What it is we are fighting for


    When I was a boy, my parents often reminded me of the reality of the working class. Its work, the big tasks it accomplished from day to day. Its trade-union action.     And its yearning for dignity.

     For my parents, this yearning of working people for dignity was what the trade-union movement was all about.

     They weren’t all that clearly from the working class themselves.  My mother’s father was a farmer and a Conservative Party organizer in the town of Saint Andrews, in Manitoba. My father’s father had been an administrator of a department store in Montreal, and later he wrote essays and political reportage.

     But in the 1930s, my father and mother, Ewart and Charlotte, were at McGill, and mentalities were changing.  Both of them were captured by the socialist ideas of James Shaver Woodsworth,  the Methodist preacher  become labour organizer in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.   They were democratic socialists, hence, not Communists.  They courted in this atmosphere.  They married in the church of another progressive preacher  (though they’d both moved from being Protestants to being atheists), and settled in Ottawa.    My Dad had found a job as an economist in Canada’s Ministry of Agriculture.

     Because of this, the philosophy of Karl Marx was of only marginal interest to them.  The Soviet Union, also, was not at the centre of their ideas.  Tommy Douglas and  his government in Saskatchewan was an experiment which interested them more.

     My mother, during the Cold War, was for a greater meeting of Communist and democratic minds.  She had some sympathy for Russia.  “In the War, they were our allies,”  she would tell my brother Ian and me.  “You know, back then the American magazines were full of praise for them.”  This willingness to see the Soviets as humans, aiming for some sort of social utopia, she’d have liked to see continue into the Atomic era.  My father was more inclined to put down the dictatorial aspect of Communism.  “No use trying to find excuses for Joe Stalin,”  he’d say.

       The word proletariat was not used by them.  It was the name for the working class among Marxists.  But Ewart and Charlotte preferred:   “workers” . . .   “working people” . . .  “blue collar.”  They were Canadian socialists, “CCFers”; then, when their party changed and broadened, followers of the New Democrats.  The idea was that workers meant mostly manual workers.  They both felt, though, that they themselves were workers, and the term should apply to most of the people in society.  Everyone but big businessmen.  Small business they saw mostly as people of small means fooled into supporting big business.

     And so, my own political education could serve to show how, well beyond the ranks of Marxists, the better part of the of the Twentieth-Century push for social change saw the working class as the entity it was defending.

      This feeling spread beyond cultural boundaries, too.  For example, my parents read the novels of Morley Callaghan, the Toronto writer of somewhat reluctantly progressive views.  Callaghan frequently made working men and working women his heroes —  It’s  Never Over  would be an example — and showed thereby, I would say, that he saw workers as central to an intellectual’s concerns in his century.  They also followed the work of John Steinbeck in the United States.  Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men:  these iconic books had working people at their centre, and a broad feeling that the fate of working people was the fate of the world.  Their breakthrough to freedom would be humanity’s breakthrough to freedom.

     In Europe, André Malraux was a novelist they admired.  He too was a socialist in the Thirties, and placed Spanish workers at the centre of L’Espoir, as he had placed Chinese workers at the centre of La Condition humaine.  And Ewart and Charlotte, when they looked across the inner cultural boundary of Canada, to French-Canadian literature, found Gratien Gélinas, with his worker heroes Fridolin,  Tit-Coq and Bousille.

     In the century we’re in now, it’s become harder to see the working class as the entity to defend and idealize.  It’s hard to see that the rise of the working class will, in itself, create a world of social equality and humane values.  Workers’ rights continue to be an important part of a well-organized society with justice on its mind.  But they’re a part, not the whole.  Workers are one group who can change things, they’re not the group.

     There are several reasons for this. Several ways of seeing it.

     One is the pulling apart of the idea of organized labour from the idea of labour.  As unions have settled in and become part of society, they’ve improved the lot of their members, and they’ve recruited people of middle-class work traditions, like government employees. They’ve remained only partially present in the working class.  The poorest, most fragile workers have tended not to join the unionized sector.  So unionized labour still strives to have socialist values, but it speaks more and more for a middle-level part of the population.  Hard for it to continue to speak for the poor.

     The poor are spoken for more by social movements of a new type, community movements, consumers’ leagues, welfare fronts, prisoners’ defence committees.  The idea of the proletariat as one big bloc has been knocked out by this new layout of forces.

     The rise of women’s consciousness has shaken the proletarian idea up, too.   Women’s struggles are central to the social justice movement of today, and females are in all classes, not just the working class.

     The anti-racist idea has become a key element in social justice now.   This has happened because the most powerful capitalist nation, the United States, had a harsh colour bar. The Black and Amerindian peoples’ fights against this bar inspired the Left of every country in the world.  It happened, too, because the African and Asian continents fought white colonialism in the mid-Twentieth Century, most famously in South Africa.  This put the cause of black and brown people in the place where the cause of working people had been in Karl Marx’s time.

