On Malm and Violence

John Molyneux

It seems likely, given the track record and authority of the author, that Andreas Malm’s latest book, How to Blow up A Pipeline, will generate considerable debate in the environmental movement. It certainly should because it raises a number of important strategic and tactical questions  with implications the whole  movement. Here at GEN we have already published two responses: a very critical review by veteran ecosocialist Alan Thornett (http://www.globalecosocialistnetwork.net/2021/02/1[i]5/review-of-andreas-malm-how-to-blow-up-a-pipeline/) and a somewhat more sympathetic treatment by David Jones (http://www.globalecosocialistnetwork.net/2021/02/21/response-to-alan-thornetts-criyique-of-andreas-malm/). These are my thoughts.

The truth is that despite my serious disagreement with its proposals and conclusions I read this book, or rather its first half or so, with a certain guilty pleasure. When XR first exploded in spectacular numbers on the streets of London in late 2018 and early 2019, spawning similar organisations across the globe, I, like many socialist activists, thought it was vital to engage with this new generation of climate rebels and I, therefore joined XR in Ireland from the moment of its formation and made a practice of regularly attending its (large) meetings. I also thought, and this was a view shared by my socialist comrades in People Before Profit, that this engagement should be constructive i.e. the starting point of our participation should be making constructive proposals about what needed to be done next and not a general socialist or Marxist critiques of XR’s ideas and principles.  We judged that if we did the latter we would simply confirm all the new rebels’ suspicions about authoritarian leftist politicos and not get a real hearing. I still think that judgment and that strategy was, at that time, correct. But its consequence was that I had to sit through numerous meetings with my lip buttoned about ideas being proclaimed as if they were revealed truth set in tablets of stone, which I pretty much knew to be quite false e.g. that if you could mobilize 3.5% of the population the government, if not the world, would fall at your feet or that the key to victory was getting as many people arrested as possible or that the question of climate change, and thus XR itself, was ‘beyond politics’. Prominent among these fixed principles was a fairly absolute commitment to non-violence. I remember one of the Dublin leaders of this ‘leaderless’ movement declaring very firmly ‘if you do not accept the principle of non-violence, then this movement is not for you’.

It is against this back ground that I enjoyed Malm’s polemical take down of the ‘strategy ’ of Roger Hallam and its source, Chenowoth and Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works which was so unquestioningly promoted as the latest word in social science and particularly his willingness to tell the truth about the sainted Gandhi. Malm demolishes the Gandhi myth as the ultimate ‘man of peace’ by the simple device of citing some well known facts of his biography: namely that he supported the British Empire in the Boer War and in its war on the Zulus (offering to enlist in both) and that he urged Indians to join the British Army in the First World War. In fact Gandhi’s pacifism was strictly limited to insisting on non-violence against the British occupiers of India and did not at all apply to state violence. [ii] (Malm’s point here is of much wider significance than just exposing Gandhi, because it is central to the ‘mainstream’ capitalist view of violence that only anti-state violence or violence by the oppressed  counts as violence and never violence by the state. [iii]

Having said that it must also be said that Malm’s discussion of the issue is far from satisfactory. The m,ain problem is two major omissions. First is the fact that at no point in the book does he consider the Marxist critique of terrorism which runs all the way from Plekhanov and Lenin (remember Lenin’s brother was hanged for terrorism) when they broke from Narodism (populism) in late nineteenth century Russia, through Trotsky (who had to defend himself against accusations of terrorism and sabotage in the Moscow Trials) to later debates about the IRA, the Weather Underground, the Baader-Meinhof group and the Red Brigades. This critique is not a pacifist or moralistic one but is centred on the argument that terrorism and sabotage are an attempt to substitute for mass struggle and, as Trotsky put it, ‘belittle the role the masses in their own consciousness’. Malm is, of course, entitled to disagree with this traditional Marxist critique, to argue that it was mistaken or no longer valid. But he simply writes as if it doesn’t exist. It may well be that many of Malm’s anticipated readers don’t know that this line of argument exists but to my mind that is no justification and I can’t help thinking that debating Roger Hallam and Bill McKibben is soft option compared with taking on some of the leading theorists of 29th century Marxism.

