The environmental group Extinction Rebellion (XR) has always made a virtue out of its ‘non-political’ character, fearing that public sympathy for its cause might be lost if ‘politics’ were permitted to intrude on its single-issue campaigning around the climate crisis. By clinging to their ‘non-political’ stance its leaders hope to disarm their opponents and broaden their appeal to the general public.
In reality, XR has done neither. It has remained a narrow middle-class movement that has failed to establish a base in the working class, instead just alienating workers by snarling up the traffic whilst delivering homilies on how to live a greener life under capitalism.
Now comes the news that Boris Johnson has ordered an investigation into both Black Lives Matter and XR, citing lurid allegations about left-wing extremists infiltrating these movements. Despite endlessly bending over backwards to remain above the political fray, XR is now to be the subject of an inquisition to determine whether it is in fact harbouring a nest of wild revolutionists.
The Grand Inquisitor charged with conducting the inquiry, appropriately enough, is former Labour MP John Woodcock, an opportunist who climbed through the Labour ranks to serve as an aide to Gordon Brown before quitting the party and climbing into the House of Lords as an independent peer, now dubbed Lord Walney. Who better to advise the government on how to keep social democracy safe from exposure to lefty infiltration, having spent so many years learning to be a guard dog for the imperialist Labour party before jumping ship?
Insisting that he is approaching the matter “with an open mind”, the noble peer obligingly unpacked the conclusions of his investigation ahead of time, before his inquiry had even begun.
He is possessed of an understanding, he says, “that there is clearly a potential for groups to develop into increasingly problematic areas”, and he counsels vigilance over “the prospect of progressive extremism – that is, unacceptable disruption or even violence carried out in the name of progressive causes to which the political establishment and large majority of the population have great sympathy, like climate change and racial injustice”. (Boris Johnson orders probe into ‘far-left hijacking’ of Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion by Rob Merrick, Independent, 8 February 2021)
The Inquisitor then turns his baleful gaze on the heretics supposedly infesting XR: “There have been a number of, at the moment isolated, examples of climate change activist groups, particularly Extinction Rebellion, overstepping the mark into antisocial behaviour. I think there’s been a recognition that, even among that movement, they have at times risked undermining their own cause.”
There are two responses XR’s leaders could make to this challenge. They could redouble their determination to keep aloof from political strife, maybe even sacrificing to the inquisition a few heretics who ‘even among that movement’ are seen as going off-message. Or they could emerge from their single-issue silo and sniff the more bracing air of class struggle.
Joint action for Palestine
This latter course seems to have been taken by the northern wing of XR, which has taken the bold step of joining with the Palestine Action’s direct action campaign to close down all UK-based activities of Israel’s biggest private arms company, Elbit Systems.
At the beginning of February, XR and PA occupied the Elbit-Ferranti arms factory in Oldham, forcing it to cease production. Activists climbed onto a ledge on the front of the factory, pouring red paint down the front and spray-painting the words ‘Shut Elbit down’. XR North and PA plan to escalate their direct action against Elbit until it is shut down for good.
XR North’s members put out an admirable statement to explain their thinking, saying: “We stand resolutely against the apartheid and genocide of the Palestinian people, we will not accept an economy based on devastation, occupation and war.
“Our communities deserve and want a sustainable, fair and healthy future, for all people. We recognise the overlapping injustice and exploitation that reinforce the struggles so many of us face. Whether it’s poverty wages, obscene inequality, the destruction of our living world, or racist oppression.” (1 February 2021)
Two days after the occupation in Oldham took place, one of the organisers of Palestine Action was arrested in London on trumped-up charges of blackmail. Said a PA spokeswoman: “The only thing we can assume this is about is Palestine Action demanding that companies do not associate with war criminals, and if they do we will take action. This is not blackmail. This is asking for companies to abide by international law and human rights conventions.” (Palestine Action founder arrested for ‘blackmail’, Morning Star, 11 February 2021)
This courageous intervention crossed the line between protesting against imperialist wars and taking active steps to stop them, a transgression in which Lord Walney would doubtless see ‘a potential for groups to develop into increasingly problematic areas’.
Brave actions such as these, undertaken by a small handful of workers, are truly inspiring. What is needed to ensure their success is that they should be joined by the collective power of the working class, organised behind the politics of class struggle. In this way we will be able to stop not just a single factory, but the whole imperialist war machine.