The environmental movement: which way forward?

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As I participated in the People's Climate March on September 21st, 2014 in New York City, and attended the leftist Climate Convergence Conference during the two days before the march (sponsored by System Change Not Climate Change and the International Socialist Organization [ISO] but attended by about 2,500 left-wingers of many stripes), I was struck by echoes of past struggles. The history of those movements provides important lessons which the growing and developing climate movement needs to learn.

Echoes of Struggles Past

There were echoes of the anti-Vietnam War struggle, a multi-year, multi-faceted struggle that involved massive marches (though they started out small), electoral politics, congressional hearings, civil disobedience, picket lines, weekly vigils, teach-ins, draft resistance, media exposés, an exponentially growing student movement, whistleblowers, GI resistance, and millions of people learning the truth from their own experience that their government was lying to them. The movement had two competing anti-war coalitions resulting from a forced split (engineered by the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyite group), many kinds of organizations, and many independent activists. Nearly everyone came together for the biggest marches, but there were competing strategies (single issue versus multi-issue), multiple slogans and chants (Set the Date, Stop the War, Resist the Draft, Bring the Boys Home, Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh-the NLF is Going to Win), and internal conflicts and disagreements of many kinds. Some wanted the broadest movement possible, others wanted breakaway civil disobedience. Some groups degenerated into anarchism or violent resistance, others were slow and steady all the way start to finish.

There were echoes of the civil rights movement, a protracted struggle over several decades, which built on many decades of resistance and activism. There were boycotts, non-violent resistance, voter registration drives, legislative and legal efforts of many kinds, sit-ins, marches, religious coalitions, participation from sections of the labor movement, and bringing the reality of segregation home onto TV screens nightly, forcing Americans to confront racism and wrestle with its moral and political implications. There were cooperating and competing organizations (NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and many more, including many strictly local groups), leaders who cooperated and sometimes offered competing strategies (A. Philip Randolph, Dr. King, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Farmer, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Bayard Rustin, Whitney Young, Ella Baker), and groups which broke away from the main part of the movement to focus on armed self-defense rather than principled non-violence (The Deacons for Defense, the Black Panther Party, to mention a few-and not to lump them together; they were very different in many ways) or espoused a go-it-alone nationalism (The Republic of New Africa, the Nation of Islam). When Dr. King decided to speak out against the War in Vietnam, he was roundly condemned by many civil rights leaders as taking the movement into an area which should rather be avoided in order to keep as many liberal and centrist allies as possible. Later, others who had been close allies did not want to follow Dr. King into the Poor People's March movement, aimed at addressing economic as well as racial inequality.

Neither of these movements was monolithic, though they are often talked about as if they were. Negotiating the internal conflicts, bridging differences across class, racial, and gender lines, across many different kinds of organizations each with their own particular focus and strategy, was a constant challenge.

Both those movements helped radicalize a generation, brought millions into the arena of political struggle, and experienced conflicts over strategy and tactics. Both had difficulty navigating the complex balance of maintaining broad unity between center and progressive forces, and a super-radical fringe that grew out of the understandable frustration with the slow pace of change and the limitations of the struggles at various points.

Both these movements also spoke in moral, political, economic, religious, and ideological terms. There wasn't one single argument, nor any simplistic strategy that lasted decades, but a constantly flowing movement, impure, filled with temporary allies, compromises, divergent strategies and tactics, and many experiments in struggle. The history of these movements, of their ebb and flow, of their successes and failures, of their grand goals and mistakes, are a rich territory for the new activists of today.

A New Pathway to Radicalism

These echoes and many more were present in the Climate Convergence Conference and even more importantly in the 400,000-strong People's Climate March.

Again today, we have a new generation being radicalized by an issue and movement, a wave of new activists who are passionate and not constrained by the limitations of the past, who express fervent moral indignation about business as usual, some of whom have little or no previous practical experience of struggle or organization.

Again we have a mass movement which is growing, developing, building ties and coalitions, and in the process experiencing varied tugs and pulls over strategy and tactics.

Again, we have a need to project a program which can unify the broad forces necessary to create change with the forces of radicalism which correctly explain the basic, root causes of the problems we face, and fringe groups which seem to make a point of advocating self-defeating tactics.

