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The political situation across the Canadian state is characterized by subterranean moods of discontent that burst out in sporadic explosions. All of these movements are manifestations of the underlying crisis of the system. To help arm workers and young people in the fights to come, Fightback is publishing our political perspectives for 2013 — "Theses on the Class Struggle in Canada". We welcome feedback from everyone; please contact us at fightback@marxist.ca.

 

Theses on the Class Struggle in Canada

A burning anger in society

1. The political situation is characterized by subterranean moods of discontent that burst out in sporadic explosions. The Occupy movement, which was predicted by the Marxists, appeared to spontaneously erupt, and then disappear just as quickly. The fantastic Quebec student strike, which was instrumental in defeating the Jean Charest Liberals, managed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people and sparked off the inspiring “Casseroles” demonstrations. Currently, the accumulated oppression felt by First Nations people is being expressed through the “Idle No More” movement. All of these movements are manifestations of the underlying crisis of the system.

2. While not explicitly tied together by organizational bonds, all these movements share a common thread. Firstly, and significantly, they overwhelmingly involve the youth. Secondly, their critique implicitly condemns the entire set-up of society. And thirdly, there is a significant “spontaneous” element in all of them. None of these commonalities are accidental.

3. The youth feel the crisis of the system much more sharply and thus, are frequently the first to move. Without the weight of habit, routine, and past defeats, young people are far more sensitive to the underlying malaise in society. This is an international phenomenon. In Greece, the present general strike movement, and radicalization of public opinion, was presaged by a youth uprising, sparked by the police killing of a 15-year old student, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, in December of 2008. In Spain, the indignados youth movement of 2011 has set the stage for the current crisis of the regime. We must not forget that the Arab revolutions were also initiated by the youth.

4. Up to this point, spontaneity has played a significant role. This can appear to contradict the Marxists, who give specific emphasis to the mass organizations of the working class. The reality is that there is huge pressure built up in the system. This pressure is desperately looking for an outlet. Unfortunately, the structures built to aid the workers and youth in expressing their anger are blocked. The reformist bureaucratic leadership of the labour movement and workers parties are doing everything in their power to dampen down the struggle. But the economic and social crisis continues unabated and the movement looks for any opening. This is why Occupy, the Casseroles, and Idle No More burst forward independently and outside of the mass organizations.

5. However, spontaneity has its limitations. What bursts forth spontaneously can dissipate just as quickly without a stable structure to consolidate it. In the early stages, spontaneity can lead to amazing élan and strength. The diffuse nature of the movement means that all can identify it with their own personal cause. However, revolutionary struggle is not that simple. Reaction has learned how to deal with such “leaderless” movements using both repression and subterfuge. Timely concessions can serve to split the mass from the advanced layer, or alternatively, the state can just wait for the movement to run out of steam by itself. People can only demonstrate for so long before they have to get back to attending to their own lives. This is exacerbated when the masses do not see a clear route to victory. This was the case with Occupy, and it could have been the case with the Quebec students on numerous occasions if the Charest government had not re-ignited the movement with new oppressions, and then given the people a new outlet via the provincial election. The limits of spontaneity have been shown in the Arab revolutions; after defeating the regime there was no vehicle present whereby the revolutionary people could take power. In this situation the Islamist elements filled the organizational vacuum. The people must now pay the price of new uprisings and sacrifice before the revolution can be completed.

6. To date, the Canadian working class has not entered the struggle in a decisive fashion. This is not because the workers are contented by any means. There is an ongoing onslaught against the working class. Workers at Air Canada, Canada Post, CP Rail, and teachers in Ontario, to mention a few, have faced enforced contracts and removal of the right to strike. This has led to mass demonstrations and even a victorious wildcat walkout at Air Canada. But without exception, the leadership of the unions were incapable, or unwilling, to take the necessary actions to defeat the attacks. They have all bowed down at the altar of bourgeois legality and all of these movements have been aborted before they could take off. It is an old saying in the labour movement that “weakness invites aggression”. The present weakness at the top of the movement is being utilized by right-wing governments to push their advantage. “Right-to-work” and other anti-union legislation looms as a real prospect.

7. However, the bourgeois are advised to proceed with caution. They are accustomed to dealing with cowardly bureaucracies who capitulate when faced with a genuine struggle. But if they push the workers too far, the workers will push aside their mis-leaders. This will take time and it is impossible to predict when exactly the workers will take hold of the baton of struggle, offered to them by the youth — it could be 6 months, 12 months, or five years from now. We do not know when the movement will break through, but until it does, sporadic “spontaneous” uprisings are to be expected. Due to the lack of revolutionary working class leadership, the movement will by necessity be protracted, with many defeats and even periods of reaction and disappointment. But the general development towards heightened struggle remains unchanged because the capitalist system offers no other way out for the working class for the foreseeable future.

