I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle! -Alice in Wonderland
In the immediate aftermath of the failure of the Wisconsin Gubernatorial Recall Campaign, the Globe and Mail noted the results of a poll from the Pew's 2012 American Values Survey. Specifically that there "are no indications of increasing hostility toward the rich and successful... and there are no signs that lower-income people have become more cynical about an individual's power to control their destiny or the value of hard work." Further, the Globe notes that, when offered the chance to opt out of having their Union dues deducted, over half of the 63,000 members of the Wisconsin wing of the American Federation of Teachers chose to do so.
The outcome in Wisconsin should serve as a cautionary tale to those involved in the student movement in Quebec, as well as other social movements across Canada and around the world. It was an example both of the defeat of a social movement, as well as an unsuccessful attempt by an electoral force to co-opt that movement in order to achieve an electoral victory. The end result will likely be a continuation of policies designed to weaken organized labour within the public sector, which, in North America, is one of its last bastions. In Quebec a similar situation seems to be unfolding. Only 13% of Quebecers polled support a tuition freeze. Support for Solidaire Quebec, the left-wing political party, remains in single digits.
In analyzing not just the Wisconsin defeat, but the broader shifts to the political right that have been effected in public policy over the last several decades, there is one simple reason why this has happened: the forces of the right have been winning battles in public opinion, and have translated those into victories in the electoral process. Nobody forced over half the Wisconsin teachers to opt out of their Union. The cuts to welfare rates in Ontario were not done through trickery or deceit. Anyone who studied the Reform Party in its infancy could hardly have been surprised by the EI changes now being proposed by the Canadian federal government. The cries about the 1% that supposedly control our society ignores the obvious fact that, in the democratic world, the weakening of the welfare state was chosen by a majority of its citizens. That this choice turned out to produce results which were the opposite of what was claimed should not make us overlook the fact that people were acting on what they perceived to be their self-interest. These changes were not imposed upon us from above. We did this to ourselves.
How does one undo the damage of the previous several decades? How do we intend to attain and maintain power? How do we foresee the transition from the economics of today to the economics of a more just or equitable society? How do we ensure that the power relations and patterns of the past do not reassert themselves? How do we overcome the reality that most Canadians are not ready for a genuinely revolutionary transformation of social relations?
If we do not answer these questions then there is, in reality, no movement.
Presently, there are two key problems facing left-wing political movements, both of which are related. The first relates to our own understanding of current political-economy. Within the modern left, and in particular in the Canadian context, there has not been a serious attempt to provide a concrete analysis of Canadian political economy. A fundamental error that underlies much of the thinking on the left, is the notion that we live in a free-market capitalist society, dominated by neo-liberal economic thinking not only in theory, but in practice. We do not. The notion of a free-market system, unencumbered by the hand of government is no more real than a unicorn. All societies display characteristics that are both socialistic and capitalistic and the failure to provide an analysis that describes the day to day experiences of the working population, is a weakness for the left.
Second, for much of the left, there is a confusion between tactics and objectives. The purpose of a tactic in politics, is to alter the power relationship between competing interests in society such that a group can implement a particular political objective. The tactic is only useful to the extent that it is able to accomplish this goal. Voting, striking, engaging in boycotts, engaging in civil disobedience are all tactics, not ends in and of themselves.
Because of these two critical failings, modern left-wing movements and parties lack the ability to do much of anything, other than protest and rage against changes that they are powerless to prevent in any meaningful sense. They are, quite literally, standing athwart history yelling "stop!", but to no avail. In practical terms, it means that left-wing movements have abandoned the goal of implementing a substantive political agenda, in favour of political theatre that is presented as short-term tactical victories in the rare cases that they do succeed.
Electorally, in Canada, we are assured that only a vote for the NDP, a party that has all but abandoned any pretense to economic democracy, can defend the interest of working people (which in Ontario, according to the ONDP, counts as those earning less than $500,000/year). With respect to social movements, since they have no ability to change the law in the absence of an organized political wing, their battles become, in effect public relations campaigns fought through the mass media, a media that is usually owned by individuals hostile to their interests.
Given that these movements are a reaction to laws or developments that the participants oppose, entirely justifiably, they are by definition limited in aims and reactive in intentions. Constructive movements do not only know what they are against, they know what they want to do about it and how they intend to replace it.