     Most of all, the awakening of humanity to nature, to its fragility, to the threat that human technology poses, has made the proletariat no longer the centre of social justice.  But only one of its elements.  I feel that the outlook of Karl Marx did not stress man’s co-operation with nature.  It much more stressed man’s conquest of nature.  When, as a young man in the Sixties, I read the Communist Manifesto, one of the proposals that most intrigued me was “the disappearance of the distinction between city and country.”   I believe I imagined grassy and green cities, cottages in the city.  But now I reflect anew on the question:  Is it probable that Marx wanted this to take place by the invasion of wheatfields and meadows into cityscapes?  It seems to me much more likely that he was envisioning the settlement of humans everywhere on the planet.  As a humanist he did not see this as bad, as a danger, as an overloading of nature’s capacity.  He saw it as an achievement of humanity, which would be done gently and wisely.  The conquest of nature was seen through the humanist tradition he came out of.  The tradition of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, with its pages of diagrams of techniques and machinery.  Nature, in this view, was not asked to answer or to criticize humanity’s plans:  Humanity knew best, humanity was in charge.  Humanity imagined itself as outside nature, making use of nature.  And we’ve seen the Communist countries, inspired by Marx, battering nature with heavy industry and war production even more than the capitalist nations.  We’ve sometimes seen unions of industrial workers in the West reject ecological restraints on the industries they work in.  In this kind of tradition, the green world has no voice.

     In Upton Sinclair’s novel from the early days of industrialism, The Jungle (1906), the meat packers of Chicago, in their quest for profit, pollute the meat they sell and the environment around their factories.  Sinclair is a socialist humanist, and he implies (though he does not say it dogmatically) that the exploited workers, once freed and placed in control, would know how to be natural-food lovers and stewards of the environment.  (Over-optimism, perhaps? And yet people do have the capacity to be food-lovers and stewards, so his optimism could be included and re-cycled in a more nature-oriented vision.)  He uses a nature image — the jungle — as the image not of a healthy planet, but of the destructive capitalist city.   Yet Sinclair and other early socialists can sometimes be seen to be working through to a larger vision in which nature is valued.

      All these things have led to a new generation of social justice fighters, those who emerged in Chiapas in the 1990s, in Seattle at the turn of the century, and in my city of Quebec at the Sommet des Amériques, 2001. This new generation often chooses another reality than the working class as the reality it is going into battle for. 

         I don’t feel, though, that they are rejecting a century of battles for the working class.  They are trying to extend the philosophy of social justice, of community, to include human AND non-human nature.  They are trying to form a larger common front than the common fronts built by labour in the 1970s.  This front would be the alliance of humans and non-human nature within the biosphere. The working class is part of the biosphere.  The aim is for it to meet the other parts.

         In this vision, heard more and more in alter-mondialiste demonstrations, the biosphere has, in a sense, become the new proletariat.  It is the larger unity to which people feel they belong.  It is the unity which they’d like to see triumph.

     Il y a quelque chose que j’ai envie de dire ici, et j’ai envie de le dire en français.  Les  femmes et les hommes qui ont travaillé pour changer le monde ont toujours tiré plaisir du fait de savoir pour qui ils combattaient.  Ceux du vingtième siècle qui ont senti qu’ils faisaient partie des travailleurs, qu’ils défendaient les travailleurs, ont tiré une grande satisfaction de cela, et je pense que ça fait partie de l’être humain de ressentir cette solidarité.  Le même plaisir va s’attacher au sentiment de combattre pour la biosphère — pour la terre et pour tous les plantes et animaux qui y habitent, et pour nous-mêmes en même temps.  Et ce plaisir prend sa racine dans l’enfance de chacun, il me semble.  Je me souviens de mes premiers regards  jetés vers la cour en arrière de notre maison, à Ottawa.  Des arbres que j’ai appris à aimer, de l’herbe où j’aimais m’étendre, de la patinoire que mon père arrosait pour nous en hiver.  Je me souviens des premiers voyages de camping avec mes cousins, autour du Lac Bevan, dans les Laurentides.  Je me souviens d’avoir lavé ma cantine dans un ruisseau, sans savon, frottant du sable contre le métal.  La planète est chère pour moi, et elle  était déjà chère avant que je réfléchisse à sa place dans mes idées politiques.  Nous sommes des milliards à avoir appris à aimer la terre de cette façon, je pense, au début de notre vie.  Il est tout naturel d’en faire la chose pour laquelle on se bat, dans la phase de la gauche mondiale qui s’en vient.

     What might be the implications of this?

