A paper given at the International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference
Oct. 11, 2019, Santa Barbara
Climate strikes as resistance and revolutionary potential: the connection with Marcuse’s concept of the liberation of nature as determinant between socialism and fascism
By Franklin Dmitryev
Herbert Marcuse’s book Counterrevolution and Revolt viewed the world of 1972 as a period of preventive counterrevolution by a disintegrating capitalist system, which could potentially be preparing the soil for a subsequent fascist phase, as well as an undercurrent of revolt that puts the system’s future in question. Today that seems truer than ever. Rising fascism, racism, misogyny and militaristic nationalism cannot be separated from the capitalist system’s urge to self-preservation even at the cost of civilization’s destruction in climate catastrophe. The youth have a different idea.
We have just experienced the third Global Climate Strike by 6.7 million people in a week of thousands of events in most of the world’s countries, followed by this week and next week’s Extinction Rebellion actions. The climate strike was mainly driven by teenagers, with teenage women at the forefront. In the U.S. the strike leaders were mainly young women of color.
Hearing the chants dominated by children’s voices in Chicago, where I participated, was quite moving. So was seeing so many very young people coming out in all seriousness to call for a drastic social transformation to save their future and the future of humanity from the climate and extinction catastrophe.
The strikes reveal the resolve of a generation in the face of an existential emergency. It is stunning that the strikes have grown so massive in just 14 months since Swedish climate strike trailblazer Greta Thunberg began her solitary school strike. The growth has been compelled by the tsunami of climate-fueled disasters of the week and alarming scientific reports, but it has also grown from a variety of movements, from the women’s marches against Trump and the rallies of school shooting survivors to the pipeline resistance by Native American water protectors.
The movement at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline energized the already ongoing Indigenous opposition to colonialism worldwide and opposition to pipelines in the U.S. and Canada, and inspired many of the youth now expressing the urgency of fighting looming climate chaos.
Thunberg and seven other teenage girls wrote a manifesto declaring the “need to change the system” and “everyone…committing to radical transformations.”
What remains crucial is the reaching for a revolutionary direction from within the movement. One part of that is the spike in questioning of capitalism and openness to socialism among the youth. However, the thought of the movement is unevenly reflected in discourse in and about it.
Thunberg bluntly tells economic and political leaders she does not believe they will rise to the challenge—but “change is coming, whether you like it or not.” At the same time, she says we do not have all the answers and our demand is for you to unite behind the science. It is true that her speeches are not theoretical texts. They are brilliant rhetoric that captures the passions of the youth movement. But they do illuminate where the movement’s powerful negations have not fully torn themselves away from this society’s self-affirmation.
The movement wants radical change, of a type that would fundamentally transform the relationship of humanity with nature, but from Thunberg to Extinction Rebellion, they are asking governments to declare emergencies and act on the science. This leaves an opening for the kind of managerial technological fix Kyle Haines is critiquing. But the movement is partly shaped by environmental justice struggles, where Indigenous and people of color communities have sharply critiqued the uses of science and expertise to undermine subjectivity from below and reinforce the social division of mental and manual labor. The critique flows naturally from their struggles against colonialism and pervasively racist, exploitative societies.
These problems are not addressed in what the Sunrise Movement, echoing Bill McKibben, calls a “theory of change,” which aims to widen the given political system’s discourse, citing a scientific-sounding “Overton window,” but at the same time tacitly accepts the broader limits of its deformed democracy.
Extinction Rebellion, which sees itself as the most radical of climate groups and demands “radical system change,” echoes the same social science finding centered by Sunrise, that social change can be achieved by engaging 3.5% of the population. That rings with apparent precision but underscores the lack of a truly critical element in this theory of change. Needed is an examination of how society’s relationship to nature needs to change if we are to succeed in transforming the intensifying destructiveness embedded in capitalism’s productiveness.
One Dimensional Man emphasized the domination of nature as a means to dominate human beings. In the changed context of the 1970s, Counterrevolution and Revolt expanded on liberation of nature, which is an integral part of both end and means.
Marcuse specifies that “liberation of nature” is not a return “to a pre-technological stage, but advancing to the use of the achievements of technological civilization for freeing man and nature from the destructive abuse of science and technology in the service of exploitation.”
Encompassed in this is that science too is transformed, as well as technology. He writes:
“The Marxian vision recaptures the ancient theory of knowledge as recollection: ‘science’ as the rediscovery of the true Forms of things, distorted and denied in the established reality, the perpetual materialistic core of idealism. The ‘idea,’ as the term for these Forms, is not a ‘mere’ idea…. Freedom thus becomes a ‘regulative concept of reason’ guiding the practice of changing reality in accordance with its ‘idea,’ i.e., its own potentialities–to make reality free for its truth.”
