Category Archives: Analysis

Socialist Action Policy on Basic Income

We are seeing a revival of the concept of basic guaranteed income (BI or GAI), both in Canada and internationally. The Ontario Liberal government is about to launch a pilot project. Prince Edward Island will do likewise, while other provincial administrations have expressed interest. Finland initiated a basic income experiment in 2016, and The Netherlands is soon to follow.

Basic income has its supporters and detractors on both left and right. Free-market and libertarian ideologues like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray see the possibility of eliminating publicly funded entitlements in favour of impoverished members of the working class having to purchase those services in the market. On the other hand, many conservatives fear a disincentive to work.

Positions on the left also vary. Basic income has been promoted as a solution to precarious work in the gig economy, as a way of liberating impoverished people from an oppressive welfare bureaucracy and as a panacea for the work-less world that some predict will result from robotization. But there are many who believe basic income in the current context is illusory.

Some on the left propose a ‘progressive’ version of basic income that would provide a net advance over existing benefits. No one wants to defend the current system of social assistance with its paternalistic bureaucracy and grossly inadequate level of support. A socialist society would guarantee decent social provision for all. The question of what form this should take remains hypothetical at this point.

Those advocating a ‘progressive’ version of basic income are acting from genuine concern for the impoverished, and frustration with the injustices of the current social welfare system. But in the harsh world of actually existing capitalism, basic income schemes offer the illusion of improvement in the lot of marginalized people while streamlining the existing social welfare system so as to diminish state responsibility and push individuals to purchase their needs privately.

Absent a socialist transformation, basic income schemes will reflect the priorities of capitalist governments. They will be grafted on to an austerity and privatization agenda. The aim is to move the impoverished into low wage precarious employment, provide a wage top-up to employers and give governments an exit route from services they currently provide. Ontario Liberal Premier, Kathleen Wynne sees basic income as a way of reducing government expenditures in housing, health care and other supports for the poor. Finland’s centre-right wing government will judge its basic income experiment on whether it moves the chronically unemployed into taking low wage jobs.

Labour has been on the defensive for almost 50 years. The relationship of class forces does not favour significant democratic or egalitarian policies orchestrated from above.

Labour’s traditional approach has been to fight for full employment at union rates, for a significant rise in the minimum wage, for adequate social assistance and unemployment benefits and for social entitlements that apply to the whole working class including impoverished and marginalized people. The labour movement has recognized the danger in means tested programs that break with the principle of universality.

It is naive to think that basic income can circumvent the capitalist labour market or transform the use of leisure time.  The real transitional demand here is for a reduction in the work week with no loss of pay and a sharing of work. Within that framework, massive retraining and expansion of unionized employment in green and socially useful occupations is the route to go.

Some sort of income guarantee would be integral to a socialist society. But this would not be the principal mechanism for social provision. Cuba gives us a glimpse. Basic needs such as housing, transport, health care and education are provided out of central state revenues and are free for every Cuban at the point of use or in some cases as a subsidy. There is a big difference between social programs as universal entitlements provided out of a collective pooling of resources, and services obtained by individuals from private providers as a market transaction. Both may exist, but any aspiring socialist society would and must try to limit the commodification of basic services.

If introduced by capitalist governments, as looks increasingly likely, basic income schemes will require the labour movement and socialists to respond.  Socialist Action will evaluate any specific basic income program according to:

  1. whether it lifts the beneficiaries out of poverty representing a net gain over existing social assistance benefits;
  2. whether it will have a positive effect on wages and job quality not acting as a wage subsidy to employers and accelerating the trend to bad jobs at low pay and
  3. whether it will protect existing services to which the impoverished are entitled, and provide the scope to expand access.

In formulating its position. Socialist Action should not lag behind the most advanced elements in the labour movement who are highly critical of basic income (see John Clarke’s and David Bush’s arguments and the positions adopted by CUPE Ontario and OPSEU).

To summarize, for the foreseeable, basic income will be initiated from above by capitalist governments requiring a response on our part. But we believe the main battles lie elsewhere.  What the working class gains, it has to fight for. We look to advances in the class struggle to better conditions for the impoverished. Battles for unionization, higher wages and benefits, mobilizing to obtain decent social housing, to abolish barriers to higher education, to win free public transit and defend the most vulnerable and exploited workers – that is the way to strengthen the confidence, self-organization and unity of working people and change the balance of forces in society.