Again we have a movement in which a crucial question is how to ally with the labor movement, parts of which are already involved, others who see themselves and their members as enemies of the movement, and many confused about what path to take. And again we have people who want to condemn the entire labor movement and the whole membership since it and they are not unified around a progressive position on all environmental issues.

In this piece I focus on attempts to divert new activists from the main line of the movement-elsewhere I have written about the lessons for the major parts of the climate change movement.

On the Nature of Coalitions

Some of the problems of the movement arise from misunderstandings about the nature of coalitions. Coalitions, by definition, are made up of people who and groups which disagree with each other. They come together around a particular issue, event, or campaign, but each organization has its own strategy and its own organizational interests. People who are becoming active for the first time often find it easy to overestimate the level of agreement in coalitions and think they are more united than they really are.

Coalitions are essential tools, ways to build trust and understanding in the process of struggle. They offer a path to larger mobilizations, bigger impacts. But they are not a substitute for ongoing organization, and we should not be confused about what coalitions are and are not capable of doing.

On Confusing Strategy and Tactics

Many problems arise from confusing strategy and tactics. Some critics cite, disdainfully, the fact that the People's Climate March organizers applied for a police permit for the march, as if refusing to talk to the police in every single instance is a principle that should never be compromised. As we learned during the Anti-Vietnam War struggle, marches, especially massive ones of hundreds of thousands, can't be run like demonstrations of twenty or thirty people. Undoubtedly, there are times, as in many of the civil rights marches in the south, when it is not feasible to get police cooperation, and that should not stop the struggle from proceeding. But when it is possible to get the police to do their job, to grant a permit, to negotiate a march route, to stop traffic so those not involved in the march don't end up hating the demonstrators, that is not a betrayal of basic principles, that is a recognition of practical reality. Only those for whom the point is to get other people into a losing pitched battle with the armed forces of the state seek to cause unnecessary problems.

No, the police shouldn't determine the course of our movements, but neither should we make it a point of pride to be obstructionist just for the sake of being obstructionist.  

Correct Criticism Buried by Rhetorical Excess

There were limitations of the People's Climate March. The march organizers used corporate sponsorships to fund their work; they intentionally offered no specific demands at all, they relied on advertising to generate a bigger turnout. They offered the march as a blank slate on which any supposed "green" claim could be written. Some forces, including some of the major backers of the demonstration, were and are eager to limit the struggle to pressuring for minor reforms within the current political and economic paradigms, and remain determined to fight any effort to challenge the system or highlight it as a cause of the environmental calamities we face.

On the basis of these weaknesses, some critics try to ratchet up anger and rage in order to get around their sect-like isolation.

Chris Hedges, in an article before the march, claimed that, due to the limitations of the broad coalition sponsoring the march, the lack of specific demands, and the dire necessities of quick change dictated by the science, the march was the "last gasp of climate liberalism." He went on to say that "our only hope" for the movement rested with those who were planning civil disobedience. In his talk to a panel before the march, he at least had the honesty to acknowledge that his analysis comes close to that of the anarchists, though he refines too much on some supposed differences.

Hedges states that, "All attempts to work within this decayed system and this class of power brokers will prove useless." So how are we to organize those who are not yet as "advanced" as Hedges? Lectures? Shouting? Shaming? Talking to ourselves? Self-righteousness? None of those offer any realistic hope of organizing millions.

Hedges offers a bleak prospect, that we will not see change in our lifetimes, but says that even so we should resist because otherwise we face spiritual and intellectual death. So he suggests that we should engage in impractical and symbolic acts of resistance, and give up any real hope of change in the near term. How does he expect to organize anyone with this grim perspective? Or maybe the point is that he doesn't expect to organize very many, and that is the root of his near hopelessness.

The "Weathermen" Fallacy

Illusions about how much a march can accomplish can sometimes lead to disillusionment, to despair, to responding positively to efforts to constantly "up the ante." This was a feature of the Weathermen, an offshoot of the anti-Vietnam War and student movements, which carried out the self-destructive "Days of Rage" in Chicago, as well as several bomb plots and other dead-end schemes. The futility of such supposedly more radical tactics in service of a strategy that is no less than suicidal in the end (to the group and to some of the individuals involved) is obvious to those with a long involvement in struggles, but it can appeal to those looking for a shortcut around the protracted slog of movement building and reaching and winning a majority.

