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.
originally published on Facebook, this letter was shared by socialistworker.org on March 21, 2019
This statement was published on Facebook by David Camfield, Todd Gordon, Brian McDougall and Sandra Sarner last week, the day after Socialist Worker published a letter from the Steering Committee of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) detailing the gross mishandling of a 2013 sexual assault accusation and the resulting organizational crisis. We hope to publish more pieces in the coming weeks that take up the questions of organizational models raised below.
We write from the Canadian state in the hope that the way you grapple with the challenges confronting your organization will strengthen the forces of socialism from below in the U.S.
We were heartened to learn of decisions made at the ISO’s recent convention. We were dismayed to read in the Steering Committee’s public letter of March 15 about the 2013 mishandling of a sexual assault allegation. That letter invites “friends and allies to offer advice, counsel, and expertise” and so we write to raise a concern and share an analysis developed in the New Socialist Group (the NSG officially dissolved in 2017 but we continue to be active in local groups with the same politics).
We’re concerned that some people will respond to the ISO’s crisis by jettisoning revolutionary socialist politics and/or the effort to politically organize around them in some way. This letter doesn’t address the range of challenges with which you are grappling at this difficult moment. We write at this time to argue a single point that we think is important: the tendency to jettison socialism from below politics and organizing is increased when people mistakenly believe that the “Leninist” way the ISO has long organized itself — using what we call the micro-party model — is an essential part of revolutionary socialism.
In the name of “building a Leninist organization,” the ISO (like so many other Trotskyist groups) has practiced what Hal Draper called the “organizational method... of ‘as if.’” The heart of this is trying to:
act as if we were a mass party already (to a miniscular degree, naturally, in accordance with our resources)...[But] there is a fundamental fallacy in the notion that the road of miniaturization...is the road to a mass revolutionary party. Science proves that the scale on which a living organism exists cannot be arbitrarily changed...Ants can lift 200 times their own weight, but a six-foot ant could not lift 20 tons even if it could exist in some monstrous fashion. In organizational life, too, this is true: If you try to miniaturize a mass party, you do not get a mass party in miniature, but only a monster.
The basic reason for this is the following: The life-principle of a revolutionary mass party is not simply its Full Program, which can be copied with nothing but an activist typewriter and can be expanded or contracted like an accordion. Its life-principle is its integral involvement as a part of the working-class movement, its immersion in the class struggle not by a Central Committee decision but because it lives there. It is this life-principle which cannot be aped or miniaturized; it does not reduce like a cartoon or shrink like a woolen shirt.
Like a nuclear reaction, this phenomenon comes into existence only at critical mass; below critical mass, it does not simply become smaller, it disappears. Hence, what can the would-be micro-mass party ape in miniature? Only the internal life of the mass party (some of it, in a way); but this internal life, mechanically carried over, is now detached from the reality which governs it in a real mass party.
The ISO has practiced a modified version of the micro-party model developed by the British SWP. This approach has been less damaging than other versions. But we believe that any attempt to apply some approximation of a Leninist party model to a small group (whether that model originates with the Bolsheviks, the earliest years of the Comintern or, as has been more common among Trotskyists, the Comintern after it was “Bolshevized” under Zinoviev from 1924) — and the ISO is a tiny group in the context of U.S. society — is a mistake. This attempt is one of the causes of the ISO’s difficulties.
As our comrade David McNally wrote in 2009 to someone who was until recently a member of the ISO Steering Committee:
One of the great problems with the dominant model of “Leninism” on the far-left is the idea that the legacy of Bolshevism involves steadfastly building a small group that eventually wins leadership of the working class movement. Given that there is no army, no class vanguard, ready to be lead, the small group project becomes the construction of an ostensible leadership-in-waiting.
This then gets transmuted into the notion that the task is to make sure “we’ll be ready” — with a disciplined cadre and a determined leadership — when the masses look to the left. In the process, a completely undialectical notion of leadership develops — one in which ostensible ‘leaders’ can be selected and trained outside the process of building a real mass working class movement. A hothouse conception of leadership thus comes to the fore, according to which revolutionary cadres can be artificially bred in the atmosphere of the disciplined small group.
All of this produces a fetish of leadership. Since we are incapable of building a mass organization, goes the thinking, we’ll do the next best thing — maybe even the best thing — and build the leadership without which revolution is impossible. And all of this — the building of a leadership and disciplined membership — comes to comprise the core of a doctrine called “Leninism.”
Rather than address the really crucial questions — how is the left to rebuild practices, organizations and cultures of working class self-mobilization so that a working class vanguard” —in other words, a layer of anti-capitalist fighters of the kind that hasn’t existed in the U.S. for decades, as Charlie Post and Kit Adam Wainer discuss in their pamphlet Socialist Organization Today, elements of which are just starting to emerge in the U.S. thanks to the exciting radicalization that’s happening— might actually be re-created, and a meaningful party built in its ranks--real social-historical problems get reduced to questions of building the small group: recruiting more members, selling more papers, creating new branches.
Now, let me be clear: effective socialist organizations are indispensable to the task of rebuilding what I have called “practices, organizations and cultures of working class self-mobilization.” For this reason, we need dynamic and growing socialist forces. There is nothing wrong with socialist organizations trying to extend their reach; on the contrary, this is necessary and important. After all, the rebuilding of a real working class vanguard — as opposed to small groups that claim to be such (even if only in embryo) — will require organized socialist activists dedicated to that task.
Sexual harrassment and assault are problems in all organizations in societies where gender oppression exists. But there is often a connection between the micro-party approach and inadequate responses by a socialist group to oppressive actions by members. This approach tends to inflate the importance of the group in the minds of its members. Preserving the group often becomes an end in itself. When people make the stability or preservation of the leadership and its “Leninist” authority their top concern, they may avoid suspending or expelling members, especially “leaders,” for oppressive behavior.
Organizing on micro-party lines with a “fetish of leadership” can fuel an abusive group culture. That kind of culture reproduces rather than challenges our societies’ oppressive forms of behavior. And socialist groups that treat their own expansion as what matters most are usually resistant to opening themselves up to struggles against oppression, learning from them, and changing.
We’re convinced that what should be discarded isn’t socialism from below, but the “Leninist” micro-party model. We don’t offer you another model. Instead, we encourage you to draw on your experiences and those of other socialists and engage in informed experimentation.
