Socialist convergence and the Green New Deal: Notes on the actuality of revolution
By Paul Le BlancDecember 6, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — It is possible and necessary to build a powerful mass socialist movement in the United States by 2030 that could be in a position to provide an effective challenge to capitalism and transition to a socialist democracy. Both the objective possibility and the objective need exist. Revolutionary socialists have an opportunity to make it so – if we are willing to be serious, not just analytically and rhetorically, but in practice.
We must move beyond commentary and aspirations to actualities. We have limited time. At present we are woefully unprepared – we must change that. The growth of socialist consciousness in the political mainstream of our country, and the conception of the Green New Deal as a response to the socio-economic and environmental crises of our time, provide the basis for changing what must be changed.
1. Converging Necessities and Possibilities
The economic, social and political situation in the United States is incredibly fluid. A mass radicalization within our complex and multifaceted working class – generated by deepening crises – has created the possibility of a strong socialist movement within the next five years. A revolutionary Marxist pole can become an effective influence within that movement. It is a necessary precondition for the development of a revolutionary socialist party that would be capable of posing an effective challenge to capitalism by mid-century.
We need to develop an overall perspective measured in years and decades, with such future possibilities dictating what we do in the coming months. We should not try to do in months what will take years, but we should be putting into place now the practice and the structures that will enable us to bring things to the next level as the time comes.
A proliferation of social movements has been generated by today’s crises and radicalization, and the movements have naturally added to that radicalization. This process has, in turn, generated the Bernie Sanders campaigns and other electoral campaigns (in most cases utilizing the Democratic Party ballot-line) that explicitly make use of some variant of class analysis and critique of capitalism, also making use of the idea of socialism as a solution. Despite considerable vagueness and fuzziness, this has not only reflected but also, in turn, contributed to a continuing radicalization process.
Out of this overall dynamic, some variant of socialist consciousness has become a factor in the thinking and discussions of millions of people, and tens of thousands of people are drawn to socialist organizations – particularly, over the past few years, to Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Some have been inclined to put all their eggs in this particular basket, but the radicalization process that is underway is far bigger than this particular basket.
It is essential that revolutionary socialists dare to engage with the thousands and millions of radicalizing workers who are part of this process. Many have been inspired by Sanders or other figures, seeing them as the personification of their own embryonic socialist hopes – but that must not be our standpoint. Our inspiration and focus must be not with the individuals, but with the thousands and millions, with their aspirations and their learning process and their developing consciousness and will to struggle. That will be the basis for a mass socialist force capable of truly challenging capitalism. We cannot afford to be in orbit, for example, around Sanders – but we cannot afford not to be in orbit around the evolving mass base that responds to the socialist message.
As the socialist candidates and elected socialists actually come into conflict with the Democratic Party leadership (which is organically connected with the capitalist ruling class, which will never relinquish its hold of that party), the mass socialist base will become further radicalized. Whether or not the current socialist leaders themselves become radicalized (or instead betray the aspirations and promises that they eloquently articulate), the mass base will be prepared to stay true to the passionate ideals and radical consciousness – assuming that the way has been prepared for them to continue on this pathway. The time frame for this process is not 2019 to 2020, but more likely will stretch to 2023. But we cannot wait passively – what we do now can help to prepare the way for subsequent steps.
The subsequent steps seem to me to be as follows: crystallization of mass socialist movement, creation of an independent mass workers’ party, the sharpening struggles for reforms, the sharpening collisions with the capitalist power structure, culminating in truly winning the battle of democracy – and the transition to socialism.
Three bundles of practical tasks flow from such an orientation.
1. Maintaining, building, deepening independent social movements and mass action are essential for (a) winning actual victories, (b) advancing the radicalization process, (c) building a genuine socialist movement, (d) keeping “our” elected political representatives honest (transparency and accountability), and (e) preparing the pathway to revolution and socialist democracy. We have seen that socialist electoral work can be invaluable – but historically we can also see that, by itself, electoralism is a trap. At the heart of what we do must be serious and consistent engagement in social struggles.More than this, we must be clear that the only hope for our ultimate victory is the development of such a movement throughout the world, a key reason being that the destructiveness of global capitalism can only be vanquished on a global scale. This requires the development of global organizational networks of activists to develop the analyses, strategies and tactics that will be essential for our survival and triumph.
