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How do we get there? Some thoughts on ecosocialist tactics & strategy

By Diana O’Dwyer - Rupture, February 2, 2022

Whatever your views on blowing up pipelines, Andreas Malm[1] has sparked a vital debate on the left of the environmental movement about tactics and strategy. The strategic problem he addresses is how should we organise to avert catastrophic climate change and which tactics will be most effective in achieving that? 

According to Malm, overthrowing capitalism in time to halt climate change is impossible[2] and he therefore advocates building an environmental movement capable of putting so much pressure on capitalist states that they are forced to act, even against their own class interests. It’s not spelled out fully in his work but he seems to think socialism can develop later out of this process.[3]

The immediate concern right now, however, is to deal with climate change before it destroys any basis for a decent quality of life, under socialism or any other system. 

This type of argument, that there isn’t enough time to build socialism and so we must focus on more pressing issues first, has dogged left politics for centuries. Ireland’s version - that ‘labour must wait’ - prioritised national independence over socialist change. Given the endless variety of ills thrown up by capitalism, many immediately deserving causes will inevitably challenge for precedence. If national independence isn’t pressing enough then surely the survival of our species is?

The problem with this argument is two-fold. 

On the one hand, it assumes that averting climate collapse and continuing with capitalism is possible. But if capitalism and protecting the environment, including the climate system and biodiversity, are fundamentally incompatible[4], then breaking with capitalism and replacing it with eco-socialism are at the core of the strategic problem of averting climate disaster and dealing equitably with the damage already done. 

On the other, it assumes that immediate goals (averting climate change/national liberation/gender or racial equality) and the ultimate goal of eco-socialism are in conflict - that the tactics necessary to achieve our immediate goals are incompatible with the ultimate goal of eco-socialism. Or, alternatively, that we might get lucky but it’s impossible to work out any of this in advance so we might as well just muddle on through, focus on the immediate and fight fires where they arise. 

It was precisely this focus on immediate goals, with the expectation that socialism would evolve by itself, somewhere along the line, that led Lenin and Trotsky to polemicise on the distinction between tactics and strategy against the reformists in the Second International. 

In The Lessons of October, Trotsky argued that winning particular struggles should be part of a strategy to win the war, rather than amounting to one-off or even Pyrrhic victories:

“By tactics in politics, we understand, using the analogy of military science, the art of conducting isolated operations. By strategy, we understand the art of conquest, i.e. the seizure of power…

...Strategy, of course, does not do away with tactics. The questions of the trade union movement, of parliamentary activity, and so on, do not disappear, but they now become invested with a new meaning as subordinate methods of a combined struggle for power. Tactics are subordinated to strategy.”[5] 

Likewise, Lenin based his modus operandi on what Hungarian Marxist, György Lukács, called the ‘actuality of revolution’, meaning that the ‘study of each individual daily the same time became a fundamental problem of the revolution’.[6] This is not to suggest that we pretend a socialist revolution is just around the corner but that in developing tactics and strategy, we should continually be asking ourselves, how does this or that action contribute towards a fundamental rupture with capitalism and an ecosocialist transformation of society? 

These are not easy questions to answer! 

One thing we can know for certain is that we shouldn’t use tactics that run directly counter to our strategic goals. Examples include going into coalition with pro-capitalist establishment parties; relying solely on safe conventional tactics that fail to challenge or disrupt the system; poorly conceived actions that alienate working class people whose support we need to win (such as XR-UK’s blocking of a tube train in London in 2019 which only succeeded in enraging commuters taking public transport (!) to work); or pandering to NIMBYist groups opposed to environmentalist measures like bike or bus lanes for the sake of votes. 

Such tactics might achieve immediate gains like governmental power or influence, publicity, or elected positions but are counterproductive in the longer term because they undermine our ability to build independent anti-capitalist organisation, mass support across the global working class in all its multi-racial, multi-gendered, multi-national diversity, and ecosocialist consciousness - three fundamental building blocks of a transformationalist ecosocialist strategy. 

Independent, anti-capitalist organisation 

Independent organisation of workers, environmental activists and those exploited, subordinated and oppressed by capitalism in their daily lives is vital if we are to build autonomous strength and counter-power to the rule of fossil capital. This means building movements that are financially and politically independent of the capitalist class and the political parties and states that represent its interests.

