This article was originally published in the Danish magazine Revolution after the global climate strike on the 15th of March 2019. On the 24 May 2019 the second world wide climate strike was held, where at least 40.000 demonstrators went to the streets in Copenhagen.
Written by Victor Vedsø
Over the past few months, thousands of young people and students around the world have gone to the streets to demonstrate the lack of action by politicians on climate change. More than 10,000 young people met at Christiansborg Palace Square(1) on 15 March to take part in the largest international climate strike ever. The action day brought together 1.6 million young people from more than 120 countries in a common call to solve one of history’s most serious crises. But after the school strike on March 15, what way must the movement take forward to reach the radical goal of stopping climate change?
The climate strikes, which began because of the young activist Greta Thunberg’s protest action in front of the Swedish parliament in August, 2018, have in a short time grown into a global movement.
The climate issue has radicalized a new layer of youth and drawn them into the political struggle. The global, spontaneous and militant(2) nature of the strikes has shown that a great number of youth raises doubts about the capitalist system in general.
At Christiansborg Palace Square on March 15, especially one battle cry was repeated: “It is not enough! This is not enough!” It is exactly this particular conclusion that captures the key to the climate crisis: the elite and their political representatives do not touch a finger when it comes to stopping pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases. Scientists are ignored by governments all over the world, whether they are left-wing reformist or right-wing. Young people, as well as workers, are slowly losing their last traces of trust; they have no confidence left in the elite and politicians. The climate strike clearly shows how young people increasingly direct their frustrations against the existing society and, as a result, begin to demand systemic change.
The spark to something bigger
This radicalization of the climate issue could very well evolve to be the spark that ignites the struggle for a new organization of society and a showdown against capitalism. The climate crisis is a serious problem, and it is the young people who are forced to live with the consequences of it in the future. Large parts of the youth have already come to this conclusion, and realised that merely appealing at passive politicians is not enough in and of itself. A solution to the climate crisis cannot be achieved without fundamentally transforming our economy and our society. The school strikes must, therefore, be a first step in building a larger movement. To move forward, the movement must expand and evolve through revolutionary lines.
When young people have historically gone to the streets, their struggle against the established society and status quo has often been the spark of much broader and more effective movements among the working class. On their own, students do not have much power to threaten politicians or the capitalist class. Allowing young people to go to school, the course of society continues relatively unaffected. But the dissatisfaction among young people often reflects greater frustrations in society, and this also applies to the climate issue. If students organize and reach out to the working class, a movement limited initially to a single part of society can be a catalyst for a political movement among society’s potentially most powerful social class: the working class. Therefore, the climate issue through a wider struggle must be linked to other urgent issues such as cuts on education, the smashing of the welfare state and the increasing inequality.
When French students over 50 years ago in May ’68 occupied French universities and lycées in protest against imperialism and oppression, the struggle spread like a steep fire among French workers. Spontaneous strikes and occupations of factories quickly grew into the most comprehensive general strike in world history. The then-President Charles de Gaulle and the rest of his political staff faced a movement they could not control. This movement, if it had a revolutionary leadership, could have not only pushed through political and economic demands but also posed a direct threat to capitalism itself. With the danger of the climate crisis, it is movements like these that we must learn from.
For a revolutionary climate movement
If the climate movement is to achieve its goal, it is first and foremost crucial that school students receive support from their teachers and the Danish Teachers’ Association. A strike that includes both students and teachers has much more weight and could mobilize tens of thousands of youngsters and workers shoulder to shoulder. At the same time, organized teachers would be able to provide protection against potential school management penalties when students “skip classes” to go to demonstration. If the fear of being punished is taken out of the equation, it would make even more students want to participate in the strike, which would only make the movement bigger and stronger.
Furthermore, it is crucial that students and staff in universities are also mobilized and participate in the struggle, which currently consists mainly of primary and secondary school students. There is a need to spread the movement further out. The representative bodies of students at all levels of the education system, such as the DGS(3), Studenterådet(4), and local student councils, need to be transformed into living political organizations that actively gather students around social movements and are not afraid to be champions of a revolutionary socialist program. These organizations, which represent many thousands of students, have both the resources available and the ability to create strong relationships with workers and trade unions.
