On January 27, Stephen Marche wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail titled ‘When extremist activists drive the left to oblivion, what will remain?’
The argument of the article is best summed up in its last paragraph:
“Canadian institutions have a choice: to transcend political debates, or to be consumed by them. The implosion of the left isn’t even a matter of conviction. It’s a Darwinian fact of life. The institutions that ignore activists will survive; the ones that don’t, won’t.”
There’s a lot to unpack here.
When Marche speaks of institutions, he is often referring to academic institutions. He thinks they are imploding because of radical leftists. As evidence for this claim, he references the academics who put red paint on a Toronto Indigo store, identity politics on campuses, and Naomi Klein. Somewhat peculiarly, the only other example he gives of an institution suffering from leftist infiltration is the CBC.
His insistence that the left is imploding is based on the observation that many young people are turning to the right. He references Pierre Poilievre, Donald Trump, and Marine Le Pen as examples of right-wing politicians with a surprising number of young supporters — often more than their liberal rival. This leads him to declare that “‘left-wing’ will soon mean ‘old-fashioned.’”
The (not so sleight) sleight-of-hand at play here is the labeling of centrist liberals as left-wing. With this false equivocation made, Marche can then blame the activist left for the declining popularity of the Justin Trudeau, Joe Biden, and Emmanuel Macrons of the world. The reason these liberals are failing is because they have not adequately distanced themselves from the leftists who still wield too much power in our institutions. As always, the way out is to “stand for values that transcend politics”. Not left, not right, but forward.
Socialism or barbarism
The irony is that it is precisely this ‘apolitical’ centrism that is pushing people to the right — and the left. Last year, a Fraser Institute report found that:
“There is less support for capitalism across most age groups in most countries [including Canada] compared to the support for socialism amongst the younger age group (18–34).”
Young people are attuned to the failures of centrist politicians to make any meaningful progress in improving their lives. The price of everything, from housing to food, keeps going up while wages stagnate and worker precarity increases. This is not the result of identity politics or Naomi Klein, it is the result of political inaction and a broken system.
During the first world war, Rosa Luxemburg noted the choice before the German people: progress into socialism or regress into barbarism. Luxemburg was executed four years later and, in the decade after her death, Germany descended into Nazism. In 2024, we are again at this crossroads. The status quo is not working. In the electoral realm, there is no genuine socialist alternative for Canadians or Americans to rally behind. A vote for Pierre Poilievre or Donald Trump is a rejection of liberalism, not socialism. Socialism isn’t on the ballot. But this rejection is also an open door to barbarism and all the hypernationalism, racism, and cruelty it entails.
Apathy or activism
Workers — young and old alike — are also faced with another related choice: apathy or activism. Apathy leads to nihilism and the further atomization of the individual. Activism is the inverse of this; an embracing of the power of the collective and the possibility of change.
Marche believes that “activists are like mosquito bites: if you don’t scratch, the itch will go away.”
This is a liberal fantasy. As material conditions continue to worsen and as the contradictions embedded in liberal capitalism become increasingly obvious, more and more activists will take to the streets to express their frustration. These activists may be on the right (see the Freedom Convoy or the 1 Million March 4 Children) or on the left (see Black Lives Matter, Free Palestine, or Climate Justice marches).
Liberalism is unable to meaningfully engage with these activists because to do so would be to admit the failures at the heart of the ideology. To address the issues that are bringing people to the streets would require taking on the capitalist class — corporations, landlords, and police. To lower the cost of food, you have to fight corporate grocery chains. To decrease the cost of housing, you have to fight landlords. To stop police brutality, you have to fight the police. These forces are so intertwined with liberalism that this would mean fighting themselves and working against their own self-interest. This is the conflict motivating Marche’s claim that it’s better for those in power to ignore activists and hope they “go away”.
We’re not going anywhere
As socialists and organizers, we have to continue agitating against ruling class interests. We draw in wider layers of the working class who are frustrated by the liberal death spiral. We have to show that the left is not the identity politics caricature that Marche and other reactionaries construct. Our project is about transforming society so that it functions in the interests of the people, not the capitalists. To make this transformation, workers have to organize together and reject racism, patriarchy, imperialism, apathy, nihilism, and all the other forces the ruling class uses to divide and pacify us.
The question is not ‘what will remain when extremist activists drive the left to oblivion?’, but rather, ‘will the left be able to take the wheel before liberals drive us all to oblivion?’
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