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Back on the Picket Lines!

I never tire of quoting Marx's statement about historical events repeating first as tragedy and then as farce, particularly since it often applies to all of the ways in which we are haunted by history and, in this haunting, end up repeating the mistakes of the past.  Now that my union local is back on strike, that statement seems entirely appropriate: if my union's strike in 2008-2009 was the tragic repetition of its previous strike in 2001-2002, then the repetitions called forth by this year's strike have already been enough to place it on the road towards farce.

My analysis of the 2008-2009 strike can be found here, here, here, and here.  Much of what was outlined there, particularly the limits of trade union consciousness and a university local, as well as the way line struggle in even these spaces emerges, still holds for the current strike.  There are, of course, differences this time around that make the event of 2008-2009, with all of its limits, far more radical than the current state of this labour disruption.

Whereas 2008-2009 was a strike where the leadership was split along lines that were traditional to our local––the Bargaining Team wanting to settle due to the onslaught of conservatization, the executive attempting to hold the Bargaining Team to account––today's strike happened despite the executive's best attempt to prevent its emergence.  Indeed, the majority of the current executive was the product of a CFS-backed slate that ran on the principle of not going on strike, thus mobilizing the right wing departments to vote it into power, and called this "union renewal."  During this entire round of bargaining, the majority of this executive functioned in defiance of the active membership only to find itself stymied when the employer, realizing that they were dealing with bureaucrats who didn't even possess an iota of traditional trade union consciousness, gave them the kind of deal that any employer would offer union leaders who publicly proclaimed their resistance to striking.  But now a strike has been dropped in their laps and they don't know what to do.

Barring the minority faction of the executive––those beleaguered leftists who ended up on this leadership body with a "union renewal" slate––most of the local's recognized authority, including the chair, are careerists.  Many of them are marxists on paper, and are properly working on recognizable "marxist" research, but have already proven themselves liberals in practice.  Here we find the usual suspects of the pseudo-communist milieu: a member of the International Socialists, an arrogant and chauvinist chair who would love to be part of a mainstream socialist organization, a corps of petty-bourgeois individuals who silence dissent by playing cynical games with identity politics language. Left in form and right in essence: the same problem hampered the previous strike, but it was only the Bargaining Team and its supporters, and not the executive and the "union radicals", that was guilty of this charge.  This round the farcical nature of this repetition is apparent: even the formal elements of the executive majority's "leftism" is something of a joke.  They can't even represent a proper trade union consciousness, let alone a revolutionary consciousness.  By now their disdain of the active membership is so obvious that picketers are calling them out, complaining about their patronizing attitude, wondering why they're walking the lines for a leadership that didn't want them to walk the lines in the first place.

Back on strike.

The 2008-2009 strike, for all of its problems, was initially conceived as a political strike; it happened because a left executive worked hard to mobilize a membership around demands that could not be answered by an institution embedded in capitalism: an end to the casualization of labour and precarity.  It was a strike against austerity just before David Cameron even coined the ideological terminology "age of austerity"––before that austerity apparatus took shape––and it was around the time that strike ended, with the workers being ordered back to their jobs by the provincial government, that Cameron first spoke of capitalist "austerity".  That strike's inability to remain a political strike was due to multiple problems, which I discussed in the aforelinked essay, but can be boiled down to a simple fact: the left lost its connection with the masses early on, spent the entire strike fighting a rearguard retreat against a rightist line organized around Bargaining Team autonomy, and this was partially the result of the hamstringing of the executive by pseudo-left identity politics that worked very well with a union consciousness that functioned at the lowest level of economist ideology.  Even still, there were pockets of radicalization that allowed the strike to operate as a political strike, unevenly and in fits and starts, for eighty-eight days––the longest strike in the sector.  Adopting the May 1968 slogan, "be realistic, demand the impossible," this strike lasted because it did resonate with the most committed rank-and-file, those who were holding the lines in the bitterest weather and becoming more radical as a result.  If we were out-maneuvered by a membership that barely walked the lines but came out to every general membership meeting to support the Bargaining Team's right to bargain without interference, this is only because no organization was able to coherently organize the sentiments of mass rebellion into the kind of theoretical unity necessary to abide by that "overly militant" political line that would never be recognized by the employer.  The "realists" in the union still complain that this strike was "ruined" by the union's "militant radicals", ignorant of the fact that it is only because of these radicals that––despite being ordered back to work––the deal achieved in 2008-2009 was better than any deal the union had achieved ever since.  But still a deal that fell short of that isolated and disorganized war against austerity-before-austerity.

