Do Canadian Workers have Revolutionary Potential? — A Defence of the Working Class

by Gary Porter

My purpose is to take on the doubters and the cynics, the middle-class thinkers, the academics, the petit bourgeois currents among students, young radicals, labour bureaucrats, and the NDP brass. None of them believe the Canadian working class can make a revolution and overthrow capitalism in Canada.

Our lives and our work in Socialist Action are based on the proposition that they are wrong. That is what I aim to show.

Russia was 80 per cent rural in 1917.  Its population consisted mostly of peasants. The army was huge because World War I was underway — overwhelmingly peasant-based. In spite of this, the workers led the entire country, not merely to an overthrow of the Czar, but to a workers’ government on the way to a workers’ state. Constituting about 18 per cent of the population, workers led the struggle, won over the peasants, even the peasant-based army, isolated the bourgeoisie and took power. How could that happen?

The Russian workers could carry the entire nation because they were concentrated in the cities and in large factories close to the centres of political, economic, and financial power, and because they were the only class that represented a way forward. No other force could offer a solution to the crisis that beset society.

In February 1917, with inflation rampant, the bosses locked out 12,000 workers at the Putilov ironworks because they demanded a wage increase. Within 3 days, over 500,000 workers were on strike in solidarity. This is how to fight a lockout, by the way. It shows that they could and did act collectively, that they understood the power of massive numbers and the power of solidarity in action. They were class conscious. And, of course, they had a tested Bolshevik leadership which understood the class struggle and the state.

Let’s turn to Canada in 2021. The population, according to Statistics Canada, is 38,043,261 people. The Canadian labour force is 20.5 million people. About 4 million form the middle-class layer which consists of professionals, technocrats, shopkeepers, independent contractors (and here I exclude gig workers), cops, military, senior government bureaucrats, speculators, less than 200,000 farmers, and lastly, the tiny capitalist ruling class.

The working class is 55.5% of the entire population, more than 3 times the weight of the Russian working class in 1917. If we add workers’ children and retired workers, they constitute 85% of the total population.

There are many differences between Russia in 1917 and Canada today. But we still live in a capitalist world where the two great contending classes are the capitalist class and the working class.

The middle class or petit bourgeoisie is not a revolutionary class.  The petit bourgeoisie has been shrinking in relation to the working class since World War II. In fact, the working class has never been such a massive proportion of the population. Whole layers of the middle class have been driven down into the proletariat.

In the academic world, for example, many lower-level members have become workers, are even organized into unions, but have low pay and poor benefits. These include teaching assistants, research assistants, and contract lecturers.

Instead of small shops, more frequently there are large stores as part of massive retail empires, where most employees are simply workers – again, some organized in unions.

The proletarianization process has reached deeply into the middle class. Even farming has largely switched from the private small farmers to the large operators, even as outlets of global agribusiness with underpaid farm labourers. No other class holds such immense weight in Canada. Ranged against us is the incredibly wealthy capitalist class which controls the state, with its courts, police and military, and the media.

But what will drive Canadian workers to rise up, to struggle and to become aware of the need to overthrow capitalism?

In Wage Labour and Capital, Marx explained that the capitalists compete for market share and profit. Competition tends to reduce the rate of profit. Thus, capitalists are inexorably driven to lower the unit cost of production of goods and services.

They use technology to increase the workers’ output per day. This lowers the cost of production per unit, enabling the capitalist to charge a lower unit price and earn a profit once again.

Labour power is different than labour. Labour power is the ability of the worker to perform labour, which is all the worker has to sell.  On average she/he/they sell it at its cost of production, which is the cost of maintaining the worker and their children.

Labour power is a commodity, purchased and sold in the market place. But labour power is a very special commodity. When workers apply labour power as labour on the job, they create new value. No other commodity creates value. This is why capitalists buy labour power. All of this new value, under capitalist property and market laws, is owned by the capitalist, not the workers who created it.

If capitalists lower prices by reducing unit cost, the only way to make the same total profit is to sell more. Capitalism must constantly open up new markets; must constantly expand or wither and die. This is the source of the insane drive for growth, the drive to use up limited resources faster and faster. It is one of the fatal contradictions of capitalism that might kill us all.  This is well explained by Marx in Wage Labour and Capital and every word of it still applies.

As part of the drive to reduce production costs, automation has reduced many jobs to robotic manipulation. We should celebrate this development. But instead of lowering the hours of work and improving the quality of life for all, the benefits of increased productivity flow mainly to the billionaires. They maintain high hours and throw workers out of work and into poverty, preferring to increase the reserve army of the unemployed as a downward pressure on wages. Socialism will turn automation into a benefit for all, by reducing the hours of work, without reducing wages and benefits.

So, speed up, automation, export of jobs to pay less for labour, and constant pressure to buy more crap at the expense of the workers’ well being and of global ecology, are inevitable products of the contradictions of capitalism.  The capitalists have no solutions for any of this.

The interests of the working class and the interests of the capitalist class are irreconcilably opposed. As the contradictions of capitalism deepen and proliferate, the ruling class has no choice but to attempt to take the costs out of the workers’ hides, and workers have no choice but to fight back.