No economic way out under capitalism

8. Marxists are not economic determinists. The economic conjuncture colours the development of the class struggle in a general sense, but the details of each struggle are independent of economics. There is a dialectical, not linear, relationship between economics and the class struggle. In general, a society that can develop the means of production can afford concessions that tend to promote stability. A society that cannot will enter into a period of decline and crisis.

9. We do not believe that there is any reasonable prospect for economic growth in Canada sufficient to open up a new period of reforms benefiting the working class. This point of view is shared by the strategists of capital. For example, Don Drummond, the former chief economist of Toronto-Dominion Bank, explained that he did not see growth rates exceeding 2% for the “foreseeable future”. The bourgeoisie is not predicting growth and reforms; they are predicting cuts and austerity for at least a decade, if not longer.

10. Rather than being pessimistic, as some reformists say, it appears that Drummond and Co.’s prediction of 2% may even be too optimistic. There are significant possibilities that the Canadian economy may not even reach this tepid rate of growth.

11. Household debt in Canada is currently at over 160% of annual personal income, and this has been a factor in the recent credit rating downgrade of the big Canadian banks. The low interest rates triggered by the global financial crash of 2008 have led to a building bubble in Canada’s biggest cities. There are 120 highrises that are either planned or under construction in Toronto. This is the highest level of activity on the planet, with the next highest number of projects (just over 30) being built in Mexico City. Vancouver, Toronto, and other Canadian cities continue to have the least affordable housing in the world. It currently appears as if housing sales are slowing down, but prices are not following suit. This situation cannot continue indefinitely and a “correction” is inevitable, sooner or later. Removal of the economic activity and employment associated with construction could be the shock that sends Canada into a new downturn.

12. Commentators have been hopeful about the US economy entering a recovery and dragging Canada up with it, but this is not materializing. US GDP actually fell by 0.1% in the fourth quarter of 2012 — more than a full percentage point lower than expectations. This is partially an expression of the continued global economic crisis, with Europe in a terrible state.

13. Outgoing Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney has admonished corporate Canada for stockpiling over $500-billion in “dead money” that should be invested to revitalize the economy. This amounts to about one-third (32%) of Canadian GDP, four times higher than the US rate. Essentially, Canadian corporations are pocketing all the government tax-cuts and “stimulus” without investing in the wider economy.

14. This money hoarding is perfectly logical in the insane system of free market capitalism. Royal Bank of Canada economist David Onyett-Jeffries explained, “Given the persistently high degree of uncertainty about the global economic outlook, it is thus reasonable that firms would opt to hold a relatively larger cash buffer lest they be caught short when the next crisis rears its ugly face.” In other words, the capitalists have no faith in their system and this is expressing itself in the most important language of all — that of money. Capitalists do not invest for fun — they invest for profit. With no hope that investment will bring any return, the system is paralyzed. This is the clearest indictment of the system possible.

15. Much has been said about the stability of Canada’s banks. Indeed, they are well insured through the government-owned Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). A little known fact is that Canada’s banks received a secret $125-billion bailout via CMHC after the financial crash of 2008. Based on their stock market valuations, this money was sufficient to effectively nationalize the Canadian banking sector. However, this government largess did not stop the bankers from awarding themselves billions of dollars in bonuses while suckling on the public teat. From the perspective of workers facing austerity, the injustice of this situation is clear (and has been dealt with elsewhere). However, it has important ramifications for the stability of the system itself.

16. In the event of a new crash of the property market, combined with a spike in unemployment and a wave of bankruptcies due to the historically high levels of personal debt, Canada’s banks will find themselves under significant pressure. However, via CMHC, it is almost guaranteed that none of the big banks will be allowed to go under. This has been characterized as “the privatization of profits and the socialization of losses”. The bad debts will be transferred to the taxpayer — significantly increasing government debt. Canadian debt-to-GDP is already high, but this development would be sufficient to push it to crisis levels.

17. According to the Economist magazine, this is how Canada’s aggregate debt-to-GDP ratio (federal + provincial + municipal + Crown corporation debt) compares with other economies:

Spain 73%

USA: 75%

Germany 83%

Canada: 87%

France: 90%

UK: 91%

Italy 121%

Greece 158%

Japan 225%

18. The current high levels of debt are the rationale for the wave of austerity internationally. Canada is not excluded from this tendency. High debt, combined with a reduced credit rating, increases the cost of debt servicing above all other government services. The capitalists cannot simply ignore this. In the event of a new bailout, Canada can find itself in a far more desperate condition than it currently enjoys.

19. All economic perspectives are conditional with respect to timing and degree. Those who say they know precisely how the economy will develop are often the same people who are selling pyramid schemes. In the final analysis, there is no “final crisis” of capitalism. The capitalist system will always find a way out, one way or another. However, this statement does not exhaust the question. “One way or another” does not mean that growth can be attained simply, automatically, quickly, or painlessly. The last great crisis of capitalism was only resolved after a decade of depression, the extermination of 50-million souls, and the potential eradication of civilization. We do not know what measures the bourgeois will need to take to re-balance their system, but we are certain that the building of a new society will be far less painful and costly than maintenance of the profit motive.

