The Final Conflict? Socialism and Climate Change

In its most famous English version, the socialist anthem “The Internationale” invokes “the final conflict” and calls on socialists to unite, stand firm, and fight to liberate humanity, helping a better world to “rise on new foundations.” Written 150 years ago, its words today resonate with special urgency. The best science we have tells us we are in a race against time to limit the existential threat of climate change. More than any generation before us, we must mobilize all of our political resources to deal with it or face, probably within the lifetimes of people alive today, a potentially final crisis of human society.

Where does this crisis leave the struggle for socialism? Naomi Klein has summarized the political implications of climate change with the words, “science is telling us all to revolt.” What she was referring to, of course, is how the accumulated data known today as “climate science” call for radical measures and sustained organizing—a new social movement that can simultaneously address social and economic injustices while halting and reversing capitalist ecocide. But what is the goal of this movement? According to Klein, “A new form of democratic eco-socialism, with the humility to learn from indigenous teachings about the duties to future generations and the interconnection of all of life, appears to be humanity’s best shot at collective survival.”[1]

The climate emergency imposes a specific time frame on politics, and for this reason disrupts the logic many socialists are accustomed to use.

Embracing Klein’s call also means confronting the fact that socialists are not currently prepared to meet this massive challenge. To succeed where capitalism has failed will require intense theoretical and practical work—and these in a form that socialists are not used to doing. In crucial ways, we have not even begun to do what must be done.

The climate emergency imposes a specific time frame on politics, and for this reason disrupts the logic many socialists are accustomed to use. At the same time, it calls for a new socialist praxis—one that can rejuvenate stagnant traditions and bridge entrenched divides, but that also requires (1) an ideological recalibration, (2) a political reorganization, and (3) sustained, concrete programmatic work. These are fully within our power to do, but they are going to impose new and greater challenges on us all.

Socialism in the Spotlight

As interest in socialism gains momentum in the United States and elsewhere, socialist proposals to address the climate crisis—which are currently making their way into public debates around the Green New Deal—will draw intense scrutiny, and rightly so. Traditional socialist values and principles regarding equality and working-class power are crucially important, but now more than ever we need to get concrete about what can and should be done to salvage a sustainable future.

During his presidential campaign, Senator Sanders called for new renewable energy to be publicly owned and for government leadership in meeting the climate crisis. For socialists, this raises pressing questions about the role of the state. Can individual states, armed with a popular mandate, act quickly and decisively to drive forward a radical decarbonization within a framework of social and economic justice? Can they do this while satisfying demands for justice and democracy?

A New Socialist Praxis

For socialists, these are not merely theoretical questions; our challenge is to answer them in practical terms in the affirmative and quickly. This requires us to forge a new socialist praxis, that will entail sustained work in at least three areas. First, we need an ideological recalibration—one that confronts the “growth imperative” at the heart of the current system. Second, we need a political reorganization, in which socialists recognize that the required “minimum program” is, given the climate challenge, revolutionary; this means that the old “reform versus revolution” framing has been made obsolete by the civilizational threat of runaway climate instability. Third, socialists—and eco-socialists in particular—must recognize and embrace the role of the state in meeting the crisis, in order for humanity to have any chance of a sustainable future. The enormity of the climate challenge and the unique, existential interdependencies of human beings at this historical conjuncture compel us to fight like hell in order to “reclaim the state”[2] so that it can be used to achieve a new set of “historical tasks.” This will require that all socialists “own” the failures and disappointments of past states as a means of learning new forms of popular and democratic governance.

End of History, the Sequel

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), without a radical change, of course the world is likely to be a full 3 degrees Celsius warmer by 2100 than it was at the dawn of capitalism. The picture the IPCC presents is sobering. The world in 2100 will be “no longer recognizable, with decreasing life expectancy, reduced outdoor labour productivity, and lower quality of life in many regions because of too frequent heatwaves and other climate extremes.”[3] Droughts and water stress will leave agriculture economically unviable in some regions. Poverty and conflict rise significantly. As they write, “Almost all ecosystems experience irreversible impacts, species extinction rates are high in all regions, forest fires escalate, and biodiversity strongly decreases, resulting in extensive losses to ecosystem services. These losses exacerbate poverty and reduce quality of life.”[4]

The enormity of the climate challenge . . . compel[s] us to fight like hell in order to “reclaim the state” . . .

