A review of Socialism or Extinction. The Meaning of Revolution in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Martin Empson (Bookmarks, 2022), £10
In 1915, during the First World War, Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg saw two possible futures: socialism or barbarism. In his new book, author Martin Empson argues that this schema no longer fits in the 21st century; now, it is about socialism or extinction.
A number of insightful books have been written on the climate crisis from a socialist perspective. Many of these works—such as John Bellamy Foster’s, Brett Clark’s and Richard York’s The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (Monthly Review Press, 2010) and Ian Angus’s The Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (Monthly Review Press, 2016)—have more theoretical ambitions or try to understand the character of the crisis. Empson builds on this literature, but he also focuses attention on the need for a revolutionary strategy to confront climate change. Indeed, the idea of “system change” has already found a wide resonance in the climate movement. The problem is that understandings of what system change means, and how it can be achieved, vary massively. Socialism or Extinction is thus a welcome intervention in arguments about climate change and an exceptional contribution to the debate on socialist strategy today.
The capitalist system and the climate crisis
The book starts with a chapter on the devastating socio-ecological effects of capitalism. The climate crisis is a global phenomenon, but its impact is not the same everywhere and for everyone. Capitalism divides people along lines of class, race and gender, and thus oppressed groups and poor regions are hit the hardest. Black and Asian people, for example, are more likely to be affected because they tend to live in areas more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and closer to heavily polluting industries. These uneven effects are also a result of the historic development of global capitalism. Empson argues that the wealth of the nations in the Global North rests on “a massive redistribution of wealth and natural resources from the Global South to the North”.1 As a result, countries in the Global South lack the means to effectively counter the crisis. What is more, the Global North is responsible for most carbon emissions, with the United States alone accountable for “25 percent of historic emissions”.2 Meanwhile, the Global South is trapped in a cycle of imperialism, neoliberalism and debt. Climate change, and the lack of capacity to combat it, leave regions unhabitable, with many people seeing no other option than to leave their home countries and migrate.
Capitalism is, of course, at the root of the climate crisis. Empson points out that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels already described “how the system caused exploitation, oppression and ecological destruction”.3 Capitalism is driven by two main mechanisms: the exploitation of workers and competition between capitalists. The competition for profits and the constant drive to accumulate come alongside an enormous amount of waste and a tendency towards overproduction. Endless growth turns nature itself into a commodity and thus destroys the relationship between humans and nature. Importantly, this “uncontrolled accumulation of wealth” by capitalists rests on the exploitation of workers.4 On a fundamental level, this explains why people face differing effects due to the ecological crisis. However, at some points in Empson’s analysis, a certain ambiguity in the relationship between the Global North and South is noticeable. The above cited “massive redistribution of wealth” from the North to the South, for instance, comes close to the distorting picture drawn by the revival of dependency theory in the climate movement. A clear statement that the lower classes of the Global North do not live at the expense of the Global South would have been beneficial.5
Why reforms do not work
How do we counter the climate crisis? Is it possible to reform capitalism by pushing back the market? Empson convincingly argues that there is a problem with even the more radical versions of the Green New Deal, which fail to take into account either the resistance of the capitalist class or the character of the state. A Green New Deal would aim to nationalise the fossil fuels industries and to fight inequality and discrimination, which would require the creation of “green” jobs. For instance, the Million Climate Jobs campaign, supported in Britain by groups such as the Campaign Against Climate Change, calls for the creation of well-paid and unionised jobs in a sustainable economy. Although these ideas can play an important role in the fight for system change, they are stridently opposed by right-wing political figures and, of course, the fossil fuel industry itself.6 In 19th century Britain, fossil fuel became central in many areas of the economy, from agriculture to energy production; this provided the basis for imperialist expansion and, due to competitive pressures, fossil fuels soon became an essential part of the capitalist system. The competition between capitals to advance their productive capacity and increase their profits while squeezing workers drove capitalists one by one into a relationship with the fossil fuel industry.7 All this has contributed to the enormous might of the industry. Today, this powerful fossil fuel industry fights hard to sustain its profits and protect its interest, which makes it a formidable opponent for any just transition to a sustainable economy. The capitalist state, which is viewed by advocates of the Green New Deal as the main vehicle for the plan’s implementation, is not autonomous from the fossil fuel industry, but rather deeply intertwined with it. Therefore, according to Empson, any “reformist strategy that tries to use parliament to bring about a sustainable world is doomed to failure”.8
Empson argues that, although the state appears to be neutral and to stand above society, it is in fact characterised by its position within class relations; it represents the interests of capitalists, maintaining their rule over the working class and helping national capitals to expand internationally.9 The state usually relies on “subtle forms of coercion and control”: organising public goods such as healthcare and education, but also dividing people along various lines, including according to their racial background and sexual orientation.10 Moreover, capitalist political institutions give the “illusion of participation”.11 Besides that, the state relies on what Lenin describes as “armed bodies of men”.12 This includes the armed forces and the police—organisations that are prepared to maintain order through the exercise of physical force, as shown, to take just one example, by the overthrow of the socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, by the country’s military in 1973.13 This means that a reformist strategy based on a Green New Deal cannot simply ignore the hostility of the repressive apparatuses that form a core part of the capitalist state.
