I completed my undergraduate studies at a small liberal arts college literally in the middle of a field somewhere between the bustling urban center of Cleveland and the depressed industrial ruins of my hometown, Youngstown. My alma mater was surrounded by acres of farmland, bodies of water, Amish communities, and the occasional rural-suburban housing development. Nothing much caught my eye during my commute except for the treacherous dips and twists along the sparsely populated main road I followed, which constantly threatened to re-route my aging Honda Civic into a tractor-dug ditch or a clutch of untouched trees.

Until one day, just crossing out of the corona of campus into the deep space of rural Ohio, I noticed a sign in a yard. “Green is the New Red,” it proclaimed, illustrated by a picture of a pleasantly green pine tree juxtaposed with an ominously red hammer and sickle.

I rolled my eyes and groaned to myself. This was during the heat-up (pun intended?) of the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, when the Republican Party and its sympathizers in the media walked just a step or two behind the line once crossed by Joe McCarthy. A concerted effort was put forth to link almost all of Barack Obama’s policies and initiatives to state socialism. In the early stages of the renaissance of hard libertarianism currently enjoying unprecedented support in the U.S. — in stark contrast to the previously treasured welfare state of the FDR era — almost any activity of government was cast as a Leviathanic encroachment upon the private and the free. Any use of the state that compromised the pure autonomy of the market was treated like a monstrous tentacle, slithering its way into the streets, leaving a trail of toxic Communist slime as the friends of liberty ran screaming for safety. It was in this climate (pun intended?) that Obama’s plan to use regulation to halt the devastating course of anthropogenic global warming was condemned as a threat to the large sector of the economy that depends on fossil fuels. It was the emergence of a popular ideology, in the truest of senses, that transformed the pure rationality of capitalist economics into a reified, normative phenomenon: the Free Market as a Supreme Force of Good, an inalienable (reference to the Declaration of Independence intended) principle, the compromise of which was a de facto gesture of capitulation toward the Evils of Socialist Oppression.

Propaganda linking Obama and global warming with Communism © Gene Tew | Flickr
Propaganda linking Obama and global warming with Communism © Gene Tew | Flickr

It was easy to laugh at this at the time — to lament, with amusement, the unquestioned defense of hegemonic capitalism and the confusion of typical liberal democracy with Leninism and its successors. It seemed to escape the growing Randian public that there are a number of states on earth that practice heavy regulation and taxation and yet are consistently rated the highest in the world for individual liberty and human happiness, or that President Obama is anything but a radical critic of the status quo. The power of the free market ideology was absolute: its version of liberty was to be obeyed and taken to its most extreme conclusion even in the face of evidence against its universal relevance.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, two years later, I nonchalantly walked onto a New York City train on the eve of the People’s Climate March and found a flyer stuck in the frame of an advertisement, which read, “Capitalism is Destroying the Planet… We Need Revolution, Nothing Less.” This alarm was printed directly beneath an announcement of the date of the People’s Climate March. I picked up the card and flipped it over. The back read as follows:

If you sense that a truly radical solution is required to deal with the planetary environmental crisis — join this contingent … Capitalism-imperialism is the source of the ecological destruction of the planet — and we need to put an end to it through the most radical revolution in history, communist revolution.

Bob Avakian has developed a liberating vision and strategy for this revolution — a new synthesis of communism that can emancipate humanity and safeguard the planet’s environment. We are actively working for this now, building a movement for revolution.

The flyer on the train © Zachary Sunderman | Courtesy of the author
The flyer on the train © Zachary Sunderman | Courtesy of the author

The People’s Climate March was full of independent contingents representing different interests affected by climate change. A list of “hub sites” maintained on the PCM website reveals that the March gave official webspace to at least 106 such contingents, assigning them their own folder at peoplesclimate.org, each of which produces a unique URL at which the contingent can advance its own positions, link them to climate change, and display them within the official design and infrastructure of the People’s Climate March website. A wide array of political interests have such URLs, from the mildly reformationist (“Clean and Green Business”) to the social justice-oriented left (“Mass Incarceration”) to the decidedly more radical (“Anti-Capitalism”). The Revolutionary Communist Party of the United States represented one such contingent, which received the URL “peoplesclimate.org/revolutionsolution.” This URL was printed on the card I found on the train. Visiting the URL produces a site that (like the other hubs) is indistinguishable from the official PCM site, which gives the impression that the March was organized by, or at least endorses, the New Synthetic principles drawn up by the RCP’s leader, Chairman Bob Avakian.