It means rooting those movements in our collective “people power” as workers who keep the economy and society going through our paid and unpaid labour, rather than depending on donations from the wealthy, governments or corporations. It means “outsider” tactics like marches, demonstrations, direct actions and strikes, not “insider” lobbying that depends on elite connections. 

It’s only through maintaining our independence that we can avoid mistakes like Friends of the Earth and Stop Climate Chaos’ support for the Programme for Government despite the terrible track record of the Green Party in coalition with the right. It should be obvious to anyone that the establishment parties who oversaw the destruction of our environment are not the ones to fix it but when NGOs have no real alternative to insider tactics and in some cases are heavily dependent on government funding, they can be among the last to understand that. 

What is needed is a united front of environmental, social justice, women’s, LGBTQ+, anti-racist and labour movements. In Ireland, it means marching and coalescing with FridaysforFuture, Talamh Beo, Save our Sperrins, Dublin Bus and Bord na Móna workers, Right to Nature campaigners, commuter campaigns, left trade unionists, anti-fascist activists and many others. It means championing the needs of the most marginalised and oppressed as our own - from trans to Travellers’ rights. 

Crucially, it also means that left-wing activists must not be smug and complacent and think we have all the answers - that our role is simply to impart pearls of socialist wisdom to environmental or social justice activists whose heart may be in the right place but who lack the correct theoretical framework to understand the world. This type of attitude is all too common on the left and means left activists can come off as simultaneously patronising towards those they are trying to ally with and ignorant of the issues they’re campaigning on.

Many on the left have had a late conversion to environmentalism but that hasn’t stopped them propounding as though they are equally as expert as longstanding activists. With regard to climate action, the left needs to listen to environmental activists, properly study the science and stop presuming socialism will magically solve all environmental problems.

It will likely take decades or even centuries to reverse the damage capitalism has already done to our climate and to biodiversity. Meaningful steps towards zero emissions must be fought for now, as part of the struggle for an ecosocialist transformation, and cannot be left until afterwards. Labour can’t wait but the environment can’t either! 

Mass support & democratic diversity of tactics 

One thing Malm is correct about is that the time for relying solely on routinised tactics like marches and demonstrations, petitions or email campaigns has passed. The situation is simply too dire and too urgent to limit ourselves to safe conventional forms of protest. We must utilise a diversity of outsider tactics and embrace every genuinely useful tactical weapon at our disposal. 

Increasingly, this will include disruptive actions that directly challenge fossil capitalism, attract publicity and mass support and galvanise the movement by puncturing its aura of invincibility. Rather than top-down tactics like filing planning objections or taking court challenges, we should seek to directly block new fossil fuel infrastructure from the bottom-up as a way of actively engaging more and more people in the radical climate justice movement.

Strikes, blockades, occupations, mass boycotts, dramatic disruptive actions like some of those successfully used by Extinction Rebellion (XR), and potentially even carefully chosen sabotage can all be used.

Some actions will be symbolic but others will seek to halt harm to the environment directly. We could organise to block the development of new data centres, LNGs or car parks, and to protect green spaces or walking and cycling infrastructure.

A sleeping giant in our arsenal is workers’ responsibility for the labour process, especially in crucial industries that must be converted to green production like the fossil fuel and motor industries and much of meat and dairy. Strikes for a just transition can be our most powerful and disruptive weapon and can point the way towards an ecosocialist future of workers’ control of the economy. 

Targets for our actions must be chosen carefully. Bearing in mind the need to win mass support, we should avoid tactics that risk alienating working-class people. We should punch up against luxury consumption and Brown Thomas, not down against people who shop in Penneys, as XR unfortunately did in their 2019 Rebellion Week[7], or by outlawing 3-for-1 deals in supermarkets in the name of cutting food waste as the Green Party has suggested.

Thoughtless actions and rhetoric by well-heeled environmentalists have a lot to answer for. By assuming everyone can equally afford to pay for environmental action and casually externalising the costs onto low paid workers for climate change through regressive carbon taxes, they have given “green” issues a bad name for many and negatively associated them with higher taxes and living costs. 

