No new Left without mass movements

No new Left without mass movements

I must admit to having been sceptical from the start when I saw some socialists arguing that we should get involved in the Niki Ashton campaign for the NDP leadership. On the face of it, Ashton is saying all the right things, including making explicit reference to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and even to Québec Solidaire. But I have the nagging feeling that, in this case, we can say that imitation is the best form of flattery, but that it is still imitation: Ashton doesn’t represent an authentic mass movement in Canadian politics which could change the NDP or lead to the formation of a new party.

In my own experience in Québec as well as my observation of developments in other countries, only mass movements can provide the energy necessary to either qualitatively change an existing Left party or create a new one that can occupy a significant portion of the electoral scene. I mean by a mass movement one that mobilises hundreds of thousands of people and has an impact on the consciousness of millions. This is not to say that smaller movements are not very important. They can even win sometimes. But they are not enough to change the political landscape.

There would not have been 1000 activists at the founding convention of Québec Solidaire in February 2006 if it had not been for several such mass mobilisations between 1995 and 2005. Those included the March of Women movement, two student general strikes, two demonstrations against the Iraq war in Montréal of over 200,000 people, and the Summit of the Americas protest preceded by a massive popular education campaign on free trade deals.

What does Jeremy Corbyn represent? He is the one Labour MP who was also one of the leading figures of the anti-war movement that mobilised millions in the streets across the UK while his own party’s government was sending troops to Iraq. He won the leadership of that party twice because the old guard of New Labour has been discredited and is despised by much of the Labour base as a result of that movement. In Spain, Podemos came out of the Indignados movement that took over public squares across the country in 2011. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s new party in France got its momentum from the Nuits Debout movement fighting for workers’ rights against a so-called socialist government.

I could give other examples of how new political developments come out of mass struggles. My point is that there has not been anything like that kind of movement in Canada (outside of Québec) in the recent past. The antiwar movement was large, but not nearly as large as in Québec. Its main political achievement was to force Jack Layton and the NDP to distance themselves from Canadian involvement in the war in Afghanistan, which was important. That made the NDP a bit better, but not an altogether different creature. It remained committed to fiscal conservatism and incapable of taking a clear position on crucial questions like the Energy East pipeline.

For all those reasons, I contend that socialists should not waste their precious time trying to have an impact on the evolution of a solidly moderate force like the federal NDP. Focusing on building the existing movements with a potential to become a mass force should be the priority. Whether this will eventually lead to a Corbyn type scenario in the NDP or the creation of an entirely new party will have to be figured out collectively through the process of the struggle.

Benoit Renaud is a socialist involved in Québec Solidaire. He was a member of its national coordinating committee from 2008 to 2012. You can read his contributions on other political questions at