This summer’s dramatic accumulation of extreme weather events, from the western American heat dome to the German floods, the Greek and Turkish fires, and the publication of the IPCC Report with its stark ‘code red for humanity’ warning, pose an urgent strategic question to everyone in the climate change and environmental movement: what is to be done?
In the climate justice movement, there are four main strategic positions:
- System change is a fantasy; there is no realistic alternative to working with capitalism and in collaboration with existing governments and businesses.
- Governments and businesses are not taking the necessary action; now is the time for dramatic and militant direct action by self-sacrificial individuals.
- What is needed is a mass movement – huge street demonstrations, workplace actions, strikes etc – reaching and involving the largest possible number of people.
- Capitalism cannot be ‘greened’; stopping climate change will require socialist revolution.
When considering each of these strategic options in turn we should bear in mind that, in practice, many individuals and organisations will hold intermediate and blurred positions. Additionally, strategic clarity does not mean either sectarian dogmatism or falsely counterposing positions that are not mutually exclusive.
Here, I want to consider each of these options and set out what I believe is the strategic orientation that the global climate justice movement needs to adopt and that ecosocialists should argue for.
Option 1: Working with the system
This is the predominant position, of course, most in line with the dominant ideology – in other words it sounds like ‘common sense’.
It is supported, at least in words, by most governments and mainstream political parties (except the far right climate change deniers), many corporations, NGOs, and pressure groups. In Ireland it is the approach followed by RTÉ and, importantly, by the Green Party and Friends of the Earth.
Unfortunately, it has major disadvantages. First, it won’t work; capitalism’s absolute commitment to profit and to accumulation, and therefore to relentless and endless economic growth, makes it impossible for it really to ‘go green’.
In addition, it is deeply addicted to fossil fuels, with oil and gas companies playing a central role in the world economy. As a system it is inherently incapable of taking the urgent radical action required.
Second, in addition to being an inadequate strategy, it implicates the environmental movement in an approach which will combine massive dishonest greenwashing by governments and companies, with a relentless and misleading focus on what ordinary people should be doing as individuals, such as their lifestyle choices and consumption patterns.
The ‘solutions’ proposed, such as carbon taxes, shift the burden of tackling climate change onto working class people who are least responsible for it and can least afford it.
For the environmental movement this option is doubly disastrous: it is completely inadequate, and it will alienate the mass of ordinary people, discrediting the whole idea of tackling climate change.
Option 2: Dramatic self-sacrificial direct action
This strategy has a long tradition in the environmental movement going back to the spectacular scaling of skyscrapers, the naval actions of Greenpeace against nuclear testing on Rainbow Warrior, and the like in the 1970s and 80s. It has recently been advocated by some in and around Extinction Rebellion and by the influential writer Andreas Malm, in How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
There is a division between those who support this approach, however. The founders of XR insist on an absolute commitment to non-violence as a fundamental principle, while others like Malm are willing to back sabotage or limited tactical violence in certain situations
At first sight this option may seem radically opposed to the moderate Option 1 and advocates of working with the system may sometimes condemn what they see as extreme or violent actions.
However, for many who support this strategy, it is actually complementary to the mainstream approach in that the dramatic actions are designed to influence the existing powers-that-be to ‘do the right thing’, rather than to remove or overthrow them.
This, perhaps surprisingly, is the actual position of Andreas Malm. Despite his theoretical Marxism and his rhetorical invocation of eco-Leninism, he rejects the possibility of overthrowing the capitalist state and instead argues:
‘There would have to be popular pressure brought to bear on it [by militant direct action, sabotage etc. – JM], shifting the balance of forces condensed in it forcing apparatuses to cut the tethers [to capital] and begin to move.’ 1.
Malm’s argument explicitly points to a major problem with this strategy: would any number of dramatic actions, no matter how spectacular or militant, be enough to get the existing capitalist state to sever its ties to capital, ties that have been developed over centuries and are deeply embedded in all its structures? Would even blowing up ten pipelines or blocking fifty major bridges be enough to bring this about? I think the answer to these questions is clearly ‘No’.
Two other difficulties with these kinds of actions are that by their nature they tend only to involve quite small minorities – people with special training, willing to take great risks, etc – who act on behalf of the masses and whose spectacular deeds can seem like a substitute for or alternative to mass mobilisation. Secondly, they easily invite quite serious state repression as when XR founder, Roger Hallam, tried to fly a drone over Heathrow Airport.
Option 3: People power mobilisations
It was the great merit of the school strike movement and of Extinction Rebellion that in 2019 both were able to mobilise large numbers of people.
On 15 March of that year some 300,000 school students struck in Germany, 200,000 in Italy, 150,000 in Canada, and 16,000 here in Ireland. A month later, on 15 April, XR occupied four key sites in Central London – Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Parliament Square and Waterloo Bridge – and, crucially, managed to hold them for 10 days despite 1,100 arrests.
These mass actions were globally inspirational and put the demand for climate action on the table as never before.
