On the dark side
Jack Conrad explores the commonalities and connections between greenism and the right and far right
Greenism often imagines itself appealing to the “ecologically aware” and going beyond antiquated modes of “debate” such as “left/right, poor/rich, north/south”.1 While green intellectuals were doubtlessly amongst the forefront of those warning of an ecological crisis, they fail - and miserably too - when it comes to offering a realistic social agent capable of carrying through the complete social transformation needed to achieve a sustainable balance between nature and human society.
As a result, greenism easily slips into Malthusianism, capitalist realism, desperate sabotage actions and worse. From first-hand experience, Derek Wall - once joint principal speaker of the Green Party in England and Wales - warns that greenism is “ripe for reappropriation by softly-spoken Nazis, who articulate a rhetoric of decentralisation, justice and the rural, while seeking to build insular authoritarian communities based on atavistic notions of blood and soil and anti-Semitic hatred”.2 Presumably, he had David Icke in mind - till 1991 one of four Green Party spokespersons. Of course, these days Icke lectures to packed audiences about the Illuminati, reptoid humanoids and blood-sucking, Satan-worshipping Rothschilds.
David Icke’s insane babblings notwithstanding, Wall’s statement might still appear strange. Even very strange. After all, today the Green Party sings from the standard soft-left hymnbook (though revealingly it has recently adopted the IHRA’s ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism - code for being an acceptable coalition partner). Despite that, in terms of historical background, class location and ideological outlook, there are numerous commonalities and connections that join greenism and the far right together.
Let us start with the green primitivists - a viewpoint championed most famously by John Zerzan. Drawing on Theodor Adorno, amongst many others, he depicts human society as following a negative dialectic towards ever greater degrees of alienation.
Based on solid anthropological evidence, Zerzan writes that before the domestication of animals and sedentary agriculture, life was “largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality and health”. Abundance ruled. “This,” he says, “was our human nature … prior to enslavement by priests, kings and bosses”.3 Living ‘social fossils’ provide ample confirmation. Studies of the !Kung in Namibia and the Mbuti in the Congo, reveal “economic, political and gender egalitarianism”.4 Nor is there organised violence. Before the Upper Palaeolithic, society was, unquestionably, “warless”.5 It is the domestication of animals, the growing of crops and the resulting social hierarchy which brings about territorial conflict, women’s oppression, slavery, mass killings and other such horrors.
A Maoist student in the 1960s, Zerzan arrived at anarchism in the 1970s. While he does not dismiss Marx entirely, he has no liking for “liberals, Marxists, members of left parties, Noam Chomsky, the anarchist left, the syndicalists, the Wobblies, all those people who think technology is fine and it just depends on how you use it and that there’s nothing wrong with development and the industrial system - it just depends who’s running it”.6
Zerzan is one of quite a range of deep greens who refuse to condemn Theodore Kaczynski, the notorious Unabomber. During the 1990s the two regularly corresponded. Not that Zerzan condones Kaczynski’s violence against fellow living beings. Between 1978 and 1995 this Harvard graduate and mathematical protégé was responsible for a campaign of letter bombs, targeting people involved in high tech. Three died, another 23 were injured. Kaczynski thought he was about to trigger a revolution against industrialisation and ecological destruction. He issued a 35,000-word manifesto, Industrial society and its future (1995). Politically naive, it goes without saying. He had no time for “leftists”, whom he dismissed as “oversocialised” and suffering from “low self-esteem”.7 Quite rightly though, Kaczynski refused to plead insanity at his trial. He took full responsibility for his actions.
Zerzan shot to fame in the aftermath of the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organisation protests. He is now widely read, sought after by mainstream journalists and even conducted international speaking tours (otherwise Zerzan lives simply: he does not own a car, a credit card or a computer). Not that he relies upon protest demonstrations alone to usher in fundamental change. Amongst his models of how to ‘crack the system’ are the cynics of classical Greece and Rome. They ate discarded or begged food, slept in the open and defecated in public. Other inspirations include the pantheistic Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit of the 12th-15th centuries, the 17th century Levellers and Diggers and the 19th century Luddites.8
Recoiling from wage-slavery, the dehumanising kitsch of commercialism and capitalism’s drive to ecocide, Zerzan, along with other green primitives, seeks salvation in the feral - part echo of Henry David Thoreau, part elegy for a lost golden age, part ghastly future menace.
