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.
Our immediate goal in the climate justice movement should be sweeping reforms that slash greenhouse gas emissions, starting a just transition that leaves no one behind, and doing so in ways that fully respect the right of indigenous nations to self-determination. That’s what a Green New Deal (GND) should be.
This wouldn’t be the full achievement of climate justice! It’s a minimum, a set of emergency measures. But winning it would be a historic victory that would open a path to more far-reaching change.
How can we win it? What’s our strategy? A strategy is an overall approach to win, different from tactics like, for example, a student strike. It’s no good to declare a goal without a serious strategy for achieving it.
Will DIY local initiatives work? No, only the federal government has the power to implement sweeping reforms (that doesn’t mean other governments are off the hook). A GND will require change far beyond small-scale community initiatives.
Can we persuade the government to do the right thing through rational argument and the moral righteousness voiced by Greta Thunberg and millions of people in September? That’s a dead end: as we’ve seen since 2015, the Liberal Party is a servant of fossil capitalism, an enemy of climate justice (and the Conservatives are worse).
Can we win what we seek by electing the NDP and/or the Green Party? Neither party supports a GND (although a few of their candidates do). We’ve seen NDP provincial governments in Alberta and BC support the expansion of fossil fuel extraction. In Europe, Green Parties are supporting green capitalism, not climate justice.
What if we could get a party to support a genuine GND and elect them? That’s a better idea, but the problem we face goes deeper than party policy. The governments we elect are in office, in not power! So much power is wielded by people who are never elected.
Capital has enormous influence. It’s not just fossil fuel corporations like the eight powerful firms at the centre of the tar sands. Banks and investment funds are invested in those extraction firms so they have a stake in the profits from fossil fuels. If a government moved to implement a GND it would face intense opposition from most of the capitalist class.
There would also be opposition from other powerful unelected people like top civil servants and the heads of the Bank of Canada, the RCMP and CSIS. They all serve the profit-driven status quo, and they don’t want “instability.”
This means that the only way to win climate justice reforms is a powerful mass social movement that forces the government to deliver! To quote The Red Nation, an indigenous group based in New Mexico, “Our leverage is people. Leverage comes from a movement behind you. Only when people move do we build enough power to force concessions and eventually win.”
So we need a mass social movement. Only a mass social movement would have the power needed to win. The protests we experienced on September 27 give us a taste of what such a movement would be like. But a mass social movement is much more than a day of protest: it would involve many hundreds of thousands of people engaged in sustained action through different organizations, like many streams flowing into a mighty river. If you want an example of a mass movement, think of the student movement in Quebec in 2012 that grew beyond students.
The greatest source of power of a mass social movement is its ability to disrupt business as usual by using mass direct action on a large scale. This can non-violently disrupt the normal operation of public institutions, as student strikes do to schools when enough students participate, and as strikes by public sector workers do. It’s important for us to know that teachers at a number of CEGEPs in Quebec and student academic workers at UQAM defied the law and struck for climate justice on September 27. Mass direct action can also disrupt the flow of profits, as we see when private sector workers strike or when people blockade railways or highways.
The truth is we don’t yet have a mass social movement, and the protests of September 27 were far from the mass direct action that’s needed. Our task as supporters of climate justice is to work to build a growing movement that uses mass direct action and fights to win. We can use different tactics to do that.
We need to persuade more of the growing numbers of people who want climate action that we need to do more than slash greenhouse gas emissions. We have to change society in ways that put people before profit to limit climate change. We also need to persuade people concerned about inequality, poverty and oppression to unite for climate justice.
So let’s go forward, holding in our minds and hearts that our lives and the lives of those not yet born are worth more than their profits!
This is based on a presentation at the Building a Climate Justice Movement forum held in Winnipeg on October 10, 2019. Thanks to Sunny Enkin Lewis for the request that led me to write up my speaking notes.
Originally published in Briarpatch Magazine.
As the federal election approaches, I’ve been hearing and seeing more people on the left in Canada talk about voting as “harm reduction.” In principle, I’m not against voting (although I understand why some Indigenous people refuse to vote in elections for settler-colonial political institutions). But “voting is harm reduction” (VIHR) is a really unhelpful idea.
