From Capitalocene to Biophilia: a rallying call for ecological sovereignty

Extract from: James Connolly’s “We Only Want the Earth” (1907)

Iceland, Geography, and Biophilia

My child-like excitement for an impending university geography field trip to Iceland has led me to exploring the concept of biophilia. The distinct lure of Iceland feels like a spiritual calling to the wonder and beauty of the natural world. My excitement reminds me of the draw to studying geography: a love of the world in its full human and natural dimensions. Mine is a spiritual and political love that deplores inequality and poverty, injustice, exploitation of humans and the environment, despoliation and mindless plunder, and the ultimate betrayal of our custodianship of planet Earth, otherwise known as the potentially catastrophic era of the Anthropocene. Specifically, mine is a love for what the human species, all living beings, and our shared home of Earth could be and should be, against the harm wrought to us all by capitalism. My imminent visit to Iceland is a rekindling of my original love for geography and a journey into the meaning of biophilia. This journey starts with Icelander Björk’s album “Biophilia” and proceeds to the writings of Edward O. Wilson and Erich Fromm.

Björk’s album “Biophilia”, released in 2011, was the outcome of what had been happening in Iceland during that time, from the financial crisis to an environmental movement against the building of five aluminium factories: “on so many different levels”, she says, “there was this message that all the old system don’t work anymore, you’ve got to clear your table and start from scratch” (Björk 2011a). The album is “about connecting the dots, it’s not so much about that each thing is original, it’s more about building bridges between things that haven’t had bridges between them before, like nature and technology, and like atoms and the galaxy” (Björk 2011b). In one sense, Björk’s “Biophilia” is a product of what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1972) termed topophilia, our affective bond to place which is born from our experiences and circumstances: “being brought up in Iceland I have always had a relationship with nature, before I even knew that that’s not common, living in a capital in Europe but you’re still surrounded by mountains and ocean”; while walking to and from school, “I started mapping out my melodies to landscapes”; at music school from aged five to fifteen, “I was being introduced to the classical canon, Beethoven and Bach, and finding some of it interesting but a lot of it not really matching my own strong experience […] and also being a girl in the 70s in Iceland, I mean this was like for girls in Germany in the 1700s! I wanted musicology for girls, Icelandic girls in the twentieth century” (Björk 2011b).

The word biophilia is commonly attributed to the biologist Edward O. Wilson, namely, to his book Biophilia published in 1984, which was followed by an edited collection titled The Biophilia Hypothesis (1993). For Wilson (1993: 31), biophilia “is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms”. He makes the case for a hereditary biophilia that has developed through gene-culture coevolution, and calls upon psychologists and other academics to urgently investigate, in the context of the natural environment, what “will happen to the human psyche when such a defining part of the human evolutionary experience is diminished or erased” (Wilson, 1993: 35). Wilson’s (1993: 38-39) biophilia is a central part of a new environmental ethics, which, while acknowledging the utilitarian potential and material value of wild species, pleas for consideration of “the hereditary needs of our own species” in which the biodiversity of life has “immense aesthetic and spiritual value”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, the environmentalist scholar David W. Orr offers a more radical agenda, calling for a biophilia revolution. On closer examination, his revolution is an incremental set of demands with a left-tinged anti-globalisation, localism, and patriotism, which cuts against a sense of biophilia as a global relationship to humankind and planet Earth; indeed, he confesses, “I do not know whether it is possible to love the planet or not” (Orr, 1993: 432).

The Earth’s Eastern Hemisphere (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the popular association of biophilia with Edward O. Wilson, it was in fact the humanistic Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) who first introduced the term, explicitly in The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and implicitly in The Sane Society (1956) and Marx’s Concept of Man (1961). Like Wilson, Fromm considers biophilia – the love of life – as having a biological grounding, specifically, as an innate tendency in all living beings to preserve life and to fight death. But for Fromm, biophilia is also more than this, it is an innate tendency to integrate and to unite; or, to paraphrase Björk, to build bridges. Unlike Wilson, Fromm’s basis for studying biophilia is not biology but the conditions of existence that shape human beings as fundamentally social beings and the capitalist conditions of existence that estrange us from this basic need for connection.

Before I embark into the world of Fromm’s biophilia, which, I argue, offers us a critical theoretical basis for a rallying call for ecological sovereignty, I contextualise this call within a particular framing of the ecological crisis of the twenty-first century.


Anthropocene versus Capitalocene

The Anthropocene (from the Greek work “anthropos” meaning human being) is the term designated to the thesis that human activity has tipped the Earth into a new geological age. On the present vogue of the Anthropocene, Benjamin Kunkel (2017: 22-23) writes:

“It expresses […] an awareness that environmental change of the most durable significance is taking place as we speak, with unaccustomed speed. (Little besides a giant asteroid or a nuclear war could alter the surface of the earth faster and more completely.) […] the Anthropocene condenses ‘into a single word’, as Davies says, ‘a gripping and intuitive story about human influences on the planet’. It designates a contemporary situation in which humanity, accidentally or deliberately, engineers the planet’s condition, and then sets this present moment in a span of time stretching decades, centuries or millennia into past and future. […] What was once true about the now passé term ‘postmodernism’ is true for the Anthropocene today: it names an effort to consider the contemporary world historically, in an age that otherwise struggles with its attention span.”

While intended as a rallying call, Kunkel (2017: 23) identifies arguments that the Anthropocene is also “a watchword of despair”. Reviewing Jason Moore’s (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life and Andreas Malm’s (2015) Fossil Capital, he summates their critiques of the Anthropocene and Moore’s alternative thesis of the Capitalocene:

“Its defect, as Moore sees it, is to present humanity as a ‘homogenous acting unit’, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state. They exist only in particular historical forms of society, defined by distinct regimes of social property relations that imply different dispositions towards ‘extra-human nature’. […] Moore proposes that the Anthropocene be renamed the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture.’ Malm […] locates the headwaters of the present ecological crisis several centuries later, in the global warming set off by coal-burning industrialisation. He complains that in ‘the Anthropocene narrative’, climate change is ‘relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities’ only to be ‘renaturalised’ a moment later as the excrescence of ‘an innate human trait’. […] ‘Capitalism in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species…exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.’ Nor in the time since has the species en bloc become ecologically sovereign: ‘In the early 21st century, the poorest 45 per cent of humanity generated 7 per cent of CO2 emissions, while the richest 7 per cent produced 50 per cent.’ For Malm and Moore, capitalism must be recognised as the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career if the present era of natural history is to become a useful object of analysis, not merely of handwringing.” (Kunkel, 2017: 23)

The Earth’s Western Hemisphere (Wikimedia Commons)

As I will go on to illustrate, Fromm’s concept of biophilia is grounded in a comprehension of capitalist social relations in which humanity is neither individually autonomous nor a sovereign political bloc but is instead removed from its social relationship to other living beings and to nature. Moreover, for Fromm, there is nothing natural about the antithesis of biophilia; as such, there is no inherent human trait underpinning capitalism that has led us into the Anthropocene. Vis-à-vis the ecological crisis of the twenty-first century, Fromm’s distinctly socialist biophilia is an urgently needed rallying cry against the Capitalocene.


Fromm’s socialist Biophilia

“Socialism for Marx was, as Paul Tillich put it, “a resistance movement against the destruction of love in social reality.”” (Fromm, 1961: 59)

Erich Fromm, 1974 (Wikimedia Commons)


i. Social beings, total beings, and productive life

For Fromm, it is a fundamental human need to connect with living beings:

“The necessity to unite with other living beings, to be related to them, is an imperative need on the fulfilment of which [our] sanity depends. This need is behind all phenomena which constitute the whole gamut of intimate human relations, of all passions which are called love in the broadest sense of the word.” (Fromm, 1956: 30)

Furthermore, as humans we search for meaning to our existence and desire transcendence: all our “passions and strivings […] are attempts to find an answer to [our] existence” (Fromm, 1956: 29). In this respect we are faced with two conflicting tendencies, to love and to create, and/or to hate and to destroy:

“Creation and destruction, love and hate, are not two instincts which exist independently. They are both answers to the same need for transcendence, and the will to destroy must rise when the will to create cannot be satisfied. However, the satisfaction of the need to create leads to happiness; destructiveness to suffering […].” (Fromm, 1956: 38)

This need for relatedness and transcendence has no “physiological substrata” but rather is based on our primary driver as a species-being, the human situation: “the total human personality in its interaction with the world, nature and [human beings]; it is the human practice of life as it results from the conditions of human existence” (Fromm, 1956: 70).

