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Layton's Death Means Less Than The Weight of a Feather

Much hoopla is being made, and many tears being shed, amongst certain sectors of the self-proclaimed "left" about Jack Layton's recent death.  (For those readers who live outside of Canada, Jack Layton was the leader of Canada's New Democratic Party.)  But why should we, as the Canadian left, feel any grief for the death of a parliamentarian who was, by the time of his death, no longer a social democrat, let alone an anti-capitalist?  It's not like the people who are currently writing Facebook homages to the man knew him personally; these dewy-eyed obituaries are all about how he was a great crusader for justice or some other nonsense.  And yet Layton was more to the right than the classic social democrat traitor, Eduard Bernstein, and was leading a New Democratic Party that has become little more than a Trudeau era Liberal Party.

Mao often quoted Szuma Chien's proverb about how some deaths carry meaning that is heavier than a mountain whereas other deaths mean less than the weight of a feather.  For Mao the proverb was used to argue that those who died in the service of the people––who fought against capitalism and imperialism––were those whose deaths possessed real significance, whereas those who died in the service of the exploiters––or who were exploiters––should be treated as insignificant.  The point was to reverse the normative valuation that the oppressors place upon life and death, a valuation that claims that the only lives/deaths that matter are those of the upper classes, military heroes, politicians, and all the running dogs of the exploitative world system.

Jack Layton was not a comrade but a parliamentarian who supported capitalism and imperialism.  He has supported Canadian imperialist adventures, most recently in Libya, just as he has never been interested in dealing with the Canadian state's internal colonialism.  He supported a soft occupation of Afghanistan, just as he wanted to maintain ties with Israel at the expense of Palestinian self-determination.  Clearly he was never seriously interested in getting rid of capitalism, otherwise he would have never joined a social democrat parliamentary machine, but only in making it more "liveable"––which, of course, means making it more liveable here at the expense of increased exploitation at the peripheries of world capitalism.  And under his command, the NDP has progressively moved more to the right so that now it barely resembles even a social democratic party.

I'm not saying that we should celebrate Layton's death, I'm just saying that we as the left should not care because the death of a liberal capitalist politician should be treated as meaningless.  I care more about the anonymous deaths of women and children in third world factories than the death of a man whose policies, if he had ever been in power, would allow these factories to continue functioning.

The point is not that a human being's life isn't worth mourning but, rather, why some of us on the Canadian left seem to care about mourning the life of a social-dem-turned-liberal, meaning another capitalist pig no matter what clothes he wore, when we don't mourn the deaths of other people we don't know personally.  All the celebratory obituaries about the man, after all, are pitiful attempts to make a welfare capitalist seem like some sort of champion of the people––they aren't about how "sad it is when another human being dies."  Would the same people writing these obituaries shed a tear if Harper died?  No, of course not!  And though Harper is more to the right than Layton, they're both part of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.  If you're a leftist, and if Jack Layton isn't a member of your family, then there is no reason to mourn another running dog.


  1. Here, here, JMP! This might be the most awesome MLM post I've read in awhile. I couldn't even look at FB today with all these tributes to Layton.

    Some deaths are certainly more worthy of attention and recognition than others...I think of all the martyrs fighting a people's war and the victims of imperialist exploitation who don't even get a grave marker when hunted down by the state.

    I'm suddenly reminded of this quote from capital on the commodity form and money: "some men count for more when inside a gold-braided uniform than they do otherwise"

  2. Glad you liked it, even though it was a pretty rushed post. It's also been intentionally misread by "socialist" idiots who are still under the impression that Layton was a socialist: apparently I'm "cold" and "provocative" - even though, all I was saying was pretty much "if you on the left don't mourn the death of anonymous random liberals, why mourn the death of a liberal politician because you think he's left?"

  3. Thanks JMP and let me be quick to throw my weight behind this post as well. It is quite sad for the family, and for many people who loved him of course, but I have been frustrated by the expectation that I am supposed to feel special sadness for the passing of Jack Layton (rather than, for instance, civilians killed by NATO bombs in Libya that Jack Layton decided he wanted to pay to drop). I don't see how it would be any different from, for instance, Tony Blair dying. I certainly wouldn't express any special sadness for that either. Tony Blair was just as part of the "labour" movement as Jack Layton and did just as much to bring his party success in Parliament. Both eagerly voted to launch conquests abroad.

    The only way I have been able to make sense of it is if it's assumed that most of the Canadian left are open or crypto nationalists and Canadian exceptionalists that consider Jack Layton or the NDP to expressing something "Canadian" or progressively Canadian, rather than expressing something universal and remarkably consistent: socialist international right-wing politics, which really have no special Canadian element, although they are expressed with nationalist trappings. It's no surprise the way his hagiography is being constructed in the media right now. If he was a fighter for our class, not loyal to his capitalist fatherland, he would not be remembered in this way.

