Imperialism, Climate Change, and the Labour Party

This article begins from two premises.

  1. The Labour Party has historically been a capitalist, imperialist, and anti-immigration party. Despite this it has also had significant progressive potential at times, as shown by its role in the creation of the welfare state, its link to the trade union movement, and the fact that common ownership was enshrined in its constitution (in the form of Clause IV) as recently as 1995.

  2. Climate and ecological justice requires a planned, socialist society, the dismantling of the imperialist divisions between global North and South, and the opening of the North’s borders to allow climate refugees to escape the worst impacts of climate change.

Any eco-socialist or communist involved in Labour needs to grapple with the contradictions between these two realities. Firstly, I will expand on and justify these premises before going on to discuss recent developments and discussions at Labour Conference and at The World Transformed, the radical left fringe festival held alongside Conference. Further, I will outline some principles and policies that anti-imperialists could push for Labour to adopt on the issue of climate change.

Throughout this article the terms ‘global North’ and ‘global South’ are used. North here refers to the nation-states primarily north of the equator - in particular Europe and North America - which have historically perpetrated and benefited from colonialism and on that basis have become ‘developed,’ powerful, highly consumerist economies. Such countries industrialised on the basis of colonialism and slavery and benefit to this day from an unequal set of relations which sees the Northern countries dominate global institutions such as the IMF, G8, WTO, etc. as well as receiving immense flows of value from the South. These countries are historically the most culpable for fossil fuel emissions and ecological devastation while the negative effects of these processes are most felt in the South. While its hegemony has been challenged by the emergence of new imperialist powers - including China - the US in particular remains dominant in the current world-system. The US, through the dollar’s role as world money, is able to gain economic advantage from the rest of the world as is outlined by Lapavitsas (2013: 253) who identifies an ‘informal tribute paid by the global poor to the US’. In the realm of climate justice, and international climate negotiations, the North/South rubric is especially useful as the debate trades heavily on historic emissions and the legacies of colonialism. However, it should be recognised at the outset that imperialist relations today are more complex than North and South or the West and the Rest; indeed, while China is unfairly demonised as a polluter - and it is relevant in that context for the Chinese to point to the history of colonialism which underdeveloped their country and forced upon them a carbon-intensive mode of development - China is also an emerging capitalist and imperialist power which exerts political and military power through its foreign investments. It is vital to analyse such developments as the rise of China; however, this article is primarily about how socialists in Britain should deal with the role of British imperialism and its relation to a progressive climate policy, as such countries such as China should be viewed as deserving of reparations, technology transfers, and so on to the same extent as other Southern countries. It is for leftists in China, and in the countries her monopoly capitalists exploit, to deal with the question of Chinese imperialism and its implications.



The recent conference of the UK’s Labour Party saw sweeping victories for the left, with motions passed on both policy questions and on internal ‘rule changes’ which will democratise the party and strengthen the hand of pro-Corbyn Labour activists. At The World Transformed - a Corbynite, radical left fringe festival - discussions took place on topics ranging from the abolition of work and the transition from social democracy to socialism to militant anti-fascism and open borders. The Party now has nearly 600,000 members, most of whom support Corbyn. However, any discussion of recent developments in Labour must be contextualised within the party’s history. Historically, many on the radical left - including some of the most committed anti-racist and anti-imperialist militants - have steered far clear of the Labour Party, and with good reason. Labour have been not only willing accomplices but often the authors of imperialist wars and racist policing and migration policies. This legacy goes far beyond the Iraq War; Labour MPs applauded the execution of James Connolly after the crushing of the 1916 Easter Rising and the 1945 Labour government under Attlee engaged in brutal, anti-communist counter-insurgencies in Britain’s colonies. More broadly Labour has overseen British capitalism, which has consistently been a force for imperialism; as Tony Norfield argues in his recent book The City, Britain’s finance industry in particular is a key broker of imperialist capital. On migration, even the supposedly left wing ‘Old Labour’ was responsible for significant repression and racism: the 1964-1970 Labour government, for example, brought in restrictive new immigration controls and one senior Labour politician argued at that time that ‘without limitation [on the number of immigrants], integration is impossible’ (Clough, 2014: 161-162). Later, under Blair, Labour significantly stepped up border enforcement. New Labour’s 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act increased the capacity of the detention system by 4,000, began paying income support to asylum seekers in supermarket vouchers, and denied them any choice in where they were housed. The government introduced further restrictive Acts in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2009 (Clough, 2014: 224-225). Ed Miliband did not break from this tradition either; the 2015 manifesto argued that ‘low-skilled migration has been too high and needs to come down’ and promised ‘stronger borders’ and ‘much stronger action to stop illegal immigration.’

