With Extinction Rebellion growing rapidly across the world in the fight against climate change, John Molyneux gives his perspective on how socialists should respond to this phenomenon.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) burst into international radical celebrity and global protest history in April 2019 when it occupied five prime sites in central London—Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square—holding them for a week, and withstanding over 1000 arrests in the process.
To describe this as spectacular is an understatement. It was quite literally unprecedented in modern English history and very unusual anywhere in Europe outside of revolutionary uprisings like the Paris Commune or Barcelona in 1936, and in a different way in May 1968 and Free Derry in 1969. That it should have captured the imagination of huge numbers of people both in Britain and internationally is hardly surprising.
This was especially possible because the action followed the publication of the IPCC Report in October 2018 which announced that the world had only 12 years to avoid runaway climate change, and the massive international explosion of the Greta Thunberg inspired school strikes.
With near perfect timing, XR proclaimed that it had a solution—after decades of failure by previous environmental campaigners—which would bring recalcitrant governments to the negotiating table and force them to change course.
XR had actually been launched previously by Roger Hallam, Gail Bradbrook, Simon Bramwell and other activists from the group Rising Up! (previously Compassionate Revolution). The group’s roots can be traced back to the Occupy movement in 2011 and various other ecological and radical campaigns. Its first major action, in October 2018, was to successfully block five bridges over the Thames. This was impressive but only temporary, and hence small beer in comparison to what was achieved six months later.
Now, six months later again, another rebellion has been staged on the streets of London, lasting nearly two weeks and accompanied by actions in many countries around the world, including here in Ireland. While Rebellion Week in Dublin was smaller in scale than events in London, it nevertheless maintained an occupation of the south side of Merrion Square for a week and staged a series of ‘swarming’ actions which blocked streets for periods and blockaded the entrance to the Dáil for a whole evening until the early hours.
During Week 1 of activity in London, police moved to arrest a large number of rebels, but it waited until close to the end and it was done without excessive brutality. In Week 2, however, they went much harder from the start, making the resistance displayed by XR activists all the more impressive. By contrast, the gardaí in Dublin were extremely reluctant to arrest anyone and very cooperative in the establishment of the Merrion Square base camp. This is clearly due to a different strategic decision by the Irish state, not to some intrinsic difference in the nature of the Irish police.
One of the distinctive features of XR was that its founders in London clearly believed that they had discovered and held in their possession a kind of magic key to successful protest and achieving social change. The idea, they believed to have been established by social science, is to mobilise somewhere around 3.5 per cent of the population in ongoing non-violent civil disobedience in the capital city of a country as a means to incur and accept large scale arrests, and to compel the government to come to the negotiating table and concede, more or less, the movements demands. The key demand being serious steps towards a zero-emissions economy by 2025.
They also appear to believe with equal fervour in certain methods of organisation such as consensus decision making; autonomy and decentralisation, through the absence of an elected central leadership (though there is clearly an informal one); and certain codes of behaviour like not blaming and shaming. Most importantly, this strategy and these methods have had an initial appeal to, or have at least been accepted by, large numbers of people who have been drawn into the campaign, often as newcomers to activism.
So how should socialists respond to this phenomenon? In answering this I want to focus on the situation here in Ireland. In other countries it is possible that different considerations may apply which I am not in a position to judge.
There has been an approach by some to criticise the movement because of its perceived organisational failings or an apparent lack of socialist politics, and by others to remove themselves from the campaign completely for those reasons. I want to argue against these approaches. Refusing to get involved in XR would be a serious mistake because no socialist party or socialist tendency worth its salt can be built without engaging in the actual struggles and campaigns that are taking place in society.
Every movement which draws new people into action is bound to have failings, illusions and contradictions. So it was with the household charges campaign, the water charges revolt, the repeal campaign, the anti-war movement in the early noughties and the H-Block campaign decades before.
People are not born socialists or Marxists and only become so through experience. There is an argument that XR is different because it is ‘middle class’ which is erroneous. In the first place, it consists primarily of white collar workers, not middle class people. The socialist and labour movement understand when teachers, lecturers, health workers, junior doctors, tax officers, IT workers and airline pilots go on strike—there is no reason not to understand it when they block roads.
It is also patently clear that when middle class people rebel against corporations, governments and their policies, that socialists should support them, not denigrate them. The progressive and radical potential of such movements and revolts were amply demonstrated by the student and anti-Vietnam war revolts of the sixties, which were also dismissed as middle class by some inveterate sectarians at the time.
Going into the movement and immediately picking fights over a bunch of organisational and ideological issues would also be counterproductive. It would very likely not be understood by the majority of new people involved who may perceive it as an attack on the movement they had just joined and be alienated rather than won over.
It would feed the anti-political party sentiments that invariably exist in such movements (as was the case in the water charges campaign) and aid those more conservative forces who may want to encourage those sentiments for their own purposes. It would also run the risk of plunging the movement into internal fighting and thus collapse before it got off the ground. This would help no one except the powers that be.
The Way Forward
However, I suggest that the opposite approach of dropping socialist politics and simply merging uncritically with the movement would also be wrong. Socialist analysis and politics around the climate crisis are scientifically grounded and based on much more extensive research into movements of revolt and revolution than the panacea adopted by XR.
Socialist politics seriously applied would strengthen, not weaken, both XR and the struggle against climate change. For a start it could help to identify those in the movements who are potential friends and allies (namely the mass of ordinary working people) and who are its real opponents (the capitalist corporations and politicians who have a major vested interest in fossil fuels), even if they do appear with hypocritical declarations, unctuous smiles and patronising words of praise.
In any event, XR is not the only climate crisis campaign, and the struggle over climate change will impact on and be affected by all the struggles of working people in Ireland and internationally.
So what is the way forward? It is to participate in the XR, not as the only thing we do but as one aspect of our political work as a whole, and in good faith. This means actively working to build it, not picking fights on every issue we disagree with, but taking part enthusiastically in its actions while simultaneously using our socialist politics to develop the movement and bring it closer to the concerns and interests of the mass of working class people.
It also means understanding that life and the struggle itself will throw up issues which pose concrete political problems that socialists are well placed to respond to, without us needing to stage artificial set piece conflicts.
A good example of the approach I am advocating is provided by an action that took place within the recent Rebellion Week in Dublin—the march into Penneys. The episode on the tube train in Canning Town in London is in some ways similar. Regardless of good intentions, this action was a mistake, given the class significance and associations of Penneys. It was bound to be perceived as arrogant and patronising towards working class people.
It is of course possible to use this mistake—like that in Canning Town—to denigrate and attack the whole movement, as the right wing media will do, as well as some on the left, especially those pursuing the non-engagement option are tempted to do. But it is also possible to argue constructively that if XR wants to mobilise 3.5% then winning the active support of working class people is necessary and this requires a more politically aware approach to its tactics.
It also provides an opportunity to talk about the reality facing ordinary people the world over—the sharp end of the climate crisis—and the resulting need for a just transition. Engagement along the lines I am suggesting in no way precludes socialists from making general socialist propaganda and arguments as we go along, especially in relation to environmental issues.
Of the strategic options I have considered, the one I am endorsing—constructive but critical engagement—is the most difficult to implement in practice. It requires a good deal more political nous than just boycotting the movement, trying to do a quick raid on it, or uncritically going with the flow. It is true that the implementation may well involve errors, in one direction or another along the way, as it requires a lot of concrete political judgments. Nevertheless, it will in the long run be the most beneficial, both for XR and the struggle against climate change, and for the socialist movement.