While it is impossible to predict the outcome of the next federal election, it is easy to see that, no matter who wins, the task of fighting capitalism remains. The question the anti-capitalist left outside of Quebec faces is: who will do this work and how?
Since 2011 there have been notable bursts of activity among larger social movements such as Idle No More, Occupy, and the environmental movement. There are also the ever-present embers of resistance about a multiplicity of issues across the country. This doesn’t mean the left as a social force is strong; rather, it means that people will always find ways to resist, either collectively or individually, the worst of capitalism and oppression. As Hal Draper noted, “to engage in class struggle it is not necessary to ‘believe in’ the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton to fall from an airplane.”
The majority of the activity on the anti-capitalist left (those broadly to the left of the NDP) focuses on single-issue organizing. This includes fighting for migrant rights, against environmental degradation, for union rights, etc. Most people who aren’t born red-diaper babies are first exposed to left-wing ideas in action through these types of campaigns. Sometimes this can take on a rudimentary form of engagement, like signing a petition or so-called clicktivism. Other times this type of organizing is able to draw people into deeper forms of struggle where they are able to grow as organizers and leaders.
Single-issue organizing is not a bad thing; it is necessary and productive work. The problem is that these forms of organizing are limited in their ability to present a broader political perspective. The strength and vibrancy of single-issue campaigns, groups, and movements lies precisely in their ability to draw in a wider variety of people and political perspectives in unity around a specific goal.
Beyond single-issue groups, the left has yet to find a cohesive political expression in Canada. There are many small political organizations that aim to present a broader political analysis and strategy. Many of them do admirable work. But at best there are only a few political organizations that can claim to have a membership that exceeds 100 people and extend beyond one province. This has largely been the case since the 1990s. The fractured nature of the left in Canada means that it is nearly impossible to debate perspectives and strategies in a collective fashion. It also means that the larger, more organized Quebec left has nothing to orient itself towards.
The relegation of anti-capitalist politics to small groups and loose networks of activists means that the NDP will continue to be the de facto political expression of the left at the ballot box, in the unions, and in most regions of the country (especially outside of major urban centres). The NDP has more resources and is better organized than more radical groups.
The conclusion many on the anti-capitalist left will too easily draw is that the NDP or electoral politics is the problem, something to be forcefully opposed. The inability of the NDP to offer up anything more than tepid reforms is indeed a problem. And it is a mistake to think either that the party can be pushed into adopting policies that truly challenge capitalism or that blind allegiance to the party is a way to bring people into an anti-capitalist movement.
To avoid political disorientation during elections, the left must be able to offer up a strategy that focuses on uniting the working class fight-back inside and outside of the workplace across the country. This means building an infrastructure of solidarity and a culture of healthy political debate rooted in struggle.
The first step is to continue to build organizing campaigns that can be coordinated on a national scale. Opposition to pipelines, Bill C-51, and attacks on Canada Post; Palestinian solidarity, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, and solidarity with Indigenous rights are but a few examples. These campaigns build solidarity on the left and trust amongst activists. They also ground the left, which is too often fractured over theoretical debates, in actual struggles.
This work must be combined with efforts to rebuild the left organizationally at a local level. In Oshawa, Ottawa, and Halifax, there are interesting experiments that aim to unite the left against capitalism or neoliberalism. These proto-organizations of a reconstituted left allow activists to work together beyond single-issue campaigns and to develop political perspectives and strategies oriented towards a long-term struggle and social transformation.
In Halifax, for instance, Solidarity Halifax was formed as a political organization in 2011 after nearly a year of organizing. The group is explicitly anti-capitalist and pursues a goal of uniting the left against capitalism through organizing. Its members are involved in the labour, student, and environmental movements, in the fight against racism and the fight for decent housing. The role of Solidarity Halifax is not to dictate where movements go, but to provide a connection between them, to bring an anti-capitalist perspective into the social movements, and to build an organization to engage in long-term struggle for social change beyond the lifespan of any campaign or social movement. In essence, its purpose is to create a political home for the anti-capitalist left.
Rebuilding the left is in many ways a far-fetched idea; it requires a Herculean effort for an uncertain outcome. But one thing is for sure: unless we are able to organize ourselves beyond our movements by building democratic anti-capitalist organizations we will forever be forced to navigate between the dead ends of social democracy in the era of neoliberalism and the silos of the far left. To simply continue along this path is an abdication of our responsibility.
The left is weak in Canada, but it doesn’t have to be.