Darker shades of green

Jack Conrad questions the romantic images presented by green primitives and cautions against the seductive lures of ecofascism

Greenism likes to portray itself as being above 'antiquated' notions of left, centre and right. While green organisations have the great merit of locating and detailing the ecological crisis confronting humanity, they completely fail when it comes to identifying a realistic social agent capable of carrying out the complete social transformation needed to achieve any kind of healthy metabolic relationship between nature and human needs.

Even when capitalism is criticised in a way that goes beyond simply listing off its faults in the form of oil spills, species loss and habitat damage, in a way that recognises that capitalism is uniquely destructive ecologically because of its endless need to expand, greens all too often insist that there is a much more important underlying evil. It is humanity itself. Crudely put, there are too many of us.

Greenism thereby becomes indistinguishable from neo-Malthusianism and in effect joins those who blame the poor working class and peasant victims of imperialist exploitation of the so-called third world for their poverty.

Lacking a viable social agent and discounting historical materialism and Marxism - essential to any rational or scientific explanation of inequality, overproduction and ecological destruction - greenism can easily fall prey to fascistic temptations. Derek Wall, a prominent leftwing member of the official Green Party in England and Wales, readily admits as much. Greenism, he warns - presumably from first-hand experience - is "ripe for reapropriation 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".


We can highlight this danger of "reappropriation" by turning to the fringes of deep greenism and the primitivists. Having nailed down the shockingly awful logic of their programme, we shall examine the green ideological roots of German Nazism and show that all movements and schools of thought which put nature first are prone to the lure of hard-right politics and, under certain circumstances, fascism.

The green primitives' world view finds its highest expression in the quotation-dense writings of intellectual shamans like John Zerzan. A Maoist student radical in the 1960s, he arrived at anarchism in the 1970s. Zerzan is one of quite a range of deep greens who refuse to condemn Ted Kaczynski, the unabomber. Shooting to fame in the aftermath of the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organisation protests, he now regularly does globetrotting speaking tours.

Recoiling from the grinding tyranny of wage-slavery, the soulless kitsch of crass commercialism and the heart-breaking ecological destruction wrought by capitalism, green primitives seek redemption in the mists of the distant past - or at least as they fancy it to have been. To bring about their future-past, they concoct various utopian plans for a stage-by-stage escape from the "10,000 years of darkness and captivity". Part echo of Martin Heidegger and his critique of technocratic reason, part invocation of a lost innocence, part imminent threat.

Their promised land is the endless wilderness. A suitably humbled, repentant humanity must return to the Palaeolithic ways of the ancestors and live in perfect harmony with nature. The goal is a near zero ecological footprint. Industry and even peasant agriculture are damned as unsustainable and unnatural.

Purportedly, humanity's fall from grace began with symbolic culture - language, art, religion, mathematics, etc. So one madcap schema is to get back to when our species was not human - ie, cultural - but animal. A retrogression from blood and soil to simply blood.

Implementing such a complete retreat from the human would necessitate a reduction of the global population not by a half or two-thirds. That is the recipe of pale green timidity. Rather what the green primitivists appear to have in mind is more like a 99.9% cut. Estimates, when it comes to the distant past, can only be heroic guesses. That said, prior to the "darkness and captivity" brought about by the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago, it is thought that there were 10 million hunter-gatherers globally. That is one 'natural' figure.

Undaunted, primitive greens temptingly ask us to "open our minds to images of their idyllic past and to mature concepts that are oriented toward the fulfilment of these images". If one happens to be amongst the chosen few, there is, I readily admit, something attractive, almost majestic, in contemplating a future based on the long dead past.

Crystal clean air without a hint or trace of industrial pollution. Seas teeming with plankton, fish, whale, dolphin, seal and turtle. Boreal forests once again covering vast tracts of Eurasia and North America, home to abundant dear, elk, wild pig, bear and, at the top of the feeding chain, packs of wolves, prowling tigers and other big cats. Savannah grasslands roamed by millions of elephant, rhino, hyena and lion and packed full of zebra, wildebeest and antelope. In lowland areas, stretching as far as the eye can see, reedy marshlands; and, each spring and autumn, huge flocks of migrating birds turning the sky black with 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 even 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 concentrated). Hunting and gathering occupy the tribal band only for comparatively brief periods of time. Most of the day is taken up with 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 billions of missing human beings? The unchosen. Suddenly, it is not idyllic images that come to my mind. Instead it is Dachau, Belsen and Auschwitz. Attempting to impose a primitivist solution on the unchosen, retracing even the first steps back to the Edenic garden, would require hell - capturing the machinery of a strong state and fanatical cadre prepared to oversee forced sterilisation and surely mass extermination. All the crimes of the murderous 20th century pale into utter insignificance.

