Green Party activist Terry Liddle at CU‘98

Controlling nature

Red-green debate

The CPGB was pleased to host speakers from a range of left groups at Communist University ’98. Among those addressing this year’s event was Terry Liddle, a comrade from the left of the Green Party, extracts from whose speech were published in the Weekly Worker (August 20).

A large part of comrade Liddle’s address, which was followed by a lively discussion from the floor, was given over to a response to comments made by the CPGB’s John Bridge, contained in a previous Weekly Worker article.

In that article comrade Bridge wrote the following:

“The greens are a petty bourgeois movement happily containing within themselves a wide spectrum ranging from the critically utopian to the overtly fascist. Its best thinkers have written savage indictments of capitalism which supply wonderful ammunition for the class struggle. Despite that most green ideas are confused, naive and at the end of the day reactionary. There is an underlying neo-Malthusian assumption which sees human beings as the fundamental problem. A general prejudice also exists against economic growth and technological progress. The world’s ecological problems could be solved through an impossible return to nature, itself of course a social construct” (July 2).

Comrade Liddle took issue with just about every phrase that comrade Bridge wrote.

The first criticism he had concerned the use of the adjective “petty bourgeois”. Ignoring the fact that this term was used to describe the class location of a movement, not the social position or occupation of its members, comrade Liddle protested that most greens could not be described in any way as “small shopkeepers” or “self-employed artisans”.

We are well aware that many green supporters are workers - just as all the main bourgeois parties contain thousands of working class adherents. In a bourgeois democracy such as Britain the capitalist parties must of necessity rely on millions of working class votes in order to get elected. The Labour Party has always been overwhelmingly working class as far as its membership and support are concerned. But the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher clearly had at least the tacit support of a large swathe of British workers for a considerable period. Hitler’s National Socialists also had an undeniable plebeian mass base.

Nevertheless we describe all these organisations as bourgeois. For us the key to the class location of any movement or party is not its membership, but its ideology and programme. Thus the Labour Party has always been a bourgeois party of the working class. Whereas its membership and support came from the proletariat, its programme was - to a greater or lesser degree of ambiguity - based on the requirements of capital. Of course New Labour is in the process of rapidly transforming itself into a bourgeois party pure and simple.

What of the greens? Which class interests do they express? As comrade Liddle correctly states, ecologists are “reacting against capitalism”. In that sense green ideology is anti-capitalist. Capital, in its organic drive for profit, consistently and continuously destroys. It destroys existing non-capitalist social relations, traditions and competitors. Above all it destroys our humanity. Left to itself, it despoils and pollutes. True, industry is perfectly capable of putting on a green face. The state may take measures which mitigate against capital’s worst excesses. But such measures do not change its essential nature. Thus, while the bourgeoisie may attempt to incorporate the greens - just as it has successfully incorporated working class movements in the form of social democracy - the greens do not in general express the class interests of capital.

But neither do they in and of themselves express positive working class interests. Of course they contain many self-confessed socialists like comrade Liddle - even subjective revolutionary socialists. Nevertheless objective working class interests can only be advanced by the self-organisation of a class for itself. A class which defines itself not against one particular aspect or characteristic of capitalism, but in opposition to its rule. More than that, a genuinely working class movement must at least contain the seeds of a positive alternative to capital.

Failing that, opposition to capital will inevitably relapse into reaction. It will be nothing more than the backward-looking opposition of the old, of the alienated. Of those sections more and more marginalised by the system. There is nothing inevitably progressive about opposition to the capitalist system as such, let alone to certain aspects of it. Such opposition is often epitomised by the small entrepreneur - the “small shopkeeper”, “self-employed artisan” or peasant - being squeezed by capital’s continued expansion. But workers may also look back to an imagined golden age. They too can be prey to petty bourgeois ideology.

That is why the green movement, despite its anti-capitalism, is at the end of the day reactionary. Unless it can be won to the understanding that the only positive alternative to the destructiveness of capital lies in a mass movement of working class democracy, it will look to other solutions and thus constitute a barrier to working class advance. Comrade Liddle himself cited an example of reaction in its most extreme form in the shape of Green Wave, a “third positionist split from the National Front”. Surely he cannot deny that the green movement does contain, as well as the “critically utopian”, the “overtly fascist”?

These two phrases express both the potentially positive and the extreme negative components of the greens. The term “critically utopian” is not used as an insult. We too have noted the progressive content of utopian socialists like Robert Owen. But utopian ideology by its very nature would also be a barrier to genuine advance - if it won a substantial following and formed a mass movement it would inevitably stop it halfway. It too is reactionary “at the end of the day”.

