What's Left 2017-11-11 Volume 100

Reading the news today is like living through a poorly written dystopian novel, but without any of the exciting grittiness that comes with a real apocalypse or the fun of Zombieland. And, the current contradictions make it difficult to focus on a topic to write about. We have economic growth with rising inequality. Right-wing populism without a populist left-wing response. The decline of social democratic parties, but with a rising acceptance of democratic socialist values. Increased access to knowledge, but less real understanding. Increased politicization, but no clear path to political power. It makes one's head spin.

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What to write about?

Reading the news today is like living through a poorly written dystopian novel, but without any of the exciting grittiness that comes with a real apocalypse or the fun of Zombieland. And, the current contradictions make it difficult to focus on a topic to write about.

We have economic growth with rising inequality. Right-wing populism without a populist left-wing response. The decline of social democratic parties, but with a rising acceptance of democratic socialist values. Increased access to knowledge, but less real understanding. Increased politicization, but no clear path to political power.

It makes one’s head spin.

We are also reliving some strange version of history where what was old is new again – and not in a good way. Far-right racist, misogynist, and homophobic views have found a voice again. In so many ways it is not a new voice, but the same voice that has echoed within previous generations many had thought could not possibly return.

What’s most concerning is that this language has even found its way into some union halls, the traditional working class spaces for debate and education. At a recent labour conference, I witnessed a discussion on advancing constituency rights devolve into polite sounding prejudiced and ignorant tirades against “those people”. It was interesting to see the New Reactionary’s use of postmodern pseudo-scientific language of oppression as a shield against criticism. It seems the far right have adopted much of the language of postmodern undergraduate lectures to help them obscure reality.

While the irony of the right-wing’s sardonic recycling of postmodern language is not lost on many of us on the materialist left, it has successfully confused many labour militants into silence. Even left-wing spaces that have a history grounded in materialism have allowed a caricature of the liberal left notion of free speech to plant itself. Identity empowerment is now realized on a purely individual level, meaning everyone identifies as an oppressed minority group of one – even the three fascists in a room of hundreds.

In response to a recent display of open ignorance on a convention floor, a 30-year veteran of militant socialist labour organizing described it as the “Trump effect”: where what would have been a space for constructive dialogue and learning has been turned into a safe space for ignorant people to voice ignorant views. She compared it to the union halls of the 1970s; the difference was the lack of angry shouts from the audience and the mic pushing back against the hate.

The real disaster is the apparent inability of the left to respond to ignorance and hate with anything that looks like an organized and structured opposition. The activists, academic caste, and vanguard are supposed to organize these spaces to maximize the democratic process, raise consciousness, and provide room for constructive debate. After all, working class education happens best when stories of oppression are told in concrete ways by those experiencing that oppression at a union meeting. However, spaces that create room for ignorance silence those legitimate voices.

When the politics of our spaces are shifted like this, we have a serious question to consider: Is the movement’s leadership so ill-prepared to deal with even disorganized expressions of ignorance and regression? If the answer is yes, then it will not be long before we see organized hate.

This is not to say that all is lost. Many who express dismay have come to the same conclusion of what needs to be done. But it is clear that skills have to be relearned and it might be that an entire generation does not understand what has been happening. Veterans of the movement, comrades, left-wing militants, and materialist socialists from the identity politics tendencies with the skills to organize in these spaces seem to be either much older or younger than the current leadership.

So, what is the answer?

All those who truly understand the current political reality need to start working together. That means actively breaking-down the language barriers that have plagued recent attempts at dialogue. Old and new styles of organizing and talking about these issues with members and the general public need to be deployed if the left is going to be effective at pushing back.

It is incumbent on all of us – from the old guard to the new recruits – to remember their socialist ideology, activist beginnings, and re-read some of our (very) old heroes that have dealt with all this before.

To start, we need to back away from opposing generically labelled “identity politics”. For all our problems on the left, it is too easy a target and resolves nothing. Also, it is anti-historical to believe that identity politics are that much more abundant today than it was 50 or 100 years ago.

For some context, just have a look at the recent dialogue around protest on campus that blames students and youth for getting it all wrong.

Correcting the misunderstanding in the media about the nature of protest on campus could fill the empty library shelves on those campuses. Many social commentators talk about students as if they are a single group. And when the general confusion between liberalism and “left-wing" and you get idiotic “analysts” complaining that students’ demands are wrong or poorly constructed. As if the students had simply hired the wrong political consultants and communications specialists.

People who protest on campus have usually never protested before. So, from the outside, it always looks a little ridiculous to those who have gone through this already.

So too, there is nothing new about the general politics of “identity” of the broader protest movements of today.