The promised land of green primitives is the endless wilderness. Suitably humbled, a repentant humanity returns to the Palaeolithic ways of our ancestors and lives in perfect harmony with nature. The goal is a near zero ecological footprint. Industry and even peasant agriculture are damned as unsustainable and unnatural.
To achieve their future, green primitives concoct various plans for a stage-by-stage escape from the “10,000 years of darkness and captivity”.9 Zerzan proposes abandonments. The international trade in food gives way to local production; urban centres to living in the countryside; cold northern zones to migrating to warmer southern climes; the division of labour to self-reliant individualism; agriculture back to hunter-gathering.
Towards that end Earth First and Deep Green Resistance actively seek to dismantle industrial civilisation. There can be no slow or soft shift to a sustainable future. Mainstream ecological activism is dismissed as largely ineffective. Instead they started attacking the things that threaten the planet. Oil pipelines were blown up, logging companies disrupted, and power stations put out of action.
Subjectivism is, in general, the dominant narrative. The origins of the ecological crisis facing the planet lies in human belief systems, be they religious, philosophical or scientific. The Judeo-Christian world view, dualist Cartesian philosophy and western science are said to foster a mindset that seeks to dominate nature. Having located the origins of the ecological crisis in the sphere of ideology, Zerzan dismisses the possibility of social causes as crude materialism.
Purportedly, humanity’s fall from grace began with “symbolic culture” - language, art, religion, mathematics, etc.10 So one madcap schema is to get back to when our species was not human: ie, cultural, but animal. Implementing such a complete evacuation from the modern human condition, in anything like a meaningful time span, would, however, necessitate a reduction of the global population not by a half or two-thirds - pale green timidity! Rather what the green primitivists appear to have in mind is more like a 99% cull. Estimates, when it comes to the distant past, can only but be heroic guesses. That said, it is reckoned that in the Palaeolithic there were no more than 300,000 of us humans living across the whole of the planet.11
Undaunted, green primitives ask us to open our machine-closed minds to the wonderful vistas of the past and make it our model for the future. Crystal-clean air without a hint or trace of industrial pollution; seas teeming with plankton, squid, fish, whale, dolphin, seal and turtle. Forests once again covering vast tracts of Eurasia and North America; they are home to abundant deer, elk, wild pig, bear and, at the top of the feeding chain, packs of wolves, prowling tigers and other big cats. In the African Savannah grasslands are roamed by millions of elephants, rhinos, hyenas and lions and packed full of zebras, wildebeest and antelopes. In the lowland areas of Eurasia, stretching as far as the eye can see, there are reedy marshlands and each spring and autumn huge flocks of migrating birds turn the sky black in their uncountable numbers.
Wandering through this earthly paradise, organised in little tribal bands, are the descendants of the green primitives. Maybe 10 million, maybe 20 million of them. Living in tune with their environment, they are physically fit, consume a tremendous variety of different plants and animals and know none of our modern diseases, such as measles, smallpox or the common cold (in order to spread and therefore survive, the pathogens responsible for such diseases require a host population that is sufficiently numerous and sufficiently concentrated12).
Hunting and gathering occupy the band only for comparatively brief periods of time. Most of the day is taken up with cooking, eating, relaxing, sleeping and playing. Numerous dangers confront them. While life is on average relatively short, the pleasures and compensations are many.
However, what about those missing billions? The unchosen? Suddenly, it is not idyllic images that come to mind. Instead it is Dachau, Belsen and Auschwitz. Attempting to impose a primitivist solution on the unchosen, retracing even the first steps back to “Edenic beginnings”, requires hell.13 A strong state would have to be made or captured; a fanatical cadre recruited and trained. Forced sterilisation and surely mass extermination follows. All the crimes of the murderous 20th century pale into utter insignificance. Without such a concentrated moment of horror, the utopian dreams of the green primitives will forever go unrealised.
