Ecosocialism and political strategy
By John Molyneux
February 25, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Global Ecosocialist Network — Ecosocialism now rests on strong theoretical foundations as a result of the tremendous pioneering work done by John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett, Michael Lowy, Ian Angus, Fred Magdoff, Kohei Saito, Jonathan Neale, Sabrina Fernandes, Martin Empson, Patrick Bond, the adjacent work of Naomi Klein and many others. As a result of this work we can confidently assert that:
- Contemporary environmentalism needs to be anti-capitalist
- That capitalism, not humanity as such, is the cause of the apocalyptic crisis we now face
- That what is required is profound system change, by which we mean transition to a sustainable socialism based on social ownership of the main means of production and democratic control and planning of the economy.
In other words we have a clear diagnosis of the cause and nature of the crisis and a definite conception of our end goal, our ultimate aim, as a solution to this crisis. Where ecosocialism is currently weaker, in my opinion, is at the level of strategy (and I think this tends to be even more of a weakness in the wider environmental movement). By strategy I mean a realistic notion as to how we – human society – can get from where we are to where we need to get to. I don’t mean by this detailed plans as to what we ecosocialists would implement if we were running the world or even an individual country. Such plans have their uses as propaganda, as demonstrations of what could and should be done [i] but the truth is we are very far from being in such a position anywhere and by the time we are circumstances will have changed, probably for the worse, and so will what needs to be done. Nor am I talking about ideas as to what we should do next week or next month – we need those too, of course. No, the question is by what general route, based on a realistic assessment of social and political forces, current and potential, can we reach a position where the necessary ecosocialist policies could be implemented? Obviously a detailed road map – turn left at the next junction, proceed twenty kilometres along the M3, turn right onto the N5 etc – is impossible; history doesn’t work like that. But an idea of the general line of march is possible and can be useful in guiding our immediate actions. This article presents some suggestions. I will proceed ‘negatively’ from strategies I discount to what I propose.
First, I discount the view that our existing rulers, political or economic, can be persuaded, no matter how rational the arguments or eloquent the speeches, to change course and adopt the measures necessary to avert catastrophe. This is because the measures required will undercut not just their current policies but the very social relations on which they stand and to which they owe their position as rulers. I am not opposed to making demands of them or even addressing speeches to them á la Greta Thunberg – this can be very useful for propaganda purposes – but ecosocialists should not base our strategy on the idea that these tactics can succeed in bringing about the system change needed.
Second, and this may be more controversial in ecosocialist circles, I discount the idea that fundamental system change can be brought about by the election of a ‘left’ government, such as one led by Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, or Evo Morales. I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I am in favour of the election of such governments. I would vote for them, urge others to vote for them and mobilise to defend them against the Right. But in themselves they do not constitute a solution to the problem because they assume ‘power’, in reality take office, on the basis of a capitalist economic structure and capitalist state structure which remain inherently committed to profit and competitive capital accumulation and thus to ecocide, and with a ruling class determined to use both its economic and its state power to keep things that way. Would a Left Government, by itself, have the power to overcome this resistance and the reactionary counter offensive that capital and its state apparatus would mount? In my view the entire historical experience of such governments from the Spanish Popular Front to the British Labour Government of 1945, from Salvador Allende in Chile to Syriza in Greece suggests it would not. One reason for supporting the election of such a Left Government is that this may be a historical experience that the mass of people need to go through but whether it is a matter of the defence of such a government against the Right or of going beyond it, we are talking about the necessity of mass popular mobilisation.
