Jul 302014

By Judy Haiven, a member of Independent Jewish Voices- Canada. She teaches at Saint Mary’s University and is also a member of Solidarity Halifax. Originally published as a letter to the editor in The Chronicle Herald.

Last week, I read that two dead children, a girl aged about seven and a boy aged nine, were lying in a room in Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. When a journalist walked by, he heard shouting and arguing from the relatives at the bedside. He went in and asked why they were fighting. One relative said bitterly, “We don’t know which boy died, Hamsa or Khalil.” The journalist looked down and saw the boy was headless.

Is this what Israel wants to be known for? Israeli airstrikes decapitating or shearing off arms and legs of scores of children? Even though the Israel Broadcast Authority has refused to air radio spots in which the names of Gazan children killed during Operation Protective Edge are read out, people around the world and in Canada can read the names of more than 200 children on Internet sites.

I’m a Jew and a proud member of Independent Jewish Voices — Canada. Will other Canadian Jews stand up for an end to the killings?


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.

Jul 292014

By Judy Haiven, a member of Independent Jewish Voices- Canada. She teaches at Saint Mary’s University and is also a member of Solidarity Halifax. Originally published at the Halifax Media Coop.

A Halifax park was the scene of a symbolic breaking of the Ramadan fast

Muslims, Jews, Christians and others wait to break the fast, Victoria Park Halifax

Muslims, Jews, Christians and others wait to break the fast, Victoria Park Halifax

Muslims, Jews, Christians and others wait to break the fast, Victoria Park Halifax

On the second last day of Ramadan, about thirty Muslims, Jews and their friends gathered in Victoria Park an hour before nightfall to break the fast.

Traditionally, Muslims break the daily fast during Ramadan with a meal called Iftar.  Iftar is held right after evening prayers.  In this case, Muslim participants first prayed, and then with Jewish and non-Jewish friends ate dates and sweet cakes and drank water to symbolize the breaking of the fast.

The Halifax chapter of Independent Jewish Voices – Canada organized the respectful event to promote discussion and  create friendship in the midst of horrifying events in Gaza and the West Bank in the last couple of weeks.  In informal talks, people in the rather tranquil park setting shared information from reliable newspapers, and online sources.  In addition some participants spoke of their relatives in Gaza – whom they cannot now locate — who were forced to flee their homes to dodge the shells and bombs raining down on Gaza.  To date:

  • more than 832 people in Gaza have been killed by Israeli forces
  • 5,200 are injured, many very seriously
  • more than 163 children have been killed by Israeli shells and airstrikes. Over 475 houses have been destroyed and 2,600 more have been struck and damaged, so are uninhabitable
  • Israel has cut power lines, crippled the sewage treatment plants, so more than 1.2 million out of 1.7 million Gazans have little or no access to water and sanitation services
  • On July 24, a United Nations’ school was destroyed by an Israeli missile which killed 15 Gazan civilians and injured 200 – the school was being used as a shelter for hundreds of Gazan refugees. Tens of thousands of Gazans have been forced to leave their homes and have nowhere safe to go as the border crossings with Israel and Egypt are closed. There is no way out by sea, as Israeli naval gunboats patrol the coast and lob missiles to the shore. This is how 4 Gaza boys aged 9-10, from the Bakr family, were killed when they played soccer on the beach one week ago.
  • Israel has destroyed 46 schools, 56 mosques and 7 hospitals. Often civilians seeking safety inside were killed.
  • The Israeli Broacast Authority (IBA) has refused to air a spot in which the names of Gazan children killed during ‘Operation Protective Edge’ were read out.  This, despite almost 300,000 people reading the names in a post shared widely on the internet.
  • Hundreds of Israeli-Arabs, who themselves are citizens of Israel, have been arrested, threatened and beaten — notably scores of children. This is a method of silencing dissent, and stopping protests in Israel.


However the tide is turning. People all over the world are telling Israel – and the United States – to stop bombing Gaza, and to stop the illegal blockade, the illegal arrests.  Israel wants to grab the Palestine people’s land,  but after 47 years, the Palestinians continue to fight.  As one person at last night’s gathering in Halifax said, “Everything in today’s world is made in China; but courage is made in Gaza.”


