Volume 51, Issue 1: Winter 2017

Is there a socialist strategy in front of us?

Taking the Leap from ideas to action

Photo by Adbusters

In our previous issue (Autumn 2016), George Martell laid out a multi-faceted strategy to take the Leap Manifesto to the next level by giving it an action plan. Dimension invited several activists to respond to Martell’s proposals in a special section, “Leap, the Left and the NDP.” Contributors included Greg Albo, Ian Angus and John Riddell, Pierre Beaudet, Dave Bush, Nora Loreto, Umair Muhammad and Herman Rosenfeld. In this response, George Martell continues the conversation.

Now that the reality of an empowered fascist movement in the United States is before us, it seems to me that the argument I made in the last issue of Dimension (“Leap, the Left and the NDP”) is, more than ever, fundamental to this country’s survival and to any prospect of a socialist Canada. I don’t mean that the details of my proposal are necessarily the best way to proceed, but only that a profound deepening of democracy in our communities and workplaces — a substantive recovery of local power — is inescapable if we are to build the kind of popular base required to support an independent country and a democratic-socialist society.

There were a number of very thoughtful responses to my article to which I should reply. In the limited space I have here, however, it seemed best to focus on general arguments raised rather than on specific points stressed by individual authors. I also want to underline how important it is for the Left in Canada to get its act together — right now — to help shape a national consensus to preserve and extend the human decencies this country still supports and, at the same time, promote an engaging and inspiring vision of what “socialism for the 21st century” could look like. As in the initial article, the point I want to make is that such a possibility is only made real if citizens are organized to take hold of their communities and their workplaces. That’s an overwhelming but essential task.

Let me say first, I did not imagine my proposal as “wildly imaginative” (to use Cy Gonick’s kindly-meant description). I meant it as solidly realistic. Even if its larger purposes fail in the end, it can only help improve the conditions of local communities and workplaces. A few years ago, for example, I thought a model organizing campaign on the lines of this proposal was very doable in Toronto’s Rexdale — the heart of Rob Ford country. With an NDP candi- date (deeply rooted in local politics and community life and with a principled distance from party cen- tral) and an extensive local infrastructure of activist organizations, with the addition of serious union help (particularly in funding a couple of full-time organizers), I thought something quite substantial could have been pulled off both in deepening community power and enriching the broader issues that engaged this largely poor and racialized community. I still think so. I’ll return to the more general problem with the NDP in a moment. What I want to stress here, as I did earlier, is that there is room for many different social justice organizations to get model community mobilizations off the ground. Right now. I have in mind a very wide range: from Toronto’s Socialist Project to the BC Teachers Federation, to Solidarity Halifax, to Black Lives Matter, to Idle No More, to Québéc solidaire, to Unifor, to Canadian Dimension, to various anti-war, environmental, Pride and feminist organizations, to the Leap initiative, to restive NDP riding associations.

The timeline we face

It is also important to say that the local organizing in communities and workplaces I’m proposing as a core base for struggle is in no way meant to undercut essential national mobilizations, say on the two key issues raised in the LEAP discussion: climate change and inequality (including tackling poverty, precarious work, unemployment, a decent minimum wage, broadening medicare, supporting the posties, etc.). Faced with a more aggressive America, these national mobilizations are more important than ever. Such issues were included in what I meant by engaging in “concrete” struggles. Overall, itx seems to me, local organizing is essential if broad mobilizations are to have the power to insist on genuine implemen-tation. Their issues have to be understood as local as well national issues. The community and workplace organizing I’m proposing is as much ofxshort-term importance as it is crucial for the long term. I can’t stress this point enough.

Cartoon by Angel Boligan/ CagleCartoons.com

If we have managed to neglect the growing far-right dimension of the Conservative party (now leading the polls in Ontario) or the astonishing attraction of Rob Ford’s populism, we surely cannot avoid the very substantial appeal of fascism growing south of the border. This is a movement — as much cultural as economic and political — that will increasingly be brought into Canadian living rooms via an already complicit Canadian and American media. This is what the contradictions of global capitalism are bringing in their wake. This is how corporate power behaves when “liberal democracy” no longer provides political legitimation and sufficient profit margins. Rosa Luxenberg’s choice between “socialism and barbarism” has never seemed more relevant to the present day. And that choice means acting on our long experience that socialism has to be built with on-the-ground organizing — in our communities and our workplaces. It is where we learn to care for each other — and for our country — again. We become more conscious of who we are (our identities), not only of social class, race, gender and sex- ual orientation but also of who we are as members of a community. Why? Because in this work we are making our country once more, just as an earlier sense of English-Canadian and Québécois nationhood emerged from our settler communities when making their farms and villages (tragically alienated from Aboriginal communities). And, just as even earlier, Indigenous peoples learned to love the communities they made out of the hunter-gatherer-agricultural economy that kept them close to Mother Earth. This time, if we are lucky enough, we will be making our country again in all its diversity.

