Abstrakt editors Onur Yılmaz and Güney Işıkara held a virtual meeting with Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, Professor of Geography at SUNY New Paltz, whose people-environments research under the prevailing capitalist system and potential alternatives includes his book “Socialist States and the Environment: Lessons for Eco-Socialist Futures” published last year by Pluto Press. Here is the second part of the interview.
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Abstrakt: It is so valuable that you do this rigorous and concrete historical analysis instead of this “one size fits all” approach, because today this has almost become the price of admission: if you want to join the discussion, you first have to strongly condemn the Soviet Union in all possible aspects. You have to take absolute distance from the Soviet Union as a socialist, and then you can join.
A follow-up question: time and again in the book, the logical conclusion of your argument is an emphasis on the world-historical context, because––of course, this is not to totally salvage them, to say they have no responsibility whatsoever––these countries were obligated to be militarized, to start nuclear programs. But there is this developmentalist approach, or whose growth rates are higher, especially in the second half of the 20th century in the Soviet Union. You put this as an irony in the context of the Soviet Union. Usually, the blame is always put on Stalin. But in the Soviet Union, most of the environmental degradation started after Stalin and with the policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the capitalist world and so on. In some sense can we say that today when envisioning future ecosocialisms, we have to think at least regionally, if not globally, because coexistence with capitalism is very difficult?
SAED: Yes, that’s a very important point you make. And your frustrations really resonate very much with mine. And before I go into the problem of coexistence, I wanted to add that it would be interesting to ask people who talk about democracy in the socialist context to reject the USSR, also reject the United States and the British Empire for their genocides. Shouldn’t socialists who talk like this do so consistently, for the US and other such countries? It’s kind of interesting that even among socialists, one is asked to distance oneself from the USSR, but not to distance oneself from the UK and France, who are basically genocidal maniac regimes. It’s curious, it’s something that I’ve had to grapple with. To go back to my autobiography, I know escaping it is not easy. This liberal, bourgeois thought is very hegemonic. It’s difficult to rid oneself of in any case. And I’m still battling with that, I can feel it. And that’s also why coexistence is not really an option.
It’s not an option, yet it’s something that has to be faced. How does one face it? Certainly not by splitting up into different groups, certainly not by having countries go to war with each other like the USSR and People’s Republic of China, or not by saying “oh, you’re too reformist because you’re doing this and that”, but by understanding instead the very variegated contexts in which all of these communities exist.
Right now, for example, if one compares the situation in Rojava and the Zapatistas or the PFLP in Palestine, what makes it difficult for them to combine forces? Well, the geopolitical circumstances are really different and difficult and produce very contradictory tendencies within and between those formations, so that it should not be surprising that they would tend to be pushed to work at cross purposes. So how do we deal with that? That’s one thing that I’ve been asking myself and I obviously don’t have an answer, but it has to do with the differentiated unity in which we exist, the totality of the world capitalist economy and the world capitalist system within which all of these countries and formations exist. You cannot escape the problems until one really finds ways of overcoming these contextual differences, historical differences, not overcoming them by rejecting them or by pretending they’re not there, but to address them in a mutually sustaining way.
And that’s something that used to happen with Comecon, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, with the USSR, Cuba, Vietnam. They had these arrangements in which, on the basis of these countries’ needs, you would have trade rather than profiting off each other. I think even while the USSR had a problem that Mao rightfully pointed out with ‘peaceful coexistence’, which is not possible, there is still a reason why the USSR governments attempted to attain coexistence that I think needs to be appreciated. The reasons can be found in multiple foreign invasions, and also in unresolved internal dissent and in the rise of capitalist roaders from within.
But then, in the PRC, we see this as well. So does one say the same thing about the People’s Republic of China as just vying for coexistence? Well, one could say that. But is that helpful in terms of the overall strategy of combating a capitalist world economy? I’m not so sure. And so finding ways in which forces can be coordinated is to find ways in which all these very different contexts can be accounted for in a mutually enhancing fashion. I think this is one of the priorities, or at least in my view, should be among the priorities.
