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Time to put aside infantile things

John Bell

February 2, 2012

Some people don’t know a good thing when they see it.

In January, Barack Obama declared that, for the present time, the Keystone Pipeline would not receive federal approval. The Keystone project was led by TransCanada Pipeline, and would have pumped Alberta Tar Sands syncrude to refineries in Texas.

Just a few months ago it looked like the Keystone approval was a fait accompli. The US State Department under Hillary Clinton favoured the project. A lead lobbyist for the deal was a former Clinton staffer. A half-assed State Department environmental assessment gave the project the thumbs up.

But tens of thousands of people mobilized to stop the Keystone. A coalition of environmentalists, First Nations (a disproportionate percentage of the Keystone route passed through US Reserves) and western ranchers (concerned about damage to the Ogallala Aquifer) mobilized protests locally and in Washington, DC.

In late summer, thousands converged on the White House, to take part in illegal sit-ins. Hundreds were arrested, including author and organizer Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and actor Daryl Hannah. It was the biggest mass civil disobedience action since the 1960s.

In November, thousands of protestors returned to surround the White House, to keep up the pressure. Despite millions spent on oil industry propaganda, the protests drew broad support and cut deep into Obama’s constituency.

So in January, after months of hemming and hawing, Obama placated that constituency by sticking a cork–if only temporarily–into the Keystone pipeline. This is a good thing.

Who’s the real dupe?

But not good enough for some observers. Writing on the Counterpunch website, Michael Leonardi begins his article entitled “The Great Pipeline Scam” thus: “In another ridiculous moment of political trickery, Obama managed to dupe a major chunk of the American environmental movement yesterday by refusing to authorize the construction of the Keystone Pipeline now.”

Not only is the Keystone decision not a victory, it is nothing more than “a complete farce to manipulate voters.” The thousands who mobilized around the Keystone are “gullible dupes.”

Building a focused campaign to stop the Keystone was a waste of time, Leonardi argues, because the Tar Sands is expanding output anyway, and its toxic products are being refined elsewhere.

Special attack is aimed at Bill McKibben. He is Obama’s “good little foot soldier,” nothing but a front for the Rockefellers and the Democratic Party machine: “It was all set up to pull in the most gullible of the Big environmental groups under one big tent of blinded voters.”

The fact that McKibben and the protests he spearheaded focused on the Keystone project is proof of their collusion. “The very real dangers of our decrepit and crumbling nuclear power industry aren’t on Bill Mckibben’s (sic) radar screen it seems and just as with his buddy Al Gore, the issue of carbon seems solely on the radar superficially, maybe as a way to sell more books? One has to wonder.”

You are welcome to read Leonardi’s whole silly screed if you wish, but I think I have conveyed its essence. If it were an isolated argument I would shrug it off. But it is emblematic of a recurring political approach that has weakened our movements for far too long. In fact, a fellow named Lenin once wrote a pamphlet eviscerating it, aptly titled “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder.

What are the symptoms of this disorder? To name but a few: a “more-radical-than-thou” elitism, an inability to think tactically, and a confusion about reforms and reformists.

How do we transform society?

Here’s the thing Leonardi and I agree on: we need to massively transform ours society. But how do we do it?


We must build campaigns that can pull masses of people into action, around clearly focused demands or reforms, and through the process of struggle expect that many of those people will become truly radicalized.

Such campaigns require working with people who are to our “right.” The campaign to stop the Keystone involved not only Obama supporters from the Democratic Party, but even some Republicans. Sometimes it is right to make such compromises and alliances, sometimes it isn’t–the art of politics lies in being able to assess the next step forward and how to bring as many people along with you as you can.

Socialists active in the Keystone fight would have found an audience for arguments about why the pipeline is just a first step; about climate change; about the dangers of nuclear energy; about the existence of safe energy alternatives; and about a continued dependence on fossil fuels serves only to profit a tiny minority.

I’ll bet Leonardi missed that chance, standing aside from a struggle that did not come fully formed to meet his lofty radical standards. His sneering, elitist references to the “dupes” who built the campaign say it all.

He thinks those in the trenches who built this massive campaign are Obama’s lapdogs. I’ll bet more of them have come to see Obama’s decision as an act of opportunism and political necessity rather than an act of principle or courage.

Obama’s decision is the movement’s victory. That movement is right to celebrate it. And it will be better organized and prepared to fight the next round, whether that be against a Republican or Democratic figurehead.

The next crucial fight for environmentalists on both sides of the border–whether Stephen Harper likes it or not–is to build the campaign against the Northern Gateway pipe. In that campaign there will be allies motivated by the belief that we should stop the pipeline in order to keep refinery jobs in Canada. Should I stand aloof from the fight because its focus is too narrow, or because some allies put forward arguments I disagree with?

Bill McKibben is coming to Canada to speak out against the Northern Gateway. He will be a welcome ally. I suspect Michael Leonardi won’t be coming, and that too is welcome.

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