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The Need for an Ecosocialist Revolutionary Movement

By: 
Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden

Allow us to first dispense with the argument that revolutionary movements are synonymous with violence. While self-defence is a human right, a revolutionary movement is one whose intent is a change in social system. The motivation for an ecosocialist revolutionary movement is to end the violence of the present global capitalist system by replacing it with ecosocialism, a system characterized by communal relations among people and commensal relations between people and the rest of nature.

In contrast to the exploitative and parasitic relationships characteristic of a class-divided society and the unsustainable relationship between class-divided societies and nature, communal relationships between people are non-violent, and commensal relationships with the rest of nature are sustainable.

Here we make a sharp distinction between spontaneous revolts of the exploited and oppressed and an ecosocialist revolution. The defining characteristics of exploitative and oppressive social relations are differential access to nature and the products of human labor and the absence of democratic economic decision-making rights. Capitalism includes all the forms of exploitation known to human history, including, among others, patriarchy, slavery, feudalism, and, especially, wage labor. Spontaneous revolts of the oppressed and exploited have sometimes altered the dominant mode of exploitation, but not liberated humanity from the ecological and social violence associated with the maintenance of class division and oppression.

The challenge contemporary capitalism poses to us is far greater than can be resolved by modest reforms of the system. The crisis this time is existential, and not only in relation to human habitation in ecologically troubled locations. This time there is no place to which humanity might relocate safely. The present crisis embraces the entire biosphere. A social revolution from capitalism to ecosocialism must necessarily be global and for that purpose requires a conscious, internationally connected, revolutionary movement, whose members are committed to participating over the long term in the achievement of a global ecological civilization through

  1. Continuing self and public education in the natural and social sciences,
  2. Global collaboration between the ecosocialist revolutionary movements within each nation and locality and solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed and exploited everywhere,
  3. Development of corresponding revolutionary programs, strategic perspectives, and local tactics, and in the process
  4. Creating the bottom-up (local to global) democratic decision-making practices and institutions needed to replace the top-down decision-making practices and institutions of capitalism.

Given ruling class influence and constraints on the conduct and education in the natural and social sciences, an ecosocialist revolutionary movement will need to rely on scientific research and education conducted by the scientists and science educators in their midst, especially on those who have broken free from ruling class and other authoritarian constraints against the revolutionary Marxian tradition, which utilizes dialectical logic, and historical materialist theory as guides.

The belief that the present existential crisis is resolvable through reforms that would leave capitalism as the dominant global social system is misguided. The profit motive of capitalism is the driving force behind this crisis. Centuries of reforms of capitalism, while preparing the cultural grounds for the cultural and economic revolution which is needed, have left capitalism to continue its reckless path towards destruction of the biosphere’s capacity to sustain human life, while perpetuating unequal access to the now reduced capacity of the biosphere to support the services and products needed to sustain us.

Both parts of this crisis, unequal access to natural resources and undermining of the health of an otherwise supportive natural environment, are inevitable consequences of capitalism. The profit motive that defines capitalism as a social system equates to continual expansion of economic activity whether that activity is directed towards meeting essential human needs or is primarily wasted on forcefully maintaining unequal class relationships and on wasteful extravagance of the ruling class.

Capitalism today, as has been true of all class divided societies, equates to unequal distribution of the goods and services produced from nature by human labor. The cost of the security of the capitalist class is the insecurity of the working class. The cost of the security of more profitable businesses is the insecurity of less profitable ones. Inequality is the inevitable consequence.

During the recent neoliberal era, the drive to find new sources of private profit has resulted in the cannibalization of public services, leaving humanity increasingly vulnerable to pandemics and other ecological disorders. A notable example is the privatization of pension funds for the elderly, which were in some countries previously provided, albeit poorly, as guaranteed payments funded by taxation of current business activity. Now these pensions are supported by funds invested in private-profit-motivated corporations, increasing both the insecurity of prospective and current pensioners and the inertia of the capitalist system against the reforms needed for achieving ecological sustainability.

More widely recognized forms of cannibalization of public services include the privatization of public education, health care, and other public goods, resulting in generally poorer services, reduced income and security for those providing these services, and wealth transfer to the already wealthy.

Another ecologically unsustainable consequence of the drive for new sources of private profit is the plethora of new products and services which meet no human need, at least not on any durable basis, but which can be sold by deception. While this form of psychological warfare has been characteristic of capitalism, it is today the principal expression of capitalist culture, and one of the most wasteful uses of human talent and natural resources.

For those who agree that a revolutionary change to a more sustainable relationship between people and with the rest of nature is needed, the question remains: How can such an alternative be achieved? This requires identification of both the opportunities and barriers to revolutionary transformation.

