What a Soviet ideologue can teach us about the climate crisis
- October 9, 2021
Climate & Catastrophe
Nikolai Bukharin’s idea of “equilibrium” — a balance between society, technology and nature — helps us to reconceptualize our historical relationship to nature.
Intervening in the unfolding disaster of our climate crisis, Elon Musk recently offered a $100 million bounty for anyone who might be up to inventing planetary-scale carbon sequestering technology. Parroting a TV game show host, the billionaire entrepreneur announced that “this four-year global competition invites innovators and teams from anywhere on the planet to create and demonstrate solutions that can pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans, and sequester it durably and sustainably.” He added that “the climate math is becoming clear that we will need gigaton-scale carbon removal in the coming decades to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”
The need for carbon sequestration is irrefutable, but Musk’s offer assumes that technological fixes alone can save humanity from global warming. What he fails to realize is that avoiding climate catastrophe requires that any technological solutions accompany a full-scale cultural and social revolution in the way we conceive of our relationship to the natural world. Without a transformation of capitalist social relations, planetary boundaries will always catch up on us.
Fundamentally, the billionaire’s reliance on the profit motive evinces a contradiction with attempts to confront the climate crisis within capitalism. In its singular dependence on a technological solution, the ruling class in this case promotes the most vulgar form of technological determinism, or the belief that technology determines the development of a society and its culture and is therefore the key to its deliverance.
This turn toward open technological determinism within capitalism is quite paradoxical when we consider the attacks that western critics hurled at socialist theory during and immediately after the Cold War. Back then, Cold War warriors, particularly in the social sciences, engaged in a prolonged debate about the “technological determinism” of Marxist, and thus Soviet, thought. Pulling quotes from Marx and other communists out of context, they posited that socialist theory views the natural world and its resources as nothing more than the basis on which to build a technologically advanced socialist utopia.
They then used this reductionist view of socialism to suggest that free markets — not centrally planned economies — were better suited to confront social, economic and cultural problems because competition could incentivize solutions to potentially detrimental social and economic pressures, such as natural disasters and economic collapse.
This view of Marxist technological determinism came out strongest in what is known as the “totalitarian” historiography of the USSR. The underlying idea of the totalitarian school is that the USSR was a party state striving for ideological homogeneity, and that because of its Marxist adherence, it viewed technology as a panacea to its economic, social and political problems. Countless monographs framed the destruction of nature (Aral Sea), nuclear disaster (Chernobyl) and shoddy genetics (Lysenkoism) as inevitable within a self-ascribed Marxist state, where the power of decision making resided exclusively within the party apparatus, which legitimated itself through monopolizing interpretations of Marxist doctrine.
Western experts of the Soviet Union studied major technological accomplishments like Dneprostoi hydroelectric power dam, Magnitagorsk, space travel and disasters like the Virgin Lands campaign under Khrushchev, to argue that the USSR believed it could promote socialist ideology and identity through technological projects of “socialist construction.” Famous historians of science like Alexander Vucinich and Loren Grahm argued that the USSR exclusively promoted a strictly utilitarian view of natural science and technology — one that stressed applied or practical science over “pure” science.
Against the “myopia” of capitalism
Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, however, there is a renewed interest in the projects of socialism and communism. The new geological epoch we inhabit — the Anthropocene — is leading people around the world to explore alternative relationships between nature and humanity and to question the claims of socialism’s inherently instrumental and destructive tendencies. The concept of the Anthropocene, first proposed by chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000, reasons that humanity has become a geological force unto itself — transitioning us out of the Holocene and into a new geological epoch.
In the political realm, socialism, communism and anarchism have returned in force as viable popular alternatives to capitalism, which in our post-Cold War moment undoubtedly bears the most responsibility for shaping humanity’s current relationship to the natural world. However, one of the many obstacles faced by the left today comes via the rehashing of Cold War arguments that accuse the USSR — the largest anti-capitalist social experiment — of being an outright environmental failure. So long as there is currency to the notion that the USSR committed “ecocide” via a blind faith in technological development, many remain unconvinced by the socialist alternative.
The theory of late Bolshevik ideologue Nikolai Bukharin offers one means of demonstrating that Marxism is worlds apart from any such technological determinism. Instead of what I call the “myopia” of capitalism — which searches for singular origins and solutions to the climate crisis — Bukharin articulated the idea of “equilibrium,” stressing the importance of balance between society, technology and nature. To put it simply, Bukharin reminds us that revolution must be social as much as economic, political, cultural and environmental. Hence, in observance of Bukharin’s birthday, I argue that his ideas offer immense food for thought as we try to reckon with the full scale of the revolution needed to go with our energy transition and technological innovation.
