”œIn any campaign, the first stronghold you must occupy, is your Enemy’s consciousness.”
Sometime around 1980, in most of the democracies, the impossible happened. Radical conservatives donned the mantle of legitimacy and power, and successfully ”œoccupied” and undermined the democratic left’s ”œconscious- ness.” In the first of a very long string of ironies it was the founder of the NKVD, father of the world’s most feared and successful enemy to the champions of capitalist conser- vatism, who bequeathed the right this useful strategic insight.
From a century that began with generally snide approval at Bertrand Russell’s characterization of British Conservatives, as ”œthe Stupid Party,” conservatives had leapt to intellectual leadership and power in the UK, the US, Germany, and much of the OECD. Even in Canada, the dynastic Liberals were ousted for two terms by Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives.
An early Canadian socialist would admonish his young acolytes when their swagger needed trimming: ”œLet them steal your confidence, your conviction, your comrades’ trust, your community, or your culture and you’re dead. If the people ever doubt your ability to keep them safe, healthy, and in work you’re also done. Lose any one of those and you’ve lost it all.”
He would be furious to have seen social democrats’ around the world give away each of those values in succes- sion from 1980 to the present day.
Here’s a scene from how it used to be, before that fall from grace:
You are wedged onto a wobbly chair in a sweaty co-op com- munity hall on a hot summer night in 1969, in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, peering through the smoky, dusty haze at a tiny kinetic figure on the distant stage, rapt as you listen to one of the speaker’s favourite stump pieces ”” a story called the ”œCream Separator” ”” delivered over ten or fifteen minutes, sparkling with wit and embellished with hilarious curlicue sidebars.
So, you know I used to visit farm homes in the early days. Of course everybody was always busy. Feeding pigs, chickens, pitching hay and oat sheaves. Even the youngsters were busy at important jobs.
Now, you know, they couldn’t trust a city boy with anything important, something skilled, like milking a cow!
I was given the one job anyone could do ”” turning the handle on the cream separator. They’d pour the milk in, I’d turn the handle and out would come cream from the cream spout and skim milk from the other.
One day it penetrated my thick Scottish skull ”” that can take time ”” that this was how our economy worked!
We’ve got the producers: the farmers, the fishermen, the loggers, the auto-workers, they produce and pour in the ”œmilk” and then there are the service workers, the office workers, the nurses, and the clerks. They turn the handle.
But then I thought, wait a minute, there’s some- one missing here in this economy: What about the guy who owns the cream separator? Where is he? Why, of course! He’s the little fellow sitting on his stool, very contented, big smile on his face, his mouth wide open drinking all the cream from the cream spout!
And everyone else, well, they take turns on the skim milk spout.
Now nobody likes skim milk! It tastes awful, right? So they were angry. But were they angry at the little fel- low, no. They’d blame each other for the missing cream: ”œIf only those greedy union members/farmers/nurses didn’t ask for such high wages, we’d have more cream!” But of course, they were wrong.
There was nothing wrong with the producers or the service workers. The problem was the darn machine! It was designed to give the awful ”œblue” milk to the workers and the cream to the corporate elite. But some- times it produced even more cream than the happy little fellow could digest.
The darned machine would produce a surplus! So the fat little fellow would get indigestion from being such a pig. Then he’d shout, ”œStop! We have a recession. You’re all laid off.” But, then after a while, he’d burp, pat his ample stomach, the cream had been digested and he’d say, ”œOkay, boys. Happy days are here again. Start the machine!”
Now what we have been try- ing to tell Canadians for a long time is that the time has come. The time has come, my friends, for the people to get their hands on, to get control of the regulator of that machine ”” to get the machine to produce homogenized milk with cream in it.
So that there is a little cream for everybody in this land!”
This was the irrepressible Tommy, as T.C. Douglas was universally called by his partisans, doing the sort of joy- ful mocking barnburner that electrified audiences for more than 50 years. Douglas was near the end of his heroic run as one of Canada’s greatest populist orators by then. It was also the end of the golden age of the 25 years of pros- perity and full employment which fol- lowed the Second World War. Within five years, by the late 1970s, the social democratic consensus which had gov- erned the policy thinking of the devel- oped world was battered by the oil shock, the mysterious curse of stagfla- tion, and unemployment surging to levels not seen since the 1930s.