Wanting to do something is no substitute for actually attempting the difficult and arduous task of developing political tactics and ideas that will, in fact, "do something". Just because someone is resisting "the system", for lack of a better descriptor, does not mean that their actions are productive, meaningful or correct. Most criminal behaviour, for example, is a function of social conditions that have created individuals that can only resort to crime in order to survive. That does not mean all criminal behaviour is, by definition, resistance against austerity.
Further, by refusing to move beyond the "politics of the street", these movements, by default, hand leadership and political power to "left" mainstream parliamentary parties or "revolutionary parties", (based, as we will see, around vanguardist ideas), that do, actually, have an agenda and set of ideas as to what they intend to accomplish; ideas which are principally centred around asserting and maintaining their own power.
Within the electoral system, at least at the federal level in Canada, all of the political parties accept the neo-liberal economic framework, with minor modifications. For example, in the 2011 election, the federal NDP campaigned on a proposal to keep Canadian corporate taxes lower than in the US, a position entirely consistent with the previous 100 years of Continentalist economic strategy that has dominated Canadian economics.
The empty sloganeering of the political parties, like throwing stones at riot police or smashing corporate offices are not expressions of power, but of powerlessness. They are not the actions of an organized, popular movement on the verge of power, but rather their last stand on the verge of being pushed off of the precipice. The circumstances that have pushed individuals to this point are real, and the reactions are understandable. However, slogans and rhetorical sophistry are not a substitute for reasoned analysis and understanding. How one thinks about the world is more important than what one thinks. A person who faces the complexities of the current economic situation with quotes from dead-philosophers, whether Marx or Hayek, is contributing no more help to our current situation than a person who spends their evenings watching professional sports. Marx once wrote that 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.' It follows that one cannot change the world if one does not understand it. A political movement that is attempting to effect change without an understanding of the social, political and economic circumstances in which they exist, and without a specific sense as to how it intends to change them will, at some point, fail. It is only the circumstances of their defeat that are uncertain.
The financial crisis that has began in 2007 with the collapse of the US housing market was not the first financial crisis. There had been stock market crashes in 1987, followed by a 4 year long recession starting in 1989. The Asian market crisis in the late 1990s. There were numerous crisis in Latin America throughout the 1990s. And of course, there was the dot com bubble burst that occurred in early 2000. All of these have been happening in the context of, in the west, state retrenchment from certain types of economic activity, particular through privatization of state corporations and reductions in spending for social services. Because these policies are consistent with what is proposed by neo-liberal economists, it has been assumed that what has been happening is, in part, the result of a move towards a neo-liberal society and that this has been happening the same way around the world. This belief is not entirely correct.
There is no such thing as "laissez-faire" capitalism
A major source of confusion within left-wing movements comes from the notion that the economy that exists in Canada, and elsewhere, is actually laissez-faire Capitalist. Capitalism only exists as an idea. There is no society in the modern world that operates in a laissez-faire economic system, nor will there be for the foreseeable future. The basic theory behind capitalism is that there is something called the free-market which functions as a kind of feedback control system for the people who are affected by it. The information that it feeds back are prices. By communicating prices to people, they are able to make rational decisions about economic activity, whether it is what groceries to buy, stocks to purchase on market exchanges or what kind of new products to develop. All of this ensures that money circulates in such a way that encourages economic growth for everyone, if not entirely in an equal way.
One can debate the relative merits of organizing a society along such lines. However, there is one fundamental problem with this model: it does not exist in the real world. One of the results of the industrial revolution was the need to expend large amounts of money on machinery in order to mass produce goods and services. In modern times, that money is also spent on computer hardware, software and other electronics. Because of the large amounts of capital involved, the ability to plan long term, several years in advance, becomes important. Furthermore, as the cost of producing goods and services becomes more expensive (save for computer software, which can now be transmitted through wireless internet connections), the ability for large industrial conglomerates to be challenged by start ups in their own country is very difficult. The probability of a someone creating a new automobile from scratch in their backyard, and commercializing it, is so low as to be negligible.
With large conglomerates, their primary concern is to optimize short term value for shareholders. As such, the easiest way to ensure profitability, is to keep operational costs low, and profits high. Because the concern is often for short term profit, this makes it difficult for corporations to engage in pure research in science and technology. This is often done at public expense, either through universities, tax-credits for businesses engaging in R&D or, particularly in the US, through military spending. Packet-switching, which is one of the technological foundations for the internet was developed by Researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US during the 1950s and 1960s. The early touch-screen technology, now popularly used in Smart Phones, was first developed at the University of Illinois in the 1970s.