When historians study the Soviet Union’s environmental track record, they inevitably come across the notion of technological determinism as an explanation for how state socialism so thoroughly decimated the land it tended. The real environmental and human costs of collectivization and industrialization in Soviet history, when seen through an already hostile lens, have made for a discourse that has obscurely presented Marxism and environmental stewardship as incompatible.
Many books on the environmental history of the USSR foreground words like “Pre-Chernobyl,” “broken,” “troubled” or “conquered,” to use catastrophe to periodize socialist history or abrasively describe the state’s relationship to nature. Starting from an anti-Soviet position, they resolve that the USSR uniquely sought technological fixes for its systemic and structural problems, which always came at the cost of environmental health.
For years, liberal and conservative critics like Jeffrey Sachs have reiterated the same idea in various forms to dismiss socialism as an alternative system to combat the challenges of climate change and social inequality. Yet, condemning socialism based on the technological projects that ultimately sought to improve the living standard of Soviet citizens and industrialize the country ignores the intricate theoretical traditions of Marxist sociology that championed a more ecological view of the world we inhabit. In fact, Nikolai Bukharin — one of the foremost Bolshevik theorists — extrapolated from Marx the view that human societies strive to live in equilibrium with the forces of nature.
Central to Bukharin’s Marxism is the idea of equilibrium. In the early 20th century, the relative place of sociology, an emerging field of social sciences, remained ambiguous in Marxist circles — in a tension that persists today also. In Bukharin’s era, Lenin and others argued that Marxism, in so far as it provided a theory of social formation (the base/superstructure) is an inherently dialectical sociological system — the only sociological system. In fact, Lenin disliked the term “sociology” because he believed it suggested the possibility of a non-dialectic way of understanding historical development. Bukharin, on the other hand, appreciated the new sociological theories coming from places like Vienna, even if he ultimately agreed with Lenin in the supremacy of Marx’s sociological method.
Instead of dismissing the emerging field, Bukharin sought to fuse the new sociological theories with Marxism by providing a material basis for dialectics. He argued that if dialectics says all things are in motion, propelled by conflict and contradiction internal to a given system, existing Marxism — including the works of Marx himself — had failed to provide a causal explanation for the movement beyond abstraction.
Bukharin asked: what material forces move the dialectic? As an answer, he promoted the idea of “mechanistic materialism,” a sort-of ecology of society that sees all things, persons and ideas in constant relation to one another like a series of cog wheels. According to Bukharin, all systems tend toward equilibrium — a balancing of nature, society and ideas — and this effort to achieve equilibrium is what moves the dialectical process from one stage to another.
Looking beyond a crass understanding of base and superstructure, Bukharin sought to provide a deeper analysis of the superstructure, stating that “the interrelation between environment and system is the quantity which determines, in the last analysis, the movement of any system.” Equilibrium is always being disturbed — the dialectic is always moving — and can only be re-established through adaptation of the entire system or revolution. Implied within this broader extrapolation of Marxism is the idea that Marxist theory is open-ended and receptive of innovative theories rather than dogmatic and static.
In his 1921 manuscript Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology, Bukharin wrote that “man can never escape from nature, and even when he ‘controls’ nature, he is merely making use of the laws of nature for his own ends.” He proceeded to demonstrate that a balanced relationship between nature and society — measurable through technology — underpinned the method of sociology defined as historical materialism. In theory, technology acts not as a panacea of problems, but as a reflection of the social, cultural and political health of a social body.
To relate this to our present case, we end up with Elon Musk offering a bounty for carbon sequestering technology because our society and culture — defined by an individualized and alienated relationship from nature — provides little other incentive for such a technological development to emerge otherwise. Even on the precipice of ecological catastrophe, we rely on the profit motive to invent because we cannot fathom an alternative incentive.
From the earliest days of Bolshevism, Bukharin was a loyal advocate and theorist of Marxist-Leninism. He rose to prominence as a party mind by influencing Lenin’s own ideas in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and helping Stalin write his most famous theoretical piece, “Marxism and the National Question.” His strength really was in theory rather than politics; he co-authored the USSR’s official “elementary textbook of communist knowledge,” The ABC of Communism (1920), as well as theoretical defenses of the New Economic Policy and the theoretical explication of Stalin’s “Socialism in One Country” (1924) to defend against anti-communist criticism of Soviet nationalities policy. But Historical Materialism was undoubtedly his most personal and innovative piece of theoretical writing.
