Leninism without the working class? The missing subject in Malm’s ecological revolution

Storming of the Winter Palace
A retouched photo depicting the Storming of the Winter Palace by Bolshevik Baltic Sailors, an episode of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Credit: Public domain per Russian Civil Code.
Cihan Tugal | Open Democracy | October 30, 2020

Although scientists have been publishing on the viral consequences of deforestation for decades, Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency is the first publicly accessible book that connects pandemics, climate change, and capitalism. Even more ambitiously, Malm proposes a solution to end all three.

The first two chapters of Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency are dedicated to demonstrating the ignored links between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. We have read many accounts that draw parallels between the two. After discussing these, Malm insists that we have to go beyond them, since epidemics of the last decades and climate change are not parallel, but interlaced processes. In Malm’s dialectic treatment of the natural and social sciences, business-induced global warming is at the root of Covid-19 and other viral disasters. Just like heat waves and wildfires, the deadly spread of these diseases are human-made. There is much to discuss in these well-researched and beautifully written two chapters. But this review will focus on the second part of the book, where Malm lays out an eco-Leninist plan to end climate crisis.

The preconditions for consent

Risking notoriety, Malm argues that we need war communism to stop global warming and pandemics deadlier than that of 2020. Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency deserves to be applauded for taking on such a very unfashionable, albeit gargantuan mission. It also needs to be sympathetically criticized. In the rest of this essay, I will point out that Malm does not resolve the primary (two-fold) problem of what Malm refers to as eco-Leninism: 1) how to organize and mobilize the working class. 2) What winter palace to storm with which soviets. There is nothing in the book that prevents us from including these two issues. But before we could do that, we need to understand how Lenin’s practice developed before the war communism of 1918-1921.

Historical Leninism is not only the utilization of the state for class war purposes (the aspect Malm builds most of his account on). Logically and sequentially prior to that is the organization of cadres and militants; and the construction of a worker-led popular bloc (of peasants, intellectuals, students, etc.) Without these, Leninism would amount to the control of the state by bureaucrats and intellectuals. The October Revolution, its “storming of the Winter Palace,” was not simply a coup by a bunch of adventurers. It was based on workers and allies who organized themselves in councils (“soviets” in Russian).

These councils controlled workplaces, barracks, and villages through frequent voting on everyday as well as political issues. Council members had the right to recall their non-specialized representatives, who were barred from accumulating privileges. Lenin and his comrades spent months to convince the councils that they needed to take over the state, i.e. that the new republic had to become a soviet state. Nevertheless, they actually prevented early attempts of some militant workers to take over before the majority of the councils were convinced. There was, for example, a far left uprising in July 1917 which the Bolsheviks worked hard to dissipate. The back and forths of a very long 1917 – sleepless days and nights of discussion, debate, and politicking – required thousands of (intellectual and worker) cadres equipped with handling such chaotic conditions. In short, the appropriation of the Russian state in October was neither a coup by activists nor the result of a spontaneous popular uprising. It was an organized, worker-led council revolution. This was the base of consent required for war communism to be implemented.

Due to such historical circumstances as well as the serious blind spots of Bolshevism, Lenin’s strategy also culminated in a lethal bureaucratic dictatorship a few years after Lenin’s death. However, unlike most other varieties of state socialism, Russia between 1917 and 1927 was able to sustain a meaningful level of workers’ leadership and popular participation. How might it be possible to develop beyond ten years of participatory democracy and worker leadership in the future?

Ecology’s social actor

We certainly cannot repeat what happened in 1917, any more than we could or should repeat the Bolsheviks’ war communism of 1918-1921. Still, as Malm does with the latter, we can take some political and economic cues from the former. The main problem in Malm’s book is the lack of any discussion of the social actor able to stop global warming: the discussion of 1918-1921 is cut off from 1917. When Malm switches from diagnosis of ecological crisis to prognosis, he introduces a “we” which is never defined. “We” will stop capital’s deforestation of the world by appropriating companies’ books (p. 128). “We” will stop emissions and stop the extraction of oil. Malm’s following – very important – points further obfuscate the ambiguity of this “we.”

He asks: Why do we need the “draconian state” to do this? Mainstream and localist solutions – pleading with people to cut down their excessive travel and other nefarious habits – will work as well as states asking their citizens to kindly “please” put on masks during a pandemic, without closing anything down. That would have led to a far greater disaster in 2020. Just as states have either enforced total shutdowns or let their populations suffer, war communism has to stop deforestation by decree. And if states indeed have the capacity to enforce measures as drastic as these lockdowns, why don’t they deploy them when it comes to climate change?

