Society and Culture

Why are so many successful social movements anti-capitalist? (Part 2)

…continued from Part 1


We could imagine a universe where BLM, XR, JSO, the Greta movement etc are what they appear to be at first sight, namely, single-issue movements. In that universe, BLM are just an anti-racism movement, not an anti-racism movement which also doubles up as an anti-capitalist movement. XR, JSO and the Greta movement are just environmentalist movements, not environmentalist movements which also double up as anti-capitalist movements.

In that universe, these movements would be broad, cross-ideological coalitions. The far-left might still be overrepresented in them (they usually are), but they would also contain some conservatives, some liberals, some social democrats, some centrists, and some otherwise apolitical people.

But as we have seen in Part 1, we are not in that universe. These movements are not broad coalitions, and they are not single-issue groups. They are far-left groups, which combine their primary issue with a prominent, semi-official secondary one: anti-capitalism.

Why is that?

Some conservative commentators have argued that these organisations are really just Marxist front groups, which use the popular causes of anti-racism and environmentalism as Trojan Horses to smuggle in the more contentious cause of Marxism (see e.g. here).

But I don’t believe that.

Firstly, a front group would need a much greater degree of top-down message-discipline, which the movements we are talking about clearly don’t have.

But more importantly, they do not behave like front groups. Here’s what you do if you run a front group:

  1. Rally people around a popular cause.

  2. Once you have their attention and goodwill, start drip-feeding them the cause you actually care about, and you see how far you can go.

  3. When members protest that this isn’t what they signed up for, backpedal, and try again later.

Now, when have XR et al ever done 2 and 3? This is not something you can hide, in the social media age. We would have to be able to see it somewhere.

We don’t – but I can give you an example of the opposite happening. As mentioned in Part 1, XR once tweeted a statement which sounded as if they were distancing themselves from socialism. If you check the replies and quote-tweets, you will see that they immediately came under fire for this from their own supporters. XR then had to tweet various apologetic follow-up statements, clarifying that the statement was not meant to be a critique of socialism. So it is not that the XR social media team were trying to shove socialism down the throats of its unsuspecting sympathisers. It was the sympathisers who berated XR for failing to embrace socialism.

XR, interestingly, were pleading with their sympathisers to be a bit less tribal, and to adopt a bit of a coalition-building mindset:

Breaking the traditional impasse of oppositional politics is […] a hard route to take, because it means that we will likely have to talk to people we’ve spent a lifetime ‘hating’.

The sympathisers, however, were having none of it.

That’s not a front group. That’s a back-to-front group.

So here’s an alternative explanation for why these movements turned out the way they did (and I believe that this happened by accident rather than design):

The success of BLM, XR, JSO, the Greta movement et al has little to do with overall numbers. Rather, they are successful because of the passion they inspire, and because of the extent to which they have captured elite opinion.

None of this would happen if they were coalitions around a single issue. Such coalitions would be broad, but they would also be anaemic. More people would support them, but their support would not stretch much further than making the occasional favourable comment about them, or liking one of their tweets. Nobody would risk getting arrested for such a movement (quite apart from the fact that a more broad-based movement would probably not approve of illegal forms of protest), and signalling support for such a movement would not be a marker of elite status. You are better off with a few thousand active and passionate supporters, ideally many of them Guardian journalists and big Twitter accounts, than with millions of supporters who don’t do much.

If you want to inspire passion, and if you want to appeal to elite opinion, you cannot just be an environmentalist movement. You cannot just be an anti-racism movement. You need to add that magic ingredient which arouses passions, and which confers elite status: anti-capitalism.

That’s different from being a front group. Calling them “front groups” implies that BLM activists don’t really care about racism, and that XR, Greta movement and JSO activists don’t really care about climate change. It implies that they just use those issues as vehicles to deliver Marxism.

But that’s not true. They do care about those issues. A lot. It’s just that they care about them in a very particular way. They care about them if they are coupled with anti-capitalism.

That is because, in line with the anti-capitalist zeitgeist, these activists see capitalism as the root cause of everything that’s wrong with the world – including climate change and racism. Hence the proliferation of publications with titles such as Why Anti-Racism Must be Anti-Capitalist, Racial Capitalism, We Can’t Defeat Climate Change Without Defeating Capitalism, Climate Change as Class War – Building Socialism on a Warming Planet, Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics, etc.

If that is what you believe, of course you will not be hugely interested in a movement which merely identifies a problem, but which refuses to talk about what you see as its root cause.

In the current zeitgeist, the likes of XR and BLM are only really conceivable as far-left, anti-capitalist movements. If they tried to be anything else, they would quickly lose the high profile and status they currently enjoy. Anti-capitalism is where the passion is, and anti-capitalism is where the elite status is. It’s the 2020s version of Conquest’s Second Law.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

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