Forwarded from Ernie Tate (John Clarke)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Mar 13 18:00:33 MST 2001

Comments on OCAP’s campaign to "bring the government to its knees."

By Ernest Tate,

March 11, 2001

Although the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty has done -- and is doing --
many good things and is worthy of support from the labour movement and
socialists, this does not absolve us from the responsibility of taking
OCAP’s leader, John Clarke very seriously when he asks us to support a
political campaign that is based on a strategy which completely
mis-estimates the present level of working-class consciousness in Ontario.
He has spoken several times -- to loud applause -- at Rebuilding The Left
meetings, but his statements have yet to be discussed in any detailed form.
His Five Frequently Asked Questions On Our Fight Against Harris, a short
article prepared by him for the graduate students at York University,
allows us to begin an examination of his views. This is a contribution to
that effort.

Here are some points, by no means exhaustive, for consideration:

1) John Clarke, and he is not alone here, completely mis-estimates the
tremendous achievement of the Ontario Federation of Labour’s "Days OF
Action" campaign against the Tory cut-backs when it mobilized hundreds of
thousands of workers throughout the Province in huge demonstrations.  To
this day many leftists do not appreciate the significance of those events
in developing working-class consciousness. A fight went on throughout the
labour movement against more conservative elements in the unions to develop
support for the campaign. What was ignored by many on the left was that in
each workplace where attempts were made by local  union leaderships to
rally support for the "Days Of Action", a battle often ensued with
management over the threat of penalties that would be imposed on those who
would be absent to participate in the actions because they would be in
violation of existing contracts. This is why the O.F.L. was careful not to
label the actions as a strike -- which in actuality what they were -- but
rather as the exercising of one’s democratic rights. In many workplaces the
fight to take workers out was lost. The O.F.L’s campaign, despite its
success, was unable to mobilize the majority of the working class behind
its actions.

I doubt a more militant policy would have made the difference. We should
admit to ourselves that the O.F.L. leadership was to the left of the rank
and file on this issue. Many leftists got so hung up around the demand for
"the general strike" in the province and their need to differentiate
themselves from the trade union leadership, they failed to see the
significance of what was taking place.

When I asked at the time if there had been any wild-cat actions and/or
"unofficial" strikes in the workplaces or other indications of social
unrest throughout the province that would be evidence of a rise in
working-class consciousness which would constitute some basis for the
validity for posing the question of power (which is implicit when the
demand for a general strike is raised), I drew a blank. Of course there was
none. The demand arose out of the fevered imaginations of those who
proposed it. There was no sense of context in time or place for the issue.

The task for the left then, as I saw it, was to seize this historic
opportunity to participate in the actual living process of deepening the
existing struggle, of making the "Days Of Protest" as successful as
possible, to ensure that the turn-out of union members and others for the
protests was as massive as possible and to take the discussion about the
protests deep into the ranks of all those who for one reason or another did
not participate This is what most trade-union activists tried to do. But
many  on the left saw their main task as that of differentiating themselves
from those in the O.F.L. were heading up the campaign, to carry some sort
of "struggle" against them. In my opinion, it was a kind of substitute for
the relative marginalization of the left and its weakness of its presence
in the unions. I remember in particular, one meeting of the coalition of
community groups, organized by the Toronto Labour Council to involve the
community to help increase support for the "Days Of Action" in Toronto. It
seemed to me, the main objective of many of those at the meeting who
claimed to be on the left, was to trash those who were organizing for the
next mobilization.

The left was not thinking through what it was proposing with its call for a
general strike. Let’s look at the proposition. What would be the purpose of
a general strike, should it have been called? What would replace the Harris
government? Certainly the NDP did not have that kind of support or
credibility. Would the O.F.L. have taken power? I think the question
answers itself. I remember being at a meeting of a Toronto left group where
prominently displayed on the wall was a large banner call for "the
unlimited general strike", or words to that effect. The leaders of the
group could not answer some of the questions posed above because they had
not really thought about the issue in those terms.  After much discussion,
their only credible reply, if it could be called that, was that it was an
attempt on their part to "help educate" the working-class about the issue.
But they were not raising the issue in that way, if that was the case, but
as a concrete demand for the unions, to be implemented right away.

2) John Clarke poses the same issue now, the issue of "power" in the
province, in his present campaign. If it was not justified to do this
during the "Days Of Action", there is certainly less justification for it
now. It’s not a question of what we would like, or of how much we hate the
Harris government, but a cold appraisal of the political reality. If
working-class consciousness was at a level below that of understanding the
necessity to take power during the "Days Of Action", what is it at now? Has
it risen since then? I don’t think so.

Within his world view, John Clarke see the Liberals as a replacement for
the Tories. Does he really think they would be better? I think it is a
sorry illusion to have any hope that the Liberals would act qualitatively
different from the Tories in implementing the neo-liberal agenda. Should
the working-class expect anything from them? No, the task of socialists is
to try to tear away any illusions in the working-class about all the boss’

"We are convinced," says John Clarke, "that, in the workplaces, and
communities of Ontario, there is more than enough pain and anger to produce
a movement to settle accounts with the Tories." Is this true?  Where is the
evidence? He doesn’t advance any, and being "convinced" is not quite
sufficient to sway anyone to support his thesis.

