“Revolution is never practical — until the hour of the Revolution strikes. Then it alone is practical, and all the efforts of the conservatives and compromisers become the most futile and visionary of human imaginings.” (James Connolly, Workshop Talks, 1909)
The Arab revolution changes the entire world situation. For the first time in generations, the concept of revolution has ceased to be an abstract idea. Revolution is no longer an impractical imagining, to paraphrase the great Irish revolutionary James Connolly. Instead, revolution is something very real and is discussed by all sections of society — some in hope, others in fear. It is seen as a real option to challenge the injustices of capitalist society; indeed, the only option that has made any progress in recent memory.
Let us not forget the words of the so-called “experts” — the pundits, the journalists, the bourgeois, the reformists, the sectarians, and the academics; all these learned ladies and gentlemen who told us that revolution was impossible. Poor old Francis Fukuyama has been ridiculed over the years for declaring the “end of history,” but the reality is that he was in good company.
In a January 16th opinion piece for the BBC, Jon Layne chose the title, “No sign Egypt will take the Tunisian road.” He continued:
“Political demonstrations here usually only generate a few hundred people. Reporting on them in central Cairo, you soon become familiar with the faces of the handful of activists who reliably turn out.
“Usually they are well outnumbered by the surrounding police.
“Unlike Tunisia, the population has a much lower level of education. Illiteracy is high, internet penetration is low.” (No sign Egypt will take the Tunisian road, January 17)
The Economist magazine, the discussion journal for the thinking capitalist, was not much better. On January 6th they stated, “Tunisia’s troubles are unlikely to unseat the 74-year-old president or even to jolt his model of autocracy.” (Tunisia's troubles: Sour young men, January 6) This was written just 12-days before Ben Ali was winging his way to Saudi Arabia!
Many more examples could be found from Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair, and other noted representatives of imperialism as to the stability of this or that “moderate” dictatorial regime with a vast network of torture chambers and secret police. Similarly, the mouthpieces of capitalism were all singing the virtues of the world economy and denying the possibility of a global slump. The only conclusion that one can come to is that the “experts” know nothing about how their system works, neither socially, politically, nor economically. The strategists of capitalism, and their ideological hangers-on, have an over-confidence in their system and contempt for the ability of working people to fight back. Only Marxism provides us with the theoretical framework from which to predict such crises and be prepared to act to help the exploited and oppressed in their struggle.
Many times the predictions of these people are tinged with a real hint of racism. The Arab people were deemed to be demoralized drones that would continue toiling under dictatorship for the foreseeable future. The population of these countries supposedly have a cultural aversion to “democracy,” and without the strong men they will fall into the lap of Islamic fundamentalism. The Islamists have played almost no role in the North African uprisings and the Arab people have showed that not only do they support democracy, but they are prepared to fight and die for it.
However, now that these revolutions are an accomplished fact that cannot be ignored, we can predict that a new racism will be promoted. Just as revolt could not travel from Tunisia to Egypt because “the population has a much lower level of education. Illiteracy is high, internet penetration is low,” now new excuses must be made why the struggle cannot move to Europe, Asia, and the Americas. In Canada, maybe these people will think it is too cold for revolution. However, the general strikes in Greece, the mass movement in France, the student revolt in Britain, the collapse of the government in Ireland, and the fantastic general strike movement in Wisconsin, show that we are seeing the beginning of a world-wide movement. Similar conditions breed similar results. This movement will take on a different tempo in each region and country of the planet, depending on the economic, political, and social relations. It is the task of this document to chart the course of struggle within the Canadian state in order to orient the activity of workers and youth fighting for socialism.
The main argument why revolution supposedly cannot travel to Europe and North America is the strength of the economy and the prosperity of the population. This, of course, ignores the fact that GDP growth in Egypt has averaged over 5% since 2005. If poverty by itself caused revolution, then Africa would be in a state of permanent revolt. Rather, it is the perceived inequality and injustice, which accumulates in the minds of the working masses, that eventually leads to an eruption.
Canada, according to the mantra of the Harper government, has weathered the storm of the Great Recession and now has the best economy in the G7. This may or may not be true, but it isn’t saying much. Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the USA are all facing crisis in one form or another while Germany is likely to be pulled down as European countries default on their debts to German banks.
Canada’s public debt-to-GDP ratio can be difficult to compare with other economies due to the federal-provincial division of the country. This allows Canadian federal officials to boast of a debt ratio of 34% in 2010, compared with 68% for Britain, 59% for the USA, and 84% for France. However, this is comparing apples and oranges. For example, the British national government must also fund healthcare, education, and most of the services provided by Canadian provinces. The CIA World Factbook listed Canada’s net debt as 75.4% in 2009, and it now has the 16th highest aggregate debt-to-GDP in the world — ironically one place higher than Egypt.
While Canada’s banks are supposedly on a sounder footing than their international competitors, this has not stopped the federal government from showering them with money. Their relative stability is partially a function of luck, having not been very exposed to the US sub-prime crisis, but also due to an extreme concentration of capital and lack of competition that allows the big five banks to squeeze super-profits from Canadian workers, small business, and even the rest of the Canadian bourgeois class. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a government-owned entity, bought out $125-billion of potentially insecure mortgages from the big banks. The burden of paying back this money is sure to fall on the working class through future budget austerity.
While government debt presents a genuine burden on Canadian capitalism, the real danger to the working class is household debt. The Vanier Institute’s “Current State of Canadian Family Finances 2010” reports that even in the recession household debt has been increasing. While US consumer debt has been falling, average debt per Canadian family has surpassed the $100,000-mark to over 150% of annual income. This is a 78% increase since 1990. The government’s policy of low-interest rates has encouraged Canadian families to rack up debt in order to cover personal budget shortfalls during the recession. However, this puts over a million families in danger of bankruptcy in the event of a spike in interest rates or unemployment.
Many are relying on the value of their house to keep their finances afloat. However, several studies are pointing to the housing sector as the potential Achilles heel of Canadian capitalism. Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal are all registering historically unaffordable housing markets. Median house prices in Vancouver are over ten-times the median income (a recognized sustainable level is around three-times income). In August 2010, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) issued a report stating that if the housing bubble bursts, there is the potential for a 30% reduction in values. The possibility of rising bankruptcies and a burst housing bubble is the main threat to the fragile Canadian recovery. If this happens Canadian banks will take a major hit and this will be transferred via the CMHC to the Canadian government.
The Canadian oligarchy
It is not so much poverty that leads to conflict, but inequality and a belief that there is an unfair deal in society. The reality is that inequality in Canada is rising like never before. In another CCPA report, titled “The Rise of Canada’s Richest 1%,” Armine Yalnizyan points out that there has not been this much inequality in Canada since the 1920s. She goes on to state, “The richest 1% has seen its share of total income double, the richest 0.1% has seen its share almost triple, and the richest 0.01% has seen its share more than quintuple since the late 1970s.” And this is all in a period when we have been told that there is no money for decent wages or services.
What is more shocking is the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. The report goes on to detail the existence of a Canadian oligarchy, half-a-million strong, who control two-thirds of all wealth in Canada — 3.8% of households control 67% of all assets. This is a sum of $1.78-trillion, an almost unimaginable figure.
Those that say there is no money are deliberately obscuring reality. In 2005, if wealth were divided equally, each household would be worth $364,300. This would benefit 80% of Canadian families, according to Statistics Canada. Here we have a genuine appraisal of the class balance of forces in society. A ruling class of half-a-million, which destroyed the economy in the Great Recession, versus 27-million people, who live by selling their labour, that would benefit directly from a more equal distribution of the wealth.
The statistics at the bottom of society are just as scandalous. One in four families have zero or negative wealth. The bottom 20% stand, on average, in a $7,800 debt hole. These figures are for 2005 and have likely gotten worse during the recession. The Vanier Institute estimates that during the recession an extra 3% of the population have been thrown into poverty and almost 870,000 use food banks, 38% of whom are children.
