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Michael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. Michael has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, was a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2010 and is on the executive of the newly formed Socialist Party of Ontario.

Resolutionary Socialism: Why a leftist agenda within the NDP is futile

| February 21, 2013

There can be little doubt anymore, other than to the willfully blind, that neither the federal NDP nor any of its provincial wings are socialist parties.

The shift towards centrism and the embrace of neo-liberal hegemonic economic ideas, such as Tom Mulcair's recent backing of corporate free trade deals, has become obviously irreversible. Even worse, Mulcair has now backed away from his previously critical comments about the oil sands, and has won praise from the business press for his "political maturity," which is little more than a code phrase for having abandoned important principles around the environment and climate change.

The NDP clearly no longer sees itself as a movement to change society, but rather as a "government in waiting." This is entirely within the framework of capitalism. The party has turned a corner.

This change is now of a fundamental nature. The basic characteristics of the party are different.

In an article written with Andrew Klochek both prior to the Layton NDP "winning" opposition and prior to Mulcair's leadership, as this process began well before him, we wrote of how dramatic the ideological shift is.

This article not only remains true, but its conclusions, from an ideological point of view, are even more pronounced than they were then. The shift is accelerating. As a new federal convention approaches we are sure to see "socialist" removed from the constitution of the party, which it, for those who care about honesty, should be. It will only be acknowledging reality to remove "socialist" as the NDP bears no resemblance to a socialist party at all. There is no commitment, even in a long-term Bernstein sense, to creating a socialist economy. 

Given that this ground has been covered, it is not, here, my intention to cover it again.

However, despite these shifts, despite the unrelentingly rightward turn, despite defeat after defeat for the left within the NDP over the last 40 years, many socialists, even revolutionary socialists, remain within the NDP and insist that the only way to push a socialist agenda in Canada (or any of its provinces outside of Quebec) is to fight within the context of the NDP to seek to "convert" NDP members and to, somehow, change the NDP from "within."

The purpose here is to move beyond the ideological problems with supporting the NDP and working within it and to show that this is also tactically wrong. It is a strategy that is a proven failure. As such, continuing to pursue it is both destructive to the alleged intent and harmful to the socialist idea in Canada itself.

Resolutionary Socialism

Leftists within the NDP, especially those organized within some of the party's entryist groups(1), engage in what could be called the theory and practice of Resolutionary Socialism(2).

Resolutionary Socialism is the notion that the point of a socialist movement is to agitate within the country's existing "mass worker's party" to get resolutions passed at conventions and get people elected to the party's governing bodies with the intent of shifting the party to the left and towards a radical or, in some cases, revolutionary socialist idea.

Then, presumably, either the left will seize control of the "mass worker's party" or, when the revolutionary or radical "moment" comes, they will march out of the party, red flags blazing in the wind, taking the radicalized elements of the membership with them.

This tactic is now, more than it has ever been, entirely detached from reality.

As a bit of history, one of the constant refrains of socialists working within the NDP is that they are trying to recapture the energy and "success" of movements like the Waffle in the '70s, the CAP (Campaign for an Activist Party) in the '80s and the NPI (New Politics Initiative) in the '90s, all of which vied for power internally and managed to secure 25-35 per cent support from the membership of the party.

What they fail to note is that every one of these initiatives failed.

This is not a reflection, at all, upon the activists. They were all entirely noble in their efforts.

It is, however, what happened.

Every single one of these "high water marks" for the left within the NDP ultimately receded and dissolved. The Socialist Caucus has been in existence within the party since 1998 and has been an unhappy handmaiden to the period during which it shifted right most dramatically.

In each case, after the movement crested the party leadership consolidated its hold and pushed both the platform and practice of the party not in a left direction, but in the opposite direction.

But Resolutionary Socialism has been dealt an even greater blow in that, as is obvious to any detached observer, the resolutions no longer matter. For the simple reason that the "Democratic" in NDP is a sham. To an even greater extent than in the past the deck is rigged. The "left" of the party cannot win.