Fromm recognises that our spiritual health flourishes when our conditions of existence provide ‘freedom to’, not simply ‘freedom from’. This freedom to allows for the total human personality to grow, as based on our relation to each other, the world, and oneself. Here he draws upon Marx’s notion of ‘total man’ [sic]: whose “independence and freedom” are founded on “the act of self-creation”, which is achieved when our individuality is affirmed and expressed in each of our relations to the world, that is, quoting Marx, “seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, willing, loving” (Fromm, 1961: 37-38). Fromm (1961: 38) sees Marx’s goal of socialism – the emancipation of human beings – as our “self-realization in the process of productive relatedness and oneness with [humans] and nature”. For Marx (alongside Spinoza, Goethe, and Hegel), he explains, humans are “alive” inasmuch as we are “productive”, grasping the world outside of ourselves in the act of affirming and expressing our total being; inasmuch as we are “not productive”, i.e., “receptive and passive”, we are “nothing”, we are “dead” (Fromm, 1961: 29-30). Fromm (1961: 30) contextualises this concept of productivity – as opposed to receptivity – within Marx’s understanding of “the phenomenon of love”:

““Let us assume man to be man [sic],” [Marx] wrote, “and his relation to the world to be a human one. Then love can only be exchanged for love, trust for trust, etc. If you wish to influence other people you must be a person who really has a stimulating and encouraging effect upon others. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return, i.e., if you are not able, by the manifestation of yourself as a loving person, to make yourself a beloved person, then your love is impotent and a misfortune.””

Love, for Fromm (1956: 32), is a crucial aspect of “the productive orientation: the active and creative relatedness” of humans to their fellow humans and to nature:

“In the realm of thought, this productive orientation is expressed in the proper grasp of the world by reason. In the realm of action, the productive orientation is expressed in productive work, the prototype of which is art and craftsmanship. In the realm of feeling, the productive orientation is expressed in love, which is the experience of union with another person, with all [humans], and with nature, under the condition of retaining one’s sense of integrity and independence.”

Productive love reflects a set of attitudes, “that of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge” (Fromm, 1956: 33). Productive love, as part of the orientation of productive life, is the gem of Fromm’s conceptualisation of biophilia.


ii. Insane capitalism: alienation as death

For Fromm (1956: 94-95), capitalism tends towards insanity because it generates a world in which capital, “dead past”, is placed higher than labour, present “living vitality”:

“The conflict between capital and labor is much more than the conflict between two classes, more than their fight for a greater share of the social product. It is the conflict between two principles of value: that between the world of things, and their amassment, and the world of life and its productivity.”

It is worth noting here that Fromm’s (1956: 6) identification and exploration of the “pathology of normalcy”, specifically, the pathology of capitalism, made his work a timely radical alternative to that of Sigmund Freud:

“Freud’s concept of human nature as being essentially competitive (and asocial) is the same as we find it in most authors who believe that the characteristics of man [sic] in modern Capitalism are his natural characteristics. […] His basic concept is that of a “homo sexualis” as that of the economists was that of the “homo economicus.” Both the “economic” man and the “sexual” man are convenient fabrications whose alleged nature – isolated, asocial, greedy and competitive – makes Capitalism appear as the system which corresponds perfectly to human nature, and places it beyond the reach of criticism.” (Fromm, 1956: 76-77)

The basic problem of capitalism, Fromm (1961: 43) argues, is “the negation of productivity: alienation”. Capitalist social relations distort the labour of productive life – that is, meaningful and enjoyable self-expression – into labour which is forced, meaningless, and alienated from us. This alienation (or estrangement) means that we do not experience ourselves as active agents; “the world (nature, others, and [oneself]) remain alien to” us, standing above and against us “as objects” (including those of our own creation) (Fromm, 1961: 44). In brief, alienation, as “essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, receptively” (Fromm, 1961: 44), is dehumanisation and death.

The consequence of capitalist alienation for life in general is the loss of the human dimension through abstractification and quantification:

“This abstractification takes place even with regard to phenomena which are not commodities sold on the market, like a flood disaster; the newspapers will headline a flood, speaking of a “million-dollar catastrophe,” emphasizing the abstract quantitative element rather than the concrete aspects of human suffering. […] It is an expression of the same attitude when a newspaper headlines an obituary with the words “Shoe Manufacturer Dies.” Actually a man has died, a man with certain human qualities, with hopes and frustrations […].” (Fromm, 1956: 116)

Contrary to productive love as biophilia, capitalist alienation fosters the indifference to life and even the attraction of death:

“We speak of millions of people being killed, of one third or more of our population being wiped out if a third World War should occur; we speak of billions of dollars piling up as a national debt […]. Tens of thousands work in one enterprise, hundreds of thousands live in hundreds of cities. The dimensions with which we deal are figures and abstractions; they are far beyond the boundaries which would permit of any kind of concrete experience. There is no frame of reference left which is manageable, observable, which is adapted to human dimensions. While our eyes and ears receive impressions only in humanly manageable proportions, our concept of the world has lost just that quality; it does not any longer correspond to our human dimension. This is especially significant in connection with the development of modern means of destruction. In modern war, one individual can cause the destruction of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. He [sic] could do so by pushing a button; he may not feel the emotional impact of what he is doing, since he does not see, does not know the people whom he kills; it is almost as if his act of pushing the button and their death had no real connection.” (Fromm, 1956: 119)

In our present moment, in which the president of the most powerful country on Earth denies the existence of climate change, Right-wing reactionary nationalisms are on the ascent worldwide, experts are ridiculed and ignorance is celebrated as non-elitist, and fake news is all the rage, Fromm’s (1956: 120) words take on a renewed sobering significance:

“Science, business, politics, have lost all foundations and proportions which make sense humanly. We live in figures and abstractions; since nothing is concrete, nothing is real. Everything is possible, factually and morally.”


iii. Insane capitalism: nationalism as idolatrous worship

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” (Donald Trump, 2017)

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” (Theresa May, 2016)

“Now, the dividing line is not between left and right but globalists and patriots.” (Marine Le Pen, 2015)

Fromm (1956: 58-59) insists that the person who has not “freed” oneself “from the ties to blood and soil is not yet fully born as a human being”, since their “capacity for love and reason” is debilitated:

“Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by “patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts [one’s] own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare – never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”

For Fromm, it is only when we succeed in fully developing our love and reason (moving from ‘freedom from’ to ‘freedom to’) that we can create a world based on solidarity and justice, that we can feel rooted in a universal comradeship. What’s more, the ecological survival of planet Earth depends on such a biophilic reclamation of globalisation – a rooted connection to ourselves, other living beings, nature, and the world.


iv. The socialist struggle for Biophilia

“The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to [one]self; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die – although it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are born.” (Fromm, 1956: 26)

Fromm defines biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group” (Fromm, 1973: 485). The tendency “to preserve life and to fight against death” is the most elementary form of biophilia, and is common to all living beings; the more positive aspect of biophilia is the tendency of all living substance:

“to integrate and to unite; […] to fuse with different and opposite entities, and to grow in a structured way. Unification and integrated growth are characteristic of all life processes, not only as far as cells are concerned, but also with regard to feeling and thinking.” (Fromm, 1964: 45-46)

The “person who fully loves life is attracted by the processes of life and growth in all spheres”, preferring “to construct rather than to retain”, “capable of wondering”, loving “the adventure of living” more than certainty, seeing “the whole rather than only the parts”, and wanting “to mold and to influence by love, reason, […] not by force, by cutting things apart” (Fromm, 1964: 47). In dialectical tension with biophilia is necrophilia, the love of death. When life becomes about things, when one is engrossed with having rather than being, when one is obsessed with possession and control, when one is oriented to the past rather than to the present and future, desiring certainty when the only certainty in life is death, then a necrophilous orientation develops (Fromm, 1964). Contrary to Fromm’s dialectic of the biophilous and necrophilous orientations is Freud’s idea of the life instinct (Eros) and the death instinct. This, for Fromm (1964, 1973), is wrong, since both are not biologically given and equally ranked. Biophilia is the normal impulse for living beings, whereas necrophilia is the result of a life unlived.

