If we do not succeed in pushing forward a process of organising, any analysis of the ruptures in the Earth system and the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production and domination, as well as the arguments for a revolutionary ecosocialist perspective more generally, remain incomplete. To this end, in this last article, I present some basic considerations and practical proposals.
Class, movement and organisation
When history moves in leaps and bounds, there is a need for actors to strategically ensure that the leaps history takes are emancipatory ones. This brings us to the problem of organizing. Lenin offers us clues to addressing the problem, though quite different from those Andreas Malm refers to in his striking but misplaced reference to the lessons of war communism in the early years of the Russian Revolution. Malm pleads for an ecological Leninism and thinks that war communism in revolutionary Russia offers a helpful orientation for the current challenge of planning an economy that responds to growing ecological challenges. His analogy is historically and politically mistaken.
Malm does not clarify what character such a state should have, and he does not clarify who the social subjects of the transformation process should be. His radicalism appears to be subjectless and thus cannot be operationalized politically. He focusses his arguments on secondary issues and dangerous tendencies such as the question of violent actions against fossil fuel installations. Much more important than a debate on militant action is the programmatic and strategic radicalization necessary to build mass-based independent organizations and institutions from below.[i]
Here I take up once again the reflections of Daniel Bensaïd. If we support the assumption that the working class, in all its diversity and multifacetedness, is the subject of a radical social transformation (because only workers can directly shape the production process), then the question arises as to what role it has in “pulling the emergency brake”.[ii] This, rather than Malm’s centering of violence, brings us to the problem of organization and representation.
With reference to Lenin[iii], Bensaïd[iv] emphasises that class struggles and movement dynamics must be clearly separated from understanding parties. Class struggle is not reduced to the antagonism between the worker and the entrepreneur. In the class struggle, the whole class of wage earners in its multifacetedness confronts the whole capitalist class on the level of the entire capitalist production and reproduction process. This statement is crucial precisely in relation to the problem of reproduction, the extra-production struggles of everyday life and to all material aspects of production and reproduction. All these struggles are just as much parts of the class struggle as the struggles over wages and working conditions.
Bensaïd fruitfully discusses Lenin’s relevant distinction between party and class. The political struggle, which includes all social questions, is more comprehensive and complex than the economic struggle of workers against the management of enterprises and the government. It is an illusion to imagine that the workers’ movement is capable of working out an independent social vision alone. On the contrary, the spontaneous development of the working class leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology. This is not due to a manipulation of their consciousness, but is the objective result of commodity fetishism, Bensaïd argues.
Political class consciousness thus emerges outside of economic struggles – though not outside of class struggles, which are political and social at the same time – carried by a party that specifically structures the political field. The revolutionary party represents the working class not only in relation to a group of entrepreneurs but in its relations to all classes of society and the state. For Lenin, the revolutionary party is not the result of a cumulative experience, nor does it take on the role of the humble teacher to pull the workers out of the darkness of ignorance, but it becomes the strategic operator of the class struggle. In Lenin’s understanding, it is necessary to be ready for the unexpected. The strategy is ultimately based on an assessment of mass, speed and time.
For Bensaïd, Lenin’s relevance to the current situation derives from his strategic thinking. The organisation must be ready to act, whatever happens. But events do not arise out of nowhere. They are the result of historical conditions and the possibilities that arise from these conditions. More generally, the dialectical relations between necessity and contingency, structure and rupture, history and event correspond to this understanding. They lay the foundation for the possibility of politics, of conscious intervention in society, of strategically changing the balance of power.
Bensaïd derives a significant question from the distinction between political and socio-economic struggles. What is the basis for the representation of economic struggles by a political force? How does political representation gain legitimacy? Bensaïd emphasises the necessity of pluralism. If the party does not correspond to the class, then the same class can be represented by several political parties. These could represent different or even contradictory positions. Lenin did not draw this logical conclusion. In his State and Revolution, the parties even lose their function in favour of direct democracy.[v] Bensaïd argues that the Russian revolutionaries did not realise how the danger of bureaucratic counterrevolution grew under their feet.
Bensaïd warns that currents that seek their answers beyond parties also end up in a dead-end. [vi] For politics without parties (regardless of whether they are called parties, movements, federations or leagues) usually end in politics without a strategy, and ultimately without real politics whatsoever. They either turn towards the spontaneity of social movements or, in the worst form, of an individual avant-gardism and finally abandonment of the political in favour of aesthetic discourses or ethical confessions.[vii]
These remarks are highly significant for the organisational implementation of an eco-socialist strategy in at least three respects.
