Green communism: responses and our reply

The article in Subversion #21, Green Communism, provoked a flurry of correspondence. Much of it attacked from a primitivist viewpoint. Here are two of the letters for publication. One was from Green Anarchist, the second was from ”JW”. Then, of course, comes Our Reply. From Subversion #22 (1997)

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 4, 2010

Letter from Green Anarchist

Dear Subversion,
Thanks for Subversion 21 - keep us on your mailing list.

In response to 'Green' Communism, you still fail to distinguish between technology and tool use. You should know from John Zerzan's definition in the GA you quote from that technology is 'the ensemble of the division of labour'. According to Mumford's Technics & Civilisation, the first technologies were ancient armies and work-gangs, not their weapons and tools. The real issue is how they were organised, not how they were equipped.

Subversion thinks that uttering the magic word 'Capitalism' explains everything but it should be obvious that a society divided heirachically between organisers and the organised can never be equal or free. Mumford's ancient armies and work-gangs preceded capitalism by several thousand years and he also suggests the rise of the clock and the consequent intensification of organisation around it created capitalism. Unlike FC, we aren't reductionists. It's not simply a case that technology is economically determined or vice versa - there's a dialectical relationship between the two.

We're amazed you 'cannot conceive of cities going', as if they weren't as much a product of history as everything else. Cities are technology, a complex process that has to be organised in a way that makes a future free and equal society impossible. You'd be less enthusiastic about Bookchin's 'libertarian' municipalism if you took David Watson's point on board that 'the city as polis created not only politics, but the police.' If you're talking about 'breaking them down into more human size', you're either effectively arguing for an end to cities or not talking about a scale that's really 'human' after all. As to this bit about 'planting trees', we've been around long enough to call it tokenism when Statists do it.

Your comment about 'a return to back-breaking labour' shows you haven't understood the first thing about anarcho-primitivism. Scarcity is a product of Civilisation, the powerful rationing those powerless and dependent on them, to exploit and control them. Nature is abundant as demonstrated by hunter-gatherers who work under 20 hours a week to meet their basic needs. They're in control of that work too - it's unalienated. The more civilised things have got, the harder we've had to work. You surely won't disagree that civilisation has been built on the extraction of surplus value - our ancestors' sweat - but there's more to it than that. We've also had less control over the work we do (and every other aspect of our lives) the more complex, interdependent and organised the economy has become. We have to challenge such organisation itself, not just the organisers, or any new society will otherwise just reproduce the old one. Your comments on appropriate technology for a post-revolutionary society are an inappropriate compromise based upon a fundamental misunderstanding.

Holding a stage view of history, you seem to think communism will come out of capitalism's contradictions but all we can see is a society which is encroaching more and more on us and making us all more and more dependent on it in the name of 'liberation from Nature'. That won't free us from alienation, it's just more separation. We got it right at the start and for the vast majority of human history. People were free, equal and self-determining when primitive communism prevailed, without even the individualist distinction between Self and Other - as Bookchin himself argued in his seminal Ecology of Freedom, Chapter 5, before reformist municipalism addled his brain. Civilisation, whether capitalist or not, won't facilitate our liberation - only its destruction and the end of our dependence on it will. All the truly radical currents in history appreciated this as obvious - you might find Zerzan's Who Killed Nedd Ludd? most instructive here. Your ridiculously misrepresentative caricature of GA's revolutionary strategy is half a decade out of date but even here our emphasis on direct action and breaking dependency comes through.

You do indeed ' have much to learn' from groups like 'Reclaim the Streets' as they have rejected the compromise with Civilisation your presentation of Capitalism as a be-all and end-all implies. Liverpool's significance was not that the dockers took RTS on board - RTS had been doing other revolutionary stuff for years - but that more archaic conservative, workerist currents weren't seen by them as worthy of the same consideration.

Rather than referring readers to the poisonous smears of Bookchin and his partner Janet Biehl, you'd have done better concluding 'Green' Communism by referring them to David Watson's Beyond Bookchin (Black and Red, Autonomedia, 1996) and Bob Black's Anarchy Beyond Leftism (CAL, 1997) to ensure they will have something useful to contribute to the struggle in the future.

Yours, for the destruction of Civilisation.

