The dysfunctional state of Canadian politics may be a regular topic of discussion among the nation’s leading news outlets, but the system itself is rarely challenged. While the New Democratic Party is derided by conservative elites as “socialist”, its actual policies leave much to be desired among Canadian progressives (to note but a few examples: dropping all serious opposition to the war in Afghanistan, propping up the Harper government, rebranding itself as a “business-friendly” party dedicated to balancing budgets while the vast legions of unemployed continue to suffer).
The need for a challenge to political business as usual has rarely been more urgent. While Kingston has been insulated to some degree from the ravages of the Great Recession due to its large public sector workforce, the city has nevertheless suffered from the economic downturn. The local unemployment rate rose from 5.1% in February 2009 to 5.5% in February 2010, according to Statistics Canada. Well over 18,000 people live below the official poverty line, based on 2001 census numbers (the most recent data available for this area). And with one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country, affordable housing has become increasingly hard to find.
But politically speaking, Kingston remains a Liberal stronghold, represented by Speaker of the House Peter Milliken federally and MPP John Gerretsen provincially. Voters looking for left alternatives are effectively tied to the NDP and the Green Party. More radical parties, such as the Communist Party of Canada, have abandoned Kingston, directing their supporters to vote either Liberal or NDP depending on the comparative strength of the Progressive Conservatives. The radical left, in effect, barely registers on the electoral radar, whether in Kingston or nationwide.
Hoping to fill that void is the Socialist Equality Party. The SEP is a Trotskyist party affiliated with the International Committee of the Fourth International. While originating in the United States, the party aims to create an independent working class political movement with an international perspective, based on the Marxian principle that “the workers have no country.”
The SEP’s youth wing, International Students for Social Equality, has a Queen’s chapter organized by history student Graham Beverley. On Wednesday, March 31, the ISSE invited Keith Jones, national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party (Canada), to speak at Mackintosh-Corry Hall.
Jones is a regular writer for the World Socialist Web Site, the SEP’s primary means for communicating its ideas. A teacher for many years, Jones writes on Canadian and international issues for the WSWS, which analyzes world news from a Trotskyist perspective (for the uninitiated: Leon Trotsky was a leading figure in the Russian Revolution who was exiled from the USSR and eventually killed on Stalin’s orders. He and Stalin engaged in a power struggle after Lenin’s death partly based on differing ideas: Stalin’s “socialism in one country” vs. Trotsky’s “permanent revolution”. Trotskyists are staunch anti-Stalinists who harshly criticize the former USSR as led by a counterrevolutionary bureaucracy).
In sharp contrast to what it derides as the “reformist” tendencies of social democratic parties like the NDP, the British Labour Party or the German Social Democrats, the SEP follows a sharply anti-capitalist line. Their website explains:
The Socialist Equality Party is a political party of and for the working class. The SEP seeks not to reform capitalism, but to create a socialist, democratic and egalitarian society through the establishment of a workers’ government and the revolutionary transformation of the world economy. We seek to unify workers in the United States and internationally in the common struggle for socialism—that is, for equality and the rational and democratic utilization of the wealth of the planet.
Speaking at Queen’s to a small audience of half a dozen committed socialists (and one or two curious newbies), Jones presented a harrowing view of the Harper government rooted heavily in class analysis. He began:
It is the contention of the Socialist Equality Party, that this government both represents a continuation, in a certain sense, a natural evolution from the right-wing policies that were carried out by the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, but also that the Harper Conservative government represents something new…a further lurch to the right…and has carried out a series of significant attacks on democratic rights.
The Harper Conservatives have co-opted an aggressive style of partisan politics from U.S. Republicans (such as referring to NDP leader Jack Layton as “Taliban Jack”). In a climate of deepening inequality, Jones argued that Canada’s ruling elites have cultivated such reactionary appeals as a means of building a social base for their anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian agenda.
Recalling the 1993 federal election, Jones noted that the Liberals ran on a platform that included three main points:
- Overturning the conservative policy of focusing on the deficit at the expense of jobs;
- Eliminating the GST, and
- Getting Canada out of NAFTA.
On this side of history, those pledges now look ridiculous, since the Liberals quickly used their electoral victory to begin dismantling the welfare state. Unemployment Insurance was reduced to Employment Insurance; today, less than half of workers are entitled to it. The haemorrhaging of Canada’s manufacturing sector also began under the Liberals.
The Chrétien government justified massive cuts to social spending by citing a supposed deficit crisis, with the same pattern playing out nationwide. In Ontario, the Conservative government of Mike Harris sharply reduced government spending; Harris initiated a draconian program of spending cuts, taxes on unions, and slashing welfare rates by 21% while cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy. In Quebec, Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Quebecois carried out similar cuts with the collaboration of the trade unions.
