by David Camfield
originally shared as a Facebook Note. May, 2014
In his recent wide-ranging political article on the radical left today , Alex Callinicos chose to devote space to a critique of aspects of an academic journal article of mine . Callinicos responds to my claim that forms of oppression such as racism, sexism and heterosexism cannot “simply be explained through class” by reiterating his view that form of oppression should be explained “in terms of the prevailing forces and relations of production.” In a 1990 article of his quoted in my article he presents this arrogantly as “the Marxist claim” – as if there could be only one Marxist approach to explaining oppression -- and in his recent article he calls it “the Marxist approach attacked by Camfield.”
Nothing Callinicos wrote changes my belief that, as I argue in my article, his approach to explaining forms of oppression can never be adequate. Analysis of specific forces and relations of production can indeed explain much about oppression, including, as I mention in my article, the origins of gender and racial oppression. It can also explain a great deal about the reproduction of forms of oppression. For example, my article argues (quoting Sue Ferguson and David McNally) that capital is “dependent on socio-historically located ‘biological processes specific to women – pregnancy, childbirth, lactation’, which ‘induces capital and its state to control and regulate female reproduction and … to reinforce a male-dominant gender order.’” This is because capitalism relies on the production of the indispensable commodity of labour power in households, mainly by women. When it comes to explaining the persistence of racism today, I think that capitalist imperialism and the ways in which racism is profitable for capital go a long way.
But my contention is that features of a society’s forces and relations of production can never fully explain why forms of oppression are reproduced. This is because forms of oppression generate properties that contribute to their own persistence. These are found in the advantages relative to the conditions of an oppressed group that are conferred on members of a dominant group by how they are positioned by oppression, which we can call privilege .
Callinicos ignores my argument that “male privilege gives those who have it a material interest (mediated by class relations, which make this interest much greater for ruling-class men than working-class men, given the magnitude of the former’s stake in capitalism) in maintaining gender oppression.” Racism operates in a similar way for people socially categorized as white. Privilege “necessarily complicates the fight against racism because it convinces white workers that they have something to lose by not being white – which, of course, is true. If they did not get some advantage – and with it, the illusion that the system works for them – then racism would not be effective in dividing… workers.” There is no shortage of examples of how racism is perpetuated by efforts to defend or expand privilege. For example, it is common for white workers to respond to competition for jobs in ways that harm racially-oppressed workers. This kind of response is rooted in the material differentials of privilege and the absence of a compelling practical alternative based on anti-racist working-class solidarity. Campaigns to roll back affirmative action in the US and employment equity in Canada are, in part, defences of racial privilege. Mobilizations against multiculturalism policies and the presence of Muslims in the public sphere are also, among other things, moves to defend or enhance privilege (the racial advantages at stake here are often tiny or nonexistent in material terms, no matter how meaningful they are to some white people, although policies in European countries that prohibit the wearing of “ostentatious” religious items bar many Muslims from some jobs, which in terms of racial privilege mainly serves to advantage white workers).
Of course, the relative advantages given to members of dominant groups corrode working-class solidarity. They are contrary to the class interests of all workers. That’s why privilege is contradictory for the working class. It’s poison bait, to use a phrase of Theodore Allen’s.
In short, to convincingly explain forms of oppression historical materialists need to go beyond Callinicos’s approach. This is one reason why we need to develop historical materialism by taking up important theoretical insights developed by others directly involved in or influenced by movements against oppression, which is the heart of what my article argues.
Callinicos calls this “merely an adaptation to some of the poststructuralist and postcolonial ideologies prevailing in the academy.” I’ll resist the temptation to suggest what political considerations influence his dogmatic defence of his classical Marxist approach to explaining oppression.
 “Thunder on the Left” in International Socialism143
 “Theoretical Foundations of an Anti-Racist Queer Feminist Historical Materialism,” in Critical Sociology
 I believe that a carefully-specified concept of privilege has a place in historical materialism. This can be used in the analysis of concrete situations to provide dialectical understandings of contradictory realities of oppression. But it must be distinguished from other uses of the concept of privilege, which today is unfortunately often used in place of the concepts of exploitation and oppression. For an excellent critique of thinking about class in terms of privilege rather than exploitation, see Steve Darcy, “’Exploitation’ Versus ‘Privilege’ in Class Analysis”. “Privilege” is used by people with very different theoretical and political views. This means that it is a mistake to lump all of them together into something called “privilege theory” that can then be denounced. This is what Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad do in “What’s Wrong With Privilege Theory?” in International Socialism 142 (which Callinicos cites favourably).
 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Making Sense of Society In Order to Change It” in socialistworker.org.
 Robert Brenner and Johanna Brenner’s article “Reagan, the Right and the Working Class” in Against the Current 2 (1981) identifies the logic behind what they call “attempts by stronger sections of the working class to defend their positions at the expense of weaker sections.”
by David Camfield
originally published in Midnight Sun
The recent pact between Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) and Liberal Party, whereby the NDP has pledged to prop up the Liberals in office for three years, is a disaster for “official politics” in this country: the political possibilities that are treated as legitimate by the mainstream media and the major political parties, and so by most people most of the time. Left critics like Nora Loreto are correct that the NDP has tied its hands with this deal; once signed, the party brass will be determined to stick with it. Such critics are also on point when they argue that the agreement’s proposed reforms are small; that accepting means-testing for dental care, as the deal does, is a blow to the cause of universal social programs; and that it’s wrong for the NDP to effectively commit to vote for higher military spending and other regressive measures in future budgets. Yet worst of all, perhaps, is how the pact will further winnow the Anglo-Canadian parliamentary field into two blocs: the “liberal establishment” defined by the Liberals, with the NDP as their junior partner and the Greens on the fringe, and the “conservative opposition” made up of the Conservatives and the People’s Party.
The very existence of the NDP, anchored in the desire of most of the union officialdom for a “political arm” to complement the “economic arm” of unions’ collective bargaining efforts, has long meant there’s been some space in official politics for ideas to the left of the Liberals’. This has been true in spite of the pro-capitalist politics of the NDP leadership. The party’s brass has never imagined social change beyond an expanded welfare state and some publicly owned enterprises in a society that remains capitalist; today it accepts neoliberal capitalism as the unchallengeable framework within which to seek minor reforms. But NDP supporters have often argued that their party is needed because the Liberals are, like the Tories, a party of Bay Street. Some make the case that workers need a party of our own, independent of the parties of employers, much as workers need unions because our interests are different from those of bosses. This was the point of the famous “Mouseland” allegory shared by Tommy Douglas, the NDP’s first leader, a tale of a town of mice who kept electing cats to govern them.
From a socialist perspective that sees the struggles of working-class people, manifested through social movements, as the key to changing society, that social democratic vision is lacking in lots of ways – above all, in how it treats elections and the “proper channels” of capitalist democracy as primary means of working for change, and tacitly or explicitly endorses capitalism as the way to organize society. Nevertheless, the existence of the NDP as a self-described alternative to the parties of business has preserved a faint element of class antagonism – us vs. them – within official politics. This has long been valuable for people whose politics are to the left of the NDP’s, whether we’ve realized it or not.
