This debate was first published in the Irish Eco-socialist quarterly RUPTURE https://rupture.ie/articles/debate-should-we-ally-with-green-capitalists. The debate was held in an Irish context but we think it is of much wider applicabilty.
“We also have to seriously consider which bits of green capital do we make alliances with, because I don’t think I see the social forces being arranged that we can simply wash our hands of that messy engagement.” With that provocative question John Barry of the Just Transition Greens set the cat among the pigeons on an episode of the Trademark podcast on ‘Why Greenwashing won’t wash’. Those serious about fighting climate change and capitalism, he argued, must consider whether we can form alliances with some of the ‘greener’ big businesses, renewable energy companies and the like to achieve our aims. He went on to argue that this is an important strategic debate we cannot shy away from, even if it is ‘as welcome as a fart in a space suit’.
We at Rupture agree that this is an important debate to be had. With the world burning, and time running out, it is crucially important that we leave no stone unturned in trying to develop strategies to halt this destruction. But we also cannot afford to go down strategic dead ends, which waste our limited time and energy.
We are delighted to host an initial written roundtable on whether eco-socialists should try to build alliances with green capital with John Barry arguing it’s something we should seriously consider and RISE member and regular Rupture contributor Diana O’Dwyer arguing such attempts would weaken rather than strengthen our movement. We carry both pieces here side-by-side, to hopefully kick off further debate and discussion on this and connected strategic questions facing the green-left today.
– Cian Prendiville, Rupture editorial board
What is your theory and strategy for social change? Reform versus revolution? A ‘just energy transition’ or the fundamental socio-economic ‘transformation’ of the mode of production? A ‘parliamentary road to eco-socialism’, or non-violent direct action and workplace occupations? These questions of strategy and change are perhaps the most important to consider. How often have we heard or perhaps ourselves said ‘don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good?’ ‘The tree that does not bend in the wind, breaks’. And given that political activists have limited time, groups, parties and movements have limited resources, and often short windows of opportunity, where should we put our energies, hopes and anger to help transform and remake a society beyond ecocidal, exploitative and carbon-fuelled capitalism? What compromise should be considered with bourgeois electoral politics and the neoliberal state? What compromises should be considered with elements of capital and business? If at all? And what compromises should be ruled out? And how can or should we distinguish between ‘good/necessary/justified’ and regressive compromises? Is the term ‘compromises’ even a useful term?
Before I begin, full disclosure: What is offered here is not some well worked out evidence based and theoretically astute analysis of strategy, compromise and when to engage in tactical conciliatory moves, and when to exacerbate conflict and open contestation. Rather it is a set of (honest) reflections on issues of strategy based on my own experiences and informed by my understanding of eco-socialist politics. And it has (literally) more questions to offer than answers.
We need to talk about strategy…
What we are talking about here is the difficult, messy and ultimately context-specific question of identifying thresholds or lines beyond which certain strategies, campaigns, actions (including non-actions) are unproductive, counterproductive or a waste of time, activist energy and movement or party resources. Is it better and worth it to get some modest gains, but for the people who benefit from these gains might be very significant, here and now, with some tangible positive results – as opposed to closing off that option for the sake of the bigger picture, for future and possibly much bigger structural transformations? Would the energy and work that goes into such localised, modest wins (small beer in the grand scheme of dismantling carbon-fuelled globalised capitalism) be better directed to the ‘long struggle’?
Is reformism and a willingness to contemplate compromise with parts of capital and to work within bourgeois democracy and the status quo, based on a sense of defeatism? That such compromises are evidence that we think we cannot win, or win big, and that the most we can achieve are minor reforms? Is such thinking an expression of the truth that dare not speak its name – namely that the current economic and social and political conditions do not provide any realistic chance of large-scale radical social or economic transformation, never mind revolution (whatever that means or looks like in the current context)? That the ‘facts on the ground’ do not add up at this time, and that the best we can hope for is – take your pick – to bide our time, build up the political resources (especially around popular political education and political economy in my view), take opportunities where we can, including material gains for working class people and climate action, for example, and support or initiate struggles and seek to join them up; seek to repoliticise working class organisations such as trades unions, explore new coalitions and alliances? Dig where we stand and become the ‘old mole of history’ as Marx described it (of which more below), but not at any cost.