Simply taxing the rich is not a solution

20. In 1960, British Trotskyist Ted Grant analyzed the post-war boom to determine if the high rates of growth of that period necessitated a revision of the Marxist analysis of capitalist economics. “Will There be a Slump?” remains a Marxist classic to this day. In particular, Ted analyzed the ideas of Keynes to see if they were a solution. In his time, Keynes’ ideas of “pump-priming” were viewed as the definitive answer to Marx and the mechanism whereby slumps (and booms) could be averted. Ted showed these ideas to be false and the Marxist method to hold true — subsequently demonstrated by the hyperinflation and slump of the 1970s.

21. Recently, it appears as if Keynesian ideas are coming back in fashion in some sectors of academia and the left. This is summed up in the slogan, “Tax the rich!” Some who call themselves Marxists have even repeated this. We believe this slogan is mistaken and leads to reformist confusions.

22. How is the inequality and crisis in the system to be resolved? So called “demand-side” economists (the Keynesians) point to the lack of a market due to the low standard of living of the masses. If only the market could be boosted then the crisis could be resolved. They propose taxing the bourgeois to lessen inequality and pump up the market. The “supply-side” economists (classical bourgeois) point out that if you take money from the rich, this reduces the surplus necessary for investment.  This reduces the rate of profit and can cause a new slump.

23. The classical economists propose austerity and increased exploitation to restore the rate of profit. The Keynesians answer that this just further cuts the market and exacerbates the problem. This is exactly what is currently occurring in Greece and other southern European countries.

24. Both camps are correct in their critique of the other, but neither sees the whole picture. The economy involves both supply and demand and anything taken out of the system affects the entire system. Trying to boost the economy via taxation is the economic equivalent of a man trying to lift himself up by his own bootlaces. If you tax the rich, they will not invest. In some jurisdictions where they attempted to do this and there is even evidence that with tax evasion, creative accounting, and moving jurisdictions, that tax revenue has in fact decreased!

25. Having failed in taxing the rich, the next step of the Keynesians is using deficit financing to fund programs. Eventually this just leads to unsustainable debt loads, with debt servicing overtaking other expenditure. Some say that you don’t have to worry about debt; we would encourage these people to conduct an experiment and stop paying the minimum balance on their credit card or their mortgage payments. They will soon be educated, “on the streets”. The perspective that you do not have to worry about debt, as it will recede as a percentage of GDP, is based on incredibly optimistic growth projections. In essence, the reformists have more faith in the capitalist system than the capitalists do. Based upon the math of Don Drummond and other classical economists, the choice is between austerity or Italy-style debt. The Marxists do not believe that Drummond is too pessimistic. There is a good chance that he is too optimistic about capitalism.

26. Once taxation and deficit financing are rejected, all that remains is printing money. This serves to devalue the currency and leads to hyperinflation, which in turn, erodes the condition of the masses. Inflation is the legacy of the Keynesians, as seen in the 1970s. What is astounding is that, facing no other way out, sections of the bourgeois are seriously considering this route under the pretty name of “quantitative easing”. They previously said that they would never again go down this route. This is another symptom of the depth of the crisis and the impasse facing the capitalists.

27. Marxists are not opposed to taxing the rich. We merely point out that unless it is combined with nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy, under democratic workers’ control and management, progressive taxation will not solve the problem. The problem lies within the logic of the system as a whole, and not with either the supply or demand side of it. The only solution is to replace an economy based on profit, which inevitably results in overproduction and crisis, with an economy based upon meeting human needs. Then, the productive forces can be democratically planned for the needs of all. There is no way around this fact.

The mass organizations of the working class

28. Marxists place heavy emphasis on the mass organizations of the working class. These ideas were developed in Lenin’s Left Wing Communism, Trotsky’s Transitional Program, and by Ted Grant in the post-war period. History plays a significant role in developing mass consciousness, and no matter how much some leftists may desire to “begin again anew”, the masses do not see it that way. Ted Grant explained that when the masses move into political activity, they tend to do so through their traditional mass organizations — this means through the unions, the social-democratic labour parties, and the communist movement in the countries where communism has been a mass tendency. The mass of the population does not understand small groups, no matter how correct their ideas may be.

29. When entering the mass organizations, radicalized workers and youth will find an entrenched bureaucracy that is wed to the capitalist system. Trotsky explained that without this bureaucracy, the capitalists would not be able to maintain their rule. However, despite this, these organizations still have huge reserves of support amongst the working class. The electoral breakthrough of the federal NDP in 2011 was precisely due to this connection between the mass of the working class and their party. It occurred despite the party’s weak program, not because of it. Only the Marxists predicted and explained these developments in advance; all other commentators, journalists, academics, and sectarians believed that the NDP had a “ceiling” of 20% support. They were all left dumbfounded and confused while Marxist analysis prepared us to analyze and intervene in these developments the very next day. Such is the victory of foresight over astonishment.

