Today’s environmental movements, whose virtues and limitations are charted in Derek Wall’s cogently argued new book, should look to Latin America for lessons in building anti-imperialist agendas which combine all possible tactics.
Ecological activism has run the gamut from individual lifestyle changes to proposals for a Green New Deal, from communal self-sufficiency to global technological fixes, from lobbying and electoral campaigning to militant direct action. In his thought-provoking, well-written, cogently argued and thoroughly researched book, Derek Wall examines all of these strategies, their virtues and limitations, and displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of scientific debates, political processes and social and economic structures. He documents the history of Green parties, their successes, failures and contradictions. It is indeed essential reading.
In a sense, the book is not about climate change, at least not primarily: it is about epistemology, political theory, social psychology and communications theory. Wall’s main concern can be summed up in the title of a well-known pamphlet by one of the many theorists he draws upon, namely Lenin: ‘What Is To Be Done?’
Given that those likely to read the book will be involved in Green parties, Extinction Rebellion, school strikes or organisations such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, Wall is not mainly concerned with demonstrating that man-made climate change is real or that its consequences are catastrophic. Rather, he addresses the problem of action and efficacy: why have all these organisations and movements signally failed to achieve radical action by governments and power-holders to halt climate change? Indeed, why have the mass of the population not responded to the message?
Most political activists are well aware that rational debate and factual exposition are not sufficient to achieve change. Any popular movement has to address the question of power, and Wall makes clear from the start his agreement with Marxist analyses of capitalism and imperialism: to combat climate change is to combat capitalism. But to combat capitalism, as progressives of all varieties are well aware, is far from simple.
The longest chapter of the book deals with Extinction Rebellion (XR), whose uncompromising stand, direct action and creativity have had a dramatic impact in several countries, mainly in the developed West. Along with Greta Thunberg and the School Strike for Climate movement, it has injected a much-needed sense of urgency into climate politics. But as Wall points out, XR has failed to engage adequately with workers, minorities and the poor, sometimes displaying a sense of arrogant entitlement towards the anti-capitalist left and the excluded. Social movement theory helps us to understand the ups and downs of protest and the need to build enduring collective identities.
The author also engages, to his credit, with the ‘Climate Accelerationists’: the Trumps, Bolsonaros and their followers, recognising the social roots of such movements which cannot be reduced to the pernicious motives of their leaders. This leads into perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book, ‘The Unconscious, the Imaginary and the Real’, a perceptive discussion of epistemology and communication theory.
Wall is undoubtedly correct in arguing that multiple forms of action at different levels and in a variety of spheres are necessary to achieve fundamental change. Where his perspective is debatable is in his distrust of the state – any state – as a crucial site of action. While he is correct in criticising the apparent assumption of the Green Party (and others) that the state ‘governs for all and considers a plurality of interests’, it does not follow that states always ‘act on behalf of the few, not the many’. A broad and well-organised popular movement may well be able not only to win elections but to penetrate and transform sections of the state apparatus so as to implement progressive change: there are a number of such instances which deserve analysis in Latin America and elsewhere.
Ever since the Cuban revolution of 1959, Latin America has pioneered the development of radical alternatives, whether or not explicitly socialist. The Cuban triumph was by force of arms, and numerous attempts to emulate it failed, the only exception being Nicaragua 20 years later. The real originality of Cuba lay not so much in armed struggle as in the forging by Fidel Castro and his comrades of a non-sectarian mass popular insurgency, anti-imperialist, flexible yet uniquely radical, which did not proclaim socialism until more than two years after victory but created a system of revolutionary popular power with few parallels in global history.
Cuba was followed by a very different process in Chile in 1970, with Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity attempting a peaceful road to socialism which was brutally interrupted. Nicaragua demonstrated that armed revolution was still possible in a small rural nation with a profoundly corrupt dictatorship, but also pioneered a pluralist socialist democracy combining elections with mass popular power.
When all seemed lost with the collapse of Soviet and East European bureaucratic socialism and the defeat of Sandinista Nicaragua, Hugo Chávez and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution revived the region’s popular insurgent tradition, again with a non-sectarian mass movement combining radical anti-imperialism with grassroots popular power and electoral democracy. Socialism was not mentioned until six years after Chávez’s initial victory, and Bolivarian Venezuela with the ALBA nations that followed it – Bolivia under Evo Morales, the Ecuador of Rafael Correa, the short-lived experience of Honduras with Manuel Zelaya, the remarkable revival of Sandinista Nicaragua and others – demonstrated that Latin America or Abya-Yala had found a way (or a variety of ways) to transform the state without following the manuals of Marxist-Leninist or Trotskyist orthodoxy.
What these processes have shown is that the old dichotomies of reform versus revolution or elections versus armed struggle are no longer relevant. What is at stake is to build unitary, non-sectarian, anti-imperialist popular movements which combine all possible tactics, from elections to rallies, strikes, occupations and demonstrations of legitimate force (in Chávez’s words, ‘a peaceful revolution, but an armed one’) to create revolutionary popular power.
That some of these processes have been crushed by reactionary civil-military coups promoted from Washington does not invalidate the strategy. What is clear is the desperation of ecocidal imperialism and its inability to prevent the re-emergence of popular electoral candidacies in Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere. Moreover the triumph of new and unprecedented popular movements with AMLO in Mexico and Alberto Fernández in Argentina shows that the process is unstoppable.
‘Base-building’, grassroots community organisation as advocated by Wall, is essential, but engagement with the state through elections, legal action, mass pressure and participation in institutions of all kinds is equally necessary. It is not just a matter of ‘substituting one group of politicians with another’, but of building a popular alternative to transform all state institutions. Wall hints at this by referring to the Leninist/Trotskyist concept of ‘dual power’. Whether or not this is the most appropriate tool for analysing the profound transformational process which is necessary, the urgency of such action is nonetheless clear for all to see. Derek Wall has been a tireless and outstanding contributor to the struggle for eco-socialism, so surely he will be willing to consider that the way forward lies through a united and flexible popular political strategy as exemplified in that region of revolutionary ferment, Latin America.
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