Most societies fuel conditions of existence for both our creative and destructive tendencies, just as most people are a combination of biophilous and necrophilous orientations – the question is which wins out. “A healthy society furthers” our “capacity to love” others, “to work creatively, to develop” our “reason and objectivity, to have a sense of self which is based on the experience of” our “own productive powers”; whereas, an “unhealthy society is one which creates mutual hostility, distrust, which transforms” us “into an instrument of use and exploitation for others, which deprives” us “of a sense of self” (Fromm, 1956: 72-73). Fromm (1964: 59) warns that the lack of protest against nuclear warfare and “the discussions of our “atomologists” of the balance sheet of total or half-total destruction” reveals “how far we have already gone into the “valley of the shadow of death””. This analogy retains critical relevance amid our own era of global warming and reactionary Right-wing nationalisms.

Ultimately, a political struggle is needed for a global and grassroots democratic socialism that enables the “full unfolding of biophilia” (Fromm, 1964: 46) and the full development of the person “who does not “dominate” nature, but who becomes one with it” (Fromm, 1961: 63). Fromm was a staunch critic of both capitalism and Stalinist totalitarianism. His vision of socialism was for an end to “existential egotism”, in which, quoting Marx, we are alienated from our “own body, external nature”, our “mental life” and our “human life” (Fromm, 1961: 53). Fromm (1961: 63) elucidates:

“Marx’s concept of socialism is a protest, as is all existentialist philosophy, against the alienation of [humans]; if, as Aldous Huxley put it, “our present economic, social and international arrangements are based, in large measure, upon organised lovelessness,” then Marx’s socialism is a protest against this very lovelessness […].”

This is a socialism against the exploitation by human beings of other human beings, of other living beings, and of nature; this is a struggle for a productive life, for life creating life, and for the ecological sovereignty of biophilia.

“Welcome to biophilia, the love for nature in all her manifestations…” (David Attenborough)



Björk (2011a) Björk is back – Interview 2011 (about Biophilia), YouTube

Björk (2011b) Bjork: On Music and Biophilia – The Sound of Nature | WIRED 2013, YouTube

Fromm, E. (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Middlesex: Penguin Books

Fromm, E. (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. New York: Harper and Row Publishers

Fromm, E. (1961) Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.

Fromm, E. (1956) The Sane Society. London: Routledge

Kunkel, B. (2017) “The Capitalocene”. In London Review of Books 39(5), 22-28

Orr, D. W. (1993) “Love It or Lose It: The Coming Biophilia Revolution”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S.R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson. Washington D.C.: Island, 415-440

Tuan, Y. F. (1990) Topophilia: a study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. New York: Columbia University Press

Wilson, E. O. (1993) “Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S.R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson. Washington D.C.: Island, 31-41

Wilson, E. O. (1984) Biophilia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

The benighted pseudo-socialism of ‘out of Europe’

I. Introduction

On Saturday 14th May 2016 I attended the Sheffield TUC’s “Europe IN or OUT? The Big Debate”. Maxine Bowler of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) was the main speaker on the top table for the ‘out’ position. In my contribution from the floor I began by stating my critique of the European Union as a neoliberal capitalist club, which is hostile to migrants and refugees. I reasoned that one can be a fierce critic of the status quo and bureaucracy of the European Union whilst recognising that the alternative actuality of ‘Britain out’, in the face of a deeply chauvinistic wave coalescing through the Brexit campaign, would be a reactionary throwback which will impede the struggle for working class liberation. I then referenced the Marxist tradition (by Marx and Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, and others) for a socialist “United States of Europe” – a tradition which has been problematically displaced by Stalinism. Maxine replied: “I am angry that someone has used Marx and Engels to defend the European Union!” So she missed my point. But much worse still, she woefully neglected an important history and compass for the present from supposedly her own tradition. As the debate proceeded, a member of the audience tentatively made a case for ‘Britain out’ on the basis of a need to curb immigration. Maxine responded by making a case for open borders. And herein lies the political incongruity of the Lexit campaign: arguing against a Fortress Europe and for an open Europe, while effectively retreating to (a left-wing) nationalism; arguing against the European Union and for an internationalism, while ineffectively challenging the forces and conditions of existence that are fuelling xenophobia, racism, parochialism, and nationalism. In the fantasy politics minds of its campaigners, Lexit is the subversion of Brexit, yet in reality it is merely an inversion. Moreover, given the tsunami of Brexit, Lexit’s attempt to capsize Brexit continuously fails as wave after wave capsize Lexit.

Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 17.02.27In the Social Worker article “Say no to Fortress Europe – vote leave on 23 June”, the organisation argues:

“the EU isn’t about bringing people together across borders. It’s about bringing together the ruling classes of some countries to compete against the ruling classes of other countries – partly by putting up borders. The EU makes it harder to travel into Europe from Africa, Asia and South America. To do so it promotes scapegoating myths that can then be turned against European migrants. So can its machinery of border control and repression. Building a racist Fortress Europe is central to the EU project. Bringing down that fortress is essential for any real internationalism or anti-racism. Some activists argue that the bigger enemy is “Fortress Britain”. But the two aren’t in competition. Britain’s rulers use the EU to police their own borders.”

If we leave the European Union, further still, if it disintegrates under a tsunami of chauvinistic nationalisms, then what are the conditions of existence to then fight for an open Europe? If we succumb to a form of left-wing nationalism amidst waves of racist, xenophobic English and British nationalism, then what are the conditions of existence for a future of workers’ solidarity across borders? Maxine and other SWP members at the Sheffield debate defined those who spelt out the highly probable consequences of ‘Britain out’ as promoting a “politics of despair”. Instead, they speculated, Boris would oust Cameron, the Tories would look like a joke, the masses would then take to the streets, and socialism would be victorious.

II. The Marxist tradition for a “United States of Europe”

Let’s start with the following historical context, as summated by Cathy Nugent in her article “What do Socialists say about the United States of Europe?”:

“The term ‘United States of Europe’ has its origins in bourgeois democratic thought in the nineteenth century, and was directed at the multi-national absolutist empires such as Austria and Russia. Some of the more far-sighted thinkers envisaged an alternative way in which the European continent could be organised. The Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini, for instance, saw a United States of Europe as the logical continuation of Italian unification. For the League of Peace and Freedom, a pacifist organisation Victor Hugo, Giuseppe Garibaldi and John Stuart Mill were involved with, a United States of Europe was a way of preventing war. Marx and Engels had their own view of conflict between nations. In the Communist Manifesto in 1848, they anticipated that “in place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency,” capitalism would lead to “intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.” Engels linked the growth of the workers movement and the increasing influence of Social-Democratic parties to the prospects for maintaining peace. When asked if he anticipated a United States of Europe in 1893, he replied: “Certainly. Everything is making in that direction. Our ideas are spreading in every European country.” (Daily Chronicle June 1893)”

The following is an abridged extract from Leon Trotsky’s “The Programme of Peace” (1917), written in the context of the First World War. Here the politics constructing the demand for a “United States of Europe” are detailed. Trotsky’s method of analysis is highly instructive for the contemporary period.

What Is a Programme of Peace?


For the revolutionary proletarian the peace programme does not mean the demands which national militarism must fulfil, but those demands which the international proletariat intends to impose by its revolutionary struggle against militarism of all countries.


