Climate Strike: the practical politics of the climate crisis
By Derek Wall
Published by Merlin Press, 2020, £10
Reviewed by Clive Heemskerk
Derek Wall was a founder of the Association of Socialist Greens grouping that existed within the Green Party in England and Wales in the 1980s and, later, a leading figure in the Green Left.
In 2006 he became the Greens’ co-Principal Speaker, the closest role to that of leader within the party before it changed its structure to include a formal leader position in 2008 (which was won by the then MEP Caroline Lucas).
Given this background his new book, as would be expected, provides a good summary of the climate crisis, including in an early chapter a sober assessment of challenges to the science of climate change.
Climatology has its complexities, he agrees, but “the vast global experiment of burning stocks of fossil fuels that have built up over millions of years in a matter of decades, looks like a dangerous and unpredictable process” that, unmitigated, is “leading to a host of potentially horrifying problems” for humanity. And only system change, he believes, can halt the ‘experiment’.
“Climate change is a product of the entire social and economic system within which we exist: in a word, capitalism”, he writes. Combating catastrophic climate change “demands an end to capitalism. An alternative system of commons, where resources are owned by communities and ownership of products is increasingly communal too”.
And so, for example, he is critical of the Green New Deal as promoted by left-wing US politicians within the capitalist Democratic Party, not because he opposes public investment into clean energy, transport and so on – “it will have a positive effect, and provides some real gains” – but because “it ultimately fails to move us beyond the current economic system”.
From this standpoint the central task Derek sets for his book is “to advance strategic debate” around the question, “how can we promote political action to end capitalism and to do so quickly?”
“Green politics poses such important questions of tackling potentially devastating ecological threats”, he writes, “that green political strategy becomes a matter of extreme importance”. For further reading he even suggests that the ideas of one of the leaders of the 1917 Russian revolution, Vladimir Lenin, are “still useful today”.
But, unfortunately, coming to an answer as to what is to be done to defeat capitalism is precisely where his book falls down.
In one chapter he assesses the effectiveness of Green parties in building the forces to achieve fundamental change and concedes that many have instead become props for capitalism.
He writes that the German Greens have moved from “in the early 1980s being perhaps the most radical Green political force” globally, to become “a broadly centrist party and a stable part of the German political scene”.
A party which, he notes, as well as implementing neo-liberal policies in government with the Social Democratic Party from 1998 to 2005, “on occasions have even gone into regional coalition governments with the conservative Christian Democratic Union”.
But why did this accommodation with capitalism happen? Was it the result of the Greens’ ideas?
A few pages earlier he writes, favourably, of “the four pillars of the 1983 German Green manifesto” – of “ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy and non-violence” – as a broad definition of Green political ideology.
But what is the use of an ‘ideology’ if, rather than providing the means to challenge capitalism, it produces a party that acts to save the system instead? This question is never seriously addressed.
He does say that “the children of 1968” – the year of the great general strike in France and movements across the globe – who had “helped provide a generation of initial supporters for the Greens” in particular in France and Germany, then “grew older, and more moderate”.
He references “the young student activists of the 1960s like Danny Cohn-Bendit, notorious for their anarchistic energy, [who] became besuited moderate parliamentary Green Party politicians in the 1990s”.
But this is a description of what happened, not an analysis of why it did. ‘Don’t grow old’, while no doubt a good idea, is not an answer against becoming ‘moderate’ when approaching power.
In reality, without an explicit socialist programme of public ownership and democratic working class control of the economy and society, the Green parties have no ideological anchor to resist the pressure from the capitalist establishment to follow the logic of pro-market policies.
And neither do they have a class anchor, not having emerged as an expression of the political interests of the working class and its organisations, in particular the trade unions.
The evolution of the Green parties as they become a political factor in their respective countries is not accidental.
Derek’s appraisal is equally shallow, unfortunately, of what he refers to as social movement campaigning against climate change – in which he classes protest groups ranging from Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the Fridays for Future school student strikers to local anti-fracking campaigns.
He praises the contribution of such movements, in general, to raising awareness of the climate crisis. He also rightly says that “much social movement activity might be based on a kind of militant liberal democratic assumption” – that by making an issue “more visible”, even capitalist politicians can be made to “take particular decisions such as banning tar sands exploitation or subsiding solar energy” – which is not the same as a strategy to end capitalism.
But the argument is not drawn to its proper conclusion. So, for example, he mentions in passing that “XR founders Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook deliberately sought to build a protest movement” when they did, rather than participate in a broader political struggle, “because of their assessment of potential political opportunities in Britain”.
But that was in April 2018! Just months after the 2017 general election when the potential for Corbynism to be transformed into a mass, socialist movement was still very much on the agenda, if Corbyn had moved against the Blairite representatives of capitalism within the parliamentary Labour Party, the council Labour groups and the party machine, rather than seeking to co-exist with them in the same party.
Labour’s manifesto for the 2019 general election did not have a clear programme of democratic public ownership of the banks and major companies necessary to counter the capitalists’ sabotage that a Corbyn-led government would have meet. But Corbyn’s climate policies, including proposals for a £250 billion investment in renewable energy, public transport, biodiversity and environmental restoration – billed as a Green Industrial Revolution – were rated by the Friends of the Earth as being ahead of those of the Green Party.
Yet Derek makes no assessment of Corbynism in his book – literally, not a word! – or what the young people and workers who looked to Jeremy Corbyn for a way forward should do now.
This illustrates the fundamental flaw of his arguments – the idea that there can be a separate ‘politics of the climate crisis’ distinct from the struggle to build a mass, socialist, working class vehicle to end capitalism.
This shapes his approach towards the main existing organisations of the working class, the trade unions.
He poses this question as one of “the contribution trade unions can make to tackling the climate crisis” rather than how unions – with all their limitations a reflection of the collective consciousness of the working class but also its immanent possibilities – could become the core agency, alongside the youth and militant working class social movements, of a mass party to take power out of the hands of the capitalists and save the planet.
But “there are a number of factors that limit the effectiveness of trade union action on climate change”, he writes. “Workers may pursue relatively minor reforms rather than embracing systematic and fundamental change”.
Yet almost all the unions in Britain had a socialist clause in their founding constitutions, expressing the inherent class interest of workers in a new way of organising society.
Of course, how that could be realised, including the emergence of new organisations and the clash of competing ideas within the workers’ movement – and overcoming sectional interests too – is the ‘politics’ that has to be engaged in to achieve the necessary ‘action to end capitalism’ that Derek seeks.
But this is practical class politics, not a special form of ‘green politics’ without a class content.