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Opinion Eco-socialism means organising workers

Sentiments like 'we must all act now' are an understandable reaction to the deepening environmental emergency — but the left must recognise not everyone can fix the climate catastrophe: only the working class has the power necessary to save the world, argues MATT HOLLINSHEAD

IN the wake of the IPCC report, which said what most of us already knew, that human influence has unequivocally warmed the planet and we can no longer prevent it, only mitigate the extent and consequences, many have called for immediate action — though few people seem clear what should be done, or by whom.

The left and the Labour Party have traditionally taken their cues on the struggle against climate catastrophe from essentially middle-class environmentalists and green NGOs, but thankfully, this seems to be changing.

A recent article by Coventry MP Zara Sultana even argued that the critical climate change question is no longer that politicians and multinationals are denying the world is heating up but their refusal to accept the problem as political — they want it to be a question of individual choice. Instead, Sultana rightly argues that it is fundamentally a class question.

Relatively mainstream figures identifying the problem as explicitly class-political is a huge step forward in many ways, especially compared to the performative radicalism of Extinction Rebellion, which wanted to “go beyond” political questions and force capitalists and the state to “act now!” and “tell the truth!” — on behalf of everyone.

When we compare the carbon footprint of most people to that of industry or the military-industrial complex, human beings, in general, are obviously not responsible for the ongoing ecological catastrophe, but rather the economic system they live in — capitalism’s unerring drive to accumulate — is.

So long as there is profit to be made from fossil fuels etc., then the market compels the capitalist to make that profit. Ecological breakdown therefore cannot be solved through the market. Sultana is incredibly clear-sighted when she writes:

“If capitalism means class power and an endless pursuit of profit, socialism must mean democratic power and production for need. Those two things should be our lodestars in fighting climate change.”

Production for need can only happen if we take control of the economy, ultimately expropriating the capitalists.

Sadly, despite many others on the labour left moving so far towards a really socialist environmentalism, it seems that the horizon for others still only goes as far as a Green New Deal. They are dead wrong about this.

The Green New Deal is a set of progressive policy proposals that aim to incentivise green capitalism and see the state intervening to promote sustainability. It is not the end to the chaos of the market and it is certainly not the end of class rule.

If we take the steps necessary to prevent the mass social murder of hundreds of thousands as a by-product of production for the market, we cannot base our solutions on that very market.

War communism?

There is hope in the recent popularity of Marxist interventions into this debate such as that of Andreas Malm who argues in several excellent books for “eco-Leninism” or “war communism” against climate change — meaning a hard-line, revolutionary anti-capitalist government prepared to take unprecedented action to save the environment. He recognises that the total mobilisation of all state forces will be necessary, like the reaction to Covid-19, but multiplied many times.

But Malm, unlike Lenin, is unclear who specifically will carry out this eco-Leninist revolution.

It is obvious that states still have the power to take incredibly decisive action to protect society at large, as they have done during the pandemic — so why have they not for climate change? Simply, because the force of the market is greater than the force applied by the environmentalist movement.

Malm is not unusual in eco-activist circles in seldom directly discussing workers organising ourselves, let alone organising ourselves in our interest, rather than a general and abstract “we” or “humanity.” At this point, most people on the environmentalist left criticise liberal environmentalists for suggesting “everyone is the cause, the problem is everyone,” but we still, from Sultana to Malm to XR, effectively say “everyone is the solution” — a vague international coalition of  “we.”

They are comfortable in attacking “the system,” even describing it as a system of class power — but such systems require at least two classes — capitalists vs workers. It is the second half of that equation that we must grasp.

Why focus on only one class?

Marx described the working class as able to act as the “universal subject,” which means when we act for ourselves, workers act in the interests of the whole human species. However, the reverse is not true — you can’t substitute a vague “everyone” for the working class: we have a unique position in the economy that gives us the power that others simply can’t match.

Overall, only workers can take the actions necessary to end capitalism for the good of the whole species, because workers produce the wealth and have no great fortune to lose if the system changes, no vested interests in inequality.

Unlike other classes, like elements the middle classes who may be ethically opposed to some aspects of capitalism, or big landowners who may have conflicting interests with big business, Marx argued that it’s only in workers’ interests to get rid of the system itself — the others ultimately want a bigger piece of the pie.

The final key reason Marx thought workers were essential was that we work together: whether we work cleaning floors or driving lorries, in a factory or a hospital, we all work as part of complex teams — we are used to co-operation. Unlike other parts of society, we very rarely directly compete with other workers.

The problem is, we lack proper organisation.

Why are they afraid of the workers?

For Extinction Rebellion, which has never had an anti-capitalist analysis at its core, such all-encompassing vagueness is understandable, but why are socialists so unable to follow these arguments to the proper conclusion?

There are several explanations; one might be that their social lives and political activity is disconnected from organised workers — they have never seen the power a class can wield when organised. Alternatively and more cynically, some may not wish to alienate their audience of existing left eco-activists who are sadly rarely working class — and when they are, are rarely part of the organised working class. Who will buy their books if the professional-managerial class are not the centre of the story?

However, more likely, they simply think that we do not have time to spend organising workers and must instead grab whoever is available all at once.

Extinction Rebellion demands action “now,” Malm thinks we should “act tonight!” — however, as Cihan Tugal convincingly argued against him in Open Democracy last year, no-one can or will act against the impersonal market forces, depose the capitalists and mobilise the state to prevent climate catastrophe without a well-organised working-class movement.  

If this is the case, preventing climate catastrophe is not something workers can achieve overnight. “Without the necessary cadres,” Tugal writes, demands for immediate action will only lead to dead ends: “A more realistic timespan to lay the basis of a sustainable ecosocialism is at least five to 10 years, the time it took Lenin to build his cadres.”

We absolutely must act against climate change, but there can be no shortcuts to organised working-class power and a socialist programme.

Working-class eco-socialism, not middle-class activism

To build these eco-cadres, we will need to formulate demands that extend beyond environmentalism which often frames issues so far beyond the human scale it is challenging to grasp. When we as working people think about the “environmental crisis,” it comes up against the immediate and personal crises of everyday life — work or the lack of it, keeping our kids fed and educated with a roof over their heads.

Environmentalists very rarely draw the connection that both the massive environmental crisis and the quotidian daily crises of working-class life are both products of the same inhuman market forces and the capitalists that profit from it. If we can mobilise working people against this enemy, for a rationally planned economy, where we will no longer have to worry about such petty issues as hunger — we can also save the world.

Matt Hollinshead is a Marxist and trade union organiser in Bristol.

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