It can also be usefully pointed out here that some 73,000 years ago humans would surely have qualified for inclusion on a list of endangered species. The Toba mega-eruption, in Sumatra, sent 10 billion tons of ash pluming into the upper atmosphere. Across the whole planet sunlight was either blotted out altogether or substantially dimmed. Temperatures plummeted. Because of the gloomy, chillingly cold and barren years of volcanic winter that followed, almost all life forms suffered decimation. Our species, which had reached some 100,000 globally, was brought to the brink of extinction. After Toba, it is reckoned that there were only 2,000 homo sapiens remaining alive.4 They teetered on the knife's edge between survival and oblivion.

In other words, nature can turn deadly and produce another, altogether precarious, 'natural' figure for the human population. Such fragility, precisely because humanity belongs to and relies upon nature, is why Marxists insist on arguing that we must continue to enhance - not lessen, let alone abandon - our ability to alter nature. Of course, what is required is not another illusory bout of technological Prometheanism - a new generation of nuclear power stations, CO2 sequestration, Mars colonisation, etc. That would be tragedy. Pseudo-solutions that would compound already daunting problems. What is required is the revolutionary Prometheanism of total social transformation.

Black greens

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 aspire to recruit, a desperate, enraged and disorientated petty bourgeois mass, crucially in order to fashion them into a counterrevolutionary battering ram. The overriding strategic target being the organised working class. Terrorism momentarily becomes the main method of social control. In the last analysis this madness is carried out in the interests of finance capital.

Others are more casual. Far too casual. 'Fascist' or 'fascism' is gratuitously banded about. It becomes a crude insult. A swear word. Rightwing chauvinist parties in Europe, such as the Front National in France and the Folkeparti in Denmark, are routinely labelled Nazi by the Socialist Workers Party and its various 'united fronts'. The United Kingdom Independence Party is just as stupidly branded fascist-lite by others on the economistic and anarchistic left. Even the police and leftwing opponents become fascist by the same slippery slope 'method'. The emotion, the desire to attack is unmistakable. But it hardly counts as Marxism.

I devoted a chapter of my book Remaking Europe (2004) to fascism and the misuse of the term. My intention was to make a contribution towards putting the category back onto a proper, scientific footing, at least amongst Marxists. But am I indulging in the same deplorable practice when it comes not only to the primitivists but other misanthropic greens who see human beings as the problem? Am I preaching one thing and practising another? Is the suggestion that greenism can trickle or flow into ecofascism hyperbole?

According to Kev Smith, himself a loyal green, there can be no doubt that the chauvinist right in Europe is in the process of greening itself. He worriedly notes that these movements are "invoking ecological themes" to update their ideology and now "speak" in what he calls the "new language of ecology."

But if we look at this phenomenon of greening from the vantage point provided by history, it is clear that there is an 'old language of ecology' that was spoken by the far right in the 19th century. In fact, both the chauvinist right and the greens base themselves on the same ideological construct which emphasises "the supremacy of the earth over people". There could be said to be another fundamental similarity. Alike, the far right and greens often privilege "feelings" and intuition over reason and rationality.

What of 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 counted Jorian Jenks amongst it founding members. He edited its journal Mother Earth till his death in 1963. In the 1930s he was the agricultural advisor to the British Union of Fascists and remained throughout his life a close associate and disciple of Oswald Mosley.

Arthur Kenneth Chesterton 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 this twisted bigot was elected the first chair of the National Front.

His uncle, Gilbert Keith - GK Chesterton, a catholic and author of the Father Brown stories - invented the theory of distributionism along with Hillaire Belloc. They claimed to offer a third way between capitalism and communism and upheld the 'green' panacea of 'three acres and a cow'. Their model was medieval ruralism. Their aim was to turn the modern proletariat into an inert, self-supporting, petty bourgeois mass. And, needless to say, their enemy was the Jews and communism.

This odious tradition of hating human beings and loving nature produced David Icke, the former Green Party spokesperson who nowadays crazily talks of an alien takeover and an all-enveloping Jewish conspiracy which runs the world. He blames the Jews for the October 1917 revolution and the two world wars.

As for the National Front and the British National Party, they experience not the least trouble in drawing on their ideological origins and presenting a green face to the public. In the 1980s, the National Front's Joe Pearce described "social justice, ecology and racial purity" as the three pillars of "nationalism". As for the BNP, it hosts a rather amateurish 'Land and people' website which boasts of its heartfelt wish to protect Britain's wildlife, villages, land, farming and traditions and freedom.