July 2017

Policy on Proportional Representation adopted at the 2017 SA/LAS Convention

The Trudeau Liberal government in Ottawa has reneged on a promise to reform the electoral system by introducing some variant of proportional representation (PR) that would replace the long-in-the-tooth Winner-Take-All system (aka First Past the Post – FPTP). PR was put in the Liberal program when the party was languishing in third place and needed to draw votes especially from the NDP. This was classic bait and switch.

Electoral reform is off the immediate agenda but it is not likely to go away.

But why proportional representation?  Aren’t there more pressing issues in the class struggle?

Firstly, because PR has become a contentious issue across the political spectrum. The labour movement and the small minority of socialists within it should not abstain from this debate. The issue cannot be left to the opportunists, neither the Liberals nor NDP governments that have never pursued electoral reform.

We don’t choose the battles we fight according to some preconceived schema. Discontent will focus on this or that injustice, opening cracks in the façade of the ruling order.  Canada’s undemocratic First Past the Post (FPTP) system is just such a fissure.

Confidence in bourgeois electoral politics is faltering. Voter apathy based on the correct perception that most votes don’t count, a suffocating ideological consensus, the under-representation of women and racialized minorities – these are among the manifestations of a gathering crisis of legitimacy.

Parliamentary majorities are now routinely constructed on less than 40% of votes cast based on scarcely more than 25% of the electorate.

The second point is that electoral reform including proportionality has been a consistent demand of the labour movement internationally.  The unions as well as the NDP and its predecessor, the CCF, spearheaded the struggle to extend the franchise, first to working men then in the battle for women’s suffrage and in support of the vote for aboriginal peoples and youth. PR is a continuation of the struggle to democratize the electoral system.

Many forms of proportional representation have been proposed or implemented.  The following are the most relevant to the Canadian context and our discussion:

  • Party-list PR (used in 85 of 94 countries that have PR). Parties present lists in large regional or even provincial multi-member constituencies. The lists can be closed or open.  This system achieves the greatest degree of proportionality and situates representation firmly in the party orbit.
  • Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) is used in 7 other countries. The NDP has supported this option and it figures prominently in the campaign of Fair Vote Canada.  It is a hybrid, two tier system that is at least semi-proportional. Voters would cast two ballots, one for a single candidate elected by plurality voting and the other for a party list. This would involve multi-member constituencies larger than current electoral districts. The idea is to achieve a compromise by amalgamating winner-take-all and PR.
  • Single Transferable Vote is a system used in parts of the English-speaking world, notably Ireland, Scotland (local elections) and Australia (the Senate). It involves a ranked or preferential ballot in multi-member districts.
  • Former Liberal MP and Cabinet Minister, Stephane Dion, has put forward his own version of STV which he bills as preferential, personalized and proportional (P3). It too involves a ranked ballot with transfer of 2nd choice votes. Its main effect would be to strengthen representation across the country for the major parties while disadvantaging or eliminating smaller parties.

PR systems also establish a minimum threshold of popular vote a party must attain before it can win seats. This ranges from 10% in Turkey to 0.67% in The Netherlands. In Germany, it is 5% and in Israel it was 1% but has been raised to 3.25%.

Our preference is for a fully proportional party-list system. In Canada, this would have to be broken down by province or large regions within a province.  We want to preserve the party identification of voters based on political program and ideology. We also argue for a low threshold of 2% of the popular vote to qualify for seats because it will encourage smaller parties and stimulate democratic debate.

Party-list PR can be based on open or closed lists. Closed lists mean the political party has pre-decided in what priority candidates will be allocated a seat. Voters have no influence on the party-supplied order in which candidates are elected. If voters have some influence by registering their preference then we refer to it as an open list.

Closed lists can be used to include women or minority group candidates.  On the other hand, open lists may favour more social or ideological diversity than a closed list pre-determined by the party brass.

In the absence of a fully democratic internal process for selection of party candidates, we prefer an open party-list system.