2. Deepening socialist consciousness must be primary and ongoing. One cannot do this by lecturing people about the Marxist classics, although study groups around such classics is part of the process, along with producing more socialist literature, generating more conversations about socialism, and especially connecting such things to actual, ongoing, practical struggles. A working-class focus, as well as opposing all forms of oppression, as well as supporting genuine democracy are all at the heart of such consciousness. So are internationalism and anti-imperialism. There are many dimensions of the process, including in some cases giving critical support to socialist candidates who may not be advancing a consistent socialist message. We support them to the extent that they are, and to the extent they are not, we frankly criticize them (without trashing them) – clearly explaining our criticism in ways their supporters can understand.
3. Steeping our activities and our activists in a political culture that can sustain us is essential – providing, in what we are and what we do, shining examples of democratic and comradely functioning. We must resist being animated by fear. As we must function as comrades, we must not be afraid to disagree with each other. There is much that we don’t yet know, so we must not be afraid to learn – which means we must not be afraid to take risks. Although we share a fundamental revolutionary socialist standpoint – it is especially necessary now to insist on the need for diversity, testing out various possibilities (for example, around electoral work, involvement in DSA, etc.).Over time, we can draw the lessons and build on them, with a more durable revolutionary unity than can be imposed by “orthodox” dogmas and superimposed “discipline.” This can only amount to something, however, if it is a process that begins to bring together organized networks of activists, crystallizing in cohesive organizations that can play an essential role in sustaining practical action while at the same time fusing this with the spread and deepening of socialist consciousness.
By themselves, these three “bundles” are not adequate. There is the need for a serious, practical strategic orientation to guide our work – a strategic orientation rooted in the reality of our time, related to the actual development of consciousness among masses of people, capable of mobilizing masses of people in an actual struggle for political power and socialist transition.
2. Whales and Revolutionary Strategy
In 2013 I gave a talk in Australia drawing from the history of the Russian revolutionary movement to pose a challenge for revolutionary-minded activists of today. The Bolsheviks, in the years before 1917, put forward three demands over and over again: (1) an eight-hour workday for workers, (2) land redistribution for the peasants, and (3) a constituent assembly to establish a democratic republic. These came to be known as “the three whales of Bolshevism”—based on the popular Russian folktale that the world is balanced on the backs of three whales.
These “three whales” were meant to mobilize masses of people around the strategic orientation Lenin developed with his comrades – that a worker-peasant alliance would bring about the democratic revolution that would overthrow monarchist oppression and clear the way for an effective struggle for socialism. I asked: “What is the strategic orientation that could bring the working class to power in society today, and how can this be expressed in popular and practical struggles in the here and now, in a way that can capture the imaginations of masses of people?”
I was not calling for three worthy demands or struggles to be popularized in some abstract way, but rather a strategic orientation actually capable of mobilizing masses of people to take power. I did not pretend to have a solution. It seemed to me the answer might emerge from the realities of capitalist crisis, and around both the logical implications of, and elemental popular responses to, those realities. It seems to me, six years later, that our equivalent to “the three whales of Bolshevism” can be found in the Green New Deal.
A central reality of our time is the destruction of our environment. Alan Thornett, a seasoned working-class Marxist active in Britain for many decades, has summarized the situation in this way: “Irreversible and catastrophic changes are already underway. One thing is clear: if we human beings continue living, consuming, and disposing of our waste the way we are today, the ecosystems of the planet will be damaged beyond repair within three decades.”
To avoid the worst of such calamity, according to the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global carbon emissions must be cut in half by 2030 and to zero by 2050. Thornett has emphasized what should be common sense to any serious Marxist: “The environment is as much a working-class issue as wages, working conditions, or health and safety. It is not an add-on, an optional extra. The unavoidable reality is that in the end we can’t defend anything, or win anything, or build a socialist society, on a dead planet.”
The impacts of the growing environmental disasters – already generating militant mass actions particularly among the very young – will be bringing suffering and death to millions of people over the next several decades. This will jolt many more masses of people out of the ruts of passivity, apathy, and complacency.
False “solutions” – urging individuals to consume less, recycle more, abstain from littering, and do something about flatulating cows – are utilized to mask the reality that the deeper and most destructive dynamics can actually be found in the relentless and voracious capital accumulation process, and the massively wasteful activity of wealthy and powerful elites. Under the influence of such elites, some politicians engage in lying on a massive scale, denying that climate change is real.
The more liberal politicians, as Naomi Klein has pointed out, say all the right things and do the wrong ones, also in deference to the powerful multi-national corporations on whom they are dependent. Such deception even filters into the ranks of those genuinely concerned about and fighting for the preservation of our environment – who slip into moralistic lectures to the working-class majority (already victimized by intensified exploitation coupled with growing cutbacks and insecurity) about the need to accept austerity and impoverishment in order to save the planet.