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.

Jul 282014

By Judy Haiven, a member of Independent Jewish Voices- Canada. She teaches at Saint Mary’s University and is also a member of Solidarity Halifax. Originally published at the Halifax Media Coop.

More than 150 Haligonians stood vigil for peace, and to remember the victims of Israel’s outrageous war on Gaza

Young woman at vigil looks at homemade sign by Larry Haiven, Gaza in tea lights

Young woman at vigil looks at homemade sign by Larry Haiven, Gaza in tea lights

The setting for the vigil, the gates at Halifax's Public Gardens

The setting for the vigil, the gates at Halifax’s Public Gardens

People at the vigil watch the slideshow on the screen

People at the vigil watch the slideshow on the screen

People at the vigil watch the slideshow on the screen

Halifax: On Saturday, 19 July after nightfall, more than 150 Haligonians gathered in front of the Public Gardens for a vigil for Gaza.  At the time of this posting, more than 350 Gazans have died as a result of Israel’s airstrikes which started about two weeks ago and a ground invasion of Gaza which began a few days ago.  So far, 80% of the victims are civilians; one in five victims (about 70) are children.

Lighted tealights and candles shone a path to a wooden frame draped with a sheet. This became a makeshift screen, which displayed slides of Gaza’s children in hospital, maimed or dead, who are victims of Israel’s shellings and bombings. There was also a large homemade sign, lighted with plastic lights which read ‘Gaza’ which drew considerable attention.  Against this backdrop, Amer Hussain of Students Against Israeli Apartheid at Dalhousie and several others made short speeches. Speakers included a spoken word poet, a representative from Independent Jewish Voices-Canada (the Halifax chapter) and one from Canadians Arabs and Jews for a Just Peace.

While Israel claims it was ‘provoked’ into this ‘war’ on Gaza, the facts say something quite different. It was Israel that broke a 2-year ceasefire during which time Hamas launched no missiles into southern Israel.  However in June, when 3 Yeshiva boys (Jewish students hitch hiking from an illegal West Bank settlement where they lived) were abducted, there was instant retaliation by Israel. Troops went into the West Bank and arrested more than 500 Palestinians, ranging in age from children to seniors.

It was never determined that Hamas was responsible for the abductions and killings, but the Palestinian people suffered collective punishment in the form of imprisonment, homes destroyed, injuries, and some deaths. The most horrible incident in retaliation for the Jewish boys’ deaths, was the abduction and burning to death of Mohammed Abu Khedair, a16 year old Palestinian youth. In the early morning, he had been waiting on a Jerusalem street for a ride to the Mosque.  He was abducted by Israelis and brutally murdered.  After that his cousin, a US citizen who was visiting, was badly beaten by Israeli police. Events have spiraled ever since.

But make no mistake: this is a disproportionate ‘war’. In fact it is no war at all. Israel has one of the best equipped and trained armies in the world. With tens of thousands of troops and trained reservists, they have mounted airstrikes, which have flattened more than 800 homes in Gaza, as well as hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.  Ten thousand Gazans who themselves were once refugees, have become refugees again since Israel has demanded they evacuate their homes near the closed border crossings with Israel and Egypt. Israel’s ground troops have cut power, water and disabled the sewage treatment plants.  Most Gazans now have next to no fresh water and live without electricity for more than 12 hours a day.

Perhaps the most upsetting, at least to this writer, is the destruction of the only rehabilitation and geriatric hospital in Gaza and the West Bank.  The El Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital near Gaza City has been operating for 15 years.  Its director, Dr Basman Alashi, explained on US National Public Radio’s Democracy Now! that a week ago Israel  launched 5 airstrikes against it – as a warning.

On 17 July, after issuing him a phone warning to evacuate in minutes,  the Israeli air force launched an airstrike on the hospital.  Israel complained that the hospital was 100 metres from a site with rocket launchers. Dr Alashi replied “My authority, my control is within my premises, it is my hospital. I cannot control what people do 100 meters from me.”  Three floors were destroyed, fires started and destroyed the rest of it.  The patients at El Wafa Hospital are paralysed, severely disabled and often elderly.

