Prospects for Socialism in Canada
Socialist Action is a small revolutionary socialist political organization with an active orientation to the workers’ movement, including the unions and the labour-based New Democratic Party in English Canada. The modest resources of SA limit our capacity to significantly influence the overall relationship of class forces in society, but we do not confine our efforts to passive propaganda. SA is an organization of activists which seeks to educate the public and to grow on the basis of our militant example in the working class organizations and the social protest movements, as well as on the basis of our programme, strategy and analysis.
The past decade has not been kind to radical left groups in the Canadian state. Nonetheless, since its founding in the Spring of 1994, SA has been able to develop as a network of militants which has taken a number of important political initiatives. We were instrumental in helping to launch and sustain the only class struggle formation inside the NDP, the Socialist Caucus. SA members intervened and fought for class struggle politics inside a number of unions, at the level of the Canadian Labour Congress, and within provincial labour federations and local labour councils. We made an important contribution to solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, to defence of the Palestinian Intifada, to the movement against the US conquest of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the feminist movement, to local environmental causes, to the anti-poverty movement (especially OCAP and OCAT), and SA members contribute to the fight for independent working class political action in Quebec (via the Parti Democratie Socialiste, and more recently, the Union des Forces Progressiste).
Socialist Action represents the political continuity of the Trotskyist movement in this country. Our predecessor organizations re-launched, on a mass scale, International Women’s Day in 1977. Our current was the backbone of the pro-choice on abortion movement, and initiated pioneer affirmative action campaigns including Women Into Steel and Women Into Rail. We were at the forefront of the gay and lesbian liberation movements, in defence of Quebec self-determination, and we led the internationalist and revolutionary left wing of the Waffle movement inside the NDP. Our militants played a prominent role in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Canadian Auto Workers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, and served as union organizers and leaders in the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. Our record of active, militant and anti-imperialist solidarity with the peoples of Vietnam, Central America, Cuba and Palestine, over the past forty years, is exemplary, not only for its continuity, but for its effectiveness. The legacy of Socialist Action and its predecessor groups demonstrates that a small but principled and disciplined revolutionary organization can have a significant impact on the positive development of the workers* movement and society, including the training of a whole generation of militants who hold positions of responsibility in the mass movements. The revolutionary continuity and political heritage of our tendency constitutes a rich resource base from which we draw knowledge and inspiration to meet the challenges and new opportunities in the class struggle today.
As always, the question now is, what is to be done?
Nature of the period
The present situation is still predominantly marked by defensive struggles of the working class. Indeed, most workers are reluctant even to launch major defensive struggles because of the demonstrated lack of leadership emanating from union officialdom, and also due to false (and fading) hopes that somehow we workers, as individuals, can muddle through this situation and survive the depredations of capitalism.
At the same time, there is widespread cynicism, even hostility towards the capitalist system, whose destructive global characteristics the population finds more and more repugnant.
In the face of mounting crises and breakdowns of the system, the latest being the massive electrical power outage across Ontario and neighbouring American states in mid-August 2003, simmering antagonisms can suddenly be detonated. But without coordination and strategy, the energies of spontaneous rebellion will be spent with minimal lasting effect. Again, this problematic underscores the crisis of proletarian leadership.
Socialist Action cannot resolve this political crisis, but SA can play an indispensable role in educating and organizing the political cadres who will contribute significantly towards the construction of a revolutionary working class party. Such a party is the precondition to resolving favourably the crisis of leadership.
The unremitting neo-liberal assault on the post-(1945) war “class peace” settlement is loosening the ties that bind the masses to the rulers. The assault has shaken the foundations of the workers’ movement, weakening and undermining the very basis of the unions and the labour-based New Democratic Party (NDP). This presents the far left, including SA, with a combined challenge and opportunity. Radical ideas can more readily find fertile ground than was the case in the 1990s, but should not be expected to yield an immediate bumper crop of revolutionary organizers. Socialist party building is again on the agenda, though at this stage it is a slow process of accumulation. From a strategic standpoint, it is crucial that this process be conducted on a programmatically sound and principled basis, and that it be oriented to, and as much as possible, be rooted in the workers’ movement.
As Marxists, our political work is guided by a concrete analysis of the current political situation. Socialist Action members gathered for a bi-national convention in August 2003. We discussed and adopted a Political Resolution. An edited version of it is presented below, in the interests fostering a broader discussion on the state of the workers’ movement in Canada and the prospects for socialism in our time.
We welcome your observations and comments. Please accept this as our modest contribution to a discussion which we hope will aid in the resolution of the crisis of working class leadership, and to the achievement of a world fit for humanity.