According to orthodox Marxism, especially in the seminal writings of Leon Trotsky, the category ‘fascism’ specifically defines those parties or movements which recruit, or actively seek to recruit, a desperate, enraged and disorientated plebeian mass, crucially in order to fashion them into a counterrevolutionary battering ram: the overriding aim being to smash the organised working class.
Other usages are more casual. Far too casual. Fascist or fascism becomes a crude insult. A swear word. Donald Trump, Margaret Thatcher, Augusto Pinochet and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk have all been routinely labelled fascist. Old Etonian duffers and foul-mouthed Alf Garnetts, the police and prison wardens, even Fox News and GB News, become fascist too. The emotion, the desire to condemn, the righteous indignation are all there. But it hardly counts as Marxism.
If we put fascism back onto a proper, scientific footing, modernday organisations such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Turkey’s Grey Wolves and India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh certainly fit the bill. But what about greenism?
Derek Wall has already been quoted. Then there is the leftish academic, Naomi Klein. This supposed intellectual ‘godmother’ of the Green New Deal fears that “unless something significant changes in how our societies rise to the ecological crisis, we are going to see … white-power eco-fascism emerge with much greater frequency, as a ferocious rationalisation for refusing to live up to our collective climate responsibilities”.14
Leave aside the USA and its buzzing swarm of ‘back to nature’ militias, survivalists and preppers. Across Europe important sections of the far right are shifting away from the climate denialism of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Nigel Farage. Instead, they are (re)learning the language of greenism.
In May 2019, Marine Le Pen issued a National Rally election manifesto calling for a Europe of nations to become the world’s “first ecological civilisation” (ironically a term first coined by Soviet “environmental experts” in 198415). The new Euro paradigm owes everything to the old nativist and localist paradigm, though. Ethnic minorities and migrants are pictured as a parasitic, invasive species. Ecoborderism is the solution … or, as Le Pen’s spokesperson, Jordan Bardella, declares, “borders are the environment’s greatest ally … it is through them that we will save the planet”.16
The Freedom Party in Austria has undertaken a similar U-turn. Its new leader, Norbert Hofer, declares that he wants to recolour the FPÖ from blue to green and make it “the” climate protection party.17 Now the FPÖ website bluntly states that “climate change is reality and cannot be denied”. The same goes for the Berlin branch of Jung Alternative, the youth wing of Alternative für Deutschland. In an open letter to AfD’s executive it demands a change of direction over climate.18
Fidesz in Hungary, Lega in Italy, the National Alliance in Latvia and Vox in Spain - all have to one degree or another greened their xenophobic nationalism. Ominously, in the May 2019 European Union elections the far-right Identity and Democracy bloc gained 73 MEPs and became the fifth biggest grouping in the European parliament.19
Britain First certainly experiences not the least trouble in demanding “resolute action to protect, nurture and preserve our native environment, countryside and areas of natural beauty”.20 The British National Party even claims to be:
this nation’s only true green party, which has policies that will actually save the environment … Unlike the fake ‘greens’, who are merely a front for the far left, the BNP is the only party to recognise that overpopulation - whose primary driver is immigration, as revealed by the government’s own figures - is the cause of the destruction of our environment.21
What about fascism qua fascism? There is, of course, a long history of feudal and conservative greenism tipping over into the politics of counterrevolution, including overt fascism. The Soil Association in Britain included Jorian Jenks amongst its core founders. He edited its journal Mother Earth till his death in 1963 and he is still considered something of a mentor even to this day. However, in the mid-1930s he became a regular contributor to the Blackshirt and stood as a candidate for the British Union of Fascists. He served as its advisor on agriculture: “fascism alone could make agriculture prosperous again”.22 Jenks advocated autarchy and import controls. Owners who misused the land would find it subject to compulsory purchase. Throughout the rest of his life Jenks remained a close associate and disciple of Oswald Mosley.
Arthur Kenneth Chesterton, brother of the famous novelist, was likewise closely associated with far-right environmentalism during the 1930s. However, he concluded that Mosley had gone soft on the Jews and decided to go his own way. In 1938 he helped found the National Socialist League. Fittingly he was elected chair of the National Front at its foundation conference in February 1967.
