Maoism and ecology

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Nov 24 09:58:56 MST 2000

(Even though John Bellamy Foster has departed from the cyber-seminar on his
book "Marx's Ecology", there continues to be exchanges among the
participants. This one I found particularly interesting.)

I have read with interest several replies to my rather-hasty post on the
possible value of Maoist methods in approaching ecological problems.

In the years after the revolution, the new forms of self-organization among
the masses of people made all kinds of miracles possible.

When the population was atomized (before the revolution) intoeasant familes
eking out a bare existence on tiny plots of land while robbed by landlords
and feudal taxcollecters, it was very hard to carry out larger projects that
met peoples needs.

Once there was land reform (in the early years of the revolution)and then
new collective forms of rural social organizaiton ­ it became possible for
people to see and act with much more  consciousness on the larger picture --
to develop plans for the transformation of their surroundings, to develop a
division of labor, and to marshal labor forces for major projects.

New water systems were created (taming the rivers), terracing was possible
(where before each family had to tend to their narrow plot), water was
brought from far away through canals etc. This method of “mass line” was
also applied to some problems related to ecology: Some involved reduction of
“pests.” For example disease-carrying flies, which had plagued millions of
people with epidemics. In another example, there was a mass campaign to
remove river snails in southern China that caused the disease of night
blindness. (I find it strange that some saw the reduction of grain eating
pests to be un-ecological, even though the creation of human grain fields
were also responsible for the huge growth of rat and mouse populations. The
fact is that we will impact our surroundings, and the point is how to
understand and develop that in ways that preserve diversity, maintain key
balances and develop renewable resources etc.)

LEarning from this experience of mass revolutoinary organization could have
a huge impact on ecological matters. Just one example: the destruction of
the amazon rainforests has several causes. But certainly one of the ways the
capitalist system causes this is by driving desperate landless peasants and
impoverished workers from the cities onto unclaimed land ­ to burn the
forest and try to live. Without a radical change in social system, without
new levels of organization and newly possible overview of society’s
development, how can such things be solved?

In the People’s Communes it was possible to apply more advanced
understanding of Marx’s call to be “usufructuaries” of nature (stewards).
There was work to plant foress and develop preserves, reversing the
wholesale clearing of land that peasant economy promoted, There was
education among the masses against plowing up and down hills (as opposed to
contour plowing that was easier but caused terrible erosion).

My point was two-fold: There were valuable experiences in the Chinese
revolution about how to deal with specific ecological problems in that kind
of country (semi-colonial, semifeudal, straining to develop an industrial
base). And a second point, there is also within this method of "mass line"
(apart from particular application) a key to ways humanity can consciously
organize itself (without the narrowness of either feudal petty production or
capitalist self-interst) to have an impact on the world (and on human
society) that solves nagging problems.

In the current political climate (which we are all familiar with) any cheap
attack on the experiences of popular revolutions seems to pass without
question. The mpw=famous example of the birds in china gets promoted (by
anticommunists) as a proof that if you organize the people well, all you get
are bigger nightmares. It is (taken out of context) reduced to little more
than an anti-revolutonary parable. Even if one or two of the campaings by
peasants to solve problems ended up causing new problems ­ why should that
be surprising, or a condemnation of revolution? That is in fact how people
will learn in the transition to a new revolutionary form of world society --
and in China it was part of a complex and protracted body of experience at
solving problems and looking forward in radical ways.

For those with “light knowledge” of the Maoist experience, it is sometimes
assumed that the Chinese revolution was a subset (in method and results) of
the Soviet experience. The assumption often is that if the Soviet line led
to major eco disasters (Aral Sea, nuclear leaks in the Urals and Arctic
Sea), then there is nothing to look for in the Chinese revolution. But in
fact there were always deeply different methods in approach to assumption
about heavy industry, to the urban/rural contradiction, and to dialectics in
general ­ both from the days of Stalin and from the quite different methods
in command after stalin.

Jose says he would not “pass any definite verdicts on the Chinese ecological
experience because as I said I have a light knowledge about this issue.” He
then goes on to say “I think I have knowledge enough as to question the idea
that ecologically the Chinese experience in Mao's period is clearly
positive.” I admire Jose's ability to make such subtle distinctions.

It would take pages to unravel Jose's mini-summation of Chinese history --
his notion that  it “seems now clear” that the early revolutionary
industrialization policies of Mao were “pretty crazy” etc. Let me just say,
that I believe his facts were wrong in almost every detail. While I admire
the self confidence of those who dare speak with such "light knowledge" --
but I worry that without our own critical investigation of major
revolutonary experiences  we might just find ourselves accepting the
official (bourgeois) cannon on a century of complex human struggle and
experiment. And why would we want to do that?

I think the issue at hand is "How do we  liberate ourselves, transform
society ­ while serving as stewards of the natural world?"

Humans will change the world (including both ourselves, our society and that
natural world of which we are a part). The question is how, for whom, and
with what results.


Louis Proyect
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