If Only… a response to Brad Hornick

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Editor's note: On July 3, rabble.ca blogger Brad Hornick wrote a post: On the environmental question, Sam Gindin has got it wrong. This is Sam Gindin's response to that piece.

All politics begins with an assessment of where we're at. Hornick's other-worldy assessment is, that 'a promising incipient mobilization of the working-class-as-a-whole is well underway' and that the climate justice movement 'is a perfect example of an environmental working class that challenges capitalism.' If only. There are certainly impressive protests and budding movements here and there, and the environmental movement has brought  new people and energy into politics. But the truth that Hornick refuses to acknowledge is the depth of the defeat labour suffered through the neoliberal period (i.e. since the early 80s). In spite of a crisis no-one even tried to blame on labour, it is the labour movement that continues to be on the defensive; the banks are coming out of the financial crisis as strong as ever; social democratic parties are abandoning whatever was left of their ideals; eco-socialist politics remains a minority trend even within the environmental movement; and the socialist left has been unable to develop a form of organizing that can match what we are all up against. We're losing, they're winning.

Hornick attacks me for critically raising 'catastrophism.' Let me start with where we agree. We must, as Hornick says, start with the truth. If it is clear the world is going to end in 20 years, we should say so.  What we should not, however, do is purposely exaggerate the possible timing of that end in the false hope that this will help mobilize people (just as we shouldn't exaggerate our strength in the false hope that this will help build the movement). Though there may be disagreements on how many decades we still have, there is no disagreement between us over the fact that we face a grave environmental crisis, that even if the world survives for some time it will be a much uglier world to live in, and that inequality in terms of access to the environment may become this century's greatest egalitarian issue.

Whether we can reverse this trend depends on whether we can build the social and political force to do so. After citing the immediacy of what must be done, Hornick passionately proclaims 'If that is not a case for workers to engage in a 'class-for-itself' struggle, I don't know what is.' Well, workers had plenty of reasons to engage in a 'class-for-itself struggle' without the environmental threat, but that hardly guaranteed the emergence of an appropriate politics. Such a politics will take time because it means building the working class (broadly defined) into a social force with the confidence to envision an alternative society and the institutions and capacities to actually get there. 

Hornick is remarkably optimistic, given recent history here and abroad, about the ease of this coming to pass. He especially dislikes my questioning of the horizontal politics of Occupy, arguing that my attitude reflects 'an academic Marxist chauvism and insensitivity to the more nuanced versions of Marxist dialectics and praxis.' That's a mouthful (and not just because most of my working life wasn't in academe). I actually praised Occupy for showing that audacious actions could touch a populist nerve and showing that a class analysis, even a crude one, could also influence the public dialogue. But I also maintained something that seems self-evident today and what I suspect a good number of those involved in Occupy also now agree with: this kind of symbolic politics is limited in its ability to do outreach and challenge power in a sustained way. To insist, as Hornick does, that such protests necessarily add up to a new politics isn't dialectics or praxis but little more than a mechanical, rather unproblematic, religious assertion.

Environmentalists have admirably studied and publicized the threats we face. The really difficult challenge -- after soberly assessing the existing balance of social forces -- is how to build the structures that give people the collective confidence that change is really possible and that even ending capitalism is conceivable. We owe much in this regard to the work already being done by Hornick and others. But we need to be brutally honest about how far we still are from getting there. 

Sam Gindin was Research Director of the Canadian Autoworkers from 1974-2000, and is now an adjunct professor at York University in Toronto.

Photo: flickr/jacinta lluch valero

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