The IPCC’s assessment has enormous implications for socialists. For more than a century, socialists spilled a lot of low-quality ink in polemical exchanges over what “historical phase” humanity was passing through, the “revolutionary potential” (or not) of the working class, and the “inevitability” (or not) of a socialist future. While not too many socialists today still engage in those discussions, few socialists have yet come to terms with the compressed time frame imposed by the climate crisis.

But the climate crisis has not only altered the historical parameters for action, it also imposes a new set of “historical tasks,” aimed at limiting planetary warming and adapting to a world where some additional warming is already inevitable. Staying within “safe” limits, says the IPCC, remains technically possible, although it “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” including “transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities.”[5] And rapid means just that. The IPCC’s time frame calls for a 45 percent reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030, which is less than a decade from now.

Ideological Recalibration

Capitalism’s failure to address the climate crisis calls for an ideological recalibration. The “growth imperative” that lies at the heart of the system makes efforts to control or reduce GHG emissions highly implausible, if not impossible. The idea that industrialized economies could—by way of “ecological modernization”—decouple economic growth from emissions is now completely discredited.[6] Individual countries claim to have achieved this—but this is almost entirely due to the offshoring of emissions to the world’s new industrial centers like China and India. Meanwhile, global COemissions from all sources hit record levels in 2018.[7] Reporting the news, the head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, said, “I have very bad news. My numbers are giving me some despair.”[8]

The idea that industrialized economies could . . . decouple economic growth from emissions is now completely discredited.

President Trump is excoriated for walking away from the Paris Agreement, as if the Agreement is some kind of sacred oath binding the faithful to the task of building a low-carbon future. But other G20 countries—responsible for 80 percent of global emissions—are not honoring their Paris commitments either.[9] Whether part of the Paris Agreement or not, the result is pretty much the same—there is no meaningful progress, and under the current system there is simply no prospect of a change of direction.

But today, any “reform” that recognizes the scale and urgency of the climate crisis must have revolutionary implications. The goal must be to end the system of profit, extraction, accumulation, and irresponsible consumption, rather than winning “our fair share” of the fruits of ecocide.

This does not mean that socialists should form “one big party” focused solely on climate change and ignore all other issues. But if we accept the scientific consensus, then there is simply no space for “incrementalist” or “gradualist” struggle against capitalism. Such thinking has for generations been widespread among social democrats as well as socialists from the communist or revolutionary traditions. Both have made countless rationalizations with regard to the “historic com- promise” between capital and labor, through which capital provides economic concessions— high wages, full employment, social welfare— and labor accepts the capitalist system and capital’s prerogative to own and manage the means of production.[10]

Political Reorganization

When viewed in this light, divisions between reform socialism and its revolutionary rivals— from the launch of the First International in 1864, to the great splits that occurred around the Russian Revolution in 1917, the “Popular Front” and the fight against Fascism in the 1930s, the Cold War after 1945, and the Cuban Revolution in 1959—all belong to another epoch.

If a new socialist praxis means that socialists recognize that the “minimum program” is, in this historical period, revolutionary, this also means that old “reform versus revolution” divisions that put boundaries between different socialist traditions must be set aside in order to face the civilizational threat posed by out-of-control climate instability. Whether we like it or not, we are all revolutionaries now.

But the work involved in overcoming these boundaries requires that both Marx-inspired revolutionary socialists and reform social democrats find ways to come to terms with the new reality. Perhaps the single most important issue in achieving this is the relationship to state power.

“Owning” State Failures

Radical socialists who have traditionally rejected reformism must go beyond “system change” arguments and get concrete about solutions. Long before anyone else on the left, a small group of eco-socialists delivered compelling analysis of capitalism’s seemingly inseparable ties to ecological destruction and climate instability. But most of this extremely important work was light on solutions, as if the very discussion of solutions might degenerate into reformist thinking. Furthermore, the eco-socialist vision is often explicitly opposed to the state being central to the transition to a post-capitalist world. This aversion to the state can be traced back to the eco-socialists’ Belem Statement of 2008, and perhaps even earlier.[11] More recently, Hans Baer stated, “Democratic eco-socialism rejects a statist, growth-oriented, productivist ethic.” Baer holds that ecosocialism should be built around “a network of workplace and consumer-based councils.”[12]

. . . [T]he eco-socialist vision is often explicitly opposed to the state being central to the transition to a post-capitalist world.