After the earlier strikes, nurses risked their lives under the rain of Israeli missiles to run to the streets to find ambulances with oxygen tanks to evacuate the patients. Fortunately, all patients and medical staff escaped before the hospital was flattened.  But Canadian Jews who are so proud of their large modern Jewish Home for the Aged at Baycrest Hospital in Toronto, should ask themselves how they would feel if their elderly family members were at risk of being killed by airstrikes and bombs. I wonder if they ever ask themselves how they would respond if another country did to their community what Israel is doing to targets such as hospitals and schools in Gaza.

Last night’s vigil was one of many events held in Canada and around the world to support Gaza and demand that Israel stop its blockade of Gaza and its illegal and brutal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.  There is no doubt there will be more rallies and more demonstrations.  But when will Jewish Canadians speak up on behalf of the real victims—the Palestinians?


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.

Jul 102014

Solidarity Halifax member Ben Sichel examines the political dimensions of education debates. Ben  is a teacher in Dartmouth and author of the P-12 education section for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Alternative Provincial Budget. Originally published at no need to raise your hand


Back to basics

My local paper recently published a series of articles lamenting Nova Scotian P-12 students’ performance on standardized math and literacy tests. At issue, reported author Frances Willick, is the use of modern teaching techniques such as “whole-language” learning for teaching reading and “discovery-based” learning for teaching math.

Willick’s sources, such as Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) education professor Jamie Metsala, say these modern methods have failed kids. Teachers should focus more on traditional techniques like phonics for teaching reading, and repetitive drills for teaching basic math.

All of us should welcome robust public debates on pedagogical techniques, and most of us in the education world do. After all, we want to do the best job we can at educating our kids.

Unfortunately, “crisis” articles like these are not very helpful. First, they sensationalize what is actually happening in our classrooms; and second, they ignore the political context of what is happening in our education system.


Back to Basics?

Let’s look first at the debate on teaching reading, with the caveat that I am not a literacy expert (although high school teachers do still work on literacy skills, directly and indirectly).

Two methods of reading instruction have been used in North American schools over the past several decades. The phonics method consists of teaching letters and syllables as building blocks, which kids learn to “sound out” and use to make words.  In contrast, in the whole-language method, the emphasis is on learning whole words and recognizing them in context, analogous to the way children learn to speak.

According to MSVU’s Jamie Metsala, curriculum in Nova Scotia is tilted too far towards whole-language. Metsala says kids need more drilling on simple sounds and syllables in order to make them proficient readers. Phonics instruction is indeed present in classrooms in Nova Scotia, but Metsala says it isn’t enough, and points to standardized test scores which she says show too many students aren’t reading at grade level. (Let’s forget for the time being the question of how much standardized test scores actually tell us about the health of an education system.)

The reading debate isn’t new. This article from 1997 details how heated a political issue it became in California in the early 1990’s, to the point where it influenced a state election.

Willick’s article cites research supporting the conclusion that phonics is the best way to teach literacy. However, plenty of other research on the “Reading Wars” disagrees, saying phonics instruction is no silver bullet. In fact, one of the major reports cited by Willick in support of phonics instruction – the comprehensive (U.S.) National Reading Panel of 2000 – is by no means as unequivocal a defense of phonics as her article presents. For example, it states that phonics instruction “fail[s] to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades.

photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/4005631298/in/gallery-50242928@N03-72157623949812171/
photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/4005631298/in/gallery-50242928@N03-72157623949812171/

A similar, equally protracted debate exists in mathematics education. Recently, “discovery math” came under fire in Alberta from those advocating a “back-to-basics” approach. A parent started a petition demanding that Alberta get rid of its new math approach, claiming that modern teaching methods confuse kids and demanding more drills on things like multiplication tables. Parents even rallied at the provincial legislature. Here in Nova Scotia, Willick reports that some in the world of math education are concerned about Alberta’s curriculum being imported here.

