The Case for Eco-Socialism

Collage compressedPublished: 11 Feb 2015
Author: Nicholas Davenport
Intro by: TSN Editor

Continuing in our series of articles about the need to integrate the vision of a democratic socialist society with the green agenda, here are two important articles by Nicholas Davenport on the need for ecology and socialism to be fused together. And hopefully through this the bulk of the green movement will be able to join hands with the democratic socialist movement in a strong and united force capable of replacing capitalism with a new environmentally sustainable, more rational, equal and just society.

A Marxist Ecological Vision
The ecological crisis presents the starkest possible example of both the necessity of and opportunity for revolutionary change. Nothing but a radical transformation of basic social relations can prevent the worst possible outcomes of the crisis. In spite of its overwhelming and frightening magnitude, the ecological crisis presents a moment to revitalize the world revolutionary movement.

However, much of the socialist response to the ecological crisis so far has been inadequate. When we talk about the ecological crisis, socialists often fail to integrate it into our general analysis of the trajectory of bourgeois society and the opportunities for revolution.

Sometimes the crisis is treated as a throwaway conversation-stopper, a factor external to our theory and politics which may make debates about (for instance) the origin of economic crisis irrelevant in 30 years, but has little bearing on our practice now. At other times socialists do address the crisis, but only as another stick to beat capitalism with — as another illustration of why capitalism presents no solutions — but not integrating an understanding of the ecological crisis and its consequences into our own revolutionary program and vision.

In the absence of a well-articulated revolutionary socialist response to the ecological crisis, all manner of other political responses have emerged, most of which to varying degrees place the responsibility for dealing with the crisis on individuals.

Radically-minded people often state that people in developed countries will need to accept a lower standard of living (no cars, television, meat…) in order to deal with the crisis. Demanding that working-class people change their lifestyles is unlikely to win workers to environmentalism when capitalist austerity is already slashing living standards, and more importantly, is not a sufficient or correct response to the crisis.

Individual or Social Choices?
It is true that the developed nations have unsustainably high levels of energy, water, land and resource consumption. However, the large ecological footprint of developed countries are the result of factors beyond the control of individual workers: among them our government’s global military presence, our freeway-based transportation system, and our monocultural system of agriculture.

Rather than focusing on what people consume, we need to struggle for ecologically sound production, which could only be accomplished in a society where the economy is democratically and rationally controlled by the people — one of the central elements of the Marxist revolutionary vision.

However, Marxism is discredited in the eyes of many environmentalists. Many argue that Marxism is fundamentally “productivist” and anti-ecological, pointing to the disastrous ecological record of “socialist” states like the Soviet Union and the neglectful policies of Communist parties around the world.

Even some socialists have asserted that Marxism must drop some old principles in order to deal with the ecological crisis. These debates have touched on many issues, from Marx’s conception of nature to his ideas about work, but this article will focus on perhaps the most prominent issue for debates around production and consumption — the idea of development of the productive forces.

For many Marxists, the idea that the development of society’s productive forces is the material basis for social progress is critical to a materialist account of history: capitalism won out over feudalism in Europe because it was more productive, and socialism, in turn, will allow a higher level of development than is possible under capitalism.

Those who adhere to this idea view it as a critical position that distinguishes Marxism from idealism, for it implies that socialism is not just a good idea, but economically necessary. To many others, however, this notion appears overly concerned with expanding production at the expense of ecological and human considerations.

Sarah Grey, in a review of UK Green Party leader Derek Wall’s Babylon and Beyond, summarizes much of the “common sense” about Marxism among many non-Marxist radicals concerned with the ecological crisis:

“Wall also argues … that Marx was, and by extension Marxists are, in favor of unfettered capitalist economic growth, writing that ‘capitalism in its search for profits is the force that promotes globalization but will mutate into communism’ (109) and describing the Marxism promoted by ‘many, but not all, Marxists’ as promoting ‘a productivist politics that celebrates the expansion of the economy’ (122). Leaping from Marx’s claim that capitalism has developed technology and created the conditions that make a surplus possible, he argues that ‘despite the prophecy of many Marxists, the promotion of hyperglobalization seems unlikely to flip society neatly into a socialist order. While there are contradictions inherent in capitalism, it is not a system based on clockwork that will strike twelve and chime in revolution.’” (177).(1)

The idea of development-at-all-costs of the productive forces has certainly given rise to anti-ecological politics, beginning with the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. As the Bolshevik Party bureaucratized, it focused increasingly on controlling and growing the Russian economy at the expense of workers’ control and sustainability, culminating, under Stalin, in highly ecologically destructive crash industrialization programs carried out through forcible command.

