There can be little doubt anymore, other than to the willfully blind, that neither the federal NDP nor any of its provincial wings are socialist parties.
The shift towards centrism and the embrace of neo-liberal hegemonic economic ideas, such as Tom Mulcair’s recent backing of corporate free trade deals, has become obviously irreversible. Even worse, Mulcair has now backed away from his previously critical comments about the oil sands, and has won praise from the business press for his “political maturity,” which is little more than a code phrase for having abandoned important principles around the environment and climate change.
The NDP clearly no longer sees itself as a movement to change society, but rather as a “government in waiting.” This is entirely within the framework of capitalism. The party has turned a corner.
This change is now of a fundamental nature. The basic characteristics of the party are different.
In an article written with Andrew Klochek both prior to the Layton NDP “winning” opposition and prior to Mulcair’s leadership, as this process began well before him, we wrote of how dramatic the ideological shift is.
This article not only remains true, but its conclusions, from an ideological point of view, are even more pronounced than they were then. The shift is accelerating. As a new federal convention approaches we are sure to see “socialist” removed from the constitution of the party, which it, for those who care about honesty, should be. It will only be acknowledging reality to remove “socialist” as the NDP bears no resemblance to a socialist party at all. There is no commitment, even in a long-term Bernstein sense, to creating a socialist economy.
Given that this ground has been covered, it is not, here, my intention to cover it again.
However, despite these shifts, despite the unrelentingly rightward turn, despite defeat after defeat for the left within the NDP over the last 40 years, many socialists, even revolutionary socialists, remain within the NDP and insist that the only way to push a socialist agenda in Canada (or any of its provinces outside of Quebec) is to fight within the context of the NDP to seek to “convert” NDP members and to, somehow, change the NDP from “within.”
The purpose here is to move beyond the ideological problems with supporting the NDP and working within it and to show that this is also tactically wrong. It is a strategy that is a proven failure. As such, continuing to pursue it is both destructive to the alleged intent and harmful to the socialist idea in Canada itself.
Leftists within the NDP, especially those organized within some of the party’s entryist groups(1), engage in what could be called the theory and practice of Resolutionary Socialism(2).
Resolutionary Socialism is the notion that the point of a socialist movement is to agitate within the country’s existing “mass worker’s party” to get resolutions passed at conventions and get people elected to the party’s governing bodies with the intent of shifting the party to the left and towards a radical or, in some cases, revolutionary socialist idea.
Then, presumably, either the left will seize control of the “mass worker’s party” or, when the revolutionary or radical “moment” comes, they will march out of the party, red flags blazing in the wind, taking the radicalized elements of the membership with them.
This tactic is now, more than it has ever been, entirely detached from reality.
As a bit of history, one of the constant refrains of socialists working within the NDP is that they are trying to recapture the energy and “success” of movements like the Waffle in the ’70s, the CAP (Campaign for an Activist Party) in the ’80s and the NPI (New Politics Initiative) in the ’90s, all of which vied for power internally and managed to secure 25-35 per cent support from the membership of the party.
What they fail to note is that every one of these initiatives failed.
This is not a reflection, at all, upon the activists. They were all entirely noble in their efforts.
It is, however, what happened.
Every single one of these “high water marks” for the left within the NDP ultimately receded and dissolved. The Socialist Caucus has been in existence within the party since 1998 and has been an unhappy handmaiden to the period during which it shifted right most dramatically.
In each case, after the movement crested the party leadership consolidated its hold and pushed both the platform and practice of the party not in a left direction, but in the opposite direction.
But Resolutionary Socialism has been dealt an even greater blow in that, as is obvious to any detached observer, the resolutions no longer matter. For the simple reason that the “Democratic” in NDP is a sham. To an even greater extent than in the past the deck is rigged. The “left” of the party cannot win.