Revolution as an alternative
If conquering the state is not a viable option, then what is the alternative? Within the climate movement, there are a wide gamut of different ideas, ranging from the non-violent civil disobedience of groups such as Extinction Rebellion to the acts of sabotage and mass movements called for by Marxist ecological writer Andreas Malm. Dealing with this strategic debate and contrasting these approaches with a socialist strategy is an exceptional strength of Empson’s book. Other works such as, for example, Foster’s The Ecological Rift, pay hardly any attention to these questions. Other authors, such as Malm and the German political scientists Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, ignore the power of the working class.14 According to Empson, the latter group “subordinate the mass movement to the action of small groups” and ultimately stress state action.15 In particular, in Malm’s work, “The subject of the climate revolution is still nowhere to be seen”.16 Empson argues that, although most workers’ struggles do not usually explicitly focus on the question of climate change, altering the relations of production is still very much a question of power. Hal Draper, the US Marxist writer to whom Empson refers elsewhere, described the working class as a “special class” because of its social position as the class that performs the labour necessary to keep the wheels of the capitalist system turning.17 He wrote: “The proletariat is the only class that has the social weight and power to carry through the abolition of the old order and to build a new society”.18 Most analyses simply fail to see where the power to challenge opponents such as the fossil fuel industry lies.
Empson, then, outlines a socialist strategy. He acknowledges that, as noted above, capitalism itself uses violence, and thus violence cannot be excluded as a means to confront the armed force of the capitalist state. He is also in favour of mass movements and emphasises the crucial role of the working class. The book argues that the working class has not lost its power, as many claim, either because of declining manufacturing jobs or due to the rising precarity expressed in zero-hours contracts and short-term employment.19 On the contrary, the working class is larger in number than ever before, and it is still able to organise strike action against capital. Though most workers might not be revolutionaries in ordinary times, ideas change with collective action. In struggles over working conditions and in mass movements, the confidence of ordinary people and their belief in what is possible changes, and this can lead to revolutionary consciousness. Revolutions may seem like rare events of the last century, but these are, as Empson writes, “a reality of the capitalist system”.20 From the 1871 Paris Commune to the current events in Sudan (to which Empson refers in detail), revolutions do not simply teach us about the possibility of failure, but also point to the power of ordinary people.
A socialist future
The seizure of power by the working class would only be the first step in a revolutionary process. Capitalists would not simply disappear. Instead, the capitalist state would need to be smashed and replaced by working-class institutions created from below. Such institutions would be fundamentally different from the capitalist state that we know today. It would involve the rule of the majority “in their own collective interest”.21 Since states are a product of class society, when classes eventually disappear, so will the state—or, as Lenin put it, they will “wither away”.22 Any future socialist society will be based on “the organisations that workers create during the revolution” and cannot be planned beforehand.23 However, historic experiences can give us clues about what a revolutionary society would look like, and Empson points to some fundamental characteristics. Such a socialist society would be planned by workers’ councils, taking into consideration the needs of the people and the environment; it would not be oriented towards profit. Competing capitals will no longer exist, and therefore the legacy of colonialism and imperialism could be addressed by distributing wealth and resources evenly. Borders would cease to exist in such a world.
