At the tipping point

Can the bourgeoisie be forced to adopt climate socialism? Highly unlikely, but we should not rule it out in principle. Eddie Ford highlights the necessity of a minimum programme

Recent headlines have been dominated by flooding in Belgium, Germany and China - London too. Then we have wildfires blazing in British Colombia, the USA, Turkey, plus the permafrost melting in Siberia, and so on.

There has been a discernible change in how the media reports unusual or extreme weather - usually linking it now to human activity - and there have been various stories about how 2021 is going to be the hottest and wettest ever year. This is in the context of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) to be held in Glasgow, beginning October 31.

In preparation for that huge gathering of presidents, government ministers, top climate scientists and officially approved do-gooders, there is the ongoing preparation of the sixth report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What needs to be emphasised about the IPCC is that the clue is in the name: it is a governmental panel. While climate scientists draw up the initial report, providing the raw material, it is government officials who go over it with a fine-tooth comb - putting all sorts of doubts and caveats into the text - which the scientists are normally very unhappy with. There is clearly a tension then between what the scientists are reporting and projecting - saying what needs to be done - and what governments are willing to commit themselves to. This year we know from leaks that scientists want to include in the report an urgent warning about how we are either approaching the climatic tipping point or have already reached it.

That tipping point is no mystery, at least to any Marxist who knows the ABC of dialectics - at some point, quantity gives way to quality. The classic example is of water boiling or freezing: what was liquid turns into steam or ice at certain temperatures. But with the climate we are talking about a shift from one paradigm to another.

The best illustration is the Gulf Stream, which is a warm and swift ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico. If it was not for the Gulf Stream, Britain would be a very cold place indeed like Labrador or Siberia. What happens in a paradigm shift is that patterns like that get switched off and we end up with a completely different global climate system. None of us, not even the best scientists, are in a position to make exact predictions, as we are dealing with something incredibly dynamic, but there can be no doubt that the result would be dramatic - one where possibly the US’s grain belt turns into a desert or rainfall doubles over western Europe. And, alas, it is not the case that, if you manage to lower the temperature, then you go back to the previous climate pattern. Rather, the new climate pattern will have its own relative stability.

With global warming, it is, of course, obvious that this will go hand in hand with a rise in the level of seawater. We all know about Bangladesh, which is a very low-lying country. If the waters rise, then much of its agriculture disappears - along with a lot of cities that were built near the coast or in low-lying river valleys. If sea levels rise by just a metre cities such as Alexandria, Jakarta, Lagos, Houston, Dhaka, Bangkok, Rotterdam, Shanghai and Miami face inundation. And scientists warn that at the extreme end seawater levels could rise by as much as 2.5 metres by 2100. That, even if the targets of the Paris climate agreement are met!


It is worthwhile contrasting that scenario with the pronouncements of the British government’s climate spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, who has been widely mocked - quite rightly - for her suggestion that individuals can do their bit by not washing plates before placing them in the dishwasher, or cutting your loaf of bread in half and putting the rest in the freezer (all of this assumes that you have a dishwasher or freezer, of course). The idea that, faced with such a catastrophe, what matters is washing your plates is risible. What we should be talking about is not what individuals can do, but the necessity of social control and social action.

This brings us back to COP26. Now, it is easy for us on the left to convince ourselves that capitalism cannot do anything about the climate crisis. After all, it is a system based on endless expansion, meaning that production for profit necessarily results in production for the sake of production, and a system organised into competing companies. To make matters even worse, rival centres of capital are protected by rival states. One state seeks advantage or dominance over others. This produces a pyramidical structure of states with a global hegemon which can offload its problems to others further down the pyramid, causing bitter resentments, and hence generates constant challengers to the hegemon. A recipe for conflict, tension and eventually war.

Having said that, it is certainly worthwhile considering the history of capitalism over the last century and more - especially the emergence of organised capitalism, which began with World War I. In 1916 the German high command turned to what they called ‘war socialism’ (Kriegssozialismus). Obviously, they did not introduce that phrase because they had any socialist inclinations themselves, but because the law of value had to be temporarily suspended and a large section of the population were socialistic (roughly a third electorally). They used the phrase both as a sop and because they knew that if they continued to rely on the market they were done for.

What is remarkable is that Germany fought a dogged war on two fronts, taking on tsarist Russia in the east - which had vast reserves of manpower - and imperial France to the west with its global empire, and also the global hegemon, Britain, with its even more massive empire: and later on, the US joins the fight too. Under those formidable conditions, it is amazing that Germany survived for as long as it did, ending up with a negotiated peace. True, it was under unfavourable terms that meant being saddled with ‘the victor’s peace’, including onerous reparations, but its ability to keep on fighting against such tremendous odds was precisely because of Kriegssozialismus. Production was organised to meet needs (specifically those of the German war machine).

