Socialism or barbarism?


From the first day it appeared online, the masthead of the Climate and Capitalism blog has carried the slogan "Ecosocialism or Barbarism: there is no third way".

We've been quite clear that eco-socialism is not a new theory or brand of socialism — it is socialism with Marx's important insights on ecology restored, socialism committed to the fight against ecological destruction.

But why do we say that the alternative to ecosocialism is barbarism?

Marxists have used the word "barbarism" in various ways, but most often to describe actions or social conditions that are grossly inhumane, brutal, and violent. It is not a word used lightly, because it implies not just bad behaviour but violations of the most important norms of human solidarity and civilised life.

Rosa Luxemburg

The slogan "socialism or barbarism" originated with the great German revolutionary socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg, who repeatedly raised it during World War I. It was a profound concept, one that has become ever more relevant as the years have passed.

Luxemburg spent her entire adult life organising and educating the working class to fight for socialism. She was convinced that if socialism didn't triumph, capitalism would become ever more barbaric, wiping out centuries of gains in civilisation. In a major 1915 anti-war polemic, she referred to Friedrich Engels' view that society must advance to socialism or revert to barbarism and then asked, "What does a 'reversion to barbarism' mean at the present stage of European civilization?"

She gave two related answers.

In the long run, she said in The Junius Pamphlet, a continuation of capitalism would lead to the literal collapse of civilised society and the coming of a new Dark Age, similar to Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire: "The collapse of all civilisation as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration — a great cemetery."

By saying this, Luxemburg was reminding the revolutionary left that socialism is not inevitable, that if the socialist movement failed, capitalism might destroy modern civilisation, leaving behind a much poorer and much harsher world.

In 1848, in The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles ... that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes."

In Luxemburg's words: "Humanity is facing the alternative: Dissolution and downfall in capitalist anarchy, or regeneration through the social revolution."

Two faces

But Luxemburg, again following the example of Marx and Engels, also used the term "barbarism" another way, to contrast capitalism's loudly proclaimed noble ideals with its actual practice of torture, starvation, murder and war.

Marx many times described the two-sided nature of capitalist "progress". In 1853, writing about British rule in India, he described the "profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization [that] lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked."

Capitalist progress, he said in The Future Results of British Rule in India, resembled a "hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain".

Similarly, in a speech to radical workers in London in 1856, he said: "On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire."

Immense improvements to the human condition have been made under capitalism — in health, culture, philosophy, literature, music and more. But capitalism has also led to starvation, destitution, mass violence, torture and even genocide — on an unprecedented scale. As capitalism has expanded, the barbarous side of its nature has come ever more to the fore.

Bourgeois society, which came to power promising equality, democracy, and human rights, has never had any compunction about throwing those ideals overboard to expand and protect its wealth and profits.

That's the view of barbarism that Luxemburg wrote in The Junius Pamhplet: "Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping in filth, this capitalist society stands ... as an orgy of anarchy, as pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity ... A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means."

For Luxemburg, barbarism was the present reality of imperialism, a reality that was destined to get much worse if socialism failed to stop it. Tragically, she was proven correct.

The defeat of the German revolutions of 1917 to 1923, coupled with the isolation and degeneration of the Russian Revolution, opened the way to a 20th century of genocide and constant war.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, in 1933's What is National Socialism?, described the rise of fascism as "capitalist society ... puking up undigested barbarism".

He wrote in In Defence of Marxism: "The delay of the socialist revolution engenders the indubitable phenomena of barbarism — chronic unemployment, pauperisation of the petty bourgeoisie, fascism, finally wars of extermination which do not open up any new road."

More than 250 million people, most of them civilians, were killed in the wars of extermination and mass atrocities of the 20th century. The new century continues that record: in less than eight years, more than 3 million people have died in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Third World.

21st century barbarism

Barbarism is already upon us. Only mass action can stop barbarism from advancing, and only socialism can defeat it. This is even more important today, when capitalism has added massive ecological destruction to the horrors of the 20th century.

That view has been expressed repeatedly and forcefully by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Speaking in Vienna in May 2006, he stated: "The choice before humanity is socialism or barbarism ... When Rosa Luxemburg made this statement, she was speaking of a relatively distant future. But now the situation of the world is so bad that the threat to the human race is not in the future, but now."

A few months earlier, in Caracas, he argued that capitalism's destruction of the environment gives particular urgency to the fight against barbarism today: "I believe it is time that we take up with courage and clarity a political, social, collective and ideological offensive across the world — a real offensive that permits us to move progressively, over the next years ... leaving behind the perverse, destructive, destroyer, capitalist model and go forward in constructing the socialist model to avoid barbarism and beyond that the annihilation of life on this planet."

Chavez insisted: "I don't think we have much time. Fidel Castro said in one of his speeches I read not so long ago, 'tomorrow could be too late, let's do now what we need to do'.

"I don't believe that this is an exaggeration. The environment is suffering damage that could be irreversible ... with terrible social occurrences that will shake life on this planet."

The Venezuelan revolution has been praised for raising the banner of 21st century socialism, but Chavez has also raised a warning flag, that the alternative is 21st century barbarism.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been studying climate change for two decades. According to a May 15 article in the British Guardian, the IPCC vice-chair, Professor Mohan Munasinghe, gave a lecture at Cambridge University that described "a dystopic possible future world in which social problems are made much worse by the environmental consequences of rising greenhouse gas emissions".

"Barbarization", Munasinghe said, is already underway. We face "a situation where the rich live in enclaves, protected, and the poor live outside in unsustainable conditions."

Barbarous reality

The idea of 21st century barbarism may seem far-fetched. Even with food and fuel inflation, growing unemployment and housing crises, many working people in the advanced capitalist countries still enjoy a considerable degree of comfort and security.

But outside the protected enclaves of the global north, the reality of "barbarisation" is all too evident. Two-and-a-half billion people survive on less than two dollars a day.

More than 850 million people are chronically undernourished and three times that many frequently go hungry. Every hour of every day, 180 children die of hunger and 1200 die of preventable diseases.

More than 500,000 women die every year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth — 99% of them are in the global South.

More than a billion people live in vast urban slums, without sanitation, sufficient living space, or durable housing. Access to safe water does not exist for 1.3 billion people and millions die of water-related diseases every year.

The United Nations Human Development Report 2007-08 warns that unmitigated climate change will lock the world's poorest countries in a downward spiral, making each of these problems worse.

In UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervi's words: "Ultimately, climate change is a threat to humanity as a whole. But it is the poor, a constituency with no responsibility for the ecological debt we are running up, who face the immediate and most severe human costs."

In the UN report, former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu echoes Munasinghe's prediction of protected enclaves for the rich within a world of ecological destruction: "While the citizens of the rich world are protected from harm, the poor, the vulnerable and the hungry are exposed to the harsh reality of climate change in their everyday lives ... We are drifting into a world of 'adaptation apartheid'."

As capitalism continues with business as usual, climate change is fast expanding the gap between rich and poor between and within nations — imposing unparalleled suffering on those least able to protect themselves. That is the reality of 21st century barbarism.

No society that permits that to happen can be called civilised. No social order that causes it to happen deserves to survive.

[Abridged from capitalism. Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism and an associate editor of Socialist Voice, http://www.socialistvoiceca.]