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Risk and Revolution

A specter haunts the climate left

The laughter is the tell. In a deftly written and acted scene in How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the new action-thriller directed by Daniel Goldhaber (and inspired by Andreas Malm’s identically titled 2021 book, which, unlike the film, does not describe how to blow up anything), a ragtag group of eight fossil-fuel saboteurs—young, diverse, mostly working class, several from polluted frontline communities—pass a bottle around, blowing off steam the night before they blow up a pipeline in the West Texas desert.

“They’re gonna call us revolutionaries, or game changers,” offers Rowan (Kristine Froseth), a waifish blonde anarchist with a smirky grin. Somebody laughs. “No, they’ll call us terrorists,” says dreadlocked, queer Theo (Sasha Lane). And Theo is right. You don’t even have to sabotage a pipeline to be called a terrorist in this country—as we’ve seen in Georgia, where more than forty activists have been charged with “domestic terrorism” for allegedly damaging property and trespassing while protesting Atlanta’s “Cop City.”

But the laughter captures something else about our political-cultural era. Almost no one takes revolution seriously—not even fictional would-be revolutionaries on screen. And not even in the face of our fossil-fuel driven global emergency. In fact, it would seem the only revolutionaries in this country are found on the far right—as a Proud Boy testified, their goal on Jan. 6, 2021, was “all-out revolution.”

Most interesting about Goldhaber’s film—which is that rare thing, a thoughtful political action movie—is the way it dramatizes and draws out the fears and anxieties of climate activism at this stage of the crisis. (Full disclosure: I’m among those whose advice was sought and given at an early stage of the project, but I had no involvement in the film’s making or any stake in it.) Like the book on which it’s based, it’s a film about risk, and the relationship to risk, individual and collective, personal and political. And it raises the deeply discomforting yet urgent question, as does Malm’s book, of what kinds and degrees of risk may be necessary, if any of us are serious about bringing the radical break with business-as-usual that’s now required—serious, that is, as players and not just chin-stroking, disinterested observers from the gallery. (There is no gallery in the climate catastrophe.) And yet for the most part the respectable left, and the “climate left in particular—as it goes through the same-old placid motions of politics-and-activism as usual—somehow manages to avoid this very question, even at this late hour.

What could possibly be at the root of this avoidance? It’s almost as if a specter haunts the climate left: the specter of revolution, past and future.

To be fair, there are still some on the left who take revolution seriously—at least on a historical, theoretical, and/or aesthetic level—but they tend to haunt only the Ivory Tower. One thinks of Enzo Traverso’s Revolution: An Intellectual History (2021) as a recent example of such seriousness. But overall, there’s broad agreement that nothing like a mass revolutionary-left movement actually exists today, other than in the imagination. “The Left seems,” Traverso writes in that volume, “to have completely deserted the terrain on which it had, over the last century, accumulated considerable experience and recorded numerous successes: the armed revolution.”

Whether armed or not, violent or not, the point is that revolution is approached seriously now only as history, as collective memory and mourning of the heroically vanquished and tragically betrayed. (Traverso explored this phenomenon in his 2016 book, Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory.) And, most often, as cautionary tale. “The tragedy of revolutions,” Traverso writes in Revolution, “lies in the fatal metamorphosis that drives them from liberation to the struggle for survival, and finally to the edification of a new oppressive rule; from emancipating violence to coercive violence.”

Of course much depends on what one actually means by “revolution”—Traverso means “a sudden—and almost always violent—interruption of the historical continuum . . . a break of the social and political order,” which sounds about right to me—and what one means by “seriously.”

China Miéville, the acclaimed British novelist and nonfiction writer, wants to revive an explicitly Marxist revolutionary politics, updated for our century. His most recent books, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (2017) and A Spectre, Haunting (2022), present the revolution of October 1917 and Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, respectively, as not only relevant to the present moment but as containing urgent insights and lessons, both positive and negative. Though historical, his project in these books is addressed directly to us, his contemporaries, as political actors, agents of history, potential revolutionary subjects.

This is an invigorating and even awe-inspiring act to behold, not least for the way Miéville stares down the reflexive hackles of inveterate cynics. Fuck the cynics, Miéville implies. The Manifesto’s authors, he reminds us, were “thunderously uncynical,” and Miéville, too, is in earnest. He wants us to take revolution seriously not only as intellectual and political history but as living-breathing political practice in the present tense.

