ecosystems, including coral reefs. Negative environmental impacts resulting from the industrialization of agriculture in the 1970s and 1980s have been addressed and reversed. Since the early 1990s, Cuba has promoted renewable energy, agroecology in food production, biological pest removal, animal traction, crop-livestock integration, small farms, urban farming, and farmer autonomy (as against dependency on capitalist markets for inputs).
In contrast, capitalism is “structurally incapable of leaving ecosystems in healthy states.” It is “the most ecologically destructive system in the history of humanity.”
Engel-Di Mauro presents a history of socialism and communism in the world, in which he gives disproportionate space to Marxism in Europe and the Soviet Union as well as to utopian movements that were nowhere near capturing political power. I have a different approach.
In contrast to the utopian socialist ideas of his time, Marx formulated scientific socialism, a vision of a socialist society that has a real possibility of emerging from the actual conditions, including class contradictions. Marx’s breakthrough was possible due to his method: basing his understanding on the understandings and insights of a movement from below in Western Europe, a movement forged by artisans, workers, and radical intellectuals. (See my 1991 book, Beyond Ethnocentrism: A Reconstruction of Marx’s Concept of Science).
Marx’s achievement implied an advance for philosophy, political-economy, and the study of history. Had academic knowledge developed on a Marxist foundation, the branches of knowledge would have been integrated, and they would have based their understanding on an intellectual, moral, and political connection to the social movements emerging from below.
Western intellectuals, however, resisted this possibility, because of its implications for forging knowledge that would be integral to revolutionary social movements that would have the capacity to put political power in the hands of the workers, artisans, peasants, and other popular sectors, dislodging the bourgeoisie and its middle-class allies from power. This conservative reaction led to the bureaucratization of the university, characterized by the false epistemological assumption of value freedom and by the fragmentation of fields of knowledge. The bureaucratization of the university ensured that professors and students would understand little of the dynamics of the political economy of the world-system and the political economies of its nations.
As a consequence, advances in knowledge, by default, were developed by revolutionary leaders/intellectuals of the social movements from below. Lenin and the Russian Revolution was the first great advance in this direction. However, Lenin had anticipated that the workers’ revolution in the West would triumph, and Western workers’ governments would provide cooperative support for the Russian Revolution to develop Russia’s backward economy. This did not happen, and instead, the Western governments launched war against the young Russian Revolution. This situation required adjustments in Russian domestic economic policies, departing from the original plan. And it stimulated Lenin to rethink the global revolution, such that he arrived to anticipate revolutions in the oppressed nations of the East.
The oppressed nations of the East fulfilled Lenin’s expectations, with the emergence of great leaders/intellectuals that forged a synthesis of Marxists-Leninist conceptualizations and a perspective rooted in their struggles for national liberation. The most outstanding of them were Mao and Ho. In their discourses, they were advancing human knowledge of philosophy, human history, and political-economic systems, a function that was abrogated by the bureaucratized Western universities. A bit later, a similar synthesis of Marxism-Leninism with a national liberation perspective was formulated in Cuba by Fidel, a formulation that included analysis of Latin America and all the colonized and neocolonized nations of the world. The discourses of Fidel further advanced knowledge of philosophy, human history, and political-economic systems.
Meanwhile, the working-class movement of the West developed in a reformist direction. It sought to improve its material standard of living in the context of the existing structures of capitalism and the capitalist world-economy. At the same time, the Russian Revolution fell to a bureaucratic counterrevolution, which put Stalin at the head.
For intellectuals in the West, the resulting possible social bases for revolutionary concepts became: the bureaucratized academic disciplines; the reformist socialist parties of Western Europe; the bureaucratized Russian communist party; or a variant of utopianism, not connected to social movement or to real future possibilities that could emerge from existing conditions. Intellectual tendences emerging from these social bases possess no more than partial understanding.
