2.5. Socialism and green social democracy in historical materialist theory

Notwithstanding our preference for naming the next system green social democracy, what we envision by green social democracy fills the same role as socialism within Marxian historical materialist theory, a brief if arguable account of which the reader can find at www.wikipedia.org through the articles on "historical materialism" and "Marx's theory of history". Our intended contribution to this theory is an attempt to identify the transitional path to the system beyond capitalism as it appears from within the social movements of those combatting exploitation and oppression. Ours is an effort to giver clearer voice to those movements. This effort is necessarily a work-in-progress.

Capitalism within historical materialist theory is simply the latest, shortest lived -; and we believe last - in a series of class forms of society that characterize recorded history. The dominance of capitalism was preceded by the dominance of feudalism, which in turn was preceded by the dominance of slave societies, with the timing of this sequence varying with geographic location (especially relative isolation).

Systems co-existing within dominant capitalism

By speaking of the global dominance of capitalism in this century, we allow for the co-existence of two or more systems, but this requires a few caveats. The authors have no knowledge of the co-existence of two systems as equals within one political unit. Our examples of systems coexisting with now globally dominant capitalism are explained by geographical isolation or subordination. An example of geographic isolation is the existence in capitalist Brazil of communal societies within parts of the Amazon forest that until recently were relatively inaccessible.

An example of subordination of one form of economic relationship to another is the existence of the communal provision of goods and services within families, reducing the costs that would otherwise have to be covered by higher wages paid by the capitalist class. Never satisfied with the status quo, however, the profit driven capitalist class constantly seeks to expand the private- for-profit market economy at the expense of non-market economic activity, including that from which it derives a less costly workforce.

An unsavory example of a subordinate economic relationship is that between slavery and capitalism. One only need consider the role of slave plantations in the southern states of pre-Civil War United States in relation to the rapid development of industrial capitalism in England. England captured and sold humans from Africa as slaves to the white southern US plantation owners in return for cheap cotton, facilitating the expansion in England of its developing capitalist system in competition with the emergent industrial capitalism in the US Northeastern states.

While opportunities for co-existence between a globally dominant capitalism and geographically isolated communal societies have all but evaporated in the face of the aggressive expansion of capitalism, supported by hegemonic military power, there remains a living memory of communal societies, represented in the demands and internationally affirmed rights of its most direct representatives. Representation of their indigenous values and world views exists today as a political force at the forefront of current struggles. These include the struggle for indigenous rights, now codified and given a juridical base in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This political and cultural force constitutes the greatest barrier to continuing rapacious environmental destruction by a moribund capitalism and its political representatives. Growing solidarity and coalescence of the indigenous, environmental and labor movements, including the arousal of a collective memory of communal values as the background of all human beings prefigures the struggle for a new society beyond capitalism, one with communal characteristics, including a communal relationship among people and with nature.

Remaining barriers to moving beyond capitalism

Remaining barriers to moving beyond capitalism no longer include the ability of capitalism to expand the productive forces of society. In that respect, capitalism is now the principal barrier to the sufficient further development of those forces so that they might be able to meet the challenge of the environmental crisis now impressing itself on humanity. Capitalism's productivity in relation to more authoritarian systems explains its survival into the twenty first century, but it can no longer justify its continued existence.

Today one of the two main barriers to moving beyond capitalism is the power of the ideas and myths propagated by the self-interested representatives and main beneficiaries of this dying system. One of these myths, already addressed in part in this and prior parts of our argument, is the myth of the universality of capitalism in space and time, the myth that capitalism has always existed and will continue to do so. This myth has been most effectively propagated by those who make no mention of the society we live in as a capitalist one, who refer to society as if all have been and will be the same.

In reality, the study of the nature and history of human society is a study of its evolution. This study, as we have argued, has identified different forms of productive relationships between people for providing for our living from nature, varying over time and geographic location. The trace of this evolution roughly corresponds to the history of development of technology, including tools and forms of organizing productive activity, hence the great attention that the social sciences, including archeology, anthropology, history, and sociology, give to the identification of the characteristic technologies and the forms of the productive relationships.

But such a study necessarily has implications for the system that has been globally dominant during the historical period in which science, including the social sciences, has flourished. Karl Marx's critical studies of law, philosophy, and history, however, led him to conclusions that touched a nerve as raw as the one touched by the results of Charles Darwin's parallel study of the evolution of living things. In each case there has been a continuing effort at denial and even banishment from discussion. In the meantime, the philosophic and social scientific theories of Karl Marx and the evolutionary biological theory of Charles Darwin have continued to be further developed, modified and enriched. No-one working in the fields they pioneered can justify ignoring them, and few, if any, do.