We are less enthused about the Mixed Member Proportional model even though this is the one the NDP supports. There is a sacrifice of proportionality in deference to the lone sitting MP whose role is to intercede with government on behalf of his or her constituents.  In New Zealand which has a mixed member system, some have observed that the MPs elected by plurality tend to be long-standing party hacks while party list candidates are more dynamic and diverse in their backgrounds and political commitments.

Advocates of STV cite voter choice within or between parties, local representation and encouraging “common ground” as advantages. To the extent that this system would reduce the influence of political parties especially small ones, we see it as a disadvantage. It is also not fully proportional. However, a version known as STV+ adds a variable number of top-up seats to achieve better proportionality.  In such a case, we would favour a high ratio of top-up seats, as in the Scottish local assembly elections where there are 2 top-up seats for every 3 seats.

A reformed electoral system for Canada must accommodate diverse regional and national realities. But it is a myth that voters are united by mainly local concerns. The “honourable member” is increasingly a relic of a bygone era. Better to strengthen democratic participation in political parties and engage voters in issues of society-wide and planetary significance which of course have their local and regional dimension. This aim would be facilitated by a voting system that is fully proportional, that is, one based on party lists.

The Trudeau Liberals are facing justifiable censure for their electoral reform betrayal. At this point, with no government legislation on the table or indeed the horizon, the purpose of this resolution is more to guide us in discussion and debate with other forces advocating Proportional Representation.

Adopted at the Convention of Socialist Action/Ligue pour l’action socialiste, May 14, 2017.

Of Senators and Eskimos

Some professional sports teams have racist nicknames. Have you heard of the Edmonton Eskimos, the Atlanta Braves, the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians and the New York Jews? O.K., I made up the last one.

Then there is the hockey team known as the Ottawa Senators. It did pretty well in the Stanley Cup playoffs, being eliminated only in the seventh game, in double overtime, in the semi-final round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. So, what’s wrong with the “Senators”? Wait a minute. Are you serious? Do you really have to ask?

What team would want to be named for an institution made up of corrupt, non-elected, party fund-raisers, elitist influence peddlers, and re-cycled Canadian bourgeois politicians?

But think about it.  The political Senators could field a memorable hockey team.

Let’s start with Don Meredith, a 52-year-old preacher and Stephen Harper appointee who plays right wing.  He really knows how to score on 16-year-old young women.  Meredith just “retired” with a big pension after “playing” only six seasons.

Then there are current Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin.  Aren’t they terrific penalty killers?  They claimed travel and living allowances for which they were not eligible.  But they played such good defence that they avoided criminal charges.  In fact, of the thirty Senators investigated by the RCMP, only a few re-paid monies they purloined.

Despite everything that’s happened, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants to keep the Senate as a home team on Parliament Hill.  I guess it’s because he has season’s tickets. Personally, I think the Senators’ moniker should be replaced by something more truthful.

How about the “Ottawa Thieves?”

SOCIALISM 2017 videos are now available online

The Relevance of the Russian Revolution Today


  • Jeff Mackler, national secretary, SA USA
  • Barry Weisleder, federal secretary, SA Canada
  • Aurélien Perenna, teacher and union activist of the New Anti-capitalist Party, France.


Part 1:

Part 2: 

Q and A: 

Millions on the Move: Behind the Refugee Crisis


  • Jaime Gonzales, LUS-Mexico
  • Sharmeen Khan, No One Is Illegal
  • Yasin Kaya, SA-Canada
  • Nikolas Skoufoglu, a leader of OKDE, section of the Fourth International in Greece.


    Part 1: 
    Q and A: 

Basic Income or Raise the Rates?


  • John Clarke, provincial organizer, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
  • Sharon Anderson from Put Food In the Budget


    Part 1: 
    Q and A: 

Fake News: Who’s the Real Culprit?


  • Yves Engler (author of 8 books on Canadian foreign policy, including “Propaganda System”)
  • Jeff Mackler, national secretary, SA USA
  • John Wunderlich, Toronto Danforth NDP executive member and privacy issues consultant.


    Part 1: 
    • Q and A:


Labour Revivial: What will it take?


  • Sid Ryan, past-president of the Ontario Federation of Labour
  • Julius Arscott, Executive Board member of OPSEU
  • Aurélien Perenna, teacher and union activist of the New Anti-capitalist Party, France.


Part 1:

Part 2:

“James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland”

by Priscilla Metscher, MEP Publications, Minneapolis, 2002, 243 pages.

