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Claim: A Total Victory for Socialism Could Save us From Climate Change

by Eric Worrall

While the author admits that early 20th century socialism was not notably green, apparently the 21st century version could save us from climate catastrophe.

Would there still have been climate change under socialism?

Market failure certainly delays aggressive climate action, but even had the whole world in the 20th century been socialist, the planet would still be heating up.

By Leigh Phillips
10 August 2022
updated 11 Aug 2022 4:52pm

It is common to come across the notion, especially on the climate left, that humanity and the rest of the planet would not be staring down the threat of climate change if it were not for capitalism – from Naomi Klein’s best-selling This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate(2014) to the growing number of activists identifying themselves as “eco-socialists”.

There is however no evidence that this is the case. …

Consider this thought experiment. Let’s imagine that the 1918-19 socialist German Revolution that failed in the real world had in fact been successful. Rather than being attempted in semi-feudal, largely agrarian Russia, in our counterfactual history socialism emerges instead in the modern, democratising, industrial societies that Marx had predicted would be its birthplace. From Germany, socialism spreads across Europe and thence the world. To simplify matters for the sake of the thought experiment, let us define socialism as a global economy that allocates goods and services through democratic planning on the basis of need, not, as with capitalism, primarily via markets on the basis of profit. Furthermore, in our thought experiment, let’s give our socialists an additional, temporal advantage and say that capitalism is vanquished everywhere by, say, 1930. Democratic socialism is triumphant across the globe. There is no Soviet disaster. No Maoist famines. No Second World War. No Cold War. Colonialism is willingly, rapidly unravelled in the 1920s rather than reluctantly, incompletely, violently, in the 1950s and 1960s. There is no crisis of profitability in the early 1970s and thus no 1980s neoliberal revolution.

In other words, in our counterfactual world, production might have been organised according to other aims than profit (or much of it, depending on how far one favours socialisation of production), but this would in fact have unleashed much more production. And this of course was what Marx imagined when he expressed his frustration at how production for commodity exchange irrationally constrained what could be produced. Socialism would not have resulted in less production, for the set of all things that are profitable is smaller than the set of all things that are useful to humanity. Instead of coal plants powering factories largely only in Europe and the US by the 1930s, they would have been powering them everywhere. Development would have been limited only by global economic capacity at any given moment.

Putting all this together, the most we can say is that even though global warming would likely be worse under socialism by the time the full scale of its threat was discovered in the 1980s, the response would have been more rapid and more egalitarian than that of our existing capitalist world.

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I’m not seeing much evidence of that “more rapid” socialist response to global warming in China, unless we count all the coal plants they’re building.

The author sneers at Russia’s agrarian backwardness as being the factor which caused the failure of the Soviet Union, but industrial backwardness was not Russia’s problem, after Stalin’s horrific modernisation programme. The nation which launched the first man into orbit, and brought him home safe, was not crippled by lack of technological capability.

Russia’s problem was socialism.

The author’s claim there would have been no famines under global socialism is also ridiculous. The Soviets couldn’t feed themselves, even though there was plenty of farming expertise available, especially in the early Soviet Union – Tsarist Russia was an agrarian economy. The rich Kulak peasants whom Stalin had rounded up and killed, or the small private allotments which were permitted in latter days of the Soviet Union, were always vastly more productive than the politically correct collective farms.

The explanation for the failure of Soviet collectivised agriculture is obvious. Food plants are fragile, if something goes wrong the intervention has to be swift and comprehensive. A farmer who stands to personally benefit from produce sales is highly motivated to treat blight or pest infestation as soon as it appears. But for an employee who answers to a collective, reporting blight just creates more work. Their punishment for reporting a problem is to have to work extra hours to fix the problem. So if the problem is small, it is always easier to ignore the problem, to pretend not to notice the problem, and pass the burden of working extra hours on to the next shift.

The thing about blight is it develops exponentially. A few infested plants very rapidly becomes an entire infested field. Days, even hours can make a difference to how far the problem spreads. With everyone trying to avoid having to work extra hours to fix the problem, by the time the collective farm manager notices there is a problem, and demands the workers sort it out, it is too late to save the crop.

China realised pure socialism could never work under Premier Deng Xiaoping, who allowed privatisation of agriculture to restore productivity, after watching the Soviet failures and the experiencing the Chinese failures. Deng justified his Capitalist reforms which saved China from socialist famine and launched the modern Chinese economic powerhouse, with his famous quote “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it is a good cat.”.

China still imports a lot of food, but their partially capitalist agriculture sector is in much better shape than the Soviet system ever was.

Of course, it is possible a world dominated by global socialism would be like Cuba – a weakly industrial society, where medieval serfs suffer under an oppressive centralised regime. Greens frequently hold Cuba up as some kind of climate action icon, but the idea of the entire planet being run like Cuba is just too horrible to imagine. Even The Guardian admits Socialist Cuba has never been able to feed itself, they rely heavily on food imports, and always have. Cuba suffers the curse of collectivised agriculture producing poor yields, same as everyone else who has ever tried it.