The Communist parties of the world adopted this conception, leading to catastrophic positions such as siding against indigenous peoples and attempting to ally with local capitalists in colonized nations.

In spite of the anti-ecological legacy of Stalinism, however, revolutionary socialism — including the idea of development of the productive forces — remains essential to developing a winning strategy for ecological transformation of society. But “development of the productive forces” need not be taken to mechanically imply greater material abundance and a heavier ecological footprint.

We can find ways to develop the realization of human potential while shrinking our ecological footprint. Such a focus on human development is the only way to overcome the limitations of the various primitivist, life-stylist and liberal forms of environmentalism that argue that workers in developed countries must accept a lower standard of living — and to forge a movement that can unify ecological concerns with people’s striving for a better life.”

The development of human potential to its fullest extent implies eliminating oppressive toil, and overcoming scarcities of resources truly needed. On the basis of democratic control and a higher level of productivity, a socialist society could make choices about how to supply necessary resources in a sustainable way — exploring viable options for eliminating the scarcity of housing, for example.

Democracy and Sustainability
We can’t plan out beforehand all aspects of how a sustainable society would function, as it would have to be discussed and decided democratically; but in those aspects which we can envision, it becomes clear that the vision of an ecologically sound society coincides with a working-class revolutionary vision.

In an ecologically sustainable society, the economy would be democratically controlled and organized to provide the greatest possible public benefit, which would naturally entail ecological sustainability. Because the economy would be structured to further the development of human potential, technological advances in production would be used to shorten work hours rather than to produce more, leading to more free time to do truly fulfilling activities and allow us greater variety in how we spend our lives.

A sustainable and just society would also eliminate the distinction between productive and reproductive labor by socializing domestic labor (such as childcare, cooking and laundry) through organizing cooperatives. This would be a more efficient way to fulfill people’s needs and would further women’s liberation, combating the gendered division of labor in society.

In a democratically planned and ecologically rational society, many of the lifestyle changes that individualist environmentalism points to as necessary would occur, but as part of a social process of liberation, not as a forced sacrifice or moralistic principle.

There would be more parks and social gathering spaces that facilitate forms of interaction. Work would be structured in ways that allow people to feel a closer connection with the production of food and resources.

Overall, a socialist society would give us the freedom to live fulfilling lives less centered around consumption, in which we may choose to include some forms of hard work (like vegetable gardening, which is much less labor-efficient than farming but which many people find fulfilling). In these circumstances, the level of individual consumption will naturally decrease, without anyone forcing workers to lower their standard of living.

Certainly there would be changes in what people consume in a sustainable society — an ecologically sound agricultural system would probably supply less meat and less out-of-season produce — but this would occur because of a change in production in context of revolutionary liberation leading to a better life (overall, such an agricultural system would supply healthier, cheaper and better-tasting food), so it would not be experienced as a sacrifice.

All this being said, radicals must face the reality that much of the world does need higher levels of consumption — more stuff. Billions of people in the world need, in order to live fulfilling lives, secure food and water, better transportation and communications infrastructure, and medical services.

Under a democratic, planned program of development, these resources could be produced in different, more efficient and ecologically sound ways, paid for by reparations from imperialist capital for its centuries of exploitation, and in concert with reducing the ecological footprint of the developed countries.

Development of the global South countries is not simply a matter of political principle — it is also an ecological imperative. If people have no secure means of subsistence to live, they will survive as best they can using what means are available to them, which tend to be highly ecologically destructive. For example,

“Hundreds of millions of people still use wood and animal dung for heating, cooking and, lighting. India alone has four hundred million people who live without access to electricity. Poverty is a major part of the reason there is so much deforestation in India, Africa, and parts of Asia. … Renewable electricity provision for the entire planet — and the eradication of poverty — would have to be part of any move to living sustainably with the earth.”(2)

In order to solve the global ecological crisis, we must undertake an enormous transfer of wealth from capital to the formerly colonized countries, funding development that offers a secure life to the billions of people from whom capitalism has torn the means of subsistence.