Barry Weisleder, Federal Secretary, Socialist Action (Canadian state), Sept. 2003
Socialist Action Political Resolution (edited) August 2003
On the surface, the situation across the Canadian state, North America, and around the world appears grim. We see rampant militarism and imperialism, corrupt mainstream politics, civil liberties under attack, and the naked fist of business class rule. All the hot air about a "New Economy" that delivers the high-tech goods was just that. It*s over, and in any case it did nothing to alter the logic of a system based on exploitation, waste and corruption.
Unemployment is rising (in Canada, it is officially 7.8%; 14.1% for youth), exports are falling, inter-imperialist rivalries are brewing. The rulers can’t get off the hook by blaming everything on SARS or Osama Bin Ladin. The problem is capitalism.
Beneath the grim surface, social contradictions are simmering, occasionally bursting forth as rebellions, which we’ve seen occur in Latin America and elsewhere. The widespread and ongoing movement against “capitalist globalization” is a sign of the growing political consciousness that the nature of the problem is systemic. The US conquest of Iraq, the Palestin-ization of the Middle East, and all the expanding imperialist interventions from the Philippines to Colombia to west Africa are driven by weakness, against the backdrop of a flagging economy. Weakness leads to fissures and break downs in the system. These occur at the imperial centers, as well as abroad, as demonstrated by the massive electrical power outage in mid-August across Ontario, Ohio and New York.
The world capitalist system is characterized by overcapacity, overproduction of useless things, and a mountain of debt. That*s what sunk the so-called economic recovery.
The “new economy” boom thudded to a halt in March 2000. Since then, stock markets have been falling, joblessness rising, and scandals mounting. Extraordinary consumer spending, driven by record low interest rates, pulled the economy out of recession in late 2001 and early 2002. But the jump in sales of real estate and cars were not sales of confidence, but of desperation. The “boom” did not represent real growth. It represented next year’s sales recorded a year early. There*s a limit to this “boom”, a limit which we are seeing materialize.
Likewise, the U.S. dollar, the de facto world currency, remains relatively strong, despite the huge trade and current account deficits racked up by the United States. The US is buying abroad far more than it is able to sell abroad. This is a classic sign of a country in the midst of a crisis of overproduction. Why did this not lead to an earlier and more dramatic weakening of the US currency? Because the crises in other countries, particularly in the less developed countries, have been much sharper, prompting a flight of capital to the US. It is Robin Hood in reverse. Billions of dollars from Third World countries, from Russia and eastern Europe, flow into the US, allowing the US to boom. But this has limits too. The emergence of the European Union, and the strengthening of the Euro currency, will hasten a shift in the pattern of investment.
The US will cease to be the only “safe haven”. Inter-imperialist rivalries evident around the US conquest of Iraq will accentuate. The shift in the movement of Capital will produce an adjustment that will put an end to high US deficits, a strong US dollar and low interest rates. This will slow the economy, eat into workers’ standard of living, and expose the very real weaknesses of the US economy that have been hidden by military dominance and global Capital attraction. The downturn, already apparent, will have a widespread impact, not least upon the Canadian economy.
But this part of the play is still unfolding. Contradictions are still accumulating.
Capitalist governments that disavow Keynesian economics, led by the US, pump billions into war production and into so-called anti-terrorist military interventions from Afghanistan to Iraq to Palestine to Colombia. Canada is spending $1.2 billion to upgrade CF-18 fighter bombers -- hardly for “defensive” purposes -- to say nothing of money for Canadian warships in the Gulf, troops to Afghanistan, or police to Iraq.
But for social housing, health, education, welfare and environmental protection there is only a miserable, shrinking pie. Parallel to the shrinkage in the “social wage” is increasing pressure by employers on unionized workers to yield concessions in wages and benefits, and for bosses to just impose lower standards on non-organized labour.
The so-called “free trade” deals (FTA, NAFTA, FTAA, etc.) have increased the inter-penetration of Capital and levelled the playing field for the benefit of the modern robber barons. De-regulation of the economy, plus growing obstacles to public sector initiatives, have heightened job insecurity and increased the rate of exploitation.
But contrary to the predictions of Canadian nationalists, the “free trade deals” have not de-industrialized Canada.
As in other developed countries, including the US, jobs have been lost to capitalist re-structuring, the deployment of new technology at the expense of workers, and the downturn in the business cycle. The anarchy of the capitalist mode of production is the prime culprit. This is not to deny the movement of investment, production and jobs to low wage zones abroad. The corporate trade deals have greased the wheels of Capital mobility. And there’s no denying job losses in Canada due specifically to trade obstacles, as in the steel sector. But lately such losses are more evident in primary goods exports (soft wood lumber, beef) rather than in manufactures.