Accordingly, Miéville’s A Spectre, Haunting is both a reintroduction of the Manifesto (drawing on the vast literature surrounding it) for a new generation of Marx-curious readers and a defense of revolutionary-left politics against the critics and skeptics, all along the ideological watchtower, who reject any such politics out of hand. “The strongest weapon against revolution, or any hankering for it,” he reminds his readers, is “that capitalist-realist common sense that it’s impossible, even laughable, to struggle or hope for change. . . . a deliberate ruling-class propaganda strategy to discourage any belief in any such possibility.”

The Manifesto’s authors, he reminds us, were “thunderously uncynical,” and Miéville, too, is in earnest. He wants us to take revolution seriously.

But Miéville has no desire to prettify the left’s revolutionary history or engage in apologetics—quite the opposite. Non-dogmatic, full of caveats, and above all, ethically conscious, he engages the text of the Manifesto, its background, and its legacy—much of it brutal and indefensible—in order to preserve or salvage what remains inspiring and useful. To do so requires the readiness to break with Marxist doctrine, to see the past and present without ideological blinders (which is not to say without ideology). In his moving epilogue to October, Miéville writes, “We know where this is going: purges, gulags, starvation, mass murder.” But perfect hindsight, he suggests, can breed illusions of inevitability. “Did October lead inexorably to Stalin?” he asks. “It is an old question, but one still very much alive. Is the gulag the telos of 1917?” Miéville would have us resist any such interpretations as the sirens of historical necessity and fatalism. “October is still ground zero for arguments about fundamental, radical social change,” he writes. “Its degradation was not a given, was not written in any stars.”

What kind of revolution, then, is Miéville hankering for (all caveats and disclaimers duly acknowledged)? Again taking his cue from the Manifesto and its authors, he is clearly not advocating a mere “political revolution,” that which topples a government and replaces it while leaving the underlying social order intact. Nevertheless, Miéville wants a revolutionary left that allows for any number of models, including the possibility of peaceful revolution—which, he notes, Marx and Engels themselves did not rule out. What he wants to avoid is “a strain of showboating machismo within the Left” that dismisses anything less than the model of October 1917 “as effete perfidy.” And yet, he notes, that kind of toxic “border-guarding” no doubt arises in part from “the fact that ‘revolutionary’ is an easy word to throw around and domesticate.” (“They’re gonna call us revolutionaries . . .”)

It’s clarifying, therefore, when Miéville spells out, in the Manifesto’s terms, what he identifies as the three key elements of a Marxist social revolution “worthy of the name.” First, he writes, “its aim is rupture. Its point isn’t merely amelioration, but the overthrow of the existing order.” Second, he tells us, “this is a project with enemies. . . . To the ruling class as a class, this is an existential threat, to be fought by any means available. And their counter-revolutionary project might win.” The all-important third point, then, is that revolutionists “cannot shy away from the necessity of struggle.”

Struggle, rupture, overthrow; but not, necessarily, by any means. Miéville is no crude nihilist. He has a genuine concern for the moral-ethical basis of social revolution itself, even as found in the Manifesto, despite its authors’ claims to have thrown off all bourgeois morality. “The relationship between coercion, force and violence is crucial here,” Miéville writes. “Depending on how much social weight a movement has, how strategically it deploys it, actual violence, in no way a good in itself, can be minimized.”

Indeed, on this crucial question, Miéville goes on to argue that Marx and Engels’s judgment of capitalist exploitation and oppression was itself an inherently moral one—as was their vision of the communist alternative. Marx and Engels, he notes, “hold ‘so-called civilization’ to be itself a barbarous and violent system.” It follows, then, Miéville writes:

This is not to be relaxed about violence on any side, but to contest the image of revolution as an irruption of violence into a peaceable system. It’s to accept, rather, the necessity of violence against violence, to fight for the end of the mass death and social violence which underpins capitalism, surrounds us, at a greater scale today even than it did the Manifesto’s authors.

Mass death and social violence at a greater scale today . . . And we’re back to where we started: a global ecological and social catastrophe driven by “fossil capital” and the demands of untrammeled production and profit—and the effort to stop it somewhere short of total destruction (an outcome, never mind what you may have heard, that is still very much on the table).

To his credit, Miéville addresses the planetary crisis head-on in A Spectre, Haunting, but the discussion arrives, as it were, too little and too late, in a brief section sandwiched into the final chapter. Like so many of his peers among left intellectuals, Miéville is slow to come around to the climate catastrophe. If he took it as seriously as called for, it would frame the whole book; treating it as an afterthought won’t do any longer. It’s been said before, but perhaps the full implications of climate science are simply too radical, even for radicals. That is, climate catastrophe threatens the material conditions on which the whole socialist project rests. Miéville, as a founding member of the Salvage Collective, knows this well, of course, and it goes to the heart of his response to the crisis:

To read the Manifesto today, is to have to acknowledge that after centuries of exploitation and planetary degradation, the rupture is more urgent than ever—and is unlikely to be into a realm of freedom and plenty, but of necessary slow repair.

