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 first part of the interview.
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Abstrakt: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. We would like to start with a bit about your personal journey. It’s very interesting to read about it in the opening part of your book, where you write basically that you were raised in a ‘liberal democracy’ and internalized the defamation against socialist regimes, the frustration with revolutionaries, and so on. How did a change in your perspective occur? How did you as a researcher come to conclude a necessity for ‘state socialism’?
Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro (SAED): That’s a difficult question to answer without undergoing an autobiographical sketch, which I will try to avoid. In hindsight, I experienced my childhood in a country dominated by US bases, military bases, and right-wing state-orchestrated, NATO orchestrated terrorism. But I did not understand this until much later in life, and I think that that probably had something to do with my rejection of liberal democracy. Along the way, I’ve had a lot of help from many luminaries. More recently, the work of Gerald Horne, the historian. And Domenico Losurdo, who unfortunately is no longer with us and is a very important Italian communist. But also even before then, a chance reading of Lenin’s work, having previously not been acquainted with any Marxist works at all, was influential. Things like that happened during adolescence, which became meaningful because of my subsequent political development. I suppose the path started through collectivist anarchism. Ultimately, I was somewhat disenchanted with that framework, but that process took a long while. I think my first move away from liberal democratic commitments took place in 1985.
It was one of those moments in adolescence. Perhaps this is common to many people who bear witness to something that they’re not able to explain, something very shocking. In my case, that was the bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia, an African American activist group. It wasn’t due to an uncritical support of that group, but the fact that the state bombed them. It was broadcast live in the United States––where I was living at the time during my middle adolescence––which always prides itself on all these democratic principles and human rights. I think this event left a lasting mental scar.
Eventually, when I was entering post-graduate programs in the 1990s, even reading Capital or any Marxist work was grounds for ridicule. It was very rough in the nineties, and I tend to be obstinate, which I suppose is one of my problems, but perhaps one of my saving graces sometimes. And I proceeded nonetheless to read the forbidden or ridiculed works with even greater enthusiasm. And they opened my eyes to a lot of things. They allowed me to understand things much more effectively. Not just in terms of the world economy and national economies, but also in terms of social relations of power. So I think those are the highlights of how the entire edifice of liberal democracy that had been instilled in me since childhood began to come apart. I believe that the attack on Iraq in 1991, the bombing of Yugoslavia, and all of those horrific wars, imperialist wars, also disenchanted me with a lot of socialists, mainly Western Marxists. The change in me didn’t arrive at that moment, but it chipped away at many Western Marxist presuppositions about existing socialist states. And I have to say that what shocked me even before the attack on Iraq in 1991 was the invasion of Grenada and then of Panama.
But again, these are the sort of pivotal moments that build up. I felt that many, not just social democratic approaches but structuralist or self-described post-structuralist Marxists, could not provide me with the sort of explanatory tools or the political wherewithal to deal with all those realities that I was witnessing.
There were many occasions in which one finds other people as comrades. But then it turns out that they cannot distinguish between their privileges in a liberal democracy and what happens in the rest of the world, nor see the connection between them. Those things began building up until I went to Venezuela. I think that is where everything congealed for me. And it made it more apparent that a lot of my presuppositions were already falling apart, and a lot of the frameworks that I thought were once helpful just needed to be tossed away. And I had to build something out of what already existed, but it was either ignored, put aside, or just dismissed as authoritarianism. And I thought I couldn’t agree with that sort of discourse anymore.
Abstrakt: I think that brings us to the central concept or the object of investigation of the book, namely (socialist) states. And again, at a relatively early stage in the book, you come up with a taxonomy. You speak of different types of countries. The first group is the capitalist countries that you interchangeably name liberal democracies, free-market democracies, etc. When you talk of state socialist countries, you speak of socialist governments, countries or socialist parties governing a capitalist economy. Why do you think it is important? Why do you think it is essential to distinguish, especially between socialist countries? And why did you think it is crucial to define the category of state socialism precisely?
SAED: Thanks for that question. It is a significant one. Of course, that’s what animated several sections of the book. I was very dissatisfied with how lax the categories being employed were, to the point where you could make any argument you wanted. And because, I’m almost afraid to say, I believe that Marxism is a form of science. And, because of my scientific background in physical geography and soil science, I just can’t help but try to bring clarity, at least for myself, about what exactly I am analyzing. And so those categories, I mean, could also be viewed as provisional. It’s an attempt to make sense of all those data. And I think I also state in the book that I would love to see an alternative to it, but one has to at least be systematic about it, instead of just conveniently picking whatever one wants to have an outcome that fits one’s particular political commitments. So that’s one part. It’s just about systematicity and clarity of definition as much as possible.
The other part was because I lived in Hungary, and I got to speak to many people who got messed up by what they call the systemic change or, some people would call democratization, or the transition, or whatever. Others might call it the restoration of capital. And then, reading more Hungarian socialist thinkers and others, it dawned on me that perhaps it’s best to look at state socialism as a transitory and contradictory reality. And that makes it a little more open and dynamic because we’re dealing with class struggles, and they don’t go away just because you have a revolution.
I think this is something many revolutionaries have recognized before and many people have written about. I was just drawing from many other people’s thinking on this. It’s just that when there isn’t a clear definition of what that post-revolutionary situation means, then there is no ability to say what can be avoided in future. There’s no ability to say what worked and what didn’t work. And concerning environmental impact, the consequences of this sloppiness for me are rather dire. It means that we cannot point to any socialist project that has been successful with the rest of nature. Or we could just sweep it aside and say that all these social experiments sucked, and then we have nothing to learn from them, and we might as well just join the liberal democrats at that point.
There are many political repercussions to this lack of systematizing, but it also was a way of understanding better for me. What do those different kinds of, I guess, social structures mean? How did they work? I’m still learning.
I also went to the PRC several times and am trying to understand that situation. I would like to visit countries like Vietnam to understand what differentiates a context like the People’s Republic of China and Hungary in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. They’re not the same, but what specific differences can one pick up? You know, and of course, one major similarity was that you have indeed a party that calls itself communist. It’s not just a way of pulling a prank on the rest of the world. I’ve learned by going to the PRC that there are several currents, some very different currents with very different thinking about what to do. And there are struggles there. And so the matter dawned on me that the situation is much more in flux. Similarly, if one looks at the USSR during the period under Stalin, it’s always a situation in flux. There were plenty of struggles there, too, at that time.
So I was trying to get away from a monolithic understanding of these systems as they emerged and developed. And so that’s why I think looking at state socialism as a transitory kind of system that could go in multiple directions, as it has, is probably a better way of doing the research. And then, when they have a much more capitalist oriented economy, such as with the Deng reforms in the PRC and the Doi Moi reforms in Vietnam (I guess Laos has similar kinds of changes), what does one make of that? I’m still trying to grapple with that.
But for me, the issue was, how do I make some clear categories that I can associate with different kinds of environmental impacts? Then I thought if you have a predominance of a capitalist economy in the PRC, but you still have the main directing organs through a Communist Party, it’s not the same as the United States. It simply is not. And anybody who says it is, I’m sorry, you must at least look at the reality in which you can have a millionaire or a billionaire like Jack Ma, who is restrained. And then you see what happens with Elon Musk in the US, to name a noticeable difference.
I think those differences do matter in terms of environmental effects. But that’s only one aspect of the story. What I also try to do is to take world system theory more seriously as well. That’s because that’s part of my background, too. I inserted it as part of the explanatory framework or at least the definitions to see in what world-system position do we have these socialist states or socialist governed economies? Are they in the periphery, the semi-periphery in the core? I think that matters a great deal in terms of environmental impact and, of course, in terms of social relations. That’s part of what I’ve appreciated about Lenin and his understanding of imperialism. When one talks about core countries, those are the imperialist countries. That’s how I’ve come to understand the issue of environmental impacts.
