Climate change: setting our sights sky high

Respect national council member Elaine Graham Leigh was one of the organisers of the December 3 demonstration for action against global warming. She spoke to the Weekly Worker about the need for a democratic mass movement and for socialists to play a leading role

Was the march a success from your point of view? I am actually puzzled by the fact that the news reported it as 10,000-strong - I really didn't think it was that big! They seem to be using a very different method from how they report Stop the War Coalition demos. Of course, it was a good turnout. The problem is that when you have worked very hard building for a demo, then you may start to lose a certain perspective on it and think you're going to mobilise much bigger numbers. So, come the day, there is always a slight anti-climax. Three months ago, when we started building for the event, we had it in our heads that 10,000 on the day would be absolutely fantastic. So the fact that we got close to that figure is certainly an achievement. Realistically, we can say it was a good start. And what about the politics of the march? I felt there was quite a way to go in building the movement politically. It really didn't feel all that coherent. Unlike some of the more recent anti-war marches - which obviously have been smaller than the huge mobilisations of a few years ago - you didn't really get the sense that everyone was like-minded and everyone was marching for the same thing. But then, that's to be expected. This was the first mass demonstration on climate change, so that degree of expectation is not surprising, I suppose. I think there is going to be a big debate in the movement about how we integrate social justice into the fight against global warming. Some of the ideas that I have heard individuals come out with - both in private conversations on the demo and also from the platform at the rally - sounded to me alarmingly totalitarian. People were talking about individual carbon rationing, for example. You could only impose that via a dictatorial regime, quite frankly and I find it very hard to believe that anyone is taking it seriously - but unfortunately, quite a few people are. That is clearly a debate the movement urgently needs clarity on. There is also a big fight for us to get socialists to see that it is a socialist issue, something that is not a diversion from the main struggle that concerns primarily middle class, white people or anything like that. You made a political transition from green politics to Respect ... Well, that's obviously true organisationally, but I don't think my actual politics have changed. I think I was always rather too socialist for the Green Party: it just took me a while to work that out! But what type of socialist? I don't think it's very useful to categorise myself in that way. I'm afraid I'm not educated enough about what precisely Lenin or Trotsky did in the 1920s to label myself one thing of another. I would describe myself as a Marxist - just your common or garden ordinary sort, however! I'm a historian, so I suppose I was a Marxist in my historical work before I was a Marxist in my politics. I'm not saying these things don't matter or that there is nothing to learn from the past: we really have to think seriously about what sort of programme we present to people in the coming period and that must be informed by debates and ideas that the movement has had in earlier periods. You allude to a narrowness that does affect many sections of the socialist left. So, as a Marxist, how do you envisage this question of the integration of democracy and Marxism, particularly in regard to environmental questions? I think it is a big failing not to see the thing as an integral whole. The people who are proposing dictatorial solutions to the problem of climate change clearly have the idea in their heads that people can't be won through debate and argument to take action themselves, as independent agents. It implies that societies can only be changed in a very top-down fashion. That is clearly not a Marxist point of view. Systems can only be genuinely transformed from below, which by definition is a democratic process. That is the genuine content of democracy - it must be more that simply turning up and voting once every four years for the non-choices on offer from mainstream politics. So I don't think democracy and Marxism have a problem with each other in that sense. Around 10,000 people turned up for the December 3 demonstration in central London to 'stop climate change'. The march was, for once, dominated not by the left, but by the Green Party. There were, however, large numbers of young people new to politics and many of them are open to different ideas, including those of working class socialism. Certainly, CPGB comrades found there was a more receptive attitude than, say, at most anti-war demonstrations, and this was reflected in the fact that we all but sold out of Weekly Workers Yet many of the operative demands of the environmental movement have a "top-down" approach - the demand for governments to implement the Kyoto accords, etc. I can see why the campaign against climate change decided to make that its focus. I think that tactically that was probably the right decision because, unless you're Tony Blair, everyone agrees we need international agreements of one sort or another. So it's a very broad demand that everyone can sign up to. From my point of view, I don't think it is radical enough and clearly an international treaty between governments is not the end of the matter. First, because we know these things are inadequate. The targets set by Kyoto are way to small to make any appreciable difference to the problem at all. Second, because it puts the movement into a rather patronising, almost imperialist position. I hate to agree with Margaret Beckett, but she describes some international agreements as 'imperialistic' and I sort of know she what she means. A way that a lot of people in the movement are thinking about this is quite patronising. There is the assumption that we, here in the 'white west', are educated and capable of taking mature decisions about the planet. Our job is then to pressurise Blair to sign up to some set of international targets and then simply call on other governments around the world to do the same - as if there are no grassroots movements in these countries as well. What we really need to be doing is building a global movement so that everyone, in every country, is in a position to pressurise their governments to make substantial cuts in emissions and so on. That is the genuinely democratic approach. But there is a more fundamental Marxist critique that needs to be thought about, surely. That is of how we relate to nature and its laws as a conscious species. Yes, there is. I have to admit that at the moment I am thinking about this in terms of achieving a particular political end - the sort of tunnel vision one gets when you are involved in particular campaigns and activism, I suppose. So, yes, there is definitely a place for taking a step back and thinking in more profound theoretical terms about the problem. I have been a little busy recently, however, so that has not been done in my case! It is necessary, though. Whatever our criticism of the Green Party and that brand of politics, it does offer big answers to the big questions. By comparison, the vision of something like Respect seems a little pinched. The Green Party does appear to offer something in the way of universal answers, but I'm not sure that's absolutely true when you look more closely. There is a big difference between what the Green Party says and what it actually does. One of the best examples of the problems with the Greens was when Jenny Jones was asked by members of my local Green Party branch what her proudest achievement was of her first year as a GLA member. Her answer - without a shred of irony I could detect - was that it was getting more bike parking spaces outside City Hall. Not really a 'big answer' there, then. So there is a definite disparity between what the Greens may say they are about and what they actually do in the real world. I think what is different about Respect is that it won't allow itself to be confined by simply what is 'doable'. What happens to the Green Party when it is elected is that it sets its sights very low, because that's what appears to them achievable. I think that Respect councillors - and George Galloway - have not allowed themselves to be constrained in that way. We must set our sights high if we are to achieve real results for people. But, as you say, genuine democracy comes from below, which means people must be empowered. We are critical of the Respect-Socialist Workers Party approach on this. The argument over leadership minutes at the recent council is an example ... Well, there are minutes produced of course. The only reason some national council meetings are not minuted is that sometimes they are overlooked or people are too busy. Having said that, this obviously was a point of controversy and criticism at the conference. I can see the point of view of the people who put motions on this and related questions to that meeting. I agree that we have not been as fastidious as we should have been. So more cock-up than conspiracy? That's what I think, yes.