Capitalism has transferred into the field of international relations the same methods applied by it in ‘regulating’ the internal economic life of the nations. The path of competition is the path of systematically annihilating the small and medium-sized enterprises and of achieving the supremacy of big capital. World competition of the capitalist forces means the systematic subjection of the small, medium-sized and backward nations by the great and greatest capitalist powers. The more developed the technique of capitalism, the greater the role played by finance capital and the higher the demands of militarism, all the more grows the dependency of the small states on the great powers. This process, forming as it does an integral element of imperialist mechanics, flourishes undisturbed also in times of peace by means of state loans, railway and other concessions, military-diplomatic agreements, etc. The war uncovered and accelerated this process by introducing the factor of open violence. The war destroys the last shreds of the ‘independence’ of small states, quite apart from the military outcome, of the conflict between the two basic enemy camps.


Status Quo Ante Bellum

But the question is: Can the proletariat under the present circumstances advance an independent peace programme, that is, its own solutions of the problems which caused the current war or which have been disclosed in the course of this war?

We have been told that the proletariat does not now command sufficient forces to bring about the realization of such a programme. Utopian is the hope that the proletariat could realize its own peace programme as a consequence of the present war. Something else again is the struggle for the cessation of the war and for a peace without annexation, i.e., a return to the status quo ante bellum, to the state of affairs prior to the war. This, we are told, is by far the more realistic programme. Such were, for example, the arguments of Martov, Martynov and the Menshevik Internationalists generally, who hold on this question as on all others not a revolutionary but a conservative position […].


The European status quo ante bellum, the product of wars, robberies, violations, legitimism, diplomatic stupidity and impotence of peoples, remains as the only positive content of the slogan ‘without annexations’.

In its struggle against imperialism, the proletariat cannot set up as its political aim the return to the map of old Europe; it must advance its own programme of state and national relations, corresponding to the fundamental tendencies of economic development, corresponding to the revolutionary character of the epoch and the socialist interests of the proletariat.


The only acceptable content of the slogan ‘without annexations’ is thus a protest, against new violent acquisitions, which amounts to giving a negative expression to, the right of nations to self-determination. But we have seen that this democratically unquestionable ‘right’ is being and will necessarily be transformed into the right of strong nations to make acquisitions and impose oppression, whereas for the weak nations it will mean an impotent wish or a ‘scrap of paper’. Such will be the case as long as the political map of Europe forces nations and their fractions within the framework of states separated by tariff barriers and continually brought into conflict by the imperialist struggle.

It is possible to overcome this régime only through the proletarian revolution. Thus, the centre of gravity of the question lies in combining the peace programme of the proletariat with that of the social revolution.


[…] even if by a miracle Europe were divided by force of arms into fixed national states and small states, the national question would not thereby be in the least decided and, the very next day after the ‘just’ national redistributions, capitalist expansion would resume its work. Conflicts would arise, wars and new acquisitions, in complete violation of the national principle in all cases where its preservation cannot be maintained by a sufficient number of bayonets. It would all give the impression of inveterate gamblers being forced to divide the gold ‘justly’ among themselves in the middle of the game, in order to start the same game all over again with redoubled frenzy.

From the might of the centralist tendencies of imperialism, it does not at all follow that we are obliged passively to submit to it. A national community is the living hearth of culture, as the national language is its living organ, and these will still retain their significance through indefinitely long historical periods. The Social Democracy is desirous of safeguarding and is obliged to safeguard to the national community its freedom of development (or dissolution) in the interests of material and spiritual culture. It is in this sense that it has taken over from the revolutionary bourgeoisie the democratic principle of national self-determination as a political obligation.

The right of national self-determination cannot he excluded from the proletarian peace programme; but it cannot claim absolute importance. On the contrary, it is delimited for us by the converging, profoundly progressive tendencies of historical development. If this ‘right’ must be – through revolutionary force – counter-posed to the imperialist methods of centralization which enslave weak and backward peoples and mush the hearths of national culture, then on the other hand the proletariat cannot allow the ‘national principle’ to get in the way of the irresistible and deeply progressive tendency of modern economic life towards a planned organization throughout our continent, and further, all over the globe. Imperialism is the capitalist-thievish expression of this tendency of modern economy to tear itself completely away from the idiocy of national narrowness, as it did previously with regard to local and provincial confinement. While fighting against the imperialist form of economic centralization, socialism does not at all take a stand against the particular tendency as such but, on the contrary, makes the tendency its own guiding principle.


A national-cultural existence, free of national economic antagonisms and based on real self-determination, is possible only under the roof of a democratically united Europe freed from state and tariff barriers.


Between our present social condition and socialism there still lies an extended epoch of social revolution, that is, the epoch of the open proletarian struggle for power, the conquest and application of this power with the aim of the complete democratization of social relations, and the systematic transformation of capitalist society into the socialist society. This is the epoch not of pacification and tranquillity but, on the contrary, of the highest intensification of the class struggle, the epoch of popular uprisings, wars, expanding experiments of the proletarian régime, and socialist reforms. This epoch demands of the proletariat, that it give a practical, that is, an immediately applicable answer to the question of the further existence of nationalities and their reciprocal relations with the state and the economy.

The United States of Europe

We tried to prove in the foregoing that the economic and political unification of Europe is the necessary prerequisite for the very possibility of national self-determination. Just as the slogan of national independence of Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks and others remains an empty abstraction without the supplementary slogan Federative Balkan Republic, which played such an important role in the whole policy of the Balkan Social Democracy; so, on the all-European scale, the principle of the ‘right’ to self-determination can be invested with flesh and blood only under the conditions of a European Federative Republic.


The Hungarian financial and industrial bourgeoisie is hostile to economic unification with capitalistically more developed Austria. The Austro-Hungarian bourgeoisie is hostile to the idea of a tariff union with more powerful Germany. On the other hand, the German landowners will never willingly consent to the cancellation of grain duties. Furthermore, the economic interests of the propertied classes of the Central Empires cannot be so easily made to coincide with the interests of the English, French, Russian capitalists and landed gentry. The present war, speaks eloquently enough on this score. Lastly, the disharmony and irreconcilability of capitalist interests between the Allies themselves is more visible than in the Central States. Under these circumstances, a halfway complete and consistent economic unification of Europe coming from the top by means of an agreement of the capitalist governments is sheer utopia. Here, the matter can go no further than partial compromises and half-measures. Hence it is that the economic unification of Europe, which offers colossal advantages to producer and consumer alike, and in general to the whole cultural development, becomes the revolutionary task of the European proletariat in its struggle against imperialist protectionism and its instrument – militarism.

The United States of Europe – without monarchies, standing armies and secret diplomacy – is therefore the most important integral part of the proletarian peace programme.

The ideologists and politicians of German imperialism frequently came forward, especially at the beginning of the war, with their programme of a European or at least a Central European ‘United States’ (without France and England on the one side and Russia on the other). The programme of a violent unification of Europe is just as characteristic of the tendencies of German imperialism as is the tendency of French imperialism whose programme is the forcible dismemberment of Germany.

If the German armies achieved the decisive victory reckoned upon in Germany during the first phase of the war, the German imperialism would have doubtless made the gigantic attempt of realizing a compulsory military-tariff union of European states, which would be constructed completely of exemptions, compromises, etc., which would reduce to a minimum the progressive meaning of the unification of the European market. Needless to say, under such circumstances no talk would be possible of an autonomy of the nations, thus forcibly joined together as the caricature of the European United States. Certain opponents of the programme of the United States of Europe have used precisely this perspective as an argument that this idea can, under certain conditions, acquire a “reactionary” monarchist-imperialist content. Yet it is precisely this perspective that provides the most graphic testimony in favour of the revolutionary viability of the slogan of the United States of Europe. Let us for a moment grant that German militarism succeeds in actually carrying out the compulsory half-union of Europe, just as Prussian militarism once achieved the half-union of Germany, what would then be the central slogan of the European proletariat? Would it be the dissolution of the forced European coalition and the return of all peoples under the roof of isolated national states? Or the restoration of “autonomous” tariffs, “national” currencies, “national” social legislation, and so forth? Certainly not. The programme of the European revolutionary movement would then be: The destruction of the compulsory anti-democratic form of the coalition, with the preservation and furtherance of its foundations, in the form of compete annihilation of tariff barriers, the unification of legislation, above all of labour laws, etc. In other words, the slogan of the United States of Europe – without monarchies and standing armies – would under the indicated circumstances become the unifying and guiding slogan of the European revolution.


