Rebels without the means

Jack Conrad takes a hard look at the demands, principles and inherent limits of Extinction Rebellion

Established in May 2018, Extinction Rebellion - self-abbreviated as XR - dominated media headlines when it came to climate protests ... well, till the motorway sit-downs staged by the Insulate Britain breakaway, along with the huge tailbacks and enraged drivers. A gift, it has to be said, for Priti Patel’s repulsive ‘law and order’ agenda. Not that XR is a spent force. It boasts of organising in 84 countries and having 1,202 groups.1 No less to the point, the XR spirit pervaded protests in and around Cop26, and not only in Glasgow.

XR calls upon supporters to unite around the three (actually quite extensive) core demands worked out by its original 11 founders. They can, though, as intended, be pithily presented:

(1) Tell the truth: governments must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.

(2) Act now: governments must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025;

(3) Go beyond politics: governments must create, and be led by the decisions of, a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice.

Nothing untoward here - all good demands which expose government sluggishness. Well, that is until the third formulation. Does a government-created “citizens’ assembly” override elected parliaments, when it comes to “climate and ecological justice”? No, not quite. The plan is for a parliamentary vote after statistically representative citizens’ assemblies have long deliberated, expert opinions are heard and final conclusions made. Then comes a referendum. A wonderful cover for diminishing, sidelining, going beyond party politics, representative democracy and imposing a form of government based on state-controlled citizens’ assemblies and referenda.

Needless to say, Marxists support party politics and representative democracy. Why? Because the working class can build its party, in no small part, through standing in elections. Votes are gained, members are trained, recruits are made, strength and influence are grown. Our MPs act as tribunes of the people under the tight supervision and control of the party. Careerism is thereby guarded against. Such a party - a mass Communist Party - is the logical, the proven and the surest way to draw sharp lines of class demarcation and, no less to the point, the only way for the working class to educate and organise itself, so that it is ready to take state power.

Suffice to say, citizen’s assemblies and referenda tend to cut across party and class divisions, lining workers up behind one bourgeois faction or another. It should be added that life is complex. Neat ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers rarely do.

When XR was taken up in the US, a fourth aim was proposed and agreed:

We demand a just transition that prioritises the most vulnerable people and indigenous sovereignty; establishes reparations and remediation led by and for black people, indigenous people, people of colour and poor communities for years of environmental injustice, establishes legal rights for ecosystems to thrive and regenerate in perpetuity, and repairs the effects of ongoing ecocide to prevent extinction of human and all species, in order to maintain a liveable, just planet for all.2

On the quickest of quick reads it appears wordy, somewhat pious, but largely unobjectionable. But give it a slower, more considered, second reading. “Just”, “justice”, “injustice”? Trite liberal phrases and as in the ‘US Justice department’ an oxymoron. “Indigenous sovereignty”? Over little patches of land? What if there were precious metals under that land? What happens if a lucrative deal is struck with a mining corporation? Would indigenous sovereignty trump the interests of the wider population in having clean, unpolluted, water supplies? “Legal rights for ecosystems”? For planet Earth? The Mississippi Delta, The Rocky Mountains? Central Park? The town hall pond? A lawyers’ paradise. No, no, no. Why not, instead, demand, fight for extreme democracy and the rule of the majority: that is, the workers and poor peasants?

Understandably, this hopelessly muddled, fourth aim caused a split in the US - XR America replaced the fourth aim with ‘Black lives matter’.3 No less to the point, the fourth aim found no welcome aboard the UK mothership. Whoever is really in control seems to have rejected it out of hand ... and as such it need not detain us any further.

But this does raise the question of structure, accountability and decision-making. We come, therefore, to XR’s 10 principles:

1. We have a shared vision of change - creating a world that is fit for generations to come.

2. We set our mission on what is necessary - mobilising 3.5% of the population to achieve system change by using ideas such as “momentum-driven organising” to achieve this.

3. We need a regenerative culture - creating a culture that is healthy, resilient and adaptable.

4. We openly challenge ourselves and this toxic system, leaving our comfort zones to take action for change.

5. We value reflecting and learning, following a cycle of action, reflection, learning and planning for more action (learning from other movements and contexts, as well as our own experiences).

6. We welcome everyone and every part of everyone - working actively to create safer and more accessible spaces.

7. We actively mitigate for power - breaking down hierarchies of power for more equitable participation.

8. We avoid blaming and shaming - we live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame.

9. We are a non-violent network using non-violent strategy and tactics as the most effective way to bring about change.

10. We are based on autonomy and decentralisation - we collectively create the structures we need to challenge power. Anyone who follows these core principles and values can take action in the name of Extinction Rebellion.

Basically, what this comes down to is a decentralised, non-hierarchical organisation based on “high ideals” and escalating, non-violent civil disobedience. That is what the “momentum-driven organising” stuff is all about (more below).


