Extinction Rebellion and Direct Action

Socialism and the Environment

The most important issue facing the world today is the replacement of world capitalism by world socialism. That is, replacing production for profit and class exploitation by the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

Initially, socialism will not be without its problems. There will be so many problems bequeathed by capitalism. A future socialist society will have to quickly tackle and resolve problems of ill-heath, lack of education, poverty, homelessness, poor housing and hunger. There will be numerous environmental problems including the effects of the global warming crisis. A socialist society will have to balance solving these various problems through co-operation, using the information and resources available at the time and through democratic discussion and decisions. However, without the establishment of socialism, these problems will remain.

Climate change by its very nature demands a global response which the establishment of the common ownership and democratic control of production and distribution would enable to happen. That is not the case with capitalism. Capitalism is divided into competing nation states, each dominated by the profit-driven economic interests of rival capitalist groups. This severely restricts what can and cannot be done within the constraints of the imperative to make profit and expand capital.

Each country and its respective capitalist class continually seeks strategic trade and military advantage over their rivals in the struggle to dominate the world's resources like land, minerals and energy supplies. And the capitalist class continually seeks new means of extracting more unpaid labour, which Marx called "surplus value", from the working class. The solution to environmental problems like the global warming crisis is for a world-wide socialist majority to take democratic and political action for the socialist reorganisation of society on a world-wide scale, which will mean the abolition of nation-states, buying and selling, and the wages system.

The case for socialism is rejected by Extinction Rebellion. They believe the environmental issue is far too important and urgent for the socialist alternative to be considered and that, to persuade the government to accept and act upon its demands, requires immediate, non-hierarichal and peaceful, direct action. And their action is moral not political. In their book THIS IS NOT A DRILL (2019) they assert that:

"It is a moral imperative to rebel against a system that is driving extinction, exterminating species and cultures (p7)".

Although Extinction Rebellion are unclear as to what system they are talking about and how it works, the enemy appears to be "neo-liberalism" and "fossil fuel corporations". Extinction Rebellion appears to be happy with other forms of capitalism, particular the "New Green Deal" pursued by the Democrats in the US and by Labour and the Greens in the UK.

Capitalism, though, cannot be reformed in the interest of all society as previous Labour governments have demonstrated only too well. Ironically, Extinction Rebellion state they will have nothing to do with political parties but one chapter of their book is written by the Green MP, Caroline Lucas (A Political View) and another by the Labour MP, Clive lewis (A Green New Deal, chapter 26). Labour and the Greens support capitalism. The leading activists of Extinction Rebellion are not socialists and they have no Marxian understanding of capitalism.

Extinction Rebellion want us to stop talking and reading. They want action. They want street action through peaceful civil disobedience. And they have three principal demands:

* The government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency
* The government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2025
* The government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizen's Assembly on climate and ecological justice (p.11).

Their book gives advice on how to block roads; how to shut a bridge and how to "rebel for life". In short it is a manual of various forms of direct-action.

Direct Action, as a tactic, is not new nor is it just confined to environmental pressure groups like Extinction Rebellion and Green Peace. Direct Action is also being used in Hong Kong - where for months peaceful street protests have been confronted by thuggish police and an intransigent government. The response of the Chinese government is increasingly becoming violent as is the reaction from protestors. President Xi responded with the following crude threat to

"Anyone who attempts to split any region from China will perish, with their bodies smashed and their bones ground to powder" (METRO, 15 Oct. 2019).

One lesson learnt by both Hong Kong protesters and Extinction Rebellion is that they are aware of the risks of having an identifiable leadership. The nationalist uprising of the Catalans led to the political leaders being imprisoned for several years or exile - and one in exile is likely to be extradited back to Spain. Socialists reject the political concept of leadership just as we reject nationalism. The case for socialism has to be accepted freely and knowingly, and our argument is for a world-wide system without artificial boundaries.

Extinction Rebellion and the Global Warming Crisis

Extinction Rebellion claims that the global warming crisis is the most pressing issue of the day - more important than the establishment of socialism. This was exactly what the Campaign for Nuclear Argument (CND) were saying about the use of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s at the height of the cold war. In fact each and every single issue group calling for a particular reform of capitalism believes its issue and its issue alone is the most important to pursue.

Socialists point out that today's social problems can only be sorted out by replacing capitalism with socialism. This is what the Extinction Rebellion movement rejects. They believe politicians can be persuaded to speed up environmental changes by direct action and protests, totally forgetting in whose interests governments and politicians act.

Direct action tactics may gain publicity and even raise awareness about the global warming crisis but they achieve little of substance. Rather than getting at the root of the cause of the problem, capitalism, direct action protests lead to hundreds of arrests. Socialists have long argued against the use of direct action for political ends. Such actions are easily stopped by the state's police force, and even if needed by the army. In short, they may be heroic and spectacular but are potentially suicidal.

Extinction Rebellion is an alarmist organisation with demands unlikely to be met by capitalist politicians. What do they demand? In her contribution to the book THIS IS NOT A DRILL, Hazel Healy of Extinction Rebellion states it wants a "zero-carbon society", where:

"Energy would be stringently rationed, dedicated to survival and essential activities; we'd go to bed early and rise with the sun. Expect massive disruption in the way food is grown, processed and distributed - more turnips and fewer mangoes on the menu in the UK, for starters. Globally, there would be much reduced private car use, virtually no aviation, haulage or shipping - spelling a dramatic end to material globalization as we know it" (p. 173-174).

