In an interview with the socialist writer and activist, John Molyneux, ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig asks him about climate change, capitalism and socialist transformation. In an important initiative John has recently founded the Global Ecosocialist Network (GEN) which brings together activists and researchers from across the Global North and South. The network hopes to amplify the socialist voice in the struggle against environmental crisis. Africa, he argues, is crucial to the fight against climate change.
Can you tell readers of roape.net about yourself? Your background, activism and politics.
I was born in Britain in 1948 and became a socialist activist and Marxist in 1968 through the struggle against the Vietnam War, the student revolt and May ’68 in Paris. I joined the International Socialists in June of that year. I have remained active ever since. From the mid- seventies onwards I began writing in the field of Marxist theory, publishing Marxism and the Party (1978) and What is the Real Marxist Tradition? (1983) and other books, pamphlets and articles. Since the late nineties I also started writing about art and have a book on The Dialectics of Art coming out later this year.
From 1975 to 2010 I was a teacher at various levels in the city of Portsmouth –secondary school, further education and then in the School of Art at Portsmouth University. In 2010 I retired and moved to Dublin where I have continued to be an activist with People Before Profit and a writer, publishing books on Anarchism, the media, Marxist philosophy and Lenin for Today. I have also served as the founder and editor of the Irish Marxist Review.
Can you speak a little about your involvement in the climate change movement? As a long-standing socialist and activist, when did you first become seriously aware of climate change–what was it that impacted on you explicitly?
I don’t think there was any single moment. I think probably it was the socialist writer, Jonathan Neale, who first fully explained the issue to me somewhere around the turn of the century. Jonathan served for a period as Secretary of the Campaign to Stop Climate Change and I was involved in that campaign in a limited way. But I didn’t find that they were very receptive to my revolutionary socialist ideas.
However, from quite early on I was convinced that climate change was going to be an existential crisis for humanity because I was convinced that capitalism was not going to stop it. There were, of course, debates about this question. Many people thought there HAD to be a capitalist solution or at least a solution within capitalism because they thought overthrowing capitalism was out of the question. Others, including Marxists, engaged in hypothetical debates as to whether capitalism might, in theory, be able to deal with the issue.
My view was that regardless of what might theoretically be possible the actually existing capitalism we were dealing with was not going to stop climate change or even seriously try to stop it until it was too late. This was because capitalism is driven by profit and competitive accumulation at every level and because it is far too heavily invested in fossil fuels to simply switch to renewables. To those who say we can’t wait for your socialism, we need change NOW, my reply is I will fight alongside you for change, but I don’t believe we can wait for capitalism to go green, it’s simply not going to happen. I hope I’m wrong but so far, I’ve been right.
I always understood how disastrous climate change was going to be but at first I thought of it as something fairly far in the future–by the end of the century etc–and probably outside my life time. But it has become clearer and clearer that even the IPCCs (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) predictions are too conservative and that the beginnings of climate catastrophe are with us already.
Recently, specifically last year–with the extraordinary global protests of school students and many others–the climate emergency has broken onto the world stage, leaving us all forever changed. Can you discuss how you interpreted this movement and its significance, and any weaknesses you see?
The school strikes for climate were unequivocally magnificent and hats off to Greta Thunberg and everyone else involved. It was wonderful to see young people stepping forward and on such a global scale. The civil disobedience organised by Extinction Rebellion, especially in the first London Rebellion Week, was also a fantastic step forward. Every socialist should enthusiastically back them and constructively engage with them. I haven’t much time for leftists who dismiss radicalising young people because of their lack of ‘the correct programme’ or base in ‘the organised working class’.
But of course, these movements, like every emergent mass movement, have weaknesses. In particular it is a weakness that they tend to think of themselves as ‘beyond’ or ‘above’ politics and therefore often discourage political debate. In my opinion every aspect of climate change and the environmental crisis is intensely political and some political forces (largely those on the serious or ‘hard’ left) are friends of the planet and the climate movement and others (the right and far right) are its enemies. Without fetishizing the figure of 3.5% [XR thinks that mobilising 3.5% of the population is necessary to secure ‘system change’] I think XR’s aim to mobilize those sort of mass numbers is excellent but I’m not sure that all their methods of organising are conducive to achieving this.
You have just initiated the Global Ecosocialist Network (GEN) bringing together activists and researchers from across the Global North and South. Can you explain what you hope to achieve?
The developing climate emergency has generated much increased public awareness of climate change and the environment generally and a new wave of activism which many socialists are part of and engaging positively with. However, the current environmental discourse–internationally–both in terms of the media and most of the public is dominated by what could be called ‘green liberalism’. A more radical version of green liberalism is also prevalent among activists along with a vague ‘deep green’ consciousness. This goes together with an understanding of system change as essentially a change in collective mind set which lends itself to illusions in the possibility of converting corporations and mainstream politicians and the State.
