What Real Socialist Politics Would Mean

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.

Please read the whole thing here and may Jack Layton read it too

Apologies & Pain

Briarpatch follows up on the Canadian government’s apology to Indigenous people for residential schools policy:

On June 11, 2008, Stephen Harper, prime minister of Canada and leader of the Conservative Party, issued an “apology” for the residential school system that over 150,000 Indigenous children were forced through. The hype before and after the statement was enormous, with extensive coverage in all major media.

This event had a strong emotional and psychological impact on Indigenous survivors of residential schools all across Canada, who suffered attempted forced assimilation as well as countless acts of violence, rape, and abuse. Descendents of those subjected to this system were equally affected. People packed into community halls and similar venues on June 11 for what was bound to be an emotionally triggering day for survivors, regardless of their view towards the meaning of the “apology.” Some survivors reportedly felt that the statement was a step forward, while many were highly critical.

In trying to understand the responses of Indigenous people across Canada to this “apology,” it is first important to address what it did not do. It must be judged in terms of the ability of Indigenous people to move forward in the process of true healing, not just from the effects of the residential school system, but from the entire process of Canadian colonialism. In this framework, the deficiencies of the “apology” are much greater than any positive impact it could have.

Read more here

Nuala O’Faolain

Nuala O’Faolain, the Irish journalist and author of the frank memoir Are You Somebody, has died. She was 68.

O’Faolain revealed on Ireland’s public broadcaster just weeks ago that she had cancer. She was initially diagnosed with lung cancer, but it spread to her brain and liver.

She died Friday morning at a hospice in Dublin, her family said.

Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman earned O’Faolain “entry into an exclusive club: the official (and mostly male) chroniclers of Irish pain and rebirth, from James Joyce to Frank McCourt,” The New York Times said of her memoir.

In the book, O’Faolain chronicles her upbringing, one of nine children born to an alcoholic mother and philandering father, himself a newspaper columnist.

Are You Somebody was considered both unusually frank and scandalous, because it told of her own struggles with alcohol and revealed her long lesbian affair with Northern Irish civil rights activist Nell McCafferty.

She also revealed personal doubts associated with being a middle-aged, childless woman, working in a male-dominated profession.

O’Faolain already had a following from her opinion columns in the Irish Times. An ardent feminist, she often used the column to castigate Irish attitudes on the role of women, including women activists in the peace movement.

She tackled many feminist and social themes, including domestic violence, Irish homophobia, the grip of Catholicism and the country’s high birth rate.

She also had a gift for humour and captured the stories of individuals in everyday situations in a way that made them interesting.

With her memoir, O’Faolain smashed the acceptance she had received from fellow, mainly male political journalists, questioning what she called her “fake objective” approach to journalism.

She revealed numerous affairs with men as well as a 15-year relationship with McCafferty.

The book, written when she was 60, had an initial print run of 1,500 but went on to be an international best-seller.

O’Faolain wrote a follow-up memoir, Almost There, in 2003, the novel My Dream of You in 2001 and the biography The Story of Chicago May in 2005. She won France’s Prix Femina in 2006.


“In my time, which is mostly the 20th century, people have died horribly in Auschwitz, in Darfur, or are dying of starvation or dying multiply raped in the Congo … horribly like that. I think how comfortably I am dying: I have friends and family; I am in this wonderful country; I have money,” she said.

“There is nothing much wrong with me, except I am dying.”

No doubt Nuala believed she would indeed rest in peace.  The last thing I read of Nuala’s was back in March when she wrote this piece for The Women’s Media Center, defending Hillary Clinton against the gleeful male press who insisted she had inflated her role in Irish peace talks:

March 10, 2008  In a story widely picked up in the U.S. media, Lord David Trimble-once an Ulster Unionist Partyleader, now a member of the Conservative Party-while speaking to The Daily Telegraph this weekend, dismissed Hillary Clinton’s contributions to the Northern Ireland peace process, calling it “silly” and saying Clinton was active only in a “woman politicky sort of way.” Here, veteran Irish journalist and author Nuala O’Faolain’s responds:

Oh friends, let me mark your cards!

I’m telling you as an Irish journalist, who was in Belfast in the bad, dark times, and has a view as to how much Hillary Clinton mattered: watch who is being quoted about her track record here. Watch who is talking about women.

They did lose, you know, the loyalist/unionist tight little pro-British, Protestant majority. A long-worked-for, brilliantly complex Peace Deal did screw the unionists out of the power they’d ruthlessly exerted over Northern Ireland for more than 300 years. A new Ireland began with the Anglo-Irish Peace Agreement of 1998, and it is a pleasure to mention Westminster and Washington and the EU and Dublin in the shaping of the achievement. The one lot of players that was ignored at that time and has been utterly forgotten since then is the sad little rump of former unionist leaders. That’s who is being quoted about Hillary Clinton.

Nobody’s asked their opinion on anything at all for years.  Then, hey presto! A right wing English newspaper sees an opportunity to put down Hillary Clinton and all of a sudden the phone rings in forgotten bungalows. Hey, old guys, what’s your opinion?

There was never a chance that that lot ever took anything any woman did in public life with respect. Especially, I might say, any American woman. We’re talking deep, impacted misogyny here.

read the rest here

I will miss Nuala O’Faolain.

Here’s an audio of O’Faolain interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel in June, 2007:   here