Abstrakt: One of the book’s core strengths is that clear eyed analysis when comparing the environmental impacts of these categorizations, capitalist and socialist countries and when evaluating state socialism on its own turf. So let’s start with the cross-country or cross-system comparisons. And to make this comparison framework clear, you distinguish between absolute, synchronic and diachronic comparisons. Can you elaborate on this distinction, the merits and demerits of each, and why this methodological clarity is crucial?
SAED: The comparative frameworks have been instilled in me ever since I was doing archaeology. Like, what does it mean to compare these different archaeological sites? What are we comparing anyway? On what basis? And then in geography, physical geography, the same thing. So that’s kind of been instilled in me. It’s one of those benefits that I’ve had in my education process despite its liberal democratic nature. But the three kinds of comparisons are derived from reading different works on socialist states and the environment, both from right-wing and left-wing perspectives.
And, inevitably, one comes to one of the first kind of unstated framework. It is the absolutist comparison in which one side is depicted as having had the worst environmental destruction the world has ever seen. And the first thing that comes to mind, of course, is Chernobyl and the Aral Sea and stuff like that. That’s an absolutist comparison, meaning that it’s depicting an entire society in superlative and negative terms.
And that’s a way of basically evading a serious analysis of the data because one could quickly look at Bhopal. That is the worst accident ever in the history of humanity. And people were never evacuated, never even compensated, and there were tens of thousands of deaths. You can simply claim that there’s nothing in history that compares to Bhopal, and hence conclude that liberal democracy is much more harmful. I wanted to be more systematic about the issue; but because absolutist comparisons are so rife, I thought it was important to include them, as illogical as they may be.
The synchronic comparisons are the more subtle ones in which, often, basically, you compare what the countries are doing during the same period. Such comparisons are often made as if countries are unrelated to each other. It’s amazing because we have influential processes like world trade, and these kinds of comparisons erase the interlinkages. The interlinkages don’t exist whenever it’s convenient. So I tried to get away from that by using world system conceptualizations because it introduces the interlinkages. But that is still very unsatisfactory as well.
One also has to bring in what these units of analysis called countries are part of. It’s about taking a dialectical materialist approach. If you think about it, you cannot look at phenomena as if there are just separable parts. There are parts of a whole. So we have to look at the whole as composed by its constitutive elements, whose interactions change the whole. Synchronic perspectives usually lack linkages or dialectical understanding, more precisely. I went through synchronic comparisons anyway to give some examples of how faulty that comparative approach is. And even with that, such a well-established synchronic comparison approach still shows that, for the most part, socialist states were much better on the environment than capitalist ones. And that’s what I found. I didn’t think it was going to be that clear.
That finding is not necessarily straightforward because it depends on the time frame. So when you have the initial industrialization drives, which are very quick, of course, you’re going to have a lot of environmental damage. So if we put that as a context, which is missing in most analyses, then it can explain the initial spurt of environmental destruction, and then it slows down and declines with time.
Similarly, if one doesn’t look at the overall context of constant attacks––such as sanction regimes from the get-go––if one doesn’t look at those interactions from the totality of a capitalist world, then it’s difficult to explain the environmental impacts. Unsurprisingly, the conventional explanation using the synchronic comparison perspective is that ‘socialism is just intrinsically evil’. What is interesting is that, when looking at the data even on mainstream terms, the opposite is proven. And that’s what I also show.
Then there is the diachronic view, meaning a view in which we’re not comparing countries as if they were on different planet, as if they did not belong to the same overarching totality. Let’s look at them in context. That is, according to their historical unfolding; it’s––I hope people will catch on to that––a dialectical or at least an attempt at a dialectical materialist approach because I’m looking at change as the norm. And I try to explain that change within a social formation on its terms, with the contradictions within those countries that are also related to contradictions of broader scope at the world level, the regional level, etc.