If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to ‘autonomous’ national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.


Now, after the so very promising beginning of the Russian revolution, we have every reason to hope that during the course of this present war a powerful revolutionary movement will be launched all over Europe. It is clear that such a movement can succeed and develop and gain victory only as a general European one. Isolated within national borders, it would be doomed to disaster. […] In other words, the founding of a stable régime of proletarian dictatorship would be conceivable only if it extended throughout Europe, and consequently in the form of a European Republican Federation.


The United States of Europe is the slogan of the revolutionary epoch into which we have entered. Whatever turn the war operations may take later on, whatever balance sheet diplomacy may draw out of the present war, and at whatever tempo the revolutionary movement will progress in the near future, the slogan of the United States of Europe will in all cases retain a colossal meaning as the political formula of the struggle of the European proletariat for power. In this programme is expressed the fact that the national state has outlived itself – as a framework for the development of the productive forces, as a basis for the class struggle, and thereby also as a state form of proletarian dictatorship. Our denial of ‘national defence’, as an outlived political programme for the proletariat, ceases to be a purely negative act of ideological-political self-defence, and acquires all its revolutionary content only in the event that over against the conservative defence of the antiquated national fatherland we place the progressive task, namely the creation of a new, higher ‘fatherland’ of the revolution, of republican Europe, whence the proletariat alone will be enabled to revolutionize and to reorganize the whole world.

Herein, incidentally, lies the answer to those who ask dogmatically. ‘Why the unification of Europe and not of the whole world?’ Europe is not only a geographic term, but a certain economic and cultural-historic community. The European revolution does not have to wait for the revolutions in Asia and Africa nor even in Australia and America. And yet completely victorious revolution in Russia or England is unthinkable without a revolution in Germany, and vice-versa. The present war is called a world war, but even after the intervention of the United States, it is Europe that is the arena of war. And the revolutionary problems confront first of all the European proletariat.

Of course, the United States of Europe will be only one of the two axes of the world organization of economy. The United States of America will constitute the other.


Generally speaking it must not be forgotten that in social patriotism there is active, in addition to the most vulgar reformism, a national revolutionary messianism, which regards its national state as chosen for introducing to humanity ‘socialism’ or ‘democracy’, be it on the ground of its industrial development or of its democratic form and revolutionary conquests. […] Defending the national basis of the revolution which such methods as undermine the international connections of the proletariat, really amounts to undermining the revolution, which cannot begin otherwise than on the national basis, but which cannot be completed on that basis in view of the present economic and military-political interdependence of the European states, which has never been so forcefully revealed as in this war. The slogan, the United States of Europe, gives expression to this interdependence, which will directly and immediately set the conditions for the concerted action of the European proletariat in the revolution.


Denying support to the state – not in the name of a propaganda circle but in the name of the most important class in society – in the period of the greatest catastrophe, internationalism does not simply eschew ‘sin’ passively, but affirms that the fate of world development is no longer linked for us with the fate of the national state; more than this, that the latter has become a vise for development and must be overcome, that is, replaced by a higher economic-cultural organization on a broader foundation. If the problem of socialism were compatible with the framework of the national state, then it would thereby become compatible with national defence. But the problem of socialism confronts us on the imperialist foundation, that is, under conditions in which capitalism itself is forced violently to destroy the national-state framework it has itself established.

Returning to Cathy Nugent, in “What do Socialists say about the United States of Europe?”:

“[Trotsky’s] method of posing the question has a bearing on what we say about the EU today. Much like Marxists do not ‘endorse’ the spread of capitalism, and help workers to fight the capitalists every step of the way, we recognise how it creates the possibility of socialism. Similarly, just as Trotsky did not give political support to European unification under German imperialism, we do not take political responsibility for the way in which the European bourgeoisie has unified Europe in its own incomplete and increasingly destructive way. We recognise, however, that European integration provides the terrain on which the European workers’ movement can link up to fight the bosses, and for the levelling up of democratic and social rights. To the capitalist European Union we pose not ‘national sovereignty’ or ‘national development’ but the Socialist United States of Europe.”

III. Conclusion


The debate on whether to ‘stay or leave’ the European Union desperately requires a reclamation of the tradition of the Left for a socialist “United States of Europe”: the struggle for working class international solidarity and liberation must entail sharp opposition to both a neoliberal capitalist, bureaucratic, and undemocratic European Union and a chauvinistic retreat to competition between national neoliberal capitalisms, and the demand for a democratic workers’ Europe.

We live in a deeply globalised world, in which the power of capital is huge, but capital contains its own gravediggers. The idea that capital’s gravediggers are best positioned to hammer a blow to capital by de-globalising is a flawed one, rather our positioning too must be globalised. We want to be seizing the means and resources of globalisation for ourselves for our collective betterment. Global capitalism is contradictory: it throws up closures and openings, constraints and radical possibilities. Our task is to move from the present to the future, not to reverse the present into the past; our job is to identify the conditions of existence that provide our class with the greatest possibility of making that political move forward. On this note, I’ll end with the words of Marx and Engels from the Communist Manifesto:

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. […] The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”

Hobson’s choice: moth ball socialism and antiseptic imperialism

“Not just in China, but everywhere in the world without exception, one either leans to the side of imperialism or the side of socialism. Neutrality is mere camouflage; a third road does not exist.” Mao Zedong, 1949

“I absolutely refuse to associate myself with anyone who cannot discern the essential night-and-day difference between theocratic fascism and liberal secular democracy…” Christopher Hitchens, 2008

I. Introduction

The global political confrontations of the twentieth century appeared, in explicit form, as dualistic conflicts of civilisation versus barbarism: the Second World War posed a choice between Atlantic bloc imperialism and fascism, and the Cold War, between US imperialism and Stalinist totalitarianism. Once again, in our contemporary era, there appears before us a duel: between Western imperialism and Islamism. Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations? thesis seemingly offers a more nuanced representation. Huntington states at the start of his essay: “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation-states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”


Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 10.11.46

Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (Wikimedia Commons)

In actuality, what Huntington presents is yet another dualism (this one reductive to cultural and religious identities), the West versus the Rest, which is devoid of materiality and class relations. Fredric Jameson astutely remarks: “here the plurality of cultures simply stands for the decentralized, diplomatic and military jungle with which ‘Western’ or ‘Christian’ culture will have to deal. Yet ultimately, any discussion of globalization surely has to come to terms, one way or another, with the reality of capitalism itself.”

An old debate between the US socialist Hal Draper and the Italian novelist and politician Ignazio Silone in 1956 offers remarkable political instruction, then and now, in response to the hegemonic appearance of a ‘dual camp’ (for the full debate, see The “Third Camp”: Hal Draper debates Ignazio Silone). Crucial background to this debate is Silone’s original position regarding global conflicts, as communicated in an interview in 1939, in which he advances a socialist alternative to supporting the conservative bourgeois democratic bloc against the fascist bloc. Draper, seventeen years later, questions the “political transubstantiation” of Silone: from this to that of offering support to the Atlantic imperialist bloc against the fascist bloc and thus abandoning the socialist alternative to both. The Silone of 1939, Draper spells out, is the best critic of a later Silone.

II. The Ignazio Silone of 1939


Ignazio Silone (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1939 Silone is very clear in his resistance against political progressives being forced into siding with one of two apparent camps in global conflicts:

“The world is now divided into two great fronts: one composed of the conservatives, that is, of the democracies or other partisans of collective security; the other composed of the revisionists or fascists. Neither of these two fronts is capable of assuring peace or of solving the economic and political problems now confronting the world. Real peace depends today on the rapidity with which a third front is created, on the rapidity with which revolutionary workers all over the world retain their political autonomy and resume the struggle to overthrow capitalism.”