A review by Barry Weisleder

Thoughts around St. Patrick’s Day, cultural and political, inevitably turn to Ireland. In that context, the lead up to Easter struck me as a good time to become (re)acquainted with the views of the great Irish republican socialist, James Connolly. Though many of today’s Irish nationalists and “socialists” pay homage to him, they support parties that collaborate in the partition of Ireland, and that vote for capitalist austerity measures. As Priscilla Metscher’s well written, amply annotated book implies, this is worse than ironic. In it, she presents a comprehensive survey of Connolly’s revolutionary politics, as they evolved between 1896 and 1916. Each chapter links his writings and speeches to the momentous events of his time.

James Connolly was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1868 of Irish immigrant parents and grew up in the slums of that city. He started to work at about age ten as a printer’s devil, then in a bakery, then in a tiling factory. At fourteen he joined the army and was sent to Ireland where over the next seven years he saw first-hand the oppression of the Irish people. Back in Scotland he joined the socialist movement, standing (unsuccessfully) as its candidate for municipal office in 1894. He knew about the Land League in Ireland, and as a socialist, realized the importance of British workers’ support for the freedom struggle in Ireland.

Connolly learned that the struggle of the Land League was diverted by adoption of the single-plank electoral platform of Home Rule, counter posed to independence from Britain. His remedy was the organization of a working class party that would go beyond the liberal aims of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

With a few fellow workers, Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896. As the name suggests, it set to unite the struggle for national freedom with the socialist emancipation of the working class. Its programme proclaimed the need for nationalization of railways, canals, banks, and the “gradual extension of the principle of public ownership and supply of all the necessaries of life.” (all quotes are from the book)
In 1903 Connolly helped to write a manifesto for the Socialist Labour Party of Scotland, which more clearly expressed the need for a working class party, the concept of the class struggle, and the aim of wresting control of the state from the capitalist class.

Its immediate demands combined with a vision of profound change involving workers’ control of industry and a cooperative agricultural system. Under the slogan “agitate, educate, organise”, working class power should be spread by all means, including elections. But he maintained that the election of a majority of Socialist Republicans to parliament would not herald the dawn of the socialist republic. It would, however, represent “the moral insurrection of the Irish people”: “their desire for separation from the British Empire,” which could be converted into a military insurrection by the use of “a small expeditionary force and war material.”

Connolly rejected the conspiratorial methods associated with the failure of the Young Irelanders and the Fenians. He wanted to make republicanism a public issue, to purge it of “the odor of illegality”, and to change it from the “politics of despair” into the “Science of Revolution.” In the process, he tried to convert “advanced nationalists” to socialism, making a key distinction between bourgeois liberals and anti-imperialists.

He realized that the limits of constitutionalism (legislative reform of the structure of government) are dictated by the very nature of the state “created by the propertied classes for their own purposes.”

The election of a majority of Irish Socialist Republicans to parliament would be a preliminary step, but only a step, towards the “revolutionary reconstruction of society.” The latter is the task of the working class, in which he included the rural peasantry.
How would this be done? “The governing power must be wrested from the hands of the rich peaceably, if possible, forcibly if necessary.” Expect the rulers to resist fiercely. Connolly’s answer, like Malcolm X many years later, was simply: by any means necessary.

The ISRP was a tiny propaganda group. Connolly tried to forge it into a disciplined body, equipping it with a vital tool of education and organization — the party newspaper. Connolly was the editor and publisher of the Workers’ Republic. He used the pages of the WR not only to present socialist republicanism to the general public, but also as a weapon against the Home Rule party and the United Irish League, exposing their capitalist interests in “making terms with the Imperial government.”

The ISRP was internationalist. It held the first public meeting to protest against the Boer War in 1899. “Every war now is a capitalist move for new markets, and it is a move capitalism must make or perish.” The spectacle of imperialist war reinforced Connolly’s belief that it was unlikely that the capitalist class as a whole would yield up its privileges peacefully.
Frustrated by the slow progress of the ISRP, Connolly emigrated to the United States in 1903. Over the next seven years, he became an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and a member, and critic, of Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labour Party.
The SLP was sectarian on political and trade union issues, quite evident in its strident propaganda against Catholicism and its dual-unionism stance. De Leon provoked a split in the IWW, driving the latter even farther away from campaigning on political issues and towards anarchism. In 1908, after quitting the SLP, Connolly joined the Socialist Party of America, attracted by its mass base and growing left wing, notwithstanding its political reformism. But the idea of industrial unionism stayed with him, making him a sharp opponent of the craft unionism of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labour.