Once there is force, norms will follow. Malm goes through the historical examples of child labor, the endless workday, and plantation slavery. These were terminated by decree, not the willing change in patterns of consumption or business behavior. Back in the nineteenth century, these practices were questionable, but not consensually evil practices that deserved abolition. The consensual perception that they are evil followed from state enforcement. Slavery wouldn’t have been declared a universal evil without the American Civil War. War communism, Malm emphasizes, is the only way to save the planet, and it will create more adherents as it becomes entrenched, just like abolition did.

Malm’s arguments against mainstream and localist environmentalism are important. But at the same time, he neglects the consent component of the necessary force. The American bourgeoisie had to build the Republican coalition before it could wage the Civil War. Bolsheviks had to win over the councils before war communism. Today, without the organization of the proletariat (or its equivalent) plus its winning over of many allies, people would experience Malm’s policies as the “rule of experts,” not as a revolution. The Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns, as necessary as they might be, are exactly that: the rule of experts. If the force Malm calls for is not based on consent, we will inevitably be launching ourselves on a downward spiral into bureaucratic dictatorship. Let’s now clarify the “we” I am using here: the intellectuals and activists discussing these issues – that is, similar forces to those who in previous historical instances dragged their societies into dangerous dead-ends.

Remarkably, Malm discusses factory takeovers without bringing workers in. Oil companies indeed need to be nationalized, as he asserts, and their resources turned into carbon capture facilities, machines, and personnel. When capital does anything to approximate the carbon capture which scientists argue is required at a global level, it circulates the carbon back into the atmosphere. Not selling it would not be profitable, Malm demonstrates: businesses will not produce something they would afterwards have to sink into the ground. Only the state can sink carbon into the ground globally. However, the book does not include one mention of organizing or mobilizing the workers of these companies to carry out the necessary nationalizations. It appears that “we” are burdened with the nationalization. But who is going to run these companies after “we” nationalize them?

Ironically, Malm introduces the section where he discusses oil nationalization with an anti-bureaucracy, pro-democracy quote from Lenin, yet comes to rely so much on the state as his prose unfolds. Without any articulation of the social actors who could take on nationalization processes, the talk of democracy will be just talk. It might be objected that workers are so complicit in pollutant capitalism that they can’t be counted on. But negating that option goes nowhere towards nailing down an effective social replacement.

Then, there is the problem of the winter palace itself. Grabbing control of a second rate empire granted the Bolsheviks the chance to start a socialist experiment on a huge scale. But they knew everything would go to ruin if their institutions did not spread beyond Russia. Malm is incautiously sanguine that a revolutionary takeover might not produce similar bottlenecks today. But he is unspecific regarding the international form war communism will assume.

The eco-revolution is either global or it is nothing, but how do you accomplish global war communism in a world of a few imperial powers, perhaps a dozen effective nation-states, and many state-like yet ineffective entities? How many of these would you have to storm to even initiate a global process? There can be no immediate answer to this question, but it has to be confronted. And confront similar questions Lenin did, even if without any resolution.

Left-wing communism

In sum, as we approach the end of Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, the proposed strategy starts to look less and less like Lenin’s historical practice. One might say, “Well, it is after all the twenty-first century. How could it resemble Lenin’s?” However, Malm’s strategy does vaguely resemble other twentieth (or even nineteenth) century revolutionaries, their names surfacing as he wraps up the book, and raising some troubling questions.

The more Malm quotes Lenin, the deeper the problem becomes. On pages 150-154, he repeatedly reminds us of Lenin’s quote regarding emergencies: we should act today, or even “this very night.” There is an issue with the time horizons of this section. Tonight? Metaphorically or really? What would happen if a band of ecological activists stormed a core capitalist state next week? Probably, not much would change. It would quickly be neutralized or get stuck in Trump’s famous “swamp.”

Taking over the state without involving organized workers is a dead-end. We of course cannot wait for the emergence of soviets or similar structures, where workers organize themselves and prepare a more democratic basis for storming the proverbial winter palace. But we can build cadres that will give them direction when such self-organizations begin to form. However, that will not be achieved through Luxemburgism, Blanquism, or Guevarism – the three historical references that Malm quickly throws into the mix at the very end of the book, without seriously exploring them. Seeing them so hastily invoked acts as a warning sign, since the sense of emergency in the absence of an organized working class and its cadres has so frequently led to self-defeating spontaneism and adventurism.