Actions should instead be directed against profit-driven environmental destruction and a clear capitalist enemy. It’s the big polluters who should pay. XR’s ‘blood money tour’ of London’s financial district with the demand that it immediately cease all investment in fossil fuels is a good example. XR Unify spokesperson, Bhavini Patel, explained that 

“Today’s protest is highlighting that racial, social and climate justice are all intertwined...Profit extraction has meant that there has been racial inequality, social inequality and climate collapse. It’s interlinked, and if we want justice we need to be demanding justice for all three things, so that we are equal as people.”[8] 

Similar actions were taken on a smaller scale by XR Ireland with a march through the IFSC in 2019[9] but this was arguably overshadowed by the Penneys protest. This illustrates the importance of carefully selecting targets, especially with the mainstream media waiting to pounce on mistakes. 

A different error, more common on the left, is to automatically support grassroots, local campaigns even when their aims run counter to developing the ecosocialist consciousness needed for a just transition to zero emissions. Examples include failing to oppose, or even giving tacit support, to reactionary local campaigns against new public transport or cycling infrastructure.

The left must be clearer and more principled about which side it’s on - that of working-class public transport users, children who need safe spaces to walk, run and play, cyclists, and the climate. Our answer to such campaigns shouldn’t be to pander to the desire of motorists to drive wherever they want regardless of the social or environmental cost but to campaign for ecosocialist solutions like free, frequent and fast public transport[10], democratic planning of towns and cities to reduce the need to drive and universal access to low-emissions personal mobility devices like bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters. 

Building diverse independent movements of all those exploited and oppressed by capitalism, and in particular winning the support of workers in key industries like transport and agriculture will be key to avoiding tactical errors like these. We need to think about ways to bring the labour and environmental movements together. Industrial action is looming at Dublin Bus - can we get environmental activists and workers generally to support the bus drivers’ fight against privatisation and attacks on their working conditions and can we get the bus drivers to demand free, green and frequent public transport? The experience of FridaysforFuture and ecosocialist activists in Germany in supporting strikes by public transport workers gives us plenty to learn from.[11]

To enable an effective diversity of tactics to be democratically decided, democratic structures need to be developed. Even small actions taken by individual groups can have a big effect, positive or negative, on the movement as a whole and so should be democratically discussed and debated. This has been resisted by some in the environmental movement but is crucial if we are to arrive at the most effective tactics - which don’t just disrupt and attract attention but build mass support and strengthen our movements into the future. 

Envisioning an ecosocialist future 

The environmental movement is strong on apocalyptic predictions of climate collapse but optimistic visions of an alternative future? Less so! One thing we can learn from the history of revolutionary movements is that an inspiring vision of a better life is indispensable to galvanising popular support. The French Revolution promised liberté, égalité, fraternité, the Russian Revolution, Peace, Land and Bread. 

The climate justice movement has made strides in this direction through developing the ideas of a Green New Deal (GND) and Just Transition. Unfortunately, both terms are increasingly being colonised by the pro-capitalist mainstream so we need to be more explicit that any effective GND or Just Transition must be anti-capitalist and ecosocialist. We also need to decide which are the core elements of an ecosocialist GND/Transition that can appeal to activists and a mass audience and make them think that, yes, this is a future worth fighting for! What’s our equivalent of Peace, Land and Bread? 

George Monbiot has proposed the slogan of ‘private sufficiency, public luxury’. The second part sounds good to me, the first part not so much. ‘Sufficient’ is the term used to describe a level of water quality just above ‘poor’ in Dublin Bay! Private “security” or “comfort’ sounds more appealing but maybe we need to get past the public/private distinction entirely. It’s so fundamental to capitalism that it gets in the way when we try to imagine alternatives. 

So what are our main selling points? For me, it’s something like “Equality, Security/Comfort, and Freedom/Free Time” (obviously we need a better slogan!).

Top of my wishlist is the potential for much greater leisure time. Once we are freed from the dual burden of pointless paid labour - whose only real purpose is to generate profits for capitalists regardless of the human or environmental cost - and the grossly inefficient privatisation of domestic labour under capitalism, which forces each individual household to constantly cook and clean when such drudgerous tasks could be organised collectively - with much lower emissions and food waste. 