People who’re involved with efforts to reduce the harm suffered by people who use drugs – which is where the term harm reduction comes from – may have their own things to say about the idea. Since I don’t know much about drugs and harm reduction, I won’t say more about this.
VIHR wrongly assumes that in the lead-up to elections, all we can do is vote for the least-bad candidate or party. Instead of encouraging us to think about how we can take advantage of the election season to further our projects – by challenging racist dog-whistling by politicians, doing political education like the kind the Migrant Rights Network is promoting, injecting our vision into all-candidates meetings, and mobilizing for a just transition away from fossil fuels under the banner of a Green New Deal – VIHR often sends the message that all we can do is settle for one of the options presented to us. This can lead to people doing things that are inconsistent with the commitments to radical change they espouse, like uncritically supporting NDP candidates or even voting Liberal.
It reflects a culture of low expectations and a lack of strategy. The radical left in Canada lacks much confidence in any approach for moving from the status quo toward the future we want. VIHR acts as an obstacle to thinking about how to use election time for movement organizing and building the radical left.
The other problem with VIHR is this: it often implies that because none of the parties want what we want, we should vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the Conservative in a given riding because the Conservatives will do the most harm if they’re in government. That usually means voting Liberal.
But approaching elections with Anyone But the Conservatives (ABC) as our guiding principle is dangerously wrong. It underestimates just how aggressive the Liberals can be in serving the capitalist class. It was the Liberals, not the Tories, who were responsible for making a hard right turn in federal government policy in the mid-1990s. As Michal Rozworski argues in The Tyee, “The austerity implemented by the Liberals, starting with the 1994 budget, helped shift the political consensus sharply to the right.” No matter what they say when trying to appeal to voters who’re rightly horrified by Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, the Liberals are entirely capable of draconian austerity measures. The actions of Justin Trudeau’s government have already shown us how willing the Liberals are to expand fossil fuel production and help capitalists in other industries. And when we encourage people to vote for the Liberals as “harm reduction,” the noticeable gap between the Liberals’ sometimes-lofty rhetoric and their sordid actions risks driving those people – who recognize the Liberals’ hypocrisy – to support Conservatives in subsequent elections.
The ABC approach also makes the mistake of thinking that what parties do in office is mainly determined by the formal policies they’re committed to in their policy books and election platforms. That’s just not true: the ideology of party leaders is only one factor in determining what governments do. The demands of the ruling class, the influence of social movements and struggles, and the powerful pressure to keep the wheels of capitalist investment turning because that’s what sustains most employment and, indirectly, most of the flow of taxes that funds the state – all of these drive decisions, too.
ABC also misses the most important difference between the NDP and other parties. The NDP has always been a party that accepts settler-colonial capitalism (it wanted to reform this society, not transform it). Today it accepts settler-colonial capitalism in its neoliberal form. But it’s not a party of the capitalist class itself; unlike the Liberals and Conservatives, it’s not controlled by business owners and their willing servants. In spite of the leadership’s loyalty to existing state institutions and distance from grassroots struggles, the NDP still has links with unions and retains traces of working-class politics (unlike the Greens, who generally dream of making capitalism ecologically sustainable).
When supporters of VIHR end up supporting the Liberals, they’re calling on working-class people to vote for one of the two historic parties of the ruling class. Doing that helps to bury an idea that needs reviving: the working class needs its own political forces, independent from the parties of the bosses.
For leftists, voting should be the least important part of an election. What should be non-negotiable is making use of the opportunity that an election presents to advance our work for the kind of change that isn’t on the ballot and won’t ever be won by voting alone. We can use elections to organize for our demands and introduce radical ideas into the mainstream.
by David Camfield
originally published by New Socialist
The push for a Green New Deal (GND) that’s become a big topic of political discussion in the US has come north. At the beginning of May 2019, the Pact for a GND was launched publicly in Canada. It was endorsed by a range of organizations and prominent individuals. Behind the scenes, staff from a number of major NGOs including Greenpeace and Leadnow are playing key roles in the initiative.