The more the NDP subordinates itself to the Liberals in office, as it does with the new so-called confidence-and-supply agreement, the more it encourages millions of working-class people to think about politics in terms of that “liberal establishment” vs. “conservative opposition” binary – a far cry from “the two parties of Bay Street” vs. “the party of ordinary people.” Since both the Liberals and Conservatives are parties of the capitalist ruling class, what the NDP is doing will make it still more difficult for independent working-class political ideas in so-called Canada to have influence at the level of mass politics, where the radical left today has virtually no impact whatsoever. The NDP is unlikely to become an acceptable alternative governing party in the eyes of the ruling class, which currently has no need for another one. Chasing that dream at the price of political independence is a dead end for the NDP and a problem for radicals.
To see what’s wrong with defining the political terrain in terms of “liberal establishment” vs. “conservative opposition,” we have only to look south of the Canada-US border, where two right-wing parties brand themselves in those terms and have a death grip on official politics. Wherever liberals administer a system that makes the lives of many working-class people worse and there’s no visible opposition from the left, more of the people who are suffering end up accepting the poisonous ideas of the lib-bashing right, as a way of explaining their pain and lashing out against its perceived causes. By pledging to support the Trudeau government, the NDP isn’t helping just the Liberals. It’s possible that the deal’s biggest winners, in time, will be forces further to the right.
by David Camfield
originally published in Briarpatch Magazine
No one knows precisely what kinds of social struggles are going to happen in the years ahead. But we can be certain that popular protest and resistance will be sparked by the ongoing economic crisis – what Marxist political economist Michael Roberts calls “the long depression” – along with the worsening ecological crisis and the efforts of capitalist states to manage them both.
This raises a question: what kind of culture should we be fostering in today’s workplace and community organizing, with a view to preparing ourselves for the high-stakes struggles and social movements of the future? There’s a lot that could be said about this, and I’m only going to touch on one aspect here.
Mass social movements with the power to defeat ruling-class attacks and win gains in our times require high levels of participation and militancy by very large numbers of people. Consider, for example, the months-long “red square” movement of students and their supporters in Quebec in 2012 that became a lightning rod for opposition to neoliberalism, the 2019–2020 “social outburst” in Chile that began as resistance to rising subway fares and grew into mass anti-neoliberal protests, and the protests and uprisings against racism in the U.S. in 2020.
With that in mind, people who wish to help lay the basis for such upheavals – and, when they occur, to help them go as far as they can go – should strive to act in certain ways. These are ways of conducting ourselves that have been learned in high points of class struggle and passed down by participants in such battles to those who came later, often by word of mouth. Some of these qualities feature in “The Wobbly Alphabet of Life,” a 1932 text from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW):
“Be true to your class…
Don’t quit organizing…
Knock the system…
Yield to no one
Zealously work for emancipation”
In a similar spirit, philosopher Steve D’Arcy has written about what revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg called “socialist civic virtues”: “militancy, solidarity, collectivism, self-activity and ‘tenacity in struggle.’” These and other ways of acting are “admirable dispositions” that strengthen the resistance and freedom struggles of exploited and oppressed people. They animate a culture of social struggle.
We can see these admirable dispositions in the actions of many people whenever we study the history of movements and struggles. To mention only some North American examples, they’re visible in the IWW, One Big Union, and other radical industrial unions of the first half of the 20th century as well as in the law-defying strikes, and Black Liberation and Red Power movements of the 1960s and ’70s.
Taking part in a strike or social movement that really fights to win is often life changing. Participation has its personal rewards. Individuals who alone can do little coming together and exercising some power to change the world is exhilarating. There can be joy in working co-operatively for the common good within a competitive and hierarchical society. There’s nothing like a sweet taste of real freedom, however briefly it’s savoured.
What taking part in such a fight doesn’t do is pay. On the contrary: it involves sacrificing time, money, and sometimes more for the cause. That’s why we need to talk about the culture of paid activism that exists in unions and some activist groups today. It’s incompatible with the kind of culture of social struggle we should be fostering.
At the heart of this sensibility “is a notion of recasting union work (or movement work) as being comparable to paid work,” as Toronto union activist Ryan Hayes puts it. Although it’s rare for people to take it all the way to its logical conclusion, the logic of this belief is that it would be ideal if all members of a union or activist group were paid for the time they contribute to the work of the organization. This isn’t about organizations having paid staff – that’s a different issue. It’s about paying members for their contributions.
A number of union activists and staff report that what I call the culture of paid activism is becoming more influential. “Now everyone wants to be paid for every minute of union work” is a common complaint of union officials relayed to me by a CUPE staffer. A PSAC member observes, “I am noticing an increasing expectation for compensation for participation in union leadership activities.” Winnipeg CUPW activist Basia Sokal describes members refusing to go to union committee meetings if they’re not “booked off” (granted leave from their jobs to do union work). In some unions, members are paid honorariums for coming to a certain proportion of meetings of the bodies on which they serve in some capacity. Another aspect of this culture is how, as Toronto anti-poverty fighter John Clarke points out, union officials may offer activists “petty perks and privileges” – such as staying in fancy hotels when attending union conferences – to bring them “into the fold.” But, he adds, “if you’re too oppositional, those doors shut.”
This culture is strongest in unions, but it’s not just a union thing. We can see the culture of paid activism manifested in, for example, activists offering money to people for speaking at a political forum or to members for leafleting. It’s there in the idea that if we want poor people to participate they need to be paid. The idea that mostly white activist groups should aim to offer money to Indigenous and/or racialized members for doing work for which white members wouldn’t be given money is a variation on the theme.
To be clear, the culture of paid activism is completely different from membership organizations covering members’ costs to help people participate. Reimbursing people for transportation to meetings, parking, food and child-care expenses, or providing such supports so that activists don’t have to pay for them out of pocket helps people to work for social change. The culture of paid activism is also different from organizations compensating members for significant amounts of lost income – for example, when someone takes time off from their job or regular freelance work to devote time to the cause. Covering costs and replacing lost income are not at all the same as giving members money for doing the regular work of an activist organization, which is the core of the culture of paid activism. An organization asking an artist who’s not a member of the group to make something and paying that artist for the artwork is also different from giving members money for doing the work of the organization.
Making a culturally appropriate offering to an Indigenous guest – for example, offering tobacco and perhaps also another gift to an Elder who opens an event – has nothing to do with paid activism; it’s about respecting Indigenous cultural protocols on Turtle Island.
To avoid another confusion: the question of how unions and activist groups fighting for social justice should deal with money is an entirely different matter from how radicals whose paid work is in NGOs or educational and cultural institutions – which aren’t movement organizations and shouldn’t be confused with them – should push management to compensate artists, speakers, and other people whose assistance is being requested.
Toronto organizer and editor Sharmeen Khan points out that “typically BIPOC women engage in a lot of unseen and invisible work” in the home and in organizing, “whether they take on ensuring accessibility, child care, providing food. In response to this, many feminists of colour have had this ‘FUCK YOU, PAY ME’ response.” There’s no problem when this is aimed at an NGO or university. But in organizing, Khan says, “Is the answer monetary payment for that work? I think definitely not! The answer is to collectivize these responsibilities and tasks as best as possible. To make our spaces nourishing, empowering spaces where we invest in the leadership of those who have been kept out of it.”
What’s wrong with the culture of paid activism? In her chapter in the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Madonna Thunder Hawk puts it this way: “when you start paying people to do activism, you can start to attract people to the work who are not primarily motivated by or dedicated to the struggle. In addition, getting paid to do the work can also change those of us who are dedicated. Before we know it, we start to expect to be paid and do less unpaid work than we would have before. This way of organizing benefits the system, of course, because people start seeing organizing as a career rather than as involvement in a social movement that requires sacrifice.”
