Working-Class Politics in the Canadian State 2000


Working-class politics is about fighting exploitation, alienation and oppression wherever it exists in capitalist society, not just the official “political” sphere. Capitalist power takes numerous forms, but is uniquely concentrated in the state. Two ways of understanding this is the capitalist state has the ability to negotiate between different sections of the capitalist class, and the legitimacy with which it is able to use organized violence to impose itself.

I. The International Left

At the beginning of a new century, a clear majority of the international Left no longer believes in any alternative to capitalism. The traditional parties of social democracy have embraced or at least accepted neo-liberalism, as have most of the remaining Stalinist (Communist) parties. These parties are generally accepting of if not celebrating “globablization”, information technology, and “democratic” imperialism.

As the assimilation – begun long ago – of these organizations into capitalist society deepens, they are losing what remains of their working-class character. Many of these parties – created by workers and organizationally independent of big business but with reformist politics – are close to becoming simply political machines for a set of pro-capitalist politicians.

Workers’ parties that identified with socialism in some sense and supported popular struggles while trying to get elected into government have moved to the right (e.g. the Workers Party in Brazil) or suffered right-wing splits (e.g. Communist Refoundation in Italy). Aiming to win elections and form governments in a period when there is not a broad radicalization in the working class increases the pressure on left reformist parties to move right and become more like mainstream social democratic parties to boost their votes. At the same time, exciting new organizations like the Scottish Socialist Party offer signs of hope.

Revolutionary socialism is a tiny and socially marginal current in need of renewal.

II. Signs of Hope


There are promising signs of struggle against right-wing governments, aggressive employers and the international institutions of capital. The ruling-class offensive since the mid-1970s has given many people plenty of reasons to ask big questions and fight back. In a small but significant minority, there is an anti-capitalist sentiment, especially – but not only – among youth. Why youth? Young people are generally more open to new and radical ideas. Exploitation and oppression have not had as long to discourage young people. At the same time, young people are feeling the brunt of the neo-liberal assault, and so have more reason to resist. Here we can glimpse the potential for building a new Left. Unfortunately, the ideological and organizational crisis of the existing Left are obstacles to remaking the Left. The legacy of feminism and the New Left do help to contribute to antiauthoritarian and anti-oppression politics and belief amongst young radicals.

III. Socialism from Below

Against the stream, socialism from below proclaims that not only can reforms be won but capitalism can be replaced. There are many barriers to a self-managed and ecologically-sustainable society in which human needs are the priority, but it is our conviction that this is a historical possibility. It is necessary if exploitation, alienation and ppression are to be uprooted.

The rule of capital can be replaced by socialist democracy only through the self-emancipation of the working class in a social revolution. No seizure of power by parties, armed forces or any other minority can substitute for a revolution made by the exploited and oppressed themselves.

Our activity in even the most non-revolutionary times must be geared to making these ends more possible. We adopt only those methods that increase the capacities of workers and oppressed people to organize, change themselves and struggle for liberation.

IV. The Working Class and Social Change

The working class must be understood broadly, as encompassing those who must work or try to work for wages, those who do the nurturing, domestic, and reproductive work for wage earners, and their dependents. Working-class action and organization takes different forms. Class struggles happen in workplaces and communities.

Sexism, racism, heterosexism and national oppression are sources of material and ideological divisions that criss-cross the class. Wealth, occupation, ideology etc. may also be the bases of significant divisions.

Members of oppressed groups organize themselves autonomously because members of dominant groups usually perpetuate oppression or are not reliable allies in resisting that oppression. Sometimes movements of the oppressed cross class lines, which brings class contradictions into their midst. We try to ensure that the movement is in solidarity with its most oppressed sections.

The working class does not simply exist as a potentially revolutionary force waiting for its correct leadership, as some Marxists have assumed. The capacity of workers to act and analyse against class exploitation and various forms of oppression varies enormously.

Greater unity, equality, self-organization in the workplace and community, and consciousness recomposes the working classin a progressive way against capital. Put another way, they increase workers’ political capacities. Competition, inequality, divisions, lack of independent and democratic class organizations, bureaucracy, and bourgeois ideology work in the opposite direction, decomposing the class.

As an overall approach, supporters of socialism from below should evaluate movements, parties and other organizations, ideologies, strategies and tactics from the point of view of whether or not they advance working-class recomposition.

V. Struggles in the Canadian State

In the second half of the 20th century the working class in the Canadian state was not decomposed as badly as the US working class. It still has independent mass organizations: bureaucratized unions that cover about one-third of wage-workers, and the New Democratic Party. A variety of social movement organizations exist on a much smaller scale.

Unions won institutional stability in the mid-20th century, but at the same time became more closely tied with employers and the state (e.g. dues check-off by employers in exchange for union officials guaranteeing no strikes during contracts, management rights clauses). Unions are contradictory: unionized workers can use them to struggle, but the labour bureaucracy enforces contracts and laws against the working class as well as against capital. This is why workers need to be able to organize themselves and act independently of the bureaucratic leadership. However, there is currently very little rank and file self-organization in the unions.

