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12 April 2023

Hail the assassins

The American youth has lost its radical temper – Daniel Goldhaber’s film How to Blow Up a Pipeline is an urgent reminder of the virtues of political action.

By Noah Kulwin

I have a friend called Joe Kaye. Joe is 91 years old and has lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for about 60 years. He’s an American communist who has been engaged in various forms of political struggle for even longer. Pictures of his late wife, the black novelist Sarah E Wright, as well as those of Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro adorn the walls of his living room. The bookcases in my office were once in his library. He is at work on a new volume about the practical applications of dialectic inquiry.

While catching up with him the other day, Joe reflected that recent generations of Americans have become more neurotic. I sensed that Joe, who has dedicated his life to the political education of working-class black and Hispanic teenagers, hadn’t anticipated this downshift in the radical temper of the kids. Like a good Marxist, Joe rightly understood that this anxiety towards the vita activa was not “soft times producing ‘soft’ people”. I told him that political inertia is deliberately cultivated; affluent societies like the US are either bought off or anaesthetised with the wealth we siphon from the rest of the globe. We consume more media, more calories, and have convinced ourselves that producing more for less on other people’s time is a bearable way to live.

Joe acknowledged this was true, but the point about the sheepish mood of the US’s young was left unresolved. Other significant factors linger on: the mass incarceration of millions of potential proletarians, the employment of further millions in policing and armaments, and the untold trillions of dollars in subsidies for corporations and the ultra-wealthy. But all these, too, couldn’t account for what is perhaps a mind-set problem. What explains American disengagement from radical political action?

“A revolutionary era,” writes the late Mike Davis in March 2022, “may dress itself in costumes of the past (as Marx articulates in The Eighteenth Brumaire), but it defines itself by recognising the possibilities for societal reorganisation arising from new forces of technology and economics.” The title of that piece in the New Left Review, “Thanatos Triumphant”, says it all: the elite has failed to use its technological and economic might to avert grave challenges to civilisation. The revolutionaries of today are charged with finding inspiration to combat these threats.

Davis concluded that a return to propagande par le fait, or the propaganda of the deed, is logical. Our desperate circumstances “should make us pay homage at the hero graves of Aleksandr Ilyich Ulyanov, Alexander Berkman and the incomparable Sholem Schwarzbard”, three left-wing revolutionary assassins. Was Davis correct? Must we return to a strategic deployment of the spectacular?

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Blowing up an oil pipeline, slashing the tyres of a car, or even detonating a bomb on a billionaire’s superyacht do not fall into the same category of militancy as the acts carried out by those firebrands. In 1887, Ulyanov planned to kill Tsar Alexander III, an emperor of the last major ancien régime of Europe, by throwing dynamite into the Romanov’s carriage. Berkman’s attempted assassination of the Andrew Carnegie stooge Henry Frick in 1892 was a direct response to the bloody repression of the Homestead strike that same year. A generation later, in 1926, the Russian-born Schwarzbard put several bullets into the Ukrainian nationalist, Symon Petliura, considered responsible for pogroms that killed Schwarzbard’s family and 50,000 other Jews in 1919. (In 2016, Ukraine held an official minute of silence in Petliura’s memory, on the 90th anniversary of his death). In political murder, the content of the act is embedded in the taking of particular lives.

But there does exist a relevant moral challenge for the present. Barring regional differences in the administration of capital punishment, the shared animating question of the saboteur, the assassin and even the leaker of state secrets is: what are they willing to sacrifice to realise a better world? What are you willing to sacrifice?

[See also: Would there still have been climate change under socialism?]

Daniel Goldhaber’s film How to Blow Up a Pipeline – in addition to being the best time I’ve had in a movie theatre since Mad Max: Fury Road – is the closest that American cinema has come to confronting those questions in modern times. There are so many traces of different genre classics that the viewer is left feeling, despite How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s many influences, there has never been a US movie quite like it before. The economic and racial underclass of the gang (as well as the movie’s impressive, synth-heavy score) evoke John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which opens with the wanton police execution of the gang members’ brethren.

Much like Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (2017), a laser-focused journey into the dark heart of Jeffrey Epstein-like Manhattan sexual exploitation, How to Blow Up a Pipeline ventures into new political territory for this generation, interpolating the weight of climate catastrophe into what’s essentially a heist flick. There are few comparable American movies (and almost none good) that expound the political intent of its characters – whom the government would no doubt (as an FBI agent does in the movie) brand as political “terrorists”. It is not drenched in pessimism like the twin “eco-terrorist” thrillers of ten years ago, The East and Night Moves. And crucially, unlike How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s spiritual half-brother, Taylor Sheridan’s Hell or High Water (2016), there is little financial reward at the end of the story.

