The History and Practice of Socialist Action – Canada (2020)

by Barry Weisleder
SA Canada is 26 years old. But SA didn’t suddenly arise. It did not spring from the head of Zeus. It emerged organically from concrete conditions. To understand those circumstances, some background is needed. This is the 103rd year since the triumph of the first successful workers’ revolution, the Russian Revolution. It changed the political landscape and altered the left irrevocably. But we need to go back in time just a bit farther.

The socialist revolution, for the first time in class-divided society, brings the majority of humanity to power. It requires a workers’ party and a workers’ state to lead the transition and to overcome the resistance of the hitherto privileged, powerful and ruthless minority. The transition to workers’ power cannot be achieved spontaneously or in a de-centralized fashion owing to the centralized nature of existing minority class rule. In addition, the uneven development of nations and the de-synchronized nature of class conflict worldwide impose the need for greater solidarity and stronger political organization of the dispossessed.

Fundamental differences over questions of party and state led to the first major split in the workers’ movement, the split between Marxism and anarchism. For anarchists, individual self-expression takes priority over the collective discipline necessary to expropriate the expropriators and to create a workers’ state to affect the transition from generalized poverty to generalized freedom from want.

The second major split in the workers’ movement occurred over reformism. Revolutionary socialists have always been in the forefront of the fight for reforms. That is evident in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. In it you can see demands such as to end child labour and tax the rich. Reformism, however, is the doctrine of a gradual transition to socialism relying on an accumulation of reforms. It fosters illusions in the neutrality of the capitalist state as the vehicle for reform. Thus, it subordinates workers (those who subscribe to this illusion) to the preservation of the system and its state. Gradualism or ‘evolutionary socialism’, combined with huge party and labour union bureaucracies, transformed the Socialist (Second) International into a pro-capitalist party that capitulated to national chauvinism and imperialist war.

The split in the Second International over the treacherous programme and practice of social democratic reformism, led to the formation of an internationalist, anti-war left wing at the Zimmerwald Conference in September 1915. Following the Russian Revolution, this regroupment of the left led to the foundation in 1919 of the Communist (Third) International.

In Canada, the Communist Party was formed in 1921. Its founding convention took place in secret, in a barn near Guelph. Many of its initial members came from the left wing of the reformist Socialist Party of Canada and the Social Democratic Party of Canada.

The Russian Revolution was besieged by hostile imperialist armies. It suffered enormously from its isolation and economic backwardness. A bureaucratic party elite, represented by Joseph Stalin, seized control, curtailed workers’ democracy, crushed socialist opposition and adopted a new programme that over-adapted to capitalist rule outside the USSR. The perspective of world revolution was replaced with the false utopia of ‘socialism in one country’. Permanent revolution (that is, the need for a workers’-led revolution to lead the social transformation, especially in the poor countries) was supplanted by the old, discredited Menshevik notion of revolution by stages. The ‘stages theory’ relies on an alliance with the liberal or nationalist bourgeoisie. Under Stalin, socialist democracy was replaced by bureaucratic tyranny, accompanied by elite privilege, false propaganda, show trials, torture and the assassination of political opponents.

The divide in the Stalinist-dominated C.I. gave rise to the International Left Opposition in 1930, and the formation of the Fourth International in 1938. Leon Trotsky, a co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution, played a leading role in the preservation of revolutionary Marxism, and its further development. Trotsky’s analysis of the phenomena of Stalinism and of fascism in the 20th century was particularly significant. The Fourth International began as a small movement of educational groups in a few countries. In the 1960s, it attracted thousands of young militants, spread to all continents, and became a more substantial force in a number of countries, including France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Philippines. Its ideas are very influential in Latin America and Europe today.

The revolutionary continuity of the Fourth International in Canada starts with the Canadian branch of the Communist League of America in the 1930s. It proceeds through the Revolutionary Workers’ Party in the 1940s, and the League for Socialist Action in the 1960s and 70s.

But during the cold war, at the height of McCarthyism (late 1940s), there were splits from the F.I. reflecting the pressure of the capitalist ideological offensive. One current that split away from the FI developed the theory that the USSR had become capitalist, state capitalist. That designation meant that in any conflict between the USSR and US imperialism, workers should take neither side. This ‘third camp’ position was extended to China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. Instead of defending the workers’ states against imperialism, including defence of the relatively healthy workers’ state and revolutionary leadership in Cuba, and instead of calling for political revolution to replace the Stalinist dictators with socialist democracy in the other workers’ states, the ‘third camp’ proponents abstain from the struggle. Objectively speaking, this stance supports the imperialist-dominated status quo. The SWP in Britain and the International Socialists in Canada belong to this current. On Cuba, they are counter-revolutionary.

