Spartacist Canada No. 177
Tailoring Program to Practice: NDP Ditches "Socialism"
The 2011 election catapulted the federal New Democrats to official opposition status in Ottawa. Two years later, the NDP continues its march away from the labour movement and anything even hinting of socialism. At its April convention in Montreal, the party voted by a large margin to drop from the preamble of its constitution a paper commitment to “democratic socialist principles.” Gone too is the previous mild aversion to profit-driven production, as well as the vague allusion to social ownership “where necessary.” The new preamble upholds Canada, imperialist exploiter of workers in Latin America, Africa and beyond, as “a great country, one of the hopes of the world.”
The stated aim of the NDP leadership is to position the party among “progressive democratic political parties that govern successfully in many countries,” the obvious model being the capitalist Democratic Party in the U.S. Thus the Montreal convention welcomed two leading Democratic Party figures to give key speeches. One, Jeremy Bird, was national field director for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. The other was Joseph Stiglitz, an economic advisor to an earlier U.S. imperialist chieftain, Bill Clinton, and a former vice-president and chief economist at the World Bank. Stiglitz actually cautioned the NDP against moving too far to the right: “Don’t do what Labour did in the UK and say we have to privatize everything” (National Post, 13 April).
These moves to distance the party from any hint of working-class politics come in the context of the continued hammering of working people by the ruling exploiters and the severe weakening of the unions. But there’s nothing new in its political logic. The NDP has always been a very right-wing, pusillanimous social-democratic party. Its fidelity to the interests of Canadian capitalism has never been in question. Only those living in a social-democratic fog—reformists whose life work centres on trying to push the NDP to the left—would claim that its tepid program ever had anything to with socialism, i.e., the emancipation of the working class from capitalist wage slavery.
The NDP has historically been what Marxists call a bourgeois workers party. Organically based in the labour movement, at least in part, it nonetheless upholds and enforces the rule of capital. During the late 1940s, a time of rising class struggle, the NDP’s Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) predecessors knew they had to sink roots in organized labour in order to channel growing discontent into capitalist electoralism. At bottom, their purpose was to ward off any threat of workers revolution.
In the first instance, that required displacing the Communist Party (CP) which, in spite of its Stalinist and Canadian nationalist leadership, had led many of the struggles that produced the explosive growth of the unions and had significantly more weight inside them. The CCF played a central role in the purges that drove CP and other militants out of the unions in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The labour movement came under the control of an anti-Communist bureaucracy whose political descendants run it to this day. Elevated above the working class on the basis of superprofits derived from exploitation of the underdeveloped world, these bureaucrats view the world through the same prism as the Canadian ruling class. The ties between the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress were cemented in 1961 when they jointly founded the NDP as “labour’s political arm.”
The New Democrats’ aim has always been to administer capitalism on behalf of the bourgeoisie, and they have done this repeatedly at the provincial level, including today in Manitoba and Nova Scotia. In the present period, with labour struggles at a nadir and seeing an opportunity to displace the Liberals as the main alternative to the ruling federal Tories, the NDP brass increasingly views the labour connection as a liability to its electoral aspirations.
This trajectory gathered steam under the leadership of the late Jack Layton. Federal laws enacted starting in 2004 greatly reduced and then banned union (and corporate) donations to political parties. Since the unions no longer financed the NDP, their voting weight within it was accordingly reduced. After the 2011 breakthrough, Layton and the rest of the party brass moved to ditch the “socialist” baggage. There was blowback, so they temporarily retreated. Thomas Mulcair, who moved seamlessly from the Quebec Liberal Party cabinet into the NDP’s upper echelons, has simply deepened and accelerated the process.
As Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the NDP leaves no doubt as to its class loyalties. Take its response to the vast increase in state surveillance and repression under the “war on terror.” Denouncing recent Tory spending cuts, NDP spokesman Robert Chisholm railed: “If the government is serious about dealing with terrorist threats, it should restore the $134 million that is being cut from CBSA [border guards].” He vowed that an NDP government would reverse the Tory cuts in funding to the RCMP and the CSIS secret police.