“Back to basics” can be an attractive rallying cry, not least because of its simplicity and appeal to nostalgia. But like many seemingly simple solutions to complex problems, it’s often misguided.

It’s worth noting, first of all, that schools in the real world generally use a combination of traditional and modern teaching techniques. This piece by Jonathan Teghtmeyer of the Alberta Teachers’ Association argues that the so-called math crisis is a fiction, and that old-fashioned drills are still an important strategy used in the math classroom among others. In the wake of the media storm in Alberta several other active classroom teachers also wrote defenses of modern teaching techniques, though by my (non-systematic) observations they didn’t get the same press coverage as the back-to-basics crowd. In response to concerns about discovery-based learning here, the Nova Scotia Department of Education told the the Herald this province would use a “balanced approach between back-to-basics and discovery-style instruction.”

Pedagogy and politics

It’s important to appreciate that these seemingly technical debates have political and philosophical dimensions. To begin to understand how, consider this excerpt from Alberta teacher and writer Joe Bower’s blog on the “math wars”:

“I still remember being taught how to divide fractions in junior high. I was told to flip the second fraction and then multiply. It was a trick that enabled me to get high scores on the tests.

Here’s the problem…

To this day, I have absolutely no idea why I flip the second fraction and multiply. I have no idea what the mathematical reasoning is. I can get the right answer on the test, but there is nothing mathematical about my (lack of) understanding for dividing fractions. If we want to confuse and turn students off of math, I can think of no better strategy than to make math a ventriloquist act where children are merely told the most efficient ways of getting the right answer. This is mindless math mimicry.”

Education debates aren’t just about how we teach; they’re about why we teach what we do. What kind of a society do we hope to create and sustain through our public education system? Is it a better world than the one we live in now? Are people in it happy?

The answers are reflected in the status we assign to certain academic subjects, but also in how we conceive of the acts of teaching and learning themselves. Modern pedagogical methods like discovery-based math and whole-language reading attempt to look beyond simple mechanics of words and mathematical algorithms and answer questions like: why are we teaching this, anyway? What message does the way we do it send to kids? How can we make them enjoy learning?

“Back to basics” is, by and large, a conservative movement: it assumes that the “old way” of doing things worked just fine. It seems to ignore, however, that so many people quite disliked their own school experience precisely because of traditional schooling’s rote-learning, this-is-for-your-own-good-so-suffer-through-it mentality.

Modern pedagogy has attempted (albeit not always successfully) to teach things we think kids need to know, while still helping them foster motivation and desire for learning – arguably an inherent trait in humans.

Looking at who supports the back-to-basics movement is instructive. A good example is the Ontario-based Society for Quality Education (SQE), which counts among its board of directors a range of business-types, a former senior officer of the National Citizens’ Coalition (once directed by Stephen Harper) and no one with any apparent on-the-ground experience in public education. The SQE says public schools have a “bias towards progressivism” and “child-centred learning” (horrors!) and trumpets the Mike Harris government of 1995-2003 as a successful model of school reform. The Society is funded by conservative foundations such as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, and they recently sponsored Florida governor Jeb Bush’s speech at the Economic Club of Canada.

One “honorary patron” of the SQE is Paul Bennett, a frequent media commentator on educational issues here in Nova Scotia. Bennett, a veteran of elite private schools like Toronto’s Upper Canada College, now works as an educational consultant and regularly authors reports for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the leading right-wing think-tank on Canada’s East Coast. Bennett rails against teacher unions at every opportunity and promotes market-oriented reforms as the solution to perceived educational problems. He and I occasionally debate things on Twitter, and he often uses the word “progressive” as an insult. (For the record, I occasionally agree with things he says.)