All of this is to say that the type of economy that we live in displays characteristics that are just as socialistic as they are capitalistic, and it is a serious analytical error to describe it simply as a capitalist economy.
In a sense, the difference between a hypothetical socialist economy, and what we have presently, is not so much in the question of whether or not the economy will be planned since all economies are, to some extent planned, but rather, who will be doing the planning.
That the modern economy contains a mix of planning, as well as free-markets, is a source of confusion within left-wing movements, particularly those whose intellectual origins are in, or influenced by, Marxism. The reason for this confusion is that modern economies have not evolved in the way that Marx predicted. The capitalism that Marx analyzed has disappeared but it's disappearance did not lead to Socialism - at least not in a way recognizable to any Socialist prior to, say, the 1930s. As such, movements that have attempted to use Marxism as a framework for analyzing modern political economy, run into the obvious problem that Marx's predictions simply do not correspond to reality.
All modern economies exist due to the relationship between business and their respective governments. In the Canadian context we have had two policies, the original National Policy of the MacDonald Conservatives which sought to use tariffs to help develop industrial Canada. Subsequently, Continentalism has been the policy since the early 20th century which sought more direct economic ties with the US. None of these strategies were entirely laissez-faire, although the Canadian experience of industrialization is quite different from the United States in a way that is not well understood by many Canadians.
Nor is globalization of the Capitalist economy a meaningful shift towards the mythological capitalism of the free market. Instead, the tendencies of global finance and industry trend towards greater centralization and monopoly. The end of what might be seen as the neo-mercantalist phase of protectionist capitalism has meant fewer serious global players, not more.
The widespread popular and leftist misunderstanding of the nature of the global state capitalist corporate beast could form the basis of an entire separate essay. But, to some degree, what does it matter how society functions if there is no coherent platform or transformative agenda to alter it? If social movements have no political wing they inevitably and always capitulate power to existing political parties.
And, if in part these "popular movements" and mass outbursts are a reaction against traditional politics, how do we develop the ideas that will prevent an almost immediate Thermidorian Reaction and a re-implementation of the social disparities and injustices that we sought to overthrow? How do we, as The Who would have it, "not get fooled again".
The trouble with "leaders"
While noting the distinction between tactics and goals, one must note that there is a relationship between tactics and ideas. The tactics chosen by movements and, more broadly, how they govern themselves internally matter because they indicate how a movement will conduct itself once it has achieved power.
In the history of humanity there have been few concepts that have been more devastating than the idea that, as human beings, we need to be led.
This idea, the foundation of elitism, has transcended nation, historical epoch, ideology and even specific forms of oppression. At its heart, in whatever form it may take, it is always elitist, in that its essence is the principal that human beings, as a species, and as individuals, are incapable of civilized or meaningful collective behaviour without some form of ruling class, whether it be kings or queens, presidents or prime ministers, or revolutionary, intellectual or social democratic vanguards.
The very idea of the need for a leader presupposes that most of humanity is, in some way, incapable of collective self-governance.
Those who have sought to lead have always found some form of justification for this. The supposed failings of "human nature" being the foremost. (Though one must always note that if by "nature" as humans we are likely to become corrupted as a collective, are we not even more likely to become corrupted as individuals?) But, what we are interested in in this short essay is not the totality of elitist thinking, but rather of the impact, through both practice and ideology, of elitist thinking on leftist movements in both their revolutionary and reformist forms.
We can begin with the rather obvious observation that genuine human, political, social and economic equality is not possible, in ways that are easily demonstrable historically, within the bourgeois and pre-bourgeois conceptualization of leadership.
Any movement seeking to change society needs to ask itself, how should society be led? And by whom should it be led?
Traditional leftist parties have answered this question in ways entirely consistent with the society from which they emerged. Given that, at heart, the idea is to overturn the social relations of this society, there is an irony to this.
In addition, if, as the vanguardists have always stated, power must always be the agent that allows for the overturning of the "old order" and the introduction of a new society, why has this never occurred in a way that bears any resemblance to what the "left" supposedly sought? Why have all left governments become fixated on power as a goal in and of itself?
Revolutionary vanguardism, the ultimate detour
"Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite, and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc."
While belatedly, in the quote above, Lenin in his final days understood the danger that Stalin presented, he never really understood why he presented this danger, in that Lenin himself was the primary force behind the creation of the vanguardist idea in pseudo-Marxist thinking.