30. The mass wave of emotion following the death of Jack Layton, with over 20,000 at his funeral, was an even clearer example of the link between mass consciousness and the NDP. The words in chalk at Nathan Phillips Square were overwhelmingly progressive, and sometimes even revolutionary. How is this to be explained if there is no link between the masses and the party? Again, only the Marxist tendency could analyze and connect with this sentiment without compromising our critique. All others were silent.

31. However, while it is generally true that the workers move through their mass organizations and the struggle will inevitably be crystallized in these structures at a certain point, it is not an automatic process. It is an historical irony that while capitalism is in its worst crisis in generations, the mass organizations have never had such a right wing and pro-capitalist leadership. The organized left within social democracy has also never been in such a state of disarray. One of the reasons for this is that with the crisis, there is no room for a middle ground — there is no money for reforms while maintaining capitalist rule. This undercuts the platform of the left reformists, which is essentially utopian under present conditions. The rule of “liberals” like Thomas Mulcair serves as a barrier to workers and youth entering the party at this stage. Until this is resolved we would expect the main developments to occur outside the NDP, either through the labour movement or via spontaneous outbursts.

32. While in opposition, the overwhelming pressure within the party is to maintain party unity and avoid splits. This promotes the monolithic dominance of the bureaucracy. However, sooner or later, it is inevitable that the crisis will discredit the capitalist parties and the NDP will be thrust into government. This is a necessary stage in the education of the mass of the population; people need to see for themselves what the right wing of social democracy can achieve. Under crisis conditions, and because of their unwillingness to break with the system, the reformists will be forced to take responsibility for capitalist austerity. This is what occurred during the British Labour government in the 1970s, or during the Bob Rae Ontario NDP government in the 1990s. Any attempt to implement reforms in favour of the workers will be faced with vicious opposition from the capitalists and their media — investment strikes, credit downgrades, and outright sabotage are to be expected. While in power, all the forces that tended to promote unity in the previous period will instead provoke disunity and splits. It is important to conceptualize the mass organizations as dynamic and contradictory structures. On the one side, there is the bureaucratic pro-capitalist leadership; on the other is the rank-and-file and the link with the wider working class. This dialectical struggle plays itself out in tandem with the broader struggle of the working class in society. It is precisely this link between mass consciousness and the mass organizations that the bourgeois fear with such venom and hatred.

33. Our analysis is occasionally misinterpreted and vulgarized (sometimes deliberately) as, “The mass organizations inevitably move to the left.” This is not, and has never been, our position. Our analysis does not predict an inevitable leftward movement; our analysis predicts an inevitable polarization within the mass organizations where the competing class forces (bourgeois vs. proletarian) are crystallized out. The eventual perspective is for conflict, division, and splits, both to the left and to the right. The British Labour government of the 1970s collapsed after its austerity policies provoked a wave of public sector strikes in 1979 (the so-called “Winter of Discontent”). This discredited the leadership in the eyes of the rank-and-file and precipitated the split of the right wing, which formed the SDP. The rightward split propelled the left forward, with the Marxists present as the “left-of-the-left”, and the party adopted the position of nationalization of the top 25 monopolies in the 1983 election. In Canada, a similar development occurred with the formation of the Waffle tendency. In response to the crisis of the late 1960s/early 1970s, a semi-revolutionary tendency calling for socialism and widespread nationalization managed to gain 37% support in the 1971 party leadership contest. It is necessary for the revolutionary Marxist tendency to be present in order to assist radicalized workers in the best tactics and ideas to overcome the bureaucratic minority.

34. In Europe, we have seen the rise of left formations like Die Linke in Germany, Izquierda Unida in Spain, Le Front de gauche in France, and SYRIZA in Greece. Some have asked where Canada’s SYRIZA will come from and whether this disproves our emphasis on the mass organizations. This comes from a superficial understanding of the histories of these countries — all of these formations come from the communist movement, which is a mass tradition in these nations. Some of these organizations also include left-splits from the old social democratic parties. An opposite example is shown by the miserable fate of left formations that have no link to the mass tradition, such as RESPECT in Britain or the French NPA. One cannot just transpose developments in cookie-cutter fashion from one country to another. The concrete situation must be analyzed in each instance to determine commonalities and differences. As an aside, it is also important not to romanticize these left tendencies; for example, the leadership of SYRIZA is moving rightwards as it comes under pressure from the ruling class with its proximity to power. The rise of the left does not remove the need to build the consciously worked out revolutionary tendency – precisely the opposite. However, to answer the question of where Canada’s SYRIZA will come from: we would expect the radicalization of the workers to be expressed via the formation of a left wing within the labour movement and NDP as this is the only mass tradition in English Canada.