Jason Hickel, in his book Less is More[12], points out how historically unusual our current level of paid working hours is. Prior to capitalism, Spanish peasants enjoyed five months’ holiday a year! They worked only so much as was necessary to provide them with what they considered a good quality of life. A post-capitalist society without the need for continual exponential growth would do the same but on a much higher level of living standards.

Given the huge technological advances of the intervening centuries, this should be possible with even less work. A four day or 30-hour week with no loss of pay would be only the beginning. Keynes predicted a 15-hour week under capitalism in two generations. Without a parasitic 1% monopolising half the world’s wealth, it could actually be possible. 

Our fundamental demand then must be for equality. To lay the basis for ample free time and a comfortable life for all without destroying the ecosystems on which all human life depends, we have to break with the failed capitalist model of unequal exponential growth and move to a massive redistribution of wealth and a democratically planned transition to zero emissions.

Most importantly, what Marx called the means of production - land, manufacturing and technological capacity, and the investment capital necessary to set it all in motion - must be taken from the private hands of a few into the collective ownership of everyone. This would enable democratic planning of a just transition to zero emissions that would minimise negative impacts on ordinary people and maximise the benefits. 

A small step would be to abolish carbon tax on unavoidable fossil fuel consumption by working families who can’t afford to retrofit their homes or have to drive their kids to school because of a lack of public transport and tax the high-emissions luxury consumption of the wealthy instead, like SUVs, private jets, yachts, business class flights and excessively large houses. Bigger steps would be ecosocialist transition taxes on corporate profits and expropriating the fossil fuel industry. 

All this is necessary to pay for the collective security and comfort of high-quality public childcare, education, housing, healthcare, transport, healthy and delicious, low carbon and zero-waste food freely available to all and the necessary rapid transition to renewable energy. If all those elements of a “good life” are democratically decided on and provided universally, this can help do away with longstanding, social inequalities and provide huge numbers of quality, public sector jobs.

There’s little point in increasing “leisure” time if women end up spending it doing unpaid domestic labour, or in redistributing wealth if Black, brown and LGBTQ+ people continue to be discriminated against in housing, jobs or religious-run education. To be real, equality must be social and political as well as economic.

Consistency is key

At the outset of this article, I argued that the essential thread running through all our tactics must be continual reference to the strategic end-goal of the ecosocialist transformation of society needed to avert the looming collapse of the earth’s climate and biodiversity and deal with the damage already done.

This means we should be consistent in our demands and think about how they all fit together, in particular how to marry the sometimes competing demands of mass support and effective environmental advocacy, and decide which issues and campaigns to support and develop. One of the main merits of Marxism is that it provides a holistic framework for analysing society, the environment and the economy and intervening to change them. Ecosocialist strategy should reflect that. 


  1. Malm, Andreas. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, (Verso, 2021).
  2. Malm, Andreas, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming, (Verso, 2015), pp. 469-470. 
  3. Interview with Rupture Radio, 15 March 2021.
  4. O’Dwyer, Diana. ‘Debate: Should We Ally with “green” Capitalists? No.’ Rupture Issue 3, Spring 2021.
  5. Trotsky, Leon. ‘Chapter 1: We Must Study the October Revolution’, in The Lessons of October, 1924.
  6. Lukács, György. ‘Chapter 1 - The Actuality of the Revolution’, in Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, 1924. 
  7. MacNamee, Alanna. ‘Extinction Rebellion Target Penneys with Protest Fashion Show’,, 9 October 2019. 
  8. Gayle, Damien. ‘Extinction Rebellion Targets City of London in “Blood Money” Protest’, The Guardian, 27 August 2021.
  9. Heffernan, Breda, Doherty, Caroline and Dillon, Fiona, ‘Extinction Rebellion begins week of action with march through Dublin’, Irish Independent, 9 October 2019. 
  10. O’Dwyer, Diana. ‘Free, Frequent & Fast: Public Transport & the Right to Mobility’. Rupture Issue 4, Summer 2021.
  11. Rother, Nicholas. ‘Strike Together: Strengthening the Climate Movement & Trade Unions’. Rupture Issue 3, Spring 2021.
  12. Hickel, Jason. Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (Cornerstone Digital, 2020).

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