Harbinger Vol. 3 No. 1– Reflections: An Overview of the Roots of Social Ecology




he extent to which radical versions of environmentalism underwent sweeping metamorphoses and evolved into revolutionary ideologies when the New Left came of age is difficult to convey to the present generation, which has been almost completely divorced from the ebullient days of the New Left, not to speak of all the major problems in classical socialism, especially in its Marxist form. These changes burden us to this very day.

In fact, the way in which the New Left initially reacted to my writings on social ecology, even to such manifesto-type articles as my “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought”(1964), was very similar to the way my comrades of the Old Left would have reacted in the 1930s. Perhaps the most sophisticated leftist “movement” of the sixties—and certainly the most arrogant, namely, the French Situationists and their American hangers-on—witlessly denounced me as “Smokey the Bear”(a childlike symbol of the US Forest Service!), so irrelevant was the issue of humanity’s place in the natural world to the Left of the sixties. Accordingly, I was asked repeatedly where the “class struggle” was located in my writings—as though the “class struggle” was not implicit in everything I wrote!—after which I was lectured on how Marx and Engels were “really” firm adherents of the very views for which I had been denounced a few years earlier. My dogmatic opponents of the Left began to shift their ground by trying to fit environmental issues into such frameworks such as the importance of conservation in Marx and Engels’s writings. In short, the Left had been oblivious to ecological issues, which were merely regarded as a “petty bourgeois” endeavor to redirect public attention away from a hazy need to abolish capitalism pure and simple!

This criticism, to be sure, was not without a certain measure of truth. Anything resembling a socially oriented ecology, such William Vogt’s Our Plundered Planet in the fifties and especially Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, was more concerned with the impacts of human population growth and the loss of wildlife in an increasingly industrialized world than with the material welfare of humanity and the impact of hierarchy on attempts to create a rational society. In some respects, ecologists were inspired by the reactionary motifs raised by Ernst Haeckel, who created the word “ecology” in the 1880s, notably the harm produced by “humanity” on the planet rather than the effects of the capitalist system in producing ostensibly “biological problems.” Although Carson attacked the chemical industry for promoting the use of toxic pesticides, perceptive readers could see that she was more concerned with their impact on birds than on people. Nor did she and other ecological critics examine the socially and negatively systemic sources that produced a growing disequilibrium between nonhuman nature and society. She and her fellow ecological critics often seemed to think in terms of an abstract “humanity” (whatever that socially ambiguous word means) as distinguished from classes. To Carson and her admirers, it was not a specific social order—namely, capitalism and entrepreneurial rivalry—that was responsible for the ecological destruction that was undermining the biosphere but “immoral” human behavior.

By contrast, social ecology completely inverted the meaning and implications of society’s interaction with the natural world. When I first began to use the rarely employed term “social ecology” during 1964 in my essay, “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” I emphasized that the idea of dominating nature has its origins in the very real domination of human by human—that is, in hierarchy. These status groups, I insisted could continue to exist even if economic classes were abolished.

Secondly, hierarchy had to be abolished by institutional changes that were no less profound and far reaching than those needed to abolish classes. This placed “ecology” on an entirely new level of inquiry and praxis, bringing it far above a solicitous, often romantic and mystical engagement with an undefined “nature” and a love-affair with “wildlife.” Social ecology was concerned with the most intimate relations between human beings and the organic world around them. Social ecology, in effect, gave ecology a sharp revolutionary and political edge. In other words, we were obliged to seek changes not only in the objective realm of economic relations but also in the subjective realm of cultural, ethical, aesthetic, personal, and psychological areas of inquiry.

Most fundamentally, these relations exist at the very base of all social life: notably, the ways in which we interact with the natural world, especially through labor, even in the simplest forms of society, such as tribal and village stages of social formation. And certainly, if we had major negative ecological disequilibria between humanity and the natural world which could threaten the very existence of our species, we had to understand how these disequilibria emerged; what we even meant by the word “nature;” how did society emerge out of the natural world; how did it necessarily alienate itself from elemental natural relations; how and why did basic social institutions such as government, law, the state, even classes emerge dialectically from each other before human society came into its own; and in ways that went beyond mere instinct and custom, not to speak of patricentricity, patriarchy, and a host of similar “cultural” relations whose emergence are not easily explained by economic factors alone.