Keynesianism was dead. Full employment seemed a distant dream. The left was wracked with recrimination and agonized public hand-wringing. Triumphant neo-cons heralded the end of ”œfailed left wing delusions at home and abroad.” The ”œmarket” was being promoted as political and eco- nomic master.
In Canada, the social democratic challenge was different. Progressive rhetoric survived ”” often trading under false Liberal colours ”” for near- ly another decade. But its policy bul- warks were being successfully assaulted from the right across the country. The curse for the NDP was, of course, liber- alism, not conservatism.
Many Canadians are probably unaware that Canadian Liberals are the most successful political dynasty in the democratic world. Indeed, their run of years in government is greater than all but the Kim family in North Korea and the Chinese communists. In the 20th century, they were in office longer than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The Communist Party of China and the Liberal Party of Canada are increas- ingly similar both ideologically and cul- turally. While each pledges a commitment to social justice and eco- nomic progress, and despite the genuine conviction of many of their partisans that the party’s crusade is real, both par- ties are fascinating examples of Weber’s ”œiron law of oligarchy.” The leadership elites of each tack into the prevailing political winds, with one strategic goal only ”” personal political survival.
In the Chinese case, the workers’ party has moved so far from its origins it now admits millionaire businessmen and brutally suppresses trade unions. In Canada, the Liberal Party is less capable of suppressing dissidents than it once was. But in an ideological stretch admirable for its scope if not its integri- ty, Canadian ”œliberalism” encompasses the country’s most radical right wing government (Gordon Campbell in British Columbia) and its most tradi- tional conservative administration (Jean Charest in Quebec), as well as every con- fused strain of liberalism in between.
It is notoriously difficult to com- pete against this Liberal juggernaut. To the frustration of generations of CCFers and New Democrats the Liberal quicksilver slides left then right, some- times dividing, always coalescing again, sometimes several times in one campaign. Mackenzie King is alleged to have urged his colleagues on the wisdom of promising from the left and governing from the centre.
The promises, with a little water added, come famously from NDP policies. But promises made and delivered are always different political species. Canadian Liberals have always under- stood this maxim: health care was promised from 1911 to 1965, before the Liberals started to deliver, a stretch of 13 campaigns.
This reduces the Canadian left with three perennial choices: move to a more marginal position on the far left, com- pete in the centre, or seek a moral victo- ry. Competing for Canadian centrist votes, as the Saskatchewan and Manitoba NDP have eloquently and successfully done, remains beyond the pale for the party in the axis of Canadian political power, Ontario.
And yet, the ground for competi- tion between liberalism ”” even the infinitely plastic Canadian variety ”” and social democracy is clear. It is the gap between fighting for a rough equality of outcomes and promising only an equality of opportunity. As Ed Broadbent put it in his collection of essays on the future of the left, Democratic Equality, What Went Wrong, in 2001 liberals are satisfied to attempt to level the playing field of opportuni- ty, and pray for a less unequal life for Canadians, as a result.
Social democrats understand that the built-in advantages of inherited wealth, a stable family environment, and middle-class social networks always tilt the playing field against those from less privileged back- grounds. It was fashionable, even among progressives, in the 1990s to cling to an ”œall boats are lifted by a ris- ing tide” approach to the eternal dem- ocratic challenge of inequality. The market crash of 2001 brought a more sober reality to bear:
income equality is rising to all-time highs,
middle-class incomes are static or falling, and
social mobility is slowing to a meaningless level, especially for new immigrants.
Today some conservatives are beginning to muse about the impact of this collapse of opportunity. David Brooks, a thoughtful conservative commentator said in the New York Times following the porcine US presi- dential inaugural galas,
Today [social mobility is] again under threat, but this time from barriers that are different than the ones defined by socialists in the industrial age. Now, the upper class doesn’t so much oppress the lower class. It just outperforms it generation after generation. Now the crucial inequality is not only finance capital, it’s social capital…. if families are disrupted, if the social environment is dysfunc- tional, bigger budgets won’t help. President Bush spoke grandly about foreign policy… borrowing from Lincoln. Lincoln’s other great cause was social mobility. That’s worth embracing too.
