Thoughts on the left in Canada

By Jason Devine

November 2, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — I have recently turned 39 and I have been a communist since I was 14. At that time I did not rush to join any self-declared radical left-wing organisation because I felt I did not know enough to make a reasoned judgement. It was only later, when I was twenty, that I joined the Communist Party of Canada (CPC). The reasons why I joined were because I wanted to learn, to actively promote revolution, and there was very little choice in Calgary. Most other groups only had a presence in Ontario or BC, but here things were sparse.

I never fully agreed with everything the CPC did, but then I do not believe that one can completely agree with any organisation. But, on the whole, I felt it was the best place to be. During all this time I have regularly studied the organised Left in North America. The CPC, in comparison to other Left groups in Canada, was the largest and generally healthiest organisation. I spent 16 years in the CPC, ran for office many times under its banner, but left in 2016. The reasons for this I have written elsewhere and have no intention of rehashing. Suffice it to say that I no longer considered the CPC politically healthy.

In the first year or two I did not have an inclination to join another Left party and so I continued with local anti-racist activism helping to found Calgary Anti-Fascist Action in late 2016, and later re-founding Calgary Anti-Racist Action in 2018.

But, as the years have passed, the desire to want to join an organisation formally committed communist revolution has only grown. As a Marxist, I understand the need for a working-class political party. And while being an active communist makes one a part of an international movement in the world-historical sense, the necessity to be a formal member of a group that spans, or is trying to span, one’s country cannot be obviated. One can only stay outside for so long.

Before I go any further, I should be clear about what I mean by the Left. The latter is inclusive of only those forces that are explicitly anti-capitalist. That, perforce, utterly excludes the New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s party of social democracy. It is a sign of the degradation of critical thought and discourse in North America that the NDP can be considered left-wing. It is not; rather it is a left-liberal formation which fully supports the Canadian settler-colonial, capitalist-imperialist state and its wars, and which accepts and defends Canadian capitalism/imperialism. The NDP has not and never will be captured by a mythical internal radical opposition, for it has been and always will be the graveyard of the Left in Canada. Those who work in it end up either rank opportunists, burning themselves out into inactivity and demoralisation, or frittering away on the fringes in irrelevancy.

To write something of their own volition, a person generally needs to feel some sort of inspiration. I would argue that this also holds for joining an organisation dedicated to communism: such a self-conscious activity calls for real inspiration. My problem, however, and likely the problem of others, is that no group currently in the Canadian Left inspires me.

The North American Left, for much of its history, has suffered from two main weaknesses, and indeed, at times oscillated between them: reformism and sectarianism. Currently, while some groups at times engage in practices which must be described as reformist, reformism on the Left in Canada is not the pressing issue as it is in the USA.

Sectarianism, however, is a constant problem here. By sectarianism I do not mean the general attitude which tends to be described by that term, but rather the classic Marxist definition. As Marx wrote to J.B. Schweitzer in 1868:

You yourself have experienced in your own person the opposition between the movement of a sect and the movement of a class. The sect sees the justification for its existence and its ‘point of honour’--not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it.

Waving around a single tactic or strategy as the only way to revolution is certainly clutching a shibboleth. It is also undialectical, and despite the claims many make to being students of Lenin, it flies in the face of what he wrote in 1906:

Marxism differs from all primitive forms of socialism by not binding the movement to any one particular form of struggle. It recognises the most varied forms of struggle; and it does not ‘concoct’ them, but only generalises, organises, gives conscious expression to those forms of struggle of the revolutionary classes which arise of themselves in the course of the movement. Absolutely hostile to all abstract formulas and to all doctrinaire recipes, Marxism demands an attentive attitude to the mass struggle in progress, which, as the movement develops, as the class-consciousness of the masses grows, as economic and political crises become acute, continually gives rise to new and more varied methods of defence and attack. Marxism, therefore, positively does not reject any form of struggle. Under no circumstances does Marxism confine itself to the forms of struggle possible and in existence at the given moment only, recognising as it does that new forms of struggle, unknown to the participants of the given period, inevitably arise as the given social situation, changes.

But it would be wrong to say that left-wing sectarianism in Canada is mainly the result of ignorance, of a lack of knowledge of dialectics, theory, history, etc. Rather the roots are, as Marx elucidated, much deeper. Commenting on the reasons for founding the First International he stated that

The development of socialist sectarianism and that of the real working-class movement always stand in inverse ratio to each other. Sects are justified (historically), when the working-class is not yet ripe for an independent historical movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity all sects are essentially reactionary.

The extensive dissolution of the Left at the end of the Cold War, the growth of demoralisation, the lowering of class consciousness and decline in union density in Canada all set the stage for the growth and persistence of sectarianism here. It is something that has to be patiently fought against, but will not be eradicated through sheer volunteerism. Ergo, I have no desire to join a socialist sect.