Not surprisingly the example of Germany is especially instructive. In the late 19th century the country underwent a process of rapid industrialisation. That resulted in massive social dislocation and the ruination of a whole layer of the German middle classes.
One response to capitalist progress and the dreadful prospect of becoming a ‘salary man’, a mere dehumanised cog, was the ‘back to nature’ movement. Anti-capitalism interwove with rightwing Volk politics and ideas of a revived paganism. Young men, particularly students, joined the German Youth Movement, the Wandervögel (roughly ‘free spirits’ or ‘rovers’). Membership rapidly grew and reached the tens of thousands. Trekking through forests, climbing hills and mountains, camping under the stars, linking arms and singing old German songs, these petty bourgeois rebels sought escape from the crushing conformity of capitalist society through the achievement of a mystical oneness with nature. There was a strong undercurrent of homoeroticism. In this spirit they instituted the custom of greeting each other by proclaiming ‘Heil’.
All in all, a hopeless escape attempt. The stress was always on individual transformation. Wandervögel was itself “a hodgepodge of counter-cultural elements, blending neo-romanticism, eastern philosophies, nature mysticism, hostility to reason and a ... search for authentic, non-alienated social relations”. No wonder some wags have characterised it as an organisation of ‘rightwing hippies’. That said, on the positive side, its back-to-nature cult “spurred a passionate sensitivity to the natural world and the damage it suffered”.23
Many contemporary concerns were anticipated by Wandervögel’s thinkers - Ludwig Klages being particularly notable. The extinction of species, upsetting the global ecological balance, deforestation, the destruction of natural habitats, urban sprawl, the disjuncture between humanity and nature and how ‘civilisation’ was finishing off aboriginal people in Australia, Polynesia and Africa were all excoriated. He even condemns the “destruction” wrought by the “tourist trade”.24 All this before 1914!
But, as already suggested, there was, though, another, much darker side to Wandervögel. Most were overt racists and many viciously anti-Semitic. Klages’s outrage against capitalism’s degradation of nature certainly ran alongside an obnoxious anti-Semitism. Not without justification he has been credited with being the intellectual precursor of Nazism and the Third Reich.
Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, the Bookchinite authors of Ecofascism (1996) argue, rightly in my opinion, that any “wholesale indictment of reason cannot help but have savage political implications”.25 By definition the door is slammed shut on democracy and any prospect of consciously reconstructing society and its relationship with nature. At the same time such irrationalism is prone to the most brutal anti-humanism.
With the outbreak of World War I, patriotic youth flocked to the colours and what they saw as a glorious national crusade. Wandervögel fragmented - along religious and political lines - but continued after the cataclysm. A few strands headed off towards Marxism. There were social democratic and communist youth movements in the 1920s. However, most were irredeemably locked into the orbit of the far right and eventually spiralled into the black hole of Nazism. Nature worship fused with Führer worship.
Wandervögel left a considerable ideological imprint in the collective imagination, which Adolf Hitler both psychologically internalised and successfully harnessed. He too spoke in the language of deep greenism.
Hitler took it for granted that humanity was biologically divided and destined to an eternal struggle of race against race, nation against nation. Biological categories were mapped onto social categories. History thereby became part of the “struggle for existence that produces the selection of the fittest”.26 Only the strongest races and nations survive. The weak must perish … or be exterminated. Logically then, as politics is nature and nature is struggle, “it is useful to know the laws of nature - for that enables us to obey them”.27 That is why for Hitler class politics were such an abomination: class is pitted against class; the Volk is divided; the nation is weakened. That crime against nature’s immutable laws, which saw national humiliation in 1918, had to be finally ended.
The ethnocide perpetuated against the Jews was inevitably justified through biological determinism. Supposedly, the Jews were an alien species and were, as such, responsible for generating class politics: on the one side the politics of the workers’ movement and on the other side the politics of finance capital. Once a people rid themselves of the Jews, then it can “return spontaneously to the natural order”.28
Undoubtedly the most sophisticated exponent of far-right greenism was the philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). He is still widely celebrated as a precursor of modern ecological thinking. On the basis of his rejection of the cult of technology as an index of progress and denial of anthropocentric humanism, deep greens put Heidegger onto the pantheon of the giants.