Organizing Sustainable Production
The only way to both develop human potential around the world and regenerate a healthy biosphere is through a development of the productive forces of society. A democratically planned and ecologically rational society will be able to overcome the ways in which capitalism is holding us back from producing more efficiently and sustainably.

Although I do not have the space to discuss all the opportunities for more efficient production, I will offer a few examples. In an economy designed to meet human needs, there would be many opportunities to eliminate waste: for example, by eliminating product packaging, by eliminating planned obsolescence so that electronic equipment and machines (e.g. laptops and cell phones) will last longer, by reducing imports and exports and producing locally where most efficient, and by eliminating many industries — advertising, health insurance, financial services, the military — that will be largely useless in a socialist society.

Further, the technological basis of society could be transformed. We could adopt a power system based around solar, wind, geothermal and tidal energy. We could redesign urban areas based around walking, bicycling and public transit. And we could transform our agricultural methods, drawing from organic agriculture and permaculture techniques.

All these transformations in production and social allocation of resources are possible with technologies that exist now, but capitalism’s drive for private profit holds us back from implementing them.

Beginning the Struggle
Of course, since an ecologically rational society is incompatible with capitalism, we will have to struggle for it. Every struggle has its particulars, but a few generalizations are possible.

Ecology need not be treated as a separate concern that must be brought into other movements. Because all aspects of society are involved in the relation to nature, all struggles have an ecological dimension; and because a sustainable society and a socialist society are inseparable as the aspiration, conscious or otherwise, of the working class, ecological demands belong in all struggles.

This is illustrated by struggles as diverse as Detroit auto workers demanding retooling of closed plants to manufacture transit vehicles, the anti-austerity struggle in Pittsburgh in defense of public transit, the struggles in Appalachia in defense of working-class communities threatened by coal extraction, and the struggles of indigenous and landless people exploding around the world.

In our involvement in real-world struggle, revolutionaries must maintain a difficult and contradictory balance. We need to join struggles for ecological reforms and yet not slide into suggesting that capitalism with these reforms could avoid ecological catastrophe.

Although this is a complex question that can only be worked out through experience, a revolutionary ecosocialist program — a set of political positions that we put forth in order to present our vision of a better world and to push forward and unite the various political struggles — will help us maintain this balance by linking immediate demands to a revolutionary vision.

Basic elements in an ecosocialist program include such demands as comprehensive public transit and a shorter workweek, but also an end to all U.S. wars, workers’ control of production, cancellation of the Third World debt and reparations to the former colonies for ecologically sound development, indigenous sovereignty, land to the landless, and the expropriation and democratic management of capitalist agriculture. It would also include specifically ecological demands like an industrial conversion away from fossil fuels.

Transitional demands like these have to be part of an explicitly revolutionary program, that envisioning a society which overcomes class exploitation and the oppression of women, people of color, and other oppressed groups and takes strides to re-establish the metabolism between society and nature.

A comprehensive response to the ecological crisis, therefore, not only is consistent with revolutionary Marxism, but demands it. It calls for transcending the legacies of Stalinism and social democracy (which pays lip service to ecological concerns but fails to challenge capitalism) and for rebuilding the world revolutionary tradition.

It would be too easy to slip into catastrophism as the ecological crisis worsens. We must keep in mind, however, that even as things continue to get worse, there will not be one moment where everything is swept away — exploitation and oppression will continue to exist, and we will still have to struggle for the best world we can, even if ecological limits on that world narrow.

We need to integrate an understanding of the new ecological reality with the revolutionary Marxist understanding of the ways human societies (including their relationship to nature) develop and change, and to struggle as best we can on that basis. The task is enormous, but we have the resource of over 150 years of revolutionary experience in the working-class tradition.