Above all, the crisis hits upon youth. During the crisis over half of all the jobs lost were by workers aged 15-24, despite this sector only representing 15% of all workers. Since the so-called recovery, only 5% of the jobs created have gone to youth. Youth unemployment is consistently over twice the average unemployment, and tuition fees and student debt have increased at rates far above inflation. Young workers go from part-time minimum wage jobs, to this or that course, which increases their debt load, to unemployment and then back to underemployment. During the last 35 years part-time employment has gone from 7% to 12% of all jobs, significantly eroding the quality of work. This generation increasingly sees no future, can see no way towards building the financial stability necessary to raise a family on, and is increasingly marginalized. Canada’s average wage of $23/hr seems a ridiculous luxury for young workers who only average $13.50/hr. In the Arab world, unemployment and humiliation of youth played a major role in the revolutions; many similar phenomena are present amongst the youth of Canada.
The “middle” class
There is an important difference between the Western-backed dictatorships of the Middle East and the imperialist countries themselves. Under a dictatorship the main force keeping the masses down is the physical oppression of the state apparatus. Fear is what prevented revolution in the region; and once the Tunisian people showed that this could be overcome, then the movement spread like wildfire.
Under capitalist so-called “democracy” in Canada, direct state oppression is more sparingly used (such as during the G20). Instead, through dominating the means of communication, the press, TV, radio, even schooling and the church, the ruling class attempts to keep the population acquiescent. Working class voices are seldom heard while corporate ideology is ever present. “Tea Party” demonstrations of a few hundred get massive coverage, while 100,000 workers occupying the Wisconsin legislature barely get mentioned. They attempt to instil a belief that there is no alternative to capitalism. It has been said that the greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.
One of the main ideological tricks perpetuated on the workers has been the idea that “we are all middle class.” Presented with the above details about inequality, large numbers of people have been trained to view this reality as something that does not affect them personally. “That’s the poor. I feel sorry for them and give to charity; but I’m middle class.” Upon further discussion these same people will talk about how hard it is to get by, how they are sinking under the pressure of debt, that they would be in crisis if they missed a single paycheque — let alone unemployment. The capitalist media encourages mass cognitive dissonance; it is not surprising that so many people feel so conflicted.
The entire concept of the middle class propagated by the corporate media and politicians is completely nebulous and unscientific. To start with, if one accepts the existence of a “middle” class, then surely that assumes the existence of other classes? There can be no middle without other categories above and below. However, the use of the terms working class and ruling class are frowned upon in polite society and only extremists would dare use them — who cares if they give a more accurate and scientific representation of reality!
What is wrongly regarded as the middle class is in fact a product of the post-war strength of the organized working class. Prior to the Second World War, workers in industry fought a series of long and bitter struggles to gain recognition for industrial unions. Strikes at General Motors in Oshawa in 1937 and at Ford in Windsor in 1945 were key disputes that laid the basis for the Rand Formula, union recognition votes, and the broader social contract. In the 1950s and 60s industrial unions were able to wrench concessions from the ruling class. During this period of boom, while super-profits were extracted from the colonial world, the bosses could afford to give reforms in order to buy class peace at home. Gains won by organized workers were transmitted, to a greater or lesser degree, to all workers. Poverty and inequality were reduced in this period.
Incidentally, it is wrong to characterize these organized workers as a “labour aristocracy” who are complicit in the exploitation of the colonial masses. Lenin used this term in his Imperialism, to refer to a layer of highly skilled craft workers who formed associations excluding Jewish, Chinese, Black, and women workers. The gains for these craft workers were at the expense of dividing the rest of the working class. The post-war industrial unions were built on the basis of organizing all workers and then spreading the gains to the unorganized. Victories for industrial workers were a fantastic example to workers, nationally and internationally, to fight for the same gains. Similarly, a defeat for these workers did not result in a lessening of the burden on colonial workers; instead it encouraged the capitalists to heighten the degree of exploitation felt by all.
However, since the slump of the 1970s, the tendency towards reforms has gone into reverse. As we have seen, inequality has not lessened but increased. The middle class, more accurately regarded as the organized working class, is being squeezed and squeezed.
The Vanier Institute reports that between 1990 and 2008 everybody in the bottom 80% of Canadian society suffered a loss in income share. This reduction was most pronounced in the middle 20%, who’s share went from 17.5% to 16.3% of after-tax income. This tendency is even more pronounced in Canada’s major cities where the trend is towards increasing class polarization.
A very detailed study of Toronto neighbourhoods revealed a startling disappearance of middle-income residents. The “Three Cities Report” used census data to reach its findings. In 1970, 66% of Toronto neighbourhoods had a mean income ±20% of the average income for Toronto. By 2005, only 29% of neighbourhoods were in the middle-income bracket. Poor neighbourhoods had increased from 18% to 40% of the city, and very poor from 1% to 13%. On the other side, the very rich, with incomes 40% higher than the average, had also increased from 7% to 15%. Below we reproduce a figure from the study where the authors extrapolate current trends to show the potential for extreme class polarization in the city.
When this study came out, the only thing that the right wing could reply with was that the so-called “high-tax” regime of David Miller was scaring the middle class out into the suburbs. This is really clutching at straws as Miller only came to power in 2004. Additionally, the author found the same trend in the suburban “905” area code, where middle income communities decreased by 25% while low and very low income communities increased by 21% over the same period.
For all those reformist politicians who say that the key to victory is appealing to the “middle class,” we answer that, in as much as this class exists, it is dying away under the hammer blows of capitalism. Marx and Engels predicted this development in the Communist Manifesto 160 years ago:
“The lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants — all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus, the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.”
To conclude, the so-called bastion of capitalist stability, the middle class, does not exist in the way the pundits conceive it. Additionally, the trend is for those with a middle-income to be pushed downwards. To believe that the increasing class polarization in society will not eventually cause a backlash against the lavish conditions of the rich is to fall into the same narrow-minded conclusions that led The Economist to write off revolution in the Arab world.
Lenin stated that politics is concentrated economics. What is the possibility of a sustained boom that allows Canadian capitalism to buy class peace as they did in the 1950s and 60s? Upon reading the projections of the capitalists themselves, the answer is very low.
The Organization For Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which encompasses the main capitalist economies, predicts that Canada will have an anemic average growth rate of 1.8% until 2020. When accounting for population growth, this is effectively stagnation. This is not surprising when considering Canada’s historical dependence on exports to the USA. Even if, as Harper used to say, “the fundamentals are sound,” there still has to be a market for Canadian products. Traditionally Canada has exported approximately 35% of its GDP, mainly in the form of manufactured goods, to the US market. The manufacturing export sector, mainly located in Quebec and southern Ontario, has been in decline since the turn of the century. From buying 85% of Canadian exports, the US is now only absorbing around 70%. These figures underline the crisis in the sector of the economy that was the mainstay of the Canadian labour movement. This is the economic backdrop for the concessions demanded off the autoworkers in Windsor, Oshawa, or Oakville, and the steelworkers in Hamilton. It is universally recognized that the USA is in for a period of lengthy crisis; this in turn can only mean a long period of malaise in Canada, at best.
In previous documents we highlighted the “Dutch disease” that was plaguing the Canadian economy. This is a phenomenon were an economy rests on the twin pillars of a booming resource and export-based manufacturing. The resource we are referring to is Alberta oil. The booming resource tends to increase the value of the nation’s currency, making exported goods more expensive on world markets. The recession temporarily cut across this process as the price of oil fell and the Canadian dollar sank to near US$0.80. However, the recovery phase, combined with instability in the Middle East, has sent oil back to over $100 per barrel, and the loonie is consistently above parity with the US greenback.
