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Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Conservative smear machine hits the NDP with old-fashioned red-baiting

| April 11, 2013
Conservative smear machine hits the NDP with old-fashioned red-baiting

When the Conservative smear machine goes into high gear one is tempted to think of Lincoln's famous dictum -- the one about how "you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

Then again, there is P.T. Barnum's equally famous observation to the effect that "there is a sucker born every minute."

 The Party must be banking on Barnum having been right, based on a couple of its most recent wildly-aimed torpedoes.

The hyper-glandular attackers in the Harper team's poorly ventilated war room have graduated from blasting the Official Opposition for the mortal sin of favouring the  environment.

They're now going in for old-fashioned red-baiting.

Hit them with Vimy Ridge

 The first torpedo came on Tuesday, over the signature of one Jean-Christophe de le Rue, Veterans' Affairs Minister Steven Blaney’s press secretary.

M. de la Rue's headline was the nearly ridiculous: "NDP's communist roots taint 96th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge."

The news release then goes on to quote an article NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice wrote six years ago on the anniversary of Vimy Ridge. Boulerice was then a union activist who had not yet run for the NDP. He said that the sacrifices of Canadian lives at Vimy Ridge happened in a war (World War One) that did not serve the interests of working people.

It was, he wrote, a war born out of competition between great powers for colonies and resources.

Boulerice did adopt a rhetorical tone that might have been a tad over the top.

He called World War One a "purely capitalist war" fought on the backs of workers and peasants. And he said that, at the time of that war, with European societies so swept up in competitive nationalism, only a few, brave communists opposed "the slaughter."

Boulerice not far from scholarly consensus

Whatever the merits of Boulerice's brief analysis, the truth is that nearly a century later few mainstream historians view the Great War through rose coloured glasses as having been an ennobling affair.

The general scholarly consensus is that the Great War was nasty, bloody and brutal. The troops on all sides -- largely conscripted from the working classes -- were, quite literally, not much more than cannon fodder.

Today historians generally agree that World War One did indeed emerge out of military and geopolitical competition between a rising Germany, anxious to equal the British Empire's naval power and earn its "place in the sun," and British and French empires that were determined to maintain their hegemony - especially, in Britain's case, on the seas.

Mix into that already tense competition: an Austro-Hungarian Empire straining at the seams, as it confronted the rising aspirations of its many nationalities in Central and Eastern Europe; an Ottoman Empire coping with a similar challenge in the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa; and a decadent Russian Empire falling under the weight of its extreme social and economic inequalities, and you get a recipe for a massive worldwide catastrophe.

And the central story of that catastrophe was not about "democracy versus tyranny," or any other good-guys-versus-bad-guys narrative.

Does it make you a communist to talk about communists of the early 20th Century?

Honour the sacrifices of Canadians at Vimy Ridge we must.

They were real sacrifices, and there were many real acts of heroism.

However, didn't Boulerice have a point, six years ago, when he said we shouldn't tell each other fairy tales about that "war to end all wars"?

That's pretty much all he was saying in 2007. Put aside its rhetorical tone and Boulerice's thesis does not differ too much from the general consensus among historians today.

As for the allusion to the role of communists -- in the first place, to be fair, it is not entirely accurate to say that the communists of a century ago were quite alone in opposing the war.

Boulerice forgot about folks such as Bertrand Russell, a British aristocrat who had little sympathy for communism (which he early on saw as a kind of quasi-religious cult), but who went to prison for his opposition to the war.

However, while what Boulerice asserts about the communists at that time may not be entirely true, it hardly makes one a communist to make that assertion.

And it does not come anywhere near to giving M. de la Rue the right to spout utter nonsense and falsehoods about the "NDP's communist roots."

That bit of agit-prop, to call it by its name, is a flagrant example of the political "big lie." The theory of the "big lie" is that if you're going to tell a whopper best to make it really big. In a perverse way, the bigger the lie, the greater its patina of verisimilitude, and the harder it is to refute.

NDP born out of social gospel, not Lenin and Marx

It is a well-known historical fact that the NDP and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) that preceded it were always resolutely part of the fiercely anti-communist left. Indeed, back when there were still enough Marxist-Leninists (of various persuasions) to fill a hall bigger than a powder room, those self-same communists were merciless and withering in their unceasing attacks on the CCF/NDP.