Because of their overheated rhetoric and media-coverage grabbing violent tactics, the Weathermen set the broader anti-war struggle back. Their tactics drove potential allies away. Their super-militancy ended up separating them from the mainstream movement, provided an excuse for repression, focused them inward, and placed their emphasis on personal commitment to what they perceived as the "higher" stages of struggle and personal self-sacrifice rather than on winning a majority of people. Preventing new activists from being trapped by this kind of blind alley is the reason to pay attention to similar fringe efforts right now.

More Critics

Other sharp critics of the People's Climate March condemned the march before the fact in excoriating terms. For example, Arun Gupta, in Counterpunch, claims, based on his personal experience toiling in the advertising industry, that the only purpose of the march was to generate good PR. He says, "But when the overriding demand is for numbers, which is about visuals, which is about P.R. and marketing, everything becomes lowest common denominator." He goes on, "So we have a corporate-designed protest march to support a corporate-dominated world body to implement a corporate policy to counter climate change caused by the corporations of the world, which are located just a few miles away but which will never feel the wrath of the People's Climate March." He posits a fictitious alternate reality, in which if the march was just two days later, had not gotten a police permit, and routed itself past the UN Building, then much more amazing and radical things would have happened, if only we kept ourselves pure and untainted by any hint of corporate involvement.

Gupta may look at the issue of numbers only through his advertising industry lens, and in that context numbers may be all about P.R., but the rest of us don't need to stick to such a limited view. Mass marches and massive numbers are also about proving that the movement has the strength and organizational muscle to pull off such an event-proving it to the ruling class, to the media, to the movement itself, and also to those who are considering joining the movement. It is an exhibition of power, of the ability to mobilize, of potential political clout, of mass attention to the issue, and yes, also about P.R. Demonstrating the ability to turn out 400,000 people and solve the innumerable challenges in doing so proves certain facts about the movement, about the organizations involved, about the unity it shows to the world.

Gupta also links to several other critics, like Quincy Saul, of Ecosocialist Horizons, who in advance damned the march as a "farce." Saul claims that the march had no target, no timing, no demands, no unity, no history, and no integrity. Saul says, "To invite people to change the world and corral them into cattle pens on a police-escorted parade through the heart of consumer society is astoundingly dishonest." He continues: "Climate justice requires nothing less than a global revolution in politics and production; it requires a historic transition to a new model of civilization, which will demand great sacrifice and creativity from everyone." But how is it not "lying to the people" to proclaim this but offer no realistic path to get there? Isn't it "astoundingly dishonest" to invite people to change the world and then corral them into pointless and symbolic "resistance" that is unable to organize the very millions who will determine the success or failure of the movement?

He assumes that any reform movement that tries to apply mass pressure on politicians is wasting its time because, "The powers that be are deaf, dumb and deadly, and we will waste no further time trying to pressure or persuade them." But what if the point is not to persuade them at all, but to mobilize and organize more people into the struggle, people who do not as yet have any kind of revolutionary outlook? Is that too a waste of time?

He claims it is an insult to all the people coming for the march that the organizers got a permit. Did he think to ask any of these hundreds of thousands if they felt insulted? Or does he just assume, from his Olympian perch, that what he feels is what everybody else "ought" to feel?

Saul offers, as a shortcut to organizing millions, this simple path: "The only thing that we can do to meet the deadline for climate justice is to engage in a massive and permanent campaign to shut down the fossil fuel economy. But we have to do this strategically, not in the symbolic cuff-and-stuffs that are a perversion and prostitution of the noble ideals of civil disobedience and revolutionary nonviolence. So we are going to shut down coal plants; we are going to block ports, distribution centers and railway hubs where fossil fuels are transported; whatever it takes to keep the oil in the soil. We're going to put our bodies between the soil and the sky." This is either a path to irrelevance, to time in prison, to some version of revolutionary suicide, or to all of the above, especially when completely divorced from the mass movement.  

