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Catastrophe Alert ! A revolutionary book ?

Barring certain notable exceptions, such as L’écologie du sapeur Camember by Tom Thomas [1], books dealing with the ecological issues posed by Capitalist development from a Marxist-Leninist Communist point of view are very few and far between. Catastrophe Alert ! by Stefan Engel, leader of the MLPD (Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany) claims to be one such book. But does it really fit the bill ? That is what were are about to discover.


The main body of the book (pages 95-244) lists a range of issues, from the ozone layer, climate change and deforestation to fossil fuels and nuclear energy and so on and so forth.
There’s a lot to be learnt from the book regarding the facts on the ground and the way they are put into perspective is often enlightening. The problem of the ecological dead-end has been raised since the end of the post-Second World War period (1945-1975) and has been the subject of grand declarations and international conferences, but always dealt with by the Capitalists in terms of “they’ll sort it all”. But despite all the empty promises, pillage and pollution have gone on regardless.
But despite the litany of ecological problems mentioned, much still remains to be said. Why, for instance, fail to mention hurricane Katrina and New Orleans in 2005, where the way the situation was handled by the Bush administration was so politically typical. Giving the order to evacuate the area was the only initiative undertaken beforehand, which only affected people who had access to a vehicle and who could afford to pay for a hotel, before sending in the troops to prevent looting, in other words poor people taking the supplies they needed from the shops.
Capitalism leads us to barbarity. There is only one solution : Socialism. What is to be done ? asks the book. More precisely, the question should be : How is Socialism the one and only solution to this capitalist behaviour heading towards an unprecedented catastrophe ? This is where we encounter the true line of the MLPD, as well as our disagreements with it…


One of the first differences we have with the book is expressed in the subtitle : What Is To Be Done Against the Wilful Destruction of the Unity of Humanity and Nature ?, with the opening chapter specifically focusing on the “fundamental unity of Humanity with Nature”, suggesting that the ultimate aim of Communism is to return to this fundamental unity, the original harmony which reigned during primitive Communism.
But for early humans Nature was both a paradise and a wilderness, a nurturing mother and the cruel step-mother. Nor, as stated by the VP-Platform, will the Communism to come be “some sort of earthly paradise […], but a society where contradictions, which while continuing to exist, are no longer couched in terms of opposing classes” (Brochure/Cahier 2, page 6).
There is, has been and will be both unity AND contradiction. Humans themselves are at the same time an part of nature ; their outer “inorganic”, wrote Marx. But at the same time nothing made by humans is natural : it is all artificial, created by them and modifying them in turn. Communism will bring with it the burgeoning of awareness, both mastering and respecting not only Nature but also that which is artificial.
How is it possible to understand this evolution from primitive Communism to final Communism correctly through class societies if this initial dialectic between humankind and Nature is replaced by the metaphysics of unity ?


This failure to address the underpinning contradictions crops up in surprising assertions, e.g. : “With the advent of the natural sciences and the industrial mode of production, humans created the highest level yet of unity between humankind and Nature” (p. 37). The scientific and technical mastery of the laws of nature allowed humanity today to gain an unprecedented mastery over Nature. But domination is not unity ! It is mastery and destruction. In his Dialectics of Nature, Engels remarked that : “[…] our mastery of [Nature] consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws”, which is precisely what Capitalism fails to take into account.

Another surprising paragraph appears on page 80 : “Up until the 1980s, the global ecological crisis remained an general corollary of the Capitalist mode of production. As long as this crisis continued to lack an intrinsic character, the ecological balance could have been re-established by the active resistance of the masses against the policy adopted by the monopolies and their governments.”
According to this, up until the 1980s the ecological crisis was an epiphenomenon of Capitalism and in this respect the system could still be reformed and the ecological balance could still have been redressed by applying an alternative policy by a different government. In other words, until the end of the thirty-year period following the end of the Second World War, ecological reformism was valid.
This is tantamount to mistaking the outer appearance for the inner essence, failing to recognise that an underlying contradiction is just as real and “intrinsic” as an blatant contradiction.


Drawing on the work of the chemist von Liebig, in volume I of Capital, Marx criticises the metabolic rift (i.e. the process of biochemical exchanges) between humankind and Nature caused by Capitalism, stating in his earliest works, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, that : “[Communism] is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man” and : “This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism.”

Unity indeed, but it should also be noted that the two terms – humankind and Nature – are always present and that Nature is “humanised”.
In volume 3, Marx goes on to say that : “Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature ; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”

Within this dialectical triad of primitive communism, class society and Communism, unity and contradiction are both present at each stage : initial unity, but with humanity dominated by the “blind force” of Nature ; Humanity then dominating Nature in order to take advantage of it, when contradiction comes to the fore ; unity and contradiction finally become conscious, “rational” and well-managed.
It should be added that this Communist program involves a political struggle rather than an essentially ideological one, i.e. a (proletarian) way of thinking set against another (petit bourgeois) mind-set. It is an outright class struggle, both economic and social, expressed by an ideological and political struggle.
For Marx, the main relationship between Humanity and Nature is comprised of work, that exclusively human activity which is anything but unity, a point made clearly by Tom Thomas in his book L’écologie du sapeur Camember.