Comrade Liddle also takes exception to the use of the term “neo-Malthusian” to describe the green movement. Yet the aptness of this expression was admirably demonstrated by his own comments. Comrade Liddle states:

“There seems to be an assumption among socialists that population is not a problem. Yet the land available for people to live on and upon which food can be grown is finite ... The Green Party talks about a reduction in the population of the UK of around 15-20 million.”

Nobody is suggesting that, like Malthus, the Green Party is “advocating that human beings should be left to starve to death”. That is why the term “Malthusian” was modified by use of a prefix. But comrade Liddle’s words amply show that he too “sees human beings as the fundamental problem”.

It is one thing to note that hundreds of millions of people around the world suffer from malnutrition and poverty. They are without clean water and shelter. In Britain millions are denied access to the basic requirements of a decent life. This is stating the obvious. But it quite another thing to draw the conclusion that there are therefore too many people. On what basis does the Green Party state that the current UK population cannot grow enough food to feed itself? That there is insufficient rainfall? That the materials and space for building cannot be found to provide shelter for every one of Britain’s inhabitants?

On the contrary there is an abundant supply of all of these. In addition there are large areas of sparse population and ‘natural’ beauty which all could enjoy. The same could be said for the world taken as a whole. If anything, it is underpopulated. However, in order to grasp this objective reality it is necessary to look beyond what capitalism has ever been able or will be able to provide. In a system based on the competition of autonomous enterprises and individuals there will always be winners and losers, just as there are in nature. By controlling the forces of nature, by breaking through the constraints of capitalism, the whole of humanity could live a full and dignified life, enjoying a cultural level far surpassing the best that can be attained today.

But, says comrade Liddle, resources are finite: “There is in the world only so much in the way of fossil fuels, so much in the way of minerals, so much in the way of wood, so much in the way of water ...” It is certainly true that the quantity of all these can be measured. For example the volume of water contained in the earth’s oceans, rivers, lakes and atmosphere can be roughly estimated. It is however impossible to use it up. It is recycled through the action of the sun. The problem with water is not that it is “finite”, and certainly not that there is insufficient of it, but that class society has been unable to ensure it can always be directed where it is needed in a usable form.

As for the rest of the earth’s raw materials, they are also naturally recycled - but of course over a much longer period. Unlike water, such materials eventually reappear in different forms. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. And what of heat and light? Ultimately it is derived from the sun - a supply that is likely to last for some considerable time.

If we view the question in this way, we can begin to pose the solution not in terms of the form in which matter appears at any one time or place, but in terms of its control and management. Freed of the restraints of capitalism, humanity’s ability to achieve both is not in doubt. Would it not be possible to plant sufficient trees not only to provide enough wood for all our needs, but also to obtain the necessary atmospheric balance? Would we not be able to tap into sources of energy in new forms? None of this means that there is no place for the conscious recycling and conservation of raw materials and energy in forms which are immediately re-usable.

Our vision is of a future humanity ‘mastering’ nature. But what is nature in a country like Britain? It is indeed largely a social construct. The munificence and beauty of the Scottish Highlands, the Yorkshire Moors and the Lake District have been created in no small part by human activity. Humans are after all an important part of nature. Their behaviour and actions, along with those of all other material phenomena, have shaped the world. Nature does not have a single, fixed form which humanity ‘ought’ to protect. It has constantly changed and evolved. Our humanity is enhanced by the discovery of nature’s complexity, laws and powers. Nature must become a thing-for-humanity, not a thing-in-itself.

So we are not opposed to the forward march of technology. But like the forces of nature it must come under social control, if it is to serve living labour, not dead labour. Through the class struggle, in the final analysis through communism, technology can become one of the means to reduce necessary labour to the minimum - and thus allow the full development of the human personality.

Comrade Liddle describes his own ‘official communist’ background and has rightly rejected what it had to offer. The Soviet Union was no more able to control and manage the resources of nature than capitalism. It replicated some of capital’s worst acts of destruction. Here was an example of a society run from the top by a self-serving bureaucracy, which deformed and wrecked the world communist movement of which the Communist Party of Great Britain was a part. We do not seek to reforge the CPGB of Harry Pollitt or Gordon McLennan, as comrade Liddle seems to believe.

But if we are to achieve a world where humanity can fully control its own product, then the working class will have to create disciplined, fighting organisations capable of leading a revolution - not only in Britain but in every country. Only communist parties are capable of such a task. Such organisations must contain within them all revolutionary socialists. It will include many who today define themselves primarily in regard to the environment.

Clearly most green socialists do not at the moment share this aim. Nevertheless, there is no reason why we cannot cooperate - for example in united fronts where we are agreed on a common action. The CPGB certainly believes that greens who define themselves as socialists should be in the Socialist Alliances as a step towards a higher organisational form.

Alan Fox