In a workshop at the Climate Convergence Conference, Saul called for people being ready to "throw themselves on the gears of the system," as if that was a path to change. It won't stop the coal industry, not unless Saul has some hidden cache of many tens of thousands of activists eager to throw away their lives in a fit of revolutionary romanticism. Such action doesn't change the system; it gives the system an excuse for intensifying repression.

There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm per se, but revolutionary enthusiasm is no substitute for revolutionary organization, nor for winning the majority of workers. Although he claims to be in favor of unity, instead of seeing the marchers as allies, Saul compares them to the enemies of the movement: "The spectacle of thousands of First World citizens marching for climate justice, while they continue to generate the vast majority of carbon emissions, brings to mind the spectacle of George W. Bush visiting New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina." In his mind, it is the fault of the people who are trying to do the right thing, who are entering the struggle, that they aren't radical enough yet! Is it really true that the marchers themselves are responsible for the majority of emissions, or did Saul just get lost in his own overheated rhetoric? A few rhetorical questions for Saul: "How many First World citizens participated in deciding to build coal-fired plants? How many First World citizens own industrial plants, or fleets of trucks, or decide to deforest old growth timber?" He is blaming the victims, brushing us all with the brush he should reserve for the capitalist class.   

Even More Critics and Critiques

All these critiques are just more sophisticated versions of the Revolutionary Communist Party's endless chanting of "Revolution-Nothing Less," as if the slogan itself could magically bring forth a mass revolutionary movement. As if cranking the volume on their bullhorn up to 11 could convince anyone.

Anne Peterman, in an online article, says in the headline that "direct action is the antidote to despair" and that "the UN is worse than useless." Driven to that conclusion by the failure of the UN to negotiate a serious, binding treaty to tackle climate change, she is ready to abandon an entire arena of struggle to the liberals and the obstructionists. Instead it could be one path that could unite and rivet the international community of activists on this issue

Of course we should not have illusions about the UN as the savior of the world from climate change, any more than we should have illusions about capitalism or technology being the solution. But by ceding participation in the UN process, she unintentionally gives away weapons to the opponents of action. Direct action is indeed one tactic that can be usefully employed by the movement in particular battles, but it is not a strategy for success in the longer war against greenhouse gas emissions, it is not a substitute for a mass movement that has the actual power to create fundamental change. In her thinking, because the UN has "cracked down on dissent" at previous climate summits, it is obviously the enemy and we should stop trying to work for an international treaty. We should follow her example and be proud of getting banned from future summits, and congratulate ourselves about how much more pure we are than those who still try to pressure the UN. This approach divides the movement, the opposite of the necessary broad unity.

The False Hierarchy of Militancy

Naomi Klein, in her otherwise excellent book "This Changes Everything," almost mythologizes what she calls "Blockadia." She reports on struggles around the world, many lead by indigenous groups, that physically stop mining, pipeline construction, and other destructive corporate efforts to develop access to more fossil fuels. Many of these actions are admirable, even inspiring, and sometimes victorious, but that doesn't make them the blueprint for change under all circumstances. (I should note that Naomi Klein serves on the Board of, one of the main sponsors of the People/s Climate March-so she certainly doesn't advocate limiting struggles to blockades and civil disobedience-see my review of her book in the People's World.

Intentionally or not, the strategy that the ultra-left critics advocate either states or implies that such militant, confrontational struggles are the highest form of struggle possible, or that they are the only worthwhile form of struggle. Intentionally or not, they set up a hierarchy of types of struggle, discounting mass marches as less militant and/or less effective.

This artificial hierarchy is a false ranking of kinds of struggle. It posits mass mobilizations as less valuable than direct action, which is not as good as civil disobedience and getting arrested, which is less valuable than direct and immediate revolutionary struggle, presumably armed struggle. This gets around the need for real, in-depth analysis of the actual political situation, since all you have to do is climb up the ladder of escalating militant struggle, dragging a few people with you. No need for an actual strategy, no need to actually try and win millions to the cause.