It’s no secret that Bob Avakian loves Mao. His autobiography, after all, is called From Ike to Mao and Beyond. His particular brand of Communism moves from the Marxist-Leninist to the explicitly Maoist, glorifying the latter’s rule of China and reinvigorating for radical Leftism the role of the charismatic personality. Avakian, adopting Mao’s title, no doubt wants to be like his Communist heroes — a leader who reaches down from above to become the savior of the downtrodden. My first impression of Chairman Avakian was the discomfort I felt when I stepped into the Cleveland branch of his Party’s Revolution Books stores and was immediately confronted not by political positions or intellectual conclusions but instead the force of the man himself. His name appeared on seemingly every wall; his quotations adorned the shelves, and in the back, a television was prominently airing one of his lectures. This embrace of Avakian as flawless revolutionary hero allows his followers to liberate themselves from the shadow of historical cynicism and believe once again that the innocent purity of Communist hopes — an unqualified faith in the happy emancipation of humankind — is possible. Even while admitting that the transition to Communism will be long and fraught, and even while openly endorsing the infamous “dictatorship of the proletariat” and all the potential violence and despotism (Marx’s word) it will involve, Avakian’s followers can imagine that they have a Lenin who will deliver a Bolshevik uprising that will go right this time; a Mao who will lead them on a Long March that actually terminates in Utopia. They can forget history while admitting it; they can dismiss the concerns generated by past experience while promising not to do anything differently.

Pro-Avakian stickers found on the street © Matt Cain | Flickr
Pro-Avakian stickers found on the street © Matt Cain | Flickr

And now Avakian and his RCP are harnessing the growing mainstream power and visibility of the environmental movement to catapult themselves out of the obscurity to which they have so far been relegated and to place their vision of revolution in the public eye. For them, the People’s Climate March is an unprecedented opportunity to reintroduce a discredited program for social change to the closed realm of legitimate political discourse, and to subsume the prejudice against it instilled by memory and cultural education beneath the effervescence of the environmental movement and its passionate, dire calls for change. Having failed to turn himself into a Guevaran legend by imposing secretive exile upon himself, Avakian now has the perfect chance to make something of his “New Synthesis” and parlay it into the first major step of a broader Communist upheaval. It appears to be working. Recently, it was announced that Avakian would appear in public delivering a joint talk with highly public Princeton scholar Cornel West.

In Avakian’s thought, the Soviet and Chinese revolutions had their problems and made their mistakes, but were ultimately the best examples of a true attempt at liberation that humanity has ever seen. Accordingly, the RCP under Avakian advances a “New Synthesis” of previous Communist undertakings, which basically amounts not to a synthesis but rather a sharpening of revolutionary principles. Avakian seems to believe that the root ideas of orthodox revolutionary Communism are sound, but not that they were abandoned or misapplied; rather, they were never fully adopted. In this line of thinking, the “mistakes” socialist regimes made were not their rampant acts of oppression but, instead, their ineffective use of those acts. The RCP’s version of the future involves just as much violence as Stalin’s, but it pledges that the end result will be good this time. For Avakian and his followers, Communism was not undone by a loss of faith on the part of its subjects in its ability to liberate humankind; it was instead let down by its own failure to be pure.

The RCP admits that revolution can only come in a time of severe crisis. The climate crisis is fast becoming the largest one we as a people have ever faced; every corner of the earth will be affected by the rising tides. To the extent that Avakian can link the climate crisis to the capitalist crisis — a position in which he is certainly not alone — he will begin to succeed in grandfathering the classical principles of Communist revolution into the push for drastic action on behalf of the environment.

"There is no Planet B" sign at the People's Climate March, NYC © Andrew Cheu | Flickr
“There is no Planet B” sign at the People’s Climate March, NYC © Andrew Cheu | Flickr

A cousin of revolution’s connection to crisis is oppression’s connection to fear. As I discovered a few years ago in research on post-9/11 state rhetoric, all it takes is a simple invocation of the possibility of impending death to get people behind whatever it is you propose — in that case, unprecedented expansion of executive power at home and the complete disregard of human rights abroad. All ideals can be trumped by the threat of death, and in those times of existential uncertainty, those who stand back far enough to remain critical are considered naïve at best and dangerous enemies of humanity at worst. In the push to get behind whatever initiative immediately assuages our fear, we cast off the principles that make us too weighted-down, and we turn against those who try to remind us of who we are, or at least who we should be.

There has never been a cause for fear as great as that of global warming. The more the threat is accepted by populations around the world, the easier it will be for movements like the RCP to gain support for its cause over the objections of the principles that are only remembered in times of peace and security. In a world without rising tides, one can be a Leftist, even a severe critic of capitalism, and not necessarily want to lend one’s support to a Maoist movement. (I myself fall on this spectrum: my politics are perhaps a shade of purple, colored by bits of socialistic red and democratic blue.) But as the waves loom overhead and civilization begins to imagine the choking sensation of the water cascading toward its lungs, the perceived necessity of immediate and drastic action opens up the floodgates (pun intended) for people to do their worst to each other. For the good of all, of course.