While Labour governments have at times shown a genuine commitment to progressive reforms - such as the welfare state, National Health Service, and minimum wage - this has always been, at best, under the rubric of what Satnam Virdee describes as ‘socialist nationalism.’ For Virdee, this refers to a political tradition which sees class in national and racially-defined terms and thus has identified itself with Empire and been complicit in racism. The prevalence of this ‘socialist nationalism,’ its causes, and how to fight it, have been central concerns of all genuine socialist internationalists in the global North - these questions were, for instance, taken up by V.I. Lenin in his Imperialism and the Split in Socialism. The outbreak of the First World War - an imperialist mass slaughter of working class people from the colonised world, Europe, and the US - and the support of the social democratic parties of the Second International for their respective governments, led Lenin to write of ‘the disgusting victory’ of ‘social-chauvinism’ within the European labour movement. He considered it vital to investigate the connection between ‘the imperialist character of our era’ and the nationalistic actions of left-wing parties. For Lenin, the origins of this ‘social-chauvinism’ were to be found in the fact that a section of workers in imperialist countries benefited from imperialist ‘super-profits.’

Corbyn and McDonnell have always represented a more ‘socialist internationalist’ strain within the Labour left, supporting anti-colonial struggles, opposing Western military interventions, and advocating for socialism. However, on migration and defence policy Corbyn’s record as party leader has not been so consistent - many of these battles are still ongoing and should be watched closely by anti-imperialist observers of the Labour Party. However, we must also do more than observe; an anti-imperialist critique which remains aloof from struggles within Labour, writing it off as essentially the left-wing of British racism and imperialism fails to grapple with the immense progressive potential not only of a ‘Corbynista’ party under an anti-war, socialist leadership but of the extent to which there is an opening to push even further, politicise the hundreds of thousands of new members, and initiate a confrontation with the British state and ruling class.


Climate Justice and Ecosocialism

The related histories and present of colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism are vital to understanding and addressing climate change. A politics of anti-imperialism, ecosocialism, and open borders is the only kind capable of achieving climate justice.

Capitalism is based on inequality at a national and global level, combined with production for profit not human needs, a tendency towards unending growth of production and consumption, and a concentration of power in the hands of a few. Such a system is not suited to meeting the basic needs of the world’s population, nor is it suited to allowing humanity to - collectively and democratically - find a rational and harmonious way of relating to the natural world. It is beset by short-termism and what Naomi Klein has called ‘extractivism,’ i.e. unsustainable use of scarce natural resources in ways that are ecologically harmful. Anti-capitalist thinkers, from Marx onwards, have shown the destructive environmental impacts of capitalism and have called for a sustainable, planned economy. We must also view capitalism as a global system of imperialism forged through the intimately connected history of the West’s industrialisation at home and colonisation of the rest of the world. Understanding the basis of global inequality is key to understanding the dynamics of climate change; for instance, since 1961 the richest countries have generated 42% of ecological degradation, yet borne only 3% of the costs (Davis, 2010: 39). Further, despite a significant proportion of extraction and manufacturing happening in the Global South, most consumption takes place in those Northern countries that also historically bear much more responsibility for the current climate crisis. Consumption-based accounting of C02 demonstrates that even relatively large carbon emitters in the Global South (e.g. China) are at least partially polluting in order to produce goods exported to Northern states (Davis and Caldeira, 2010: 5687); this is the result of a world-system which sees ‘the capital-labor relation’ become ‘a relation between Northern capital and Southern labor’ (Smith, 2016: 12). This relation, as noted earlier, is complicated by China’s role as an emergent imperialist power but it is clear that carbon-intensive Chinese industry continues to be to a great extent in the service of Northern consumer economies. Marxist ecologist John Bellamy Foster correctly identifies the capitalist world-system’s ‘imperialist relation to the planet’ and points to the history of how colonialism and imperialism ‘pillaged the economies and societies’ of the South, leading to the ‘development of underdevelopment’ (1999: 85, 88). Such underdeveloped states lack the resources to adapt to, and mitigate the effects of, climate change. For instance, as Leon Sealey-Huggins has shown, the Caribbean nations face an existential threat from climate change even at 1.5 degrees of warming - considered an acceptable level by many Northern powers. For these reasons, an ecosocialist transformation must fundamentally be premised on anti-imperialism.