Canada remains a middle-size imperialist power. It is a junior partner to its gargantuan neighbour, the US imperium. Canada, with a highly skilled work force of 15.7 million (out of a population of 31.5 million), produces industrial goods and services, as well as natural resources, which are marketed to the world. Close to 85% of Canada’s trade is with the U.S.
Coincidentally, according to the New York Times, Canada’s five major banks have spent more than $8 billion (US) acquiring US companies since 1996. (editor’s note: On Sept. 29, Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corp., the largest life insurer in Canada, announced it reached a $15 Billion deal to purchase U.S.-based John Hancock Financial Services Inc., the second-largest life insurance company in North America.)
Data from Statistics Canada shows that a quarter of the work force, 3.97 million workers, is engaged in "goods producing", of which 2.2 million work directly in manufacturing. About 11.7 million people are engaged in "services producing", of which 3.2 million are involved in trade, transportation and warehousing. These proportions, which are indicative of an advanced industrialized economy, have been stable for many years.
Real sovereignty is a myth under globalized capitalism. Only a break with the system, rather than protectionist measures or nationalist rhetoric, can achieve popular sovereignty and genuine democracy. Anti-capitalism, in the form of a Workers’ Agenda (as outlined below), is key to combatting de-regulation and the growth of a two-tier wage structure in the work force. It remains important to expose Canadian nationalism as a tool for sections of the business elite to channel popular discontent with the neo-liberal agenda into the safe confines of some minor disputes with the U.S. rulers. Such channelling of dissent preserves the system, while tacitly accepting the framework of a division of labour amongst imperialist powers. An example of it was the very partial and highly exaggerated opposition of the Chretien government to US President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Chretien’s “refusal” to invest significant forces in the conquest of Iraq permitted a more “useful” deployment of a Canadian military force, which was able to relieve an over-stretched U.S. military in Afghanistan, while deepening liberal illusions in Canada as a neutral, traditional “peacekeeper”.
Another myth worth dispelling is that the Canadian economy has been hobbled by the SARS outbreak, the incidence of (one case of) Mad Cow disease, and the threat of West Nile virus. To be sure, these “natural” calamities have had a devastating impact on specific economic sectors and geographic regions, notwithstanding the fact that they were prompted and/or exacerbated by neo-liberal policy. But these disasters, like floods and ice storms, are not as decisively ruinous as general capitalist anarchy and the ruling class domestic agenda per se.
More than ever, it is possible to speak of a common ruling class agenda. It is well represented in the platform of federal Liberal leadership candidate and former Finance Minister Paul Martin. With the support of over 90% of the Liberal convention delegates next November, and the vast majority of the pro-business media, Martin is all but crowned Prime Minister-- which may hasten the departure of Jean Chretien. Martin’s preoccupation with government debt and deficit, and his unwillingness to offer more than vague promises, or token funding, for social needs such as housing, child care, environmental clean-up, municipal services, health and education shows we are headed for a return to Martin*s tight-fisted budgets of the 1990s, or worse.
The consensus of the ruling class behind Martin is reflected also in the media’s ridicule of Sheila Copps’ platform in the Liberal leadership race. Hers is warmed over 1970s style Trudeau social policy (which disturbingly resembles the current NDP platform). Copps proposes a partial restoration of public spending, with a dash of cultural nationalism. For Bay Street, this is completely beyond the pale. However, both candidates seem indistinguishable in their staunch federalist resistence to Quebec and aboriginal rights, as well as on their shared pro-business “path to prosperity” through deregulation and privatization (differing only on speed of implementation).
Yet another glimpse of the rulers’ consensus is the marginalization of the openly reactionary Canadian Alliance (ex-Reform) Party, and the sputtering, slightly less reactionary Progressive Conservative Party. The Liberals have chopped them off at the knees by adopting their positions on debt and deficits, and imposing all the social cuts that flow from that. For all the big business parties, subordination to the Empire is a shared article of faith, with tactical differences with the US to be more muted under Paul Martin.
There is much ado in the media about the so-called "Chretien legacy", about whether it constitutes a “left turn”. However, the failure to fully implement the modest health care funding proposals of the Romanow Commission, in itself, shows the legacy to be a fake “left turn”. As for the proposed laws concerning same-sex marriage, reducing the penalties for possession of marijuana, (weak and belated) enforcement of the Kyoto targets, and election funding reform -- these are nothing more than low cost, partial concessions to public opinion designed to restore credibility to the system, while vigorous attacks on the living standards of the majority continue.
In fact, the political funding reform, which will force all taxpayers to fund the capitalist parties, including some of the most reactionary candidates on the ballot, may hamper the unions and the NDP, while facilitating for the big business parties a windfall of corporate donations made through wide loopholes in the law.