The New Democrats also seek to outdo the Tories in anti-Communist China-bashing. They branded the government’s approval of the sale of the Nexen oil company to a state-run Chinese corporation as the “worst Conservative lowlight of 2012.” Denouncing the Tories for giving China “increased access to our strategic natural resources,” the NDP asked rhetorically: “Maybe they’ll add a seat in Parliament for the Chinese politburo next session?” Such foam-flecked anti-Communism is deeply rooted. The New Democrats were vociferous soldiers in the imperialists’ Cold War against the Soviet Union, and have always backed the drive to foment counterrevolution in countries where capitalist rule was overthrown through social revolution, including China, a bureaucratically deformed workers state.
Saving the NDP’s “Socialist Soul”
So what of the NDP “left”? At the convention, two reformist outfits, Fightback and Socialist Action (SA), worked tirelessly to steer the NDP back to its wretched social-democratic origins. Fightback is the Canadian offspring of the British Labourite grouping founded by Ted Grant, today known as the International Marxist Tendency. From its inception, it has centred its work on the call “NDP to power on a socialist program!” For its part, SA, despite its occasional Marxist pretentions, has been buried in the NDP for at least 15 years as the prime mover of the badly misnamed “Socialist Caucus.”
At the convention, Socialist Caucus spokesman and SA leader Barry Weisleder was one of the foremost advocates of keeping “socialism” in the NDP constitution. In a follow-up article calling to “keep the principle of social ownership at the heart of the NDP,” Weisleder invokes not Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky but…various prominent NDP figures dead and alive, starting with party founder Tommy Douglas. The article’s abject final plea is: “Together, let’s create a global cooperative commonwealth” (socialistaction.ca, 30 April).
For Fightback, the results of the NDP convention were “tragic.” But they’re far from disheartened, writing: “Socialism cannot be ‘amended’ out of the NDP. It has been there since the founding of the CCF and NDP, and it takes energy from the struggles of the youth, of workers, and of oppressed peoples” (marxist.ca, 16 April). Given the opportunity to write an opinion column in the Toronto Star (10 April), a Fightback spokesman asked, “Will a NDP federal government fight for the cause for which the party was founded?” Yes, it will—the cause of the NDP has never been socialism, but corralling workers into the dead end of parliamentary reformism.
Instead of the necessary fight to win the most class-conscious workers away from these political agents of capital, reformist groups like SA and Fightback work to reinforce the hold of social-democratic ideology, which they fundamentally share. “Socialism” is not a more benevolent capitalist order ruled by an imagined NDP government that taxes the rich and (sometimes) hands out a few crumbs to the workers.
In a socialist society, production will be organized for human need, not the profit of a tiny layer of exploiters. Getting there requires the overthrow of those exploiters through working-class socialist revolution; the smashing of the repressive capitalist state machine and its replacement by a workers state; the expropriation of the capitalist class and an internationalist struggle to extend the revolutionary gains to working people across the globe. Such are the prerequisites of an egalitarian communist society, in which the state has withered away and economic scarcity and class divisions have been transcended. For this we need a new leadership of the working class and oppressed, dedicated to the principle that those who labour must rule.
B.C. NDP to Workers: Lower Your Expectations
The recent B.C. election was a case study in the political character of the NDP as well as its left hangers-on. With the ruling Liberal Party widely predicted to lose, major capitalist corporations like Enbridge and Telus were hedging their bets, giving money to the NDP as well as their usual Liberal favourites. But it was not to be, as the Liberals campaigned aggressively and emerged with a majority government.
The New Democrats’ campaign pledge of “fiscal responsibility” was, even for them, very right-wing. In response to a leaked internal policy document, they hotly denied any intention of implementing such social necessities as universal public childcare, or an end to health care premiums and tuition fees for higher education. B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair, himself an NDP supporter, observed that the party had “made no commitments at all” to labour. Noting the similarity of the NDP and Liberal platforms, Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer quipped, “those with anything but minimal expectations should prepare to be disappointed.” Certainly the NDP merited not a shred of support from the working class.
This was not, of course, the conclusion drawn by the NDP-loyal reformist left. Pride of place here goes to the International Socialists (I.S.), whose pre-election statement was laughably entitled “BC NDP platform: really good, but not as good as it could be” (Socialist Worker, May 2013). Without even a mention of socialism, this analysis, seemingly ghost-written by a Keynesian tax accountant, salutes a long list of NDP-proposed taxes and portrays this as “a blow against the prevailing myths of austerity.”
