“The people will choose capable administrators, motivated by their sincere interest in the people’s welfare and not the interest of private property. Until the people control the land and the means of production, there will be no peace.” — Huey Newton, 1969
“We demand an immediate break with the prejudiced view that only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administering the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration.” — Lenin, 1917
In the April 2022 issue of Monthly Review, degrowth scholars laid out a vision for an ecosocialist degrowth. They reasoned that, fundamentally, degrowth “requires the social appropriation of the main means of (re)production and a democratic, participatory, ecological planning.”(1) That, only when “people, at various scales, exercise direct power democratically,” can we determine “what is to be produced, how, and how much; how to remunerate different kinds of productive and reproductive activities that sustain us and the planet.”(2) In other words, self-government is a necessity to realize the idea of degrowth.
The historical term for a society that creates the structural conditions for true self-government is the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” According to the Marxist-Leninist tradition, the dictatorship of the proletariat comes after the bourgeoisie state has been smashed by a revolution and before communism can be achieved. Thus, this transition from capitalism to communism begins with the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which is where we find ourselves today. Bourgeoisie civilization, which “sprouted from the ruins of feudal society” in the 18th century (3), ordered the tendency for “natural capital to be usurped by a minority of private landholders, who had established land monopolies violating the principles of usufruct applying to all of humanity,” lending to a world in which “all natural processes that involve ecosystem services [are] subject to exchange on the market for profit.”(4) Here, the bourgeoisie class, which pilfered and pillaged its way to becoming the most economically powerful, by virtue becomes the dominant class politically; and therefore contains the means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed classes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has clarified this centuries-old dynamic, consistently exposing how the bourgeoisie state acts as an “instrument of the exploitation of wage-labour by capital.”(5) One need only look at how bourgeoisie interests have pressured the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to repeatedly downplay the dangers of the virus, leaving millions of workers to perform labor under coercive conditions. The People’s CDC—composed of epidemiologists, nurses, physicians, artists, and biologists—recently decried that the CDC is “beholden to corporations,” changing the pandemic map from code red to green in order to create the false impression that the pandemic is over.(6) As a result, city and state governments lift their mask mandates, forcing this country’s most precarious workers, while nominally celebrated as “essential” workers, to clock in despite the rise of positive cases without any protection, especially for those immunocompromised or at higher risk than others.
In New York, from where I am writing, home care workers have been collectively fighting against their 24-hour workdays throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Mostly immigrant working class women of color, home attendants care for those who cannot care for themselves—a remarkably degrowth act—including the elderly, those with dementia or Alzheimer’s, or who are bedbound with disabilities. For 24 hours, home attendants stay awake round the clock, only sometimes able to nap, but receive pay for only 13 of those hours. Their bosses argue that they must be eating for three of those hours, sleeping soundly without interruption for eight of those hours, so they should not be paid for all 24 hours. In response, home care workers organized to file a class action lawsuit, only for their union to force them in court into arbitration.(7) They organized to introduce a bill to ban 24-hour workdays in New York State, only for legislators to counter that it will cost too much money to pass. An “organ of class domination,” the bourgeoisie state forecloses all of our attempts at self-determination under its dictatorship.(8)
Effectively, democracy and freedom do not exist for the majority under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. If the several billion workers of the world had the freedom to exercise their democratic powers, then certainly, such an economy—that overworked them, that starved them, that imprisoned them—would not be upheld. If the freedom to participate in democratic processes were in place for the survivors of police killings, for the thousands of us who rallied and rioted to defund the police in 2020, we could not possibly be looking at increased budgets for police departments across the country today. But we are. Like Amazon installing an automatic word monitor in the company’s internal messaging app to block words like “union,” “pay raise,” “ethics,” “unfair,” “freedom,” and “injustice,” in response to its workers organizing unionization efforts, the bourgeoisie state is an organ of oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie.(9)
Furthermore, as the planetary ecological crisis rapidly worsens with multiplying feedback loops, many proposed climate solutions under the operative control of the bourgeoisie start to seem senseless. In the United States, legislative tactics for decarbonization or renewable energy transition usually take years to go into effect and always face the risk of rollbacks. Worse, they rarely become implemented at the federal level, where tax breaks to industry are the more common course. What’s more, American climate policy spaces rarely seriously consider environmental racism, land back and food sovereignty, or the peerless environmental impact of the United States military. It would be a mistake to attribute these shortcomings to individual faults. They are intrinsically due to structural restrictions embedded within this dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and no switching out of individuals in any office can alter that design.
Of course, campaigns for degrowth can—and should—push through “non-reformist reforms that expose the irrationality” of our current bourgeoisie state.(10) More people should be organized to develop degrowth values in their lifestyles and in their relationships during this stage, while building degrowth organizations with others. However, we must in addition be engaged in the evolutionary work of ascending towards a new state. A proletarian state, if we are to functionally “appropriate the means of production” and inspire a “civilizational transformation” that breaks with productivism and consumerism, as degrowth demands.(11) For under this current bourgeoisie state, all degrowth solutions will be curtailed or compromised.