If one is serious about capitalism, one must grasp that capitalism is global from the beginning and Marx had already shown that ages ago. Still, I can understand why at a particular point of time you have the concept of socialism in one country in the USSR. It is because that was the only feasible option at the time if the USSR were to survive. I’m surprised that many people don’t just pick up on that. It’s like, oh well, isn’t that convenient policy? No, it’s just what the situation was. Again, for all the criticism of the Stalin regime, at that time there was only the one socialist state and then in 1922 only the companionship of the Mongolian People’s Republic, where self-defence capacity was even more precarious.
We should be in the process of building power across the world amongst socialists instead of having socialists getting in each other’s way. We also have to be mindful of the fact that we will have massacres, we will have a lot of death, and it’s horrible. And what do we learn from the USSR’s early experience in the 1930s, what do we learn from the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China? We must not toss it all aside as just a mistake or as events unrelated to socialism. For me, no, it’s not a mistake, but an evolving process that we have to grapple with and try to avoid in future.
And that should be the question instead of saying “well, Stalin was horrible” and that be the end of it. Well, it was horrible, but then what? I’m being optimistic in some respects but it’s not like we’re going to find ourselves with a revolution and suddenly things will be wonderful. We’re going to have a lot of fighting to deal with. How do you do that? By staying human at the same time, which is not so easy. How does one do that without having the prospects of people trying to take over and massacring everybody else because they believe that they have the only right direction to take, which to me, is what the Bolsheviks went through.
I still see a lot of socialists who are not willing to really deal with those aspects. And that to me is especially surprising when it comes from socialists in liberal democracies, where it should be very well known that even reforms within their respective countries can bring about reductions in the pressure of the imperialist boot, in the assassinations of revolutionary leaders. That’s also what the Black Panther Party suffered. That’s also what the American Indian Movement suffered. All within liberal democracies. You know, how could we be blind to those processes and think that we’re just going to have democracy among ourselves, with no infiltrations, no one trying to take the reins, no paranoia. That would be wonderful, I really wish it were that simple.
Abstrakt: So in the book, among many other examples, you also mention Rojava several times, where new social relations have been established along the lines of democratic confederalism influenced by the social ecology of Bookchin. Actually, as Turkish Revolutionaries, we perceive Rojava as part of our own struggle, as a united revolution of Turkey and Kurdistan. So we follow what’s happening there very closely and we draw inspiration from it. It’s kind of one of the first revolutions in the 21st century. Do you have any special observations or reflections on Rojava or Bookchin’s framework of libertarian municipalism?
And we can put this maybe into the larger context of the newer currents of problematizing the state as such, or problematizing centralization as such. So you can answer for Rojava in particular, and then continue more generally on those aspects as well.
SAED: On Rojava, I would rather defer to you and to others to educate me about what’s going on. I’ve only read as much as I can so as not to be ignorant of the Turkish and Kurdish contexts. I have a very limited understanding of it. My worry has been the making of Rojava what it cannot be, especially among certain ‘anarcho-communists’, anarchists, and social ecologists. But I want to be corrected as well, because I’m sure I can be totally wrong.
This is how I read the situation so far since 2011, in Rojava in particular: on a certain level they’re building a state without saying it. They’re doing it differently, and I think it’s more constructive to do it that way, but to say that it’s really an alternative to the state is unconvincing. And to say that they don’t have a central leadership when there is a clear mantra of loyalty to a specific leader, then it is doubly unconvincing.
For the ecological question, it is really difficult having any sort of ecological preservation in a war zone. So, I’ve read some stuff from the leftists that I find very sad, sort of ridiculing the Rojava project as still having private property, as still having no tangible results ecologically. Well, you find yourself in the Spanish Civil War and tell me how much you can do. These are ridiculous and unrealistic expectations.
