Transitioning to an ecosocialist world system

November 11, 2020
Climate rally in Sydney in February. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Despite efforts in the Soviet Union, China and numerous other post-revolutionary societies to create socialist systems, all of these efforts were powerfully hindered in achieving this ideal by complex historical, social structural, internal and external forces.

Thus socialism, and particularly ecosocialism, remains a vision, but one overdue in this era of climate change, environmental devastation, gross social inequality, authoritarianism, militarism and now COVID-19 and the threat of other pandemics, that humanity faces.


Ecosocialism is based on the following aims:

1. An economy oriented to meeting basic social needs, namely adequate food, clothing, shelter, meaningful work and healthy conditions and resources;

2. A high degree of social parity and justice;

3. Public ownership of productive forces and various social services;

4. Representative and participatory democracy, including in the workplace; and

5. Environmental sustainability and a safe climate.

Ultimately, the shift to ecosocialism in any country would have to be part of a global process that no one can fully envision at the present time.

Obviously, the transition toward an ecosocialist world is not guaranteed, and will require a tedious, even convoluted, path.

Nevertheless, while awaiting the “revolution”, so to speak, radicals can work on various transitional steps essential to implementing a socio-ecological revolution and ultimately global ecosocialism:

1. The creation of new left parties designed to capture and transform the capitalist state;

2. The implementation of steep emissions taxes at sites of production that include efforts to protect low-income people;

3. Public ownership in various ways of the means of production;

4. Increasing social equality within nation-states and between nation-states and achieving a sustainable global population;

5. The implementation of socialist planning and workers’ democracy;

6. Meaningful work and the shortening of the work week;

7. Development of a global steady-state economy that includes overall degrowth for countries in the Global South and development for countries in the Global South;

8. The adoption of renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and appropriate technology, and the creation of green jobs;

9. Sustainable public transport and travel;

10. Sustainable food production and forestry;

11. Resistance to the capitalist culture of consumption;

12. Sustainable trade; and

13. Sustainable settlement patterns and local communities.

These transitional steps constitute loose guidelines, not a rigid blueprint, for shifting human societies or countries to ecosocialism in a global “permanent revolution”, one that would include a radical climate governance regime.

The history of the Soviet Union and Stalinism, and more recently China, which constitutes a state capitalist society, tell us that socialism cannot be built in one country.

Although presently, or in the near foreseeable future, that notion that ecosocialism may be developed in any society, particularly an advanced capitalist one, may seem utterly ridiculous and utopian, history tells us that social changes, including revolutions, can occur very quickly once economic, political and social structural changes have reached a tipping point.

Anti-systemic social movements will have to play an instrumental role in bringing about the political change which will enable the world to shift to an alternative world system.

Climate change

Given the failure, to date, of established international and national climate regimes in adequately addressing climate change, serious climate action will have to come from below.

Ultimately, the climate justice movement, will have to form strong alliances with other anti-systemic movements, including the labour, anti-corporate globalisation, Indigenous and ethnic rights, women’s, environmental and peace movements, in achieving this effort.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest in Commonwealth (2009) that “only movements from below” possess the “capacity to construct a consciousness of renewal and transformation” — one that “emerges from the working classes and multitudes that autonomously and creatively propose anti-modern and anti-capitalist hopes and dreams”.

Going from the present capitalist world system, which has generated and continues to generate greenhouse gas emissions and thereby anthropogenic climate change, to an alternative global political economy — however it is defined — will require much effort. There are no guarantees that we will be able to create a more socially equitable and environmentally sustainable world.

But do we really have any other meaningful choice than to change, or face the downward spiral and the destruction of much of humanity, loss of current biodiversity, and further environmental degradation?

Even “green capitalism” does not have a potential to be either socially just or environmentally sustainable and, in this light, humanity must move to something new and better, namely ecosocialism.

To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, it is ecosocialism or ecodystopia.

My own sense, much as I hate to say it, is that, overall, things will get worse before they get better, and there is no guarantee that they will get better.

Nevertheless, while the capitalist world system appears to be well entrenched on numerous fronts, including within universities, there are numerous cracks in the system, manifested in phenomena such as Brexit in Britain, the election of authoritarian political leaders, various tensions within the European Union, the threat of nuclear war, ongoing conflicts in many parts of the world, growing gaps in global wealth, climatic crises of many sorts, the acidification of the oceans, the extinction of many creatures and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic.

Presenting a precise timeline for a transition from global capitalism to an ecosocialist world system is extremely difficult, probably impossible.


However, the stabilisation of the Earth’s climate system needs to occur within the next two or three decades lest large swatches of land become uninhabitable for human beings, as well as nonhuman species.

Despite the daunting difficulties that much of humanity currently faces, it is imperative that ecosocialists keep plugging away at challenging the system in their conversations, teachings and writings while staying involved in anti-systemic movements by struggling to create new left and anti-capitalist parties that can point to alternative ways of organising the world at global, regional and local levels and listen to critical input from other progressive perspectives, including ecoanarchism, ecofeminism and Indigenous voices.

In contrast to capitalism, ecosocialist politics is about specifics, production and consumption, employment, a decent wage, deep democracy, dignified conditions of living, public health and a sustainable and healthy environment.

Perhaps the most important step in the transitional steps in moving toward ecosocialism is having new left parties assume power — a feat that has occurred with mixed results in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia under the Bolivarian Revolution and in Greece with Syriza.

Each of these attempts to create a socialism for 21st century met both internal and external resistance, highlighting the ongoing hegemony of capitalist institutions — be they United States imperialism, the European Union, or the International Monetary Fund.

Nevertheless, these experiments, despite their shortcomings and the resistance they encountered, illustrate that the capitalist state can be captured, even if only a short period of time.

For radicals in Australia, what might a new left party look like?

I have for several years envisioned an unholy alliance of disaffected Labor Party members, ecosocialists and ecoanarchists within the Greens, a unified socialist movement and independent socialists and ecoanarchists.

However, for such a party to come to power would require the strong support of anti-systemic movements and unity among most of the socialist parties and groups in the country, a process which had eluded the socialist movement to date.

Nevertheless, to use a cliché, hope springs eternal, even in the worst of times and perhaps in a period of escalating socioecological crisis.

[This is the second in a series of short articles by Hans Baer and Ted Trainer on transitions away from the problems generated by capitalism. Their first pieces are here and here.]

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