All power to the 3.5%?

The SWP cheers on those committed to minority, isolated actions such as blowing up pipelines, not those who stress programme, class politics and using elections to win majority support, writes Eddie Ford

Socialist Worker has recently reviewed the new American “high-stakes thriller” directed by Daniel Goldhaber, How to blow up a pipeline. As most readers will doubtless know, it is based on the 2021 book of the same name by Andreas Malm, which criticises the modern environmental movement for its commitment to Gandhian “absolute non-violence”. For Malm, destruction of property is the only way forward - especially pipelines, as they are “very easily sabotaged”, and he generally lauds the liberating power of “Fanonian” violence to free people from despair and inaction.

It does have to be quickly said that Malm is a peculiar character, described by Naomi Klein as “one of the most original thinkers” on the subject of climate change - which probably says more about her than him. He is an associate professor of human ecology at Lund University and is on the editorial board of the relatively influential journal, Historical Materialism. In 2010 he joined the Socialistiska Partiet - the Swedish section of the Fourth International founded in 1971 - which in 2019 was “reorganised from a political party into an ideological organisation”, whatever that might mean exactly. Perhaps most notably, when not wanting to blow up pipelines, he advocates some form of war communism as the only answer to the climate emergency. As he formulates it: socialism or barbecue, war communism or geoengineering.1

Anyhow, the stars of the film are black, Latino and native American. According to Socialist Worker, this is “a recognition of the fact that those most affected by pollution in the US are non-white people” (April 12). Perhaps so, comrades, but not the most likely to go out and blow up pipelines - are they? That is more likely to be students - not because they are affected directly, though they might be, but rather because they have some sort of wider vision of the world, capitalism and its alternatives, and so on.

So, for the main protagonists we have a native American from a reservation in North Dakota, whose air is polluted by the flaring stacks, which burn night and day; a Hispanic disillusioned with her position in an environmental NGO because, as SW puts it, she knows that its “gradualist approach” will cook the planet; and, finally, a black from Long Beach in California, who is diagnosed with terminal leukaemia that was most likely the result of air and water contamination by a local petrochemical works. Along the way, they encounter Logan and Rowan - the reviewer describing them as “a Bonnie and Clyde pair of hedonistic crusties” and “non-violent direct action activists” on the run from the feds.

Meanwhile, leafing through Malm’s book, the plotters notice that there are no instructions on how you actually go about blowing up a pipeline. Very frustrating, as you can imagine. But determined to press ahead, our heroes start to research and track down the ‘ingredients’ they need, like - you guessed it - artificial fertiliser. So far, so boring. What is a lot more interesting, of course, is SW’s review, as it implicitly articulates their political programme - or lack of, to be more exact. Therefore the comrades are particularly enamoured by the character, Xochitl, who is disillusioned with her NGO’s gradualism - exciting direct action is called for instead!

In a discussion about tactics and strategy during the film, one of them asks: “Were the Boston Tea Party terrorists?” Doubtlessly, it is true - as the reviewer infers - the people depicted in the film will be branded as terrorists by the state. But that does not detract from the fact that what our isolated little band of environmental revolutionaries are attempting to do is terrorism - sorry, SWP. What else do you call fitting explosive devices to an oil pipeline in West Texas? Now, subscribing to orthodox Marxism, the CPGB generally warns against any turn to terrorism. Precisely for the reasons shown in the film, the activities of such groups - like Just Stop Oil in the real world - involves tiny numbers, definitely not the masses. In fact, their actions generally infuriate the masses if they cannot get to work or hospital because some idiot has glued themself to the road.

You cannot deny that Andreas Malm’s book has a snappy title and has provoked lively debates in some circles. But at the end of the day, for all his supposed Trotskyism, what he is advocating is not just direct action: it is terrorism - something that would certainly see activists arrested and jailed. There are a number of Deep Green groups that not only preach a similar credo, but to some extent have actually enacted it. But ultimately this leads to despair and inaction, just as much as Gandhian non-violence.