The old, immensely wealthy imperialist states will likely seek to maintain global inequalities as the onset of climate change sharpens core-periphery contradictions; further, emerging imperialist states such as China will also seek to protect themselves from the effects of climate change and secure food, fuel, and other resources at the expense of their own colonies and semi-colonies. Elites in the core states, Mike Davis (2010: 41) speculates, may abandon ‘global mitigation’ in favour of ‘the creation of green and gated oases of permanent affluence’ ensuring their health and prosperity on ‘an otherwise stricken planet;’ it is not unreasonable to infer that they will likely be forced into extreme measures to defend this division. With this in mind we may predict an intensified securitisation within core states and imperialism abroad to deal with the fallout of ‘climate wars’ and secure flows of resources. ‘Fortress Europe’ perhaps hints at the kind of mechanisms that will be expanded in order to deal with intensified inequality and displacement. The securitisation within and at the borders of EU states in response to recent flows of refugees has been intense and violent; the numbers of climate refugees are predicted to dwarf anything Europe has seen thus far over the coming decades. Climate justice movements within the imperialist states will thus need to avoid single issue campaigning; a movement in the core states must be as concerned with fighting against border regimes and imperialist wars as against fossil fuel infrastructures.


Conference and The World Transformed (TWT)

In a very well-attended speech at this year’s party conference, Naomi Klein praised Labour’s ideas around public ownership and investment in green energy but called on Labour to go further in terms of acknowledging colonialism’s role in climate change, transferring wealth to the global south, and welcoming refugees. Her speech is worth quoting at length:

I want to stress, as your international speaker, that none of this can be about turning any one nation into a progressive museum.

In wealthy countries like yours and mine, we need migration policies and levels of international financing that reflect what we owe to the global south - our historic role in destabilizing the economies and ecologies of poorer nations for a great many years. For instance, during this epic hurricane season, we’ve heard a lot of talk of “the British Virgin Islands,” the “French Virgin Islands” and so on. Rarely was it seen as relevant to observe that these are not reflections of where Europeans like to holiday. They are reflections of the fact that so much of the vast wealth of empire was extracted from these Islands in bonded human flesh.

Wealth that supercharged Europe’s and North America’s industrial revolution, positioning us as the super-polluters we are today. And that is intimately connected to the fact that the future and security of island nations are now at grave risk from superstorms storms, sea level rise, and dying coral reefs. What should this painful history mean to us today?

It means welcoming migrants and refugees. And it means paying our fair share to help many more countries ramp up justice-based green transitions of their own.

That such ideas received a positive hearing within conference itself is very encouraging.

One session at The World Transformed was titled ‘Repowering Britain: What Role for Public Ownership in a Just Climate Transition’ and aimed to explore how Labour could bring about a ‘just and rapid transition...that places workers and communities at the heart of publicly-owned and democratically-run energy.’ One speaker, from the Labour Energy Forum, argued that discussions of public ownership could ‘bring the social back into green politics’ - in other words, ensuring that environmentalism is neither a mandate for green capitalism nor a purely reformist, NGO-led ‘good cause’ but is central to working class and labour movement politics. It was further pointed out that workers often bear the brunt of any restructuring of the energy system, something which must be avoided in the transition away from fossil fuels. For instance, Thatcher’s attack on the miners led to the destruction of people’s lives, identities, livelihoods, and communities - the energy sector in the UK employs 150,000 with a further 600,000 whose employment indirectly relies on it; those workers cannot be ignored, despite the need to dismantle the existing system and build a new one. ‘Green’ jobs are also not inherently good jobs; renewable energy companies are often exploitative employers and offshore wind jobs, for instance, are highly unsafe - as with any work under capitalism the intensity, safety, and dignity of work is a question of struggle. As another speaker noted, the agency of organised workers is central. In 1976, aerospace workers produced the Lucas Plan, a proposal for how their factories could be converted from producing weapons of war to manufacturing socially useful goods like public transport. Energy workers in the UK have the knowledge necessary for a ‘Lucas Plan’ for a just transition to green energy.