First, following Lenin’s understanding of the development of comprehensive political and strategic thinking in the face of the ecological urgency of a revolutionary process, I argue that workers are unable to spontaneously develop an adequate ecological consciousness out of their struggles. The inexcusable traditional neglect of the ecological problem by trade unions and traditional socialist parties tragically reinforces this finding. What is needed is the conscious action of ecosocialist organisations.
These organisations must convince the workers of the urgency of radical measures to convert and dismantle industrial production, as well as a radical change in transportation infrastructure and the complete reconfiguration of the financial sector required. But this cannot only be an act of propaganda. What is decisive are struggles that encourage self-organisation and collective learning processes in the course of struggles.
Secondly, ecosocialist organisations also face the problem of making a clear distinction between movement and organisation or party. The movement, for example, the climate justice movement, is supposed to attract as many people as possible. Very different people must have the opportunity to get involved, to make experiences, to learn. So a social movement can hardly adopt an ecosocialist programme, except in an almost pre-revolutionary situation. That would contradict the broad participation and unity needed. People in the movement unite on a clear and simple basis, for example, on the demand that everything must be done to limit global heating to 1.5°C. That is the only way to achieve such a goal.
However, it is important to bring this perspective into the political arena with concrete transitional demands. But movements must be able to develop and radicalise their demands autonomously without manipulative manoeuvres by parties. The movements give themselves structures. The more democratically they function, the more inclusive and open they are. No party can dictate a movement’s orientation, although political organisations in movements struggle for influence and even hegemony.
An ecosocialist organisation, on the other hand, develops a comprehensive social understanding, learns from experiences collectively and democratically, and makes tactical and strategic proposals within the movements. These proposals are contested by other currents, which put their options up for discussion. The more democratically movement’s function, the more productive the contestation of ideas becomes.
Thirdly, this is connected to the permanent problem of democracy. The problem of representation and democracy has caused several political formations to fail, especially in recent times. Several organisations, more populist than socialist, have emerged in Europe, such as La France Insoumise and Podemos. Their development once again underlines the importance of, on the one hand, the democratic consolidation or centralisation of decision-making and organisational patterns and, on the other hand, measures to reduce structural inequalities among members.
Adaptation to cooperation and co-optation mechanisms of the state and the media as well as the plebiscitary legitimisation of leaders, who are thus even less controlled by the grassroots, show the relevance of democracy. These sobering experiences underline how important living democracy must be for an ecosocialist organisation. Such organisations must be pluralist on a clear programmatic basis. Different currents, tendencies and factions can promote their specific assessments and proposals.
Rebuilding a movement of the Working
Before discussing some problems of ecosocialist organising, I must first identify the fundamental task of rebuilding a pluralist worker’s movement. Here I take up arguments that I recently expressed in a contribution to the discussion.[viii]
The big problem, to which there is no simple solution, is that in the current state of the class struggle, an abyss separates the consciousness and behaviour of workers from the requirements that need to be met to enable the concrete implementation of an ecosocialist perspective. Searching for answers, I distinguish between three levels:
The first level concerns the reconstruction of a worker’s movement. This reconstruction depends on the development of consciousness and thus their self-constitution as a class through struggles and collective learning processes. These processes are also linked to the challenge of determining and developing new forms of organisation.
The second level concerns the necessary social anchoring of the radical climate movement.
The third level is about the formation and organisation of a revolutionary ecosocialist current or even organisation on a transnational and global scale.
The extent of this necessary reconstruction of the workers’ movement depends on the degree of disorientation, fragmentation and bureaucratisation that has taken place, which varies across different countries in Europe. In many countries, the trade unions have lost their social rootedness in broad sections of the working class. This is especially true in Switzerland, but also in Germany and Austria, where many companies can implement their strategies of intensified exploitation of workers and plundering of nature largely free of trade union influence. The trade unions no longer have the power to strike, veto or negotiate in major disputes in large sections of the economy.
This situation poses fundamental and strategic challenges not only to trade unions but also to other social movements, especially the climate movement. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the trade unions are still stuck in outdated productivist ideas of growth. They believe that social and economic crises can be solved by boosting the economy through Keynesian demand stimulation. There is no evidence that ecological economic growth is possible while simultaneously reducing the energy and material throughput on a global scale in absolute terms. So not only are the unions weakly rooted, but their leaderships and arguably a significant part of the membership are far from taking the ecological crisis seriously.