.1. Sarah Grey, “Open Source Anti-Capitalism,” Monthly Review, Vol. 60, Issue 9 (February 2009). Online at
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.2. Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism (Haymarket Books, 2012), 224-25. This concise book offers a complete and practical overview of how a socialist society could transform production in a sustainable way.
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.3. This article was first published: November/December 2012, ATC 161 – online Source:



A Response to Robin Hahnel’s Open Letter to the Movement
The question of what demands ecosocialists should put forward in response to the climate crisis is a pressing one. Robin Hahnel, in “An Open Letter to the Climate Justice Movement”, argues that the climate justice movement should demand a cap-and-trade policy, abandoning its traditional stance against carbon trading. To Hahnel, carbon trading is the most realistic way for society to make carbon emissions cuts in the necessary time frame, and, contrary to the arguments of activists, it can be done in a socially just way. Although I respect Hahnel as a sincere and principled radical, I find his argument troubling. I believe it is marred by a misunderstanding of activists’ arguments against carbon trading and, more fundamentally, a lack of attention to the dynamic of reform and revolution.

Hahnel shortchanges the arguments against carbon trading. He acknowledges only three: that nature should not be turned into a commodity (a basically aesthetic argument which he easily demolishes), that Wall Street will take advantage of the carbon market and distort it (which, he argues, is a non-issue because even if there’s a financial market bubble, the number of carbon permits will be the same), and that corporations will be awarded bogus carbon credits (which would be impossible under the carbon trading system he proposes).

In fact, activists who oppose cap-and trade have made many other arguments against the system. For example, Larry Lohman, in Climate and Capitalism, argues that carbon trading is an antidemocratic system that interferes with positive solutions to the ecological crisis by supporting capital expansion rather than community-controlled alternatives (for example, favoring an energy company building a hydroelectric dam rather than the villagers practicing sustainable agriculture in the area the dam would flood). He also argues that carbon trading tends to prioritize the easiest cuts, usually in developing countries (which Hahnel touts as an advantage, since it makes the scheme more palatable to capitalists by reducing the overall cost of emissions reductions) when the most important task is to wean the developed world off fossil fuels. Daniel Tanuro, writing in International Viewpoint, deepens this critique, arguing that precisely because carbon markets are based on the quantitative principle of cost-effectiveness, they cannot drive the qualitative change we need to create a sustainable society. Carbon markets will favor mechanisms such as biofuel plantations, which are cost-effective in quantitative terms but are inconsistent with the energy revolution we need. Carbon trading points away from, not toward, an ecologically sustainable and socially just society.

Cap-and-trade for the people, or for the capitalists?
Hahnel calls critiques of carbon trading “ill-informed”, but he appears to be misreading them. These critiques are not targeting the ideal proposal for carbon trading that he presents—instead, these are critiques of the cap-and-trade schemes that have actually been proposed and implemented. These policies are in no way intended to challenge society’s reliance on fossil fuels. The experience of the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), the largest yet existing carbon trading system, neatly illustrates these critiques. It is well-documented that in the initial phase of the system, carbon credits were enormously overallocated, resulting in windfall profits to major polluters and a failure to actually cap emissions. Further, the ETS carbon market has been highly susceptible to false offsets, frauds and scams, resulting in a volatile and declining carbon price that fails to incentivise conversion to renewable energy. The result has been a system that, far from reducing carbon emissions, has reinforced a carbon-based economy by helping polluting industries avoid reducing emissions. The ETS is so bad that a group of European civil society organizations has given up on the possibility of reforming it, instead demanding that it be scrapped. Their declaration argues that it makes meaningful carbon reform even more difficult and provides a bad model to be exported around the world.

This is exactly what happened in 2009 when congressional Democrats proposed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES). This bill would have implemented a national carbon trading system that would have repeated the failures of the ETS. Despite Obama’s campaign promise of a carbon trading system in which no permits would be given away for free, the bill would have given away 85% of the initial permits freely—again subsidizing polluters by giving them huge quantities of a tradable commodity (Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism, p. 83). The bill allowed so many carbon offsets that it would not have met even the watered-down reduction standards it claimed—if polluters used the maximum number of offsets, emissions levels would not have dipped below 2005 levels until 2026. And this is assuming that the offsets purchased were real—most of them would have been international offsets, which are notorious for being fraudulent or altogether false (Williams, p. 83). ACES was not a proposal for dealing with climate change in any meaningful way—in fact, it might have made the situation even more difficult by instituting a “solution” that subsidized fossil-fuel companies while reinforcing North-South inequity through unfair international carbon offsets.

