How to Aim for Socialism Without Aiming for It, or The Nature of the Social-Democratic or Social-Reformist Left

The above title is a take on a scene in the movie Enter the Dragon, where Bruce Lee says: “My style is the art of fighting without fighting.” See the end of this post for a description. 

This is a more colloquial or informal way of expressing my point about the need to include the goal or the aim in present actions if we are going to go beyond a society characterized by a class of employers (capitalism) and live a socialist life (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three). It does so by briefly looking at what I mean and then looking at a concrete example of this by a self-declared socialist feminist, Sue Ferguson (or what she calls a social-reproduction feminist).

To start with a conclusion: aiming for a socialist society is just that–incorporating the goal, consciously, of overcoming the class power of employers, including the economic, political and social relations and structures connected to that power and the creation of a society free of class relations and relations of oppression.

Social democrats and reformers (including self-proclaimed Marxists who practically do the same thing), on the other hand, believe (even if they are not conscious of this belief) that it is possible to achieve a socialist society without aiming for it.

The movie Rocky III illustrates what I mean. Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone), who had lost his title of world heavyweight champion to James “Clubber” Lang (played by Mr. T), was being trained by former heavy-weight boxing champion Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers, who won the first match against Balboa in the first movie and lost in the second movie). (There are undoubtedly racist overtones in the movie–see  Siobhan Carter’s  master’s thesis  Projecting a White Savior, the Body, and Policy).

At one point in his training, Rocky said that he would train later. Apollo answers: “There is no tomorrow.” The basis idea is that if you want to accomplish anything in life, you had better not procrastinate–putting off tomorrow what needs to be done today. Social democrats (and the radical left here in Toronto) act like Rocky Balboa did before Apollo Creed criticized him–they believe that socialism can arise in some distant future without explicitly incorporating the aim in the present, just as Balboa believed that he could regain the heavyweight title without incorporating that goal into his present actions. In other words, he believed that he could engage in procrastination.

The social-democratic or reformist left do the same thing. They shift the fight for socialism to some distant future and content themselves with fighting for reforms that fail to challenge the class structure. Their socialism is always pushed into the future as an ought that never meets the present conditions and circumstances; future and present (and past conditions) are severed. 

They may indeed achieve social reforms–as they have in the past, but the claim that they are aiming for socialism is untrue–as was Rocky Balboa’s efforts at training to regain the heavyweight championship of the world until Apollo Creed criticized him.

The social-democratic left (and, practically, much of the radical left here in Toronto and undoubtedly elsewhere) consider that it is impossible to aim for socialism by incorporating it into our daily lives. They believe in magic; an aim can be realized without the aim organizing our activities in the present. 

John Dewey, one of the greatest philosophers of education, saw the distinction clearly in relation to schools. Most of those reading this post merely have to reflect on their own experiences in schools and how schools have often severed their interest in the present and forced an external future upon them. As Dewey noted, in chapter five of one of his two major works in the philosophy of education, Democracy and Education (2004), pages 58-59):

Chapter 5

Preparation, Unfolding, and Formal Discipline

Education as Preparation

We have laid it down that the educative process is a continuous process of growth, having as its aim at every stage an added capacity of growth. This conception contrasts sharply with other ideas which have influenced practice. By making the contrast explicit, the meaning of the conception will be brought more clearly to light. The first contrast is with the idea that education is a process of preparation or getting ready. What is to be prepared for is, of course, the responsibilities and privileges of adult life. Children are not regarded as social members in full and regular standing. They are looked upon as candidates; they are placed on the waiting list. The conception is only carried a little farther when the life of adults is considered as not having meaning on its own account, but as a preparatory probation for “another life”. The idea is but another form of the notion of the negative and privative character of growth already criticized; hence we shall not repeat the criticisms, but pass on to the evil consequences which flow from putting education on this basis.

In the first place, it involves loss of impetus. Motive power is not utilized. Children proverbially live in the present; that is not only a fact not to be evaded, but it is an excellence. The future just as future lacks urgency and body. To get ready for something, one knows not what nor why, is to throw away the leverage that exists, and to seek for motive power in a vague chance. Under such circumstances, there is, in the second place, a premium put on shilly-shallying and procrastination. The future prepared for is a long way off; plenty of time will intervene before it becomes a present. Why be in a hurry about getting ready for it?

