The NDP leadership has announced that Socialism, aged 215, is dead. "Nobody uses the word 'democratic socialism' in contemporary terms. It is very rare," an unnamed senior party official told the press on the eve of the NDP convention in Vancouver. The convention was expected to remove the word "socialist" from the preamble to the party constitution. When unnamed NDP officials speak they get their way.
As these things go, socialism had a good run before the NDP brass consigned it to the dustbin of history.
In its modern form, socialism put in a first appearance in 1796 in the latter stages of the French Revolution. In truth, it was the foundling of the revolution, unanticipated by the Revolution's most illustrious figures who ushered the tenets of liberal capitalism onto the stage of history as a transformative force.
Up popped the first socialists during the revolution to proclaim that the liberal conception of equality was incomplete, that it bestowed the rights of citizenship on all men (not yet women), but that it did not come to terms with the social and economic inequality that is intrinsic to capitalism. Capitalism establishes a new ruling class and capitalists control those who work for them and reap the profits of their labour, the socialists declared, before being dispatched to the guillotine.
The capitalists had managed a great revolution, the socialists said, but there was another giant step toward equality that remained to be taken. With that step, social and economic exploitation would end and those who worked for a living would gain the fruits of their labour and would set the priorities for their places of work. Economic and social democracy would exist side by side with political democracy.
Equality of condition and not merely equality of opportunity would be the goal.
In Canada, the greatest achievement of those who espoused equality of condition has been Medicare. Tommy Douglas knew that Medicare must serve all people who need health care on an equal basis, regardless of their income or wealth. Barack Obama is mired in a liberal muddle, trying to introduce fairness to a health-care system that leaves private insurance companies in charge.
During its 215-year lifespan, socialism took many forms and socialists fought long and hard internecine battles. In the totalitarian Communist regimes that called themselves socialist, dissent was a capital offence. (Capitalism had its own dark side, I should add. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and militarist Japan, not to mention today's China, have all been capitalist societies.)
Democratic socialism proved a hardy breed and took multiple forms in the industrialized countries. Some sects were small enough to meet in a telephone booth; others could have held their conclaves in psychiatric institutions.
Socialist parties in Europe have often achieved more that their sisters and brothers in Canada -- in some cases including free university tuition, strong job protection and termination benefits, higher minimum wages, better pensions, pharmacare, free full-day early childhood education, state funded family vacations, worker participation in the management of industry, generous parental leave, a shorter work week, rent subsidies, and in a few odd cases, free firewood, and free access to municipally owned ski lifts and ski runs.
The Party of European Socialists in the European Parliament, one of the two largest groupings in the EP, includes member parties from across the EU including the French Socialists, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, the British Labour Party, the German Social Democrats, and the Swedish Social Democrats.
The early 18th and 19th century socialists would not have been surprised to learn that for the past several decades the gap in income and wealth between the rich and the rest of the population, including wage and salary earners and the poor, has been yawning ever wider, that greater inequality is a fact of life in all industrialized countries. That's capitalism for you, they would think. Time to roll up our sleeves and carry on the socialist struggle, they would have concluded.
But I'm not one to argue with the NDP leadership, especially its unnamed officials, who have announced that socialism was dead.
Word of socialism's death will still have to be broken to the millions of Europeans and their parties who haven't yet heard the news. Perhaps a top, unnamed NDP official should be sent on a mission to let the laggards know that at the age of 215, socialism has gone belly up.
This article was first posted on the James Laxer's blog.
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