The culture of paid activism is at best counter to the culture of social struggle. The spirit that needs cultivating, because it’s fuel for collective action against injustice, is one of “how can I co-operate with other people to change society for the better, with no thought of getting money for my efforts?” The individualism of “what’s in it for me?” is a barrier to commitment and solidarity. The notion that the work of ordinary people fighting for justice is comparable to paid work gets in the way of building movements to transform society because no mass movement could ever possibly pay everyone for participating even if this were desirable. At worst, the culture of paid activism comes close to bribing people to participate – an extremely fragile basis on which to build anything. People whose participation in a union or community group depends on receiving money for their time are prone to being bought off by foes with deeper pockets.
Of course, most union and community activist work is done by people who never get any money for it and who don’t think they should. But it’s worth thinking a bit about why the culture of paid activism is getting stronger.
I think the spread of the culture of paid activism comes in part from living in a capitalist society in which jobs are more insecure, more of our energies are spent on paid work than ever before, we’re increasingly forced to depend on money to get things we need to live, and people are in record levels of debt. Many people are short on money and time – a staffer for a health-care workers’ union observes that “[o]ur lowest paid members are so stretched and many have two and three jobs.” In an interview with Teen Vogue, Amelia Horgan, the author of Lost in Work, noted that “[f]or some people, the response to developing a new hobby is to think, Okay, great, now how can I monetize this? Some of this points to the fact that for many, a secure job that can reliably cover your living expenses is not guaranteed.” Some people bring that same attitude to their activism.
However, I think there’s more to what’s going on than the pressures of getting by. Many working-class people in much worse conditions than ours have rejected – and in other places today, still reject – the idea that they should get money for their activism. But the weakness of what Alan Sears in his book The Next New Left calls the “infrastructure of dissent” – “the means through which activists develop political communities capable of learning, communicating and mobilizing together” through “a variety of forms, ranging from informal neighbourhood and workplace networks to formal organizations and structured learning settings” – makes a difference here. A strong infrastructure of dissent nurtures habits and values on a large scale that challenge those of the market, the boss, the state, the university, bureaucratic unionism, and the NGO; a weak infrastructure of dissent has little power to do so.
In our context, then, our habits and values are rarely shaped by a culture of militant workplace, community, or campus organizing. The practices of bureaucratic unionism influence many union members. In neighbourhoods and on campuses, it’s service-providing NGOs that usually set the tone. A Toronto activist describes their experience: “I have also found working in certain low-income neighbourhoods, peoples’ only experience with organizations is of service organizations (e.g., drop-ins, faith groups), so they have an expectation of receiving a gift card for participating in any form of activity, including a campaign or ‘know your rights’ training.”
Is it any wonder that people instinctively think “I should get money for the time I give” when we live in a society in which working-class values of co-operation, solidarity, and commitment to the common good are drowning in “the icy water of egotistical calculation,” to use a phrase of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels? If union activity is uninspiring, should we be surprised if it doesn’t motivate people to give of their time without thought of financial compensation? If people haven’t experienced a real social movement, only sporadic protests, why would they recognize the difference between the values of social struggle and those of “progressive” NGOs and academia?
In Recovering Antiracism: Reflections on Collectivity and Solidarity in Antiracist Organising, Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee point out that “[i]n popular or mainstream discourse, solidarity is increasingly being replaced by the framework of ‘allyship,’ or as a transactional, rather than a transformative, relationship. ‘Allyship’ reduces solidarity to a fragile politics of temporary togetherness between groups or struggles that will remain otherwise separate. It is predicated on a vertical relationship between partners, rather than the more generative, horizontal process of building solidarity across difference. Meanwhile the moves towards a ‘transactional’ logic of solidarity transforms it into a mechanical, almost market-style, exchange.” In our context, few people really think through what it means to work together “because your liberation is bound up with mine,” to quote from the famous words addressed by a group of Indigenous activists to white people in Australia in the 1970s. For that reason, it’s not a big leap to make a transactional exchange a financial one.
The main way capitalism recognizes the worth of an activity is with money. The weaker the infrastructures of dissent of the working class and communities of oppressed people, the more the values of the system will shape how people – including anti-capitalists – think. It’s this weakness along with the pressures of getting by in hard times that are leading to a spread of the culture of paid activism. I hope that naming what’s going on and explaining why it’s happening will help us resist this trend and cultivate a very different political culture.
by David Camfield
Originally published in Tempest
There’s nothing more important today than the politics of climate change. How societies respond to global heating will increasingly shape all political life.
A People’s Green New Deal by Max Ajl, an associated researcher with the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment and a postdoctoral fellow with the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, gives us some insightful analysis of different political approaches to global heating (a term I prefer since it packs more punch than global warming) and many good ideas about how society should be changed to respond to capitalism’s ecological crisis. However, the book is much less helpful for thinking about the political strategy we need to make these changes.
Although some hard right-wing politicians are still intoxicated by the climate change denial nonsense that organizations funded by fossil capital have been spewing for years, smarter ruling-class strategists are planning for what Ajl calls “Green Social Control.” This “aims to preserve the essence of capitalism while shifting to a greener model in order to sidestep the worse consequences of the climate crisis.”
The European Commission’s announced measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union are an example of this approach. It’s what Joe Biden had in mind when he appointed John Kerry as a Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. It’s also the vision of the Climate Finance Leadership Initiative, a group of finance capitalists headed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s a vision that Ajl skewers.
Ajl notes “Because there is no capitalism that exists apart from the violent hand of the state, such plans emphasize the national security sector” (it’s no coincidence that in his new role Kerry serves on the National Security Council). It’s very much an imperialist project for which using “the physical land bases of Africa, Asia, and Latin America as carbon farms and for biofuels will allow for CO2 offsets of whatever cannot be decarbonized and may allow for the continuation of a fuel-based modern and hierarchical order, at least for a few of the planet’s people.”
A People’s Green New Deal demolishes ecological modernist thought (ecomodernism). Ecomodernism treats technology as politically neutral and imagines that global capitalist growth can be “decoupled” from greenhouse gas emissions. The book takes on both ecomodernism’s right-wing version—for example, the ideas of the Breakthrough Institute and the EcoModernist Manifesto—and the left-wing variant defended by people such as Aaron Bastani, the author of the book Fully Automated Luxury Communism and (not mentioned by Ajl) Leigh Phillips.
Ajl cuts through the confusion about degrowth—a loose current of ecological thought whose supporters call for less energy and natural resource use in rich countries and reject the growth of Gross Domestic Product as a goal—rightly arguing, “Some sectors, such as agroecological food production, public transport, primary healthcare, and renewable energy, need to grow incredibly fast” in decommodified ways, while “others must disappear: the military, non-renewable energy production, chemical fertilizers.”
He makes a strong case that transitioning to renewable energy generation isn’t enough: in the Global North, energy use also needs to be reduced for the sake of global justice, to allow people in the rest of the world to use more energy while moving away from fossil fuels. When faced with the need to limit global heating as much as possible, and in keeping with the precautionary principle, which calls for taking action to prevent problems even when there is uncertainty about them, we must “put all human energy to work in a just transition, and… move as fast as possible.”
