The ecological sins of Leon Trotsky

The organizer of the Red Army, Stalin's greatest rival, was insufficiently green. Does this mean permanent revolution is unsustainable?

Published October 8, 2007 10:34PM (EDT)

Sixty-seven years after his murder, Leon Trotsky's detractors are still swinging their ice axes at his head. If he were alive today, writes Sandy Irvine in the current issue of the Marxist discussion journal What Next?, he would likely be a supporter of genetically modified crops and transgenic animals.

Yes, add this to the list of Trotsky's mistakes -- he missed the ideological boat on ecological sustainability. Just like your average techno-libertarian, he foolishly believed that science would lead humanity to a promised land of abundance for all.

How could he have been so blind?

From "The Prophet Misarmed: Trotsky, Ecology and Sustainability:

It is argued here that Trotsky both reflected and encouraged an even worse tendency amongst the radical Left, namely an almost total myopia about the most significant of all developments in the 20th century, the ecological crisis. It is the most serious, all-embracing challenge of our times. Global overwarming is only one of many symptoms of dangerous planetary disorder. Not only did Trotsky fail to anticipate the most serious failing in the dominant social and economic order, he actually endorsed technologies, lifestyle choices and policy goals that could only serve to increase the unsustainable impact of humankind on the Earth's life-support systems.

This thesis is then elaborated on for almost 20,000 words.

Given the evidence, one must immediately grant that Irvine's basic characterization of Trotsky as unconcerned with ecological issues is correct. As Irvine proves by quoting from "Literature and Revolution," Trotsky was a big believer in the primacy of Man over Nature.

The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils' practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing "on faith," is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad...

Would Trotsky care to revise that last sentence if alive today and able to witness the wonders of, say, modern Las Vegas, a city that Irvine describes as blending "gross vulgarity with extreme unsustainability"? We'll never know. But Trotsky's failings of ecological correctness are not Irvine's real concern. Trotsky believed capitalism was oppressing the proletariat. Irvine believes capitalism is destroying the ecosystem. So, in that sense, the two are part of a united front. Capitalism must go! But for those on the right who believe that radical greens are just communists by another name, a closer reading of Irvine's argument might be in order. Because Trotsky did believe in a future of material prosperity for everyone. To which Irvine says bunk.

In short: Trotsky's dream of universal affluence for all is an infantile disorder.

Irvine's real agenda is to lay out the familiar "limits to growth" argument that holds that endless economic expansion, whether driven by capitalist "free" markets or communist five-year plans, is ecologically unsustainable. Humanity is in the process of a population "overshoot" in which it has already vastly exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. As a consequence, the numbers of humans on the planet must be reduced, and everyone living will have to be satisfied with less rather than more. Technology cannot and will not save us. Oh, and it would be best if we all stopped eating meat.

This may well all be true. But it seems to me that if Trotsky were alive today, he would more likely be making a similar argument than singing the praises of Monsanto. In other words, he might just be a green fellow traveler who, like Irvine, decides that "the deepest anti-capitalist argument and the biggest one in favor of some form of planned economy" is precisely the fact that "biogeophysical limits to growth" ensure that "capitalism is an inherently unsustainable form of economic organization."

But that's idle speculation. The real question raised -- and not at all answered -- by Irvine's essay is, supposing that eco-suicide does loom for humanity, how practically does one go about avoiding it? Because, as a Marxist rebuttal to Irvine also published in What Next? argues, it's difficult to imagine a popular movement winning electoral success in any of the world's current working democracies while running on a platform of forced sterilization; a ban on pork, beef and chicken consumption; and the denial of the right to drive. The populations of China and India, just for starters, are not going to be easily dissuaded from reaching for the standard of living enjoyed in the United States and Europe.

Sometimes, the impossible is the only way forward. As has been noted in How the World Works numerous times before, affluent societies experience slower -- or even negative -- population growth than do poor societies. Which raises the very real possibility that Trotsky's dream -- universal affluence for all -- is a prerequisite for achieving sustainability on this planet.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Environment Globalization How The World Works