From being the backbone of the Canadian economy, manufacturing is heading into a long steady decline. In 2004, manufacturing employed 14.4% of the Canadian labour force; now that figure is 10.4%. All of the social relations based upon this trade will be thrown in the air. Ontario and Quebec will see their positions within Confederation diminish. Indeed, Ontario is now a “have-not” province, receiving equalization payments from the federal government. The OECD also predicts that provincial debt-to-GDP in Ontario and Quebec will increase to over 60% of GDP each by 2020. Union contracts and reforms based on the old reality will be put under pressure. The relevant historical analogy is the fall from grace of the British Empire and the massive restructuring and struggles that unleashed.
Parasitism of the bourgeois
During the Great Recession the Canadian federal government entered into a so-called “stimulus” package. What did this amount to? We have already mentioned the $125-billion gift to the banks via the CMHC (with the option to increase this to $200-billion). Additionally, there was the $10-billion auto bailout of GM and Chrysler; over $30-billion per year in tax cuts, which includes reducing the corporate tax rate to 15% by 2012 (down from 22.1% in 2006 and 30.1% in 2000); plus, about $40-billion for all of the “Economic Action Plan” projects that the Conservatives have bombarded our TV screens with. This has resulted in a near $50-billion annual federal budget deficit.
Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford has made the observation that despite all this corporate welfare, Canadian capitalists are not investing. As we have seen, governments are taking on debt and people are taking on debt; but private corporations have been pocketing the money gifted to them from the public purse. Since the recession, this has amounted to about $100-billion, approximately the same amount pumped in by the government. Stanford put it forward this way in The Globe and Mail:
“Governments (and the taxpayers who fund them) are taking on debt to try to restart a sick economy. But for every dollar they put in, private firms take out a dollar — in the form of idle, uninvested cash flow, used to pay down their own debt or, worse yet, to speculate in the paper markets.
“Business should be leading economic recovery, borrowing money (from households and banks) to fund new investments and jobs. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work. In today’s lean-and-mean world, however, business is free-riding on the spending efforts of others. Despite tax cuts and other business- friendly policies, the private sector isn’t taking on the risks, and taking on the debt, necessary to fuel broader recovery.” (Globe and Mail, 1 Sep. 2010)
The absence of private sector investment does not bode well for Canadian capitalism. This shows that the bosses themselves have no faith in the economy. In response, libertarian right-wing economist Michael Hlinka attacked Stanford on CBC Radio. Hlinka said it was ridiculous to expect business to invest when their inventories are not being sold. Both economists, one from the reformist left and the other from the libertarian right, present one side of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism without seeing the whole picture. The bosses will not invest unless they are guaranteed profit. The “stimulus” merely serves to rack up debt and does not change the fundamentals. The problem which neither reformists nor monetarists are able to understand is that the contradiction lies in private ownership itself. In the absence of business investment Stanford and his friends at the CCPA actually propose throwing more money at the corporations until they do invest because, “that’s how capitalism is supposed to work.” Hlinka and the Fraser Institute on the other hand propose massive austerity. They propose putting the burden of the crisis on the workers until all the excess capacity has been squeezed out of the system and the rate of profit can be restored. This austerity in turn cuts the market as workers have less to spend (as seen currently in Europe, especially Greece). Neither of the above approaches is a solution. The only option that maintains the standard of living of the population while ensuring investment and growth is to take investment out of the hands of the capitalists. If they are not prepared to invest then let the workers do it through nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy and instituting a democratic socialist plan of production. This would require a revolution, something opposed by both the right-wing and the reformists. However, until such an overturn happens, the most likely perspective is for at least a decade of economic turmoil and strife in Canada and internationally.
The coming austerity
A wave of austerity has swept the European continent. Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Britain, and Ireland have all faced massive cutbacks — attacks on public sector workers, pensions, increased sales tax, increased tuition fees, privatization, and deregulation. All this in an attempt to bring down the social wage and make the workers pay for the bosses’ crisis. Similar causes yield similar consequences and as we have seen, with the exception of the acutely indebted Greece, these countries have similar debt-to-GDP ratios as Canada.
At the time of writing, US President Barack Obama has attempted to delay austerity, not out of any concern for the working class but out of fear that cutbacks and removal of stimulus may disrupt the very fragile recovery and lead to a double-dip recession. However, while the US federal government is playing for time and racking up debt, the individual state governments are sharpening the axe. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s “Budget repair bill” has received a lot of attention due to the fantastic response by the workers and youth of the state. In addition to massive cuts, there is an attempt to remove collective bargaining rights from organized workers.
Some have called these attacks “ideological” and unnecessary. However, similar attacks are being prepared in other states under control of the Democratic Party. Similarly, the spectre of a Conservative majority government is being put forward as a bogey-man for Canadian austerity. This ignores the fact that European austerity has occurred under both conservative (Britain, France) and social-democratic (Greece, Portugal) governments. Under the logic of capitalism, maintaining private property, and the profit motive, these attacks are inevitable, irrespective of the supposed ideology of the government in question. A majority Liberal government will attack just as hard as a majority Conservative government. The Liberals may even attack harder as they have less pressure from the left. Let us not forget that the most draconian cuts in Canadian history came from the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, not the Conservative governments of Brian Mulroney or Stephen Harper.
The only thing that is staying their hand (relatively speaking) is the same concerns as Obama about stalling the recovery and their weak position in a minority parliament. Under the minority the narrow careerist interests of the political parties can partially thwart the interests of the capitalists themselves. Fianna Fail in Ireland instituted austerity and was promptly punished in an election. The British Liberals are in crisis after breaking their promise over university tuition fees. The Canadian bourgeois need a majority government of any stripe, which can withstand opposition, or they will have to put much firmer pressure to bear on their weak and self-centred political representatives.
Similar to the US, where the attacks are coming more from the states rather than from the federal government, it is difficult to predict precisely where will be the focal point of Canadian austerity. In the 1990s, the Chrétien Liberals solved their deficit problem by cutting transfer payments to the provinces and forcing them to do the dirty work of cutting programs and firing workers. In Ontario, the Mike Harris government repeated the trick and downloaded another set of services onto the municipalities, most notably welfare, fundamentally undermining the ability of the property tax base to fund basic local services.
One of the main targets at the federal level is Canada Post. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) remains a bulwark of the working class that played a pivotal role in winning the right to strike for public sector workers in the 1960s and 70s. Actions to limit the power of the union, combined with partial or complete privatization, are on the wish-list of corporate Canada. However, CUPW workers are not going to give up without a fight. Further cuts to federal programs and employment are also likely; Harper’s failed March 2011 budget contained unspecified cuts of $4-billion a year over the next four years. However, the recent actions of the Conservatives make such attacks politically difficult to sell. A March 2011 EKOS poll revealed that 57% think the main budget priority should be social investment, versus 17% for tax cuts and 23% for deficit reduction. While pleading poverty, the federal government will have to explain why it is able to afford upwards of $30-billion on F-35 fighter jets, or $9-billion to lock up more people while crime is going down, or $6-billion in high-tech strip searches as people cross the border. Even the over $1-billion price tag for G20 security and the summit’s “fake lake” completely undermine the austerity message in the eyes of the population.
The most acute attacks are sure to come in Ontario and Quebec over the next period. These provinces encompass approximately 60% of the Canadian population and GDP. Quebec has the highest unionization rate at 40% while Ontario manufacturing represents the traditional heartland of the Canadian labour movement. While no part of the federation is immune to the general processes, these two provinces are facing the worst of the crisis. They have the highest indebtedness, which is increasing, and are the most impacted by the manufacturing crisis. This is where we should expect the most violent confrontations.