Leading eco-socialist Michael Löwy explicitly warns against trying to use the existing state in order to pursue eco-socialist goals. “Ecosocialists,” he argues, should take their inspiration from Marx’s remarks on the Paris Commune: workers cannot take possession of the capitalist state apparatus and put it to work at their service. They have to “break it” and replace it by a radically different, democratic and non-statist form of political power.[13]

Some socialist writers have posited that “the commons” provides the foundation for a future socialist society. For Derek Wall, “While state provision can be humanized and markets tamed by the social, the more fundamental task requires that both the state and the market are rolled back.”[14]

This utopian and “horizontalist” perspective is widespread in eco-socialist writings and also colors much of today’s climate justice activism. Of course, this anti-state bias has some basis. The existing “accumulation” states under capitalism seem impervious to reform, and the repressive actions and abusive behavior of “socialist” states of the past still haunt the left. The urge to reject the state and try to create something new in its place is understandably powerful.

But while it is not difficult to imagine how local initiatives and community-level control can fit into an eco-socialist vision, it is much harder to see how the speed and scale of change required can be achieved without states playing a leading role in mobilizing the resources needed to create space for local efforts to be effective.

Future discussion among socialists can be based on the knowledge that many socialist states and parties of the last century (particularly in its middle decades) bore the hallmarks of the political culture and semi-feudal social and economic relations that surrounded them. Self-identified socialist states focused on industrialization, as a means of building “real” socialism by way of the “development of the productive forces.” Environmental damage was regarded as a “first world problem.” Today, the radical democratization and decentralization of the state is far more conceivable, allowing for levels of oversight and accountability that could go a long way toward addressing the problems of “statism” as traditionally defined.

Either way, it is therefore necessary for socialists to “own” the problems that confront any state or government that, in future, might seek to chart a new socio-ecological and distinctly socialist orientation. When considering how best to address the climate crisis, attention must turn toward the state, not away from it. This attention must go beyond making “transitional demands” but to reclaiming, democratizing, and—despite Löwy’s warnings—capturing and using the state.[15]

Social Democracy and the Road to Recovery

For social democracy, climate change may offer a way out of its current stagnation.[16] The 1990s drift toward Blairite, “Third Way” thinking has led to a string of disastrous electoral defeats, particularly in Europe but also in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.[17] Not surprisingly, “Third Way” social democracy had nothing to say about climate change that went beyond the (now failed) “green growth” agenda of the liberal wing of the capitalist class. And leading social democrats did nothing to challenge the neoliberal idea that climate protection was best served by extending still further the privatization and liberalization of energy, trans-port, health care, and so on, that began in the 1980s.

For some, the December 2019 electoral defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s U.K. Labour Party might suggest that “shifting left” makes no difference; it still ends in defeat. But Labour under Corbyn became the largest party in Europe, with more than 560,000 members, ran on an openly socialist program, and captured almost 33 percent of the General Election vote. Labour’s manifesto commitment to the planet also helped it win a massive majority among younger voters. Had the election been decided by eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds, Labour would have won more than 90 percent of the seats in Parliament, and the Tories none at all. The intergenerational message of “climate and class” has also been central to the rise of progressive forces in the United States, including the massive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

“Third Way” social democracy had nothing to say about climate change that went beyond the (now failed) “green growth” agenda of the liberal wing of the capitalist class.

Calls for a Green New Deal have raised questions about the kind of interventions that would be needed to reach highly ambitious climate targets. Both Corbyn’s proposed extension of public ownership and Sanders’ commitment to public investment and reclaiming public control over energy place the question of ownership and control over the “commanding heights” of the economy at the center of debates on how to tackle the climate crisis.

Expropriate This!

Some social democrats have already accepted that climate change calls for a radical change of course. As one paper expressed it, “While some might just close their eyes in the face of climate change, social democrats know that it is time to act when society—whose well-being is what gives us meaning—is at risk of being annihilated.”[18] Responding to climate change can there- fore be seen as part of the effort to move past the “Third Way” and reconstitute social democracy both ideologically and politically.[19] There is a clear need to return to the kind of thinking that shaped the early decades of working-class struggle. From the 1880s to the outbreak of World War I, both revolutionaries and more reform-minded socialists were often part of the same social democratic organizations, such as the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). They argued a lot, but they also achieved a lot.

