Search Diemer.ca

Samplings

Luxemburg was the leading exponent of a Marxism in the spirit of Marx. One indication of this, paradoxical at first glance, is that she was one of the very few leading Marxists who did not treat Marx's writings as holy writ.
On Rosa Luxemburg

We need only look at activities of the thousands of people working in grassroots groups across this country, and around the world, to see that people do join with others to block what they see as harmful and to fight for what they consider to be desirable and just. When they do, that which seemed impossible to achieve starts to become possible.
What Do We Do Now?

Blogs

Words of Wisdom

  • The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.
  • – Karl Marx

Favourite Links

RadicalRoadSign - Photo by Ulli Diemer

Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves About the NDP

By Ulli Diemer

I am, I have to admit, a bit of a packrat. As a consequence, I have in my basement a hoard of back issues of Canadian Dimension, going back more than 20 years.

The first issue I have is dated July-August 1967. Flipping through this relic of my long-lost teenage years, I find in it a series of articles on the theme "Paralytic New Democracy". In these articles, Dimension's contributors diagnose a terminal disease within the NDP, leading to a "fatal drift to the right and ultimate absorption into liberalism". One reads of the political rot being caused by "the doctrineless pragmatism which the party has so sedulously cultivated."

Skipping ahead a couple of years, to the August-September 1969 issue, one finds the lead editorial lamenting that "over the years the NDP has melted into the conservatism of Manitoba".

In October-November 1969, we Dimension readers were advised that the time for a fundamental decision had arrived: "The New Democratic Party is now faced with a choice for the future.... Is it going to remain a reform group within the framework of the private-enterprise system? Or is it going to choose to be a socialist party?"

By April-May 1970, the choice was more urgent that ever. We opened our copies of Dimension to learn that something had to be done, and soon, to transform the NDP to render it "capable of leading the Canadian people in a struggle for national survival and socialism. Otherwise, the NDP will become at best irrelevant and at worst a dangerous illusion."

Alas, the party apparently didn't adopt Dimension's prescription, for in 1977 (Vol. 12, No. 6), Dimension's editorial board was informing us that "The NDP has ceased to be a party that agitates for fundamental reform."

And so to the present day (April-May 1989). Dimension's editorial, with an unerring eye for fast-breaking developments on the cutting edge of social change, gives us the latest news: "The NDP stands at something of a crossroads. It has spent the last several [sic: "several" -- my Concise Oxford Dictionary defines "several" as "more than two but not many"] years distancing itself from the social activists of this country while building an image as the party of moderation and reasonableness.... The party will either rebuild itself from the bottom up, listening to its members, embracing and involving itself in the coalitions it abandoned during the election -- or it will be abandoned by `ordinary Canadians'".

Simultaneously, another Dimension contributor, chosen to help "spark a lively debate" on the NDP, tells us that "the NDP has been increasingly prepared to sacrifice socialist principles on the altar of momentary popularity" ... It has moved increasingly toward being a political party, and away from being a social movement."

My point in dredging up this collection of quotations is not to pick on Canadian Dimension -- though arguably its thinking on this issue is in a bit of a rut. I could have compiled a similar collection of quotations from any number of sources on the Canadian left; all of them lamenting the NDP's rightward drift, its abandonment of principle, its failure to put forward a socialist alternative; all of them proclaiming the need for it to change fundamentally. Canadian socialists have been saying much the same thing ever since the very founding of the CCF (the predecessor of the NDP) in 1932-33.

In fact, a few days before I read the latest Dimension, I happened to be visiting a friend who was active in the CCF at its beginnings. He was a member of a small socialist party which decided to join the newly formed CCF, hoping it would prove to be a vehicle for socialism in Canada. Their hopes, he told me, were quickly dashed. By the mid-1930's, he said, the CCF had degenerated from a movement into a political party lacking a real commitment to a socialist transformation of society. (Perhaps he's biased: he was expelled for being part of a radical caucus in the party in 1934, and was bounced out again in 1972 as part of the Waffle.)

One could go back even further to hear the same story: one of the most cogent critiques of social democratic politics ever written is Rosa Luxemburg's Social Reform or Revolution -- published in 1899!

So what is the point of all this? It is this: It is time we stopped kidding ourselves. Canadian socialists have been hoping for over 60 years that the NDP, and the CCF before it, would somehow become a socialist party leading a socialist movement, rather than an electoral machine interested in nothing more than bringing in a few reforms to make capitalism more humane and more efficient. We are deluding ourselves.

Unfortunately, as the above collection of quotations from Dimensions past illustrates, Canadian socialists are terribly reluctant to give up their illusions about the NDP. No matter how often we are beaten over the head with the hard facts, no matter how often the party lets us down, no matter how far to the right it drifts, we don't want to face the bitter conclusion.

But if we are ever to move ahead, we have to face it: The NDP is not a socialist party. The NDP has never been a socialist party. And the NDP never will be a socialist party.