On the other hand, again, as far as I understand, in terms of regional and global dynamics, the Rojava Revolution is a question. In Germany at least, I’ve been accused of being dismissive of the Rojava revolution, though I wasn’t trying to be dismissive. I was trying to be realistic in the fact that there are some severe constraints that occur as a result of the fact that you have multiple regional and imperialist forces at work. And so it kind of makes sense that, for example, you wouldn’t have much coordination or collaboration between left wing Palestinian forces and Kurdish leftist forces. It makes sense because they’re in very different situations. Some of the forces that the Palestinians are fighting against are the same forces that are to some extent helping the Kurdish leadership in Rojava survive. Even helping is a bit strong, kind of leaving them in abeyance, not being completely wiped out, but only being partly wiped out. But that’s a different context than the Palestinians.
It’s amazing what people in Rojava has been able to achieve. And I think it is so important to link it up to a Turkish revolution, that is so fundamental for me as well. Just from my very limited perspective on this question, it has to be a dual revolution. And that’s probably why the Erdoğan government is trying its utmost to destroy forces within Turkey, as well as making incursions in Syria and northern Iraq at the same time. Because if you combine these forces, it’s going to be the end of that regime. I hope so, perhaps I’m being very optimistic.
Abstrakt: You put it very concretely and very correctly, because it’s still a battlefield, and all the alliances are contradictory. And it makes the revolution hard to sustain. All along the way it makes sacrifices and reconciliations. And so right now, it’s basically under siege from everywhere. But still, at least there are some revolutionary forces that can still have influence on the region, on the Turkish side, on Syria and on Iraqi Kurdistan. So there is still hope at least.
One last question. This is an umbrella question. Over the past few decades, we have all these new currents, more bourgeois-leaning ones, like steady-state economics or small-scale capitalism or these totally fuzzy concepts of wealth economies, well-being economies. On the one hand, New Zealand and the like, and on the other hand, on the left we have the problematization of state again, which partially has to do with the position towards the state socialism of the 20th century, or the problematization of centralization or the problematization of the vanguard, and so forth. Now there are the degrowthers. So what is your overall take on this? You can pick several of them, but I think the underlying main themes are state power, centralization versus worker control, and the question of democracy and state. So, what do we learn from the socialist states, what can they contribute to how we envision future ecosocialisms?
SAED: First I should preface the whole thing by saying that I’m certainly in favor of the most centralization possible given the context. It actually enables the specificities of different communities to have more of a voice in how things are done, which can be very important. But at the same time, this can go against the needs of other communities. If, let’s say, you have the need for certain kinds of energy supplies in a community, they’re not willing to exploit those resources because they live there and they don’t like it. How do you come up with a compromise? You have to have some dialogue. How do you create that sort of dialogue? How do you create the coordination? You have some sort of centralized structure. So inevitably, I think one always ends up in the same place.
And there is a book that’s come out from Verso about horizontalism versus verticalism, which tries to suggest that actually it’s neither. You can never have either one. It’s not possible. The USSR is stereotypical for a reason. I guess the Stalin era was never as centralized as it is imagined. It was just a vast, huge country. Just as Russia is now as well. Many people were doing things at the regional level that did not correspond with what was going on in Moscow. So that’s one aspect.
I think that there are too many idealized models being pushed in both directions: either the ones who support the state, or the ones who just speak of decentralization, bottom-up. It’s like a dichotomy between exchange in a non-capitalist market, if you like, and exchange in planning. It’s not a workable dichotomy in practice.
So degrowth, for example, some of them are going back to the utopian socialists and they remind me a lot of that kind of current in which they have all their plans, which are interesting, and then they have no strategy as to how to implement that. That’s a really good way to keep themselves busy and their hands clean, and I really don’t care for that. That’s actually one of my problems with degrowth and things like it. They say, “let’s chart our desires, and we’ll leave it at that”.