The 2010 Quebec budget started the process of austerity, one that is sure to pick up pace in coming years. University tuition fees are set to increase by 75%, a real challenge to the student movement that organized successful strike action in 2005. The burden of funding pensions is also being put on the backs of workers while giving the bosses a free ride. In Ontario the sharp end of the confrontation is currently at the municipal level. The election of Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto on a program of privatization and anti-union rhetoric represents a real challenge for Ontario workers. This follows on from the defeat of the Windsor municipal workers in 2009 after 100 days on the picket line. There have also been a series of bitter defensive struggles in the private sector —Vale Inco in Sudbury, Sears warehouse workers in Vaughan, and the ongoing US Steel lockout in Hamilton.
There are two equilibria in society, the economic and the social. In order to restore the rate of profit after the Great Recession the capitalist class has to conduct what has been termed “the creative destruction of capital.” In other words, close down factories, fire workers, increase exploitation, lengthen the working day, etc. They have gotten massively into debt in the previous period and this has been exacerbated with the bailouts. This debt is a huge drag on the system and also has to be eradicated via attacking the social wage. The social wage represents the benefits that the working class has collectively wrenched from the bosses and is distributed via the capitalist state rather than from individual employers (e.g. healthcare, pensions, unemployment insurance, etc.) If they fail to rebalance this equation the economy will not recover; they will continue to accrue debt and/or be outcompeted. Japan’s decade of malaise is an example of this.
However, their actions to rebalance the economic equilibrium serve to destabilize the social equilibrium. Millions of people are forced by economic reality into opposition to the system. It has been said it is not revolutionaries that cause revolutions — it is the crisis of capitalism itself. Just six months ago, who would have predicted that Wisconsin would be on the verge of a general strike? Here is a state that had just voted for a Tea Party-supported Republican governor. 200,000 people came out and occupied the Capitol building in Madison. Incidentally, the population of Madison is 235,000! Now this movement is being divided between the working class element, who understand that only a general strike will beat back these attacks, and those who wish to channel the masses through safe, “democratic” (Democratic), electoral recall channels — despite the fact that the Democrats did nothing to bring this movement into existence. From economics we proceed to politics, where the question of leadership is vital.
New Wisconsins, new France 1968s, new general strikes and explosions, are inherent in the situation. It is difficult to predict exactly where the lightening will strike. Will Quebec tuition increases lead to a mass student revolt in the province, like we have seen in Britain? Will Rob Ford’s ham-fisted rule provoke a Toronto general strike? Will there be a political scandal that symbolically collectivizes the anger and humiliation that millions of workers feel? We do not know. A meteorologist cannot predict exactly which tree will be struck by lightning, however it is possible to use scientific understanding to predict that a storm is coming. The specific issue can be accidental, like Mohamed Bouazizi, the poor soul whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution. This accident expressed a necessity and, as shown above, the raw material for revolution is in plentiful supply.
The “Gravy Train”
Faced with a real crisis in society the bourgeois are doing everything in their power to detract attention away from the real state of affairs. Wealth has never been more concentrated at the top and it has never been more clear that the responsibility for the economic crisis rests with the rich themselves. The real “gravy train” exists in Canada’s Big Six banks that gave out bonuses of $8.9-billion in 2010. By January 3rd, at 2:30pm, an average Canadian CEO has made as much as the average annual wage of a Canadian worker.
However, this has not stopped right-wing politicians such as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford from demonizing the so-called gravy train in the public sector. Rather than have the working class as a whole oppose the capitalist class as a whole, they are attempting to set the lower layers of the workers, the unorganized service sector workers, against the organized workers who have managed to win some limited concessions in the post-war period. If you earn $30,000 and attack those bringing in $3,000,000, then you are guilty of class envy — but if you attack those at $60,000 you are attacking waste!
The reality is that if the bourgeois press and politicians can mobilize the unorganized workers against the organized, it will result in increasing exploitation for all workers. Victories for union workers become the standard in society and raise the conditions of the unorganized. Defeats for union workers are pocketed by the bosses, either directly or in the form of tax cuts, and emboldens them to further attack the poor.
The reformists are dumbfounded why this right-wing rhetoric has been successful in places. Rob Ford’s voting base was in the working class Toronto suburbs, not in the downtown areas with good transit accessibility. The reason the reformists are so clueless on this question is because they bear responsibility for it. There is another gravy train that everybody knows exists. It is not unionized workers, who work damn hard to provide services; there is an entire layer of reformist bureaucracy, linked to the Liberals and the right-wing of the NDP, that sits in barely accountable positions taking in far more than the average worker. Whether it is the NGOs, political staffs, or union bureaucracies, the working class understands the pernicious role of these people who live off the movement. The scandal at Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), with spa treatments and luxury boat cruises for the board while the tenants live in squalor, is typical of this layer. The gravy train bureaucrats and the right-wing form a symbiotic relationship — the bureaucrats hide behind the workers in order to save their positions, thereby aiding the right wing to paint all of the workers with the same brush as the bureaucracy. In the labour movement they promote “me-first” bargaining positions that are supposedly realistic, that is, only thinking of the narrow issues of a specific bargaining unit without taking into account the broader working class struggle and the need to organize the unorganized. This is part-and-parcel of the adoption of the logic of capitalism rather than class struggle unionism that aims to use partial reforms as a lever to mobilize the entire class.
During the Toronto civic elections, the reformists actually ran a campaign along the lines of everything is okay, don’t worry — be happy, keep calm, and carry on! It was a disaster. The movement needs to purge this parasitic bureaucracy in order to unite all sectors of the working class against the corporate attack. Our demands are:
- No entrenched bureaucracies.
- All positions to be elected by the workers/tenants/membership themselves and open to immediate recall.
- For all elected positions, including MPs, councillors, political and union staffers, to be on the wage of their electors, not more than that of a skilled worker.
If Rob Ford’s corporate buddies think life is so easy for public sector workers, then they can live on the wage of a mid-level CUPE garbage worker. The same goes for the do-gooders that fill the boards of charities, NGOs, and myriad of other agencies that perpetuate the poverty of the workers. When our representatives have shown they are part and parcel of the working class it will be impossible for the bosses to divide us and the real fight back can begin.
Civil liberties and the G20
If the capitalists cannot curtail the movement with subterfuge they will not hesitate to resort to repression. The aftershocks of the G20 protests of June 2010 are still reverberating through society. During the G20 weekend, hundreds of thousands of youth and trade unionists had their misconceptions about the true nature of the Canadian state violently smashed. Tens of thousands of police, backed up by troops, turned the city centre into a military camp. Civil liberties — freedom of assembly, freedom of association, the right to liberty and legal representation — were violated on a massive scale. Over 1,100 were detained in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Subsequently most of the charges were dropped, showing that the arrests were in themselves a form of mass punishment. These events have had a radicalizing effect on those who saw the movement firsthand.
Unfortunately, outside Toronto, the result was a victory for the state and the corporate media who were able to present the movement as violent vandals. Discussion of opposition to the G20’s austerity agenda was clouded by the smoke from burning police cruisers. Going into the weekend, three out of four people were broadly opposed to the G20’s austerity agenda and the $1.3-billion expense for the security crackdown. This was squandered and after the weekend, ¾ of the population opposed the protesters. This was not at all inevitable and lessons need to be learned.
Unlike Egypt under Mubarak, Canada is not a dictatorship. Those who say otherwise are merely crying wolf and serve to disarm the workers in the face of genuine Bonapartism. In Egypt there were over a million police and military to put down the population. In Canada, there are approximately 65,000 police and 62,000 in the military. Clearly, the Canadian state does not rest primarily on force; it is a last resort used in exceptional times. The capitalists are forced to use their control of the media to rule by deception. This is far cheaper than maintaining a large force of repression. In fact, over-use of the forces of state repression can serve to blunt the tool for the capitalists. The capitalists must justify their actions in the court of public opinion.