The Canadian Auto Workers’ leadership is using the new funding laws as a rationale to organizationally de-link the CAW from the NDP. While CAW President Buzz Hargrove praises new federal NDP Leader Jack Layton, the CAW urges its members to join the "progressive party of their choice". At the same time, an opposite signal comes from the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU), whose leaders are proposing affiliation to the NDP. If other unions follow the CAW course, it will not necessarily mean less support from the union bureaucracy to the party -- just less NDP brass accountability to workers, and less direct say by rank and file unionists inside the party.
As socialists, we oppose restrictions on union financial contributions to political parties on principle. We favour more direct involvement of the unions in the NDP in English Canada, in order to help break more workers from the parties of big business and to increase the political space for the development of a working class alternative to capitalist rule.
A more intriguing, and possibly beneficial reform is the proposed proportional representation law in Quebec. Likewise is the Supreme Court ruling on the rights of small parties in federal elections. The latter is the result of an arduous and commendable effort by the Communist Party of Canada to regain ballot status and eliminate draconian financial penalties. The forthcoming Quebec proportional representation law, whatever its limitations, may open up a process of democratic electoral reform across the Canadian state.
Taken together, however, the above rulings, measures and proposals do not alter or depart significantly from the neo-liberal agenda. In a sophisticated way, they may work to sustain it. This observation should not be interpreted as an argument against the struggle for reforms. It is simply to insist that such gains are tenuous. Without a major political instrument that seeks to explain that reforms won through struggle can be consolidated and extended only by taking on the system, and challenging capitalist rule, such gains are ephemeral.
The New Democratic Party, the only mass party linked to the unions in English Canada, falls far short of being such an instrument. Following a small increase in its popularity after the federal NDP leadership convention in January 2003, and during the huge anti-war demonstrations, and following a successful campaign to stop privatization of Hydro One in Ontario, once again the NDP is treading water. Absent is a jobs and incomes strategy that seeks to fully restore vital services, to reverse privatization, expand public ownership and democratic control, and shift the tax burden decisively onto big Capital (rather than onto middle and upper income professionals). Although the party returned to official opposition status in Nova Scotia, and its "Public Power" campaign honed for the imminent Ontario election shows promise, there’s much left to be desired by its narrow parliamentary fixation, its acceptance of the corporate trade deals and big business domination, its soft line on racism and police repression of protest, and its refusal to admit its past betrayals of working people.
The NDP and labour leaders criticize the ruling elite, but usually insist that the NDP steer a middle course, avoid controversy, and adapt to global market forces. This really means subordinating workers to the depredations of Capital. It’s a soft version of Tony Blair’s infamous Third Way. We have seen where that leads in foreign policy, as well as in domestic affairs.
The Parti Quebecois (which is wrongly seen by many as a social democratic party) suffered defeat at the hands of its own supporters who protested PQ social cutbacks by staying home on election day, April 14. There was no electoral shift to Jean Charest’s Liberal Party, whose vote declined by 200,000, or to Mario Dumont’s Action Democratique Quebecois, which grew a little. More interesting is the fact that an anti-capitalist and progressive nationalist coalition called the Union des Forces Progressiste attracted over 40,000 votes. The UFP, which attracted some local union endorsements, ran in only 73 of 121 ridings, and operated on a shoe-string budget. Its vote indicates the way forward -- that workers will rally to an organized, serious, progressive alternative.
At the same time, there are troubling signs for Labour across the Canadian state. Labour Day parades across Ontario and other parts of Canada will march under a darkening cloud on September 1, 2003, regardless the weather.
A number of unions are giving way to a rising tide of employer concession demands that threaten to further undermine unions and working people across the country.
* In mid-July, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) in Ontario agreed to wage and benefit concessions, including $2 to $3 less per hour, reduced vacation time, and more Sunday shifts for employees at the new Loblaws super-stores. UFCW brass signed the deal with Loblaws and refused to put it to a vote of the members affected. In exchange, the union gets automatic recognition (and dues remission) at the new stores.
* Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers’ union, according to the Toronto Star on July 19, "said he’s worried such deals will drive down wages in the grocery industry." But Hargrove’s CAW gave major concessions to Air Canada, the financially troubled, recently privatized, national airline. The rollbacks were in work rules, reduced vacation time, the elimination of shift premiums, and the disappearance of 800 jobs, with more losses to come at Jazz, a separate Air Canada-affiliated carrier.
