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Is there time for system change?

Originally published: Global Socialist Network on August 21, 2020 by John Molyneux (more by Global Socialist Network)  | (Posted Aug 25, 2020)

Time is always an important factor in politics and history but never has it mattered as much as on the issue of climate change.

The IPCC Report’s warning in October 2018 that the world has twelve years to avoid climate disaster was undoubtedly a major factor in galvanising a global wave of climate change activism, especially in the form of Greta Thunberg and mass school strikes and the Extinction Rebellion movement. At the same it is clear that this warning could be, and was, ‘heard’ or interpreted in different ways by different people. In this article I want consider some of those interpretations and their implications, particularly in relation to the question of whether there is time to bring about system change or whether, because time is so short, it is necessary to focus on and settle for changes that can be implemented within the framework of capitalism.

Before coming to that, however, I want to suggest that many an opportunist politician will have heard the twelve year warning quite differently from Greta and her followers. To them twelve years would be a very long time indeed: three U.S. Presidential terms, two full length parliamentary terms in Britain and many other countries; in other words more than enough time to fulfil your ambitions, secure your place in the history books or, at least, secure your pension and several directorships, before anything serious would have to be done at all. The only practical implication of the twelve year warning would be the need to set up various commissions, draw up some action plans, attend a few conferences and generally engage in a certain amount of greenwashing. Should you be the CEO of a major oil, gas or car company exactly the same would apply.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there were large numbers of people, especially young people, who ‘heard’ the warning as meaning that there was, literally, only twelve years to prevent global extinction.

These are not equivalent misreadings: the first is utterly cynical and immensely damaging to humans and nature alike; the second is naive but well intentioned. But they are both misreadings of what the report said and of what climate change is. Climate change is not an event that may or may not happen in 2030 and which might be averted by emergency action at the last minute, but a process which is already underway. Every week, month or year of delay in reducing carbon emissions exacerbates the problem and makes it harder to tackle. By the same token, there is no absolute deadline after which it will be too late to do anything and we might as well give up the ghost.

The focus of the IPCC Report was not on ‘extinction’ but mainly on what would be required to hold global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and what would be the likely effects of allowing it to reach 2C.  What it actually stated in its Summary for Policy Makers was:

A1. Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming [1] above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. (high confidence) (Figure SPM.1) {1.2}  www.ipcc.ch

And it added, fairly obviously you might think, that:

B.5. Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C. (Figure SPM.2) {3.4, 3.5, 5.2, Box 3.2, Box 3.3, Box 3.5, Box 3.6, Cross-Chapter Box 6 in Chapter 3, Cross-Chapter Box 9 in Chapter 4, Cross-Chapter Box 12 in Chapter 5, 5.2}. www.ipcc.ch

I don’t quote these passages because I regard the IPCC Report as a sacred text or by any means the last word on these matters. On the contrary it seems to me clear that the Report was conservative in its predictions–not surprising since its method required consensus among thousands of scientists–and in reality global warming and, crucially, its effects are proceeding at a faster rate than the IPCC expected. [See John Molyneux, ‘How fast is the climate changing?’ Climate & Capitalism, 2 August, 2019. climateandcapitalism.com]. My purpose is rather to show that according to the IPCC and to any serious understanding of climate change what we are facing is not a cliff edge over which we all fall in 2030, or any other exactly predictable date, but a rapidly intensifying process with increasingly catastrophic effects. Within that process there will most likely be tipping points at which the pace of change accelerates very rapidly and certain shifts become irreversible, but no one knows exactly when they will be and even then we will still be talking about a process not an immediate total extinction.

A correct, scientifically based, understanding of this process is vital. As activists it is probably not helpful to be engaged in some kind of countdown–we now have only ten years, nine years, eight years…left to save the planet–as if there were a fixed time line. Nor do we want to be called out for crying wolf when the world fails to end. It is also important as a foundation for addressing the crucial question of whether there is time for system change.

The argument that there is insufficient time for ‘system change’, by which I mean the overthrow of capitalism, has been around a long time in the environmental movement, since well before the 12 year warning. I remember it being put forcefully (and angrily) against a rather hapless Trotskyist in the Campaign Against Climate Change when I was first involved with it in the early noughties. ‘There is no time to wait for your revolution’, he was told. Now, of course, this ‘no-time’ argument can be used as a cover by people who are actually pro-capitalist but it can also be put in good faith by people who would welcome the replacement of capitalism if they thought it a practical possibility. As evidence of this I cite Alan Thornett who is a lifelong socialist. In his book Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism, Alan writes:

The standard solution advanced by most on the radical left…is the revolutionary overthrow of global capitalism–by implication within the next twelve years because that is how long we have to do it…

Such an approach is maximalist, leftist and useless. We can all, as socialists, vote to abolish capitalism with both hands, and this is indeed our long-term objective. But as an answer to global warming within the next 12 years it makes no sense.

