Special to Rebel Youth
The other day, I was talking about Walmart with a passionate youth activist.
Walmart is a global mega company -- the world's third-largest corporation traded on a stock market, the largest retailer in the world, and the biggest employer in the world with over 2 million workers.
The battle to organize...
Walmart first invaded Canada in 1994, with the purchase of the long-forgotten Woolco chain. Walmart began by effectively closing all the unionized Woolco stores. Since then, Walmart has been locked in a hard battle with the trade union movement in Canada. Today, there are over 200 Walmart discount stores and 124 "Supercenters." The Walmart "threat," as we have also reported, has been used effectively by employers like Loblaws to force bad "super scam" contracts on unions.
The main trade union trying to organize Walmart has been the United Food and Commercial Workers, or UFCW. UFCW drives have taken place across the country such as Quesnel and Terrace, BC; North Battleford and Weyburn, Saskatchewan; Thompson, Manitoba; Windsor, Ontario; as well as Jonquière, Brossard, St. Hyacinthe, and Gatineau in Québec.
Walmart has fought these drives tooth-and-nail, so to speak. The company will fly in an expert anti-union team on the company jet the moment it learns of a union organizing drive. So far, no Canadian shops have been able to secure a collective agreement.
... or stop them
Still, the labour movement has been struggling hard to not only organize Walmart workers into unions, but also to block construction of new stores, working with coalitions of environmentalists, anti-sweatshop activists, community groups and small business owners.
These campaigns have come and gone, and often brought a lot of well-deserved negative publicity to this corporate monster. Walmart, as a moral representative of bloodsucking monopoly capitalism, is a very poor spokesperson and has become a sort of flashpoint issue in the youth and student movement.
Back to the debate
And this brings us back to the passionate discussion I had with a fellow youth activist and friend: no matter how well-intentioned these campaigns, could there be a trap for labour and working‑class people here, they asked?
Sooner or later, these campaigns make the point that not only Walmart, but also shopping at Walmart is not such a good thing. Ethically speaking, the point is made, if you shop at Walmart you are supporting the beast.
Have you heard the line, "Why don't people just buy from a local small business?" my friend said.
Of course, I replied.
Sooner or later, my friend pointed out, the conclusion is reached that Walmart shoppers are ignorant but complicit schmucks. Some people might call this kind of attitude 'blaming the victim' or anti‑working class. "And here is the trap," they said.
The cost of living, after all, is going up while wages stagnate. It is not hard to understand why people shop at these stores. But nevertheless this idea "slips in." Walmart shoppers are also the problem, my friend said.
Okay, you have a point, I agreed.
But my friend went further.
Never mind trying to find genuinely local produce and small businesses to buy from -- they all seem to be eaten up by bigger capitalists very quickly -- this isn't the main problem. And the effectiveness of boycotts is also a separate discussion.
To be fair, my friend didn't say exactly that.
They said something more like -- when you work with small businesses in coalition, their ideas and perspective also enter into the struggle and movement, and sometimes that petite-bourgeois point of view isn't really based on what labour union folks call "solidarity."
Now how often have the small business owners advocated for working class issues like raising the minimum wage? my friend asked me.
For example, my friend said, when the Postal Workers' negotiations broke down over pensions, wages and benefits, what did the Canadian Association of Small Business do?
They wrote an open letter to Canada Post urging the crown corporation to stand firm in their reactionary bargaining positions!
My friend was on a roll.
And what about rightward-thinking social democrats in such coalitions, who invariably try to bring the unity of the movement down to tepid and weak demands, or even try to shut a movement down in favor of waiting for the next election?
So the call for a certain critical understanding when working people fight with other groups, strata or classes in society, like those forces linked more with small business, is not unjustified.
In fact it is very justified, I agreed.
But my friend had a different conclusion.
Maybe truly progressive youth activists should be much more cautious, and restrict or focus our alliance work to just working class people?
At this point my friend and I passionately disagreed, and I argued that such an approach would be completely disastrous for progressive movements. The debate opens up a broader question about fundamentals of Marxism.
* * * *
I have to recognize, however, that my friend's argument might seem a very logical application of Marxist analysis.
First, identify the working class forces, or members within a movement -- a community group, tenant's rights organization, peace coalition, or campus student union.
Second, drop some spicy smart-sounding language about bourgeoisie and proletarians.
