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June 27, 2011

Building on the Orange Surge

by Robin Wylie & Barry Weisleder

Robin Wylie

The national election of May 2nd 2011 saw the election of 103 New Democratic Party federal members of parliament, making the NDP the Official Opposition or 'Government-in-Waiting' for the first time. This is potentially a key turning point in putting social class as the fundamental denominator in defining people’s political identity in mass electoral politics.

In the course of the NDP national convention, Robin Wylie of Socialist Solidarity and Barry Weisleder of Socialist Action (and chair of the NDP’s Socialist Caucus) discussed and debated the meaning of this to the class struggle and for socialist organization.

Building on the Orange Surge – Robin Wylie - Socialist Solidarity

I am going to examine two questions about the 2011 election: the challenges facing the NDP as a government in waiting and the challenges facing socialists in building a class struggle political alternative.

The NDP’s Opportunity/Crisis Moment

In talking about the NDP breakthrough I will talk about two issues: the conditions for a deep class polarization and the tests that the NDP will face in trying to both represent workers’ interests and manage the system.

In terms of conditions, we in Canada are in the midst of a fragile economic recovery. Growth rates are barely 2% and profit rates are still only half of what they were prior to the 2008 recession. While the Harper government pats itself on the back for Canada’s prudent credit regulation, the fact is the Canadian economy is subject to a volatile international economy where the United States economy is stagnant, with public as well as private credit mortgaged, and the European Union is characterized by the threat of national defaults, like Greece, and austerity politics such as Cameron’s British 'Big Society' idea in privatizing social services with volunteers.

As Barry mentioned earlier today in the CUPW forum, there are volatile economic conditions within the country. Canadians hold the largest amount of private debt among major OECD nations. And, as Jim Stanford notes in his book Economics for Everyone, Canada suffers from a pronounced tendency to underinvestment by the private sector.

Yes, there is a recovery. But it is modest and could be disrupted quickly.

There is also a ruling class offensive, internationally and domestically. European austerity budgets are premised on weakening union organization and cutting social wages like pensions. In the United States there is an attack on unionism itself given the events in Wisconsin. Total union membership has declined again from nine to seven percent. There is as well Libya, the third colonial intervention by the west in the Middle East in the last decade – where Canada is providing cover for the United States by commanding the air and naval war.

There is finally the Harper majority government in laying the basis for a deep class polarization. It too will practice austerity politics in cutting sixteen billion dollars by 2015. This can only be done by downsizing, attacking federal unionized workers, and furthering the neo-liberal agenda in reducing the public sector. A conservative estimate would be that one third of the public sector has been shed since the 1980s.

But it won’t just be about austerity politics. The Tories have given every indication they will further promote private business with fewer taxes, subsidies, and deregulation. One might as well say that Kyoto is dead when our global warming targets have been moved to 2050. And there will be an intensification of the Tories’ culture war on any centre-left alternative by scapegoating refugees, promoting 'religious freedom', Israeli apartheid, and working to identify Canadian society with neo-liberalism at home and imperialism abroad.

In the face of this deepening polarization, the NDP will face enormous pressures in trying to bridge the gap between worker representation and system management.

What will be some of those challenges?

  • Quebec: Where will Layton come down between the reactionary politics of the Clarity Act, in denying Quebec the right to democratic national self determination, and the party’s 2005 Sherbrooke Declaration – which says 50% plus one can decided to separate?
  • Workers in Struggle: How will the party deal with the coercive labour policies of the Conservatives? The party has a history of parliamentary representation of workers formal interests (the right to unionize, collectively bargain, etc.) by trying to amend bills and filibuster those they disagree with – but a backing away from workers’ struggles that transcend legal boundaries – witness Operation Solidarity in British Columbia in 1983.
  • Canadian imperialism: Already the new NDP caucus has voted to extend the war in Libya, an act of complicity that has been repeated by the party since the first gulf war in 1991.
These kinds of tensions are being expressed internally. This weekend has witnessed repeated attempts by the NDP leadership to avoid the issue of Israeli apartheid, by refusing to support the Canadian Boat to Gaza, new rules of order that take prioritizing resolutions away from the convention floor, defeating a motion ruling out a merger with the Liberals, and trying to delete the term ‘socialism’ from the party’s constitution.

