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New Socialist Webzine

No Shortcuts to a New Left

By David Camfield

This article was first published by Canadian Dimension as part of a series of online viewpoints about challenges and prospects for the left. 

Derrick O’Keefe recently wrote in a piece on the Canadian Dimension magazine website that “beyond some very marginal formations and small publications, the left is missing. It’s just not there, organizationally.”

I agree with Derrick that “this absence is part of a long-term trend.” We are indeed in a “somewhat dismal context.” This is an important truth that needs to be acknowledged and seriously taken into account when thinking about how to strengthen the left in Canada and Quebec (in Quebec the situation isn’t as dire).

A social movement revival is the most likely road to a much stronger left so we should direct our efforts accordingly, in my view. Both social movements and political organizations/parties are needed.

I think there is lots of evidence that new left-wing political organizations are most likely to be built when the experience of powerful social movement mobilization has radicalized many people and given them inspiration, commitment, skills, and confidence. That’s what growing numbers of people were gaining in the years 2000-2002 because of the global justice movement.

We should think strategically, with a long-term perspective, and recognize that there are no short cuts. The best hope for strengthening forces that want to do much more than put the NDP – whose leadership’s endorsement of neoliberalism has never been clearer — in office lies in patient grassroots organizing in workplaces, in communities, and on campuses that aims to plant the seeds of future mass movements.

In most places what we find today aren’t movements but — at best — small groups of organizers who aim to build movements. But there is potential for movement building in today’s climate justice organizing, indigenous peoples’ defence of their lands and efforts by non-indigenous people to build solidarity, anti-austerity campaigns including the fight to save door-to-door delivery by Canada Post, and other workplace and community struggles.

Some will no doubt accuse me (and Derrick) of pessimism. Of course, a mistakenly bleak outlook – “radical change is impossible” or “civilization is doomed so stop working for a better society and start preparing for the collapse” – is very unhelpful.

But it’s vital to analyze our context as intelligently and seriously as we can even if the result isn’t uplifting. The temptation to minimize problems for fear that others (or we ourselves) will succumb to demoralization and give up on the fight for a better world must be resisted.

An upbeat but wrongheaded outlook – “there’s never been a better time to be a socialist,” “society is on a knife’s edge and any little spark could be the ignition point that sets the struggle alight,” “things are getting so bad that people will inevitably rise up like they did in (pick a country)” – can motivate some people to be frantic activists for a time.

Some may cling to that outlook in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Most people will eventually realize it’s wrong, but sadly they’re more likely to throw in the towel than to develop a better basis for staying in the struggle. An outlook with feeble foundations won’t help build anything with staying power.

Fortunately, two books that will soon be published offer much firmer foundations for the left: Alan Sears’ The Next New Left: A History of the Future and Richard Seymour’s Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made I hope many people will read and discuss these (and other) efforts to think seriously about the problems we face and how to move forward.

The left in Canada is not likely to become dramatically stronger in the short term. What Sears calls the “infrastructure of dissent” is very weak (though in Quebec it’s not quite as weak). It will take a movement revival to change that.

In these circumstances, we should make movement-building efforts our priority. Political education is also needed (ideas are too important to be left to academia), and radicals should look for new opportunities to collaborate politically (Solidarity Halifax is one positive example).

David Camfield lives in Winnipeg. He is one of the editors of New Socialist Webzine and the author of Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement

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