Ecological Leninism

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Adam Tooze on Andreas Malm’s post-pandemic climate politics

The carbon clock is ticking. Governments and official agencies assure us that all will be well, that they can balance the risks. Some insist that technology will save us. We have achieved the impossible before, we will do it again. But why believe them? Progress towards decarbonisation has been limited. Fossil fuel interests remain stitched into global networks of power directly descended from the age of imperialism. Their political outriders may be cynical hacks, but public support for the fossil fuel status quo is all too real. The carbon coalition seems death-driven, defiant of expert advice. Centrist liberals are loud in expressing outrage, but shrink away when push comes to shove. There are periodic waves of protest. Children boycott school. There are demands for a new social contract and a just transition. A minority, tiny as yet, calls for rebellion.

With only minor alterations, this could be the portrait of a nation sliding towards defeat in a major war: relentless time pressure; limited resources rapidly running down; over-confident technocrats; promises of wonder weapons; pro and anti-war factions at loggerheads; desperate young people calling for a halt to the madness. War remains a crucial way of thinking about collective peril and about agency in the face of that peril; in climate politics, the rhetoric of war and wartime mobilisation is commonplace. American advocates of the Green New Deal called for a repeat of the staggering industrial production achieved during the Second World War. In the UK, memories of the postwar welfare state persist. There is talk of the Marshall Plan.

But isn’t this all rather too convenient? A ‘good war’, fought by democracies, ending in spectacular victory and inaugurating a golden age of economic growth and the advent of the welfare state. One way of reading the recent burst of publications – three books in the space of a year – from the historian and climate activist Andreas Malm is as a sustained challenge to this complacent historical framing of our present condition. The historical analogy he prefers to draw is with the First World War and its aftermath, a world defined by the upheaval of revolution and the violence of fascism – the beginning, not the end of an age of crisis.

To have in mind the Second World War and the birth of the modern interventionist welfare state is to take your bearings from such thinkers as Maynard Keynes, with his promise that ‘anything we can actually do, we can afford.’ The First World War and the years after it evoke a different cast of characters. Malm’s own political background is in Trotskyism, and he now declares himself an ecological Leninist. His co-authors in White Skin, Black Fuel named themselves the Zetkin Collective after the German communist and feminist Clara Zetkin, whose interpretation of fascism they draw on and whose ashes were interred in 1933 beside the Kremlin Wall.

Some will accuse Malm of cosplaying revolution while the planet burns. But his position is actually one of tragic realism. As he and his colleagues argue in White Skin, Black Fuel, the defining fact about climate change is that it is ‘a revolutionary problem without a revolutionary subject’. The environmental movement may have aligned itself with social justice activism, but it hasn’t been ‘able to challenge capitalism with anything like the power once evinced by the Third International or the national liberation movements, or even the social democratic parties of the Second International; a lame successor, it won no Vietnam War and built no equivalent of the welfare state.’

Read the full article at London Review of Books.

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