Trotsky, Bukharin and the Eco-Modernists

Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.

– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)

For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that is correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

It seems that this kind of ecomodernism is contagious. To some extent, it is simply an adaptation to the capitalist system. Despite the ultraleft, Promethean language about harnessing technology to save the planet, it is essentially a defense of the status quo. Mesmerized by how the Communist Manifesto describes capitalism as revolutionizing the means of production, it fails to understand what Marx meant by revolutionizing. He was not embracing hydroelectric dams, et al but simply pointing out that capitalism had made it possible for creating the material basis for a classless society. However, his vision of a future communist society differed radically from that of the ecomodernists who saw communism as the preservation of the existing productive forces excluding private ownership. Key to communism for Marx would be the “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.”

In other words, Marx was less interested in chemical engineering than he was in social engineering. In the 19thcentury, England and other capitalist countries were undergoing an environmental crisis as serious as those we face today over climate change. Soil infertility had become so advanced that there were worries that mass starvation might ensue. The purpose of combining town and country was simply to provide the fertilizer that could enrich the soil, much of it coming from human beings. In Marx’s day, the Thames was a running sewer, a cause of diseases like cholera as well as a waste of a natural resource. Of course, technology came to the rescue in the form of nitrogen fertilizer but that came with unintended consequences such as the creation of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of an explosion of algae produced by the seepage of fertilizers into the Mississippi River from Midwest farms.

John Bellamy Foster has used the term “metabolic rift” to describe the contradictions that preoccupied Karl Marx after he became familiar with the research of German soil chemistry expert Justin von Liebeg. There is little evidence that Leon Trotsky thought much about such problems given his fixation on developing the USSR’s industrial capacity but there are strong suggestions that Nikolai Bukharin was far more open to looking at society-nature relationships that have become pronounced in the past fifty years or so as the capitalist produces one ecological crisis after another.

In 1921, he wrote “Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology”  in order to help develop a social science that could contend with that of the bourgeoisie. The work is startling for its grasp of the kind of environmental threats the UN warned about in a highly publicized report released to the public on May 6th. Bukharin wrote:

The world being in constant motion, we must consider phenomena in their mutual relations, and not as isolated cases. All portions of the universe are actually related to each other and exert an influence on each other. The slightest motion, the slightest alteration in one place, simultaneously changes everything else. The change may be great or small – that is another matter – at any rate, there is a change. For example: let us say the Volga forests have been cut down by men. The result is that less water is retained by the soil, with a resulting partial change in climate; the Volga “runs dry,” navigation on its waters becomes more difficult, making necessary the use, and therefore the production, of dredging machinery; more persons are employed in the manufacture of such machinery; on the other hand, the animals formerly living in the forests disappear; new animals, formerly not dwelling in these regions, put in their appearance; the former animals have either died out or migrated to forest areas, etc.; and we may go even further: with a change in climate, it is clear that the condition of the entire planet has been changed, and therefore an alteration in the Volga climate to a certain extent changes the universal climate. Further, if the map of the world is changed to the slightest extent, this involves also a change – we must even suppose – in the relations between the earth and the moon or sun, etc., etc.

In the 1920s, as Joseph Stalin embarked on a rapid industrialization program that led ultimately to the ruination of Soviet agriculture, Chernobyl, the death of the Aral Sea from cotton production, and—ultimately—the collapse of the economic system itself, a group of engineers and economists grew increasingly alarmed by the dictator’s destructive approach both to natural resources and the working people who were expected to transform it according to his mad-dash plans for rapid industrialization.

There was an alternative approach represented by Peter Palchinsky, a civil engineer who joined the Communist Party shortly after the 1917 revolution. Palchinsky was enthusiastic about planning. He believed that the Soviet Union opened up possibilities for the planning of industry that were impossible under Tsarism. He thought that engineers could play a major role in the growth of socialism.

Palchinsky argued against the type of gigantic enterprises that were beginning to capture Stalin’s rather limited imagination. He noted that middle-sized and small enterprises often have advantages over large ones. For one thing, workers at smaller factories are usually able to grasp the final goals more easily. He believed that the single most important factor in engineering decisions was human beings themselves. Successful industrialization and high productivity were not possible without highly trained workers and adequate provision for their social and economic needs.

His differences with Stalin’s pyramid-building approach erupted over the Great Dnieper Dam project, one of the most fabled 5-year plan projects. Palchinsky made the following critiques. The project didn’t take into account the huge distances between the dam and the targeted sites. As a consequence, there would be huge transmission costs and declines in efficiency.

Also, the project didn’t take into account the damage resulting floods would cause to surrounding farms situated in lowlands. Some 10,000 villagers had to flee their homes. As the project fell behind schedule and overran costs, the workers’ needs were more and more neglected. The workers suffered under freezing conditions, living in cramped tents and barracks without adequate sanitary facilities. TB, typhus, and smallpox spread throughout the worker’s quarters.

Palchinsky argued forcefully against projects such as these and offered a more rational, humane and less ideologically driven approach. In other words, he stressed sound engineering and planning methods. He helped to organize a study group dedicated to his principles. Palchinsky and other engineers who opposed Stalin’s bureaucratic system allied themselves to some extent with Bukharin and Rykov who had often defended engineers and their approach to industrial planning.

Stalin cracked down on the Bukharin opposition around the same time as he attacked dissident engineers and had Palchinsky imprisoned and finally executed. His criticisms of Stalin anticipated many of the failures of Soviet industrialization. The Chernobyl disaster in particular could be attributable to the same type of bureaucratic myopia that afflicted the Dnieper dam project.