A People’s Green New Deal doesn’t spare the most influential kind of climate justice politics. It poses the question “Green social democracy or eco-socialism?” and looks critically at the version of the Green New Deal (GND) championed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez among others, which it accurately characterizes as a program for “domestic anti-racist green Keynesianism,” and at the more left-wing politics of Naomi Klein and the multi-authored book A Planet to Win. Ajl argues that GND reforms won’t be won without mass social struggle, that green social democracy is pro-imperialist (Ajl’s best example is plans to produce millions of electric vehicles in the United States using lithium mined in South America), that the GND legislation drafted by Ocasio-Cortez and others shouldn’t be called ecosocialist, and that we need a movement for ecosocialism, not green social democracy.
A People’s Green New Deal doesn’t spare the most influential kind of climate justice politics. It poses the question “Green social democracy or eco-socialism?”The second part of the book lays out the alternative that forms the book’s title, “building eco-socialism.” The book lays out a range of ideas for radical reforms of work, urban life, construction, transportation, manufacturing, and agriculture (discussed at greatest length). It argues emphatically for anti-imperialist internationalism, and that the imperialist countries owe the rest of the world a massive climate and ecological debt that must be paid. It insists that countries of the Global South must have the right to determine their own futures, and that settler colonialism must be dismantled.
A People’s Green New Deal gives us a good ecosocialist critique of important currents of climate politics. Its argument for reducing energy use in imperialist countries as well as transitioning from fossil fuels is valuable. Its anti-imperialist orientation pushes people in the United States and other advanced capitalist countries to avoid the common mistake of ignoring or not thinking seriously about most of humanity when thinking about climate politics. The book’s insistence that capitalism with green social reforms would still be capitalism, even under “democratic socialist” governments, is important. Its broad vision of alternatives is generally persuasive. All this makes it worth reading.
Yet readers also need to understand that Ajl’s politics are a kind of ecosocialism from above in the Maoist tradition of Samir Amin. It’s right to reject green social democracy, but unfortunately the way the book argues its case can be an obstacle in persuading people who need persuading. European social democratic governments have shown that social democracy is no threat to the most violent imperialist domination of the Global South, but saying there’s “latent fascism even in halcyon social democratic models” smacks of how in the late 1920s and early 1930s Third Period Stalinists dubbed social democracy “social fascism.”
The way the book is argued is also disconnected from the actual existing climate movement in the United States. Instead of thinking in terms of what demands are best-suited for building a mass movement for climate justice in which ecosocialists are a constructive radical wing—an important question socialists should ask when assessing proposals for climate justice reforms—Ajl asks the movement to embrace his ecosocialist politics. His approach to other proposals for a GND is similar to dismissing the demand to end legal restrictions on access to abortion in the United States because that demand isn’t a radical program for reproductive freedom for persons of all genders (it isn’t), or like rejecting the call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam because it wasn’t a call for victory to the National Liberation Front.
This is a sectarian method. In contrast, the politics of socialism from below focuses on how to fight for reforms, not which specific reforms we demand, as what most distinguishes ecosocialism from green social democracy in the here and now.
Ajl doesn’t lay out much of a strategic approach for fighting for what he advocates or a clear conception of socialism. Yet a campist socialism from above—one that treats the conflict between the “imperialist camp” (the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Israel etc.) and the “anti-imperialist camp” (China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Syria etc.) as the most important political division in the world—is evident in passing comments about “anti-systemic states of Latin America” and elsewhere.1 Consistent with these politics are a flawed theory of imperialism and an exaggerated emphasis on the role of “Communist” states and movements in achieving broad welfare states. (Ajl uses the term social democracy for what I call broad welfare states. I believe social democracy is better reserved for a specific kind of reformist politics.)2
A striking aspect of A People’s Green New Deal is how it says almost nothing about the rising capitalist power of our time—China—which the book describes as a “semi-peripheral” country rather than one locked in inter-imperialist rivalry with a declining United States. Without question, the main enemy is at home, but not acknowledging the role of China and its greenhouse gas emissions—which aren’t limited to those generated by manufacturing goods in China for export to the West—in the global climate politics of our time is a political mistake.
Unfortunately, this book will encourage some supporters of anti-capitalist ecological politics to think they have to choose between left ecomodernism of the kind often published by Jacobin and anti-ecomodernist and campist ecosocialism, which Monthly Review promotes. But there’s also an ecosocialism from below that isn’t ecomodernist and whose anti-imperialism isn’t campist.
When read critically, A People’s Green New Deal is a useful resource for people who want to practice this kind of ecosocialism but readers would also do well to read Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System as well as articles by Gareth Dale and Simon Pirani.
by David Camfield
originally published in Midnight Sun.
The planet is heating. Current policies have us on track to reach a global temperature increase of around +3°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, according to an independent analysis by Climate Action Tracker. This would be an extremely dangerous level of heating in a highly unstable climate system, lethal to millions. How people are affected will depend largely on how societies are organized. Capitalism under climate-emergency dictatorships? Capitalism in which popular uprisings have won, in some measure, a just transition away from fossil fuels and a just adaptation to climate change? Profoundly democratic societies moving towards ecosocialism? How should people who want action to slash greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, to limit future heating to +2°C at most, orient ourselves today?
There are some on the left today who, claiming to pursue such a climate goal, place their hopes in pressuring governments to promote technological innovations. In her article “We Need to Change How We Talk About Climate Action” published online by Jacobin, a magazine probably more influential and widely read than any other English-language socialist publication, Holly Buck argues that supporters of climate action should be advocating for public investment in “infrastructure and innovation in climate- and energy-related technologies, from batteries and hydrogen to advanced manufacturing and carbon sequestration.” She suggests the Biden infrastructure plan could help. She questions “a purist approach that insists on keeping fossil fuel reserves in the ground” instead of embracing, for example, novel technologies that capture carbon from the air. She more than hints at allying with Big Tech, broken up and regulated by the state (no mention of how this is to be achieved), against the sectors of capital most tied up with fossil fuels.
There is almost no engagement with social struggle here, no sense of challenging the existing social order and the class that rules it. Although Buck mentions the Green New Deal (it’s not clear what version of a GND she supports), the spirit of climate justice – fighting for measures that can not only drive down GHG emissions, but also combat inequality and oppression – is missing. What about connecting efforts to reduce emissions to today’s other urgent struggles, around jobs, housing, defunding police, and Indigenous land defence, for example? That’s the kind of thing climate justice supporters did in France when a tax on diesel fuel triggered the militant gilets jaunes movement in 2018. They contributed to challenging right-wing efforts to shape those protests, popularizing the slogan “Fin du monde, fin du mois, même combat” (“End of the world [i.e. climate change], end of the month [i.e. poverty], same struggle”). They helped the movement connect ecological issues with social ones, which changed environmental politics in France.
Our climate movements will have to respond to the floods, droughts, fires, pandemics, and other disasters that a deepening ecological crisis will undoubtedly deliver in the years to come. In the Global North, these threats will be accompanied by employers and governments intensifying attacks on wages, working conditions, workplace and civil rights, and public services. We’ll need to build a militant mass movement to push the state to implement a just transition from fossil fuels – against the wishes of our rulers – and not accept technocratic approaches in which “asking the state to provide infrastructure for corporations appears to be the most that one might dare to demand,” as British ecosocialist Gareth Dale has put it.
