The climate crisis is real. Many are attempting to address the issue, and one recent player to the scene is Extinction Rebellion (XR). But who is XR? And what is their strategy? If the Communist Party of Australia (in fact, if any communist party) is to work with organisations whose interests align with ours, we must be sure that the politics of those organisations are agreeable to ours. Thus, answers to these questions are imperative.
Let us start with the first question; who is XR? Launched in October 2018 by Roger Hallam, Gail Bradbrook and, Simon Bramwell, XR has in less than a year grown into an international phenomenon. XR has roughly 400 branches globally, spanning 50 countries. They demand that governments be honest about the effects of climate change and that they must act now “to halt biodiversity loss.” From the outside looking in, the messaging is clear and focused, and no matter how you slice it, XR’s ability to invigorate the masses has been impressive.
So what is it that this group is doing differently? One angle to view this question from is the broad demographics that XR has attracted. From high school students to the elderly, XR has participants from all walks of life engaging in their climate protests. One might be naïve to think that this is merely the result of collective consciousness towards climate action. While there is no denying that more people are growing concerned about climate change, the direct answer is more insidious. XR wants to connect with “non-political” people, so much so that they directly want to by-pass most “political” people at any cost.
How do we know this? Because it’s a component of their coordinator training. On XR’s Youtube channel sits a video entitled How to build a mass movement where Hallam is addressing a group on who to draft into the XR movement. In this video, Hallam draws a circle, which represents the folks at XR. Below this sits a slightly larger one, representing “really political people, who don’t want to get things done.” And below that, sits one last circle, much larger than the previous two, which represents a group that “really want to do something” but “aren’t that political.” This diagram also serves to summarise Hallam’s history of political movements. A lot of political movements start and attempt to get “really political people” involved. However, these political people “grind […] to death” the issue at hand, because they “want everything perfect before things happen.” Hallam places the death of a lot of political campaigns squarely on the lot in the second circle. XR attempts to prevent this mistake by engaging with the “really political people” in a limited capacity, capturing who they can along the way and then bypassing the group almost entirely.
But who are these political people always getting in the way of progress? Leninists! At least, according to Hallam, as he names them (among others) as being unnecessarily difficult. According to him, those on the hard left won’t budge because, as he portrays in admitted caricature, they want capitalism “to disappear on day one” before any movement can occur. Thus, what he sees as the problem is puritan politics and that the success of any political campaign resides in its ability to strike a balance. And Hallam is willing to strive for that at the cost of being ethically consistent.
Even on the surface, his analysis is rubbish. The entire Russian Revolution was won and secured on a series of compromises. In fact, pragmatism was Lenin’s defining trait! While those on the Bolshevik Left (N. Bukharin, N. Oskinsky, to name a few) wanted to remove the bourgeois intellectual class entirely, it was Lenin who was pragmatic; “We know socialism can only be built from elements of large-scale capitalist culture, and the intellectuals are one of these elements.” If this wasn’t convincing enough, here is Lenin again: “to reject compromises “on principle”, to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously.” And the defining characteristic of Marxism-Leninism is built on a principle of pragmatism: the dictatorship of the proletariat. For this, we are slagged off as “statists”. However, because we have a coherent ideology, we are consistent because we can reach into our theoretical toolbox and analyse each crisis as they arise. And because XR focuses on growth over principles, we cannot say the same for them.
Their lack of theory is apparent in the number of incidents XR have found themselves in over in the UK, where the group originated. The most infamous example came from their “prison guide.” In it, they suggested those arrested at protests use their time to do yoga and creative art. And, even more alarmingly, it also said that “most prison officers are black and do not wish to give you a hard time.” This attitude towards law enforcement is not unusual for XR. Recently, screenshots revealed that XR has Facebook groups explicitly for police officers. These incidents represent an apparent lack of understanding of power dynamics between the capitalist state and the people, where the state’s role is to oppress dissent against profits. And a lack of knowledge surrounding the history of successful political movements (e.g. the Civil rights movement) where collectives always stand firm, united as opposed to isolating its members by claiming “your actions are your own” (a line found in their arrest guide.)
So, what does this mean for the Communist Party of Australia and the Australian iteration of XR? Given that it is an imported brand, we must assume that some, if not all of, the UK model is being exported here. Thus, we must weight our interaction with caution, given the impression senior leaders of XR paint about our movement. Regarding my engagement with XR, I have encountered them once. XR held a protest before a National Sorry Day event I was attending, and as their protest ended, they brought their convoy along to that. This boosted the numbers of the Sorry Day event, which was great. However, what was not great was how they held up the Sorry Day event with dancing and playing the bongos for roughly thirty minutes after said event was meant to start. Ultimately, I don’t believe this means we have to disengage. The cause is good, and many members of XR are young or are new to political organising. While Hallam wants to discourage Q&A’s at public meetings because they “encourage nerdy people and absolutists” we should encourage them at large, in every facet of our political activity, including XR events. Slogans and neutrality can only go so far, eventually falling on deaf ears. We needn’t be ashamed that we have answers and hard truths. And, if XR doesn’t want to present them, we can.