Strategies for ecosocialists

September 26, 2013

Activist, author and filmmaker Naomi Klein sparked a debate among activists with her sharp critique of well-funded mainstream environmental groups. The discussion has raised important questions for the movement as a whole, including what strategies the left wing should stand for to take on the conservatism of the mainstream groups. Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis and a participant in the ecosocialist coalition System Change Not Climate Change, responds to the debate in this second installment of a three-part article. To start from the beginning, click here.

ON THE surface, the issues raised in the debate provoked by Naomi Klein's comments could leave one terminally depressed. All of the national mainstream environmental organizations are compromised by their connections to the Democratic Party and their willingness to collaborate with capital; our activism to date has proved inadequate to changing the direction of governmental policy; the dynamics of capitalism are a death train hurtling the world ever faster toward climate catastrophe; and merely switching energy sources, itself a huge task, will not be sufficient to confronting the problem

But this returns us to the need to build robust and independent social movements and the original question I posed: How does one navigate these murky waters and chart a course between the barren shores of purist isolationism on one side and crass, unprincipled opportunism on the other?

How do we craft and implement a set of effective, flexible and fluid tactics that complement and reinforce one another, drawing in wider layers to fight for a much grander strategic goal than merely shutting down a single pipeline or even the much bigger task of transforming the energy production system?

Marching for the environment in Washington, D.C.
Marching for the environment in Washington, D.C.

As I argued earlier, what the left-wing critics of Naomi Klein ignore are the internal dynamics of social movements and how participation alters the ideas of those involved. A key tenet of Marxism--not to mention basic pedagogy--is that those involved in struggle "learn by doing," much more quickly and on a much deeper and more visceral level than they ever could by reading left-wing critiques, however correct these may be in the abstract.

Everything in politics is contextual. Viewing their arguments in isolation and in the abstract, left-wing critics of the focus on Keystone XL and divestment are absolutely correct--neither strategy is up to the task of preventing catastrophic climate change, nor denting the gigantic profits of the oil giants.

But the first point to make is that the movement is already considerably more sophisticated in its overall political understanding than it was a few short years ago.

PREVIOUSLY, MUCH of the emphasis for activism was on what an individual could do to affect change. The consumer was king, and buying green products or reducing consumption by biking to work or recycling were the dominant practical ideas put forward. With the new focus on production rather than consumption, we have taken a major step forward in the struggle. As recognized by Marx, production (for profit) is the driving force of capitalism.

While McKibben remains confused and contradictory on a number of fronts, in his recent interview in Salon, he said:

[T]his is a systemic problem. It's going to be solved or not solved by a systemic solution. It's past the point where we're going to manage to do it one light bulb at a time. The roof of my house is covered in solar panels. When I'm home, I'm a pretty green fellow. But I know that that's not actually going to solve the problem. So a lot of people have to get on the train and go to Washington to be in protests.

Secondly, the emphasis on building a mass movement based on protest and civil disobedience, rather than narrower campaigns based on lobbying or "clicktivism," represents another significant political step forward.

For all the drawbacks of McKibben, such as his disappointing vacillations on Obama and's dubious funding sources, he has nevertheless been instrumental in moving tens of thousands of young people into struggle. And the struggle across the country is growing, continuing to heat up and generating new issues and questions about how to move forward. Building these actions has to be the focus of our energies as more minds will change in the process.

Personally, I have yet to meet an activist involved in the Keystone XL or divestment campaigns who believe those things are the only ones to focus on, or that they will come close to solving the problem. In New York City, those involved in the anti-Keystone XL protests organized by are also fighting to stop the Spectra fracked gas pipeline into lower Manhattan, along with fights to close Indian Point nuclear plant and ban fracking in New York State.

And contrary to the idea that all of the students are unthinking "worker-bees," there are ongoing and increasingly sharp debates among activists and student groups about the top-down organizational structure of in deciding on campaigns, as well as their political direction and choice of allies.