For an effective eco-Leninism

For an effective eco-Leninism, these three far left strategies need to be differentiated and handled with care. The first, I argue, should be seen as an ally. We need Rosa Luxemburg’s spirit and some of her mobilizing techniques. But they would not be sufficient without mass organization led by cadres. Luxemburg held deep objections to Lenin’s organizational and strategic methods. Nevertheless, effective organization that respects the autonomy of its component parts requires the absorption of Luxemburgism into Leninism.

The second far left option should always be rejected. Blanquism is mostly associated with top-down putschism. When it involves bottom-up action, that comes through professional revolutionaries electrifying the masses via provocative actions. Lenin’s critique of Blanqui’s professional revolutionary was directed at precisely that reliance on provocation and top-down action. The Bolsheviks organized and mobilized through (mostly) conscious debate, example-setting, offering concrete solutions to concrete problems, and education. Not through provocation.

As for the third option – many circumstances call for a Guevarist response (action, including violent action, by highly select cells). But it can’t constitute the backbone of an ecological revolution either. When cell action backfires, cadres, militants, activists, and communities must have a theoretically equipped organization to fall back on: an organization that can help them make sense of what went wrong and figure out what to do next.

Without the necessary cadres, any call that we should act “this very night” can only lead to the dead end strategies above. A more realistic timespan to lay the basis of a sustainable ecosocialism is at least five to ten years, the time it took Lenin to build his cadres. It might seem as if it can be done faster under today’s relatively more democratic and virtually connected conditions. But the global scale of organization needed will slow us down. Speculation aside, there are countless ecosocialist groupings throughout the world that need to be melded into a vanguard. That vanguard has to include workers from companies most key to an ecological revolution (or, whatever the social equivalent of workers might be). And one thing is for certain: these cadres will not be constituted overnight.

When Lenin wrote we have to act this very night, it was the autumn of 1917. He was speaking to people already in the middle of a revolution. That call came after 10+ years of organizing, and months of strategizing through the “soviet” landscapes of Petrograd and Moscow. It was a tactical, not a strategic call – though Lenin infamously lacked a working differentiation between the two, and it fell to Trotsky to link them, and decisively march on the Winter Palace.

If we don’t carefully balance a mass strategy with timely tactics, a too heavy recourse to left-communism could follow. Such an unfortunate turn of the movement could lead to decades of dispersion, demobilization, and demoralization, as it did in the United States after the 1960s, when, let us not forget, many of those spearheading American left-communism called themselves Leninists. In the case of today’s ecological movement, a decade of demoralization would be fatal.

Neo-Leninism: a hybrid economy, a composite strategy

Malm’s broader approach does not have to take us down left-communist strategic paths. The framework of Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, however, does introduce serious limitations in the economic realm with its exclusive reliance on the state. It is problematic to equate Leninism with any single economic policy. Lenin could switch quickly from a more authentic, class power-based socialism in the months following October 1917, to war communism during 1918-1921, to the relatively more market-oriented NEP after 1921.

What defines Leninism is not a specific economic doctrine, but the question of proletarian leadership of “the people.” Whatever will win and sustain such leadership (and build socialism in the long run) is the Leninist economic policy. Our ecologically traumatised situation might necessitate a heavier recourse to war communism-like policies, compared to the Bolshevik decade. Even so, they will always have to be synthesized with other policies.

The planet is literally burning and we do not want to wait any more. The sense of emergency is in the air. Yet, without some preparation, any alarmist action would result in political, economic, and social suicide. How do we navigate through a global capitalism way more complex than in Lenin’s time, despite our extreme lack of preparation and the disorganization of the working class?

Malm’s call for a “libertarian Leninism” is surely right on target. A twenty-first century strategy that melds Leninism with anarchist, council communist, Luxemburgist and other left-libertarian tendencies, along with some tools of social democracy, is our way out of ecological collapse. However, we do not even have the broad outlines of such a neo-Leninism yet… either in Malm’s book or anywhere else.

This strategy needs to assess what kind of social force could shoulder the role the working class played in the Bolshevik decade of 1917-1927. Replacements offered in recent decades – the youth, the multitude, the nation, the people – have not so far lived up to the promise. This requires a thorough analysis not only of contemporary global capitalism, but the political and social institutions that sustain it.

These interrelated strands can be interwoven only through further enhancing ongoing organization and struggles for ecological goals at local, national, and global levels. There is no way of finalizing any of them in isolation and away from political practice. It is our most immediate task to develop such a strategy.