Now the potential of a political strike should have been conceived by the executive as more relevant. After all, and unlike last strike, this is the first time in Toronto where two locals in the sector are out on strike at the same time: York's 3903 and the University of Toronto's 3902.  The possibility of joint pickets and cross-radicalization is imminent: make it about austerity again, especially since we have the name, and do what the isolated strike of 2008-2009 couldn't do.  But again, repetition as farce rather than tragedy: the previous strike was a tragedy because it attempted to position itself within a political context that was barely emergent; the current strike, faced with the fact of austerity measures that its sister local is also resisting, has an opportunity that the previous strike did not.  But this opportunity is already being bungled, which speaks to the possibly farcical nature of this repetition. Both the executive and the bargaining team just wants to settle, after less than a week of walking the lines, and has gone out of its way to prevent any membership participation that would disrupt the social peace between capital and labour.

Last Thursday, during a rally on one of the lines organized by the Revolutionary Student Movement (and MCed by an RSM member who was also on strike), an executive member showed up to take the microphone and inundate the rank-and-file with a rah-rah message about the executive's will to bargain for the membership.  When he was asked by the RSM member deprived of the microphone if it was true that that the executive had chosen to terminate weekly general membership meetings, this hack hummed and hawed about how such meetings were "unconstitutional", that the executive gets to decide (but with input that can be "entertained"): toothless town halls instead of membership meetings where the rank-and-file can make binding decisions.  The entire line called him out, told him that in the 2008-2009 strike there were weekly GMMs.  Twenty-four hours later, both the executive and the bargaining team signed a tentative deal with the employer that was concessionary.  Ratification begins Monday, forced without any membership discussion, despite the fact that this so-called "marxist" executive had a political strike dumped in their laps.  A farce indeed!

But the farce continues… The moment the strike was announced, all of the pseudo-leftists from the last strike emerged from the woodwork to make the same demobilizing demands.  Someone again declared clapping "silencing", forgetting that every politics must necessarily silence its class enemies. All attempts to mobilize the membership against executive fiat were treated as oppressive since, apparently, "anti-oppression" is social peace between the rank-and-file and those "leaders" who want this rank-and-file to adapt to employer austerity.  These were the very same people who "waved the red flag to bring down the red flag" in the last strike, posing as radical by attacking the executive under the anarchist auspices of questioning leadership.  And yet, this time around, they are challenging those who attack an executive who wants to cancel general membership meetings and settle immediately!  So much for their leftism: it really is all about settling with capital and getting back to work––in both strikes they sided with those who would end the strike as quickly as possible, and this should be telling.

On Monday this farce is scheduled to end: the ratification vote will be put to the membership after only less than a week of striking.  The deal is only marginally better than the original deal––it is still concessionary––and there is no will amongst the executive or bargaining team to transform the economic demands into political demands.  If this strike is not to be a farcical repetition then the membership will reject ratification and return to the lines.  But even if this is the case, something more is required, something that transgresses the limits of economism.  In the 2008-2008 strike some of us recognized this requirement; nobody will even encounter this recognition if they are pulled away from the lines before radicalization becomes possible.


  1. Hi there,

    good article, apart from the scary bit about 'silencing the class enemies'. when you write like this, i wonder who you would silence. there is an element of totalitarianism, of the left variety, in this tone. who would and should be silenced? Would you silence Ernest Zundel for claiming there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz? Would you silence the bourgeois and decadent culture Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus? would you silence the churches and religious institutions? book burning? once this starts there can be no end to it. the revolution will end up eating its own children, just like Marat in the french revolution.