* In late July, the traditionally militant Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) negotiated an unusually long, 4 year contract with Canada Post Corporation, after four extensions of the strike deadline. The deal includes a number of disturbing concessions in benefits. Despite some gains for the 6,000 previously unrepresented Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers, and a 3% wage hike for other CUPW members in each of the four years, the Union agreed to the elimination of Severance pay (after a pay out to those currently entitled), the institution of uncapped monthly employee premium payments for dental and extended health benefits, and reduced reimbursement for some drug expenses. A "Vote NO" campaign was led by local leaders in Toronto, Halifax, and other centres. (editor’s note: The deal was ratified by membership vote, 65% to 35%, in late September.)
* Teachers’ unions in Ontario recently achieved salary improvements for regular full-time teachers in the vicinity of 3.5% per year (after more than a decade of losing ground). But teacher union bureaucrats are signing contracts that see education support staff, including substitute teachers, fall farther behind. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has reduced the scope for local autonomy in its constitution, and its top leadership is seeking to crush local resistance to anti-worker concessions in job security, wages and benefits. On April 23, 2003, OSSTF imposed Trusteeship on the Toronto Substitute Teachers, a 1500 member bargaining unit, following removal of its re-elected local president from office on January 1. The unprecedented (in OSSTF) seizure of local finances and local bargaining rights, and the banishment of an elected officer for 32 months (on frivolous and specious grounds), is a glaring example of the attack on union democracy and local militancy. Substitute teachers and their allies are fighting the attack with protest rallies, petitions and legal action. Supporters are invited to contribute to a Legal Defence Fund.
* In British Columbia, the reactionary Liberal provincial government of Gordon Campbell, reminiscent of the early days of the Ontario Mike Harris regime, slashed thousands of public service jobs, ripped up collective agreement rights, and opened the door to contracting out and privatization of services in long term care and acute care hospitals. Currently some 20,000 employees, mostly members of the Hospital Employees’ Union, are facing job loss, and residents of the facilities fear a sharp decline in their living conditions. On June 17, the Vancouver and District Labour Council unanimously called on the BC Federation of Labour to implement an Action Plan adopted last November, including a province-wide general strike. Yet an actual common front of unions and community groups, and a date for action, seem agonizingly elusive.
* In Quebec, the neo-Liberal regime of Jean Charest is poised to follow its counterparts in Ontario and B.C. The Quebec union leaders, inured to years of Parti Quebecois social cuts, are slowly embarking on actions to resist the coming onslaught.
On the positive side of the political ledger is the fact that some unions are more pro-actively resisting concession demands.
Steelworkers have been on strike at INCO mines in Sudbury since May 30, resisting proposed cuts to health benefits (editor’s note: they ended their strike in September, meeting most of their goals). USWA members are also rejecting management roll back demands in contract talks at Stelco in Hamilton, Ontario. (It’s interesting to note that radicals have won elections in Hamilton’s Local 1005, as well as at the USWA’s large support staff local at the University of Toronto.)
Activists in the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) are engaged in energetic new organizing drives and related campaigns.
But the number of new bargaining unit certification applications in Ontario, Canada’s most populous and most industrialized province, has fallen markedly over the past eight years. In 2001-2002, the Ontario Labour Relations Board received only 625 applications, and allowed only 307, placing only 16,255 workers in newly certified bargaining units. In 1994-95, the fiscal year before the new ultra-Conservative government of Mike Harris amended the labour law to make union organizing much more difficult (and union de-certification much easier), the OLRB received 1077 applications and granted 762 certificates covering 32,116 workers for a 71% success rate.
Cuts in public sector spending, particularly in health care and education institutions, plus job losses in the private sector due to the economic downturn, are compounding the decline in union representation.
Another big factor is the totally uninspiring approach of union leaders towards the deepening neo-liberal agenda. Particularly infamous was the abandonment of the anti-Tory Ontario Days of Action, which included 12 individual city-wide general strikes. Equally sad was the premature curtailment of the 1997 Ontario-wide teachers strike. Since then, most unions have become more inward looking and defensive - a breeding ground for member demoralization and contract concessions.
Not surprisingly, working people find it more difficult to fight the bosses’ agenda with one hand tied behind our back. Removing that restraint entails rank and file workers challenging the dominant, and increasingly intolerant and repressive union bureaucracy.
The flip side of the same coin is that workers in this country demonstrate a capacity to resist the bosses’ agenda. Indeed, if we step up the fight, we can catch the labour bureaucrats in the cross-fire. Deceased SA leader Joe Flexer sometimes joked about Canada as "the rest and recreation centre of the world revolution". However, Labour in the Canadian state is relatively more combative than its counterparts in the US, Japan, the United Kingdom and many other industrialized countries. According to StatsCanada, in 2001, there were 379 strikes in Canada - thirteen times the number in the US, four times the number in Japan, and over two times more than in the UK. In terms of the number of workers involved in strikes in 2001, in Canada there were 223,800 strikers, 2.5 times the number in the US. In terms of the number of work days lost to strike action in 2001, it was 2,231,100 days in Canada, compared to 1,151,300 in the US, 29,100 in Japan and 525,100 in the U.K. Overall, this has been the comparative pattern since 1993.