I have met many students who are rapidly and continuously reevaluating their political ideas as a direct result of being involved and running up against the intransigence of university authorities concerned with endowment profitability rather than future student livelihoods; the relentless and illogical pursuit of profit at all costs by capitalists at the expense of a livable planet; and the abysmal disappointment that is the Obama administration. They are also grappling with the limitations of an environmental strategy that still cleaves far too closely to the Democratic Party and corporate funders, rather than reaching out more forcefully to genuine allies among communities of color, trade unions and indigenous rights groups.

Kim Huyhn, an activist who initially became involved in the movement through Friends of the Earth in Washington, D.C. recounted her journey toward more radical ideas and action in interviews for an article in Yes! magazine. Now active with the Tar Sands Blockade in East Texas, according to the article, by 2011:

she shared the growing disenchantment with the Obama administration's environmental agenda and experienced firsthand how mass civil disobedience--the largest in 30 years--brought the tar sands and Keystone to national attention. She "watched the entire center of gravity in D.C. shift"--from inside-beltway lobbying to grassroots, community-based organizing. Then President Obama reversed his position and approved Keystone's southern segment. Despite the professed outrage of more mainstream environmental leaders, in her view, no one was actually doing anything to stop its construction.

IN CONCLUSION, we know that capitalist forces will try to co-opt and infiltrate our movement and organizations to direct them into safer channels--that is, after all, their job.

The story of the recently commemorated 1963 March on Washington provides a perfect example of how the state and more conservative civil rights groups tried to soften the rhetoric of the March, change its aims and sideline key left-wing leaders such as socialist and openly gay march organizer Bayard Rustin.

The question of organization and democracy is of paramount importance, since it is the base from which to decide on actions and debate political strategy. Transparent and democratic decision-making is what helped previous movements from being hijacked by hostile forces, derailed by conservatives or repressed by state violence.

At this point, it is unclear whether a group like will be able to evolve into the fighting organization that is required, or whether students will have to form their own, more grassroots organization that is financially independent, democratic and more forcefully directed against capital. has brought together newly radicalizing students behind a leading figure whose organization teams up with big funders and can't seem to decide whether to link arms with those to his right in positions of power, or those to his left in the environmental justice movement. The question will be settled by the thousands of students in the 350-plus divestment movements on campuses across the country and other grassroots activists as they seek to pull many more people in and face the challenge of bringing real change to the United States.

The only national groups organizing around this issue so far are well-financed environmental NGOs--though the ecosocialist network System Change not Climate Change is attempting to grow into the kind of national left-wing coalition that we lack. As Canadian organizer Dru Oja Jay wrote in a critique of the lack of democratic organization in Canada, where activists are drawn into often compromised ENGOs such as Greenpeace:

"Movements often have an organization that embodies their spirit. The U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s was driven forward by the Southern Christian Leadership Congress [sic] and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The anti-nuclear direct action in the 1970s had the Movement for a New Society (MNS), and the "anti-globalization" movement of the 1990s and 2000s was an interwoven web of spokescouncil meetings and coalitions. Quebec's epic student strikes in 2005 and 2012 were initiated by the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ).

These and many other movement organizations made historic decisions democratically. They chose their leaders, or chose to have spokespersons instead. They debated, analyzed and decided on strategies and actions. It may not have been perfectly equal, but everyone agreed on the intention.

As an adjunct to organizing, learning our history is important. Students should read up on the formation of SNCC. A good place to start would be Howard Zinn's SNCC: The New Abolitionists, where Zinn gives a firsthand account of the growth and issues within a movement fighting for racial and social justice:

These young rebels call themselves the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but they are more a movement than an organization, for no bureaucratized structure can contain their spirit, no printed program capture the fierce and elusive quality of their thinking. And while they have no famous leaders, no inner access to the seats of national authority, they are clearly the front line of the Negro assault on the moral comfort of white America...

All Americans owe them a debt for--if nothing else--releasing the idealism locked so long inside a nation that has not recently tasted the drama of social upheaval...Theirs was the silent generation until they spoke, the complacent generation until they marched and sang, the money-seeking generation until they renounced comfort and security to fight for justice in the dank and dangerous hamlets of the Black Belt.