How the reconstruction of a plural movement of workers, conscious of ecological restrictions, can proceed remains to be tested. At least we can recognise some starting points for a new constitution, but they are modest and fragmented. The task of a revolutionary ecosocialist current is to learn from these attempts, to stimulate such movements and unite them.
- Currently, a joint resistance of workers of the transnational automotive supplier Bosch in Munich and the anti-capitalist initiative Climate Protection and Class Struggle is forming against the closure of the plant and for the ecological conversion of production.[ix]
- The successful resistance of the workers of the SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) factories in Bellinzona against the closure of the “Officine” and for a solidary and ecological, regional industrial policy in 2008 was exemplary because it showed how the defence of decent and meaningful work belongs together with the struggle for good living conditions in the region.
- The joint campaign of the ver.di trade union and Fridays for Future in Germany in autumn 2020 sought good collective bargaining agreements for bus drivers and emphasised that good public transport with good working conditions is an indispensable prerequisite for reducing individual car traffic and dismantling the car industry. Unfortunately, the trade union bureaucracy broke off this dispute prematurely.
- Striking workers at the Total refinery in Grandpuits (65 km south-east of Paris), led by the CGT union and supported by environmental organisations, demonstrated at the beginning of 2021 that the ecological conversion of the oil industry to defend jobs is a common concern for workers and the population.
- The repeated strikes of train drivers in Germany show that even the train drivers’ union, which for a long time only stood up exclusively for its own profession, can take militant measures in the interest of good public transport.
- Employees in many hospitals in Germany and France are fighting for good working conditions, decent wages and a good health care system. An expanded social infrastructure in the areas of health, care, welfare and education is a central axis for a socio-ecological transformation of society. It is a prerequisite for a conversion and deconstruction of the high-emission industries. A strategic alliance between the climate movement and workers in health, care and education could be an important step for the feminist and ecological construction of a new and plural movement of workers.
These movements indicate that the reconstruction process of a militant workers’ movement is a multi-faceted process and will be lasting. In some cases, the trade union bureaucracy broke off the struggle, in others, the balance of power did not allow for the development of a more far-reaching movement. At the same time, it is clear that the struggle for good working conditions can only be successful if it is embedded in a struggle for good social infrastructure and against ecological destruction. Workers having insecure residence status and many who have no rights in formal bourgeois parliamentary democracy also participated in some of these labour struggles to a considerable extent.
Nevertheless, painfully we have to note that social and ecological organising is extremely weak in central sectors of the economy such as the machinery, chemical, pharmaceutical, automotive and energy industries. Existing trade unions such as IG Metall and IGBCE in Germany, the production trade union RRO GE, the trade union of private employees GPA and the trade union Vida in Austria as well as the UNIA in Switzerland – the last one always pretends to be progressive – are far from even rudimentarily recognising the ecological challenges and drawing appropriate consequences in their fields of work.
If they did recognise ecological challenges, they would have to oppose the logic of competition and profit and fight for a consistent ecological conversion of the economy while also maintaining employment rights and a general radical reduction of working time. But they do not do that. Some of them are even not sufficiently rooted in the companies and have almost lost the status of being a union.
There is an urgent need to initiate a broad social debate about what is necessary for industrial conversion and reorganisation. This debate must also be conducted with the trade unions because the workers on the ground in the factories can be central actors in this conversion process with their experiential knowledge will be invaluable. Previous experiences with efforts to convert armament factories in the 1970s and shipyards in the 1980s offer clues to understanding the huge hurdles that have to be overcome in the process.[x] Ecosocialist currents and organisations have a great responsibility to participate in movements like those briefly listed above, to advance these struggles with practical proposals and to bring together the different approaches in a strategy of anti-capitalist rupture.
The urgent rebuilding of a pluralist workers’ movement can only succeed if the trade unions, together with progressive social movements, combine the concerns for decent and well-paid work, health and a good life with the struggles for a developed, largely freely accessible social infrastructure and an ecologically compatible social metabolism with nature. Different experiences of discrimination must find expression in these struggles and in an ecosocialist programme. Only if people without secure residence status and political rights become involved in a struggling workers’ movement and actively shape it, can the workers constitute themselves as a class again in their entirety and diversity, transforming society in their sense.
