presentation by Barry Weisleder on Working Class Politics at the Education for Activists conference in Toronto, November 2019.
I taught high school for 35 years, but let me assure you this is not a civics class. Feel free to take notes. The only test will be life itself. I will talk about the federal election. First, let’s consider what is working class politics.
It begins with the fact that society is class divided. There are two main classes:
1. The working class is at least 85% of society. We sell our labour power to survive. Workers and nature are the source of all wealth, but we possess nearly zero economic and political power.
- The capitalist class, the less than 1% of society, produce almost nothing and have nearly total control of economic and political decision making, exercised through their state apparatus. The self-employed and managerial petty bourgeoisie, the intermediary 10 to 14% of the population, cling to the coat-tails of the capitalist class. They do its bidding. In a deep crisis the petty bourgeoisie will split between the main classes. Most will go over to the working class if there is a mass revolutionary party.
The capitalist state is not neutral. It performs an administrative and coercive role, but also an ideological one. It seeks to persuade workers that minority class rule is natural and permanent. However, we know, as materialists, that nothing is permanent but change. Fundamental change comes through class struggle. Of course, you can pray for higher wages. You can try to make a compelling moral or legal argument for social justice. But it’s usually more effective simply to go on strike.
To change society as a whole, not just to change one work place or one neighborhood, a goal of the working class is to break the monopoly of political power of the capitalist class. That’s why workers began to organize our own political parties in the 19th century. The first workers’ parties were utopian and reformist, but soon revolutionary parties took to the field. That started with the Communist League, for which Marx and Engels wrote a famous Manifesto in 1848, followed by the First International in 1864, the Socialist or Second International in 1889, the Communist or Third International in 1919, and the Fourth International in 1938. The reason for these successive parties is a subject for another talk.
Larry Zolf, a CBC TV journalist in the 1970s used to tell a story about life in Winnipeg’s North End. He said he grew up in a two-party system. What two parties? The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Communist Party. The CP withered as it defended the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. The CCF went on to merge with the Canadian Labour Congress in 1961 to form the New Democratic Party. The NDP, like its counterparts in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, is a bourgeois workers’ party. That means it is based on workers’ organizations. However, it is burdened with a pro-capitalist programme and leadership. Party democracy would enable the working class to determine the programme and policies of the party, rather than bow to the wishes of the parliamentary careerists and labour bureaucrats who dominate the organization. So, the NDP embodies a contradiction, the conflict between labour and capital. Socialists seek to resolve that conflict in favour of labour.
That brings us to the October 21 federal election. From the standpoint of the working class, which is the vast majority, what happened, and what is to be done?
The election aftermath offers some clues. Andrew Scheer is fighting for his political life, Elizabeth May resigned as leader of the Green Party, and Justin Trudeau is looking for advisors in western Canada. Trudeau will have to walk on egg shells to avoid defeat in the House of Commons.
The knives are out for Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. That might seem odd given that his party won a plurality of votes and gained 22 seats. But it’s really not so odd, considering the division inside the ruling class over how far and how fast to push austerity, and given their hatred for the climate justice movement.
Did Trudeau get what he deserved? Not nearly. Canadians chose on October 21 to slap down Justin Trudeau. Voters reduced the Liberal Party to minority government status with a million fewer votes than in 2015. As a result, there may be another federal election in two years, or less. Still, Mr. Pretentious, Mr. Dress-Up of Parliament Hill, Mr. TMX double-track pipeline, remains Prime Minister — until he doesn’t.
What about Jagmeet Singh?
I seldom agree with Rex Murphy, but he made a good point when he wrote: “Jagmeet Singh by contrast is being toasted, not roasted, for his campaign. Objectively this is strange. Under his leadership the NDP were obliterated in Quebec, lost a massive chunk of seats, and were seen at one point in the campaign as threatened by the Greens. The latter should be seen as a shameful blot on any leader’s record …. Mr. Singh impressed mainly because his performance in the year and a half before the election was almost brilliantly dismal. Any change was necessarily for the better.”