As Duncan Hallas put it, “useful argument about the problems of socialist organization is impossible at the level of ‘universal’ generalizations. Organizations do not exist in a vacuum. They are composed of actual people in specific historical situations, attempting to solve real problems with a limited number of options open to them.”
We hope that you will be able to develop a new way of organizing that helps you to contribute to advancing the self-organization of the exploited and oppressed in the situation in which you find yourselves.
With our best wishes,
David Camfield, Winnipeg
Todd Gordon, Toronto
Brian McDougall, Ottawa
Sandra Sarner, Toronto
First published on Facebook
by David Camfield
originally published at briarpatchmagazine.com
The massacre of worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh by a far-right shooter and the election of fascist politician Bolsanaro as president of Brazil on the same October weekend were a double blow to people on the left who understand the significance of these events. The high-profile public debate in Toronto between David Frum and Steve Bannon later in the week only added to the effect.
The Pittsburgh massacre and Bolsanaro’s win are not exceptions to the way political currents are flowing in most of the world. They are horrifying in themselves. But they are also horrifying because they are part of a trend of growing support for political forces to the right of established right-wing leaderships – for example, Donald Trump, Doug Ford, the AFD in Germany, Duterte in the Philippines. Along with this trend come more acts of intimidation and extreme violence against people who belong to groups targeted by the rising right, including Muslims, Jews, trans and queer people, people of colour, Indigenous people, and left activists.
British socialist Richard Seymour suggests that we “may be, probably are, at the beginning of a long fascist wave.” Our hearts tell us that we need to act now, to do more – and we do. Yet we also need to think hard about what to do so we can make our efforts as effective as possible.
What are the hard and far right?
There are two currents to the right of the established right. What I call the hard right doesn’t aim to get rid of capitalist democracy, even if they want to dismantle aspects of it (such as many equality rights) and enthuse about a more repressive state. The far right is even worse: people who want to eliminate capitalist democracy, along with others who don’t share that goal but are ready to violently attack their targets. The far right includes fascists, who are distinguished from other far right elements above all by their commitment to building a mass movement that can unleash violence against its enemies. The line between the hard right and the far right isn’t firm; far right activists often operate inside the larger forces of the hard right. In certain circumstances supporters of the hard right can easily evolve in a more extreme direction.
“Both currents have been gaining support in many countries since the Great Recession a decade ago. Intensifying attacks on pay, working conditions, public services and social protection are making many people’s lives more insecure. To many people, the future seems to offer only more of the same. The governing parties that have administered austerity through the years some call a Long Depression have often seen support bleed away to more right-wing forces. These blame social problems on not just mainstream conservatives and “the left” (by which they mean more moderate right-wing capitalist parties like the Democrats in the US and the Liberals in Canada, as well as social democratic parties and groups further to the left) but also on various scapegoats.
So far the Canadian state has been much less affected by this trend than most other advanced capitalist countries. The biggest gains for the hard right so far have been Doug Ford’s successes: first defeating the candidates of the Ontario Tory party establishment to become party leader and then winning the provincial election. In Quebec, we’ve seen the growth of the racist hard-right La Meute (which, like many such organizations, is infested with far right activists) and the election of the CAQ, a neoliberal party whose politics are more racist than those of the other two neoliberal parties. In New Brunswick, the new Tory minority government depends on the support of the three MLAs of the hard-right People’s Alliance. On the federal level, it’s not clear how much support Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party will pick up. Jordan Peterson is a celebrity whose influence is a gift for right-wing organizers, but he’s not an effective political organizer himself.
Although far right groups have been emboldened and gained more visibility since Trump’s win they’re still very small and divided. Far right candidates in municipal elections haven’t done very well.
This situation is absolutely no reason for complacency. But it matters because we need to accurately assess the threat, which could get a lot worse. Let’s not forget the murder of six Muslims at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City in 2017, the van attack by a driver influenced by misogynist incel ideology that killed ten people in Toronto in 2018, and the daily acts of harassment and violence that have become more frequent. White people are most open to racist right-wing appeals. However, people who experience racism themselves are not immune (Vancouver migrant justice organizer Harsha Walia recently wrote about a rally by Chinese-Canadians who blamed the federal Liberal government for a murder allegedly carried out by a Syrian refugee). We should also remember that the right doesn’t only use racism to build support.
The relative weakness of the hard right and far right has nothing to do with supposed Canadian virtues. There are several main reasons for it. First, the Great Recession didn’t hit the Canadian state that hard (Geoff McCormack and Thom Workman’s The Servant State explains why this was the case). Austerity has been relatively mild compared to what’s happened in many other countries. As a result, there’s been less discontent and desperation for the right to feed on. Second, at the federal level political parties have not done that much that helps forces to their right (for a contrast, look at how politicians within Quebec have stoked anti-Muslim racism for over a decade). The Conservative leadership has stuck with its view that Canada is at its core a white European country that’s enriched by the cultural diversity of “people from other lands” provided they integrate (this is what Bernier wanted to change). They need this outlook in order to appeal to non-white voters. The federal Liberals continue to champion neoliberal multiculturalism. Although the Conservatives fear-mongered about niqab-wearing Muslims in 2015 and are now targeting “illegal” border-crossers, they haven’t managed to create a political climate that gives a real boost to forces to their right. Third, the electoral system in Canada makes it harder for the hard right and far right to spread their ideas and become visible than it is in states that have proportional representation systems, which help small parties.
With head and heart against the right
It’s entirely possible that the right will start becoming stronger. The strength of the hard and far right internationally, above all in the U.S., will continue to influence cultural life and official politics. When the next recession hits – and it is a question of when, not if – it could be a lot worse here than the last one. The costs and consequences of climate change will undoubtedly grow. Both of these will make savage austerity more likely. The parties that inflict it on the population will probably see their popularity fall. All this will make a right turn by one or more of the major political parties more likely. In these circumstances, the hard right and far right could thrive in the Canadian state in a way they haven’t since the 1930s.
The sad truth is that the activist left lacks the mass influence needed to prevent the right from growing. Internationally, conservative segments of the middle classes that have become even more reactionary are the core of stronger hard right and far right organizations that also attract working-class support (we’ve seen this in the U.S. with the Tea Party and Trump’s base). The left won’t be able to prevent right- wing extremism from spreading in the middle class. But we can limit its future growth by making the social environment less friendly for the right. The stakes are high. Limiting the growth of the right will literally save lives. It will also make it easier to advance all left-wing struggles for reforms, like transitioning away from fossil fuels, stronger workplace rights, and better childcare.