By means of revolution, and only that, will the proletariat put an end to the bourgeoisie state and then mount a dictatorship of the proletariat where the policies we advocate for now become the pillars of a new proletarian state. To be explicit, revolution in the Western context means a civil war in the highest income nation between those who have a stake in the infinite growth and private accumulation of capital versus those who champion degrowth for the sake of reparations, redistribution, and a return to ecological living. Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson predicts that such a civil war can occur in just a few years. He argues that, as early as January 2023, the bourgeoisie state will begin solidifying into federal law the removal of rights currently occurring at the state level, and in January 2025, another Trump-like candidate who wishes to be “President for Life,” will win the election and launch a full war against the proletariat.(12)
Though not quite in these exact terms or timeline, the degrowth movement generally shares this call. As emphasized by the For an Ecosocialist Degrowth manifesto, “ecosocialist degrowth can only win through a confrontation with the fossil oligarchy and the ruling classes who control political and economic power.”(13) What must be embraced by the degrowth movement then is a commitment to actualize the dictatorship of the proletariat. And as far as what reactions the term ‘dictatorship’ itself may elicit, the degrowth movement is not unfamiliar with this genre of battle, having had to respond to the disapproval of its own negative connotations. But like us in our defense of degrowth, for revolutionaries, the dictatorship of the proletariat means “the democratic solution to an old problem – the exercise for the first time by the (proletarian) majority of emergency power, which until then had been the preserve of a virtuous elite.”(14) This idea of self-government must be the foundation of our organizations, what guides our strategies and tactics. For we cannot avoid this conflict, only prepare for it. The question is whether we take the assault from the bourgeoisie state without much resistance, or become organized enough to put up a fight and create the circumstances for the international proletariat to come to our aid in solidarity. To implement a dictatorship of the proletariat in the heart of imperialism.
In terms of the how, we owe much to revolutions of the 20th and 21st centuries throughout Asia and Africa as well as the Caribbean and Latin America which have progressed the Marxist-Leninist theory from its initial European form. As imperialism has reached all corners of the world, revolutionaries from the Global South have, through their praxis in response to shifting material conditions, enlarged the capacity of Marxism-Leninism as a revolutionary theory. For example, the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party is ideologically guided by Nkrumahism-Touréism. According to the Party’s official website, Nkrumahism-Touréism “takes its name from the consistent, revolutionary, Pan-African principles, practices and policies followed, implemented and taught by Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré.”(15) In the Party’s mission towards the total liberation and unification of Africa under scientific socialism, Nkrumahism-Touréism “acts as a cohesive force that binds [them] together, guides and directs [their] revolutionary action, and channels it towards the achievement of Pan-Africanism and the inevitable triumph of socialism in the world.”(16) These developments can help guide our process of applying democratic centralism and regularly practicing criticism and self-criticism within our revolutionary degrowth organizations. (17)
The scientific findings emerging from previous revolutions should convince us that only the dictatorship of the proletariat is capable of suppressing the bourgeoisie class who have economic, land, and military power.(18) The proletarian state can then finally and “radically change how we organize the economy and distribute social wealth.”(19) For example, in pre-1917 Russia, disabled workers were deemed by the market as the least “productive”, and therefore were among the most marginalized, lowest paid, and lowest skilled sectors of the workforce.(20) Relegated to the fringes of society, disabled workers in organizations played a most crucial role in the revolutionary process. Following the revolution, during the stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat in 1921, 1923, and 1926, respectively, the All-Russian Cooperative of Disabled People, All-Russian Union of the Blind, and All-Russian Union of the Deaf were formed, and disabled workers began placing the means of production under their own cooperative control with the aegis of the proletarian state government.
“The workers immediately began to freely adapt and accommodate the labor process to their abilities, needs, and desires, … slowing down the pace of work; decreasing the length of the workday; prioritizing the implementation of safety precautions and measures; creating substantially more flexible work schedules; exerting more direct control over the flow and process of the work; and allowing for greater flexibility in the division of labor within the production process.”(21)
Likewise, only under such a dictatorship of the proletariat do degrowth solutions have a chance at being earnestly applied, corrected upon, refined until degrowth is no longer needed because it is normalized.