For example, I cannot think of a single protest movement that was not predominantly liberal in its expression on campus. The anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the workers’ rights movements (like the sweatshop-free movement) were all lead by individualist liberal slogans on campus. All these movements had leftists involved in the leadership, but they almost never expressed their mass orientation in a Marxist or materialist way – with the notable exception of some solid Canadian Federation of Students campaigns like Drop Fees, No Means No, and the Ethical Bulk Purchasing program.

The book Confrontation on Campus, written in 1969 about the ongoing Californian student mobilizations, show this clearly. Apart from the specific references to the Vietnam War, the book could have been written about current campus political confrontations. Same debates, same calls.

We can go even farther back and see a similar pattern. The Young Generation by Lenin was about what he saw as the ridiculous orientation of youth and students in 1899. Lenin wrote about this again in 1918-19 while despairing over the almost singular focus of the socialist youth on gender, sex, and “destroying bourgeois notions” of love and family in newly liberated communities after the Russian Revolution. Much of this we would describe as “identity politics”. This did not stop that generation from building a global socialist program from a country that was mostly pre-industrial.

At the time, even the Young Communist League was fighting for urban vegetable gardens and their journals obsessed over the idea of “free love” and eliminating patriarchy. Not exactly the primary call of the older materialists.

The difference between Lenin’s writing and the writing that criticizes youth and students today is that when Lenin critiques the dominant liberal ideology within this group, he does so in a non-condescending way.

Lenin writes, “We must be as patient as possible with their faults and strive to correct them gradually, mainly by persuasion, and not by fighting them. Frequently, the middle-aged and the aged do not know how to approach the youth in the proper way; for, necessarily, the youth must come to socialism in a different way, by other paths, in other forms, under other circumstances then their fathers [sic].”

We can all (re)learn from this orientation. As before, both older and younger generations must unite around a common analysis of history, understand our failings, and be strategic in the demands we make and tactics we use. Older generations should remember that they were similarly obsessed in their youth and that the younger generation can look to the past to see that their elders were once fighting similar fights.

When we see this, the chasm between a faulty analysis and a broader materialist struggle is not so vast and the fight against regressive, ignorant, and opportunist far-right ideologies is easier.


Review: Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga

Toronto Star journalist Tanya Talaga takes a dive into a crisis based in the northern community of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Since the year 2000, seven Indigenous high school students have died in circumstances that are too similar to discount. Questions around the events leading to their deaths remain unanswered to this day. In every case, it was found that the police systematically failed to provide the families with due process and a sense of justice. In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report in 2015, Seven Fallen Feathers is required reading.

At the heart of this essay is the Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay. The school is for aboriginal students and has been run by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) since its opening in the year 2000. The school’s mandate is to develop a sense of identify for First Nations youth, while providing a learning environment where they can advance their education. The school welcomes students from thousands of kilometres away given the geographical location of many Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario. Students often must leave their families in order to go to school, finding arrangements in boarding houses or relatives for a place to stay.

As a result of leaving their families in order to pursue an education and hope for a better future, seven youths lost their lives. Their names: Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau, and Jordan Wabasse.

Through an exploration of the history and surroundings of Thunder Bay, Talaga carefully constructs the stories of each student. She collects facts that were made available through police reports, interviews, and, ultimately, the inquest into the deaths of seven students. But there’s more: she also weaves in historical information that sets the context for the realities faced today. Through the stories of each student, we also read about the intergenerational trauma at play within Aboriginal communities as a result of the residential school program. She explains Jordan’s principle and the government’s failed commitments when it comes to accessing health care and education for Indigenous youths. She highlights the mountain of work and evidence brought to light by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Talaga’s work brings stories to the fore when mainstream media have covered them up for decades: “Families are still being told—more than twenty years after the last residential school was shut down—that they must surrender their children for them to gain an education. Handing over the reins to Indigenous education authorities such as the NNEC without giving them the proper funding tools is another form of colonial control and racism.” categories: [“What’s Left”]

The 94 recommendations published by the TRC two years ago have yet to be implemented. In the spirit of engaging in an ongoing process of reconciliation, Tanya Talaga provides the analysis and knowledge needed to strive for a hopeful future for Indigenous communities in Canada. Learning about the situation in Thunder Bay is a responsibility of all Canadians to face the facts when it comes to the treatment of First Nations peoples—in history, yes—but also today in our current world and province.

Seven Fallen Feathers is a difficult read. It deals with death and racism; it tackles pain and suffering head on. Telling the students’ stories is also an act of hope and healing based on the certainty that things can be better, and that they must. This book is a solid piece of investigative journalism and should be read, and shared far and wide.


Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga