It was a bombshell of a week in Toronto politics, one in which the two extremes of left-wing politics -- the hard and the soft -- gave two Toronto audiences their points of view, prognoses and programs.
On Wednesday night, the professor responsible for the term "third way" -- the mainstreaming of social democratic politics to take into account the realities of government -- takes to a U of T stage.
A most unstuffy Brit, Anthony Giddens -- the political guru of UK prime minister and "New Labour" leader Tony Blair -- informally sashays back and forth across the stage in his shirt sleeves, declaring the triumph of capitalism and advising social democrats and anti-globalization activists what they must do to mitigate its worst aspects. A key part of his prescription is activist government to assert the public interest and check the power of corporations.
"You can't have a decent society on any level without decent government," he says.
Upcoming skirmishes For something completely different, 500 unapologetic anti-capitalists from across the country pack the OISE auditorium on Friday night and Saturday to lick wounds from battles lost and plot upcoming skirmishes.
Participants in the Rebuilding The Left conference are a varied lot. There are members of most of the left-wing Trotskyist, Spartacist and other grouplets, unaffiliated faces familiar from 20 years of demos in Toronto and the theoreticians of revolution who toil in the hallways of academe, notably at York University.
And there are many newbies in the auditorium, for it's their uprisings in Seattle, Windsor, Prague and elsewhere that have given the old-timers new spunk, a sense that there is a spirit in the air that makes it possible to dream of something beyond capitalism.
Alas, the spirit of fun that animated those demos is in short supply here. No puppets, performance art or costumes. As Himani Bannerji gives a lengthy theoretical talk on race and class and the lingering racism of Toronto's left, many young heads droop.
And though it's the spirit of Seattle that in large part sparked this conference, the shape of what's being proposed sounds more bureaucratically old-fashioned than the ad hoc affinity-group tactics of the young activists who have kept the stewards of international capitalism from getting to their meetings on time.
Sam Gindin, formerly the economist of the Canadian Auto Workers union, sketches a vision of what the organizers want to come out of the meeting with -- something more than a movement but less than a political party, a movement of movements. He says he's looking for ways to create "continuity among groups," and suggests that participants at the meeting consider hiring paid organizers, compose a statement of principles and set up a dues structure as "a measure of commitment to the project.
"The idea that we should move to a new party is premature," he says, nixing for the moment the premise of his article in This Magazine that originally spurred the 20 people who organized this conference to get together. "Is The Party Over?" it asked, referring to the NDP. Vote for the NDP wherever possible, he advises here tonight, but warns that "the NDP and the movements have come to speak different languages."
Though Gindin tries to douse any whither-the-NDP debate before it gets going -- "I see no reason to spend a great deal of time on this," he says -- it's a question that keeps coming up.
At a workshop Saturday morning, Barry Weisleder of the NDP socialist caucus points out that while the NDP hasn't provided a strong alternative vision, it's the only labour party in North America, with 80,000 members. "The fight for a working-class program has to begin in the existing organizations of the working class," he says.
Despite his efforts, Weisleder gets a mere sprinkling of applause late Saturday afternoon -- only slightly more than the Trots and the Spartacist League -- as he makes the case for the NDP one last time.
In contrast, John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty takes the podium as an avenging angel.
Memories of the June 15 riot at Queen's Park, where marauding cops attacked demonstrators and later laid charges that landed Clarke in the Don Jail for a couple of nights, still cast a glow over this gathering.
The months since the riot have been very kind to Clarke and to OCAP, which has been able to hire three more organizers with the financial donations of sympathetic groups and individuals. "June 15 posed the issue. You can fight to win," he says.
Now, with the extra support and paid staff, OCAP is planning its most daring action yet, a province-wide series of protests sometime in 2001 that he assures us will force the Harris government from office. "Blockades, takeovers, whatever we can do to bring economic pain.
"If anyone believes that we can't organize a movement after Harris, then why are we here talking about anti-capitalism? We have to be as bold and decisive as the situation requires. Join us in a campaign of economic disruption against the Harris government."
With that, the audience leaps to its feet in the most thunderous applause of the conference. It's as if the derring-do of OCAP has rubbed off on what has been at times an abstract and esoteric affair.
Preclude equality The OCAP project will probably be high on the agenda at follow-up discussions at a meeting December 3 at 527 College and at a second conference being considered for six months from now.
Though he wasn't at the ReBuilding The Left conference, the spectre of Anthony Giddens -- the most famous sociologist in the world -- hovered as its antithesis. His assertion that capitalism is all there is but that it doesn't preclude equality and fairness sends young questioners to the mike at the Wednesday-night meeting where Giddens speaks to a packed house that includes profs and students and former premier David Peterson.
"You can't be for or against globalization, because it's far too complicated," Giddens says.
He also advises against demonizing corporations, adding that governments did far worse things during the 20th century than did the agents of capitalism.
Mocks protestors Though he mocks youthful anti-globalization protestors -- "Join the worldwide movement against globalization" was one placard he saw on TV -- he credits them for putting the issue on the table. And he wants to give all those who would challenge capitalism an assurance that they can make a difference.
For example, though he acknowledges that the agenda of globalization is a corporate one, he says the process also creates an international movement of engaged citizens who have created "ethical surveillance" that forces corporations to do business differently.
Whose set of energies will prevail, Giddens's or those of the purveyors of anti-capitalism who gathered at OISE? We will find some clues next year, when the OCAP move against Mike Harris materializes (or doesn't) and when the heads of state of North and South American countries gathering in Quebec City have their next run-in with activists. Those will be the two next instalments of the battle to reform politics from the street up.