Or can such modest reformism be also viewed as necessary defensive movements, that is, done not to necessarily progress eco-socialism, but simply to protect already existing (inadequate) state services, for example from austerity or privatisation? Can negotiations about such defensive social mobilisation, which mostly fall short of radical political progress (for example in terms of the ownership and control of productive assets or state services), be simply viewed as necessary, unavoidable and inevitable / but should not be viewed as dishonourable or naïve compromises or certainly not ‘defeatist’?
Wars of position and wars of movement
Gramsci’s important insights into the different strategic options open and possible in a ‘war of position’ as opposed to a ‘war of movement’ are pertinent here I think. The ‘war of movement’ (or ‘war of manoeuvre’), for Gramsci, constitutes open contestation and antagonistic open conflict between an insurgent revolutionary movement, classes and allies and the state and its class alliance where the outcome is decided by direct clashes between this insurgent movement of movements and the state. The war of position, on the other hand, is a slow, hidden conflict, where forces seek to gain ideological influence and political, economic and cultural power. The war of position both precedes (usually) a war of movement and is in large part an issue of ideological contestation, and where anti-capitalists seek to both reveal the exploitive, ecocidal and contradictory character of capitalism, and seek to delegitimise this dominant social order in the eyes of the majority class in society, the working class.
I think it is fair to say we are in a war of position at present; hence the importance of political education for eco-socialists to engage with working class communities in using their lived experience as the basis for demonstrating how eco-socialism can explain the lived experiences of people. Here, neoliberal responses to the climate crisis, for example, such as dreams of mythic proposals to ‘decouple’ ever increasing economic growth and capital accumulation from resource and pollution impacts (as can be seen the ‘green growth’ or ‘circular economy’ dominant narratives within business, the EU, academic debate and most nation-state policy responses), need to be called out for what they are: not only regressive (unjust transition pathways), but scientifically illiterate. This is part of the ‘battle of ideas’, for eco-socialists to constantly point out the ideological and mythic wish fulfilment of these strategies, the main aim of which is to sustain capitalism and the status quo, not a liveable world nor a just, sustainable and equitable economy.
It is perhaps unhelpful to present alternative ways of thinking and possible courses of action in stark and dogmatic ‘either/or’ terms. All possible strategies should be considered, within the larger context of some clear objectives. For example, entering into reformist alliances or actively participating in parliamentary electoral politics can also be useful in terms of demonstrating to communities, activists and citizens the limits of what is possible to achieve within the tramlines of bourgeois representative democracy. Look at how little the Green Party is achieving as part of a right-wing coalition. A milk and water climate change bill, cycle lanes and the achievement of (at best) a very limited greening of neoliberalism (‘green’ austerity) as the price for coalition membership. The limited impact of the Greens in government could (as if proof were needed) illustrate how little is possible within the confines of a neoliberal nation-state and EU monetary and economic rules.
But sticking with this example, we could consider alternative strategies the Greens could have made in entering coalition government. What if the Greens, even as they entered government, also embarked on a civil society and community based set of initiatives to organise and mobilise its own membership base to go out into their communities, make alliances with community groups, trades unions, other parties etc. to co-create local just transition committees and plans for what resources and changes might be needed in local communities around green and low carbon employment, retrofitting homes, local food production, mapping the assets of the local community/area and then scaling this up for a network of communities to join together, share ideas and plans. That is, to pursue both state and civil society action. But this sadly was the path not chosen by the leadership of the party, reflecting the dominance of state-led, policy-based and modest (as well as regressive) legislation as the only ‘theory of change’ possible. And to a large extent this is correct; if you play by the rules of bourgeois politics, your choices for action are massively constrained. But as Marx said, we do not change history in conditions we ourselves control or make.
