New Democrats: Site of Struggle

Gabriel Pierre looks at the evolution of Canada's labor party and its likely course if it wins next month's elections

Tom Mulcair: sliding to the right

Next month’s federal election in Canada bears notice for working class partisans south of the border, representing something of a break with politics-as-usual. Voters are turning away from the Conservatives, who have been in power for nearly ten years and have overseen austerity, attacks on democratic rights and shameful cooperation with U.S. imperialism’s adventures abroad. Rather than this translating into an automatic victory for the Liberals, as is typically the case1, there is now a distinct possibility that the New Democrats will form the federal government for the first time.

Regression

Despite its name, the New Democratic Party is much more like the British Labour Party than it is the U.S. Democrats – a contradictory formation or “bourgeois workers’ party” (to borrow Lenin’s phrase) rather than an out-and-out capitalist party. Its origins lie in Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), an umbrella of left-agrarian and cooperative organizations and relatively small socialist and labor parties. Its existence and formal commitment to socialism was a real asset for the Canadian proletariat, despite its limited national horizons and the absence of a commitment to extreme democracy as the form of working class rule. While the party did fight for reforms, it also declared in its 1933 Regina Manifesto2 that such reforms “are of only temporary value” because the “mortal sickness of the whole capitalist system… cannot be cured by the application of salves.” The CCF was committed to “eradicating capitalism” and implementing a “full programme of socialized planning.”  It was that kind of party that won the first single-payer health care system in Saskatchewan under a CCF government, which quickly spread to the rest of Canada.

In 1961 the CCF merged with the Canadian Labour Congress, equivalent to the AFL-CIO in the United States, to constitute the New Democratic Party. By this point the CCF had already regressed, under the pressure of Cold War anti-communism, into replacing the radical Regina Manifesto with a more moderate commitment to a mixed capitalist economy. The NDP at this point became a standard social democratic party like its sisters in Europe, undergoing the same rightward drift post-1991. And it’s been quite a drift. New Democratic provincial governments have defenestrated their own programs when faced with Big Business opposition to their mild reform policies. In the current election campaign its platform is hard to distinguish from the Liberal Party’s, with both accepting austerity measures and waffling on opposition to the grossly undemocratic C-51 spying bill, among other things. This transformation is natural – in fact unavoidable – for any workers’ party prepared to manage capitalism and loyal to the existing bourgeois constitutional order.

The NDP’s successes in recent years – from the 2011 “Orange Surge” that saw it soar from 18% to 30% in the federal government and its position within striking distance of federal office — are attributable to its status as a workers party and a fresh face as far as national government goes. And make no mistake: it is still a form of working class political representation, albeit in a highly attenuated way. When the New Democrats won the provincial elections in traditionally-conservative Alberta earlier this year, breaking a 44-year long chain of rightwing governments, it did so with a program of pro-worker reforms.3 The party still has an organic link with the labor movement, with affiliated trade unions and a proportional vote at conference. Of course there has been a lot of bureaucratic pressures on party democracy: a steady purge of anti-Zionist candidates and officials4, the removal of references to “democratic socialism” from the party constitution, clamping down on debate and policy decisions at conference in favor of turning power over to the parliamentary wing and the party leader, et cetera. But as a theoretically democratic membership organization, the NDP remains as an arena of struggle for revolutionary socialists and communists.

Bury or ignore

The Canadian left is in as much of a divided and weak condition as its counterparts in the United States. There are some Trotskyist groups practicing entryism inside the NDP, namely Fightback (Canadian section of the International Marxist Tendency) and the NDP Socialist Caucus, made up of the Mandelite Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action Socialiste and its sympathizers. These are small sects whose horizons are narrowly limited to the NDP, not as a site of struggle but as the be-all and end-all of revolutionary work. Aside from an economistic outlook and the absurdity of two entryist groups with near-identical aims failing to unite their efforts, both maintain illusions in the idea of “reclaiming” the New Democrats – a false notion because, while at its best the party and its predecessors were viable left-reformist parties, they were never revolutionary parties that broke with the international capitalist state system.

Probably the most politically healthy far-left organization outside the NDP in Anglophone Canada is the “official” Communist Party, which still runs its own candidates. Then there is Québec Solidaire, a “broad left” alliance that, despite some limitations of its own5, is at least able to offer a parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political center for the left at the provincial level. (And unlike many American socialists, Québec Solidaire is lucid enough to run its own candidates against the Greens rather than folding into them.) QS and the smattering of small organizations in Anglophone Canada are potentially rich raw material from which a more viable socialist movement in the country can be built.

The NDP shouldn’t be ignored by working-class partisans, but neither should it be treated as a shibboleth. Under no circumstances should the left build illusions in a New Democratic government that comes to power to manage capitalism, even if – as Party leader Thomas Mulcair put it – they would implement cuts with a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer. Any reform program they are elected on, whether the current provincial government in Alberta or a hypothetical national government, will buckle under pressure from the capitalist class (except in areas where it’s perfectly compatible with capitalism’s short-term interests, like the New Democratic policy of rebranding Canadian imperialism in more humanitarian, U.N.-friendly terms.)

As an aside, the New Democratic Party’s record shows the fallacy of the “Labor Party strategy” here in the United States. The creation of a mass trade-union based party will not automatically transcend the sectarian and weak condition of the revolutionary left, nor will it allow the right sect in the right place with the right program at the right time to grow into a powerful force of its own within that party. While it would be correct to join a movement toward creating a labor party and while its use as a tactic is not invalid, it can’t be divorced from the struggle to build a real Communist Party, which incidentally is the only kind of organized political vehicle that could fruitfully conduct revolutionary work among a movement for a reformist party.

Class tensions are heightening in Canada and this will continue regardless of who wins the election on October 19th. Canadian communists can give critical support to NDP candidates as a class vote against the bourgeois parties, while arguing for the New Democrats to remain an opposition party – and in fact, transcend the status of “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition”6 to one of radical-democratic opposition to the capitalist class and its state. A project like this requires going beyond both burying inside the NDP and pretending it’s no different from the Liberals or Conservatives.

 

Notes

  1. Canada uses the same winner-takes-all / “first past the post” electoral methods as the United States, but does have more minor parties represented in provincial and federal parliaments.
  2. http://www.socialisthistory.ca/Docs/CCF/ReginaManifesto.htm 
  3. Namely raising the provincial minimum wage to $15 an hour, repealing public service cuts and modest corporate tax increases.
  4. Not only anti-Zionist figures but indeed any criticism of Israeli conduct: http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/thomas-mulcair-is-cracking-down-on-pro-palestinian-sentiment-in-the-ndp
  5. Such as an interpretation of the democratic right of nations to self-determination as Québecois nationalism.
  6. Incredibly, this is the official title given to the biggest non-governing party in parliament.
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