The NDP now routinely prevents left candidates who are not willing, ultimately, to play ball, from either seeking nominations or, should they win them, actually running for the party. This includes, most obviously, the leader the Socialist Caucus itself, Barry Weisleder, whose nomination in Thornhill was revoked by the ONDP. But there are many other examples.

Resolutions Committees within the NDP ensure that "left" resolutions basically never make it to the floor of conventions anymore anyway. If they do, and if the very unlikely happens and they pass, they then fall into the black hole that is the party membership's "platform" (not to be confused with the farce the leadership and its strategists trot out at election time, which is the actual platform), a platform that is never publicly published and that, in some cases, the party has claimed does not even exist! If you doubt this, feel free to ask for the membership's platform anytime you want.

Do not hold your breath while waiting to receive it.

There are other instances of the party, provincially or federally, either preventing its membership from exercising democratic control, or simply disregarding or invalidating the results when they do.

In fact, given that the right shift depends on the isolation of the party leadership from any embarrassment that might be caused by the membership, I think one could easily argue that the membership of the NDP has less power than any membership in any political party in Canada.

To be blunt, it is a fight that cannot be won. To describe it as utopian would be unfair to utopianism, which is predicated on the principle that its struggle is Sisyphean. This is a case of activists tilting at windmills without recognizing that they are doing so.

Even worse, they do so without understanding that the membership of the NDP is not at all what it used to be. Many members seek to be on board with a "winner." They are political junkies or careerists as opposed to socialists.

They are, in fact, in my opinion less likely to be "recruited" by a socialist movement than the general public, especially if socialists work with certain specific communities.  

Why working within the NDP helps the NDP's right

The basic idea of many of the leftists in the NDP is that they are fighting within a party receptive to leftism.

This disregards the party's last 40 years. It also disregards the fact that many members of the NDP are members of the party precisely because they want to be a part of a party that will take power, and some hope to directly gain from this (as they have already by the party "winning" opposition). 

Further, it is predicated on vanguardist ideas of "enlightening" the "masses" within a "mass" political party, a notion not only elitist and facile, but also assuming (as the vanguardists always do) that the NDP membership are sheep waiting for a true leader to show them the true path.

Even when dealing with actually working-class members, this principle is already false and shows contempt for working-class activists. But the NDP membership is comprised of many professionals (such as teachers, professors, social workers, white collar civil servants, etc.) and its basic class composition is not a "mass" party at all in the way the leftists mean, or used to mean, "mass". 

In fact, I think it is quite likely that much of the membership of the NDP is actually less likely to be responsive to radicalism and leftist ideas than, say, citizens in Parkdale in Toronto. Or in downtown Winnipeg. Or in Cape Breton.

Within the NDP you are talking to a membership much of which has joined or stayed within a party in spite of its shift. 

The radicals have already left.

By going door-to-door, as they do, for a neo-liberal party espousing a neo-liberal ideology, and by encouraging leftists to join this party, leftists within the NDP aid the party establishment as opposed to hindering it. They reinforce the party's hold on Canada's left politics.

Working within the NDP, as a leftist, means directly contributing to the rightward shift as it allows the party a thin veneer of "left-wing" credibility by your presence and it means that they can take you for granted, which they do. 

Since you cannot win internally, you do not worry them at all, and if they win government leftists who cause trouble will be out. You can count on this. 

However, if real left candidates, as in Quebec with Quebec Solidaire, were to even get 3-5% of the vote in, for example, some ridings in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Halifax or Vancouver, (a totally achievable goal, for those who insist on being "realistic") thereby no longer allowing the NDP to take the support of left-wing citizens for granted, then the mainstream "left" party has to take notice. And its positions and policies will change accordingly.

This has happened in Quebec and Europe... and it will not happen in English Canada without this.

As is usually the case, the threat to those who operate within circles of power and electoral politics and who accept, as a starting point, the "realities" of our system,  has to come from outside. It cannot come from within.  

