To whom should we appeal? Class consciousness and the campaign to stop the climate crisis

By guest contributor Stephen James Kerr, 8th October 2019

The growth of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement requires socialist leadership if it is to avoid political shipwreck in the misdirection of millions of students and working people towards an alliance with the ruling class, the principle creators of the climate emergency.  

Recent mass demonstrations under the banner of XR have brought millions of students and workers into the streets. Socialists welcome this movement.

XR protest in Melbourne, Australia

However, relating to workers newly emerging into struggle against capitalism – whether they know it or not – does not mean adaptation to the political disorientation of these workers, or of the movement. Revolutionary socialists must expose and criticize such disorientation.

Socialists call things by their proper names, even when it is unpopular with the very workers we wish to lead. The emergent struggle of workers in defense of the natural world is an extremely hopeful development, but it urgently requires a socialist perspective, and a struggle within the mass movement for revolutionary socialist leadership.

Such leadership must be based upon a thorough understanding of the history of the socialist movement, and the struggles, victories and defeats through which the international working class, and its revolutionary vanguard has passed. Very few are aware of these history lessons. They are not taught in school, and one cannot read about them in the morning papers, with the sole exception of the, the only socialist daily ‘morning paper’ in the world at present.

Socialists must lead this movement by offering an historical-materialist interpretation of current events – the science of political perspective – as a guide to action and political orientation. Only on that basis can the movement to stop the climate crisis be directed towards its object – the capitalist system. Its current trajectory is towards forcing workers into alliance with national sections of the ruling class, in the pursuit of hopeless reforms, under capitalism.

The political disorientation of Extinction Rebellion is evidenced, among many other artifacts, by a leaflet produced to call upon trade unions to demonstrate in London’s Trafalgar Square on October 12th, 2019.

The leaflet is divided into three columns entitled: THE SITUATION / THE UNIONS / CALL TO ACTION.

It will be necessary to quote these sections at length.


“We face an uncertain future. Our way of life is being threatened in ways we could never have imagined. Climate change is approaching a point of no return and despite the urgency, the government still does not tell the truth.

The Climate and Ecological crisis is the most urgent challenge to our survival we have ever faced. It shows us that the system we live under is not fit for purpose. The science is bleak, but clear. We can’t wait around to be saved by someone else. We only have a few years to turn things around before we reach a tipping point – where the worst effects will become irreversible.”

To analyze a ‘the situation’ Marxists take, as our starting point, a detailed analysis of the historical development of the capitalist system, and its evolving contradictions. In so doing, we speak to the working class directly, not to the trade unions.

This is not the approach of XR, which proceeds from a vague sense of panic and confusion, driven by an impressionistic and pessimistic premise. ‘Our way of life is threatened… approaching the point of no return.’

To whom do the authors address themselves? To ‘everyone’, at least at first glance. The starting point of this analysis of ‘the (world) situation’ is thus rooted in philosophical idealism. The authors speak of ‘we’ – of all humanity. They speak of ‘the science’ at least in respect of climate change. Yet the development of social science, of Marxist political economy demonstrates that the abstract category of ‘humanity’ is a useless basis for organizing social protest as humanity is divided into two social classes with irreconcilable interests. For political purposes, the category of ‘humanity’ has no practical existence under capitalism, a word which makes no appearance in this appeal to the trade unions.

If one is to really analyze the world situation one must name capitalism and further imperialism as the principle causes of the climate emergency, and the global crisis of which it forms an integral part. The US military machine is the largest single polluter in the world, emitting more carbon than 140 countries. [i] A recent study described that in addition, 100 global corporations are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions, while just 25 corporations are responsible for 50%.  [ii] These same companies are also incredibly profitable, and their owners and investors are billionaires and multi-millionaires. The ruling class of the world has enriched itself enormously while foisting the costs of environmental destruction onto the backs of the working class, poor peasants and indigenous peoples the world over.

US aircraft carriers off the cost of South Korea 2017

Yet is to these same capitalists and imperialists that XR ultimately makes its reformist appeal.

XR ignores these scientifically verifiable facts and statistics, and ignores the irrefutable fact of class rule. Thus their appeal to ‘everyone’ – as if classes did not exist –  is actually a disguised appeal to the ruling class. They imagine that if only the world’s leaders adopted ‘the science’ or behaved rationally then policies could be magically adopted under capitalism to stop the climate crisis, under pressure from their demonstrations.

