1. 30. 2023

Revolutionary Possibilities Bloom When Migrants Fight Back

S.K. Hussan

As I write these words, I’m in the middle of a long-term campaign that if completely successful could ensure permanent residency rights for at least half a million undocumented people living inside the Canadian state’s borders. Its success would mean that half a million people could step out of poverty and fear, and into a life of dignity. Half a million racialized people, mostly working-class, would have their lives altered. And if done in the way that my comrades and I in our wildest dreams want it to be done, it could mean many hundreds of working-class people gain greater class consciousness, some perhaps even revolutionary consciousness through participation in organizations. 

What follows is a humble account of these collective aspirations, not of what we want to win but how. Most organizers and activists I know rarely write about our work; finding time to do so while organizing feels like a luxury, and expressing one’s individual opinions when movement work is always collective feels self-aggrandizing at worst, partial at best. Also, writing in the middle of a campaign seems inappropriate – do we really have anything to show yet? What if we don’t win? I share my own reflections here – questions and hypotheses, yet to be fully tested – to invite comrades to challenge our work and propose strategies and learn lessons for their own. This is an attempt to draw our map as we search for it, in the hopes that it will assist other comrades in their own cartography.


Beginning where we are

Over a six-month period in 2017, I integrated with comrades from left movements of the Global South, spending time in South Africa, Brazil, and the Philippines. One of the lessons I learned was about the importance of contextual or conjunctural analysis, the kind inspired by theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and Stuart Hall. Such an analysis is about evaluating and understanding those in power (the “hegemonic bloc”), and ourselves (our movements, our organizations, and our culture), and the relationship between the two. This relationship is not fixed, and the arrangement of the relationship in the current moment is the “conjuncture.” It is a process similar to “Naming the Moment,” which has been described as “a participatory method of identifying and analysing issues in order to decide how to act on them.” It comes from a deep emphasis on social investigation. (A guide to conjunctural analysis, provided by NYC-based movement incubator The People’s Forum, can be downloaded here.)

To know where we are going, we have to first know where we are. Many of us, myself included, don’t know very much about our context. I can of course name capitalism, racism, imperialism, patriarchy, colonialism, and so forth, but I cannot identify most of their specific levers and how they move. I couldn’t tell you the names of the key lobbyists in most industries, or the relationships between the richest families and elected officials, or most of the specific organizations and people that advance Canadian imperialism. Similarly, I cannot tell you how peaches are harvested, how Québec anti-poverty groups relate to those in British Columbia, or how the most successful social movements of the last 50 years in this place called Canada won what they did. We don’t even have shared definitions of common words. What exactly are we organizing when we say organize? Who precisely is the working class here and now, today? With exceptions, those who have answers to one or more of these questions are often researchers and academics, separated from the day-to-day work of building power.

Without knowing all of this context, how are we to forge a shared analysis of Canada and the world today that will guide us to plot a revolutionary path? How do we thread together the specifics of Canada’s minority Liberal government, a resurging right wing with Pierre Poilievre at the Conservative Party’s helm, inflation, runaway climate change, the theft of our attention, another COVID vaccine booster, the end of mask mandates, and more? Are these even the relevant factors, and who gets to decide? Shouldn’t all the various revolutionary organizers in the country have a shared analysis of who the enemy is, and a shared framework for how and what to analyze to plan our road forward? Shouldn’t all of us in the world? 

Our lack of a shared analysis – our lack of a shared historical materialist analysis – is also an effect of a successful ruling-class strategy with very Canadian particularities, one that has whitewashed struggle, erased histories, and obfuscated the workings of institutional power. There is almost no political graffiti in this country’s cities, few stories or slogans or songs of struggle passed on from one generation to another. There are no multi-generational mass organizations. When we cannot point to past struggles of grave importance, we cannot project ourselves towards the historic battles of the future, nor do we see our current struggles as significant enough. 