As to opportunities, capitalism itself is creating the crises which necessitate and enable an ecosocialist revolution. The continuing process of concentration of wealth and centralization of its global management has made the ruling class increasingly vulnerable. The small number of capitalists at the top of the capitalist food chain today rules by dividing the rest of the global population. While these divisions are a cause of great stress to the overwhelming majority, they are also a sign of the vulnerability of the capitalist ruling class. Our challenge is in the opposite direction, namely, to unite in struggle those the capitalist ruling class needs to divide. 

A principal barrier to revolutionary change is the geographic scale of the transformation needed. It matches the penetration of capitalism, which is now global. Supply chains created by the drive for profit maximization now envelop every nation on Earth. So does communication, but with the consequence that not only the capitalist ruling class, with its representatives in every country, but also the exploited and oppressed are able to organize and plan their actions globally. Even the barrier of language has been reduced by the development of digital electronic translation.

Another barrier to be overcome is the misconception revealed in the popular refrain about preserving “our” democracy. Whether democratic or dictatorial, capitalism was ushered in by the creation of systems of law and governance that accomplish more than benign management of public affairs. They provide the capitalist ruling class with:

  1. Nation states whose geographic boundaries enforce internal markets for capitalist production.
  2. Constraints on rule by divine right, thus ending the political dominance of landed property owners.
  3. Prioritization and protection of capitalist property rights.
  4. Security systems for both domestic and international relations, the former for internal control of the working class and the latter for the protection of their internal markets and penetration into the markets of other countries, including direct colonization and neo-colonial capitalist investment.

These initial forms of governmental protection for capitalist exploitation of nature and human labor have been modified over time, facilitating the global movement of capital, while constraining the movement of labor, thus facilitating a global race to the bottom in environmental protections and labor rights. This internal change within capitalism has featured the creation of multinational corporations, and corresponding international institutions for the management of capitalist trade and competition, such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, each supporting capitalist wealth accumulation at the expense of labor.

Democracy within capitalism has always been limited, sometimes by property qualifications for voting and by other means, but primarily by electoral and justice systems that are most accessible to those with discretionary income and wealth. The resulting governments have primarily functioned to manage society on behalf of the dominant sections of the ruling capitalist class and to manage competition between competing capitalists.

The preservation of capitalist democracy is certainly preferable to its fascist and neofascist alternatives. But it is a misconception to consider this limited form of democracy adequate to the task of an ecologically sustainable relationship with the rest of nature. The limited top-down forms of decision making which define capitalism and capitalist governments are incapable of addressing the myriad, complex tasks humanity now faces. Historical evidence for this is amply provided by the various attempts to achieve socialism through centralized, largely top-down governance.

The alternative of governance founded on bottom-up, local to global democratic institutions would be historically unprecedented, but there are increasing examples of the success of diverse, bottom-up voluntary collaboration to accomplish progressive purposes at local, national, and even international levels. These examples, of course, will need to be multiplied, scaled up, and intensively networked during the further struggle for a sustainable global civilization. While the creation of radically democratic bottom-up governance on the scale needed, from local to global, will be challenging, this accomplishment is both necessary and, for the first time in human history, feasible.

Strategic Perspective

Within the myriad forms and content of the struggles we are now engaged in, we argue here for the need within them of revolutionary ecosocialist political movements. Our argument here neither implies conceit nor hegemonic ambition. It simply means the obvious, namely that some of us will recognize the necessity and possible paths to revolutionary transformation sooner than others. The main tasks of ecosocialist political movements are therefore educational and organizational, the former featuring facilitation of the learning and development of ourselves and others. The latter including facilitation of the creation of the alternative institutions needed as replacements for the existing capitalist ones.  

Those of us who have recognized and corrected some of our own misconceptions about the nature of the capitalist system in which we live have done so by addressing the discrepancy between that system’s behavior and our need for an alternative.  Our learning has been the product of our experience and our expectation of something better. The main tasks of a revolutionary ecosocialist political movement, therefore, include its members’

  • own further learning and development,
  • assistance to others along the same intellectual journey,
  • joining others in the myriad struggles for a better world, and
  • advancing a program, strategic perspective, and tactics for participating in the achievement of a global ecological civilization, in the process
  • modelling the relationships needed.

The route to revolutionary social transformation is participation in the struggles for reforms of capitalism. In these struggles, the emphasis of revolutionaries needs to be on those reforms the people need, but which capitalism is unable to deliver. The struggle of the people for reform is our opportunity to foster the cultural change, including modelling the democratic practices needed for social transformation, in the process expanding the revolutionary movement to the scale needed for global social transformation.