We have already seen this severance of the future struggle for socialism and the present struggle for socialism by Herman Rosenfeld, a self-styled Marxist who refers vaguely to socialism a hundred years from now (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three and, more generally, Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Five: More Philosophical Considerations). The focus on reforms above all else and the denigration of the need for incorporating an explicit aim in the present of abolishing the class of employers and the associated economic, political and social relations will at best lead to capitalism with a human face–and not its abolition. 

There are two typical tendencies that express this attitude of severing the present from the future and the future from the present. Treating reforms as if they were, in themselves, somehow leading to a socialist society is a typical trick among the left; they treat the future (socialist society) as already present rather than the present being in need of radical reconstruction. The second tendency denigrates the need for aiming explicitly or consciously at radical transformation of class, economic, political and social structure in the present (which in effect is a revolution–although I believe that politically it is a waste of time to call for revolution–as the sectarian radical left frequently do

The treatment of the present as if it were already the future via current experiences and reforms is reflected by Sue Ferguson, a self-proclaimed socialist, who claims the following  (Women and Work: An Interview with Sue Ferguson):

As I argue in Women and Work, social reproduction feminism provides a strategic focus and direction that avoids the contradictions of equality feminism. Because, in this view, oppression is built into the very ways we reproduce ourselves, overcoming oppression requires reorganizing the processes and institutions of life-making. This cannot happen in boardrooms or by electing more women into state office. It can happen only when people are encouraged to mobilize with others to resist the priorities of the current social reproduction regime, and learn together how to reorganize and take collective, responsible control of the resources of life-making. And in a small way, this is what education worker strikes do: they assert the need for and possibility of expanding and democratizing our life-making powers and resources, of deploying them in ways that prioritize meeting human needs [my emphasis]. 

Do “education worker strikes” really “assert the need for and possibility of expanding and democratizing our life-making powers and resources, of deploying them in ways that prioritize meeting human needs?” Perhaps they do–“in a small way”–but that is not the same as aiming for “expanding and democratizing our life-making powers and resources” at more than a local level. That teachers who go out on strike may well aim to improve their working lives and the lives of their students is not in question. The issue is whether the aim of such actions is of the same nature as aiming for a socialist society. I deny that such is the case in most cases since there is no explicit aim to overcome a society characterized by the class of employers; improvements in working lives and lives of children does not necessarily involve aiming for a socialist society.

By claiming “in a small way,” that education workers somehow, is the same as the “democratizing our life-making powers and resources” is a social-democratic trick. It equates reformist changes at the local level with radical changes in  social structures and relations.

This social-democratic trick is reiterated in her book (she goes by Susan in the book), Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction, pages 135-136:

That is, strikes do not have to be exercises in revolutionary commons to model alternative ways of organizing life-making. The potential to unleash creative energies and ideas about how to build a better world and engender social bonds to counter the alienation and isolation of capitalist subjectivity is inherent in the very act of organizing with others to improve control over the conditions of work and life. Perhaps the most vivid recent example of this come from the 2018 wave of education worker strikes to hit the United States. Eric Blanc’s interviews with more than a hundred people involved in the West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma strike movements lead him to conclude that strikers were “profoundly transformed” [my emphasis] by their participation. They connected in new ways with co-workers they had barely known and had little in common with culturally and ideologically; they strategized, waved placards, shared meals, chanted, sang, and camped out on the state legislative grounds together; they jointly endured moments of disappointment, debate and defeat, and even bigger moments of celebration. And they connected in new ways with the communities they worked in as passersby honked and waved in support, as strangers identifying them by their distinctive red T-shirts approached them in grocery stores to thank them for their job action, and as students and parents stood on their lines and rallied in support. In the words of Arizona teacher Noah Karvelis, interviewed by Blanc:

Since the strike, there’s a definite sense of solidarity that wasn’t there before. When you go into school and see all of your coworkers in red, it’s like they’re saying, “I’m with you, I got you.” It’s hard to even sum up that feeling. You used to go in to school, do your thing, and go home. Now if there’s a struggle, we go do something about it because we’re in it together. It’s not just that there are a lot more personal friendships—we saw that we had power.