Maybe the NDP will consolidate itself as the government in waiting in Canadian electoral politics. Despite the contradictions, it will do ‘just good enough’ in the circumstances. This will be a good thing in displacing another employer’s party, the Liberals, as people’s second electoral choice. But this is likely to be a rocky, and potentially failed, process. And, if the NDP fails, other employer alternatives are likely to fill the gap in the short run.

From an independent socialist point of view, the NDP is a capitalist workers party. It cannot bridge the gap between representing workers interests, the majority, and run the market/nation system, however electorally successful it might become. It will choose the latter every time as shown in the challenge of the left Waffle caucus in the 1970s. That is why we also need to talk about building an independent socialist alternative.

How Do Socialists Relate to the Orange Surge?

I need to start with a definition. To independent socialists, the Orange surge is not just about the election. The Orange surge also represents a mass political sentiment, one of growing concern about neo-liberalism and, here and there, a mood of defiance (if not yet pro-active struggle).

But we also need to be realistic about the political balance of forces. There is a massive social democratic movement, 100,000 NDP members, two provincial governments, and now, the official opposition, and a tiny left, whether defined as the broad left around such formations as the Workers Assembly movement in Southern Ontario and Toronto’s publication (a few thousand activists) or the few hundred radical left in anarcho-syndicalist or Marxist organizations.

In this political context on the left, our reading of the tasks of independent socialists is that there is a need for very big ideas (theory) and very concrete actions (practice).

In theory, two things need to be done to raise the political literacy of a new generation: to build a deep structural analysis of market and state and to build a new vision of a future socialist society that is based on a public economy directed by workers’ democracy.

That means that independent socialists have a responsibility to educate new activists about the Marxist tradition: Marx on Capital (and arguments like David Harvey’s on ‘accumulation by dispossession’); Lenin on the state and the national question; Gramsci on class consciousness; and Trotsky on strategy and tactics like the United Front.

We also have to rebuild a vision of an economy based on public ownership, administration and planning. Today the NDP talks a great deal about a comprehensive social wage system, from infant care to elder care. But the vision and experiments in public ownership in production (Potash), trade (the Canadian Wheat Board) and finance (the Canadian Postal Savings Bank) have disappeared – and been renounced.

But a public economy has to be complemented by a vision of workers’ power, from basics like CUPW’s model of paying staff representatives no more than the average wage of postal workers to the history of self-administration, stretching from the Winnipeg General Strike Committee to Russian Soviets.

In translating these ideas, in such an unbalanced political situation on the left, we also need to find ways to concretely educate activists through many small steps. There is value in thinking out a list of transitional demands or a Program, but the template for practice needs to be adjusted to the actual circumstances of struggle.

Our circumstances dictate that we be very specific. How can the postal workers struggle be advanced to the next step, whether big or small; how can a left oriented alliance of environmentalists and aboriginal peoples be built in opposing Oil Sands projects like the Encana pipeline to Prince Rupert; how can one in one’s union, school, workplace, raise the level of understanding and practice in definite ways?

The political aim of independent socialists in building on the Orange surge is to foster independent organization. Given the extreme imbalance of forces on the left, one forum for this task is to relate to the NDP, especially the sentiment underpinning it, whether from within or without. And there are socialists, within the context of election campaigns, working hard to politicize workers and youth who don’t tend to vote or engage in the political process, as shown by the comrade from Hamilton Centre who discussed new kinds of election literature. Taking Canadian social democracy seriously is an important task.

But in relating to the NDP as one dimension of building independent organization, we in Socialist Solidarity do not think that one should hope to capture the NDP for socialism. Engaging social democracy is about presenting alternatives, in ideas, activity, and organization to workers and the oppressed for an independent path to social liberation. This is how to hold social democrats accountable.

In practical terms, we welcome joint activity, a dialogue like this forum, where there is a common commitment to anti-capitalist ideas and actions, and where the logic of resistance expresses that same dynamic. But we also encourage our listeners and readers to join Socialist Solidarity in contributing to that independent socialist alternative we so urgently need.