But, it would be an error to view the foregoing presentation of what I would call a minimal account of social ecology as the only theoretical source by which one can teach a course on the subject. I did not develop social ecology only because I was disturbed by the “nature versus society” problem, although it was never far from my mind. Fundamental to my development of social ecology is a crisis that developed in socialist theory itself, one that I regard as unresolvable in a strictly conventional Marxist or anarchist framework—or to use the most all-encompassing phrase of all: proletarian socialism.

This was a painful problem for me to cope with because I did not come to a belief in proletarian socialism as a result of an academic storm in a teacup. I was a very passionate participant in what I thought was a revolutionary labor movement, notably as a member of the Communist youth movement early in the 1930s and as result of a thorough training in Marxism and Bolshevism. I became a rank-and-file leader of the Young Communist League as early as 1933 and was militantly loyal to its ultra-revolutionary program (the reckless insurrectionism promulgated by the Communist International in 1928, or so-called “Third Period” line). Stalin had yet to make his reputation as the major figure that he became in the late thirties; accordingly, my comrades and I of that period never regarded ourselves as “Stalinists” but simply as committed Communists or Marxists who adhered to Lenin’s revolutionary views.

As a result, I was thoroughly, even intensively trained in classical Marxism. This background provided me with a unique insight into problems that, while forgotten at present by young radicals, haunts all of their social projects. Born when the Russian Revolution was still a recent event; when Makhno was still carrying on his guerrilla war in Ukraine; when Lenin, Trotsky, and nearly all the major theorists and activists of the first three decades of the century were still fairly young men; I had the rare chance to imbibe all the fundamental issues and live through most of the great civil conflicts of the era—from the still buoyant aftermath of the Russian Revolution to the tragic outcome of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War of 1937 to 1939. By the outbreak of the Second World War, I was well versed in the issues the war raised for my generation early in the century.

Again, it is difficult to convey to young people, today, how differently proletarian socialists thought and the ideals to which they were committed prior to 1950, which I regard as the year in which proletarian socialism was faced by its most decisive crisis. What cannot be emphasized too strongly is that all of us who survived the ideological debacle produced by the war had to deal with the complete failure of all the prognoses we held five years earlier. Almost all who you care to single out from the interwar period (1917-1940), be it a Lenin, a Trotsky (in my earnest opinion, the most optimistic and the most competent theorist of the period), even going back in time to Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring and the like, were absolutely convinced that capitalism was in its “death throes.” The most widely used formulation during this stormy period—far more insurgent than the often pseudo-revolutionism of the sixties—was the expression that capitalism (as I have already observed) was “moribund,” or facing the imminent certainty of “collapse.” Nothing seemed more evident at the time than the apocalyptic belief that we were witnessing the “last days” of bourgeois society, notwithstanding the fact that fascism was on the march throughout Europe and that proletarian socialist ideology was waning and facing defeat.

The outbreak of the Second World War left no doubt in our minds that the conflict would end in socialist revolutions—or else it was faced with barbarism. And, by barbarism, we meant the expansion of Nazism—of mass starvation, ethnic extermination, concentration camps, a monstrous totalitarian state, and mass graves throughout Europe, if not America and Asia. If socialism did not end the war by producing a new society, barbarism was a historic inevitability. For us, the victory of socialism was a near certainty, for it was inconceivable that Europe, in particular, could go through the mass slaughter that marked the First World War without producing successful proletarian revolutions. Barbarism was the only alternative to a failure by the working class. To a man like Trotsky, who Stalin had killed in the year that saw the outbreak of the world conflict, should barbarism become established in the world, we would have to revise all the expectations provided by Marxism and adopt a historically new ideological perspective.

As we know after more than a half century, we were wrong, indeed terribly so. Neither socialism nor fascism emerged from the war, but, to our amazement, liberal capitalism—with its welfare state and the extension of “bourgeois democracy” in most of Western Europe and the United States. Indeed, capitalism stabilized itself in the historic sense that a “cold war” provided the framework for thinking out social problems—a framework to which the masses clung for nearly fifty years. Capitalism, in short, managed to stabilize itself to a point where it was able to avoid any major economic, not to speak of any social crisis. The New Left, while retaining many features of the Old Left, essentially tried (and failed) to create a cultural “crisis” as a substitute for a revolutionary one—which, as we now know, became a new industry and a commercial success in its own right.