We can limit the growth of the hard right and far right by:
Originally published by Briarpatch Magazine.
“Be careful with each other” by Rushdia Mehreen and David Gray-Donald in the September-October issue of Briarpatch asks an important question: “Why are activists burning out, and what can be done to stop it?” There’s a lot I agree with in the thoughtful suggestions the article offers. Democratic decision-making processes, offering mentorship, distributing tasks and responsibilities while being aware of patterns rooted in oppression, encouraging involvement at whatever level of activity someone can put in, fostering the accountability of members to the group, “assessing what worked, what didn’t, and how to improve,” promoting accessibility, open communication – these are all valuable.
But I think the article also misses a big reason why activists burn out. Also, I believe some of what it recommends could be unhelpful or even lead to burnout. I hope this response contributes to discussion about how to build a stronger left.
Many people burn out or stop being active (these aren’t the same, though lots of burned out people do stop being active) because of mistakes in their political outlook. Some of us don’t realize we need to pace ourselves for the long haul. We may overestimate what relatively small groups can accomplish, or how likely they are to win victories. When we don’t see victories, sometimes we decide we just have to try harder. Or we start to blame each other. These mistakes are connected to weaknesses in our politics and how we understand the ground on which we fight. Mehreen and Gray-Donald’s important 2015 article about the anti-austerity movement in Quebec in the spring of that year gives us a great example: impatient radicals misread the situation and wrongly thought they could spark a student strike leading to a general strike by unionized workers. How many of them burned out?
A remedy here is political education. We need to equip ourselves with the most accurate possible understanding of the society we’re trying change, along with the best ideas we can find about strategy and tactics for fighting to change it. This kind of knowledge helps us to have realistic expectations and calibrate our level of activity to the context we’re in. Without it, the good advice in “Be Careful With Each Other” won’t do much to help people stay in the struggle.
That matters, since we need more organizers who’re in it for the long haul.
Political education isn’t enough, of course. This is where I see the value in many of the article’s recommendations. But I’d like to sound a note of caution too. The article says collective care means “seeing members’ well-being – particularly their emotional health – as a shared responsibility of the group rather than the lone task of an individual.” However, it doesn’t say anything about the limits of that responsibility. I realize Mehreen and Gray-Donald may agree with some of what follows, but their article doesn’t say anything about the limits on the care that groups can offer members.
Groups working for social change should exist primarily to do work that in some way contributes to their goals. If they’re not doing such work, they no longer have a good political reason to exist (in reality groups sometimes exist for other reasons, like giving like-minded people support in a hostile society). To do the work effectively, we should indeed be careful with each other.
But there are real limits on how much members should try to take responsibility for the emotional well-being of other members. Not recognizing limits can further burden women and other people who are already doing a lot of caregiving in their lives. Also, if we don’t recognize those limits, the group’s focus can drift away from the work that justifies its existence in the first place to a different purpose altogether.
How much a group can be responsible for its members’ emotional well-being will depend a lot on its size, resources, and context. To ask tiny activist groups operating in our context of a very weak infrastructure of dissent to take on more than a little responsibility for members’ emotional well-being is to saddle them with an impossible burden – something that makes burnout more likely.
Everyday life is hard for a lot of people – harder than it used to be even a couple of decades ago. Capitalism imposes more insecurity, a more hectic pace, and often more work (unpaid and paid) on us. We often have little or no support in dealing with our everyday challenges. This may push activists to look to their groups to meet more of their needs. I think this makes it really important to acknowledge the limits of what our groups can do.
More than that, a lot of what we need for our emotional well-being isn’t on offer from activist organizations. For example, when I suffered from depression in my early 20s one of the things I needed (but unwisely refused to seek out) was the help of someone trained in assisting people with that kind of mental distress. That’s just one example of something that activist groups can’t and shouldn’t try to offer members.
My last thought is about a distinction I don’t see in “Be careful with each other.” As I see it, there’s a difference between associating as members of an activist group because we think its project is worthwhile and we want to work together – which, when we’re serious about it, makes us comrades – and being friends. What we owe each other as comrades is different from how friends may choose to commit to each other. Of course, some activists are or will become friends. But if we want our organizing to be effective we need to bring together people who want to collaborate for a common cause, but who’ll never be friends.
Thanks to Kate Doyle Griffiths, Sheila Wilmot and Teddy Zegeye-Gebrehiwot for comments on the first draft of this article.
by David Camfield
June 17, 2018
The radicalization in the US that’s led to the growth of left political groups (especially but not only the Democratic Socialists of America) hasn’t been replicated in Canada. But we could see more efforts to form radical political organizations here. My experience in Winnipeg in the last two and a half years has reminded me of two important things about launching such groups that I knew but failed to take seriously when they mattered most, at the beginning. First, clarity about what the group’s project is really matters. Second, it’s vital to assemble a committed core of people before launching a group. Both of these often matter in launching other kinds of groups too (and when relaunching an existing group), but they’re crucial for people trying to create new radical left political organizations.
In November 2015, Matthew Brett and I invited a number of people we knew to launch a project to mobilize against the Progressive Conservatives “without cheerleading for the NDP” in the run-up to the April 2016 provincial election. Our letter of invitation said “If the PCs are elected, we will aim to build a broad coalition, network or group that will push for the mass mobilization to stop PC attacks instead of waiting for the next election. If the NDP are re-elected, we will aim to build a group that will start to challenge the NDP from the left.”
To my surprise, at the first meeting there was a sentiment for a group that would do more than organize against austerity, for some kind of radical left political organization. I was excited about the prospect that we might be able to build such a badly-needed group here. That’s how Solidarity Winnipeg (SW) was born.
What I think of as SW 1.0 was a very loose group with little clarity about its politics, purpose or how to carry out its work. Members didn’t have to commit to do anything. There was no way to democratically decide if someone should be allowed to join or not. It was a frustrating experience for many people who were involved in it (me included). In December 2016 a number of members successfully argued for SW to raise the bar and become a “group of radical organizers that values and fosters clear politics and effective ways of working,” one whose members would be expected to participate actively in the group’s work and pay dues. SW 2.0, through until the end of the summer of 2017, tried to be a political organization of anti-capitalists active in community and union organizing. In September 2017, recognizing that we weren’t that kind of group, we scaled back and decided that the purpose of what I think of as SW 3.0 was to lay the basis for such a political organization.