In any case, to say that the party of social gospel preachers such as J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas has anything remotely resembling "communist roots" is a complete and utter fabrication.

The roots of the NDP are in the cooperative movement, in progressive Christian activism (the social gospel), and in U.S.-affiliated mainstream trade unions, which had no use whatsoever for rhetoric about "class struggle" or "working class revolution."

It is, frankly, beyond shameful, in 2013, nearly fifty five years after the death of Senator Joe McCarthy, for a notionally respectable political party to issue a press release that makes such an obviously false claim.

At the end of the Conservatives' little screed against Boulerice, they call on the NDP MP and his leader to apologize to Canadians and the "veterans they insulted."

Mulcair has already dutifully and respectfully paid homage to those who sacrificed so much at Vimy Ridge. It is hard to imagine what more he might say.

Conversely, is there a chance the toilers in the Conservative war room would recognize the manifest unfairness of claiming the NDP has "communist roots" and consider an apology of their own?

Tomorrow -- the Harper government's heaviest hitter, the Finance Minister's, indulges in his own sophomoric effort at the silliest kind of old-fashioned red-baiting.  



As usual M. Spector, you nailed it. This is exactly what the NDP always does. But, why would anyone expect anything different from this party, especially now that they can smell the possiblity of winning a federal election. They will go into red baiting mode and they will convince Mr. Boulerice to join them - he will remind everyone that he said these things six years ago, and he has since seen the error of his ways.




Nerenberg wrote:
It is a well-known historical fact that the NDP and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) that preceded it were always resolutely part of the fiercely anti-communist left. Indeed, back when there were still enough Marxist-Leninists (of various persuasions) to fill a hall bigger than a powder room, those self-same communists were merciless and withering in their unceasing attacks on the CCF/NDP.

And thus goes the traditional social democrat response to red-baiting; join the red-baiters in bashing the "communists" to show how moderate and respectable you really are! "We're not reds - look at our longstanding red-bashing credentials!" 

We need to be careful in our use of "evangelical", "fundamentalist" and "social gospel". There might be some fundamentalists attracted to the social gospel but they would be very few in number. Fundamentalists emerged in the early 1900's in reaction to the emergence of a social gospel and this posture has not changed in over 100 years. 

Not all evangelicals are fundamentalistic and some of these are attracted to the social gospel. Woodsworth and Douglas were Baptist ministers and, if the term was around in the mid-century (it was not, at least not in the current sense of the word) would probably have called themselves evangelicals.

These terms have multiple meanings so they need to be used with care.

And the article above proves that it does the NDP no good at all to try to hide its heritage as a radical party...that the only way to defeat redbaiting is to make a positive case for the idea that the sort of changes the establishment labels "Red" are good for the majority...that there is nothing WRONG with being radical, with challenging the existing political consensus, and with devoting your life's work(or a significant part of it)to working for social and political change.

The NDP can ONLY survive redbaiting if it OPENLY DEFENDS WHAT IT STANDS FOR...saying nothing and hoping "it'll blow over" has always failed as a Left tactic in the past and will always fail in the future.

It's always been a conundrum to me how American style politics, as presently utilized by the Tories,can present such malicious libellous rhetoric and not be prosecuted .On many occasions the victim of the twisted truths or out and out lies does not even respond to the mean minded statements.I realize the perpetrator's statements are meant to either throw the victim off track as well as defame  BUT unanswered lies and/or part truths are often remembered by the public as valid.

"M. de la Rue's headline was the nearly ridiculous: "NDP's communist roots taint 96th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge."" It's not 'nearly ridiculous', it is completely ridiculous. This kind of statement by the Reform party does provide insight into their future communication strategy, however. The strategy will be 'anyone who opposes or disagrees with us are dirty atheistic commies.'. The Reform party is, at the core, a party that exists to support extremist, capitalist globalists. After all, the corporations pay the party bills. It's money that matters above all else. However, there is a problem - a large part of the Reform political core are evangelical, fundamentalist Christians. The social gospel of the CCF/NDP might actually appeal to a large part of their core base, so the spectre of 'dirty atheist commies' might frighten the evangelical base enough to keep them in the fold. I think the Reform strategists are gambling that such a message, circa 1950 USA, will keep enough of the core on board to enable them to win another election. But in this day and age of social media, and the general distrust that Canadians have for the Reform party, I doubt that the strategy will be successful.
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