Civil disobedience can be a very effective tactic, and in certain situations can be the only way to go, the only avenue of struggle open, especially to disenfranchised groups. But by itself it is not a strategy for all circumstances, nor is it effective unless harnessed to a mass movement as one part of a suite of tactics, and utilized only where appropriate.

This apparently more militant set of tactics, and substituting them for a long-term, coherent strategy, appeals to some of those who understand the depth of the challenge of climate change and are appalled by the way the system resists change, especially change that threatens super-profits, but don't see any realistic way out-so they fall for these unrealistic approaches. The appeal also comes from a misunderstanding of the role, and limitations, of mass marches and other more mainstream tactics.

What the March Can and Can't Accomplish

These critiques are based in part on inflating the expectations of what the march "ought" to accomplish and then knocking down that straw man. They take some justifiable criticisms of the limitations of the march and inflate them to an utter condemnation of the value of mass mobilizations.

A march, even a gigantic one like the People's Climate March, by itself cannot directly accomplish much. The results of such a march are measured in changes in public opinion, in more people who as a result get inspired to join the ongoing movement, in marking an important way-station on the way to much more grassroots organizing. It is a test and demonstration of the movement's strength, a way to make the media and the political and financial elite pay attention, a boost to the visibility of the ongoing work the environmental movement is doing. It inspires, it excites, it offers a deadline to work towards, a handle for those looking to get involved. By itself, a march does not change laws, change policies, nor can it fundamentally transform a society by itself.

The overarching need at the moment is to get millions of people in our country, and billions around the world, into motion, into the streets, into action, into organizations. For that goal, a mass march is an excellent tool. Masses learn from their own political experience, from running up against the system themselves, from trying everything short of revolution and seeing that reforms by themselves are not enough. Masses don't become revolutionary because someone chants louder or has a bigger red flag or gets arrested more often, or makes a principle out of never asking for a police permit.

But with many of the hundreds of thousands who marched that day, the left has an open door, an open door with a welcome mat, to offer a program that actually addresses the environmental crises. As Naomi Klein noted in her closing plenary speech to the Climate Convergence Conference, the march represents the current state of the movement. It does not and we should not expect it to represent some idealized manifestation of the fevered dreams of the most radical participants, who wish to substitute revolutionary romanticism for a hard look at what is actually required of us. That kind of diversion is a way to focus on the favored tactics of the few rather than the strategy of the main movement.

Another echo from past struggles is from the Battle in Seattle, where the main march of over 45,000 got very little media attention, because it was diverted to covering the tactics of the anarchists. Their window smashing and trash burning was a diversion from the real politics, which united many from both the environmental movement and the labor movement, setting the stage for the tasks of unity-building we have today.

Two Purity Traps

These critics fall into one of the two purity traps of the current environmental movement. The first trap is the idea that real revolutionary struggle is all about being politically pure, never compromising with the system, never uniting with distained liberals, as if political purity was more important than actually having an impact, more important than bringing millions into the struggle.

The other purity trap is to blame all environmental problems on population growth and on individual choice. If people would just not litter, ever, (Fox News made a big deal out of how much garbage was left on the street by the marchers), then their complaints might be worth listening to (though that would never happen-the right would just find another excuse to ignore or bash the movement). It is not the fault of the system; it is the fault of these people who are trying to change things, because they are not perfect. If people would just stop using plastic bags, or stop buying products, or stop having babies, then everything would be okay. These right-wing talking heads tell us (I'm looking at you, Tucker Carlson) that we are not really concerned about climate change-that is just a rich people's issue, while us regular people (like Tucker Carlson? Really?) have to work for a living. These are the same rich people that Tucker Carlson and his ilk lionize as the "job creators." Presumably if rich people stopped caring about climate change, they could get back to trickling down on the rest of us.

But the struggle is not about personal purity, nor about political purity. It is about motivating people, helping them get into motion and action, where they will learn the lessons of struggle. That is when our radical criticism of the system will resonate, not because the left preaches at them, but because masses of people will understand the criticism since it matches their own experience, helps them make sense of the obstacles they run into.

This requires uniting with those you disagree with, with those who are not yet ready to break with the system. It requires placing demands that are actually capable of being won; it requires winning smaller victories to give people a sense of their own power. It requires a serious recognition of the real political moment we are in.