Hahnel is no doubt aware of the inadequacies of these cap-and-trade proposals. His proposal does not share these problems—rather, it’s based on social justice and climate science. I review the failures of carbon trading in the US and Europe in order to demonstrate that the cap-and-trade policies enacted by capitalist governments have exactly the opposite basis. Their purpose is to provide the appearance of doing something while, in fact, fending off a challenge to capitalism by permitting a fossil-fuel-based economy to continue for as long as possible, and, to the extent that transition from fossil fuels does occur, placing as much of the cost as possible on the working class and the developing world. These schemes, not Hahnel’s proposal, are what left critics of carbon trading are responding to. These policies represent the capitalist class’ favored “solution” to the climate crisis, and as such are a real threat. As such, it’s very important for the left wing of the environmental movement to expose and critique these policies for what they are. I therefore disagree with Hahnel that the left wing of the environmental movement should in any way temper its criticism of cap-and-trade as it actually exists.

How do we win reforms?
Of course, critique is only part of our task as ecosocialists. We also aim to win—to fend off ruling-class attacks, to win reforms, and, ultimately, to overthrow capitalism and replace it with an ecosocialist system. I agree with Hahnel that we must win meaningful climate reforms soon in order to avoid catastrophe. I disagree, however, about how we can win reforms. Hahnel seems to be arguing that the best way to win reforms is through a reformist program and strategy—but I think the best way is a revolutionary strategy.

It appears to me that Hahnel’s understanding of how reforms are won suffers from an excessively black-and-white understanding of the dynamics of power in capitalism and socialism. This leads him to a constriction of political possibilities and ultimately to a reformist strategy. He writes that, although it’s clear that we need radical emissions reductions within ten years to avoid catastrophe, an ecosocialist revolution “is not going to happen in the next ten years because eco-socialism requires massive political support that cannot be won overnight.” Therefore, although “massive demonstrations and civil disobedience are desperately needed to overcome lethargy and catalyze needed political action,” those demonstrations must focus on a program that’s limited by the possibilities capitalism offers. Indeed, Hahnel even defines a program as “a set of policies that will achieve these results [radical emissions reductions] even while capitalism persists.”

It’s certainly true that there is a fundamental distinction between a capitalist and an ecosocialist society. In the former, the capitalist class is hegemonic, and uses its power over the economy to exploit workers and the planet to accumulate profit at the expense of life. In the latter, the working class and oppressed groups democratically control the economy in the interest of justice for all and ecological sustainability. This distinction has an obvious impact on the kinds of policies that can be implemented under either system.

But, although in a capitalist system the capitalist class is always in power, at no point is the relationship of forces between classes static. The working class, the capitalist class, and other social forces are always vying for power and influence within the system and its units—within workplaces, neighborhoods, and various levels of government, for example. Reforms, in general, happen when the working class or oppressed groups gain enough power to force the hand of the ruling class—putting them in the position of either implementing the reform or losing needed credibility and influence.

People fighting for liberation have many choices of strategies in their battle with the capitalist class. They may choose strategies based on accommodation to the class enemy and seeking a role within the current system. This strategy may provide reforms for as long as the capitalist class is prepared to grant them, but tends to lead to a decline in the power of the movement’s base and the political co-optation of the bureaucratic leadership, as has happened with the US trade union movement and the British Labour Party. Alternatively, they may choose strategies that are not confined to bourgeois frameworks and which build popular power independently from state institutions. We see this strategy in the great worker-led strike waves of US history, the Black Liberation movement, and, today, in the youth immigrant rights movement. This is a difficult road, but ultimately one that, if successful, is far more likely to lead to the shifts in consciousness and power relations necessary to win major reforms. It is also more likely to lead to the development of a revolutionary movement, as it invites those in struggle to think and act outside of the confines of capitalist ideology.

Principles, not policy
Such a strategy of class independence is what I refer to as a revolutionary strategy. A revolutionary strategy does not preclude struggle for reforms—indeed, most of the time, except in revolutionary situations, revolutionaries are engaged in reform struggles. The question is how to struggle for reforms in a revolutionary way. Obviously, the answer to this question differs situationally and has many aspects. Hahnel’s essay addresses the question of program, so that is the aspect I limit myself to here.