There are other weaknesses though which afflict the Left in Canada. One of them we might term movementism. The basic goal of the Marxist movement, regardless of tendency, has been proletarian revolution. Since the time of the Second International it has been understood that a key aspect of promoting revolution is forming a political party. For over 100 years left-wing groups have appeared in Canada that defined themselves as a party or a pre-party formation viz. an organised force that aimed to help found a future party of revolution. However, there has also been the occurrence of groups that we might even call pre-pre-party formations. These are basically propagandistic groups that limit themselves to publishing and/or local activism in the ostensible hope of, at a minimum, spreading socialist ideas or, at most, possibly establishing a pole of attraction on the Left. I would characterise this as movementism: for the day of creating a formal political party never comes, and the energy of those involved is taken up in the regular, local sphere of activity: the constant alteration of demonstrations, protests, strikes, meetings, etc.

In a party or not, a communist must strive to organise where they are at: at work, at school, in their communities, etc. They should be agitating and propagandising when possible. But the long-term goal must be revolutionary class organisation. In the vicissitudes of the class struggle we need something of relative permanence. It is one thing to be constantly active and independent, and another to be constantly active as part of a larger organisational structure. Building a house on sand is never a revolutionary strategy.

The final problem I want to mention has been in existence for many decades but unfortunately is rarely spoken about publicly, either academically or in the Left itself. This has to do with the regular occurrences of moral degradation and corruption in the latter and its cover up. Globally, many left-wing organisations have split or dissolved because of this, with even more limping on. The abuse of power in such groups has led to financial skullduggery and sexual violence.

Certainly no Marxist demands a perfect organisation any more than a perfect revolution. But one can demand and should expect that those elected to positions of authority are accountable, that victims are supported, and that the membership are not treated as sheep. However, frequently the so-called needs of the organisation are put above this and cover-ups developed. As if this did not undermine the most basic need of a democratically-organised group working for proletarian revolution. There is currently more than one organisation in Canada that has this problem and, needless to say, I have no inclination to be a part of them.

Socialism is not inevitable; nor, for that matter, is the construction and functioning of a revolutionary party. It has to be actively worked for, consciously willed. The present long-term trajectory of the organised Left in Canada gives cause for optimism. The reason for this is that today it is bigger and more varied then when I initially joined 19 years ago. There are absolutely more avenues for a working-class person to enter into revolutionary politics. With the continuing multiple crises of capitalism-imperialism (ecological, economic, social, and political) we will undoubtedly see both the number of organisations and their membership increase in the next number of years.

That being said, the short-term prospects present more difficulties. Here the tendency continues to be largely that of fragmentation viz. splits, organisational collapse or decline, and the proliferation of new projects which tend to fall as fast as they rise. Clearly Heraclitus’ words hold true: “All is flux, nothing is stationary.” Still, it must be considered an irony of history, or Hegel’s “cunning of reason,” that a movement which takes its stand on the Manifesto of the Communist Party, and hence on the principle that “Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties,” should find itself so frequently in a divided state. This is, of course, related to the problems I have discussed above, especially that of sectarianism.

The general state of fragmentation is a result of at least two factors. The first is the continued decline of the working-class movement in Canada: union density and strikes continue to fall. The second is the increasing youthfulness of the Left. This, initially, tends to be an element in fragmentation in at least two ways. The first is that new forces, to an extent, bring new ideas and thus new projects and greater heterogeneity. The second is in the understandable lack of experience which tends to hinder organisational longevity. Here historical and theoretical education can do much so that younger comrades hopefully do not repeat the worst mistakes of the past. And, undoubtedly, a more active and united left-wing movement could help revitalise the working class. However, if the present obstacles to the growth of the Left in Canada are not addressed, any gain in numbers will be squandered. Left-wing organising can certainly be life affirming, but it can also be a meat grinder that turns people off.

I suggest that what we need to do in order to turn the current short-term drift around to its opposite, to one of convergence, and thus to intersect with the long-terms trend, is two-fold. First, on the one hand, at a bare minimum, we need more unity in action, more common programmes. If Marxists cannot achieve unity, how can we expect the working class to? No revolution was ever successful because of a single party, but rather because of united fronts. We need to develop a culture here more amenable to working together across our differences. The second is that more emphasis needs to be laid on study. Coherent theory and revolutionary praxis will not be developed merely by constant activity, nor by consuming works from one’s own theoretical tradition. Our vistas must be wider and grounded in Marx’s dialectical method.

As to myself, I have met, come to know, and continue to work with a number of good comrades from different groups and parties. Yet one should not commit oneself to an organization for the sake of friendship, but rather because of a deep intellectual commitment. Despite tiring of being an independent Marxist the last three years, I have not yet found a relatively healthy party, or pre-party organisation, dedicated to communist revolution. The Left continues to grow, and the working-class movement will in all likelihood develop and radicalise, eventually sweeping away the current situation. In the meantime, I remain active and looking for an organisation that I can call home. And if I can help bring it into being, so much the better.