It haunts us still. The Cold War I mean, though you rarely hear it mentioned, it’s not a reference point. Students starting university now were born the year it ended. It isn’t a touchstone for them the way it was during the “short 20th century,” as Eric Hobsbawm called it, when people were born and died in the shadow the Cold War cast.

Yesterday, in The Globe and Mail, Timothy Garton Ash wrote about how power has gone from unipolar to multipolar in recent years. He skipped over the long preceding period when world power was bipolar, and shaped the realities we now must deal with. The Cold War vanished too quietly and totally; its lasting impact has to be deeper than it appears. Those are the ones that haunt you, the ones you evade, or “forget.”

Take an example: the trouble Jack Layton’s NDP is having defining itself. I saw him on a TV show last week (literally: I was on the show). Lots of ex-NDPers, not just Bob Rae but even some Marxists, have migrated to the Liberals. Mr. Layton said some things Stéphane Dion could easily say and was asked why he, too, isn’t in the Liberal Party, pushing from the left. His answer was more or less: You can’t trust them, but you can trust us. Er, is that it?

In its origins, the NDP and its predecessor, the CCF, were far more distinct. They were for socialism, unlike the Liberals, but against communism, which also had a party that ran in elections. The NDP benefited by comparison at both ends. They were democratic socialists. Their socialism gradually waned, but didn’t disappear, not till after the Cold War. Now, it’s undetectable. And two parties that were distinct, went blurry.

(For the record, I’m not saying socialism is outmoded. It may be more moded than ever, in this era of globalized capitalism. But it may not be ready for prime-time politics again, in the sense of elections, without a refit or even a rebirth. Who knows if the NDP will be the vehicle, and when?)

In the past, though, the conflict between capitalism and socialism in their many versions, made a lively setting for the NDP.

I have an old friend who says when he looks at some NDP leaders, he sees the faces that murdered Rosa Luxemburg. I know people now don’t know who she was: a German Communist who opposed Bolsheviks like Lenin. There was always conflict on the left. NDP leader David Lewis, Stephen’s dad, made his name battling Communists in the unions.

The first left meeting I ever went to was run by the Spartacists. Now Sportacus is the good guy on a TV show and kids who watch it never heard of Spartacus and the Roman slave revolt, much less the revolutionaries who met bloody defeat in 1919 in Germany and lingered on as a radical grouplet.

The Scandinavian democratic socialists are still around; they thrived in the very shadow of the Soviet Union. I knew a Polish economist during the 1980s who said ruefully one night, waiting for a bus in Warsaw under martial law, “We should have paid more attention to the Scandinavian model.”

You can’t pull the plug on all that context, and expect your party to trundle along. This week, the NDP is down to 13 per cent in polls.

Or take George Bush’s State of the Union speech Tuesday. Those born lately may wonder how he so easily divides the world in half, us versus “the terrorists.” But he grew up in the Cold War and learned to make the splits effortlessly. It was always us against them, you just change the terminology. This may also reflect a more ancient human tendency to dualism, which the Cold War embodied.

The same friend who mentioned Rosa Luxemburg called me during the 1988 Olympics, when we learned Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson had tested positive for drugs and been stripped of his gold. All of Canada fell from a height of joy into a vale of woe. “Do you think we can attribute this to capitalism?” he moaned. “Or just human nature?” My point is: It’s unwise to treat a context that redolent and usable, as if it never was.

So I’m hoping this is helpful, not just nostalgia or old fartism, which lurks in wait for us all. It’s a fine old conflict, some sang, mistakenly, to the Communist anthem, the Internationale, instead of: ‘Tis the final conflict.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.