Strategy, turns and dangers

Run by a self-appointed elite, XR has ‘quit’ the tactic of disruption, much to the disapproval of the SWP. Eddie Ford comments

Cleverly generating loads of publicity, Extinction Rebellion has dramatically announced, in the statement released on New Year’s Day, “We quit”.

XR’s leadership promises a “temporary shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic”. It will now “prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks, as we stand together and become impossible to ignore”.

It links this apparent new focus to the idea (or hope) that the tumult in the wider political climate means that people will become more receptive to XR’s message - history is on our side. Hence it optimistically states that “the conditions for change in the UK have never been more favourable”, meaning it is “time to seize the moment”, as “the confluence of multiple crises presents us with a unique opportunity to mobilise and move beyond traditional divides”.

To this end, XR is planning a protest outside parliament on April 21, which it hopes will attract 100,000 people - a perfectly achievable and desirable goal. Given that Extinction Rebellion says it “operates according to a decentralised model”, one crucial question when attempting to assess its statement is asking who the leadership is accountable to and how it can be changed or recalled.

Showing the deep tensions and splits within the movement, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil have put out counter-statements, reaffirming their commitment to “civil resistance”. XR may have quit, JSO states, but this is the year when “we must move from disobedience into civil resistance” - claiming that “this is what the nurses and paramedics are doing”, because “they are on the frontline of the harm being wreaked on us and have said no more”.

Insulate Britain stressed that its supporters remained prepared to go to prison. Writing a column for the anarchist website, Freedom, Jan Goodey, a university lecturer serving a six-month sentence for climbing a gantry over the M25, declared that the household energy crisis had vindicated Insulate Britain’s use of disruptive tactics to demand home insulation: “Words of hope and encouragement are ineffective and irrelevant; it is action, resistance and solidarity that work”.

Over the past year, Just Stop Oil supporters have smashed petrol pumps, blockaded oil terminals, glued themselves to the streets of London, zip-tied their necks to goalposts at Premier League football matches, and so on - with no indication they are going to change tactics.

Initially, when first hearing about XRs change in direction, you might have thought that the comrades in the Socialist Workers Party had successfully won the argument. After all, this is what they are always saying, all the time - that what matters is “mass action” on the streets. However, mass action on the streets in and of itself will not do what XR says it wants - system change. If you want system change, you need a mass Communist Party to provide an alternative government.

It goes without saying that communists are not against mass demonstrations, strikes, protests, etc. Depending on the concrete circumstances and the general balance of class forces, we should never rule out any tactic in principle. But the CPGB certainly looks sceptically at elitist actions and stunts. For example, protestors supergluing themselves around the speaker’s chair in the House of Commons or to Ferrari supercars, padlocking their necks to the front gates outside parliament; or - most notoriously of all - throwing tomato soup over Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. Is that going to bring about system change? What about blocking the M25? Rather than bringing system change, it is more likely to bring about a public reaction against you - which does not seem like a smart tactic.


As it turned out, you would have been totally wrong to think that the SWP had anything to do with XR’s new course - the SWP thinks it is a mistake, as this is “no time for moderation”, and warns us about the “big danger” in the XR statement.1 The comrades argue that the idea that disruption “puts off” people “can become a reason not to support some strikes”, as NHS strikes are “undoubtedly disruptive, and inevitably impact ordinary people” - yet “they are wholly justified”. Instead, for good and bad, the SWP supports “both mass mobilisations and direct action to achieve change”, because “often the most effective movements combine both”. The comrades also say that “disruption is good and should not be rejected”.

Of course, disruption should not be rejected per se. Take the rail strikes - are they disruptive? Yes, they obviously are. But the aim of the rail strike is not to cause disruption. The rail unions want a deal and the disruption is a by-product of that. The same goes for the ambulance workers - the objective is not disruption for the sake of disruption, but to force the other side to have proper negotiations and concede their pay demands. With XR - or rather now Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain - when you sit down in the middle of the M25, the aim is just to block the traffic. Yes, OK, they then say that they are demanding system change - but it is completely delusional to imagine that these actions will bring about any such result.

The danger of elitist actions is that you get on an escalating conveyer belt - which can take you to individual terrorism. Clearly throwing soup over a painting protected by a glass plating is not going to make Rishi Sunak promise to end all oil production in Britain. Instead, you could end up in prison. What is the point of that? And if juries are not willing to throw you in jail, then there will be non-jury trials.

Logically then, actions become more and more dramatic. Why not slash a van Gogh? When that fails to deliver, as it inevitably does, others will suggest abandoning non-violence and going for top politicians and oil company executives. But, meanwhile, ‘propaganda of the deed’ leaves the mass of the population as mere by-standers and clears the way for panic and despair.

We oppose acts of individual terrorism - not because we oppose violence but because elitist actions are so woefully inadequate. We seek to change the system, and that cannot be achieved by blocking the M25, attacking a van Gogh or taking out an oil company executive or even a prime minister. Our energies must first and foremost be directed towards what is effective: crucially a mass Communist Party. Superglue and cans of soup are no substitute.

New turn

XR’s new turn is not a marvellous world historic development: mass demonstrations in and of themselves are not the answer, but any move away from elitist actions is surely to be welcomed. However, instead of questioning the lack of accountability and democracy in XR, the SWP takes it for granted and, by inference, places its support behind Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain.

This is to be regretted because, without wanting to cast any aspersions, such elitist organisations are wide open to infiltration and manipulation by MI5 and other ‘dark forces’. In this context, it is worth noting that the combat organisation of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in pre-revolutionary Russia was led by a tsarist agent, Yevno Azef, who then proceeded to assassinate tsarist officials. The tsar simply appointed new officials and went on to round up more or less the entire SR armed wing. Many were executed. The combat organisation dissolved in 1911.

Nor should we forget that spycops were not only placed within a giddy range of leftish groups and campaigns in the UK: they manipulated the most conspiratorial, the most elitist, the most desperate into taking actions that fed straight into government law and order agendas.


  1. socialistworker.co.uk/features/what-tactics-are-needed-in-climate-fight.↩︎