More than One Kind of Illusion

Any tactic, however useful in specific situations, that masquerades as a strategy which should be applied to all circumstances ends up creating defeats, disillusionment, and despair, and sends people down dead ends that separate them from the main movement.

Let me be clear: I'm not against people recycling or using cloth bags. I'm not against talking about the system as the root of the problem. I'm not against using confrontational tactics when that is the best available avenue of struggle open to people. I'm not opposed to getting arrested as part of the struggle. I'm not against using civil disobedience as a tool, if the target is chosen carefully and the participants thoroughly prepared.

I'm just against illusions-both the illusion promoted by liberals that the capitalist system can ultimately solve our numerous environmental challenges, and the illusion of the ultra-left that "real" radical demands by themselves or only the most confrontational tactics are the answers, and that if we just shout our slogans louder or preach with more self-righteousness, that will make the difference.

The illusion that a movement can be built, radicalized, and become effective, without actually working with organized groups of workers and allies who are not yet ready to break with the system, is responsible for the sect-like activity of many ultra-left grouplets. They swirl around major mobilizations, trying to pick off any who are ready to listen to their apocalyptic rhetoric. They condemn big demonstrations, but go to them anyway-but why, if they are so certain that such demonstrations will have no impact, are in effect a waste of time?  They offer only the false hope of changing the system in the short term through some fictional direct action by a small handful of activists. That is poor gruel instead of the rich and varied strategic meal the movement needs.

The "Elections Don't Matter" Meme

Also notable, in these ultra-left attempts to present a strategy, is the absence of any proposal to utilize electoral struggles. Hiding behind a radical-sounding rejection of both political parties, they are positively proud of granting the opponents of real change a free hand to monopolize electoral campaigns. These critics prefer a "purity" that would end up separating the movement from natural allies in the peace, labor, women's, and civil rights movements who are still involved in progressive electoral campaigns.

How can any revolutionary movement hope to succeed by cutting itself off from the largest, most organized groups engaged in mass struggles? How can we hope to win fundamental change if we can't compromise enough to join with others who want to participate in the struggle on their own terms? How can we have a vision of struggle that separates us from working class organization? How can we win big victories if we don't even try to win smaller ones? How can we convince millions to support a more radical program if we give the proponents of the current system a free ride to use demagogy to confuse and delay in election campaigns? How can we overpower the coercive power of the state if we limit ourselves to revolutionary sloganeering? How can we claim to be for greater democracy in our economic system if we don't fight to protect, extend, and utilize political democracy?

Of course, elections and electoral struggles are not "the" answer-they are but one more field of struggle, a political space where we can reach those not yet involved, those still uncertain, those who have questions, those who don't yet see a way out. Elections by themselves won't fix everything, any more than any other kind of struggle. Elections can lead to illusions about the ability of the divided political elite to actually solve problems, and we should guard against such illusion too.

But to abandon this field to the deniers and the obstructionists, to let them run free to spread lies without challenge, in the electoral arena or any other arena, would be a basic mistake.

Another Left Response to the Critics

In an article in The Nation, September 30th, 2014, Jonathan Smucker and Michael Premo also address the "radical" critics. They point out that there are positive ways to link mass marches with civil disobedience, which was done the day following the big march by the "Flood Wall Street" action at which there were dozens of arrests, disruption of normal traffic in the financial district, and direct confrontations with at least some of the bankers and other financial operators. Smucker and Premo point out that there is great unifying value to the entire movement for radicals to be at the table, to work in broad movements from the inside and not separate themselves as outside armchair critics. They note that the Climate Justice Alliance, sponsor of the Flood Wall Street demonstration, worked to link the big March with their direct action the following day.