Such a shift can only be achieved if students are organized. Students must engage in local committees in their own institutions, link the struggle for good education with the climate struggle and the class struggle, so that national and international student associations have a revolutionary and clear socialist policy. Regular political meetings should be held at educational institutions to involve the maximum number of students in the process. Permanent strike committees should be set up at schools, colleges and universities across the country. These should be chosen by the students and used to organize and coordinate future strikes, campaigns and major meetings. Furthermore, these committees can establish a permanent connection with the most radical layers in, among others, the Danish Teachers’ Association, the Upper Secondary Schools’ Teachers’ Association and the Danish Master’s Association. Steps in this direction will ensure that the movement around the climate strikes does not run out of the sand and actually begins to threaten the political and economic elite who continue to look passive while world temperatures rise and rise – a trend they themselves contribute to more than any other individuals.
In relation to the climate demonstrations, there has been an unfortunate tendency at times for official speeches to be characterized by petty-bourgeois ideas of political consumption and moralization over ordinary people’s individual lifestyles as methods of stopping threatening climate catastrophes. This is regrettable, partly because the climate crisis is not an individual problem, and equally important, it weakens the movement and risks limiting it to the selected few. Indeed, an individual consumption-oriented focus can directly repel ordinary workers from the movement. Instead of individual solutions, slogans such as the “system is the problem” should be taken seriously and elaborated. By creating a clear class perspective, the movement can put a wedge between those who profit from our labor and natural resources, and those who pay the price. The movement can win the most important social group on its side: the working class. There can be no doubt who will pay the price when the consequences of climate change become serious. It is the working class and the poorest layers in society that are hit, as we already see it today, when natural disasters leave large lands in ruins. While the elite can move both themselves, their wealth and businesses, the working class stands back in a society that literally falls apart. The climate crisis is a systemic problem and systemic changes are needed. The climate crisis is a systemic problem and systemic changes are needed. If the climate movement is not linked to the struggle of the working class against capitalism, the greatest sinners of pollution, the bourgeoisie, will be able to continue their reckless exploitation of natural resources. The working class is the only social class that, through its place in production, has the power to put society to a halt and thereby enforce radical and truly green demands.
Workers and students in a joint struggle
The current wave of political activity and enthusiasm must be maintained but must necessarily evolve into something beyond the current strikes and protests. Solidarity between students and a wide range of workers is crucial. Going forward, this movement should be directed towards more than just climate change. There are countless other political issues that shatter the conditions of students, workers, minorities, the unemployed, and the elderly on daily basis. All these struggles must be directly linked to the struggle against the economic system that daily exploits and suppresses the vast majority of the world’s population.
Faced with students and workers, there is a common enemy: the capitalist class, forcing worldwide cuts, privatizing education, holding on to life-threatening working conditions, and destroying the environment in pursuit of profit. Isolated as individuals we stand powerless, but united and organized, workers and students shoulder to shoulder, we are an incessant force.
Students and workers must fight together and unite around a revolutionary socialist program that puts forward a real solution to the climate crisis. Capitalism can only offer a race to the bottom, where workers and youth year after year see their own and the world’s conditions deteriorate, while the billionaires only become richer and revel in unimaginable sums of money. A democratic planning of the economy and production, run and owned by the working class, is the only way to solve one of our greatest challenges today.
The choice between socialism or barbarism is sharper for every step that capitalism takes towards further destruction of the planet. Students must be at the forefront of the barricades and make the fight against climate change a struggle against capitalism – a class struggle.
Originally published on April the 23th, 2019 in Revolution
Photography belongs to Revolution
1. Christiansborg is the name of the Danish Parliament, which originally used to be the Royal Palace of the King. (Editors)
2. The word militant is used here in the the trade-unionist (and marxist) sense, where there is a distinction distinguish between moderate and militant trade union activity. Militant in this sense has nothing to do with violence but with the forms of protest used to win a political and/or economic struggle. When trade unions adopt a militant approach they make ambitious demands without giving concessions, they rely on mobilizing union membership and threaten to or use industrial action and employ work stoppages as a tool to win a struggle. The climate strikes, while more disorganised than militant trade-unionism shows some of the same core principles, directly adopting the strike as a form of protest.
3. Danske Gymnasieelevers Sammenslutning, is the nationwide association of high-school students in Denmark. (Editors)
4. Studenterådet is the national council for university students in Denmark. (Editors)
About the author
Victor Vedsø is a student at Copenhagen University, studying for a degree in comparative literature. He is a member of the Danish section The International Marxist Tendency (IMT), Revolutionære Socialister (Revolutionary Socialists).