Such solidarity did not magically appear. It had to be built. The strikers were divided by all the usual social cleavages. Not all teachers were in the union and most were white. They differed in political allegiance, religious affiliation, and income (in West Virginia bus drivers, cafeteria cooks, custodians, and other support staff walked out as well). Moreover, as social reproductive workers in the public sector, the walkout risked creating a wedge between themselves and the community they served. Rather than deny these divisions, organizers and strikers consciously addressed them—figuring out imaginative ways of addressing needs and drawing people in: bilingual signs and chants, GoFundMe sites to help lower-income strikers make ends meet, soliciting food donations, and delivering care packages for families who otherwise rely on school lunches. As Kate Doyle Griffiths observes, strikers temporarily and partially reorganized the relations of social reproductive labour “on the basis of workers control for the benefit of the wider working class” while also fostering solidarity with community members. And although strikers did not generally politicize around racial issues, Blanc notes, they were self-consciously inclusive and won the support of the majority black and brown student base and their families through their calls for increased school funding and (in Arizona) opposition to cuts to Medicaid and services for those with disabilities.37 These are not-so-small and incredibly important examples of how strikers organize new ways of life-making, ways that defy the alienating, individualizing experiences of everyday life under capitalism.

Of course, such struggles and organizing should be supported, and they do indeed form a possible bridge between the conscious aim of struggling in the present for a socialist society and the creation of such a future society. However, let us not idealize them. They are not necessarily expressions of a conscious aim to overcome the class power of employers. As I have shown elsewhere (see for example The West-Virginia Teachers’ Strike and a Socialist Movement  and   Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part One), such movements do not necessarily involve such an aim. By equating such struggles with the conscious aim to overcome such class power, social democrats in effect claim that we should not struggle to aim for such a goal in the present by, among other things, criticizing the limitations of the aims of such strikes and movements.

To not question whether there has indeed been “profound transformations” is to be blind to the force of habit in working-class and community behaviour. Not just decades but centuries of indoctrination, of exploitation, subordination and oppression are not going to magically be transformed through such efforts. To overcome such situations will take years if not decades of internal struggle in order for a conscious movement aiming to overcome the class power of employers to arise in the present and not vanish because of superficial adherence to “social justice” and similar general terms. The present leftist movement must aim for a socialist society in diverse domains and integrate such domains in as coherent a fashion as possible.

The other tendency of splitting the present from the future and the future from the present by denigrating the need for radical transformation of economic, political and social structures. frequently by casting the term “revolution” in a purely negative light. As I noted above, I do agree that using the term “revolution” is a waste of time politically; workers and community members will likely look upon such talk as akin to religion. Nonetheless, their attitude of avoiding the term “revolution” often leads to reformism by being unable to offer anything other than reform and more reform–as if many reforms will not be absorbed by the capitalist economic, political and social structure. The class power of employers and the capitalist state have many resources to engage in reformist politics if there is sufficient organization and power to threaten the power of the class of employers.

I have referred to Jeffrey Noonan’s opposition to “revolution”–but he has little to offer but more reforms within the present class structure (see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Four: The Myth of Creating Socialist Spaces). Another example is the article written by Richard Sandbrook and posted on the Toronto-based Socialist Project website (Racism, Class Solidarity and Systemic Change). Here is what he claims:

Non-Reformist Reformism

But what strategy would horizontal unity serve? Any viable strategy would be gradualist. Compromises would need to be made to build a majority coalition in a (quasi)democratic process. But gradualism does not signify mere reformism or cosmetic changes. The widespread disaffection and the challenge posed by invigorated populist-nativists demand genuine structural changes. Policies to de-commodify labour, money, health care, knowledge, and education; to democratize the economy by promoting cooperative production; and to deepen political democracy must be pressed at the local, national and, eventually, global level. But there would not be a “big bang”, in which society is irrevocably transformed; instead, we would have non-reformist reformism.

