4. 25. 2023
If Not Now, When?
Sometimes people say “be patient” and they mean, what other choice do we have? They mean: you can’t will the revolution into being. Clearly they’re not wrong. Patience as necessary humility in the face of a world so complicated and vast, and so often unresponsive to prods from a small hand, or even many such hands, however coordinated, righteous, right.
And yet: how many months or years do we have before a catastrophic climate event kills not thousands but millions and opens a new period of crisis – pretending for a moment, as is fashionable, that the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t ongoingly such an event? Or before proto-fascist or openly fascist regimes are in power across more of the planet? Or hyperinflation surges and legions of people are newly immiserated. Or nuclear war erupts. Or mix and match.
We’re told there are no shortcuts to building a better world. And it’s true that the value of slow, careful organizing work is visible all over the place. There are so many inspiring examples of organized people struggling for justice and winning. Building blocks of solidarity and militancy.
Yet what if, at least sometimes, an insistence that there are no shortcuts can convince us to double down on whatever paths we happen to be already treading, on the theory that we need only be patient and our efforts will be vindicated? What if that thinking can sometimes even discourage new experiments, fresh creative approaches to confronting the social crises that face us?
If enough riots were to erupt; if disruptive transformation were to develop an enormous popular base in enough countries; if circumstances were to produce a cascade of mass upheavals like those that rocked the world in 2019 and 2020, from Chile to Lebanon to Wet’suwet’en yintah to Minneapolis…maybe governing elites’ violence would be constrained by the threat of grassroots revolt, and the change would prove durable.
But as things stand, many (most?) of our neighbours still imagine “official politics” – politicians, parties, policies, laws – to be the key lever of social change, especially when an issue transcends rent and wage, when what’s at stake is culture or war or infectious disease or support for disability or police budgets or the price of milk at the grocery store. So it would seem that if we hope to make change on those scores, it might be wise not to ignore so-called official politics altogether.
This perspective frequently leads to an emotional investment, however qualified, in an existing electoral party. Unfortunately, pretty well all the leading political parties in Canada, those that today garner enough votes either to take power or to exert pressure on the party in power, have decided it’s in their interest to contend to be the best at denial: direct and tacit reassurances that the capitalist system can be reformed to the point where it won’t usher in the worst catastrophes. And the more openly conservative of those parties – those most devoted to pandemic denialism and climate denialism, to denial of structural racism and of ongoing settler-colonialism – are really just bound to be a whole lot better at denial than the others. Supposedly it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, and it can’t be denied that those parties and their officials put in the time.
Clearly that kind of “official politics” is related to social movements, though it’s not always clear exactly how. Public claims about those relationships are often not entirely convincing. An NDP fundraising ad pops up on my Facebook feed: “Jagmeet and the team are using their power in Parliament to help people. And YOU power the grassroots movement that makes it all possible. Can you chip in?” Below, in orange all-caps, repeated several times: “GROW OUR MOVEMENT.”
Like any party, the NDP needs to fundraise to support its activities. But…is a party a social movement? Do the NDP and/or Singh himself have mass grassroots movements behind them in a consistent way? What do we talk about when we talk about social movements?
Is a social movement something that arises more or less spontaneously by definition, and only then do organizations intervene in it, compete to shape it, transform it? Or can organizers build it from scratch, or at least consciously lay its groundwork? If so, does that process look different from building a campaign? Can a movement be understood as a campaign that catches on, a campaign that goes viral, becomes more than the sum of its parts – so those of us who want to see movements blossom should focus today on building campaigns? Or maybe we should also take “social movement” to be a kind of metaphor that describes the sum total of all the local organizing efforts underway in workplaces and apartment blocks and communities, organizing that directly targets bosses and landlords? Or is it confusing to describe as a movement anything less than an explosion of popular activity that sends masses of people into the streets over a sustained period, like the 2019 protest waves in Chile and Hong Kong, among many other places?
It’s not as if there is or should be a single rigid definition: social movements are nothing if not protean. But when comrades argue that the best use of our time today is the slow, patient effort of building social movements, it’d be helpful to know what kind of practical organizing work they’re proposing, mediated by what kind of organizations. What sorts of projects do we conceive as within our power to consciously, deliberately build, and what forms of action should we take as a result?
