The State of the Canadian Far-Left

tumblr_ma0o5psbtr1qmc7xho1_500I originally was going to entitle this piece the state of the Canadian working class, but decided that such a reflection, while important, actually skirts the major problem facing the working class today. I could have gone over the standard evaluation of working class struggle in this country. Workers are everywhere under the gun. Private and public sector workers are both facing hostile employers and objectively bad conditions to be pushing for gains. Stagnant economic growth over the past five years, austerity policies and hostile government back-to-work legislation have created a huge hurdle for labour to achieve material gains and a growth in organized membership.

The litany of labour battles over that last several years is symptomatic of the struggles facing the working class: the on-going fight at U.S. Steel, the lockout at Canada Post, the closure of EMD, the battle over the bill 115 in Ontario, the lockout at Rio Tinto, the fight over EI in the Maritimes, the battle of public service workers in Toronto and the bitter fights at Air Canada, Porter and CP rail are but a few examples. Not all of these ended it complete defeat, but the trajectory is clear.

The victories in our current period are measured against the ferocity of our defeats. When the employers and the ruling class in general are not able to institute their maximum agenda, we tout this as victory. It should be more accurately categorized as a success within the given situation, not a victory. Even these successes have been few and far between. Now given the objective conditions in the wake of the global recession this is to be somewhat expected. However, we are five years into the global slump and the working class in Canada is still under the gun. Capital has adjusted, it has restored profits and the coffers of the rich are filling up (this does not mean that capitalism has “solved” its many internal contradictions, rather it means that capital has found multifaceted temporary solutions).

This brings us to the state of the Canadian far-left. During the Great Depression, despite unfavourable conditions, the working class was by 1934 able to mount a serious offensive against the power of the ruling elites and employers. The balance between labour and capital began to shift away from capital. Why did this happen?

I think the first reason is the one Trotsky outlined, that an economic slump does not mean that people will automatically gravitate to anti-capitalist alternatives. It is only when the slump is somewhat prolonged or followed by a brief illusory recovery and another crash that the situation is truly primed for a growth in anti-capitalist politics. I think it is easy to understand this in real life. People will not immediately break with capitalism at the first instance of crisis. They find all sorts of problems with it, but they usually don’t go rushing towards anti-capitalism until after the economic and political system proves unable or unwilling to ameliorate the effects of the recession for the working class (just look at Greece, the major electoral break through for the left has only come years after the onset of the depression).

The key ingredient however is not the mechanics of struggle, but its art. Even if a situation is ripe for anti-capitalist organizing it does not mean that there will be a spontaneous shift to the left. The main reason that there was a leftward shift in North America starting in 1934 was because there was an organized left willing and able to organize working class discontentment and energy towards a coordinated fight back strategy.

In Canada the Communist Party of Canada created and used the Workers’ Unity League and the Canadian Labour Defense League to bolster working class power. It was active in innumerable industrial actions and supplied the main organizing energy for the Congress of Industrial Organizations during their union drives. On a more broad level the 1930s in North America saw a mass of coordinated sit-down strikes, multi-state coordinated union campaigns, the organizing of the unemployed (the On-To-Ottawa Trek), anti-eviction organizations, general strikes, the organizing of a revolutionary international militia, as well as the development of a huge working class cultural apparatus (all of these involved class conscious militants of one stripe or another). In Canada the 1930s militant atmosphere also gave birth to a new democratic socialist party that registered something close to 9 percent of the popular vote in its first election.

None of this would have happened on the scale that it did without the activity of the far-left. Whatever you think about any particular left political sect is immaterial, the point here is that the anti-capitalist left was organized and committed. This was the precise reason that the left, against all odds, was able to institute tangible gains for the working class (again the merits of the particular strategies employed are not the point, it is the practice of being able to push any coordinated strategy that I am getting at).

This is exactly what is lacking on the far-left today and this debilitating lack of organization is a gift to capital and curse on the working class. The question is not one of struggle, people will always struggle and resist. The real question facing us is organization. How can the anti-capitalist left organize itself to organize the broader working class? How can we breakout of the triage mentality on the left of always addressing the latest and worst fires and start strategically organizing an offensive?

The far-left in Canada is in disarray. That doesn’t mean there aren’t individuals and groups doing great things, rather it is a statement about the lack of broader power and cohesion on the far-left. There is no major political party or organization on the far-left that truly stretches across the country, nor does it look like there is any move towards a broad based left reconstitution project on the horizon (something akin to Ken Loach’s Left Unity project in Britain). So what should we do? Well I don’t have the answers but here are a couple of places we could start.