It amounts to a ‘credibility gap’: while catastrophic climate change is indeed just around the corner, the same can hardly be said with any credibility of global socialist revolution–unless I have been missing something. It may not be impossible but it is far too remote a prospect to provide an answer to global warming and climate change…

Put bluntly, if the overturn of global capitalism in the 12 remaining years is the only solution to global warming and climate change, then there is no solution to global warming and climate change.  (Alan Thornett, Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism, Resistance Books 2019 p.95.)

Alan, here, has expressed very clearly the argument I want to contest.

The first thing to be said is that for serious socialists and Marxists (beginning with Marx, Engels and Rosa Luxemburg) the struggle for revolution is not counterposed to the struggle for reforms on any issue. Rather revolution is something that grows out of the struggle for concrete demands [2]. So just as Marxists combine the belief that the only solution to exploitation is the abolition of the wages system with support for the trade union struggle for wage increases and better work conditions, so they can fight for immediate demands such as free public transport, leaving fossil fuels in the ground and massive investment in renewable energies at the same time as advocating ecosocialist revolution. In this way the possibility of an ecologically sustainable capitalism is put to a practical test.

But this necessary reply does not exhaust the issue. If revolution is seen as too remote and unlikely a development to be advanced as a solution then climate activists should focus virtually all their energies simply on winning reforms rather than on arguing and organising for revolution. Moreover , the focus would be overwhelmingly on reforms on only this question. What would be the point, except abstract morality, of focusing on issues such as workers rights at work, anti-racism, women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights etc, when the survival of humanity was at stake in the next few years? If, however, the estimate is that capitalism will prove un- or insufficiently reformable in this regard, then it is necessary to combine ecosocialist campaigning with revolutionary activism, propaganda and organisation on a broader front, recognising that revolution will require the mass mobilization of working people on numerous issues and their unification in the face of numerous strategies of divide-and –rule.

Consequently three real questions arise: 1) How likely is it that climate change can be halted or contained by reforms on the basis of capitalism? 2) How ‘remote’ is the possibility of socialist revolution? 3) Are there alternatives to this binary choice?

On the first question I and other ecosocialists  (notably John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus, Michael Lowy, Martin Empson, Amy Leather etc) have argued repeatedly and at length that the possibility of dealing with climate change on a capitalist basis is remote in the extreme, whether in twelve years, twenty years or forty years [3]. I will not rehearse all the arguments here but simply say that capitalism is a system, inherently and inexorably driven by competitive capital accumulation into a collision course with nature, and the fossil fuel industries–oil, gas and coal–play such a central role in that capital accumulation that there is no realistic prospect of capitalism being able to end its dependence on them.

On the second question I would admit that if the future , say the next twelve years, resembles the  immediate past, say the last fifty years, the possibility of international  socialist revolution does indeed appear very remote. But the very fact of climate change guarantees that the next decade is NOT going to resemble the past. On the contrary precisely the conditions brought about by global warming–increasingly unbearable heat, droughts, fires, storms, floods etc–will transform the level of awareness among the mass of people of the need to end capitalism and the possibility of revolution. The fact that the worsening climate crisis will be accompanied by a wider environmental crisis(in a multitude of forms), deepening and recurring economic crisis (as is evident right now) and increased international geo-political and military tension (for example with China and Russia) will compound this.

Here the fact established at the beginning of this article that the ‘twelve years’ is  not and cannot be an exact or final deadline is very important. If, as I think is overwhelmingly likely, capitalism is unable to hold warming to 1.5C this will not mean, as Thornett suggests, that the game is up and the struggle is over, but that all the conditions and disasters outlined above will intensify and in the process increase the likelihood of mass revolt and revolution.