Another split from the F.I., which occurred in the 1950s, bent the stick in the other direction. It attributed revolutionary qualities to Stalinism and derivative currents such as Maoism, Titoism, Ho Chi Minh, Enver Hoxa, Kim Il Sung, etc. This current abandoned the idea of political revolution to establish socialist democracy in the deformed workers’ states. A group called Workers’ World Party in the US represents this tendency. A group with similar views, Fire This Time, operates in Vancouver.

The Fourth International divided in 1953, but it re-united in 1961 on the basis of recognition of the Cuban socialist revolution and its historic significance. But some Marxist groups rejected Trotskyist reunification on the grounds of a different assessment of the Cuban revolution, of the Vietnamese revolution, of black nationalism in the USA, of feminism and the new student movement. Those groups traveled to political outer space, to be joined by others later. They all began their journey to never-never land by denying the new revolutionary political realities. This led them to ultra-left sectarian positions (like calling on the anti-war movement to demand “All Indochina Must Go Communist”, rather than “U.S. Out Now”). This fostered abstentionist practice, which begat internal cultism, artificial self-generated campaigns, undemocratic mini-dictatorial regimes, conspiracy theories, and a morbid preoccupation with attacking the sects closest politically to their own particular deformations. The most egregious examples of this phenomenon are the Trotskyist League (IST) and the Bolshevik Tendency. Frankly, those groups deserve one another. Unfortunately, they sometimes harass our press sellers and folks who come to our events. Our norm is that we do not spend any time whatsoever arguing with such cranks who foul the air with absurd accusations and divert us from our tasks.

Some leftists, in an over-reaction to the existing sterile brew of sectarianism, abandon revolutionary theory and organization altogether. They stumble backwards to reformism. This is what happened to the New Socialists, a group that originated in an anti-Leninist split from the I.S. 25 years ago. The NS converged with the left-reformist Socialist Project, led by Leo Panitch, Sam Gindin and Greg Albo. As the name implies, the SP does not favour the formation of a party. It is a network of academics and radicals. It has a sectarian attitude towards the NDP, a passive stance towards the labour bureaucracy, and has no political intervention into the social justice movements. The SP believes in reforming the capitalist state from within, although ironically, it is electorally abstentionist.

Another group on the scene is Fightback (IMT). When it was present in the NDP, it refused to build a united NDP left wing, such as the Socialist Caucus. Fightback devotes most of its energy to forming student groups on university campuses. Fightback is Canadian chauvinist on the Quebec national question. It is hostile to Palestinian self-determination and opposes the global BDS campaign In third world countries, its sister organizations join populist-capitalist parties, like the ruling PPP in Pakistan and the PRD in Mexico.

The main US Trotskyist party for 40 years, the SWP, degenerated in the late 70s and 1980s. It broke with Permanent Revolution and in 1983 expelled its Trotskyist cadres. The Communist League is its affiliate in Canada, now existing only in Montreal.

And what about the grand-daddy of the radical left, the Communist Party, from which we trace our origins? The CP is reformist and Canadian nationalist to the core. It strives for a ‘popular front’ government. That would include the “progressive wing” of the Liberal Party. It is a sclerotic shell of its storied past, both unwilling and unable to break with the sad legacy of Stalinist sexism, homophobia, treachery and political repression.

As you can see, the English Canadian left is littered with much political detritus. The Quebec left has its own similar story. The divisions on the left are rooted in history and are based in strategic, programmatic and operational differences. If all the existing forces of the radical left were to combine suddenly, with all their differences intact, the result would be as unstable as nitro-glycerine. Once a controversy arises, such an unprincipled amalgam would explode into an array of fragments, further demoralizing everyone within its reach.

But, knowing all this, why can’t the various groups recognize reality and arrive at a principled unity? One reason is the relatively low level of class struggle in this society. A higher level of class struggle would rapidly put many theories to the test. It would help to separate fact from fiction. It would separate correct ideas from wrong-headed ones. Unfortunately, socialists are compelled to work under existing conditions, not under those we might choose. We cannot afford to wait until conditions are more to our liking – that is, if we really want to influence conditions in a revolutionary direction, and ultimately to win.

Furthermore, we know that class struggle is ongoing and global, and that revolution is an outcome of that ongoing process under specific conditions. Socialists strive to advance the class struggle where we live and work, and to mobilize support for workers’ struggles, and especially for revolutionary breakthroughs, wherever they occur.

That is the approach of Socialist Action – Ligue pour l’Action Socialiste in the Canadian state. SA is a democratic centralist political organization that stands on a revolutionary socialist programme.