The first thing we should immediately dispense with is the idea that social movements will somehow independently solve the major problems of capitalism. They will not. Social movements are necessary and useful but are only part of the puzzle. Occupy fizzled because it was unable to address how we should sustainably organize and how we should formulate strategy. Idle No More has been inspirational, but by itself it can not lead to actual structural change. The problems we face are systematic and social movements by themselves only address specific symptoms.

We should commit ourselves to having open and honest debates about nuanced political analysis that moves beyond moralistic platitudes: How should we orient towards the state, electoral politics, social movements, the trade union movement etc? This should be done in a way that limits the political cheap shots and point scoring that so plague the left. We shouldn’t eschew difference, but the way in which we disagree can be just as important as the disagreement.

We need to also be honest with ourselves. Organizers on the far-left should pause for a moment and take stock of the last twenty years. We have fought valiantly in lots of instances, but we have presided over, on the macro level, an unmitigated disaster for the working class and the anti-capitalist left. Too often it feels like all we have accomplished is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Clearly what we have been doing has not been working. We have not met the test of the times. We must individually and collectively reevaluate our actions, our analysis, our organizations and our strategies.

We should look for any and all opportunities for dialogue on the left. Thus, the People’s Social Forum in Canada being organized in 2014 could be a useful place to help connect and build discussion and healthy debate on the left.

On this May Day we should celebrate our past success, but on the day after we need to do some serious reevaluation of our politics. The conditions we face are both grim and fruitful. The working class is increasingly atomized and filled with ossified and imperfect institutions, while large sections of the far-left occupy a world of make believe that would rather confront the situation as they would like it to be, not as it actually is.

However, conditions are also ripe for a growth in anti-capitalist politics, the bankruptcy of the capitalist ideology has opened up space on the political landscape. The only question is can we get it together enough to begin to seize it?

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3 responses to “The State of the Canadian Far-Left

  1. David, what you write about the weakness of the far left and the need for reevaluation is spot-on. Thanks. But I think we need to dig deeper.
    To say that “people will always struggle and resist” begs the question of “how and how much” they do so — look at how low the level of struggle in Canada has been since the crisis broke, and how little of a push for more fightback there has been. This is connected to the weakness of the radical left within the working class.
    I don’t think your post gets at the question of *why* the radical left is as weak as it is. Undoubtedly we can and must do better. But it’s not just because of the make-believe wishful thinking of much of the far left, or sectarianism and other failings (though these are all real).
    The state of the working class you refer to — and the weakness of the infrastructure of dissent that develops people as activists whose outlook orients them towards the radical left in the first place — are factors beyond our control that in part explain why the mess we’re in. An analysis of how these shape the ground we walk on needs to inform how we try to move forward.

  2. [reposting fb comment]

    Hey Dave, sorry I’m late replying. I was surprised at the lack of mention of the USSR and China. My understanding of communist and other radical movements from back in the day is that the fact that actual revolutions were actually happening, and that a world revolution was within reach was a decisive motivating factor. The negative impact that resulted from the truth coming out about communist regimes in the USSR and later on China was pretty huge as well. The lesson I draw from that is that having good examples of what we’re trying to do is of much larger importance than we currently give it. There’s been a lot of internalization of communism failed (ergo TINA)-style thinking. It’s interesting to contrast the importance the elite puts on demonizing Venezuela, for example, with the absence of radical left prioritization of spreading accurate understanding and positive narratives about what’s going on there. So what is in fact possibly the most democratic nation-state in the western hemisphere is characterized as a dictatorship. I think that elites are correct to put so much energy into that demonization. It’s a threat, and can be a decisive factor.

    Another, related factor is the decline of marxist-leninist organizing. I think its success was bound up with the idea that revolution is possible, and its present dismal state is bound up with collective disillusionment about the actual outcome of revolutions even when they do happen. So we’ve swung in the other direction: campaign-based grouplets reacting to the latest elite transgression. I think we need to swing back in the other direction but avoid cults of personality and keep our democratic instincts. Problem is, that kind of development of new ideas and practices takes a long time when thousands of people have to do it together. But actually stating that as a goal is pretty key.

    Basically, I agree with all of your conclusions, but I think that more historical context would tone down the grim assessment of the rad left as just not being as good as it used to be. There are multiple factors leading to our current failures, and they’re not all things we have control over.

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