Anarchism is among the utopian tendencies. It seeks to build parallel institutions in health care, environmental monitoring, public education, and scientific laboratories, which can take over constructive state functions. This notion was connected to real possibilities in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, but this not been the road of the triumphant and sustained socialist revolutions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As the epicenter of the global revolution passed to Russia and later to the colonized peoples, the prevailing pattern has been the taking of control of state structures and using the state as an instrument to promote and defend the interests of the popular classes and sectors. One may have a different idea, but the idea only exists in the subjectivity of a few, and not in objective reality; it thus it is not connected to real objective possibilities. No longer tied to social movement, anarchism has become utopian, and it will remain so, unless and until it empirically and reasonably demonstrates a connection to real future possibilities. The building of parallel institutions has its place, but as a dimension of the taking of control of the state by the united people.
To advance further in understanding, Western intellectuals would have had to cast their lot with the revolutionary movements emerging among the colonized peoples, which now constitute the social sources for scientific understanding in the fields of philosophy, history, and political economy. But Western intellectuals by and large have not turned to this cross-cultural personal encounter. In my view, this disconnection from actually evolving triumphant revolutions in places not anticipated prior to Lenin is the source of what Engel-Di Mauro describes as the “utter failure of the Left in imperialist countries.” He calls upon Western imperialists to pay more attention to socialism. But socialism where? I would suggest less attention to the debates among Western Marxists and anarchists, and more attention to the discourses of Mao, Ho, Fidel, Deng, and Xi, which provide universal lessons with respect to the taking of political power and the mobilizing of political power in defense of the people.
Engel-Di Mauro’s interpretation of the history of socialism and communism lead him to the formulation of a typology of countries of three types: capitalist, capitalist economy directed by socialist government, and state socialist. In this typology, twenty-six countries of the world have been or are state socialist, and only one, Cuba, is state-socialist today. They are overwhelmingly the countries of Eastern Europe of the period 1946 to 1990.
In my view, placing Cuba in the same category with the socialist countries of Eastern Europe is problematic. These countries were peripheralized by the Western European-centered capitalist world-economy, but they were not colonized. And as a result, socialism did not emerge in Eastern Europe in the breast of anti-colonial revolutions. In the triumph of socialism in Eastern Europe, the justified and heroic Soviet military occupation during World War II tipped the balance of competing political forces in favor of the formation of socialist governments, a process that intrinsically undermined to some extent their legitimacy. This Eastern European road to socialism had very little in common with the synthesis in Cuba of Marxism-Leninism with the historic anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial struggle for national liberation. We are mixing here apples and oranges, as the saying goes. Nor does Cuba belong in the same category with the Soviet Union, a point on which I elaborate below.
Another problem with Engel-Di Mauro’s typology is its placing of post 1978-China and post-1986 Vietnam in the category of a socialist government directing a capitalist economy, a category distinct from state socialism. He maintains that China and Vietnam are “no longer socialist because much of the economy is in the hands of private business.”
Such a categorization sets aside historic similarities among the revolutions in Vietnam, China, and Cuba, which emerged from anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial struggles, and which forged an understanding of socialism intertwined with national sovereignty. All three nations today have self-declared socialist governments, led by communist parties, that direct mixed capitalist-socialist means of production, with priority given to developing the productive capacity of the national economy in order to more effectively provide for the needs of the people. Here we’ve got the same fruit placed in separate crates.
Why does this matter? When Engel-Di Mauro concludes on the basis of empirical observation that the socialist countries have done better than the capitalist countries with respect to environment impacts, I do not find the conclusion credible, because of the problematic categorization of state-socialist countries. It has not been persuasively demonstrated that the comparisons are valid.
