I’m a middle-aged man born nearly 50 years ago who has been a socialist since my early teens. So I’m about a quarter the age of socialism itself. I have a lot of rural rebel heritage. Lordan’s played an important role in the Irish revolution’s most successful flying column – The 3rd West Cork Brigade, which defeated the British Empire and made the Black & Tans weep and wish they had never been born. My mother’s people, the O Byrne’s, burnt the Normans out of the Wicklow Mountains in the 1230s and held the region as a free Gaelic territory for nearly 600 years – only succumbing during the genocidal repression post-1798. These rural revolutionaries, who would not give up their collective freedom no matter what the hardship, seem almost like a different species to the urban Irish of today at times. It seems to be much easier to sustain a rebellion in the countryside than in the cities, and there is no doubt that, in Irish history at least, peasants of long ago make far better, far braver, far more reliable rebels than the workers of our industrial cities today.
Consider that approximately two centuries have now passed since the first stirrings of the urban-industrial socialist movement. As long as there has been capitalism, there have been socialists arguing for a socialism based on the appropriation of the means of capitalist industrial production by the working class, or in the case of reformists, by politicians in the name of the working class.
The broad movement split into anarchists and socialists in the 1870s, and divided into clearly distinct reformist & revolutionary trends upon the outbreak of WWI, which witnessed 99% of European socialists abandoning internationalist principles overnight & lining up behind their own warmongering and industrially-slaughtering ruling class instead – such a vast and incomprehensible betrayal that Lenin simply refused to believe it when he first heard of it.
We should always keep in mind the terrifying lesson of WW1 for socialists – it is possible for all our parties, all our leaders, all our parliamentarians, all our theoreticians, all our eloquent spokespeople, to be completely & utterly & catastrophically & simultaneously wrong.
Reformists believe socialism or at least large scale social reforms can be brought about from above through parliamentary legislation – They orientate on winning the electoral support of the urban working class, white & blue-collar.
Revolutionary socialists, always the minority, see socialism being brought about by a global urban workers uprising.
After two centuries of failure by both traditions to bring about socialism by way of the urban working class, & staring into the abyss of human extinction brought about by urban industrialism, is it time to start asking are they all mistaken?
What if the urban & industrial working class is not the caterpillar of revolutionary immanence after all?
What if it does not transform itself into the beautiful & joyous socialist butterfly simply because it cannot – because that is not its nature, because it is just not made of that kind of stuff, & so the urban-industrial socialist vision of the world industrial working class blossoming, after it has made a global revolution, into a New Humanity is maybe as absurd as the alchemist’s deluded idea of lead metamorphosing into gold.
This troubling question, or something like it, has I suppose often been asked, since the history of socialism, thus far anyways, is in such large part a history of failure & of disappointment. The best that can be said of both failure & disappointment is that they provoke us into an interrogation of the thing that has failed, of that which has disappointed.
So socialism has had many internal critics, many interrogations, including worries about the theoretical & organizational centrality of the urban-industrial working class.
What’s new in 2021 is the impact of the climate & habitat catastrophe, of which we are now in the first phase – the pandemic, the freak weather all over, the collapse of supply chains, the energy price shock, steepening inflation, collapsing fish & insect populations, and much much more are all part of this catastrophe which will take up the rest of our lives & of which we are only experiencing the tiniest introductory taste.
This catastrophe threatens to – at least – remove the material basis for urban-industrial civilization, which is ultimately based on our ability to annually & predictably produce grains & staples (rice, wheat, corn, potatoes etc) at huge scales and distribute these globally to feed the billions.
Droughts that last decades, widespread & accelerating desertification, unsurvivable ‘heat dome’ heatwaves, biblical flooding, poisoned & depleted topsoil, the extinction of pollinators & other crucial elements of the food-chain, all of which are guaranteed at present emission rates, mean that the urban population will no longer have access to a reliable food supply or perhaps any kind of food supply.
(Let’s not even talk about water supply! I don’t want to give you nightmares.)
No food supply, no cities. No international trade-system – already splintering all over the place as you may have noticed – means no industry as we know it. It means no manufacturing industry, no services industry, no finance industry. Therefore no urban-industrial working class.
This is one scenario – the one predicted by XR, Monbiot, Beckwith, Carter, Thunberg, Hallam and many thousands of scientists and activists.
The far more optimistic and I fear far less scientific scenario of the urban-industrial left is one in which sometime in the next five or ten years (that’s all we’ve got) be it by reform or revolution, the world working class takes control of the global means of production and converts them to means of clean green socialist production, simultaneously averting an acceleration of the catastrophe & enabling all the billions to live at (at least) the standard of comfort of the western middle class. People may think i am being sarcastic here, but i am not – i am simply describing my understanding of the actual beliefs & professions of present day socialists I know intimately and over a long duration, whose environmental conferences I have attended, whose policy documents I have examined, whose environmental actions I have witnessed and occasionally participated in. In general I would say the faction-ridden, ego-driven electoralism of the contemporary Irish socialist movement has resulted in paralysis, in a condition of bureaucratic clientelism which has little or nothing to do with rebellion. 90 per cent of the time of socialist electoralists is spent at full-timer committee meetings related to elections, and/or figuring out how to help lumpen proletarians in desperate conditions & unable to help themselves due to the condition urban-industrialism has left them in. Electoralists are very busy people – they don’t have a whole lot of time or energy left to think seriously about how to change a rapidly changing world like ours.
Without commenting on the likelihood or not of a successful global workers revolution in the next few years, I’d simply like to point out that there is no way of providing just the electricity alone needed to power such a society as envisioned by eco-socialist optimism without destroying the planet & everything on it even quicker than we are doing so now.
I’m interested in talking, and maybe acting, with others who identify as socialists but who feel like I do that the historical possibility of global industrial working-class revolution has been closed off by the climate and habitat catastrophe.
What kind of socialism is possible after cities and industry have gone?
I believe that the pace, scale and the political & theoretical consequences of the collapse of urban-industrial civilization have not been taken onboard by the vast majority of socialists, and so they continue to organise on the basis of a world that, as Marx would put is, ‘melting into air’, and a vision of the future which – whatever its validity in the 19th & early 20th century – is simply an hallucination nowadays with no materialist grounding. There is no economic Utopia ahead for the workers of the world whether or not they overthrow capitalism. At best the decades to come, if not the aeons, taking place on a planet transformed by two centuries of industrial poisoning – on this fishless, insectless, Amazonless, Arcticless world – will be the hardest struggle faced by our species since the aftermath of the Toba supervolcano 75000 years ago reputedly reduced us to roughly 2000 humans on the whole planet.
How did those 2000 survive a Volcanic winter several centuries long? It would be I believe a good idea to find out the answer to this question, and quickly.
How do we learn to live with very little, in small groups, self-sufficiently, and in some way egalitarian? Who has done this before us and who is doing it now that we can learn from?
What should ‘collapse socialists’ do in the here and now to help themselves and others prepare?
These are the political questions I am interested in finding answers for. Please comment if interested & links to relevant articles, videos etc much appreciated.
Contact Dave Lordan at firstname.lastname@example.org