The problem with the above view is that Mr. Sandbrook does not discuss how such reformism in the present can be prevented from leading–as it so often has in the past–to incorporation into the class structure and to the continued control of our lives by a class of employers. I seriously now question the real intent of those who claim that they aim for a socialist society and yet not only accept compromises that need to be accepted because of the present limited power but freeze such compromises into an ideology of the left (such as the terms “fair contract,” “fair or free collective bargaining,” “fair wages,” “decent work,” or the pairing of the term “Fairness” with the movement for the fight of a minimum wage of $15.

Mr. Sandbrook appears to see the need for avoiding both reformism characteristic of the social-democratic left and the sectarianism of the radical left:

If this is the only viable and morally justifiable path, the progressive movements would need to steer clear of two pitfalls that have ensnared earlier experiments: Third-Wayism and revolutionism. The first represents compromise to the point of co-optation, leading to renewed hegemony; the second, an unwillingness to compromise in order to preserve the ideal, leading to irrelevance.

Avoiding Two Pitfalls

The Third Way, as it developed in the early 1990s, reflected the attitude “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” …

The lesson is clear. Reformism that, in the longer term, reinforces the hegemony of neoliberalism and plutocracy is self-defeating. When times get hard, voters dessert “socialist” parties that lack an alternative vision.

The opposite pitfall is a purist approach that, positing a narrow choice between capitalism and socialism (or “barbarism or socialism”), refuses to compromise with the former. In the academy, this approach is often associated with a scholasticism that is strong on abstract theorization but weak in developing concepts with any popular appeal. The purists are also prone to an irritating smugness, as though moral superiority is more important than winning power.

Starkly casting the alternatives as binary is problematical for two reasons. It strikes many people as unrealistic. How, for example, do we totally transform society and economy to replace markets with participatory planning at all levels? And secondly, it essentializes capitalism. The latter comes in a myriad of forms. If its essence is private ownership and free labour, there are many degrees.

Capitalisms are not all the same. The Anglo-American model differs from the Scandinavian model, which differs from Chinese authoritarian state capitalism. The Keynesian accord introduced what many have called the golden age of capitalism, which neoliberalism ended. A gradualist program of decommodification, democratization, and equal freedom is a voyage that begins within capitalism; however, we may not even be aware of the precise point at which we traverse the boundary.

There are indeed variations in the kind of capitalism, and some forms are definitely preferable to other forms. This hardly addresses the issue of how any “gradualist” approach is going to maintain the aim of eliminating the general class power of employers over our lives in the present without being co-opted. (The Scandinavian model is, in any case, itself in retreat because of general changes in capitalist class structures and the idealization of such models in the past and present). Mr. Sandbrook does not address what workers and community members who live in any form of capitalism (as depicted in The Money Circuit of Capital, for example), are supposed to do to overcome the general nature of capital. Or is the general nature of capital somehow just or fair?

Decommodification, for example. of health services, does not mean that those who fight for such decommodication or those who implement it or those who use such decommodified services aim to achieve a socialist society. (See A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist). Decommodification or the conversion from gaining access to commodities (including services) by means of purchase and sale to direct access or use without the mediation of purchase and sale may or may not express the aim of achieving a socialist society.

My experiences in Toronto and elsewhere is that we need to aim consciously and persistently in the present for radical changes in various domains (with the focus on the work relations dominated by a class of employers). We indeed will have to make compromises because we lack the necessary power to do otherwise–but that also should form part of our own consciousness–and not the acceptance of such compromises through such social-democratic phrases as “decent work” or “fair contracts.” To achieve such deep-seated consciousness and aim will require years if not decades of internal struggle within working-class communities and workplaces.

We need to use the aim for a future socialist society in the present to realize such a future society while all the time modifying specific goals within that general aim based on current conditions and circumstances.

As I indicated at the beginning, the title of this post is a take on a statement made by Bruce Lee in the movie Enter the Dragon. The following is a description of the scene by Brian Freer: 

There is a scene in the 1973 kung fu classic “Enter the Dragon” where a man (Peter Archer, who plays Parsons] walks around a boat bullying passengers. When the man accosts Bruce Lee by throwing air strikes near his face, Lee unflinchingly looks at him and replies, “don’t waste yourself.”