With hindsight, I made two important mistakes at the very start . First, I embraced the idea of building a left political organization instead of the anti-austerity community organizing group that the initial meeting was called to discuss. Second, I helped to launch the group very quickly, before a core of people with a shared understanding of the politics and purpose of the group who were willing and able to work together collectively to move it forward had been assembled (I remember Krystal Payne pointing out to me in May 2016 the difference between SW and the process leading up to the launch of Solidarity Halifax, described here.
Why was it a mistake to take on building a radical political organization with the people who came together in Winnipeg in November 2015? Almost no one there other than me had been part of one, and few people understood the difference between 1) a radical political organization committed to social transformation that was choosing to make anti-austerity work its priority and 2) a broader anti-austerity community organizing effort. There wasn’t much political agreement to unite people. This led to a lot of confusion. I didn’t understand that the initial sentiment to form something other than an anti-austerity group came more from radicals wanting to have a home with like-minded people than it did from any understanding of what a very small radical political organization should do (including why its members should do community organizing with other people within broader coalitions or action-oriented groups, rather than on their own).
I knew it was risky to launch a group so quickly and with so little clarity. But it seemed like the need to pull something together before the PCs won the provincial election (as they did) made the risk worthwhile. I figured it’d be messy but that after the PCs won we’d be thrown into anti-austerity organizing and that experience would help the group sort itself out. The PCs won, but they didn’t immediately go on the offensive and SW didn’t start to sort itself out until the end of 2016. Not having a coherent core contributed to the confusion of SW 1.0 and made SW 2.0 unviable. It made the experience especially difficult for the most committed members.
The big lesson here is that taking short cuts leads to long delays. Forming what in some left traditions is called an organizing committee, with the objective of clarifying the political project and assembling a core of people committed to working together on it, might have gotten us further than rushing into launching an organization with little shared politics, an unclear project, and no core group .
. Why did I make these mistakes? My desire to be part of a broader radical left political organization rather than a tiny socialist collective trumped my understanding that launching one would take clarity about some basic things that most leftists in Canada today lack. I also wrongly assumed that the initial enthusiasm meant that a core group would come together fairly easily over time.
. There’s more to forming a core group than understanding a common politics and project and being able to work collectively with some consistency. Who’s in the core (for example, what experiences are represented), and what political relationships they have with other people, also matter.
Published by Canadian Dimension May 11, 2018
Climate change is already happening. But the really bad news is that there’s very strong evidence that capitalism will deliver a future of catastrophic climate change that will have far-reaching effects around the world, especially in the imperialized countries of the Global South. There is a vast gap between the continuing growth of greenhouse gas emissions and the massive reductions of emissions needed to prevent widespread catastrophes.
In a thoughtful article, “Revolution in a Warming World: Lessons from the Russian to the Syrian Revolutions,” Andreas Malm writes, Lenin spoke of the catastrophe of his time as a ‘mighty accelerator’ bringing all contradictions to a head, ‘engendering world-wide crises of unparalleled intensity,’ driving nations ‘to the brink of doom’… Climate change is likely to be the accelerator of the twenty-first century, speeding up the contradictions of late capitalism – above all the growing chasm between the evergreen lawns of the rich and the precariousness of propertyless existence – and expedit[ing] one local catastrophe after another.
In advanced capitalist countries, we could see even more aggressive attacks on public health care, education and social services as states cut there while they spend more in response to floods, droughts and other effects of climate change. It’s easy to imagine mass international migration out of regions of the South hit hard by climate change leading to an intensification of racism and repression and the growth of fascist and other far right movements.
As more catastrophes happen and cause problems for capitalists and governments in advanced capitalist countries, ruling-class strategists will attempt to come up with responses to reduce the impact of climate change and manage these problems on their terms. Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright plausibly suggest in Climate Leviathan that this could involve the US or China leading an effort with other imperialist states to “save the planet” using geoengineering and other measures, backed up by military might. Supporters of such a move would present it as the only possible response to an emergency situation. People on the left would be under a lot of pressure to go along – worse than the pressure to support the “War on Terror” after September 11, 2001. Rulers wouldn’t let a serious crisis go to waste – they’d do their best to take advantage of the situation to boost their power and profits. Strikes and protests could be restricted even more than they are by “security” measures today. Capitalist democracy, already thinned out in the neoliberal era and especially since 2001, could be further limited or suspended.
What does this mean for radicals in the Canadian state? Obviously we should be working with other people to build the climate justice movement and other organizing efforts. But that’s not enough. We should orient towards building a new left, bearing in mind that climate change will likely accelerate social contradictions. Most of what I’ve written recently about building the radical left on Prairies applies in other regions too.
I’d like to stress two points.
First, as Matthew Brett argues we should “feel the scandal of our divisions.” “We ought to be ashamed of petty interpersonal or ideological divisions. At a time when the activist left is weak and divided, it’s vital to focus on common goals and principles, rather than obsessing over difference and division,” although “some differences cannot be overlooked.”
The situation we’re in – a stable capitalist society where the ruling class rules unchallenged, with the working class highly fragmented, divided and depoliticized and a feeble radical left – calls for us to unite on the basis of politics that can guide our activity in the current period. That’s different from organizing around a specific political tradition like Trotskyism or anarcho-communism (or as part of a narrower current within a tradition). It’s also different from adopting a basis of unity that claims to have answers to questions that we just don’t face in this moment of history, such as precisely what kind of society beyond capitalism we’re aiming for or exactly how a transition beyond capitalism could be started.
For us to advance struggles and start building a new left in this era we need anti-capitalist, anti-oppression, social-struggle ecological justice politics with a commitment to constructive involvement in broad workplace, community and campus organizing. Uniting on such a basis doesn’t mean forgetting about other political questions – it’s about putting the emphasis on what matters most now.
Second, talking about the urgent need to build a new left doesn’t take us very far. We need to get serious about learning how to build better in the circumstances in which we find ourselves and getting to work in whatever ways we can.
There’s been an almost complete break between cohorts in Canada, so that almost none of the lessons learned between the 1960s and the mid-1990s about how to build the radical left have been passed down to today’s activists. It’s not that everything we need to know merely awaits rediscovery. Far from it! But some methods have been tested and shown to be effective, while others have been shown to be ineffective. Let’s learn and use what works. And let’s learn from our experiences, like the failure of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly and, for a positive example, the process leading to the launch of Solidarity Halifax.
There are no short cuts to a new left. The best next step will be different in Toronto, where the radical left is larger than in other cities but also more divided, than in other places. Quebec Solidaire, a sizeable left-reformist party, makes the landscape of the left different in Quebec. But we can and must try to take a step towards a new left.