Moreover, capitalism, continued to deepen its hold on society on a scale and to an extent it had never done during the course of its history. All the vestigial features of pre-capitalist society with their monarchical, quasi-feudal, agrarian and craft strata that were still prevalent in Germany, France, and, at least, widespread in England in 1914 gave way, unevenly to be sure, to huge industrial corporations, mass production, the mechanization of all aspects of the economy, widespread commodification at the very base of economic life and monopolization and global accumulation at its summits—i.e. the spread of capitalism into every niche of social life. The concept of “Fordism” was quite known to the Old Left long before it was adopted by New Left academics under such old names as “mass production” and “commodification.”

Finally, the proletariat not only dwindled vastly in numbers (contrary to all of Marx’s expectations) but also in class-consciousness. Workers began to lose their sense of class identity, even began to see themselves as property owners, and significantly altered their social expectations. Home ownership, the acquisition of land, cars, and most significantly, stock ownership now became commonplace. Workers’ children were expected to go to colleges and universities, or, least, enter the professions or create self-employed enterprises. So vastly had class solidarity waned that the once-sturdy proletariat began to vote for conservative parties and join with reactionaries in opposing environmental conservation, gender equality, immigration from impoverished countries, ethnic equality, and similar issues. Paris’s famous prewar 1940 “red belt,” which famously gave its votes to the French Communists as the embodiment of the Russian Revolution in Western Europe, found itself voting, often enthusiastically, for the neo-fascism of the French reactionary, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Notwithstanding the multitude of “breakdown” theories that Marxists and even anarchists advanced during the interwar period, capitalism has proven to be more sturdy and robust during the past fifty years than it was over the course of its entire history. Not only did commodification—its most salient feature—spread throughout the entire world, but it was even spared the recurrence of its notorious “periodic crises” or “business cycles” which reminded the world that a market economy is inherently unstable. Indeed, contrary to all the expectations that followed from Marx’s theories of social life-cycles, the supposition that capitalism would become an obstacle to the development of technology—another salient feature of Marx’s “moribund” society—proved to be nonsense. As a force for advances in industry and technical sophistication, capitalism exhibits incredible vitality—notwithstanding Marx’s prediction that it would soon become incapable of technical innovation and change. Indeed, all the features that were to mark a “moribund” economy have now appeared in reverse: unending technological advances, the absence of the heralded “pauperization” of the working class in the classical areas of capitalist development (England, France, western Europe generally, and the United States), the disappearance of chronic economic crises, and the waning of class consciousness.

By the 1950s, it was self-evident that Marxist (and anarchist) “breakdown” scenarios were palpable nonsense. The notion that the death of capitalism owing to an “economic imperative,” such as the “decline in the rate of profit” (a theoretical construct of Volume III of Capital) constituted a basic explanation for the self-destruction of capitalism was completely untenable. The end of the Second World War brought neither barbarism nor socialism but rather an ideological “vacuum,” so to speak, that threatened, like a huge black hole, to extinguish the veracity of Marx’s entire theoretical corpus. Capitalism, I would like to reiterate, had recovered from the war, as I have noted, with unprecedented resiliency and extended its grip on society with unprecedented tenacity. As the middle of the fifties came into view, nearly all the monarchies, their political and bureaucratic underpinnings; the extensive craft, professional, and agrarian strata that barely a generation earlier had linked the Western European economy with its feudal past—virtually all had been effaced or divested of the authority they enjoyed a generation earlier. Gone were the Prussian Junkers who survived the First World War, the tsars, dukes, and barons who peopled the upper classes of central and southern Europe, the status groups that presided over the academies well into the thirties, and the like. What the German Kaiser and, later, Hitler tried to achieve with terrible weapons and millions of corpses in 1914 and 1940, the German Bundesrepublik achieved with bundles of Deutsche Marks and, more recently, a patina of pacifism!!