To propose an alliance between climate movements and some sectors of business is what we might call Popular Front climate politics. It’s a recent incarnation of the old idea, popularized by the Communist International (Comintern) under Stalinist leadership in the mid-1930s, that the left should seek to build a broad alliance that includes a so-called “progressive” wing of the capitalist class. At best, climate popular-frontism underestimates the hostility of the entire capitalist class towards the important reforms that would be necessary for a just transition away from fossil fuels and other sources of GHG emissions. These reforms include programs to build high-quality public transit and climate-friendly housing on a massive scale, job/income guarantees for displaced workers, programs for the retrofitting of buildings by unionized workers, and high taxes on wealth and corporate income to help fund what needs to be done. That’s what a radical GND should include. No section of the capitalist class is going to support such a package of sweeping climate justice reforms, so allying with any section of capital will limit what climate organizers fight for.
Such an alliance would also make it difficult, if not impossible, to reduce energy demand in energy-guzzling rich countries while simultaneously assisting countries of the Global South to use more energy per person, which is necessary to improve lives there. It would obstruct the creation of transit systems that free people from dependence on private vehicles (electric cars are at best a lesser evil) and drastically reduce air travel – really difficult issues in the US, Canada, and other advanced capitalist countries, yes, but unavoidable if we’re serious about slashing GHG emissions.
Buck’s optimism about technological climate solutions relies on both minimizing such realities of class struggle in a heating world and ceding too much power to capitalist firms to shape our path forward. When she looks to the possibility of “low-carbon fossil fuels” – where “an oil company could decarbonize its production to some extent by eliminating methane leaks, for example, or using carbon capture and storage at refineries” – she suggests continued reliance on fossil fuels could be justified because “the demand for energy will be growing around the world.” Yet, as socialist writer and energy researcher Simon Pirani points out, “demand is not an immutable external force. It is formed in the course of economic activity and could be cut sharply by energy conservation measures.” Nor are the emerging examples of “low-carbon fossil fuels” Buck cites encouraging. She reports, for instance, that Shell received the first European shipment of “carbon neutral LNG” (liquefied natural gas) this year – but Pirani observes that this was plain old methane. “Shell simply bought some carbon credits to cover it. The useless, greenwashing character of such credits has been exposed long ago.”
By publishing arguments like Buck’s, Jacobin is offering its many readers a technocratic approach to climate change that accepts too many assumptions of today’s capitalist civilization. Embracing this kind of politics can easily lead to more or less uncritical backing for climate action programs from left-wing Democrats in the US and their social democratic counterparts elsewhere, policies that fall far short of a radical GND. Worse, it can lead to qualified support for right-wing politicians like Biden and Trudeau, who are pushing “imperialist Keynesian” policies – more state spending on construction, renewable energy generation, schooling, social programs, aid to businesses, and more – for reorganizing Western capitalism to compete with China and respond to climate change.
We shouldn’t settle for these inadequate responses to the biggest challenge of our time. Our climate justice politics should cut against the grain of today’s social order: anticipating a future of crises and upheavals, connecting with other struggles, and organizing support for a just transition.
by David Camfield
originally published by Tempest
August 21, 2020 is the 80th anniversary of Leon Trotsky’s assassination by an agent of the USSR, then led by dictator Joseph Stalin. Does it matter what socialists today think about this Russian revolutionary socialist?
Many socialists, especially people new to socialist politics, don’t have a definite opinion. Some of us who’re busy campaigning around policing, housing, income support, school reopening or other urgent fronts of struggle may be inclined to think that Trotsky is basically irrelevant.
That stance is understandable. Trotsky is less important for us than he is for most of the people passionately arguing about him today. But, like it or not, Trotsky—like other long-dead socialist figures—matters to the extent that the politics of the debates in which he was an important voice affect what we do today and in the future. Some of the debates with which Trotsky is most associated are still relevant for the left. Moreover, historical ignorance is never a virtue.
In 2020 it is still necessary to challenge Stalinist (tankie) slanders and misrepresentations of Trotsky. In societies like the US and Canada today, and to a lesser extent the UK, knowledge of history has receded and socialist traditions are weak. This affects today’s welcome growing interest in socialism. Unfortunately, there are a minority of people who’ve come to socialist politics in recent years who have more or less positive views of the USSR during the years when Stalin was its key ruler, and of the politics imposed by its rulers on the international Communist movement during that time. Simplistic “anti-anti-communism”—just putting a plus sign where ideologues of Western capitalism put a minus—is profoundly mistaken (as it was when it was embraced by many radicals in the West in the 1960s and 1970s).
At the very least, failing to grasp that Stalin’s political influence was counter-revolutionary in the Soviet Union and internationally from 1923 until his death three decades later is a serious mistake. Not recognizing that can lead those new to socialism to adopt deeply flawed politics inherited (whether they know it or not) from the Communist movement in Stalin’s day. It’s these politics that are at stake in Stalinist Trotsky-bashing, whether contemporary-lite or vintage-ferocious. There are also some basic matters of truth about what the USSR, China, and other so-called “socialist” societies were or are like. Above all, the attitude of socialists today to Stalinist politics in its various strands (those of groups formerly aligned with the USSR or Maoist China) affects the future of the left.
More common now than Stalinist Trotsky-bashing is the rejection of Trotsky because of his intransigently revolutionary politics. This is the Trotsky-related argument most worth having, since most socialists don’t buy tankie Trotsky-bashing. Today’s believers in democratic socialism as a project of reforms—sometimes paradoxically qualified as “non-reformist”—to be achieved by electing socialists to government office and by backing them up with the muscle of vigorous unions and social movements, have reason to see Trotsky’s politics as qualitatively different from theirs. These socialists may appreciate some of Trotsky’s contributions, such as his argument for a united front against fascism and his opposition to the idea that a dictatorship that unleashed repression and mass murder against the working class and peasantry was genuinely socialist. But they’re right to see that Trotsky’s insistence that the capitalist state could not be taken over and used by socialists, to gradually go beyond capitalism, places his politics at a considerable distance from theirs. It’s well worth debating with comrades whose criticism of Trotsky hinges on his commitment to the revolutionary dismantling of the existing state and its replacement with new and much more democratic institutions.
It’s well worth debating with comrades whose criticism of Trotsky hinges on his commitment to the revolutionary dismantling of the existing state and its replacement with new and much more democratic institutions.
And then there’s the unquestioning Trotskyist reverence for “the old man.” Many Trotskyists will use the occasion of the anniversary of his death to celebrate Trotsky’s contributions and reiterate not just that their politics are better than social democracy and Stalinism, but that they are already fully equivalent to the kind of socialism we need today.
The Ukrainian Marxist Roman Rosdolsky once wrote “There are two ways to look at Marx and Engels: as the creators of a brilliant, but in its deepest essence, thoroughly critical, scientific method; or as church fathers of some sort, the bronzed figures of a monument.” Much too often Trotskyists look at Trotsky as a lesser church father, a slightly smaller figure beside the statues of the founding fathers at the shrine. Trotskyism’s origins—as an embattled, minority current whose leaders saw themselves as defenders of the politics of the Communist International in its early years against Stalinism—made its supporters more inclined to champion inherited ideas than to develop socialist politics using a critical Marxist method. “Those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones,” Trotsky famously wrote. But were the old positions entirely correct at the time? And what if we’re now on a different battlefield?
Trotsky ought to be defended against most of his detractors, but not uncritically. As a historical figure, Trotsky deserves a “thoroughly critical” political assessment.1 More important, the socialism we need today needs to go beyond Trotskyism. The anniversary of Trotsky’s death should not be an occasion for bolstering a tradition that ought to be both critically appreciated and superseded by socialists today
originally published by Briarpatch
by David Camfield
Some people looking for a radical political group to join today come across the Communist Party of Canada (CPC). The CPC claims to be socialist and revolutionary, with a record of fighting for socialism since it was founded in 1921. But those claims are deceptive.