Not surprisingly, Germany is even more 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 petty bourgeoisie. Farmers, tradesmen, small businesses. One perfectly understandable response was a 'back to nature' movement. However, anti-capitalism melded with nature worship, rightwing Volk politics and even revived ideas of paganism.

Young men, particularly students, joined the German Youth Movement, the Wandervögel (roughly 'free spirits' or 'rovers'), which can be traced back to the late 1880s. Membership grew rapidly and soon reached the tens of thousands. Trekking through forests and climbing hills and mountains, these petty bourgeois rebels sought deliverance in a mystical oneness with nature. Camping under the stars, they linked arms and sang old German songs - there was a strong undercurrent of homoeroticism. They instituted the custom of fervently greeting each other by proclaiming 'Heil.'

All in all, a hopeless attempt to escape from the alienation of urban life. A protest against capitalism. But also a protest against society itself. The stress was on individual transformation. No wonder some wags have characterised the Wandervögel movement as 'rightwing hippies'.

Wandervögel was "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". Its back-to-the-land cult "spurred a passionate sensitivity to the natural world and the damage it suffered".

Many contemporary concerns were anticipated by the movement's theoreticians - Ludwig Klages being particularly notable. The extinction of species, upsetting the global ecological balance, deforestation, the destruction of aboriginal peoples and natural habitats, urban sprawl and the increasing alienation of people from nature. Even the damage caused by rampant tourism was condemned. All of this before 1914.

But, as already hinted, there was 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. In the name of individuality, authenticity and naturalness Klages completely rejected reason and rational thought itself.

Peter Staudenmaier - along with Janet Biehl, author of the Bookchinite paper Ecofascism: lessons from the German experience - argues, rightly in my opinion, that such a "wholesale indictment of reason cannot help but have savage political implications".10  By definition the door is slammed 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.

Naturally, once World War I began, 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 gravitated towards Marxism. There were social democratic and communist youth movements in the 1920s. However, most remained on the hard right and eventually fell within the orbit of Nazism. Nature-worship combined with Führer-worship.

Wandervögel left a deep ideological imprint on the collective imagination which Adolf Hitler both psychologically absorbed and harnessed politically. He too spoke the language of conservative greenism. The German Volk had to subordinate itself to the iron laws of nature, which alone guides us "on the path of progress". Hitler argued that it was necessary for people to know these laws - in order to obey them. To act otherwise "would be to rise in revolt against heaven".11 

Nazi greens

Hitler took for granted that humanity was biologically divided, furthermore that it is destined to a bloody struggle of race against race. Biological categories easily blurred over into social categories. History thereby became part of the "eternal struggle for existence". Logically then, politics has to be based on the direct application of nature's laws. Only the strongest survive. The weak must submit or be exterminated. For Hitler, that is the inescapable "law" which unites humanity and society with nature. As soon as the human mind is fooled into believing that it is "superior to nature and its laws, then it destroys the real substance which is the bearer of the mind".12 

The ethnocide perpetuated against the Jews was easily justified through this biological determinism. Supposedly, the Jews were uniquely adaptable to any land or place and were ideologically equated with bacteria. Once a people rids itself of the Jews then it can "return spontaneously to the natural order".13  Let us note that during the first half of the 20th century there was, especially in Europe, a pernicious and widespread scapegoating of Jews. They were charged with exploiting the 'proletarian' nations through the banks and stock exchanges, and held responsible for the retrogression of civilisation - the former being a distorted form of the class struggle, the latter a distorted recognition of capitalist decline.

Undoubtedly the most sophisticated exponent of rightwing greenism was the philosopher, Martin Heidegger. He is widely celebrated as a precursor of modern ecological thinking.

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 involved 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 theorist. Especially on the basis of his rejection of the cult of technology as an index of progress and his denial of anthropocentrism, deep greens in particular have placed Heidegger on the pantheon of their eco-giants.

That despite the fact that in 1933 he became a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party! No calculated move 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".14  Damningly, he shows that Heidegger's philosophy and his Nazism were "inseparable".15 

In equal measure Hitler fuelled and fed off such rightwing philosophising. He claimed 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 tortured mind the culprit was located in christianity (and by inference, of course, Jews and Marxism). He viewed the last two millennia as a denial of nature and of the irrefutable fact that humanity is part of nature.

