Class Struggle for Beginners

Economic Democracy
The Working Class Alternative to Capitalism

By Allan Engler  

Remember when, just several years ago, the business pages kept informing us that the newly branded casino capitalism had inaugurated an endless era of prosperity for all? So much for old fashioned ideas like working class power, socialism or economic democracy! Capitalism was the end of history and everyone was going to sail away on a Freedom 55 sailboat to early and luxurious retirement.

Now, of course, as watch jobs and whole sectors of employment disappear and plans for retirement before 80 become more and more unrealistic, there is general agreement that there may still be a few unresolved bugs in the capitalist machinery. Some mainstream politicians are implementing financial rescue packages (albeit ones that do more to rescue banks and bankers than they do for ordinary working people) and it is not unusual to find cautious endorsement of mildly Keynesian interventions in the economy on the pages of such ruling class organs as the New York Times and The Globe an Mail.

Not many of our public intellectuals, however, are willing to go any further than suggesting patch jobs and temporary fixes for the system that has let us all down so savagely yet again. In a world where detailed representation of every sexual act can be found on the Internet or cable TV, words like “socialism” and “anarcho-syndicalism” are the new obscenities, strictly excluded from most pages and screens, except when the S-word is implausibly trotted out by right wing commentators to attack mild mannered and modest reformers like the Obama Democrats and the Layton NDP.

Daring to pose alternatives to capitalism

In this context, the arrival of Vancouver labour activist and author Allan Engler’s new book Economic Democracy is a welcome and unusual event. In the just over 100 pages of this lucid, eloquent little book, Engler spells out a critique of capitalism and a vision of a working class alternative that can be achieved, he insists hopefully, without the bloodshed, purges and authoritarianism that have marred so many of history’s earlier attempts to go beyond capitalism.

Think of Al Engler as a one man anti-Fraser Institute. He grew up in Saskatchewan, and was involved, as a teenager, in the founding of the NDP. He’s made his home in Vancouver since the early ’60s, and has been an active figure here for decades in union and community politics. He began his first book, 1995’s Apostles of Greed while he worked as a cook on coastal tow-boats. Margaret Thatcher’s victory got him started. He saw in it the first warning of a neo-conservative, avidly pro-capitalist resurgence that became received wisdom around the world for several decades. His new book, coming as it does just as world capitalism has vividly demonstrated its structural defects by yet another catastrophic repeat of its inherent boom-and-bust cycle, represents a valiant attempt to put discussion of a real anti-capitalist alternative back in the public conversation.

But Economic Democracy is more than an attempt to re-brand Marxism for the 21st century, although Engler’s thumbnail accounts of the history of the world’s political economy and the rise of capitalism, all rendered without any of the soul-deadening jargon and rhetoric that has beset far too many of the statements of the anti-capitalist left, does a creditable job of doing just that. The book suggests a new and plausible way to argue the case against capitalism and for genuinely different ways of arranging our economic and political lives, and as such, the book is one that all social justice and environmental activists should read.

Clear-eyed about Marxist disasters

One of the striking ways that Engler’s book differs from the work of many who still retain affection for class analysis and historical materialism is that he frankly and fully confronts the historical failure of Marxism-Leninism to create the democratic workers’ control of production and the state it promised. He notes that armed revolution led by a conspiratorial Leninist party, the model that dominated much anti-capitalist work in the 20th century, regularly led to bloody-handed dictatorships that showed no promise of ever evolving into genuine socialism.

What armed revolution led to was purges and gulags, not popular power and workers’ democracy. So Engler is willing to explicitly reject the romance of armed revolt in favor of slow, incremental reforms won by a revived labour movement and campaigns conducted within and outside of the structures of electoral politics, a program that would fight for human entitlement, social ownership and workplace democracy.

He can write with moral authority on these matters, having devoted his entire adult life to exactly the kind of labour intensive organizing he suggests the rest of us engage in as well. Organizing larger and more democratic unions, campaigning for structures of regulation and taxation that protect against capitalism’s worst abuses could, he suggests, lead incrementally to a new and non-capitalist society, one in which all humans are entitled to a fair share of what is produced socially, and in which sane protection of the environment will become a key guideline for public policy.

Engler does not directly address the failure of social democratic parties and established unions across the capitalist world to successfully create that transition yet, and he does not provide details of how we are to attain the absolutely desirable social and environmental goals he describes.

In fact, Economic Democracy suffers from a flaw too often seen in books that critique capitalism and envision alternatives, the usage I call the imperative future tense. Readers are repeatedly told that economic democracy “will do… or will require” certain desirable policy options, as if our hopes could become reliable predictions. This utopian approach to the future tense is an unhelpful hold over from earlier social change traditions, Marxism key among them, and does little to suggest just how we are to move practically to achieve social ownership and worker’s control in the face of the enormous resources of media control and armed might that the capitalist rulers of the planet can deploy.

Engler might reply that we’ll find ways to solve that puzzle as we patiently progress from one small reform to another, using the political skills and resources we accumulate in building larger unions and more effective social movements to bootstrap our way toward fundamental change.

He may be right. I certainly hope so, and recommend this brave, clear and hopeful book to anyone who cares about social justice in Canada.

–Tom Sandborn,, Oct. 5, 2010

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