Then, even more significantly, in his chapter ‘Learning from past struggles’, Malm takes us on a tour through numerous campaigns and movements – the suffragettes, XR, Martin Luther King and civil rights, Mandela and the fight against apartheid, Iran and the overthrow of the Shah, Tahrir Sq etc –following those referenced by XR and Chenoworth and Stephan  (and which he successfully demonstrates were much more ambiguous in their relation to violence than the XR gurus suggest). But what this way of proceeding leaves out is any serious consideration of the use of violence as it emerges, more or less spontaneously, as an escalation of trade union disputes and other mass struggles of the working class and the oppressed. There are so many examples of this in history that is impossible to give a representative list but they range from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 in West Virginia, through the Haymarket Massacre of 1886, the Lena Goldfields massacre in Tsarist Russia in 1912, May ’68 in Paris,  to the Miners’ Strike in Britain in 1984-5, and the Marikana Massacre of mineworkers in South Africa on 2012, not to mention the ghetto uprisings  across America following the assassination of MLK in 1968 and again in Los Angeles in 1992 (over Rodney King) and various episodes in Black Lives Matter. The point about these examples, which could be multiplied indefinitely, is that they are not for the most part the result of any strategic or tactical decision by campaigners, but erupt out of conflicts with company[iv] or, more often, state forces and when they happen, and they will happen again, every union, every activist or political movement or party involved or just around at the time has to take a position- do they disown the ‘violent’ resisters or do they stand by them.

Let me give the example of the anti-poll tax riot in London on 31 March 1991 (I was there) which is briefly commented on by Malm as killing off the tax (and ignored/suppressed in the XR account) .  The point is the political leaders of Anti- Poll Tax movement and organisers of the 31 March demonstration, the so-called Militant Tendency (later the Socialist Party) not only didn’t plan or want a riot, they did their very best to prevent it happening insisting that people travelling to the march on coaches take pledges of non-violence. It happened nonetheless. One could devote time and energy to trying to determine who delivered the first baton blow or punch but the predominant form of the clash, and of such clashes generally was that small scale scuffles between marchers and cops (or pickets and scabs etc) are dramatically escalated by the cops in a large scale assault and then many of the crowd, angered by the attack, decide to fight back. But when it has happened the organisers have to make statements. In this case they denounced the violence and the violent ‘anarchists’ they thought responsible, at the same time as leaders of the British Labour Party were calling for exemplary sentences, thus alienating many anti-poll tax campaigners. And in so far as climate and environmental issues – resisting a pipeline or dam, defending forests, opposing a toxic dump, defending climate jobs or ancestral lands  –  become part of, and integrated with, other struggles for social justice , the climate change movement will face similar moments and choices. For example what will we say if indigenous people physically resist their dispossession?

What is also important about this kind of mass violence is that it is frequently out of, and through, these sorts of episodes that actual revolutions begin. The Russian Revolution culminated in October 1917 in a planned, organised insurrection but it began in February with five days of spontaneous street fighting that brought down the Tsar. The Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the German Revolution of 1918/19, the Spanish Revolution/Civil War, Hungary 1956, May ’68, and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 were all variations on this theme – spontaneous street violence spilling over into mass revolutionary upheaval.

The failure to take account of any of this experience leaves Malm with the same false-binary postulated by Roger Hallam, ‘There are two types of disruption: violent and non-violent’[v], albeit he chooses differently. True he tries to avoid this counter position through his concept of ‘militancy/violence ‘  as a ‘left flank’ of a mass movement but this does not change the fact that he sees the violence/sabotage as a minority activity undertaken by small ‘squads’ separate from the mass movement itself.

It makes a difference here whether you envisage the measures needed to tackle climate change as being enacted by the existing state/s and the role of the environmental movement to induce state/s to take this action[vi] or whether, as I do, you take system change to include replacing the existing state structure. If the aim is the latter a truly mass movement (3.5% and much more) is absolutely essential.

