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Andreas Malm on climate crisis, hunger, and revolution

March 23, 2018

Does the 1917 uprising in Russia prefigure the possible impact of climate crisis?

By John Riddell: In the following text, an excerpt from “Revolutionary Strategy in a Warming World,” eco-socialist writer Andeas Malm projects how the catastrophic effects of unchecked climate crisis may launch the world’s most vulnerable societies into revolutionary upheaval. Malm draws parallels with the effects of food emergency in Syria (2011) and Russia (1917), basing the latter analysis on a pathbreaking volume by Lars T. Lih.

The entire text of Malm’s article is available in Climate and Capitalism; it also appears in Rethinking Revolution, Socialist Register 2017.

“It doesn’t take much imagination to associate climate change with revolution,” Malm writes. “If the planetary order upon which all societies are built starts breaking down, how can they possibly remain stable?”

This truth is well understood by the U.S. military establishment, Malm notes, whose “consistent and candid interest in the issue” stands in “stark contrast to the denialism  of the American Right.” He points to a prediction by David Kilcullen, “perhaps the most astute mandarin of the military wing of the empire,” that low-lying megacities in the Global South may well be overwhelmed by breakdowns of water and food supplies along with deadly floods and heat emergencies.

“Those who pledge allegiance to the revolutionary tradition – in whose collective mind the experience of 1917 will probably always loom large – should dare to use their imagination as productively as any writer of intelligence reports,” Malm says. He points in particular to the example of Syria: “In the years leading up to the outbreak of the 2011 revolution, that country reeled under an epochal drought” that caused widespread hunger.”

Syria’s capitalist rulers redoubled the effects of drought by neo-liberal measures to seize land and resources from poor farmers, Malm states. The ensuing social crisis and uprising was rooted in the combination of social stress and hunger with the inequities of the regime. He cites many examples of this combination in history.

The relevance of this analysis is confirmed by Malm’s parallel examination of the Russian experience of 1917-21. He draws here on a little-known but persuasive book by Lars T. Lih, Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914—1921. Lih is better known for his studies of V.I. Lenin and revolutionary Russian Social Democracy, many of which appear on this website.

Malm’s analysis of the impending ecological catastrophe can be extended to the capitalist system of production as a whole. During the First World War revolutionary Marxists saw the world capitalist crisis as expressing an underlying contradiction between global productive forces and the capitalist mode of production. As Leon Trotsky wrote, three months after the war’s outbreak, “The present war is basically a revolt of the productive forces developed by capitalism against the nation-state form of their exploitation.” (Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p. 150).

The Russian revolution proved that such a crisis can have a positive outcome for all humankind.

The example of revolutionary Russia: ‘Building a small ark against imminent disaster’

Andreas-Malm

Andreas Malm

By Andreas Malm: …Incidentally, uneven and combined development plus catastrophe was also the equation that touched off the Russian revolution. The catastrophe in question was, of course, the First World War, which caused the entire food supply system of Tsarist Russia to crash. To make matters worse, heavy floods in the spring of 1917 washed away roads and railway lines and blocked further procurements. On 8 March — the story is well-known, but now casts a new light on the future — the women workers of Petrograd went on strike and marched through the streets, demanding bread from a duma incapable of delivering it. Soon they called for the fall of the Tsar.

The crisis took a new plunge in August 1917, when grain prices suddenly doubled and Petrograd faced the challenge of surviving without any flour. “Famine, genuine famine,” one government official described the situation, “has seized a series of towns and provinces — famines vividly expressed by an absolute insufficiency of objects of nutrition already leading to death.” It was at this moment that Lenin penned what is arguably his key text from 1917, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, in which he made the case for a second revolution as the only way to avert total nationwide famine. In his internal and external agitation, this was his stock argument for striking the October blow:

“There is no escaping the famine, and there can be none except by an uprising of the peasants against the landowners in the countryside, and by a victory of the workers over the capitalists in the cities. … ‘In insurrection delay is fatal’ — this is our answer to those having the sad ‘courage’ to look at the growing economic ruin, at the approaching famine, and still dissuade the workers from the uprising.”

The Pentagon refers to climate change as a “threat multiplier.” Lenin spoke of the catastrophe of his time as a “mighty accelerator” bringing all contradictions to a head, “engendering world-wide crises of unparalleled intensity,” driving nations “to the brink of doom.” His wager was, of course, to seize the unique opportunity thereby opened up. That did not diminish his hostility to the war — it had no more implacable enemies than the Bolsheviks — but he saw in all its miseries the most compelling reasons to take power, and nothing worked as effectively to rally the workers behind him. Climate change is likely to be the accelerator of the twenty-first century, speeding up the contradictions of late capitalism — above all the growing chasm between the evergreen lawns of the rich and the precariousness of propertyless existence — and expedite one local catastrophe after another. What should revolutionaries do when it hits their turf? Seize the opportunity to depose any exploiters and oppressors they can get their hands on. But there is, needless to say, no guarantee of a happy outcome.