Barry WeislederBuilding on the Orange Surge – Socialist Perspectives - Barry Weisleder

Thanks to Robin and the comrades of Socialist Solidarity for jointly organizing this forum in Vancouver with Socialist Action. This is an important opportunity for dialog on the left. The measure of success of this initiative is not whether we emerge tonight with agreement on everything, but rather whether we can agree to work together to advance a Workers' Agenda in the context of the present struggles facing working people across the Canadian state. Let's see what we can do together.

Faced with a choice between NDP Orange Crush, Liberal cool-aid and Tory hemlock, 4.5 million voters opted for the NDP soda. The May 2nd election catapulted the NDP into second place, into Official Opposition status, but the Conservative Party managed to eke out a parliamentary majority.

So what does it all mean? Are we stuck in a four-year holding pattern, doomed to witness the slow-motion train wreck of a century of social benefits? No way, not if working people choose to resist.

Despite appearances, the workers' movement across the Canadian state has rarely had a better opportunity to seize the time, stop the bleeding, and take charge of the situation.

In the first place, there was no electoral turn to the right. Voters turned left, nearly doubling the NDP count, at the expense of Liberals, the BQ and the Green Party. The Harper parliamentary majority is an artificial product of an undemocratic electoral system. Winning only 39.5% of the votes cast, less than one-quarter of the total electorate, Harper has no mandate to carry out his vicious anti-labour agenda. While his appointment of three defeated Conservative candidates to the Senate shows his undiminished arrogance, Harper is a paper tiger. The Auditor-General's report on G20 spending shows Harper is vulnerable to a challenge. He can be stopped. Clearly, it will take mass labour economic and political action, starting with active support for the postal workers' struggle against concessions, to bring down the Tories. As the rebel Senate page Brigette DePape insists: the Tory agenda can and should be halted.

Secondly, this is a period of growing political polarization, fueled by the deepening global economic crisis. Regardless of the pro-capitalist policies of the NDP, the labour-based party is a lightning rod for working class discontent. Already, the May 2nd election has achieved some salubrious effects. It put to rest 'strategic voting', bourgeois coalition-making, and all talk of NDP-Liberal merger. Those examples of blatant class collaboration, which only confuse the issue and divide working people, are off the table for four years, and hopefully longer. But the new 'NDP government in waiting' must prove that it is up to the task of governing in the interests of the working class, small farmers, oppressed nationalities, women, youths and seniors. The pressures will be enormous. Should the radical left weigh-in? Isn't it obvious?

Thirdly, spectacular NDP gains in Quebec are very significant, but are very fragile. Quebec nationalist expectations are high. They are echoed by youthful voices among the 59 NDP Quebec MP s. The NDP surge in Quebec is not just the result of disgust with the Liberal Party and disappointment with the Bloc Quebecois, nor is it due to the sudden popularity of Jack's mustache, walking cane and folksy French. The gains were a response to NDP policies, including these: French should be the working language in federally-regulated industries in Quebec, such as railways and banks; judges appointed to the Supreme Court should be fluent in French; Quebec will be guaranteed no less than one quarter of the seats in Parliament after re-distribution; the NDP will support efforts to close the loop hole that allows English private school students in Quebec to skirt Language Law 101 and, after a couple of years, transfer to an English-language publicly funded school.

The question is: will NDP gains in Quebec be consolidated, or squandered? The answer, in large part, will be determined by whether the NDP leadership puts the fight for national liberation ahead of loyalty to the capitalist state. The sea of Canadian flags at the televised NDP victory party on May 2nd, Jack's wavering over the Clarity Act, even Jack's denunciation of the protest by rebel Senate page Brigette DePape do not augur well.

What does Quebec want? Quebec wants respect. It wants a commitment to the promises already made by the NDP. It wants solidarity with Quebec's right to national self-determination. Solidarity of that kind that will lead to victory for the current Pan-Canadian labour struggles, including those of the postal workers, the Air Canada workers and the Public Service Alliance. That is the road to victory over the Harper Conservative agenda, right now.

We can contribute to that victory by organizing educational events across the country in support of those workers' struggles, and in support of Quebec's national rights. They are the two keys to stopping Harper. We are engaged in that process by urging the NDP convention to adopt the Socialist Caucus resolution to commit the NDP to campaign for repeal of the Clarity Act.

