December 6, 2010

Making the case for Mass Action

By Johan Boyden and Drew Garvie
Rebel Youth, Issue 10, Summer-Fall 2010

In the context of the continuing debate about strategy and tactics in the Canadian youth and student movement, activists and organizations need to ask “what kind of youth movement are we building?"

We have now had several months to reflect on the events that unfolded when the G20 occupied Toronto, and also last winter’s 2010 Olympic demos in Vancouver. These events continue to be discussed within the youth and student movement, across English-speaking Canada and Quebec. The debate occurs at a time when there is a widespread critique of diversity of tactics post-G20.

Many are asking: what are other more effective, united and militant alternatives?

Which way forward?

As many of the popular movements have noted, burning a few cop cars and smashing the windows of a some trans-national corporations does not outweigh the crimes against the people and the planet caused by imperialism – like the G20 signing-on to smash social safety nets, continue their profitable wars, and stick the global working class with the bill for the bailout orgy.

Yet most of the same movements have been sharply critical of the so-called “black bloc” approach of diversity of tactics and spontaneous direct action. Generally, this is based on the view that such tactics are welcomed or even encouraged by the ruling class, providing a handy excuse to convince working people that protests against corporate policies are carried out by forces which have no interest in the needs of “ordinary citizens.”

But is there a militant alternative?

The most organized component of the people’s forces in Canada is the trade union movement. But among the youth and student movement, there is a prevalent view that labour confines the resistance movement to purely symbolic and ineffective actions. Most youth organizations are well aware that the labour movement can write cheques and will make donations to some progressive causes, but why should we work with them in a political sense?

Firstly, as labour journalist Sam Hammond puts it, the Labour movement was created by the historical need of the working class. “As long as there is exploitation and as long as working people have needs, the labour movement will be the most important part of the fightback, the latent threat of massive resistance, the training ground of tactical struggle, and the potential army of a political movement of the left that will destroy this treadmill of gain and loss and give our hard won gains constitutional permanence.” The young people make up one of the most progressive, radical and dynamic forces in society – but we do not have the same place in the class struggle as the working class majority.

Some activists, however, argue that the difficulties in mobilizing the labour movement for a major struggle indicate a much more serious problem: workers have “sold out” or that the trade unions are a spent force.

Working people do have the strength

The real lesson of recent working-class struggles in Canada is that working people do have the strength and understanding to conduct tough battles for their rights, despite the challenges of cold weather, scabs, police brutality, corporate media slanders, and relentless political attacks. We can point to many examples — the 2005 illegal province-wide BC teacher’s strike; the ongoing struggle of Hamilton Steelworkers local 1005 against concessions; and this spring’s mobilization of 75,000 Quebec public sector workers in the streets under the Front Commune.

When organized workers have leadership which matches their capacity for struggle, important victories have been achieved. These trade union struggles, however, are rarely publicized by the media, and receive little discussion outside of the local labour movement – especially in the youth and student movement, on campuses and among un-organized young workers.

Nevertheless, it is true that many union leaders are reluctant or even refuse to build broad community/labour solidarity campaigns around strike battles or wider social issues, unwilling to engage in the type of movement-building which would rally millions into action against the corporate agenda.

So let’s start causing some shit!

When leadership consists of looking for “exit strategies” or calls to retreat at the first sign of pressure, workers are understandably reluctant to take chances. This ‘line of compromise’ is predominant in the right wing social-democratic circles within labour leadership (see the side-box on reformist opportunism). Lenin said that tactics (like the ‘Black Bloc’) were “infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement. The two monstrosities complement each other”.

As the Southern Ontario Anarchist Resistance call to the G20 said: “We feel that the time has come to stop talking, and to start causing some shit!” It’s time to “gather in the secret, quiet places, and discuss,” “to form affinity groups with your trusted friends, lovers, comrades,” and mobilize for “autonomous direct action.”
Presumably they had some difficulty finding secret, quite places and trusting the right people because it is now known that police infiltrated a wide range of militant youth groups leading up to the G20. The Integrated Security Unit refused to deny the use of agent provocateurs as a part of their security strategy, even when directly asked by the Ontario Federation of Labour. Only a thorough inquiry will uncover to what extent the made-for-TV ‘riot’ was police initiated.

But it would be inaccurate to claim, as some in the youth movement have, that the protestors affiliated with the “Black Bloc” were just agent provocateurs. In fact, many of the “Black Bloc’ers” genuinely believed that isolated property destruction was a revolutionary act and that they were successfully advancing the class struggle with their actions – the “in your face” approach to struggle. These sentiments are lofty and brave. Tactics are not, however, just a question of individual courage. The youth movement needs to take into account the current objective and subjective factors of the class struggle before deciding on tactics.