Counter-Revolution and Chaos as Symptoms

Acute shortages of food and water are poised to become some of the most tangible effects of global warming. In the run-up to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, rising food prices partly caused by extreme weather intensified the latent tensions, and the Middle East — so far the revolutionary cauldron of the century — can expect more to come. No region is as prone to water scarcity, and none as vulnerable to “tele-connected food supply shocks,” or harvest failures in distant breadbaskets driving up prices of the imports on which the population depends.

In revolutionary Russia, the supply shock originally stemmed from the blockades and demands of the First World War and then multiplied across the vast territory; for the Bolsheviks, it was as much a curse as a blessing. In his remarkable study, Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914—1921, Lars T. Lih shows how the dearth of food not only propelled them to power, but prompted them to develop the authoritarian tendencies that would later devour them.

Moreover, those tendencies were in full swing already before October. The Tsarist state itself took the first steps towards a “food-supply dictatorship,” in which the state applies coercion to enforce the delivery of food to starving citizens. “The food-supply question has swallowed up all other questions,” one government employee observed in the autumn of 1916, and “as economic anarchy has spread, all the deeper is the process of penetration of the state principle into all aspects of the economic existence of the country.”

The Provisional Government continued on the same track — all political currents save the anarchists agreed on the necessity of strict centralised control to bring forth the grain — but proved utterly unequal to the task. The Bolsheviks turned out to be the sole party disciplined and hard-hitting enough to reconstitute the centre and reign in the centrifugal forces. But to succeed in their efforts, they had to ditch any ideological doubts about the state and make maximum use of the remaining scaffoldings of the Tsarist bureaucracy. The problem was that they had promised “all power to the Soviets.”

According to a logic Lih reconstructs in painful detail, genuinely self-governing soviets (and communes and factory committees) had the interests of their own constituencies closest to heart: in the countryside, they held back grain from the cities; in the cities, they sent volunteers to the countryside to collect whatever could be found and distribute it to their members. The experiment in direct democracy the Bolsheviks had done so much to encourage merely deepened the chaos in the food system — the one plague they had vowed to eradicate. Locked into this contradiction, they opted for subjugating the soviets to the party, shooting suspected hoarders, stationing agents in the villages to surveil the peasants, setting the whole train of bureaucratic control in motion.

But the choice — this is Lih’s main point — was forced upon the Bolsheviks by the situation. Exacerbated by first civil war and then drought, the scarcities seemed to allow for no other general course of action than a food-supply dictatorship, to which the vast majority of Russians eventually resigned themselves, preferring some stability and food on the table to the endless deprivation and uncertainty of the revolutionary years. Here the seeds of Stalinist counter-revolution were sown. Paradoxically, in Lih’s analysis, they sprang from a remarkable feat: precisely because they were so ruthless and consistent in their centralization of the food system, the Bolsheviks did avert total breakdown. In a formulation now pregnant with meaning, Lih sums up his view of their young state: “a Noah hastily constructing a small ark against imminent disaster.”…

For the full text, including footnotes, see  Climate and Capitalism. The article is also found in Rethinking Revolution, Socialist Register 2017.”

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3 Comments
  1. “He points in particular to the example of Syria: ‘In the years leading up to the outbreak of the 2011 revolution, that country reeled under an epochal drought that caused widespread hunger.’

    “Syria’s capitalist rulers redoubled the effects of drought by neo-liberal measures to seize land and resources from poor farmers, Malm states. The ensuing social crisis and uprising was rooted in the combination of social stress and hunger with the inequities of the regime.”

    Yes, indeed. So you acknowledge the class and popular roots of the anti-Assad uprising in Syria. Good. Could this modify your previous defense of the Iranian regime’s role in Syria? In “Protests in Iran: The international dimension,” published on this blog on January 19, 2018, you defended that regime:

    “Iran gives assistance to the internationally recognized government [sic] of Syria in its resistance to insurrectionary [sic] and interventionist forces.”

    True, you added a caveat: “This deserves discussion.” But without more.

    Speaking of Iran, consider how the same climate change effects that helped to spark the Syrian insurrectionary uprising also played a major role in the recent mass demonstrations in that country – a popular anti-regime protest, the progressive nature of which you seemed to doubt in your January article.