     First let’s try to understand how this change compares to the changes by which the working class first came to be the centre of social justice.  In Marx’s vision, and broader than that, in the Twentieth Century’s vision.

     In the age of the Encyclopédistes, the idea of freeing humanity takes hold.  Freeing it from kings and tyrants, freeing it to be its own sovereign.  Louis the 16th dies, the French Republic is born.  It defines its keynotes as Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité.

     Very soon it becomes clear that though poor people, working people, did the fighting to create this republic . . .it is rich people who are in control in the new society.  Capitalists, not sans-culottes, not workers, not the proletariat  (as Marx and Engels are beginning to call it).  In the French Republic, and other similar republican movements, the omission of economic aims from the charters of rights and freedoms makes it possible for big business to accept that the vote be given to ordinary people (women too, eventually).  They’ll buy and manipulate the vote. And they’ll keep their industries free of regulation by the governments the voters elect.  Thus they hoard huge power over daily life, and the enfranchisement of the working class then becomes a hollow form.  There’s no real liberté if you’re not rich.  There’s  no sense of fraternité for the poor, in the hearts of the rich.  There’s no égalité except on election day.  The factory system runs the show, the workers incline.  Owners are citizens;  workers are citizens.  But they are not equals.

     The biggest revolts for this French style of republicanism are in 1848, in Paris, Rome, Budapest . . . And 1848 is also the year the Communist Manifesto  points out this bourgeois monopoly on freedom.

     So the radical imagination looks for the excluded who were supposed to be included.  It discovers the working class, names it, listens to it, organizes it, hurls it against the bourgeoisie.  Workers set out to find their liberté, their fraternité, their égalité.  This quest is the theme of the years from 1900 to 2000.  The quest is both new and old:  new in the vocabulary brought to it by Saint-Simon, Robert Owen,  Marx,  Engels,  Jean Jaurès,  Rosa Luxemburg,  Bernard Shaw,  Gandhi,  Woodsworth,  Debs.  Old in that it continues the quest of the Encyclopédistes and the sans-culottes of the 1700s.

     Similarly, the green imagination of today is in search of the elements of the good life  that were left out in the libertarian utopias of the century just past.  It finds that it is most of all the non-human realities of nature that have been left out.  Other animals, other plants, inanimate forces that are very important, rocks, water, air, chemicals, molecules.  A vision is being forged in which humans share power with these, and do not try to occupy the whole space of the biosphere.

     And the question which opens up is: How will humans communicate with their non-human fellow-citizens of this new polity?  How will the needs of deer, fish, minerals, winds, bacteria, heat, cold, enter the discussion of the biosphere’s future?

      When radicals sought to bring working people into the discussion, it perhaps seemed as mysterious how they could possibly participate.  The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw unions, co-operatives, parties, committees, publications, schools, clubs, arts and letters, arts and crafts, spring up to make it possible.

     And the defenders of the biosphere are similarly listening for the voices of their fellow-citizens of nature, today.   The mystery is for the moment very great, but it is our mystery to sound out.  I hear David Suzuki speak of the sacred balance.  I hear of Theodore Roszack (he who developed the idea of the counter-culture) developing the idea that humans are nerve endings whose job is to sense the coming of danger to the planet they belong to.  We are in an early stage of this reflection.  We don’t have our Marx yet, we don’t have our Engels.                                                                                                                        

      Keep on.

      I keep my ears pricked for the voice of the new forces that must be part of tomorrow’s discussion, And new methods of living the biosphere.

     The mystery is great.  The seeming silence, the seeming non-discourse of non-human nature, is what makes some ecologists fear an éco-fascisme.  In this feared development, certain dominant humans would define what nature’s voice has said and will say, what nature’s needs are, and impose a way of life  on other humans “in defence of nature.”

     The fear is needed.  We are at an early phase of the reflection, we don’t have our Marx yet, we can’t yet picture the cause we want to fight in.  How is the Council of Nature to be formed?  Who’ll steer the Steering Committee of the Biosphere? 

     Many ecologists, of course, have seen that another source of inspiration is the Amerindian outlook in the Americas. This could be seen as a religion, or simply as an outlook.  But clearly, in it, humans converse with the cosmos. The First Nations in Canada converse with the universe as the nation-states in the UN building in Manhattan do not.

     The puzzle is very puzzling. But we all have to tackle it. Let’s share the discussions we have, the books we read, the actions we take.

Malcolm Reid is a Quebec city activist and writer. After working as the Quebec National Assembly reporter for The Globe and Mail in the sixties, he became a full-time writer and published the landmark study in English of the Quebec intellectuals of the 1960s, The Shouting Signpainters. A translation of that book has now been published by Laval University Press, which is also bringing out Reid’s study of Leonard Cohen – in French.