Is the Left-Green Network Really Green?

by Lorna Salzman

A new "tendency" within the Green Committees of Correspondence announced its formation recently at the Interregional GCoC meeting and has issued a statement of principles grounded in social ecology. Spearheaded by several individuals in the orbit of Murray Bookchin, and including numerous Canadians, the network, while ostensibly sharing, for all intents and purposes, virtually all of the Green CoC Ten Key Values and principles, must nonetheless be regarded as either naïve or dishonest, and severely lacking in ecological consciousness and commitment.

The evidence for this indictment, which may appear harsh but certainly no more so than Bookchin's strident attacks on spirituality and deep ecology, stands out quite clearly in the "call for a Left Green Network" and its Principles. The statement opens with the unremarkable assertion that the existing world system "is based on an economic structure with a 'grow-or-die' imperative that threatens to destroy life as we know it"; it then goes on to define the present system's manifestations as "capitalist and bureaucratist…"; the term "anti-capitalist" appears frequently, as a way of demonstrating Bookchin's charge that Green usage of the terms "industrialism" and "industrial society" are inadequate and inaccurate.

It can be argued, on the contrary, that the Left Green Network (LGN) use of the fudged terms "bureaucratic", "state managers", and "bureaucratic statism" rather than the upfront word "socialism" smacks of apologism for either socialism itself or for the ecological excrations committed by socialist (and democratic socialist) economies and states of both the east and west blocs. But since the LGN is itself promoting socialism, or some kind of socialized "municipalism" (Bookchin used the word "eco-collectivism" in the December 1988 issue of Green Perspective, as tame and un-subversive a term as one can find), it apparently is still nervous about an outright proposal for socialism in this country (with good reason).

It is incumbent on the LGN to define just what it means by Left, and further, to distinguish between its own view of municipal socialism as opposed to present Leftist programs and manifestations in east and west. Are they proposing to abolish all forms of private enterprise, whatever their size, structure or purpose? Who will own resources, control production, and what criteria and objectives will guide these decisions? How do they propose to make these new socialized structures congruent with Green decentralist, participatory and community values? In their statement on the "cooperative commonwealth", the LGN says: "Basic industries and services would be socialized through municipalization into community ownership and control". Does this include shoemakers, carpenters, tailors? Bread stores? Laundromats? Art supply stores? Drugstores and hardware stores?

These questions are pertinent because Bookchin has angrily attacked deep ecologists for failing to distinguish between oppressor and oppressed; is not the LGN itself proposing to socialize small businesses that play no role in the oppressive policies dictated by the corporate sector or by the Federal government? Is the LGN therefore not equally guilty of failing to distinguish between the impact of small private businesses, and that of the monstrously scaled, socially irresponsible and unaccountable corporations that are responsible for destroying both human freedom and the natural world? Imagine the alarm of a small businessman when faced with a "Left Green" movement that proposed to take control of his livelihood, claiming that this is the true path to social justice and environmental protection. If the LGN were not proposing this in all seriousness, it would be comical.

The claim that an anti-industrialism posture does not encompass or necessitate fundamental opposition to the present global economy is also naïve. Industrialism subsumes capitalism and socialism; it is the measure, means, structure and object of virtually all societies in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd world, the only exceptions being the 4th world of tribal, aboriginal, unaligned and self-sufficient cultures that hang on by their teeth as independent pockets of ecological living. It is industrial culture and values, as much as capital and technology, that are responsible for destroying these indigenous cultures as well as the natural world; whether it utilizes as its agent the capitalist/corporate sector or the equally irresponsible statist bureaucratic mechanisms of socialist nations, social democratic economies or "state capitalism" is irrelevant; both mechanisms are equally destructive. Industrialism is the disease; capitalism and socialism are its vectors. If the LGN has in mind a decentralist, participatory "municipalism" that is an alternative to industrial socialism, why do they insist on calling themselves Left?