There was also extensive discussion of municipal energy companies which could be set up by councils and other local government bodies to invest in green energy and provide cheap power to local people. Not only would such companies - which are already being successfully implemented in Bristol and Nottingham - help to cut out the rapacious ‘Big Six’ energy companies and improve working class people’s ability to heat and power their homes, they would also improve efficiency by reducing the amount of energy lost in transmission over long distances which is a feature of Britain’s highly centralised energy system.

The workshop saw many important and radical policy ideas discussed, however the focus was almost entirely on energy production, distribution, and consumption within the UK. Of course, this is vitally important to implement a democratic, collective energy system in the UK, which can reduce domestic use of fossil fuels. Indeed, these proposals demonstrate very well the relation between common ownership and ecological sustainability and the ways in which private profit harms both people and the environment. However, given the internationalist demands of climate justice - as Naomi Klein alludes to in her speech and I have discussed in the above section - we need to be pushing for a bolder, more radical programme which acknowledges the specific conditions of Britain as a former colonial and currently imperialist country. Some possibilities for such a programme are outlined below.


Towards anti-imperialist climate policy

Proposals for public ownership of energy are popular with polls showing up to 77% in support. Labour should continue to push for public ownership based on worker and community control; they should simply expropriate the ‘Big Six’ rather than seeking to buy them out or ‘out-compete’ them. Massive state investment, paid for by taxing the rich and seizing the energy companies, should be used to convert the UK entirely to renewable power as soon as possible. While, as noted above, altering domestic energy production and consumption patterns is not enough, it is a start - as an imperialist country and the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution Britain has the means - and the ethical responsibility - to stop contributing to climate change. Nonetheless, most of Britain’s contribution to and responsibility for climate change comes from other sources. Firstly, consumption of goods manufactured in the global South; the C02 emitted in the production of such goods is supposedly emitted by the country of origin, yet it is consumers in the Britain - benefiting from an imperialist global system of production and distribution - who see the benefit. If a British consumer buys and wears a t-shirt made in Bangladesh is it fair to say that the working class Bangladeshi woman who sewed it is the ‘polluter’ who needs to reign in her consumption? Secondly, Britain industrialised - and has polluted for many years - on the basis of slavery and colonial plunder; colonialism has now left the countries that were plundered deindustrialised and facing the worst impacts of climate change.

All this is to say that climate change is a result of a global history, mode of production, and set of power relations - Labour’s climate policy must address that. A state-owned, democratically-run energy company could invest heavily in research and development on energy efficiency, green tech, and ways to adapt to the impacts of climate change - the fruits of such research ought to be freely shared with the global South through transfers of technology, intellectual property, and expertise.

Further, Labour should commit to financial and trade policies that benefit the global South - for instance, through reparations, rewriting of trade treaties, and by using Britain’s weight to challenge the power of international bodies such as the WTO, IMF, UN, and the G8.

Finally, Labour must oppose immigration controls. The effects of climate change will inevitably lead to mass displacement on an unprecedented scale; in a world of closed borders the human cost will be immense - as the thousands of deaths, violent repression, and mass internment at the borders of ‘Fortress Europe’ demonstrate. When whole countries are rendered uninhabitable or even subsumed by rising seas displacing entire national communities the effect of closed borders will become quite literally genocidal.

Such a future is not worth contemplating and Labour must firmly place itself on the side of those who seek to prevent that future. The options are clear: ecosocialism - based on workers’ power, egalitarianism, and open borders -  or barbarism.

- anon


Costas Lapavitsas (2013) Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, London: Verso.

John Bellamy Foster (1999) The vulnerable planet: a short economic history of the environment, New York: Monthly Review Press.

John Smith (2016) Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalisation, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Mike Davis (2010) Who will build the Ark? New Left Review, Vol. 62, Jan-Feb.

Robert Clough (2014) Labour: a party fit for imperialism, London: Larkin Publications.

Satnam Virdee (2014) Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Steven J. Davis and Ken Caldeira (2010) Consumption-based accounting of C02 emissions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107, number 12.