Alignment with business interests doesn’t necessarily mean a pedagogical technique is always bad, and just about any teacher (including me) uses them sometimes. But it’s worth looking at how Willick’s stories fit with a narrative common in media reports of public education for some time now. It goes like this: public schools are failing at educating kids. They’re too expensive, and they don’t produce “results” that the job market wants. Therefore, we need to cut “inefficiencies” in the system. And who runs things efficiently? Why, the private sector, of course! The kids in the Chronicle-Herald articles are not getting the attention they need in public school, so they turn to private tutoring companies, which are portrayed as the ones doing things right. To be clear, these companies are doing nothing wrong, but their context is very different to that of a public school – students or parents self-select, and they are not subject to fluctuations in government funding.

This is the same narrative which has led “charter schools” – private schools that receive public money and are not subject to all the same curricular and regulatory constraints as public schools – to “compete” with traditional public schools in many parts of the U.S.

Cartoon: http://www.herinst.org/BusinessManagedDemocracy/education/privatising/EMO.html
Cartoon: http://www.herinst.org/BusinessManagedDemocracy/education/privatising/EMO.html

There are, of course, lots of reasons why schools are different from businesses, and the free-market logic pushed by the business crowd is fallacious when it comes to schooling. In the U.S., while some charters seem to perform about as well as traditional public schools in terms of their test scores and graduation rates, many others perform worse. This is despite the fact that most charters can choose which students to admit, meaning public schools are left with disproportionate numbers of high-needs students. Lack of regulatory oversight means that charters have faced controversy on everything from questionable disciplinary practices to high-level corruption.

(As if on cue, this past weekend the Chronicle-Herald published a baseless screed calling for charter schools in this province.)

By no means do public schools get everything right, and we should constantly aim to improve them. But setting up straw men that undermine the very notion of public education helps no one. Society’s expectations of its public education system have changed dramatically in the last century – we know much more about student special needs and mental health issues, and we expect all students to graduate high school, for example – yet we act surprised that costs to education has gone up and that educators seem overworked and unhappy. Improving education goes hand in hand with solving other problems such as economic inequality and systemic racism (and to the Chronicle-Herald’s credit, the final story in its series on Nova Scotia schools examines the very real effects of poverty on student learning).

When we’re told the education system is broken, we should pay attention to who’s telling us, and who stands to benefit from the “fixes.”


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.


Jul 092014

Former Solidarity Halifax member David Bush sets some way points for what needs to be done during and after the People’s Social Forum in August. Bush points to Solidarity Halifax as among the few new organizations that have helped set a way forward. Originally published at Hammerhearts.



With the Peoples’ Social Forum approaching in August I thought I would jot down a couple of ideas about where the left is, what challenges it’s facing and what roads it could take.

Before I begin I want to list where I am coming from politically to help frame my analysis. I do this because we can’t divorce the question of how we should organize ourselves from our political objectives. That being said the purpose of this post is to focus on the former not the latter.

  • The major problems we face, climate change, growing inequality, democratic dispossession, etc. are the result of our political and economic system – capitalism.
  • These problems can’t be solved within the capitalist system thus we need to replace capitalism with some sort of democratic socialist society.
  • This can only happen if the working class itself takes charge in creating a more just society.
  • The working class should not be reduced to stilted images of factory workers – the working class is multifaceted and complex but shares a common relation to property and labour.
  • The working class is strategically located to overthrow capitalism because of its centrality to the capitalist economic system, but workers cannot be reduced to mere class. Nor can class politics exist without anti-oppression politics.
  • The self-emancipation of the working class from capitalism can’t happen without recognizing and actively supporting the self-determination of First Nations.

Where is the left?

I am not going to spend much time on the state of the left. So much has been said about this it barely seems worth repeating. Over the past few years there have been some amazing social movements in the country. Occupy, the Quebec student strike, the environmental movement and Idle No More being the most notable. However, the left in Canada is still very weak. The working class, both in its organized and unorganized forms, is in survival mode (of course there are notable exceptions that buck the trend). I would also argue that the weakness of labour and the left partly explains why the NDP is moving right.