The Pact calls the GND “a vision of rapid, inclusive and far-reaching transition, to slash emissions, protect critical biodiversity, meet the demands of the multiple crises we face, and create over a million jobs in the process. It would involve the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) including the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), dozens of other pieces of legislation, new programs and institutions, and a huge mobilization calling on the creativity and participation of all of us.”
The Pact sets out “two fundamental principles” for a GND: “1. It must meet the demands of Indigenous Knowledge and science and cut Canada’s emissions in half in 11 years while protecting cultural and biological diversity”, and “2. It must leave no one behind and build a better present and future for all of us.”
Over 100 town hall meetings have been held in cities, towns and smaller communities to discuss what should be in a GND, and more are planned. The results of the discussions are supposed to be reported back and used to develop a package of GND policies. It seems that the contents of the package will eventually be decided by some of the people, mostly NGO staff, doing the work of the Pact for a GND Coalition. The Coalition, however, will not be campaigning publicly between June 30th and the federal election due to election advertising regulations. The GND policy package will be launched after the federal election, with the Coalition talking internally about doing some kind of mass mobilization around it.
The Strategic Importance of a Green New Deal Campaign
It does matter what the specific GND policies will be – but not only or mainly for the reason that some anti-capitalists think. Some radicals in the US have dismissively criticized the GND championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic politicians for not targeting the capitalist system itself. In a much more constructive reflection, British socialist Richard Seymour has asked if the GND depends “on magical thinking about technology and capitalism? Are the legislative tools it looks to adequate? Is it internationalist, or can it be? Does it risk further commodifying the natural world?” Seymour suggests “we need the GND plus something else.”
We definitely need accurate assessments of the enormous scale of change needed to carry out a just transition away from a way of organizing society that spews out vast quantities of greenhouse gases. As Samuel Miller McDonald argues, “we first have to be clear-eyed about the challenges involved.”
But the key issue with a GND is not whether its demands, if they were implemented, would provide a full and complete just solution to the climate crisis (or to every other injustice that needs uprooting). Thinking about it that way assumes that a GND must contain everything we’re ultimately fighting for.
It’s more useful to think about a GND in the way McDonald suggests: “what a Green New Deal must do is begin to establish the political and cultural conditions in which this scale of transition becomes possible.” As US socialist Thea Riofrancos puts it (quoting left critic of the GND Jasper Bernes): “‘shifting the discussion, gathering political will, and underscoring the urgency of the climate crisis.’ If, through the vehicle of the amorphous Green New Deal, left forces might achieve these three tasks, that strikes me as an exceedingly important development; not an end in and of itself, of course, but it’s unclear to me how a pathway to radical transformation wouldn’t pass through these three crucial tests of political capacity.”
Put simply, what matters most about a GND is that it can serve as a tool that people can use to start to build a larger and more powerful movement for climate justice. What we need is many more people in motion. Another document that, like the Leap Manifesto of 2015, gets some people talking and influences left politics but doesn’t lead to mass action won’t cut it.
More important than the details of what’s in a GND is what people will do to try to win it. If we’re serious about a GND, don’t we owe it to ourselves to do some hard thinking about what’s the best way to fight for it?
The Green New Deal and the Federal Election
All that the Pact for a Green New Deal website says is “we’ll bring our shared vision for a Green New Deal to political leaders, and challenge them to adopt these visionary policies in their platforms.” This is a sorry excuse for a strategy. The federal NDP leadership already showed how it treats anti-neoliberal climate justice politics when it responded to supporters of the Leap Manifesto with a convention resolution referring the document to riding associations for discussion in 2016. This succeeded in killing the push to have the party adopt the manifesto. It’s unclear what key NGOs involved in the Pact for a GND Coalition imagine a mobilization after the federal election would look like, but they definitely don’t have a track record of building escalating mass actions on a pan-Canadian level.
A clearer strategy for winning a GND has been proposed by 350.org’s new Our Time campaign. Our Time aims to mobilize young people “to vote for Green New Deal champions and against politicians in the pocket of Big Oil” in the federal election this fall and then “be ready after the election with a mass movement.”