In researching this article, I discovered that Leon Trotsky took the side of Stalin against Palchinsky and his comrades. Once Stalin had decided that the NEP had outlived its usefulness and that rapid industrialization was necessary, Trotsky gave him critical support. Some of his supporters even grumbled that Stalin had stolen his thunder.

In 1928, Trotsky wrote “The Third International After Lenin”as the first in a series of polemics against Stalinism, much of which stands up well today. However, in a chapter dealing with the social basis of the emergence of a bureaucratic caste, he cast aspersions on non-proletarian layers:

The grain strike of the kulaks, who drew behind them the middle peasants; the collusion of the Shakhty specialists with capitalists; the protection or semi-protection of the kulak strike by an influential section of the State and party apparatus; the fact that communists were able to shut their eyes to the counter-revolutionary secret maneuvers of technicians and functionaries; the vile license of scoundrels in Smolensks and elsewhere, under the cover of “iron discipline” – all these are already incontrovertible facts of the utmost importance.

Those “Shakhty specialists” are none other than Palchinsky and his comrades who were the very first people to suffer through a show trial in the USSR, 10 years before Bukharin and most of the top Bolsheviks would be accused of supporting the Nazis in the infamous Moscow Trials. It is disconcerting to see Trotsky giving backhanded support to the Shakty trial. The group was charged with a multitude of crimes, including planning the explosions in the mines near Shakhty, a town in the North Caucasus. It was exactly this kind of outrageous false charge that would permeate the Moscow Trials.

In 1925, Leon Trotsky was stripped of his duties as People’s Commissar of War and given a minor post as head of the electro-technical board, and chairman of the scientific-technical board of industry. In this capacity, he did his best to carry out his responsibilities despite the demotion, especially since, as he reported in “My Life”, he was “was specially interested in the institutes of technical science” and in his “spare time studied textbooks on chemistry and hydro-dynamics.” His job involved keeping an eye on the construction of the Dnieper dam as he reported in “My Life”: “I became deeply interested in the Dnieper enterprise, both from an economic and a technical point of view. I organized a body of American experts, later augmented by German experts, to safeguard the power station from defective estimates, and tried to relate my new work not only to current economic requirements but also to the fundamental problems of socialism.”

Missing from the chapter on this phase of his life is any mention of the horrors that befell working people forced to work under intolerable conditions. In fact, he only saw its upside as reflected in a speech he gave to a Communist youth group in 1926: “In the south the Dnieper runs its course through the wealthiest industrial lands; and it is wasting the prodigious weight of its pressure, playing over age-old rapids and waiting until we harness its stream, curb it with dams, and compel it to give lights to cities, to drive factories, and to enrich ploughland. We shall compel it!”

It is doubtful that either Leon Trotsky or Peter Palchinsky gave much thought to the ecological consequences of massive hydroelectric dams that were being built both in the USSR and in the United States as part of the New Deal. Recently, I had an encounter with a Syracuse University professor named Matthew Huber who shares the ecomodernist outlook of Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski. In an article for the DSA’s Socialist Forum magazine titled “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific”, Huber endorsed nuclear power and factory farming. All this was part of endorsing a Green New Deal that he hoped would live up to FDR’s original. In an article on the Verso blog titled “Building a Green New Deal: Drawing Lessons from the Original New Deal”, he shares Trotsky’s enthusiasm for massive dams.

They built dams to deliver cheap electricity to entire regions. Amazingly, they even hired Woody Guthrie to sing songs about Columbia River doing work for the people (“‘Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea, But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”) Can we imagine Bob Dylan singing such a song about the carbon fee and dividend?

Evidently, Huber was not perturbed by this verse from the Woody Guthrie song:

Tom Jefferson’s vision would not let him rest
An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest
Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

One might hope that Huber would find time to read Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West that is a cautionary tale about mega-dams of the kind that the New Deal fostered. After referring to Woody Guthrie’s song that he found much more impressive than the dam itself, he debunked the New Deal mystique that so many DSA’ers swallow hook, line and sinker:

Dust-bowlers and tenement dwellers were, it must said, only a small fraction of the intended beneficiaries of the remade Columbia River, not important enough in themselves to justify the effort and expense, particularly in light of the parallel development going on to the east of the Rockies, which aimed at keeping many of them at home. No, the principal goal in the Northwest was something else, something not so very different from what it was in the southern latitudes, in California, Arizona, and Texas: to repeat from the Bureau’s own mouth, total use for greater wealth. According to that agency, “we have not yet produced enough . . . to sustain a desirable and reasonable standard of living, even if goods were equitably distributed; and . . . there is no limit to the human appetite for the products of industry.”

More than sixty dams have been built along the Columbia River, including the Grand Coulee Dam that was built during the New Deal and that created a reservoir named after FDR. If it was a boon for big business, as indicated by Worster, it was a calamity for American Indians. It brought an end to the salmon that they had counted on for food and for ceremonies for over a thousand years. Probably the best thing happening today is the restoration of traditional river flows and the replacement of mega-dams with those more environmentally sustainable ones with a smaller footprint. As part of the socialist future we hope to see before capitalism destroys the planet, there will be alterations to the way we live that do not fit into ecomodernist schemas but in the long run it will be best for us and for nature even if some attack them as “reactionary” or “neo-Malthusian”. One can’t blame Leon Trotsky too much for having an overabundance of confidence in technology but there is no excuse for DSA’ers or Jacobin authors.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.