Objective and subjective factors

The mistake here is the excessive exaggeration of subjective factors – the feelings of militancy of a small group of revolutionaries; or the deep anger and impatience felt by many workers, aboriginal people, women, students, and immigrants; or the attractiveness of an immediate advance to socialism. These are important, understandable and, in many cases, even admirable subjective feelings – but these feelings are assumed to mean that the desirable is also, more or less, immediately possible.

If we just ‘expose the violence of the system’ the people will ‘wake up’ and rise. If we break the widows of the Hudson Bay Company, it will force Canadians to stop and think about the essentially genocidal history of that corporation.

If this was enough to defeat the capitalists, or even eliminate tuition fees, both would have been gone long ago.

Marxists call this ‘ultra-leftism,’ not in the sense of an ideology but rather as a style of approaching political theory and practice. The excessive subjectivism of ‘ultra-leftism’ can also explain away reverses or difficulties – leaders are just “sell-outs” and “traitors”, the masses are “misled”, or suffering from a “false consciousness”. These accusations may (or may not) have some relevance. But ultra-leftism tends to evoke them all too hastily. The flip-side is that the objective factors within a given situation are under-rated or even ignored.

All or nothing

Ultra-leftism is a significant dynamic in the youth and student movement. Often, in youth organizations everything is immediate, all-or-nothing, victory or sell-out. Therefore ultra-leftism tends not to understand revolution as process or long-haul. Tactics are greatly exaggerated at the expense of strategies, becoming elevated into strategies, and even principles.

“Direct action” becomes narrowly and romantically re-defined towards action with instant results – such as property destruction. “Direct actions gets the goods,” as one workshop at the G20 “people’s summit” said. There is little or no connection between tactics and strategy. Often a necessary strategy for social change not is even presented.

This is serious mistake. Some tactics are much more effective than others, and need to be developed with planning – whether the strategy is a campaign or, in the big picture sense, the revolutionary process of defeating capitalism and winning socialism. It is not as simple as insisting on more militant tactics. The youth and student movement needs to connect tactics with a more militant strategy and unity
The ultra-left approach is also often characterised by what Lenin described as the “tactics of sheer negation”. This is very common in the political reality of the youth and student movement: anti-globalisation, anti-G20, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian. What this lacks is any programmatic statement. An effort is made to confront to reject or challenge state power without any alternative, or strategy.

Instead, the tactics of a general strike or an insurrectionary seizure of power are counter-posed to any other approach, and turned into timeless strategies if not principles. Likewise participation in parliamentary democracy is sometimes rejected, for all time, on principle. Any compromises are rejected on principle.

Diversity of tactics

The development of a common tactic by people’s movements is also frustrated by the slogan of “respect for diversity of tactics,” because criticism of certain tactics (like window-breaking) supposedly undermines solidarity in the movement. In practice the opposite is true. “Comrades” out to break windows can use the majority of the demonstration as cover. This is extremely harmful as they scare away the masses of working people from political struggle.

Many organizations, especially those outside of the youth and student movement, will disassociate themselves from the event or even the cause. Labour is one example; so are many women’s groups, organizations from racialized communities, and others.

These tactics also play-into state repression, providing a convenient cover to those trying to further curtail the democratic rights of the people. In some cases, “Black bloc” groups are infiltrated by the police. But while many groups – like the YCL— make organizational efforts to avoid infiltration, every outfit can be ‘penetrated’ by the police. What is important is that not all tactics are vulnerable to police provocation.

Mass struggle

In fact, the idea that revolutions are made by an elite group smashing windows is a dead-end street. Revolutions are made by classes and social forces, by the masses. It is the working class and the people who make their own history – but not in conditions of their choosing.

This is why the most effective tactics for the youth movement are those of mass struggle, carried out through direct (and indirect) actions. Ultimately our movement needs to win over the majority of the working-class in Canada for victory. Marxists support new forms of struggle (people’s forces are very creative in the development of resistance), and work to add revolutionary substance and content to tactics.

“Marxism,” Lenin said, “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” and sharpens.

The litmus test for evaluating tactics is thus to identify what tactics move the greatest number of masses into the struggle, in the strategic direction.


It is in this context we should view all tactics – whether it is running around in masks (or as Che said, “The real rebels do not move with hoods... at the time of the revolution the people should recognize the faces of the leadership of the rebels. The people considers dishonest to be together with hooded individuals”); an occupation; a strike; as well as the often mis-understood dilemma of violence vs non-violence.