    You have to accept liberal rights of free speech, as put forward by John Stuart Mill, and only upon that can any discussion of socialism take place.

    1. No, I don't have to accept the liberal rights of free speech and I've explained elsewhere why I believe this and why it is completely anti-progressive to begin with an understanding of speech according to this position. Nor do I think that socialism is about "a discussion" since it can only be established through class struggle.

      On this topic, as I have argued at so many points in the past, I am completely opposed to the unscientific analysis of "totalitarianism", or your claim about the revolution eating its own children that comes from Burke's analysis of the French Revolution. I actually uphold Marat and the Jacobins (for the time at least) as did every progressive in Europe. Hell, even Victor Hugo defended the Terror in Les Miserables, attacking the way reactionaries understood it.

      As for the rhetorical questions about who and what should be silenced, which implies the slippery slope fallacy, I think this is something that there should always be struggle over if and when a socialist situation emerges. On a more larger and more theoretical level, a political line that actually *is* political will always silence someone because a political position is necessarily exclusionary (i.e. to be an anti-fascist is to exclude fascists and thus silence them within the discourse of anti-fascism). But outside of that, again I don't accept J.S. Mill's notion of free speech which itself *is just as silencing* as the contradiction of his corn dealer example proves.

    2. but let me ask you; what has been learnt from the 20th century?
      there is no point winning if its a Stalin in power.
      i hugely respect marxism, but in my opinion there is no ethical component to marxism. i'd be curious what you view is on ethics and marxism ie deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics etc. i dont know what the ethics of marxism is.

    3. What has been learned from the 20th Century struggles is precisely that which you disparage is the only way to get rid of capitalism, but that the failures should teach us how to develop things further rather than rejecting what was scientifically proven to work in revolution. My book concerned that; maybe you should read it.

      As for there being no ethical component to marxism, are you serious? There are books upon books about Marxism and ethics, as well as everything Marx and Engels wrote about ethics. But since "ethics" is a thing of philosophy, and since you have just claimed that all of ethics boils down to "deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics" it is clear you're taking a limited approach to ethics. I would recommend that you read: a) Engels' comments about ethics in Anti-Duhring; b) the work of any marxist philosopher (from Ollman to McMurtry) where the problem of ethics is dealt with. The fact of the matter is that historical materialism, being a science, is actually not in itself an "ethics" just as biology or physics is not an "ethics"… ethics is something that has to do with philosophy, which is something that attempts to clarify meaning of a theoretical terrain (in this case the meaning of morality) and so historical materialism can have many different ethical approaches within the framework it establishes. What is that framework? That if society is divided into classes, and the motion of history is class struggle, then any ethics is always a class ethics. Which is why a Marxist would say that the ethical problem with your statement above ("there is no point winning if it's a Stalin in power") is an intensely ethical claim based on very particular class perspective, that is the ruling ideas of society––the bourgeois perspective.

      While I agree that there is no point in winning if we are to repeat the dead-ends of the past, I think that it is an abdication of every ethics to believe that this past was the way it was painted by cold war ideologues or that we cannot learn from both its successes and its failures, but to understand them properly. Otherwise there's no point in doing anything if we're doomed to struggle in a manner that will result in the prolongation of capitalism.

      So rather than popping in with an anon account, spend some time reading about these issues if you "hugely respect marxism" and the more critically relevant debates within the tradition. Maybe read some of what I've written here in the past that synthesizes this kind of perspective. Hell, read my book .

  2. You are just like Bob Avakian; he says ' we need morality, but not traditional morality'. however, he never says what the new morality is!

    I see this is common to all marxists, they have no real solid morality at all.

