From James Laxer at This Magazine:
There are times in history when truly reactionary political formations come along. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is such a formation. While thankfully, it is not overtly racist in the manner of the far-right parties in Europe, it shares all of the other views and instincts of such bodies. Harper himself, as his speeches and writings reveal, would be very much at home in the Republican Party. His government threatens all of the societal innovations the NDP and the CCF before it have inspired. It is not foreordained that the neo-conservatives will succeed in imposing their philosophy on us, but because they have the support of most of the business class in Canada, it’s highly possible. It is, therefore, overwhelmingly in the interest of social democrats to prevent this outcome.
Sadly, the NDP has evolved into a party much like the others. There is little political ferment. Riding association meetings, party conferences and provincial and federal conventions are not occasions for basic debate and education about the state of society and what needs to be done, but rather focus on fundraising, holding raffles and showcasing the leader for the media.
The only time when there is genuine democracy in the NDP is during leadership campaigns. At least during these intervals, real debate becomes possible. Once the leader is chosen, however, party policy, decided on at conventions, is ignored. That has been the case for decades. Between leadership campaigns, the leader, surrounded by his or her inner staff and pollsters, determines the political course of the party.
The campaigns of the party establishment to replace the Regina Manifesto with the Winnipeg Declaration of Principles in 1956 (which effectively replaced socialism with the humanization of capitalism as the party’s objective), to suppress the Waffle in the early 1970s (to eliminate a grassroots movement that sought to move the party to the left) and to contain the New Politics Initiative a few years ago, were episodes in a decades-old effort to make vote winning the paramount, almost exclusive, legitimate activity of the party. The historically successful drive to drain party membership of any real political content and to vest almost all power in the hands of the leader and his or her operatives has had the effect of making the tactics of each election campaign the only thing that really matters. And since the success of leaders is judged almost wholly by how many seats they win, ambitious NDP leaders have reached the not surprising conclusion that the party will tolerate virtually anything as long as it promotes the winning of more votes and more seats.
Instead, the NDP needs to evolve into a movement-party dedicated to promoting the interests of working people and the interests of Canadians as autonomous actors, as free as possible from the constraints imposed by the American empire. Winning people over to the NDP’s point of view is often, but not always, in line with the tactically optimal way to win more votes for the party. The tension between building the movement and winning converts, on the one hand, and winning votes, on the other, is necessary to the success of social democracy. This is true, not least, because in pursuit of fundamental reforms, social democratic governments cannot act without the support, indeed the leadership, of social movements. Without serious mobilization of large numbers of people to counteract the weight of business, nothing important will happen, and social democrats will be condemned to being little more than cleaner Liberals.
In the 1930s, social democrats understood that they needed to nurture a political culture and an intellectual climate in which socialist ideas would be embraced. CCF meetings were serious occasions for learning, discussion and debate. Under the aegis of the League for Social Reconstruction, socialist thinkers wrote books on the future course of Canadian social and economic policy. In 1935, the LSR published Social Planning for Canada, a penetrating analysis of what ailed Canadian society during the Depression. Some of those active in the LSR were F.R. Scott, Frank Underhill, John King Gordon, Graham Spry and Leonard Marsh. It’s been a long time since anyone looked to the NDP for ideas. The trouble with encouraging thought and creating a culture where ideas can flourish is that ideas come with controversy and searing debates about what the party stands for and what its tactics should be.
I’m not sure whether the leadership wanted controversy during the 1950s. Having lived through it, though, I am sure that it didn’t when it got it during the Waffle years from 1969 to 1972. When the party threw out the Waffle, they made it clear that thinkers were not wanted in the party. Subsequently, many artists and writers gave the NDP a wide berth; they may have voted for NDP candidates, but they did not feel at home in the party itself.
While social democrats believed they could dispense with ideas, the right figured out that they could not. The neo-cons installed the far-right Conservative Party with the help of media conglomerates and the right-wing intelligentsia. For example, Conrad Black, once described by Margaret Thatcher as the most right-wing person she’d ever met—she meant it as a compliment—established the National Post a decade ago as a journal of combat whose task was to rally the right, feature its most effective voices as columnists and help bring to power a party that would move Canada sharply to the right. (Considering the millions he lost on the National Post, the launch of the paper may well have been a factor in propelling him to the Big House in Florida.)
The Aspers stepped in as Black withdrew and now run a media empire that is Canada’s “Fox lite,” committed to shifting the dialogue in the country dramatically to the right. David Frum, Robert Fulford and—until recently—Andrew Coyne at the Post and Tom Flanagan at Stephen Harper’s elbow, along with the rest of the neo-con wolf pack, actually care about ideas. They don’t merely want to hold office, they want to change the country (something social democrats used to care about). The fact that they aspire to the destruction of virtually all that is progressive in Canadian life does not detract from their seriousness. They are not content to become members of a centre-of-the-road Canadian government.
J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and David Lewis were also not interested in simply sitting at a cabinet table. They were determined to create a Canada in which the power of the capitalists to exploit workers was sharply reduced and the lives of wage and salary earners were dramatically improved. If they had simply wanted to hold office, they could have signed on with Mackenzie King, St. Laurent or Pearson and they would have been welcomed with open arms.
In today’s neo-conservative environment, it is dauntingly difficult to achieve social policy breakthroughs—for instance the establishment of a universal, comprehensive early childhood education system beginning at age two, along the lines of the system that has existed for many decades in France. There is a strong movement in Canada that has struggled for many years for such a program and the NDP supports this aim. What is needed, though, is a much more powerful connection between movement and party, so that the NDP is committed to advocating this childcare program and is prepared to fight for it in the public arena, as well as in the House of Commons.
A becalmed political party like the NDP is of limited use to working people in a mean-spirited time such as ours. We don’t need a party that no longer knows how to fight and has lost the combative edge of the social democrats of earlier decades.