For the past couple of decades, the working-class in Ontario has been in a
period of slow retreat on a number of fronts. The reason for this -- and
its duration -- can be a matter of some debate, but it is not only that the
working-class has lacked the correct political leadership, as some might
say. The long expansion of capitalism -- which may be coming to an end soon
-- might have something to do with it. We have had a slow decline of
trade-union membership and militancy, not that it was ever high, even
though the Canadian labour movement has not retreated on a scale comparable
to other countries. The unions have been forced into a series of rear guard
actions by the ruling class, at the negotiating table and in the
legislatures. In the present political atmosphere does anyone really think
that John Clarke and his allies can reverse this and create "a political
crisis that brings the government to its knees."?

3) I don’t know how John’s notion of democracy informs his practice, but he
obviously rejects as useless any hope of mobilizing sufficient support in
peaceful protest to force the Tories to change their policies, which
incidentally, was the strategy of the O.F.L. during the "Days Of Action".
To stop the Tories, he says, "we must mobilize in a fashion that creates a
political crisis and bring the Government to its knees. On this basis, we
are employing the method of economic disruption."

"...With determination, courage and creativity, " he says, "the
possibilities for economic disruption are vast. The target is production,
transportation and communications and the methods that can be employed are
almost limitless. Workers can go on strike. Students can walk out of their
schools (or take them over). Communities can block highways. Facilities can
be occupied. A hundred thousand tactics can be used to withdraw cooperation
and build our resistance."

The possibilities of the human imagination are limitless, but our political
activities are somewhat circumscribed by such mundane matters as
working-class consciousness and people’s understanding of what can be
accomplished and the limited resources at our disposal. Once you get past
the rhetoric, what does OCAP really represent? Despite all the hard work to
make it otherwise, it is still very much a marginal organization. And
that’s no one’s fault. It's only a reflection of the times we live in. But
only in his wildest dreams could John Clarke hope to mobilize more than a
few thousand, if that, for a single OCAP action.

Considering the statements quoted above, we can assume that if the OCAP
campaign is implemented this summer, there will be some confrontations with
the police. What is clear from the words and actions of the leaders of
OCAP, especially during and after the protest at Queens Park last summer,
and from what John Clarke is saying now, they do not have any notion of the
need for any kind of defensive strategy. This suggests to me they lack a
certain sense of self-preservation,  something essential if one is to
function in this capitalist world.  They should be alert to the simple fact
that the state will be quite happy to exhaust them through entanglement in
the legal process. I was astounded when after the protest at Queens Park,
OCAP leaders readily admitted several time in the media that they were
prepared to operate outside the law, placing themselves and those activists
who follow them, in great danger of becoming isolated and targeted by the
state, and even manipulated by it, as OCAP attracts to its actions those
types who seek out violent confrontation for purposes other than political

Allowing for the moment some validity to John’s ideas, is there any thought
here about discussing with unions and those in workplaces the "economic
disruption" that will effect so many? At least the O.F.L. Unions raised the
matter of the "Days Of Action" in local communities, in highly attended
local meetings and in Labour Councils about the Friday walkouts prior to
the Saturday demonstrations.. For months, there was a lot discussion in the
ranks, among those where going to be impacted by the coming mobilization.
How does John propose to get this process underway for his campaign? How
does he propose to bypass existing leaderships of the unions to win the
membership to his perspective? I doubt these issues are factors in his

4) Should it matter to John Clarke that the Tories have been elected in two
consecutive elections and still have considerable popular support, even
from some workers? The elections were not stolen. We still live in a
bourgeois democracy, in a party political system.  Contrary to what John
thinks, most workers accept and function within this system. They may have
illusions about it, but when workers engage in political action they
usually accept this framework. There are no short-cuts around this
question. If we are going to persuade workers to confront the government to
deal with their grievances, then it must be in a defensive way, within the
framework of defending our existing gains, our democratic rights, which
workers take very seriously -- especially our right of assembly and free
speech to protest against any government’s unjust policies.

That’s the only way the great mass of working people will respond to our
appeals. It will not be around unrealistic demands about occupying the
Parliament (leaving aside the question of overthrowing the Tories) or the
idea that somehow a tiny minority can defeat the repressive arm of the
state in direct confrontation. It will be around demands that workers see
as legitimate and which appear to them to have a reasonable chance of being
won. I leave aside here the possible perverse effects of the Tories being
strengthened, contrary to what John hopes for, because of a misguided
campaign that causes "disruption" which would allow Harris to appeal to
policies of "law and order" and would increase his electoral support.

Either out of anger or frustration, John Clarke rejects the perspective I
have outlined here. He thinks he has found a more successful strategy. I
doubt it. But it is one we should discuss. It might help us to make clear
our own thinking on how social change will take place in the province.

Louis Proyect
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