Naomi Klein opens This Changes Everything with an anecdote about an airplane prevented from taking off because its wheels have sunk deep into the overheated tarmac. In this story and others, Klein sees an important irony within the truth that is climate change:
The temperatures in the summer of 2012 were indeed unusually hot. (As they were the year before and the year after). And it’s no mystery why this has been happening: the profligate burning of fossil fuels, the very thing that US Airways was bound and determined to do despite the inconvenience presented by a melting tarmac. This irony – the fact that the burning of fossil fuels is so radically changing our climate that it is getting in the way of our capacity to burn fossil fuels – did not stop the passengers of Flight 3935 from reembarking and continuing their journeys. (This Changes Everything, 2).
This “irony” is a classic example of what Marxists refer to as a contradiction. “Irony” implies something accidental or fortuitous about how the state of affairs came to be: “look, we can’t burn fossil fuels because we burn so many fossil fuels”. But a contradiction in the Marxist sense never loses sight of the fact that the juxtaposition of two truths such as these are far from accidental; they have, in fact, been determined by the movement of history itself.
In Hegelian and Marxist dialectic, a contradiction is resolved through “the negation of the negation” and the production of something new, a new state of affairs. In this case, Klein’s title is well-chosen. In the synthesis that resolves a contradiction everything is changed.
But Klein is not a Marxist, and her prescription for the kind of change necessary to avoid the disaster that climate change is bringing ever closer is not a materialist one. She recognizes that the change that must take place is economic, but she hedges on the question of whether such an economic change has ever taken place (“I must report that the answer to that question is predictably complex, filled with ‘sort ofs’ and ‘almosts’” (p. 453)) while ignoring the historical example of the victory of the middle-class in Europe, precisely the kind of social revolution which must occur if Klein’s vision of a “safer and more equitable” society is to be realized.
But for Klein, the building of such a movement requires only that people “open their eyes” in order to see the truth and begin to change the structures of their lives and to demand political, social, and economic change. But this was precisely the view of Feuerbach, Bauer, and Stirner that Marx and Engels criticized in The German Ideology. In Klein’s view, “a great deal of the work of deep social change involves” debates and stories:
Because if we are to have any hope of making the kind of civilizational leap forward required of this fateful decade, we will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy. (p. 461).
This, of course, raises the spectre of “class-consciousness” and its place in the coming revolution. For Feuerbach, Bauer, and Stirner (the “Young Hegelians” of Marx’s critique), all that was required for social change was for people to change their view of the world. In The German Ideology, Marx countered that
The relations of men, all their doings, their fetters and their limitations are products of their consciousness [therefore] the Young Hegelians logically put to men the moral postulate of exchanging their present consciousness for [another] consciousness, and thus of removing their limitations. This demand to change consciousness amounts to a demand to interpret the world in a different way, i.e. to recognize it by means of having a different interpretation. (* The German Ideology*, p. 36).
For Marx this was an untenable position. The German Ideology provides the most detailed elaboration of historical materialism in Marx’s writings, according to which the socio-economic change in society resulting from the crises provoked by contradictions such as those cited by Klein cannot be the result of a change in consciousness, because consciousness itself is a product of history. While Marx agrees that a wholesale change in consciousness is necessary for “the success of the cause”, he argues that this change “can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution” (The German Ideology, p. 60). The consciousness of the class fighting for change can only come about in the process of the revolution itself.
If [the] material elements of a complete revolution are not present – namely, on the one hand the existing productive forces, on the other the formation of a revolutionary mass, which revolts not only against separate conditions of the existing society, but against the existing “production of life” itself, the “total activity” on which it is based – then it is immaterial for practical development whether the idea of the revolution has been expressed a hundred times already. (p. 62).
For Klein, the elaboration and the communication of the idea (through debates and stories) will be enough for her revolutionary movement to come about. It does not seem to be that “a revolutionary mass” is anywhere near existing in the countries where this revolution is necessary (i.e. the countries of developed capitalism). But it seems clear that the contradictions arising out of the juxtaposition of climate change with advanced capitalism can only lead to more and more crises, both economic and climatic, and that these crises may lead to the formation of the revolutionary mass. But Klein is wrong to think that “we will win by asserting that such calculations [of human life vs. profit] are morally monstrous” (p. 464). No revolution ever came about through the assertion of a fact.
Klein does seem to understand that, despite much of her programme being framed as “demands”, at a given moment, actual power will have to be taken. If we are watching for the contradictions to sharpen, for the final crisis to come – as it must come – then there must be people ready not only to “debate and tell stories”, though there is a place for that, as there is a place for everything in Klein’s book. But there must also be those who are prepared to recognize when the moment for the seizure of power has arrived. This was, perhaps, Lenin’s greatest gift: the ability to recognize the historical moment for what it was. In addition to a movement like the one Klein envisages - coming before the revolution like John the Baptist – we should be looking to the example of Lenin in the realm of organization and the practical seizure of power. When even non-Communists like Naomi Klein recognize the need for revolution, when the crisis of climate change is visible and apparent in our everyday lives, when the contradictions of capitalism are heightened day by day, perhaps the lessons of October are once more relevant.