The fundamental idea behind Green socialism is that our industrial system, and the ideas about our place in the natural world that accompany it, are rapidly destroying the planet. The endless spiral of new needs and wants has led to demands for greater quantities of material goods and comforts. The political systems of the west, socialist and nonsocialist alike, have worked to expand production capacity. Traditionally, the socialist debate focused on how to distribute the products of industrial society more equitably. Green socialists have moved the debate to the amount and quality of what is being consumed and the kind of workday needed to produce it.
Green socialist thought rests on the work of political philosopher Herbert Marcuse and other social theorists of the Frankfort School. Marcuse questioned the Marxist idea of homo faber: the concept that humans are primarily working beings that create themselves through their labor. He argued that true freedom is realized through the instinctual forces of eros, or passion, and playful activity. Work requires the renunciation of instinctual pleasure. Alienated from eros by the discipline of work, the majority of the working classes have come to believe that freedom means having more and better consumer goods. While the elevation of work over eros was necessary in times of economic scarcity, Marcuse claimed this should no longer be a problem in highly developed societies. Society's challenge is to use technology to provide basic goods and services in a way that would allow everyone to bridge the gap between work and meaningful play.
Green socialists analyze the economic and political roots of the environmental crisis in terms of Marcuse's critique of homo faber, mass culture, and consumerism. Their proposed solutions take two basic forms: an “ecostate” that would play a major role in protecting the environment, and a loose federation of self-governing and largely self-sufficient communes.
German-born political philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) used Freud's theories of psychoanalysis to critique Marxism. His most important works, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964), were influential in the leftist student movements of the 1960s in both Europe and the United States.
Green philosopher and activist Rudolf Bahro (1935-1997) wrote one of the most powerful ecological critiques of Marxism in The Alternative in Eastern Europe: An Analysis of Actually-Existing Socialism (1977). He pointed out that Marx assumed that socialism would be a classless industrial society, but an industrial society nonetheless. Instead, Bahro argued that Marxism needed “not only to transform its relations of production, but must also fundamentally transform the entire character of its means of production.” Consumption is an inherent part of capitalism, which creates unnecessary and wasteful commodities at the expense of needs in its pursuit of profit. In order to reduce consumption, and industry's damage to the environment, it is necessary to transform society.
Rudolf Bahro (1935-1997) joined the East Germany Communist Party at seventeen. He withdrew his membership following the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. As a result of The Alternative in Eastern Europe, he was imprisoned for two years and then deported to West Germany. He was a founding member of the West German Green Party, from which he subsequently resigned.
Bahro suggested a “Communist Alternative” to state socialism that he described as Green anarcho-communism. In addition to changing the “relations of production,” socialists needed to change humanity's relationship with the environment, creating a new economy geared toward producing no more than is needed for subsistence. In addition to reducing damage to the environment, scaling down needs would allow a massive reduction in the number of hours spent working.
Because small-scale technology could not satisfy the needs of large urban populations, people should create federations of communes that could produce 90 percent of what they need, deal on a national level for another 9 percent, and for the last 1 percent deal with a world market.
Andre Gorz (1924-2007) argued that most people are stifled within the world of work. Most jobs are both boring and enslaving. Technological innovation and automation created a situation in which there is increasingly less work for people, but capitalism did not provide a framework for allowing people to work less. Consequently, the unemployed do not have the resources to enjoy a decent life and the employed do not have the time. Gorz proposed a combination of lower consumption, a reduced workweek, and a guaranteed minimum income that would allow people to pursue independent activities, including socially useful pursuits that would benefit others.
Gorz drew a distinction between environmentalism and what he called ecologism. Environmentalism limits itself to a call for renewable sources of energy, recycling, and preservation. Ecologism demands an end to the fetishism of commodities and consumption.