So I tried to incorporate that kind of diachronic framework, but only by means of three very brief case studies because each of them would require an entire book in itself. So I was trying to give some sketches of how that kind of analysis could be done in a way that does not reduce the USSR or the People’s Republic of China or Cuba to some sort of monolithic entity that is unchanging and is just devastating to the environment and showing why you had some successes, as well as how. From a diachronic perspective, we can also take into account what is conveniently ignored, which is the hundreds of years of environmental devastation before the revolutions that brought about socialist states.
One of the things that I would like to do in future is to look at Laos and Vietnam (I have already started studying the Mongolian People’s Republic). They emerged with victorious revolutions against the most incredible odds , over the French and then US empires, which had wrecked forests, rivers, and lakes. Just thinking about how those people survived those devastating imperialist onslaughts is mind-boggling. Even to say ‘look at Laos and Vietnam, with their poor forestry, tree management, etc.’ should be regarded as an insane perspective because one has to ignore, among other horrors, the immense amounts of napalm bombs and Agent Orange dumped on those countries by various US governments.
But the same goes with Tsarist Russia, where basically the extractive industry, especially logging, served the US and Canada very well in their economic development, for example. And one has to forget about the centuries of slavery and plantation agriculture in Cuba. All of those things come into view when you take a diachronic perspective, basically looking at these systems as they unfolded historically, as they changed, as their relations with other societies also changed.
Abstrakt: You always put phenomena into their social context and ecological context. And that’s why, for example, time and again you emphasize that the drive or the motivation behind the militarization of the USSR was first and foremost a self-defense instinct, which was absolutely necessary. As you put it, you critically reclaim state socialism. You put it into its historical and broader biophysical context, study the interaction between the political processes and environmental processes in a world-historical context. So what are the main results that you would like to highlight with respect to the USSR, China, and Cuba, or state socialism in general?
SAED: By and large, to give a very panoramic view of what strikes me as some of the most important aspects of what has happened with socialist states with respect to the environment is that each historical context really set the stage as to the range of what could be done with the environment in terms of the level of conservation or the kinds of innovations made to have more ecologically sustainable ways of living. Not just the range, but also the kinds of problems that had to be faced. And that put some very important constraints into what could be done. So that’s one part.
In the case of the USSR, you have a longer tradition of ecological preservation, and that found immediate resonance with the likes of Lenin, Lunacharski and other Bolsheviks. So you immediately had a very important synergy – and I think in hindsight something that we could apply now, a very important overlap between political revolutionary objectives and ecologically sustainable objectives. They were not differentiated, unlike what many people usually assume because of a lack of historical knowledge about what happened. Zapovedniki predated the Bolsheviks, but it was the Bolsheviks who expanded ecological preserves to an unprecedented amount of total area. It was amazing. And zapovedniki still exist, though they’ve unfortunately been divided up because of the demise of the USSR.
So that’s one thing that is really striking to me. It’s kind of a combination of political commitments with ecological principles, which are usually said to have waned or to have been tossed aside by Stalin. But that’s actually not the case. And one must also understand that millions of people were involved in that historical turn called “Stalinism”, and that there were a lot of struggles not just against Stalin, but against destroying at least certain kinds of ecosystems. And they were successful struggles as well. They should not be ignored. And also, on the other side, even under the apparent pomposity of Stalin’s Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature, you had some very constructive environmental effects.
So what does that tell us? One is about what is done under circumstances in which you’re constantly under duress, under attack from the outside, and you have many different voices, a lot of struggles inside: how does one cope with all that and have some sort of coherent strategy about the environment? It’s not so simple. Maybe now that we have the hindsight, we have the luxury of all that history having been made, as well as the disasters, including the human disasters, the social disasters, and the environmental disasters; but we also have very important positive developments in society and the environment to learn from. So we can be better prepared to understand what needs to be faced, and to have a bit more of a plan. The Bolsheviks, unfortunately, lacked that luxury of experience and hindsight. In some respects they were kind of going in blind on a lot of things. Now we don’t have any excuse to go in blind, and it’s thanks to them. We should acknowledge that too.