35. The labour movement itself is in a sorry state. Under attack, facing capitulation after capitulation, the leadership is completely lost in this new epoch of austerity. They keep on harking back to the 1960s, as if that period was how things are supposed to be. In hindsight, we can see that it was the post-war boom, which allowed limited reforms, that was the aberration for capitalism. The natural state of capitalism, the “new normal”, is that of austerity and crass exploitation. This contradiction between material reality and the ideology of the workers’ representatives cannot continue indefinitely.

36. In the early period after the onset of the Great Recession the labour leaders tried to ignore the crisis and stick their heads in the sand, ostrich style. They advised workers to keep their heads down, accept cutbacks, and soon this would all blow over. Unfortunately for the workers, instead of blowing over, the capitulatory tactics have invited further aggression with the potential implementation of “right-to-work” and the removal of the Rand Formula. Now, the union tops have done a rhetorical summersault. From, “Nothing to see here,” we have gone to, “The sky is falling!” Some are talking about the destruction of the labour movement. Sections of the union bureaucracy are panicked that a potential 50% reduction in dues would mean that cuts would not just impact the workers but also the union apparatus. As Marxists, it is necessary to have a sense of proportion; we can neither ignore the crisis, nor run around Chicken-Little style. Both approaches lead to reactionary conclusions. For example, in Ontario, the fear of right-to-work under the Hudak Conservatives has led the labour leaders to adopt “lesser-evil” tactics to prop up the Wynne Liberals — despite the recent Liberal attacks on the teachers and wider public sector. The message from the bureaucracy is, “We will accept austerity for the workers — but don’t touch our expense accounts!” Any economic cut is acceptable as long as the political rights of the union apparatus are maintained. Of course this also undermines the union, as workers see no point in paying dues to accept austerity.

37. While the removal of the Rand formula is an important attack that must be resisted by mass action, the labour movement is not on the verge of destruction. Only a mass fascist movement can destroy the labour movement, and alarmism only disarms the workers. Firstly, it is not even guaranteed that the bourgeois will push these counter-reforms. They are split between the “neo-cons”, who want to press their advantage, and the more far-sighted elements, who are more cautious. They see such provocative actions as potentially enraging the workers and leading to the removal of the right-wing labour leaders who are currently propping up capitalism. These attacks are also not electorally popular, as seen by the low approval numbers of Hudak and other right-wingers. Secondly, even in the event that the attacks are victorious, all that does is to move Canada to the labour relations regime of the United States. Yes, the American unions are weaker than in Canada, but they are still potentially the most powerful force in US society. Margaret Thatcher even illegalized the closed shop in Britain in the 1980s, but the fight against the attack actually politicized many workers and the feared dues reductions did not manifest. These attacks prepare the way for a mass mobilization and renewal of the labour movement at a certain point. However, while Marxists agitate for the need to stand and fight now, we are too weak to be the deciding voice on when the struggle will occur.

38. Increasingly, the bourgeois state is utilizing anti-democratic methods in order to enforce austerity — back-to-work legislation, enforced contracts, limits on freedom of assembly and picketing, mass detention, and police violence. The Quebec students showed in practice that the only way to defeat state oppression is through mass defiance. The workers and their organizations need to learn this lesson; until they do, there will be nothing but defeats. This gives people a very real education in the nature of the state. Each time the capitalists use these tools, they become a little more blunted; with every use, new cracks appear in the façade that we live in a free and democratic society where all are equal under the law. Eventually, one decisive section of the working class will defy anti-democratic laws and it will have a radicalizing effect on the labour movement as a whole. The logic of such confrontations leads to wildcat actions, solidarity walkouts, and even general strikes. As long as austerity continues, there is an ongoing potential for generalized struggle to flare up from almost nothing. All it needs is for one group of workers to be the first to step up.

Quebec in turmoil

39. For more than a decade, the people of Quebec have been searching for a road out of the impasse of society. The old dichotomy of federalism-nationalism, that has dominated debate since the 1970s, is no longer sufficient. There have been sudden and dramatic swings in public opinion, both to the left and to the right, with the concurrent rise and fall of political organizations and individuals. Objectively, there is a fantastic opportunity for the formation of a labour party to unite all sectors of the working class and to cut across old divisions. However, until such a party can be formed, the social oscillations will continue with increasing tempo and violence.

40. The Quebec student strike marked an important step forward and revealed the depth of discontent that exists in society. It also demonstrated the potential for struggle that exists when a traditional mass organization of the workers and youth actually stands up and gives a lead. The defeat of the Liberals was a direct result of this mass mobilization that saw hundreds of thousands on the streets and red banners flying in the working-class neighbourhoods of Montreal. In response, the Parti Quebecois was forced to campaign from the left. They managed to eke out a minority victory that resolves none of the key issues.