Smucker and Premo also note that "outside" actions involving much smaller numbers can be easily ignored by the system. They go on to say, "Having the most radical-sounding solutions in the world is all for naught if those solutions are only believed by a relatively small number of self-identifying radicals. We have to engage broader social bases by meeting new participants at the on-ramps by which they initially enter into collective action. The PCM provided such an on-ramp to many thousands of newcomers. Those of us who identify with the left end of the progressive spectrum need to be honest with ourselves about our current lack of capacity for building such on-ramps on our own. If we want to move more people in a radical direction-to fundamentally reengineer the roots of a broken system-it behooves us to build and maintain good relationships with organizations that have more resources and a greater reach, even if they do not share all of our politics. The left of the left spectrum has to muster the courage and savvy to enter into alignments that are too big for us to be able to control." They assert that, "Such an alignment will, of course, be full of challenges. But these are good challenges to have. "

The authors point out that some of these intentional outsiders are, "just engaging in self-righteous sideline critique," but don't acknowledge that the ultra-left of the left spectrum often makes it a point of principle to not be savvy enough to enter into such alignments. For some of these splinter groups, making any progress short of ultimate revolution is condemned on principle, and this approach is a prime feature of their political philosophy, not a bug

Correct Criticism

As noted before, there are plenty of correct criticisms of the march, of the organizing that went into creating it, and of various outlooks for the future path of struggle. The march had basically no demands beyond "taking action on the climate crisis." Previous efforts have been hampered by too long a list of demands, in effect requiring endorsement of a more comprehensive program before groups even start to become involved. The admirable and fairly successful approach by the organizers of the People's Climate march to broadening participation and to gaining sponsorships from a great variety of organizations was to get away entirely from any specific demands. In my opinion, this was letting the pendulum swing too far. Having no specific demands at all meant the march had less impact than it otherwise could have, on the fall elections, on the debate over solutions, and on efforts going on from here.

Not requiring that everyone condemn, for example, the Keystone XL pipeline project was a concession that enabled some unions (though not many construction unions), to endorse and participate, and that was, in my opinion, a net positive. So some compromises on program were necessary to make the march as broad and large as possible. That doesn't mean giving up the fight against the pipeline, it just means that a tactical move sideways to not force every important environmental issue into the list of required demands was, on balance, a good thing.

As well, not insisting that everyone who participated be somehow environmentally pure opened the door to some major contributors. And those contributions enabled hiring experienced (and inexperienced) organizers to provide the organizational muscle necessary to pull off such a large gathering. But by opening the door as wide as they did, the main sponsors of the march ended up opening the door to "greenwashers," to corporations that wanted to burnish their public image without actually taking any positive actions. It is not a matter of being pure but of balancing the essential need for major funders with a wary eye to those just interested in taking advantage of the opportunity for self-promotion and hiding their actual environmental policies.

No Shortcuts

The main weaknesses of the march were the same as the main weaknesses of the movement. The main initiator of the march,, is a web-based movement focused on inspiring and initiating actions and relying on spontaneous responses, as opposed to building ongoing structure and institutions capable of actually organizing mass actions. It has been successful in the past at getting a worldwide response to various demonstrative actions, but because that isn't backed up with much in the way of ongoing organizational efforts, it lacks the punch needed. And this march was no exception. It relied on the "no demands" policy and the relatively spontaneous response of people to substitute for the problems of building permanent struggle organizations.

The compromises, which in my opinion went too far, to gain financial sponsorships were another effort to shortcut the way around real organization. One main contributor to the organization of the march was Avaaz, a somewhat amorphous "online activism" entity with an agenda that seems to coincide with not confronting corporate power directly, with the "no demands" strategy. As well, their over-use of paid staff for the march, many often with little actual previous organizing experience, was not geared to movement capacity building but to demanding super-human individual efforts to substitute for the limited existing coalition efforts.

A positive feature of the march and its preparation was the aggressive activity to engage participation from minority groups, to address the racism that has kept those movements from fully entering into alliance with the environmental movement. The March was led by a large contingent of indigenous peoples from all over the globe. Outreach to minority communities and to groups trying to bridge the difficulties between the environmental movement and many types of civil rights struggles and organizations was important in making this march, in addition to being large, the most diverse of national environmental marches. But much more needs to be done, and it won't happen without actual organization on the ground in many places, and won't happen without more actual engagement in the civil rights movement itself.