  4. By the way, speaking of intentional misreading, we in Ottawa had said as much as you before and took a lot of flak for tipping sacred cows. So far, I imagine the narrative to be something about how the communists sabotaged the election and then killed Jack and danced on his grave. I am taking a Facebook hiatus and have never been more glad as the last two days.

    It was already getting nauseating watching so many self-proclaimed "radical" people day-in-day out ignore the things that should be getting their attention and give attention to frivolity or worse in a way that clearly reflected nothing but the line and interests of the NDP. Not interested in reading page after page of quotes from Layton's hopey changey final letter.

  5. Hey, John Francis, thanks for the support comments. Good points about Tony Blair, and definitely a good point about the "hagiography" that is being promoted.

    I just posted a follow-up post about misreading and the left's inability to examine structure and, instead, to be trapped in humanitarian (and hypocritical) confusion.

    As an aside: I am happy that I am not on Facebook - though I do get to see what's posted from others passing things along!

  6. Good post, Josh. I also found myself pretty blown away by the Jack Attack on facebook et al. The problem, of course, is that someone like Layton is positioned in a way that makes him a target for right-wing maniacs like Christie Blatchford as much as he is (and ought to be) a target for the left. Which means, I think, that we need to rescue him (or his memory/legacy) from the right, only to denounce his politics from the left! (For all the reasons you rightly highlight, and so many more.)

    That is, his legacy needs to be critiqued for the right reasons. I worry that there is very little space for that right now, which says much about the state of the left in Canada (ouch.) Some of this can probably be attributed to the fact that when things are bad, even the appearance of someone progressive who has some power to make changes seems appealing. Powerlessness works in favour of social-dem/liberals like Layton, since he provides the false promise of change. Given the extent to which people have bought into that picture of Layton, it's no surprise that people have reacted violently to your post. And, to a certain extent, one can understand why.

    But your critique needs to be made, all the same, and your post is right on point. In particular, I think it needs to be put front-and-center that Layton was on board with Canada's role as a violent imperial force, in Libya, Afghanistan, Honduras and Canada's own indigenous nations, ravaged by Canadian imperialism for hundreds of years, and still targeted as aggressively as ever. These and so many other crimes are on Layton's hands as much as anyone's. Somehow, that has to be part of the discourse right now.

  7. Your points about right-wing maniacs are apt, but I also think that there is a knee-jerk reaction to respond to right-wing maniacs by defending someone who is also not a leftist: as you say, critique him from the left. So that being said, I don't believe there is anything to "rescue" from the right... If anything we should point out that Jack Layton was someone who was part of their capitalist club: this is part of critiquing from the left. Similarly, in the US, some sectors of the mainstream left rush out to defend Obama whenever there's an attack from raving idiots in the Tea Party: the point is not to defend Obama but to attack the Tea Party and talk about actual politics––politics that both Obama and the Tea Party oppose.

    The only people who have reacted violently to my post are, as I say in the following post, champagne socialist bourgeois humanists. These people talk about the people, about how Jack Layton represented the working class, without ever having done a social investigation or having any substance to back up their charges.

    More than anything this hasty post, and the more explanatory one following, are about interrogating why the left that sees themselves as "left" are willing to eulogize someone who, at the end of the day, is a class enemy.

    This is especially ironic given the date of Jack Layton's death: he died on the 40th anniversary of George Jackson's death, a true revolutionary who died in the service of the people, and, keeping with the metaphor of this post, compared to Jackson's death, Layton's is the weight of a feather.

  8. In my view, the widespread reaction to Layton's death and the increase NDP support in the last election tells us that many Canadian working people, while not yet anti-capitalist, aren't buying the give everything to the rich, privatize and diminish services line. It also suggests the possibility of qualitative change. In other words, communists better have their shit together because Canadian people could be looking to us for leadership sooner than we imagine and and when the tide comes in, it could come in quickly.

    Meanwhile, an NDP government should be better than a Conservative government for people and the environment. It will, of course disappoint leftists and given the enormous pressures on it, will likely participate in imperialist adventures.

    Frankly, I think that the NDP, Greens, etc. should either be conditionally supported from the perspective of united front work or ignored because building the communist movement is the important thing to do.

  9. Actually, I think the widespread reaction to Layton's death and the increase in NDP support did not come from the Canadian proletariat but from a rather privileged sector of Canadian liberals and the self-proclaimed Canadian left (which is a very specific population in and of itself). Otherwise we still have the same statistical fact that there is an implicit boycott of the elections amongst the masses.