How a weak, fragmented, unorganized Prairie left can reignite its combative energy
by David Camfield Apr 30, 2018
published in Briarpatch Magazine, May/June, 2018
There’s no point in pulling any punches: the left on the Prairies is very weak. True, it’s not much better than in most other regions of Canada today – but it’s weaker than the left in B.C., Ontario, and Quebec, at the least. This wasn’t always the case: the New Left on the Prairies in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t lag behind. Briarpatch and Canadian Dimension, two of the remaining handful of left-wing print magazines in Canada, both developed out of the New Left, and they have survived in part thanks to the left in Regina and Winnipeg, respectively.
But today radical left voices are few and far between in the region’s unions. There’s little left activism happening among university and college students on Prairie campuses, and not much left-wing community organizing. Who is challenging the NDP government in Alberta from the left? Where is the fight against austerity in Manitoba? In Saskatchewan, the Stop the Cuts coalition has made some advances against the right-wing Sask. Party’s austerity budget, but still doesn’t have leverage over the agenda.
The Indigenous resurgence that’s underway in the region gives me hope. Yet what I call the “radical left” in a broad sense – stretching from people who demand far-reaching reforms like those proposed in the Leap Manifesto, to people like me who aim for a rupture that drives a process of social and ecological transformation and liberation – is weak. We exist, but we’re too few, fragmented, and unorganized.
As Stephen D’Arcy wrote in a must-read 2014 blog post, “The Intractable Marginality of the Activist Left,” “self-organized struggles of broad masses of people for social and environmental justice” are indispensable generators of “infusions of enthusiasm, critical insights about the nature of the systems we oppose and how to defeat them, and what Rosa Luxemburg called ‘the forward-storming combative energy’ of broad popular movements.” That combative energy is what’s missing on the Prairies today.
We exist, but we’re too few, fragmented, and unorganized.
Other than Idle No More in 2012–2013, it’s been a long time since we’ve experienced such struggles on the Prairies – and we can’t manufacture them “by force of will or by sheer organizing prowess,” says D’Arcy.
Years with so little social struggle have left us without much of what Alan Sears in The Next New Left calls the “infrastructure of dissent”: “the means through which activists develop political communities capable of learning, communicating, and mobilizing together.” For example, there are few forums where radicals regularly talk in person with each other and with people curious about radical ideas, and few networks of activists.
But we can, as D’Arcy puts it, “cultivate a capacity to recognize [struggles] when they do appear” – which means embracing even small opportunities. One of the lessons I’ve learned from my years as an active socialist is the importance of being open to the unexpected – who would have guessed that, in 2017, the lacklustre Democratic Socialists of America would see thousands of radicalizing people in the U.S. join it and push it to the left?
In the meantime, we should make it our priority to build power by working with people who aren’t radicals, in our communities, workplaces, and campuses. We must organize against austerity measures like the elimination of the Saskatchewan Transportation Company, racism, and pipelines like Line 3; in support of land defence, climate justice, a $15 minimum wage, or freedom from gender oppression. Whatever the focus, organizing, as Jane McAlevey puts it in No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, “places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved, who don’t consider themselves activists at all.”
But organizing with a broad base of support isn’t enough – radicals also need our own political organizations, so that we can clarify our politics in order to better promote them to other people, and to help us co-operate across different fields of activity. The radical left on the Prairies is lacking in organizations of its own – and most of the handful that do exist are branches of micro-sects with dubious politics. We need groups that are non-sectarian, united around clear positions on key questions that confront radicals globally, yet are grounded in local realities. The top priority of such organizations should be constructively advancing social struggles. Solidarity Winnipeg,with which I’ve been involved, has been trying to lay the basis for such a group.
In the meantime, we should make it our priority to build power by working with people who aren’t radicals.
Building a group like this from scratch is never easy; it requires a confident political vision. Radicals today are often clearer about what we’re against than what we’re for, or how to work toward the kind of change we want to see. This makes political education activities an essential first step toward starting new radical left political organizations.
The urgent challenges we face and our own impatience to see change don’t dispel the need to learn from history and foster political relationships through broader organizing efforts. As we organize around what we face in the here and now, let’s also strive to build a new left in a region where left radicalism was once a vital force.
by David Camfield
originally published in Salvage
Too often people on the radical left find ourselves thinking with concepts we’ve inherited from the past that have become misleading because the realities to which the concepts refer have changed fundamentally. This happens a lot when we talk about the workers’ movement.
As New York City transit union activist Steve Downs put it,
"We speak about the labour movement and I think we tend to do it out of habit or maybe generosity or maybe even embarrassment, but there is no labour movement in this city or in this country, frankly… there is no unifying vision, there are no widely- accepted goals, there certainly is no forward momentum."
In 2013 former members of the Italian revolutionary socialist group Sinistra Critica who went on to form the Communia Network put forward an argument about the “dissolution of what we called the ‘workers’ movement’.” They argued that
"a historical era has ended in the wake of the crisis of class culture and the dissolution of the network of relationships between trade unions, political parties, associative and cooperative structures. The synergy of those institutions of the workers’ movement has been down by a progressive loss of consciousness caused not only by the blows of capitalism in crisis, but also by the failure of so-called “communism” realized in several countries – whose ruins fell down on the same subjects who has to be liberated – and by the hegemony conquered by the social-democratic tendencies (then “social-liberal” ones) in that movement itself, tendencies that delivered many institutions created by the movement to the logic of profit and market that they claimed to fight.
That history is behind us, even if it still generates monsters in the present times. We are living today the slow time of reconstruction, reconstruction of ideas and material power of social subjects."
In 2015, the editors of the communization journal Endnotes offered an ambitious look at the “longue durée” of the global workers’ movement, “A History of Separation.” It argues for what its authors call “a periodising break.” Their goal is “to allow us to relate to the past as past, and the present as something else,” while recognizing important elements of continuity. The workers’ movement, they argue, “was not simply the proletariat in fighting form, as if any struggle today would have to replicate its essential features. It was a particular fighting form, which took shape in an era that is not our own.” The workers’ movement was “not the same thing as organised workers’ struggle.” Rather, for roughly one hundred years beginning in the late 1800s it was a mode of organizing, “an apparatus, an urban machine, which bound workers together and kept them so bound” in both certain kinds of paid workplaces and in neighbourhoods. To the extent that it succeeded, it relied on “an affirmable class identity” with which union and party activists could convince workers “to suspend their interests as isolated sellers in a competitive labour market, and, instead, to act out of a commitment to the collective project of the labour movement.”