The root of the political confusion of XR is political idealism and an ignorance of history, planted in the barren ground of middle class politics.

Those behind XR imagine the world to be made of ideas. Marxists understand that ideas are made of the world. That is to say, it is the evolving material relationships, the facts of international capitalist production and the economic relationships between the capitalist and working classes, between world imperialism and oppressed countries, which together create the ‘idea environment’ which dominates society. And as Marx demonstrated in the German Ideology, the ruling ideas of any age are those of the ruling class.

XR imagines that the ruling ideas can be changed through argumentation alone, and that changing the minds of our rulers will change the material relationships. But they’ve got it exactly backwards. Marxists understand that only when the working class is the ruling class in society, that is, after a global socialist revolution which establishes a new set of economic and material relationships, will the ruling ideas be changed, because the working class will be the new ruling class.

If one is to speak of climate science as a legitimate basis for political action, then scientific socialism, which has built up an immense body of theoretical and historical knowledge since 1848 must also form the basis for analysis of the situation, and for political action.

XR’s leadership is however, allergic to socialism, because it’s actually committed to safeguarding and defending the capitalist system, which its middle class ‘radical’ promoters would like to paint in shades of bright green, so as to guarantee themselves a more comfortable, and also politically influential place managing the reformed system.  


And so the appeal to the Trade Unions:

“Times of the greatest need create the greatest solutions. This is the best chance we will get to repurpose society to serve the interests of ordinary people. Throughout history, trade unionists have always been at the forefronts of movements for social change. The only way to secure a fairer and cleaner future is for a movement of everyone, together.”

A clear lack of historical understanding is evident in the above, as is the basic idealism of the appeal. Have trade unions existed ‘throughout history’? One wonders how such a statement could have been written. In fact, trade unions emerged 200 years ago out of the struggle of the working class against developing capitalism, and continue to evolve. If the leaders of XR, or at least the author of this leaflet were aware of trade union history, they’d know that trade unions themselves have lagged far behind the most advanced workers in pursuing social justice. Workers must always drag trade unions, reluctantly, into action.

XR imagines trade unions in abstract, existing outside of history, as a timeless category of social life. Clearly XR has no concept of class, or the history of the class struggle. Calling for ‘a movement of everyone, together’ is an open call for workers to politically line up behind national sections of the ruling class, dressed up in the dregs of left phraseology.

Have the leaders of XR been paying attention to the real actions of trade unions in the world today? Are they aware of the corruption scandal engulfing the UAW, of the total collusion between one of the largest unions in the USA and General Motors to force workers to accept concessions? Are they aware of the payments (bribes) which top UAW officials took from GM? [iii] Are they aware of how the UAW uses their Strike Fund as a slush fund to finance their ruling class lifestyles? Are they aware of the struggle of the Matamoros workers in Mexico, who rose up against brutally oppressive working conditions in defiance of their own trade union, which worked with the companies and with the Mexican government to end and suppress their strikes? [iv] Have they heard of how the trade unions in Ontario suppressed the worker’s movement for a General Strike against a hated Tory government in 1996-97? [v]

UAW President Gary Jones (L) shakes hands with Ford Motor Co Chairman Bill Ford at the start of contract talks between the union and the automaker in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., July 15, Gary Jones is currently being investigated along with other senior UAW Executives for corruption

Are the leaders of XR unaware of the long history of betrayals by the union organizations of worker’s struggles in the UK? Does anyone remember the miner’s strike? [vi] Did UNISON’s calling off of the strike of Bradford Hospital workers in August of this year slip them by? [vii] Are they following the many betrayals by the RMT of its train drivers and railway workers? [viii]

Trade unions today are only up to giving capital everything it asks for, yet XR imagines that trade unions are a vehicle to totally change the same society which is ruled by capital!

Yes, trade unions were once, in the past, a principle instrument of worker’s struggles, and won workers immense benefits, oftentimes under the leadership of revolutionary Marxists working within the union organization, but not politically limited by it. XR makes no mention of that historical fact, nor of the fact the principle worker’s struggles in the world today are taking place either outside of, or against the will of the trade unions, driven by the workers themselves. Why is this so?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and even since the 1970s, the class character of the trade unions has undergone a transformation. The trade union leadership and bureaucrats have moved, along with the rest of the ruling class of which they are a part, to the political right. Trade union resistance collapsed under the pressure of a massive assault by capital on the rights of working people beginning in the 1970s, thanks to the political capitulation of the Stalinist or social democratic trade union leadership to ruling class demands. Wages and benefits have thus been rolled back to the point where working people today face unsafe conditions and a rate of exploitation not experienced since the 1920s – before the great wave of unionization following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression and WWII.