Given different leadership the G20 protests could have proceeded in a completely different manner. The capitalists were losing the argument and they knew it. They desperately needed a provocation in order to regain the ideological initiative. If they were denied this and yet continued with their attacks on massed peaceful protesters at Queen’s Park, at Novotel, at Queen and Spadina, and outside the Eastern Avenue detention centre, it would have provoked a mass backlash. Attacks and arrests of union workers could have resulted in wildcat sympathetic strike action. Such mass action by the workers is far more radical than breaking a store window. Let Obama make sandwiches while Sarkozy does the laundry and Stephen Harper cleans the toilets.
Some who consider themselves “anarchists” think our focus on mass working class action is unrealistic. They say, “We need action now!” It is the same approach as those who propose charity; the methods differ but the lack of faith in the ability of the workers to emancipate themselves remains. “Egypt, Tunisia, and Wisconsin!” is our reply to these people. The state was clearly seen as responsible for repression against the Arab revolution, which radicalized people by the day, the hour, even the minute. The working class is more than capable of resolving its own affairs without the need for heroes, saviours, or do-gooders.
There is ample evidence of the widespread use of agent provocateurs infiltrating activist groups and the G20 protests. They needed the burning police cars and they deliberately did not arrest those breaking windows in order to justify the crackdown. The mass of those present on the demonstrations understand this.
In the coming major struggles union workers are not going to be as unorganized and charitable as they were during the G20. If people want to wear black masks and break windows the workers will treat them as if they are agent provocateurs. A movement that cannot protect its unity against a minority that wants to impose its agenda will never win.
The primary responsibility for this mess lies with the reformist leadership of the mass organizations of the working class, the unions and the NDP. It is not surprising when the workers’ organizations have not given a lead for such a long time, that the idea of mass workers’ action is something alien to a section of radicalized youth who have moved too far and too fast ahead of the class. If the workers’ leaders actually proposed socialism instead of economic nationalism, they could enthuse the youth. If they organized strike action and factory occupations against the G20 austerity, then the childish black-bloc tactic would be swept away in much the same way as the Arab revolution has sidelined the methods of individual terrorism in the Middle East. All history has shown that the fresh winds of the class struggle will blow this tendency away and reveal it as irrelevant.
Having used the weapon of police repression during the G20, it is now far more difficult for the state to use this tool again for the next major confrontation with the working class. People learn. However, it is necessary to develop a plan to protect the movement and working class communities against attacks from the police, from provocateurs, and from thugs. In our 2009 Perspectives document, we raised the call for the formation of community defence teams under the direction of, and accountable to, local labour councils, or equivalent bodies, with input from every union and community. In the initial stages these bodies could be seen as analogous to permanently constituted demonstration marshals — indeed, they should serve to provide security for every demonstration, meeting, or community group that asks for their assistance. They could also form the basis of a flying squad to give assistance to bolster picket lines. These bodies should be elected and accountable, not degenerating into bands of “heroes” looking for a fight.
It is scandalous that some have chosen to deliberately distort our call for working class communities to defend themselves against provocateurs as some sort of love for the police. This is a completely dishonest method that has nothing in common with Marxism, which seeks to present an honest appraisal of an opponent’s viewpoint in order to clarify understanding. Our stance on the role of the police as agents of the bourgeois state is crystal clear. Working class communities must be defended, and we advance positive proposals about how this can be achieved. This is ABC for any revolutionary. But after ABC, there are many other letters in the alphabet and a child who just repeated these three letters would not be regarded as very bright. To start with, focusing purely on the police is ignoring the master behind the puppet. Secondly, all working class history has shown that the state’s forces are not immune to the currents in society. During the 1919 Winnipeg general strike the Winnipeg police came over to the strikers. We ask our detractors, was this a good thing? In Egypt, in Tunisia, many sections of the police and military came over to the side of the people. In Wisconsin, the police union vociferously objected to the plan to use agent provocateurs and wore signs labeled “Cops For Labor.” We ask again, is this a good or a bad thing? Shouldn’t working class revolutionaries seek to promote such divisions in the state forces?
Numerous times in revolutionary situations police have refused to continue to be used as the hired goons of reaction. In fact, all revolutions would be impossible if it was impossible to split the security forces on class lines. However, this reaction of the state forces will arise mush faster when they are faced with both a staunch working class defence and a skilful political appeal that shows their best interests lie with supporting the workers. We, of course, uphold the democratic demand for the right of rank-and-file police and soldiers to form unions — defending this right potentially brings them closer to the workers. Those who refuse this right effectively side with the General Staff and the upper echelons of the bourgeois state. With regard to the demands of the police unions we of course take them on a case-by-case basis (just as we do with the demands of a bureaucratically degenerated workers’ union). We support progressive demands that bring front-line officers closer to the workers and oppose reactionary demands that do the opposite. The world is not black and white, and only a useless sectarian thinks this way.
Crisis of leadership
What is the most conservative force on the planet? In our opinion it is not US imperialism, nor is it the Conservative Party, nor even the various dictatorships of the world. The most conservative force, the tendency that is most ideologically tied to the past and serves to hold back the revolutionary struggle of the workers, is the reformist social-democratic labour bureaucracy. Without these so-called leaders of the movement telling workers that they must moderate their demands, that they cannot use militant methods, that there is no alternative to capitalism and all you can do is ameliorate its worst excesses, capitalism would not last the month. In Canada this has reached new depths with Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) boss Ken Georgetti supporting the 2011 Conservative budget (he was later forced to “clarify”, i.e. retract, these comments after outrage from below). As Trotsky explained back in 1938, “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”
One of the contradictory features of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions was the lack of recognized structures in order to lead the movement. This was a strength as the lack of a reformist bureaucracy to hold the workers and youth back led to great spontaneity and explosiveness. Everybody felt represented in the great sweep of the movement. However, it is also a weakness as it has made it more difficult for the workers and youth to consolidate power and has eased the way for all sorts of tricks and subterfuge against the people. The lack of workers’ organizations was a feature of the dictatorial nature of the regimes, which crushed all opponents. Ironically, the absence of a “loyal opposition” served to act as a weakness for these dictatorships, which had no method for the masses to let off steam and the only form of politics possible was revolution.
However, it is wrong to say that there were absolutely no workers’ organizations. There were a wave of strikes in Egypt in the period of 2006-8 and underground unions still remained. In Tunisia the leadership of the UGTT union federation had been in the pocket of the government for many years and supported Ben Ali until almost the last moment. This corrupt leadership of the union federation did not stop the workers from utilizing the UGTT’s regional structures to organize citywide general strikes and even take over the running of some towns. In both revolutions it was the independent movement of the workers that was the final nail in the dictator’s coffin. A negative example is that of Libya, where the complete absence of workers’ organizations, due to the absolute control of Gaddafi, has led to the faltering of the revolution with ex-regime elements and privatizers taking control of the leadership.
The workers’ organizations in any country, especially in Canada, cannot just be ignored. The Marxists may understand that the leaderships of the unions and the NDP play a conservative role, but the mass of the workers do not understand this. These organizations still have huge reserves of support amongst the working class and due to the lack of any alternative will be the conduit through which any major movement runs. The unions in Wisconsin, not any small band of so-called revolutionaries, have played the leading role. This is despite the leadership of these bodies playing almost no role in the previous period and being tied to the capitalist Democratic Party. If the workers of Tunisia can use the corrupt UGTT as a vehicle for revolution, then surely the Canadian working class can use its organizations. Whatever criticisms we may have of the Canadian workers’ leaders, they are not explicitly tied to a regime that tortures or causes opponents to disappear.