He continues:

“They try to force on us the dilemma: status quo or regression? Most of the progressive forces have already accepted this Hobson’s choice.”

Hobson’s choice – a phrase originating from Thomas Hobson (a livery stable owner in Cambridge), who presented his customers with the offer of ‘take this horse or none at all’ – is the presentation of free choice when in reality there is no choice at all; this, Silone recognises, is the trap that the bourgeoisie lays down for us.

Furthermore, Silone makes plain that he is not equating one camp with the other:

“One thing I must make clear at the outset: I think it would be a serious mistake to put bourgeois democracy and fascism on the same level, in view of the great differences between these two forms of political organisation. The Stalinists, who until 1934 denied the existence of any such differences and who fought against social-democracy and liberal democracy as the equivalent of fascism, these gentlemen in actuality made possible Hitler’s victory.”

The fundamental point Silone is making is this: in order to effectively fight fascism, one cannot rely on bourgeois democratic regimes, as they do not provide meaningful solutions to the conditions of existence and to the problems which fuel the growth of fascism – only a socialist alternative to both can do this. This is a point that can also be applied to the fight against Stalinism or against Islamism today. Silone elaborates:

“it would also be a mistake, through fear of fascism, to turn conservative. Fascism’s power, its mass appeal, its contagious influence, all are due to the fact that fascism means false solutions, easy solutions, ersatz solutions but, all the same, solutions of the real problems of our time. We can conquer fascism only by proposing and carrying out other solutions – just, humane, progressive solutions of these same problems. But conservative democracy denies the existence of these problems. She does not see them, does not wish to see them, is unable to see them. That is why, in spite of her military strength, her material wealth and her monopoly of raw materials, when conservative democracy is brought face to face with fascism, she is forced back onto the defensive. That is why she has until now been beaten by fascism. That is why she is weak. The democrats are right when they call the Nazi ‘abolition of unemployment’ fictitious, unstable and a stop gap measure, but their criticism will be more convincing when they themselves find and carry out a healthy and permanent solution of that same problem. It is true that fascist nationalism conflicts with the peaceful collaboration of all peoples which is a historical necessity, now that the economic integration of the globe has laid the foundation for a progressive world unity. But the Versailles system is also based on nationalism, it too is opposed to historical development, and so it cannot be set up as an effective barrier against fascism.”

Early Silone concludes on moth ball socialism

The following conclusion is Silone at his very best, as he underscores the critical importance of fighting fascism through a ‘third camp’ of independent socialist politics:

“When the socialists, with the best possible anti-fascist intentions, renounce their own program, put their own theories in moth balls, and accept the negative positions of conservative democracy, they think they are doing their bit in the struggle to crush fascism. Actually, they leave to fascism the distinction of alone daring to bring forward in public certain problems, thus driving into the fascists’ arms thousands of workers who will not accept the status quo.”

Echo Stalinism, or Islamism today.

III. Draper-Silone debate, 1956

The essence of Silone’s comments on moth ball socialism vanish by 1956, as he attempts to reason:

“The victory of Hitler would have meant the destruction for a long time of the premise for any political activity whatever and hence also for the struggle for socialism. Anti-war sabotage actions on the part of Western workers’ organisations would have led to this. It would have been a collective suicide.”

Third camp reduced to a sophism of equidistance

In contradiction to Silone-1939, a later Silone states, in defence of his support for the Atlantic imperialist bloc:

“we reject the sophism of equidistance. In the first national assembly of our organisation on 18 January 1953 a declaration was adopted in which one could read as follows. ‘It would be an error to judge our open and irreconcilable opposition to totalitarian regimes of any kind and our critical vigilance over the imperfections and contingent tendencies that exist in the democratic regimes as a position of equidistance.'”


Hal Draper

Draper replies by reminding Silone of his own earlier position:

“Very carefully Silone-1939 made clear that he did not equate bourgeois democracy with fascism, nor was he derogatory of the value of bourgeois freedoms. He was obviously aware of the existence of gentlemen who like to reduce all politics to that incontrovertible distinction. It was a question of how to fight fascism – by supporting one imperialist war bloc against another, or by fighting for a socialist transformation of society against both? – just as it is now a question of how to fight totalitarian Stalinism, which is able to win victories today only insofar as it can convince its victims that the only realistic alternative to its own rule is the continued rule of the old discredited system of capitalism.”

Socialism reduced to antiseptic imperialism

In abandoning a position that politically advances an independent, internationalist working class politics, socialism gets reduced, Draper reveals, to agitating for an antiseptic imperialism:

“Why exactly did you decide that the function of socialists in this war crisis is not to fight both imperialist blocs but rather to make sure that the ‘democratic’ imperialists remain ‘purely defensive’, unmilitaristic, free from reactionary tendencies, and otherwise unsullied – to produce a perfectly antiseptic imperialism, in other words, while international misunderstandings are to be taken care of by ‘negotiations, mediation, arbitration,’ etc?”

What’s more, Draper remonstrates, such a sterilised and impotent imperialism – willing and able to defend the purest and most democratic of human values and freedoms – is fanciful thinking:

“If you have now ‘withdrawn your positions’ from the advanced trenches of revolutionary socialism and its democracy to the more prudent rear-lines of bourgeois democracy, what experience of recent life or history has persuaded you that this is where the bastions of human values are to be best defended? Perhaps it is the capacity of the ‘democratic regimes’ for guaranteeing human liberties, as we have been finding out here in the US before, during and since the reign of McCarthy? It is perhaps the ‘democratic’ capacity to de-Nazify the German reaction under our pet Adenauer, or demilitarise the Japanese warlords. Is it perhaps the ‘democratic’ capacity to break away even from Hitlerite allies like Franco? Is it perhaps the ‘democratic’ capacity to break with butchers like Chiang Kai-shek or Syngman Rhee or the semi-fascist lords of Thailand who are America’s only ‘bastions of democracy’ in the Asian world?…”

Draper concludes:

“precisely because socialism faces its crisis, is it not the duty of every socialist who has not been overcome by despair to resist when ‘they try to force on us the dilemma: status quo or regression’ and to devote himself [sic] to the unflagging task in whatever manner of seeking, finding and pursuing the revolutionary and democratic socialist way out of the shambles that has been made of this world by rival exploiters.”

Recommended further reading, my paper ‘The Anti-Imperialism of Fools’: A Cautionary Story on the Revolutionary Socialist Vanguard of England’s Post-9/11 Anti-War Movement

‘To the House of Rothschild!’ Socialism, charity, and Aladdin

“We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. […] Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.” (Oscar Wilde, 1891)

In a world of suffering, a basic human instinct to give to charity reflects a desire to do something and to connect. When charity workers appeal in supermarkets for donations to food banks, I feel that instinct and give readily. The statistics below from The Trussell Trust plainly illustrate just how critical such charity-giving has become to contemporary British society.

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 14.55.27

And yet there is a painful ambivalence to charity, which shouldn’t be ignored. We live in a world of suffering, and we live in a world of tremendous wealth. Charity alleviates the suffering of a limited some, for some limited time, and to some limited degree, while charity is captive to capitalism. Charity cannot eliminate the root causes of why people need charity, namely, inequality, poverty, and political power, which lies in the hands of a few, for the benefit of a few. Recognising this doesn’t mean shrugging one’s shoulders the next time someone asks for a donation to a food bank; ‘Alas, the problem is capitalism!’ Recognising this does mean that if one desires to live in a humane, equal, and fully democratic society, then one needs to engage in political struggles to change our existing world, whose political economy fuels (on the one hand) a limitless thirst for capital accumulation and causes (on the other hand) unequal, exploitative, and inhumane conditions of existence – all the while, charity soothes, a little.