“What’s your style?” the bullying man asks.

“The art of fighting without fighting,” says Lee.

“Show me some of it.”

Lee tries to walk off, but the bullying man insists he show him what the “art of fighting without fighting” looks like. Since the boat was crowded, Lee suggests that they take a dingy to a nearby beach for more space. As the bully boards the dingy, Lee releases slack from the rope, watching the dingy with the bully inside drift away. Lee then releases the rope to the bully’s onetime victims who laugh heartily as the dingy takes on water from the crashing waves.

Although this isn’t the most exhilarating fight scene in “Enter the Dragon,” it is clearly the most complete victory in the film. Lee uses wit to overcome his opponent without ever raising his fists. He is without fear and clear of mind. The bullying man wanted to fight so badly that he was willing to ride a dingy to a remote island to do so.

Freer then philosophizes: 

There are many reasons to fight. It’s deep within our nature. And yes, sometimes we have no choice. Ideologues tell us the world is a scary place. They attempt to influence our interpretation of the world to reinforce our fears. And fear is the real bully in the boat. You see, Bruce Lee’s character mastered his fear. He liberated his mind from it. Fear is a tarp that covers our understanding. It stifles our self-control. You have to look it right in the eye, because when you must finally resort to violence, you’ve clearly run out of ideas.

I take something different from the scene. Firstly, Lee did not directly engage in a fight with the bully at the time, but enabled those who were bullied to hold the power to let go of the rope attached to the dinghy. 

Freer fails to ask, however, the following obvious question: What happened to Lee and the bully once they landed? Would not the bully try to fight Lee? The art of fighting without fighting might have been a short-term tactic, but the goal of avoiding a fight would might not have been achieved. The fight might have occurred on the island where they landed. The aim of avoiding a fight was put off to a not-so-distant future. The aim was perhaps to, avoid a fight under existing conditions of riding the boat

Freer simply ignores this aspect. Lee would undoubtedly have known that there would exist the possibility of a fight in the near-future. Or perhaps Lee would  hope that, having arrived on the island, the rules of the tournament would convince Parsons to not engage in a fight?  We could speculate forever, of course.

In the case of the social-democratic left, the art of aiming for socialism without aiming for it, ignore the need to aim explicitly for a socialist society–a society without classes. The social-democratic or social-reformist left do not aim to achieve a classless society but rather a humanized capitalist society. Their view, explicitly or explicitly, is that aiming for such a society is idealist or utopian at present (and will, practically, forever, be the case). 

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Four: The Myth of Creating Socialist Spaces

Professor Noonan, an academic leftist, argues that the Nemak return to work provides lessons for the left. Indeed, it does–but unfortunately he fails to draw further lessons from the situation.

He says the following:

As regards work, the structural dependence on paid employment is what makes people working class. This structural dependence is what, above all, democratic socialism would overcome. However, it cannot be ended overnight, but until it is ended workers’ short term struggles are always in danger of becoming victims of wars of attrition. The capitalists, with the law typically on their side, can wait workers out or bleed their resources dry (Unifor was facing fines of 25 000 dollars a day and individual officers 1000 dollars per day). Overcoming the dependence requires long term struggle, but dependence means that your ability to survive without the work you are refusing to do is time-sensitive in the extreme.

Given the claim that the capitalists have “the law typically on their side,” should not the conclusion be drawn that the law as such should be criticized? That reference to “fair contracts” and “decent work” which trade union representatives often express, should be criticized? Professor Noonan remains silent about this. Why is that?

Should not union training include, systematically, the bias of law in relation to workers’ interests? Does it? Should that lack of inclusion of a critique of the bias of law be itself criticized?

He further writes:

There are three general sorts of changes. On the one hand, there are concessions which are made in order to return the situation to normal. This sort of concessions appears to be all that Nemak has offered. At the other extreme, there are revolutionary changes which would create completely new social institutions. It is easy to find abstract arguments that contend that no major social contradiction can be resolved without revolutionary changes. It is much more difficult to find concrete arguments that are powerful enough to actually mobilise revolutionary forces. The key problem here is that no one can say with any certainty how a new society would work (beyond general assurances that it would solve everything because it would be the opposite of this society).

