Dr. Dawg

Socialism and the new NDP

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As NDP delegates gather in Vancouver, many having flown in by Westjet, compromise is in the air. Fifty years after its founding, the party finds itself the Official Opposition. So closely does this bind the NDP to mainstream politics-as-usual that its defences are quickly being shored up—and not in a good way.

There will be no more talk of “socialism,” other than to expunge it from the party constitution. Nothing to frighten their new-found voters away. Nothing that could be seized upon by the generally pro-Conservative media and taken out of context—or left right in.

No Red Scare in 2015, by gum. No need to search the House for pods.

And also no risks, no vision, nothing on the table now but the pragmatism of power. New Liberals. Déjà vu all over again.

“Extend a warm welcome to all former Liberal supporters who wish to join the genuine anti-Conservative opposition — the NDP,” reads one resolution before the convention. Go ahead, pour more water into the wine.

In many ways, this is inescapable. Most folks aren’t risk-takers. They don’t reflect much on things as they are, and don’t embrace radical change unless the world around them changes rapidly, either for the better or the worse. It can take crises, but also sudden perceived opportunities and possibilities, to provoke revolutions. It’s an historical commonplace, for example, that membership in the Communist Party of Canada increased after the 1929 stock market crash—but also as the country was pulling out of it in the 1940s.

But for any socialist, among whose ranks I count myself, there must always be an alternative vision of the future, even in non-revolutionary climates—a radically different set of social relations, egalitarian, collective, classless. An end to the vast waste of human potential that exploitation and oppression cause. A conscious choice to abandon the collective servitude that now exists—if I may cite, not a left-winger, but an early libertarian.

Without that vision, we have nothing at all. We become reactive, not pro-active. We moralize, without having the ideological basis to permit us to do more.

Ten years ago, I was a member of something called the New Politics Initiative. The NDP under the deeply unpopular Alexa McDonough had embraced Blair-Witch “third way” politics, a kind of preemptive selling out. As her supporters soon discovered, no one was buying.

The NPI sought to dissolve the current party structure and develop a new form of organizational model that would embrace social movements outside the NDP. While we lost at the 2001 convention, our reaction to McDonough’s centrism commanded considerable rank and file support, and she stepped down in 2003.

The leadership convention that year pitted old-school Bill Blaikie, who despised the notion of serious change within the party and treated the NPI with open contempt, against the forward-looking Jack Layton, who won the leadership contest on the first ballot.

Soon after, the NPI dissolved itself at a meeting in Toronto. Layton was a guest speaker, and economist Jim Stanford was another. Our notion of community organizing had foundered because there was never really much of a notion to begin with.

We studiously avoided plans and blueprints, and stayed largely structureless. Our attempt to have a cross-Canada committee to communicate across the regions came to be seen as authoritarian—I recall we got tagged with “Central Committee,” ironically or seriously. And nothing was getting done. I parted company with the Ottawa chapter when it became just another left discussion group, with vegan hot-dogs.

But many of us hung around the party, finding things to like here and there, and we embraced federal party politics. As the old adage goes, however, if elections could change the system, they’d be against the law.

So now the game has changed once again. It’s all about consolidation, trying to establish corporate media cred (good luck with that), sparring around in the House of Commons, looking good and professional and having a run for the big prize in four years. It will be all political glitz and glamour, the hoped-for public surprise of a dog walking easily and well on two legs.

This sort of pragmatism demands that vision be shed. It’s all Machiavelli now, not that I dislike the sound advice that Il Principe provides. But as a socialist I do want something more than manoeuvring for and holding on to power for its own sake, especially under the current rules of the game.

That’s really what is before this convention. And, without the joyful and undoctrinaire spontaneity of the NPI, the only organized opposition to the move away from socialism (semantically and literally) is the Socialist Caucus. I sat in on one of their meetings at the 2001 convention. The intellectual stagnation of that crowd, its dogmatic, intractable cultishness, was what had attracted so many of us to the NPI in the first place. The NPI was proposing its own third way.

Well, their candidate lost to McDonough, and we lost our convention resolution (in both senses of the word), and the Orange Evolution continued. Making it into the Official Opposition was an amazing move forward. And then I think of the prescient Karl Marx:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

This convention is a watershed for the NDP. Do we simply want to replace the moribund Liberal Party in form and substance, deferring the vision until it disappears? Or do we want to put alternatives before the Canadian people, make them real, and build a constituency in support of them?

Do we (I mean Canadians) want a two-party system in Canada, Liberal survivors joining the NDP, the Bloc eclipsed, the Greens essentially marginalized? Do we want to imitate the hideous binarism of US politics, where it’s all black versus white, good versus evil, them versus us—or present an array of choices for spirited national debate?

The former is the clear and present danger, towards which we are now coasting on a big orange wave. Two centrist parties, both firmly wedded to the status quo, pretending to offer choices that are more caricature than reality.

But of course, from this new opportunities will inevitably present themselves. NDP(S), anyone?

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on June 17, 2011 12:50 PM.

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