Unlike Hahnel, I conceive of program not as a wish-list of policies we’d like to see implemented, but as a tool of struggle. Through our ecosocialist program, we articulate the politics of the movements in which we are involved in a way that promotes solidarity and draws attention to the conflict between the movement and the capitalist system. We typically argue for stances that are further to the left of those in the mainstream of the movement, while posing them in a way that is relatable and responsive to the movement’s aims. We should think strategically about the politics we put forth in our movement work: what demands, what slogans, and what ideas will help the ecological movement grow, develop alliances, become more powerful, and radicalize?

This way of posing the question immediately suggests some answers. In general, our program should address immediate concerns of working-class people. It should draw connections between the fight against ecological destruction and the overcoming of racial, national, and gender- and sexuality-based oppression. It should uncompromisingly demand a shift away from fossil fuels, done in a way that meets human needs. Finally, all of these demands should be framed in ways which, as much as possible, point in the direction of the environmentally and socially just society we want to see, inviting people to think outside the confines of capitalism. Hahnel is absolutely right to demand a global emissions cap based on science that would be vigorously enforced for all countries. Here are some other possible elements of an ecosocialist program:

+· A shift away from fossil-fuel and nuclear electricity production; a free basic energy allowance for all individuals

+· Free, improved and expanded public transit in all major cities

+· Retrofit housing with passive and active solar heating; provide good-quality housing for all through rehabbing abandoned buildings and sustainable new construction

+· To produce the above mentioned goods, retool shuttered factories, providing safe and well-paying jobs; retrain workers who lose jobs in polluting industries

+· A 30-hour workweek with no loss in pay

+· A moratorium on all new fossil-fuel extraction; clean up polluted communities and areas

+· Dismantle the global US military; use the money saved for reparations for sustainable development to countries which have been subject to US imperialism

+· Greater investment in parks, education, and other public goods

Someone who is better than I am at coming up with slogans can figure out how to popularize these demands, but you get the picture. Demands like these are designed with the above mentioned goals of a revolutionary program in mind. They are best able to meet these goals when that they focus on principles, rather than on policy. A focus on policy—the legislative means by which the reforms we want will be enacted—limits our political imagination to what’s possible within the capitalist system and pulls our politics rightwards. Instead of asserting that another world is possible, we adapt our program to the assumptions of the capitalist system. Instead of choosing strategies and tactics that confront the state and the capitalist class, we begin to think in terms of what is possible (or “realistic”) under the present system, to view progressive bourgeois legislators as our allies, and to think in individual rather than collective terms—leading to a weakening of the movement. To build the power necessary to force the capitalist class to grant us concessions, we need to focus on the principles that unite us, not on policy. It is bourgeois legislators’ job to figure out how to implement those concessions within the framework of bourgeois policy—we should not do their jobs for them. Of course, if legislators do propose policies which could partially mitigate the problem, we should critically support those reforms. But it would be a step rightwards for the left wing of the movement to make a particular policy reform part of its program.

Such an approach actually helps us build the power necessary to win reforms now. The more people view the ecology movement as tied to those of workers and oppressed people by the possibility of a just society, the more those movements will be united. The more people view the state as standing on the side of our enemy rather than a neutral actor that needs to be convinced, the more likely they will be to choose tactics that pose a militant challenge to the state. The more people are able to imagine a future beyond capitalism, the more the ruling class will feel the need to implement reforms to shore up their position. I’m sure Hahnel agrees with me when I say that the climate crisis and other ecological problems are rooted in the structure capitalist system (not just a few sectors of capital, like the fossil-fuel industry, but the system itself), and cannot be reformed away. Our program and strategy should reflect that understanding.

What’s realistic?
Hahnel’s argument seems to be motivated for a desire for a radical proposal to prevent catastrophic climate change that appears realistic. This is an understandable impulse: the movements of workers and oppressed people are relatively weak, making a global ecosocialist revolutionary movement that has the power to win meaningful reforms within the time frame we have seem like a remote prospect. It makes sense to look for a way to reduce carbon emissions that can be implemented immediately However, I disagree that Hahnel’s proposal is realistic.

To his credit, Hahnel does not water down his proposal in order to make it palatable to the capitalist class and the politicians that serve them. He insists that a global cap-and-trade scheme would have mandatory emissions caps for all countries based on science, differential emissions caps based on principles of global justice, and enforcement mechanisms to prevent cheating and bogus carbon credits. It’s a principled proposal. The problem is that, in order to keep it principled, he must put so many conditions on cap-and-trade that it might as well be a revolutionary demand.