In 1921 most socialists in Canada who supported the Russian Revolution and revolutionary socialist politics united in the new CPC. This was the Canadian section of the Communist International (Comintern), the international organization of revolutionary socialist forces created in 1919 at the initiative of the Bolsheviks in Russia.
Later in the 1920s the CPC was taken over by members uncritically loyal to the new ruling layer in the USSR headed by Joseph Stalin. Stalin and co. imposed politics on the Comintern that were quite different from the politics of its first few years. In the late 1920s the Stalinist loyalists drove other leaders and many members out of the CPC.
After that the party was always a Stalinist organization in the tradition of socialism from above. Its vision of socialism was all about state control of the economy, not democratic control by the working class (the vision of Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and other socialists in the tradition of socialism from below). It attracted some people who rightly hated capitalism and wanted a left alternative to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and, later, the NDP, but educated them in politics built on the disastrous notion that the USSR and similar societies were socialist.
The CPC loyally supported the rulers of the USSR through the many zigs and zags of their foreign policy, including the pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany of 1939-41. This meant that the CPC’s leaders supported the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution by the USSR’s military in 1956 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, events that led many members to drop out of the CPC just as many Communist Party members did in other countries.
Over time the CPC came to admit that some mistakes had been made in the USSR, and to grudgingly criticize Stalin as an individual in some ways. But the CPC continued to stubbornly deny many truths about the USSR and other so-called “socialist” countries, and about many of the appalling things done by their rulers – from the dispossession of the peasantry leading to an enormous number of deaths in the USSR to smothering social revolution and murdering anti-Stalinist revolutionaries in Spain in the 1930s. Then as now, the distortions involved in defending Stalinism can be ridiculous: as a high school student in Ottawa in the late 1980s, I even heard a CPC member argue that the Berlin Wall had been built to stop West Berliners from going into East Germany to buy cheap consumer goods.
Sadly, the CPC contributed to the discrediting of socialism by associating it with the kind of societies built in the USSR and later in China, Cuba, and elsewhere: class-divided societies based on the exploitation of workers and peasants by state rulers in single-party dictatorships. Members were trained to lump emancipatory left criticism of Stalinism in with right-wing anti-communism, a dishonest and misleading move that some on the left still make today.
That was one aspect of the CPC. Another was that many of its members were very active in workplace struggles, organizing the unemployed during the Great Depression alongside other campaigns, sometimes at great personal cost. There were sometimes serious flaws in the CPC’s approaches to these struggles, but the courage, commitment, and accomplishments of some CPC members are undeniable.
In the mid-1930s the rulers of the USSR changed their foreign policy, and the Comintern swung from its sectarian ultra-left policy of 1928-33, which labelled social democrats “social fascists,” to seeking “popular fronts” by uniting Communist Parties with social democrats and parties of liberal capitalists. From then on, the CPC’s politics were no longer revolutionary socialist but reformist, in spite of occasional revolutionary rhetoric.
Instead of a strategy aiming to replace the existing state with much more democratic political institutions created by workers themselves as part of a revolutionary transformation of society, the CPC adopted a two-stage strategy. In the first stage, it would aim to be part of a left government elected to office in the existing institutions of the capitalist state that would bring in various reforms. Eventually, at a later stage, the CPC would lead a gradual move towards socialism. It claimed there was a “progressive” section of the ruling class with which workers could cooperate (on occasion this led to backing Liberals in elections). Along with this came an embrace of Canadian nationalism.
The CPC’s reformist aversion to class struggle became visible when struggles heated up. Bryan Palmer describes this in Solidarity: The Rise and Fall of an Opposition in British Columbia, his book about the 1983 anti-austerity movement in the one province where the CPC still had real influence on the left at the time: “It would nudge the labour bureaucracy from time to time (although it would always clear this nudging with the top beforehand), but it would also play a role in keeping unruly leftists in line: defusing enthusiasm for a general strike; sabotaging plans for an occupation of government offices that emerged within WAB [Women Against the Budget]; and clamping down on action directed against the bureaucracy within the steering committee of the Lower Mainland Solidarity Coalition.”
Weakened by Cold War red-baiting and the conservative political climate of the 1950s as well as by the loss of many members after 1956, the CPC was still the dominant force to the left of the CCF/NDP until the end of the 1960s. After that more radical socialists, often anti-Stalinist, challenged its influence on the “left of the left.” The CPC became less active, aged and shrank.
When the USSR and most other “Communist” regimes collapsed in 1989-91, most members walked away from the CPC. Often they were lost to radical politics altogether, disillusioned about the fall of the societies they’d stubbornly championed for so long. Most accepted the idea that socialism had failed. Those who carried on in what was left of the CPC were orthodox Stalinists.
Today the CPC criticizes capitalism while praising the rulers of China. It fails to see that China is now a rising imperialist power and somehow manages to believe that this dictatorship of a party that crushes attempts to organize independent unions, community organizations, and political groups but welcomes billionaire capitalists is socialist. The CPC tends to go beyond opposing U.S. and Canadian imperialism – a basic responsibility of socialists – to giving political support to governments in conflict with Western imperialism that don’t deserve it, such as Syria’s, and not opposing oppression in those countries.
Instead of prioritizing building powerful mass social movements, the CPC’s priority is building itself. That makes it a sectarian group. It has an exaggerated sense of its own importance, reflected in some of its actions and even its name (it’s far too small to be a party in the genuine socialist sense of the term, as opposed to the technical Elections Canada definition).
Because it sees the problem with unions today as mainly poor leadership and weak policies (an analysis that misses how unions today are bureaucratic at all levels and headed by an officialdom whose interests aren’t the same as those of workers) CPC members active in unions and other organizations tend to prioritize fostering relations with left-leaning officials over building grassroots power. This approach can even lead to seeing defeats that are partially the fault of such officials as victories, such as the Federated Co-Op refinery lockout of 2019-2020.
Although it supports Indigenous people’s struggles it rejects the idea that Canadian society is settler-colonial (its leaders recently defeated an effort by some members to get the CPC to adopt such an understanding). It calls Canada imperialist but at the same time celebrates “the struggle for Canadian sovereignty and independence” against U.S. domination. This misunderstands the partnership between Canadian and U.S. imperialism and the thoroughly reactionary character of Canadian nationalism.
As capitalism takes us down the road towards climate catastrophe, we need revolutionary socialist political forces constructively active in building social movements. Today these forces are very weak, and people becoming radicals today know less about Stalinism than used to be the case. Joining the CPC without understanding that its “Marxism-Leninism” is Stalinist reformism is an understandable mistake; staying in the CPC is a mistake of a different kind. Of course it’s wrong to refuse to work with members of the CPC in today’s struggles because of political disagreements, but that’s no reason to not be clear about its history and politics. The next left needs liberatory ecosocialist theory and ways of organizing that are very different than those of the CPC.
For further reading:
Since the 1950s, Canada's Communist Party has lacked the size, and degree of influence on a mass scale, needed to be a genuine party.
by David Camfield
originally published in: Passage Magazine
This article is a response to Kimball Cariou’s June 29 Passage article “Canada Still Needs A Communist Party.”
The saying, “Capitalism is a death cult” has spread online throughout this pandemic, and with good reason, as COVID-19 is giving us yet another example of how it prioritizes profit over life. As one of my favourite slogans puts it, “The system isn’t broken; it was built this way.”