Although his enthusiasm for Bush’s ”œwar on terror” has blinded many to his pioneering insights into a mod- ern social democracy, Tony Blair has grasped this ”œsocial exclusion” nettle. Making it clear that public services must perform to higher delivery stan- dards, that they are not to be managed by their unions, and that doctors, teachers and public servants will be accountable to the taxpayers who fund them, has enraged many traditionalists.
This novel approach to governing from the centre left is a recognition that an end to social mobility means a fast-growing, bitter, and increasingly non-white underclass, and an inevitable and catastrophic end for any democratic society. This approach has also helped win the two largest Labour majorities in the party’s history.
The traditional task of social democ- racy at the national level ”” improving lives, relieving poverty, enhancing jus- tice, creating opportunity ”” the ratio- nalist, optimistic political child of the Enlightenment, was thought to be passé ten years ago. A less inebriated decade has revealed its continuing relevance, even as new tasks emerge.
Blair’s near-suicidal determination to support the Bush invasion of Iraq may be seen by historians as his Suez, or Dien Bien Phu. More likely it will be regarded as critical to the rele- vance of British social democracy in a new alignment of global power. Just as Tommy Douglas’ break with his pacifist leader to support the Second World War was crucial to the survival of the CCF. However craven or coura- geous you may see Blair’s deci- sion, that it was driven in part by a determination to break with the tragic unilateralist, anti-American dead end into which the European left had driven in years since Vietnam is indisputable.
Those who see social democrats as snide anti-military peaceniks would have been surprised by trade union strongman Ernie Bevin. As Labour’s steely post-war Foreign Secretary he was one of the architects of NATO. Like Willy Brandt’s courageous and successful Ostpolitik, two decades later, it was a successful effort to enfee- ble Soviet East European hegemony.
The sneering anti-American paci- fism which became the leitmotif of the international democratic left’s foreign policy prescription post-Vietnam, was a strange wrong turn for a movement which had always supported the use of force against evil. Here is Tommy Douglas, haranguing Mackenzie King on his limp and tentative approach to war mobilization, in 1940:
In 1936 I saw what [fascism] has meant…I saw men who had come out of concentration camps…people whose spirits had been broken…because they chose to serve their conscience rather than a neu- rotic megalomaniac. [Is] there a man in this House who is not pre- pared to shed his blood…in order that we in this country, and the people of…the democracies, do not have to live under a regime in which such things are possible…? I make this plea: If our men and women are prepared to…offer their lives we should get assurance from this government…that the resources of the nation will be taken on the same basis as [their] human serv- ice is taken, without profit, but for the service of the state and for the duration of this war.
In a further irony of this strange peri- od from which the left will no doubt emerge, it was soon clear that neo- conservatives were lousy managers of government. (As a headhunter friend mused, ”œWho would be dumb enough to hire a CEO who said they hated the company as much as the neo-cons say they hate the public sector? What did they expect?”) The crazed notion that cutting taxes and spending would not hurt services was soon retired as a fiscal absurdity. Then, conservatives, behav- ing as the cracked mirror image of social democrats at their worst, cut taxes, raised spending, and oversaw public service quality decline as fast as their deficits rose. Amazingly, the only person to have outspent and out- indebted American taxpayers faster than Ronald Reagan in US history is George W. Bush, whose guns and but- ter economy will add $2 trillion in debt by the time he leaves office in 2009.
It seemed that voters did not care that the people who promised to run government with the efficiency of a well-oiled corporation were pushing their economies dangerously close to bankruptcy. Social democrats were elect- ed again in some countries ”” Germany, the UK, New Zealand ”” and had to undo the messes conservative so-called expertise had generated. Nye Bevan, the fiery Welsh socialist once described this experience as being called in by the voters to ”œclean up the mess the Tories always leave behind.”
As David Marquand, the right-wing British social demo- crat observed, these new conser- vatives had forgotten what the twentieth century had so painfully taught, that ”œthe free market is a marvelous servant and a disastrous master.” Curiously, to date in most places, conservatives have not yet had to pay for their demonstration that it is their approach to public sector management that couldn’t run a peanut stand.