Let’s consider another example. Supporting (or at least not objecting or organising against) renewable energy capital as part of the transition away from fossil fuels, and the section of finance capital that supports the former. Does this make sense from a tactical point of view as well as a strategic one? What are the dangers and advantages? From a strategic point of view, support for green capital could further increase the divisions within capital (we sometimes forget than like the state itself, capital is also internally divided and contradictory) which could precipitate political and/or economic crises or opportunities that could be exploited. Or it could help the transition from ‘fossil capitalism’ to ‘green capitalism’. But could this new mode of accumulation provide better conditions for transformative politics (as well as lessening the effects, but not addressing the root causes, of ‘actually existing unsustainability’)?
From a tactical point of view, such political support could also be the basis for provisional cross-class alliances and pragmatic and localised wins for communities where a condition for the siting of privately owned renewable energy is that the local community gets a stake in the facility, well paid jobs (especially significant if the community has suffered losses in fossil fuel based employment), free or discounted electricity or some share of ownership and control (this would require state legislation, though depending on the local context, renewable energy companies might see this as a price worth paying for social acceptance and local support). While falling short obviously of communities and citizens having ownership and control over the renewable energy means of production, would support for this specific transition to green capitalism be worth considering as a necessary step in the direction of transcending capitalism itself? Would this demonstrate to communities who benefit that tangible benefits to working people here and now are also part of the eco-socialist struggle? Or would it be a complete tactical and strategic mistake? Eco-socialist ‘trade union consciousness’ perhaps? And in all of these strategic considerations of different courses of action, there is absolutely no guaranteed outcome, no accounting for unintended consequences, bad luck or unforeseen ‘events’.
As Frederick Douglass, freed slave and anti-slavery leader wrote in 1857
“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Power concedes nothing without a struggle. Indeed. And this insight should be our guide, that any tactical alliance we make, or concession we enter into, any working with (and within) the existing political and economic status quo for immediate benefit of others, any defensive actions taken, should be done in the full light that these are provisional, temporary and tactical moves. Imperfect means to greater and longer term ends, knowingly entered into and understood as such.
From an eco-socialist perspective it is always salutary to look back to previous historical struggles and events both for inspiration and for valuable lessons, whether those struggles were successful or not. For example, can we find lessons for the struggle to move beyond carbon-fuelled and ecocidal capitlaism in the anti-slavery struggle stretching back hundreds of years? Just as we saw people campaign for the abolition of slavery, not its reform, so we should support those who seek to abolish fossil fuels. And just as the abolitionist movement did not worry about the costs of abolition, so should the climate justice movement be utterly uncompromising in its demand for the planned retirement of and just transition beyond fossil fuels. Here, it is interesting and important to note how much of the opposition to the abolition of slavery based around counterarguments that it would be an ‘economic disaster’ and ‘would cost too much’, and that it has to be done, if at all, over a much longer time period.
But here we can see a difference in language, approach and strategy from what I would term naïve green or pure environmentalist positions and those from a more class-based and justice perspective. A good illustration of this is the different reactions to the decision by Bord na Móna to end peat cutting and using peat to generate electricity. While many of these naïve greens celebrated this as a ‘win’ in that this decision is an important, if modest, step in the direction of decarbonising the Irish energy system and therefore a step in the right direction in the fight against climate breakdown, there was little acknowledgement of this as an ‘unjust energy transition’. That this step towards a renewable energy system in Ireland was at the cost of workers being laid off, no engagement with trades unions and no plans in place for impacted communities in the midlands area. The very fact that the previous government was compelled to retrospectively appoint a Just Transition Commissioner, and after the fact to cobble together a meagre just transition policy, indicates the callous disregard by Bord na Móna and the Irish state of the impacts of decarbonisation on the working class in rural Ireland. And similarly, with the coalition government’s decision to accept the ‘carbon tax’ route to decarbonisation based on the neoliberal and economically (not ecologically or climate) focused recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
The ‘old mole of history’
In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx wrote of European revolutionary politics, with a particular focus on France. Revolutionary forces. Marx wrote that they would first overthrow the monarchy, then constitute parliamentary power. The establishment of a parliament would deepen the demands of the people, who would set aside the owners of property and take charge of society. At which point, Marx wrote, “Europe will leap from its seat and exultantly exclaim: Well grubbed, old mole!” This is a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Shakespeare uses the ‘Old Mole’ to represent the ghost of Hamlet’s father who keeps speaking from under the stage, despite Hamlet and Horatio shifting their ground, seeking a secret place to swear their oath. Hamlet says: “Well said, old mole!”. The revolution and revolutionary political outcomes, for Marx, is the ‘old mole’ that sometimes burrows deep into the soil of history, and is therefore lost from sight and nothing transformational seems to happen or be possible. Then unexpectedly (in time, place or event) it pops its head out. So at times when the historical conditions are not ripe, the mole goes underground, but to paraphrase another bearded one, ‘hasn’t gone away you know’. And then when the mole surfaces, these are the times when crises can usher in radical change. This dynamic of the ‘old mole of history, is what, I think, Lenin was talking about when he famously said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”.
