A few thoughts on radicals and workplace activism

Halifax activist David Bush has written an article on radicals and the workplace that deserves to be read and discussed by people on the left.

His conclusion is one I gladly echo: “Left wing organizations should be offering their energies, capacities and analysis while also humbly recognizing and understanding it is a learning process for the far left. This does not mean whole-hearted agreement with every step, but it does mean making engagement with rank and file movements a strategic priority. It also means we need to encourage, facilitate and organize rank and file activity where it does not exist… If we are serious about challenging capitalism and injustice in Canada and winning real gains for working people the left must organize itself in manner that can orient itself to building and enriching rank and file movements.”

David’s piece observes that “The far-left, for a variety of reasons has largely abandoned a practical orientation towards workers’ movements in Canada over the past twenty years. Largely this is a capacity question, membership in far-left organizations has dwindled and thus there is an organizational inability to carry out a concerted strategy within workers movements. Implicating oneself in workers’ movements is hard, unsexy work that requires time, resources, and patience. It is the type of work that only really produces results in the long-term and thus only groups with a long-term sense of struggle can engage in it.”

I think there’s a lot of truth to this, but I’ll add two points.

First, I think the move away from such an orientation dates back further, to the early 1980s when the main far left groups built in the Canadian state over the previous 20 years dissolved (the Maoists) or lost most of their members (the Revolutionary Workers’ League). The largest group on the radical left, the Communist Party, collapsed at the end of the 1980s along with most of the Stalinist regimes it supported. However, most of its union activists had long oriented to trying to change unions from above, by allying with left (and not so left) officials (see the comments on the role of the CP in the important fightback movement in BC in the early 80s in Bryan Palmer’s book Solidarity: The Rise and Fall of an Opposition in British Columbia).

Second – and more important for us to reckon with today – is that in addition to a loss of capacity there’s been a political shift among radicals away from seeing workplace struggles as important. The underlying reasons for this are the drastic decline in the level of workplace struggle and the decay happening within unions in recent decades.

Another point that needs to be raised in any discussion about “building and enriching rank and file movements” is the problem of sectarianism. It has been all too common for members of left groups to put the interests of their group ahead of what’s best for workers’ rank and file organizing (this was true of most of the far left groups of the 60s and 70s). For example, members of a radical left group may treat recruiting workplace militants as the most important goal when building relationships with them, and may try to keep them from making connections with other radicals who are seen as competitors.

So while it would be great for more radicals to adopt the orientation David argues for, this needs to be accompanied by a root-and-branch rejection of sectarianism. Otherwise new efforts will do little good or even be counterproductive.

A last thought: David identifies the “the activity and orientation of the left” as “the most important factor” in explaining “what accounts for vibrant rank and file networks and movements.” The efforts of radical activists who are genuinely part of workers’ self-organization are undoubtedly very important. But crucial to past successes by radicals has been the presence of a wider layer of militants of which the radicals have been a part (this was an important lesson eventually learned by some of the socialists who set out to build rank and file movements in the 1970s without fully recognizing how much had changed since the 1930s, as discussed here). Today this layer of militant workplace activists is probably weaker than it’s ever been – a fact that needs to be appreciated by all of us who agree with David that there “is a role for the left to play in this current moment of rank and file reconstitution.”

David Camfield