System Failure: The Breakdown of the Post-War Settlement and the Politics of Labour in Our Time

By Palmer, Bryan D. | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

System Failure: The Breakdown of the Post-War Settlement and the Politics of Labour in Our Time


Palmer, Bryan D., Labour/Le Travail


IT IS DIFFICULT, in May 2004, to address a Canadian working-class and trade union audience and not begin with harsh words for what has recently happened in British Columbia. For the recent termination of the hospital workers' heroic struggle, which threatened a General Strike against the Campbell government's retrograde actions, is unacceptable. There was widespread support among west coast workers for militant action and a decisive stand, one that had been required and building for a number of years, but the labour bureaucracy, as is so repetitiously often the case, had no stomach for a fight. Union officials and the head of the BC Federation of Labour, who ended this battle in such an abrupt way and on terms that secured the working class so little when so much more could have been won, have dealt all of Canadian labour, including their own militant ranks, a severe blow, one all the more devastating because it comes from those who should be leading rather than capitulating. (1)

This of course is not the usual assessment in the academic milieu from which I come. Most academics speak loudly of class struggle in their writings, especially if they are about the past, but excuse trade union leaders almost anything, retreating into rationalizations of how the ranks of workers' organizations are divided, unprepared for confrontations with capital and the state, and reluctant to sacrifice for a better society. I adhere to other views, and ones that can be located in the history of Canadian class struggle. When W.A. Pritchard addressed the jury in a 1919-1920 state trial, in which he and others involved in the Winnipeg General Strike were charged with seditious conspiracy, he articulated a sense of possibility concerning the Canadian working class and its relation to international developments and concerns:

Reason, wisdom, intelligence, forces of the minds and heart, whom I have always devoutly invoked, come to me, aid me, sustain my feeble voice, carry it, if that may be, to all peoples of the world and diffuse it everywhere where there are men of good will to hear the beneficent truth. A new order of things is born, the powers of evil die poisoned by their crime. The greedy and the cruel, the devourers of people, are bursting with an indigestion of blood. However sorely stricken by the sins of their blind or corrupt masters, mutilated, decimated, the proletarians remain erect; they will unite to form one universal proletariat and we shall see fulfilled the great Socialist prophecy: 'The Union of the workers will be the peace of the world.'

How critically important are these words today, 85 years later!

At no point in human history, perhaps, has one nation so dominated global politics and economy, and done so with such an arrogant and brutalizing power, raw in its willingness to beat those who do not jump to its dictates into submission. And, compared with the last century, it must be said that the trade unions, the labour movement, and the left, have almost never been weaker. A combination of international and domestic developments has everywhere in the capitalist west turned the terms of class trade against workers and their advocates and allies. This is a large process, and it commences with the truly tragic demise of the Soviet Union, where an unfortunately degenerating "socialism" finally imploded in 1989, leaving the US the world's sole superpower. Left-wing parties in the advanced capitalist nations either fell by the wayside in the 1970-2000 years or, as in the case of the New Democratic Party (NDP), so abandoned their commitment to socialism and workers that they are indistinguishable from entrenched liberal parties, where the mainstream has, indeed, become not unlike older political formations associated with conservatism. The misnamed neo-conservative and neo-liberal politics of this same period are nothing more than ravishing retreats into reaction, reviving crude projects of 19th-century greed and individualism associated with the harsh schools of original Malthusian political economy. …

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