Third, propose that the true proletariat be pitted against the non‑working class elements.
The big and dangerous mistake here, however honestly made with good intentions, is to confuse the class with the movement.
Marxists define a person's class according to the individual's relationship to the means of production: do they own the tools, equipment, machinery, natural resources, etc. used in making goods and services?
The working class majority do not own any means of production and must work for a living. Those who own the economy, and can survive without working themselves, are the capitalists.
As the old joke goes, all we want to do is give the capitalists jobs...
Moreover, as the labour movement saying goes, "an injury to one is an injury to all." The agenda of the working class embraces all progressive movements and causes.
In this it is unique as a social class.
The interests of the working class ultimately include liberation from, and the defeat of, capitalism by socialism.
Working people are not just the largest class in society. They are also the future.
As the 25th YCL-LJC Central Convention documents said:
...the working class is the only consistently revolutionary class in this historical epoch. (This) is the primary contradiction in our society – that between the social production of wealth and its private appropriation, which is ultimately maturing and leading towards the end of capitalist society. The working class, and especially its organized segment i.e. the trade union movement, is the only class which has the ultimate power to shut down the capitalist economy and [also] to seize state power.
As big business dominates all aspects of social life, it attacks in economic ways -- ie. lower wages, longer working hours, busting unions.
But monopoly capitalism and imperialism is also forced, in its drive for profit accumulation, to attack basic rights -- ie. democracy in the broad sense.
Not just elections, but people's democratic right to have an effective say over their own future.
Mass movements have a grievance that effects a large number of people, as well as a goal or demands -- ie. a reform.
Examples of mass democratic movements are legion. More and more forums of struggle keep opening up as big business further attacks the people and their rights.
Classic examples are the peace movement, the student movement, and the women's movement. But consider the Occupy movement or the Quebec student struggle.
Occupy raised the question of the anti-democratic nature of capitalism, a society where the 1% make all the decisions, and called for solidarity among the 99%
Basically, it was both a class and democratic demand.
The Quebec student strike was a battle for the right to education, which is both a democratic right to learn and something which strongly benefits working people. The student's opposed the capitalists policy towards education, which holds that it is a commodity and privilege.
And, by the way, according to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, basic civil rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms were violated during the violent 'evictions' of the Occupy movement in fall 2011 and also by the attempt by the Charest Liberal's to smash the student strike through Bill 78 and police repression.
Democratic rights are also violated when the boss smashes a strike and forces workers back to work.
The multi-class nature of mass movements
If class and democratic demands are often inter-linked it should be no surprise because the large number are of people in mass movements are, of course, workers.
As much as any protest movement is a reflection of society, it will be vastly composed of people from working class backgrounds.
But while the boss class and the workers are the two main social classes they are not the only ones in contemporary Canadian society today.
There are also doctors, small business owners, lawyers, etc. that make up the so-called 'middle strata' or petty bourgeoisie as well as intellectuals, farmers, and other social strata and classes. Exact "class"-ifications vary, no pun intended.
Today, it is difficult to find a mass democratic struggle -- other than the labour movement -- which is not in some way a class mix or "cross‑class."
Farmers, for example, are concerned about climate change -- and the destruction of the Canadian Wheat Board.
Nuclear war also threatens doctors, Bishops, or the coffee shop franchise owner.
These folks are not very common at labour conventions, but I have met all such individuals in community organizing.
Here-in lies the difference between a movement and a class.
As anyone who has done real political work knows, folks who have certain qualifications, education or rank, who own a meeting space, or who can donate money can all be very helpful in struggle.
The attitudes and contributions of non-working class or 'middle-strata' elements in struggle varies.
They too have a tough-go under capitalism. Small businesses from little restaurants to mid-sized farms are more or less constantly going into bankruptcy.
Perhaps this can lead to a certain bravery in the face of adversity. Such attitudes can helpful in the fight for reforms -- or destructive, like individualism, impatience, adventurism, super-optimism, or its flip-side, despair.
Because Marxists view their ideology as expressing the interests of the working class, they give it immediate struggles considerable attention.
Marxists argue that the experience of working class struggle for reforms, like being part of a labour union, can teach the necessity of organization, solidarity, collectivism and sober analysis.
It can teach class conciousness.
It can teach who is the main enemy and the possibility of winning.
It can teach the lesson that the people make history.