Especially in 2018, I was active as a volunteer in the Fight For $15 and Fairness campaign in Ontario, and it was one of the most inspiring, educational experiences of my political life to date. At the time, the campaign had just won a whole bunch of legislative concessions from the presiding Liberal government in Ontario, including – though by no means limited to – increases to the minimum wage. (Conservative premier Doug Ford would later roll back many but not all of those gains.) It felt like thousands of people around the province were aware of the campaign and excited by it. We’d canvas on street corners on weekends, and people would sometimes recognize our “branding” before we’d even said hello. When the campaign called an emergency rally that fall, a crowd thronged University Avenue in Toronto on extremely short notice. With close ties to the Ontario Federation of Labour, the campaign was rooted in the labour movement – as the campaign’s dynamic current iteration, Justice For Workers, continues to be – and its organizing meetings were almost always well-attended, their composition consistently intergenerational and multi-racial. It was a campaign that felt like a movement, and for a long time it was immediately what I’d picture if anyone were to mention “social movement organizing.”
In her essay “Festivals of the Possible” in this magazine, organizer and journalist Megan Kinch describes in similar terms her experiences at 2011’s Occupy Toronto encampment. A semi-spontaneous eruption, Occupy wasn’t the same kind of creature as the carefully planned $15 and Fairness project, but like the latter, it had formative effects on a cohort of social change workers, and it gave many of its participants the sense that they were part of something important, massive, and potentially challenging to capital and state power. Sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the 2020 protests in defence of Black lives and against the police were closer to the Occupy end of the spontaneity/organization spectrum – appearing suddenly as if from nowhere (but very much from somewhere); leaping, memetic, from city to city. Animated by a current of popular energy sweeping through this continent and beyond, organized in so-called Canada by groups such as Not Another Black Life, Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg, and many others, those protests brought tens of thousands of people into the streets of Canadian cities alone.
The George Floyd rebellion was a social movement if there ever was one: not launched as a voluntaristic effort by any vanguard or set of strategists, but provoked by state violence, an answering explosion of mass refusal. Once it was afoot, it was fanned deliberately, consciously; it was built. But, by all appearances, nobody could’ve given birth to it before it was ready to be born.
Could we imagine any kind of new organizational infrastructure that might better support such movements? Uplift them in the moments when they exceed the political speed of light – millions suddenly in the streets – and also, crucially, help consolidate and sustain their threat to power in the years that follow those moments? Weld past to present to future, forging a vehicle long and strong enough to carry all of us?
The rich are only defeated when running for their lives, writes C.L.R. James, the great Trinidadian socialist and historian of the Haitian revolution. Here in Canada, where that kind of sentiment is perhaps out of step with the white Presbyterian weather, we might at least test-drive a more temperate variation: the political organizations of the rich will not budge one claw’s width unless they fear they might lose power. Fear they’ll be replaced.
It’s less than clear that any government in power in the Canadian state fears the NDP will replace them, or the Green Party, or a smaller left party or social movement or activist organization of any kind. With the important exception of Indigenous land defence at its most militant and international (solidaristic between nations, that is, not between states), few to no forces of liberation in this country consistently inspire fear in those who rule – fear, that is, not of bodily harm, but of a credible, sustained challenge to those rulers’ legitimacy and authority.
In recent years, perhaps the only radical challenger that the federal Liberals and Conservatives have seemed sometimes to fear is the People’s Party of Canada, a dynamic that has at times appeared to affect how those two mainstream parties of Canadian capitalism behave. Increasingly, the far-right forces that find expression in the People’s Party have been able to influence, if not quite set, the mainstream agenda: what’s thinkable, and so what becomes politically possible. For example, it’s the organized ascendancy of those forces that enabled Pierre Poilievre – a dedicated opponent of the COVID vaccine mandates that the People’s Party built its power by protesting – to win the leadership of the Conservative Party.
We needn’t seek a left mirror image of the People’s Party, or even believe that parliamentary channels can be wielded directly for emancipatory ends in a white supremacist capitalist settler state, to recognize the mechanisms that allow the far right to impose its political imagination on the state apparatus: the way it inspires a degree of replacement fear, which prompts those in power to concede subtly and less subtly to its demands, and even to drift towards its politics, tactical co-optation that becomes emulation – and reveals affinities that already exist, liberalism being fascism’s bellhop.
What forms of liberatory social organization, composed out of what already-existing elements, could inspire a similar fear today in those who are mortgaging all our futures?
The late French communist Daniel Bensaid, paraphrasing the journalist Kurt Tucholsky, once suggested that Lenin’s teachings might be boiled down to one injunction: Be ready! “Ready for the improbable, for the unexpected, for what happens,” Bensaid writes. A distinct theory of history: not the slow build of one plus one plus one equals, eventually, a revolutionary capacity, but the restless search for ways of transforming that arithmetic, or rendering us collectively available to that transformation in the quicksilver moments when it becomes possible. Ceaseless experiments, in other words, in pursuit of the organizational forms that will best serve social movements when they do arise.