41. The national question in Quebec has not gone away — it merely exists side-by-side with the class question. This was shown during the 2012 provincial election when both the Liberals and PQ used the national question to shift the focus away from the student movement and capitalist austerity. The Liberals and the anglo-chauvinist media whipped up hysteria over the coming PQ government, convincing people that the PQ would not respect the rights of immigrants and anglophones, which could only be defended by the Liberals. The shooting at the PQ victory party only served to heighten tensions. Unfortunately, this national divide-and-rule strategy was in part successful and allowed the Liberals to mostly sweep the island of Montreal. It is ironic that they succeeded in the area where the student strike was strongest.

42. Quebec solidaire represents an important opportunity for the formation of a genuine mass party of labour in Quebec. QS’ membership was boosted by 6,000 in the wake of the student protests, and it doubled its vote and seat count in the election. However, it is yet to unite with the labour movement, and the party leadership either appears to have no conception of how to do this, or no desire to do so. Inexplicably, during the 2012 election, the only demonstration they chose to organize was over the question of independence. Free education, full employment, decent housing, or almost anything else would have been a better subject to delineate QS from the PQ and not just lead to the perception that QS is the left wing of the Parti Quebecois. The actions of the QS leadership effectively assisted the Quebec bourgeoisie’s aims — to shift the focus away from the class question in Quebec and further divide the Quebec working class. The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) was able to gain significant support by cutting across the national divide from the right; unfortunately, the leaders of QS have not yet understood that the way forward is to adopt an analogous strategy from the left. Despite this, QS may be utilized as the main political vehicle of the masses due to the lack of any alternative.

43. The federal NDP in Quebec is not yet a traditional mass organization of the Quebec working class. The unions remain outside the party and the Mulcair clique appears to be hostile to them. The party leadership has done everything in its power to not get involved in the recent social struggles in Quebec — most notably the student strike. The party bureaucracy has raised the idea of launching a provincial NDP, although thankfully this project has been shelved at this time. Within the context of an already existing left party (QS), we believe the founding of an explicitly federalist provincial NDP would be a step towards splitting the left vote and entrenching the national divide on the left. That being said, we are in favour of the NDP participating in provincial politics. We call for the NDP, the Quebec unions, and Quebec solidaire, to form a united front against austerity as the first step to the formation of a new united labour party that includes all three constituencies. This is within the tradition of the organizations — QS was formed via the fusion of Union des forces progressistes and Option Citoyenne, while the NDP came out of the “New Party” movement that united the CLC and the CCF.

44. The bourgeois-nationalist Parti Quebecois government is not capable of solving any of the problems faced by the workers and youth of Quebec. Even the limited reforms that they were forced to implement in order to win power, such as the tuition freeze, are now on the chopping block. Within the logic of the capitalist system there is no alternative but austerity; this is doubly true in Quebec with its high debt and declining manufacturing sector. The way is being prepared for a new confrontation between the PQ and the student and labour movement. It is an absolute tragedy that only a week after the PQ austerity budget, instead of raising an alliance of anti-austerity forces, the QS leadership was instead discussing the potential for a sovereigntist alliance that could possibly include the Parti Quebecois! Quebec solidaire should be at the forefront of allying itself against the PQ – with the workers opposing austerity and the students fighting for free education. This could pave the way for a significant advance when this minority government inevitably falls. Similarly, the student movement needs to get beyond its anti-parliamentarism and get its hands dirty campaigning for a party that supports free education; this would be a key step forward. But, as always, the most important body that must break with the bourgeois parties are the unions. When the organized workers move, everything will change.

What do Marxists mean by “Leadership”?

45. Trotsky opens the Transitional Program with the following statement: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” This point remains a key component of our analysis.

46. The crisis of leadership takes a number of forms. The most obvious form is seen in the capitulations of the labour and social democratic leaderships. Recently, tens of thousands of Ontario teachers were on the verge of taking wildcat strike action against an undemocratically imposed austerity contract. These workers, who were on the right of the movement and supported the Liberal government just 12 months previously, were now overwhelmingly prepared to go on illegal strike and face down the prospect of fines and even imprisonment. This shows how rapidly consciousness can change under the force of events. However, at 4:30am on the morning the strike was due to commence, the union leadership called off the action. The backtracking by the leadership led directly to the defeat of the struggle against the imposed contract. Scandalously, it was subsequently discovered that teachers’ union leaders had even donated money to the Liberal leadership campaign. Anybody who dares insinuate that the defeat of the teachers was in some way due to “a low level of consciousness” of the workers is promoting the most base slander imaginable.

47. On the political front, we have seen federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair essentially support the Conservative strategy for dealing with the Idle No More protests. (Facing a backlash, he has since tried to distance himself from these statements.) The Ontario NDP also propped up the Liberals and supported their austerity budget in exchange for a few scraps. All of these actions are not just a betrayal, but also serve to weaken the support for the party in the population. Ironically, this comes from the bureaucratic faction that holds electoral victory to be the most important thing in politics. Such betrayals are too numerous to count and have been a continuing feature since the 1930s.