To the move from the negative to the positive, it is this last phrase ‘the necessity of mass popular mobilisation’ that should, in my view, be the starting point and anchor of ecosocialist political strategy. I would also counterpose this to a tendency long present within the environmental movement, sometimes latent, sometimes overt, to ‘spectacular’, and often self sacrificing, direct action by small minorities on behalf of not just the masses but also the majority of the movement. This can be traced back to the dramatic actions by highly trained specialist squads and crew undertaken by Greenpeace which certainly gained media coverage but left the majority of Greenpeace members and supporters as entirely passive observers. XR was contradictory in this respect in that it aspired to mobilise the mythical ‘3.5%’ of the population i.e. huge numbers, but it was also, especially in the thinking of Roger Hallam, heavily invested in the idea of getting arrested. This left open the trajectory , embodied by Hallam, of moving , if the 3.5% failed to turn up, to ever more extreme and arrestable actions by individuals such as flying drones over Heathrow Airport. At the end of this spectrum is out and out violent ‘terrorism’ of the kind historically practiced by the Narodniks in 19th century Russia, the IRA, the Red Brigades, the Weather Underground and many others [ii] and it would appear from his latest book that Andreas Malm is headed in this direction. In my opinion this would be a dangerous and counterproductive direction for the movement to take in that it would not be effective at bringing change but would be very effective at alienating public opinion and indeed deterring the mass movement we need. In short I generally agree with the criticisms made by Alan Thornett but also recognise the need for more discussion of Malm’s ideas and the whole issue of violence.
There are three interconnected reasons why mass popular mobilization should be the cornerstone of our political strategy. The first is that it is very effective at shifting public opinion and transforming the political culture. Black Lives Matter protests in the US were an excellent demonstration of this in that they had a very visible effect on the entire discourse surrounding both the police and racism in America and to some extent internationally. Extinction Rebellion is another example in that it was the ability to put many thousands of people on streets of London (in their second major action) that put XR on the map and attracted worldwide support. So too with Greta Thunberg and the School Strikes. Of course the media focuses on the individual and their particular personality. But the rich and powerful at Davos and the media were only willing to even pretend to listen to Greta because she mobilized millions of young people to take action.
The second reason is that mass mobilisation is actually the most effective method of achieving legislative reform and shifting government behaviour, far more effective than the best organised lobbying by NGOs. (This contrast does not apply to corporate lobbying but that cuts with the grain of the system and its profit driven logic whereas environmentalism and ecosocialism cut against it). The reason it is effective is that politicians fear the impact of people power on their voting base and, when it moves beyond a certain point, they and the ruling class as a whole start to see in mass popular mobilisation the spectre of revolution – and they are right to do so – and are therefore inclined to make concessions to appease the movement.
The third reason is precisely what our rulers fear, namely that mass mobilisation contains the seeds of revolution and revolution is precisely what is needed to bring out real system change. Generally speaking revolutions do not begin with the mass of people waking up one morning and deciding they have become socialists and want a revolution. Rather they begin with people taking to the streets for much more specific and limited objectives – to stop the seizure of the guns from Montmartre (the Paris Commune), to present their grievances to the Tsar(Russia 1905), for bread, herrings and against the War (February 1917), to stop Franco’s fascist coup (Spain 1936), and so on – and then in the process they get a sense of their own power and start to generalise their revolt to bringing down the regime and maybe beyond to bringing down the system. [iii]
In today’s world focussing on people power is not at all an unrealistic or utopian starting point: we live in an era of huge mass mobilisation. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 involved the mobilisation of upwards of 15 million people (something like 20% of the Egyptian population). The wave of revolts of 2019- from the French Yellow Vests through Puerto Rico, Haiti, Ecuador, Chile, Iraq, Hong Kong, and Lebanon – all witnessed immense street mobilizations. For example in July 2019 approximately 1.1 million took to the streets of Puerto Rico (35% of the population of the island). To this we could add that it is estimated that 15-20 million took part in the great Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the US in 2020 and it has been estimated [iv] that at its peak in September 2019 Fridays for Future brought 4 million school students out on strike across the world. As I write, there are mass revolts occurring in Thailand, Myanmar and India.