What about the assertion that non-violence is the most effective way to bring about change? This is based on the work of Erica Chenoweth, who is treated as something of a guru by XR. Through exhaustive comparative studies and careful statistical calculation this Harvard academic and TED talker argues that non-violent campaigns are far more successful in terms of outcome than violent campaigns: an exact 53%:26% figure is widely cited.4 More than that, violent campaigns promote tyranny! In December 2013, Foreign Policy - founded by the US political ‘scientist’, Samuel P Huntington - named Chenoweth as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of the year “for proving Gandhi right”.5

Chenoweth is a committed, not to say a professional, peace-monger and as such wants to, needs to, foster pacifistic illusions. Doubtless that explains her extraordinarily naive admiration of the peaceful protests which ended in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011: “Egypt stands out as a particularly stunning example of why peaceful resistance works.”6 Well, except it does not. Since 2014 Egypt has been ruled by Abdel el-Sisi. Egypt went from army dictatorship to army dictatorship via way of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.

Chenoweth’s statistics are most likely spot-on accurate in so far as they go and have surely been subject to the usual peer review process. But Mark Twain’s phrase, ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, comes to mind. After all, her historical examples amount to comparing apples with pears.

Let me illustrate the point. Take the demand for Nigerian independence tamely put forward by the country’s rival political and tribal elites in the 1950s - implicitly backed by the newly hegemonic US and willingly conceded by Harold Macmillan’s Tory government. Just before midnight on September 30 1960, in the presence of HRH princess Alexandra of Kent, the lights on Lagos racecourse were switched off, the UK flag was lowered and Nigeria’s green-and-white flag was raised aloft. When the lights were switched on again, much cheering and celebrating followed. Surely a stunning example of peaceful means.

But Nigeria’s smooth transition from colonial rule, which began in 1954, was hardly the same as taking refuge in remote base areas, fending off the murderous Japanese colonialists, defeating the US-backed Kuomintang and establishing a ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Try doing what Mao Zedong and the People’s Liberation Army did with non-violent civil resistance. To state the obvious, it would not work. Yet, despite its binding commitment to ‘system change’, XR is committed to a non-violent strategy and tactics as a matter of absolute principle.

Needless to say, for communists there is no such principle. Violent politics is simply non-violent politics carried out by other means. What is primary is the politics, not the means. Marxists cannot rule out the possibility of using violence: eg, imposing a picket line, fending off a fascist attack, breaking out from a police kettle. Indeed, to renounce violent means, especially as an absolute principle, is, in practice, to renounce the struggle for ‘system change’. Of course, because it is ordinary people who usually suffer the most when the ruling class unleashes a civil war to protect their wealth and preserve their privileges, we hold to the old Chartist dictum: ‘peacefully if we can; violently if we must’.

Members of the ruling class can, possibly, be persuaded to peacefully surrender - if there is overwhelming potential physical force ranged against them. Eg, if we have a people’s militia on our side or we have split the armed forces to a sufficient extent. Bribes can also be offered in the attempt to get them to peacefully leave the stage for a comfortable retirement. Certainly, though - and this has to be understood - their system is permanently predicated on the threat and actuality of violence: that is what the police, law courts and prisons are about. It is also the case that the rich, the powerful, the well connected can usually manage to extradite themselves from any sticky situation simply by taking flight - along with as much of their ill-gotten loot that they can get away with.

XR clearly models itself on the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s and the non-violent tactics of Martin Luther King. Other sources of inspiration are the suffragettes, Mahatma Gandhi, Occupy and Black Lives Matter - all with limited or vague aims. But XR wants to change the world.

Erica Chenoweth also provides statistical justification for XR’s minority strategy:

Outcomes of over 300 non-violent and violent campaigns [against dictatorships, for secession or against occupation] from 1900-2006: none of the cases failed after achieving the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population - and some of them succeeded with far less than that.7

The notion is that the active involvement of such a tiny minority (“the movement”) is, more or less, all that is required to swing over the non-committed (neutrals) and passive opponents in order to isolate “the opposition” and establish a new common sense.8

Once again apples and pears. What might well work for same-sex marriage in the US is unlikely to work when it comes to replacing a socio-economic system based on production for profit, with a system based on production for need. After all, those with vested interests in the system not only have power, privileges and vast fortunes. Leaving aside the armed forces, the police and the secret state, they also have a whole complex of well tried and tested defences. Civil service mandarins, the law, monarchy, the privy council, the capitalist media, the paid persuaders in academia, the constitutionally loyal opposition parties, the established church, the trade union bureaucracy, NGOs - all act as the system’s thick walls, high towers, drawbridges, gates and moats.