    Warming, Water Crisis, Then Unrest: How Iran Fits an Alarming Pattern

  2. Thanks for your comments, Richard.

    You refer to the “class and popular roots” of the 2011 uprising against Assad, a point on which we seem to agree, and ask if that does not imply a need to condemn Iran’s present role in supporting the Assad regime. In my view, the character of the anti-Assad movements today is different from that at the outset. This is widely acknowledged including by those sympathetic to the anti-Assad forces; see for example https://bit.ly/2GWIiZm.

    You ask why my recent article, “Protests in Iran, the International dimension” (https://bit.ly/2BtWyEu) does not condemn Iran’s support of the Syrian government against insurgency and hostile intervention. I believe that this question must be assessed within the broader context of the ongoing imperialist wars in the region; the hostile imperialist campaign against Iran; and the urgent danger of armed attack on the country, propelled by an alliance of the U.S., Canada, the European Union, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and local satellites. That is the point that my article was trying to make.

    You also criticize me for failing to recognize the progressive character of the recent anti-regime protests in Iran. Actually, my article suggested only that imperialist hostility was an issue in Iran’s internal politics and that progressive opposition forces should defend Iran’s sovereignty against imperialism. Such a stand does not imply support for the regime or its foreign policy. But it does suggest that our approach to protest actions in Iran (and elsewhere) should be analytic rather than one of unconditional support.

    The need for such an analytic approach is evident in the articles supporting the protests that were reviewed in my article. Writers of these articles said that there was a very real danger of rightist forces taking over the protest movement. They made suggestions on how to avert that outcome. What I added was the suggestion that anti-imperialism would necessarily be part of such a progressive program. I truly do not see how there can be any disagreement among socialists on this point.

    • John, this exchange began when I questioned why you had acknowledged that Iran was assisting the Assad regime in “its resistance to insurrectionary and interventionist forces” without criticizing that support for Assad. Now, in response to my prodding, you offer an explanation, arguing in effect that the insurrectionary anti-Assad popular movements are definitively defeated and that any movements that remain are “different.” In support, you reference simply a study that is critical of the popular councils formed at the outset of the popular uprising, and especially of their leaderships.

      True, the Syrian popular opposition movements have been terribly weakened by the regime’s brutal assault — reinforced and facilitated by, among other powers, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The article you reference makes no argument in defense of Iran’s intervention, still less of Assad.

      It does, however, exaggerate when it claims that the councils’ leadership was “nothing but a pawn for the Gulf States and Turkey.” I could cite you any number of first-hand accounts that say otherwise. They “begged for a western intervention”? Most were seeking access to weapons (e.g. anti-aircraft rockets) that would help them defend against the fighter-jet terror bombing and barrel bombs that were destroying their entire communities. It has been amply documented that they were largely denied such access and the results were visible in the physical destruction of defenseless East Aleppo, more recently Ghouta, and many other cities and towns.

      Here is a recent article by a very well-informed source that presents a much different account of what has happened, and the forces involved, in the Syrian civil war: http://tinyurl.com/y7ubs2lk. The author, Michael Karadjis, argues that “a powerful civil side to the revolution continues to exist, a Free Syrian Army also continues to exist alongside better-known Islamist brigades, and even the most odious of the Islamist brigades has been unable to completely dominate over the organs of the revolution, including the democratic local councils.”

      You acknowledge that your January article “does not condemn Iran’s support of the Syrian government….” Yet you say “this question must be assessed within the broader context of the ongoing imperialist wars in the region….” But how does Iran’s support of Assad contribute to an anti-imperialist stance — unless you are inferring that such a stance must include defense of the Assad regime?

      Iran’s intervention to shore up Assad (which was not inconsistent with US and other imperialist objectives in the war) undermines any defense it may offer to imperialist threats against Iran. And it has alienated progressive forces worldwide.

      The popular uprising in Iran produced demands that the regime stop sending troops to Syria. In your January article you said their demands instead should have been “fused with resistance to imperialist attacks on Iran and the entire region.” I see no inconsistency between the demand for Iranian withdrawal from Syria and opposition to imperialist attacks on the region. On the contrary. The defense of Assad is hardly opposition to imperialism.

      You call your approach “analytic” as opposed to “one of unconditional support.” But by arguing that any position on Iran’s role is subordinate to “the urgent danger of armed attack on the country” from the U.S., Canada, EU and their local satellites — irrespective of just how urgent that danger really is — your approach, it seems to me, smacks of the selective solidarity that is unfortunately all too common among a certain left today. Here is an article on this topic that your readers might find relevant: http://salvage.zone/online-exclusive/syria-and-the-problem-of-left-solidarity/.

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