Anchoring the climate movement in society
Despite its dynamism, the climate movement is still insufficiently rooted in society. It is crucial for dealing with the climate crisis that workers regain self-confidence in their social role. This cannot be brought about by appeals from outside, but only by a strengthening of the working class from within. Thus, a key question is whether and how the well-trained young activists of the climate movement can themselves be part of the solution.[xi]
Many climate activists are faced with the question of whether and how they should anchor themselves professionally and become active in trade unions. If they try to get jobs in the union apparatus, there is a risk that instead of really rebuilding the unions on an independent class position, they will contribute to a modern sham-radical facelift of the unions that previous generations had already gone through.
When climate activists try to combine their professional activity with the collective defence of working conditions at the workplace, they can contribute to the reconstruction of trade unions.[xii] The point, then, is to combine personal development with a political organising perspective. However, such an orientation can only be one piece of a broader and more comprehensive strategy, as its implementation comes up against several practical and fundamental problems.[xiii]
The climate movement and its ecosocialist wing must root themselves socially. But there is no ideal way to do this. Promising approaches can differ from country to country, from region to region, from sector to sector. If crystallising struggles take place in a region, they can abruptly change the constellation and dynamics and open up new possibilities. Likewise, prolonged passivity and lack of success can lead to political depression and exacerbate disorientation.
There are several possible ways to advance the social embeddedness of the system-changing climate movement in the workplace organising process. Depending on the context and concrete conditions, various methods might be more effective that are not mutually exclusive but complement each other.
- It is crucial that the climate movement becomes strong enough to force the trade unions into an ecological reorientation. This strength is gained through a combination of different strategies and actions, ranging from petitions, voting and election campaigns and demonstrations to occupations and active strikes.
- There can be selective or even more far-reaching cooperation and alliances between the climate movement and parts of the trade unions in concrete political disputes.
- In some places, anti-capitalist climate groups are trying to talk to workers in the car industry. These are still limited, but nevertheless important experiences. However, successes are unlikely to be achieved in the short term.
- Where possible, workers can build trade union networks for ecological industrial conversion supported by ecosocialists.
- At the same time, it can be useful to gain influence in the trade union middle apparatus and thus become capable of campaigning. Experiences from the USA and Germany with “organising” campaigns indicate that a trade union renewal is at least partially possible in this way. However, it remains difficult to win large industrial unions like the IG Metall or even IGBCE in Germany for a “socio-ecological” conversion programme.
- At the same time, it can be necessary to build up rank-and-file structures in companies – for example, working groups on work conditions, health and climate – outside and independent of the trade unions. This is particularly important where the trade unions are opposed to ecological conversion. This way of autonomous organising can generally be an important pillar that should also be combined with the work within the trade unions.
These examples show that the orientation towards trade unions and putting down roots at the workplaces can greatly depend on the balance of power and the unions’ understanding of the urgency of effective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We have to try everything and be innovative in our tactics. At the centre is always the strategic goal of promoting the self-articulation and self-organisation of workers on an ecological basis. The climate movement faces challenges that are not easy to solve precisely in those sectors of the economy where the trade unions are weakly rooted, or where they limit themselves to representing the interests of a relatively privileged strata of workers through reactionary policies, preserving the status quo and economic growth while subordinating themselves to the competitive and profit concerns of business. One challenge consists of developing concrete projects to engage discussions with young, especially migrant and female workers. They must be able to bring their concerns into the climate movement. This is a hitherto hardly noticed, but important aspect in the process of building of socially broadly rooted climate movement.
Building a revolutionary ecosocialist current
However, all these efforts need actors and organisations to take up strategic challenges, proposing action programmes, sharing experiences, learning together and, above all, organising the movement effectively. Crucially, it needs a transnational exchange and common activities. We need to build awareness of the global dimension of the challenge.
That is why internationally coordinated revolutionary ecosocialist organisations are needed. For the time, the focus is not on building new organisations, but on raising the ecosocialist awareness of existing socialist organisations and parties. The Global Ecosocialist Network, founded in 2020, has set itself precisely this task. This was also a goal of the international ecosocialist conference on 26-28th June 2020[xiv] and the various international ecosocialist conferences taking place in Romance language countries.