So flash forward 35 years from Weyburn to Washington and listen to the oratory of another joyful crusader, as he makes a claim on the legacy of left liberal internationalism:
A few…have accepted the hard- est duties in this cause…the dangerous and necessary work of fighting our enemies. Some have shown their devotion to our country in deaths that honoured their whole lives…
I ask our youngest citizens to believe the evidence of your eyes. You have seen that life is fragile, evil is real, and courage triumphs. [M]ake the choice to serve in a cause larger than…yourself and…you will add not just to the wealth of our country, but to its character.
All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppres- sors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.
Bill Clinton hailing the heroes of Kosovo? John Kerry, perhaps, laying out his commander-in-chief credentials?
No, this Kennedyesque internation- alist appeal is George W. Bush at his sec- ond inaugural. How complete the capture of the joyful, even irresponsibly opti- mistic, rhetoric of the democratic left!
By contrast, on the left, substitut- ing for the thundering chant of ”œthe people united, will never be defeated,” or ”œwe shall overcome,” heard on city boulevards in a dozen languages from the 1950s to the 1970s, is a sour, defeat- ed ”œfightback” vocabulary, mixed with an angry conspiratorial catechism of hate. In Canada, today’s left also has that self-absorbed high-pitched whine typical of a certain type of forever grumpy Canadian.
Savour this contemporary NDP appeal to ”œthe workers”:
Homeowners are sitting on a ticking time bomb in terms of their families’ health…This gov- ernment has done nothing to help Canadian homeowners cope with what could be a public health emergency… Zonolite [!]…could be dealt with while concurrently improving afford- able housing stock and meeting environmental needs..
Plucked randomly from the NDP Web site, this is an average example of rhetorical flair from the frontmen of the ”œGrumpy & Blue Brothers Band” ”” MPs Bill Blaikie and Pat Martin. Together they are capable of a level of depressing whine, from their ”œsky is falling” repertoire, sufficient to make J.S. Woodsworth wince in his grave.
The following sidesplitter is per- haps more evocative of the time machine into which the party seems to have stepped in the 1990s:
Divisions in the capitalist class are bound to play a role in chal- lenging the power of the bond market and the banks.
This from the party’s ideologue manqué, James Laxer, in The New Left, in 1996. This neo-Leninist prediction has come true, though perhaps not in the revolutionary manner intended.
It’s called an income trust, Jim.
The combination of sneering indictments of globalization, wacko scare politics and nostalgic recy- cling of old nostrums is hard to label. Environmental catastrophe, genocidal genesplitters, middle-class destitution, and an imminent nuclear holocaust in the cosmos may form a coherent poli- cy whole to the authors, but it is far from obvious to the rest of us.
So another irony: the political tribe known for its evangelical opti- mism surrenders to sulk. It is hard to remember for those old enough so to do, and almost impossible to believe for those too young, that at the dawn of the 1980s the democratic left owned political optimism, and scored high on common sense.
From the New Jerusalem of the early Methodist Socialists in the stygian depths of industrial England, to the ”œNew Chinese Man” delusions of early Mao, the message of the left from its dawn 250 years ago has been one of a happier, better, more fulfilled and peaceful place on earth.
No matter how unlikely the physi- cal setting, no matter how apparently dim the prospect, progressives sold hope ”” not helplessness. It was a ratio- nalist, enlightment conviction that things can be better. Nihilistic gloom, anarchistic anger were the enemy of democratic socialists everywhere. Even straight-laced Marxists were twitted by their more populist leaders. Emma Goldman’s famous line, ”œIf I can’t dance at your revolution, I won’t come,” directed at her more dour German colleagues, re-emerged on T- shirts in the 1960s as a taunt by the new left at the pessimism of the old.
In Canada, the left has always been an often lumpy and uncomfort- able mix of temperance, Methodism, Marxism and beery trade unionism. So Tommy’s hilarious speaking style, piercing wit and irrepressible opti- mism marched alongside the some- what less rollicking form of the CCF’s funereal founder, J.S. Woodsworth.