Engel-Di Mauro’s observations with respect to China reflect his problematic categorization. Since post-1978 China has a capitalist economy, in his view, he blames capitalism in China for its bad environmental record since 1978. This is an unconvincing argument, which some may view as a maneuver; but more importantly, the data he provides makes possible an entirely different interpretation. First, if we assess China’s environmental record per capita, it turns out that China’s post-1978 environmental record is not so terribly bad, and indeed, Engel-Di Mauro reports, it is much better than the per capita environmental impact of the USA. Secondly, the data also shows that in the last fifteen years or so, China’s environmental impact with respect to greenhouse gas emissions and air and water pollution has improved. This reality is consistent with the interpretation put forth today by the Chinese government and the Communist Party of China. They maintain that the decline in attention to environmental issues during the period of 1978 to 2008 was a consequence of a necessary emphasis on economic productivity, which has led to a rapid economic development, and which has placed China in a position to assume a leadership role in cooperation with other nations in the development of a more sustainable world-system. Thus, with its economy and world prestige strengthened, China now turns attention to the negative consequences during the period of rapid economic growth, with respect to environmental impact and social inequality, under the leadership of Xi Jinping. Thus, China’s state-socialist road from 1949 to the present debunks the myth of socialism’s supposedly atrocious record with respect to environmental impact.
As I reported in a previous commentary, Alberto Gabrielle and Elias Jabbour suggest a similar interpretation of China. In Socialist Economic Development in the 21st Century, they interpret China today as having not a capitalist economy but a socialist-oriented state that directs a mixed capitalist-socialist economy. (See “China models a new type of socialism,” June 10, 2022).
Similarly, one of the panelists in the Webinar, Peng Zhaochang of Fudan University in Shanghai, sees China today as characterized by state socialism, in which the state controls the private sector. Peng sees the Chinese system today as continuing the struggle that was initiated with the epoch of Mao, with Xi Jinping revitalizing since 2012 the struggle to protect the environment and reduce social inequalities, without negating the economic reforms of the period 1978 to 2012. Peng also observed that the Chinese state today draws upon the pre-modern tradition of the state in China to control the economy. Marx had discerned this exceptional pre-modern power of the state over the private sector, Peng noted, thus leading him to conceptualize an “Asiatic mode of production.”
In the same vein, in a question/commentary for the Webinar panelists, Carlos Martínez of the Friends of Socialist China Website applauded Engel-Di Mauro’s recognition of the achievements of China during the last twenty years with respect to the environment. At the same time, he maintained that these gains were possible because of the role of the Chinese socialist state in a socialist-oriented economy.
Engel-Di Mauro places Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela in the category of one-party socialist governments directing a capitalist economy. I view these three self-declared socialist revolutions as having socialist-oriented states directing mixed economies, like China, Vietnam, and Cuba. However, unlike the latter three, the governments of Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela attain their legitimacy through electoral victories in structures of representative democracy; they have not, for the most part, developed structures of people’s democracy. It was politically necessary for them to seek power through structures of bourgeois democracy, because the conditions for the development of people’s democracy were not present, as they were in Vietnam, China, and Cuba. However, because of this political reality, I am reluctant to view them as examples of triumphant and sustained socialist political-economic systems, as are Vietnam, China, and Cuba.
The structures of bourgeois democracy, which favor the voices of elite actors, make difficult the attainment of revolutionary goals in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. Without question, however, they have forged important socialist oriented gains, and they should be studied seriously for the lessons they offer for socialist movements seeking political power in the imperialist countries. Among the lessons they teach is the importance of patriotism in the revolutionary movement, affirming the values and heroes of the nation, and accusing the elite of betraying the nation. Hugo Chávez rose to political power in Venezuela declaring that the politicians “were on their knees before the imperial power.”
Another methodological issue is what Engel-Di Mauro calls decontextualization. He correctly laments that many comparisons between socialist and capitalist countries are taken out of context. In the conditions in which socialist revolutions came to power, environmental concerns had to be weighed against the need to provide for basic human needs, including food, water, medicine, adequate housing, sanitary infrastructure, health, and transportation, and in general improving living conditions
But Engel-Di Mauro himself uses a comparative empirical method that cannot avoid decontextualization. Countries with lower levels of industrialization and consumerism will have lower ecological footprints, independent of their ecological policies and practices, so that comparing the ecological footprints of countries, as Engel-Di Mauro does, is not necessarily valid. Havana has lower air pollution than Los Angeles, but this may be due to the incapacity of Havana residents to buy cars. Or as Ipsita Chatterjee expressed, her native country has low-cost ecological housing, known as the mud hut.