For us, the main contradiction regarding the issues of ecology within the bourgeois current is the contradiction which underpins Capitalism as a whole, where society increasingly bears the brunt of production while ownership remains in private hands. That is also the crux of the rift which exists between the petite bourgeois ecologist current which underrates this fundamental contradiction, leading it to fall back, on this question and on other issues, on the hope of a Capitalism driven by a sense of a fairer and more rational motive than mere profit.


On page 9 we read the following : “It is only in a Sociality society free from the exploitation of man by man that Humanity and Nature will form a successful unity. It will only be in a classless, Communist society that the humanisation of Nature and the naturalisation of Humankind will become relatively complete as formulated by Karl Marx.”. This gives rise to a new ambiguity : What is it to be, Socialism or Communism ? On page 51 we stumble upon an inexistent reality, namely the “Socialist mode of production”, albeit backed up by a quote by Engels, who actually talks about a “complete upheaval”.
In the field of ecology as elsewhere, the result is an idealisation of the socialist period, which is in fact a long period of transition between two modes of production : the capitalist and the communist modes, the scenario of an relentless class struggle, including the way Nature is dealt with. And an international revolutionary war between the capitalist countries on the one side and the socialist countries on the other could wreak yet more ecological havoc to that already inherited from Capitalism.
Challenging modern anti-communism, a constant thread running through the MLPD, seems appropriate in the case of ecologists. But in the last chapter of the book we discover that Stalin was a great Communist ecologist with an unfortunate entourage, like all good monarchs, made up of bureaucratic petite bourgeoisie with no time for environmental matters (pp. 310 and 322). But there is no mention of the soviet ecological precursors who coined the terms biodiversity and biosphere (Vladimir Vernadsky). Lenin, following in Marx’s footsteps, stated that a scientific management of the natural resources was called for, thus setting him apart from the bourgeois policies of pure and simple spoliation and destruction for the benefit of capital. (see the article on Lenin and Ecology)
Have those of us who, like VP, follow the example of the Communist Party of China under Chairman Mao’s leadership, criticise the theory of productive forces and the “human and ecological disasters” that it has wrought (VP Platform, Brochure 2, page 8) also fallen prey to modern-day anti-communism ? Stefan Engel writes in Catastrophe Alert ! (page 49) : “the revolutionary development of the productive forces” is the “basis of unity between Humankind and Nature”. If he really wishes to discuss new, more respectful relationships between Humanity and Nature, then we believe that the solution lies essentially at the level of the relations of production. In other words, the driving force behind change will be social and political, not technical.
The conservation of the forests is the main proof cited as evidence of the allegedly ecological nature of policy under Stalin (pages 309, 318 and 324), followed by crop rotation, conservation of the Siberian tiger, etc. This, however, contradicts the view expressed, for example, by J. B. Foster who stated that the disconnection of Soviet thinking from ecological issues from the 1930s was far-reaching and also affected Western Marxism (European Revisionism) which completely turned its back on ecological questions until the 1970s (The Ecological Revolution. Making Peace with the Planet).

The achievements of the Chinese revolution are the most numerous and most convincing examples quoted on the following pages of Catastrophe Alert !. It should also be noted that in France, since the beginning of the 20th Century “and following an extended period of deterioration, the wooded surface area increased (over 6 million hectares in one century” (according to National Institute of Geographic and Forestry Information) and crop rotation has also been practiced there for centuries. And while French imperialism has no tiger of its own to protect, it does have all sorts of other endangered species which is seeks to conserve. When measured against Stalin, French imperialism is very ecological.