Indeed, there is a rich history upon which social democrats can draw from the explicitly socialist Erfurt Program adopted by the SPD in 1892, with its commitment to “social property and the transformation of the production of goods into socialist production.” More recently, reformist parties took decisive moves to nationalize key industries and services (such as the Labour Party immediately following World War II). As late as the 1980s, unions and social democrats in Sweden were seriously contemplating the expansion of social property and the extension of economic democracy through a “wage earner fund” system—essentially “collective funds” that could promote equality and drive social investments.[20] Social democrats have nationalized stuff before, and they can do so again.

A Sustained, Concrete Program for People and Planet

The third element of a new socialist praxis to meet the climate challenge concerns the programmatic commitments that are necessary to impede and then reverse the growth imperative that drives capitalism forward, an imperative that has collided with the ecosystems that sustain life. Here, it is important to distinguish between, first, the kind of socialist policies that might be implemented in the short to medium term and, second, how a socialist system of political economy would protect and respect well-established planetary limits. This distinction is important because a system based on ecological sanity and material sufficiency is certainly imaginable based on the current development (indeed, overdevelopment) of productive forces and human productivity. Global gross domestic product (GDP), at around $82 trillion annually, is almost triple where it was in 1980.[21]

Therefore, no one needs to starve or be without energy, mobility, and modern dentistry. Tomorrow’s socialism need not be about pig iron production or industrial agriculture; it can be about redistribution of wealth rather than producing more of it.

The real challenge, however, is navigating the transition. This is where socialist policies must take center stage. As formidable as the task may be, these policies need to be spelled out in as much detail as possible.

When it comes to state interventions, there are some obvious targets for socialist expropriation and/or renationalization. The public ownership of the electricity sector—which is still the world’s leading single source of energy-related COemissions—stands out in terms of its importance. If accompanied by the “demarketization” of energy providers (including many that are still formally publicly owned), key obstacles to decarbonizing the power sector can be removed. “Electricity for profit” is not compatible with the enormous technical and social challenges that come with reducing emissions across the entire economy. It is also not compatible with any real “Just Transition” for workers and communities.

When it comes to state interventions, . . . [t]he public ownership of the electricity sector. . . stands out in terms of its importance.

Transport is today the leading source of COemissions in the United States and Europe— and globally transport-related emissions are growing faster than emissions from any other sector. Again, the mass expansion of free public transport in urban areas is crucially important, as is imposing restrictions on the movement of unnecessary goods. Almost 40 percent of road transport emissions come from the movement of stuff, not people. Policies that push a series of “modal shifts,” from cars and trucks to modern rail and other low-carbon options, can be part of a suite of policies that can reduce emissions in the short term while promoting better quality of life for working people.[22]

A new socialist praxis must make control over money and finance a top priority. In recent years, heterodox economists have done the left an invaluable service by exposing the lie that governments are “broke” and that any transition to a sustainable future requires massive taxation.[23]

Indeed, Bernie Sanders’ campaign commitments reflect the rising influence of “modern monetary theory” (MMT) in left policy debates.[24] As a currency-issuing government, MMT scholars argue, the U.S. federal government could finance a Green New Deal directly through deficit spending, without issuing Treasury bonds or borrowing from the private sector. In the words of leading MMT theorist William Mitchell, “it is often overlooked that the current system allows private banks to create most of the digital money in circulation through loans, which create deposits and liquidity that can be spent.”[25] If private banks can “create liquidity,” obviously the government can do the same. And although a “currency sovereign” government cannot be made to default, its spending is still constrained by the availability of real resources—labor, raw materials, and so on.[26] But within those constraints, governments have enormous policy space to purchase idle resources (e.g., unemployed labor power) and carry out public programs.

. . . [H]eterodox economists have done the left an invaluable service by exposing the lie that governments are “broke” and that any transition to a sustainable future requires massive taxation.

