On two recent occasions I have read in columns commenting on the NDP a reference to the NDP having removed “socialism” from the preamble to its constitution at the 2013 convention. Though this was inaccurately reported to be the case by the CBC at the time, it has had a surprising longevity despite the fact that a cursory reading of the document adopted at the 2013 convention would clearly show that such a claim was not true. I think I understand why those who are not sympathetic to the NDP might keep repeating this falsehood, as it is seen by them as an ideological surrender to “reality,” i.e. their reality. But it is a mystery to me why those who would lament the removal of socialism from the preamble insist on lamenting an event that did not happen. Perhaps a little review of the actual history of this issue will be helpful.
The founding resolution of the New Democratic Party, adopted in 1961, promised that the new party would carry forward “the best objectives of the farmer and labour, co-operative and social democratic movements for which so many progressive Canadians have striven in the past.” It is in the preamble adopted in 1981 that the words “democratic socialist” are used, and used exclusively, to describe the principles of the NDP. No nod was given in 1981 to “social democratic” as other words that many New Democrats often use to describe what the NDP stands for. In any event there has always been a diversity of opinion within the NDP as to whether New Democrats were properly called democratic socialists or social democrats. Internationally, the NDP is officially associated with both, as well as labour parties.
In June 2011, at the NDP federal convention held in Vancouver right after the NDP’s breakthrough election in May, an attempt was made to take out the reference to democratic socialism, in the name of “modernizing” the preamble. This was in keeping with what some have argued was Jack Layton’s attempt over time to remake the NDP into a Canadian version of the Third Way, something that the NDP had resisted prior to 2003. A fuller explanation of this argument is available in the chapter entitled “From Traditional Social Democracy to the Third Way: An Assessment of Federal NDP Platforms from 1988 to 2011,” written by Matt Fodor, in the book Party of Conscience: The CCF, the NDP, and Social Democracy in Canada, published by Between the Lines Publishing in 2018.
In 2011, many were concerned, including myself and Ed Broadbent, about the process — and about whether such a modernized preamble was an unacceptable disowning or distancing of the NDP from its principles and history, and particularly its ongoing role as the only major political party which maintains a critical perspective on capitalism and the market. Given the capitalist crisis of 2008 it seemed an odd time to be seen to be divesting ourselves of an ideological stance that had just been freshly validated by events. Nevertheless, Fodor argues that Layton was trying to occupy the political space that had apparently been vacated by a declining Liberal Party.
The motion to modernize the preamble was eventually tabled, with the expectation that a better draft would be produced for future consideration. Eventually, sometime after Layton’s death, a committee was appointed to draft a new preamble that was both new and faithful to the party’s past and present self-understanding. Full disclosure — I was on that committee.
The preamble circulated before the 2013 convention in Montreal, and ultimately adopted by that convention, speaks of a future:
“that brings together the best insights and objectives of Canadians who, within the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions, have worked through farmer, labour, co-operative, feminist, human rights, and environmental movements to build a more just, equal, and sustainable Canada.”
Language reflecting the fact that many come to the party through their activism on behalf of Aboriginal rights was appropriately added at the convention. One notes that the word socialism was not removed from the preamble. It was both included, and saved, from what had been the plan in 2011.
The new preamble mirrors the method of the 1961 founding convention in trying to more fully and inclusively describe the rich diversity of the roots, the experiences, and the political and philosophical self-understandings that Canadians who join the NDP bring to the table — including democratic socialists — and maintains the unique market-critical stance of the NDP. This was elaborated upon by talking about governments “having the power to address the limitations of the market in addressing the common good” and “having the power to act in the public interest for social and economic justice, and for the integrity of the environment.”
There will always be debate on the Canadian political left about the NDP. This is as it should be, but we can take our own stand against the post-truth era and fake news by acknowledging that whatever one might think of the policies of the NDP at any given time, the real news, and I would argue, good news, is that the party, in two successive conventions, acted to preserve its association with democratic socialism.
Bill Blaikie, former MP and MLA, writes on Canadian politics, political parties, and Parliament.
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