But between science and the public stands the self-interest of the capitalist class and its representatives and their propensity for denying or banishing from discussion any scientific evidence or conclusion they fear might undermine the myths they feel they need to continue to propagate to buttress their own authority. Looked at another way, they do this naturally and honestly. Finding one's way through the resulting minefield is perhaps the biggest remaining obstacle to moving beyond capital. Not surprisingly, increasing millions of people are finding it necessary to do so, propelled, we contend, by the race between the prospect of the extinction of our species and the alternative of finding our way through the fog in time to leave a habitable planet for future generations. In other words, the barrier to achieving a society beyond capitalism presented by capitalist mythology is increasingly being reduced by the acceleration of capitalism's deleterious consequences.

We now rejoin the core of this argument to identify another barrier to moving beyond capitalism. In Marx's influential theory of evolution of human society, each form of class society is characterized by its methods of producing and capturing an economic surplus. By surplus we have in mind the amount of goods and services produced that is in excess of the reproductive needs of the laboring classes, that is, the producers themselves.

Capitalism as a system of generating a surplus for its ruling class features the employment by the capitalist class of wage labor. In exchange for their labor time, the wage and salaried employees of the employing capitalist class produce not only to meet their own needs but in addition a surplus that supports the capitalist class. From this surplus, the capitalist class takes not only enough for its own consumption needs, but also an amount that it uses to further develop and expand its ownership. In other words, the working class produces not only the means for its own continuing existence but also the means of its extended exploitation by the capitalist class.

Such is capitalism, from its origins in the centuries before Karl Marx studied it until the present day. Contemporary capitalism, however, would likely be unrecognizable to Karl Marx. Instead of direct employment of workers by capitalists, a huge network of intermediaries has appeared, adding to the ranks of capitalism's political, academic and military representatives. Contemporary capitalism is characterized by its global reach, its internal dominance by monopolistic corporations and wealthy individuals, the increasingly prominent and dominant role of financial capital, and increasing roles for government in the collection of the surplus and its distribution up the capitalist food chain to the economically and politically dominant members of the ruling capitalist class. Until very recently, this characterization ended with recognition of the division of the spoils between wealthier core capitalist countries, where its financial, academic and military headquarters were and for the most part still are located, and a huge periphery of dependent capitalist countries, in each of which a comprador class of national capitalists and their political, academic and military representatives is to be found. For more on this latter, see Samir Amin (2013, Monthly Review Press) The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism.

Since the latter decades of the twentieth century, however, the leading forces within capitalism have found a way to temporarily escape the agency of the working class and oppressed peoples. While the latter remained under the effective control of nation-state governments, corporations operating on a global scale, removed a significant part of their operations from their home countries and distributed these globally, a process that has accelerated from the latter part of the 20th century. The result is today better described as transnational capitalism, meaning that the now dominant sections of the capitalist class operate increasingly outside the constraints of nation-state governments. The result is effective de-regulation with respect to environmental, safety, and labor cost constraints. Effectively, by increasing its mobility while constraining that of labor, transnational corporations have engineered a global competitive race to the bottom between the nationally bound contingents of the work forces they employ.

Buttressing this deregulation has been the creation of transnational institutions that act as a transnational state in relation to the competing transnational corporations. Their creation by the transnational capitalist class was facilitated by increasing centralization of decision-making power within the executive branches of nation-state governments, which occurred simultaneously at the behest of the same forces.

The most far-reaching economic and political decisions with impact on labor and the environment are now being made by transnational institutions that operate outside the political agency of the working class and oppressed peoples. Examples of these transnational institutions include the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the so-called free trade agreements, all created and functioning outside the effective purview and control of parliamentary governments. Advance planning for these decisions takes place at such ruling class forums as the DAVOS gathering and meetings of the G7 and G20.

The beginnings of a response by the working class and other popular forces can be seen in the World Social Forum and the follow-ups to that 2001 gathering in Brazil and in recurring protest actions coincident with the meetings of the G7, G20 and other gatherings of representatives of the transnational capitalist class. The extension of this response to a more effective means of negating the new power of transnational capitalism is global coordination and intensification of actions designed to isolate the representatives of the transnational capitalist class both morally and politically.

The rapidly accelerating process of concentration of economic and political power into fewer hands has, we believe, already placed this once seemingly formidable task within reach of the progressive forces of the working class and oppressed peoples. In the face of arguments like those brought together in this case for a green social democratic replacement to capitalism, the motley contingent of current representatives of the ruling transnational capitalist class now effectively holding global power will prove to be as morally bankrupt as this contingent and the system it represents have become.