Positive NDP pledges to advance Quebec national rights have fueled expectations in Quebec. Thus, NDP Leader Jack Layton is riding a bull. He may tame it, or it may buck him. Still, the new political situation has erected a bridge between the workers' movements in both nations. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers' collective bargaining struggle may be the bellwether of Pan-Canadian workers' unity against the Canadian capitalist class and their anti-labour agenda.

Number four, we can end Labour's retreat of the past 30 years with mass resistance today to the corporate agenda. Objective conditions for a turnaround are ripe. The main obstacle to the resistance needed is the pro-capitalist leadership of our unions and the NDP. At the top of both organizations is the same group of privileged bureaucrats. They've been rowing the boat mostly in one direction – backwards -- for over a quarter century. To change course the right wing brass must be removed. For that to happen, for any hope of a change of direction, we need to build a class struggle opposition inside the unions and the NDP. We start small, but we know that from a little acorn grows a mighty oak tree.

What do I mean by a class struggle opposition? It is a rank and file movement based on a clear programme and on a firm set of principles reflecting the concrete needs of the vast majority of the population. The NDP Socialist Caucus, founded in 1997, with over 500 supporters across the country, is based on the Manifesto for a Socialist Canada. It is elaborated and amplified by all the resolutions adopted at its annual conferences over the past 14 years. The SC commitment to fight for public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, under workers' and community democratic control, to facilitate the transformation towards green energy efficiency at all levels, from industry and home heating to mass transportation, offers a powerful example.

The programme of the Workers' Solidarity and Union Democracy Coalition, founded in 1991, and re-launched in 2005, provides another good example. It stands for the following: 1. Resist labour concessions and social cutbacks. 2. Support struggles for union democracy, to make unions more accessible, accountable, transparent and participatory. 3. Take back our unions and turn them into fighting organizations. 4. Rely on our own strength, and renew or create our own organizations, from the bottom up, to fight for the interests of working people and against corporate profit and power.

The operating principles to which both Workers' Solidarity and the NDP Socialist Caucus are committed are basically those of the historic Paris Commune of 1871, the first workers' government in world history: direct democracy, proportional representation of all currents of opinion, the right of rank and file members to recall and replace elected officials, and the rule that office holders are to be paid no more than those whom they represent.

Not everyone belongs to a union, nor is everyone able to join or organize a union. But all, regardless of citizenship, age or status, can join the union-based NDP and can support the fight of the Socialist Caucus to turn the NDP sharply to the left. What matters is the process, the struggle itself, not to what degree the party turns left. Most ordinary working people who join the labour-based party do not sign up just to become cheerleaders for the Leader. We join the NDP for the same reason we join unions – to advance our class interests.

Without labour, the NDP would not exist. Therefore the party belongs to the working class, not to Thomas Mulcair or Jack Layton, not to Brad Lavigne, not to the Lewis family. The NDP belongs to its dues-payers, to its affiliated unions, to its 100,000 members, to its 4.5 million voters. We simply demand that the NDP serve the interests of its vast social base, not the system of exploitation and oppression controlled by a tiny corporate elite. It is the struggle within our unions and within the union-based NDP that will decide the shape of the fight against capitalist austerity and war. That will be a big factor in determining the overall relationship of class forces.

This is a point to emphasize to our friends across the independent left: It's time to take a stand, to set aside academic abstractions, and to surpass small sideline campaigns. The road to influence the 4.5 million NDP voters lies through struggle against the pro-capitalist labour and NDP leaders in whom millions have illusions. Our task is not to prop up the existing leadership, but to challenge it, especially inside the mass organizations of the working class. Only those mass organizations have the capacity to educate and mobilize millions. We should strive to win those organizations to mass action against the rulers' attacks, to win them to socialist policies that can give shape to an alternative to the unfolding economic and environmental disaster that is global capitalism.

May 2nd ushered in a new situation, brimming with new opportunities that warm the heart of every working person. While the Canadian Labour Congress tops say 'wait four years to replace the government', while they amalgamate labour councils to make them even more remote from local unionists, we need not be bound to their prescriptions. When Jack Layton says he wants to be "more about proposition than opposition", we need not swallow that pill. The task of socialists, radicals and worker militants is to unite behind the postal workers, to support Quebecois and aboriginal demands for national liberation, to demand money for jobs, for green energy conversion, not for jails, jets and imperialist wars of occupation.