In the period immediately after the stock market crash, the workers’ movement was stunned. In 2008, for every 10,000 workdays only two were lost due to industrial action (compared with about 50 lost due to illness). While there was a brief wave of factory occupations in auto parts plants and related factories in southern Ontario, the main tendency was towards retrenchment. Scandalously, the Canadian Auto Workers opened up their contracts numerous times to give up gains that had taken generations to win. Other union leaderships told their members to keep their heads down and swallow concessions or wage freezes as, “Things will get better after everything goes back to normal.” However, things are not going back to “normal,” at least not the old normal. Concessions are becoming permanent and new rollbacks are on the table. The workers feel lied to and a new angry mood is developing.
The disputes in the recent past have in the main been bitter defensive struggles. The bosses have locked out the workers at Vale Inco in Sudbury, at the port and the Shell oil refinery in Montreal, at US Steel in Hamilton and at the Sears warehouse north of Toronto. Journal de Montreal workers were locked out for two years before returning to work on a much reduced contract. In the public sector, the teachers at UQAM and Toronto municipal workers were able to beat back attacks in 2009, while Windsor city workers were starved back to work. The workers are faced with a choice — either fight like tigers to maintain the status quo, or face significant concessions. Reforms and improvements are almost impossible to achieve. The reality is that in a situation like this, with the bourgeois on the offensive, most struggles will end in defeat. This in turn erodes the material basis for reformism in the movement as nothing can be gained on the basis of the capitalist system. The significance of this period is the effect it has on the consciousness of the workers.
We have previously explained that consciousness is inherently conservative and looks back and not forward. Reformism is the material crystallization of this resistance to new reality. Trotsky explained that a reformist party is a party with a short memory; reformists are “worshippers of the accomplished fact.” Ted Grant said it a bit more crudely, pointing out that the bureaucracy only sees, “the ass-end of history.” However, consciousness eventually catches up with reality. Workers come to understand that they cannot protect their conditions by keeping their heads down. They turn against the system and those that defended it — including the reformists. Progressively, through a series of approximations, the workers learn lessons in struggle. Leaders not prepared to fight are kicked out and replaced by those closer to the workers. Other leaders detect the way the wind is blowing and move left, either genuinely or for careerist reasons.
Earlier in this document we used the analogy of revolutionary upsurges striking like lightning, but every analogy has its limitations. Radicalization and revolution do not proceed like a one-act play. Precisely due to the lack of leadership, and the weakness of the forces of revolutionary Marxism, the movement will pass through a series of partial struggles which will unfold over time, sometimes advancing, sometimes retreating. Workers will learn important lessons at each victory and defeat and this will give the revolutionary tendency the opportunity to enter into a conversation with the masses. The task is for the consciousness of the movement to catch up with the objective crisis at hand and for the workers to win a leadership that has learned the lessons of past struggles in order to apply them to the present.
There are very early signs that the crisis is beginning to be reflected in the workers’ organizations. Steelworkers local 1005 in Hamilton organized a very militant May Day rally in 2010 and then followed that up with “The People vs. US Steel” march in February 2011, the biggest protest in the city since the Metro Days of Action against Mike Harris. At these events, despite some nationalist slogans, there was an important radicalization. Dave Coles from the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers’ union (CEP) asked, “Why is this happening? It is a fundamental failure of the system. The capitalist system does not work for us!” Coles called for the labour movement to not only engage more heavily on the political stage, but to “do politics differently.” “We must fundamentally change the system. They make the rules of the game, so we have to break the rules! If they try and shut down our plant, then we occupy that plant,” Coles said to a standing ovation. The CEP has also come out in favour of nationalizing some industries. There is also anecdotal evidence that CUPE and new Ontario Federation of Labour President Sid Ryan are being radicalized by the events in Wisconsin and are making the parallels between Scott Walker and Toronto mayor Rob Ford. CUPE Toronto municipal contracts expire December 31st 2011, preparing the way for a major confrontation. The danger for the bourgeois is that the arch-reactionary Ford administration will antagonize the entire working class and over-reach itself just like Walker in Wisconsin. Bay Street supported George Smitherman for the mayoralty with the understanding that he would conduct more strategic attacks against the workers while utilizing divide-and-rule tactics. Ford, on the other hand, is as strategic as a bulldozer. There is a real possibility for a generalized backlash in Toronto, even a citywide general strike is not ruled out
Internationally there is an all-out war upon public sector workers. Canada will be no exception to this rule. When public sector workers fight back against such attacks they have frequently faced the weapon of back-to-work legislation and/or the removal of their right to strike. Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) workers have just been declared an essential service with no right to strike. This begs the question that if transit is “essential,” it is therefore a right to receive it. If it is a right, it should be free.
Removal of the right to strike takes the movement back decades, even centuries. It takes the economic struggle and places it directly on the political plane through legislation. The only way to feasibly defend against such attacks is to defy back-to-work legislation by illegal wildcat strikes. Such illegal actions became endemic in the 2001-2005 anti-Campbell movement in British Columbia. Those labour leaders who preach respect for bourgeois legality forget that without breaking the law there would be no unions and no right to strike in Canada. During the 19th century anybody joining a union was imprisoned for joining a “conspiracy to raise wages.” After democratic rights are repeatedly removed, eventually the workers become sick and tired of the repression. The conservative elements in the movement are pushed aside. Once embarked upon, the logic of illegal action against government legislation leads inexorably to a general strike (as also seen in BC). Working class activists need to ideologically prepare themselves now. City-wide, provincial, or even national general strikes are highly likely to occur within the next five years, the period of most pronounced austerity. Those who are prepared will see a significant increase in the impact of their ideas in the movement.
Crisis of confidence
At the time of writing, the Conservative government has just lost the confidence of the House of Commons on a motion of contempt. This is fitting as people are increasingly losing confidence in bourgeois democracy. Turnout at both federal and provincial elections has been in a long period of decline with barely 50% voting. This is not because people do not care about politics; it is because people feel that politicians do not care about them. The use of prorogation as a tool to avoid democratic accountability further erodes support for the system as a whole.
At the beginning of the federal election campaign it appears as if the Liberals are putting forward their left face, critiquing corporate tax cuts and $30-billion for fighter jets. This is utter hypocrisy on their part, but if the NDP do not offer real socialist demands then it can completely undermine the NDP vote. Jack Layton, on the other hand, just continued with his “let’s make a deal” mantra and proposed a set of very minor reforms he would be prepared to prop up the government over. Conspicuous by its absence was talk of the corporate tax cuts and the key economic issues that the Liberals are focusing on. Given the fluidity of the situation, it is almost impossible to predict the outcome of the campaign, but unless something changes it does not look good for the NDP.
The biggest mistake of the reformist leadership of the NDP is its failure to rule out a coalition with the capitalist parties, most notably the Liberals. We dealt with this question in detail in our 2009 perspectives document and we encourage readers to return to what we said back then. Far from ruling out a coalition, the reformists seem to be banking on it. Millions do not vote because they do not believe that any of the parties offer them anything. This is most pronounced amongst the young, the poor, immigrants, and women — precisely those with the most to gain by socialist policies. Even if the NDP proposes some real reforms that would improve the lives of working class families, this is all undone by also supporting a coalition. In 2008 the NDP was willing to abandon all talk of reversing corporate tax cuts and ending the war in Afghanistan in exchange for six minor cabinet positions and no economic input. Why would anybody believe that the NDP would uphold its election platform if this is how they behaved in the past?
If the electoral arithmetic works for them, the NDP leadership will do everything in its power to enter a coalition. This would also be a disaster for the party. As has been shown, on the basis of capitalism there is no choice but to enact a prolonged policy of austerity. It makes no difference whether the Liberals or Conservatives win the election, both will be forced to attack. Moody’s, the investment analysts, “expects another party in power would plot no ‘major deviation’ from the goals in Jim Flaherty's budget”. The only question remains whether the NDP will be complicit with these attacks and be similarly discredited or whether the party remains independent, preparing the way for significant gains in the future on the basis of a mass working class backlash. One only has to look to the sorry state of the Liberals in the British coalition to get a view of the fate in store for the NDP. As the junior partner, the British Liberals were forced to abandon their policy of reducing tuition fees and, in fact, enacted historic increases. The party has plummeted in the polls and is in a situation of crisis.