There is a world to win: won, it must be fixed. This is “ruin communism,” or “salvage communism.” As part of such project, naïve dreams of profligacy have to be set aside.

Won, it must be fixed. I wish this were convincing. But the problem with Miéville’s formulation, and it’s not an uncommon one, is the assumption that we still have time to “win” the world—on Marxist terms, no less—before we begin to “fix” it. In fact, according to climate science, we barely have time to stop the hemorrhaging. It’s one thing to keep the revolutionary flame alive, and to make the non-falsifiable claim that “another world is possible,” that the revolution this time may succeed without betraying its principles and devouring its own. It’s another thing entirely when you slam up against the hard limits of physics and chemistry—and time. If you insist that the social revolution—rather than something like the mere political variety—must come first, then there’s a strong chance that there won’t be a world to win, nothing to salvage.

Andreas Malm is a Marxist intellectual and agitator who not only grasps this grim truth about our situation but says it out loud—even writes books about it.

In his pamphlet Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (2020)—which preceded How to Blow Up a Pipeline by just a few months in the midst of the pandemic’s first year—Malm lays out the case for strong medicine, what he calls “ecological Leninism,” to stem the planetary catastrophe. He argues that only centralized state power—“nationalization of all private companies extracting and processing and distributing fossil fuels,” along with “comprehensive, airtight planning”—can accomplish what is required at this emergency juncture. “Everybody knows this,” Malm writes. “Few say it.” And so, speed being paramount (“Delay is fatal,” as Lenin said), Malm’s ecological Leninism “leaps at any opportunity to wrest the state in this direction, break with business-as-usual as sharply as required and subject the regions of the economy working towards catastrophe to direct public control.”

But Malm goes further, wisely or not, suggesting that even something like “war communism” may be necessary, invoking the nascent Bolshevik regime’s desperate and brutal measures during its struggle to survive the Russian Civil War. Malm, of course, is far from the first to call for something resembling “wartime mobilization” to address the climate emergency, but the term “war communism,” he admits, “tends to leave an acid taste. Rightly so.” (His use of it, he’s quick to add, “is not to suggest that we should have summary executions, send food detachments into the countryside or militarize labor, just as no one who looks at World War II as a model for climate mobilization wants to drop another atomic bomb on Hiroshima.”) What Malm is calling for here is not ruthless, unrestrained state power, but an emergency power that’s democratically and ethically grounded. He is quite ready to throw out those parts of the Marxist-Leninist playbook that are “ripe (or overripe) for their own obituaries.”

Not least among those is the doctrine that prescribes first demolishing the capitalist state and replacing it with a socialist one. The capitalist state is all we have in the near term—and with climate, the near term is what matters. “No workers’ state based on soviets will be miraculously born in the night,” Malm writes. “Waiting for it would be both delusional and criminal.”

What Malm is calling for here is not ruthless, unrestrained state power, but an emergency power that’s democratically and ethically grounded. 

What’s more, as Malm is well aware, given the current state of our politics there is no reason to assume that any revolutionary rupture will come from the left or result in a left-wing government; if anything, there’s more reason to fear a neo-fascist takeover than any sort of totalitarian left. (Malm has explored the intersection of climate and the fascist threat in depth, in his 2021 book with the Zetkin Collective, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism.) It’s possible that from now on, any viable left will have to resemble a Popular Front anti-fascist coalition: the fight against fascism and the fight against fossil capital being one and the same.

But Malm makes clear that his ecological Leninism is a conceptual framework, a set of principles, not marching orders. Nor does it imply, he goes on, “that there are any actual Leninist formations capable of seizing power and implementing the correct measures.” To the contrary, “The crisis is the absence—the complete, gaping absence—of any leadership.” And so the “dreary bourgeois state” will have to be forced, more or less as it is, through popular uprising and a diversity of tactics (including “mass sabotage”), to save itself. Then, at least, a reborn revolutionary left may live to fight another day.

However unlikely to be realized Malm’s vision may be, and he knows that it appears very unlikely, “those elements of the climate movement and the left that pretend that none of this needs to happen . . . are not being honest,” he writes. This is undoubtedly true. Somebody had to say it.

“Every concrete measure proposed here,” Malm concludes, “may well be brushed aside as utopian. They are exactly as utopian as survival.”