Before you dismiss the aspiration to a shared analysis as overly authoritarian or impossible, consider the fact that the ruling class is organized in camps that broadly share an analysis of their own. The rest of us – the left, revolutionaries – would benefit from an equivalent solidarity. We need to start somewhere.


Building membership for the revolution

In December 2018, more than 30 organizations, many of which were member-driven or entirely membership-based, met in Toronto. Attempts to build grassroots cross-country migrant justice networks are not new: organizers had tried something similar in 2014, when we created the Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights Canada. It was by building on those lessons that the Migrant Rights Network (MRN) was established in 2018. 

MRN was and remains primarily a place for migrant membership-based organizations to share strategies, resources, and analyses from across the country. Our 2018 gathering developed an analysis of the conjuncture that mapped a correlation between Donald Trump’s presidency in the US, the October 2019 federal elections in Canada, and the rise of awareness around racism globally as a result primarily of Black liberation movements. In 2019, we launched a cross-country campaign called Unite Against Racism.

Those who gathered to create MRN determined that instead of launching a campaign for reforms of immigration laws and policies, the conjuncture required mass political education. The underlying message of our Unite Against Racism campaign was that the ruling class uses racist immigration policy to divide the working class, pitting us against each other so those at the top laugh their way to the bank. Inherent in this message was a call to action: By banding together, we will win. This was a call to form and solidify organizations led by the working class. 

MRN ran train-the-trainer programs with labour councils across the country, supporting union activists to speak to their co-workers about racism, capitalism, and solidarity. Using the same framework, we built inroads with the climate justice movement. MRN aimed to popularize revolutionary ideas of care, respect, and dignity for all, challenging neoliberal individuation through mass mobilizations on key dates: the International Day to Eliminate Racism, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day, among others. This work created the ground for our analysis and action when COVID-19 hit in 2020.

Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), where I work, is one of the organizations in MRN. Formed in 2011 as a coalition, MWAC turned towards membership-based organizing only in 2017. That change is part of a broader shift in Canada away from the kind of activist campaigning in which groups of self-selected people, not necessarily those directly impacted, fight for the most marginalized through direct action and media-centric advocacy. Mass membership-based organizing is the dominant mode of organizing in the Global South. While still relatively limited in Canada, more pockets of membership-driven, place-based working-class organizing have emerged across the country in recent years. Even where the primary tactic is direct action casework – in which comrades, often more activists than directly affected people, engage in direct action tactics to redress local, individual situations of injustice – there is increasingly a turn towards a membership-based approach. 

Though the prioritization of membership-based work is necessary for any attempt at revolutionary organizing, it is not without obstacles. For one, this form of political work requires more capacity than activist-led advocacy campaigns do. Working-class people have varying levels of political consciousness, which makes their organizing markedly different from that of self-selected activists with greater levels of discursive political coherence. Working-class people also often need immediate material support. Addressing those urgent needs can burn out organizations. When organizations seek to address this problem by turning to funding and staffing models, it can depoliticize them in the long run, or shrink them, making them single-issue. Those that don’t secure funding find themselves unable to grow their membership. 

Don’t get me wrong, advocacy organizations – composed of individuals who strategize, mobilize, and sometimes even organize on behalf of others – are still the most common type of “progressive” political group. Whether the cause is climate justice, anti-poverty, or access to childcare, the norm remains forms of activity that aim to win changes to policy and practice through symbolic pressure applied via the mainstream media, sometimes led by organizations involving thin relations with those directly affected that get called membership. Such an approach does result in issue-based reforms. But it cannot build long-term revolutionary power.

When I speak of the move towards membership-based organizing strategies instead of those advocacy approaches, I’m speaking about a growing turn towards organizing and changemaking with a radical or revolutionary bent. There is a growing awareness in Canada that to replace systems of greed and exploitation, we must have the largest possible numbers on our side. For us to win, small organizations must aim to grow their membership and the consciousness of the membership whilst also banding together with others. This building of organizations, which can then unite as common fronts, is a necessary precondition for revolutionary change.