Unanchored ideas

Nonetheless, there are reasons to be hopeful. The ferment for leftist ideas since the economic crisis of 2008-9 has been on the rise. People want alternatives, as exemplified by polls showing high support for taxing the rich and renewable green energy. However, much of the left has only offered abstract ideas at best with little social base to support it. For example, emerging from Occupy were calls for the commons, the rolling jubilee, a general strike etc. There seems to be an underlying notion on the left that what is needed is better ideas, better theories and so forth. This wooden approach doesn’t confront what is needed organizationally to turn ideas into lived reality.

There is a lack of politic understanding about how to move from point A to B. Until we can do this, we will continue to develop ideas that rely on spontaneous, unexpected support. Should they be successful, as with Occupy, the capacity to develop the organization and capacity to respond to opposing forces and advance the struggle become unworkable, resulting in a rapid dissolution of the movement. Except where local Occupy movements connected with pre-existing and rooted organizations, such as unions, Occupy left little by the way of lasting local organization.

I want to argue that the most pressing question facing the left in Canada is the organizational question – how do we organize ourselves, what is our strategy to build social movements and how do we help facilitate the spread of socialist ideas and action?

Membership based political organizations

Membership based political organizations are necessary if we are serious about deepening political struggle and providing a level of political leadership in order to replace capitalism and help bring about the self-emancipation of the working class.

A dues paying membership, with expectations of membership involvement, allows a group to properly assess its political capacity. This is a key foundation to forming strategy. To figure out what is to be done, it is necessary to answer two questions by whom and how. Without understanding our own collective capacity we risk diverging into abstract proposals as in: let’s break with NDP and form a new party! Let’s nationalize the banks! Let’s build democratic workers control!

These are fine ideas, but will remain just that unless we can figure how we go about actually building the capacity to turn our ideas into a reality. This requires a firm grasp of what can undertaken in a given moment (achievable goals) and how these goals will help build capacity for further struggle. This helps avoid burnout and forces a constant assessment of the political terrain.

Conflict within unity

A sustained political organization that exists beyond a movement means we can debate and draw lessons from our own collective political practice. Unlike narrower issue-based organizations, being part of a political organization built for long-term struggle means you can develop shared collective politics and lessons from practice – and sustain these politics and practices when movements eventually subside. Politicization is not a moment of enlightenment, but part of a process of development. Without building these collective lessons we will forever be doomed to make the same mistakes and have the same debates.

For most of us our politics is our individual understanding of this world drawn from our experiences. I would argue that this is too limited a conception of politics for people on the left. Our politics should also reflect a collective process of understanding. Socialism shouldn’t be reduced to a set of individualized beliefs and practices, rather be understood as a process of collective struggle and collective debate.

This doesn’t mean political organizations should think in unison about every single issue. This is why it is important that we embrace debate and voting in our political organizations. Being outvoted in a political organization doesn’t mean your ideas are wrong. Rather, they just failed to sway the majority in your organization at that given moment. What determines the correctness of political ideas and strategies is how they play out in real life.

But this type of democratic politics requires a shared commitment and collective self-discipline to carry out the decisions of your organization that were democratically decided upon whether you voted for them or not. It is the only way to know whose position was right or wrong. You can’t claim to accept democratic decisions only when your position wins a vote. This doesn’t mean you have to fully agree with the majority. Open democratic debate should be encouraged even after decisions had been made.

It does mean that you abide by the decision and do your best to work alongside others in good faith. In fact by carrying out a tactic or strategy that you think is wrong, you can more easily argue later why it was wrong – showing the correctness of your politics in practice is much more valuable than hammering home why your position is right in the abstract. It also helps foster a culture of open and productive debate that can help breakdown entrenched differences – being wrong or changing your position based on the facts of the ground becomes much easier.

This type of discipline is what builds solidarity and allows for honest debates based on shared experiences (our failures and successes) to take place.

Left regroupment?

Does this mean we should simply be advocating and organizing the coming together of the already existing left groups. As Hal Draper stated years ago this is a will-o’-the-wisp fantasy. We can’t ignore the real political differences between existing left groups in order to create the appearance of left unity. A coalition of social movement groups and smaller political groupings into something beyond a temporary alliance means uniting around a minimum program – the bare bones upon which we can agree. The fragile nature of this unity means it is doomed to fail in practice.