Our Time’s call to vote against Big Oil’s servants sounds suspiciously like a signal to vote for the candidate best-placed to prevent a Conservative win if there’s no GND champion to vote for. That would mean voting Liberal in many ridings. But the Liberals are a neoliberal ruling-class party too. We’ve seen the Liberals’ response to the climate change emergency: build the Trans Mountain Pipeline, deploy the RCMP against indigenous land defenders, and bring in a carbon tax that will do little or nothing to reduce emissions.
Who will the GND champions be? Presumably candidates who endorse Our Time’s version of a GND. If any Liberals endorse it, they shouldn’t be believed. So what about NDP candidates?
The federal NDP leadership doesn’t support freezing fossil fuel expansion, massive government spending on energy and public transportation, a job guarantee for workers whose jobs are eliminated, and other basic GND reforms. Its new “Power to Change: A New Deal for Climate Action and Good Jobs” responds to pressure from climate justice activists and fear of losing votes to the Green Party with a couple of steps in the right direction. These include the goal of slashing GHG emissions to meet the target for 2030 that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is needed for Canada to make its contribution to giving the world a good chance of preventing global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C. But the NDP policy doesn’t include the measures needed to actually achieve this goal, which would include nationalizing the fossil fuel industries.
Still, some NDP candidates will endorse a GND. But what will those of them elected as MPs do? Will they defy caucus discipline and introduce a private member’s bill to draw more attention to the GND after the next election, even if the top brass of the party is against them doing it? A GND bill would be helpful to climate justice campaigners. It wouldn’t pass in the House of Commons but it could attract a lot of attention and change more people’s expectations about what’s possible and necessary. However, a caucus rebellion is unlikely if there isn’t a growing climate justice movement pushing NDP MPs who say they support a GND to introduce a GND bill even if doing so risks them getting kicked out of the NDP caucus.
Building the Fight for a Green New Deal
This takes us back to the really important question: how best to fight for a GND? Here it’s worth repeating the best line in Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate: “Only mass social movements can save us now.” No one has a recipe for generating those movements, least of all me. But we should start by getting clear about what’s needed and start discussing how pushing for a GND could help give birth to it.
History gives us no reason to believe that NDP or Green Party leaders will just change their minds, support a package of reforms that meet the criteria set down in the Pact for a GND, win a federal election, and then deliver on their promises in spite of intense opposition from capitalists. It’s also a mistake to focus on getting people to vote in the federal election, with the idea of having a movement ready for after the election – that puts the cart before the horse.
Instead, GND supporters should set our course in the direction of a social movement larger and more powerful than any in Canadian history. Such a movement can’t be summoned into being in the short term by the frantic work of organizers. Sustained upsurges of collective action by large numbers of people aren’t built like that – they happen, when they do. But organizing today really does matter. As Jane McAlevey argues, “there is one key strategy that has a track record of actually winning the hardest fights in our history… organizing. Real organizing.”
There’s a lot of potential for organizing on a larger scale than we’ve seen so far. Thousands of really young people have been taking part in the Friday climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. Many of them are determined to work for transformative change and are quickly gaining a radical understanding of the roots of the climate crisis. Many people have mobilized in recent years against pipelines or attacks by right-wing provincial governments. Many more people sense the scale of the climate crisis and are open to getting involved in a push for a response that appears to rise to the challenge in a way that also takes aim at social inequality and injustice.
Without large-scale organizing a truly mass movement will never erupt in the future. Organizing for a GND can be a key ingredient for the movement we need. So too can efforts on other fronts, including anti-pipeline campaigns, resistance to austerity, and anti-colonial struggles.
This year we can use the federal election campaign as an opportunity to popularize the GND as an urgently-needed response to the climate crisis, and to get more people involved in climate justice organizing. But let’s remember that what matters most is building a movement, not electing some NDP MPs pledged to a GND. Actions by young people and adults as part of the September 20 #Strike4Climate called by Thunberg and her fellow student climate strike organizers provide a chance to get more people involved.