What does such readiness look like? Projects of political education; local tenants’ and workers’ organizing; Indigenous land and water defence; campaigns that train organizers and put pressure on those in power – clearly all of these are needed. Yet it’s striking that relatively seldom in this country does the broad left revisit the question of the mass party. There’s no popular basis for it, we’re told. The time isn’t yet ripe. Be patient. This position is supported, at least in theory, by the canon of past attempts at left party-building or even just left regroupment in the Canadian state. The Waffle is a famous example – a socialist wing of the NDP in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, which eventually (briefly) formed its own independent entity, and whose political orientation was resurrected in part by the New Politics Initiative within the NDP in 2001. Indeed, the NDP itself emerged out of a left regroupment effort in 1961, a collaboration between the socialist and social democratic Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Canadian Labour Congress. The CCF, too, was a left party-building project, one that didn’t survive for very long after its repudiation of the anti-capitalist politics that had earlier defined it. Or we might recall the Rebuilding The Left convergence in 2000, which brought together Trotskyists, anarchists, fellow-travellers of the NDP, and legendary Métis revolutionary Howard Adams, among others. Or, on a more local scale, the Greater Toronto Workers Assembly that was launched in 2009.
These histories lend some credence to the belief that it’d be impatient and imprudent to openly, deliberately build towards a new non-sectarian, multi-tendency, anti-dogmatic mass left organization, able to amplify the impact of campaigns and articulate them more effectively – more threateningly – in the halls of official power than the NDP can be counted on to do. It’s also true that when new political parties emerge, frequently they grow out of periods characterized by more intense sustained struggle than is typical of the current period in Canada, the energy of social movements spilling over into new organizational forms. In France, for example, the precursors of today’s La France Insoumise, an important movement and party of the left, have been traced to popular struggle against the 2005 attempt to establish a pan-European constitution. In the Canadian state, similar dynamics were at play in the formation of Québec Solidaire, a left party whose birth in 2006 was energized in part by 2001’s Summit of the Americas anti-globalization protests in Québec City, and whose development was spurred further by 2012’s historic student strikes in that province. Or we might look to South Korea, for instance, where democratization and surging trade union activity in the 1990s sparked the formation of the socialist Democratic Labour Party (among others). There are many such examples.
Yet the empirical fact that social upheaval often spurs party-building doesn’t mean that the question of mass left organization must necessarily be deferred till some future moment of rupture. A key question that would be asked urgently in such a moment might also be posed, and acted on, now: with what forces? What might an emancipatory mass party or coalition look like in a settler state, a question whose just answers will look different from equivalents in a state such as France? What new collaborations, facilitated by what new organizational form(s), might be possible between settler-led grassroots groups and networks struggling for justice, elements of the labour movement, the left wing of the NDP, and the sovereign Indigenous nations who have dwelled on the territory of so-called Canada from time immemorial? Had such collaborations existed in a state of greater readiness in early 2020, when a social movement of settlers and Indigenous people across the country rose up in defence of Wet’suwet’en sovereignty, what unlikely transformations in the Canadian state might have become possible in that moment? A pipeline cancelled. Resignations tendered on Parliament Hill. A new emancipatory coalition marching to the centre of the country’s public life.
Whatever else may be true, there’s no doubt that vibrant social movements are needed, if we’re going to keep the planet inhabitable by our own species and a brilliant diversity of others for many more generations. It also seems obvious enough that none of us can know with any real certainty which efforts are going to spark those collective fires, set multitudes in motion. In a moment of relatively low social movement organization and mobilization among settlers in the Canadian state, it seems at least possible that impatient dreamers’ efforts to build a new mass party – supported by loved and trusted grassroots leaders, and aiming to kindle excitement and hope among demoralized, demobilized masses of people – could energize social movement forces. Help them grow much faster than they otherwise could do. Grow at the pace the moment demands.
How might we say no to shortcuts, but yes to fresh experiments in building power? Yes to the creativity bold enough to risk delusion and failure, and try to forge new collective forms, at scale? A yes that asks, to borrow a phrase from the Jewish tradition of thinking about justice: if not now, when?
Daniel Sarah Karasik (they/them) is the managing editor of Midnight Sun. They’ve participated in such experiments as the network Artists for Climate & Migrant Justice and Indigenous Sovereignty (ACMJIS), of which they’re a co-founder. Their newest book is the poetry collection Plenitude.