The workers’ movement “embodied a certain idea” about how capitalism could be replaced. Consequently, it “made for a definite communist horizon, which imparted a certain dynamic to struggles and also established their limits.” At the heart of this was a “vision of their destiny, with five tenets”:
(1) Workers were building a new world with their own hands.
(2) In this new world, workers were the only social group that was expanding; whereas all other groups were contracting, including the bourgeoisie.
(3) Workers were not only becoming the majority of the population; they were also becoming a compact mass, the collective worker, who was being drilled in the factories to act in concert with the machines.
(4) They were thus the only ones capable of managing the new world in accordance with its innermost logic: neither a hierarchy of order-givers and order-takers, nor the irrationality of market fluctuations, but rather, an ever more finely-grained division of labour.
(5) Workers were proving this vision to be true, since the class was realising what it was in a conquest of power, the achievement of which would make it possible to abolish class society, and and thus to bring man’s prehistory to a close.
It was this vision that motivated workers to struggle. Between 1875 and 1921, Endnotes argues, this vision had tremendous appeal to workers, which “explains the movement’s exponential growth” in that period. But “Today there is everywhere a commonly felt absence of the institutional forms of solidarity that formed the backbone of the workers’ movement.” In our era,
All that remains of the workers’ movement are unions that manage the slow bleed-out of stable employment; social democratic parties that implement austerity measures when conservative parties fail to do so; and communist and anarchist sects that wait (actively or passively) for their change to rush the stage…. none is likely to rejuvenate itself on the world scale. The workers’ movement is no longer a force with the potential to remake the world. That it was such a force was what gave life to these currents within the workers’ movement: they no longer make sense; their coordinates have been scrambled.
Class antagonism persists, and struggles still happen. However, “the diverse fractions of the working class no longer shape themselves into a workers’ movement.” When particular groups of workers struggle, they may identify as workers. But when broader struggles arise, workers do not identify as part of the working class but “as citizens, as participants in a ‘real democracy,’ as the 99 percent, and so on.” Such identities seems “to widen their capacity to struggle” in a way that identification with the working class does not.
The kind of arguments that Sinistra Critica and Endnotes propose, with their emphasis on discontinuity, are important. They have the merit of registering important changes that much of the far left ignores, denies or minimizes. Today most radicals have little sense of the present as a moment in history with distinctive features and how these differ from the contours of previous periods. Adherents of the revolutionary left are more likely to have definite views about such matters. However, on the far left the present is often understood in relation to whichever momentous historical events a political current treats as most important (the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Revolution, the Chinese Revolution…). The era in which we live is rarely recognized as a period that is profoundly discontinuous with the years c. 1840-1970 during which the traditions of the revolutionary left took shape. That’s one reason why absurdities like socialists in Texas reading about Lenin for guidance in building their organization are not uncommon today. With too much of the far left intellectually imprisoned in archaic thinking, there’s value in stressing that the workers’ movement and the political horizon linked with it are now truly in the past — but also that capitalism, the working class, class struggle, bureaucratic mass organizations born of the workers’ movement, and the potential for a self-governing society are still features of the crisis-ridden world we’re trying to change.
In order to help us orient ourselves, it’s worth addressing the question of how the workers’ movement came to an end. Although Endnotes‘ description of what remains of the movement is evocative, its explanation of the movement’s passing is inadequate – capital’s inexorable tendency to atomize the working class while simultaneously making individuals objectively more interdependent coexists with the historical investigation of class struggles and geopolitical forces in a way that isn’t synthesized convincingly. By “the workers’ movement” I don’t mean any and all mass organizations of the working class. Instead, I’m referring to something more specific: configurations of workers’ organizations with a strong relationship to at least a small but significant minority of the class that affirm a commitment to the creation by workers of a fundamentally different society.
The first world-historic blow to the movement came earlier than is often realized, and was delivered by Stalinism. The fact that this history is not well known today and that nostalgia for a stronger left in the past still leads some people to be insufficiently critical of “Communism” makes it important to recount how Stalinism damaged the workers’ movement. The belief that socialism was being built in the USSR and later elsewhere undoubtedly bolstered the workers’ movement internationally in certain ways. But that was false hope. When council democracy ceased to function in Russia in 1918 social supremacy passed from the working class to the leadership of one segment of the class, suspending the possibility of transition to socialism. Trapped in an impossible situation, a substitutionist revolutionary leadership evolved into rulers committed to modernization rationalized as “socialism in one country.” The last flickers of the fires lit in 1917 were snuffed out in the late 1920s with the completion of what Gareth Dale has aptly called a “modernizing counter-revolution” that consolidated the rulers of the USSR as a class. Stalinism crushed the already-subordinated workers’ movement in the USSR, turning its organizations into appendages of the party-state as it launched its industrialization drive. Its emulators in China, Cuba and other countries did the same whenever they came to power.
Sadly, the connection in workers’ minds between the idea of socialism and the “Communist” regime was so strong that the workers’ movement was weakened as more people outside the USSR learned of the horrors wrought by Stalinism. The vigorous efforts of the anti-Stalinist radical left to challenge the equation of socialism with “Communism” had little success. The eventual collapse of most of the “Communist” societies dealt a further blow to the idea that the working class could remake society for the better, an effect that was often underestimated by socialists who rightly recognized that counter-revolution had long ago triumphed in the USSR. The mutation of China and Vietnam into “market Stalinism” had a similar ideological impact.
The rulers of the USSR also did enormous damage to the workers’ movement in many other countries through the politics and organizational measures imposed through the Communist International. The most disastrous case was Germany, where “Third Period” sectarianism was a major obstacle to united working-class action against fascism. In China the Comintern’s directive to support the nationalist Guomindang left the urban workers’ movement unprepared when the nationalists turned on it in the late 1920s. But Stalinism’s political impact was much more pervasive. From the mid-1930s its politics of seeking popular front alliances with “progressive” wings of ruling classes damaged workers’ organizations around the world. In Spain the murderous and literally counter-revolutionary actions of Stalinist forces succeeded in snuffing out workers’ and peasants’ power where it existed, as well as suppressing anti-Stalinist radicalism. Although this was not the only reason for Franco’s victory, it did weaken the effort to defeat fascism. Internationally, workers’ movements were weakened by the “Communist” promotion of politics whose horizons were now, rhetoric aside, firmly within the existing society.