Stalin presented this danger for the precise reason that vanguardist ideas allowed for the creation of an ideological and social context in which Stalinism was not only possible but, actually, could be made to appear to be historically, ideologically and even morally justified. Stalinism may not have been an inevitable outcome of Leninism (from which it only differed in degree, as other Leninist experiments have proven) but it was a very likely one. We know this, among other things, due to the fact that it was what ultimately transpired.
Within revolutionary vanguardism lie some of the most dangerous and elitist principles that have ever flowed from what was meant to be an alternative to bourgeois class oppression and social constructs. Principles like historical inevitability; the inane and tremendously dangerous idea that, somehow, what you are proposing is "scientifically" guaranteed to occur at some point; and that, therefore, those who are obstacles to this "inevitable" outcome, as with those who will be denied rapture, are meant to be historically swept aside.
Beyond this, the notion that history has an inevitable outcome, when conjoined with the Leninist idea that the broad section of the masses are incapable of anything beyond what he called trade union consciousness, and that, therefore, some elite and "enlightened" vanguard was required to lead them out of the morass of their own shortsightedness, has proven to be a devastatingly violent principle.
The Leninist and Vanguardist idea of social change and consciousness is contemptuous of the ability of the "people" (or, more specifically, the "workers") to develop ideas of self-governance. Hence, as early as in What is to be Done? Lenin states "the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology; for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism, and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy."
In this same tract, the clearest outline of his astonishingly elitist thinking, we find his infamous quip that, left to the people themselves, their intellectual development to the point of being able to achieve socialism would take 500 years.
These principles form the basis of an ideology that suggests that people are little more than agents of history. The future is foretold, the only question becomes how to get there. The Leninists purport to understand that the collapse of capitalism is an inevitability that the the workers themselves are not "aware" enough to fully foresee and thus cannot politically embody due to their own narrow sense of self-interest. Only the vanguard represents the political and human class that has transcended trade union consciousness, thus quickly becoming framed as the historical agent of the creation of a better future.
Once you are an historical agent, you no longer need answer to the day-to-day mundane concepts of human rights or individual and personal dignity. You, as a member of the vanguard, are an historical catalyst that seeks to create a society that the bulk of your fellow citizens, by your own ideological admission, are incapable of realizing. You, and your comrades, have become their leaders not in the traditional sense that you may have been elected by them, or that you may have been born into some idiotic statehood as a king or aristocracy of some kind, but rather because you embody an historical fact that you have learned and understood and thus you are its expression on the grand stage of the human drama.
The trouble with such a view, and why it has always proven to be a horror rather than an utopia, is that it regulates the individual and civil society into an historically subservient role and creates instead the entirely awful and false notion that individuals are either the agents of the transformation in question or obstacles to it. And if they are obstacles to history, if they doubt or attempt to speak out differently than the vanguard that embodies the outcome that "scientific socialism" has ordained, then what should become of them? In addition, maintaining power for the presumably 500 years that it will take to enlighten the "masses" becomes the fixation of the government.
Further, it takes the mass nature of revolution, by definition a wildly democratic and chaotic event, and attempts to impose "order" on it by claiming that this democratic expression of revolt can only lead to one conclusion; a conclusion, conveniently, that the revolutionary class has per-determined will be led by them.
We could now go into detail about what the crimes of the revolutionary vanguardists have been, We could point out the almost unbelievable horrors of the Stalinist era. We could seek to find the individual cruelties of the many millions that disappeared into the maelstrom that was Maoist China and the "Cultural Revolution". We could seek to put names to the faces that litter the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
Or as so many revolutionary leftists do, we could simply do what the Right does when it is uncomfortable with reality and we can claim, despite all the evidence, that there was and is something worthwhile in the denial of basic freedoms and liberties that occurred and continue to occur in Communist countries. After all, as leftists in Canada we know what is best for these people, and we can still vacation in Cuban resorts, thumbing our noses at the Yankees every time we do, while yet another multinational sets up an hotel there open to everyone other than Americans and the Cuban people themselves.
But, even beyond these facts, once you have embraced the idea of a vanguard, a single-leader cum father figure is always the result. The vanguard becomes embodied in one person, be it a Mao, a Castro or a Stalin, and that person becomes the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes the revolution.
