Why environmentalists must support workers’ struggles

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Attempts to solve the environmental crisis without challenging capitalism will fail — and the only force that can defeat capitalism is the working class.

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Drawing by Stephanie McMillan

by Stephanie McMillan

This is to specifically address class struggle as it relates to the ecological crisis. It will not address all the other (many!) reasons that working class struggle must be waged and supported.

First, we must recognize the fact that global capitalism is driving ecocide.

The problem reaches much farther back than capitalism itself. The combination of an early gendered division of labor with the adoption of agriculture and corresponding formation of permanent settlements set the stage for class divisions and the private accumulation of surplus wealth. Maintaining this arrangement required the development of states with armies, social oppression and repression to weaken internal opposition, and ideologies to make it all seem normal and pre-ordained. And as land was degraded and resources used up faster than they naturally replenished themselves, expansion became imperative, leading to conquest and forced unequal trade.

These intertwined and matured over time into an ever-more complex tangle, culminating in late-stage capitalism: the all-encompassing, all-devouring, spectacular horror that is our current global social living arrangement. The environmental crisis, specifically climate change, is the most urgent problem we collectively face. It is a simple fact that if our planet no longer supports life, then all human pursuits, including social justice, will also come to a screaming halt.

But attempts to solve the environmental crisis head-on, without addressing the underlying structural causes, will ultimately fail. Approaching it directly (for example by blocking a pipeline to prevent tar sands oil from reaching a refinery) can not overturn the socio-economic system that makes resource extraction a non-negotiable necessity. Capital is relentless, and will flow around any obstacle—or smash through it. Throughout history, it has demonstrated the willingness and capacity to wipe out anyone—including entire populations—who attempt to resist.

Historically only one class has been able to challenge capital and offer an alternative to it: the working class. This is not because of any sort of moral superiority, nor is it a matter of suffering the most. In fact, there are many others who are deprived of any means of survival altogether, which is an even worse situation than being exploited as a worker.

The reason that the working class has this capacity is that it is strategically placed. Workers have the most direct relationship with capital: they produce it. Even capitalists themselves merely manage and accumulate it, which they accomplish through the exploitation of workers in the production of commodities. Commodities embody surplus value in the form of unpaid labor, combined with natural materials (which capitalists simply claim ownership of through legal or other violent means). This surplus value, when it’s realized as profit and re-invested, becomes new capital.

Capitalism runs on exploitation, by paying the aggregate of workers less than the total value of their products (the rest becomes profit). So in order to sell all the surplus commodities that can’t be profitably consumed within a social formation, capitalism is structurally required to “expand or die.” The problem with this economic model on a finite planet is obvious.

The process is now at a stage where we face imminent catastrophe, unless we act decisively. Our collective strategy must be capable of smashing the entire global matrix of social relations—the economic, political, and ideological structures and practices (which all ultimately rest on the economic—the driving force is production).

Only if we free society from capitalism can there be any possible basis to re-organize human activity with different values in command, such as biocentrism and classless, mutual cooperation. Once we understand that the environment cannot be saved within the system’s framework, that reforming or restraining it are impossible, then the question becomes: how do we end capitalism? How can we completely transform the way we live, so that the totality of human endeavor is no longer harnessed to the pursuit of private profit (through the production of surplus value)?

Capitalists will not voluntarily stop accumulating capital. They can’t escape its structural imperatives any more than we can. Instead they are compelled to concentrate all their political might on crushing any and all threats to their hegemony. If we are to become capable of driving them from power, we need to organize ourselves into a massive, global social force. Our only two choices are omnicide or world revolution.

Many classes and social groups are dominated by capital and have an interest in ending it, and often a burning desire to do so. But most of them, even if they resist capital’s effects extremely valiantly, will not be able to permanently defeat it. Historically, even after governments are overthrown, capitalism has either continued without interruption or been quickly restored. This is not a moral failing, but an inherent structural incapacity of the classes that have led these struggles–usually different fractions of the petit bourgeoisie (the “middle” classes). This flows from their own economic survival imperative under capitalism: the constant struggle to elevate their position in the marketplace. Thus they will insist on equality, “horizontalism” and fairness (marketplace values), but will always stop short of destroying the market itself.

This is why the majority in the environmental movement (who are mostly from the middle classes) refuse to cross that line of advocating the destruction of capitalism through revolution, and will vehemently deny (“You’re going too far!”) the fact that it is the only way to save the planet.

The only class that is in fundamental conflict with capital is the working class. They face capital every day in an unresolvable antagonistic relationship of exploitation. Emancipating themselves entails stopping exploitation—wage slavery, the private appropriation (theft) of surplus value generated in commodity production—which means destroying the reproduction of capital altogether. By emancipating itself, the working class can free all other classes and the entire world from the grip of capitalism.

Capitalism can only be defeated through revolution led by the working class. This is why anyone (in all the dominated classes) concerned with saving the planet—or ending oppression and other horrors perpetrated and held in place by capitalism—must, in addition to weakening capital by resisting all its manifestations and effects, also take up, amplify, and support the struggles of the working class.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. 

Stephanie McMillan Stephanie McMillan is a cartoonist and the author of seven books, most recently the “Resistance to Ecocide” (graphic novel) and “Capitalism Must Die!” (cartoons plus theoretical text). Visit her wesbite: stephaniemcmillan.org.


  • Agree the above article is simplistic. There is some basis for believing that economic progress is inherently bad for the environment. The post USSR countries reduced their greenhouse gas emmissions when their economies shrank dramatically. But it was USSR, the non-capitalist superpower, which created the pollution in the first place.
    *** During WWII Great Britain looked after citizens to such an extent that “working class people” and the poor were better fed & healthier during the war than before it. During the blockade coupons were issued to ensure some food was available to all. I’m not aware of socialist countries doing any better.
    *** Is Stephanie advocating anarchism with her vision of “classless, mutual cooperation”? Does she want absolute biocentrism or some compromise with anthropomorphism which could allow us to organise our economic activity to cope with the increased human population in the future? An environmental botanist once pointed out to me that if the human population all left our country (NZ) it would not return to the biodiversity of the past. Weeds would take over, many more plant and animal species would be lost and erosion would likely increase.