While the SEP is committed to working with the trade unions, the party has long criticized the unions’ bureaucratic leadership, which it sees as having interests antithetical to those of the workers they claim to represent. In a recent example, the Canadian Auto Workers leadership collaborated with General Motors and the Canadian and U.S. governments to force its members to accept deep wage and benefit cuts.
Jones characterized government actions from 1995-2000 as a massive reversal of the social benefits won by workers in the years after World War II, when widespread anti-capitalist sentiment – bolstered by the traumatic experience of depression and war – compelled even Liberal prime minister Mackenzie King to run under the slogan “For a New Social Order”. In the immediate postwar era, a worldwide offensive of the working class produced universal healthcare for Canadians, as well as the American Civil Rights Act and Great Society programs. Protests against the war in Vietnam created a thriving counterculture that sufficiently unnerved the ruling classes to result in a reactionary backlash at the end of the 20th century in the form of conservative rulers Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
By the end of the 1990s, the Liberals’ policies had borne the fruit of a balanced budget, but the tax system had been radically redesigned to serve the interests of the wealthy. Canadian fiscal policy now corresponds with Lenin’s observation that the state is “an apparatus for the domination of one class over another.”
The effects are visible in Harper’s recent budget and the austerity programs currently being pushed by governments worldwide. In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty has introduced the harmonized sales tax, heavily favoured by big business because it transfers the tax burden from businesses to consumers. Kingston MPP and Environment Minister John Gerretsen supported the HST, but managed to conveniently miss the actual vote.
The Harper government has also built on the Chrétien-Martin legacy by increasing military spending. In 1999 Canada played a leading role in NATO’s campaign in Yugoslavia, and it was the Chrétien government that initiated Canada’s involvement in the Afghan War. While it did not officially sign on to the Iraq War, the Liberal government’s lack of support was characterized by Jones as an eleventh-hour decision finalized only when it became clear France and Germany would not support the invasion. The Chrétien government recognized that Canada’s global position might be jeopardized by flagrant U.S. unilateralism. Yet Canada played a larger role than many official members of the “coalition of the willing”; only two weeks prior to the invasion, Canadian military planners helped design the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign. Jones stated:
In effect, what is being said here is that if the Canadian ruling elite is going to be able to advance its interests on the world stage, it has to be an active participant in the division and redivision of the world, and certainly has to align its foreign policy even more closely with that of the United States.
It was a Liberal government that first attacked democratic rights by overturning key civil liberties in the heat of post-9/11 hysteria. Jones was careful not to overlook the role of current Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, a supposed human rights expert who supported the Iraq War and helped provide the intellectual framework to justify torture in his book The Lesser Evil.
Economically, the Harper government has continued Liberal tax cuts that transfer wealth to the already wealthy, as well as reducing the state’s fiscal capacity in order to erode social programs and thwart their further expansion. Harper has been a huge proponent of the discredited policy of deregulation; when the government was obliged to hire new meat inspectors for Canadian exports to the United States, Harper advocated “self-inspection” by companies. Deregulation, Jones noted, is intimately tied up with the government’s unhelpful attitude towards the tar sands and global warming.
Current events have followed a similar pattern in all capitalist countries. There has been a vast increase in social inequality, most marked in the United States, but by any measure an international phenomenon. In the fall of 2009, Western governments put up hundreds of billions of dollars to back up the same financial aristocracy that had mercilessly pushed an anti-working class agenda over the last few decades in the name of efficiency. Jones went on to say:
Recent months have proven to be extremely profitable for Canada’s banks, as it has banks in the United States, and of course these same banks are resisting tooth and nail any suggestion – not that they need to worry about it from the Harper government…that there should be increases in taxes because the banking system worldwide has benefited from state support.
The financial system has been held together; at one point there was serious concern it was going to completely collapse. It’s been held together by basically socializing the debt, by transforming the debt of these large financial institutions and making them into government debt. And now of course, what we’re seeing is all over the world, big business is demanding, and governments are delivering, massive budget cuts on the grounds that these debts are unsustainable. They have to be repaid, and who has to repay them? They’re going to have to be repaid by working people, in the form of cuts to social programs and social services, university tuition hikes, other fee hikes, and this is now beginning.
Jones cited austerity measures announced in recent weeks by the federal Conservative government, the Ontario government and the Quebec government, which he says will lead to a change in class relations at least as significant as those in 1995, as big business takes the wrecking ball towards whatever remains of the welfare state.