Bukharin wholeheartedly believed that Marxism was a science capable of elaboration and extrapolation, which meant that one needed to firmly grasp it to understand it in practice. In his system of sociology, technology manifests the balancing of social and natural forces, meaning that a lack of technological development indicated a failing society, while an inadequate environment could not promote the society needed to advance technology. In other words, one can imagine society, nature and technology as three wheels in a cog, with each one mutually helping the others turn. Far from any kind of determinism, Bukharin’s theory promoted a constant striving for balance between those forces.
This system of sociology implies that any movement of one of the three forces (society, nature, technology) requires the others to move as well. Bukharin presented three example scenarios of disequilibrium to illustrate his point. First, if a society has to spend all its working time covering basic needs, then there is a balance between consumption and production that prohibits the expansion of products and technology — innovation suffers but society remains satiated. Second, if on the other hand a society moves to a place with an abundance of resources, it will inevitably devise new tools and methods of extraction — the environment suffers and technology benefits.
Finally, and most tellingly, if a society is required to work twice as hard to produce, if it inhabits a sickly environment, a portion of its numbers and ingenuity will die out and society must adapt to a “narrower and narrower” standard of living. As Bukharin posits,
Let us further suppose that a highly developed society, with a rich ‘mental culture’, with the most varied wants, an infinite number of different branches of production, with ‘arts and sciences’ in full bloom, suddenly finds difficulty in satisfying its needs…production will be curtailed, the standard of living will go down, the flourishing ‘arts and sciences’ will wither; mental life will be impoverished; society, unless this lowering of its standard is the result of merely temporary causes, will be ‘barbarianized’, will go to sleep.
The Anthropocene, emerging with an expansion of the wealth gap and a deeper alienation from the mode of production, suggests we are entering in the throes of this third scenario. And climate change is not temporary — it threatens our long-term ability to sustain a healthy planet capable of providing for all.
Origins of the Anthropocene?
Today, continuing our path (scenario three) has brought us to an ecological breaking point, where parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere are quickly surpassing political action points, new planetary feedback loops are being activated and climate disasters are increasing proportionately. Under our current neoliberal capitalist system, oceanic and air pollution, urbanization and increasing biodiversity loss are making it impossible to fulfill the needs of a ballooning population.
To be clear, the issue is not population growth as many claim, but capitalism’s inability to match it with responsible resource usage and technological innovation based on environmental stewardship. Instead of recognizing the failures of the current system — the inability of capitalism to maintain an equilibrium — the Elon Musks of the world are advocating adaptation to this scenario and offering bounties for technological breakthroughs to avoid the need to dismantle capitalism. As the bell curve of CO2 emissions continues upward, capital has chosen to bind our limbs and kick us off the cliff.
Attention to Bukharin’s equilibrium offers us a more tenable way out of this freefall. The first step toward diagnosing our “Holocene hangover” is to recognize that the inadequacy of our technological and social infrastructure for combating climate change is part of a self-perpetuating cycle that sustains an imbalance between society, technology and nature. Indeed, for some time in the history of our species, the balance of forces has been progressively dissolving.
Even the most well-intentioned scholars are guilty of focusing on singular causes of a complex system in disequilibrium — as evident in the ongoing debate over the actual starting date of the Anthropocene, where three dominant views vie for explanatory authority. The first, promoted by Mark Maslin, posits that notable changes in CO2 emissions began with European colonization of the Americas in the 16th century: as colonizers decimated indigenous populations, many of the lands they had previously cultivated returned to their natural, forested state, leading to a notable drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
This explanation places the onus of responsibility on pre-industrial environmental consequences of imperialism. Still, other scholars contend that humans became a geological force during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, considering technology as the breakaway piece of the equilibrium. It was then that the success of machines like the steam engine, spinning jenny and cotton gin among others necessitated increasing exactions on the natural world and an increase in population, which snowballed into an obsession with growth.
An alternative starting point for the Anthropocene, and the most popularly accepted, is from the post-World War II period — “The Great Acceleration” — when CO2 emissions from personal automobiles and other consumer goods skyrocketed. In this case, an increase in population (boomers) and the application of mass production to all forms of consumer culture reinvigorated the social commitment to free enterprise and the market. Individual initiative and private property — the American model — became the standard by which we measured the health of a society. Here, the social component of the triangle intensified the use of existing technology to levels beyond reproach.
What these three options have in common is that they isolate a variable in Bukharin’s equation to ascribe a singular culprit — environment, technology or society. Capitalism’s myopia proves incapable of understanding the root of the Anthropocene as a species phenomenon in which the sheer existence of social formations gave rise to increasingly difficult attempts to maintain equilibrium. All of these explanations can be seen as true — so long as they are understood in relation rather than isolation. Thus, we should not be so committed to pin-pointing a singular date or epoch, and more focused on seeing the Anthropocene as a long-term historical process involving our continuously evolving technology, social relations and relationship to the natural world.