In 2002, 3.9 million workers across the Canadian state were union members and union density stood at 30.3%. Although this is a drop of over 3% from the peak in 1983, the present rate of unionization here is over double the rate in the US, and no where near the precipitous decline that has occurred across Europe. Workers in this country remain relatively well organized and could lead the way in defeating concessions and in democratizing our unions.
On Labour Day 2003, our watch words should be: Stop concessions. Restore union democracy. Rebuild the power of our unions with class struggle policies and leadership.
The fight for freedom and for decent living conditions for all working people is a fight that knows no borders. Capital is organized globally, and so must we be. We must be organized not only in globally linked unions and issue-oriented campaigns, like the massive anti-war movement, but in an international revolutionary workers’ party. For that reason we reaffirm our commitment to build and participate fully in the Fourth International. We are committed to elaborating and developing its programme, based on its Trotskyist political heritage.
We are dealing with a global bosses’ agenda. That agenda aims to dismantle all the past gains of the class struggle. It aims to rachet up private profits at the expense of workers’ wages, job security, living conditions and the environment. The bosses are obliged to do this, not just out of greed, but to sustain their anarchic, crisis-wracked capitalist system. We, however, are not obliged to accept it. We are not obliged to accept their secret deals and treaties which make public ownership a crime, and make Capital a god. We are not obliged to accept homelessness, poverty, disease, ignorance and strike breaking as inevitable features of human nature and human society.
That is why the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) is absolutely correct to target the Tory government, and to call for mass action and economic disruption to remove that government. Now is not the time to look for excuses, but to take action.
Now is also the time to link militancy to a political strategy for fundamental change. Activism is inspiring. Activism in energizing. But activism is not a strategy. Currently, OCAP is campaigning to defeat the Ontario Tory government, which will soon go to the polls. No doubt, if we can bring down a bosses’ government, anywhere, it will make conditions more favourable for the working class.
But a change of government will not necessarily put in place a political agenda that serves the interests of the majority. One has only to contemplate Ontario Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty replacing Tory Premier Ernie Eves to grasp the truth of that statement. Activism will not replace the bosses’ government with a workers’ government. And nothing less than a workers’ government will stop exploitation and oppression, and save this planet from the polluters and war makers.
In strategic terms, the working class is the decisive social force. Politically class conscious workers can unite the many against the few. But the political advance of the working class requires at least two things: (1) the majority of the working class must break from the parties of big business, and (2) large sections of the class must come together into a political organization that fights for a Workers’ Agenda.
The obstacles to workers’ unity based on a Workers’ Agenda are many. One big obstacle is the conservative, self-seeking bureaucracy that dominates our unions and the NDP. The bureaucrats’ embrace of capitalism prevents them from fighting to abolish the FTAA and the other “global corporate rights” agreements. Their commitment to class peace causes them to stifle protest, to kill the Ontario Days of Action and the 1997 teachers’ strike, and to prop up an NDP leadership on the road to oblivion.
Union bureaucrats often prefer to crush dissent inside the unions, to remove elected officers and to seize control of dissident local bargaining units. They’d rather do that than fight the bosses, for fear of losing power to the rank and file. A small but poignant example of this phenomenon is what the OSSTF leadership is doing to the Toronto Substitute Teachers’ bargaining unit. Worse things are happening in other unions, including the UFCW.
Under these distressing circumstances it is easy for activists to make a very big error. That error is to confuse the present leadership with the mass membership of the workers’ organizations. That error is to confuse the union brass and NDP tops with the thousands of union and NDP members who walk picket lines and march in anti-war demonstrations. That error is to think that a new class struggle workers’ movement is going to develop and emerge entirely, or even largely, outside the existing workers’ organizations. Surely the workers’ organizations include the unions, with over two and a half million members (not including their families). And the workers’ movement includes the NDP in English Canada with its 82,000 members and over 300,000 union member affiliates, and over 1 million voters in the last federal election.
Yes, rebuilding the left is the task at hand. But what does that mean if not building a class struggle left wing inside the unions and the NDP? Socialism without the working class is impossible. The socialist left which is outside the unions and the NDP is not a decisive force. It can demonstrate tactical leadership on specific issues, but it is separated from the massive forces it needs to become a majority, to become capable of transforming capitalist society.
Fighting to become a majority does not mean adopting the views or catering to the prejudices of prevailing opinion. But it does mean working within the existing rank and file, setting a militant example in the mainstream organizations, and advancing the ideas that can help working people to emancipate ourselves.