Let’s consider some of the principal forms the struggle for reforms of capitalism can take, in the process identifying corresponding opportunities and obstacles to the revolutionary change we need.

Development of cooperatives

The decisive element of the transformation from capitalism to ecosocialism is property ownership, the replacement of private ownership and management of the means of social production and exchange by their communal ownership and management.

Some have argued that this can be accomplished incrementally, through the creation and expansion of cooperatives. In the desperate circumstances created by the ruthlessness of capitalism, the formation of cooperative enterprises is often a means for working people to survive crises which have eliminated their places of work or otherwise reduced their opportunities for a living income through employment.  

But all businesses within capitalism, whether cooperatively, publicly, or privately owned function according to the conditions established by the dominant capitalist enterprises and their owners, namely competition that favors those enterprises which ignore ecological constraints and fulfilment of the full range of human needs in the communities in which they operate.

On the other hand, cooperation that features non-monetary exchanges based on the principle, “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” becomes an ecosocialist revolutionary initiative, especially when it also features ecologically sustainable forms of production and exchange and scientifically informed decision-making.

Strengthening the labor movement

Distinct from slave and feudal relations, working people under capitalism are free to sell their labor power as a commodity in exchange for monetary rewards. This freedom of movement, however, is constrained by the laborers’ dependence on income to purchase for themselves and their dependents those means of subsistence which are no longer provided communally, and by political boundaries that restrict their movement.

Competition between capitalist enterprises compels the owners of competing enterprises to reduce their costs by maximizing their exploitation of both labor and nature. One consequence is the tendency to undermine the reproduction of each, and ultimately of capitalism as a system, evident in the existential threat humanity now faces. Another consequence of capitalism is its preparedness to use warfare or the threat of violence to secure its interests, including an arms race that now includes weapons of mass destruction. Either we go down with capitalism through war or the degradation of nature or we replace capitalism with ecosocialism.

Historically, working class resistance to their employers has included, with varying degrees of success, unionization capable of organizing collective withdrawal of labor and political struggle to replace pro-capitalist laws with laws favoring the working class, in each case with only short- term success. The capitalist class has historically always used its economic power to achieve its political ends.

During the neoliberal era, the capitalist class has used globalization (the freedom of capital to move across nation-state political boundaries) to create a global race to the bottom in labor rights and environmental protection, thereby undermining the effectiveness of strike actions and political struggles confined within nation-state political boundaries.   

Self evidently, revolutionary ecosocialist reform efforts include

  • Increased organizational efforts to include all working people in organized resistance to the exploitative aims of the capitalist class, undermining the ability of the capitalist class to pit workers against workers.
  • Extending working class organized resistance to include global solidarity and common action across nation-state boundaries.
  • Emphasizing the struggle for a shorter work week, accompanied by the demand for higher hourly wages, freeing the working class from control by the capitalist class, restoring to humanity free time to meet communal needs in accord with the ecosocialist principle, “from each according to their ability to each according to their needs”, thereby strengthening families and communities.
  • Struggling politically to expand public goods and services, provided for free to all, where the cost of these goods is paid from taxing profits, that is by reducing theft by the capitalist class. 
  • Prioritizing the struggle to protect the rights of the young and future generations to an Earth which is equally able to support human life. 

The capitalist class can be expected to resist these reforms, including through their dominance of the means of communication and education to influence public opinion and through their political strength to use the legal and security systems against the working class. Ultimately, it is only through a revolutionary change, featuring the replacement of pro-capitalist laws by an ecosocialist legal system, that human civilization and the rest of nature can be freed from the violence of capitalism.

As to the role of competition in promoting innovation and change, let it be competition to serve the common good, without private accumulation of material wealth and the consequent degradation of nature. An ecosocialist revolution will necessarily include the replacement of managerial rights by democracy at work. The ability of an ecosocialist society to respond to human needs will necessarily include the freedom of work collectives and communities to initiate new forms of production and distribution in response to need, with a priority on conservation of nature and materials and minimal disruption of family and community life.    

The struggle for a sustainable natural environment

Preserving Earth as a home for humanity necessitates cooperation and solidarity that crosses political and class boundaries, creating the conditions needed for local and global cooperation to mitigate the effects of climate disruption and the other consequences of ecological degradation, and to prevent further ecological damage.

The struggle for a sustainable natural environment is inherently a revolutionary one.

The evident failure of the capitalist ruling class to effectively meet this crisis increasingly undermines its authority and social license, motivating people to critically examine it as a form of production and distribution. To the extent that capitalism is itself recognized as causal in relation to ecological destruction and the undermining of human social relations, cross-class alliances become possible in the struggle to replace capitalism with ecosocialism, especially when ecosocialism is understood to mean an ecologically sustainable form of social organization, one achievable only through radically democratic decision-making in every community and at every workplace.

