Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century
by Andreas Malm
Verso, 2020. 215 pages.
Some critics of the draconian lockdowns alleged to be needed to cope with covid-19 have claimed that these measures are merely preparatory steps to accustom Americans to centralized control. Once the covid-19 hysteria dies down, we will face permanent restrictions to deal with “climate change.”
These critics, and other readers as well, are likely to find Corona of interest. The author, Andreas Malm, a scholar of human ecology at the University of Lund, calls for using covid-19 and climate change as tools to promote a world socialist revolution. Lenin and Trotsky are for him heroic figures, though he acknowledges they were far from flawless, and we can learn much to guide us through our current troubles from the “war communism” they instituted.
The world is heating up and we face a global pandemic. Neither of these assertions is to be questioned, says Malm. “Science” tells us that they are true, and that is that. What causes these problems? The answer, you will not be surprised to learn, is capitalism. Marx long ago predicted that capitalism would collapse because capitalists, greedy for profit, would expand production to a greater extent than the market could absorb. The revisionist Marxist Eduard Bernstein objected that capitalism had so far surmounted its crises and hadn’t collapsed, but Rosa Luxemburg, another heroic figure for Malm, had high hopes for future disaster.
And she turns out to be right. The culprit is capitalist exploitation of nature. Capitalists disturb rainforests and other areas with large numbers of animals. This disturbs the animals found there, such as bats, causing them to flee elsewhere. In doing so they spread pathogens all over the world. “If it weren’t for the economy operated by humans constantly assailing the wild,…destroying it with a zeal bordering on lust for extermination, these things wouldn’t happen. The pathogens would not come leaping toward us. They would be secure among their natural hosts. But when these hosts are cornered, stressed, expelled and killed, they have two options: go extinct or jump.” (p. 35) Malm calls this lamentable state of affairs “zoonotic spillover.”
It is thus a great mistake to contrast, as leftists unenlightened by Marxist dialectics often do, humanly caused climate change with natural catastrophes such as covid-19. (Remember, the scale and scope of these is not allowed to be questioned.) Both result from capitalist exploitation of nature. This comes about through stripping the rainforests and expelling carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The rise in temperature that results from the burning of fossil fuels also disturbs the pathogens ensconced in the forests.
Following Lenin, he asks, what is to be done? The answer does not lie in anarchism. A stateless world may be a dream for the far future, but right now we require a strong state to curb the capitalist exploiters responsible for our woes. Some find the anarchist theorist James Scott insightful, but he is at fault for his failure to respond to the exigencies of our current crisis.
It is not James Scott whom we need now but Lenin. He realized that before the state can wither away, it must be strengthened to deal ruthlessly with the class enemy. Lenin in his “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It,” written in September 1917, said that to combat Russia’s loss of territory and resources, the state should control the economy in the same way the belligerent powers had already done during World War I. “Here, then, was Lenin’s wager: to take measures already instituted by the warring states, step them up a notch, and deploy them against the drivers of catastrophe” (p. 127, emphasis in original). Readers of Mises will not fail to note that he too saw the central control of the German economy during the war as a way to establish socialism.
What we need now is “war communism.” Malm admits that “this term leaves an acid taste. Rightly so. The warring Bolsheviks committed no small amount of cruelty” (pp. 158–59). But contrary to anticommunist propaganda, war communism in one respect succeeded magnificently. “Having the Whites and the allied empires arrayed against them—zero fossil fuels versus all the reserves in the world—the Red Army won the war. In this isolated respect, the period from late 1918 to late 1920 was the finest hour of the Soviet state” (p. 160).
What would “war communism” be like for us now? Malm has little in the way of a velvet glove that conceals the iron fist. He says,
Regardless of whether the problem is attacked from the supply or the demand side, the race to zero [carbon emissions] would have to be coordinated through control measures—rationing, reallocating, requisitioning, sanctioning, ordering…ecological Leninism leaps at any opportunity to…break with business-as-usual as sharply as required and subject the regions of the economy working towards catastrophe to direct public control. It would mean that “one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part”, to speak with Engels. (pp. 145, 151)
Malm says that “the journey [to an economy along ecological Leninist lines] would obviously be fraught with danger. A state thus expanded could…become bloated.” (p. 167) Nevertheless, he believes the risk worth taking. It is best to leave Malm to his fantasies. I prefer Murray Rothbard to Lenin, and I do not share Malm’s opinion that Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt school was “the greatest thinker of the twentieth century” (p. 171).