Privately Hitler railed - often during one of his tedious vegetarian dinner parties - against the sins of christianity, and explained 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", pontificated Hitler, "to satisfy the needs of the inner life by an intimate communion with nature".16 

Hitler's agricultural expert, and later a Riechminister, Walther Darré, was also a nature-worshipper. No ignorant Nazi bonehead, Darré was a highly qualified agronomist and in that capacity he advocated organic farming and a balanced relationship with nature. A kernel of rationality. After 1933 he initiated a state-backed campaign to introduce organic farming techniques which involved both big estates and many tens of thousands of smallholdings.

Under circumstances of a pending war and the urgent need to boost food production this experiment met with some 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 Reich agriculture minister (ostensibly for private reasons; in reality because he dared question Hitler's order to further reduce rations to labour camps).

Darré packaged the Nazi agrarian programme with propaganda around the theme 'Blut und Boden' (blood and soil). A slogan which 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. Anna Bramwell perceptively writes of Hitler's "Green Party". However, her biographical account is marred somewhat 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".17  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 interwove 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, viewed cities through the same ecological lense (together they formed what could justifiably be called the green wing of the Nazi Party). Urban life meant rootlessness, the intermixing of races and fostering class struggle. Hence Darré advocated a systematic return to the countryside. It is significant therefore that the Nazis envisaged a re-agarianisation of greater Germany and their European empire.

Peasants were lauded as the backbone of the German race. 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 him, respect for divine creation is the 'measure of all culture'."

Hitler actively sought to re-establish and reinvigorate this historically doomed class. Agricultural prices were fixed. Aryan farms were made inalienable. Then there was Hitler's policy of territorial expansionism.

Unwilling to break up the great Junker estates in Prussia, Hitler promised Lebensraum (living space) in the east. This would extend Germany deep into Russia (Germany's India, according to Hitler). Conquered lands would be cleared of Slavic Undermenschen and seeded with a new generation of Aryan farmers. According to Nazi ideology, this would guarantee the naturalism and racial strength of the German nation.

Left, centre or right

The experience of Germany amply illustrates the volatility of ecological politics. It is not that concerns for the environment inevitably result in rightwing or fascist conclusions. There is a long history of leftwingers and progressives stressing the vital importance of nature for humanity. Eg, Karl Marx, Fredrick Engels, William Morris, Nikolai Bukharin, Murray Bookchin.

Nevertheless, for those not closely identified with working class politics or informed by a comprehensive rational theory, there is no such social anchorage. Instead there is feeling, instinct and temptation. Even if they naively claim to eschew the standard categories of left, centre and right, green philosophies, pressure group campaigns and political organisations which put nature first, which paint humanity as the problem are inexorably drawn towards the flame of the extreme right and, under certain circumstances, fascism.

From 'objectively' or 'common sensically' prescribing population reduction and demanding an immediate end to immigration, the methods of deportation and compulsory limits on family size are nothing more than a next logical step. Here is the programmatic stairway which leads from feudal, conservative and primitive greenism to ecofascism. Because, frankly, it is also just another logical next step from deportation and compulsory limits to mass sterilisation and from there to death camps.

As the effects of global warming and ecological degradation impact more and more on public consciousness, it would be foolish, to say the least, to discount the possibility that even mainstream greens would not come out with more and more draconian solutions.

Deep greenism is certainly predisposed to "reappropriation" by the far right in a similar way that the Wandervögel movement was "reappropriated" by the Nazis. This, of course, is not inevitable. But those movements which claim to have transcended left, centre and right, which reject the class struggle as the means of achieving a sustainable society and venerate, not simply respect, nature are more than prone to anti-human conclusions.

Dave Foreman, once a leading spokesperson of Earth First, springs to mind. He is one of those who gleefully welcomed the Ethiopian famine as a means of limiting the human population. Similar statements have been issued by deep greens vis-à -vis the Aids pandemic. Humans are seen as a threat, a danger, a cancer.

Protests against the degradation of nature can be led from the left, centre or right. But no protest takes place within a vacuum. There is always a political and social matrix. Ecology as a thing in itself is an illusion. Refusal to recognise this elementary fact is, as Peter Staudenmaier says, "the hallmark of reactionary ecology".18 

Those who propose to change society so that it is brought into line with the eternal laws of nature, or the natural order - often based on pseudo-scientific gobbledegook - actually demand that humanity submit to a form of barbarism.

As with Thatcherism and the market, all contrary arguments are a priori ruled out of order. There is no alternative. Supposedly no one can buck the iron laws of nature. Concreteness, and therefore complexity, are reduced to a flattened, one-dimensional, abstract nature. Meanwhile, the real causes of ecological degradation go undiagnosed.