It would take a mighty movement acting in the midst of a political crisis to drive a government to adopt a GND. It’s quite likely that the ecological crisis along with capitalist restructuring could cause a political crisis in the future. Governments responding to flooding, droughts, wildfires, storms and other problems in ways designed above all to keep profits flowing, probably accompanied with deeper austerity for public services like health care and education, could well spark a crisis. In that context, a movement demanding a GND and organizing huge protests, occupations and strikes would have a fighting chance.
We’ll need a really powerful movement because we’re not just up against the fossil fuel companies. The banks and other large corporations with significant investments in fossil fuels will also oppose any GND worthy of the name. So too will other capitalists who hate the idea of FPIC, massive public sector spending that doesn’t boost their profits, and a government job guarantee for anyone whose job is lost in a transition to renewable energy. In other words, supporters of a GND are up against the Canadian capitalist class (although some sectors are more hostile than others). We also have to contend with political parties that enthusiastically defend or, in the case of the NDP, accept the system that has us on a path to catastrophic climate change: capitalism.
I’ll give the last word to Riofrancos: “The opposite of pessimism isn’t self-assured optimism, but rather militant commitment to collective action in the face of uncertainty and danger.”
David Camfield is a socialist labour activist in Winnipeg and the author of We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society.
Originally published by The Conversation.
A century ago, the Winnipeg General Strike shut down what was then Canada’s third-largest city. Today, the strike is usually remembered as a moment when workers demanded the collective bargaining rights and living wages that are defended by today’s unions.
While we might be tempted to see the strike as an event that belongs strictly to the past, how we understand the past influences how we see the future. And the Winnipeg General Strike is no exception.
More important, what workers did in Winnipeg a century ago may be more relevant to our future than most people think. The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 provides important lessons of worker solidarity and action that we may need to pay close attention to as workers’ struggles are likely to intensify in Canada.
Nothing quite like the General Strike has happened in Canada since 1919. Although the Common Front strikes that shook Québec in 1972 resembled it in some ways, the framework of labour law that’s been in place since the 1940s has restricted workers’ actions.
So the Winnipeg General Strike wasn’t a strike of the kind we’re familiar with today. Most historians tell us that Winnipeg’s construction and manufacturing workers were fighting for basic union rights in the difficult circumstances after the end of the First World War and that their efforts boiled over into a general strike because of the intransigence of employers.
However, this story doesn’t fully capture what happened in Winnipeg.
Historian James Naylor has argued that what happened was “in many ways more of a local (and potentially regional and national) revolt than a strike.”
When union members in 1919 demanded collective bargaining with their employers, what they wanted wasn’t what collective bargaining is today. They would have opposed today’s extremely tight legal restrictions on when, how and for what workers are allowed to strike. The issue of collective bargaining, Naylor says, “was an issue, but as much as anything else, it was the catalyst for a much broader struggle.”
Aspirations for a better city
In remarkable solidarity, the strike brought together union members with non-unionized workers. Workers also infused the strike with aspirations for a better society that they would help create by their own efforts.
Workers rejected the domination of their city by capitalists at a time when many people across Canada and around the world were questioning the social order that puts profit before people and had caused the First World War.
That’s why employers conspired with the federal government to break the strike. Police killed two strikers. In the aftermath, a small number of people were deported and many more strikers lost their jobs.
However, this defeat didn’t lead to union rights as they exist today. Those were instituted starting in 1944 to quell a massive wave of law-defying strikes during the Second World War.
The next upsurge could be coming
The way the struggles of unionized workers in Winnipeg grew into a citywide strike isn’t the only way ordinary people can launch a local revolt.
Could some popular upsurge happen in Canada in the next century? I think this is a real possibility because of the economic and ecological crises we face.
We are currently experiencing what economist Michael Roberts calls a “long depression” — similar in some ways to the economic slump of 1873-97 and the Great Depression that started with the 1929 stock market crash and was only brought to an end by the Second World War.
More recently, the Great Recession of 2008-09 ended the period of global economic expansion that started in the early 1980s. A new wave of investment has still not begun.
