As the NDP faces serious questions around its philosophy and direction, the party’s history can provide some valuable guidance.

Now that the NDP leadership contest has come alive, with four candidates running (and perhaps more to come), it may be a good time to ask about the future of social democracy in Canada. Former leader Ed Broadbent has recently urged the party to “be bold” as it strives to influence public policy debates in Canada, but it would seem that the party is divided over just what that role ought to entail. At last year’s national convention, delegates expressed non-confidence in Tom Mulcair’s leadership, and many embraced the ambitious radicalism of the Leap Manifesto. In the coming debates, candidates will have to confront serious differences over the party’s philosophy and direction, as well as secondary questions of strategy and tactics. Some guidance might be found in the party’s past.

For starters, members would do well to remember that the kinds of divisive issues they face today were present at the party’s founding and have recurred throughout its history. The party was born in 1961 out of a marriage between the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), whose origins dated back to the early years of the Great Depression, and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). The two sides had been exploring the possibilities of an alliance since the early 1950s, but some in the CCF resisted a closer relationship with labour, for fear of diluting the party’s socialist principles. The party offered the CLC a means of engaging more directly in political action, while the CLC provided an electoral base for the party.

The CCF had already moderated its radicalism by adopting the Winnipeg Declaration of Principles in 1956 in place of the party’s original platform, the Regina Manifesto, adopted in 1933. Debate over the Winnipeg Declaration raised some of the same concerns about the party’s core principles that were later expressed about the alliance with the CLC. Abandoning the Regina Manifesto’s concluding call to arms – “No C.C.F. Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Co-operative Commonwealth” – was just as significant at the time as removing the word “socialism” from the NDP constitution more recently. Both changes reflected a philosophical tension between social democracy and socialism in framing party policy.

The idea emerged that influence could be achieved without power, and that power was meaningless if won at the cost of principle.

A related set of differences centred more on political practice than ideology. After World War II, it became clear that the CCF’s hopes for electoral victory at the national level would not be fulfilled any time soon, and internal party debates shifted in response. Where previously everyone had agreed that the goal was power, even when they disagreed over how to get there, the idea emerged that influence could be achieved without power, and that power was meaningless if won at the cost of principle. This was the kernel of the idea that the CCF might serve as the “conscience of Parliament.” It did not mean that principles were fixed in stone, but that the CCF put ethics and reason before all else, and that this approach had an impact, whatever party was in power. Opposing this view were those who believed that the achievement of power remained the party’s primary goal, and that this required closer attention to matters of organization, strategy, and tactics, as well as to policy and principle. Support for a closer relationship with labour came especially from this latter group.

Disagreements continued to percolate through the 1960s and boiled over at the end of the decade with the rise of “The Waffle” (or the Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada), which sought to shift the NDP’s focus away from electoral politics to the radical transformation of society. The Waffle (which I supported at the time) grew out of a rising concern for American ownership of the Canadian economy, coupled with a Marxian understanding of the role of class in social relations and social change. Its 1969 manifesto was also coloured by the rise of the separatist movement in Quebec, with which it had some sympathy, and the New Left in the United States, where civil rights and the Vietnam War had generated a huge increase in radical activism.

Twenty years later, Mel Watkins, one of the Waffle’s founders and leaders, recalled that, “The very essence of our position, of our politics, was the linking of independence and socialism, of the national question and the class question.” It was a radical challenge to a party leadership who, in historian Desmond Morton’s words, “had delivered neither electoral victory nor spiritual gratification.” Something similar could be said of the Leap Manifesto today and the challenge it poses to the NDP leadership.

Another response to the national question, overshadowed by the Waffle, came from a colleague of Watkins’ at the University of Toronto, the late Abraham Rotstein. Rotstein promoted the ideas of the Swedish economist Gunnar Adler-Karlsson, who argued that one of the distinguishing features of Swedish social democracy, contributing to its famous pragmatism, was what he called “functional socialism.” In Rotstein’s view it offered a better means of asserting domestic control of the Canadian economy than the nationalization of American branch plants, as proposed in the Waffle’s manifesto. According to Adler-Karlsson, property ownership was neither unitary nor absolute, but rather comprised a cluster of rights, or functions. An individual might hold title to a property while some of the rights associated with title were controlled by others. One might own a house, for example, but one’s right to add a deck or rent a room was subject to municipal by-laws. For society to exercise control over certain functions of a property, it was necessary to socialize only those functions, not the property as a whole. Realization of this was potentially liberating for social democrats, Rotstein thought, since it meant that society could exercise a measure of control over property without giving up the economic benefits of capitalism.

In 1972, the Ontario NDP expelled the Waffle from the provincial party, while Rotstein’s promotion of functional socialism as a means of dealing with American ownership had little visible impact. The debates of the late sixties, in any case, were overtaken by the events of the following decade – the OPEC oil embargo, recession, “stagflation,” wage and price controls – and similar internal struggles ensued as the party adapted to the end of postwar economic expansion. The fact that Liberal governments had created much of the infrastructure of the welfare state complicated the party’s search for a set of policies that would both inspire members and carve out a distinctive position on the left of the political spectrum, while the contraction of the tax base that had made Liberal innovation possible made further similar action problematic.

Internationally, the rise of neoliberalism – Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in the United States in 1981 – and the fall of the Soviet Union ten years later initiated a period of political and ideological turbulence. This included the further globalization of trade, finance and communications, as well as the global fragmentation of production. There was a much greater international movement of people, and the role of women in the economy was rising, while the importance of trade unions was on the decline. Meanwhile, the public was becoming more aware of environmental issues. Ideological uncertainty and instability persist to this day.

In these circumstances, what might the NDP learn from its past? Gunnar Adler-Karlsson’s rejection of all-or-nothing thinking seems even more pertinent today than it was in the late sixties. His concern was to lay out an alternative to the “either-or” posed by Soviet communism vs. American capitalism, while Rotstein sought an alternative to the socialism of the Waffle vs. the free market defenders of foreign investment. Applied to the present, NDPers need to find an alternative to the either-or of consuming fossil fuels vs. leaving them in the ground.

As they face the future, New Democrats will almost certainly find themselves immersed in the kinds of debates that have periodically both divided and energized their party. Ed Broadbent concluded his recent words of advice by warning against engaging in a false debate between the need for bold ideas and the need for electoral victory when, in fact, both are required. It seems to me that this runs the risk of papering over a genuine difference. The alternative to “either-or” may not be “both-and,” but rather which comes first. In my reading of history, the idea of the NDP as a party of ethics and reason first, and the pursuit of power second, is central to its identity. This doesn’t mean that there is any virtue in radicalism in itself, but that differences of principle should be hashed out, even if it is only to arrive at mutual acceptance rather than resolution. Only then will it be possible to move on to strategy and tactics.

Photo: NDP leadership candidates, from left, Guy Caron, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Peter Julian participate in a leadership debate in Montreal, Sunday, March 26, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.