If the NDP ends up in a coalition it is quite likely to result in some sort of split. The right wing, with former Quebec Liberal Thomas Mulcair at its head, will likely use the opportunity to skulk back into the Liberal fold. In 2010 there was a concerted effort by the “elder statesmen,” Jean Chrétien and Ed Broadbent, to liquidate the NDP into the Liberals to form the so-called Liberal Democrats. The upper echelons of the party openly mock socialism and are behind a plot to remove all reference to it in the party constitution. This, however, is likely reaching too far and their support in the party is not as strong as they think. This is not 1994, after the fall of Stalinism, when Tony Blair was able to remove the British Labour Party’s commitment to nationalization, the famous Clause Four. This is 2011, after the Great Recession and the Arab Revolution, when capitalism is widely discredited and workers and youth are rising up internationally. Former NDP leader Alexa McDonough failed to institute Blair’s “Third Way” in 1999, and the conditions for the right-wing are now far less favourable than they were a decade ago. The Globe and Mail was even forced to ask, “With financial meltdowns and labour protests, is it the springtime for Marx?” (25 Mar. 2011, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/springtime-for-marx/article1957597/)
The events around the fall of Carole James in the BCNDP are an instructive example of the weakness of the right wing in the party. Scandalously, James won the leadership with major backing from the unions (most notably CUPE, CEP, and BCGEU). She then proceeded to try to break the union link, cozy-up to business, and remove democratic controls by the rank-and-file (such as the automatic leadership review). This twice resulted in an electoral disaster against the hated BC Liberals under Gordon Campbell. However, the resignation of Campbell, forced by pressure from the anti-Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) movement, also unleashed the forces under James. Jennie Kwan, the left-ish MLA, led a revolt of 13 caucus members against the autocratic regime of James. This group of rebels was of mixed composition, all with their own personal reasons for opposing the top bureaucracy. But it would be a huge mistake to be taken in by the surface justifications of this or that individual MLA. The reason for this revolt was the groundswell of opposition to the direction of James in the party, but more significantly in the wider working class. To fail to understand this is to be taken in by the “Great Man” theory of history that ascribes everything to the conspiracy of individuals rather than mass movements of classes and economic relations. Without this groundswell there is no question that either James or Campbell would have been overthrown, no matter what grudges individual careerist politicians may hold. The forces from below act to put every system under pressure so that they break at the point of weakness.
James hung on until the very end and was prepared to expel the 13 and split the party, ensuring another victory for the hated BC Liberals. This just goes to show that the right wing of the party does not have the best wishes of the movement at heart. However, while sections of the union bureaucracy (such as BC Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair) were prepared to support her leadership in generality, they were not prepared to go this far. Incidentally, the way that this dispute played out, with mediation at the BCFED and Steelworkers offices, showed that, like-it-or-not ,the NDP is indeed the party of labour. The unions held the cards on whether James stayed or was booted out. Right-wing commentators tried to exploit this and advocated for a “new” party of the middle, which would break the union link. This call went unheeded by all, showing that the class contradictions in society are too mature to turn the clock back. The role of the unions also shows another key lesson — all the workers’ organizations have to do is lift their little finger and they can change the direction of the party. This is why it is vital that organized workers fight for a leadership that not only adopts a militant trade union policy, but also insists on a pro-worker policy in the NDP. In the final analysis, the unions are the key to the NDP and wider gains on the political front.
Unfortunately, after the ouster of Carole James, there was no credible organized left wing to press the advantage and insist that the NDP adopt a socialist program. The rebel 13 splintered into their component parts. Only one of them (Nicholas Simons) is running in the leadership election and he has no support from the other 13. It seems likely that James will be replaced with one of her supporters and the fundamental conflict will remain unresolved. It is interesting to note that Adrian Dix, one of the major contenders from the bureaucratic wing of the party, has been forced to adopt a more left-wing phraseology similar to the victory of Ed Miliband in the British Labour Party.
With all due regard to a sense of proportion, the events in the BCNDP share similarities with the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. The mobilization from below was capable of overthrowing the dictator, but the lack of socialist organizing has limited the ability of the workers to fully capitalize on the possible gains. In that event, the former leader may go but the regime remains and in the final analysis there is no fundamental change. However, the memory of the struggle remains and becomes an important lesson for the next confrontation. People remember that, “We can overthrow you!”
As yet, there is no organized left wing anywhere in the party. However, the forces unleashed in opposition to the austerity agenda are sure to eventually form one. Just as the Waffle came forward as a mass centrist force in response to the crisis of the late 1960s/early 70s, new “Waffles” are inherent in the situation. By “centrist,” we mean a political tendency standing between left reformism and genuine Marxism. Centrism is revolutionary in words but confused in its policy and tactics. It tends to arise as a mass force as a response to the crisis in society and it is the job of the Marxists to help such tendencies cross the last few metres to adopt the fully worked out policy of Marxism. It is important to understand that the Marxist tendency cannot jump-start history and attempt to form a “left” before the conditions for such developments exist. The best way for Marxists to encourage the formation of the left is to build the explicitly Marxist wing of the movement. This in turn will put pressure on the lefts to organize, either by positive example or due to fear of being out-organized by the Marxists.
Together with the possibility of splits, there are the first symptoms of bureaucratic repression within the party. The most notable was the expulsion of Bob Simpson, the BCNDP MLA. In the youth, the Toronto Young New Democrats (TYND) were de-chartered due to “association with Fightback.” However, the weakness of the bureaucracy was also exposed by these events. There was a backlash in the Ontario youth and TYND re-gained its charter, while the Bob Simpson expulsion was the spark that ignited the uproar that destabilized the James regime. With the crisis and the pressure of the working class putting stress on the party, there will be more bureaucratic attacks. The role of the leaders of social democracy, in the last analysis, is to be the last line of defence of capitalism. The capitalists will not easily give up this tool in their arsenal. As the forces of the working class press forward in the mass organizations they will face the opposition of the bureaucracy that is tied to the bosses. Just like Mubarak aimed his fire against the most committed activists, the bureaucracy will target the most consistent elements on the left and especially the Marxists. Only a narrow police understanding of the world sees everything as an “outside conspiracy”, and just as Mubarak failed to stem the revolution by arresting and torturing the activists, the bureaucracy will fail to stop the workers by expelling their most consistent advocates.
In Quebec, because of the existence of the national question, things have developed somewhat differently. The bourgeoisie has successfully used the national question to cut across the class question since the defeat of the Common Front of 1972. A combination of the Anglo-chauvanism of the CLC-NDP bureaucracy, and the syndicalism of the trade union leadership in Quebec, resulted in the workers’ organizations tail-ending the petit-bourgeois nationalists, leaving Quebec as the only province without a mass workers’ party. The lack of a workers’ party is the number one unresolved issue in Quebec. Meanwhile, the Liberals and the PQ have traded power back and forth, both pushing for cuts while distracting the workers with nationalist demagoguery.
Since the failure of the 1995 sovereignty referendum, and especially since the 2001 FTAA demonstrations in Quebec City, the class question has been making a comeback. The province of Quebec faces the worst political crisis in the entire country. The working class in Quebec is tired of the status quo federalist-nationalist back-and-forward. Polls show that a near majority find themselves “in-between ideologies” when it comes to this question, meaning not that they don't care, but that they increasingly seek a class solution to the national question.