We have seen that the cap-and-trade proposals which capitalist governments have been willing to countenance have little in common with Hahnel’s proposal: they are deliberately full of loopholes, promote the accumulation of capital, and protect the dominance of the imperialist countries with their carbon-heavy economies over and against the developing world. The ruling class would never agree to a policy like Hahnel’s proposal, which would amount to voluntarily abandoning imperialism and agreeing to destroy huge sectors of highly profitable capital. They would have to be forced to do. It wouldn’t necessarily require a revolution, but it would require a volatile political situation in which a mass movement had the power and popular support to seriously challenge the legitimacy of capitalist governments. But in such a situation, we would be in a position not only to demand market-based reforms, but to put forward the possibility of “system change”. So why should we limit ourselves to demanding carbon trading? Socialists should not limit themselves to demands that are theoretically possible under capitalism—especially when those demands are no more realistic than revolution itself.

In the meantime, we certainly do need to demonstrate that there is an alternative to capitalism. One obstacle to a global ecosocialist movement is that there does not appear to be any concrete alternative. However, we can show that our radical demands are possible without resorting to policy proposals. For example, when someone asks us how we would pay for the expense of providing food, housing, and education for all in an ecologically sound way, we can point to the way capital manages social resources inefficiently, how it produces things nobody needs in unsustainable ways, and how the vast profits currently appropriated by a small elite could be redirected towards a transition away from fossil fuels.

Toward a revolutionary ecosocialist strategy
Hahnel is not alone in arguing that the urgency of the climate crisis merits a shift towards reformist politics. Christian Parenti argues a similar point in Dissent and in the current issue of New Politics. Compared with Hahnel’s argument, Parenti’s engages much more with the reality of present-day politics, but I believe he commits a similar mistake as Hahnel. I don’t have the space or resources here to fully reply to Parenti, but I generally agree with the response of the Monthly Review editors to Parenti’s Dissent piece:

A revolutionary approach in this area is one that does not simply stop with whatever limited reforms are easily conceivable within the present system, but also: (1) seeks to accelerate the shift to a substantively equal and ecologically sustainable (global) society; (2) involves the mobilization of the entire population (and entire peoples), culturally, socially, and economically in the process of transformation; (3) prioritizes conservation of human and natural resources; (4) seeks to transform infrastructure and technology on a massive, democratically planned basis to meet ecological and social ends; and (5) opposes the logic of profit-making at every point along the line, substituting the alternative logic of people and the planet.

These principles may sound vague. Indeed, both Hahnel’s and Parenti’s arguments seem to be based on a judgment that revolutionary ideas are too abstract to offer guidance in this time of acute ecological crisis. Hahnel writes, “But unlike some in the climate justice movement I will not confuse good slogans and chants with a political program to prevent climate change,” and Parenti states, “I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary or radical, but what I’m trying to do is to be very, very realistic. Because I don’t think it is sufficient to be outraged about this and invoke the righteousness of our cause.”

There is truth to this. No manifesto, no strategic document that fully outlines an ecosocialist strategy has yet been produced. Much writing on ecosocialist politics and strategy has been quite abstract. For example, above I suggest elements of an ecosocialist program, but I do not translate them into accessible slogans or suggest settings in which to raise these demands. The problem is that translating ecosocialist principles into a strategy can only be done through experience, and the ecosocialist movement is in its infancy. We need further engagement of ecosocialists in the developing struggle and ongoing discussion of the lessons of that experience in order to concretise our strategy.

Fortunately, ecosocialism is growing as an organized left force. Within the past year, ecosocialist coalitions have formed around the world, including Reseau Ecosocialiste in Quebec, the European Ecosocialist Action Network and European Ecosocialist Conference, and the US-based System Change Not Climate Change: The Ecosocialist Coalition (which I am a member of). These organizations share a commitment to ongoing, democratic political discussion linked with an engagement in struggle. Their growth reflects both the need for and the appeal of revolutionary ideas in a world beset with crisis. The experience of these and other efforts will be the basis for crafting a revolutionary ecosocialist strategy for the 21st century.

This article was first published 4th March 2014 – online source:

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