Mass action on the climate crisis?

Posted June 5, 2009

I was happy to see the new front page on global warming. It’s quite correct in arguing out that a movement based on mass action is the only thing that stands a chance of solving the crisis, and that socialists must help build such a movement.

A number of activist forces seem to be coming together, and I predict that by the time of the Copenhagen summit in December we will be able to speak of a true climate movement, perhaps of comparable importance to the anti-globalization movement of the last decade. However, none of the forces currently involved are calling for mass action, as we understand it, as a sustained strategy. True, is calling for actions, carried out by masses of people, but that is not the same thing as mass action.

They’re calling for cute consciousness-raising activities on October 24th, the logic being that if enough people do something on the same day, the politicians will realize that we are right. The people associated with Powershift, the massive student conference on global warming, sometimes call demonstrations, but that organization is mainly focused on lobbying. The anarchists at Rising Tide are mobilizing for the demonstrations at the Copenhagen summit, which is important and good, but in general they are excessively oriented towards “direct action” (i.e. college kids getting themselves arrested at strip mines).

The tactical and political deficiencies in the movement (due to its domination by anarchists and liberals) make it all the more important that socialists get involved. We can and should help fill the mass-action vacuum by drawing on our ties with labor and community groups to build true mass actions against climate change. In particular, I think that socialists should organize local demonstrations on October 24th (the day of action) demanding climate legislation, “green jobs”, public transit, etc.. Even if they weren’t very large, such demonstrations could shift the tone of the day of action towards political struggle, demonstrating to the rest of the movement the potential of a mass-action approach, and laying the seeds for something much broader and more powerful.

Also, I highly recommend reading Tanuro’s USFI report on climate change. It contains very helpful analysis as well as concrete suggestions for integrating ecological demands into already existing movements.


5 responses to “Mass action on the climate crisis?”

  1. Steve D'Arcy Avatar

    Hello again,

    Thanks for raising such important and interesting issues, and thanks for your reply to my last comment.

    I think that we should understand “mass action” mainly in contrast to various forms of “substitutionist” strategies.

    First, I agree with both of you (Nick and Boyd) that “mass action” refers to a strategy, more than to a phenomenon. (The expression, “mass movement,” is different in that respect.) Dozens of people don’t constitute “masses” of people, but they can be pursuing a mass action strategy. Conversely, thousands and thousands of people do constitute masses of people, but they can be pursuing a non-mass-action strategy. (Think of the mass rallies addressed by Barack Obama during his election campaign.)

    Second, a mass action strategy is one that proposes to use popular mobilization and ‘self-activity’ (as Marx would say) to bring political pressure and social power to bear on recalcitrant institutions (like governments and corporations) that tend to be responsive to incentives/pressure but not to arguments and reason-giving.

    To speak of a strategy of action as having a “mass”-orientation means that it involves trying to reach out to wider circles of the community to be mobilized (the working class, say, or women, etc.), rather than trying to mobilize only a small sub-group, like a ‘vanguard’ or an elite of politicians, which can take action “on behalf of” that wider group. An action strategy is a “mass” action strategy if it rejects the project of seeking a small, but perhaps highly motivated or well-positioned group to stand in for the wider group on whose behalf change is sought, and instead endeavors to draw in as wide a circle of participants from the mobilizing community as can be made to be consistent with developing a winning strategy (i.e., not purchasing mass participation by repudiating altogether tactics that are effective but sometimes controversial).

    “Substitutionist” strategies seek to find alternatives to the self-mobilization of workers (against their exploitation) or women (against sexism) or people of colour (against racism), and so on. Instead of self-mobilization by masses of people, the substitutionist might seek to find a small band of highly motivated people to take forms of militant and confrontational action that most people would find unacceptable (“propaganda of the deed”). Or the substitutionist might seek to substitute an elite of some kind, like politicians or union officials or ‘professional revolutionaries,’ to substitute for masses that are thought to be ineffective or apathetic or brainwashed or ‘bought off.’ It is, I think, in contrast to these ways of seeking to substitute small-group action for the self-activity of the masses that we should understand the notion of a “mass action” strategy.

    So, I would say that “mass action” means pursuing a non-substitutionist direct action strategy. (Although there are some anarchists who use the term “direct action” only to refer to sustitutionist tactics, I’m just using “direct action” to mean participating in grassroots self-activity, as opposed to voting or sending money to support the political activity of others.)