The idea of rebuilding or regrouping the left only makes sense if we see it as a process of building politics and cohesion through shared organizing.

Those who argue that we need a new leftist party in Canada (and I am sympathetic to this idea) need to situate this desire within an understanding of the conditions required to make this a possibility.

Uneven context

The challenges to building an strong left vary considerably across Canada. For instance in British Columbia the opposition to the pipelines and the teachers’ strike creates a wildly different context than what is happening in Nova Scotia. Also outside the major urban centres there exists almost no organized leftist politics beyond the local NDP riding associations and the union movement.

This doesn’t preclude the possibility of building an anti-capitalist leftist party or organization that extends across the country. It just means it can’t be done right away or with a one-size fits all model that ignores regional and local conditions.

What we should be doing?

The major problem with the left in all regions and locales is that it falls far short not on ideas, but on actual organizing. We are living in a moment when people are thirsting for an alternative to our existing system, but few are able or willing to offer a collective path forward.

The unevenness of political struggle and the balance of social forces in the country means that the formation of a new national political organization is not currently possible. But there are things we can and should be doing to help facilitate the conditions that would make it possible.

There is a rigid formula to organization building that should be avoided. It says that we must build social movements and then left organizations will follow. This step-based conception of organization-building faces two problems. The first is the idea of how this transition from rising social struggle to organization will take place. Who will argue for this transition to a left organization? Individuals? A loose networks of activists?

There is a spontaneous flavour to the rigid approach about how these movements may give rise to political expression that avoids the hard work of building the will and capacity to form organizations. Outside of Quebec, English Canada has been largely unable to build any significant and lasting left organization since the anti-globalization movement kicked off in the late 1990s.

The second problem is the idea that building sustained social movements actually requires the left to be somewhat organized. Political organizations help build social movements (though not exclusively). Vibrant social movements are always a blend of diligent long-term organizing mixed with moments of spontaneous upsurge. The problem is that the fractured and disorganized condition of the left means the ability to deepen and extend social movements is hampered. For instance, the fight back against Canada Post has been sporadic. This partly reflects the lack of strong leadership inside the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. But it is more of a damning indictment of the left’s inability and lack of capacity to undertake sustained and coordinated campaigns that could translate social opinion on this issue to social action.

From the Peoples’ Social Forum to an organized left

The Peoples’ Social Forum will be a perfect time to talk about how the left organizes itself and orients towards struggle. There are groups beyond the usual suspects which point to new possibilities. Solidarity Halifax, Solidarity Against Austerity (Ottawa), We Are Oshawa, the Left Front (Vancouver), Making Waves (Windsor-Essex) and the London Common Front are just some of the groups that have formed over the last couple of years that could help facilitate a larger leftist formation. Of course, these groups vary in practice and structure and confront very different local conditions. But they are groups that lump together people who share a definite anti-austerity and even anti-capitalist political outlook and a desire to organize together. The last part – a desire to organize together – is key. But we must do this with an intention of eventually going beyond creating exclusively locally focused groups.

At the Peoples’ Social Forum we need to figure out ways to start to connect these existing groups (and advocate the need for new ones) along the lines of shared struggles and practices. Perhaps arguing for some common campaigns or days of action that these groups could coordinate on would be helpful (Canada Post, anti-pipeline, no fracking etc.). The point isn’t necessarily the specific campaign itself, but building the ties that bind – getting these groups (and hopefully new ones) to start working together, talking together, and drawing shared lessons.

We need to build the organizational instruments to lay the groundwork for a political left organization in this country that is greater than the sum of its parts. This means creating a culture of democracy, accountability and discipline within our organizations to sharpen our politics and make us all better organizers. It also means creating organizations that are designed for long-term political struggle beyond a single issue, organizations that orient towards their right in order to help organize the broader class. To this end we should be constantly asking and trying to answer these three questions: what is to be done, what is to be done next and by whom?

If we are serious about addressing the mountain of problems we face, than it is high time we get serious about how we organize ourselves to fight for a better world.