There is a darker side to charity too. Take Cameron’s heralding of a Big Society in 2010 – “from state power to people power” – whose vision of charities running public services is a guise to the neoliberal dismantlement of the welfare state and the public sector in favour of market forces. Take as well the world’s most famous philanthropist, Bill Gates (who has a net worth of $80 billion). On the Gates Foundation’s approach to global health problems, the New Internationalist quotes, from 2008, the World Health Organisation’s Head of Malaria Research, Aarata Kochi, who calls the Gates Foundation a “cartel”, which suppresses the diversity of scientific opinion, and is “accountable to no-one other than itself”. The New Internationalist continues:

“Setting out his approach at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, [Bill Gates] said: ‘There are two great forces: self-interest and caring for others.’ To reconcile the two, the Foundation pursues partnerships in which, guided by NGOs, academics and assorted ‘stakeholders’, donor funds are used to overcome the ‘market failures’ which deny the poor access to medicine, by paying pharmaceutical companies to sell their products cheaper and pursue research projects they would otherwise ignore. […] The arrangements have, however, created concerns. As Tido von Schoen Angerer, Executive Director of the Access Campaign at Médecins Sans Frontières, explains, ‘The Foundation wants the private sector to do more on global health, and sets up partnerships with the private sector involved in governance. As these institutions are clearly also trying to influence policymaking, there are huge conflicts of interests… the companies should not play a role in setting the rules of the game.’ […] A study in the Lancet in 2009 showed only 1.4 per cent of the Foundation’s grants between 1998 and 2007 went to public-sector organizations, while of the 659 NGOs receiving grants, only 37 were headquartered in low- or middle-income countries. […] Research by Devi Sridhar at Oxford University warns that philanthropic interventions are ‘radically skewing public health programmes towards issues of the greatest concern to wealthy donors’. ‘Issues,’ she writes, ‘which are not necessarily top priority for people in the recipient country.’ […] [Dr David McCoy, a public health doctor and researcher at University College London] insists […] that it is important to mount a challenge: ‘Appealing to the megarich to be more charitable is not a solution to global health problems. We need a system that does not create so many billionaires and, until we do that, this kind of philanthropy is either a distraction or potentially harmful to the need for systemic change to the political economy.’”

To anyone dazzled by the idea of a marriage of capitalist self-interest and caring for others, the words of Friedrich Engels, from a piece called “To the House of Rothschild” in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung in 1847, are worth recollecting. Here Engels deconstructs Karl Beck’s poem “To the House of Rothschild” to construct a searing critique of philanthrophy. (The Rothschild dynasty established their banking business in the 1760s, and by the nineteenth century had accumulated the greatest private wealth in the world.)


(Wikimedia Commons)

Engels remarks of Beck’s poem:

“It is not the destruction of Rothschild’s real power, of the social conditions on which it is based, which the poet threatens; he merely desires it to be humanely applied. He laments that bankers are not socialist philanthropists, not enthusiasts for an ideal, not benefactors of mankind [sic], but just – bankers. Beck sings of the cowardly petty-bourgeois wretchedness, of the “poor man”, the pauvre honteux with his poor, pious and contradictory wishes of the “little man” in all his manifestations, and not of the proud, threatening, and revolutionary proletarian. The threats and reproaches which Beck showers on the house of Rothschild, sound, for all his good intentions, even more farcical to the reader than a Capuchin’s sermon. They are founded on the most infantile illusion about the power of the Rothschilds, on total ignorance of the connection between this power and existing conditions, and on a complete misapprehension about the means which the Rothschilds had to use to acquire power and to retain power.”

Engels continues, citing extracts from Beck’s poem:

“The rule of gold obeys your whims
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Oh, would your works could be as splendid
And your heart as great as is your power! (p. 4).

It is a pity that Rothschild has the power and our poet the heart.


You occupied in eloquence the teacher’s chair,
Attentively the rich sat as your pupils;
Your task: to lead them out into the world,
Your role: to he their conscience.
They have gone wild – and you looked on,
They are corrupted – and yours is the blame (p. 27).

So Lord Rothschild could have prevented the development of trade and industry, competition, the concentration of property, the national debt and agiotage, in short, the whole development of modern bourgeois society, if only he had had somewhat more conscience. It really requires toute la désolante naïveté de la poésie allemande [all the utterly depressing naivety of German poetry] for one to dare to publish such nursery tales. Rothschild is turned into a regular Aladdin.”

Socialism: a nice idea, but is it viable?

The following quotes are from “How We Live and How We Might Live” by William Morris (1884), and “America Under the Workers’ Rule” and “What Socialist America Will Look Like” by James P. Cannon (1953). Together they narrate a case for socialism as both a good idea and a feasible future reality, and cleanse and release socialism of distortion, pollution, and Stalinist, anti-democratic hijacking.

On competition:

“How do we live, then, under our present system? Let us look at it a little. And first, please to understand that our present system of Society is based on a state of perpetual war. Do any of you think that this is as it should be? I know that you have often been told that the competition, which is at present the rule of all production, is a good thing, and stimulates the progress of the race; but the people who tell you this should call competition by its shorter name of war if they wish to be honest, and you would then be free to consider whether or not war stimulates progress, otherwise than as a mad bull chasing you over your own garden may do. War, or competition, whichever you please to call it, means at the best pursuing your own advantage at the cost of someone else’s loss, and in the process of it you must not be sparing of destruction even of your own possessions, or you will certainly come by the worse in the struggle.” (Morris)

On advertising and other ‘wastes’:

“And then, there’s another waste connected with advertising, as with so many other non-productive occupations – the waste of human material, which really shouldn’t be squandered. Just think of all the people prostituting their personalities in the advertising racket. Writers concoct slick copy, artists draw false illustrations, and radio announcers wheedle, deceive, and lie to promote crooked advertising campaigns. That is a waste of human personality, causing neuroses based upon the justified conviction of the individual that he [sic] is an absolutely useless person. There are millions of such people, engaged in all kinds of useless, non-productive occupations in this present society. Advertising is only one of them. Look at all the lawyers in this country. What are they good for? Look at all the landlords, lobbyists, salesmen, promoters, ward-heelers, thieves, and swindlers – the million-headed horde of non-productive people in all kinds of rackets, legitimate and illegitimate. What are they good for? What do they produce? All that is economic waste, inseparable from the present system.” (Cannon)

On socialism and anti-capitalism:

“You see, we’re not anti-capitalist 100%; we’re procapitalist as against feudalism, and chattel slavery, and industrial backwardness in general. We are procapitalist in recognising the progressive historic role capitalism played in developing the forces of production, as illustrated to the highest degree in this country.” (Cannon)

On revolution:

“The word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people’s ears, even when we have explained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accompanied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment.” (Morris)

On the state and violence:

“any kind of regimentation such as that imposed by the present social order will be utterly repugnant to the free and independent citizens of the socialist future.” (Cannon)

“In the classless society of the future there will be no state. The Marxist formula that the state will wither away and die out has a profound ultimate meaning, for the state is the most concentrated expression of violence. Where there is violence, there is no freedom. The society of the free and equal will have no need and no room for violence and will not tolerate it in any form. This was the profound conception of the great Marxists. […] Trotsky, in his last testament, written in anticipation of death, said: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full.” Just ponder those words – Trotsky was a writer who weighed every word. His last injunction to the people who would follow him was: “Cleanse life of all violence.” In a talk with Gorky, Lenin said the same thing in almost the same words: “Our ideal is not to use force against anyone.”” (Cannon)

On democracy:

“An educated and conscious working class will insist on democracy. And not the narrowly limited and largely fictitious democracy of voting every four years for some big-mouthed political faker picked for you by a political machine, but democracy in your work. That’s where it really counts. Every day you will have something to say about the work you’re doing, how it should be done and who should be in charge of it, and whether [one’s] directing it properly or not. Democracy in all cultural activities. Democracy in all spheres of communal life from A to Z.” (Cannon)

On the transformation of labour, and the vanishment of money and greed:

“There will be no money, and there will not even be any bookkeeping transactions or coupons to regulate how much one works and how much [one] gets. When labour has ceased to be a mere means of life and becomes life’s prime necessity, people will work without any compulsion and take what they need. So said Marx. Does that sound ‘visionary’? Here again, one must make an effort to lift [oneself] out of the framework of the present society, and not consider this conception absurd or ‘impractical’. The contrary would be absurd. For in the socialist society, when there is plenty and abundance for all, what will be the point in keeping account of each one’s share, any more than in the distribution of food at a well-supplied family table? You don’t keep books as to who eats how many pancakes for breakfast or how many pieces of bread for dinner. Nobody grabs when the table is laden.” (Cannon)