A jaundiced critic of the Enlightenment, Heidegger preached the virtues of ‘authentic being’. His critique of humanism, his call to “let things be”, his notion that humanity is engaged in a “play” or “dance” with earth, sky and gods, his contemplative thoughts on the authentic modes of dwelling, his protest against industrial degradation of the planet, his stress on the importance of the local and the “homeland”, his call for humanity to protect and preserve nature, instead of dominating it - all these aspects of Heidegger’s thought have been used to support the claim that he is a foundational deep green.29
That despite the fact that in 1933 he became a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party! This was no calculated ruse designed to further an academic career. Tom Rockmore cuttingly points out that Heidegger stands absolutely alone “amongst the major thinkers of the 20th century” in being a “voluntary adherent of Nazism”.30 Damningly, he insists that Heidegger’s philosophy and his Nazism were “inseparable”.31 Surely an overstatement … given the intellectual inspiration he provided for decidedly anti-fascist thinkers, such as Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre and Herbert Marcuse.
Hitler, of course, both fuelled and fed off rightwing philosophy and the claim that western civilisation obscured the true relationship between humanity and nature. Somewhere in the course of history, our knowledge and understanding of nature had supposedly gone astray. In Hitler’s warped mind the culprit was Christianity (and by inference, of course, the Jews). He viewed the last two millennia as a denial of nature.
Privately Hitler railed against the evils of Christianity - often during one of his tedious dinner parties - and expressed his longing for a new faith rooted in nature. He fervently believed that humanity - authentic Aryan humanity, that is - must eventually break with Christianity and fully merge with nature. His alternative religion would at last realise the unity between nature and the master race: “From now on in, one may consider that there is no gap between the organic and the inorganic world.” Hence salvation was to be found in the close study of nature and a religious veneration of all its manifestations and beauties. It is only “possible”, insisted Hitler, “to satisfy the needs of the inner life by an intimate communion with nature”.32
Hitler’s agricultural expert, and later a Riechsminister, Walther Darré, was also a nature worshipper. No ignorant Nazi bonehead, Darré was, in fact, a highly qualified agronomist and as such advocated organic farming and a balanced relationship with nature. A kernel of rationality, undoubtedly. After the 1933 Nazi (counter)revolution he initiated a campaign to introduce organic farming techniques, which involved both big estates and many tens of thousands of smallholdings throughout Germany.
Yet, under circumstances of a pending war and the urgent need to boost food production, this experiment met with stiff resistance from other members of the Nazi hierarchy. Inevitably there existed a tension between the ‘battle for production’ and ‘keeping the soil healthy’. Significantly, Darré, with the backing of Rudolph Hess and others, was able to maintain his policy until 1942 when he resigned as agriculture minister (ostensibly for private reasons).
Darré justified the Nazi agrarian programme with numerous references to ‘Blut und Boden’ (blood and soil) - a slogan which, of course, implied the unity of the race, the Volk and its natural environment. Anti-working class, anti-liberal and anti-modern, Darré was, though, decidedly pro-nature. While Anna Bramwell perceptively writes of Hitler’s “Green Party”, her biographical account is marred by a general downplaying of Darré’s fascism. She sees him as a misguided green. Revealingly she has even referred to him as the “father of the greens”.33 He was, of course, an ecofascist or - put another way - a Nazi green.
Darré came to Hitler’s attention after writing The peasantry as the life source of the Nordic race (1928) - a book which combined social-Darwinist racial theories with an idealisation of rural life. Darré advocated an organised exodus from the swollen, heaving, suffocating cities, which were destroying the organic link between the Volk and nature. Other neo-pagan figures in the Nazi leadership such as Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess, Fritz Todt and Alfred Rosenberg depicted cities in similarly negative terms. Urban life meant rootlessness, the intermixing of races and fermenting the revolutionary class struggle. Hence for Darré there had to be a systematic return to the countryside. The Nazi’s envisaged a re-agarianisation of greater Germany.