With the People’s Republic of China, one of the things that really struck me was the insistence on reforestation programs. Because in China, unlike the USSR, you had massive deforestation over centuries. Most of the forests were basically gone. And then you had the pillaging by imperialist countries, military attacks and then the horrors of Japanese imperialism, the horrors of Chiang Kai-shek as well. And then by 1949, if one expects that a society is going to think about whether they’re going to have ecological preserves, you would be out of your mind; simply because most of those would not have been feasible in the Chinese context, that you didn’t have the massive Taiga forest and the like that you had in the USSR even with all the destruction post-1917, and later with the Nazis. One has also to factor that in, in terms of ecological processes, and lasting ones as well.
So in China you had a different set of circumstances. The ecological context is just as important as the social history there. In one context, it’s 1949 with a threat of nuclear war baked in, and the other starts in 1917. Thus, it’s hard to imagine a similar sequence of environmental policies for China as you had in the USSR.
The world context also needs to be taken into consideration. I think that’s one of the things that I would highlight as well: Understand your world-historical context as one tries to proceed with a great systemic change in society that is also ecologically sustainable. This is stuff that I don’t see ecosocialists really thinking seriously about. That’s actually what has animated this book too, I have to say. I try not to say that in the book itself, but I think it’s fairly obvious.
With respect to Cuba, this is actually the most incredible thing as well, because in Cuba you see the emergence of many things that were actually borrowed from the Bolsheviks as well as the early Mao period. This emphasis on trying to make use of the environment to industrialize to make life much better for most people, for all people, but at the same time not wrecking the environment while doing that: it’s a very difficult thing to do, especially early on. And in Cuba, one of the first things they do is similar to what was done the USSR, in protecting coral reefs and enlarging the national park areas. Not for the same reasons, not for the same purposes. But then again, it’s a small island, so you can’t really set so much stuff aside. But in that small island you have hundreds of years of plantation systems which had already wrecked the forest, the soil. And they can’t just jump back ecologically, just because you have a revolution.
And yet, by the 1980s, they had already been developing agroecology principles that really make for a much more ecologically sustainable use of soil. And they put in place a lot of things that are not even in place in the richest countries in the world to make for a better, healthier environment. Of course, there is mining, nickel mining, etc. But the question is not about mining per se, it is about what are you going to do with that mining? Is it going to be helping the people or is it going to be helping to line up the pockets of the few? You’re going to have to do some mining anyway, but you can supplement it with a lot of recycling, which they do in Cuba, much more than they do in the United States. And all sorts of other things can be considered, which are more about how to cope with constant attack, internal contradictions, and out of all that have an ecologically sensible policy and sets of practices.
So in any case, at least in those socialist states, whatever the problems with them, whatever they did and accomplished was due to their priorities being so different from those in capitalist countries, from those of liberal democracies or of other kinds of capitalist political systems. State-socialist aims were to improve people’s lives. It shows also in terms of the better environmental impacts overall, especially over time. To the point that Cuba, in terms of achievement relative to conventional development indices, is the most ecologically sustainable country in the world. That’s something about socialist states that should not be ignored. And that’s one of the things that I also wanted to highlight in the book, because to all of these people who just say “socialists are just authoritarians” etc., we say, “well, but you still have to grapple with the fact that we have these achievements”. And they’re very difficult to come by. And so for those people, especially among Western Marxists, who have all this moralism about all these so-called dictatorships in socialist states, they should look at their own countries and see how well they’ve done over 100 years and then come and speak about that. There is some arrogance at play.