In German-speaking countries, there are tentative ecosocialist organising processes, which, however, articulate themselves in different political crystallisation moments and organisational forms of expression. There are also groups that do not call themselves ecosocialists but think and act similarly. It makes sense to bring these efforts into a joint discussion process. Undoubtedly, a common powerful organisation will not emerge quickly. There are different positions regarding the state, participation in elections, the relationship to parties like DIE LINKE, trade unions and the anti-imperialist orientation. But through regular joint debates, practice and theoretical sharpening, a process of convergence can be set in motion.
An international ecosocialist current that is clear in its programme and capable of action is necessary. It must promote the exchange of experience among the people and organisations involved to jointly intervene in struggles, for example, about industrial conversion and dismantling. Such a current can articulate itself in and alongside existing revolutionary socialist organisations, also contribute to the formation of such organisations or work within broader reformist parities. The concrete organisational form has to be sensibly adapted to conditions in the given country and region.
Not only activists in the climate movement, in the feminist movement, in the health sector and in other public services, but also young workers in industrial sectors need to be won for ecosocialist currents and organisations. This requires innovative attempts as well as mutual, time-consuming learning processes. By organising young workers, the aforementioned process of rebuilding a workers’ movement can be filled with life. However, the success of this ambitious project depends on whether ecosocialist organisations actively and consciously take up this challenge. International mobilisations need to be rooted in local organising efforts, carrying the necessary anti-capitalist rupture and ecosocialist departure towards broad sections of workers.
The revolutionary ecosocialist current should take up the comprehensive global dimension and urgency of the ecological crisis as well as the sharpness of the social contradictions as a starting point in its everyday work, forcefully explaining the necessity of rupturing with capitalist constraints of accumulation, profit and competition as well as the urgency of beginning an ecosocialist revolutionary process. However, a major challenge is how we adjust to the fact that major social catastrophes and crises will occur as global warming continues unabated. The crossing of the tipping points of the Earth system gives rise to abrupt turns and ruptures that happen unevenly both geographically and socially. It is unclear how people will react to these abrupt changes in their living conditions. Ecosocialists are all the more confronted with the task of adapting to these ruptures in terms of content and organisation, which bring with them both opportunities for revolutionary awakenings and dangers of reactionary and barbaric darkness.
[i] Malm 2020, 2021
[ii] Benjamin 1940: 153
[iii] Lenin 1916
[iv] Bensaïd 2002
[v] Lenin 1918
[vi] Many anarchists have even reinforced Lenin's mistake in “State and Revolution” of insufficiently evaluating the independent role of parties, considering them superfluous or even evil.
[viii] Zeller 2021
[x] Zeller 2020: 100-108
[xi] Urs Zuppinger, a comrade in Lausanne with decades of trade union experience, argues in a contribution to the discussion that young climate activists should play a key role in renewing and rebuilding the workers’ movement (Zuppinger 2021).
[xii] Zuppinger 2021
[xiii] Zeller 2021
Bensaïd, Daniel (2002): Leaps! Leaps! Leaps! International Socialism Journal (95 summer). http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj95/bensaid.htm
Lenin, Wladimir Ilitsch (1916): Der Opportunismus und der Zusammenbruch der II. Internationale. Werke, Band 22. 3. Auflage, 1960. Berlin/DRR: Dietz Verlag, 107-119 S. Originalpublikation: “Vorbote” Nr. 1., Januar 1916.
Lenin, Wladimir Ilitsch (1918): Staat und Revolution. Die Lehre des Marxismus vom Staat und die Aufgaben des Proletariats in der Revolution. Werke, Band 25. 1972. Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 393 – 507 S.
Malm, Andreas (2020): Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. War Communism in the Twenty-First Century. London: Verso, 215 S.
Malm, Andreas (2021): How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire. London: Verso, 208 S.
Zeller, Christian (2020): Revolution für das Klima. Warum wir eine ökosozialistische Alternative brauchen. München: Oekom Verlag, 248 S.
Zeller, Christian (2021): Ökosozialismus: Eine strategische Debatte eröffnen sozialismus.ch. (10. Oktober 2020). https://sozialismus.ch/oekologie/2021/oekosozialismus-eine-strategische-debatte-eroeffnen-teil-2/. Zugriff 19. August 2021
Zuppinger, Urs (2021): Ökosozialismus: Eine strategische Debatte eröffnen (Teil 1). sozialismus.ch. 18. August 2021. https://sozialismus.ch/oekologie/2021/oekosozialismus-eine-strategische-debatte-eroeffnen-teil-1/. Zugriff 10. Oktober 2021