Ed Broadbent’s leadership marked borht the height of the party’s power at the national level, and the high tide mark for any appreciation of self- deprecating humour. It’s hard to think the left once had a sense of humour in this country, but it was part of the sur- vivor mindset. However, in the past quarter century, even in Canada, the left gave up its claim on the politics of hope and aspiration, in favour of the politics of fear, blame and dread.
Having foolishly accepted the slashing critique of the hard right for the economic failures of the 1970s ”” a blame surely more widely shared ”” leftists then failed to capture any advantage from the end of commu- nism. Instead of saying, ”œNo more invidious comparisons, please, we’re social democrats,” the democratic left allowed its totalitarian cousin’s demise to become a forecast and justification of its own. Then squandering the most powerful weapon in any movement’s arsenal ”” a compelling mythological canon and rhetoric ”” how much more foolish could today’s left thinkers be?
Well, much more, as it turned out.
For the next of the family jewels to be prised from their hands was the power of community and progressive community values. Today’s progres- sives sneer at the bake-offs and the Bible nights and the self-contained social life of the evangelical communi- ty. How short-sighted, how dumb.
From left book clubs to Fabian Society picnics, from union summer schools to United Church socials, the story of the successful left is the story of a community bound by its tribal social rituals more than its rhetoric. Shaw’s wry plaint that ”œsocialism will never work, there aren’t enough evenings or weekends,” is no doubt the secret angst of many a right-wing activist today.
When a Methodist Workingmen’s Club provided the tools for a way out of the slums, it also sealed a polit- ical bargain for a lifetime. A con- servative summer camp today holds the same power to its activist core.
To the ironies list must be added the successful usurpation by the leftist NGO movements of this sense of community from left political parties. They have clever- ly sapped the appeal of politics, trade unionism and the church in favour of their work on an array of internationalist causes. It is there today that you find the social networks, the endless weekends of voluntarism, and the lifetime bonds that used to glue union and democratic socialist parties’ activist cores. And of course, many of them are refugees from political, church and trade union activism.
The still fashionable ”œculture wars” or the ”œcollision of values” was another egregious step into the abyss for social democrats. At the risk of pounding irony into the ground, sure- ly this one was the most delicious: that a movement borne in part of temper- ance and Methodist stricture, of reac- tion to the waste of lives and hope in drink, gambling and dissolution should end up on the wrong side of clean living is mildly head-spinning! How did it happen?
It is illegal, socially reprehensible, and definitely not cool to be: a racist, sex- ist, homophobe, anti-semite or a fascist in public in the Western world today.
This is an unbelievable victory in less than a generation, for those who remember the world pre-1960. Despite the secret prejudices and discrimina- tions that survive, it is a revolution in social values. Perhaps it behooves the victor to be more tolerant of the losers?
Failing to recognize a victory is almost as serious in politics as missing the lessons of defeat. The culture wars ended around 1980. The left won. But most didn’t notice and kept on fighting. Listening to pro-choice activists today, or the more vehement anti-racists a quarter of a century after the Voting Rights Act and our Charter is a bit like watching news clips of those sad soldiers who kept fighting because they didn’t get the news of the surrender.
As Hillary Clinton pointed out in a speech to the NOW convention recently, an abortion remains a tragedy, a failure and a gut-wrenching decision for a woman even in a choice- guaranteed world. Should we not reach out to those on the pro-life side of this divide in mutual acknowledgement of that?
Finally we come to crime. Police brutality may have been the central neighbourhood safety issue if you were a Black Panther 30 years go. It is not, if you are the mother of black children in a crack and gun-infested North American neighbourhood today. It is the democratic left’s own target voters who are the primary victims of violence. It is no wonder, therefore that the Blair/Blunkett line “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” had resonance with these voters.
All of these strategic wrong turns, added to an astonishing misunder- standing of what motivates voters, scare stories or a better future, as in: ”œJust say no” to (choose one) carcino- genic pesticides, death by Star Wars, or transfat frankenfood.
Or to put it in terms even the sour- puss school of political science, led by Messrs. Laxer, Panitch, and Drache, could understand: Is an appeal to aspi- ration, or fear, more likely to win an uncommitted vote? ”œDuh…,”even their dimmest student would mutter quietly, in response.
