Review of ‘We Only Want the Earth!’
Overall, this pamphlet by Gus Woody, which takes its main title from the Irish revolutionary, James Connolly, signals a welcome and much-needed political development within rs21 since the start of the pandemic in early 2020: its move to an explicit ecosocialist position.
It’s obviously good news that rs21 has now firmly declared itself for what it calls “the banner of ecosocialism” – and this no doubt explains why that group was a signatory of the Ecosocialist Alliance’s COP26 Statement, launched by Green Left, Left Unity and the ACR.
Similar to our COP26 Statement, rs21’s pamphlet makes it clear that the three major inter-linking crises – global immiseration, global sickening and global warming – “are caused by the same social system – capitalism.” Something now even recognised by George Monbiot!
Interestingly, in a similar way, and over the same time frame, there have also been signs within sections of Extinction Rebellion – especially in XR Scotland – to give a much more radical political definition of what’s meant by ‘System Change.’ As the saying goes, at least some dark clouds do, nonetheless, have ‘silver linings!’
In XR’s case, however, although there are growing calls to replace the existing ‘Commercial Economy’ with a ‘Social/Human Economy’ which tackles the Climate Crisis by putting people and the planet above profits, this has not (yet!) resulted in XR embracing a firm ecosocialist position. Another interesting overlap between rs21 and XR is that both – to varying degrees – recognise the importance of addressing the climate legacies of imperialism and colonialism in the Global South: within XR, this has led to calls to ‘decolonise XR.’
Gus Woody – perhaps taking his cue from Gramsci and his ‘optimism of the will’ – rejects both the apocalyptic ‘we’re all doomed’ response to these crises, and the strand which puts its faith in capitalism coming up with some future ‘techno-fix.’ As he points out, both those responses are de-mobilising – instead, the pamphlet rightly calls for a campaign which channels the growing anger into positive actions. Thus he declares, on p.12, that: “We fight to limit every metric tonne of carbon dioxide emitted, to limit the extent of global warming, whether that is 1.5 or 3 degrees.” As is quite rightly argued, it is necessary to fight for climate action – and especially transitional demands – under capitalism, whilst still recognising that only a radical transformation to ecosocialism will ultimately solve these multiple crises.
For those who need it, the pamphlet presents a concise but sound understanding of the differing impacts of global heating on climate-changing patterns. There is also coverage of Marx’s idea of the dangerous ‘metabolic rift’ that capitalism inevitably creates between humans and the rest of the natural world – and useful references to the work of ecosocialist writers such as John Bellamy Foster and Kohei Saito.
As part of that examination, there is a very apt quotation from Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, in which he pointed out that for every so-called ‘conquest of nature,’ nature “takes its revenge on us.” This is, of course, most graphically illustrated by the emergence and impacts of Covid-19 – which has been seen by some as nature’s ‘Walt Kowalski’: (see https://leftunity.org/palate-and-pandemics/ )
Following on from the pamphlet’s treatment of the ‘metabolic rift’ – there’s an excellent summary on p.23 – Gus Woody makes an important link between the fact that a finite planet cannot sustain capitalism’s drive to endlessly-increasing production and consumption, and the need for ecosocialists to tackle the whole issue of ‘De-growth.’ Within that aspect, there are also cogent arguments for why both ecosocialists and environmental/climate activists must embrace the concepts of a ‘Just Transition’ and work together to build workplace environmentalism. There is also a useful examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the various ‘Green New Deals’ that have been drawn up, which quite rightly supports the most positive elements and thus avoids any hint of ‘ultra-leftism.’
Whilst, overall, I would argue this pamphlet is a ‘curate’s egg’ in which the good parts heavily outweigh the less-good, there are some less-convincing sections. Apart from a rather dismissive treatment of the importance – and achievements – of the non-violent direct actions of the climate movements in both the Global North and the Global South, the main negative point for me is that some sections give the impression that maybe the transition from socialism, per se, to ECO-socialism is still an on-going process in rs21.
In particular, there are several sections where the pamphlet reverts to only calling for a “socialist system established by workers”, and mainly using the terms ‘socialism/socialists’ or ‘communism/communists’ – with a corresponding tendency to see the working class as the sole agent capable of delivering the changes needed. Consequently, the contribution of other elements in civil society – especially the climate/environmental movements – tends, at times, to be downplayed.
Whilst ecosocialists recognise the central importance of the working class, it is clear that, in order to push through such a fundamental transformation, what is needed is for the working class to act in association with the climate/environmental movements, as well as with other civil society groups. Though, to be fair, there are also a few references to the need for an “alliance of workers and oppressed peoples (the masses)” that needs to be “embedded within the masses.”
The importance of such groups was surely shown, most recently, in the brilliant- global mobilisations for COP26. The huge efforts made over the past few years by university and schools students – such as the ‘Fridays For Future’ protests – need to be encouraged and built-on: for future COPs and beyond. Yet the pamphlet seems to dismiss mobilising for COPs as short-termism which gives “a veneer of justification for whatever measly concession is given at those events.”
However, at the end (p.66), the pamphlet rightly concludes by calling for joint “activities which develop the organisational strength of the working-class and climate movements. By doing so, under the banner of ecosocialism, the goal is also to unify these two movements into a force capable of transforming the world.” Yet, this is somewhat undermined by the page which faces it: this is a summary of what rs21 is. In it, the words ‘socialism/socialists’ appear 5 times; but ‘ecosocialism’ doesn’t appear once!
Hopefully, as rs21 begins to work more closely with other ecosocialist activists through the Ecosocialist Alliance over the coming months, such apparent contradictions can be smoothed out.
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