For example, The Globe and Mail – disparaged by Jones as the voice of Bay Street – has lately been talking about the “unsustainability” of Medicare. He summarized their view as, “we’ve got all these people that are getting old, we’ve got these massive debts, what the hell are we going to do? We need to find new sources of funding for health care.” The reality, he said, is that Canadian elites intend to use the crisis created in the health care system by government budget cuts to build up a popular constituency for the dismantling of Medicare and the promotion of private health care.
“There are two objectives behind this,” said Jones. “First, they want to transfer the burden of health care back onto the individual. And secondly, health care is a massive business, and they want all obstacles and impediments to making profit off of this business…removed.”
Such open class war, Jones declared, would provoke massive resistance by working people – resistance that must be guided by socialist principles.
Jones ended his lecture with a discussion of the political crisis of November/December 2008. He argued that while Harper succeeded in proroguing Parliament with the support of the Canadian elite, the programme of the potential Liberal-NDP coalition government would have been equally right-wing: fiscal responsibility as primary concern, implementing Harper’s corporate tax cuts, and staying in the Afghan War until 2011. Of course, like Harper, the Dion-led government would have taken “some” action to stimulate the economy – mainly to ward off social unrest and keep Canada competitive with other countries.
In rock ‘n’ roll terms: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Since the programme of the coalition government was so similar to Harper’s, why did Canadian elites so vehemently oppose it?
“The reason that they opposed it was, quite frankly, because they didn’t think it was necessary under these conditions,” said Jones. “Certainly they have had a situation where the NDP has had a share of power – not federally, but in various provinces – and while the NDP hasn’t necessarily done everything that big business has wanted, it certainly has shown itself to be a party that is devoted to the capitalist order in Canada and will carry out right-wing attacks against the working class, impose austerity measures and so forth. But big business didn’t want to see a government of this particular composition at this time, and it was quite prepared to see democratic rights – basic parliamentary norms – set aside to prevent it from coming to power.”
Jones posed the question to his audience: if elites will happily disregard democratic norms to serve their own interests, as in this case, what would they do in the face of a real challenge by the working class? The Liberals, the NDP and the trade unions were all willing to join in a right-wing programme and played possum after Harper shut down Parliament. These groups, Jones argued, are dedicated to preserving the existing order and serve as a “safety valve” for the bourgeoisie.
Jones pointed to the memoirs of NDP national campaign director Brian Topp, which detailed Liberal-NDP coalition negotiations in which the first priority was picking a cabinet, with policy a distant second. The NDP has been pushing for a coalition since 2004, and Layton continued to plead for one long after Ignatieff made it clear he was not interested. While the NDP feared an election, they also wanted to show big business that it had nothing to fear from an NDP government. Since September 2009, the NDP has supported the Conservatives after gaining minor concessions to unemployment benefits.
Jones urged students to help the working class break free from their nominal leadership, the NDP and the trade unions, which have become completely integrated into the capitalist establishment. Canadian youth, he stressed, were one of the primary social groups that could assist the working class in advancing a truly socialist programme.
The discussion period that followed weighed realistic strategies for advancing a socialist agenda in Canada. Asked what he thought of the Communist Party of Canada, Jones dismissed it as defending the legacy of Stalinism. While the CPC has admitted to certain mistakes by the Soviet Union and the CPC, it still holds that the political line of the Soviet leadership was basically correct. Historically, the CPC justified Stalinist opposition to the proletarian internationalism that was the hallmark of Leon Trotsky (and lately, the SEP). It promotes Canadian sovereignty from American imperialism, an overly nationalist perspective in the view of the internationally-minded Socialist Equality Party. The CPC supported the NDP-Liberal coalition and, according to Jones, appeared overly enthused by the election of Wall Street puppet Barack Obama. Finally, it has mainly devoted its energy to pressuring existing political parties (and therefore, in Marxist parlance, advocating a “reformist” stance”).
To borrow another phrase from Lenin, what is to be done? Over the past few decades, social democratic parties have steadily dismantled the very social programs they claimed showed that capitalism could be reformed. For Jones, the key task is to develop an independent, non-reformist political formulation to lead the working class.
The deepening of geopolitical conflict in the midst of the economic crisis, Jones predicted, would have a radicalizing effect. Unions in 2010 have a very different perspective than unions in the 1970s, let alone the more militant 1930s. Although there has been a “huge degeneration” in workers’ class consciousness, the basic idea of unions – that the rights of the working class can best be defended through collective bargaining – remains as viable as ever. But actual class struggle will always be an uphill battle; witness the widespread derision that DriveTest employees (represented by the United Steelworkers) faced when they went on strike last year.
Revolutionary socialists, it seems, must work outside existing state structures in order to achieve their desired end: a society based not on the pursuit of profit but on serving human needs.