Care for My Creation, for There Will be None to Replace it
Judaism and Ecosocialism
by Paul Benjamin
That there is something fundamentally wrong with our modern world is not a particularly radical idea; it has become an accepted truth in most parts of our society, although the exact problem may not be agreed upon. One of the most obvious issues is our current environmental crisis; the earth is getting warmer, seasons and storms more severe, water and arable land rarer. On another front, our society is a deeply unequal one: great divides are growing between rich and poor, between those who produce and those who own the means of production, between the powerful and the powerless. A potent voice for change is the nascent ecosocialist movement. But while this movement is new, support for it can be found or interpreted from traditional sources, including Jewish ones; furthermore, Jews have had a significant role in its development.
One of the first serious challenges to modern capitalist society came from Karl Marx, a secular German Jew. In his Communist Manifesto, he claimed that capitalist society has degraded the individual, that “all are instruments of labor,” (Marx 831) viewed as machines rather than human beings. The vast productive forces of industrialized society are used, not to further the development of mankind as a whole, but to enrich and empower the bourgeoisie (capital-owning classes) at the expense of the proletariat (working class). Like all societies throughout history, this one is fundamentally unequal. However, capitalism has one feature that renders it inherently unstable and will inevitably lead to its downfall: rather than maintain the lower classes on a more or less stable level, mechanisms of capitalism make it such that the workman “sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his class.”(Marx 833) That is, the gap between rich and poor, rather than being stable as it was under earlier oppressive societies, grows wider and wider in capitalist society. This means that the lower classes become fundamentally unable to support themselves, and as such they are no longer able to support the weight of the system as a whole. This, combined with growing dissatisfaction of the proletariat, will inevitably bring down the entire edifice of bourgeois capitalist society.
This philosophy, later referred to as Marxism or Communism (Marx’s own term), posited a solution to the world’s ills: the workers of the world would unite to destroy the system that oppressed them. This required an internationalist sentiment; Marxists supported “the common interests of the proletariat as a whole, independently of all nationality.” (Marx 834) Nationalism was here viewed as a tool of the bourgeoisie, dividing the proletariat against itself and preventing much-needed unity. Secondly, Marx posited the abolition of private property, since property now is capital, “that kind of property that exploits wage-labor,” (Marx 835) rather than helping the worker. That is, the work of the wage-laborer does not improve his own material circumstances, but rather those of the owner of capital. This abolition of capital will produce the ultimate Marxist goal: a classless, egalitarian society, where all work for the benefit of all and share equally in the fruits of society.
The ecological, or “Green,” movement came about later, in the 20th century. Its adherents see the wanton exploitation of nature by man, and the disastrous results of this on both, as species disappear and natural resources run out. In time, some members of the Green movement came to the conclusion that “capitalism is the cause of the ecological crisis,” (Wall 154) and thus moved on to socialist ideas. This eventually evolved into the modern ecosocialist movement, which opposes modern capitalism on the grounds that it is harmful to both people and the environment.
One of the pioneers of this movement was the Jewish leftist intellectual thinker Murray Bookchin. In his Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Bookchin argued that “the imbalances man has produced in the natural world are caused by the imbalances he has produced in the social world” (Bookchin 62). This meant that responsibility for the devastation of the natural world lay not in “human nature,” as many on both the right and left posited, but in the phenomenon of modern capitalism. Because capitalism requires the constant production of new goods, it is inherently set against the natural world; capitalism requires limitless consumption in order to function.
On a deeper level, “the notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man” (Bookchin 63); that is, hierarchies of domination in human society create a worldview that legitimates the unfettered devastation of nature. Put simply, if a rich man can exploit a poor man with little if any limits, why can he not also exploit the natural world? Thus, the solution to the world’s ecological crisis lies in the complete reformation of human society along humanistic, socialist lines. Hand in hand with the development of a new, egalitarian mode of life will come a more environmentally sustainable one.
Bookchin favors in place of the dehumanizing industrial metropolis, whose overpopulation and overspecialization lead to both ecological destruction and interpersonal isolation, a decentralized system of local communities, more attached to the land in which they live. Once people were closer, both physically and mentally, to the natural resources that provided for their welfare, they would be far more likely to protect those resources. In this formulation, it is specialization that produces the hierarchy responsible for capitalism’s excesses, both human and environmental; “to separate the engineer from the soil, the thinker from the spade, and the farmer from the industrial plant promotes a degree of vocational overspecialization that leads to a dangerous measure of social control by specialists.” (Bookchin 80) This overspecialization and control is precisely what characterizes modern capitalist culture, and is at the root of what must be expunged for the good of both man and nature.