The first step for any organization seeking to build a membership is defining its base. What is the largest group we aim to organize? This is a who, how, and why question – and it’s not simply about identifying who is the most oppressed. For MWAC, for example, the answer is the migrant section of the working class. This understanding of our base aims to eschew the existing paradigm of organizing migrants as migrant farmworkers, or migrant domestic workers, or undocumented people, or detainees or refugees, but rather to organize all of them, no matter where they are, as working-class migrants.


Defining our base, struggling as a class

Organizing people as migrants – instead of as migrant farmworkers, domestic workers, refugees, or detainees – allows us to both recruit from and support the largest possible section of people. We are now aiming at organizing not only 50,000 or so farmworkers (for example), but all 1.7 million migrants. A single membership umbrella, under which migrants from various immigration streams co-organize, makes it easier to develop a shared working-class consciousness. And migrants are at critical junctures of capitalism in many (not all) places in Canada. Whether it’s food production and delivery, logistics, or many other “essential” areas of work, it’s migrants who are at the helm. Consolidating them – us – into a permanently organized force is essential for any revolutionary project that aims eventually to disrupt these junctures. Also, Canada is responsible for exploitation globally, and when we organize migrants, we are building working-class leaders who are likely to have internationalism front-of-mind at all times.

Our perspective allows us to build power quickly within current limitations. A workplace or campus or neighbourhood approach requires long-term step-by-step work aiming to move everyone within a defined geography. While this is feasible in other sections of the working class, it is incredibly challenging when migrants are often moving between different immigration statuses, or moving inside the country, from one season to another. 

The political and philosophical principles of migrant justice movements have always rejected the segmentation of people into managed migration streams. But it has been difficult to adapt that stance into organizing strategies. The law divides people into those migration streams, leading to differentiated access to rights. As a result, the agencies that serve migrants, the advocacy bodies that respond to their needs, the academics who research their working and living conditions – all specialize in one constituency or another. These divisions have marked many attempts at building membership-based migrant organizations. 

Organizing migrant farmworkers or refugees, for example, is hard enough; organizing them to fight together is a completely different, still more complex project. Not a month goes by when MWAC organizers don’t engage in difficult conversations and create new tools to unite migrants. Each time we win for one section of our base, the government prioritizing one segment, others demand to know why they’ve been left out – and the political work begins anew. Our goal is not just to get individuals to understand that all of us are exploited within Canadian imperialism, but to reach a point where oppressed people struggle together as a class towards a clearly defined aim.

To complicate matters a lot further, many migrants travel across the world and leave behind all they hold dear to try to succeed in the current economic system. It is hard to convince people to fight capitalism when they’ve left behind so much they love to prosper ever so slightly in it. Many migrants, here in Canada at least, aim not necessarily to improve their working conditions or change the economic system they labour under, but rather to gain permanent resident status. That is, their first engagement with struggle as a migrant is political and social, not economic. In addition, the ties of family, language, and community somewhere else can mean it’s a leap for migrants to see ourselves as part of the working class here in Canada. 

Faced with these challenges, MWAC takes a three-pronged organizing approach: to listen and conduct social investigations, to engage in struggles through campaigns, and to do political education via conversations and workshops.

This process is designed to unfold in these broad steps:

  • A migrant calls one of our hotlines because they are facing abuse. They receive a response that doesn’t just address their immediate crisis, but also creates experiences for them that help them understand their crisis as a shared one. These experiences are meetings, protests, other events, and more.

  • As they participate and learn to listen politically, that migrant begins to internalize a united call for full and permanent immigration status for all migrants (not just for themselves). In doing so, they begin to challenge the idea that the Canadian state decides who has rights here and who doesn’t.

  • As their political consciousness rises through MWAC’s three-pronged program, they begin to see themselves not just as part of the working class in Canada, but also as part of a global working class that must fight to uproot and replace capitalism, whether they are here in the imperialist centre or elsewhere.