Professor Noonan then dismisses both possibilities:

If concessions do not address the problem and a progressive revolution is not in the offing in the foreseeable future, [my emphasis]  hope must be invested in a third possibility: smaller scale structural changes that create space and time for for deeper and wider changes in an unfolding process of transformative social change. How is that to happen if workers cannot survive outside of paid employment (or its social benefit equivalent) for long enough to survive for the long-term? The answer is to struggle for changes to the nature of employment. The Nemak crisis, and the analogous crisis in Oshawa offer opportunities for just these sorts of demands.

The reference to “progressive revolution” is dismissed because it is not possible in the foreseeable future. What does that mean? That substantial changes in class relations will arise in the short-term is undoubtedly unlikely. However, Professor Noonan performs a sleight of hand by shifting the future to some far off horizon. This is the method of social reformers of various persuasions–they shift radical change to the distant future rather than seeing than any radical change will always have to begin in the present. Carl Weathers, in his role as Apollo Creed, told Rocky in the movie Rocky III: “There is no tomorrow.” All progress will always have to begin in the present–but as John Dewey, the educational philosopher and logician pointed out, the present is a moving present.

It may appear that Professor Noonan does indeed include the future in the present by struggling “for changes to the nature of employment.” Let us look at what Professor Noonan has to say on this score.

He says:

GM Workers in Oshawa are being subjected to the same loss of their factory as Nemak workers in Windsor. Like Nemak workers, the GM workers did not meekly accept the GM decision, but instead fought back. They have won a concession (which is nevertheless a victory and another good lesson): the company will consider using a small fraction of the space and workforce to produce parts. But there are other ideas which, while bold, are not impossible within existing institutions. However, if they were realised [my emphasis]  they would point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism. At the same time, since they are realizable here and now they do not depend upon a “revolutionary break” for which the required social and political forces do not exist.

In response to the Oshawa closing, Sam Gindin urged the CAW leadership to go beyond negotiations to work on the transformation of the plant into a publicly owned and worker-controlled facility for the production of electric vehicles. Markets would be initially guaranteed by government contract. Financing and start up costs would also require government support that is impossible to imagine with a capitalist party in power, but not impossible to imagine with a worker friendly government (an NDP radicalised by the threat of a election drubbing?) Instead of treating capitalism as a fixed and final reality that workers must either accept today or overthrow tomorrow, it works in the spaces created by democratic institutions and norms to find means of inserting an anti-capitalist principle and practice into the heart of the system. It shows that there are real alternatives to survival and creative activity than capitalist labour markets that can be realised right now, creating the time we need to fundamentally transform society by expanding non-capitalist employment spaces. Short term dependence on paid capitalist employment is reduced by people putting themselves to work in a non-capitalist firm. The system is not transformed, but a living alternative is created that serves as a real, not text book example, that another world is possible.

It is certainly necessary to propose ideas that “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.” Are there not, however, conditions for such ideas to be realizable in practice?

In the crisis situation in Oshawa, it may be that workers are more prone to accept solutions that point beyond existing social conditions. However, in a crisis situation, without prior preparation, it may well be that workers will grab at solutions that protect their own immediate interests at the expense of longer-term interests. It may also be that workers’ interests can more easily be divided so that the employer can take advantage of such splits. To counter such possibilities, it is necessary to prepare workers beforehand.

Thus, has their been adequate criticism of the structure of authority at the Oshawa plant? Has there been discussions about democratic control at work? Or have the workers there been constantly indoctrinated with the view that their work is “decent work?” That the collective agreement was a “fair contract?” That they received “fair wages?” That the power of an employer to close a workplace is “fair?” As I argued in another post, was there a critique of collective bargaining beforehand in order to prepare workers for going beyond the collective agreement? Or was there silence over the legitimacy of collective agreements? If so, would that not lead to confusion among many workers? If so, does such confusion not tell against the formulation of any consistent policy towards the large number of workers who will lose their jobs at the GM Oshawa plant?