The one missing ingredient today, which the Russian workers had in spades, is class consciousness, recent class struggle experience, and a tested vanguard party.  In other words, the subjective factor was much more mature in 1917 in Russia.

Canadian workers, in the main, are not currently in motion, let alone clear on the questions of class politics, class solidarity, and the nature of the capitalist state. So, how will they become class conscious, and engage in mass, class struggle actions?

The most class-conscious members of the working class can be found in the unions, and are affiliated to the NDP. This is exactly why socialists orient to the unions and to the NDP. It is the fundamental failing of every other left-wing group in Canada, that they do not – at least not in the way we do. Many will tip their hat and declare that the working class is key.  But they do little or no work in the unions or in the NDP, except for a very few, and only around party conventions.

No revolutionary or militant group can lift the working class into mass motion against the capitalist class. The most inspiring socialist pamphlets, websites, newspapers, webinars, podcasts, leaflets, posters, slogans and speeches can not do it.

What they WILL do is to help find new militants who are a step or two ahead of the working class as a whole and who can be trained as revolutionaries.  That is a critical task. It is important for revolutionaries, especially new revolutionaries, to understand this. Otherwise, it is too easy to become demoralized, to burn out, and drop out. We work hard, but we do so with an understanding that the crises of capitalism and resulting class struggle play the key role for which we cannot substitute.

Some left-wing academics argue that the North American working class is weaker than in the past. Many industrial jobs have been exported to cut labour costs, and the economy here has switched from a concentration on manufacturing to a service-based economy. They say workers are not concentrated in large factories as much, where large protest actions increase class consciousness. Does this weaken the economic power of the working class? Can Canadian workers bring the economy to a halt, and then restart it under their control?

The academics have it completely wrong. Canada is still a manufacturer: steel, auto, electronics, and much more. Manufacturing is the second-highest sector for jobs in Canada, after trade. As well, the public sector is massive, including education, medicare and social services, and it is highly unionized.  Big employers, such as the meat packing plants operations in Alberta, the merchandising warehouses and shipping firms, indicate the academics are wrong.

But it is true that Canadian workers must develop political class consciousness. Think of the much higher class consciousness of workers in Canada after both World Wars. Remember the Winnipeg General Strike and other general strikes, the founding of the revolutionary Communist Party and the reformist CCF after World War 1. Recall the rise of the powerful industrial unions, such as the steelworkers and auto workers unions, and the founding of the NDP as a labour party after World War 2.

Unions have lost members in Canada, and workers have lost a lot of economic ground during the past 45-year neoliberal assault on wages, benefits, and job conditions.

Union membership has dropped under a lazy and comfortable labour bureaucracy.  But at 31% of the labour force today, unions – with a class struggle leadership – would represent a formidable amount of power. And it is within their power to expand the unions into the unorganized areas. It would be a real dogfight to be sure, and expensive in both blood and treasure, but the result would be a more class conscious, militant and united working class — a true danger to the capitalists, and a new hope for the oppressed everywhere. This is what is posed by the Labour Forward campaign of the Workers’ Action Movement, which is contesting the top posts in the CLC. Political class consciousness arises from the struggle by the working class to assert its own interests against the opposing interests of the capitalist class.

Already we have seen women, indigenous people, Blacks, other racialized people, gender and sexual minorities, and climate activists who are in motion. When conditions worsen and workers see no way out, they will begin to move as workers, collectively, in their millions. When it happens, it may happen very quickly. We saw how a single event can suddenly ignite a mass upsurge, such as when the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA, quickly drew over 20 million into the streets, mostly young workers. It shocked everyone. It was heat lightning, giving us a flashing glimpse of the power that lies within our class.

Key indicators of a developing class consciousness will be the emergence of young workers leading actions not approved by the union bureaucrats.  They will foment solidarity walkouts in support of striking or locked out workers.  We will see workers willing to take on scabs and cops, and willing to defy back-to-work legislation.

Labour has to find a way to coordinate union drives. You cannot win by striking one Amazon warehouse at a time. The emergence of more industry-wide strikes, and general strikes, will be an important signpost. Such actions require coordination which could be through revived and renewed labour councils, or another kind of coordinating structure.

Our job now is to prepare for these developments. Both the victories and defeats of our class make us certain in the knowledge that a Leninist party has to be prepared in advance.  Otherwise, when the working class rises it will fail, and with it, human civilization and possibly the human race itself will go down.

Right now, building Socialist Action is the most urgent and important thing you can do. Other revolutionary currents will appear in the struggle and join us along the way.  Have no fear. The working class will not fail us.  Let’s do everything to ensure that we are ready when the uprising occurs.

Our job, very simply, is to lead the workers to power and to open the door to a socialist future.

Marxism: According to Karl Marx (1818-1883), human beings are naturally productive, sociable beings who find fulfillment and meaning in their lives through the free exercise of their natural powers. They fulfill themselves through their creations, so that what they make is an expression of who they are. This is why Marx described the seizure by capitalists of the products of our labour, which are an expression of who we are, as an act of alienation. It is a dispiriting and dissipating separation of our creations from ourselves.  It is at the root of so much mental illness, anxiety, depression and ruined, unfulfilled lives under capitalism, and a form of mental, physical and spiritual violence that capitalist production imposes on us all. Socialism will end all that and make us whole again.