The NDP’s stints in office in B.C. show with particular clarity how it rules for the bosses: from mass strikebreaking in the 1970s to a string of attacks on labour and oppressed minorities during the party’s 1991-2001 reign. Teachers, who face a possible upcoming strike, might recall the 2000 strike by school support workers, which the NDP broke after just a week. The New Democrats also legislated an end to a teachers strike in 1993 and blocked another through anti-strike legislation in 1996. And in 1995, the NDP government ordered what was then the largest RCMP operation in Canadian history to drive Native protesters off a patch of ranch land at Gustafsen Lake.
“National Unity” Chauvinism
The New Democrats’ 2011 federal breakthrough largely came through their huge growth in seats in Quebec. At the time, the I.S. declared that the NDP now “unites workers and their struggles in Quebec and Canada,” while Fightback claimed that the result signaled Quebec workers’ “rejection of the old sterile federalist-nationalist debate.” As we noted:
“Such claims that the working class is now united under Layton’s NDP and that the Quebec national question is passé are utterly bogus. The NDP has always been an Anglo-chauvinist opponent of the national rights of the Québécois, and thus of any prospect of united working-class struggle against Canadian capitalism. The election has changed none of this.”
—“NDP ‘Surge’: Dead End for Workers,” SC No. 169 (Summer 2011)
The continued existence of an artificial “united Canada,” where one nation dominates the other and inflames national animosities, has long undermined the prospect of united working-class struggle against capitalism. In English Canada, Maple Leaf patriotism pushed by the NDP and labour tops binds the workers to the interests of their own exploiters. At the same time, the labour misleaders in Quebec push workers to support “their” capitalists via the Parti and Bloc Québécois. We Trotskyists advocate Quebec independence in order to remove this source of division among the workers and bring to the fore the need for them to oppose the capitalist exploiters of each nation, not each other.
The NDP’s hostility to Quebec’s national rights was shown again in its recent vote against a Bloc Québécois motion to overturn the Clarity Act. This reactionary law, which the NDP has long supported, effectively bans Quebec’s democratic right to self-determination, i.e., to independence. Its repeal would have been a straightforward democratic measure.
To counter the Bloc motion, the NDP cooked up its own “Unity Bill” which would, like the Clarity Act, give the federal government the right to dictate what question could be asked in a future Quebec referendum. Even this was too much for B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix: chiding the federal party from a standpoint of consistent national chauvinism, he upheld the Clarity Act in toto. This is a perfect example of how the NDP accommodates the anti-Quebec chauvinism that is particularly strong in Western Canada. Another NDP candidate in B.C., one Dayleen Van Ryswyk, went a bit too far for the party brass, who dropped her following the revelation of her bigoted online rants against Native people and “having french [sic] stuffed down my throat.”
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
The future evolution of the NDP remains uncertain—whether it remains a pro-capitalist labour party that utilizes its direct ties to the unions to help contain and defeat struggle, or whether it severs such ties and becomes a party more like the U.S. Democrats. Regardless, the task of Marxist revolutionaries is manifestly not to build the NDP or pretend it can institute a “socialist program.” It is rather to work to break the workers, starting with the most advanced, from the politics of pro-capitalist social democracy.
What is needed today to fight against the massacre of jobs and social services is a mobilization of the working class in a fight for jobs for all through a shorter workweek with no loss in pay. A massive organizing drive must be launched to draw into the unions all of the working class, especially its minority and immigrant components. In the course of such struggles, increasing layers of the working class will come to see the need for an assault on the entire capitalist system.
The only way to end once and for all the vicious assaults on social programs, to win jobs, decent living standards, free quality medical care, childcare and decent pensions for everyone is by ripping the productive forces from the hands of the capitalist class through socialist revolution and putting them in the hands of those whose labour makes society run. The NDP’s hold over the working class is a major obstacle to forging the class consciousness necessary to such struggle.
We need a revolutionary workers party that is at once binational, multiracial and internationalist. The purpose of the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste is to build the nucleus of such a party, which would champion the cause of all those oppressed and exploited under capitalism. It would give conscious leadership to the struggles of workers not only to improve present conditions but to do away with the entire system of exploitation and wage slavery.