The trade unions have midwifed this attack on the working class in every instance, as the union functionaries acquiesced to their new role as managers of labour on behalf of the bosses. [ix]

XR conflates the interests of working people with that of the trade unions, when in fact, the class interests of the union leadership are essentially the same as the interests of the ruling class, and of the leaders of XR. That conflation by XR leads to reactionary political conclusions based upon their uncritical idealism and lack of historical understanding.

“Extinction Rebellion demands climate justice. This means that every worker in every industry must be supported as we shift toward a cleaner, fairer future. This transition should improve livelihoods, not harm them. There is no reason this transition can’t happen quickly. Industry was repurposed overnight in the fight against fascism in WWII. There is no reason we can’t have one million green jobs tomorrow. The jobs are there, the political will is not.”

There is nothing wrong about advancing a revolutionary demand which the ruling class cannot possibly meet, such as ‘Climate Justice.’

Socialist advance such demands, called ‘transitional demands’ precisely to expose the inability of the ruling class to meet them, and to mobilize working people in the struggle for socialism. This is not how XR expresses its demand. XR advances the demand with the naïve expectation that the ruling class, divided among warring nation states could actually be persuaded to meet it! Such illusions must be shattered.

XR explicitly calls for an alliance between workers and the ruling class, as was forced upon the working class during WWII. There is nothing progressive about such a cross-class alliance. During WWII, strikes were banned, revolutionary socialists were either murdered or else arrested and imprisoned. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, the imperialist powers crushed incipient socialist uprisings in France, Italy and Greece. They accomplished this with the aid of the Communist Party, which controlled the trade union apparatus in these countries. [x]

The demand for a ‘cleaner, fairer future’ is explicitly capitalist. XR doesn’t contemplate an end to capitalist exploitation, rather demands a ‘fairer’ lower rate of exploitation. Workers have no active role in this transformation. They are merely to be ‘supported.’ XR clearly believes in magic too, as ‘there is no reason we can’t have one million green jobs tomorrow’ clearly with the snap of a finger. These are the demands of socially isolated middle class professors.


And finally we have this.

“Our society, our economy, how we work, how we live and how we treat ne another must undergo a complete transformation if organized life is to survive. ‘Growth’ will no longer be taken as gospel. Hunger, poverty, homelessness and the needs of our environment will take center stage.”

Socialists agree that society is in desperate need of transformation. But it cannot be transformed in the way the leaders or the followers of XR imagine. And theirs is not much of a ‘transformation’ as they don’t contemplate changing the form of social organization – capitalism – but rather, as evinced by the above, merely to maintain ‘organized life.’ Organized by whom?

Marxists understand that it is not the trade union organizations which can bring about the urgently required halt to the destruction of the natural world, but rather, the world’s working class, acting internationally.

Young climate protesters in Ottawa Canada

Global capitalist production and military competition for world resources and markets between capitalist nation states drives the global climate crisis relentlessly towards a point of no return. This system, including the nationalist trade unions which form an integral part of capitalist labour management, and which hobble the international working class, must be overthrown.

Because the working class creates all value under capitalism, only the international working class is positioned, at the key point in the production process, to overthrow the world system and establish a new one. Further, only the international working class has a vested political interest to really put ‘hunger, poverty, homelessness and the needs of our environment centre stage.’ An appeal to capitalists and union bureaucrats who profit from our poverty and from environmental destruction is politically bankrupt, and if pursued, will only force workers into an alliance with their class enemies.

The working class, acting on an international scale, must reject the political appeal of Extinction Rebellion to ally with the national ruling class and advance an international, politically independent revolutionary socialist program as the only viable solution to the climate crisis.

Stephen is a Trotskyist, sometimes journalist and fine art painter in Hamilton Ontario, Visit Stephens website at










[x] Blum, William. Killing Hope. US Military and CIA Interventions since WWII. Black Rose Books, 1998.

Davey Heller

Davey Heller is a Trotskyist from Melbourne and long-time campaigner for Left-wing causes including anti-war, refugee rights, environmental protests and workers' struggles. He is a former secondary teacher who studied history at Monash University and currently works in the environmental field. You can follow him on Twitter at @socialist_davey

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