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What is going on in Canada’s “mainstream” left?

According to many — including those on both sides of this debate — it seems that the NDP has taken some great leap to the left by embracing the activist Leap Manifesto backed by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis.

The debate around Leap is one well worth having in Canada’s left broadly as well as within the NDP more specifically, I suppose, given that the NDP sadly remains the elephant in the Canadian left’s rather small room.

Personally, I think Leap is a flawed document that still deserves critical support. It attempts to confront very real and very frightening environmental challenges that face us both in Canada and globally and does so without the rose-coloured glasses that lead many to diversions like attempts to build “Green Capitalism.”

While it is nowhere near as radical as some have suggested and while it has its blind spots and even pronounced weaknesses (to one of which we will return), and while it was announced by a celebrity lineup that many found off-putting and even counterproductive, it still presents the possibility of an important alternative to today’s politics and provides a framework that can at least be built upon.

To reject the manifesto in its entirety in some sweeping denunciation or to portray it, as some have, as somehow a product of those fictional clueless Toronto leftist “elitists” that reactionaries and their fellow-travelers like Smokey Thomas love to prattle on about, strikes me as not only wrong-headed but, in the latter case, borderline offensive.

All that aside, however, what is making all of the endless pro-and-con articles and statements about the Leap Manifesto so odd is that so many of them are framed in incredibly over-the-top terms as if what happened at the Edmonton convention was a decisive and irreversible moment that has occurred, for better or worse, in NDP and Canadian social democratic history.

And that would be all well and good but for the fact that the NDP did not adopt the Leap Manifesto! At all. The party and its delegates did not even adopt a framework for adopting the manifesto as policy.

All that they did was agree to a resolution that said — after praising the Leap Manifesto as high minded and in keeping with NDP traditions — that its ideas “can and should be debated and modified on their own merits and according to the needs of various communities and all parts of Canada” and that sent the manifesto to be debated within the party until the next convention in 2018.

Despite the hyperbole on both sides this is not a victory for the NDP’s “left” or for those serious about the ideas of Leap. Rather, it is a typical NDP say nothing “compromise” non-resolution aiming to make a divisive issue go away for at least a little while — in this case at least two years — that has somehow been interpreted as a big victory for the manifesto’s backers.

Why exactly?

While many might see it as important that the NDP has agreed to debate it — which is all that they did — they should also remember that NDP internal “debates’, insofar as they are even allowed to really occur, are usually the kiss of death for anything interesting. The NDP is a place that radical ideas are most often taken to die or to simply fade away — and two years in more than enough time to allow this to happen as social media and the news cycle move on to other things.

In the end, the NDP, so far, has done nothing more than agree to debate the manifesto after saying a few nice things about it. And that renders much of the commentary of the last few days not simply premature, but in some cases bizarre and totally silly.

It highlights the left’s weakness that such intense stances have been taken on such a relatively mundane statement that Canada’s social democratic party has not even, in whole or in part, adopted yet!

Beyond that, though, is the reality that what has transpired does highlight one flaw of the idea of the manifesto that many have pointed out from the start — that being that it sought to get people to sign on to it and to embrace its ideas in a “non-partisan” way as opposed to using the manifesto as a platform to build a coherent electoral political movement and organization, either inside or outside of a party like the NDP, to fight for its implementation.

For an apparently radical manifesto it has a surprising “appeal to authority” aspect to it that seems more than a bit utopian.

In fact, the compromise resolution, by appearing to keep the manifesto alive within the NDP without doing anything to organize around it or adopt it, might actually help to dissipate or prevent calls to build something like the Waffle or the NPI with Leap as part of its basis.

And without the emergence of such an organized attempt to change the party and its institutions, as well as its entrenched (and relatively small) power elite and profoundly undemocratic practices (especially during elections) it is difficult to see ultimately how Leap will be adopted in anything beyond a token way.

It is important to remember that the NDP has a long established tradition of running during elections on platforms drafted entirely by backroom strategists and the party leader and their clique — platforms that bear little to no resemblance to any resolutions or polices adopted by its membership!

I think that a strong case could be made that the fundamental ideas of Leap — as well as a broader truly anti-capitalist platform — can only be fully realized by the emergence of a new left or “left front” style electoral force in Canada. However, if those within the NDP backing the Leap Manifesto seriously want to see it implemented in a meaningful way , they had best do the work to find and to organize a coherent movement around a leadership candidate who will then actually back it in full 

Otherwise, whether the NDP “debates” Leap for two years or 20, it is not going to happen.


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