Such a focus on process syncs perfectly with the emerging history of capitalism. But in a culture focused on singular causality, solutions also take on narrow-minded forms. In the case of Musk’s carbon sequestering initiative, a purely technological fix is presented as the cure-all for our climate crisis — blissfully ignoring any notion of fundamentally changing our industrial culture, habits of consumption and social relations. We are at a point where the kind of technological determinism once leveled at Marxism is a mirror reflection of capitalism.
As an alternative to this kind of determinism, Bukharin states that “social technology” — that is, society together with its technology — must adapt to a changing environment. The onus of responsibility for addressing climate change is on the two deficient links not responding to nature’s metamorphosis. To re-establish a healthy relationship with nature, we need a wholesale restructuring of social relations and technology on a planetary scale, a promise partially recognized in the Green New Deal.
But even though the radical reforms envisioned in the Green New Deal seek to initiate a technological transition to renewable energy, it falls short overall of the revolutionary transformation needed to undo our present disequilibrium. Commodifying natural energy sources in the form of solar and wind does nothing to change the way society views nature as something that bends to our will.
As historian William Cronon argues, even that which we deem “wilderness” is socially constructed, and we are happy to pretend as if undeveloped land is not affected by our pollution. This is not to mention the essentially imperialist dynamics which would still be maintained — or refined even — between the Global North and South, in terms of what many sketches of the Green New Deal leave outside the frame. We do not have time for reform, only revolution, and on the global scale of the problems we face.
Bukharin’s theory applied to arguments in his own time that one cog in the machine could be accelerated without changing the others. Historical Materialism was a coy defense of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which, to put it crudely, admitted that the pace of social transformation and revolution did not and could not occur as fast as Bolsheviks envisioned without an enormous cost to nature and technology.
To re-build the Soviet economy and society after the Civil War (1917-1922), Lenin realized that the state had to permit petty forms of trade and small-scale capitalism. Bukharin and Lenin came to understand that threatening the balance between nature-society-technology by forcing a transformation of one from above would have grave consequences for the other two. Instead, the NEP sought to build back the social infrastructure lost during the war, so that society could get to a point where it had the leisure and ability to invent and promote new technologies by its own accord.
Such a belief in equilibrium is what ultimately got Bukharin in trouble. Later, as Stalin set the USSR on the course of collectivization and rapid industrialization, Bukharin preached caution, preferring moderation over force. His willingness to engage with the vulnerable aspects of Marxist theory sparked resentment from Stalinist ideologues who preached a more stringent dogmatic line. Bukharin’s opposition to Stalinism finally led to his demotion, but as long as he lived, old Bolsheviks viewed him as an integral thinker of the movement and possible alternative to Stalin.
In the end, Stalin’s power and cult of personality successfully branded Bukharin a traitor and “right oppositionist,” for which he was arrested and subject to a show trial — the most notorious in Soviet history. Archival evidence points toward the use of force to extract a confession, but even under such conditions, Bukharin’s intellect skirted around outright admittance of guilt, declaring instead in his final speech: “There were many specific things which I could not have known, and which I actually did not know, but…this does not relieve me of responsibility.” The last point indicates that even though Bukharin believed in his innocence, he understood his trial to be necessary for the USSR’s path to socialism.
If there was one thing that Bukharin believed in more than scientific socialism, it was in the righteous intentions of the Bolshevik project. Tragically, by the time of his trial and execution, independent thinking had been purged from the party and replaced by loyalty to Stalin.
On this 133rd birthday of Bukharin, as modern-day capitalist barons like Elon Musk seek to pay for technological solutions to the climate crisis, it would serve us well to keep in mind his willingness to develop Marxist thought and his emphasis on equilibrium. As he said in the opening to Historical Materialism, “it would be strange if Marxist theory eternally stood still.”
Despite the technological successes and disasters of the USSR — and Cold War takedowns of Marxist theory — socialism ascribes no definitive deterministic role to technology. If there is any major takeaway from Bukharin’s Historical Materialism, it is that to confront the political, economic, social and environmental problems that we face we must see that their historical causes are inter-relational and complex, not teleological.
In the Anthropocene (or Capitalocene), we need to bring back the idea of equilibrium in order to reconceptualize our historical relationship to nature as co-dependent with technology and each other. The revolution we need does not derive from the wallet of a capitalist technocrat, but from a grassroots social and cultural rejection of the commodity form of nature, a collapsing of the dualistic view of nature as something external to us.
A truly green revolution must be an anti-imperialist transformation in our relationship to, and our place on Earth, where the incentive to save the planet comes from more than just the prospect of getting rich.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/bukharin-equilibrium-climate-crisis/