Vol. 43 No. 23 · 2 December 2021

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Climate Emergency

The two pieces on Andreas Malm by James Butler and Adam Tooze raise a question that often puzzles me, namely why so few movements for environmental justice are willing to consider direct action or armed struggle, when these strategies were certainly seen as options in 20th-century anti-colonial and anti-fascist movements (LRB, 18 November). Where indeed are all the eco-terrorists? Malm believes that direct action against polluting infrastructure has so far been both a morally legitimate and practically successful strategy, in that it actually stops pollution and produces a powerful incentive against continued investment (if you blow up a fracking installation twice, who will insure it a third time?). In the global South, movements for environmental justice are often in essence a continuation of anti-colonial resistance, and are subject to the same kinds of extreme violence and repression. Yet mainstream climate movements in the West persist in family-friendly demonstrations, pitifully anaemic politics and well-mannered civil disobedience, rather than, say, organising a revolutionary cadre of saboteurs or turning out in their thousands to participate in mass direct actions which, if properly carried out, would be very difficult to prevent.

Historical anti-colonial movements are instructive here, not least because they too often held out against the use of violence. When Malm suggests that violence is coming, organised or not, it reminds me of the final discussions among the ANC leadership before the turn to armed struggle in 1961. These took place in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, when at least 69 people were killed following a peaceful protest whose short-term aim was, in accordance with non-violent tradition, the mass arrest of demonstrators. The ensuing declaration of a state of emergency forced the ANC leadership’s hand, but it should be borne in mind that Hendrik Verwoerd’s ‘Grand Apartheid’ had been under construction since 1948, coupling a staggering weight of oppressive legislation with the militarisation of the state security apparatus. Even so, armed struggle had been kept off the table. Younger cadres (including Nelson Mandela) had been raising the possibility since the early 1950s, but non-violence was taken to be an inviolable ANC principle. Even after Sharpeville, Albert Luthuli and many of the leadership still expressed a preference for non-violent means. But Mandela argued that there was now no alternative: there would be violence whether the ANC liked it or not – the revolts in Pondoland in preceding years had shown as much. At the meeting, he said,

I argued that the state had given us no alternative to violence. I said it was wrong and immoral to subject our people to armed attacks by the state without offering them some kind of alternative. I mentioned again that people on their own had taken up arms. Violence would begin whether we initiated it or not. Would it not be better to guide this violence ourselves, according to principles where we saved lives by attacking symbols of oppression, and not people? If we did not take the lead now, I said, we would soon be latecomers and followers to a movement we did not control.

Luthuli was reluctantly persuaded (‘If anyone thinks I am pacifist, let him try to take my chickens’), and the foundation of uMkhonto we Sizwe followed. Its initial brief was the sabotage of state infrastructure, with no loss of life to be tolerated. Malm laments the widely held view that all direct action is illegitimate, but one day soon the environmental movement may find its Mandelas, and its Luthulis. And anyone with an interest in a decarbonised future, or a protected Amazon, or a living ocean, might do well to consider the thrust of Mandela’s argument in those crucial hours of debate and decision: ‘The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands.’

Francis Gooding
London SW14

James Butler repeatedly draws a contrast between the strategically deep and intelligently leftist Andreas Malm, on the one hand, and Extinction Rebellion, which in his view lacks these qualities, on the other. There is no acknowledgment of the extraordinary achievement of XR in the spring of 2019, permanently changing public opinion as to the reality of the climate emergency, or of Parliament’s acknowledgment, straight after the April rebellion, of the emergency, its subsequent backing for net zero or its creation of Climate Assembly UK.

Butler shows no understanding of the novel elements of XR’s strategy, which is deliberately ‘broad-based’ in its appeal, beyond party politics and beyond ideology. Instead of making an explicitly leftist appeal, which would be of limited effectiveness, XR seeks to mobilise people, through an upgraded democratic process (citizens’ assemblies), behind solutions that may well be leftist in nature. Carbon rationing, for instance, or indeed food rationing (the great precedent being food rationing in the Second World War – an egalitarian, redistributive policy that was introduced not for those reasons but because of the then prevailing emergency).

Butler assumes that the harshening of climate decline must imply escalation and radicalisation: he does not consider the possibility that huge numbers of citizens may get on board with a determination to act that does not entail violence (or even necessarily civil disobedience). It simply does not follow that because the situation on the ground is getting worse, what is called for must be something with higher barriers to entry. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the coming mass climate mobilisation will be less ‘radical’ than XR, let alone Malm. Neither Butler nor Malm is able to offer a shred of evidence that there is any public appetite whatever for ‘eco-Leninism’.

