Making the Green New Deal real: lessons from the World War II conversion experience

The Green New Deal has become a rallying cry for activists seeking to build a mass movement capable of addressing our ever worsening, and increasingly interrelated, climate and social crises.  Building such a movement is no simple task, but I believe that our organizing efforts can greatly benefit from a careful study of the rapid transformation of the US economy from civilian to military production during World War II. 

In two recent publications, with links below, I describe and evaluate the planning process responsible for the wartime transformation and offer my thoughts on some of the key lessons to be learned. In what follows I highlight some of the reasons why I believe Green New Deal advocates would benefit from careful study of the wartime experience.

What’s with the New Deal?

The use of the 1930s New Deal as a framing for today’s movement shows its continuing importance in the public imagination.  As growing numbers of people come to recognize that swift and decisive state action will be needed to avert a climate catastrophe, one with the potential to destroy life as we know it, it is understandable that many look back to the New Deal for hope that meaningful change is possible.

Popular understandings of the New Deal largely celebrate President Roosevelt as the initiator of system-changing reforms that enabled the US to emerge from the depression with a new and more egalitarian economy.  In reality, Roosevelt’s most praised reforms were taken to head off far more radical changes being promoted by left political parties, especially the Communist Party, and an increasingly militant working class. 

In fact, Roosevelt’s economic reforms were primarily designed to stabilize markets.  John Maynard Keyes actually chided Roosevelt in an open letter published in the New York Times for his conservative response to the depression.  Moreover, it was the defense buildup and the wartime mobilization that followed that finally succeeded, not New Deal programs, in lifting the US economy out of the depression.

That said, there is much that Green New Deal activists can learn from a study of the New Deal experience, perhaps most importantly, about organizing and movement building strategies.  However, when it comes to the economic and political challenges involved in planning and advancing a Green New Deal-style system-wide transformation, it is the wartime economic conversion process that deserves our attention.

The relevance of the World War II experience for achieving a Green New Deal

To this point, there is no actual Green New Deal legislation that one can rally around.  Rather, there are many different Green New Deal proposals, each authored by a different political party or organization.  Most tend to include similar lists of desirable demands and policies.  However, there is one issue that deserves highlighting: most Green New Deal proposals focus solely on the US economy in isolation. 

Developed capitalist countries are responsible for more than 80 percent of historical carbon emissions and these countries, especially the US, have an obligation, not only to reign in their own current emissions, but to take appropriate actions to assist the third world with its own ecological conversion.  Thus, a more global perspective, one that takes Third World development needs into account, must be adopted when designing and implementing policies to promote a Green New Deal-style transformation of the US economy, especially those related to energy, agriculture, and trade.  At a minimum, our Green New Deal demands must include a commitment to pay climate reparations and provide grants to help finance current third world climate mitigation efforts. 

As for the common core of Green New Deal proposals—almost all include some form of demand to:

  • End the exploration, production, and use of fossil fuels
  • Rapidly expand the production and use of clean, renewable and zero-emission energy
  • Retrofit existing buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency
  • Transform the country’s transportation system through investment in clean and affordable public transportation and high-speed rail. 
  • Engage in a massive program of public works to modernize the country’s infrastructure and expand green manufacturing production and green jobs
  • Shut down environmentally destructive industries.
  • Promote localized, small scale eco-friendly farming and appropriate agricultural technology
  • Restore and protect threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems
  • Ensure universal access to high-quality health care; affordable and safe housing; clean water, air, and healthy and affordable food; and access to nature.

As praise worthy as this list is, it is only a list.  And as such, it does little to help activists organizing around one or more of these demands develop a sense of how different campaigns might connect or conflict as they develop, or even more importantly, the kinds of agencies and mechanisms needed to actually plan and drive the desired system-wide change in the US political-economy.

Studying the World War II experience can not only build confidence that a rapid Green New Deal-style transformation is possible, it can also help us appreciate, in concrete terms, the complex economic relationships between different sectors of our economy and the tensions that can be expected to arise as we seek to advance a system-wide restructuring.  The resulting insights can encourage, and even inform, the work required to build the strong cross-issue alliances that will be needed for success.

The World War II experience also illuminates the critical role the state can be expected to play in the transformation process. The wartime transformation was only possible because of an expansion of state capacities that included the creation of new planning bodies and agencies with the authority to independently finance the expansion of needed factories and, in some cases, entirely new industries, as well as retain ownership of the newly built plant and equipment; allocate scarce privately produced goods and services to targeted ends; organize the mass training of workers for new activities and support their relocation to new geographic areas with the construction of new housing and related social infrastructure; and force some nonessential heavy users of resources to end their production and others to shift their production to new targeted goods and services.  Analyzing and evaluating this experience can help us begin to envision new ways to organize and use public power consistent with our vision of a new, more egalitarian and solidaristic political-economy.

Finally, studying the World War II experience can also help us prepare for the heightened class warfare that can be expected to accompany the transformation.  During the war, big capital aggressively and mostly successfully built alliances with the state and military that ensured its interests were taken into account during both the war and the planning for peacetime conversion.  As a result, it was able to emerge from the war in a stronger position, both economically and ideologically. Studying the ways capital used its privileged ownership position during this period can alert us to the kinds of challenges we are likely to face as we push to build a new economy based on new ways of living and working.


If you agree that the World War II experience likely holds lessons relevant to our current organizing, perhaps one or both of the following recently published articles will prove useful.

This first article is the longest.  It begins by highlighting the enormity and speed of the US economy’s wartime transformation from civilian to military production. Then, it describes the evolution and evaluates the effectiveness of the most important public agencies and policies used to achieve it.  It concludes with a discussion of the relevance of this conversion experience to efforts to advance a Green New Deal transformation of the US economy.

Realizing a Green New Deal: lessons From World War II,” Class, Race and Corporate Power, Vol 9, Issue 2 (2021).

This second article also discusses the planning experience but with greater emphasis on the political struggles and class dynamics that shaped it.  It also concludes with a discussion of the contemporary relevance of the wartime conversion experience.  

The Planning and Politics of Transformation: World War II Lessons for a Green New Deal,” New Politics, Vol. XVIII, No. 4 (Winter 2022).

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