Capitalism keeps creating revolutionary situations because it is a system based on oppression and exploitation. Even though socialists cannot create a revolution all by themselves, it is their task to be part of social movements and to help to “develop the combativity and organisation of workers”.24 Through doing this, “The existence of organised revolutionaries can enable the workers’ movement to take crucial steps forward and navigate a changing political terrain”.25 Moreover, as many historical examples demonstrate, “A mass revolutionary organisation is needed to relate to hundreds of thousands or millions of workers involved in a revolutionary movement”.26 The Marxist call for the “self-emancipation of the working class” is as timely as ever. Indeed, it is the only viable strategy for avoiding extinction.27
Undeniably, Empson makes some crucial points. However, a clearer link to the climate question would have been possible. He emphasises that revolutionary situations are part of our capitalist reality because capitalism keeps depriving us of our livelihoods. Yet, the fact that the climate crisis itself can also drive struggles is much less clearly articulated. Environmental demands are increasingly becoming an important part of protests. In the so-called Arab Spring, for example, rising food prices triggered by droughts and speculation increased the pressures on people who had already suffered from neoliberal structural adjustment.28 At the same time, in the run-up to the Syrian Revolution, the effects of a drought were worsened by large-scale agricultural industries, which used huge amounts of groundwater and deprived peasants of their livelihoods. This motivated people to migrate into cities, where their anger merged with broader dissatisfaction and culminated in mass protests.29
Droughts and rising temperatures are shaking the very foundations of life and driving resistance. In the past few years, people in the port city of Basra in southern Iraq have taken to the streets to protest against the government as a response to power cuts that shut down air conditioning units while temperatures rose to 50°C.30 Another example is Sudan, also touched upon by Empson, where a changing climate has intensified conflicts over land.31 Since the days of colonialism, environmental degradation has increased through, for instance, the neoliberal introduction of cash crops to the detriment of the fertility of the soil. At the same time, privatisation of land has driven farmers off their land. Against this backdrop, droughts, changing patterns of rainfall and rising temperatures have had devastating effects and fuelled conflicts.32
Empson’s Socialism or Extinction is an excellent book and a definite must-read for revolutionaries and activists in the climate movement. Written in a very accessible way, it touches upon the essential issues that help us understand why revolutions are necessary for re-engineering our relations to nature. Although the themes addressed by each individual chapter could each fill an entire book, Empson manages to deal with the key points in about 200 pages. Covering many theoretically complex debates, his focus is always on their practical relevance. Even though his criticisms point to his significant differences with the positions taken up by other writers and activists within the climate movement, there is never any doubt that he is still in favour of common struggle. The book does not hide the cruelties of capitalism and its destructive impact on the planet—but it also does not end the story in this dark present. It is an encouraging call for revolution, and Empson always underlines the capacity of ordinary people to act and change the social circumstances in which they live. By emphasising the actuality of revolution, he shows a way out of the ecological crisis and motivates us to fight for a socialist future.
Nora Schmid is currently writing her master’s thesis on the Sudanese Revolution at the University of Kassel in Germany.
1 Empson, 2022, p16.
2 Empson, 2022, p17.
3 Empson, 2022, p25.
4 Empson, 2022, p29.
5 See Radl and Schmid, 2022.
6 Empson, 2022, p47.
7 Empson, 2022, p60.
8 Empson, 2022, p48.
9 Empson, 2022, p72.
10 Empson, 2022, p72.
11 Empson, 2022, p73.
12 Empson, 2022, p70; Lenin, 1992, p10.
13 Empson, 2022, pp77-82.
14 Malm 2014; Brand and Wissen, 2021.
15 Empson, 2022, p99.
16 Malm, 2014, p39.
17 Draper, 1978, p33.
18 Draper, 1978, p46.
19 Empson, 2022, p90.
20 Empson, 2022, p107.
21 Empson, 2022, p165.
22 Empson, 2022, p171.
23 Empson, 2022, p175.
24 Empson, 2022, p210.
25 Empson, 2022, p210.
26 Empson, 2022, p210.
27 Empson, 2022, p208.
28 Malm, 2014, p29. The role of food in the Arab Spring was explored by Tony Phillips in the previous issue of this journal—Phillips, 2022.
29 Ash and Obradovich, 2020; Malm, 2014. See also Camilla Royle’s interesting discussion of the interplay between climate change, migration and the Syrian Revolution within the broader context of debates about climate refugees in a previous issue of International Socialism—Royle, 2021.
30 Middle East Monitor, 2022.
31 United Nations Environment Programme, 2022.
32 Mamdani, 2009, p237; Elnur, 2009, pp37-90.