So what does all or any of this tell us about political strategy and struggle? That sometimes we have to go with the ‘old mole of history’, and wait, prepare and dig in (and down) for a long struggle. Here, I think there is overlap with the connections between the anti-slavery struggle, the climate crisis struggle and the qualities needed to sustain activists. The anti-slavery struggle took, depending on how one analyses it, centuries or decades. The climate crisis is something we will have to endure and live with for decades and centuries ahead, even if we embark on rapid and scaled up decarbonisation now. In both cases I discern how stoicism and belief in a cause greater than oneself were paramount characteristics of those involved in those struggles. Such stoicism and ‘keeping on keeping on’, despite the conditions not being good, ripe or supportive for rapid large scale social and economic transformation are, I would suggest, the qualities we need always. But also being ready in anticipation for the mole of history to emerge (which of course is not some ‘natural process’ but partly a result of political agency and agitation i.e. the conditions for revolutionary change can be created, tensions exacerbated, alliances forged, contradictions exposed, ideological ‘commonsense’ revealed and challenged etc.). The ‘longue durée’ of struggle requires stoicism, and as clear a set of flexible, adaptable goals, which can offer rough and ready guides to when, and under what conditions, reform and compromise is acceptable and when such tactical movements undermine the larger political strategy and direction of historical transformation. Hence the mark and strength of an eco-socialist in the early 21st century is not the energy and commitment working towards near-time decade timescale social transformation, but decadal long endurance. Struggle is a marathon not a sprint and we might find inspiration from that most unlikely of sources – the Catholic Church. And like it, think in terms of decades and centuries.
But, to return to something raised earlier, any short-term, tactical concession, compromise etc. has to be seen always in the light of the longer strategic struggle and end goal of abolishing and economic and political transformation beyond capitalism, not simply beyond carbon. And here there is the delicate and also balanced judgement to be made between taking a quick win (including non-strategic wins that would immediately improve the lives of working class people), and refusing that option for another more agonistic path. Between being ‘reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’, and here GB Shaw has some wise words which must always guide us, but not be our only guide to action (and we will forgive him the sexist language):
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman
On the left at least, everyone now acknowledges the urgency of the climate crisis. We’ve heard the terrifying statistics, the potential for unstoppable feedback effects once tipping points are reached. We’ve felt it on our faces and in our bones during unseasonably hot spring days and the midsts of tropical-seeming torrents of rain. We know there’s no time to waste and we only get one shot. There won’t be time for trial and error of different strategies so we’ve got to get this right the first time.
A key strategic question is whether socialists should support reforms brought about by “green capitalists” and so, in a sense, ally tactically with green capital, for instance to build renewable energy infrastructure, which will cost billions of euro and must be “baked in” as early as possible to avert climate disaster. Or would this be a short-sighted, ultimately self-defeating strategy that sells out our long term goals for apparent short term gains?