The contrasts between Cuba and the Soviet Union
There are fundamental differences between socialism in Cuba and socialism in the Soviet Union, both classified as state-socialist in Engel-DiMauro’s typology. In Russia, there was the bureaucratization of the revolution (which also could be described as the triumph of a bureaucratic counterrevolution with Stalin at the head) following the death of Lenin. In Cuba, there was the institutionalization of the revolution in the 1970s, which involved the establishment of: a constitutional foundation for the socialist aspirations of the nation; people’s democratic structures of people’s power; mass organizations of workers, peasants, students, women, and neighborhoods; and the leadership role of a vanguard political party.
In Russia, a vanguard of workers was conceived, and the function of the working-class vanguard was to lead the workers and peasants. In Cuba, a vanguard was formed from the people, composed of the most informed and most committed of the people, selected by the vanguard itself on the basis of consultation with the candidate’s comrades in places of work, mass organizations, and the neighborhood. The function of the vanguard is to lead and educate the people. In Cuba, all of the people are called to revolution, led and guided by the vanguard, (but not directed by the vanguard, because it is ultimately the people who decide with respect to guiding principles and concrete courses of action).
In Russia the triumph of the bureaucratic counterrevolution meant that political authorities would develop conceptualizations and policies that protected the interests of the bureaucratic class along with the interests of the workers and peasants. In Cuba, the institutionalization of the revolution meant that the Revolutionary Government would analyze all problems from the vantage points of the interests of the people, and to formulate concrete solutions from that vantage point, to the best of its ability. Not that the vanguard is incapable of error; indeed the rectification of errors in an ongoing dimension of revolutionary practice. But a vanguard formed from the most committed of the people, which dedicates itself to understanding the correct road, maximizes the real possibilities for progressing on the socialist road.
In foreign policy, the Soviet Union was interested primarily in protecting its Western buffer zone from Western European aggression and imperialism; and it had an interest in policies with respect to revolutionary governments and movements in the world that promoted the national security interests of the Soviet state. In contrast, the foreign policy of Cuba is oriented to political and diplomatic alliance and economic cooperation with anti-imperialist governments and movements of the world, seeking to construct an alternative, more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system.
Cuba, China, and Vietnam have had exceptional leaders who have been able to continue the global revolutionary process observed and projected by Marx and Lenin, implanting their stamp in the context of the colonial situation. In this process, they have defined what socialism is and ought to be. We should study them carefully, learning lessons that could be adapted to the conditions of the imperialist countries. One of those lessons is that the key to socialism is not state ownership, but state direction of economies that have both public and private economic enterprises; in which political control of the state is in the hands of delegates of the people, without the distorting interference of capitalist interests.
We need to engage in honest critical analysis in order to arrive to the critical consciousness necessary for reconstructing public discourse. That critical consciousness must be based on observation of real socialism in the world from 1917 to the present, and based on how these socialist revolutions understand and define themselves. Which leads us to a fundamental conceptualization: China, Cuba, and Vietnam are constructing socialist political-economic systems, with socialist-oriented state direction of mixed economies, combined with structures of people’s democracy led by communist parties. They are allied with Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Bolivia, which are constructing socialist-oriented state-directed economies, but combined with bourgeois political structures of Western democracy. These six nations are allied with anti-imperialist nations, including Russia today and Iran, with the support of the Non-Aligned Movement, in the construction of a post-imperialist and post-neocolonial world-system, necessary for world peace, stability, and prosperity.
These are the fundamental conceptualizations necessary for the critical consciousness that a world-system in sustained structural crisis and full decadence needs. They are the fundamental conceptualizations that the Western Left needs to overcome its irrelevance and to lead the peoples of the imperialist nations toward a more just world.
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