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.
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 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.
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.
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.