The NDP is not at a "crossroads" between "socialist principles" and "pragmatism". It is not about to "rebuild itself from the bottom up" and become a "social movement'. It is not about to "choose to be a socialist party". It is not going to miraculously transform itself and start "leading the Canadian people in a struggle for national survival and socialism."

The NDP of the real world, as opposed to the NDP of our fantasies, was conceived, founded, and has always functioned as an organization that seeks to tame or improve the capitalist system, not to overturn it. Obsessed with parliamentarism, it sees the state as neutral, rather than as the principal instrument of capitalist rule.

If anyone doubts this, they need only examine the records of the various CCF-NDP governments which have held office provincially. When it has been in government, the NDP has done some worthwhile things -- and it has also done things that grossly betrayed the hopes of those who elected it. It has never shown any inclination or capability to bring about fundamental, socialist change.

A `labour' party that is quite willing to crack down on unions when it feels it is necessary, the NDP's idea of social change is to bring in government auto insurance.

It may be that we are able to keep our illusions about the NDP alive partly because the party has never been able to form a government federally. As a result, we have been sheltered from what the French, the British, the Germans, the Greeks, the Spanish, have experienced at first hand: the actual performance of social democratic parties in office.

The record of social democracy world-wide is clear. No social democratic party in office anywhere in the world has ever attempted to pursue an anti-capitalist agenda.

And, of more immediate relevance, no left-wing caucus within a social democratic party has ever succeeded in transforming such a party into a real socialist party.

Those of us who still had illusions about the NDP should surely have lost them after the party's pathetic performance in the free trade election of 1988. That election demonstrated in the clearest possible terms a fundamental truth about social democratic parties: when it comes to the crunch, they always fail to meet the challenge. When the choices are posed most sharply, the social democratic party, whose entire existence is based on refusing to adopt a consistent, pro-working class, socialist position, invariably finds itself incapable of decisive, principled action.

My purpose in arguing this is not to suggest that we ought to abandon all efforts to work with the NDP. The NDP is and for the foreseeable future will remain an important political force on the Canadian left. While it has never been able to claim the allegiance, or even the votes, of a majority of working class Canadians, it is still seen by many as `the' party for working people.

Perhaps most importantly, the members of the NDP include some of the most decent, most committed, and most militant supporters of progressive change in Canada. Many of them are good people, people we want and need to work with if we are ever to achieve fundamental social change.

What is at issue is not whether to relate to the NDP, but how to relate to the NDP.

What we should emphatically not be doing is joining our efforts to those of the several generations of Canadian activists who have pursued the mirage of trying to "win the NDP to socialism". While there are many good people in the NDP, the NDP as an institution is never going to be converted to socialism. On the contrary, the dead weight of its own political and organizational logic will lead the party to become ever more "moderate", ever more compromised, ever more frustrating to those who join in the hopes of using it to create socialism.

Our collective political energy is limited and precious. Let's not squander it beating our heads against the organizational brick walls of the NDP. And let's not waste it by putting it at the disposal of party bureaucrats who want us as election fodder and to hold riding associations together between elections.


Left and the NDP: like a dog chasing its tail

Finally, let's not delude ourselves by imagining that if somehow the NDP could be more closely tied to the union movement, it would mean the party's salvation. While the union movement, like the NDP, contains many good, decent, progressive, militant people, trade unions, as institutions, are just as inexorably tied to reform within the capitalist system as are the social democratic parties. This is not anyone's fault; it is the nature of unionism. Unions exist to win a better deal for workers within capitalism, not to get rid of capitalism.

Again, this is not to say that one ought not to support unions in what they do, or that one shouldn't support efforts to improve unions, and certainly not to say that we shouldn't be seeking to build links between unions and other grassroots organizations. But it is to say that it is another mirage to believe that the kinds of unions which now exist can be transformed into agents of fundamental socialist change.

Nor does it make sense to believe that by joining a fundamentally reformist party like the NDP more closely to fundamentally reformist organizations like the unions a revolutionary new organization will miraculously be produced.

This does not mean that socialists should be attempting to create a new party to compete with the NDP at this time. The base of support for such an endeavour does not exist. A new party would be small and probably subject to infighting. Even if it was formed successfully, creating a new party to compete with the NDP would be likely to further divide, rather than unite, the left and the working class movement.

For the foreseeable future, we will have to content ourselves with giving our votes to the NDP, while giving our energies to more promising causes.

What we have to do, in effect, is to start doing the work of a socialist movement, outside of the NDP, and indeed outside of any party structure.

The beginnings of such a decentralized, democratic movement already exist. They exist in the network of grassroots groups woven across this country: in the women's groups, environmental organizations, senior citizens', native peoples', cultural and many other groups. Many of these organizations have been making efforts to create more links and build broader coalitions, with each other, and importantly with trade unions, a process that was accelerated by the alliances formed during the fight against free trade.

