Malm: Further into the swamp

Submitted by AWL on 15 June, 2021 - 7:02 Author: Paul Vernadsky
Keystone protest

Second in a series of articles about the writings on climate politics of Andreas Malm. More here.


Since the publication of his celebrated book Fossil Capital (2016), Andreas Malm has continued to expound his views on climate change. He has published several books, includingThe Progress of This Storm (2018), Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency (2020) and How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2021), along with numerous journal articles.

Malm’s evolution has been erratic, consistent only with his pseudo-profound pontification. His advice to the climate movement has veered from geoscience to acts of sabotage. Malm ends up peddling an anti-democratic, anti-working class, authoritarian climate politics.

Malevolent on Marx

In 2018, Malm, published an essay, Marx on Steam, in the journal Rethinking Marxism (30, 166-185). It is a full-blown smear of Marx and Engels. Malm spends pages retelling the well-known fact that Engels’ father owned the Victoria Mill, a steam-powered cotton factory in Manchester. Engels worked for the firm for much of his adult life and used the proceeds to keep Marx’s family afloat.

Malm argues that “after 1850, the literary output of Karl Marx was directly financed by the steam-powered production of cotton commodities” and that “It is not unfair to say that their lives were soaked in the contemporary emerging fossil economy”. Malm laments that “there is not a single text of Marx and Engels where steam, coal, or any other energy phenomenon is the dominant theme. None of this was a central concern of theirs”.

Marx and Engels had to live off crumbs from Victoria Mill because they were revolutionaries expelled from several European states. The watchtower of a tenured position at a comfortable university was not open to them. Nor did they or any of their contemporaries understand that fossil fuel consumption would lead to climate change. Malm indulges in anachronistic moralising to score retrospective points off of the founders of historical materialism. Marxism requires the ruthless criticism of everything existing — including its own failings. It does not need another garrulous sage.

Defaming classical Marxism

Not content with rubbishing the founders, Malm dismisses all the prominent interpreters of classical Marxism, who apparently shared the malaise of “determinism”. Kautsky and Plekhanov are airily condemned with the flourish of an odd quotation, despite numerous contributions, including on the importance of geography, polemics against social Darwinists and Malthusians, discussion of town and country, and much else. Lenin is chastised for his observation that “The coal industry creates mobility of the population, establishes large industrial centres and inevitably leads to the introduction of public control over production” in his book, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899). Lenin’s attempts to assess the Russian social formation while in Siberian exile are not good enough for today’s self-confessed “armchair activist” (as Malm describes himself in his articleWithout a mass movement we don’t stand a chance against fossil capital, 5 February 2018)

Malm believes that Trotsky is “a particularly flagrant case”. Throughout his life, Trotsky apparently “held fast to the most doctrinaire version of determinism”, from Results and Prospects (1906) to The Revolution Betrayed (1936). Malm concedes that Trotsky was right when he wrote: “Technology and science develop not in a vacuum but in human society, which consists of classes. The ruling class, the possessing class, controls technology and through it controls nature” (Radio, Science, Technique and Society, in Problems of Everyday Life, p.257). But Malm never lets a good quote get in the way of a smear. He states:

“The first generations of Marxists could disagree on any number of things, but productive-force determinism was a sort of minimal unifying credo, not infrequently expressed in the hand mill/steam mill shibboleth; even Stalin and Trotsky could embrace each other on this point.” (Marx on Steam, p.172)

This is a scurrilous amalgam. The early Bolshevik workers’ government, led by Lenin and Trotsky, took significant steps in the 1920s on nature conservation, while Marxist discussion of the metabolism between nature and society flourished in diverse Comintern books and journals. (See Douglas Weiner Models of Nature, University of Pittsburgh Press; Bukharin,Historical Materialism; Mark Bassin, Nature, Geopolitics and Marxism, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers [1996] 21, 2, 315-341). By contrast, Stalin’s forced industrialisation and collectivism had devastating human and ecological consequences.

Denigrating later Marxists

Malm continues by sneering at later Marxists, who have added greatly to our climate politics. John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett have made outstanding contributions to reviving Marxist ecology, through careful attention to earlier Marxist writing, applied to contemporary environmental matters.

