Crawling from the WreckageThoughts on the Rebuilding the Left Project
In October of 2000 hundreds of activists and radicals gathered in Toronto, Ontario for a conference entitled "Rebuilding the Left, " a conference billed as a small first step in creating a structured movement against capitalism. While the capitalists and their media have focused on shattered windows and property destruction in the post-Seattle world, some on the left has seen in the protests against the international agencies of capital, the emergence of an "uneven, process of developing a new anti- capitalist movement." (For R&BN' s notion of the difficulties inherent in the phrase anti-capitalism' see "All the World's a Rage?")
For the organizers the conference was a huge success which far exceeded their dreams. More than six hundred people crammed into a forum on the opening night of the conference to hear speakers address the question of why the "left" had failed and the steps that it would be necessary to undertake in order to rebuild.
The following day hundreds of people returned to discuss in greater detail these same questions. The attendance stood in stark contrast to past initiatives of this kind such as the Alternatives to the NDP' conference in 1994, which had to end prematurely because by the late afternoon session barely the organizers and their friends were present in the auditorium. That debacle has not been the case for Rebuilding the Left: Follow-up meetings have continued to draw large numbers of people, by the left's standards.
The genesis of the Rebuilding the Left project was an article in the November/December 1998 issue of This Magazine by Sam Gindin, then a staffer with the Canadian Auto Workers. Gindin was a Marxist' intellectual in the CAW bureaucracy, intellectually aligned with Leo Panitch of the Socialist Register. Gindin's article, entitled "The Party's Over" did not entirely dismiss the pale pink social democracy of the New Democratic Party, but argued that it was no longer an adequate vehicle for the left in Canada. Out of Gindin's article came that idea that the task before the left was to create something that was more than a movement, but less than a party. It was this idea that some, such as the New Socialist Group, developed into the notion of an extra-parliamentary, activist, anti-capitalist movement.
What constitutes anti-capitalism, however remains a subject for discussion. On the email list set up to build the conference discussing this subject was actively dissuaded and viewed as in itself a sectarian exercise. A number of the organizers felt that such discussions would drive people away from the project.
During the conference and at subsequent meetings many participants spoke of the past sins of the left and of its various failures. This failure however seemed to be viewed almost exclusively in organizational terms: The left does not have enough people of colour, has not addressed questions of special issues, doesn't pay enough attention to native issues etc. It cannot be denied that the old labour movement was at times indifferent at best, and at others hostile to even the discussion of such oppressions as race, gender and sexuality under capitalism; however, reducing the solution to these problems to one of representation is simply a matter of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The biggest obstacle to rebuilding the left is not however the number of white people in the organization, but its own stated goal. For rather than a failure, the left has been a victim of its own success. Broadly speaking, the left that was had a vision of the future dominated by a social democratic and a statist view of the possible transformation of society. And it is a view still held by many: That the state can be utilized as an instrument of progressive social change.
The first mass socialist party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was not the vindication of Marx and Engels' ideas, but those of their rival Ferdinand Lassalle. Lassalle, who developed the notion of a people's state sought help from the Prussian state to achieve his ideas, and indeed it was under Bismark that some of his ideas were realized.
Since then social democracy in all its forms, be they reformist (parliamentary) or one of the many variants of Leninism, have essentially seen political power as something which had to be seized and wielded. In the case of the reformists the only action the workers had to engage in was to vote for them on election day, while for the Leninists the workers were to come together under the guidance of the vanguard party.
This statist view of society and struggle has seen the left take on the role as the last remaining defenders of Keynesianism. To argue that the welfare state represents a gain mistakes form for content. The welfare state came partially as a result of workers' struggles but also because of the development of capitalism, the so-called Keynesian revolution. Far from being designed to make the lives of workers more pleasant, the welfare state was designed to make the capitalist system run more smoothly. As a result workers paid into unemployment insurance schemes, pension plans and medical schemes. Being able to take your children to the doctors and receive free' health care rather than watching them die in squalid poverty is of course a good thing, but with the welfare state comes the bureaucratic state. Anyone who has tried to get something out of the state such as social assistance, knows that the bureaucracy is there to intimidate, to harass and to affect a measure of control over the most vulnerable elements in society. The current campaign waged against welfare recipients and those seen as "parasites" on the healthy body is evidence of how the state uses welfare to demonize sectors of society.
The rightist Canadian Alliance often conjures up an idealized community of old, where people cared for each another without the state. This community is indeed a myth, but it is true that the modern state has worked to undermine traditional working class solidarity through the destruction of the community.
The old organizations developed by the working class such as the mass political parties and the unions no longer have an independent existence as working class organizations, but operate within the framework of capitalism. To make such a claim is not simpleminded conspiracy theory, but a description of what these organizations do in this society.
Is it possible to rebuild these institutions? For decades the left has been obsessed with the idea of capturing or worse recapturing these organizations without success. At any given time the mass of workers is not revolutionary; as such both the anti- capitalists and their anti-capitalism can only serve capitalist ends. When the mass becomes revolutionary, the distinction between the revolutionary minority and the unrevolutionary mass disappears. In that situation as in previous revolutionary situations new organizations will be created.
The evolution of the capitalist state away from Keynesian methods has led to the destruction of the left that identified itself with that state. Its passing is not a cause for mourning.
First published in Red & Black Notes #13, Spring 2001