A year or two ago, around the time Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline was belatedly discovered by the mainstream press, I was asked by a reporter for a major newspaper, off the record, just how far I’d be willing to go as a climate-justice activist in the struggle against the fossil-fuel industry and its political backers. I told him, speaking as one who has supported and engaged in escalated, nonviolent direct action for more than a decade, that I honestly didn’t know. (And if I did know, I probably wouldn’t tell a reporter, on or off the record.) Truth is, I still don’t. But it’s a good question—and not only for a climate activist but for anyone involved in left politics now.

The answer no doubt depends upon how you understand the present moment—whether you’ve really taken on board, not only rationally but viscerally, based on the prevailing scientific and political realities, just how desperate the human situation on this planet really is, especially for the vast majority of people who’ve done little or nothing to cause the catastrophe. After thirty-plus years of failure on climate policy by the Global North, with global greenhouse emissions still at record levels, surely any informed and decent person living in one of the world’s most historically culpable countries will be moved to ask what can and must be done to at least reduce the suffering and salvage a livable future, one with the possibility of social justice.

The risks to revolutionists are, indeed, enormous. But the alternative—climate breakdown plus fascism, genocide, in short, barbarism—is intolerable.

Chances are, though, even if you identify as a socialist of some sort, the option of engaging in a revolutionary-left political movement won’t cross your mind. Maybe you’d prefer, if you can afford it, to go shopping instead: buy an EV, an electric heat pump, some solar panels for your roof. Too bourgeois? Then perhaps switch to a plant-based diet; attend a protest; canvass for a political candidate; maybe even get arrested. And post about all of it on social media. All good and worthwhile things. But to actually try to help bring about the urgent and necessary radical break with the political and economic system that’s driving the destruction? In a country crawling with heavily armed right-wing militants and a militarized police/surveillance state itching to use its latest toys? What kind of fool do you think I am?

At this point, one might reasonably ask: If any serious revolutionary-left politics has been all but dead for at least a generation or two, and if there’s no sign on the horizon of a movement capable of taking power and forcing the radical shift required—if even “mere” Bernie Sanders-style political revolution appears far-fetched at present—what is the point of talking about any of this? Why bother?

In fact, one might just as well ask what is the point, at this late hour, of talking about any alternative political, social, or ecological vision—of any hope that a better world, even a salvaged one, is still possible—without taking seriously the urgent necessity of a radical rupture with business-and-politics as usual. For the climate movement and the broader left to settle for anything less than “mere” political revolution—to resign ourselves to head-in-sand incrementalism while dreaming of an abundant green socialism—is to settle for a global ecocide amounting to genocide for large parts of humanity, primarily in the Global South but not only there; the North will not be spared.

If this is the case, then it would seem that the task for those of us who refuse to settle, and who choose to engage, is to urgently shift our social movements, in broad solidarity and coalition, toward the making or remaking of a revolutionary left politics. This means building a “movement of movements,” as many of us have insisted for years, committed to rupture, ready to take power democratically, and ready to use it effectively.

This, in turn, means building a movement culture of risk-taking, both personal and collective; of sacrifice, when necessary; and of resolve, once committed, to stay in the fight.

And the risks are, indeed, enormous. But the alternative—climate breakdown plus fascism, genocide, in short, barbarism—is intolerable. Business-, politics-, and activism-as-usual are already catastrophic. Continuing on the current path is the greatest risk of all. There are, in fact, no safe options. (No one knows this better than climate-justice activists Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, who were sentenced to eight and six years in prison, respectively, for their sabotage of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016-2017.)

As I’m sure Malm would admit, it’s possible that literally blowing up pipelines will not turn out to be the wisest of tactics. Deliberately spiking oil prices (as Goldhaber’s fictional saboteurs aim to do), placing an economic burden on poor and working-class people, is probably not the way to build bottom-up power. Then again, who am I to say?

What we can say, as any seasoned movement strategist knows—and as Goldhaber’s film seems to forget—is that a revolutionary act, no matter how spectacular, does not a revolutionary movement make. Revolutionary tactics do not, of themselves, amount to a revolutionary politics. Only movements are capable of revolution.

But I’m with Malm in the assessment that the willingness to take large risks—including the willingness to break things, in particular the things that are breaking the very biosphere—would seem a minimum requirement for any revolutionary-left movement worthy of the name. That is, any movement that takes seriously not only human survival but human solidarity—that most utopian of ends—for which many in history, let us never forget, have risked and given everything. And for which some of us, it may yet be discovered, still will.