Writing as a member of a revolutionary socialist group, it’s maybe obvious what my answer will be! But I hope to explain why and also to sketch out an alternative revolutionary eco-socialist strategy rooted in building alliances, not with sections of the capitalist class, but among all those subordinated and oppressed by capitalism, armed with the vast potential power of the working class to transform our world.
Why we shouldn’t compromise with “green” capital
Part of the problem is that “green capital” either doesn’t exist or is too small to stop climate change. Smaller, more ethical companies get out-competed because they are less efficient at externalising costs, or else get bought out or ripped off by big capital. A minor example is the takeover of the Body Shop by L’Oreal, a global conglomerate that still tests on animals. Another is BP, rebranding itself as “Beyond Petroleum” while continuing to make the vast majority of its profits from oil and gas. Even if a “green” company manages to maintain its corporate independence, who are its investors? Overwhelmingly, the same hedge funds, finance capital and wealthy individuals that drive investment in fossil fuels and all the other unsustainable capitalist practices wrecking our planet. Under financialised late capitalism, stocks are held for an average of only 22 seconds before being traded!1
All this means that “green business”, like other forms of “ethical consumption”, remains confined to a market niche within fossil-capitalism-as-usual. The “unethical” mother company, or dominant “non-green” capital, generates the smaller market for its “ethical” opposite. Rampant destruction of the climate by industrial capitalism is what created the market for renewable energy in the first place. The idea that small green projects can be sufficiently scaled up under capitalism to stop climate change is a variety of utopian socialism that remains as “necessarily doomed to failure” as Marx and Engels predicted in the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Replicating them 100 or 1000 or 10,000 times won’t make any noticeable difference to global warming.
“Green” capital also remains fundamentally exploitative. Like every other kind of capital, its existence depends on exploiting workers and natural resources. Companies that pride themselves on their ethics not only exploit their workers in the Marxist sense of paying them less than the value of the goods and services they produce in order to make profits, but are continually driven towards super-exploitation to survive in the marketplace. Another well-known “ethical” cosmetics company, Lush, paid its workers less than the legal minimum wage for eight years while forcing them to lift up to 500kg a day 2. A more egregious example is the mining and recycling of copper, lithium, and cobalt used in wind turbines, solar cells and batteries. “Widespread child labor”, “subjugation of ethnic minorities, toxic pollution, biodiversity loss, and gender inequality” exist “along the length of the supply chain”, from mines in the Congo to e-waste scrapyards in Ghana 3.
Beyond this, capitalism by its nature is really bad at anything that requires coordinated planning – such as decarbonising the entire global economy. Its central drive is short-term profit-making, meaning it’s anarchic and myopic. To get capitalists to sign up to any plan requires incentivising and convincing them that it’s the most profitable thing they can do with their money in the short term. Otherwise, they just won’t be interested.
Renewable energy has been talked about for decades, yet as Jonathan Neale explains, investment in renewable infrastructure has stalled:
‘After 30 years of effort all over the world, wind and solar provide less than 2% of global energy. We have given the market in renewables decades to work, and it has not.’ 4
Even in the EU, the proposed target under the European Green Deal is to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 30 years is far too slow when the tipping point for dangerous warming over 1.5C could be reached in the next six 5. Capitalists will keep pumping out fossil fuels while the planet burns simply because it’s more profitable in the short term.
If incremental green reforms of capitalism have brought us to the gates of hell, eco-fascism is waiting in the wings to usher us in. We already know what this might look like. Climate refugees left to starve in endless camps or drown in the seas. Authoritarian population control measures. Dystopian geo-engineering projects and genetically modified frankenfoods. Crippling carbon taxes. Limits on travel and personal freedoms. The end of any prospect of meaningful growth in living standards for poor countries.
Capitalist “solutions” will always seek to externalise the costs of climate change onto humanity and nature in order to maximise profits (see box) and force us to pay the price for the (likely short term) survival of their system. A cosseted elite might survive the destruction brought on by climate disruption for a time but conditions ripe for revolution amongst the rubble would be created. Far better to prepare now than try to build socialism from barbarism later.