Many people find it possible to imagine a revolution in one country but find the idea of international or global revolution implausible. If by international revolution is meant a simultaneous worldwide coordinated rebellion this indeed extremely unlikely but this was never the scenario envisaged by advocates of international revolution. Rather it is that beginning in one country–Brazil or Egypt, Ireland or Italy–revolution could and would spread to other countries in a long but continuous series of struggles. This is a prospect that is actually reinforced by the experience of recent waves of struggle. First, there was the Arab Spring in 2011 which witnesses a chain reaction of uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria before also inspiring lesser but still significant revolts with the Indignados in Spain and Occupy in the US. Then there was the wave of mass rebellions across the globe in 2019–the French Yellow vests, Sudan, Haiti, Hong Kong, Algeria, Puerto Rico, Chile, Ecuador, Iraq, Lebanon etc [See John Molyneux, ‘A New Wave of Global Revolt?’ www.rebelnews.ie. Plus there was the global spread of School Student strikes and, this year, even in the midst of Covid, of Black Lives Matter. What this makes clear is that in today’s globalised world revolts can spread internationally with amazing reach and rapidity. The international impact of a socialist revolution in any one country would be immense. This will be all the greater if there is a strong anti-climate change, ecological, element in the revolution–as there will be–because whatever the debates about socialism in one country in the past, it will be abundantly clear that no revolution in South Africa or France, Indonesia or Chile will be able to tackle climate change while the U.S., China, Russia and India carry on with business as usual. Climate change is an international issue like no other in history.

In relation to the question of other alternatives to either making capitalism sustainable or its revolutionary overthrow there are two that suggest themselves: there is the perspective/strategy of transforming capitalism into socialism by means of winning a parliamentary election–what might be called the Corbyn strategy; there is the ‘alternative’ of fascist/authoritarian barbarism. The first, unfortunately, is illusory; the second, even more unfortunately, is all too real.

What I have called the Corbyn strategy (as its most recent iteration) is in fact very old, going back at least to Karl Kautsky and the German Social Democratic Party before the First World War, and it has been subject to numerous practical tests with disastrous consequences whether in Germany itself, in Italy during the Red Years, in Chile in 1970-73, or with Syriza in Greece or indeed with Corbyn (except that he failed to achieve the necessary general election victory). Superficially this strategy seems enormously more practical and plausible than revolution but in reality it is fundamentally flawed. The existing capitalist ruling class will not, either in any one country or internationally, vacate the stage i.e. surrender its power, on account of a socialist election victory. On the contrary it will deploy all its economic power (through investment strikes, flight of capital, runs on the currency etc), its social and ideological hegemony especially through the media and, crucially, its control of the State to bring the would-be socialist government to heel or if necessary to destroy it [4]. Such sabotage could be resisted and overcome only by the revolutionary mobilization of the working class. That is why this option, for all its progressive intentions, is an illusion; it will either become the revolution it was designed to render unnecessary or it will vanish into thin air.

When it comes to the fascist/authoritarian option, we know from bitter experience, the experience of Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Chile and elsewhere,  that this is a real possibility, in many respects the opposite side of the coin of the failure of the reformist option. And as we look around the world today at capitalist system trapped in a multi- dimensional crisis we can see growing political polarisation and the forces of the far right mustering in many different countries. It is a grim fact that three major countries (the US, Brazil and India) are under far right if not fully fascist control and that significant numbers of others are ruled by highly authoritarian regimes. As the climate crisis grows, and with it the number of climate refugees, the authoritarian/fascist option will look increasingly attractive to panicking ruling classes and to some of their middle class supporters.  In the long run fascism will not stop global warming but that failure may be on the far side of an ocean of barbarism.

To return to the question of is there time for system change: no one can predict the future with any precision [5] but by far the most likely scenario is that the accelerating climate and environmental crisis will intensify class struggle and political polarisation across the board. This process will mount as the world heads towards the 1.5C threshold and continue after it is crossed. The movement will have to deal not only with how we avert or stop climate change but also with how we deal with its devastating effects: with barbarity or solidarity? Capitalism, in all its forms, will increasingly turn to barbarity; only system change, the replacement of capitalism with socialism, will permit a response based on working class and human solidarity.

John Molyneux is a socialist writer and activist, editor of Irish Marxist Review, Ireland


[2]  The most obvious example is the Russian Revolution which grew out of the demands for Bread, Land and Peace, but the same applies to virtually all mass revolutions.

[3] See for example John Molyneux, ‘Apocalypse Now! Climate change, capitalism and revolution’, Irish Marxist Review 25, 2019. www.irishmarxistreview.net and Martin Empson ed. System Change not Climate Change, Bookmarks, London, 2019.

[4] I argue this in depth in ‘Understanding Left Reformism’, Irish Marxist Review 6, 2013. www.marxists.org and in Lenin for Today, Chapter 3, Bookmarks, London, 2017.

[5] ‘In reality one can ‘scientifically’ foresee only the struggle but not the concrete moments of the struggle’, Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London 1971, p.438.

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