The book’s subtitle What is to be done ? begs the question : By whom ? An odd formula on page 291 states that the proletariat must lead the working class : “The only force capable of […] forging ahead with determination is the working class at the global level, on condition that it reaches a revolutionary alliance with all the oppressed of the Earth, under the leadership of the international industrial proletariat concentrated in the large-scale production centres of the international supermonopolies.”
This way of thinking typically associated with the MLPD comes out clearly here, whereby the workers, employees, members of the labour aristocracy, non-managerial white-collar workers of large-scale companies – more precisely those of the imperialist countries – make up the global driving force. Surely an example of the kind of chauvism by a super power criticised by Lenin himself. As far as ecology is concerned, it is a fact that a petit bourgeois movement did grew up in the 70s after the worker’s’ organisations had become reformist. But that does not mean that the contradiction between ecology and the economy is synonymous with a contradiction between the working class and the petite bourgeoisie : it is above all a contradiction within the working class movement itself (employment and wages as opposed to living and working conditions and being a producer rather than consumer) and partly a contradiction between the short-term and long-term interests. In a word : economism and reformism OR revolution and Communism ?
The MLPD supports the creation of a new trade union, “the union of ecologists” (p. 295), intended to indirectly strengthening the party of the proletariat. In reality, however, it would actually serve to create an alliance where the working class drag along behind the petite bourgeoisie, with the workers no longer required to clarify the issue of ecology within their own trade union organisation, rather than building their political independence around revolutionary ecology in the struggle against the petite bourgeois line, in order to enable them to rally the workers to their position and to galvanise them around their organisation. In other words, what really lies behind this strange initiative of creating a new union is nothing more than an opportunistic tactic.
The same could equally be said of the book’s constant emphasis on restoring the unity between Humankind and Nature. Politically, nothing should be done to upset the petite bourgeoisie in its struggle to reform Capitalism, an aim which it can set itself because the conditions for this (relative) unity are not seen as a philosophical prerequisite, i.e. a revolutionary transformation of the relations of production (under the guidance of the dictatorship of the proletariat).


Modern, chemical-based farming has polluted Nature, the full extent of which architects, biologists, physicists, etc. fail to grasp. But those hardest hit are the farmers themselves, who fall prey to cancers and other serious illnesses. Similarly, the most highly polluted environment that the workers are exposed to is their workplace and even the food that they can afford to meat is of an inferior quality to than that consumed by the bourgeoisie, none of which is barely touched upon in the book Catastrophe Alert ! which fails to even mention, for example, the particularly emblematic asbestos scandal.
Working conditions are summed up in no more than a few words : women employed in the textile industry (p. 174), workers in nuclear power plants (p. 199) and uranium mines (p. 204), before going on to discuss the “over-exploitation of the human workforce” (p. 291). (“Over-exploitation” is a notion that VP avoids, because the real problem lies with “normal”, legal exploitation). Even so, the subject of over-exploitation runs to no more than three pages, dealing only working time and atypical hours, which are not problems specific to the proletariat.
What is to be done ? We quake in our boots when we read “work [must aim to be] increasingly productive”, a phrase reminiscent of Stakhanovism. The concepts of wealth and work are not subverted and deconstructed in Catastrophe Alert ! as they are in Marx himself, for whom true wealth was free time : “[…] the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter II), with work leading to this individual and social “free development”.
While the book continually draws a distinction between petit bourgeois reformism and a revolutionary current yet to be built within the ecology movement, there is no trace of criticism regarding capitalist production itself, its goods and its relations of production.
As a case in point, three short, scattered paragraphs deal with the product-cum-symbol of Capitalism, the private car : the monopolies are opposed to renewable energies and public transport (p. 94) ; fuel cells and electric motors are a boon (p. 167), but biofuels are not, because 92% are derived from food crops (p. 250). That’s all, apart from an aside to the effect that the 7th CITA (International Automobile Workers’ Counsel), held in Munich in 2012, “is committed to working resolutely”. Failing to link the criticism of the ecological disaster caused by to Capitalism to a class-based critique of production and consumption which sacrifices human lives on the altar of profit, effectively renders the analysis superficial and the ensuing struggle inevitably ineffective, leading us to believe that correctly-oriented technical progress is the solution, whereas, in fact, the relations of production lie at the very heart of the criticism that we should defend in order to overcome ecological problems and social and human calamities.
The book abounds with passages which state that the ecological crisis is the “result of the nature” of Capitalism. But isn’t the juxtaposition of approaches geared to a reconciliation with the petite bourgeoisie and grand anti-reformist declarations symptomatic of a lack of clarification ?


In sum, at the philosophical level, behind the constant references to dialectical materialism, the book is grounded in the vision of a metaphysical unity of Humankind and Nature.
At the historical level, despite the apparent verve to counter bourgeois anti-communism, in actual fact it only serves to feed it by referring to societies as ‘socialist’ which they were socialist in name only, in reality State capitalism and examples of what not to do in the field of ecology.
At the strategic level, the author states that the proletarian revolution is the only solution to the ecological disaster. However, the book fails to address the problems specifically affecting the living and environmental conditions of the working class, nor the necessary upheavals in production and consumption that such a revolution would lead to.
At the tactical level, the author supports the creation of a union of ecologists which would effectively set the proletariat to work at the bidding of the petite bourgeoisie rather than the other way round.
The book is all the more insidious because it lays claim to Marx, Lenin, Mao and Communism !

Catastrophe Alert ! What Is To Be Done Against the Willful Destruction of the Unity of Humanity and Nature ? 13€

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