Unlike the bourgeoisie state which is upended at once, the ensuing state under the dictatorship of the proletariat slowly withers away—and with it, infinite growth as an inveterate impulse, an ideal, as something natural.(22) In this stage, we learn to be responsible to humanity and to future generations. Internalizing a new element of habit and degrowing every aspect of ourselves, from the structural to the spiritual, will be a centennial pursuit. Even through the active efforts to identify with the class interests of the international proletariat, those born and raised in the Global North will carry the baggage of their “initial training and lifestyle: individualism, competitiveness, the attempt to resolve problems exclusively in the realm of ideas, expectations of personal prominence.”(23) It is only through forming new practices and continually reforming our inherited socialization that degrowth can become the orientation through which we organize ourselves and our relationship to nature. When we can “grow accustomed to observing the elementary conditions of social existence without force and without subjection,” humanity will evolve.(24) Maybe even “evolve our communicational abilities, and learn/remember to speak with animals, plants and even with the stars.”(25) And new generations “reared under new and free social conditions throw on the scrap heap all this state rubbish,” will achieve anarchy—the end of all states and classes.(26)
Not all in the degrowth movement yet accept the dictatorship of the proletariat as a political imperative. Above all else, this speaks to the success of neoliberal ideology in centering an individual frame, in which most cannot conceive of mass organization or collective self-government. But to enact the necessary structural changes inherent to degrowth, our movement must embrace and construct the dictatorship of the proletariat. For degrowth to be possible, we must at the very least build degrowth organizations, and with it, our capacity to administer a degrowth world to ourselves.
(1) Lowy, Michael, et al (2022). For an Ecosocialist Degrowth. Monthly Review Volume 73, Issue 11. https://monthlyreview.org/2022/04/01/for-an-ecosocialist-degrowth/
(3) Communist Manifesto (1848) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/index.htm
(4) Bellamy Foster, John (2022). Nature as a Mode of Accumulation: Capitalism and the Financialization of the Earth. Monthly Review Volume 73, Issue 10. https://monthlyreview.org/2022/03/01/nature-as-a-mode-of-accumulation-capitalism-and-the-financialization-of-the-earth/
(5) State and Revolution (1918) https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/
(6) The CDC is beholden to corporations and lost our trust. We need to start our own. (2022) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/apr/03/peoples-cdc-covid-guidelines
(7) In arbitration, the union and the bosses collude to make changes to collective bargaining agreements that retroactively force arbitration and seek to lump all the workers into an industry-wide class grievance, so union workers are stripped of their rights to go to court. They may end up with as little as $10 in settlement with no changes to their working conditions. See www.nomore24.org about the campaign.
(8) State and Revolution (1918) https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/
(9) Leaked: New Amazon Worker Chat Would Ban Words Like “Union,” “Restrooms,” “Pay Raise,” and “Plantation” (2022) https://theintercept.com/2022/04/04/amazon-union-living-wage-restrooms-chat-app/
(11) Lowy, Michael, et al (2022). For an Ecosocialist Degrowth. Monthly Review Volume 73, Issue 11. https://monthlyreview.org/2022/04/01/for-an-ecosocialist-degrowth/
(13) Lowy, Michael, et al (2022). For an Ecosocialist Degrowth. Monthly Review Volume 73, Issue 11. https://monthlyreview.org/2022/04/01/for-an-ecosocialist-degrowth/
(14) On the return of the politico-strategic question (2006) https://www.marxists.org/archive/bensaid/2006/08/polstrat.htm
(17) Degrowth and revolutionary organizing (2021) https://rosalux.nyc/degrowth-and-revolutionary-organizing/
(18) It is important here to remember that almost all attempts at revolution throughout the world, especially throughout Africa, were strategically brought to an end by the United States and its political allies. The ones still standing such as China, Cuba, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea suffer sanctions and vehement smear campaigns waged by the United States and its media conglomerates. If we are able to implement a dictatorship of the proletariat here inside the empire, that will structurally enable the rest of the world to attempt to practice self-determination.
(19) Lowy, Michael, et al (2022). For an Ecosocialist Degrowth. Monthly Review Volume 73, Issue 11. https://monthlyreview.org/2022/04/01/for-an-ecosocialist-degrowth/
(20) Rosenthal, Keith (2016). Disability and the Russian Revolution. International Socialist Review Issue 102. https://isreview.org/issue/102/disability-and-russian-revolution/index.html
(21) Rosenthal, Keith (2017). Disability and the Soviet Union: Advances and retreats. International Socialist Review Issue 103. https://isreview.org/issue/103/disability-and-soviet-union-advances-and-retreats/
(22) While dissenting revolutionary theory has emerged through practice, for example that the proletariat state must be intensified as opposed to relaxed through the transition from capitalism to communism, only actual arrival at that stage can determine our specific next steps.
(23) Bay Area Socialist Organizing Committee, A Twenty-Year Legacy of Ultra-Leftism (1980) https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-7/basoc-20-years.htm
(24) State and Revolution (1918) https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/
(25) The First Ecosocialist International (2017). http://ecosocialisthorizons.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Combined-Strategy-and-Plan-of-Action-of-the-First-Ecosocialist-International.pdf
(26) State and Revolution (1918) https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/