It’s no wonder, then, that recent surveys show capitalism is increasingly unpopular, especially among young people, while socialism has begun to be viewed more positively. On a much smaller scale, the idea of communism has made a comeback among some radicals.
If we believe that communism — in the sense of a classless, stateless society of freedom — is possible and worth fighting for, then people need to organize to try to make that goal a reality. In other words, we need communist political organizations, and eventually a party or parties.
In order for a political organization to be a revolutionary party in a meaningful political sense — as opposed to being considered a party by Elections Canada — it would need a few features.
First, it would need to be large and respected enough to influence at least a small minority of those it aspired to lead toward a break with capitalism. Second, it would need a coherent strategy for guiding the struggle for socialism — I use this term interchangeably with communism, as did Marx — that took the existing conditions in society into account. That strategy would also need to be informed by key lessons learned in past struggles around the world and across time, distilled as theory.
Unfortunately, no left political organization in Canada is remotely close to being a revolutionary party. That includes the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), despite what longtime CPC member Kimball Cariou argued in his June 29 article in Passage.
Since the 1950s, the CPC has lacked the size, and degree of influence on a mass scale, needed to be a genuine party. (The same is true for all other socialist groups in Canada today.) Moreover, the CPC’s politics haven’t been revolutionary in any sense, in spite of occasional rhetoric, for more than 80 years.
The CPC’s current program proposes a two-stage strategy, which has been a hallmark of CPs around the world since the 1930s. The first stage aims at electing a “people’s government,” which the CPC hopes to be an important part of, in the existing capitalist state. Then, at a later stage, the move to socialism would occur. The program says nothing about new, radically-democratic institutions replacing those of the capitalist state, or about workers’ self-management of workplaces. It also fails to discuss the need for a revolutionary rupture to break the existing state’s repressive power.
The existing liberal democratic state isn’t a neutral instrument that can be wielded for or against capitalism depending who’s in government, as its operating purpose is to keep capitalism alive. Top civil servants, central bankers, military, police and other ‘security’ officials — none of them ever elected — are committed to capitalism, and would sabotage or overthrow a government that threatened ruling-class power.
Even if a radical left party takes office, the capitalist class is still in power. That’s why the existing state can’t be the vehicle for moving beyond capitalism — its power must be broken and its institutions replaced in order for a transition from capitalism toward socialism to get underway.
Then there’s the question of what we’re fighting for. The CPC’s conception of socialism is shaped by its insistence that the kind of society that developed in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1920s — based on rapid industrialization directed from above by a repressive one-party state — and later built in China, Cuba and elsewhere, was socialist. (In fact, the CPC still supports the Chinese government).
In my view, which is shared by many other Marxists, those societies weren’t/aren’t socialist or moving toward socialism. The CPC’s program says socialism is “the social ownership of the machinery, raw materials and other means of production.” But there can be no genuine social ownership without the democratic control of society by the working class through new institutions of popular power.
In practical terms, rather than prioritizing forging solidarity and the capacity for self-organization in a profoundly fragmented and divided working class, the CPC’s priority seems to be building itself.
The CPC talks about the need for unions to adopt “class struggle policies.” However, its program fails to recognize the union officialdom as a distinct social layer with its own interests different from those of workers, and then draw strategic conclusions from that reality. Seeing the problem as just bad leaders and policies can lead to cultivating relations with left-leaning officials instead of focusing on building workers’ power.
This, in turn, can lead to mistaking defeats, for which those officials are in part responsible, for victories. The recent Federated Co-Op refinery lockout is a case in point: The union was forced to accept major concessions, but a staff editorial at the CPC’s People’s Voice publication hailed a victory.
The last major struggle in which the CPC was large enough to be influential was the anti-neoliberal fightback in British Columbia in 1983. In Solidarity: The Rise and Fall of an Opposition in British Columbia, historian Bryan Palmer describes its role this way: “It would nudge the labour bureaucracy from time to time (although it would always clear this nudging with the top beforehand), but it would also play a role in keeping unruly leftists in line.” The movement failed; the CPC declared a “limited victory.”
Finally, the CPC program’s celebration of “the struggle for Canadian sovereignty and independence” reveals a misunderstanding of the partnership between Canadian and American imperialism, and the utterly reactionary nature of Canadian nationalism.
We need a party that works constructively to build social movements as part of a long-term strategy for breaking with capitalism and starting a transition toward a classless, stateless ecological civilization. The CPC is not that party or building that party.
We’re a long way from having the party we need, but I hope that in the future, socialists from various backgrounds will be able to lay the basis for one. There’s a planet to win.
David Camfield is a longtime supporter of socialism from below currently involved in climate justice activism and the ecosocialist group Solidarity Winnipeg. He is the author of, most recently, We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society. His website is prairiered.ca
originally published in briarpatchmagazine.com
by David Camfield and Kate Doyle Griffiths
In March 2019, Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg cancelled a booking that the city’s Social Planning Council had made for a public forum on social justice. The reason? Complaints from Israel’s supporters about one of the speakers, Palestinian-American feminist Linda Sarsour. In December 2019, the Winnipeg Millennium Library and the University of Winnipeg denied venues to Vanessa Beeley, an apologist for the brutal Syrian regime who has associated with anti-Semitic and far-right figures and made anti-Semitic statements.
Such incidents are part of the context when people on the left talk about how to respond to public events featuring speakers whose ideas we are right to detest. This discussion has been shaped by how the hard right and far right have used “free speech” as a cover for spreading their ideas. Some liberals respond by defending free speech for any and all speakers. In Canada, many people draw the line at ideas that they think run afoul of the “hate speech” provisions of the Criminal Code.
People on the left often treat free-speech rights – specifically, free speech for people with whom we disagree – as being in conflict with the need to fight the right or protect vulnerable people from speech that’s “unsafe” for them. Many don’t think twice about calling on managers who control access to venues to deny platforms to speakers we detest, or even to fire people with loathsome ideas.
But free speech isn’t a cause the left can afford to leave to liberals or the right. And when “no platform” is called for, we shouldn’t appeal to authorities to do it.
Our goal is the revolutionary-democratic transformation of society from below. In the here and now, we should “push to the limit all the presuppositions and practices of the fullest democratic involvement of the greatest mass of people,” as U.S. socialist Hal Draper put it. “There can be no contradiction, no gulf in principle, between what we demand of this existing state and what we propose for the society we want to replace it, a free society.”
That means we must defend free speech. The case of Sarsour and the school division is a reminder of why it matters. Is it far-fetched to imagine that in the future, supporters of militant action for climate justice could find ourselves shut out of public debate because what we say is labelled “hateful” or “dangerous”?
When speaking events with reactionaries like Jordan Peterson and Vanessa Beeley are worth responding to, the best response is to expose their beliefs and explain what’s wrong with them. We can picket outside and speak up from the floor. The goal is to persuade people who’re swayed by such disastrously wrong ideas.
The exception is when a speaker isn’t just trying to persuade, but they are out to intimidate or attack people or build a movement that can or is already doing so. For example, at a 2017 event in California that was cancelled because of protests, far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos was allegedly intending to name undocumented and transgender students and faculty, outing them for harassment, assault, or deportation. This event was planned on the heels of a previous public event where a leftist counter-protester was shot by one of Yiannopoulos’s supporters. When fascists and other far-right speakers give public talks, they’re working to build forces that will murder people as they work toward destroying even the weak capitalist democracy that still exists.