Reviewing one of their recent books, Malm scoffs that “the theory of the metabolic rift is as much theirs — if not more — as Marx’s. The evidence is that no one spoke about it before they had written Marx’s Ecology and Marx and Nature… Foster and Burkett have salvaged a crude sketch long buried under the received wisdom about Marx and used it as a canvas for executing their own ecological Marxism.” (Malm, For a Fallible and Lovable Marx: Some Thoughts on the Latest Book by Foster and Burkett, Critical Historical Studies (2017), 4, 2, 275)

Malm writes in Marx on Steam (p.174) that “Foster and Burkett take the Marx they like best and claim that no other Karl can be found… Rather than engaging in an act of greenwashing, ecological Marxism should recognise the dubious legacy of productive-force determinism and consistently develop the alternative conception on offer in Marx.”

Malm doesn’t represent Marx’s view honestly and can’t be bothered to engage critically with Foster and Burkett. He ignores classical Marxist engagement with metabolism in order to puff up his own originality.

Malm takes a similar approach in The Progress of This Storm (2018) to the Marxist geographer Neil Smith, who is accused of “constructionism”. Smith was one of the first Marxists to engage with climate change, through his concept of the “production of nature”, in Uneven Development (1984). Smith underlined the damaging impact of human activity under capitalism on nature. His work deserves critical engagement, not misrepresentation from a few quotations.

By contrast, Malm laces his work with favourable references to the Frankfurt School. In the Progress book, he expends much energy on the separation of nature and society. Malm lauds Alfred Schmidt’s work, The Concept of Nature in Marx (1962), despite its pessimism about working class struggle and its effective dissolution of society into nature. In the Corona book, James O’Connor’s second contradiction also gets an unexpected endorsement, despite its many inconsistencies.

In the Progress book, Malm mentions the critical realism approach of Roy Bhaskar and others, as a better foundation for modern climate politics. Their approach certainly does merit serious attention, not least because of their efforts to apply critical realism to climate change. Yet Malm ignores this, presumably to boost his own, so-called “socialist climate realism”.

Impending catastrophe

Malm is fond of using analogies from the history of Marxism to rationalise his own politics. In doing so he uncouples Marxism from its working class anchor, as well as the context within which earlier Marxists worked. Malm’s Corona book takes two analogies from the Russian revolution, but only to mask very different politics from Lenin and Trotsky.

Malm cites Lenin’s September 1917 work, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, praising the urgency with which it made the case for action. Lenin did indeed make a cogent case, but Malm ignores both the audience and the circumstances. At that point, the Bolshevik party had won majority support among the Russian working class — in the soviets, the unions and the factory committees. They faced a weak, increasingly authoritarian and unelected provisional government, and behind them, the spectre of counter-revolution. The socialist revolution was on the agenda — and that is what the Bolsheviks accomplished in October 1917.

Lenin’s urgency was for the Bolsheviks to lead the working class to power. They had mass support — the leaders needed to rise to the occasion. The situation demanded it, because if not they would be crushed. Today’s climate movement sadly does not currently command a majority among the working class, nor indeed has it built the kind of organisation that could take power from capital and replace it with something better. Malm’s analogy does not hold: he is not advocating revolutionary socialism as the answer to the climate crisis.

“War communism”

Malm draws a more sustained analogy from the Russian civil war, after the Bolshevik party took power but faced internal and external opponents. This period from 1917 to 1921 is often called “war communism”. But once more Malm mangles the original idea into order to justify very different politics.

The term “war communism” originated with Bogdanov, a dissident ex-Bolshevik writing in late 1917 to denounce the Bolshevik seizure of power and subsequent socialist measures. This was before the Bolsheviks were forced to introduce measures such as grain requisitioning — and before they had even assembled the Red Army to fight the civil war.