Fascism, the Second World War and the Cold War dealt further blows. The workers’ organizations built in West Germany after 1945 did not share the commitment of their formidable pre-1933 ancestors to the creation by workers of a new society; in the East, workers were denied the right to organize independently of the party-state that claimed to rule in their name. In the US and Canada, unions emerged from wartime and post-war strike waves as more stable but also more bureaucratic organizations. In the US, a small opening for a left party independent of the Democrats was quickly lost. Wartime nationalism, for which in Mike Davis’s words “‘progressives and popular front leftists were among the most zealous missionaries,” swept through the white majority of the working class. This was then “redeployed in 1946-7 as a virulent anti-communism” that fuelled the successful ruling-class campaign that destroyed most workers’ organizations pledged to a vision of a different society and marginalized the weakened survivors. In Canada, the impact of wartime nationalism and Cold War anti-communism wasn’t as devastating as it was in the US. A minority of the working class continued to support the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, but the party’s “socialism” came to mean reforms within capitalism, not far-reaching social reconstruction.
As the post-war capitalism boomed, the working class underwent significant changes internationally. Yet it would be a mistake to make too much of how higher living standards, suburbanization, the growth of women’s participation in wage-labour, the expansion of “white collar” employment, and “Third World” immigration affected the remaining workers’ movements in the advanced capitalist countries. If some workers did not identify with the movement they encountered, dominated as it was by white men drawn from particular segments of the class, this was not an entirely new problem. The fact that these workers often pushed to be included in unions and/or organized autonomously within the orbit of the workers’ movement (as in the Indian Workers’ Association in the UK, self-organized groups of African-American workers, and initiatives by women workers in many countries) testifies to the movement’s enduring political magnetism. During the long post-war boom a workers’ movement in the specific sense of the term I’m using here also emerged for the first time in a few places, including Quebec; in a number of other countries, perhaps most notably India, the movement grew in strength. Nevertheless, in some parts of the world the movement became weaker in certain respects during these years, although this was often masked by robust working-class combativity and solidarity. For example, in Britain, as Duncan Hallas perceptively observed in 1971, “A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread… Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence.”
These developments in the half-century prior to the end of the post-war boom and the restructuring out of which neoliberal capitalism emerged are part of the decline of the workers’ movement; that decline does not begin only in the mid-1970s. Since then, we have seen the neoliberal reorganization of capitalism followed by its crisis, which has now lasted a decade. The working class in most places has undergone significant decomposition, to use one of the useful concepts generated by the operaismo current of Italian marxism; elementary forms of unity and solidarity among waged and unwaged members of the class have been eroded both inside and outside the sphere of paid workplaces. Even more damaging, inherited “infrastructures of dissent” — the term Alan Sears offers in The Next New Left: A History of the Future for “the means through which activists develop political communities capable of learning, communicating and mobilizing together” — have often disintegrated and not been replaced.
Many social changes have led to these losses. These include the dramatic decline of strikes, the shrinking of union coverage, the loss of workers’ rights and cultures of workplace collectivism, the cultivation of insecurity, “negative solidarity” (the stance captured by the motto “if I don’t have it, they shouldn’t either”) and competitive individualism inside and outside the paid workplace, and the deepening of divisions rooted in racial oppression. The tendency to class decomposition was already underway before the collapse of “Communism” and the open embrace of neoliberalism by union officialdoms and social democratic party apparatuses in the 1990s. Since then, it has gone further, though not without important bursts of self-activity that began to recompose the class in 21st century conditions, for example in France, Bolivia, Venezuela, and China. The result has been the dissipation almost everywhere of the remnants of the workers’ movement (Greece is perhaps an exception). This dynamic of decomposition has bedevilled efforts to renew class-struggle anti-capitalist politics since the fall of Stalinism, and it grounds the contemporary structure of feeling identified by Enzo Traverso in Left-Wing Melancholia.
Where does this leave those of us who remain convinced that a socialist politics for our times must be an internationalist politics of the self-emancipation of the working class, one that’s resolutely anti-racist, feminist and queer liberationist and that recognizes the importance of both autonomous organizing by members of oppressed groups and united workers’ struggles in the workplace and community spheres? To start, we should recognize that classical marxism was a product of conditions radically-dissimilar to our own (as was classical anarchism). Strategic concepts of the early Comintern like the revolutionary party, the united front and the workers’ government assume the existence of forms of class organization and consciousness that in most regions haven’t existed for a long time. This doesn’t necessarily make them unworthy of study (although anyone who still thinks socialist groups today should organize themselves along “Leninist” lines “as if” they were large organizations that could meaningfully be called revolutionary parties, “only smaller” — the micro-party model — hasn’t learned much from the history of the far left since 1945). But it does mean these concepts can’t be “applied” in today’s conditions.
As the Italian marxists quoted at the outset put it, ours is “the slow time of reconstruction, reconstruction of ideas and material power of social subjects.” The extent of working-class decomposition imposes this pace on efforts to foster workers’ self-organization and solidarity. This temporality is terrifyingly out of synch with the speeds at which the climate change crisis is worsening and political events are happening (Brexit, Trump’s win, the growth of right-wing populist and fascist forces…). Although bold political initiatives and surprising wins are possible (the obvious lesson of, for example, the ascent of Corbyn-led Labour as well as the Sanders campaign and the emergence of a new left in the US, and, on a smaller scale, of the $15 and Fairness campaign in the Canadian province of Ontario), the advance of class-struggle politics is constrained by the political condition of the social forces on which these politics depend — not union officials or even union and community activists but the layers of the working class open to taking collective action against employers, landlords, corporate polluters, governments, and other state authorities when it seems that fighting back makes sense.
Recognizing this powerful constraint should direct our attention to the “need to start where the working class is, rather than where [we] might like it to be,” as Sheila Cohen puts it. A good first move is to try to listen and watch attentively, using theoretical tools but trying to avoid imposing preconceptions. Most of us can contribute in at least some small way to fostering elementary forms of resistance where we work or live, and in these increasingly unpredictable times (who foresaw Corbynism, the influx of thousands of radicalizing people into the Democratic Socialists of America, or the hopeful “#MeToo moment”?) there are sometimes opportunities to do more. We can support and learn from promising instances of working-class self-activity wherever they happen, from neighbourhood anti-austerity campaigns to strikes to initiatives for change within unions to anti-racist protests. We can acknowledge and try to overcome the unhelpful tendency of radicals on the margins to huddle together rather than engage with people who are taking action but haven’t yet drawn the conclusions we have. Intellectuals working in academic institutions can, in addition to organizing where we are, develop relationships with, to quote Cohen, our “‘organic’ counterparts — as facilitators, researchers and educators in the cause of developing actually existing class organisation and resistance.”