In situations like these, our tasks go beyond raising objections and debate. We must stop the direct harm directly, doing so in ways that build the strength of left and working-class organizing and the leadership of oppressed people.
In these cases, we should prioritize “bottom-up” organizing and action over tactics that call on the authorities to “shut down” “speech” that is out of bounds.
This is important for both principled and pragmatic reasons. We know that bosses and police don’t have much incentive to protect working-class people and benefit from the oppression of particular groups. We also don’t want to strengthen the ability of employers and law enforcement to criminalize left-wing speech they find to be too inflammatory, as has happened recently.
Even where authorities taking up “the cause” might be immediately practical, it teaches a lesson contrary to the spirit that animates left-wing politics: rather than creating space for people to learn and participate in building collective power, we are falling back on a model of powerlessness and moralistic appeals.
Instead, in these instances where there is real and imminent danger, counter-protesters can and should take it upon ourselves to shut down the event and take direct action to protect anyone in the path of immediate harm.
Sometimes authorities will respond to mass counter-protest and self-defence with their own crackdown on the reactionaries we’re challenging. We should claim such instances as victories without making them our demand. We should recognize that the powers that be are generally accepting of even very far-right speech as long as they don’t expect it will meet with any resistance, and at the same time we must always be aware that the same authorities will not hesitate to restrict, eliminate, and disrupt left-wing speech they find threatening based on its content alone, often using the language of safety and anti-racism, feminism, and the like.
David Camfield is a supporter of socialism from below whose book We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society was published in 2017. His website is prairiered.ca.
Kate Doyle Griffiths is a teacher, anthropologist, and writer based in Brooklyn.
By: David Camfield in New Politics
2019 was the year when “PMC” entered the vocabulary of many radicals in the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Anglosophere. As Alex Press observes, “’Professional-managerial class’ (PMC), a term coined by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in a 1977 essay for Radical America, has recently emerged from academic obscurity as a shorthand, of sorts, for technocratic liberalism, or wealthier Democratic Primary voters, or the median Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member, depending on who you ask.”
The term was originally meant to refer to “salaried mental workers” who are separated from the capitalist class because they don’t control any means of production, but who are also said to have, in Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich’s words, “an objectively antagonistic relationship” to the working class because of the function of their work – reproducing capitalist society – and their high status within workplace hierarchies. The PMC was said to include “teachers, social workers, psychologists, entertainers, writers of advertising copy and TV scripts” as well as “middle-level administrators and managers, engineers, and other technical workers.”
There’s no doubt that lots of people do such paid work. But are they a distinct social class? This takes us to the heart of the issue: what’s class? Ellen Meiksins Wood was right to argue in Democracy Against Capitalism (1995) that “There are really only two ways of thinking theoretically about class: either as a structural location or as a social relation. The first and most common of these treats class as a form of ‘stratification,’ a layer in a hierarchical structure… In contrast to this geological model, there is a social-historical conception of class as a relation between appropriators and producers.”
The concept of the PMC combines elements of both models. It “confuses a group’s function with its class position,” as Peter Meiksins argued. Having a particular function doesn’t by itself make a group of people a social class. People who don’t control any means of production are employed to perform many different functions for capitalists and state managers. Many are directly involved in one way or another in producing goods and services as commodities and then selling them. Others aren’t. Many of the latter work for the state, whether in education, social services, public health care (where it exists), government administration, prisons or policing. “One must be careful,” Meiksins warned, “not to assume that a group of workers is in a different class simply because of a distinctive function.”
Does their place within the structure of capitalism really make the relationship between most so-called PMC members and other wage-earners so antagonistic that they constitute a separate class? Or are most better understood as part of the working class, some of whose segments experience friction with other segments because of how capitalism organizes our lives? Conflicts between students and parents on the one hand and teachers on the other, or between parents and social workers, are similar to bus drivers’ conflicts with riders. The frictions are real, and they’re often shaped by racism and other forms of oppression. But they’re not antagonism between classes.
What about the status and working conditions of people often seen as belonging to the PMC? Peter Meiksins hit the nail on the head: “Privileged, skilled, autonomous workers are still wage-labourers, whose privileges, skills and autonomy are under constant threat of removal by capitalists” and public sector bosses.
In short, most of the people labelled “PMC” by users of the term should instead be understood as part of the working class (a minority are not, chiefly middle managers). This means that the working class is both broader and more internally-divided by workplace hierarchies, educational credentials, and other cleavages than many socialists realize, as well as divided by gender, racial and other forms of oppression.
There’s nothing new about deep internal divisions in the working class. For example, in the second half of the 1800s skilled craftworkers often had helpers whom they hired and fired and paid out of their own wages. One thing that is distinctive about advanced capitalist countries today is the division in the class connected to the larger share of jobs classified as “professional,” for which workers are required to have university degrees (of course, many workers with degrees don’t work in such jobs). As Jeff Schmidt argues in Disciplined Minds – a book that every leftist considering graduate or professional school should read – employers expect professional workers to be creative “but within strict political limits.”
There are real differences between workers often dubbed PMC and other workers. In the workplace, professional workers are often assigned what Karl Marx called the “function of direction” (supervising other workers). Outside of work, they often associate with each other and self-employed university-trained people like doctors and lawyers more than with people in other layers of the working class. These differences have political consequences and shouldn’t be ignored. However, they are differences within the immense majority who make up the collective labourer, to use another of Marx’s phrases, not evidence of a separate PMC.
This argument about class theory matters politically. PMC theory reinforces narrow notions we’ve inherited from earlier eras in the history of capitalism about who the working class is. Such notions can get in the way understanding and participating in the struggles of the actually-existing working class in our time.
People thinking of themselves as PMC reinforces the idea that “we’re not workers” which is extremely common among workers with graduate or professional degrees. That belief is an obstacle to such workers figuring out what side they’re on, unionizing, striking, and finding common cause with the majority of the working class that doesn’t have professional status. It can also encourage guilty moralism (“are we asking for too much? after all, others have it much worse than us”) among university-educated workers who start organizing and fighting collectively.
PMC theory can easily lead to socialists arguing for watering down demands in order to create an alliance between the working class and PMC. In contrast, recognizing that most people labelled PMC are actually part of the working class and that their relatively better conditions are also threatened by austerity and employers’ drive to intensify work avoids this danger. This helps us to look for commonalities in the experiences of quite different segments of the working class.
Taken to its logical conclusion, PMC theory would lead to questioning the inclusion of members of the so-called PMC in working-class organizations; after all, the PMC’s interests are supposedly antagonistic to those of the working class. That’s precisely the opposite of the approach best suited for undermining the elitism and narrow-minded sectionalism rampant among higher-status workers with professional credentials: promoting as much egalitarian convergence and association with other workers as possible. The more workers with professional status come together with other workers in settings where they don’t have the kind of control they do in the workplace, the more they’re likely to recognize both shared class interests and which of their advantages that are denied to other workers ought to be given up for the common good. This makes unions in which professional workers participate alongside other workers – like Ver.di in Germany, which includes many kinds of service workers, or SITUAM at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico, which includes faculty members as well as “blue collar” and “white collar” support staff – preferable to craft unions of professional workers alone. But that’s not the kind of organization to which PMC theory points.
In 2020 let’s give up talk about a PMC and focus on the challenge of how to contribute to forging bonds of solidarity within a deeply divided working class.
DAVID CAMFIELD is involved in climate justice and labour activity in Winnipeg. He is the author of We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society and Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement.
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