Another relevant point here is how Professor Noonan speaks of “creating spaces”: the space was not created by the workers but by the employer (the decision to close the Oshawa plant). The workers reacted to this decision. It would have been much more intelligent to criticize the union ideology systematically beforehand rather than feeding into the union ideology of “decent work” and “fair contracts.” Did Mr. Gindin engage in such criticism? Or was he afraid to do so out of fear of alienating union representatives?

Furthermore, Professor Noonan relies on another sleight-of-hand by slipping in the fantasy that the New Democratic Party (NDP) would somehow magically turn into “a worker friendly government (an NDP radicalised by the threat of a election drubbing.” Like Professor Noonan’s logic in relation to the so-called harmonious interests of workers at the University of Windsor where he works and the management of that university, he assumes what he must prove: How the NDP can be converted into a “worker friendly government” under conditions of an economy dominated by a class of employers. The NDP and union representatives may think they are “worker friendly,” but they also share the same beliefs as their center and right-wing counterparts: the legitimacy of the employer-employee relation. The NDP may indeed enable workers to organize more easily and institute certain social reforms that may benefit workers more when compared to other political parties, but that does not make them “worker friendly.” They are more “worker friendly” than the other major political parties, but that is all. This does not magically convert them into a “worker friendly” political party. (Nonetheless, I am seriously thinking of voting for the NDP in the upcoming federal election on October 21, 2019 since their policies–such as a definite 360 hours of working for an employer required in order to be eligible for unemployment insurance as opposed to the current 720 for regular workers and 910 hours for beginning workers–are more specific than the vague guaranteed livable income, for example, proposed by the Green Party. Such vagueness can be transformed into minimal changes in income.)

Finally, it is typical of the academic left (and Sam Gindin falls in that category for, despite not being an academic technically, he shares many of their beliefs) that they avoid “creating spaces” in their own immediate environment. What, for example, did Mr. Gindin do to “create spaces” during his long stint as research director for the Canadian Auto Workers union? Did he try to create spaces that could “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism?”

What of Professor Noonan? Does he try to create spaces that could “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism” where he works? Might that not threaten his own livelihood?

Middle-class academics who are sympathetic to workers’ situation could provide welcome skills (such as research skills) to workers. However, they often lack the passion and emotions involved in real struggles for power: as Aaron Schutz, in his book Social Class, Social Action,  and Education: The Failure of Progressive Democracy points out:

But then, as Alinsky repeatedly pointed out, middle-class people were
pretty comfortable already. It did not really matter that much to them,
in concrete ways, whether anyone actually listened or not as long as they
had their say—in academic publications, for example. Their children were
unlikely to suffer much as a result. Near the end of his life, however, Alinsky
turned to efforts to organize the middle class, increasingly convinced that
those on the bottom needed allies from the middle if they were ever to generate
enough power to foster the change they needed and that the middle
class would also benefit if they learned to organize.

Middle-class leftists in Toronto and surrounding areas, as far as I can see, not only do not engage in some of the preparatory work necessary to enable workers for struggles that “would point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism,” but go out of their way to oppose such preparatory work.

Before the announcement by GM of the plant closing in Oshawa, Mr. Gindin met with some workers from the plant. I did not accompany Mr. Gindin to Oshawa , but his preliminary account of a meeting between him (and, I believer, Herman Rosenfeld) and some workers at Oshawa did not go very well; it might have been a problem of logistics or some other problem, but I doubt that there was any real discussion of the limits of the present arrangement of employers controlling the conditions of life (the factory) of the workers in Oshawa (and elsewhere). Mr. Gindin, out of fear of alienating workers, probably did not bring up the systemic issue of the power of the class of employers and how that power plays itself out in various domains.

Furthermore, Professor Noonan fails to justify his assumption that worker cooperatives somehow magically provide “a living alternative is created that serves as a real, not text book example, that another world is possible.” Cooperatives have existed in the past and exist in the present, but to argue that they somehow automatically provide a living example of an alternative is quite debatable. How does Professor Noonan justify his assumption? He does not.