(1) I have written of these groups before in a piece on my blog.

(2) With apologies to my close friend, and long time comrade, Andy Lehrer, from whom I stole the term.

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Comments

Some accurate points here by Laxer.

But if he expects people who self-identify as progressive to now turn to his own Socialist Party of Ontario, be aware that he has smeared anyone who has sought justice for Assange as "rape apologists" and "conspiracy theorists"

He and his co-author have apparently refused to engage any challenges their derivitave and deceptive ex cathedra claims.

Thank you Aristotleded24. I appreciate that. These things happen. All the best! Smile

Further to my apology, as my original post was based entirely on a misunderstanding, I retract what was written without reservation or hesitation.

AS someone who isn't a Socialist, I would prefer that the old labels be thrown out and projects are worked on on an idividual basis. That way people of all stripes could work on "Socialist " initiatives to improve the human condition without having to belong to a "Socialist" organization. Labels just put up barriers. Right now our society needs way less not more barriers.

AS someone who isn't a Socialist, I would prefer that the old labels be thrown out and projects are worked on on an idividual basis. That way people of all stripes could work on "Socialist " initiatives to improve the human condition without having to belong to a "Socialist" organization. Labels just put up barriers. Right now our society needs way less not more barriers.

Lord Palmerston wrote:

"James Laxer endorsed Mulcair for the leadership.  Michael Laxer did not."

Indeed that is correct, and it was my mistake that I got the 2 Laxers confused. Michael, if you're still reading this, I wish to apologize to you for this confusion, for misrepresenting what you wrote, for accusing you of "banging on the same drum" when that was clearly not the case, and for putting words into your mouth.

Hi all;

I never comment on my own posts, as I am of the school that thinks that one should let people criticize, compliment or debate as they fit. The piece speaks for itself, and it is correct, or not, on its own merits or lack thereof.

However, I will comment on a factual matter just to prevent any misconceptions from going any further, as I have seen altogether too many rumours on the left spaces of the internet passed off as fact that were, simply, false.

I never, at any time or in any forum, endorsed Thomas Mulcair for the leadership of the NDP. I would not endorse him for any political position, to be frank, nor would I or will I vote for the Mulcair led federal NDP. I did not endorse anyone for the leadership of the NDP as I am not in the NDP, and, frankly, I did not really think it mattered who won between the front runners Mulcair, "love me I'm a Liberal, socialism sounds like communism" Cullen and "Greek austerity is a ok by me" Topp (or anyone else) as, as this article makes clear, I believe the NDP is past the point-of-no-return in any case, and was becoming so already under Layton. You can agree or disagree with this position, but this was my position then, during the leadership race, and it is now.

While I may often be beating the same old drum of socialism year-after-year, I never beat the Tom Mulcair drum of neo-liberalism, and the various members of the Laxer family, as is true with most families, have diverse opinions and disagree on a variety of matters. This is one of them.

Having said that...please comment away!

James Laxer endorsed Mulcair for the leadership.  Michael Laxer did not.  

I don't know what I find more amazing, the fact that Laxer keeps beating the same drum he has been all this time, or the fact that he, himself endorsed Mulcair even though Mulcair's Blairite leanings were quite open.

I have to have optimism that at least some people are going to be won away from reformism, and that when repeated betrayals are committed by the (neo)liberal "left" sensible people will have some idea of where they can turn for an alternative. Without such optimism, I would have to give up politics altogether.

ETA: Funny, most people think I'm a pessimist.

It's nice to be optimistic when there’s a basis for it M. Spector. Otherwise we’re merely getting in touch with our delusions.  History demonstrates that the NDP is where socialist ideas go to be asphyxiated out of existence.  It's a pointless task at any rate to confront reformism; except to lay down hazard markers to warn people against falling into a trap; because it drains energy away from what matters.

I doubt many socialists in the NDP seriously believe the party can be turned into a socialist party. The working class is being won away from socialism to neoliberal, third-way reformism by the NDP.