We have to find fresh words to say what it means to build caring and democratic communities and workplaces — what it means to build our “home” again, our “heart of the real.” We have to learn to say it in a context not only of class struggle (incorporating anti-racist, gender and LGBTQ2 struggle) but also the struggle of our Aboriginal peoples and the Québécois for meaningful sovereignty. We eventually have to build a political party to embody such words. As I’ve emphasized, Canada is now facing a much more aggressive America — economically, politically, and militarily. I don’t think we have very much time to get our act together. I put forward one half of an argument on how we might do that. I left the issue of workplace organizing for another time and recommended Michael Hurley and Sam Gindin’s article in The Bullet, “Work Overload: Time for a Union Strategy,” as a good place to start. How I proposed framing this struggle may not be the right way to start, but I think it is interesting that not one of the responders suggested a clear concrete alternative to such a proposal.

Plurinationalism and social movements

In my initial piece I was especially focussed on building a base for socialism and so did not, in the short space I had, take on the issue of the structure of the larger Canadian state. I took for granted what Pierre Beaudet (“Putting some spring in the Leap”) called a “plurinational” perspective. It is a perspective that involves the drawing down of political power, at different levels, into local hands. It includes an emphasis on Aboriginal sovereignty and Québec’s right to self-determination as well on as much local power as possible. I should be clear here. I am advocating intensified “sovereignty-association” not independence. My heart is with the “indépendantistes” wherever their community may be, but I think we all need an activist federal govern- ment to keep the American empire at bay as best we can, to survive with honour in a global economy, and to bring all of us together — whether in support of Aboriginal treaty rights or human rights, climate change initiatives, a national healthcare system or institutions that allow us to genuinely communicate with each other. Of course, we need a deeply democratic socialist party to make federalism work at that level. But without such a national government, our individual communities will be crushed. Corporate power will see to that.

I agree with Dave Bush’s argument that “encouraging the self-activity of workers, strengthening and connecting existing social movements, learning from the success and failures of these movements and figuring out how to argue for socialist politics within” them is fundamental to socialist organizing. But where do we imagine such movements have their roots other than in communities and workplaces? Engaging local citizens and workers on the issues that really matter in their lives hopefully means engaging them in core social movement issues as well as building local power. If it doesn’t, that says something about the disconnect of the leadership of our social movements from the everyday lives of Canadians — a disconnect that has to be rectified. If “existing struggles” aren’t alive at the local level (and able to be built on there), that’s a real problem that has to be faced. Local organizing doesn’t “make demands” and encourage folks to “rally around” — it moves with the issues that are already there.

What to do about the NDP?

Like Herman Rosenfeld, I don’t think that the NDP, as it is presently constituted, “could be a key institutional foundation” for the kind of organizing I’m suggesting. I thought I made that clear. But I do think that NDP constituency organizations, in poor and racialized communities and in working-class communities with histories of activism, can be successfully encouraged to take a community organizing perspective. I never imagined “painting the NDP red” or being especially optimistic about its position. I just think its members, particularly in these communities, are as open to community-power organizing as other members of these communities. Maybe a little bit more than most. I made the argument that “the country’s social-democratic supporters and Left liberals make up the bulk of institutionalized resistance (however limited) to capitalist relations.” My respondents have largely dismissed this understanding, but nobody offered a factual alternative view. I think it’s especially important to distinguish between NDP riding association members and the party leadership, particularly now as that leadership appears so bewildered at facing a rapidly changing political reality, having so little principled ground from which to face this new world. I wrote earlier that if a serious socialist project gets underway — a project that incorporates a genuine liberating vision for the country, that triggers the political imagination, the sense of decency, the desire for honest citizenship that my experience tells me is there in spades among most rank-and-file NDPers — we might see real change in the direction the party takes or, at least, a good chunk of its membership. “Maybe,” I said, “we’ll be surprised.” I still hold that view.

I have not thought through Umair Muhammad’s argument “that some kind of party-like organizational structure is required to work toward the development of a ‘network of activists’ that will ‘create, over the years, a powerful ideological and legislative/constitutional framework.’ ” We might think of it as a pre-party organizational structure, with its practical hopes initially open-ended. He’s right that “a fair number of community-based campaigns that have been put together across Toronto in recent years seem to approximate the early stages of the model organizing” I had in mind. They could well contribute to such a framing structure here in the city. And similar campaign organizations could contribute to similar framing structures in other towns and cities. Now that I have Umair’s proposal in front me, it makes a lot of sense. Perhaps these structures could be put together in parallel with on-going model organizing that has, already, a strong com- munity base and could link with this “party-like structure.” At the same time, I don’t want to give up encouraging a community-organizing initiative in NDP riding associations. As you can see, there’s a lot to think through here.

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