    Forty per cent of registered voters do not vote.... add that a far larger population of people who do not even register and you have a Canadian majority that rejects the electoral system – and not simply out of apathy. As many of us have argued, on this site and others, when you actually speak to the people who do not vote (as we did during the elections) you discover that they despise every party because every party: evicts them, sends the police into their neighbourhood, etc.

    I do not believe that it is our job as leftists to support any of the possible governments at this historical conjuncture. I am not going to repeat the arguments for that here since I have made them at multiple points. So in this way, I side with one half of your either/or statement: things are already drifting so far to the right after years of "conditionally supporting" the supposedly social democratic groups (and the NDP is not even social dem anymore) and so, yes, "building the communist movement is the important thing to do."

  10. Good points. Thanks for the serious reply. Indeed, a large part of the working class, particularly the most oppressed don't vote at all. And the complaints you report are valid. How successful will efforts be to win these folks to a revolutionary perspective? Meaningful victories on the ground, I suspect.

    I'd like to press my points a bit further however:
    - I disagree with the tendency write off activists and politically aware people at various levels of understanding because they are not yet communists. They may not be our primary constituents but if we get involved in movement work, they will be there. We have to be able to work with people and have good relations. Many are sincere people who care and trying to do something good

    - It is an error to considers workers with university education as not real workers. I've always worked for wage but still find myself thinking of the working class as them instead of us. Interesting since we demand access to education for working people

    - The state has the largest collection of resources not owned by capitalists. Politicians have some say about how those resources are used and the extent to which they are preserved

    - I appreciate the efforts of those deluded souls working to preserve and improve the good things the state does (like providing my dad with good care during his in his health crisis)

    - Since the '50s no communist organization has come close to having the positive impact that reformist movements have had (e.g.civil rights movement, women's movement, green movement)
    - Up until the recent recession, there has been no capitalist crisis since the depression and WW2. There have been ever sharpening contradictions however
    - A capitalist crisis that shakes the foundations of the system seems likely within the next 50 years, for environmental reasons if nothing else
    - Reformism is about making things better (or less worse) in the present and giving us more breathing room for the future. It is not a long term solution
    - Attitudes can change very fast (qualitative change). If the more prosperous sections of the working class no longer feel safe in their workplaces and houses they could stop being complacent supporters of the status quo
    - The most important task is to build a party that is the humble, smart, sophisticated, tool of the working class to be ready to grow exponentially when that qualitative change happens
    - As the MLM movement grows, it should avoid small pondism, that is trying to be the biggest fish in a small pond (how many people know that the Communist Party of Canada still exists?)


  11. I agree generally with your points, but I think there are moments of divergence that call for some clarity. While I do think the MLM movement needs to avoid "small pondism" (and should definitely not be sectarian), it also should avoid: a) Blanquism; b) complete liquidation within social democratic movements. Taking a principled stand without being sectarian requires a certain level of organizational sophistication, however, and there is always the possibility of making errors on either side.

    1) I don't at all believe in writing off people who are at different levels of awareness, but I do believe that a movement should not concentrate all of its energy on the same left in-club where we just preach to the converted and that has become an echo chamber that is now degenerating into a social democratic movementist mire. Of course we should be there and should be willing to work with people there, but since these people profess to be "socialist" we have a responsibility to call into question the fact that there is a gap between theory and practice.

    2) I have no problem with calling university workers "workers", especially since I am a worker at a university who has been on strike and who now spends every year fighting for contract labour. I have often tried, however, to draw a distinction between "worker" and "proletariat" which is an important distinction to be made and provides clarity to what we mean by the revolutionary class. You speak of "prosperous sections" of the working class later on: academic workers are such a prosperous section. It also became extremely clear to me during the 3903 Strike three years ago (I wrote some articles on this) that a lot of academic workers have a serious problem seeing themselves as workers because our consciousness is very petty bourgeoisie even if we're below COLA. So although I think it is important to organize in university spaces, I think the left should be focusing primarily on organizing the "hard core" of the proletariat that is definitely outside of the university, and also outside of the trade union movement, and that we've neglected to organize for decades because it's safer to just build student movements or go to the unions. Again, it's not that I don't think these movements should be neglected, just that the workers here shouldn't be our sole focus.