If we are able to build on the connections and alliances that have already been fashioned, we have the potential to create a social movement in this country that goes beyond single-issue organizing to work toward an integrated vision of a fundamentally different society. The fact that groups have been learning to work together is a hopeful sign and an important beginning, for a true movement must encompass and represent a diversity of constituencies, regions, issues, and ethnic and linguistic groups.

As we work to create such a movement, we need to work to develop a shared vision, a set of goals and principles which give the movement direction while leaving room for differences and organizational autonomy. It should be our objective to arrive at common approaches to strategies and tactics to the greatest extent possible, because the more we are able to work together and combine our efforts, the greater our potential power will be. Working together does not have to mean the politics of the `lowest common denominator', if we remain committed to respecting each other's right to take autonomous initiatives within a pluralistic movement.

Of course it is not possible to spell out in advance what such a shared vision might look like. Below, however, is a quick list of suggested principles which we as socialists should be seeking to bring to a wider social movement:

* Democracy. We need to make a real issue of democracy, to challenge our society to take seriously its oft-proclaimed commitment to democratic ideals. We have to make an issue ofthe fact that what currently passes for democracy is a best a two-dimensional shadow of what a democratic society ought to be. In contrast to the parliamentary obsession of the NDP, we should be offering the model of a radically democratic society, in which power is taken away from corporations, governments, bureaucracies, and experts, and dispersed widely. This means a real commitment to popular control of social life, including workers' control in the workplace and community control in our towns and neighbourhoods.

* Looking beyond the state and the corporations. We have to develop the idea we can't look to the state and to corporations to solve society's problems. This is especially obvious at a time when virtually the entire Canadian business class, as well as its government, have made it clear that their agenda is to reduce the role of the state to the greatest extent possible, except of course when it comes to ensuring a `safe' climate for business activity. If we wish to pursue a different set of economic and social goals, we will need to wrestle power away from the corporations. At the same time, we should be acutely aware of the fact that reliance on the state is no answer either, as the crisis of state-controlled societies around the world is making clear. `Neither the state, nor the corporations', should be our motto.

* Sustainable, ecologically sane economic activity. The ecological crisis is tied to destructive economic activities that are harmful or useless, and that cannot be sustained. Economic activities should have to justify themselves on grounds of social usefulness if they are to consume our resources, rather than on the grounds that they make a profit for someone. They have to clean up after themselves and safeguard the health of their workers and of the communities in which they are situated -- something that can only be guaranteed by giving workers and communities the power to ensure that they do so.

* A class perspective. Capitalist society seeks to make us believe that `we are all in this together', that we all share the burdens and benefits of the system. It is our responsibility to make clear that society is comprised of classes, and that our interests are directly antagonistic to those of the capitalist class. We need to learn to think in class terms and to identify all those groups in society with whom we have shared interests, and to learn to work together with them.

* Solidarity and internationalism. As the right mounts its attack on social spending, on unions, on women, on the poor, on minorities and immigrants, our response must be to stand together, to practice solidarity, to remember the old union slogan that `An injury to one is an injury to all'. Because the system which we are opposing is a worldwide system, our response too needs to be international. We need to think globally, to join together across international borders and other dividing lines to work together and support each other.

We have a special responsibility to the Third World, which, already desperately poor, is being plunged into further human misery and environmental devastation by massive debt payments and irrational economic patterns dictated by multinational corporations and the local elites they enrich. We owe the people of the Third World a debt of solidarity, but beyond that we must realize that the issues of world peace and the global environment that concern us here in the West cannot be solved unless the issues of poverty, women's liberation, and sustainable economic development are dealt with in the Third World. In the final analysis, we can only succeed if we succeed internationally, although we must of necessity concentrate most of our efforts in our own country.

* The idea that change is possible. One of the most important and difficult tasks of a social movement in Canada is to persuade ordinary Canadians that there are possible alternatives. We have to break through the deadening conviction that `nothing can be done'. We have to promote the idea that there are alternative ways of dealing with day to day problems, and also that it is possible and desirable to have a fundamentally different world, in which our dreams of freedom, justice, security, and cooperation can be realized. We have to make people aware that the women's movement, the environmental movement, the trade union movement, have had significant successes because they have joined together and worked for change. We have to encourage people's impulses to come together with others to fight against what is harmful and to fight for what is desirable and just. When they do,
that which seemed impossible to achieve becomes possible, because enough people believe it is possible and are working to make it so.

If we are successful in creating a dynamic movement that can do these things, we may find that even the NDP, or large parts of it, will want to join us in our efforts to transform society.


Ulli Diemer
Contact

Published in the November-December 1989 issue of Canadian Dimension.
Aussi disponible en français: Arrêtons de se faire des illusions.
También disponible en español: Dejemos de engañarnos a nosotros mismos sobre el NDP.
See also: Debating the NDP.

Subject Headings: Canadian Politics - Left, The - New Democratic Party - Social Democracy - Socialism