Lenin first used the term “war communism” in 1921, by way of contrast with the emerging NEP policy, especially on replacing grain requisitioning. “War communism” was never the conscious, theorised policy of the Bolsheviks in power. They reacted to chronic starvation, in the context of civil war, with emergency measures to underpin the means of subsistence. Whatever the Bolshevik did (and had to do), it wasn’t communism, whatever adjective is affixed to it in retrospect.

The prettification of this period 1917-21 is rationalising after the fact. “Left Bolsheviks” like Kritsman did that during the 1920s. Many of the measures to get food were developed before the seizure of power (by tsarist and provisional governments). The Bolshevik policies were emergency desperation measures — take the grain and set up communal kitchens, or else urban workers would simply starve. Trotsky articulated the bitter, realist necessities of this period without embellishment.

Malm by contrast applauds “war communism” for its harsh measures — the use of force. Malm conflates the need for workers to take power (including taking the means of production out of the hands of big energy capital) with a workers’ state taking coercive measures to implement measures to benefit the working class and against the class enemy. He associates the civil war violence with “Leninism”, when we should put the blame for coercion where it belongs — with the White armies, the SRs, Mensheviks, anarchists, and the foreign powers, who opposed workers’ rule.

Malm rubs out the necessity of workers’ power and workers’ democracy as irreplaceable aspects of a socialist approach to the climate crisis. Such democratic collectivism is necessary if urgent measures are to be taken to benefit (or cause the least harm) to the workers of the world. That means workers taking control, planning and deliberating about policies, not top-down imposition.

Malm’s laces his authoritarian climate politics with references to Blanqui and Guevara, who explicitly advocating the insurrectionary takeover by an elite minority, rather than working class self-emancipation. In an early essay, Malm lauds the idea of a “climate Mao”, a planetary sovereign exerting “just terror in the interests of the future of the collective” (Tahrir Submerged? Five Theses on Revolution in the Era of Climate Change, Capitalism Nature Socialism (2014), 25, 38) Calls for “just terror” are utterly corrosive of the kind of democratic, working class-based climate movement that is needed internationally.

Climate politics

Malm’s concrete demands for the climate movement veer between reformism and reaction. In the Corona book and subsequent essays, he demands the nationalisation of fossil fuel companies, turning them into direct air capture utilities, using technologies developed by Climeworks and similar firms.

These demands could have some purchase, but only if they are raised in the context of workers’ control over those industries — and at the very least democratic control over the bourgeois states that would currently administer the industry. Many of the worst global emitting firms are already state-owned. Democratic workers’ states are necessary to administer these entities, if they are to be transformed into climate agencies. Otherwise it becomes the demand for bureaucratic, draconian states to impose climate remedies.

Malm also raises demands that are reactionary. In the Corona book, he demands without much explanation “mandatory global veganism”. Aside from the impact on global agriculture, imposed and enforced veganism would be a highly authoritarian measure, forced on billions of workers and peasants by bourgeois states. This is not a demand to mobilise the exploited and oppressed to tackle climate change: it is a top-down recipe for crashing the climate movement.

Malm’s latest book is entitled How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2021). He theatrically argues that it is “better to die blowing up a pipeline than to burn impassively”, while pointing to movements such as Palestinian groups and the ANC that have blown up pipelines as part of their strategy. This a straightforward call for climate activists to engage in sabotage as a central part of campaigning.

Malm leaves no doubt about what he means. He justifies his position with the quote: “Protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like. Protest is when I refuse to go along with this anymore. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going along too”. In the text this is attributed to a “West German columnist” in 1968. The writer was Ulrike Meinhof, leader of the “Red Army Faction” terror group.

Malm’s position is worse than a tactical mistake or cul-de-sac. Sabotage is an utterly ruinous proposal, confined to a tiny group of zealots who will end up with long prison sentences rather than building the climate movement. Sabotage would inevitably be the actions of a small minority, behind the backs of workers, with workers mostly likely the mostly heavily affected if their heating, transport or jobs are disrupted.

Malm’s proposal is worse than deliberate provocation. These politics actively disrupt broad-based efforts to mobilise millions of workers, students and young people to tackle climate change. Malm boasts of his own past efforts at direct action. But sabotage is truly the proposal of a wrecker.

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