What about autonomy and decentralisation? Even with the most modest campaign - saving the local library, exposing a corrupt MP, demanding the reinstatement of a sacked fellow trade unionist - decisions have to be made. When to launch, when to hold back, when to compromise, when to up demands, when to escalate actions, when to go for the final push.

With autonomy and decentralisation as another absolute principle comes the danger of falling into utter incoherence. When one part retreats, the other part attacks. When one part compromises, the other part goes for the final push. In other words, defeat is brought about through a division of forces and the failure to centrally coordinate.

Democracy is, in our view, the best, the most effective way to achieve cohesion: ie, to use a frightening word - centralisation. Democracy is not only about regular elections and votes: there must be wide room for debate, formulating alternative ideas, the right to form factions if need be and the realistic possibility of one leadership replacing another. Cohesion and local autonomy should not, in fact, be counterposed. They can complement each other, work together. The principle should be subsidiarity: issues should be dealt with at the most appropriate level: from the local to the regional, to the national, to the international. The idea that global warming, for example, can be stopped merely through autonomous local decision-making is plainly risible.

It is either democracy, or because it is objectively necessary, cohesion is achieved, brought about, using a different organisational model. At the risk of massive oversimplification there is: (a) the limited, the skewed, the fake, constitutional democracies seen in modern-day US, Britain, Japan, France, Germany, etc; (b) the personal dictatorships of the absolute monarchies, the Catholic Church, the fascist and Bonapartist regimes; (c) a variation of the above is the command-and-obey of the army, capitalist firms, charities and the mafia; (d) the bureaucratic centralism of the big trade unions, the confessional sects and official ‘communism’; (e) despite claims of autonomy, breaking down hierarchies, equitable participation and organisational flatness, cohesion is achieved through an unaccountable, but nonetheless effective centre of authority.

We arrive at the secret dictatorship hidden behind the façade of anti-authoritarianism in movements as diverse as Mikhail Bakunin’s International Alliance of Socialist Democracy, second-wave feminism and Occupy. Perhaps the most famous critiques were written by Friedrich Engels - The Bakuninists at work (1873) - and in more recent times the US feminist, Jo Freeman - The tyranny of structurelessness (1970). Either way, decision-making cannot be avoided.

That applies no less to XR. But clearly there is no sovereign conference with representative delegates, motions, amendments and debate, no binding resolutions, no elected and recallable leadership. Instead, there is a self-appointed leadership that beguilingly, deceptively, talks of mitigating power. Meanwhile money pours in, and with it the danger of going the same way as BLM.


Following the Chenoweth 3.5% formula, XR seems to believe that it can swamp the legal, court and prison systems through the willingness of a determined minority not only to risk, but to actively court, arrest. The dedication, the bravery, has been more than forthcoming. And it is inspiring to witness. And, before a randomly selected jury, there has been a wonderfully pleasing list of ‘not guilty’ decisions. But governments are more than capable of moving the goalposts through imposing court injunctions on named individuals, imposing unlimited fines and imprisoning, if necessary, thousands upon thousands.

There are also dirty tricks. Sending in agent provocateurs to push XR into acts of sabotage that are guaranteed to trigger popular anger and play directly into government hands. Halting rail travel in London’s east end in October 2019 was a classic example: though in all probability it was brought about by nothing more sinister than pure stupidity, it might just as well have been planned, plotted and hatched by MI5 black ops.

The scene at Canning Town station was, as always nowadays, filmed on numerous smart phones. There was an XR activist planted on top of an early morning rush-hour tube train. People shout, call him names, throw coins at him before he is forcibly dragged down by an angry commuter. He falls into the midst of the crowd. He appears to have been pushed, shoved and even kicked. TfL staff intervene and save him from getting a real battering.9 There were similar instances at Stratford and Shadwell.

The hostile reaction is quite understandable. Workers have to get to work on time, especially those on zero hour-term contracts, and deeply resent what they see as middle class do-gooders disrupting their life and endangering their livelihoods. Ructions followed within XR’s ranks too.

A few days later, Sarah Lunnon, a member of XR’s ‘political circle’ (sounds very hierarchical), issued this navel-gazing apology:

There is absolutely no shrinking away from the fact that we have got to learn from what happened around the tube, most especially within our own internal decision-making. Obviously we did not get that right. People have given up their jobs to join XR: for them to be so upset and so dismayed by the action is an absolute pointer to us that we have to look again at how we make those decisions.10

Warnings about agent provocateurs need to be taken seriously. We now know that between 1968 and 2008 police agents from the so-called Special Demonstration Squad, working in conjunction with MI5, infiltrated more than 1,000 political, environmental and campaign groups. There is, of course, a long history of spycops going back to at least the 1790s and the London Correspondence Society.11

Asa Winstanley writes that each SDS police agent “was specially trained and had an entire ‘legend’ (a believable back-story to go with their fake persona), as well as matching documentation, including drivers’ licences, passports and bank accounts”.12 Beginning with the infiltration of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in 1968, the SDS expanded its remit “far beyond the anti-war movement”. It was known as ‘The Hairies’ - because its agents grew their hair long to fit in with the youthful, rebellious, male fashion of the day (my own locks were more than shoulder-length at the time).

