Reviewed by Blair Bertaccini
Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet by Matthew T. Huber. (Verso 2022. 320 pp.)
It is rare when a book on the current climate crisis quotes extensively from Marx and Engels and uses their works to show a path to avoid catastrophe for us on this planet. For it is not a question of whether the Earth will survive, but rather will humanity.
Matthew Huber, a professor at Syracuse University in Geography and the Environment Department, examines various “solutions” to the crisis and shows why they are not adequate to the task and why the only way to avoid disaster is through the power of the working class to stop production and restrict the power of the capitalist class. He is certainly an advocate for socialism, but believes that sufficient mitigation of climate change must be accomplished during the struggle for socialism rather than wait for its attainment if we are to avoid an uninhabitable world.
The book is divided into three sections entitled: “The Capitalist Class”, “The Professional Class” and “The Working Class”. The first examines how industrial and financial capital have brought on this crisis and uses the production of nitrogen as an example to illustrate this. The second looks at the role of the “professional managerial class”, (a term invented by Barbara and John Ehrenreich), in the current environmental movement. The third shows how only a militant working class fighting to emancipate itself from capitalist exploitation can truly save humanity. It also focuses on the electric energy sector of the economy as the key sector to organize to achieve a fundamental change away from fossil fuels.
In the first section Huber uses Marx’s critique of those who only look at exchange to analyze a capitalist economy. Marx in Das Kapital argued that we must look beyond the surface of trade and exchange “in full view of everyone” and accompany the owner of money and the owner of labor power “into the hidden abode of production”. Indeed, how to arrive at the inequality in the formula of M-C-M’ where money goes into the production of a commodity which is sold to produce a greater quantity of money for the owner of the means of production.
“Rather than focusing on choices in the marketplace as consumers, we see a class of producers who control vast flows of energy, resources, and indeed emissions [my emphasis]– all directed toward one goal: profit (M-C-M’). Only by directing our attention away from the realm of exchange do we see the real cause of the climate crisis: a small minority of owners who control and profit from…production. Only by examining the relations of production–that is, class power– do we discover that the climate struggle is not about fixing the price mechanism, but about confronting the small minority of owners.”
Huber uses data showing that 21% of global carbon emissions come directly from industry and 11% indirectly. He then states the obvious, “. . .consider how all the other categories – commercial, residential, transportation, even land-use change–fundamentally depend on products from the industrial sector. . .industrial emissions are the foundation of all other emissions.” But who controls this production? It is not a specific country and certainly not consumers. “[I]t is a transnational capitalist class. . .We should not be tracing the emissions attached to commodities bound for consumers in the Global North, but rather the emissions attached to money-profit flowing to investors all over the world. . .”
So, we must focus on the point of production and which class controls the production, because under capitalism emissions are part of the accumulation process. The class that performs the production, the working class, from whom surplus value is extracted to produce profits is the only class that has the power to stop or change this process.
Huber then masterfully traces the history of the production of nitrogen for fertilizers and the arms industry to illustrate this point. At the end of this history in which he writes of the labor struggles within that industry from its early days of mining guano to industrial production he makes a key point from Marxist analysis, just as workers as consumers are not to blame for the crisis, individual capitalists and their decisions are not to blame either.
“Thus, climate change requires not simply the expropriation of individuals. It requires overcoming the structural logic that compels all forms of production under capitalism: the logic of surplus value. This would free production from the straitjackets of profits and competition. Only then could production be subjected to what should be the number one priority for species survival: decarbonization. Right now, decarbonization only happens if it is profitable.”
In the second section of the book, Huber looks closely at the role the professional managerial class has played in crafting “solutions” to the climate crisis and defining how the struggle should be waged. Huber defines the professional class “. . .as those who marshal [sic] degrees, licenses and other credentials in the market for labor power.” This class took off after the end of the Second World War, and grew as deindustrialization in Europe and the US reduced the numbers of the industrial working class. In recent years much of it has been “proletarianized”, but its role is prominent in climate politics. The economic and social factors influencing it have produced “bourgeois and radical variants” within climate politics.
These variants are characterized by Huber as communicators, technocrats and radicals. The first variant believes that truth and knowledge can change policy, the second believes adopting market incentives can move capitalism in an ecological direction and the third believes small scale alternatives and anti-consumerism will erode capitalism. All have an idealistic approach that is devoid of historical materialism. Huber debunks all of them. The advocates of these methods do not perform a power analysis of how history moves as a struggle of classes. They either look at climate change as an issue of individual choice in the marketplace, sometimes leading to the model of “degrowth”, or believe with the right approach those blocking change can be convinced to drop their resistance.