There was a push for a general strike in 2003-2004 that was betrayed by the union leadership. We then saw the marvellous 2005 student strike that successfully reversed the cuts despite the foot-dragging of the FEUQ/FECQ leadership. We have seen the creation of Quebec solidaire on the left, and the rise and fall of the ADQ on the right. The election of Amir Khadir, as well as Thomas Mulcair and the rising popularity of the federal NDP, indicate that Quebecers are turning away from their traditional parties and are searching for an alternative on the left. The flash-in-the pan successes on the right first indicate that Quebec workers are looking for any solution that goes beyond the old federalist vs. nationalist divide. However, right-wing populism, once experienced firsthand, quickly discredits itself. The workers see that this road, while purportedly “grassroots” and “anti-governmental,” in fact, represents the naked aims of the bourgeoisie — the crushing of the Quebec labour movement, wide sweeping privatizations, and the complete gutting of the welfare state.
Recently citing one of the largest aggregate debt to GDP ratios in the industrial world (total federal, provincial, municipal, and Crown corporation debt totals 94% of Quebec’s GDP), Liberal Finance Minister Raymond Bachand has been delivering cautious austerity budgets. Again, the reason for this caution is that they fear sparking off a movement of the working class. The polls show that the government of Jean Charest is the most hated government since records began. Polls show an approval rating of under 20%, with only 2% of the population being absolutely satisfied with the government. The interesting thing, however, is that the opposition has not been able to capitalize on this dissatisfaction. The ADQ are absolutely despised and the PQ is barely more popular than the Liberals. The workers are sick and tired of the program of austerity, which all three capitalist parties pursue. Quebec solidaire has also been unable to capitalize on this massive discontent. As Marxists, we must be able to answer the question, “Why is this so?”
The capitalists in Quebec are in a difficult situation. The budgets that have been put forward by the capitalists are rather mild compared to what is truly needed by capitalism. The ruling class fears the power of the working class. They observe the revolutions in the Arab world and the huge movements in places like Wisconsin and Western Europe, and they realize they don’t have an easy task before them. The Quebec capitalists have concluded that their favoured party, the Liberals, cannot win the next election and they are preparing to rely on their second party, the PQ. It is the political equivalent of replacing their goalie with their backup. The PQ will be given no choice but to carry out the dictates of the Quebec capitalists. Due to pressure from below, this will inevitably strain the last remaining links existing between the union bureaucracies and the PQ. We have already seen the start of this process with the expulsion of SPQ Libre from the party. This would, in turn, increase the pressure for the creation of a labour party as the rank-and-file demand a political outlet for their demands.
A more favourable situation could not exist for Quebec solidaire. However, they fail to gain substantial support. Why is this? There are two reasons for this that are connected to each other. The first is that QS is not a mass party. At most, the party membership numbers only several thousand in a province of almost eight million. Only the resources and experience of the strongest labour movement in North America can provide the force capable of conveying QS’s message all over the province. Without a merger with the unions to create a workers’ party, the political field will continue to be dominated by bourgeois parties.
The second reason that Quebec solidaire fails to capitalize on the discontent in Quebec society is the class nature of the party itself. QS is not a working class party. The atmosphere, analysis, and perspectives of the party are imbued with the attitude of the petit-bourgeois. They lack a class view. One glance at the mishmash of positions adopted at the last QS congress is enough to see the confused nature of the party. The working class, upon reading most of this stuff, will have a tough time making heads or tails of it.
That being said, the party does support a number of substantive reforms and unlike the NDP, they actually publicly advocate for them. This could strike a chord with workers and galvanize support for the party. It is possible that a genuine workers’ party will be formed in Quebec via a process similar to the founding of the NDP. In the 1950s, the CCF entered into discussion with the CLC and the “New Party” was born out of that fusion. QS and one or more of the Quebec union federations could repeat this process. The chances of a workers’ party being formed by the unions on their own, completely ignoring Quebec solidaire, does not seem likely at this point, but it is still possible based on many different factors such as QS’ performance in the next election, and the way in which the leadership conducts themselves (whether or not they draw in union support, or push it away). The degree of success (or failure) of the NDP in the federal elections will also play a complicating factor. We must fully understand all of the possibilities given the current situation so that we are able to properly orient our forces and we are not caught off guard by events that can change very quickly in this turbulent situation.
For the Canadian Revolution!
At the start of this document we asked the question of whether a revolution is possible in Canada. We have shown that it is highly unlikely that Canadian capitalism will be able to buy class peace in the next period. We have shown that there is significant, and increasing, class polarization in society. We have shown that the capitalists will be forced to unleash a wave of austerity against the workers who are already showing signs of angry opposition. We answer the question with an emphatic yes. Revolution is not only possible, but is the only means by which the working class will see any meaningful improvements in the next period.
All the conditions that prepared the ground in the Arab world are present in generality. Yes, conditions were more acute in the Middle East but, as we have also shown, absolute poverty is not as important as relative inequality when estimating these questions.
However, what is also lacking is the necessary leadership to make such a movement a success. Also, to the degree that there is any fat left in the system, the bourgeois can maneuver to prolong the development of the movement. None of this changes the general direction of development, only the pace and tempo.
We do not hold to the position that there is a “final crisis of capitalism.” In the long run the bourgeois will always find a way out if the working class does not first overthrow them. Of course they will do this on the backs of the workers themselves, preparing larger and more convulsive struggles in the future. But the likely perspective over the next decade, at least, is for a period of sustained economic malaise, slump, and austerity. This, in turn, will encourage a fight back amongst the workers and youth.
Due to reformist leadership that is not prepared to break with capitalism, many of these struggles will go down to defeat. However, “reformism without reforms” is a finished recipe for discrediting the compromisers in the movement. Step-by-step, workers will replace their leaderships with people closer to the rank-and-file. Just like in Egypt and Tunisia, workers themselves will learn through the movement itself. Consciousness can make tremendous leaps as it catches up with reality. None of this of course precludes the possibility of mass confrontations. The accumulated discontent of the masses almost guarantees sporadic explosions as the movement looks for any outlet.
The movement will have significant impetus from abroad, whether it is from North Africa, from the mass anti-austerity movements and general strikes in Europe, from the example of the decade-long revolutionary movement in Latin America, or even from our neighbours to the immediate south. Canadian, European, and Latin American activists have long looked down their noses at the so-called “backward” US working class; Wisconsin has already shown how wrong these people are. Having a strong labour movement is no precondition for revolution. During the revolutionary events of 1968, ten million French workers were on strike even though only two million were in unions. The relative weakness of the workers’ organizations in the US could even play a similar role to their weakness in Egypt and Tunisia — reducing the specific weight of the bureaucracy and increasing spontaneity and sweep. We should not forget that the inspiration for the Upper and Lower Canada rebellions of 1837 was the American Revolution. The American working class can surprise us all.
In the final analysis, what is missing in Canada is the same as what is missing in the Arab world — the subjective factor, the forces that understand the movement as a whole, the forces of genuine Marxism. The developing conditions provide fertile ground for building the Marxist tendency. In turn, if the movement is to be successful it desperately needs the application of militant, democratic, revolutionary socialist methods and activists. Trotsky, in the excellent essay, “Their Morals and Ours,” explained that, “A machine under construction is an ‘end’ of production only that upon entering the factory it may become the ‘means.’” We aim to build the revolutionary tendency; that in itself is an end. But this organization, in turn, becomes the means by which the workers can win their struggles against austerity, poverty, war, and capitalism. The workers and youth are faced with a sustained period of attacks and misery — a period that will be prolonged until we can build the tool to overthrow the system. For all those who are inspired by the Arab Revolution, we say now is the time to build the revolutionary tendency, now is the time to join and get active. Above all, now is the time to educate the advanced layer of workers and youth that revolution is indeed possible in our lifetimes. All that remains is to build it.
Toronto, 31 Mar. 2011