When Jack Layton told the CBC's Peter Mansbridge that the main difference between the NDP and the Liberal Party is that the Liberals didn't keep their promises and the NDP is more trustworthy, he was wrong. The corporate elite don’t back the NDP. The issue for them is class. But Layton's comment was a sad admission of the illusions of the current leadership of the labour-based party. Moreover, it underscores the task we face as workers, poor people, students, seniors and youth. That task is to replace the Liberal-look-alike policies of the NDP with socialist policies to meet the needs of the vast majority.

To that end, Socialist Action advocates a number of concrete measures, policies in the interests of working people and the vast majority of NDP voters, which the NDP should be pushed to advance: Put people, and the preservation of nature, before profits. Nationalize the banks, the big mining and forest companies, Big Oil and Big Auto. Create jobs through public investment, public ownership, democratic planning and workers' control. Convert industry, transportation, and homes to green energy efficiency. Rapidly phase-out nuclear power and tar sands development. Repair our disintegrating roads, bridges, sewers, railways and port facilities.

Make Employment Insurance more generous and accessible. Raise the minimum wage to $17/hour. Shorten the work week to 30 hours without loss of pay or benefits. Double the benefits in the Canada Pension Plan and Guaranteed Income Supplement. Abolish student debt. Make all education free. Fund health care and the arts. No corporate bail-outs. Open the company books. Steeply tax corporations, speculators, and the rich. Abolish the HST. Uphold aboriginal land claims and local self-governance. Abolish the Senate and the monarchy. Get over that silly wedding. Demand direct Proportional Representation in Parliament.

We say: Stop the deportations. Full rights for migrant workers. Impose boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli apartheid. End the occupation of Afghanistan and Haiti. Hands off Libya. Defend revolutionary Cuba. Free the Cuban Five. Free Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier. Reduce the Canadian military to a disaster-relief and rescue force. Get Canada out of NATO now!

Capitalists complain about low productivity. It's a lie, and a diversion. It is also a delusion to think that economic expansion will fix everything, that there is a market solution to the recurring crises of capitalism. There is no market solution. The capitalist market created the problem. Only a social revolution can solve it. Only by taking control of the major means of production, like Cuban workers and farmers did 50 years ago, and only by instituting participatory, democratic planning, only by effecting a rapid green conversion to meet human needs, fully in tune with nature, does humanity have any hope of survival.

Clearly, the right has made gains by moving to the right. The left, to make gains, must move to the left.

That means challenging the pro-capitalist direction of the labour and NDP leadership. It means fighting for an NDP government committed to socialist policies. It means opposing an NDP coalition with the Liberal Party or with any capitalist party. We should fight for a Workers' Agenda and a Workers' Government, and organize to win that programme inside the unions and the NDP. It means fighting for freedom for oppressed nations, for eco-socialism, for feminism and LGBT liberation.

None of that is possible without a leadership committed to doing it. Absolutely indispensable is the building of a revolutionary party that campaigns for fundamental change, everyday and everywhere it goes. That entails the forging of a new leadership of the working class and oppressed nations that can win. It means developing the socialist leaders of tomorrow in a revolutionary party and a socialist youth organization today. This cannot be done without you.

So, please don't wait for the next economic crash. Don't wait for the next environmental catastrophe. Rebellion is in the air, from Egypt to Wisconsin, from Venezuela to Palestine. We warmly invite you to join Socialist Action today, and if you are under 30 years of age, to join the new Youth for Socialist Action. If you already belong to a socialist organization, like Socialist Solidarity, we say: let's work together now to support strikes against concessions, to promote mass rallies, marches and sympathy strikes. Our common perspective should be to move towards a general strike to bring down the Tories.

Together, we can prove that the most right wing government in Canadian history is a paper tiger. We can show that it can be blown away by a strong wave of class struggle. Let's force the labour leadership to lead the fight, or get out of the way. This entails the construction of a militant, well-organized left wing in the unions and the NDP. The time is now. Join us. Together we will win, sooner than later.