But a major task of socialists today is to challenge and confront reformism at every turn. Where are socialists going to have a better opportunity to present their alternatives to reformist ideology? They'll reach a lot more working people with their ideas through the NDP than they will through Laxer's "Socialist Party".

Mike, I agree with much of your logic but I think that tactically it makes sense to focus on the federal party rather than the Ontario provincial party at the moment. I think you'll find that more people are disenchanted with the federal party in a fundamental way than with the Ontario party, for example. Even storied names in the party - not then on the left of the party, either - already whispered in the Layton era that they were worried about the direction the federal party was going in. Of course, most will be loyal until the point of its disintegration, but I think more will understand the logic of what you are proposing in relation to the federal party, whose abandonment of even a veneer of social democracy is pretty clear. Other than Libby Davies, is there anyone in the federal caucus we can name who is clearly of the left and on the left? No one comes to my mind, anyway. I also disagree with naming it a socialist party right out of the gate. It should welcome socialists and socialism but it should also reflect the significant rethinking of left politics that has happened since the bad old good old days of the left. The problem is many socialists gesture towards those critiques in a begrudging, tokenistic way, because they still don't "get" a lot of the critique. And until they "get" it, I question whether there is a basis for the formation of a viable new party. It's a serious organizational and political question, not a matter of finding the right window dressing while scoffing under one's breath about "identity politics" and "postmodernism". Finally, I think that just in the same way that the left inside the NDP is delusional to think they can influence the party - more delusional than ever - it may also be delusional to think the left in the party can be coaxed to launch a new formation. They just aren't going to take that initiative, so don't bother. When those outside the party create something interesting worth joining, those people will think about jumping ship. Until then, persuading them is effort as much wasted as their efforts inside the party are.

Is Mr. Mulcair pulling an Obama?

I hope not, BUT history has noted that almost every leader, be they in politics, academia or business (banksters), is & was interested only in the high of power  &/or financial gain, regardless of the financial or human cost.

Charitable groups & NGOs have similar issues i.e. the Haitian earthquake victims. Our senate & parliament have a charlatan or two in their ranks. The current construction industry scandal in Quebec. 

Since 1987 Canada has been raped & pillaged by the Liberal & Conservative corporatocracy. It is possible that 40+% of we the people just might place their faith in Mr. Mulcair.

Remember Pierre Trudeau. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"As a bit of history, one of the constant refrains of socialists working within the NDP is that they are trying to recapture the energy and "success" of movements like the Waffle in the '70s, the CAP (Campaign for an Activist Party) in the '80s and the NPI (New Politics Initiative) in the '90s, all of which vied for power internally and managed to secure 25-35 per cent support from the membership of the party.  What they fail to note is that every one of these initiatives failed.  This is not a reflection, at all, upon the activists. They were all entirely noble in their efforts."

I think Laxer over-states the case. Take the NPI. At the 2001 Fed. NDP Convention in Winnipeg, the NPI resolution garnered 40% of the vote in a packed Convention hall--a remarkable achievement. (I was there.) But at that very same Convention, resolutions moved by the Socialist Caucus typically failed to win anything like that level of support--in part because self-styled NPI activists were absent from the hall during the debates and votes on those resolutions. And yet given their latent voting strength, and with a modicum of organization, they could have put some meaningful policy resolutions on the books and/or elected some candidates to the party Executive. After the Convention, the NPI melted away instead of building on their considerable base of support. I'm not so sure NPI supporters should be so readily absolved of responsibility for their failure. 

It's long been observed that the most committed political activists choose to devote their energies to single-issue groups and campaigns at the expense of party politics. I've long regarded that aversion to political activism within the NDP to be self-defeating. 

 

Good post.  By now, people should begin to suspect that talk of socialism from within the ranks of the NDP is part of the marketing gimmick.  It keeps the existing cadre of social activists onboard for organizational volunteer work, and it's held out like candy to those fresh out of university narcissists seeking to ply their craft.

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