Such an open and experimental approach is the most promising way to contribute to the possibility of reinventing a class movement through which people can effectively defend themselves within contemporary society and work for its supercession. Such a reinvention is what is called for by social struggles today, after the end of the movement that so profoundly shaped our traditions.
 I have addressed operaismo‘s contribution to theorizing class in “Reorienting Class Analysis: Working Classes as Historical Formations,” Science and Society 68.4 (2004-2005).
By David Camfield
December 28, 2017
Nick Montgomery and carla bergman have written a book with an appealing title: Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times (AK Press & Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2017). After seeing that it promised to discuss “rigid radicalism,” I hoped that the book might contain some useful insights about this phenomenon (one of the things I became aware of in 2017 was the growth on university campuses in the Canadian state of two small far left groups that certainly fit that description) and about fostering a left that’s more attractive and effective. At the same time I suspected its theoretical perspective wouldn’t fit well with any politics of class and anti-oppression struggle that aim for the kind of rupture with capitalism that would launch a transition towards a self-governing society.
Unfortunately, the book is a disappointment. It’s much more about the authors’ theory – whose influences include the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza, post-structuralism, autonomism, and the Canadian anarchist Richard Day – than about contemporary experiences of activism and organizing, which are only touched on in minimal and pretty superficial ways to support the book’s argument.
The book is a celebration of joy in the very specific sense in which the authors use the term: “the growth of shared power to do, feel, and think more.” This is a process made up of “common notions”, “shared thinking-feeling-doings that support joyful transformation... processes through which people figure things out together and become active in joy’s unfolding, learning to participate in and sustain new capacities.” “Joyful militancy, then, is a fierce commitment to emergent forms of life in the cracks of Empire, and the values, responsibilities, and questions that sustain them.”
As that last line hints, the authors believe that new forms of life “are always in the making in the cracks of Empire.” Although they’re not explicit, they seem to think that these might, someday, somehow, replace “the organized catastrophe in which we live today.” They endorse a politics that refuses “trying to rationally direct the course of events” and instead “is about learning to participate more actively in the forces that compose the world and oneself.”
This is a kind of anarchism that rejects strategic politics altogether. Participating in any campaign, struggle or movement inevitably throws up questions about what direction the organizing should go in. The politics of Joyful Militancy offer very little guidance about how to grapple with such questions because they refuse strategic thinking. From the authors’ perspective, what is to be done is completely a matter of what promotes joy in the specific context people are in. Their rejection of strategic thinking is part and parcel of their rejection of any and all radical politics of “directed social transformation brought about by deliberate intent,” to use a phrase (not found in the book) of the historian Willie Thompson that I think grasps the heart of the matter. Strategic politics only appear in the book in the form of vague references to “vanguardist” (what I prefer to call substitutionist) groups and a brief discussion of one of the worst of these to come out of the turn to Maoism by much of the US New Left at the end of the 1960s, the Weather Underground, a discussion that fails to recognize what specifically led this organization to become the disaster that it was.
This refusal of strategy is connected to the book’s hostility to “ideology,” by which is meant “having a preexisting set of answers for political questions.” Because everything is a matter of flux and context, questions are seen as good but answers can only be provisional and specific. In spite of this stance, the book hovers above history and geography, talking of a generic Empire and saying almost nothing about contemporary Canadian society (where the authors live) or any other society. While the authors write that any perspective can become an ideology, their most frequent example is Marxism, as they point to a kind of theory that does exist but that isn’t the only Marxism.
Although societies are processes in time not everything is flux. Where we are in time and space is tremendously important but social relations like class, gender and race aren’t completely different in every local context. The answers to some questions (for example, can capitalism be changed so that maximizing profit is not the system’s priority? can the capitalist state be used to put an end to the rule of capital? what group in society has the potential power to uproot capital’s domination? can a struggle against oppression be led successfully by people who don’t face that oppression themselves?) are a lot less provisional than others. This means that it is possible to develop social theory that can give helpful guidance to collective action for change today and inform how we answer questions that are more specific to particular changing contexts (how to fight austerity in Winnipeg today, where I live, is a question that can only be answered through experiments, but a strong analysis of the settler-colonial capitalist society in which Winnipeg exists can be useful for people involved in those experiments).
Like Richard Day’s Gramsci is Dead (which influences it), Joyful Militancy is premised on “Making Friends with Failure,” to use the title of a perceptive review of Day’s book. It rejects strategic liberatory politics because of past defeats, instead celebrating worker co-operatives, indigenous land defence, communal gardening, new ways of people relating to each other as friends, and other ways of trying to live better within capitalist society. I think all of these can be valuable, in different ways. But many of the activities the book mentions favourably don’t build power to resist attacks and win gains through struggles that transform people. And none can open the door to a transition towards a self-governing society that dramatically changes our relationship with the rest of nature. Failure “cannot be buried under good intentions or changed into its opposite by holding it up to the mirror of wishful thinking.”
What makes this book so disappointing is that rigid radicalism, “hostile to difference, curiosity, openness, and experimentation,” which the authors rightly observe “often arises as a reaction to a decline of transformative and enabling movements” but that can also be a product of radicalization in a period when levels of social struggle are low and infrastructures of dissent that connect newly-radicalizing people with more experienced fighters are weak (as is the case in many places today), is a real problem. This rigidity matters because it’s an obstacle to building a new left committed to militant struggle and social revolution. In spite of a few interesting observations about ethics and relationships, Joyful Militancy doesn’t offer much to those of us who’re committed to that urgent endeavour.
 Rodrigo Nunes recently described strategic political thinking this way: “taking into account the broader context of a complex ecology of struggles and agents in order to find the most transformative thing possible in that concrete situation: what can best exploit the political potentials opened up by the conjuncture so as to transform its present constraints the most, what will take it the farthest from what it is and the closest to where you want it to be.” “It Takes Organizers to Make a Revolution,” Viewpoint Magazine, Nov. 9, 2017.
 AK Thompson, “Making Friends with Failure: A Critical Response to Richard Day’s Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements,” Upping the Anti 3
 On infrastructures of dissent, see Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future.
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