This is a vision of a Green capitalist utopia but not of world socialism where production and distribution would be solely and directly for use. Would Extinction Rebellion's "citizen councils" accept Healey's vision of a green capitalism or would it have to be imposed? No capitalist government would impose this "green vision", particularly if their competitors elsewhere in the world didn't do the same. As ever, each state would say "you first" to the others and none would choose to be the first to stick its neck out and "bell the cat". To change capitalism you have to have a socialist majority understanding what they are voting for and be prepared to democratically and politically establish socialism.

Extinction Rebellion and Self-defeating Tactics

Extinction Rebellion also made a tactical error in targeting workers such as commuters on their way to work. They alienated those they wish to gain support from, including the train driver's union Aslef. The resulting violent incident at Canning Town Station was counterproductive. The SPGB has consistently advised workers when taking industrial action to avoid actions that annoy, inconvenience or endanger their fellow-workers. Such actions can only mean they risk losing public support. Socialists want to see class unity not class division.

And Extinction Rebellion has not moved government policy towards meeting their demands. And nor will they. Unless other countries follow suit, environmental reforms will not be enacted by governments since their primary concern is to serve the capitalist class, not environmental protestors.

And the fossil fuel industry has powerful political advocates, like the President of the US, Donald Trump and access to influence civil servants, politicians and government ministers through PR and behind-the-scenes Lobbyists - resources which are not available to Extinction Rebellion. As Extinction Rebellion admits, the official estimates of financial support to fossil fuels are between US$ 370 billion and 620 billion over the period 2010-2015, with the UK spending £10.5 billion a year, making the UK the biggest fossil fuel subsidiser in the EU (p22).

Following two two-week protests in London and a third planned for Christmas, the police have become more draconian towards the demonstrators, probably with the blessing of the Home Office. Police have resources at their disposal that Extinction Rebellion do not have. They have the power of arrest and the power of violence. Police commanders can also be inventive in how the police are deployed and creative in the use of legislation at their disposal to clear streets and squares of protestors.

And the capitalist media will continue to gnaw away at the demonstrators using ridicule, spite, venom and all the other journalistic dark arts at their disposal. And they will wait for mistakes, wait for the use of violence and wait for the type of reaction, like the incident at Canning Tube station, to pounce and then write censorious articles accusing the protestors of "hypocrisy" being "too white" and being "privileged middle class do-gooders". The capitalist media have turned on Extinction Rebellion and they will be subject to more and more negative attacks and smears.

The owners of the capitalist media have millions to spend on their lies while Extinction Rebellion can just about afford the postage stamp for its propaganda. And there is a problem with publicity stunts. They have to be more provocative than the preceding stunts. They become tiresome and lose their effectiveness.

What now for Extinction Rebellion?

Then there is the government who is able to legislate and use the machinery of government, including the armed forces. In future it will be increasingly difficult for Extinction Rebellion to carry out their peaceful stunts. Governments will legislate against their activities. Cities will become more and more restrictive in which to hold the street demonstrations favoured by Extinction Rebellion. Police will get more aggressive powers.

Then what? Extinction Rebellion will go the same way as other direct action groups. Extinction Rebellion will become extinct. Workers will have to engage with socialism for there is no other way to resolve the environmental problems facing the planet. It will be back to socialist education, reading, discussion and debate until a socialist majority is formed and capable of gaining control of the machinery of government.

All direct action arguments rely on the absurd notion that the working class can somehow out-manoeuvre the capitalist class's coercive forces. However the police have arrested hundreds of demonstrators and the courts are used to punish and restrain. History has shown the coercive state always has the upper hand. The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always argued that direct action, confronting the coercive power of the state, is an erroneous and dangerous strategy. As such, it is bound to fail.

The world's working class has no interest in supporting this system of class exploitation but in order to change to a peaceful, classless society, we need to organise as a political party. By this we mean not just a movement of well-meaning but powerless protest, but that we should organise to achieve political power in order to overthrow this class exploitation system. It is only by controlling the machinery of government that our Socialist movement could ensure that the armed forces, police etc., cannot be used to suppress our movement, probably brutally.

We cannot forget the many occasions when state forces have been used ruthlessly to destroy and suppress popular movements of protest or demands for reforms. Occasions like the Paris Commune (1871), or Tiananmen Square (1989), for instance. To disregard the lessons of history is simply to act like idealistic utopians - unrealistically and stupidly.

That is why we as Socialists reject the, anarchistic, wishful thinking of the 'direct action' school. We certainly do not regard Extinction Rebellion and its many sincere supporters as idiots - they are clearly conscious of a serious and urgent problem which definitely needs addressing. But the way capitalism works, as a competitive system with its never-ending dog-eat-dog rivalry between the various nation-states, means that trying to get such governments to co-operate in a common cause is much like trying to get water to run uphill.

It may not be utterly impossible to achieve major changes and address the huge problems of climate change, pollution, depletion of natural resources, and other serious environmental issues. Not impossible - but very, very difficult.

However, if we can achieve Socialism and, with that, global cooperation in the common interest of the whole community, such a society would be well-placed to safeguard this planet and its biosphere and the ecological resources on which all humans depend. Our message to the Extinction Rebellion protesters is that they need to recognise, not only the futility of direct action, but the reality that it is the capitalist system, with its greed and unceasing competitive drive for profits, which is the cause of the environmental problems they want tackled.

The answer is not just to campaign to put pressure on unwilling and competing governments for hoped for but usually disappointing and watered-down reforms. It lies in building a worldwide organisation to create a society based on co-operation not competition, as only this would enable us to safeguard and protect Mother Earth.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.