Over the next 40 years, the SDS targeted groups spanning more or less the entire spectrum of leftish opinion: Animal Liberation Front, Red Action, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Communist Party of England (M-L), Revolutionary Communist Group, Revolutionary Communist Tendency, London Greenpeace, Socialist Workers Party, Anti-Nazi League, Anti-Apartheid Movement, Anti-Internment League, Independent Labour Party, Housmans Bookshop, Sinn Féin London, Young Liberals, Women’s Liberation Front, even the Wombles!

Many of the spycops entered, engaged in, as instructed, “damaging” sexual relationships with female members of such organisations - yes, they were mostly men.13 There was more than hurt feelings involved though … there were children too.

As for the CPGB, once it was founded, in 1920, it had “the full panoply of state power swiftly arrayed against it”.14 A whole MI5 department, the F division, was dedicated to securing detailed information, infiltrating, disrupting and securing a constant supply of well-placed turncoats.

True, the SDS was “wound down” in 2008, but its activities were continued by a very similar undercover ‘domestic extremism’ unit - the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, founded in 1999.15

And, remember this, the tsarist secret police, the okhrana, not only infiltrated the left: two of its agents - Evno Azef (St Petersburg) and Zinaida Zhuchenko (Moscow) - effectively took “control” of the Socialist Revolutionary Party’s armed wing, the Combat Organisation, which, beginning in 1902, carried out numerous shootings and bomb attacks on hated high officials (including royals).16 Given Russian conditions, these acts of revenge excited people, evoked widespread sympathy and briefly kindled hopes. Yet, the moment quickly faded. A new minister was duly appointed, life continued as before and, of course, police oppression grew more brazen and more savage. After the round-up of dedicated militants, show trials, prison sentences and executions, demoralisation sank into SR ranks. No-one could trust anyone. The Combat Organisation was finally dissolved in 1911.

Frustration with the failure of sending letters, signing petitions, demonstrating and staging sit-downs on Thames bridges and symbolic West End spaces will provide the human raw material in what, unbeknown to them, could easily be (even if somewhere down the line) a deep-state operation specifically designed to isolate, discredit and finish-off “the movement”. XRs co-founder, Roger Hallam, has already peeled off with Insulate Britain.

As of now there have been hundreds of arrests, countless frustrated rail commuters and furious drivers. yet nothing - not a thing - in Rishi Sunak’s autumn budget, to deal with the climate crisis. Nor has Cop26 proved to be a game-changer. According to Climate Action Tracker, despite the numerous governmental, corporate and billionaire (greenwash) pledges, the world is headed for a 2.4°C increase by 2100.17 Climate disaster awaits. Civilization itself is in peril.

How to respond? The danger is that XR leaders (including agent provocateurs) will demand ever more spectacular minority actions … which lead either to the growth of passive and active opponents or, ironically, justification for a thoroughly statist ‘climate socialism’ - along with the suppression of democratic rights and a new age of austerity for the great mass of the population.

Surely another course is urgently needed.

  1. rebellion.global.↩︎

  2. ‘Demands’ Extinction Rebellion US: extinctionrebellion.us.↩︎

  3. xramerica.org/who-we-are.↩︎

  4. See E Chenoweth and MJ Stephen Why civil resistance works: the strategic logic of non-violent conflict New York 2011. E Chenoweth Rethinking violence: state and non-state actors in conflict Oxford 2021.↩︎

  5. Foreign Policy December 12 2013.↩︎

  6. E Chenoweth and MJ Stephen Why civil resistance works: the strategic logic of non-violent conflict New York 2011, p229.↩︎

  7. by2020weriseup.net/assets/presentations/Presentation-momentum-driven-organising-EN.pdf.↩︎

  8. Ibid.↩︎

  9. Evening Standard October 17 2019.↩︎

  10. The Observer October 20 2019.↩︎

  11. See D Woodman Spycops in context: a brief history of political policing in Britain London 2018.↩︎

  12. A Winstanley Daily Maverick March 16 2021: www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-03-16-britains-secret-political-police.↩︎

  13. www.ucpi.org.uk/who-is-involved.↩︎

  14. See D Woodman Spycops in context: a brief history of political policing in Britain London 2018, pp11-13.↩︎

  15. A Winstanley Daily Maverick March 16 2021: www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-03-16-britains-secret-political-police.↩︎

  16. core.ac.uk/download/pdf/9049957.pdf.↩︎

  17. www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-59220687.↩︎