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Profile of a socialist government

August 13, 2014

…from discussion at the Ideas Left Out conference, August 1-4, 2014

By John Riddell. Quick now, describe the nature of a socialist government in three minutes!

Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre

Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre

I took on this task at a weekend vacation conference held August 1-4 by Ideas Left Out, a Toronto-based socialist discussion circle. The conference, which took place in a forest setting north of Kingston, included two panels of “micro-talks,” each made up of nine three-minute mini-lectures on a common theme. My panel was called “visioning socialism,” and here is what I said:

“Visioning Socialism: Workers in Power

“Let’s examine socialism not as a harmonious world order of the distant future but as it will emerge in this century in transitional societies still marked by their capitalist heritage and with a revolutionary working class still in formation.

“This ‘transitional socialism’ will emerge through a revolutionary process – perhaps extended – in which corporate rule is replaced by a workers’ democracy. Its central institution is a government of a new type, one formed by working people and based on their mass movements.

“It is this socialist government of workers in struggle that will bring the great banks and corporate empires under public ownership and control, break our society’s addiction to fossil fuels, and help open the road for the oppressed and the colonized to achieve liberation.

“This government will be based on the rule of law. It will adhere to and strive to realize all the democratic rights for which working people have struggled under capitalism.

“It will rule in a time of great contention, not only because of the former rulers’ resistance, but because of conflicts among layers of workers with different social interests or ideological convictions. Amid this strife, who will speak for the working class as a whole?

“The answer is found in a system of political parties.

“A socialist government must also master public administration – bureaucracy, if you will – which grows in social weight during this transition.

“How can we prevent public administration from seizing control of government? We will start with what workers have already achieved regarding norms and institutions to rein in bureaucracy. We will add to that, including through delegation of power to different levels of workers’ and community self-management.

“We do not start from zero. We start with the lessons of the many attempts during the last century to achieve workers’ rule. Even those that failed can teach us.

“These are issues we must understand to make the case for socialism in our century.”

Socialist governance is not much discussed today, at least not by socialists in English Canada, perhaps reflecting the left’s weakness as a political force. However, such discussion may come more naturally to social movements, which are constantly appealing to constituted authority or denouncing its conduct.

For example, my neighbourhood committee on the tar sands, East End Against Line 9, amended its statement of purpose July 30 to reflect its campaign experience of the last year. Attempting to present its vision positively, it added the following two sentences to its statement:

“We call for an end to Canada’s addiction to fossil fuels, the main cause of climate change, and a rapid transition to a clean energy economy. We also call for a government that is responsive to the needs of Canadians, of future generations, and of those people around the world feeling the most severe impacts of climate change.”

Proposing such a government responsive to human needs may seem futile at a time when no mainstream federal party comes close to that standard. Still, many social movements share with our East End committee a desire to go beyond mere protest and articulate a vision of a better society.

This is a question where socialists have a lot to contribute.

A tapestry of conversations

Elbow Lake 2The 50 participants in the August 1-4 Ideas Left Out conference gave no less than 44 presentations on a wide spectrum of topics. Among issues addressed:

  • Quebec and the Canadian state: reports by members of Québec solidaire (two sessions).
  • Feminism, gender and socialism: intersectionality; sexual assault and the left; Marxism and feminism (three sessions).
  • Land and ecology: building eco-justice movements; is deindustrialization necessary? (two sessions).
  • History of people’s movements: ‘All power to the soviets’ – history of a slogan; Palestine and the Jewish holocaust; rethinking Cuba; anti-colonialism then and now (four sessions).
  • Political struggles today: politics and resistance in the Middle East; workers and the populist city; the United States and global capitalism (three sessions).
  • Indigenous anti-colonialism, based on Haudenosaunee tradition and practices.

Among the speakers were special guests Jan Hill, director of the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, Queen’s University; and Lars Lih, author of Lenin Rediscovered and other works on revolutionary history.

Although the conference agenda was packed, it offered ample time for games, swimming, hiking, canoeing, campfires, and conversation.

Fifteen participants volunteered to form a continuing committee to plan occasional events through the year and another conference next August.

Other materials from the Ideas Left Out conference will be published shortly on this website.

  1. Eduardo Galeano:

    “Utopia lies at the horizon.
    When I draw nearer by two steps,
    it retreats two steps.
    If I proceed ten steps forward, it
    swiftly slips ten steps ahead.
    No matter how far I go, I can never reach it.
    What, then, is the purpose of utopia?
    It is to cause us to advance.”

    Ella está en el horizonte.
    Me acerco dos pasos, ella se aleja dos pasos.
    Camino diez pasos y el horizonte se aleja diez pasos más allá.
    Por mucho que yo camine, nunca la alcanzaré.
    ¿Para qué sirve la utopía entonces?…Para eso sirve, para caminar.

  2. Felipe Stuart permalink

    What a refreshing reflection and report. Clearly English Canada is not the wasteland I have heard folks complain about.
    Quebec seems to be a more exciting place, given the magnificent Le printemps érable last year; but I recall, too, singing along with Gilles Vigneault
    Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver
    Mon jardin ce n’est pas un jardin, c’est la plaine
    Mon chemin ce n’est pas un chemin, c’est la neige
    Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver* (see below}
    The kind of government John so well describes (defines?) exists here in the domain of the ALBA countries – in Venezuela, in Bolivia, in Ecuador, in Nicaragua and in Cuba. The situation in El Salvador is touch and go because its FMLN government still has to make concessions to the reactionary army and the oligarchy’s party ARENA (or in shorthand, Washington) – an opposition that still has enormous power in that punished land.
    Maybe we will live to see the day when Canada and Quebec both become ALBA members. I hope so. But that could only happen with governments in Ottawa and Quebec City that look and act like the government John has described.
    Felipe Stuart

    Le Québec d’autrefois – (1965) PAROLES: Mon pays (Paroles et musique: Gilles Vigneault)

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