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that, in the absence of an imperative to challenge the desirability of a capitalistic society, and no less importantly, the need to demonstrate that capitalism’s death in the foreseeable future was “inevitable,” no objective reason existed for the abolition of bourgeois society. Marx, at least, had satisfied this need with an economic imperative, namely, an immense body of theory (unparalleled in its scope and historical knowledge). As I have noted, this theory was based on such precepts as a chronic crisis produced by the tendency of the rate of profit to decline and by a structurally sophisticated class analysis that inevitably pitted a proletarian majority of an industrialized country against a dwindling number of capitalists. By the 1950s, however, Marxism revealed for all who have eyes to see, that its traditional imperative was completely unsound when compared with the realities of the postwar world, nor could its economic imperative be renovated to meet the challenges posed by the last half of the twentieth century.

It was out of the failure of Marx’s economic imperative that social ecology was born—not solely because of the impact of pollution, urban degradation, toxic food additives, and the like. When, in 1950, I wrote my almost book length article, “The Problem of Chemicals in Food,” in No. 10 of Contemporary Issues, the dangers to public health posed by the chemicalization of food by pesticide residues, preservatives, coloring matter, and the like were still relatively minor issues. The problem of nuclear fallout, the vast number and quantity of pollutants that were to threaten the health of many millions of people, and, later, in 1964, the hazard to the world’s climate created by carbon dioxide, were not immediate issues or widely foreseeable ones. The apocalyptic nature of the 1950 article was dismissed by my critics as “wild and reckless” attacks upon the existing society. Actually, I was trying to provide a viable substitute for Marx’s defunct economic imperative, namely an ecological imperative that, if thought out (as I tried to do in The Ecology of Freedom) would show that capitalism stood in an irreconcilable contradiction with the natural world. Nearly all my articles and books—such as Our Synthetic Environment (1962), followed two years later by my widely circulated article, “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” and a companion article, “Toward a Liberatory Technology,” (1965)—were guided primarily by this project.

I should note that it was in “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” that I used the words, “social ecology” for the first time and began to sketch out the complex body of ideas that ultimately reached their elaboration in The Ecology of Freedom, two decades later. Let me be quite outspoken: it was not an unbridled passion for wildlife, wilderness, organic food, primitivism, craft-like methods of production, villages (as against cities), “localism,” a belief that “small is beautiful”—not to speak of Asian mysticism, spiritualism, naturism, etcetera—that led me to formulate and promote social ecology. I was guided by the compelling—indeed, challenging—need to formulate a viable imperative that doomed capitalism to self-extinction. As the thirties and the war revealed, it was not simply the class war between the proletariat and the capitalist class—driven almost exclusively by economic forces and resulting from the concentration of capital—that were destined to destabilize capitalism and produce a revolution. More fundamentally, the crisis produced by capitalism’s “grow or die” imperative could be expected to drive society into a devastating contradiction with the natural world. Capital, in effect, would be compelled to simplify all the ecosystems on whose complexity evolution depended. Driven by its competitive relations and rivalries, capitalism would be obliged to turn soil into sand, the atmosphere and the planet’s waterways into sewers, and warm the planet to a point where the entire climatic integrity of the world would be radically altered because of the greenhouse effect.

In short, precisely because capitalism was, by definition, a competitive and commodity-based economy, it would be compelled to turn the complex into the simple and give rise to a planet that was incompatible environmentally with advanced life forms. The growth of capitalism was incompatible with the evolution of biotic complexity as such—and certainly, with the development of human life and the evolution of human society.

What is important to see is that social ecology thus revealed a crisis between the natural world and capitalism that was, if anything, more fundamental than the crisis that was imputed to the falling rate of profit and its alleged consequences. Moreover, social ecology opened the very real question of the kind of society that would have to follow the abolition of a capitalist economy. Self-styled Marxists (in all fairness, unlike Marx and Engels) made a virtue out of a centralized, bureaucratically planned, and a highly technocratic ideal of progress, based on an urban and mechanistic culture that was almost a parody of Corbusier’s cityscapes.

