It’s richly ironic that New Democrats, who laboured for years to shed the albatross of “socialism” so they could gambol like Liberals in the fields of electoral bliss, finally succeeded last weekend just when the word may no longer be cursed.

I say that because Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has announced its two most searched words last year were socialism and capitalism — with socialism in the lead. Left-wing scholar Gar Alperovitz, from whom I gleaned this info, also cites a Rasmussen poll finding Americans under 30 “almost equally divided” on preferring one or the other; and a Pew poll showing those between 18 and 29 prefer socialism 49-43 per cent. They finally managed to seriously downgrade socialism in the preamble to their constitution just when it might start working for them. It’s a pity they didn’t keep featuring it; at best it’s now a boutique item.

Stay calm though. This doesn’t mean the proletariat has finally grown class-consciousness. It’s mostly curiosity. People haven’t become socialists but they seem to want to know about it. They genuinely wonder if there could be an alternative to the vile dog’s breakfast of (ever increasingly) maldistributed wealth we now have. No one knows what socialism would mean today and efforts to define it, from Alperovitz to the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, are sketchy and preliminary. The hunger is for the mere hint of an option. It doesn’t matter if you call that socialism or alternatism or there-must-be-something-better-than-this-ism. But it has to be serious and new. Chrystia Freeland, author of the Gelber prizewinning book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, who comes from business journalism, not the left, told the Star: “It’s not going to be enough to go back and reheat F.D.R. It’s new times and it takes new thinking.”

Personally I’d start by focusing on the “social,” not the “ism.” Whatever socialism is, it has to do with society making decisions together, democratically, for the general good, hoping to get that right and working to fix what it got wrong. This contains some irony itself, a week after the death of Margaret Thatcher, who’ll live on in infamy or glory for insisting there’s no such thing as society and whose demise unmistakably roiled U.K. society.

I don’t mean the NDP should have done otherwise. The idea they’re a party of principled socialists or principled anything died (again) in 2006 when they joined Conservatives to sink the Liberal minority, killing national child care and opening the door to the Harper years, out of little more than hatred of Liberals. The last real NDP act of principle was in 1970 when most of its MPs, led by Tommy Douglas, voted against Pierre Trudeau’s decree of martial law, in the face of general hysteria.

The Liberals are no better; they’re the party that’s unprincipled almost on principle. Lack of principle is their version of the NDP’s sanctimony. They’re oddly suited to each other. I don’t see why both can’t get over themselves long enough to hatch a plan to defeat Harper. But I digress.

It’s become a commonplace to say U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal saved capitalism in the 1930s. Except it didn’t. Socialism itself, in its Soviet, Stalinist form, saved capitalism by presenting it with enough of a threat to jolt it off its nihilistic course and into gentler modes like the welfare state. Absent that threat, the outcome might have been fascism, chaos or descent into barbarism. That was socialist Rosa Luxemburg‘s view at the end of the First World War: it’s socialism or barbarism, she said, not realizing capitalism under duress would find another way. Capitalism needs serious challenges like socialism, whatever they’re called, to give it enough pause to rein in its normal impulses.

One final irony: The NDP cleansing of the socialist stain coincided last weekend with Justin Trudeau’s ascension as Liberal leader. The NDP response — even as it massaged its terminology, boasted about advanced communications “techniques” and stressed how human its leader is (his wife says he’s loads of fun) — was to style itself the party of substance versus Liberal “fluff.” You can see why citizens grope for other possibilities. If these guys at least had a sense of humour about it …

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.


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.