Marx depicted capital as coming “into the world…dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”6. From the beginning, capitalism has been fundamentally incompatible with protecting nature, including human beings. It emerged historically from a process Marx called “primitive accumulation”, involving the plunder of land and natural resources previously held in common. Marxist geographer, David Harvey, explains how this process of “accumulation by dispossession”7 wasn’t a one-off but continues today through ongoing processes of privatisation and financialisation – now of public services as well as the environment.
The classic historical example is the enclosure or privatisation of the commons by large landowners from the 14th to the 19th centuries, dispossessing millions of peasants and driving them off the land and into the cities. John Bellamy Foster8 coined the term “metabolic rift” to describe the resulting dual alienation of humanity from nature and their own labour, transforming them from direct producers, who had laboured in relative harmony with nature and consumed what they produced, into propertyless wage workers forced to sell their labour as a commodity to survive.
The immediate ecological problems this presented were soil degradation and urban pollution, arising from the spatial displacement of production and consumption. Nutrients extracted from the soil in producing food were no longer returned to it through manure but instead polluted faraway cities with sewage. In volume 1 of Capital, Marx portrayed these negative environmental externalities as inherent characteristics of capitalism that could not be resolved through technological fixes:
“…Capitalist production… disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth… All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility…Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.” Such fundamental contradictions between capitalism and nature clearly have a much wider relevance, revealing capitalism itself as the source of environmental crisis. The most urgent is climate change – the ultimate metabolic rift between humanity and nature, at once temporal9 and spatial.
Andreas Malm’s groundbreaking work Fossil Capital explains how from the days of steam power onwards, fossil fuels have been the midwife of capitalism, supplying an easily portable “stock” of fuel that enabled capitalists to locate production wherever labour and natural resources were cheapest and easiest to exploit while incrementally destroying the basis of human life as we know it.
Like a virus, capital’s only concern is to multiply itself exponentially by consuming life, regardless of the human or environmental cost. Its ceaseless drive towards infinite growth within a finite system has brought global resource use to twice the sustainable level yet 60% of the world lacks access to basic goods10.
Disastrous over-accumulation and colossal waste on the one hand and immiseration on the other is inevitable when a class psychopathically oriented towards “surplus extraction, elite accumulation, and reinvestment for expansion – not meeting human needs”11 remains in the driving seat. Rather than allying or compromising with them, we need to take the steering wheel off them and give it to the global working class.
So what should we do?
How do we maximise support for eco-socialist ideas and organise for a rupture with capitalism in the next 10-20 years before so much warming is baked into the system that large swathes of the planet become uninhabitable?
The first bit of good news is that, as revolutionary socialists, seeking to radically transform society rapidly rather than through incremental reform, the evidence of history is on our side. All the really major changes of the last few centuries have originated from mass movements with transformative goals rather than careful consensus-building and compromise with powerful elites. In the 20th century, the welfare state and legal equality for women were conceded in response to powerful mass movements and competition from the Eastern bloc. Future transformations will also occur because the ruling class are afraid of their lives and not because we’ve built consensus with their more forward looking parts.
The second good news for our revolutionary socialist strategy is that we have a massive, readily identifiable potential support base in the form of the multi-racial, multi-gendered global working class. Its interests are fundamentally in conflict with capitalism, whether green or not and it possesses the collective power to overturn the economic basis of capitalism through withdrawing labour from the bosses and democratically organising production ourselves. Key to awakening this unconscious giant will be uniting existing movements for environmental, economic and social justice around a shared eco-socialist programme.
As a tiny organisation, RISE can’t claim to have all the answers. However, since our inception we have sought to develop a number of key strategic and organisational ideas from the revolutionary Marxist tradition that we hope can assist in achieving these monumental goals. They include united front and transitional methods, as well as democratic revolutionary organisation.