Peasants were lauded as the backbone of the German race. Hitler actively sought to resuscitate this historically doomed class. Agricultural prices were fixed. Aryan farms were decreed as unalienable. Then there was the policy of territorial expansion. In December 1942 the Nazi regime issued a characteristic decree, ‘On the treatment of the land in the eastern territories’ - a reference to the newly annexed portions of Poland.
It read in part: “The peasant of our racial stock has always carefully endeavoured to increase the natural powers of the soil, plants and animals, and to preserve the balance of the whole of nature.” For Hitler, respect for “divine creation is the ‘measure of all culture’”.34
Unwilling to break up the great Junker estates in Prussia, Hitler promised still further Lebensraum (living space) deep into Russia as far as the Urals (Germany’s ‘India’). Conquered lands would be cleared of Slavic Untermenschen and planted with a new generation of Aryan farmers. According to Nazi ideology, this would guarantee the naturalism and racial regeneration of the German nation.
The experience of Germany amply illustrates the potential dangers of green politics. It is not that concerns for the environment inevitably result in rightwing or fascist conclusions. Of course not - nothing could be further from the truth. There are many possibilities. Nevertheless, without the higher perspective provided by the working class programme, even the biggest, the loudest, the most passionate, radical and thrilling mass protest movement will be channelled, managed, tamed or crushed by the hegemonic forces of capitalism and its state machine.
Failure to recognise this elementary fact is not only a sure sign of opportunism: it is tailism, and therefore a guarantee of being of no use whatsoever to the movement.
G Talshir The political ideology of green parties New York 2002, p137.↩︎
D Wall, ‘Darker shades of green’ Red Pepper August 23 2000 (my emphasis).↩︎
J Zerzan Future primitive revisited Port Townsend WA 2012, p2.↩︎
RR Grinker and CB Steiner (eds) Perspectives on Africa: a reader in culture, history and representation Chichester 2010, p169.↩︎
RC Kelly Warless societies and the origin of war Ann Arbor MI 2000, p51.↩︎
The Guardian April 18 2001.↩︎
T Kaczynski Industrial society and its future Olympia WA 2016 - or: editions-hache.com/essais/pdf/kaczynski2.pdf.↩︎
See J Zerzan Future primitive revisited Port Townsend WA 2012, pxxvii, n1.↩︎
J Zerzan Running on emptiness: the pathology of civilization Port Townsend WA 2002, p116.↩︎
J Zerzan Future primitive revisited Port Townsend WA 2012, pp1-25.↩︎
See AP Dobson and ER Carper, ‘Infectious diseases and human population history’ Bioscience Vol 46, No2, January 1996, pp115-126.↩︎
J Zerzan Why hope?: the stand against civilization Townsend WA 2015, p4.↩︎
N Klein On fire: the (burning) case for a Green New Deal New York 2019, p45.↩︎
Quoted in PM Coupland Farming, fascism and ecology: a life of Jorian Jenks London 2017, p95.↩︎
J Bichl and P Staudenmaier Ecofascism: lessons from the German experience Chico CA, 2011: theanarchistlibrary.org/library/janet-biehl-and-peter-staudenmaier-ecofascism-lessons-from-the-german-experience.↩︎
L Klages The biocentrist worldview London 2013, p33.↩︎
See J Biehl and P Staudenmaier Ecofascism: lessons from the German experience Chico CA, 2011.↩︎
HR Trevor-Roper (ed) Hitler’s table talk: 1941-1944 London 2000, p104.↩︎
Quoted in D Gasman Scientific origins of National Socialism London 2007 p165.↩︎
L Embree et al Encyclopedia of phenomenology Boston MA 1996, p137ff.↩︎
T Rockmore On Heidegger’s Nazism and philosophy Hemel Hempstead 1992, p25.↩︎
HR Trevor-Roper (ed) Hitler’s table talk: 1941-1944 London 2000, p48.↩︎
See A Bramwell Blood and soil: Walther Darré and Hitler’s ‘Green Party’ Bourne End, 1985, pv.↩︎
Quoted in KB Napier Dead green roots: green and fascist socialism Swansea 2018, p79.↩︎