Some youth activists emphasize they support only non-violent tactics and view other approaches as profoundly unsettling. I think this because they are genuinely concerned about repeating the tactics of the oppressor. Other youth activists seem to make a fetish of violence. For example there are self-described Maoist groups in Canada today that claim the only route to socialism, everywhere, is through a civil war – so we better start now. I think that both make the mistake of understanding violence in an abstract way. The fact is, however, there is no such thing as violence abstracted from concrete realities.

Discussions in the youth movement often address the question of violent insurrection. Communists have a history of advocating the route of armed struggle only when the political paths to social change are exhausted (it is not well known that the FARC-EP in Columbia, for example, has always been willing to negotiate a just and democratic peace). After all, it would be psychopathic to advocate a violent way when a peaceful route was realistically available within the correlation of class forces. In Canada political paths to social change have clearly not been exhausted. Therefore the question of the use of force in the youth and student movement arises in a very different context.

For example, First Nations activists at land reclamations in Oka, Gustafsen Lake, and Caledonia all found they needed some form of defence against racist vigilantes, paramilitary police and the army. When the boss uses workforces of scabs (strike-breakers) they deliberately make strikes explosive situations. The worker’s realize their struggle will be seriously weakened if they let the scabs cross the picket-line. Employers hire goons who assault and even kill strikers. For those who think this doesn’t happen close to home, there was a picket-line death at Centennial college in Toronto just a few years ago.

If our tactics are connected to a strategy of uniting the people behind anti-corporate and anti-imperialist demands, our tactics as a youth and student movement will generally be non-violent until the ruling class introduces violence. At that point, is there a moral high-road in following an approach that leads to not just defeat, but serious set-back?

Breakn’ da law

The same perspective should be applied to the dilemma of legal vs illegal tactics: does this move the movement forward? Following the indiscriminate arrests at the G20 that flagrantly violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, some activists have suggested there needs to be a way protestors can defend ourselves from police attacks and prevent provocateurs. This is a completely justified. People’s forces have the right to protect ourselves from state violence.

Traditionally, demonstration marshals have lined the side of marches – not just demonstrations exercising civil disobedience. Going much further however, like some sort of guerrilla defence teams who spin into action when the cops start letting their big sticks fall on people, would be adventurist. Left and progressive forces in Canada are simply not strong enough currently.

Nevertheless, time and time again, the class reality of Canada’s legal system has been proven in people’s struggles. To defy the courts means criminal charges and perhaps jail - just ask the Aboriginal peoples. In some cases, obeying the law can hold back the movement - just ask the British Columbia Teachers who engaged in a province-wide illegal strike in 2005. By joining the picket-lines in solidarity, the YCL was also breaking the law. These are “hard rations” but in the struggle is no other way that courage and solidarity, winning the public and independent political campaigning.

Struggle for unity

Unity is not simply a question of power in numbers, although obviously that is important. Tactics that fit with a strategy of mobilizing people on mass issues have a number of advantages. They increase the material strength of the working people. They show that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’ They teach working people to learn how to work with other classes and groups. And they show the relationship of classes and groups to one another – and the state. In other words, unity and alliances helps to create the basis for working class leadership of society as a whole. As Bolshevik trade unionist Lozovsky said:

The importance of direct action lies not only in the immediate results, but mainly in the fact that it unites the mass of workers. The working class is not uniform; it includes numerous intermediary strata with bourgeois conceptions. By involving different groups and isolated strata in a common struggle, direct action brings them closer together, like the links of a chain, and in this way the working class becomes more united. Unity can only be forged in the heat of the struggle and is the most important condition for proletarian victory and for safeguarding the achievements of the revolution.”

Ultimately, the policy of mass action is truly the most dangerous to the ruling class because of the unity of the people’s forces. Massive political action outside parliament. Massive campaigning to eliminate tuition fees, to withdraw from imperialist war plans, to prevent global warming, to win child care, to save medicare, to save our resources and create jobs. A social dynamic that will swell the ranks of movement, bring in thousands of new activists and raise the level of social consciousness of the entire non-corporate population. In the YCL and other circles, we are talking of a Harper Tory defeat in the next federal election. The pre-requisite is a higher level of unity in the people’s movement.

These policies and strategy have the potential to bring down governments, and change the direction of Canada. When these liberating ideas and demands are taken up by the masses of the people, they become a material force for change. This is the kind of youth and student movement we need to build.

As Marx said, workers of the world unite – we have nothing to loose but our chains, we have a world to win.

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