In ‘On the United Front’ in 1922, Trotsky argued that “the Communist Party must base itself on the overwhelming majority of the working class. So long as it does not hold this majority, the party must fight to win it”. 12 Central to achieving this was for revolutionary socialists to join in common struggles with workers and organisations to their right to win reforms, raise class consciousness and confidence, and popularise revolutionary ideas as superior to the limited approach of reformist movement leaders.
RISE believes such united front methods will be crucial to uniting the multi-racial, multi-gendered global working class in the struggle for eco-socialism. Nowadays, given the low level of class consciousness and organisation, this will involve building broad coalitions, not only with clearly working class movements like trade unions and far left parties, but also with progressive social movements of a cross-class character, like the environmental, women’s and anti-racist movements.
Often, the radical wings of these movements are at least “tendentially anti-capitalist”13 but their leadership is oriented towards compromise with ruling elites and dominated by upper middle class professionals such as doctors, lawyers, architects and academics. Gramsci, conceptualised these as “traditional intellectuals”, “whose function…is that of mediating the extremes…of devising compromises between, and ways out of, extreme solutions” 14 and manufacturing consent to the continuing hegemony of the capitalist class and capitalist state as the leading, dominant force in society.15
In the context of climate change, united front methods would mean joining in common struggles with the supporters of environmental and other movements, while exposing the limitations of their reformist and pro-capitalist leaders’ tactics and dominant ideologies. The goal is to “win a majority” for eco-socialist ideas that identify the interests of these movements with those of the global working class in all its diversity, placing us – not capitalists – in the driving seat.
The alternative approach of seeking out ostensibly progressive sections of capital such as “green capital” to ally with would in practice mean subordinating the needs and interests of working class people and ceding leadership to the 1% who represent a system inextricably rooted in environmental destruction. That’s the fundamental distinction between a “popular” and a “united” front.
Whereas united front methods recognise, to quote Trotsky again, that “absolutely independent organization” is essential if we are not to lose sight of our socialist destination, proponents of popular front approaches fail to grapple with the impossibility of eco-socialists “leading” a capitalist class whose whole existence depends on the continued exploitation of workers and the planet – especially with a decade or less to spare!
Demanding the Transition
The second core element of Trotsky’s strategy for winning a majority for socialism – and that of the Comintern in the 1920s before Stalin dominated it completely – was the “transitional programme”.16 This aims to mobilise mass support for a socialist transformation by combining struggles for “partial” reforms achievable in the here and now with demands for “transitional” measures that seem reasonable and necessary but seriously challenge the logic of capitalism and point towards workers’ democratic control. The idea is to draw in the maximum number of working class and poor people into a movement, helping to simultaneously build class consciousness and confidence through successfully struggling for “partial” and transitional demands and to direct those energies towards socialism.
In the context of the climate struggle, global eco-socialism, what some would call a “maximum” demand, is our aim. Partial demands include many of the reforms suggested in RISE’s socialist Green New Deal, like a green jobs programme and a four-day week.17 A transitional demand is for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – which is also one of the three main demands of Extinction Rebellion – with democratic committees set up in communities and workplaces to plan and oversee the transition.18 Given the huge costs this would entail not just for the fossil fuel industry but the capitalist class as a whole and the level of mass coordinated planning it would require, net-zero by 2030 poses a fundamental challenge to capitalist private property and power but is vital if we are to hold global warming to manageable levels. It points to workers and farmers needing to take control as capitalists will drag their feet, and illustrates how transitional demands can emerge organically from movements – precisely because capitalism is a system that conflicts so fundamentally with humanity and nature.
Mass support for democratic demands can also help shatter illusions in capitalism and capitalist institutions. A good example was Trotsky’s critical support for the Ludlow amendment 19, which would have amended the US constitution to outlaw non-self-defensive wars unless pre-approved by a referendum. In other words, it proposed that the people decide whether to declare war, not the capitalist state. Trotsky knew this would be impossible without overthrowing the imperialist US state, but argued there was a ‘creative illusion’ in the demand that the people decide war policy. Supporters of the Ludlow amendment would come into collision with a state that claimed to be based on democracy, thereby raising awareness of the need to go beyond the current system to win even this reasonable reform. Mass realisation of the necessity for socialist transformation was therefore best achieved through the lived experience of struggling for radical demands like these.