Rupert Read
Rockland St Mary, Norfolk

We’re Here

Neal Ascherson, in his review of Ian Sanjay Patel’s We’re Here because You Were There, quotes the book to the effect that the 1948 British Nationality Act created the new category of ‘citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies’, and that this gave the right to 600 million people to live in the UK (LRB, 18 November). That isn’t quite the case. In fact it created not one but two citizenships. The first was something close to a UK-specific nationality: the citizenship of the UK and Colonies. This was needed because the old trans-imperial citizenship no longer worked; the dominions were creating their own citizenships, which forced the UK to introduce its own new near national equivalent. The overseas territories covered by the term ‘colonies’, in Africa, the Caribbean and the Far East, had only small populations.

The second citizenship created by the act was citizenship of the Independent Commonwealth, which gave the right of entry to citizens of the nations of the Commonwealth, but not to British (that is UK and Colonies) citizenship. It was this category that included close to 600 million people, mostly from India and Pakistan, together with smaller numbers of citizens of the so-called White Dominions. Immigration controls affecting the population of the Independent Commonwealth came into effect in 1962, by which time this category included most of the UK and Colonies citizens from the colonies: independence for the colonies meant that their inhabitants had shifted from being UK and Colonies citizens to Commonwealth ones.

David Edgerton
King’s College London

Points of Doctrine

Julian Hughes asserts that I twice refer to the opponents of assisted dying (he puts the expression in inverted commas, presumably to cast doubt on its genuineness) as ‘doctrinaire’ (Letters, 18 November).

Doctrinaire, with its implication of following a teaching to untenable extremes, is not a word that appears anywhere in my article. When I spoke at two points of doctrinal opponents of, or opposition to, assisted dying, I had in mind the standpoint of those who on religious grounds feel compelled to oppose assisted dying in all cases. If such people instead took the more measured and conditional attitude adopted by the Reverend Donald MacEwan in his thoughtful letter in the same issue, we might make some of the progress that MPs, as a body, seem incapable of making.

Nothing in my article seeks to marginalise or devalue palliative care: rather the contrary. But what does Professor Hughes envisage when even the best palliative care can do nothing more for a rational patient in irreversible pain or distress who wants to die?

Stephen Sedley

The Nightingale Fund

As Fergus McGhee says, Arthur Hugh Clough administered the Nightingale Fund, the money donated by a grateful nation for Florence Nightingale’s work during the Crimean War (LRB, 18 November). However, the fund wasn’t set up for the training of military nurses but civilian ones. The Nightingale School opened at St Thomas’s Hospital, at that time still in Southwark, in the summer of 1860, and went on to revolutionise nursing throughout the world.

McGhee mentions Lytton Strachey’s mockery of Clough in Eminent Victorians. In 2010 a blue plaque for Clough was unveiled by Anthony Kenny at the house near Regent’s Park that Clough and his family occupied in the 1850s. Strachey had scorned Clough for being reduced to wrapping up brown paper parcels for Miss Nightingale. Just as Kenny unveiled the plaque, a Royal Mail van drew up opposite the house. Some of those present wondered out loud whether this was evidence that Strachey’s satirical powers extended beyond the grave.

Mark Bostridge
London NW3

Macaroni in a Pot

Emily Wilson, in her rebuttal of Stephen Halliwell’s criticisms, cites the enjoyment some English speakers find in the c-word (Letters, 4 November). Halliwell wouldn’t have to venture far from St Andrews to find its use not only as a ‘regular term of abuse’, but as an endearment. Were Aristophanes abroad in the Kingdom of Fife, he would be considered a funny (ha ha) cunt. To be a ‘guid cunt’ is high praise throughout once industrialised lowland Scotland. A twat, by distinction, remains a twat.

Christie Williamson


T.J. Clark cites Aesop’s fable about the god of war who goes everywhere with ‘Hybris’ and refers to ‘the madness and hubris of war’ (LRB, 23 September). But in ancient Greece hubris meant ‘most often the insulting infliction of physical force or violence’ (Oxford Classical Dictionary) and was a frequent reason for litigation. The word is commonly used in English to suggest pride or overconfidence, which has a damaging effect on interpretations of Greek tragedy.

Brian Vickers
London NW6

On Inis Meáin

Regarding J.M. Synge and the floorboards, it wasn’t Aran but Wicklow (Letters, 21 October and 18 November). ‘When I was writing Shadow of the Glen,’ he wrote, ‘I got more aid than any learning could have given me from a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen.’

Simon King-Spooner
Tayport, Fife


I very much enjoyed Andrew O’Hagan’s appreciation of Joan Eardley (LRB, 4 November). Her picture Townhead Close hangs in my office. It was bought for £26 in 1955 by a group of students at Trinity who set up a subscription art collective to buy modern paintings and prints. I’d been struck by it when visiting the previous occupant of the room and always assumed that it belonged to him, so it was a joy to find it still on the wall when I moved in. I have tried to keep its existence quiet, on grounds that there is no good explanation for its location and the fewer people who are reminded of this, the better.

Anil Gomes
Trinity College, Oxford

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