The Socialist Caucus of the NDP stands on a class struggle programme - the Manifesto for a Socialist Canada -- and it intervenes in a mass labour-based political party - the only one in North America. The Socialist Caucus believes that the NDP belongs to the workers and farmers who launched the CCF in the 1930s, and built the NDP in the 1960s as a political movement independent of the Liberals and Tories, independent of the banks, big business, and the corporate media. The NDP belongs to the millions who built this country, whose toil and intelligence make this country run. It is not a private club for the current leaders, but a political party of the class that must come to terms with the anachronism known as capitalist rule.
That is how we must approach the problem, the problem of power. Capitalism must go. But it won’t go quietly. We must force the issue, or we’ll continue to live like slaves. To free ourselves and humanity, we must break the majority from ideological slavery to the system and the big business political parties.
The NDP represents a partial break, an organizational break from the parties of Capital. The next step is to deepen that break politically, and to advance it on the basis of a programme for working class emancipation. This is the direction that the Socialist Caucus proposes and to which we remain committed. Hundreds of NDP members voted for the SC candidate for federal Leader, Bev Meslo, who ran on a clear, anti-capitalist platform. Scores of NDP activists joined the Socialist Caucus during the campaign. They did so because they want to fight for a Workers’ Agenda, for a Workers’ Government. They know that an important place to wage that fight is inside the only existing mass labour-based party in North America.
That’s the direction we urged the New Politics Initiative to take in 2001. The NPI’s call for grass roots democracy was good. It’s call for a new radical party was stimulating. But those two calls constituted neither a programme nor a mass base, much less the socialist alternative necessary to replace capitalism. That is why the NPI, and another project called Re-Building the Left, stalled. The same fate is in store for the "Socialist Project" of Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch (who presents it as a "left-nationalist" cause). A socialist programme and a working class base must be forged through organized struggle inside the unions and the NDP. Unfortunately, there’s no short cut to emancipation outside the traditional working class organizations.
Why do the various tendencies on the radical left in English Canada reject and/or abstain from the struggle for a Workers’ Agenda in the mainstream workers’ organizations?
The Communist Party rejects this course due to its strategy of alliance with the so-called progressive bourgeoisie. Its Canadian nationalist and electoralist politics, its hostility to Quebec independence, and its orientation towards “progressive” labour bureaucrats, render the CP a brake on radicalizing workers.
The International Socialists abstain from campaigns where they perceive they cannot play a dominant role and recruit directly to their organization. To the very minor extent that I.S. militants are involved in the labour movement, they over-adapt to sections of the union bureaucracy. The “internationalism” of the I.S. is crippled by its hostility to the Cuban revolution, by its outrageous comparison of the workers’ state and revolutionary socialist leadership of Cuba with the bourgeois state and repressive dictatorship of Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Other leftist groups exhibit the tendency to tail after social movements (e.g. the New Socialists), to oppose forms of disciplined and accountable political organization (the anarchists), and/or to engage in varying degrees of ultra-sectarian propagandism.
But what unites virtually all of the organized radical left is abstention from the fight to build a class struggle left wing in the unions and the NDP. A telling expression of this form of sectarianism was the refusal of the far left groups to support, even to critically support, the campaigns of the NDP Socialist Caucus for Federal NDP Leadership in 2001 and 2003.
We seek unity of the left on a principled and revolutionary basis. This is part of our appeal to politicizing youth, women and oppressed minorities who are looking for an alternative and more united left. But given the actual politics, the class orientation, and the lack of internal democracy inside most of the existing left groups, unity will likely be limited to concrete campaigns, around specific issues and demands. This will be the case for the foreseeable future. Our central orientation to the labour movement and the NDP, and especially to young workers and students in that milieu, does not obviate the need to engage other groups on the left; it just realistically limits the prospects for influence and left unity. However, recent actions on anti-poverty, anti-war and anti-WTO issues show ongoing positive prospects for action-oriented coalitions, despite the absence of much official participation by Labour unionists.
On the eve of Labour Day 2003 we still find ourselves in the very early stages of a new working class radicalization. A new generation of activists has emerged -- youth against capitalist globalization and imperialist war -- and has shown some leadership. As this movement manifests itself inside the mainstream workers’ organizations, we will see its significance. We will see that this movement can make gains there.
Socialist Action strives to forge a leadership, a socialist cadre, which can make an indispensable contribution to this process. What will that contribution be? It will be the living memory of our class, the vision of a socialist future, and a strategy to get there from here. That contribution will be unbending loyalty to workers’ interests, and unyielding opposition to capitalist rule. That contribution will be for socialist democracy, for women’s and gay/lesbian liberation, for ecology, political pluralism, internationalism, and the construction of a cooperative commonwealth.