    • Before condemning a short article as simplistic because it doesn’t answer every possible objection, you might try to learn something about ecosocialism. That way, we can discuss seriously, without endlessly repeating topics that have already been discussed at length.

      A good place to start is our list of Ten essential articles and five essential books. You may not agree with us, but at least you’ll be commenting with some basic understanding of the subject.

  • Thankyou for your constructive response. You probably right theoretically according to an idea that captial is monolitic and there is one main force against the owners of capital. My suggestion was that there might be some obstacle here in terms of different kind of capital. It is just a suggestion.

    Apart from that there is the empirical side of things. My claim is that at the moment it is Via Campesina which is the leading organization rooted in the struggle of small peasant, rural workers and landless. The trade unions rooted in the proletariat are backward, unable to mobilize the working class, unemployed etc, busy organizing their own defeat at least in Sweden were they once were so strong that few countries could match them.

    What makes me wondering about the left to which I never belonged is the extreme disinterest at looking at empirical facts and have some theory about them. Instead the left dominated the higest echelons of climate international action like SWP did for many years with the sole purpose of destroying the environmental movement concerns against carbon trading replacing it with the kind of simplistic ideology which easily becomes the result from what you say, the workers have to be in the forefront and thús SWP did not allow any antineoliberal demand because the trade unions did not allow it I suppose and as the climate issue was a tool for SWP to influence the working class they did what they could to destroy the emerging alliance between Via Campesina and Friends of the Earth before Copenhagen and replace it with their class conscious alliance with trade unions and Greenpeace. To me the lack of analysing these developments with the overwhelming intellectual capacity there is among left intellectuals shows to me that there is something rotten in the state of the left. The lack of looking at empirical realities of movments in the struggles is a problem. The left have blocked a sharp criticism of the in my view simplistic ways the left have used their idea that trade unions are always the main ally and all others movments are to be opportunistically used in this eternal struggle for linking the left closer to actual working class organizations as trade unions. SWP is certainly not the only example.

    I do not want a specific conclusion, I want the issue to be addressed. Now I understand that your point is different and do acknowledge the need of what you have been doing as well, we also need pedagogic material that have in some way to be simplistic, so good luck and again thankyou for responding.

  • Tord, thank you for your response.

    I do, actually, spend much effort attempting to incorporate the fact of the environmental emergency into the approaches of various communists/socialists/progressives I communicate with. It goes both ways, I agree.

    And I also agree on the importance of classes other than the working class — the peasantry (and in imperialist countries, service sector employees) in the revolutionary process. It can’t be won with only the working class. Historically that has been the case — in China, Mao identified the peasantry — the vast majority — as the principal force (and the proletariat — a small class at the time — as the fundamental force).

    But it is precisely because those revolutions were *led* by classes other than the proletariat (various fractions of the petit bourgeoisie — small peasants included) that they were unable, ultimately, to offer a lasting alternative to capital, and were recouped by capital. I will exaggerate here to make a point: that even if there is only one worker in a social formation, that worker must lead the revolution against capital or the revolution will be recouped.

    Mao saw the problem and attempted to rectify with the Cultural Revolution, but was defeated by Deng Xioping (who represented the interests of the peasantry, the petit bourgeoisie, inside the party). And in Russia, the communist party — comprised mainly of petit bourgeoisie intellectuals — formed a new bureaucratic bourgeoisie.

    That said, particularly landless peasants and agricultural workers are closer and/or part of the proletariat, and indespensible to world revolution.

    Mainly this piece was addressed to the petit bourgeoisie inside imperialist countries who are concerned with stopping ecocide but have no conception of classes, and thus are easily diverted into political dead ends by the capitalists.

    I do realize the piece is limited and simplistic, but it is an introduction to mainly bring the concept of class struggle into that arena.

    We need to win over as many as possible in all the classes dominated by capital to unite under the leadership of the working class, if we are to permanently wipe out capitalism.

  • This was quite superficial. The notion that capital is something monolitic and that there is one working class which is the only one that can change this system biult on this view of a main conflict in society between the owners of thism monolitic capital and the workers.

    From this monolitic view comes the idea that change can only come from the working class and the only alternative to the working class is “the classes that have led these struggles–usually different fractions of the petit bourgeoisie (the “middle” classes)”. In reality it is the peasants that led much of the revolutions the last century and they still do starting in Russia 1902, Mexico 1910, India 1917, China in the 20s and 30s etc. Today we can see clearly how the working class organizations are unable to mobilize against the multiple crisis while Via Campeina and other peasant movements are at the forefront of the struggle and able to not only mobilize for their own cause but also the landless etc.

    Maybe this has to do with the capital has both a non-renewable and renewable form. Those mainly workers building on non-renewable resources sometimes becomes very aggressive against the peasant revolutions like the anarcho syndicalist red militia starting war against the zapatistas in the 10s and how the peasants were treated in the Soviet Union. This text excludes ecology and sees the world only within political-economic terms which is outdated, especially if we talk about solving the environmental crisis.

    The claim that the environmental movement needs to become aware of what this kind of leftist thinking is able to understand and tell the less advanced envrionmentalists is comical. Come back when you have made the members of workers organisations and socialists aware of ecology seeing it as important as economy and you will find that there are quite proportion of environmentalists that have far more advanced ideas and espeically practice than this parolemaking identitykick without tactical or strategic insights.