Is green the new red? Not yet, but some people really want it to be. And it shouldn’t be. The climate movement needs to rest on the promotion of the science that supports it against the ideologies that threaten it, and in the zeal of making the movement as big and strong and possible, it needs to be particularly careful about what kinds of politicization it allows itself to be associated with. It need not allow itself to be transformed into a shill for revolutionary groups. If the movement in support of the environment becomes a movement in support of the dictatorship of the proletariat, it will not only become the conspiracy that its detractors invoke to discredit it, but it will also become the gate through which, though the water was held back, a torrent of blood will flow.

8 thoughts on “Climate Change and the New Synthesis

  1. “Capitalism is Destroying the Planet… We Need Revolution, Nothing Less.” Ugh. It’s probably worth noting that the entity they’ll rely on to fulfill this revolution (government), is a far larger destroyer of the planet when compared to any private company.

    1. While I don’t fully agree in principle, I do think you raise the worthwhile point that climate change might not be uniquely a problem of capitalism. Though the problem is certainly affected by business activity at the moment (some of which is supported by governments in a public/private collusion), there is nothing inherent in fully socialistic government that would necessitate its treating the environment differently than a neoliberal one. But this muddiness of the issue is another indicator that the seizing-upon of the climate change movement by a revolutionary group is arbitrary. I don’t believe the RCP is getting involved to change the environment, which may require working within the existing framework or taking a reformist stance. The RCP supports “nothing less” than total revolution, a hardline stance for which they’ve been criticized by other socialist-Leftist groups, and I can only surmise that their involvement in the climate change movement is an opportunistic attempt to catapult their platform into mainstream credibility by linking it to the resolution of a crisis. And that’s where the problem of fear comes in: it lowers our defenses, makes us support things we normally wouldn’t, in order to solve the problem causing the fear. Society under the RCP would be even scarier than society under the post-9/11 US government if history is any indication.

  2. Really? I wouldn’t have guessed Avakian was worth so many words. That’s a bit of pollution right there.

    Anyhow, isn’t there something intrinsic to capitalism that drives it to
    use up, even destroy, the environment? I don’t know, maybe a bit of Polanyi analysis – the economy disembedded and driven by the profit motive to to sell as many as goods possible at the cheapest price, in part by offloading negative external cost onto the general public?

    1. I think that’s an entirely reasonable conclusion. But it’s beside the point. I am concerned with the usurpation of one very essential movement by another of decidedly greater controversy, and the implications this has, first, on the credibility of climate change action, and second, for society on a larger scale if questionable radical movements can seize upon fear for their own ends. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary communism and capitalism need not be the angle. And within the critique of capitalism, it need not be Avakian. But let’s take him as one case.

  3. Is the writer really Rush Limbaugh who all of a sudden became clever. Also get nervous with self proclaimed revolutionaries, but this should not take away the need for a serious analysis of the relationship of capitalism to environmental destruction. There is clearly merit to the claim and to label one who says this as an ideologist is hokum and does little to advance the dialogue, one which is solely needed and not clouded by this pablum. He is setting up a straw man, one that is a tad juvenile and can’t be taken serious.

    1. Rush Limbaugh! You can’t be serious.

      I don’t think it is me who has set up a straw man. You have presented a criticism of my piece that bears no relation to what it actually says. I have not denied a connection between climate change and capitalism (see below) nor have I referred to that position as “ideologist.” I have criticized the usurpation of the climate change movement by a fringe revolutionary group for its own ends, indicating the very real concern that this bolsters the otherwise paranoid criticisms of the environmental movement (“green is the new red”).

      I assumed when I wrote this article that some on the essentialized left would be unable to tell the difference between my criticism of the RCP and an apology for capitalism. I would ask you to read carefully again before offering hollow insults and mischaracterizations, which are the truly stifling agents in this conversation.

      I am at least pleased, however, that you find me clever.

      1. I am always serious, but I can’t take people like Avakian serious. I have seen too many, and they usually are inept and out to lunch. But it does really read like Limbaugh and his rants on the environmental movement being a front. Besides, you cannot deal with environmental issues unless you deal with production under capitalism. Regardless, It would take a big push by government to develop alternatives and deal with the dislocation involved in the changes, which is easier said then done within the context of the present economic system.

        1. You are actually nailing two of the major points of the article without realizing, I think, that we actually agree:

          1. Re: Not taking Avakian seriously-
          You’re right, he and his movement are beyond marginal. But they are achieving a bit of legitimacy that is new to them (see the upcoming joint talk with Cornel West) and they are finding opportunities to shore this up and exploit it, the PCM being what I found an interesting and salient example. That’s the point: they have found a potential window, and attention should be paid to that.

          2. Re: Limbaugh and environmentalism as a front-
          Especially at the start of the article, I painted this position as ludicrous. What I’m pointing out, to an extent, is the irony of the fact that the RCP’s tactic, in that it appears to be officially sanctioned by the PCM (on account of the construction of its website), threatens to lend (perceived) credence to such paranoid rantings — credence that further threatens the credibility of the climate change movement. In using this example to point out the practical danger of a group like the RCP exploiting this cause, I have unintentionally made you think I was making the “Limbaugh” argument myself.

Leave a Reply