When the Conservative smear machine goes into high gear one is tempted to think of Lincoln’s famous dictum — the one about how “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Then again, there is P.T. Barnum’s equally famous observation to the effect that “there is a sucker born every minute.”

 The Party must be banking on Barnum having been right, based on a couple of its most recent wildly-aimed torpedoes.

The hyper-glandular attackers in the Harper team’s poorly ventilated war room have graduated from blasting the Official Opposition for the mortal sin of favouring the  environment.

They’re now going in for old-fashioned red-baiting.

Hit them with Vimy Ridge

 The first torpedo came on Tuesday, over the signature of one Jean-Christophe de le Rue, Veterans’ Affairs Minister Steven Blaney’s press secretary.

M. de la Rue’s headline was the nearly ridiculous: “NDP’s communist roots taint 96th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.”

The news release then goes on to quote an article NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice wrote six years ago on the anniversary of Vimy Ridge. Boulerice was then a union activist who had not yet run for the NDP. He said that the sacrifices of Canadian lives at Vimy Ridge happened in a war (World War One) that did not serve the interests of working people.

It was, he wrote, a war born out of competition between great powers for colonies and resources.

Boulerice did adopt a rhetorical tone that might have been a tad over the top.

He called World War One a “purely capitalist war” fought on the backs of workers and peasants. And he said that, at the time of that war, with European societies so swept up in competitive nationalism, only a few, brave communists opposed “the slaughter.”

Boulerice not far from scholarly consensus

Whatever the merits of Boulerice’s brief analysis, the truth is that nearly a century later few mainstream historians view the Great War through rose coloured glasses as having been an ennobling affair.

The general scholarly consensus is that the Great War was nasty, bloody and brutal. The troops on all sides — largely conscripted from the working classes — were, quite literally, not much more than cannon fodder.

Today historians generally agree that World War One did indeed emerge out of military and geopolitical competition between a rising Germany, anxious to equal the British Empire’s naval power and earn its “place in the sun,” and British and French empires that were determined to maintain their hegemony – especially, in Britain’s case, on the seas.

Mix into that already tense competition: an Austro-Hungarian Empire straining at the seams, as it confronted the rising aspirations of its many nationalities in Central and Eastern Europe; an Ottoman Empire coping with a similar challenge in the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa; and a decadent Russian Empire falling under the weight of its extreme social and economic inequalities, and you get a recipe for a massive worldwide catastrophe.

And the central story of that catastrophe was not about “democracy versus tyranny,” or any other good-guys-versus-bad-guys narrative.

Does it make you a communist to talk about communists of the early 20th Century?

Honour the sacrifices of Canadians at Vimy Ridge we must.

They were real sacrifices, and there were many real acts of heroism.

However, didn’t Boulerice have a point, six years ago, when he said we shouldn’t tell each other fairy tales about that “war to end all wars”?

That’s pretty much all he was saying in 2007. Put aside its rhetorical tone and Boulerice’s thesis does not differ too much from the general consensus among historians today.

As for the allusion to the role of communists — in the first place, to be fair, it is not entirely accurate to say that the communists of a century ago were quite alone in opposing the war.

Boulerice forgot about folks such as Bertrand Russell, a British aristocrat who had little sympathy for communism (which he early on saw as a kind of quasi-religious cult), but who went to prison for his opposition to the war.

However, while what Boulerice asserts about the communists at that time may not be entirely true, it hardly makes one a communist to make that assertion.

And it does not come anywhere near to giving M. de la Rue the right to spout utter nonsense and falsehoods about the “NDP’s communist roots.”

That bit of agit-prop, to call it by its name, is a flagrant example of the political “big lie.” The theory of the “big lie” is that if you’re going to tell a whopper best to make it really big. In a perverse way, the bigger the lie, the greater its patina of verisimilitude, and the harder it is to refute.

NDP born out of social gospel, not Lenin and Marx

It is a well-known historical fact that the NDP and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) that preceded it were always resolutely part of the fiercely anti-communist left. Indeed, back when there were still enough Marxist-Leninists (of various persuasions) to fill a hall bigger than a powder room, those self-same communists were merciless and withering in their unceasing attacks on the CCF/NDP.

In any case, to say that the party of social gospel preachers such as J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas has anything remotely resembling “communist roots” is a complete and utter fabrication.

The roots of the NDP are in the cooperative movement, in progressive Christian activism (the social gospel), and in U.S.-affiliated mainstream trade unions, which had no use whatsoever for rhetoric about “class struggle” or “working class revolution.”

It is, frankly, beyond shameful, in 2013, nearly fifty five years after the death of Senator Joe McCarthy, for a notionally respectable political party to issue a press release that makes such an obviously false claim.

At the end of the Conservatives’ little screed against Boulerice, they call on the NDP MP and his leader to apologize to Canadians and the “veterans they insulted.”

Mulcair has already dutifully and respectfully paid homage to those who sacrificed so much at Vimy Ridge. It is hard to imagine what more he might say.

Conversely, is there a chance the toilers in the Conservative war room would recognize the manifest unfairness of claiming the NDP has “communist roots” and consider an apology of their own?

Tomorrow — the Harper government’s heaviest hitter, the Finance Minister’s, indulges in his own sophomoric effort at the silliest kind of old-fashioned red-baiting.  

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...