Fifty years later, the Waffle leaves blueprint for a progressive nationalism

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The following remarks were submitted by Mel Watkins to the panel presented by the Society of Socialist Studies on June 6, 2019 at the Congress of Humanities and Social Science.

I am delighted that the Waffle is being remembered and thereby lives on at least in scholarly circles. I regret that my age and health preclude my being with you.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary gives an excellent description of the Waffle:

"a caucus of NDP members organized in 1969 to promote a socialist and nationalist agenda, which included the replacement of U.S. private ownership of Canadian industry with Canadian public ownership, the establishment of an independent Canadian labour movement, the right of Quebec to self-determination, and the advancement of the feminist movement."

An impressive list to which should be added Waffle support on the picket lines in nasty strikes where one risked arrest, and the central importance of Waffle thinking in the creation in the 1970s of the New Canadian Political Economy.

But the Waffle was not prescient on emerging issues: the environment, the rights of Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ rights. We should have done better.

A significant feature of the Waffle as a left formation was its emphasis on the national question. At the time, 50 years ago, that meant, for Canada, reducing dependence on the United States, notably with the dominance of American direct investment.

American imperialism was particularly evident in the 1960s in its war on Vietnam. Canadian nationalism was at its heart anti-imperialist. The Waffle labelled itself the Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada (MISC).

In retrospect, there was a space for nationalist politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but that was severely constrained by the subsequent breakdown of the Keynesian consensus nationally and internationally, and the transformation in due course to corporate globalization and hyper-neoliberalism.

With the passage of time we have come to realize both intellectually and politically that Canada itself is an empire both with its colonization of Indigenous people and with the extension of its corporate capitalism abroad as in mining; in both cases human rights have been, and are, held in disrespect.

Pushed aside by the flood of globalization, left nationalism would seem to have a fresh relevance today as globalization falters and nativist, isolationist politics flourishes and countries must restructure their global connections. There are openings for the left.

Meanwhile, the gathering economic and social crises have undermined the legitimacy of the mainstream and led to the resurgence of the right. The so-called alt-right preaches white supremacy and reduces nationalism to the ethnic and the racist.

The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, who has dissented from mainstream economics by questioning the worth of trade agreements designed to serve corporate interest, of profit over human rights and environmental protection, has written that we must "save nationalism from the fascists."

The "national question" does not remove the "class question." Neoliberalism is the ideology and practice of the corporations, and workers are pushed around. Unemployment may not rise but wages and living standards stagnate. Inequality in the distribution of wealth and income within nations worsens dramatically.

The Israeli politician and political analyst Yael Tamir in her new book Why Nationalism sees class politics at work in the conflict between globalist elites and the rest, lacking mobility and angry with the globalists. Tamir brilliantly combines nation and class to explain the present impasse and crisis. She writes: "the tendency to identify nationalism solely with reactionary views, overlooking its modernizing and liberating policies, represents a deep misunderstanding of the modern world." At the turn of the century, the American scholar Leah Greenfeld argued convincingly that historically Max Weber's "spirit of capitalism" has not been entrepreneurship but nationalism.

Here at home, we have Frank Cunningham, building on C.B. Macpherson, insisting on the necessity of defending national autonomy in the face of globalization, the better to permit an egalitarian and truly democratic society. And from the '60s, Abraham Rotstein, building on Karl Polanyi, calling for a nationalist counter movement to control the multinational corporation.

The Waffle, a product of the '60s, didn't last. Operating within the NDP, its explosion reflected the media's love of intra-party conflict and, within three years, its implosion and expulsion. Outside the NDP the Waffle as MISC ran a few candidates in the federal election of 1974, lost miserably, and folded its tent.

But left nationalism, progressive nationalism, was what the world needed and needs. In that sense, the Waffle was prescient.

A final word. Today climate change with all its horrors is, or should be, at centre stage politically. The most recent happening on the left is the call for a Canadian Green New Deal. That's progressive nationalism indeed, willing to be associated with the American variant, the New Deal of the past and its greening in the present, wanting and working to escape from the Canadian staples trap of fossil fuels and thereby from the planet's carbon trap.

Mel Watkins is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is Editor Emeritus of This Magazine and a frequent contributor to Peace magazine. He is a member of Pugwash Canada and former President of Science for Peace. Watkins is recipient of the 2008 inaugural Galbraith Prize in Economics and Social Justice awarded by the Progressive Economics Forum. You can read his writing here.

Photo: Mike Gifford/Flickr

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