Worth noting here is that Marcuse poses nature’s relation not alone to society, but to the idea of freedom. He not only sees the transformation of relations with nature as an integral part of human liberation, but sees that process as being guided by the idea of freedom, and recognizes that this “field of liberation” is central to Marx’s original statement of his philosophy.
He turns to Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, seeing “nature as a field of liberation” as one of its central themes. Marcuse interprets it this way:
“…Marx speaks of the ‘complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities’ as the feature of socialism: only this emancipation is the ‘transcendence of private property.’…through the ‘human appropriation of nature,’ i.e., through the transformation of nature into an environment (medium) for the human being as ‘species being’; free to develop the specifically human faculties….
“In sharp contrast to the capitalist exploitation of nature, its ‘human appropriation’ would be nonviolent, nondestructive: oriented on the life-enhancing, sensuous, aesthetic qualities inherent in nature. Thus transformed, ‘humanized,’ nature would respond to man’s striving for fulfillment, nay, the latter would not be possible without the former….”
There is an ecocentric objection to “the human appropriation of nature.” But all species transform nature and appropriate from it. The question is not whether such appropriation “should” exist but rather what form it will take. Marcuse registers his own ambivalence when he writes:
“Marx’s notion of a human appropriation of nature retains something of the hubris of domination….[N]ot appropriation but rather its negation would be the nonexploitative relation: surrender, ‘letting-be,’ acceptance . . . But such surrender meets with the impenetrable resistance of matter; nature is not a manifestation of ‘spirit,’ but rather its essential limit.”
The phrase “human appropriation of nature” is from the Grundrisse, not 1844, where Marx’s focus is on the human reappropriation of one’s own alienated essence, of one’s humanity, and thereby the human relationship to nature. Similarly, his mature concept in Capital is of freely associated humans taking control, not of nature per se, but of their metabolism with nature and their relations with each other.
Marcuse’s wrong note here reflects the pessimism that lurks in his thought, posing a barrier between nature and spirit. I think this helps explain the book’s main flaws. One is its tacit tribute to Mao’s cultural revolution as if it were a real revolution and not exactly what he sees as characterizing the world scene: a preventive counterrevolution. Another is his substitution of the New Left, which he acknowledges as small and “essentially an intellectual movement,” in place of masses as subject, especially the working class, while he dismisses recognition of workers’ revolutionary potential as “a fetishism of labor.” And, finally, the chapter on “Nature and Revolution” concludes with a quite reductive view of women’s liberation that is not in touch with the actual movement.
By the same token, his correspondence with Raya Dunayevskaya dismissed Hegel’s Absolute Idea as tied to the pre-technological stage, while she sees it as a response to the French Revolution linking the self-determination of the idea of freedom to the self-developing subjectivity of masses in revolution. Thus, she wrote, “There is no trap in thought. Though it is finite, it breaks through the barriers of the given, reaches out, if not to infinity, surely beyond the historic moment.”
That is the spirit in which I think we need to pose, like Marcuse, how the transformation of relations with nature is integral to human liberation, and human liberation is integral to a fundamental transformation of relations with nature—and to pose this co-integrality as a guiding principle already latent within the movement that needs to be made explicit and brought to the fore.
Dunayevskaya, Raya. 2002. The Power of Negativity: Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.
Farrell, Clare, Alison Green, Sam Knights, and William Skeaping, editors. 2019. This Is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook. London: Penguin Books.
Marcuse, Herbert. 1972. Counterrevolution and Revolt. Boston: Beacon Press.
Thunberg, Greta. 2019. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. London: Penguin Books.
Thunberg, Greta, Anna Taylor, Luisa Neubauer, Kyra Gantois, Anuna De Wever, Adélaïde Charlier, Holly Gillibrand, and Alexandria Villasenor. 2019. “Think we should be at school? Today’s climate strike is the biggest lesson of all.” The Guardian, 15 March 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/15/school-climate-strike-greta-thunberg.
 Thunberg et al 2019.
 Thunberg 2019, 18, 16.
 See for example Farrell et al 2019, p. 126.
 Marcuse 1972, 60.
 Marcuse 1972, 69-70.
 Marcuse 1972, 61, 63.
 Marcuse 1972, 64, 67.
 Marcuse 1972, 68-69.
 Marcuse 1972, 32.
 Marcuse 1972, 38, emphasis in the original.
 Dunayevskaya 2002, 184.