Trotsky, Trotskyism and Beyond

Richard Fidler rfidler at cyberus.ca
Wed Feb 5 14:21:02 MST 2003


As one who occasionally pricks Lou's balloon when I feel he is exaggerating
or misrepresenting something in his SWP past, I must say that, in his
criticism of some traditional Trotskyist (and for that matter, 20th century
Marxist) positions on ecology, Lou is on pretty firm ground.

Lou cited Joe Hansen's pamphlet from the early 1960s: "Too Many Babies?" As
he says, "it was a very good refutation of Malthusianism, but it placed
credibility in the Green Revolution that  belied any understanding of the
contradictions in industrial agriculture." Walter Lippmann requested "a more
specific, detailed comment". Here's my take on the pamphlet, for what it's
worth.

Malthus's population projections, says Hansen, "left out the effect of the
industrial revolution.... On top of that he left out what he couldn't
possibly have foreseen, the chemical revolution - the use of manufactured
plant nutrients, pesticides and additives such as vitamins, hormones,
enzymes, antibiotics and so on." He quotes at length from a 1959 NYT
article, "Chemical Revolution on the Farm", which argues that the said
revolution "has all but wiped out the Malthusian fear that a nation would
never be able to feed an ever-expanding population".

In the last chapter, the pamphlet argues, without qualification, that "man's
capacity to increase his food supply expands with the increase in population
and at an ever higher rate than population growth." There is no recognition
anywhere in Hansen's argument that there might be objective natural limits
to the productivity of the soil, which is treated as infinitely capable of
increase. Some of the statements display an insouciance to ecological
considerations that is quite striking to a contemporary reader.

For example, Hansen blithely argues that in a future socialist society "a
population of 28,000,000,000 -  ten times the present figure - could be fed
comfortably even on the basis of old techniques."

He imagines a report by future scientists: "Already we see immense
potentialities in farming the sea -  not to mention extracting minerals and
metals from it. In addition we know from rather, primitive experiments
carried out in capitalist days, that hydroponics may prove to be one of our
best bets; we can grow bigger, tastier and more nutritious fruits and
vegetables in tanks than in soil, and we can use artificial light. All this,
of course, constitutes only transitional measures. The future points to
synthetic foods; and laboratory reports already indicate startling gains in
this direction...."

"Will sufficient power be available for such ambitious projects?", Hansen
continues. "That will no doubt get a laugh. 'Power! That used to be a
Malthusian bugaboo. The discovery of atomic energy knocked that one out.
Besides we have enormous resources in the tides and in solar radiation which
remained untapped under capitalism. Even water power is still to be fully
developed. We propose to save our fossil fuels for much more fruitful use
than burning them up the way they did in the days of capitalist savagery.'"

Of course, it is easy for a reader today to poke fun at such naivete. It is
only fair to note that Hansen's first concern in this pamphlet was to refute
the then widespread propaganda - directed in part at People's China and more
generally at the coloured masses of the Third World - that the imperialist
countries would soon be overwhelmed by a "population explosion". He argues
compellingly, in one of the most popularly written presentations I have read
anywhere of Marx's chapter in Capital Vol. 1 on the laws of capital
accumulation, that "overpopulation" is relative, not to the food supply (as
Malthus argued) but to the value of labour power: "relative to the part of
investment that goes by the attractive name of 'payroll'.... That is why an
'overpopulation' of millions can appear in a few short months in a country
as wealthy as the United States, flooding the employment offices, and just
as suddenly disappear when the economic cycle enters a period of boom."

Moreover, environmental and ecological concerns received little public
attention at the time Hansen's pamphlet was written. It predates slightly
Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", which effectively launched today's
environmental movement, at least in North America. More fundamentally, the
pamphlet reflects the failure of much of the Marxist movement in the last
century to appreciate the profound ecological concerns motivating Marx and
Engels in their day, and to assimilate Marx's understanding of the growing
"metabolic rift" produced by capital between nature and human productive
capacities. On this, I would echo Lou's praise for John Bellamy Foster's
book "Marx's Ecology", which does a fine job of excavating Marx's thinking
on these questions and relating it to today's conditions. As Foster argues,
what the classical economists including Marx called "original", "primary" or
"primitive" accumulation was at root an expression of the dissolution of the
organic relation between human labour and the earth.

While Hansen's emphasis is, understandably, on the capacity of a socialist
society to feed everyone through economic planning and balanced development
(even using existing industrial and agricultural techniques), he does allow,
in the final chapter, that there might _some day_ be a problem of human
overpopulation relative to actual or potential food supply. He closes with a
quotation from Engels (in a letter to Kautsky, Feb. 1, 1881):

"There is, of course, the abstract possibility that the number of people
will become so great that limits will have to be set to their increase. But
if at some stage communist society finds itself obliged to regulate the
production of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the
production of things, it will be precisely this society; and this society
alone, which can carry this out without difficulty. It does not seem to me
that it would be at all difficult in such a society to achieve by planning a
result which has already been produced spontaneously, without planning, in
France and Lower Austria. At any rate it is for the people in the communist
society themselves to decide whether, when, and how this is to be done, and
what means they wish to employ for the purpose. I do not feel called upon to
make proposals or give them advice about it. These people, in any case, will
surely not be any less intelligent than we are."

The problem with this, as we now know, is that because capitalism has lasted
a lot longer than Engels expected, the possibility of soil exhaustion (not
to mention overfishing, air pollution, depletion of the ozone layer and
fossil fuel reserves, etc.) is not "abstract" but increasingly real, and
socialists cannot afford the luxury of leaving the discussion of these
problems to a future communist society. We need to incorporate today's
knowledge of the despoliation of the planet into our critique of capital,
and use it as a compelling demonstration of the need to eliminate capitalism
and institute an altogether different, non-adversarial relationship between
humanity and nature.

Richard Fidler


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