In “Socialism Made Easy”, Connolly subordinates the political struggle for state power to the everyday battle at the work place to control industry.

His concept of the party is “One Socialist party embracing all shades and conceptions of Socialist political thought.” But he contradicts that view by reiterating the vanguard role of the socialist party, and moreover, by asserting the importance of political action before economic battles.

His major work, “Labour in Irish History”, shows the development of a national self-consciousness in Ireland, the result of centuries of oppression and of action against it. With that book, which he regarded as part of the literature of Gaelic revival, Connolly set out to map an Irish path to socialism.

A free Ireland would take its distinct place in the world: “the internationalism of the future will be based on the free federation of free peoples”.

Sadly, his vision of freedom was impaired on women’s emancipation. While in the forefront of the fight for women’s suffrage, Connolly opposed divorce, and rejected any attempt “to identify Socialism with any theory of marriage or sexual relations.”
The Belfast to which Connolly returned in 1910 was a scene of sweated labour and miserable wages. Industrial unrest in 1909 and 1911 led to a major confrontation in 1913, the Dublin Strike and Lockout. Tens of thousands joined the struggle, which was met with stiff employer intransigence and unbridled police brutality. The strikers implored the British Trades Union Congress to take sympathy strike action, to isolate Belfast from international trade and commerce. But the TUC refused, signaling the end of an inspiring chapter.

Connolly was quick to point out that the growth of unions and labour federations did not necessarily mean a great increase in solidarity and revolutionary spirit; it often led to increased bureaucracy and alienation of officials from the rank and file.

It was also during the Dublin strike that the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers were founded, which paved the way to the Easter Rising of 1916.

Meanwhile, the First World War raged across Europe. At an international conference of socialists in Zimmerwald in 1915, Russia’s Bolshevik Party leader V.I. Lenin said “Turn the imperialist war into civil war.” Connolly agreed. The suppression of Irish nationalist papers, plus other restrictions of civil liberties, and the threat of conscription by the British crown, led him to say “constitutional action in normal times… revolutionary action in exceptional times. These are exceptional times.” He turned to making the Citizen Army into a disciplined force.

In “James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland” the reader meets James Larkin, the impassioned and impetuous class struggle labour leader, and Padraic Pearse, the radical nationalist intellectual, President of the provisional government of the Irish Republic and commandant-general of its Citizen Army.

The book chronicles the series of unfortunate events that doomed the Easter Rising, that began April 24, 1916. Connolly, Vice-President of the rebel Irish Republic, was injured while defending its headquarters in the Dublin Post Office. He was captured and shot in Killmainham Jail by the British. Lenin observed that a revolutionary situation was growing in Ireland, but was not fully developed. Still, this was not a putsch. It was a true popular rebellion, however premature. The historical tragedy was that James Connolly and Padraic Pearse were eliminated just prior to the revolutionary situation that soon emerged in 1918-20.

An important political error of Priscilla Metscher’s book is its claim that Connolly subscribed to a ‘stages’ concept of the revolution, such as outlined by Lenin in “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”. The truth is that both Lenin and Connolly recognized certain phases of the struggle, but they rejected any notion of stages in which the interests of the working class should be subordinated to those of the capitalists, domestic or foreign. As Russia demonstrated, it was a Permanent Revolution that ushered in a workers’ state that began socialist construction.

In his “Re-Conquest of Ireland”, Connolly replaces the term “Workers’ Republic” with “Co-operative Commonwealth”, which he defines as “a system of society in which the workshops, factories, docks, railways, shipyards, etc., shall be owned by the nation, but administered by the Industrial Unions of the respective industries.” This is clearly not a blueprint for a bourgeois state.

What stood in the way of Connolly’s dream? It was the absence of a strong, democratically centralized, revolutionary workers’ party, and the lack of a revolutionary socialist-led labour movement. But that takes little away from the fact that James Connolly was one of the greatest socialist leaders of the 20th century.