WE KNOW the crucial point is that people are moving into action, and that this represents the key which will unlock the conundrum of how to build a movement "as radical as reality itself." The shape and future direction of this movement is an open question. Will it radicalize further, broaden and deepen the scope of its demands, reject the Democratic Party, adopt its tactics to changing conditions, but keep its eyes on the prize of a world without capitalism? Or will it get subsumed beneath the filth of capitalist bribery, state interference and repression, and ugly compromises on principles?

The active and consistent involvement of already convinced socialists and radicals will help play a role in determining which direction things develop, and as new organizations pop up and wider numbers join the struggle. Therefore, the most important thing is to dive into the resistance as and where it currently exists and consistently engage with the fight for the immediate goals of shutting down Keystone XL and forcing universities and pension funds to divest, while holding no illusions that these are the be-all and end-all of a successful struggle.

A win on Keystone XL in which Obama is forced to veto it will be extremely significant, as would a rolling campaign of divestment at college after college. This is for two interconnected reasons. First, victories breed the desire for and belief in the possibility of more victories. The ruling class understands this perfectly well, which is why, when they are forced to back down, they try to massage the truth to downplay their loss. A victory for our side necessarily implies a loss for theirs. It was, after all, multibillionaire investor Warren Buffett who reminded us: "There's class warfare, all right...but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."

The Keystone XL may have acquired a symbolic importance for our side, but it has also for theirs. Furthermore, protesting KXL is strategically important not as a single pipeline, but because it represents a challenge to the leading edge of fossil fuel development for the future, both in terms of a rejection of extreme energy from unconventional sources and putting a stop to the building of infrastructure likely to be around for another 50 years once built.

Second, the manner of a victory and the methods used are equally important. A court victory achieved by NGO lawyers working in a social vacuum is completely different to a court victory achieved on the backs of mass mobilization, as illustrated by the civil rights movement.

Any victory on the Keystone XL will rightly be seen by activists on the ground as a triumph for the tactics of mass protest, not for persuading Obama to do the right thing. The case is similar with divestment. One can lament the fact that divestment is likely to be of little practical significance to the bottom lines of the likes of Exxon and Chevron, or recognize that the focal point of this challenge are the very corporations responsible for the largest accumulation of capital in human history.

Inevitably, new questions will be raised: why aren't universities responsive to their students? Why aren't universities able to live up to their own discourse of sustainability and concern for young people's futures? How can we make links and forge alliances with disenfranchised and ignored communities around us? What about organized labor? What would it take to reign in the power of the fossil fuel corporations and how are they different to all other corporations? Are corporations and hence capitalism compatible with a functioning biosphere?

We should be part of all the discussions now going on in the movement about tactics and strategy, suggest alternatives, make the case for actions that will draw in more participants, and create links with frontline communities of color and indigenous rights, while working with the bigger organizations where we are able. Where we have criticisms, we should voice them--in my experience, they will likely find a strong echo.

THE EVER more desperate ecological and economic situation is itself driving people toward the need for more radical, systemic change--particularly since it has become increasingly obvious to even the casual observer that capitalism has no answers other than to further expand production in the interests of profit. As Marx remarked long ago, capitalism creates its own gravedigger. While he was talking about the 99 Percent, the planet itself is now rebelling against further exploitation at the hands of the 1 Percent.

When I gave talks around the country a few years ago, it was necessary to spend quite a chunk of time putting forward the case that this was a systemic and political problem directly related to capitalism. Now, this is an almost common-sense position. The bulk of any discussion now revolves around: What can we do about it and what kind of society do we want to build in its place?

As was recently reported about the political sea change occurring among young people:

Most striking of all, Millennials are more willing than their elders to challenge cherished American myths about capitalism and class. According to a 2011 Pew study, Americans under 30 are the only segment of the population to describe themselves as "have-nots" rather than "haves." They are far more likely than older Americans to say that business enjoys more control over their lives than government. And unlike older Americans, who favor capitalism over socialism by roughly 25 points, Millennials, narrowly, favor socialism."

As upsetting and urgent as the global physical situation is, the political situation is changing in our favor. Our challenge is to build on the revolts of 2011, take inspiration from the uprisings in Turkey, Greece and Brazil, and implement tactics and strategies that take us forward to a revolutionary reconstitution of social power in the interests of social and ecological justice.

Further Reading

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