As previously mentioned, the interested reader can refer for a comprehensive analysis of this development and its significance to William I. Robinson (2014, Cambridge University Press) Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity. A synopsis of some of Robinson's analysis can be found in our review of this work at http://greensocialdemocracy.org/component/content/article/83-reviews/200-can-emergent-early-21st-century-neo-fascism-be-defeated-without-coming-to-grips-with-late-20th-century-restructuring-of-capitalism-into-a-global-system. Also to be found on our website are brief articles by Robinson in which he articulates some of his principal arguments, including: http://greensocialdemocracy.org/component/content/article/83-reviews/200-can-emergent-early-21st-century-neo-fascism-be-defeated-without-coming-to-grips-with-late-20th-century-restructuring-of-capitalism-into-a-global-system and http://greensocialdemocracy.org/component/content/article/98-us-corner/204-the-crisis-of-global-capitalism-and-trump-s-march-to-war.

We will return to historical materialist theory in Chapter 6 when we further look at green social democracy in historical perspective. Here our main purpose is to make our theoretical perspective transparent so that readers can both recognize how we apply it and challenge our claim to its veracity.

By way of concluding this example of historical materialist thought, we note that the evolution of capitalism to its contemporary stage has included repeated crises, including periods and locations of extreme instability. During these periods and in these locations there have arisen movements of resistance and even movements that declared an alternative system as their goal. The ultimate success of the currently emerging green social democratic alternative, we contend, is dependent on the transition of predominantly defensive movements into an offensive struggle in the midst of a systemic crisis like the current one. Hence our haste to produce these arguments for thought and discussion well before it may be possible to work out all the detail that may be needed. The process of finding a viable alternative to capitalism is necessarily one which must engage all. It is the challenge we all face, and must face together.


This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic alternative to neoliberal capitalist policy and practice. The primary result is a work by Charles and Karen McFadden of seven chapters, grouped under the title, Towards a Green Social Democratic Alternative to Capitalism available here in pdf and html formats.

Below under the heading What’s New can be found the most recent materials posted on this website, including opinion pieces, book reviews, articles and selections from the 2017 edition of the main work.  For the interest of new and returning visitors, new materials will be included quarterly.

What's New


Authors' Preface

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

6.0 The socialism we need against the "socialism" of the 20th century

6.8 Additional concerns about 20th century variants of "socialism"

6.9 The people united!

7.1 Policy alternatives and political movements to advance them


Charles and Karen McFadden, Is revolutionary transformation on the agenda

Charles and Karen McFaddenHumanity on the Brink

Charles and Karen McFaddenMovements of Resistance to Movements for System Change

Charles McFaddenTranslating Green Principles into Education Policy and Practice

Charles and Karen McFadden, The Role of Revolutionaries in the Labor Movement


Charles and Karen McFadden, “The Shape of Water” as an Antidote to the Age of Trump 

Charles McFadden, Decolonizing the U.S. & Canada: The People United for a More Just Sustainable Future

Karen and Charles McFaddenCan emergent early 21st century neo-fascism be defeated without coming to grips with late 20th century restructuring of capitalism into a global system

Karen and Charles McFaddenA Dominant Capitalism or a Sustainable Environment? Why we can't have both.


William I. RobinsonThe Crisis of Global Capitalism and Trump's March to War

William I. RobinsonTrumpism, 21st Century Fascism, and the Dictatorship of the Transnational Capitalist Class


George HewisonWINNIPEG 1919 & THE COLD WAR

George HewisonArt Manuel - "Unsettling Canada

George HewisonThe NDP and LEAP


Albert Einstein, David Swanson, Jill Stein, Chris Hedges, William I. Robinson, and others Selected articles for Winter 2018



1.7 The dynamics of capitalism as a system and the limits of single issue reforms

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

3.1 The challenge of a moribund economic system

3.7 Public banking: A cornerstone of a green social democracy

4.7 Economics and culture

6.5 Using the non-market economy as an opportunity to begin moving beyond capitalism


1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

2.0 Theoretical Perspective: Defining Green Social Democracy

2.5. Socialism and green social democracy in historical materialist theory

4.3 Culture in historical perspective

5.1 Contrasting a green social democratic world with the currently prevailing, but challenged neo-liberal one

6.2 Socialism and capitalism as coexisting social systems


2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

5.7 Defeating neo-liberal capitalism: The role of social movements

7.3 Justice: Creating a just society, based on the right of all to a dignified, secure existence

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) applies to all work posted on this website except that which appears with authors whose last name is other than McFadden, in which case standard copyright should be assumed to apply.