The same thing happened in World War II. Interestingly the most militarised capitalist country in that war was not Nazi Germany, but Great Britain - buoyed along by massive amounts of American aid and its own version of war socialism. The home front, after all, was organised by the Labour Party, whilst Winston Churchill was in charge of the foreign front. A neat division of labour in every sense.

Deputy prime minister Clement Attlee and Labour ministers such as Arthur Greenwood, Ernest Bevin and Stafford Cripps exercised tremendous power. As a result, there was the mobilisation of a very high percentage of the male population into the armed forces and a parallel mobilisation of the female population into the armed forces … and into the factories and fields - which many found liberating. There was strict rationing and state control over industry, agricultural production and transport (including haulage and the ports). In other words, all across the board there was the organisation of the economy by the state.

Looking back at this history, the argument essentially goes that capitalism was still capitalism even when - in defence of the capitalist state - it temporarily suspended the law of value and produced on the basis of need. You can easily make the same argument when it comes to the Covid pandemic, not least in Britain - the land of Thatcherism. Without hesitation, the chancellor tore up the economic textbooks - his economic textbooks of the Chicago School and how you cannot buck the market, of how the state can never produce any useful results. All that was scrapped with furloughs and lockdowns, with the government throwing money at vaccine production, which saw AstraZeneca (a British-Swedish company) agreeing with the scientists at Oxford University to work on a non-profit basis. Yes, it was state action - not private enterprise, not the market or ‘greed’ - that alone could handle the Covid disaster.

All this is not a million miles away from Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917. Faced with the collapse of tsarism - and with it the collapse of the economy - they argued that the only way to avoid total breakdown was for the soviets to take state power. The Bolshevik programme was not to introduce full-blown socialism in backward Russia - that was impossible. But a soviet government could arm the masses, nationalise the banks, impose rationing on all classes, ensure workers’ control over production and redistribute land to the peasants. The war communism of 1918-21 was a variant of that idea.


Regarding Glasgow and COP26, could the capitalist powers - plus, of course, China - agree to carry out a programme of climate socialism? They seem to have no problem with centralised state action, when it comes to conducting war and building weapons of mass destruction. Could they take the same approach to climate change?

Communists should take an open-ended view on this question. What we can say, though, is that with a system organised on the basis of competition between capitals and competition between states, it is very unlikely. But we should not in principle rule it out. Why? Because the working class is in no position whatsoever today, or in the near future, to end the rule of capital. Not on a global scale, not even in one leading country. Hence, we must of necessity agitate, educate and organise around an immediate, a minimum programme of avoiding the impending catastrophe of runaway climate change. To get an idea of what we are talking about look at the CPGB’s Draft programme on this question.

Here is what it has to say:

Global warming and the danger of runaway climate change have to be dealt with as a matter of extreme urgency. But we should be on guard against pseudo-solutions. Carbon offsets and carbon trading amount to greenwashing capitalism. Blaming population numbers in poor countries easily leads to Malthusian programmes and terrible human suffering. Launching reflective aerosols into the stratosphere, ocean mirrors, cloud thinning and space sunshades would, quite probably, lead to unintended, potentially, irreversible, consequences.

Instead communists present these demands:

Such a programme goes hand in hand with organising the working class into a mass Communist Party and winning the battle for extreme democracy.

Left to themselves the national states of today’s world are highly unlikely to do enough, fast enough to even meet the 30C maximum temperature rise agreed in Paris. Hence, the temptation of the pseudo-solutions mentioned in the CPGB’s Draft programme. Take the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, which includes amongst its ranks Sir David King, former government chief scientific advisor. According to this august body, things have gone so far that only geo-engineering offers a way out of catastrophic climate change. The CCAG is therefore recommending refreezing the Arctic ice-sheet by putting in place a giant white cloud cover during the three months of the polar summer. The hope is that this would reflect sunlight back into space so as to allow the regrowth of lost ice. The CCAG calculates that this measure would have to stay in place for 20 or 30 years to have the desired effect.

Now, you can just about see the Americans agreeing to that - except those living in Alaska. But it is hard to imagine the Canadians being particularly enthusiastic about the idea and Russia would strenuously object.

After all, when it comes to such proposals, we are not only in the realm of science fiction, but, when it comes to human action on the rest of nature, there is also the law of unintended consequences to consider. For instance, what happens to St Petersburg and other northern cities such a Arkhangelsk, Murmansk and Severomorsk? Part of the year they are already frozen in and the Russians have to use nuclear-powered ice-breakers to supply them. But what if that became permanent?

Given our present knowledge, we are not talking about an exact science, or anything like it. What produces a drop in temperature in the Arctic does not necessarily take you back to the global climate pattern you had in pre-industrial times. The idea that you simply cool the world down somehow and everything becomes fine and dandy, is delusional and dangerous.