The struggle for peace and global solidarity

The peace and environmental movements today share in the responsibility for creating the conditions necessary for an ecologically sustainable relationship between humanity and the rest of nature, including global solidarity and social justice and the end of war and preparations for war. For capitalism, on the other hand, war is an extension of capitalist class politics, including exploitation of labor and natural resources, while preparation for war is a form of welfare for the military-industrial complex. The achievement of global solidarity, social justice, and peace requires the replacement of capitalist class rule by the radically democratic alternative of an ecologically sustainable civilization.

The struggle for a cultural revolution

Capitalism is supported and reproduced by a corresponding culture, including commercial advertising to support consumerism and an educational and cultural focus on competition between individuals through which superstar individuals, in the first place, capitalists, are given the credit for innovation and accomplishment. The cultural preparation for ecosocialism, on the other hand, includes emphasis on collaboration and cooperation as the foundation for problem solving, featuring critical thinking and application of scientific knowledge to the identification and solution of problems. Just as much as the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of its ruling class, cultural revolution is the necessary companion to the achievement of a radically democratic, just, peaceful, solidaristic, humane, and ecologically sustainable global civilization. The cultural revolution must gain its initial momentum within a now moribund capitalist society, in anticipation of the even larger role it must play in the period of development and consolidation of the ecosocialist alternative to capitalism.

Electoral and legal struggles

The electoral and legal systems under which most countries currently operate are those created by the capitalist class and its supporters for the reproduction of capitalism, including its core cultural values. Other countries are still compelled to participate in capitalist global trade which therefore influences their internal economic practices and associated cultural values.

Capitalist law and electoral politics feature adversarial representation, assuring the propertied classes of all the “justice” their money can purchase. Their influence over law and politics also includes

  • power to hire and fire,
  • ownership of the commercial mass media,
  • employment of lobbyists and public relations personnel,
  • discretionary income and wealth available for sponsoring electoral parties and candidates, and through these means,
  • power to shape the educational and cultural institutions of capitalist societies.

In such a rigged system, those seeking justice for the people, including more just, democratic, and ecologically sustainable relationships, cannot limit themselves to “the masters’ tools”. Participation of revolutionaries within the legal and electoral systems created by and for the capitalist class should serve primarily the purpose of exposing to the people the limitations and ultimately the bankruptcy of that system and the class that controls it.

The focus during participation in capitalist electoral and legal arenas needs to be on public political education, preparing the cultural grounds for the creation of a new social system. Part of this preparation can be the creation of institutions under popular control, such as townhalls, assemblies, cultural facilities, and ecosocialist political parties, together practicing radically democratic, scientifically informed, bottom-up policy decision-making and undertaking associated cultural and educational activity.  

Civil disobedience as a form of struggle

Civil disobedience includes all those forms of struggle which are most effective in achieving the liberation of the working class and all those exploited and oppressed by capitalism, but which the capitalist class has either succeeded in prohibiting by law or placing obstacles in the way. First among these means are the withdrawal of labor power and the obstruction of business as usual. It is precisely because of their effectiveness that such means are essential to the achievement of meaningful reforms of capitalism, that is, those that improve the health, welfare, and capacity for struggle of the working class, and all oppressed under capitalism.

The necessity of revolutionary ecosocialist political movements

None of the forms of struggle we have used as examples can by themselves accomplish more than temporary reforms of capitalism. The reproductive needs of capitalism as a social system compel the capitalist class and its political representatives to undo any reform which restricts its essential activity, the accumulation of privately owned capitalist property.

Nor is it likely that any of the essential ecosocialist reforms of capitalism will today be possible without the existence of revolutionary ecosocialist political movements. Concessions by the capitalist class are usually only made in the face of a revolutionary alternative, that is, when force meets force.

Time is now of the essence. The challenge we face is arguably more critical than any humanity has faced during the history of capitalism. The present era would, in all probability, be the last one for humanity without the achievement of an ecologically sustainable global alternative to capitalism. For that, revolutionary ecosocialist political movements, as repositories of the peoples’ experience and determination to replace capitalism, are essential.

Charles Posa McFadden is an educator, researcher, and author, whose published work includes

peer-reviewed research in the natural, social, and educational sciences. Karen Howell McFadden is an educator, artist, and published poet and literary scholar. For development of some of the arguments found in this essay, see their website:  https://www.greensocialdemocracy.org and search for other articles by them published on http://www.greensocialthought.org. They can be reached at apcamcfadden@aol.com.