Another issue I have with Malm’s account is his attitude to the sacrifices involved in the course of action he advocates. XR came under fire from campaigners of colour that its, especially Hallam’s, emphasis on getting arrested was reflective of ‘white privilege; in the sense that it saw getting arrested as a relatively civilised experience. A similar objection can be levelled at Malm over his advocacy of sabotage and property destruction. Alan Thornett observes that:

“Anyone taking the title of this book seriously could find a large team of armed police kicking down their door at 4 am if they’ve been discovered researching online how to destroy industrial infrastructure. Possession of the materials needed to build an explosive device will get you a lengthy jail sentence”.

And that is in Britain. Anyone doing likewise in, say, Al Sisi’s Egypt or Saudi Arabia would likely get themselves tortured and hung or beheaded. It is also, sadly, an illusion that engaging in mass arrests in itself undermines a regime – Egypt currently has about 60,000 political prisoners, to which one could add Chile under Pinochet, Apartheid South Africa, China today and after Tiananmen Square and any number of other examples. Moreover, if you undertake property destruction such as burning down police stations and violent resistance as part of a real mass uprising, as in Cairo in 2011 or even Black Lives Matter after George Floyd, you risk your life but you have a chance of getting away with it and a chance of winning. If you do it in isolation from such a mass revolt your chances of escaping very brutal consequences are slim indeed. Even if we look at the bombing campaign of the IRA in the 70s and the 80s, which did not have majority support in Ireland, it nonetheless had mass support , a real base, in certain nationalist communities such as West Belfast or Crossmaglen and, although many volunteers spent long years in the Maze prison  and elsewhere, this offered a measure of protection which would not be available to contemporary climate activists.

But the key question on which Malm’s proposal  hangs is whether a layer  of activists undertaking a strategy of property destruction and sabotage, now and in the foreseeable future, would assist in the building the necessary global mass movement, with the necessary connections and roots in trade unions, workplaces and communities or would it hinder it. Malm’s hope is that it would help but he does not make a systematic or persuasive case for this, partly because he continually diverts to arguing about the morality of pacifism or the despair of Rob Scranton and the like, and partly because he underestimates the damage it might do.

In conclusion, Andreas Malm’s book opens up a very necessary discussion about strategy and tactics. David Jones was right to say, “we should welcome interventions, controversial as they may be, that force us to consider the nature of militancy, violence and the roles of direct action and civil disobedience. Continual re-evaluation of strategy and tactics is the only method for keeping current with changing circumstances”. And in so far as it punctures the naively accepted notion that Roger Hallam or Chenoworth and Stephan have summed up the last words of social science on these matters that is a good thing. Nevertheless the specific turn it proposes is not, in my view, a good direction for the movement.




[i] Andreas Malm, How to Blow up a Pipeline, Verso, 2021. Henceforth Malm.

[ii] Actually this statement is not quite true. Gandhi also urged non-violence and indeed non-resistance to fascism on the part of German Jews after Kristallnacht. See Malm p.44.

[iii] I remember in the British miners’ strike of 1984-85, Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock vehemently denouncing violence by the miners with the words ‘I condemn violence, I condemn ALL violence’. Kinnock was a supporter of NATO and nuclear weapons and the War on Iraq. Similarly in Irish history, John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary during the First World War, condemned the violence of the Easter Rising of 1916, insisting that there could be a peaceful road to Irish independence, while at the same time trying to gain that independence by urging the Irish to serve in the British army in the War. In reality 40,000 Irish men died in WW1, far more than died in the ‘violence’ of the Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the latter day ‘Troubles’ put together.

[iv] The ‘company goons’ of Woody Guthrie’s song.

[v] Cited in Malm p.35

[vi] In a way perhaps analogous to the hope of the IRA that a bombing campaign would induce the British to leave Northern Ireland. Malm does not directly address this question but he writes, somewhat ambiguously, ‘At the end of the day it will be states that ram through the transition or no one will’, adding immediately ‘But the states have proven that they will not be the prime movers’. Malm p.69.

DisclaimerOpinions expressed in articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Global Ecosocialist Network

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John Molyneux
About John Molyneux 37 Articles
Socialist writer and activist, editor of Irish Marxist Review, Ireland

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