Oxford GAs.

Letter from JM

Dear Subversion,

I would like to respond to the essay 'Green Communism' printed in your most recent issue.

This essay is so ill-informed and wrong-headed that it really does not make a serious contribution to debate. There are so many basic errors in the essay that it would take an entire essay to address its mistakes! So rather than critique its fundamental flaws, I will just focus on some key points. I cannot - and would not want to - speak on behalf of all individuals involved in the anti-civilisation anarchist current, but as someone participating in this current I want to offer a personal response to the inaccuracies and slurs aimed at what your essay reductively refers to as 'anti-technological anarchists'.

First, your writer could do everyone the favour of taking anti-civilisation ideas seriously, rather than just engaging in uninformed assertion and smear tactics. Anti-civilisation anarchism is not 'militant reformism'. It does not just 'call itself anarchist'. Anti-civilisation anarchists do not merely 'claim to be anarchists' and certainly haven't 'fallen for the lies of capitalism hook, line and sinker'. Part of this is sheer ignorance. (Using Bookchin's Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism as a guide to the anti-civilisation current is like using National Front propaganda as a guide to understanding the lives of Black Britons. Your author's cheap jibe (taken from Bookchin) that at least in the kind of society Zerzan envisages no one would have to read 'the crap he wrote' cuts no ice, as your author clearly hasn't read Zerzan anyway, but just parrots Bookchin!). But part of this consists of outright smears. Your author wants to undermine anti-civilisation anarchists by name-calling: they're not anarchists, they're liberals; they're not revolutionary, they're reformists; and they don't have a sophisticated analysis - they're naive and (of course) capital's dupes. Give anti-civilisation anarchists some credit! Judge the ideas. Look at the primary texts, not Bookchin's second-hand distortions! Know what you're talking about before you publish work on it!

Anti-civilisation currents extend the classical anarchist analysis beyond the traditional emphasis on capital and the state. Of course, capital and the state are important sources of power and need to be abolished through revolution. There's no argument there. But there are other forms of power which preceded both and which need to be abolished along with them, if an anarchist revolution is to succeed. Your author writes "...the destruction of the environment is the result, not of civilisation, not of technology, but of the domination of the planet by capital." But power - including the power to engage in environmental destruction - developed before capital. Capital is just the latest (and deadliest) form assumed by power, and civilisation is the name anti-civilisation anarchists use to characterise the ensemble of social relations and techniques of coercion and control within which capital and the state emerge.

"Capital would like us to think that the problem does not lie in the control of production and the existence of wage labour", writes your author. It's reductive to say that 'the' problem can be located in any one issue. But in one respect your author is right. Production and labour is a crucial problem. But the problem is far deeper than your author seems to suspect. The issue is not merely 'the control' of production, but the abolition of production; not merely the existence of 'wage labour', but the existence of labour in any form. Anti-civilisation anarchists aren't just 'anti-technological anarchists': they want to abolish power in all its forms, including work. To assert a pro-technology anarchist position means envisaging the continuation of labour in an anarchist society. But who is going to force people to labour in a power-free society? Not me! Are you? And will you want to keep on working? I won't!

Anti-civilisation anarchists recognise that work is in itself a primary source of oppression. But your author, appropriating wholesale Marxist analysis, assumes that there are such things as productive forces. These are just the alienated energies of people working for capital. If everyone stops working, the 'productive forces' disappear. And so, incidentally, does technology! Technology, in a sense, is a red herring. Anti-civilisation anarchists oppose it because it is a powerful means of oppression, alienation and environmental destruction. But a more fundamental issue is the destruction of the whole social nexus - i.e. civilisation - that makes its very production and usage possible.

In resistance,

Subversion Reply:

There are many points raised in these letters. It's probably best to start with the bits we agree with. GA are quite right when they talk about the dialectical relationship between technology and society. For the benefit of the uninitiated, this means that technology and society don't develop independently of one another. Changes in technology lead to changes in the way society is organised, equally changes in social organisation lead to changes in the technology that society uses. The one influences the other and vice versa. Equally important, however, is the effect of class struggle on social development. When our class struggles, social organisation and technology change to meet the threat we pose - which of course means the working class has to respond in a different way. It is our contention that it is this conflict which is the most important. Our article 'Green Communism' tried to explore (in part) how struggles that are labeled as 'green' or 'environmental' are often a part of our class's response to capital's attacks.