  • That migrant then becomes an organizer themselves, focusing on organizing everyone on their farm, or at their factory, on their campus, or more broadly across the country. This organizing work is accompanied by the development of a deeper analysis and strategy for revolutionary change.

This journey from a first phone call to class consciousness and commitment to struggle may take years. And while we are seeing promising markers, we do not yet have results that prove the correctness of this overall approach.


To campaign or not to campaign? 

One of the dividing lines between revolutionary organizing and progressive attempts to win changes is the question of campaigns. Campaigning, particularly the kind that aims to pressure elected or appointed decision-makers to implement “reforms,” can sometimes be seen as counterproductive, if not downright counterrevolutionary. This question needs to be examined. 

Often, proponents of campaigning argue that the working class must gain confidence and capacity through struggle and victory. While this is an important goal, achieving it does not necessarily require policy-focused campaigns. Consciousness-building victories can be won by direct action tactics such as workplace takeovers, wildcat strikes, and more. 

Yet there is another reason why campaigning can be valuable. Canada is an imperialist state run by a bureaucracy, and while political parties change, that deeply ingrained bureaucracy plods forward with an agenda directed by the ruling class. The hegemonic power of the state is managed by a middle-class, Liberal Party-aligned but small-c conservative club of people who graduated from the same few universities, a coterie that considers themselves objective and meritocratic, even progressive. Any movement meaningfully attempting to build our liberation must look these people in the face, hear them use words and concepts similar to our own, and watch them express pain and empathy and even cry tears for us, to understand how deep and pernicious are the roots that we must replace. Policy-changing campaigns that engage with elected and appointed decision-makers give working-class people the ability to understand the mechanisms of state power.

Any policy-changing campaign is actually two campaigns: first, to win the policy from political decision-makers; and second, to ensure its effective implementation by the bureaucracy. Most organizations have no idea how to do the second part, at least not without leaving out and leaving behind our membership. To do it effectively – led not by a few experts, but by the members themselves, as a project of political conscientization – requires mapping power that eventually we must restructure. The world over, one of the more common reasons for left-leaning governments’ failure to successfully implement their vision, even after a decisive electoral success, is a lack of understanding of the bureaucratic state that must be replaced decisively. Too many enter into state power without a clear policy and political map, and find themselves unable to advance a pro-people agenda. 

As those of us in MWAC see it, the current campaign by Migrant Rights Network, seeking to achieve regularization of undocumented people and permanent resident status for all migrants, is not just an opportunity to win permanent immigration status for migrants. It is also a moment to build the political consciousness and organizations of migrants, to deepen working-class struggle, to map the power of the state and its bureaucratic levers, and to win material change in a way that grows the confidence of our people.


The coming conjuncture and our work to prepare

MRN launched its campaign for permanent resident status for all 1.7 million migrants in June 2020. Our analysis showed that fighting for access to COVID-specific emergency services one-by-one and separately – testing, treatments, vaccines, and emergency income supports – would make it harder to win any of those immediate material gains, and that a future rush to return to “normal” would result in those gains being taken away. We determined that what we needed instead was a broad call that would unite all those individual demands, while also building power to counter the austerity that we could see would follow the government’s emergency spending. 

This broad call needed to be about power and agency, not only about the right to live in one particular place permanently. We identified permanent resident status as a key mechanism through which other crucial rights are accessed. The campaign built specifically on the relationships and analysis developed during the Unite Against Racism work in 2019. Importantly, the June 2020 analysis and campaign push meant abandoning the strategy we had finalized in January of 2020, because the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic had transformed the conjuncture. We determined that amidst a global public health crisis, what was needed was to fight to win so-called aspirational or impossible goals. That is: to demand and create winnable idealistic campaigns. 

This approach has allowed migrants not just to secure access to testing and vaccines, but also to pressure Canada to extend permanent residency status to at least 83,000 people since June 2020; to grant work permits to more than 120,000 graduated international students who were facing deportation; to afford labour mobility to at least 500,000 migrant students; to enact dozens of smaller regulatory changes; and to win labour rights and stays on deportations for dozens of people. Most importantly, many migrants have experienced these changes as a result of their own collective action, and seen them for what they are: partial and temporary tweaks, not system transformation. 