Even if the GM Oshawa plant were nationalized and turned into a worker cooperative, there is no basis for assuming that there would be a magical transformation that would point towards a society within a different logic from the logic of capitalism.

Mondragon, a large set of cooperatives in the Basque region in Spain, may inspire some to seek alternatives–but then again it may not. This requires research. One author certainly questions whether Mondragon provides “a living alternative.” Sharyn Kashmir, in her book The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town, provides a different assessment of cooperatives. For example, she quotes a worker at Mondragon (page 122):

Begofia was in her late twenties and had been a member of one of the
Fagor co-ops since she was eighteen years old. She had always worked on the
assembly line. Over dinner, she told me that she felt exploited at work, “just
like any worker in any firm . ”

“What about the fact that you share ownership of the firm ?” I asked.
“It means nothing to me” she replied. Begofia also said she felt “apathetic
” about the governance of the cooperative. “I only go to the annual meetings
of the General Assembly because it’s required. Everybody goes because
they have to. If we didn’t have to, we wouldn’t go.” What she resented more
than anything was being told that she was participating in managing the cooperative
and that “it is your firm .”

As Begofia spoke, I began to hear the words “participate,” “cooperate,”
and “your firm” in a new way ; listening to her, they sounded imposing.
Had I gotten the sense that Begofia was alone in her feelings, I would not have
taken her complaints so seriously. However, she continually spoke for her fellow
workers, implying that her experiences of alienation and feeling manipulated
by cooperativist ideology were common . Furthermore, most of those at
dinner had lived their entire lives among cooperators and did not seem surprised
by what she said. To the contrary, they offered anecdotal evidence of instances
of workers’ apathy and frustration that they had heard from friends
and relatives.

This does not mean that there should be no struggle to nationalize the Oshawa plant and to convert it into a worker cooperative. However, such a struggle should explicitly try to link a critique of the power of employers as a class to this particular situation–and to the inadequate solution of nationalization and worker cooperatives in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers.

Worker cooperatives in themselves, as long as they are unconnected to a larger critical movement to supersede the power of a class of employers, will unlikely “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.”

As Minsun Ji points out (‘With or without class: Resolving Marx’s Janus-faced interpretation of worker-owned cooperatives,” Capital & Class, 2019,  page 3):

Among the conditions or factors that might shape the potential of a worker cooperative movement in any given time, the most important for Marx is the manifestation and political mobilization of class consciousness (or the lack thereof ) among cooperative practitioners. In the end, Marx did not so much focus on promoting a certain type of labor organization as being most conducive to transformation (e.g. worker cooperatives or labor unions). Rather, he focused more on the importance of class consciousness within labor organizing, and on the development of radicalized class consciousness among workers, whether through the expansion of labor unions, worker cooperatives, or any other institution of worker empowerment.

In order to become a significant and sustainable challenge to capitalist systems, Marx believed that cooperatives had to grow beyond their small scale and reach capacity to change the mode of production at the national level. To reach this kind of national scale, truly transformational cooperatives would have to become politically natured, and to foster the radical ‘class-consciousness’ of worker members. It is the presence or lack of this focus on developing and mobilizing class consciousness, not the nature of the labor institution itself (i.e. cooperative or union), that Marx believed to most powerfully shape the radical or degenerative tendencies of local forms of labor activism.

Since Mr. Gindin refuses to engage directly with the issue of the power of employers as a class (such as, for example, questioning union rhetoric about “decent jobs,” “fair contracts,” and the like), I predict, as I did before, that the Oshawa plant will not be nationalized and converted into a worker cooperative. Mr. Gindin and company have not done the necessary work to prepare workers to engage in a struggle that seeks to go beyond the class structure.

Even if the Oshawa plant does become worker-owned, it is unlikely to form a space that points “beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.”

In other words, and contrary to Professor Noonan, for such a strategy to work, it is necessary to start now (and not in some distance future) by querying the class structure. Professor Noonan continually seeks to fly away from the need to question the legitimacy of the class structure from the beginning. Why is that? Perhaps because of his own class situation?