Analogies can be drawn today with Extinction Rebellion UK’s demand for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice 20 , the Climate Strike demand for “system change, not climate change” and the eco-socialist rhetoric of left Greens. Right now, it’s not widely recognised in the environmental movement how many of its demands actually require overthrowing capitalism but the ‘creative illusion’ they don’t can motivate people into struggle while also demonstrating the nascent radicalism of the movement.
Democratic revolutionary organisation
The third and final strand in RISE’s strategy for eco-socialist transformation is democratic revolutionary organisation. For us, this applies all the way down and all the way up – within social movements, broad left formations, inside revolutionary organisations and as the basis of a future eco-socialist society where decisions are taken via participatory economic democracy, both in individual workplaces and through democratic public ownership of the key sections of the economy such as energy and finance 21. Any strategy of compromise with green capital would mean the complete opposite. Allying with capitalists can never be democratic due to their overwhelming power and influence over the political system and dictatorship within the workplace. In stark contrast, for revolutionaries, democracy is essential – not only to enable the ideas and talents of every activist to be harnessed to the full and prevent unaccountable leaderships from emerging – but to begin the fundamental task of planning for a just transition out of fossilised capitalism and towards a sustainable eco-socialist future.
Turbeville, Wallace. ‘Gone In 22 Seconds: How Frequent Is High Frequency Trading?’ The American Prospect, 11 March 2013. https://prospect.org/api/content/f9078354-bef3-5378-8ab7-dc88647db418/.
Zimmer, Carl-Johan Karlsson, Katarina. ‘Green Energy’s Dirty Side Effects’. Foreign Policy, 18 June 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/18/green-energy-dirty-side-effects-renewable-transition-climate-change-cobalt-mining-human-rights-inequality/
Neale, Jonathan. ‘RENEWABLES AND THE MARKET’. Global Ecosocialist Network (blog), 16 February 2021. http://www.globalecosocialistnetwork.net/2021/02/16/renewables-and-the-market/
Cardenas, Shirley. ‘Earth Could Cross the Global Warming Threshold as Soon as 2027’. World Economic Forum, 7 January 2021. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/01/global-warming-threshold-reached-by-2027/.
Marx, Karl. ‘Capital Vol. I – Chapter Thirty-One: : Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist’. marxists.org, 1867. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch31.htm.
Harvey, David. ‘The “New” Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession’. Socialist Register 40 (2004). https://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5811.
Bellamy Foster, John. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. NYU Press, 2000.
Malm, Andreas. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming. Illustrated edition. London ; New York: Verso Books, 2015, Chapter 1.
HIckel, Jason. ‘Degrowth: A Response to Branko Milanovic’. Jason Hickel, 27 October 2020. https://www.jasonhickel.org/blog/2017/11/19/why-branko-milanovic-is-wrong-about-de-growth.
HIckel, Jason. ‘Degrowth: A Response to Branko Milanovic’. Jason Hickel, 27 October 2020. https://www.jasonhickel.org/blog/2017/11/19/why-branko-milanovic-is-wrong-about-de-growth.
Arruzza, Cinzia. ‘From Women’s Strikes to a New Class Movement: The Third Feminist Wave’. Viewpoint Magazine, 3 December 2018.
Gramsci in Forgacs, David, and Eric J. Hobsbawm, eds. The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935. New York: New York University Press, 2000, p. 206.
Forgacs, David, and Eric J. Hobsbawm, eds. The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935. New York: New York University Press, 2000, p. 300.
O’Dwyer, Diana. ‘We Want to Live, Not Just Exist – The Case for a Socialist Green New Deal’. RISE, 19 August 2020. https://www.letusrise.ie/rupture-articles/the-case-for-a-socialist-green-new-deal.
See here under “We own it, we control it” and “Economic Democracy”: https://www.letusrise.ie/rupture-articles/the-case-for-a-socialist-green-new-deal.