Despite these wins, by the end of 2021 migrant organizations across the country were reporting exhaustion. Almost monthly protests, meetings, and activities since June of 2020, whilst dealing with the mass trauma of COVID-19, were resulting in a loss of hope. By acting as if the “impossible” – status for all – was around the corner, we had misled some of our base, particularly those not directly connected to our consciousness-raising work. By the beginning of 2022, it became clear that our political development approach had not adequately prepared migrant leadership for understanding the broader strategy that linked the campaign to revolutionary goals.

Drastic and immediate steps were required. For Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, it meant restructuring our entire membership: dissolving all existing structures and creating new ones. Other member organizations in MRN also reset themselves in various ways. At the same time, a policy opportunity emerged. MRN learned that the federal government was researching migrant regularization programs: in the Prime Minister’s mandate letter of December 2021, the Minister of Immigration had been instructed to “explore options.” This instruction itself was a result of MRN campaigns and others that preceded them, including a push by the Canadian Labour Congress to regularize undocumented construction workers in the Greater Toronto Area. This opening, and the MRN response consisting of mass mobilizations and effective control of the media narrative, reignited hope. It provided fuel for migrants to keep fighting. Whilst victory in the form of regularization remains uncertain, the fact that it is mentioned in a mandate letter – for the first time ever – shows that the campaigning is working.

Recent and upcoming immigration reforms are not only a result of migrant organizing, of course. They are also state responses to high rates of employment and fewer immigrants entering the country’s workforce due to closed borders in 2020 and 2021. But to understand them as only a result of state intentions is simply inaccurate. Importantly, it is not strategic. If we believe that it is only ruling class intentions that cause social and policy changes, then we cede the entire terrain of struggle. What is necessary is to accurately understand the interaction of state and social movement forces, so as to know where to further focus our energies in the coming conjuncture. 

While projecting the future is often a fool’s errand, there is a distinct possibility that in the next three years a right-wing crypto-bro will become Prime Minister of Canada, flying in on a wave of economic grief – increasing prices, low wages – in a world hurtling towards ever-greater exploitation and climate catastrophe. Already the majority of provinces in Canada are controlled by right-wing governments. Anti-immigrant xenophobia may well become a decisive factor in the next federal election, as it did in the recent Québec elections. In general, the number and size of social movement organizations have diminished over the last two years of the pandemic, and those that have grown through projects of mutual aid and providing direct support to excluded people are struggling to consolidate. A glimmer of a potential labour union resurgence does exist, but it is yet to be realized. Global crisis – increased imperialist aggression from the US and its allies like Canada, for example, in the face of the rise of the so-called BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) – creates opportunities and threats. We face historic levels of mass impoverishment and existential threats to the future. History is afoot, and our choices remain as clear as ever: revolution or continued immiseration and death. 

We must build institutions capable of fostering revolutionary consciousness and defending the material interests of working-class people. These institutions must include the greatest number of people possible, and deepen the revolutionary consciousness of everyone involved. We must clearly identify our base, and establish a strategy in coordination with other groups around us, so we are organizing the largest sections of our class. We must engage in ambitious fights and campaigns: to triumph, not just to fight. Our organizations must be incredibly nimble, and able to sustain themselves and thrive through the twists and turns ahead. We have a world to win.

S.K. Hussan is the executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and serves on the secretariat of Migrant Rights Network. For the last 15 years, Hussan has been part of winning Canada’s first Sanctuary City policy in Toronto; supporting hunger strike actions by people in immigration detention; and fighting for changes to Canada’s medical inadmissibility laws and numerous provincial laws. In addition, Hussan has been part of the FreeGrassy campaign to support Grassy Narrows First Nations, and he is the co-founder of RememberJan29, aimed at fighting anti-Muslim hatred in the aftermath of the Quebec City mass shooting in January 2017.