While Canadian social democrats dismissed the ”œman from Hope” in 1992 and his ”œbridge to the 21st centu- ry” in 1996, sneered at our ”œp’tit gars” and his cheery vacuity, they went down in 1993 to their most dramatic federal defeat since 1958. The man from Hope became the first re-elected Democrat president since FDR. Chrétien, grin- ning, whipped their asses three times.
It was what Cliff Scotton ”” the always droll aide to Tommy Douglas ”” called the triumph of the ”œToo lit- tle! Too late! Ain’t it awful!” school of political rhetoric on the left. And Canadian voters, like all normally optimistic human beings, said, in increasing numbers; ”œWell, uh, no I don’t think it is so awful, really…,” and voted Liberal.
Donald Sassoon, in his monumen- tal work, One Hundred Years of Socialism, concludes his sweep of left history with a gaze at the future. He observes that 1930s social democrats realized, albeit often too late, what appalling conse- quences would flow from a combina- tion of nationalism and right wing capitalism. He suggests that today the democratic left has the same obligation to see that globalization does not pro- duce a multinational fascism even more toxic than the European variety.
He points out, as did Michael Harrington, Tony Crossland and Olaf Palme 30 years earlier, that the next project of the democratic left is to give real meaning to ”œinternationalism” in this era. Marx, surveying his Manchester slum neighbours, recognized that a solution to their plight would have to be the political mission of a much broader coalition, of all industrialized workers. Today’s social justice champions can no longer focus on the socially excluded of Baltimore or Birmingham, but on the challenges of a growing, angry, third- world underclass.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the words of its Canadian drafter, John Humphreys, was intended as a fusion of ”œhumanitarian liberalism with social democracy” (Churchill, Stalin and even Roosevelt would have been horrified at the description). The United Nations’ ”œCovenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” adopted and ratified by most major countries with the exception of the United States and China, is even more explicitly a leftist proclamation.
It makes a good summary of a 21st century project for the democratic left:
[H]uman beings enjoying free- dom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights as well as his civil and political rights.
[It is] the right of [every per- son] to fair wages… a decent liv- ing…safe and healthy working conditions…and a reasonable limitation on working hours.
The widest possible protection and assistance should be accorded to the family. Special protection [shall be offered]… before and after childbirth, and working mothers should be accorded paid leave. Children should be protect- ed from exploitation.
The creation of conditions which would assure to every- one all medical service and medical attention…
Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all…secondary [and higher] education shall be made equal- ly…accessible to all”
(excerpts from Art. 1-13, Convenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, adopted 1966, entry into force 1976).
A world in which ”œeveryone may enjoy his economic, social and cultur- al rights” cannot be a traditional liber- al vision, as it necessarily implies taking the steps to require ”” not encourage ”” it to happen.
The international democratic left has revived itself, from previous years in the wilderness, from formerly pow- erful antagonists. The failures of the 30s set the stage for the red-baiting of the 50s. Progressive ideals endured. There is no reason to think that the bleak ideological and electoral land- scape which faces the NDP or the European left is permanent either.
So looking forward a quarter- century, we are sitting in the new pub- lic square of Weyburn, on a summer night in 2030. The buzz quiets and a leader speaks:
Twenty five years ago we said to Canadians ”œit’s time to rebuild our communities and our bonds of friendship and solidari- ty with each other and the world.” Who was it who forced the Liberals to deliver to our fam- ilies an accessible, affordable, workable health care system, and choice for our families and chil- dren about early care and educa- tion; who fought for an Earth guardian and a planetary pros- perity agenda that didn’t penalize the poor, and plugged the loop- holes of the polluter?
Who was it who made it clear to Canadians that eco- nomic efficiency and social justice were partners, not choices ”” that an egalitarian society was a prosperous socie- ty? We were the ones who taught that a community that shared its burdens fairly won more for all its people.
Remember a time when our complaints drowned out our dreams, when our enemies stole our confidence, our common her- itage and our commitment to never, ever, ever give up. When we welcomed voices of anger and hate to sit at our table. When we were surprised that those who believed that hope and happiness and helping out are impossible to live without drifted away to sit at others’ tables?
That was us, my friends.We will not go back to that place. And remember always, as Tommy used to say: ”œI shall not cease from mental strife, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, til we have built Jerusalem, in this green and pleasant land.”