    1. No, I said a lot more than that. I pointed out why there was a problem with talking about an "ethics" in the sense that was popularized by bourgeois morality. Then, to the charge that marxism lacks an ethics, I pointed out that there are a variety of philosophers who have discussed what this ethics would be, some of whom I mentioned… the very kinds of people who say "what the new morality is." Take, for example, McMurtry's work on the "life ground of ethics" that other philosophers, such as Jeff Noonan, have done a lot of significant work developing. My main argument, though, was about how historical materialism, being put forward as a "science", is a theoretical terrain and, being such, is not about ethics/morality but requires philosophical interventions to explain the meaning of what morality would be based on the truth procedure of this terrain. Does biology by itself have an ethics? Does chemistry? No, but we all know that we need ethical interventions on these terrains for very good reason. So too with marxism and there *are* a variety of thinkers who have actively written a lot about this.

      Your last comment is just rhetoric and far from logical. Indeed it's baseless: it is common to all marxists that they are unethical? Really? Yeah, J. Edgar Hoover said pretty much the same thing; the entire red scare was based on the claim that a lack of morality was common to all marxists. This is a trollish comment.

  3. the charge that Marxism lacks an ethics is obvious. this is a common charge, and you have in no way shown me otherwise.

    i think that basically, as Nietzsche suggests, socialism is nothing more than secular christianity, and marxism has incredible resemblances in its mythical structure to Judaism, Christianity, Islam. it is hard not to notice it. Even Zizek and Badiou suggest this ( see Zizeks the monstrous perversity and badiou's st. paul).

    marxism has nothing to say of everyday moral choices. it is just a mode of production narrative. i think marxism is good to understand the mode of production, but its a bit hard to believe, ie have faith, in an ideology that flopped so badly the first time round.

    liberalism is also falling apart, and it is partly because it has no ethics, at least in its contemporary form.

    all immoral ideologies such as marxism and liberalism, are doomed to failure.
    heretical marxism, non-marxism, is to take marxism, but read it heretically.

    1. And you in no way have responded to anything I have said except relied on arguments from authority (Nietzsche says this, Zizek and Badiou say this, etc.). All you have done is demand that I have faith in your claim about Marxism being about faith claims––funny, no?

      Try to at least think.

    2. Honestly JMP, you are much too lenient with these ridiculous comments. Sometimes it's just better to delete them and leave it at that.

    3. I would also add that it's particularly funny that you referenced Nietzsche. Of course he found socialism similar to Christianity, etc. (not that there is any evidence that he bothered to read Marx and Engels) because his analysis of these things was on the level of slave/master morality. He thought that the Paris Commune was a demonstration of herd mentality, for fuck's sakes. The similarity has to do with his belief that religion has to do with collectivism, as opposed to some heroic individual master morality… which, of course, is just sublimated bourgeois morality on his part. Marx and Engels never denied that early forms of popular religious movements possessed glimmers of socialist consciousness, but claimed that these were distorted/mystified. Their argument, that Nietzsche could have learned a lot from, was that the values of the masses received a distorted form in the only avenue that was possible in those periods: religious mystification. It was not the common morality of these movements that was the problem (i.e. respect of the other and the masses, solidarity, collectivism) but the way in which this morality was distorted according to a religious doctrine. Nietzsche also does a reading of history but instead of seeing it from the perspective of the masses, sees it from the perspective of the "masters".

  4. i think a more Marxist and at the same time a morally better version of Marxism is that put forward by John Holloway, 'change the world without taking power'. Thats what i call revolutionary. Maosim is so dated and seems like a fish out of the water in the 21st century, to paraphrase Foucault.

    It is better to think in autonomous, non heirarchal, anti authoritarian terms, like the Zapatistas shunning the allure of state power. Nietzsche should also be read heretically, against himself, deconstructively, non-nietzschean politics. Walter Benjamin has much to teach us still, perhaps more than Mao. ( there are certainly more journal articles about Walter Benjamin than Mao in English anyway)

    we no longer even have 'imperialism' in the Leninist sense; you should read Hardt and Negri's Empire and Multitudes, and you should figure out what went wrong with Marxism-Leninism the first time round.

    The model of the future will emerge from such groups as Occupy, not from Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

    1. This is the last comment of yours I'm going to allow since it constitutes trolling and demonstrates an ignorance to much of what has been written on this blog. It also has nothing to do with this post.

      1) Holloway's theory is far from revolutionary. It constitutes doing nothing at the the end of the day and has been critiqued severely by this.