On the city:

“A new science and new art will flower – the science and art of city planning. There is such a profession today, but the private ownership of industry and real estate deprives it of any real scope. Under socialism some of the best and most eager students in the universities will take up the study of city planning, not for the profitable juxtaposition of slums and factory smokestacks, but for the construction of cities fit to live in. Art in the new society will undoubtedly be more cooperative, more social. The city planners will organise landscapers, architects, sculptors, and mural painters to work as a team in the construction of new cities which will be a delight to live in and a joy to behold. Communal centres of all kinds will arise to serve the people’s interests and needs. Centres of art and centres of science. Jack London in the Iron Heel, speaking in the name of an inhabitant of the future socialist society, referred as a matter of course to the numerous ‘Wonder Cities’ which had been given poetic names – ‘Ardis’, ‘Asgard’ and so on; wonder cities designed for beauty, for ease of living, for attractiveness to the eye and to the whole being.” (Cannon)

On the home and friendship, and creativity and gift-giving:

“Under socialism people will not fear to love their neighbour lest they be taken advantage of, nor be ashamed of disinterested friendship, free from all self-interest and calculation. There will be powerful impulses to give things to each other, and the only possible way of giving will be by doing, by making. There will be no chance to ‘buy’ a present for anybody – because nothing will be for sale; and besides, everybody will be free to take anything [one] needs from the superabundant general store of material things rolling from the assembly lines. Presents, to mean anything, will have to be made, outside the general process. I think they will be, and such gifts will be really treasured and displayed on special occasions. […] Your house […] will have as the things it is proudest of, certain things specially made for you by people who like you. This easy chair made to your own measure by your friend so-and-so. This hand-mortised hardwood bookcase made for you by a cabinetmaker, as a gift. And those pictures and decorations on the walls – they were not machine stamped at the factory, but hand painted especially for you by an artist friend. […] I think it will be a great joy and satisfaction to be an expert craftsman in the coming time.” (Cannon)

Ritual circumcision of male minors, and the political befuddlement of Eric Lee

I am grateful for Eric Lee’s response piece to my article here and in the socialist newspaper Solidarity. On his website there are a number of end comments that I recommend people read.

Here I expose what I consider to be Eric’s confused notion of politics, or rather, the lack of politics that Eric considers politics.

At the start of his rejoinder, Eric declares: “Camila Bassi’s “basic socialist demands” regarding male circumcision have no foundation in Marxist tradition”. So I am guessing that Eric missed the footnote in Marx’s Grundrisse that demands: “non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure”. Okay, seriously then, let’s do away with this sense of clunky Marxist doctrine, because, for me, Marxist tradition is about autonomous, self-governing critical thought and practice, hence I ask in my original article: as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we ‘independently’ think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?” At no point does Eric address this question.

Eric suggests that I soften the blow of my article by reference to Scandinavia; he sarcastically notes, “Scandinavians, after all, are modern, progressive people”. What’s he getting at here – as against Jews and Muslims? Eric incorrectly states that “Bassi writes that the correct socialist position would place the Left in opposition to [Jewish and Muslim] communities”. And, “[a]lmost as an afterthought, she adds opposition to racism, support for socialism, whatever”. This is not true. It is him not I that homogenizes ‘communities’ of people on the basis of their ‘race’ / ethnicity and religion (stripping people of their differential social, economic, political, and cultural positions, ideas and practices, and individual agency), and it is he not I that panders to the status of so-called ‘community leaders’. I don’t assume, as he does, that all people who might fall under the category of ‘Jews’ and ‘Muslims’ are opposed to a discussion on the question of informed consent for ritual circumcision. Moreover, before I arrive at my end set of demands, I both emphasise and reference the ascent of the populist Right in Europe, and a rising tide of anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism, including in Scandinavia, as critical context. Marxism is about analysing given material realities, the forces and relations involved, and the actualities and the potentialities from and through this. The Scandinavian debate of 2013 and 2014 on the ritual circumcision of male minors is simply that, a given material reality to engage with.

As I was aware, Eric points out that a previous debate on banning ritual circumcision for male minors occurred in Germany. However, he fails to provide and assess the details. As noted in DW, in May 2012 a ruling from the Cologne district court – on a incident of ritual circumcision in which the child was subsequently hospitalized – deemed the circumcision as “grievous bodily harm”. From this, as Reuters reports:

“Some doctors and children’s rights associations submitted a petition in September [2012] calling for a two-year moratorium and a round-table of medical, religious and legal experts to study circumcision fully. “In the clear opinion of experts, the amputation of the foreskin is a grave interference in the bodily integrity of a child,” Georg Ehrmann, chairman of the child protection group Deutsche Kinderhilfe [states].”

The outcome? In December 2012, Germany went on to approve a national law to legitimate parents’ right to ritually circumcise their male children. What Eric chooses to accentuate about the German case are the Jewish and Muslim leaders across the European continent who condemned the ban.

When Eric challenges my position that non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision should only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure, on the basis of a child’s right to bodily integrity and to later sexual autonomy, he retorts:

“Using the same reasoning, why not also support the ban on kosher and halal slaughter? After all, socialists like all right-thinking people oppose cruelty to animals, right? And while we’re busy banning these things, why not close down all faith schools, because after all, they’re not teaching children what we’d like them to be taught, and they’re forcing children to accept their parents’ religion? Shouldn’t that decision be reserved for adults who are “mature, informed and able to consent”?”

But what is his political reasoning? What is his political method? He surely doesn’t mean what he actually says, which is “using the same reasoning”, i.e., on the basis of a child’s right to bodily integrity and to later sexual autonomy, why not ban the ritual slaughter of animals and faith schools? Eric fails to politically engage with some of the key forces involved in the discussion in Scandinavia. What about the statement – “Let the boys decide on circumcision” – signed by the Ombudsmen for Children from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland, and eleven paediatric experts from Norway, Sweden, and Iceland? What of the Nordic Association of Clinical Sexology’s “A statement on the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys”?

And, of course, one cannot crassly bundle together the ritual circumcision of male minors (and therein the crucial question of consent), with the ritual slaughter of animals, with faith schools, and (I’ll add to Eric’s list) with schoolgirls wearing Islamic headscarves. Why not? Because the Marxist tradition I am applying is about arriving at an independent class position based on a theoretical analysis of the specific empirical realities, and their forces and relations, and the actualities and the potentialities from and through this, and each of these cases are different.

Eric asserts that moves to ban ritual circumcision amongst male minors is “closely linked to” moves to ban the ritual slaughter of animals – all of which are “rightly seen by Jews and Muslims as racist attacks on their communities”. Is it that simple? I certainly don’t deny that there might be some forces involved that are racist motivated, but there also appears to be forces involved that are not racist motivated. If Eric wants an empirical reality to build a case for his claim, I suggest he examines the Danish social and political scene, and asks: what are the nature, composition, and balance of forces? Eric concludes that “[s]ocialists have always defined religion as a private matter. Socialists defend the freedom of religion, and of course the right of people to have no religion”. What he misses is this: on the question of the ritual circumcision of male minors there is a distinct intersection of religious freedom for parents with the right of the child to bodily integrity, and to later sexual autonomy.

Eric Lee’s befuddlement can be explained by what he does, which is to respond to a debate on ritual circumcision among male minors by not responding to it at all and instead conflating it to a European climate of anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism, and thus cancelling out politics. He says, defend religious and ethnic minorities from racist attack, and fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia across Europe”, and ignores the question in hand: again, as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we ‘independently’ think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?”  I stand by the basic socialist demands from my original article:

  • The right of children to bodily integrity
  • The right of children to the sexual autonomy of their adult life
  • Non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure
  • Opposition to the rising intolerance of immigration across Europe
  • Opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism, and all forms of racism and xenophobia
  • For an internationalist and independent working class culture and politics