At the moment the socialist voice in the movement is very limited, certainly not dominant. But the socialist voice is essential because capitalism is not going resolve either the climate change issue or the wider environmental crisis. Socialist transformation of society is objectively necessary. Moreover a socialist approach is crucial to winning over and mobilizing the mass of working class people. Unfortunately, in this extremely urgent situation much of the international revolutionary left is very weak.
Our network is an attempt in a small way to improve this situation, to amplify the socialist voice and reach out to new forces. Its initial aim is to bring ecosocialists together to facilitate the exchange and propagation of socialist environmentalist ideas along with reports on the development of the crisis and resistance from around the world. Later it may be able to hold conferences and issue calls for action.
Marx’s ‘ecological writings’ have been fairly recently written about by writers like John Bellamy Foster, and others. Can you explain why a structural challenge to capitalism is essential, and how Marxism can help in this challenge?
First, I think we should acknowledge the enormously important intellectual work done by John Bellamy Foster and his collaborators such as Paul Burkett and Ian Angus. There was a widespread interpretation, including among Marxists, of Marx as ‘productionist’ and a ‘super industrialiser’ and therefore anti-environmentalist. They demolished this myth. Speaking personally I owe a considerable debt to John Bellamy Foster for his book Marx’s Ecology. When I read it after more than 30 years as a Marxist it substantially transformed and deepened my understanding of Marxism. The concept of the ‘metabolic rift’ is hugely important. I’m very proud that he is a sponsor of GEN. Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene – he’s another sponsor–is also brilliant.
I have already explained above the essential reason why we need a structural challenge to capitalism but this applies at every level. Production for profit is inherently destructive of nature whether we are talking about the dumping of toxic waste round the corner from where I live, to the plastic choking the oceans, to the deadly pollution of the air–all the way to the overarching challenge of climate change.
What is more capitalism will ensure that the response to climate disasters which it is generating will be callous, cruel, class based and racist. This has been demonstrated time and again from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to the fires in Australia. We need to challenge capitalist priorities, structures and the system as a whole, not only to stop environmental degradation and catastrophic climate change but also to deal with its effects.
ROAPE, a radical review and website on political economy, focuses on Africa. Unfortunately, we have not covered the climate emergency in enough detail recently. The mobilisations last year were weak across the continent, as inspiring as they were. What role does Africa have to play in the struggle against climate change and how do you see the Global Ecosocialist Network helping?
Africa is absolutely crucial to the struggle against climate change. In terms of immediate effects Africa will almost certainly be the worst hit part of the world. The drought in Southern and Eastern Africa is already truly deadly and the extent of poverty in Africa will magnify the consequences of every climate disaster and extreme weather event. That this comes on top of the fact that Africa, as a whole, has the lowest per capita carbon footprint of any continent makes Africa the litmus test of any verbal commitment to climate justice.
Moreover the racist hierarchy of death in the world will ensure that hundreds or thousands of lives lost in central or eastern Africa will be less reported and count for less in terms of Western consciousness than five or ten lives lost in California or Australia.
Mass mobilizations in Africa linked to demands for climate justice would be the best possible antidote to this state of affairs.
It is therefore a key task of the Global Ecosocialist Network to do what it can to rectify the disgraceful neglect of the situation in Africa and to stimulate radical resistance in the African continent.
We are very pleased that Africa is well represented among our initial sponsors and we have already published an excellent article on the terrible situation in Southern and Eastern Africa by Rehad Desai, the South African radical film maker, who is also a member of the Network’s Interim Steering Committee.
What are the immediate tasks for the network, and how do we expand it?
The most immediate task is to expand the readership of the website and the membership of the Network both through individuals joining and organisations affiliating. For this we need our existing members and supporters to actively promote GEN and recruit to it. Here it is important to stress that joining GEN is ‘commitment light’: it does not entail any major obligations in terms of activity, nor does it impinge on any individual’s or organisation’s existing political practice.
If in the next period we can gain enough members and resources–we have no external funding whatsoever–we can move to the next stage of convening some kind of international meeting or conference. Hopefully this would enable us to put the Network on a sounder democratic footing than it has at present–obviously doing this on a global basis presents certain problems e.g. anywhere such a meeting is convened, be it Rio or Paris, Cape Town, Lagos, Mumbai or Sydney, will be much harder for some comrades to reach than others. Possibly down the line we can develop multiple regional foci or centres. The holding of the Cop 26 Conference in Glasgow in November may also serve as a focus for us.
Meanwhile any support ROAPE can give us in terms of written input to the website, publicity, individual membership and organisational affiliation will be most welcome.