48. The bankruptcy of the workers’ leadership has led some younger sections of the movement to come to semi-anarchist conclusions and deny leadership. This is quite understandable, given the circumstances. For example, imagine the reaction of Quebec students when they discovered that some Quebec union leaders were discouraging Canadian unions from supporting the movement, saying it was bound to fail! Unfortunately, the workers organizations and their bureaucratic leadership cannot just be ignored. We have explained previously the huge reserves of support these organizations have among the working class. “Anarchist” rejection of the mass organizations and “leadership” is an early symptom of the first stages of the movement, which tends to fall away as the movement grows up. There is no avoiding the fight to win the battle of democracy in the workers’ organizations. To abandon this struggle is to abandon the mass of the workers and youth to be controlled by the bureaucrats, while leaving the most radical elements isolated.

49. The struggle of the workers to remove bureaucratic leadership is not easy and it does not occur quickly, or in a straight line. However, if it were impossible for the workers to overcome a bureaucratic leadership of their own organizations, one would also have to come to the conclusion that it is impossible for the workers to build a new society — a far bigger task. Often, leadership in the movement is renewed by a series of progressive approximations. Old leaders who have revealed their bankruptcy are pushed aside and replaced by those closer to the membership. In turn, the limits of these new leaders are revealed in action. Sometimes, old bureaucrats may detect the change underneath them and move left to retain their position. In other instances, individuals, under the pressure of mass experience, may genuinely move to the left. History has seen examples of all of these tendencies. When conscious organized Marxist revolutionaries are present these developments can move a lot faster — but this can only be done by patient explanation and by winning a genuine democratic mandate amongst the rank-and-file. There are no short cuts in this endeavour.

50. Rejection of leadership is another form by which the crisis of leadership manifests itself. In some ways, such misunderstandings of the process of class struggle can be more dangerous than the out-and-out betrayers. The mass can detect the bureaucrats in the process of struggle; however, honest fighters who base themselves on mistaken ideas can lead to debilitating defeats and demoralization precisely because the masses trust them. For example, the leadership of the CLASSE student union set out to resolutely oppose tuition hikes and understood that only by building a mass strike movement could they succeed. It is another irony that they denied that they were showing leadership: they were merely “spokespeople”. This is just semantics and is an example of how the language has been debased. “Leadership” has become conflated with bureaucratic dictatorship — that is, “bad leadership”. The alternative to bad leadership is not “no leadership”; the alternative is “good leadership”, and renaming it does not change the essence, but can lead to confusion. In fact, the mantra that “we are not leaders, we are only spokespeople” has been used by the right wing to refuse to organize towards necessary strike action. The leaders of CLASSE worked tirelessly, with a worked-out perspective, and did the work on the ground to win a democratic mandate for the strategy that the conscious minority believed was necessary for victory. Once the ideas of the conscious minority were democratically adopted by the majority, by a process of free discussion and debate, these ideas acquired mass force. This is a fantastic example of good leadership that is not in opposition to the mass, but is dialectically linked to it.

51. The revolutionary ideology of the CLASSE leaders, combined with the fact that they were leading a recognized mass organization of the students with an excellent tradition of democratic general assemblies, led to the explosion of the struggle. Unfortunately, this is where the limits of their ideology became apparent. The key task for the student movement is to spread to the working class. Students, on their own, possess very little power. Student power resides in the ability of the student struggle to spread to the working class. Lip service was paid to this fact, and resolutions were passed directing the movement to go to the workplaces, but nothing was concretely organized to materially spread the movement to the workers. Herein lies another form of the crisis of leadership. The response that, “the students did not do it for themselves” is an abrogation of leadership and is in essence blaming the masses for the failure of the tops. It also ignores the fact that the ranks passed numerous resolutions directing their “spokespeople” to organize such actions. The confusion was even more acute when Charest moved to the electoral plane to cut off the movement. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, after he had resigned as CLASSE spokesperson, revealed what he really thought:

“[There is] a student left that refuses any dialogue, any link with political parties. To the point that when the election came, the CLASSE had a position of not taking a position: ‘We will not take account of the electoral context.’ Which I find problematic, because it’s a denial of the circumstances in which the social movements are nevertheless evolving… [I]n reality there are some student activists who do join Québec solidaire. We saw this during the election: the position of the CLASSE congress, which said ,’we ignore the election and call for continuing the strike,’ was rejected by the students who had mobilized for some months; starting with the first general assemblies when the new school semester began, they voted the opposite way: ‘There’s an election, we have an opportunity to overthrow the government, let’s go back to class.’ So that was a major disillusionment, showing the gap between a certain far-left within the structures of the student movement and the majority of the militants, including some of the most active, for whom it was now time to translate the movement politically. So there was no organized translation of this attitude in the public space, which was very difficult for the CLASSE.”

