Editorial: How to blow up a movement

IssueAugust - September 2023
Comment by Milan Rai

Reluctantly, I finally read How to Blow Up a Pipeline (author: Andreas Malm, Verso, 2020) and went to see the feature film of the same name (director: Daniel Goldhaber, 2022).

When I finished the book, and when I walked out of the cinema, I had the same feeling. I was sad.

I felt sad that hundreds, maybe thousands, of committed young activists are going to come away from these experiences feeling that they ought to be taking on the climate criminals with high explosives, that it’s only their fear that is holding them back from this necessary, morally urgent next step in escalating the campaign for climate justice.

The problem with the book and with the film is that they ask the wrong question.

The question is not how we can inflict more damage on fossil fuel companies and the super rich. The question is how we can first reduce and then get rid of carbon emissions. Those are two very different problems.

Reinforcing fascism

In the film, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which is thoughtful and powerful and well-acted, the two actions that are presented as models for us to follow are (1) making and using an improvised explosive device to blow up an oil pipeline (in a way that doesn’t cause an oil spill) and (2) blowing up a millionaire’s superyacht with a different home-made bomb.

I think that is a fair summary of what the book is calling for, too.

What is missing from the film, and from the book, is a sense of how using these kinds of tactics impact the wider movement, how they impact the Most Affected People and Areas – in the Global South and in marginalised communities in the Global North.

In February 1968, US author Noam Chomsky pointed out: ‘It is quite easy to design tactics that will help to consolidate the latent forces of a potential American fascism. To mention just one obvious example, verbal and physical abuse of the police, however great the provocation, can have only this effect.’

Chomsky (not a pacifist) went on: ‘Consider the Reichstag fire, to return to a day that is less remote than one would wish. Or consider the act of a seventeen-year-old Jewish refugee from Poland just thirty years ago – of Herschel Grynszpan, who assassinated a German official in Paris in November 1938.

‘It is difficult to condemn this desperate act, which set off violent pogroms throughout Germany and helped entrench more deeply the Nazi regime of terror; but the victims of Nazi terror would offer no thanks to Herschel Grynszpan....

‘Acts that seem perfectly justified in themselves when regarded in a narrow sense may be very wrong when considered in the light of their probable consequences.’


An argument in Malm’s favour could be that the IRA managed to force the British government into secret negotiations with its political wing, Sinn Fein, using the massive Baltic Exchange and Bishopsgate bombings in 1992 and 1993. Then the London Docklands bomb in 1996 forced the British government to drop its demand for the IRA to disarm before Sinn Fein could be allowed into peace negotiations.

However, what made these bombings so effective was not their price tag, but the fact that they undermined the status of the City of London as the primary financial centre in Europe, something that matters a lot in terms of the economy, taxes and national prestige. These bombings threatened something that was of vital importance to the government.

Oil pipelines and superyachts are not of vital importance. Causing significant financial harm to your opponent through property damage is not a magic key to campaigning success.

Would the civil rights movement have progressed faster if, instead of sitting-in, African-American students had used improvised explosive devices to blow up lunch counters in Greensboro in 1960?

Would that have been more effective, or would it have undermined the movement?

Would the #MeToo movement have been more powerful and developed faster if, instead of taking legal action, women who had been raped and sexually assaulted by film producer Harvey Weinstein had used home-made bombs to blow up his waterfront estate in Connecticut and his cottage in West Hollywood?

Would that have been more effective, or would it have undermined the movement?

Would the marriage equality campaigns in the UK and the US have achieved their goals more rapidly if, instead of lobbying conservatives and taking legal action, lesbians and gay men had blown up marriage registration offices and right-wing churches?

Would that have been more effective, or would it have undermined the movement?

To ask the question is to answer it.


In his wonderful book, Strategy and Soul, US trainer and activist Daniel Hunter tells the story of a farmworkers’ union in Oregon in the US called Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN). The union campaigned for a year to get Kraemer Farms to be the first growers in the area to accept collective bargaining.

After that failed, PCUN got student groups to put pressure on NORPAC, which buys vegetables from Kraemer Farms.

After seven years of failure with that strategy, PCUN changed focus again. They pressured a veggieburger firm, Gardenburger, which buys vegetables from NORPAC, which gets some of its vegetables from Kraemer Farms.

Gardenburger had an explicitly socially-conscious customer base. The company cracked within just a few months of campaigning. They agreed to stop buying from NORPAC unless Kraemer Farms allowed collective bargaining rights.

NORPAC could not give up Gardenburger’s business. It got all the farms that it bought from (not just Kraemer) to accept collective bargaining.

Daniel comments: ‘A major win, fueled by finding the right target.’

Finding the right target, and the right kind of pressure, leads to effective escalation. I understand Andreas Malm’s frustration, and I understand the pressure of time, but finding new Gardenburgers, and putting the right kind of unrelenting, nonviolent, patient pressure on them, is the challenge we face, not just in the climate movement.

If we start using bombs, we may just blow up hope instead.

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