All told, when one considers the kind of policies that are needed to drive the transition to a low-carbon future, it is here that the socialist experience—with its emphasis on public finance, needs-based planning, internationalism, workers’ control, and so on—can provide genuine hope in terms of achieving a truly sustainable low-carbon world.

The climate emergency has made visible the urgent need for both social democrats and more radical socialists to answer an old five-word question: What is to be done? And it must be answered in ways that can communicate a clear and inspiring four-word answer—something can be done. But we need a plan, not a five-year plan, but a fifty-year plan, starting yesterday.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of inter- est with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


[1] Naomi Klein, “Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not ‘Human Nature,’” The Intercept, August 3, 2018, available at
[2] William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi, Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neo-Liberal World (London: Pluto Press, 2017).
[3] 008_P48_spm.shtml.
[4] 008_P48_spm.shtml.
[5] 008_P48_spm.shtml.
[6] green-growth-policies-route.html?utm_sour ce=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_cam paign=Phys.org_TrendMD_1.
[7] ArticleID/2455/RISING- EMISSIONS- DRIVE-GREENHOUSE-GAS-INDEX- INCREASE; Carbon Brief, Analysis: Global CO2 Emissions Set to Rise in 2017 after Three-Year “Plateau ” November 13, 2017, available at ysis-global-co2-emissions-set-to-rise-2-per- cent-in-2017-following-three-year-plateau; PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Trends in Global CO2 and Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Summary of the 2017 Report, September 28, 2017, available at in-global-co2-and-total-greenhouse-gas-emis- sions; IPCC, IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report, 2015, available at https://www.ipcc. ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/SYR_AR5_ FINAL_full.pdf; Global Carbon Project, Global Carbon Budget 2017, November 13, 2017, available at https://www.globalcarbon- CarbonBudget_2017.pdf.
[8] environment/news/bad-news-and-despair- global-carbon-emissions-to-hit-new-record-in- 2018-iea-says/.
[9]UN Environment Programme, Lagging in Climate Action, G20 Nations Have Huge Opportunities to Increase Ambition, September 21, 2019, available at https://www.unenvi- lagging-climate-action-g20-nations-have-huge- opportunities-increase.
[10]See, e.g., articles/giorgio-amendola-the-italian-road- to-socialism. See also: Eric Hobsbawm, The Italian Road to Socialism: An Interview by Eric Hobsbawm with Giorgio Napolitano (London: Journeyman Press, 1977).
[11] belem-ecosocialist-declaration-a-call-for-sig- natures/.
[12] eco-socialism-as-the-next-world-system.
[13] Michael Löwy, Eco-socialism and Democratic Planning, Vol. 43, Socialist Register 2007, available at php/srv/article/view/5869/2765.
[14]Derek Wall, Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements (London: Pluto Press, 2005), 183-84.
[15] I have no desire to revisit the debates of the 1970s and 1980s around the idea of the state being an instrument of class rule, because the tasks of the state have become redefined by the climate crisis.
[16] See Andrew Jackson, Reflections on the Social Democratic Tradition, Broadbent Institute, March 2017, available at http://www.broadben- cratic_tradition.
[17] For a useful summary of the electoral demise of the social democrats from 2010 to 2017, see Marcel Pauly, “European Social Democracy Extinct?” Social Europe, January 26, 2018, available at
[18]Poul Nyrup Rasmussen and Udo Bullmann, “The Social Democracy to Come,” Occasional paper, Social Europe, 2016. -democracy-come.
[19] See e.g.”” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>See, e.g., tional/social-democracy/1891/erfurt-program.htm.
[20]Bengt Furåker, “The Swedish Wage-Earner Funds and Economic Democracy: Is There Anything to be Learned from Them?” European Review of Labour and Research 22, no. 1 (2016): 121-32, available at http://journals.
[21]World Bank,
[22] resources/tued-publications/tued-working-paper-12-the-road-less-travelled/.
[23]See, e.g.,
[24]“” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”> com/news/ fea- tures/2019-01-17/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-s- big-ideas-for-taxes-and-medicare.
[25]See Mitchell and Fazi, Reclaiming the State.
[26]″ target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>

Author Biography

Sean Sweeney is the director of the International Program on Labor, Climate & the Environment at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York. He also coordinates Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), a global network of sixty-four unions from twenty-two countries. TUED advocates for democratic control and social ownership of energy resources, infrastructure, and options.

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