It will take deep economic restructuring to reboot global capitalism. These changes will surely bring more severe job losses, work intensification and austerity. When a new period of economic expansion eventually begins, we could see more employers decide to invest in advanced technologies that will make work worse for many workers and eliminate more jobs.
The impact of climate change
Climate change and other aspects of the global ecological crisis are going to have significant effects on society. We don’t know just how catastrophic climate change will be. But the environmental crisis caused above all by capitalism’s addiction to burning fossil fuels will get worse. We are on course for global temperature increases dangerously higher than the maximums agreed to in the Paris Accord.
Many earth system scientists are warning that human activity is destabilizing “the only state of the planet that we know for certain can support contemporary human societies.”
A new climate regime will have far-reaching effects on society. It will be expensive for governments to respond to damage caused by more extreme temperatures and precipitation, more severe storms and flooding, and more droughts and wildfires.
There will also be costs connected to the effects of climate change on water supplies, agriculture, urban life and more. These costs will increase the pressure on governments to slash spending on education, health care and other public services.
The combination of economic restructuring and how governments respond to the ecological crisis could create a major social crisis in Canada. In such conditions, a popular revolt would be entirely possible. We may find clues for what it might look like in anti-austerity struggles in Greece, the gilets jaunes movement in France, and teachers’ strikes in the U.S. – all recent experiences where the usually-muted antagonism between the working class and the dominant class has flared into class struggle.
In such a situation, the lessons of the Winnipeg General Strike about the power of far-reaching solidarity and the danger of state repression would be directly relevant.
by David Camfield Apr 10, 2019
originally published on briarpatchmagazine.com
One hundred years after the murder of Polish-German revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg, are any of her ideas relevant for people today who want to transform society to achieve social and ecological justice? I believe the answer is yes. In spite of the many differences between our times and hers, some of Luxemburg’s most important ideas are still valuable political resources today.
I contend that Luxemburg’s ideas are a more valuable starting point for today’s left than the ideas of any of the other major anti-capitalist thinkers of the twentieth century. Why? First, she was profoundly committed to human liberation, unlike much more influential figures like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong who established a new form of class rule over workers and peasants. Her commitment to liberation was also more consistent than that of her famous contemporaries Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Second, the context that shaped her politics was less different from ours today than the Russian Empire that shaped Lenin and Trotsky’s politics or even Antonio Gramsci’s Italy.
Still, it’s a mistake to try to simply apply Luxemburg’s politics today or look for answers to all of our questions in her writing. For one thing, capitalist society today is different from capitalism a century ago in ways that really matter – from social media to the end of direct European colonial rule and the classical workers’ movement. For another, Luxemburg wrote before some important questions of our time had even been posed – for example, how best to fight for drastic measures to reduce climate change? How to end the settler-colonial oppression of Indigenous people? Can workers change highly bureaucratic unions? It’s also true that she didn’t address some of the questions of her time in a fully adequate way, and some of her answers to those questions were wrong.
That said, my aim here is to discuss some of what we do find in Luxemburg’s thought that is relevant and important today, not what we don’t find. Five ideas stand out as especially important.
1. Capitalism inevitably causes terrible destruction and will eventually lead to total social breakdown (what Luxemburg called “barbarism”), with the loss of the best achievements that humanity has created under capitalism, unless people rise up and start a transition to a different society. Long before total social breakdown, capitalism throws up all sorts of regression and destruction.
Luxemburg grasped that a system in which goods and services are produced for profit by competing firms, one in which the small number of countries where that system is most developed dominate the rest of the world – imperialism – is inherently destructive and leads to devastating wars.
As she wrote, “The triumph of imperialism leads to the destruction of culture, sporadically during a modern war, and forever, if the period of world wars that has just begun [she is referring to the First World War] is allowed to take its damnable course to the last ultimate consequence […] the destruction of all culture […] depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery.” This was an accurate prediction of the world wars and the Holocaust that happened between 1914 and 1945. Her view has also been confirmed by the wars in Vietnam from the early 1960s to 1975, in Afghanistan and Iraq from 1979 into the early 21st century, in Congo from 1998 to 2003, and others.