Ecosocialism, like all forms of socialism, is essentially humanistic; it has as its goal the improvement of life for mankind, and views the protection of the environment as a vital part of this process. Because of this, it is radically opposed to both so-called “deep” or biocentric ecology and to mystical Gaianism. Both of these lead to what Bookchin calls the neo-Malthusian idea: that the human population will soon outstrip the Earth’s ability to provide for it, and as such that population must be reduced. Bookchin attacks this view on two fronts: as a socialist and a Jew.
As a socialist, Bookchin argues that this view “places the blame for them [ecological issues] on the victims of hunger rather than those who victimize them… this viewpoint… justifies privilege and degrades its victims.” (Bookchin 34) The neo-Malthusians are members of the bourgeois class, defending their own power and blaming the poor for the ills of capitalism. More than this, Bookchin identifies an antihumanist strain at the core of biocentrism- that its adherents are misanthropic to the extreme, “letting millions of people starve to death… arrogantly being advanced in the name of ‘ecology.’” (Bookchin 39)
But there is another strain in Bookchin’s critique of mystical ecology, one that can be said to derive from his Jewish upbringing – his concern for racial notions that are often intermixed with these beliefs. He demonstrates the quasi-biocentric nature of many Nazi leaders excellently; from Hitler’s belief that “this planet once moved through the ether for millions of years without human beings, and it can do so again,” (Mein Kampf, quoted Bookchin 41) to Himmler’s exhortation to SS commanders that “man… is nothing special.” (Bookchin 41) Biocentric ideas, he argues, all too easily become a justification for atrocities. Bookchin exposes the racist beliefs of many biocentric thinkers, at least in part, because the ramifications of such beliefs were particularly important to him as a Jew.
But beyond the mere fact that many socialist and ecosocialist thinkers have been (mostly secular) Jews, can a link be found between the movement and the principles of Judaism? In a word, yes. It is no coincidence that so many of these thinkers were Jewish; many of their ideas can be supported from traditional Jewish texts and laws. It can thus be argued that, although Marx and Bookchin would certainly not have seen themselves in this light, they could be seen as within the Jewish tradition in its most broad conception.
Socialist ideas, certainly, can be adequately supported through the use of classical Jewish texts. Writing about the Tower of Babel, Yitzhak Abarbanel, a Spanish scholar at the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, claimed that the people “supplanted their previous egalitarian society… in addition to the violence and greed following the introduction of a class system of ruled and ruling, they pitted men against each other by their rules of private property” (quoted Tamari 32). This theology is perfectly compatible with Marx’s ideas; indeed, it could be seen as a near-perfect summary of them from a religious perspective. The great sin of mankind was the introduction of a hierarchical system; this system was itself predicated on the ownership of private property. From this view, it is clear what the obligation of a society of righteous Jews would be: to abolish private property and all hierarchy.
It is interesting to see how neatly the Tower of Babel story is reproduced by modern capitalism, to bring Abarbanel’s idea into modern context. Like the builders of the tower, we have introduced a pyramidal society based on the private ownership of capital. The wants of the economic system and the ruling elite have become more important than the needs of the lower classes. In the story of Babel, God cursed the people with a confusion of languages, which led to their split from each other. In the same way, our modern capitalist system has separated people, not by language but by overspecialization. We no longer function as a coherent whole, but rather as a mass of unconnected individuals. The result is the feeling of isolation so common in modern society.
But a support for socialist ideas in Jewish texts can be found even earlier; the Mishnah states: “He who says: ‘What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine’ is a simpleton. He who says, ‘What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine” is an evil man. He who says, ‘What’s yours is yours and what’s mine is yours’ is a righteous person. But ‘what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine’ – some say this is the mark of Sodom” (quoted Tamari 51). This is a powerful argument against the modern capitalist system, which Marxists would associate with the response of the evil man – “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine”; i.e. what belongs to the bourgeois belongs to the bourgeois, and what belongs to the proletarian also belongs to the bourgeois. Thus, the system of wage labor and capital, by which process the bourgeoisie truly own all that the proletariat have, is not only philosophically questionable, but objectively morally evil from a Jewish perspective
However, even capitalism’s most stalwart defenders are likely to depict it claiming as “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” Yet, if this view is that of Sodom, then it must clearly be the duty of the righteous Jew to disassociate himself from such an undertaking (unless one makes the seemingly preposterous argument that behaving like Sodom is acceptable for a Jew.) Thus, an inescapable conclusion about modern economic systems that can be divined from this particular Mishnah is that capitalism is inherently irreconcilable with Judaism.