There is nothing more patriarchal and centralizing than this, and, one might point out, there is not a single case in revolutionary vanguardist history where it has not occurred. Not one. In the case of the Chinese Communists, for example, they have taken the vanguardist pyramid scheme to its logical conclusion and have a created a society that is, in fact, run by far less than 1% of the population, both in terms of wealth and in terms of political power. The historical irony of this should be more telling than it broadly seems to be.
In the end, once you accept that some people are above others, it always turns out that one person or a very small group is above others most of all. And basic moral and political corruption is never far from there.
Social democratic vanguardism
Vanguardism certainly has not infected revolutionary thinking alone.
In fact, in every meaningful sense, all mainstream socialist and social democratic parties have embraced vanguardist thinking as well, in that they have eschewed the concept of mass movements as a motive force for social change and they have, at the same time, embraced all of the elitist and bourgeois nonsense and structuralism that constitutes parliamentarianism.
They all accept the basic principle that defines bourgeois society; the principle that people need to be led and that they are often unaware of their own alleged best interests.
They have also embraced all of the possessive and patriarchal ideas that directly flow from this thinking, in that these parties invariably abandon their membership and ideals and replace them with electoral machines run by a professional political class that seeks to express itself in the figure of the leader that they have chosen to rise above the others.
We could talk here about such parties in a global context, but we must restrict ourselves to Canada, though the same comments could be made of virtually every formally mass socialist and social democratic party in the western world.
While the CCF and the NDP have always had leaders, and while the party has always accepted the basic organizational structures that flowed out of the Liberal revolutions of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, the sense that the party was a movement that sought to change Canada fundamentally and irrevocably was very pronounced in the approach that the party took to politics.
This, very clearly, is no longer the case. There is no New Jerusalem on the horizon. There isn't even a new Weyburn to be found.
In the last federal election the NDP became Jack Layton's NDP. The possessive and personalizing aspect of this transformation was rather startling, especially given that some on the neo-anarchist left had chosen to disband the New Politics Initiative due to the allegedly consensus driven leadership that Layton would supposedly embody.
But he embodied the exact opposite as it turns out. His leadership represented the culmination of a trend within Canadian Social Democracy that began with the expulsion of the Waffle and ended with lawn signs that emphasized one person over an entire party and over what had been, once, a truly inspiring set of ideas.
One could point out that the platform of Jack Layton's NDP was a sad shadow of social democracy. It was very short on substantive ideas, had no platform planks of any transformative value, and was to the right of the Liberal platform in certain critical areas. While people read into it what they wanted to, the reality of its capitulation to neo-liberal "moderation" is demonstrably obvious by simply reading it.
More importantly, in some ways, was the fact that this platform was developed by a minuscule group of paid party strategists in a central office after listening to focus groups and sycophants. It had nothing whatever to do with any policies the membership may have passed, and, especially with its profoundly patriarchal and possessive emphasis on embodying the party in the persona of one individual, it was actually a repudiation of the very idea of a mass party.
A party, if it is the embodiment of an ideal and a movement cannot belong to anyone. Nor should it be identified with anyone.
But parliamentary Social Democracy is fixated on winning as an end in itself on the, not entirely unfounded, principle that by winning they will be "better" than what would have otherwise occurred. And, in the case of the NDP, a deep envy of the position that the centrist Liberal Party has held, as well the desire to supplant them and to shine in the spotlight that they have held, has driven much of their political "thinking".
Yet they often fail to grasp that this is a defensive and reactionary principle. To be a better alternative is simply a rearguard action against what is politically "worse". It is not a way to prevent it or to change the social or political dynamics so that neo-liberal ideas are actually put to the test or disputed in a political forum.
In fact, by making the compromises that the NDP has made to be opposition in Ottawa or government elsewhere, the have shown the vanguardist principle in action. They have discarded their popular and mass origins in favour of tightly scripted election campaigns that, once they have won them, actually change nothing in any meaningful systemic sense.
Having adopted all of the hierarchies and structures that every other party has adopted, having embraced the very idea of the leader, they have transformed from a cry for a new social order into a very narrow attempt to incorporate themselves into this order.
Without, as we will discuss in the final part, attempting to turn ourselves as leftists away from the power structures that originated with the society that we claim to want to supplant, there is little hope that we can ever overthrow them.
Andrew Klochek is a former NDP riding association president and activist from Toronto and is a founding member of the Socialist Party of Ontario
Michael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, was a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2010 and is on the executive of the newly formed Socialist Party of Ontario.