From where did SA come? The League for Socialist Action fused with the Revolutionary Marxist Group and the Quebec-based Groupe Marxiste Revolutionnaire in 1977 to form the Revolutionary Workers’ League. The RWL made big errors of tactics and orientation in its first four years. It adopted an extreme “turn to industry” tactic. It pressed its white-collar worker members to quit their jobs, go to work in factories, and do passive propaganda there. The RWL became intolerant of dissent. It shrank down to a tiny rump. Emerging from the ruins of the RWL were the Socialist Workers’ Collective, and the Alliance for Socialist Action, which joined Socialist Challenge in English Canada, and linked up with Gauche socialiste in Quebec. But the SC and the Gs drew the wrong lessons from the experience of the RWL. Their leaders blamed Leninism for the fall of the RWL and the radical left in Canada, instead of blaming the decline in the class struggle that occurred in the 1980s. They blamed the strategy of revolutionary party building, instead of cultism and get-rich-quick schemes. Then the SC-Gs expelled the proponents of party building in its ranks. They wanted to build a loose network, not a revolutionary workers’ party. These ex-Trotskyists of the SC-Gs expelled me and Elizabeth in 1993 for insisting that the policies adopted at convention should be implemented, and that members should pay dues, attend meetings and sell our press.

A handful of comrades joined us, and together we founded Socialist Action in Canada in 1994. SA-USA, which arose from expulsions from the American SWP a decade earlier, supported our efforts generously. To this day, we write for and circulate the same monthly newspaper. We appealed the expulsions in Canada to the World Congress of the Fourth International in 1995. The F.I. designated SA Canada “a group of partisans of the F.I. that is invited to participate in the meetings and activities of the F.I., with the agreement of Gauche socialiste.” But the Gs did not agree. It blocked our participation in the world movement for 26 years. We are remedying that situation now, working with F.I. comrades in several countries to fight to put the International back on a Marxist/Trotskyist course.

SA is actively involved in a variety of political campaigns and in a number of social movements, including for indigenous rights, for an end to poverty, for feminism and ecology, and in opposition to racism, homophobia and fascism. We are in solidarity with revolutionary Cuba, defend self-determination for Venezuela, and support movements of anti-imperialist resistance in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti.

Our primary orientation is to the working class, and to its labour and political institutions. Unlike the rest of the left, SA is not just present in mass working class organizations — we are actively involved in building a class struggle left wing opposition in the unions and inside the labour-based NDP. Other groups on the left either abstain from the NDP arena, or adapt to the treacherous policies of the NDP leaders. Neither course is the way forward. SA practices participation in the struggle for socialist policies and for a Workers’ Agenda, as explained in the booklet “Prospects for Socialism in Canada”. In other words, we are for ‘conflictual participation’, not for political submission, not for cheerleading, nor for abstention, in relation to the NDP.

What has SA accomplished? Quite a lot for a small party. We played a very visible role in the Days of Action in Ontario, the general strikes in ten cities, especially in Toronto in October 1996, against the Conservative Mike Harris government. Elizabeth co-chaired the rally of a quarter million that stretched from the Ontario Legislature to Front Street, and introduced Billy Bragg who sang his Power in the Union song to the crowd. We built international solidarity, defended workers’ strikes and public services, opposed imperialist wars, and confront racists and fascists. We successfully fought for anti-war and socialist policies in the NDP. The Socialist Caucus, which we lead, won the NDP to demand Canada Out of Afghanistan in 2006, and initiated the leadership review in 2015 that led to the replacement of Tom Mulcair. SC comrades have been elected NDP district association president, even won an NDP candidate nomination in 2011. An SA member won election to the OPSEU provincial executive, running on an explicitly class struggle platform. Similarly, our candidates for the top offices in the Ontario Federation of Labour won 36 per cent of the votes at the OFL Convention in November 2019. SA has introduced thousands to socialist ideas through our Rebel Films, forums, May Day celebrations, concerts, study groups, and our annual Trotsky School in the Fall.

Our party has members across the country. We host a monthly Zoom conference call. Each June we hold a cross-country educational conference, and a convention for members to decide matters of policy, campaigns and orientation, and to elect a Central Committee. Today, SA is growing rapidly, tripling in size in the past three years.

Members pay monthly dues, sell SA newspaper and attend meetings on a regular basis. New members pass through a provisional membership period of three months to determine their suitability for full member status. We place a high priority on education, both internally and externally. We practice democracy in discussion and unity in action. All members, including leaders, are duty bound to carry out the adopted policies of the organization – unlike labour and NDP leaders who often disregard convention decisions in favour of their personal positions.

We practice what we preach, and we preach what we practice. That is enough to shine a bright beacon of hope in a dark, tormented and cynical world. Education is indispensable for those who want to gain a better understanding of the world, which is why we place such a great emphasis on it.

Socialist Action is an organization for those who want to change the world. SA is for people who want to replace the tyranny of capitalist minority rule with the immensely creative potential of a democratic, cooperative commonwealth.

Membership in SA is not a right. It is a privilege for those willing to dedicate themselves to that goal, and to make the sacrifices necessary to advance the process to achieve it. No workers’ strike, let alone any social revolution, is won without great effort. But with it comes knowledge, skills, comradeship, solidarity, and the satisfaction of knowing that one’s life is linked to the greatest possible purpose – total human emancipation.