Both letters accuse us of holding a stages theory of history. However, GA also seem to do so. They talk about the stage of 'primitive' communism (an expression coined by Marx and Engels), to describe a time in pre-history when people were 'free, equal and self-determining'. We are not in a position to dispute this, neither are we in a position to agree. Civilization came into being when social classes emerged. It represents the domination and exploitation of the many by the few. There have been many examples of 'civilization' - all have represented different forms of class society. We have no problems with JM's assertion that 'other forms of power preceded' capital and state. Different civilizations have used different forms and combinations of domination: patriarchy, democracy, religion, race, brute force and most recently the domination of class by class through mindless toil enslaved to machines.

We do not hold the view that communism only became possible with the creation of modern capitalism, we have had many idle discussions over pints of beer, arguing whether it would have been possible in earlier social epochs. And broadly speaking we think it could have been. But it was idle speculation for one simple reason. We do not live in the era of the Peasants Revolt or of Spartacus. We live in 1997, in a time when the only social system in the world (with maybe one or two insignificant exceptions for a few thousand people), is capitalism. Capitalism uses any form of domination that is useful to its own needs. So patriarchy remains (but watered down), religion remains (but in the back seat), racism remains too, seemingly as strong as ever, but pre-eminent is the domination of people by machine - of living labour dominated by dead labour, working to extract surplus value (profit) for the ruling class. We believe that by destroying that relationship and the state which supports it and hence the domination of the ruling class and its lackeys, that a genuine human society can be created - an end to the 'civilization' that has dominated history for the past thousands of years.

We believe that the result of the struggle against capitalism (the currently existing form of civilization) could end in the creation of communism. GA seem, at a glance, to want the same thing. But on closer examination what they actually appear to want is a return to 'primitive' communism. As far as we can tell this is shared by other primitivists. They believe that the time before civilization was a time of plenty and ease. They approve of the idea of a society 'without even the individualist distinction between Self and Other', an end to cities and in the case of JM 'the abolition of production; not merely the existence of wage-labour, but the existence of labour in any form...including work'

This does not fit into our views for a number of reasons. Firstly, we wonder where all the billions of people in the world are going to live. We wonder where they are going to find food, how they are going to feed themselves. We presume that neither GA nor JM are advocating genocide as a way forward to the new society. That was why our original article accepted that cities would survive in a future society - indeed a view we have heard expressed by RTS activists who are also anarchist communists. Just how things would develop as human history unfolds is, of course, a completely different matter. We have only a limited idea what a communist society would look like at its beginning, let alone after a hundred or two years. We would speculate that abominations like London, Paris, Manchester would disappear.

Secondly, we are not at all against labour. It is our view that making things is fundamental to human being. We are against working for others and being exploited. We are against human labour being dominated by machinery. We want labour to be a creative activity, not a form of drudgery. It's an old expression, but we want to break down the division between work and play. In the context of the modern class struggle we see tendencies towards a 'refusal of (alienated) work' - a refusal to accept domination by bosses and their right to screw more out of us at their will. To some this means struggle at work, sabotage, not exerting themselves, not giving the bosses their creativity. To others it means simply avoiding the labour process altogether. In either case we support them.

Thirdly, we are not sure what GA mean by 'without even the individualist distinction between Self and Other'. We are not herd animals. On one (apparently contradictory) level this is exactly what capital and the state are aiming at for the majority of society - it uses many ideologies which strengthen the 'nation', the 'community', 'democracy' and so on. We would classify these as socially totalitarian ideals. As we said earlier, we have no idea what a communist society would look like after a hundred years or so. However, we can predict that even in its early days the kind of individualist competition prevalent today will die an unlamented death. However, communism will be created by people as they already exist, not by some idealised form of humanity. In that context many of the current limitations of people will carry forward. We debate amongst ourselves just how much people will be individuals and how much they will be social beings. We suspect that they will realise that a free society will allow the free development of all. Individuals will be social beings - not atomised, isolated and uncared for.

We finish by repeating GA's signing off, though we suspect that we mean something fundamentally different.

For the destruction of civilization.