The film’s brusque title is taken from the Swedish activist-academic Andreas Malm’s 2020 book of the same name, which is not an instructional guide for would-be green arsonists but a clarion call for the kind of democratic economic sanction depicted in the movie. This is not the strategic media campaign of Extinction Rebellion – with activists gluing themselves to paintings and Ferraris so as to avoid destroying the value of the object of protest – but industrial sabotage, a demonstration that metabolic limits exist not only in our physical environment but in human relations as well.

The film begins with two college students, yin-and-yang archetypes for the young bourgeoisie struggling with the weight of history. Xochitl (pronounced SO-chee) and Theo grew up near an industrial facility in Long Beach, California, and have had their lives wrecked by ecological damage. Shawn, Xochitl’s classmate at college in Chicago, doom scrolls on an expensive new laptop sent from home and neglects his studies. They link up with a native American, Michael, a self-taught YouTube bomb-maker from North Dakota (the film’s least believable yet most compelling character) whose improvised explosions are an outlet for a rage otherwise denied by the world around him.

Rounding out the gang are Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (the pair are both house cleaners), the Portland-based couple Rowan and Logan, and Dwayne, a West Texas hillbilly with his own grudge against Big Oil and Big Government, who sees in this group an opportunity to take revenge against the poisoners of the world. It would not be revealing too much to say that one of the members of the group is an informant, nor that one of the college kids in on the plot quotes Che Guevara.

The section of pipeline they choose to blow up is in Texas. Finding a portion that on detonation will have limited environmental impact, the group’s plan requires exact timing, discipline and painful selflessness. Their operations security is good (although not great, given the informant) and, once the flashback sequences have established everyone’s motivations there are few signs of wavering commitment. Gradually, we see how the pipeline is more than just a pipeline to its would-be destructors – it becomes a vulnerable node in an impersonal, globally distributed network of pain. In a time of great anxiety where, as my friend Joe observed, the neuroses of modern life have inhibited constructive political consciousness, a little didacticism is well-earned – and represents the artistic response to Davis’s revolutionary incitement.

It would be no exaggeration to call How to Blow Up a Pipeline something like the American Z, the 1969 French film by Costa-Gavras about the murder of a socialist Greek politician that remains the greatest political thriller ever made. The final TV news anchor address to the camera at the end of Z has its contemporary spin at the end of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which offers just a glimpse of what such a revolutionary message could look like. Which, if I were to state here, would be something like: by itself, no one thing is possible. And history instructs that few great changes are made without great sacrifices, or at least mortal risk.

The seedlings of alternative futures are just below the surface of things. That a socialist revolution first succeeded in Russia took the outside world by surprise. Leading thinkers of the time expected Germany, a far more developed and educated state, to turn red first. How were the Bolsheviks, supported by masses of workers and peasants, able to transform a creaking feudal order into a future superpower?

“The fact that imperialism made the world into a single system definitely facilitated this,” observed the radical Guyanese historian Walter Rodney in his account of the 1917 Russian Revolution. “It is not possible for consciousness to rise in a vacuum.”

Our present is far more interconnected than any point in history, whether by pipeline or fibre-optic cable. This is the key fact that Xochitl, Shawn and the others recognise and act upon. A globalised system has to be taken apart by dismantling its essential infrastructure, a task that will require a programme of global political education unparalleled in human history.

When Lenin posed the question, “What is to be done?” in his 1902 essay, his core argument was that the compromises made with bourgeois governments by social democrats such as Eduard Bernstein were transparently false. Many of their so-called victories were simply adding minutes to a stay of execution. In addition to the specific argument for a vanguard party, Lenin counted an international political consciousness as an essential precursor to revolution:

“This means, not only that we must combat national chauvinism, but that an incipient movement in a young country can be successful only if it makes use of the experiences of other countries. In order to make use of these experiences it is not enough merely to be acquainted with them, or simply to copy out the latest resolutions. What is required is the ability to treat these experiences critically and to test them independently. He who realises how enormously the modern working-class movement has grown and branched out will understand what a reserve of theoretical forces and political (as well as revolutionary) experience is required to carry out this task.”

If we are to face down our own sclerotic and crisis-ridden regime, we must admit our position. The American working class, confronted with its nation’s immense diversity and position at the summit of the world order, must usher an adequately countervailing political consciousness into being. That Lenin understood calculated, individual self-sacrifice as part of this equation is beyond dispute; the Aleksandr Ilyich Ulyanov singled out for honour by Mike Davis, and who was executed for his attempt on the life of a Russian tsar, was Lenin’s beloved older brother. Confronted with capitalist climate wipe-out, we know what must be done. The question, then, is “how far am I prepared to go?” Hail the organisers, the intellectuals, the assassins.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is released in UK cinemas on 21 April

[See also: Herbert Marcuse: Multi-Dimensional Man]

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