That’s what Socialist Action stands for -- the creation of a future worthy of humanity. For that to be realized we need a revolutionary workers’ organization to lead the way -- an organization composed of vanguard worker militants, organically linked to the existing class organizations and struggles.
While the relationship of class forces is currently unfavourable to the working class movement and the left, there is a growing popular hostility to “the system”, and a growing receptiveness to radical and socialist ideas. Most opinion polls indicate that this is particularly true amongst young workers and students.
The highly publicized rise of various religious “fundamentalist” currents obscures the reality of an increasingly secular population. Surveys show the waning influence of organized religion in Canada and other countries, which is partly reflected in the latest gains of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.
What about elections? Bourgeois elections provide a snapshot of the relationship of class forces. The question arises: how should socialists intervene in the coming Ontario, municipal, and Federal elections?
We participate as partisans of the labour-based NDP. We intervene with an Action Programme, culled from our toolbox of transitional, democratic and defensive demands. And we seek to disseminate and amplify that Action Programme through the work of the NDP Socialist Caucus and other progressive formations that take up the need for a Workers’ Agenda and a Workers’ Government to challenge capitalist rule.
The Action Platform of a Workers’ Agenda should include the following points:
Jobs for all. Shorten the work week, without loss of pay or benefits. Reverse the social cuts. Reverse the privatization of public services and the de-regulation of the economy. Re-nationalize Air Canada. Stop the layoffs. Open the corporate books. Expand public ownership into the means of communication, transportation, natural resources, the banks, land development and housing construction. Raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour. Extend Employment Insurance to cover all unemployed workers, at 80% of insured wages, with a low threshold qualifying period, benefits for up to 52 weeks, and the ability to renew a claim without penalty. Abolish the GST. Dedicate at least 2% of the federal budget to social housing construction. Significantly increase taxes on the wealthy, on capital gains, on speculative financial transactions, on inheritances above $1 million, and on the giant corporations and the banks.
Freeze post-secondary tuition and move rapidly towards free education at all levels. Abolish the student debt. Bar private for-profit universities, colleges and hospitals, and outlaw public funding for religious, separate and private schools. Reverse the funding cuts to the public health care system; start by implementing the Romanow Report and restoring standards. For free, universal, quality childcare. Establish public auto insurance, and fund cheap, mass public transit in the major urban areas.
Democratize the economy and the work place through an aggressive agenda of social ownership. Genuine democracy means workers’ and community control, the democratic election of all major decision-making positions, the right to recall officials, and limiting the salaries of elected officials to the level of pay for skilled labour in the represented occupational sector. Extend and defend the right to strike for all workers.
Self-determination for Quebec and Aboriginal Peoples. For full and equal rights for women, gays and lesbians, racial and ethnic minorities. End the detention of refugees. Revoke the so-called anti-terrorism laws. Drop the charges against the OCAP activists.
For a foreign policy based on solidarity, internationalism, and social justice. US/Britain out of Iraq and the Middle East. Canada out of Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. No to George W. Bush’s missile defence system, Star Wars 2. Confine Canada’s armed forces to a domestic rescue and disaster relief role, and trim its budget accordingly. Defend revolutionary Cuba. For the immediate release of the 5 Cuban anti-terrorists imprisoned in the U.S. Freedom now for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, and all social justice political prisoners.
Abrogate the corporate trade deals, FTA, NAFTA, and the FTAA, and place a very high priority on environmental clean-up, eco-protection, clean energy generation, and on meeting and exceeding the Kyoto Accord targets on reducing green house gas emissions.
To reverse the rollbacks and move forward, workers will have to mobilize themselves, democratize the unions, and transform them into instruments of class struggle. To that end, socialists seek to unite militants in a class struggle left wing across the whole labour movement. Presently, there is no such formation. The chronically inactive Action Caucus, which involved the Communist Party and leaders of the CUPW, was an obstacle to anti-bureaucratic militancy. Defence of militants now under attack is a key task and it is crucial to fostering a revolutionary left which can contend for, win, and sustain a leadership role at any level of the workers’ movement.
Though the material and human resources of Socialist Action are meagre, armed with these ideas and a mass action perspective, SA can exert a disproportionate and significant influence on the class struggle and the fight for a better world.
Even in these difficult times, there is a growing thirst for socialist ideas and socialist strategy. The prospects for a socialist Canada cannot be divorced from the state of the socialist movement worldwide, and those prospects are enhance by every one of the growing struggles for social justice. With effective methods of organization and party building, reflecting the analysis and priorities outlined above, Socialist Action will make an indispensable contribution to assembling the leadership required for workers’ self-emancipation -- to enable humanity to make the leap from necessity to freedom.