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Why it’s socialism or extinction

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Martin Empson’s new book argues for a revolutionary transformation away from fossil fuel capitalism. Sophie Squire reviews the strategy and tactics he says we need to avoid climate disaster
Issue 2810
Extinction Rebellion activists

Extinction Rebellion activists demand an end to fossil fuels as they march from Buckingham Palace in London. (Alisdare Hickson)

Arguments about how we tackle the climate crisis are raging at every level of society, from those at the top to activists on the ground. As war in Ukraine grinds on, states are sprinting to invest in more fossil fuels. Martin Empson’s new book, Socialism or Extinction—The meaning of Revolution in a Time of Ecological Disaster, takes on what sort of revolution we need to stop climate destruction.

It is a tool kit for ­activists, and argues a ­profit-led system is leading to climate collapse. But the book also says there is a way out. To understand how to fight the climate crisis that faces us, it is essential to know where it came from.

The starting chapters explore how capitalism, a system which began in Britain and parts of Low Land Europe in the 17th century, has ­created a climate crisis. Drawing on the writings of the revolutionary Karl Marx, Martin makes the case that capitalist accumulation and competition “smashed ­humanity’s relationship with nature apart.”

“Because competitive ­accumulation is central to ­capitalist production, there is no limit on the system’s degradation of nature” writes Martin. “It is the uncontrolled ­accumulation of wealth, for the sake of further accumulation, that drives capitalism’s ­destruction of nature. Just as capitalism cannot function without exploitation of human labour, it cannot avoid destroying nature in an uncontrolled, irrational, unplanned way.”

And the irrational nature of the system we live in is plain to see. While billions go hungry, Martin cites that in 2018 the British food industry threw away 9.5 million tonnes of waste food.

But how did this irrational system become so deadly to the planet? Scientists and environmental campaigners argue that fossil fuel production must stop. Yet those in power refuse to be parted with them. The book also answers why the system is unable to break from fossil fuels, and how they got locked into the system in the first place. Martin argues that while early capitalist production did not necessarily require the use of fossil fuels, it spurred it on.

“Competitive accumulation is what defines capitalism, not the use of fossil fuels,” he writes. “Early capitalist production did not require fossil fuels, and their adoption was the result of class struggle—the interests of the capitalist class ­conflicting with the interests of the workers. 

“It was because factory and mill owners wanted to improve their exploitation of the ­workers that they began the transition to fossil fuels.”

The Industrial Revolution saw the creation and development of new technology that transformed production. Quickly the system became hooked on steam power, which was generated by burning coal.

As individual capitalists turned to steam power, others quickly followed or risked going bankrupt. This race to compete to make more profit is the same process that keeps the fossil fuel industry running today.

As Marx noted, previous forms of generating power such as wind and water were considered inconsistent when ­compared to steam. And steam power had another advantage over water or wind for the capitalists—it didn’t chain production to the countryside and proximity to rivers.

Martin writes, “Because coal could be transported to ­anywhere it was needed, steam power allowed the capitalist to build factories and mills where the workers’ were located.” He adds, “The ability to better exploit labour is a key reason why the switch to fossil fuel production took place so quickly—in a matter of a couple of decades.”

Access to the human labour needed to keep profits ­flowing was always a necessity for the capitalists. They required workers to run their new ­colossal factories. And as Martin says, this led to the ruling class mounting a “brutal process of enclosure and the destruction of traditional rural social organisation.”

But as the book points out, this wholesale move to fossil fuel use was met with ­resistance from ordinary people. From the struggle against the enclosure of common land to the Luddite movement of the early 1800s, which opposed machinery to ­maximise profit, workers have always fought back.

And it is this kind of ­resistance, not just to the fossil fuel industry but to the whole capitalist system, that we need today. It is resistance that the final chapters of the book focuses on. Arguments rage within the environmental ­movement about what must be done to make change. In the later parts of the book, Martin takes on several of these arguments.

One argument about ­protests is made by some in the climate movement, such as Roger Hallam, a co-founder and ex-member of Extinction Rebellion (XR). He says that so-called “A to B marches” are ineffective.

Instead Hallam advocates for non-violent disruptive action, which he believes those in power are likely to notice. But as Martin rightly points out, “A to B marches” have some real benefits.

Using the example of the mobilisation of millions of people against the Iraq war, he points out that although the demos didn’t stop the war on Iraq, they did make it difficult for the government to attack Iran and Syria.

Even more importantly, big mobilisations, as Martin says, can boost the confidence of working class people and lead to a broader fight against the system. And this broad fight must combine all forms of action, from “A to B marches, to strikes and to direct action.

Martin writes, “The most radical action possible is ­workers going on strike ­precisely because it hits profits and is a direct challenge to the system. In doing this, workers are raising the potential for ­alternative forms of power.” And importantly, he is keen to stress the centrality of ­workers in the climate struggle. He writes, “Workers are not separate to the environmental movement.

“Most people on XR protests, climate strikes or the Cop26 demonstrations will work for a living. However, the working class is much larger than the environmental movement. The movement must reach out to the wider working class and maximise the involvement of workers in our protests and demonstrations.”

While small groups of ­committed activists might have the power to shut down some fossil fuel infrastructure, ­workers withdrawing their labour can shut it down for good. The book’s early chapters clearly explain that capitalism leads us to destruction, and the later parts set out a clear plan of how we can upend the system itself. And as Martin says, only overturning the capitalist state and revolution—can do this.

The book draws on several examples of revolutionary uprisings, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Egyptian revolution of 2011, highlighting the successes and failures of these revolutions.

Martin says that a ­revolutionary party was needed in many cases to intervene in the struggles with arguments to guide the ­working class. But these accounts also show that ordinary people will rise against oppression, tyranny and poverty. As the warnings about the ­climate crisis become starker, and with the climate movement remaining relatively small, some activists may fall into despair.

Socialism or Extinction ­provides an antidote to this pessimism and is an assurance that hope can be found in ordinary people. Fixing around 200 years of unabated fossil fuel use will be a momentous task. 

So in the last chapters of the book, Martin argues for a solution—a democratically planned society that puts ­ordinary people in charge. He explains, “Unlike under capitalism where ­governments hope that industries, organisations or workplaces will reduce their emissions in line with their targets, as an add-on to their normal activities, a socialist planned economy would see tackling climate change—and other ecological issues—as intrinsic to their ­day-to-day behaviour.

“Indeed a socialist world would prioritise action on the climate crisis, in contrast to capitalism, which fails to deploy resources and wealth to tackle the issue. Under socialism, ­addressing the ecological crisis would require immediate and priority use of resources and labour.”

Drawing on a history of resistance, this book shows that renewed struggle is more than possible today. Socialism or Extinction is essential reading for all of those in the climate movement.

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