So I think a lot of these thinkers come out of communities where they’ve never had to face a gun in front of their face, where they never had a history of being invaded by an imperialist power. And I think that’s probably part of the problem there. Maybe I’m being reductionistic, but to some extent that’s how the matter feels because frameworks like degrowth come mostly from those kinds of contexts. Of course, I come from those kinds of contexts, so I’m already contradicting myself.
It’s just that it’s easy to say stuff like that when you’re in Australia, New Zealand, France, but not, let’s say, Mali or DR Congo, where it’s just been mayhem over and over again for many people. So things like the circular economy, ecosystem services, all of that sort of stuff is just the capitalist side of it. If there’s one thing that one can learn from the experiences of the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, it’s how important it is to actually have a centralized structure that takes responsibility. In the US, you can say “oh dear, we don’t have enough ecological services”. So what is the solution? “Well, we have to privatize more stuff to make people more responsible in a decentralized fashion,” right? Businesses are supposed to be self-regulating, which of course, never happens. It’s a disaster every time. So on the capitalist side, obviously there have been so many disasters and they continue to happen, that it’s kind of a joke to even consider things like the well-being economy or the Gross National Happiness index from Bhutan or whatever.
Meanwhile, you have CO2 emissions that just go up and up and obviously capitalist policies are not working. So maybe something is wrong with the kind of thinking that goes along with those policies. But on the leftist side, in some respects, it is frustrating because I feel like a lot of people have not had the opportunity that I had, to read socialist histories. Maybe they’d be familiar with the debates in the First International, which somehow are kind of similar to these decentralization-centralization debates, on workers’ control or having a party that comes to power through the parliamentary road versus a non-parliamentary road, taking over factories versus going for policy changes.
These things are not new, and I think learning from socialist states is even more important for that reason, because once you do have more influence, not necessarily in terms of taking power, but just having more influence in how our national economy is run, that means a lot of responsibility and that means a lot of things you actually don’t like doing. And how do you face up to that concretely, instead of just fantasizing your way around it?
If Mélenchon actually became the president of France, what would he really be able to do? And it’s not just him, all the people who are involved. How would they be able to get things done differently? And then they’ll soon find out that they have a lot of obstacles and a lot of people who would like to see them dead. And then what do they do? Just allow such homicidal inimical forces to continue because of democracy, decentralization, and so on? Meanwhile you get wiped out. These are the things I don’t see any of the currents which reject the history of state socialism really grappling with. It feels like one must re-read Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, and repeat the same process again. Okay, let’s start again. Let’s look at these socialist histories. Let’s understand what happened with socialist states, what they did well, what they did badly. And now what we do instead of having this wish list for utopian socialism.
Let’s say we do take over the reins of the state. How do we maneuver it in a different way compared to what happened in the USSR? How do we deal with US imperialism if we’re not in the US? Are we just going to sort of pretend that people weren’t dying of starvation in the country where you did your successful revolution? Let’s say it’s the Central African Republic and you have a successful revolution there. Are we going to pretend that you’re going to be able to survive on your own wherewithal completely within that country, you’re going to overcome all these obstacles, and on top of it, French troops won’t come in and wipe you out?
I’m repeating myself, but, in some respects, these kinds of currents that just don’t seem to be able to understand tactics, to understand and expect the contradictions, the paradoxes as you rightly put it. And instead of dealing with them in a dialectical fashion, they just substitute this more linear view, which is really interesting coming from the left, a very linear view in which you go from first having democracy and then other things. I’m sorry, it doesn’t work quite that way. I’m sure there are not a few Iranian communists who can tell us a few things about how things can turn out very differently from what you expect. It’s just an example but in Turkey, imagine in the Turkish context implementing a degrowth program. It doesn’t work.
Abstrakt: This was great. There’s a lot to a lot more to talk about, but we think this is a good point to stop. We know the book is great, it must be translated. We’re sure it will be at some point, but it’s great if we can make that sooner. There is a lack of this topic in the Turkish literature.
SAED: Thanks very much. For what I’ve seen from Abstrakt, I’m very impressed. It’s amazing what you all do.