There is, however, something equally disturbing in the LGN statement: the near-absence of the dimension of Nature. A look at their printed statement immediately shows that Nature has been tacked on as an afterthought to the section of Social Ecology, as a footnote rather than a principle, in a single sentence: "As social ecologists, we embrace the conservation of species diversity, habitats and ecosystems and the expansion of wilderness areas." That is literally all they have to say about the condition of our planet, the unraveling of the biosphere life support systems, the systematic planned degradation of the global commons, the extinction by industrialism and economic growth of millions of non-human species and their biotic communities upon which all life forms, including human, depend. Any platform or program that does not explicitly recognize these facts, and more importantly, that does not make the struggle to counteract ecological disaster the fulcrum of its program, is either uninformed, seduced by technological fixes, or blinded by ideological passion.

The LGN draws a harsh unforgiving picture of the Green movement (presumably the Green CoCs), which it accuses of avoiding controversy, rejecting accountable structures, falling into a "tyranny of structurelessness", being compromised by "anti-intellectual irrationalism (and) a proselytizing religiosity and liberal 'tolerance' of an intolerant mean-spirited Malthusianism", being mired in a contradictory mix of orientations–peace, justice and ecology activism along with non-political mysticism and 'deep ecological' misanthropy", finally, it accuses the Green movement of lacking a "clear commitment to convergence of environmental movements with movements for economic justice, racial equality, women's liberation and other emancipatory movements", and of seeking "conciliation with the Democrats…and with anti-leftist mysticism".

This is quite a mouthful. For those of us who have forged working relationships and friendships with widely diverse individuals in the Green movement (no one I have met has any intention of working with the Democratic or Republican Party), this indictment is stupefying–and fictional. To refute these charges would take reams of paper, but a few of the charges should be dealt with. The LGN deplores Green (GCoC?) structurelessness, despite the fact that most outside criticism of the GCoCs has been based on what outsiders perceive as a rather rigid system and structure.

The so-called "tolerance" of "mean-spirited Malthusianism" refers of course to statements made by Dave Foreman and Edward Abbey of Earth First!, a group that is not a Green CoC and on that does not describe itself as Green. But is the Green CoC, or the movement as a whole, the keeper of all environmental or activist groups? Why not go after the Sierra Club, or Greenpeace, reportedly a hierarchically structured group? Should the Green movement waste its valuable time and energy taking up arms against a sea of upstarts, energy that should more fruitfully be directed at building the movement or at real enemies? Is it required morally to do battle with every individual or group that makes headlines because of intemperate, stupid or misguided statements?

Most important, is the Green movement compromised in the public eye by Earth First's statements–or for that matter tactics? Couldn't it just as well be said that it is compromised by having within its ranks a Left Green Network that has made the destruction of capitalism and private enterprise its chief aim–a goal that could lead much of America (including, I might add, member of movements for economic, racial and social justice; you don't have to be a spiritual mystic to be anti-left) to shun a movement that seems intent on destroying free enterprise and replacing it with a socialist economy?

Another point: the LGN characterizes the GCoC consensus process as abusive, but this is misleading. The Green CoCs seek consensus but, failing this, have a process to bring resolutions to a vote; this process, as far as one can tell, is identical to the LGN decision-making process; it has been necessitated in the Green CoCs on a few occasions, including a resolution initiated by LGN member Howie Hawkins (which failed) to coerce a local CoC, the NY Green Party, into forming a region with a non-CoC group with which it had principled differences and which failed to meet CoC admission criteria. Hawkins' failure to force this on a local CoC is apparently what he considers an "abuse" of the consensus process. More recently, Hawkins and others in the LGN are trying to take credit for preventing the entry into the IC of precisely that same group whose admission they tried to force by subverting IC process and indulging in vicious and hominem attacks against the NY Green Party.

Equally stupefying is the LGN statement rejecting a "supernaturalism that promotes the separation of humanity from nature". Now, as anyone familiar with Green spiritual writings is aware, the crux of their beliefs lies in humanity as arising from and being embedded in Nature. If the LGN is not intentionally twisting facts, it has so seriously misinterpreted spirituality writings as to imagine they stand for the exact opposite of what they explicitly state.