    3) The state does have resources and I am not an anarchist who thinks they should be scrapped. I believe in using bourgeois rights in a non-bourgeois manner and I think that supporting grass-roots reformist movements is important. At the same time, however, I draw a distinction between becoming involved in a grass-roots reformist movement and wasting our time supporting a parliamentary party that has been drifting to the right and that, despite all our support in the past, continues to drift to the right. Yes reformist movements have been powerful but they have only been powerful when they have emerged from below: voting and the electoral system are not what get us even these liberal reforms, though we're taught to think so––we won these reforms on the streets. Moreover, we have a responsibility in these reform movements to represent (as aforementioned) a principled position and, by demonstrating in our actions and behaviour, the limits of these reforms even while we work to support them: this is what I mean by using bourgeois rights in a non bourgeois manner.


  12. 4) The capitalist crisis that shakes the foundations of the system is already here and it began in 2008. It's worse than the Great Depression and the climate of austerity is one in which socialists need to band together to actually fight for socialism rather than just demand reforms. Again: this is to say that reforms aren't important, but that we have to remember our prime goals… so many of us call ourselves "socialists" and will even say, on paper, that we believe in overthrowing capitalism, but we don't practice what we preach and this discontinuity is noticed by the masses. It is telling that the socialist left has liquidated itself into mainstream trade union movements and asking only for reforms rather than building something sustainable and being open about raising consiousness; it is also telling that the "movementism" that led to the WTO protests in Seattle and the FTAA protests in Quebec City has also fizzled out so that, by the time the G20 in Toronto happened, it was a sad caricature of itself (this is not to say that i didn't participate and I think it was important to participate) because it was never able to put forward any coherent demands. In any case, the left dropped the ball on organizing the subjective conditions to cope with the objective conditions of the crisis: and now that it's here, and now that it is producing a climate of so-called "austerity" that will take away everything reform we fought in the streets to gain, it is useless to keep asking parliamentary parties to preserve what they can't preserve because they themselves are part of the boundaries drawn by this climate.

    5) At this point I agree with the PCR-RCP that we are in a moment of accumulating revolutionary forces and we need to get our shit together and do so. This does not at all mean being sectarian, engaging in turf wars, or anything like the "smal pondism" you indicate. While I am a grumpy polemicist on this site (hell, it is called "MLM Mayhem") I act differently in daily life: I honestly abide by the positions represented here, and will not lie about them, but I also understand how to work with others with whom I disagree with on the nitty-gritty. As long as they are aware of my politics and do not prevent me from expressing them, and as long as I work diligently and not arrogantly or dogmatically, then people will be drawn to a revolutionary message: the point is to pull in the most revolutionary-minded members of the masses, turn them into organizers, and grow. You don't grow, and this has been proved by history, by: a) being sectarian (small pondish as you put it); OR b) by being Blanquist (hiding your politics and therefore lying to the masses while failing to raise consciousness).

  13. [cont.]

    6) Yes reformism is about giving us breathing room and again I do not disagree with that statement in and of itself. I simply disagree that the left that calls itself socialist should be wasting its time organizing reformist movements when social democrats are already doing this organizing––we can support them but we should be organizing something else. Time and time again on this blog (it gets frustrating to keep being redundant) I have made this point. I have also pointed out, over and over, that we need to understand reformist movements through Rosa Luxemburg's famous analysis of Social Reform or Social Revolution. She argues that reforms are good because they provide breathing room, yes, but that communists have no business wasting all their time pursuing reforms and liquidating themselves in reformist movements because this undermines any possibility of revolution. And right now the reforms produced by capitalism are crumbling and because we keep saying "we want welfare capitalism" instead of "we want the end of capitalism" all we're doing is telling all of the people we organize that the best they can get are reforms. And we definitely do this when we write homages to liberal capitalist leaders and call them "socialist" and cry about how they made the world better when those reforms we attribute to them were won, again, by us in the streets.

    Anyhow, those are just my thoughts. Once more, just so that there's no misunderstanding, I also appreciate the efforts of reformist movements and I don't think these people are bad or idiotic, etc. My point has always been to draw a principled position for how people who call themselves communist and socialist should approach these issues. I can understand, for example, why honest social democrat liberals are upset by Layton's death and this article was not aimed at this population: it was aimed at those who claim to be the socialist/marxist/anarchist/communist left. The point is to interrogate what our supposed anti-capitalism is about, and the fact that our attitude about Layton's death is yet another example that we don't have our shit together and we need to get it together because things are getting worse and our previous practice is doing *nothing* to stop the onslaught of monolithic capitalism.

    I wrote a bit further about the more theoretical reasons behind this hasty Layton post two posts after this one - "Default Opportunism, Again" I think I called it. If you're interested in checking that one out and continuing the argument there, it might narrow down the terms of debate. (Considering that this comment is the size of a post, I might even adapt it and turn it into a post later on, lol)



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