There were weaknesses in Luxemburg’s theory of capitalism. But she was right to understand it as a chaotic system inherently driven by competition between firms and states into social crises, a system that will eventually inflict widespread extermination on humanity if it is not replaced.
Today capitalism is tearing open rifts in the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature, threatening to disrupt the boundaries within which our species have existed for millennia (some scientists who see this boundary-crossing as defining a new era in Earth’s history have dubbed this period the Anthropocene). Climate change is extremely dangerous, but it’s only one aspect of what’s happening. There is also the extinction of species, the acidification of oceans, the depletion of fresh water, reduced genetic diversity of crops, and more. This ecological crisis is guaranteed to give us a future of worse suffering, strife, and social crises in a world in which many states have chemical and biological weapons, and some have nuclear weapons.
Luxemburg’s understanding helps us to see why there can be no capitalist solutions to the ecological crisis, as so-called ecomodernists believe. It also guards against false hope that pressure from social movements and governments committed to action on climate change can deliver reforms that will make capitalism ecologically sustainable. It is possible – and urgent – to build mass movements to force states to implement measures to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, capitalism with major reforms to reduce emissions would still be an ecologically destructive system.
2. An advanced society based on cooperative production to meet people’s needs – socialism – is possible, and socialism is inherently democratic.
Capitalism is not simply incredibly harmful and destructive. It has also created unprecedented social cooperation and technology that represent the potential basis of a self-governing cooperative commonwealth, a society of shared plenty in which production is democratically planned to meet human needs, including a non-destructive relationship with the rest of nature. We need, in Luxemburg’s words, a “transition to a planful mode of production consciously organized by the entire working force of society – in order that all of society and human civilization might not perish.”
Socialism would be a society in which “everybody works for everyone, for the public good and benefit,” with work itself “organized quite differently” from work under capitalism. It would mean the profound democratization of all aspects of society, with people having control from below over the decisions that affect their lives. “The great labouring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire economic and political life its own and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction.”
The only path a transition from capitalism towards socialism could take would be democratic: “by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy […] socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism.” That’s why Luxemburg supported the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Bolsheviks who led it, but also recognized that the rapid decline of socialist democracy in a country descending into civil war and Bolshevik justifications for this decline were dangerous.
I believe it was clear that the start of a transition to socialism was a real possibility in Luxemburg’s day. We can’t answer the question of whether it’s possible today by studying the past. However, I believe it is, as I argue in my book We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society.
3. The start of a transition to socialism requires social revolution. There is no road to socialism through piecemeal reforms, yet the struggle for reforms within capitalist society is very important.
Luxemburg argued that “work for reforms” – think, for example, of a higher minimum wage or controls on greenhouse gas emissions – is not “a long-drawn out revolution.” Nor is revolution “a condensed series of reforms” – an important point to bear in mind today, when the word “revolution” is used so loosely. People who say their goal is socialism but believe it can be achieved without social revolution “do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.” In short, there is no road out of capitalism through reforms, as some radicals today who talk about “non-reformist reforms” believe. To begin a transition to socialism a revolutionary rupture is needed.
Luxemburg doesn’t give us a strategy for social revolution in the twenty-first century. However, she was right about what will ultimately be needed. Crucially, she never made the mistake of thinking that people who yearn for social revolution should abstain from struggles for reforms: “the daily struggle for reforms” is a “means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal […] The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”
Luxemburg was a consistent opponent of reformism: politics whose horizon doesn’t extend beyond reforms within the existing social order. But her politics were not like those of would-be revolutionaries who think they should abstain from organizing for small reforms today because such work is not “radical.” In her politics we find an alternative to both of these dead-end approaches: to fight for reforms as people committed to the ultimate goal of social revolution, in ways that build the capacity to fight for more.
4. The only way the struggle to replace capitalism will ever succeed is as a massive process of self-emancipation.
Mass struggle is the key to mass radicalization, to many people coming to the conclusion that society needs to change from the roots. Luxemburg saw that for people to radicalize on a large scale takes learning not “by pamphlets and leaflets, but only in the living political school, by the fight and in the fight.” It’s the experience of collective struggle that’s crucial to changing people, forcing them to rethink their ideas so that they begin to realize that radical change is possible and necessary. Luxemburg was never against people reading – far from it. She took the need for education in socialist theory for granted. Yet she also grasped that experiences of mass struggle were the key to people changing on a large scale.