There is, however, another – supporting – conclusion that can be drawn. The Mishnah’s righteous man declares that “what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is yours;” essentially, that he is willing to devote himself to the upkeep of others. This principle, if applied to everyone, is essentially what socialism is all about- each dedicating himself to the good of all, rather than himself. The ideal socialist society, then, is identical to the ideal Jewish society as this Mishnah sees it, comprised of righteous men; a good socialist is by necessity a righteous Jew. This view is fairly mainstream in Jewish thought, if not in this exact formulation. In essence, what Marx did was take the traditional law that “the ‘haves’ in Judaism have an obligation to share with the ‘have nots’” (Tamari 52) and extend it to its logical conclusion – that everything should be equal. For if such sharing exists to close some of the gap between rich and poor, it can be inferred that to eliminate such a gap entirely would seem to be the greatest good.
Jewish ideas can also be used to lend support to environmentalist ideas, although this can be somewhat more difficult to support than socialism. Most Jewish ideas of environmentalism come from the commandment of bal tashchit, meaning “not to destroy” in Hebrew. This stems from the order not to destroy a fruit-bearing tree belonging to the enemy during a siege, and has been expanded to the notion that “a man is not permitted to vandalize or destroy” (Tamari 285) anything unnecessarily. While this has led to endless debates as to what is considered “destroy” and “unnecessarily,” the principle itself melds well with ecosocialist ideas.
As in the ecosocialist paradigm, the reason for this stewardship can be seen as essentially and unapologetically anthropocentric. This is not a biocentric view, holding that the world must be protected for its own sake; the tree must not be cut down precisely because (at least in most interpretations of the verse) it is not equal to a man, and thus should not be destroyed because on men’s wars. The exceptions to bal tashchit confirm this general principle; one is allowed to destroy natural things in service of human needs, and is in fact commanded to do so to save a human life.
A related principle is found in a Midrash: “When God created Adam he led him past all the trees in the Garden of Eden and told him, ‘See how beautiful and excellent are all My works. Beware lest you spoil and ruin My world; for if you spoil it there is no one to repair after you’” (quoted Tamari 280). This is both similar to and different from the principle discussed above. Man here is once again placed above the rest of creation; he has the power to ruin the world beyond repair. That he is entrusted with the care of the world to such an extent that God must warn him against misusing it is a clear sign that he is a being apart from and above the rest. However, this Midrash clearly ascribes some value to nature independent of its usefulness to humans. Adam is not told to avoid ruining the world for his benefit or to protect the products it gives him, but because it is beautiful and irreplaceable. There is some value in nature’s beauty and excellence beyond its usefulness to man.
In some ways, ecosocialism can be seen as a melding of these two strands of Jewish thought – one rebuking power relations and private property, the other enjoining good guardianship of the earth. While neither Marx nor Bookchin makes explicit reference to Jewish texts in establishing their ideas, the influence of Jewish values on them is undeniable. In a manner of speaking they can be seen as a sort of radical, modern-day rabbi, taking the messages and teachings of Judaism and applying them in a modern context. While their interpretations were certainly unorthodox (and were in all likelihood not even consciously seen by them as interpretations of Judaism), it is precisely this unorthodoxy in combining the modern world with Jewish values that makes them so compelling as solutions to our world’s ills.
Bookchin, M. 1977. Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Montreal, Quebec: Black Rose Books Ltd.
---------. 1994. Which Way for the Ecology Movement? Essays by Murray Bookchin San Francisco, CA: AK Press
Marx, K. and Engels, F. 1848. “The Communist Manifesto” reprinted in Wootton, D. (ed) Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. 1996. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Tamari, M. 1986. “With All Your Possessions”: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life. New York, NY: The Free Press
Wall, D. 2005. Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist, and Radical Green Movements. London: Pluto Press