52. Nadeau-Dubois sums up the situation very well. The electoral plane was a blind spot for the CLASSE leaders; a genuine revolutionary leadership must see all parts of the battlefield — both the streets and the ballot box. The reality is that the victory against tuition hikes and the removal of bill 78 occurred despite the most class-conscious elements in the CLASSE and not because of them. We do not point this out to score petty debating points — we have nothing but admiration for these honest class fighters who achieved more than anybody else in a generation — but to highlight the point that commitment and a desire to struggle are not enough. Ideas, methods, and organization are also vital if the militant layer is to assist the mass to win victory. There is no other word for this phenomenon other than leadership.

53. A working-class leadership does not come spontaneously or automatically; it must be built, usually over a period of decades. By a combination of study and activity, the best class fighters come to the fore. Militants are steeled in the clash of ideas with other political tendencies: conservatism, liberalism, reformism, sectarianism, and the ideas of academia. Uniting these individuals into a common organization helps the student militant understand the working class; the young fighter learn from those present in past struggles; those in the imperialist nations learn from the experience of those in the colonial; and vice-versa. We aim to unite the best fighters not on a city-wide level, not on a national level, but on an international level. This way, dialectically, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We make no apologies for the use of the terms “correct ideas” or “right methods”, as we do not hold to the pervasive self-doubt of the failed petty-bourgeois and academic tendencies of the past. Instead, we base ourselves on the experience of 200 years of working-class struggle. Let us have an open debate over clear ideas and not over whether we should be confident of what we believe. From experience we have learnt that those who do not have confidence in themselves will never be able to win the confidence of the masses. Optimism is a key trait of any true revolutionary, and optimism is the only scientific conclusion possible when taking a long-term view of history. Lenin said it very well in What is to be done?:

“We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance almost constantly under their fire. We have combined, by a freely adopted decision, for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not of retreating into the neighbouring marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation. And now some among us begin to cry out: Let us go into the marsh! And when we begin to shame them, they retort: What backward people you are! Are you not ashamed to deny us the liberty to invite you to take a better road! Oh, yes, gentlemen! You are free not only to invite us, but to go yourselves wherever you will, even into the marsh. In fact, we think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there. Only let go of our hands, don’t clutch at us and don’t besmirch the grand word freedom, for we too are ‘free’ to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are turning towards the marsh!”

54. Those who fail to appreciate the crisis of leadership either consciously, or sub-consciously, fall to the following conclusions. If defeats are not due to bad leadership, then one can only deduce that it is the workers who are to blame for defeats — that, “their consciousness is too low.” This profoundly pessimistic conclusion lets the bureaucrats off the hook and is also not confirmed by an honest appraisal of history. Workers and youth have tried time and again to change society and their organizations, but faced with betrayers, or even occasionally honest yet confused elements, they were not successful. It is necessary to learn the skills of how to defeat the bureaucracy and expose them — by the method of putting demands on them and building an alternative leadership based on the correct militant democratic methods. It is important to understand how class-consciousness develops — not in a straight line, but with a bang, like the Ontario teachers. There is a dialectical relationship between leadership and consciousness. If we fall to “anarchist” impatience and boycott this struggle, we leave the mass to be misled with impunity. Sometimes, a failure to understand the role of leadership is related to a form of economic determinism — “conditions are not ripe”, “the workers are too comfortable”, etc., or with a reliance on spontaneity. This flies in the face of reality today, evidenced by growing inequality and increasing austerity. We have previously explained the limits of spontaneity; taken too far, such arguments just become an excuse not to do the hard work building in the here-and-now. At rock bottom, a failure to understand leadership comes from a deep pessimism about the working class.

No room for pessimism

55. An honest appraisal of the conditions internationally and in Canada leave us no room to be despondent. Precisely the opposite. We continue to be inspired by the ability of workers and youth to struggle, as seen during the movement of the Quebec students. However, these movements are merely a foretaste of what is to come when the working class enters the scene of history in a decisive way. Due to the lack of leadership, and the weakness of the forces of genuine revolutionary Marxism, this process will be protracted. But capitalism is not capable of providing a way out in the short or medium term and the workers and youth will have no alternative but to fight.  Under these conditions, all organizations and theories will be put to the test. This gives the opportunity for the revolutionary tendency to come forward with the ideas and methods that can assist the workers in achieving victory. There is a pressing need to resolve the contradiction between the depth of the crisis and the leadership of the organizations of the working class. The Marxist tendency must be built so it can be a viable option for the workers. Until it is, the crisis will continue.

First draft February 2013

Amended March 2013; May 2013


See also:

Prospects for Revolution: Canadian perspectives 2011

The Failure of Capitalism and the Need for a Socialist Alternative: Canadian perspectives 2009