Crucially, for Marxists, minority actions by tiny groups isolated from the masses inevitably involves the great danger of being manipulated by the state. We have the classic examples of the boring and gradualist Bolsheviks, whose duma fraction was led an Okhrana agent - or the spectacular and glamorous Socialist Revolutionary Combat Organisation, that was also headed by tsarist agents. But which was the most successful? The Bolsheviks, of course, had a clear political programme, a culture of open debate, a mass base from 1905 onwards and they went on, in 1917, to win a commanding majority in elections to workers’ and soldiers’ soviets - it was in the name of ‘All power to the soviets’ that they carried out the October Revolution.

For a more recent example, we have the late Freddie Scappaticci, aka ‘Stakeknife’ or agent 6126 - a British army spy who operated in the Provisional Irish Republican Army for at least 25 years. His handlers were in the top-secret Force Research Unit. He was important enough for MI5 to set up an office dedicated solely to him, and stories circulate that he was being paid at least £80,000 a year - quite a lot of money even now. There are persistent allegations that the British government allowed up to 40 people to be killed via the IRA’s Internal Security Unit (the ‘nutting squad’), in order to protect his cover. Thus the man who headed the nutting squad that dealt with informants turned out to be an informant himself! Of course, it is hardly surprising that the British state would have infiltrated the IRA right to the very top - they were bound to do it successfully, just like the Okhrana before it.

As repeatedly proved by history, organisations that have no democratic accountability are wide open to state infiltration. This is the real danger with Extinction Rebellion too - despite its recent step away from blocking roads and gluing (much to the disapproval of the SWP, of course, as they think this is “no time for moderation”. Blow up those pipelines!).

XR was established in 2018 by Gail Bradbrook, Simon Bramwell and Roger Hallam, along with eight other co-founders from the campaign group, Rising Up! One of its key founding principles was “mobilising 3.5% of the population to achieve system change” - an approach derived from the book Why civil resistance works by Erica Chenoweth (2011). The data collected from 323 violent and non-violent campaigns seemed to show - for her - that non-violence promotes democracy, while violence promotes tyranny. She came to the dubious conclusion that you only need the active participation of 3.5% of the population to bring about radical change - with which you can get the same results as, say, the civil rights movement in the USA. Embracing her work, Hallam declared that “the only way to prevent our extinction is through mass-participation civil disobedience” and “extensive campaigns of large-scale, non-violent direct action”.

In December 2013, the conservative Foreign Policy publication set up by Samuel P Huntington named Chenoweth as one of the ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers’ of the year “for proving Gandhi right” - whilst plugging their own work on providing evidence for “the efficacy of non-violent political movements”. Reactionaries for peace and non-violence.


Still, it is not surprising that sections of the bourgeoisie and the founders of XR were heavily impressed by this theory of minority action by determined people who are willing to get arrested - flooding the courts and the judicial system, etc. It completely abnegates the need for independent working class politics and Marxism. The danger, or inherent logic, is that this committed 3.5% will go for more and more extreme measures. OK, smearing cake on a waxwork of the then Prince Charles at Madame Tussauds was good fun - and it made for great photos. But why not do the real thing with King Charles? In fact, why not shoot him - surely much more effective and would generate a load of publicity? Then what about William and all the rest of them - how about flying a plane into Buckingham Palace?

Clearly, for any Marxist, this does not work, as it represents the law of diminishing returns. But it is interesting that the SWP is increasingly appealing to the wing of the environmental movement that wants more militant minority action, whether by the 3.5% or the 0.0001%. Hell, the 0.0001% will do. Communists understand to some degree why the SWP comrades are adopting such a perspective. After all, these are the people willing to put themselves on the line for what they believe in - which is certainly an admirable quality. Nonetheless, what the comrades should be saying to them is: though we understand why you are carrying out these actions, what we actually need is a patient political approach, guided by a long-term, principled programme. We are certainly in a climate emergency that requires a sense of urgency, but nothing else will succeed. There are no short cuts.

The problem with wanting spectaculars right now, because we are in an emergency situation, is that the state itself - or elements of the state - can pose as the answer. Then you could have some of these people - in XR, Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain, etc - lining up behind the state as it cracks down on polluting companies, air travel … and on democratic rights and living standards.

  1. . taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9781315749471-12/socialism-barbecue-war-communism-geoengineering-andreas-malm.↩︎