Indeed, Bookchin himself suffers from this confusion. Despite the fact that biocentrism–the belief that humans are but one life form among many–by definition embeds humans within Nature, Bookchin attacks it as anti-humanist. Now, he can't have it both ways. If spirituality separates humans from nature, it is therefore humanist and not biocentric, and therefore is exempt from Bookchin's attacks. If, however, one takes spiritual Greens at their word that they include humans within Nature, they are not only biocentric but believe in something Bookchin himself believes in: the unity of humans and Nature.

Unless one believes in a creative deity that intended, at the moment of creation, that humans be the pinnacle of life on earth, (or the end product of evolution), there is no basis for believing in anything other than biocentrism and the unity of humans and non-humans: that the human species is one of many, and that from an evolutionary/biological perspective (not a moral or social perspective), humans are no more or less important than non-human species. Thus, it is biocentrism (whether promoted by evolutionists or spiritualists), not social ecology and humanism, that unites humanity with nature. Accusing spirituality of separating humans from nature is, apparently, seen by Bookchin as the best way to discredit it.

It would be easy to attribute the LGN discomfort with the Green movement, and the absence of ecology as the philosophical core of its manifesto, to their disputes with Earth First, spirituality per se, and the academic debates over "deep ecology". But one suspects there is more at work here, especially since a cool-headed and impartial examination of the LGN/Bookchin charges against the Green movement do not stand up to scrutiny (Earth First is neither a CoC nor explicitly Green; spirituality is not the sole or even primary motivation in the Green movement and thus no more threatening than the fact that some Greens may be Catholic or libertarian or Republicans; deep ecology is not the Green ideology but a philosophical and academic proposition, etc., etc.).

That the movement (unlike the LGN, it should be added) has not yet published a full-blown political platform like the German Greens (which LGN now deems the "Left" in Germany) is something for which we should be grateful, for were such a Green platform to precede rather than follow the development of accountable participatory processes and structures at the grassroots level, it would violate Green principles and lack legitimacy. That, on the contrary, the LGN has (that is, a small founding group of Left views) developed a lengthy social and political program that blames capitalism for everything and sees its overthrow as the answer to all our problems, indicates that the LGN has not abjured the traditional Left process and has no intention of developing grassroots structures to create an accountable, legitimate praxis and program from the bottom up. The LGN has declared its intent to bring into being a "cooperative commonwealth" or socialist "municipalism" before it has initiated any kind of broad outreach and organizing program, without the input of their supposedly numerous Leftist sympathizers across the country, perhaps on the assumption that anything that calls itself "Left" will be automatically embraced by all those who consider themselves Left. (They many be correct.)

At the risk of being accused of "Left-baiting," it seems that the LGN is "Left" not because its values or even main objectives are strikingly different from Green movement values and objectives, but because, like the traditional Left and Marxists, it persists in promoting an a priori political world-view that can then be applied across the board to all extant societal problems. In this way, the general precedes the specific; the societal critique and prescription come first, and real-life issues get addressed and resolved out of this critique; thus ecology becomes simply another issue alongside all the others, another entry on the data sheet.

The Green critique does the reverse. It precedes from specifics to the general, from the concrete problems that exist and thence to appropriate and appropriate-scale solutions and program. While the Left and social ecology adherents work from the premise that ending domination of human by human will end domination of Nature, the Green analysis says that by specifically and programmatically addressing the specific problems of the destruction of Nature, an appropriate social analysis and critique, and then a program, can be developed that not only resolves the problem at hand but, by the nature of this broad social critique, necessarily gives rise to a re-structuring (or replacement) of existing institutions.

This difference in approach is the fundamental and perhaps irreconcilable distinction between the world-view of the LGN and that of the Green movement. If it is incorrect, perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that the LGN will cease its spirituality-trashing, its false dichotomies and broad generalizations about the Green movement, and be more honest in addressing what it regards as faults in the Green movement. So far, their manifesto adds little of substance that is incompatible with the Green movement, while being reprehensibly devoid of any extensive understanding of the extent and significance of the global ecological crisis. If they continue to insist that one cannot be Green without being anti-capitalist, then the appropriate response is this: it is industrialism in all its manifestations that needs to be addressed and curtailed, if not abolished, not only the institutions and mechanisms by which it persists.

Source: Green Synthesis, June 1989, pgs. 9-11.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.