Catastrophism in the Socialist Review
by Mark Bergfeld
Frederic Jameson once stated, "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism." With climate change negotiations deadlocked, the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s and right wing media pundits declaring the end of Western civilisation in the face of the supposed Islamic threat, this book is the perfect antidote to the catastrophism that has become common currency from left to right.
Catastrophism is the belief that "natural disasters", nuclear wipe-outs, and apocalypse promise political change and even revolutionary transformation. So environmental activists argue that floods and forest fires will wake the masses from their apathy and hail a new world. The Copenhagen Climate Summit 2009 was seen to be "the last chance to save the planet from burning". While things are getting worse, the movement hasn't been able to mobilise people on that basis. Similarly, the current economic crisis hasn't meant that people automatically draw revolutionary and socialist conclusions.
In four essays Eddie Yuen, Sasha Lilley, James Davis and David McNally argue that such catastrophism serves a deeply reactionary function. Basing one's political strategy on such scenarios of disaster only demobilises and fosters fear, inaction and cynicism. Sasha Lilley's essay here is an important contribution drawing on history, and a Marxist strategy and tactics that readers of this magazine will enjoy and learn from.
Capitalism's history has shown that the system is dynamic, flexible and can overcome crises. Yet the Second International's elaboration that capitalism would collapse under its own weight like a Jenga Tower is prominent as ever. Disastrous theories have disastrous consequences in reality as well as for the revolutionary and Marxist left.
Deep-seated pessimism about the ability for workers to change the world produces voluntarism on the one hand and determinism on the other. While many believe that these are diametrically opposed, Lilley argues that they are the product of the same world-view and thus overlap.
Rosa Luxemburg's famous formulation "Socialism or Barbarism" inverts catastrophism according to Lilley. "Instead of capitalist collapse heralding a new society, it will produce a barbarism unless revolutionaries achieve socialism first."
Catastrophism is a refreshing book that draws out important lessons from history, Marxism and current environmental movements. Its belief in the actuality of changing the world for the better is sorely needed at times when much of the left has given up hopes of the revolutionary and socialist transformation of the system. It reminds us of Gramsci's famous words, "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will".