Certain immediate conclusions flow from this strategic orientation on mass mobilisation: for example it follows that in relation to COP 26 in Glasgow in November our focus should not be, as it is with much of the environmental movement, on who will gain access to the Conference in order, supposedly, to influence its outcome, but on how the occasion of the Conference can be utilised to bring tens of thousands onto the streets of Glasgow or other cities in Britain and to involve , if possible, millions in taking action worldwide. It also follows that, within the limits of principle (anti-racism, anti-sexism etc) , we should avoid formulations and slogans, such as ‘degrowth’ and ‘reduced consumption’ and carbon taxes on ordinary people , that are likely to drive a wedge between ourselves and the mass of working people, especially those in the Global South.
But another implication of this orientation is more general and less straightforward. If the goal is mass mobilisation we have to acknowledge that the great popular mobilisations of 2019-21 referred to above were not, in terms of their immediate causation or their principal demands, about climate change or the environment [v]. This should neither surprise nor dismay us. Truly mass mobilisations which reach deep into heart of the oppressed popular classes (as opposed to very large gatherings of ‘progressives’) such as occurred in Ecuador and Chile in 2019 and to some extent with BLM in the US, tend to be responses to concrete events and reactions to existing, often long standing, suffering and oppression, rather than pre-emptive actions to prevent future catastrophes. The Paris Commune came after a disastrous war and a year long siege of Paris; the great revolts against the First World War came not in time to prevent it or even at its beginning but only after much experience of its horrors. Moreover, such rebellions tend initially at least to be for very specific tangible aims which are seen by the masses as attainable e.g. the fall of a particular dictator, the ending of a particular hated policy or set of policies. Much as we may wish it otherwise, climate change remains for most of the world’s people something of an abstraction, moreover it is not the responsibility of anyone one leader or government that can be targeted to stop it. But this does not mean that a revolution which breaks out over the price of bread or the introduction of What’s App charges (Lebanon) cannot tackle climate change if power is won by working class and socialist forces. The Paris Commune began over defending the guns of the National Guard but went on to establish recallability of deputies paid at an average workers wage and to separate Church and State. The Russian Revolution did not start in February 1917 under the banner of land to the peasants, self-determination for the oppressed nationalities or the emancipation of women, but the establishment of soviet power enabled all those questions and many others to be addressed.
What follows from this in terms of political strategy is that, in addition to direct propaganda, agitation and mobilisation over climate change and other environmental issues, ecosocialists should work to integrate the necessary anti-climate change and ecosocialist ideas and policies alongside and with the demands and policies of working class and progressive organisations. This should be pursued at many levels – national and local trade unions, left political parties, national and local campaigns. The concept of Just Transition is vital here, as is the demand for Climate Jobs but it also means particularly emphasising demands such for Free Public Transport, for State Funded Retrofitting of Homes, for the removal of toxic waste dumps from working class communities. In other words we need to stress demands that simultaneously address the issue of climate change and other environmental concerns and are of real benefit to working class people. Ecosocialists can also generalise from many campaigns the working class people mount independently of us. For example, if there is a campaign to defend a bus route which local people need to get to work, or to access schools, hospitals and shops we can both be part of that campaign in its own right and point out that the planet needs more buses and less cars. [It is important to understand that a lot of working class environmental campaigning is local, not because that is all they care about but because the local is where they feel they can have an effect.]
In short the environmental movement needs to relate to and connect with working class people and it is the particular duty of ecosocialists to advocate for this and talk about how it can be done.
[i] For example here is the plan presented by People Before Profit in Ireland at a recent general election. https://eco.pbp.ie/
[ii] I deliberately omitted both Islamist and Far Right terrorism here because they both have their own very different dynamics.
[iii] Generalisation to taking on the system i.e. capitalism, is, of course, a major step beyond taking on a particular hated government or regime and is much less likely to occur spontaneously or evenly.
[iv] By Andreas Malm in How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Verso, 2021, p.18.
[v] Though climate change was clearly a background factor in Puerto Rico, in the form of the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017, and in Iraq with impossible temperatures for the masses, and in Sudan in the long running Darfur conflict.
John Molyneux is a socialist writer and activist, editor of Irish Marxist Review, Ireland