    In solidarity,

    (PS, my references to “vanguards” and “professional revolutionaries” are not intended as criticisms of Lenin or Leninism, as such, although some people who identify with Leninism do repudiate mass action in favor of substitutionist strategies. But substitutionism is no more common among Leninists than among anarchists or social-democrats, and it may well be less common among them.)

  2. Nick Avatar

    Thanks for your articulate and thought-provoking comment. I think you described perfectly what a developed mass movement ought to be. However, such a movement can’t be built overnight, and it would be counterproductive of me to criticize a movement which is just beginning for not being so. I was being a tad flippant when I counterposed action-by-masses to mass action, and I don’t really intend that to be taken as a serious dichotomy. What I was getting at, though, was that the liberal wing of the climate movement does not take what I would call a “political” attitude in raising its agenda. What I mean by this, to put it rather inexactly, is that it is not aware that it has to make demands of the government; it thinks that it can get what it wants through a combination of moral persuasion and friendly pressure – which is not really pressure at all, since it carries no threat. (In this sense I was borrowing the use of the term “mass action” from the National Assembly.) It seems to me that adopting an oppositional or demanding attitude towards the state is a necessary first step towards the kind of self-conscious, developed movement that you describe.

    I wonder if anyone else has thoughts on what constitutes “mass action” or a “mass movement”. It’s becoming a bit of a buzzword on the left these days, and we really ought to clarify what we mean by it.

  3. Nick Avatar

    Thanks for letting us know about the Mobilization for Climate Justice. I actually wasn’t aware of it; I suppose I hadn’t quite done my homework. I agree that socialists should help build it, and in doing so draw from our connections with labor and other movements. I’m glad the organizers of the Mobilization are stressing the importance of mass action and of involving marginalized groups, though I’m not sure that I would agree with taking Seattle 1999 as a model. The point I meant to make about “direct action” was that directly targeting coal mines, power plants, etc. isn’t the best tactic if the goal is to stress the interconnections between environmental destruction and human oppression. If we’re going to build an environmental movement that intersects with the self-organization of oppressed people – which I think we need to do in order to win – then it is important to bring to attention the social causes of global warming, not just the physical ones.

  4. Boyd Collins Avatar


    I was very interested in your distinction between mass action and actions carried out by masses of people, and I wish you could elaborate on it. It seems that your distinction is between an action carried out by a group of people that understands the larger social strategy behind the action and an action in which people have various possibly unrelated motivations for participating. I’m thinking that you mean something similar to Marta Harnecker in the following thesis: “On the other hand, the history of triumphant revolutions clearly demonstrates what can be achieved when there is a political instrument capable of raising an alternative national program that unifies the struggles of diverse social actors behind a common goal; that helps to cohere them and elaborate a path forward for these actors based on an analysis of the existent balance of forces. Only in this manner can actions be carried out at the right place and right time, always seeking out the weakest link in the enemy’s chain.” In other words, mass action is action which understands its place in a larger systemic strategy that aims for fundamental change, not simply the goal of this or that action.

  5. Steve D'Arcy Avatar

    I agree with the broad political thrust of this post. But the key factual premise — that “none of the forces currently involved are calling for mass action, as we understand it, as a sustained strategy” — is just incorrect.

    Please visit the website,,, which calls on “communities, organizations and activists across North America to join us in organizing mass action on climate change on November 30, 2009 (N30). N30 is significant because it both immediately precedes the upcoming UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen (COP-15) and is the ten-year anniversary of the successful shut down of the WTO in Seattle, when activists worldwide came together to demonstrate the power of collective action.”

    This has nothing to do with — to repeat your rather dismissive and contemptuous phrase — “college kids getting arrested at strip mines” (which I think is also part of a mass action, movement-building strategy). It explicitly takes the Seattle 1999 protest as its model, and I assume you would concede that this model constitutes “mass action” (even in your perhaps unusually limited sense). Moreover, it is not proposed as a “one-off” spectacle, but as a part of a longer-range process of tactical escalation in the context of building a continental mass movement for climate justice.

    I will be attending a meeting tonight (8 June) to launch a local group here in London, Ontario, Canada, which will take on the task of organizing an action here, as part of this project. I urge socialists to get involved in this and/or related projects (and that’s what I mean when I say that I agree with the overall political thrust of this post).

    In solidarity,
    London Project for a Participatory Society