The NDP now routinely prevents left candidates who are not willing, ultimately, to play ball, from either seeking nominations or, should they win them, actually running for the party. This includes, most obviously, the leader the Socialist Caucus itself, Barry Weisleder, whose nomination in Thornhill was revoked by the ONDP. But there are many other examples.
Resolutions Committees within the NDP ensure that “left” resolutions basically never make it to the floor of conventions anymore anyway. If they do, and if the very unlikely happens and they pass, they then fall into the black hole that is the party membership’s “platform” (not to be confused with the farce the leadership and its strategists trot out at election time, which is the actual platform), a platform that is never publicly published and that, in some cases, the party has claimed does not even exist! If you doubt this, feel free to ask for the membership’s platform anytime you want.
Do not hold your breath while waiting to receive it.
There are other instances of the party, provincially or federally, either preventing its membership from exercising democratic control, or simply disregarding or invalidating the results when they do.
In fact, given that the right shift depends on the isolation of the party leadership from any embarrassment that might be caused by the membership, I think one could easily argue that the membership of the NDP has less power than any membership in any political party in Canada.
To be blunt, it is a fight that cannot be won. To describe it as utopian would be unfair to utopianism, which is predicated on the principle that its struggle is Sisyphean. This is a case of activists tilting at windmills without recognizing that they are doing so.
Even worse, they do so without understanding that the membership of the NDP is not at all what it used to be. Many members seek to be on board with a “winner.” They are political junkies or careerists as opposed to socialists.
They are, in fact, in my opinion less likely to be “recruited” by a socialist movement than the general public, especially if socialists work with certain specific communities.
Why working within the NDP helps the NDP’s right
The basic idea of many of the leftists in the NDP is that they are fighting within a party receptive to leftism.
This disregards the party’s last 40 years. It also disregards the fact that many members of the NDP are members of the party precisely because they want to be a part of a party that will take power, and some hope to directly gain from this (as they have already by the party “winning” opposition).
Further, it is predicated on vanguardist ideas of “enlightening” the “masses” within a “mass” political party, a notion not only elitist and facile, but also assuming (as the vanguardists always do) that the NDP membership are sheep waiting for a true leader to show them the true path.
Even when dealing with actually working-class members, this principle is already false and shows contempt for working-class activists. But the NDP membership is comprised of many professionals (such as teachers, professors, social workers, white collar civil servants, etc.) and its basic class composition is not a “mass” party at all in the way the leftists mean, or used to mean, “mass”.
In fact, I think it is quite likely that much of the membership of the NDP is actually less likely to be responsive to radicalism and leftist ideas than, say, citizens in Parkdale in Toronto. Or in downtown Winnipeg. Or in Cape Breton.
Within the NDP you are talking to a membership much of which has joined or stayed within a party in spite of its shift.
The radicals have already left.
By going door-to-door, as they do, for a neo-liberal party espousing a neo-liberal ideology, and by encouraging leftists to join this party, leftists within the NDP aid the party establishment as opposed to hindering it. They reinforce the party’s hold on Canada’s left politics.
Working within the NDP, as a leftist, means directly contributing to the rightward shift as it allows the party a thin veneer of “left-wing” credibility by your presence and it means that they can take you for granted, which they do.
Since you cannot win internally, you do not worry them at all, and if they win government leftists who cause trouble will be out. You can count on this.
However, if real left candidates, as in Quebec with Quebec Solidaire, were to even get 3-5% of the vote in, for example, some ridings in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Halifax or Vancouver, (a totally achievable goal, for those who insist on being “realistic”) thereby no longer allowing the NDP to take the support of left-wing citizens for granted, then the mainstream “left” party has to take notice. And its positions and policies will change accordingly.
This has happened in Quebec and Europe… and it will not happen in English Canada without this.
As is usually the case, the threat to those who operate within circles of power and electoral politics and who accept, as a starting point, the “realities” of our system, has to come from outside. It cannot come from within.
(1) I have written of these groups before in a piece on my blog.
(2) With apologies to my close friend, and long time comrade, Andy Lehrer, from whom I stole the term.