Social revolution, ie. overthrowing capitalism for socialism, is a rallying call which finds fertile soil among people engaged in such struggle.
The working class has a lot to gain on an immediate basis from participating in mass democratic movements, coalitions and alliances, both temporary and longer term, with other social forces.
After all, the working class is not just most revolutionary class in an abstract sense -- it also has the ability to lead society if it controls the economy, ie. socialism.
It is precisely through alliances, Marxists say, that these lessons are learned.
Reformists and Revolutionaries
Not all forces fighting for reform agree that social revolution to socialism is inevitable, positive and necessary.
Reformists argue that socialism, or at lest a better society, can be won through a path which avoids "violent confrontations" such as a series of incremental reforms. Social democrats believe a political party is necessary to achieve such a victory.
This, the Marxists say, seriously underestimates what we are up against -- the class power of capitalism with all its might of prisons, police, the army, laws, and ownership of the economy -- and ignores the reality that capitalism is a fundamentally unsustainable system.
It's not the Marxists who create the class struggle, but capitalism.
Marxists therefore "get their hands dirty" in reform struggles while combating reformism.
Marxists see as their role to put forward an immediate and long-term strategy oriented on defeating capitalism -- a political strategy and programme showing the way forward to socialism.
That requires a different vehicle, the Marxists say, that just a class or movement.
It requires a political party -- a Communist Party, which has certain features: like unity in action or democratic centralism, internationalism, and a revolutionary outlook, Marxism-Leninism, and a programme.
The communists need to be active and visible in reform struggle not because they are reformists, but so that they advance these urgently needed struggles, and so they can play a role in the struggle when capitalism enters its systemic and periodic crises and the ruling class looses its hold on power.
A major component of any revolutionary movement is young people.
Each generation of revolutionaries, however, comes to socialism in its own way. For this reason, the Communist Parties have generally not created "youth wings" like bourgeois parties and instead formed movements like the YCL-LJC Canada, which stands in political unity with the Communist Party of Canada but is organizationally autonomous.
Campaigns like the Young Communist League's "Charter of Youth Rights" branch out to progressive and working class youth, seeking the kind of broad, powerful unity that is needed to defeat the Harper government and win a new, progressive direction for Canada and ultimately socialism.
For my friend, reform struggles outside of the labour movement or a true working class base were suspicious. Non-working class ideas could actually take hold through such action.
This is a risk, however, the working people must not only take, but be prepared to actively engage on an ideological basis. Otherwise, we risk cutting our nose to spite our face because the working class needs to be present in multi-class movements.
Working class ideology will not be formed simply through book knowledge. It takes practice and action to hammer out differences and that includes the experience of working with other strata and social classes.
It is sometimes argued against alliances and coalitions on reform struggles because it is said that the class war should be brought inside people's movements.
This generally means identifying who is proletarian and who is not.
In practice, this sectarian route would be disastrous.
It would undermine the fighting unity of these forces, orienting the struggle inward instead of against the main enemy.
The people's forces already have a great deal of work to do just building a fighting unity.
This includes helping overcome organizational shortfalls, or convincing people to set aside minor differences and just sweat the big stuff, or helping create the political will for action.
Movements are not classes -- but they are part of the class struggle, whether we like it or not.
And as US radical historian Howard Zinn once said, "you can't be neutral on a moving train."
Sometimes it is argued that because mass movements struggle for reforms, they are therefore reformist.
To some extent this is just a play on words, but where the proponents of this idea are going is to claim that reform struggles are the same as reformism. This is clearly a misnomer but, by extension: if a revolutionary participating in a mass movement is reformism, then there is no difference for revolutionaries to covertly participate in reformist or social democratic political parties with the hope of somehow turning them into revolutionary organization, perhaps through a split.
The argument against this tactic (which is sometimes called 'entryism') is its general futility, and I've heard this one used both ways. For example, that revolutionaries working inside mass movements is a type of entryism.
While there is a certain logic to the concept of a revolutionary, who is not a reformist by definition, having to covertly 'enter' into a social democratic political party, it is difficult to understand how, for example, a student can 'enter' into the student movement when they are already a student. And even if students were to 'enter' within a factory workforce to, for example, organize a union -- they would still be workers at that factory.
As argued above, these three ideas are actually mis-understanding of class, movements, and political parties.
An earlier much short version of this article was published in the Sept 1st 2011 edition of People's Voice.