Further proof of the effectiveness of mass action was provided by the extraordinary Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020 which put more people on the streets than any other protest in US history. This immense mobilisation resulted not only in the successful prosecution of Derek Chauvin, but a transformation in the ideological atmosphere toward racism internationally.
Before the great BLM rebellion, the England football team taking the knee on a regular basis or refusing to attend a reception with Prime Minister Boris Johnson would have been unthinkable. In Ireland this only served to reinforce the lessons on the power of people power that were provided by the Water Charges revolt and the Repeal movement.
People power in large numbers works because it has a transformative effect on on wider public opinion and those who take part, giving them a sense of their own power, and because it frightens politicians and governments who both fear loss of votes and rightly see in mass demonstrations the even more terrifying spectre of revolt and revolution.
But people power is also not a problem free strategy. Mass mobilisations and mass movements cannot be summoned up at will or planned on a fixed timetable. You can call for a mass demo but that is no guarantee the masses will turn up.
Moreover, on this issue, which is utterly global and goes to the heart of capitalism’s priorities and the structure of the capitalist world economy, there is no guarantee that even demonstrations larger than those for Black Lives Matter will actually force governments and the system to do what is needed.
On the contrary the probability is that such mass mobilisations will produce concessions and greenwashing, but not enough change to really deal with the problem as long as state and economic power remains in the hands of capital.
If mass demonstrations can be combined with large scale or general strike action, the effectiveness of the people power will be massively increased. This is easier said than done, but mass demonstrations combined with mass strikes are precisely what workers’ revolutions look like in their first phase and that raises a new question: can the demands be won, but also can the revolution be won?
Option 4: Revolution
Arguing for socialist, i.e. mass working class, revolution as the necessary solution to the environmental crisis will be seen by many as completely unrealistic – far too remote a possibility to be taken seriously as a strategy for the movement. The ‘common sense’ which underlies Option 1 will dismiss revolution as a fantasy.
Against this it can be argued that the necessity of revolution is founded on an entirely realistic analysis of the nature of capitalism and of the capitalist state.
It is entirely realistic to recognise that capitalism is driven by a compulsion to accumulate capital and growth -a compulsion due to its inherent competitive nature, not just a preference. It is equally realistic to recognise that existing states – state apparatuses and institutions, not just governments – are structurally tied to the defence of capitalism and the interests of capitalists.
Neither corporations nor states are going to be persuaded to become environmentally sustainable; economic and political power must be wrested from them and that means revolution.
Also, it is realistic to note that revolutions do happen. They are far from being a rarity in modern history. All the way from Russia in 1905 and 1917, through Germany, Italy, and Ireland in 1919, Spain in 1936, Hungary in 1956 and France in 1968 to Egypt in 2011, and many other occasions, revolutionary outbreaks do occur.
Moreover, the intensification of the climate crisis – which is certain – is particularly likely to generate revolutionary upsurges. The real problem is not getting revolutions to start, it is winning them rather than ending up in counter-revolutionary defeat. But winning the revolution requires political preparation in advance.
Once again, there are problems that must be acknowledged. Revolutions can no more be summoned at will than can mass demonstrations. Revolutions are impossible without mass working class participation, but at the moment, neither the mass of the working class nor even the mass of climate activists are revolutionary.
So given all these real problems – and no political strategy is problem free – how, in this concrete situation, should we proceed?
What must be done?
We should recognise the necessity of working class revolution as a strategic goal and openly advocate it, but since this is currently a minority position we should neither begin nor end there and we should most certainly not counterpose revolution to winning reforms and mobilising in the here and now.
We should reach out to everyone who wants to contest and resist the current slide towards catastrophe, and we should do so by involving them in the mobilisation of people power, as the best method of simultaneously pressuring governments, winning public opinion, and preparing the ground for revolution.
We should make demands on governments and the system, but these demands should be geared to putting feet on the street in large numbers and relating to the interests of working class people. We should seize every opportunity to relate the climate issue to working class communities and trade unions, and to foster the idea of workplace action.
Right now, in the coming weeks, this means building the largest possible mobilisations around the United Nations COP 26 Conference in Glasgow in the first two weeks of November. This is not in the belief that COP 26 is going to deliver the huge changes needed, but to subject the assembled worthies in Glasgow to maximum pressure and use these mobilisations as a stepping stone to build the movement for the future.
For us in Ireland, the priority will not be getting people to Glasgow but what we can build, the people we can put on the street, here in Dublin, Belfast, and so on. The same will apply, and even more so for activists in Rio or Johannesburg or Sydney.
The Glasgow based COP 26 Coalition, which is the main united front body organising mobilisations has designated Saturday 6 November as a day for global demonstrations and Friday 5 November as a day for workplace action, hopefully in solidarity with Fridays for Future and school student strikes.
The immediate job of ecosocialist activists and revolutionary socialists is to work with all others in the movement to achieve the maximum possible action on those days.