The labour-based New Democratic Party suffered heavy losses for the second federal election in a row. It emerged with 20 fewer seats and 511,000 votes less than it won in 2015. Yet it potentially holds the balance of power in Parliament. Underline the word potentially, because the Tories and the Bloc will vote with the Liberals on some issues. So, the NDP must turn up the volume and oppose the Liberals. Its working class base demands that the NDP agitate vigorously for No new pipelines, Nationalize the energy industry, Tax the rich, and provide Restitution to Indigenous peoples. It ought to fight for head to toe medicare now, cancellation of student debt, proportional representation, an end to Canadian complicity with the U.S.-led war drive, break with the bid to overthrow the elected government of Venezuela, and denounce the coup in Bolivia. It should demand cuts to the military, stop backing the Zionist apartheid state, and halt the supply of armoured military vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh avoided political oblivion with a late turn to the left. But how did his appointed top staff manage to drive the party down to fourth place, from 20 per cent of the votes in 2015 to a mere 15.9 per cent? What effect did Singh’s obstruction and manipulation of the local candidate selection process have? Did his efforts to block leftists undermine confidence in the campaign and impair fund raising?
The list of the crimes of Singh is pretty long. It starts with how his gang ran the NDP federal convention in February 2018. He kept a progressive resolution on Palestine off the floor, and blocked every socialist policy proposal from debate. In May he removed Rana Zaman, a social activist and Muslim who was the NDP candidate in Dartmouth-Cole Harbour when she condemned the killing of Palestinians by Israeli forces during protests in Gaza. She compared Israel to Nazi Germany, for which she apologized, to no avail. He blocked the nomination of Robbie Mahood in Mont-Royal, Sid Ryan in Oshawa, me in University Rosedale, and other leftists across the country. He ordered Doc Currie in Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo to resign. Singh’s henchmen appointed close to 100 candidates without a vote at a local NDP nomination meeting. When Singh campaigned in the Burnaby South bye-election in February, media asked him “Who is the President of Venezuela?” He answered “I don’t know. It’s up to the people of Venezuela.” Well, the people of Venezuela voted in May 2018. Four candidates ran for president. Voters elected Nicolas Maduro by a wide margin.
Is it time for a leadership review? It depends on the timing of the next NDP convention. A year or two from now, denial of the tyranny that reigns at the top will give way to discontent from the base. We need to get ready for that; indeed, we need to shape it.
Still, the fact is that Singh is only a symptom of the problem. The election confirms the long-term stagnation of the NDP, interrupted only briefly by the ‘orange wave’ in 2011. The party brain-trust proved incapable of engaging with rising, youthful, widespread anti-capitalist sentiment, nor with the progressive nationalist consciousness of the Quebecois. That was painfully evident in an election dominated by ‘climate change’. Singh hesitatingly opposed the Liberals’ Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, but he endorsed the B.C. government’s huge LNG plant and natural gas pipeline project. His very late version of a Green New Deal (sans public ownership of the energy sector) enabled the capitalist Green Party to win over many NDP voters. On Quebec, the party signified with its 2006 Sherbrooke Declaration that it endorsed Quebec’s right to national self-determination. But the party continues to frame it within the existing 1867-model Canadian federation, which severely limits the exercise of Quebec autonomy. Clearly, the bourgeois Bloc Quebecois capitalized on this source of frustration, not just by condoning anti-Muslim Bill 21. The BQ captured many seats from the NDP in Quebec that deceased Leader Jack Layton only briefly held.
The NDP has yet to recover from former leader Tom Mulcair’s austerity, balanced-budget mantra that squandered the 31 per cent of the votes and the 103 seats it won in 2011. Jagmeet Singh impressed in the TV debates, but spoiled it with his ridiculous election night peroration, and then by floating the notion of a coalition with the Liberals — a poison pill for the NDP.
Justin Trudeau ruled out a coalition. He will proceed to get his legislation passed with the support of one or another party. Most parties are broke, so there is little appetite to trigger an election.