The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation formed in 1933 brought together a range of farmer, worker and middle class political currents. Those in the CCF who understood socialism as a working-class creation were marginalised. The CCF equated socialism with planning by the existing state under a CCF government. The CCF’s contribution to developing workers’ capacities was limited by this ideology, its role in smashing the Communist Party-influenced left wing of the growing union movement during the 1940s, and the staunch federalism which denied it roots in Quebec. In its early years, the CCF did at least try to win people to its politics and conduct education. By the time of the launch of the NDP in 1961 Fabian socialism from above had been replaced by timid Keynesianism. Rather than trying to change people’s ideas, the NDP accepted the working class as it was and sought to win its votes. In the 1990s, the party largely adopted neo-liberalism and NDP provincial governments put it into practice. The NDP’s base among labour and community activists was significantly weakened.

While there are currently no mass social movements, many small movement activist groups exist. The politics and social makeup of student, anti-poverty, tenant, environmentalist, anti-racist, feminist, queer, aboriginal, Quebec sovereigntists and other social justice groups vary enormously, but many of their members are working-class. They are generally based in communities rather than workplaces (some overlap with unions). Unlike the unions, they usually lack mass membership structures. However, where bureaucratic leaderships exist these are weaker than the labour bureaucracy. We understand the fights against racism, sexism, heterosexism, and the oppression of the disabled and of young people as central to the struggle for socialism. We advocate that the movements stay independent from big business and the state. We resist attempts to professionalize the movements, which usually results in displacing the oppressed as their own agent of change.

Working-class recomposition in the early 21st century requires innovative strategies, tactics and methods of struggle. This means breaking with those entrenched in the quarter-century of boom and prosperity after World War 2, which are still those of the NDP and most unions and community groups.

Unionizing more of the changing working class is vital, but not nearly enough. Workers need to make their unions more militant and democratic, and practice greater solidarity with other workplace and community struggles. Workers’ centres and other strategies for the self-organization of non-union workers should be supported. Organizing those labour activists who argue for “new” – democratic and class struggle – directions for labour is long overdue. Independent rank and file organization within unions will not emerge quickly, so all initiatives that develop it should be nurtured.

The key challenge for social movement organizations is to move beyond lobbying strategies to greater militancy while at the same time building larger, more active memberships and closer links with each other and with the best forces in the unions.

To offer a real fightback, a counterculture with anticapitalist values needs to be built. This includes developing working class communication (newspapers, radio), social life, and artistic and literary expression.

The NDP has not advanced working-class recomposition for some years. At best, it shows that a party based on unions rather than big business is possible and keeps some people from looking to a “lesser evil” big business party to advance their interests (as many in the US have looked to the Democrats). To this extent, the NDP still plays a weak and limited defensive role. The NDP?s traditional Keynesian policies were always capitalist, but at least they often promised social reforms. Now the NDP argues that past gains must be compromised because of “globalization” and promises no more than a less vicious dose of austerity than that offered by the other parties. Its role in the Ontario Days of Action showed how it is an obstacle to building mass movements.

Because of the exhaustion of the NDP, the next major wave of recomposition will probably create an historic opportunity to launch a new radical party rooted in the most advanced layer of the working class, drawing on forces from outside and inside the NDP. It will bear the stamp of the period in which it emerges. Because of the crisis of the international Left and the weak identification with socialism in North America, such a party might well identify more as anti-capitalist than socialist. It would certainly not be revolutionary socialist, but there would be real potential for winning support for socialism from below among its members. Within this party, there should be multiple tendencies, ie members of this party should have the right to organize themselves within the party on the basis of their ideas. The more its ideas and activism are centred on workplace and community struggles, and not just on elections, the larger contribution it could make to working-class recomposition.

The multi-national character of the Canadian state shapes politics in key ways. Until the Left in English Canada supports self-determination for Quebec and Aboriginal people, it will not be able to converge with its counterparts in Quebec and the First Nations. There has never been a mass workers? party in Quebec, in part because nationalism has tied workers to the bourgeois nationalist Parti Quebecois. As a result, Quebecois workers have not gone through the NDP experience in the same way as workers outside Quebec. They approach building a new Left along a different path. Until the non-aboriginal Left across the Canadian state can prove itself to be a genuine ally in the fight for aboriginal self-determination, it will be unable to build alliances with aboriginal radicals and will remain alien to the First Nations.

One of the greatest political weaknesses in recent years of activists to the left of the NDP establishment has been their almost total failure to build groups that present a comprehensive left political alternative inside or outside the NDP. This is one of several reasons why there is still no left alternative to the NDP of significant size. A viable new party cannot be created yet, but steps can be taken towards one. The “structured movement” proposal is a promising initiative, which we should approach from this perspective.


Adopted in principle by the New Socialist Group, September 2000