This central point must not be missed. The relentless and voracious capital accumulation process, and the massively wasteful activity of wealthy and powerful elites, are essential to the nature of the capitalist system, and they are at the heart of the climate crisis. The brave and brilliant teenager Greta Thunberg confronted the wealthy elites gathered at the World Economic Forum in 2019: “I want to challenge those companies and those decision-makers into real and bold climate action. To set their economic goals aside and to safeguard the future living conditions of humankind.” In her next breath she added: “I don’t believe for one second that you will rise to that challenge.”
Thunberg is giving voice to a demand (paraphrasing Leon Trotsky), stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the world’s youth, and unalterably leading to a fundamental challenge to the existing system of power. As Alan Thornett correctly stresses, this is an issue of central importance to the working-class majority. Indeed, the wide layers of youth just mentioned are vibrant and rising elements within that working class.
This is the force that has the potential for bringing into being a serious and effective response to the global climate crisis. Such a response can materially transform the lives of a majority of the people for the better, as well as advancing the cause of political and economic democracy, with liberty and justice for all. This is the point of what is called “the Green New Deal.”
The Green New Deal – still in the process of being developed and articulated – involves a radical pathway sketched by Naomi Klein in this way: “in the process of transforming the infrastructure of our societies at the speed and scale that scientists have called for, humanity has a once-in-a-century chance to fix an economic model that is failing the majority of people on multiple fronts. Because the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s quality of life in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling service to the breakdown of any semblance of social cohesion. Challenging these underlying forces is an opportunity to solve several interlocking crises at once.”
The Green New Deal combines multiple goals: people before profit, homes and good communities for all, health care for all, education for all, transit and communication systems for all, nourishing food for all, access to cultural and recreational nourishment for all, creative outlets for all, genuine liberty and real justice for all. Klein adds: “In tackling the climate crisis, we can create hundreds of millions of good jobs around the world, invest in the most systematically excluded communities and nations, guarantee health care and child care, and much more. The result of these transformations would be economies built both to protect and regenerate the planet’s life support systems and to respect and sustain the people who depend on them.”
As has been suggested throughout what is presented here, revolutionary internationalism is essential for our triumph – preventing the destruction of our environment cannot be accomplished in a single country.
This is more than simply desirable. It is necessary. By 2030, we will need to have built an international movement capable of bringing into being such a global Green New Deal, because by that time its actual implementation will be a necessity.
Given the truth in Greta Thunberg’s words before the World Economic Forum, by 2030 we will need to be overturning existing power structures and replacing them with popular and democratic structures. Ours is truly a time in which “the actuality of revolution” must inform all that we think and say and do.
Such an orientation is inseparable from the various organizational structures we craft, the specific strategic and tactical orientations that we develop. As the year 2030 approaches, as we have built the organizations and campaigns and consciousness that are so necessary, socialism may become a powerful force in the political mainstream.
But as Rosa Luxemburg so eloquently explained, we must not misunderstand this political mainstream to consist exclusively, even primarily, of electoral activity. Revolutionary socialism means people becoming actively involved through non-electoral mass actions in fighting to defend their own future. All such struggles to protect people’s dignity and quality of life, Luxemburg explained, are part of “the ultimate liberation from capitalism” and creation of a society of the free and the equal. She saw this generating what she called “a lovely madness” among the working-class majority, the vision that “a huge effort full of sacrifices” can truly result in a better world.
Not everything can be mapped out in advance – but this cannot be an excuse for holding back. As Luxemburg explained: “We can only grow through struggle, and it’s in the middle of struggle where we learn how to fight.”Sources
Ian Angus. Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016.
Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, Thea Riofrancos. A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. London: Verso, 2019.
John Bellamy Foster. “On Fire This Time,” Monthly Review, November 2019.
Naomi Klein. On Fire: The Burning Case for A Green New Deal. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019.
Paul Le Blanc. Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine. Chicago: Haymarket, 2017.
Paul Le Blanc, Rob Lyons, Matthew Strauss, “Principles and Tactics: Socialists Utilizing the Democratic Party Ballot-Line” (a debate), Links: The International Journal of Socialist Renewal,
Georg Lukács. Lenin, A Study on the Unity of His Thought. London: Verso, 2009.
Rosa Luxemburg. Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Volume 5, ed. by Paul Le Blanc and Helen Scott. London: Verso, forthcoming.
______________. Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. by Mary-Alice Waters. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez et al. “RESOLUTION Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.”
Bernie Sanders. “The Green New Deal.”
Greta Thunberg. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. UK: Penguin Books, 2019.
Alan Thornett. Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for EcoSocialism. UK: Resistance Books, 2019.
Leon Trotsky. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974.