      2) Calling Maoism a fish out of water because there are not a lot of journal articles (lol) or because of something Foucault said is a terrible argument and ignores the fact that there have been PWs since 1988, including a civil war in India, that is Maoist. But I guess because first world academia is not looking at these things than Walter Benjamin (and by the way I do like Benjamin) is more relevant than Mao. This is complete eurocentric ignorance, it also ignores the fact that Mao, following Lenin, led a world historical revolution and revolutionary theory develops *through revolution*.

      3) I already mentioned that I dealt with a lot of these kinds of "movementist" arguments in my book, including the belief that the world can be changed without taking power (just how is that revolutionary when it means *not* pursuing revolution) and a bunch of other movementist pseudo-revolutionary positions. Before spewing out these very banal movementist arguments that you somehow think are logical, despite not realizing all of the problems in their inability to understand history or what it means to make revolution, take a moment to study the critiques of these positions. Take a moment to realize that this is a blog whose author has written extensively on this issue, even publishing a small book on the matter.

      4) I have read Empire and its analysis is garbage. Do you really believe that the nation state no longer figures into the way in which global capitalism functions? The only people who really think that Empire has any value these days are, again, first world academics who aren't political economists. Oh, and I wrote an article about Amin and Deleuze and Guattari, included in the downloadable articles on my top bar, that explains why Empire is a shite analysis.

      5) None of this has anything to do with the blog article in question.

  5. hi there,

    i'm not the anonymous above, altho it is off topic. Have you written anything or what do you think about Race Traitor movement, treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity etc. This project has some Maoist roots, i believe.

    1. The Race Traitor movement definitely came out of the anti-revisionist movement in the US but I haven't written anything about it. I have, however, written the odd piece here and there on aspects of the anti-revisionist movement as a whole.

  6. hi,
    i'd like to reply to your misconception of my position on ethics. Of course Marxism makes moral claims, and most marxist activists are morally committed, ie they believe that racism, homophobia, anti semitism, islamophobia are all wrong. However, what is the basis for these moral and ethical views?

    there is no basis at all, because as you say, Marxism is a science. if it is really a science, then imperialism is not a moral insult to throw at people such as Bush. imperialism is not in itself, if it is a scientific term, either good or bad, anymore than water boiling at 100 degrees is good or bad.

    I dont see what the basis of marxist ethics is, what is its framework. with leninism it seems to me to have a consequentialist/utilitarian ethics " the ends justify the means" etc which veers at times on Deontology " to rebel is justified" is a moral statement par excellence. It is not in fact true in all cases.

    so, i see that marxists make moral claims, and insist on their own moral superiority, but there is little basis for it.

    I think Marxism needs to be wedded to a well thought out ethics. I think Badiou is trying to do this.

    1. I'm going to allow this through since it seems to be in good faith, and not like some of the anon comments, though it is still not about this post in general. Here are some thoughts:

      1) My general point is that while marxism puts itself forward as a scientific theoretical terrain, the nature of this terrain is such that it demands philosophical intervention to clarify a lot of things, including ethics. There are things about this terrain that demand particular ethical commitments precisely because of its main thesis: the doctrine of class struggle. Once you grasp this as the basis, then it motivates certain ethical commitments regarding racism, sexism, etc.

      2) In many ways the ethics that is promoted by this terrain can be boiled down to the concept of necessity (and thus its connected concept of freedom) that Engels brings out in Anti-Duhring and claims is more important, and motivated by a scientific approach, than vague moral philosophies. Hence, I don't think either utilitarianism or deontology by themselves have much to do with this, though necessity/freedom is something that covers the ground of both approaches while being neither.

      3) As noted before, a lot of marxist philosophers have tried to explain what this means and have done so for a very long time. Is more philosophical intervention of the ethical type required? Of course: it's not going to be completely finished, and there are competing claims. I agree that Badiou is trying to do something that is useful here (not that I always agree with Badiou), particularly with his work about how the situation [of the science, though this is what I would add] does provide the ethical framework.


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