Still, for the working class, it is important to be clear on the political principle at stake here. Participation in a Liberal governing coalition with NDP Ministers of the Crown would force the labour-based party to champion all of the legislation of the corporate Liberals. The NDP would be the tail, wagged by a sick dog. Coalition with a capitalist party would undermine the independent interests of the working class even more than the despicable ‘strategic voting’ policy of the Canadian Labour Congress. Instead of pondering participation in a bourgeois coalition, the NDP in Parliament should always be staunchly independent. It should, on a case by case basis, vote only for laws that benefit the working class and its allies. Outside Parliament, the NDP should mobilize millions against the corporate agenda. Cabinet co-habitation might net opportunist politicians some plum positions, but it would be an unmitigated disaster for the vast majority of people, under the weight of a decaying capitalist world order, now headed for another Great Recession.
Labour leaders too must be held to account. Shamefully, the head of the Canadian Labour Congress backed the strike-breaking Liberals, under the guise of ‘strategic voting’. Unifor, which quit the CLC over union raiding, crossed the electoral class line too. The split in labour reflects the crisis in which labour leaders have capitulated to concessions bargaining and capitalist austerity, so as not to ‘rock the boat’. This is evident in the failure to organize mass job actions in support of the nurses in New Brunswick, the failure to support of the victims of cuts in Ontario, the failure to support the workers at seven Crown corporations in Saskatchewan, and soon, the failure to support transit workers in B.C. The sell-out of the NDP by a portion of the labour leadership reflects the wholesale retreat of the labour fakers. That is one big reason why Socialist Action is part of the Workers’ Action Movement. WAM is running candidates for the executive of the OFL this month, and for the executive of the CLC next June. Class struggle leadership in the unions will put an end to class collaboration in the work place, at the ballot box and across society.
Something to celebrate is the fact that the racist Peoples Party lost its only seat in the House of Commons and attracted less than two per cent overall. Canada is not yet fertile ground for rabid right wing populism, a la Trump. Of course, that will not stop the business elite from probing openings for the far right. At the same time, the undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system showed again how bad it is. It grossly distorted the will of voters.
Is there a basis for building a broad anti-capitalist electoral party? Quebec Solidaire showed some promise, but it is steadily shifting to conventional reformist politics. The election, both in English Canada and Quebec, showed that parties to the left of the NDP got only 0.05 per cent of the votes. So, the spotlight is still on the terrain that the NDP and the unions occupy. That is the space that must be contested by the radical left in order to advance an anti-capitalist alternative.
Happily, some positive developments did surface.
The NDP Socialist Caucus congratulated the many openly socialist NDP candidates who increased the party’s share of the vote locally: Dirka Prout in London North-Centre, Jessa McLean in York Simcoe, Matthew Green who was elected in Hamilton Centre, Leah Gazan who was elected in Winnipeg Centre, Yvonne Hanson in Vancouver Granville, Annie Ohana in Fleetwood-Kells, and Stephen Crozier (Surrey White Rock) – not to mention the re-elected Niki Ashton in Churchill Keewatinook Aski in Manitoba. Sadly, Svend Robinson lost a close race in Burnaby South. On the plus side, Sportsnet fired Don Cherry.
Clearly, the influence of socialists in the NDP is rising rather impressively. Furthermore, a minority government is advantageous to the fight against capitalist austerity, corruption and authoritarianism. The working class and the left can salvage something from this election – if there is an escalation of active mass resistance. As the postal workers proudly say: The struggle continues!
The rise of socialists in the NDP is a reflection of the new wave of popular revolts against austerity and authoritarianism on a world scale.
Lula, the former President of Brazil and leader of the Workers’ Party, is free. Fee increases in Chile and Ecuador were rescinded, and masses continue to protest and demand deeper change. Similar struggles are unfolding in Lebanon, Iraq and Kashmir. The right wing coup in Bolivia is a setback, a product of the reliance of Evo Morales and the MAS on the neutrality of the capitalist state. We all need to study the lessons of Cuba’s Socialist Revolution. We need to step up solidarity with the workers of Venezuela. No to any right wing coup. No pasaran!
For independent working class politics, the tasks are clear: Build the NDP Socialist Caucus! WAM it to the bosses! Fight for a Workers’ Agenda! Take the struggle to the streets! For escalating job actions towards a general strike to Dump Thug Ford! Out with Jason Kenny, Scott Moe, François Legault and Blaine Higgs. Fight for socialism and feminism! Workers to Power! Together we can win. Join Socialist Action!