This movement of necessity must be in the struggle for the long haul. It requires massive changes in how we produce and distribute goods and food, fundamental changes in the production process for almost everything made by human labor, a basic shift in how we decide on priorities for public policy and investment, and much more. This is not a short term problem, one that will go away by the time the next election cycle comes around. These issues will be with us for many decades to come, and will only play a greater and greater role in public consciousness and come even more to the fore of public debate and struggle. This requires on-going organization, requires building lasting coalitions, requires serious rethinking of public priorities, and requires efforts to win a large majority to back a fairly radical program.

This doesn't happen as a result of one march no matter how large. While the People's Climate March was a watershed event in this long struggle, much more is demanded of the environmental movement, and of other progressive movements. We won't get there by refusing to have any specific demands at all, nor will we get there by demanding purity and revolutionary fervor from all involved.

The Beginning of Strategy, not the End

There are real, difficult issues to work through in building the broad-based, working class-lead, multi-racial, multi-issue, multi-generational, multi-gender, environmentally-focused, struggle-oriented international movement necessary to implement fundamental change. The goal of Left activists must be to be active participants in solving these issues, in bringing movements together, in linking issues and organizations, in taking advantage of every field of struggle, in taking advantage of any and all splits in the ruling class. The struggle is joined, millions are moving into motion, we have difficult times ahead, from natural disasters happening with increased frequency to political issues that are complex and entwined with and complicated by economic worries and survival fears.

The leftist critics correctly understand that capitalism is a major part of the environmental problems we are facing. They correctly understand that time is running short to make changes that will avert the worst climate catastrophes. They correctly advocate for socialism as the goal, the reorganization of society in ways that will involve millions in the process of finding solutions. However, they treat these conclusions as if they have come to the end of developing strategy. That is a denial of process, a rejection of dialectics, a willful ignoring of the complexity of reality. Those conclusions, while valid, are only the beginning of the process of developing a strategy that can guide the movement through many ebbs and flows.

The myopia of the March's "radical critics" is based on a confusion of ultimate goals with immediate tasks. It is the problem of having a firm hold of one piece of the truth and convincing yourself you have the whole truth. That allows you to think that if you only say that piece of the truth louder, or more sharply, or more often, or with a bigger sign or more leaflets, others will see it exactly the way you do. It is an idealist (in the philosophical sense) approach to creating change. It is placing theory above practice, instead of understanding their dialectical unity.

It is a crucial part of strategy to identify the goal to aim for, but that is only the first step. The harder part comes from figuring out where we actually are, and how we can get from where we are to where we need to be.

That is not a simple process of linear progress directly to the goal, it is a dialectical process of engaging in the actual struggles of today (like the People's Climate March), with all their strengths and limitations, and figuring out the issues, the demands, the coalitions, and the connections which will lead to the next higher level of struggle. It is identifying the forces necessary for victory and building ties with those forces, understanding their particular reasons for fighting, and successfully making links between those forces and other issues, movements, organizations, social groups, and local conditions. It is learning how to fight on many fronts at once, and not conceding important territory to the opposition without a battle.

Learning from the process of the movement means learning how to translate public sentiment into organization, organization into action, action into victories small and large, victories (and defeats) into fundamental conclusions about the changes society needs to make. Compromises, coalitions, and utilizing all tactics in ways that match the political moment-these make up the path that millions still have to tread, and our job is first of all to help them get started, then to inspire and energize them, and finally to help them draw the deeper conclusions, and in the process provide coherent organization, structure, and strategy.

There are no shortcuts to winning fundamental change. Such thoroughgoing change can only happen with the organized power of the majority of the working class, along with many, many allies. We have a bumpy, difficult road ahead, but we must persevere, for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren, for the future of developed human existence on this planet.

Marc Brodine is CPUSA Washington State Chair and a member of the Communist Party Environmental Working Group.

Photo: UN climate talks, Cancun Mexico 2010   Creative Commons 2.0



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  • Thanks for this thoughtful and useful piece,

    Posted by Beth Edelman, 10/30/2014 4:07pm (9 years ago)

  • Enjoyed the clarity and frankness of your analysis, thank you

    Posted by Rossana, 10/30/2014 12:06am (9 years ago)

  • Excellent article, with lessons far beyond the environmental movement.

    Posted by Art Perlo, 10/28/2014 3:36pm (9 years ago)

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