Social ecology tried to fill the gap between the industrial and agrarian worlds, not by condemning machinery, mass production, or even industrial agriculture. My “Toward a Liberatory Technology” was deprecated by anarchists and Marxists alike: the former because the article celebrated the use of new gardening machines as a substitute for backbreaking toil; the latter precisely because it was “too utopian” in its aspirations. Frankly, I regarded both of my supposed “failings” as real virtues that, with quality production in all spheres of economic life, freed humanity from the yoke of toil and a technocratic world. Moreover, there were aspects of the past which, given modern technics and means of communication were desiderata because they could lighten work and vastly increase productivity, without which humanity would be afflicted with fears of material scarcity. Such technological advances were also needed to provide sufficient free time for active participation in public affairs. Let me add, again, that my critics—many of whom were later to high-jack my alleged “failings”—read “could” to mean “would,” and pompously declared that if “post-scarcity” simply meant we already had tremendous technological advances, why were we still beset with poverty and exhausting toil? As though capitalism, like a slot machine, “would” always deliver the most optimal returns on the goodies its technology could produce! Typically, they failed to observe that I had repeatedly warned my readers that almost nothing could emerge from within the context of a market economy that was not tainted by the pathologies of competition, rivalry, and, quite bluntly, pure and simple greed!

By contrast, social ecology’s ecological imperative—the contradiction between a competitive society and the natural world—is not simply theoretical. By the eighties, it had been tested by the massive degradation that is occurring in the social as well as the natural world. Speaking for myself, I am astonished by the rapid onset of the greenhouse effect, which, in 1964, I predicted in “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” as a possibility that would require two or more centuries to unfold. Yet, as early as the eighties and nineties, the contradiction between capitalism and the natural world was becoming a very visible reality. Thereafter, the greenhouse effect and other destructive imbalances have assumed proportions that even outweigh more “commonplace” problems such as soil erosion and waste disposal.

This philosophy forms the basis for an educative outlook that yields a lengthy dialectical history and exposition of the phases of human development as it emerges out from natural evolution into social evolution. The philosophy of social ecology centers around a dialectical unfolding of a “legacy of freedom” that not only intertwines but interacts with a “legacy of domination,” and includes the evolution of a concept of justice that leads into an ever-expanding concept of freedom, of scarcity into post-scarcity, of folkdom into citizenship, of hierarchy into class, and, hopefully, a growing horizon of freedom (whose termination, if any, we are not yet equipped to foresee), yielding libertarian municipalities and institutions. Taken together, as a whole, this educative outlook forms the basis for a practical theory of politics.

We are now living not only in a different century that the Institute for Social Ecology was founded—the ISE was founded, I would remind you, in 1974, nearly thirty years ago. I would sound to young people today as an alien enterprise from a very different world than the one that exists today. The world I knew still had a workers’ movement in the US and Europe, and the issues it had to confront differ qualitatively from those that have emerged in the past two decades.

Yet it would be unpardonable if we forgot that socialism was meant to be a rational society, not a replication of Stalinism and totalitarianism. Nor can we be permitted to forget that it will require a profound social imperative—an ecological imperative, in my view—to move this mass, even lethargic society along rational lines. We must always remember that socialism will come about as the result of logical necessity, the product of deep-seated and compelling forces for social change, not simply “good vibes.” To give these precepts a lived meaning, we shall have to create an educational vanguard to keep the terrible pathologies of our day under control, at the vary least, and abolish them at the very most.

For such demands upon our energy and our intelligence, our educational activities must result in a movement, not simply in a lifestyle that celebrates its “freedom” in a closeted community at a distance from real centers of activity and conflict. I cannot emphasize enough that our education, be it at the ISE or among “affinity groups,” will be little more than a form of self-indulgence if it is restricted to our minds, completely removed from an active life.

I would be the first to acknowledge that action is only possible when there is a real, dissident public life. For the present, I see no widespread inclination to give reality to a movement for libertarian municipalism, which, at the turn of the new century, lies dormant as a prospect for a new politics. Marx once perceptively noted in his early writings that not only must the Idea follow reality, but also reality must follow the Idea. This aphorism might well be regarded as a recognition of the Hegelian notion that freedom is a recognition of necessity in the sense that we need sufficient preconditions to produce the most effective conditions for social change. When this is not so, the most brilliant of ideas lie almost silently in wait for society itself to ripen and permit the struggle for freedom to germinate. It is then that we can give to education a priority that defies all false appeals to activism for its own sake.

But one proviso must be voiced: ideas are only true when they are rational. Today, when rationality and consistency are deprecated in the name of postmodernist chic, we carry a double burden of trying to sustain, often by education alone, reason against irrationalism, and to know when to act as well as how to do so. In such cases, let me note that education, too, is a form of activism and must always be cultivated as such.


This article is an abridged version of a longer letter from the author to Michael Caplan.