“Every real great class struggle must rest upon the support and cooperation of the widest masses,” Luxemburg proclaimed. This stands as a rebuke to all anti-capitalists today who assume that what matters most is what the small minority of people who are self-conscious radicals do. Her point was not that political organizations of socialists aren’t needed; there is no support in her life or writings for the beliefs that mass movements are enough to make revolution or that revolutions can succeed without political organizations of revolutionaries. Instead, Luxemburg was emphasizing that mass movements are key and warning against substituting the actions of a minority of radicals for what only broad masses of people can do.
She perceptively recognized that mass struggles tend to overflow their banks. There is no better illustration of this dynamic than the Yellow Vest movement in France that began in late 2018: starting as a protest against a tax on fuel, it soon became a broader uprising against unjust taxation, the rising cost of living, “the contempt of the powerful” and the discredited political system that delivers all this, as French socialists Christine Poupin and Patrick Le Moal contend.
What’s needed is a social revolution unlike past revolutions in which “a small minority of the people led the revolutionary struggle, gave it aim and direction, and used the mass only as an instrument to carry its interests, the interests of the minority, through to victory.” Liberation can’t be handed down from above. Instead, we need a social revolution against capitalism made by “the great majority of the working people themselves.” This perspective was confirmed after Luxemburg’s death by the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia and by subsequent revolutions in China, Cuba, and other countries in which small minorities “used the mass only as an instrument.” The cost in lives and the damage done to the cause of socialism by the bureaucratic dictatorships in these countries that were socialist in name only was extraordinary.
5. We need internationalism, not nationalism.
Luxemburg disdained loyalty to nation-states, writing of “the emptiness of nationalism as an instrument of capitalist domination.” She exposed the absurdity of claims about every member of a nation having common interests – for example, consider what the Thomson family (net worth $41 billion)and the rest of the capitalist class have in common with most of us in Canada. She rejected calls for citizens to unite behind governments that administer societies that are not really “ours” because they’re owned and controlled by a small ruling class.
Instead of nationalism, Luxemburg called for solidarity across borders, naming “two rules of life […] “of world-historic importance” for the self-emancipation of the working class: class struggle against the ruling class in every country, and the “international solidarity of the workers of all countries.” This is a timely response to capitalist states that divide humanity with borders that are open to investment funds and rich people but closed to most people even in life-or-death circumstances; grant citizens rights but deny them to everyone else; declare some people “illegals” who can be detained or deported; and deploy police against Indigenous land defenders in order to build pipelines “in the national interest.” Her stance is also a fitting response to nationalist political movements that seek to rally people around the flag, proclaim “our nation is best” and denigrate people who, by accident of birth, happen to belong to other nations. (In my view, internationalism is important everywhere but the nationalisms of Indigenous peoples are different from Canadian nationalism, and so too are the nationalisms of countries oppressed by imperialism.)
Rosa Luxemburg is not a saint. She was a brilliant revolutionary socialist of her time. The answers to all of our political questions today won’t be found in her writings (or those of any other past revolutionary). Yet there is much of value in her work for people who want to fight for immediate changes that will reduce the scale of the catastrophes we face and ultimately for a transition beyond capitalism. The best way to honour Luxemburg’s memory is to put the best of her ideas to work in building new political forces committed to liberation.
This article is based on talks given in Winnipeg and Toronto to mark the centenary of Rosa Luxemburg’s death.
For people who’d like to read Luxemburg, good texts to begin with are Reform or Revolution, The Mass Strike, and What Does the Spartacus League Want? All are available at marxists.org, along with many of her other writings. The best short overview of her ideas is still Tony Cliff’s 1959 booklet Rosa Luxemburg, also available at marxists.org.
Articles on this "archived"/blog format page are also posted on the Writings pages where you will find links to where they were originally published as well as PDF versions.