This leads Huber to pose the question, “The masses of people without college or advanced professional degrees are likely aware of the ongoing climate crisis. . . To win the masses, we need a new language of climate politics that does not concentrate on less. What would a climate politics of more, aligned with the material interests of the working class, look like?’ Huber uses Kim Moody’s definition of the working class, “. . .they possess no means of production, must sell their labor power, work more hours than covers their wages and work under the rule of capital. . .”
He believes that working class interest in ecology will emerge, because, “. . . the working class is alienated from the natural conditions of life itself. The fact that the working class must secure its life via the market creates high levels of stress and insecurity. . .this terrain of life, which is by definition ecological, is the proper field through which to construct ecological interests that aim simultaneously deliver more secure access to the basics of survival and restructure production to ensure the survival of all life on the planet.”
The reader is then taken through an examination of the working class development using Marx and Engels and modern Marxists such as Ellen Meiksins Woods. He emphasizes their materialist approach to history. “Thus, one could argue that when we say ‘materialist approach to history’ we actually suggest an ecological approach that understands human society as inextricably bound to the reproduction of the human species.”
In order to bring the potential power of the working class to bear on the climate crisis a political struggle must be waged. It will be a political struggle for state power because only the state “possesses the coercive and legal power to ‘euthanize’ the fossil fuel industry.” Moreover only the state “has the fiscal capacity to engage in a massive public investment program aimed at building a new energy system.”
He does agree with Michael Parenti and quotes him as follows, “‘Given the state of the left globally…achieving socialism will take a very long time indeed. Thus, the struggle for climate mitigation and adaptation cannot wait for revolution.’” Huber speaks of building a “proletarian ecology” which fights for a “decent and dignified life” for everyone. As an intermediate program he supports the Green New Deal which he describes as an “evolving program” which would “tackle the twin crises of inequality and climate change.” He sees it as a working-class program because of its many provisions such as paid family and medical leave, retirement security, enhancing workers’ rights to organize and prevailing wages for energy projects.
In order to achieve such a program, the working class must gain greater political power, but “. . .the working-class road to electoral power cannot succeed without organized working-class power in the first place–the kind of power that can force politicians to deliver policies in line with working-class material interests.”
But where best to organize the working class to achieve climate goals and better the lives of workers? Huber responds to such a question; “I maintain that a working-class strategy focused on production needs a clear sectoral strategy. I contend that electric power is the strategic sector we seek, not only for its central role in any decarbonization effort, but also because it is already highly organized in terms of union organization.” Indeed he believes that too many left efforts in the electricity sector focus too much on technology and are not aware of the centers of existing working class organization.
Huber traces the economic development of the electricity in the US economy (including the Tennessee Valley Authority) as well the history of the unions that have organized in that sector. He points that this sector is concentrated and exhibits what Marx would call highly socialized production, key to modern life, from which it would be easier to construct socialism. He points to Lenin’s famous quotation, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” But unions in the electric sector have historically not been ones in the forefront of left, class-oriented unionism. This fact leads Huber to his next chapter, “So far, investor-owned utilities find allies among their unions and their leadership, but this not be the case. With the right conditions, unions can always become sites of working-class struggle.”
The fight to build class struggle unions in the electricity sector is important “Since we are not likely to achieve socialism any time soon, a more modest goal is the socialization of the electricity sector–taking it under public ownership so that decarbonization can take precedence over private profits.” To accomplish this the left, he mentions DSA specifically, should focus on a rank and file strategy (RFS) to build the militant minority in this sector and add it to the sectors of education and logistics that many left groups have concentrated on.
He proposes building an RFS in electric workers unions by starting from the “. . .kinds of practical and immediate safety issues facing workers on the shop floor and on the lines to build union democracy and worker power. But there is no reason why working-class struggle cannot connect these visceral issues of worker safety to the issue of climate change, or planetary safety.”
He uses the work of Tony Mazzocchi, a former leader of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers union, to show how a union can use political education to bring issues of workplace safety into a wider context of protecting the environment. He says such a campaign could also be done within electrical workers unions as part of a RFS to build worker power.
Whether one agrees with some of his specific proposals or not, Huber’s book is one that socialists and communists should read and use as part of their day-to-day efforts to build working class power. Catastrophic climate change is not a crisis that we can put aside, it is the existential manifestation of the contradiction of social production in private hands. If we can learn lessons from the failures of previous working class upsurges in the US and around the world to build a new resurgence in the 2020s massive change can be accomplished.
Huber’s concluding paragraph states the challenge well:
“The stakes this time are not simply class relations as such, but literally the planetary conditions for all human life. This time the masses of the working class have quite a lot more to lose than their chains. We not only have a world to win, but a planet to repair from the ravages of the capitalist class. Time is growing short.”
-Blair Bertaccini is a retired CT. Dept. of Labor employee and a former Central Labor Council and local union president.