For all the hands wrung and tears shed over its newly amended constitution, the NDP, since its formation in 1961, has always been a social democratic party like any other, and social democracy has been standing a respectful distance away from true socialism for nearly a century.
Once upon a time, Europe’s social democratic parties may have been the standard-bearers of Marxist orthodoxy, but following the infamous “schism” in the international socialist movement over World War I and the Russian Revolution, the parties lost their left wings to the newly founded communist parties. This division was cemented in 1919 when the German Social Democrats violently stamped out the short-lived revolutionary movements and administrations that had overtaken the country.
Over the decades that followed, social democrats — by their actions if not their words — abandoned all pretense of overthrowing the system and established themselves as modernizers and civilizers of market economies, as champions of the Keynesian, welfare-state consensus which took hold over Western Europe and North America following World War II and which, far from threatening the survival of capitalism, may well have saved it by making it more palatable to the masses. They favoured mixed economies, social safety nets, progressive taxation, government regulation, and nationalization of certain key industries, but rarely did they attempt inroads against the still overwhelmingly private ownership of the means of production or the role of markets in setting prices and distributing wealth.
Social democrats, as many commentators have stated, are merely liberals who “really mean it” (just as “democratic socialists are social democrats who really mean it,” Tony Wright has added).
As the postwar consensus unravelled in the 1970s and 1980s, social democracy continued its rightward drift. Social democratic parties were slower and more conflicted than their liberal and conservative counterparts about climbing aboard the neoliberal train, but they were largely unable or unwilling to resist the tide of history favouring privatization, deregulation, tax cuts, and reduced government spending.
Canada’s NDP has been no exception to this worldwide social democratic trajectory, especially with its current leader’s avowed skepticism over tax hikes and openness to free trade agreements. Now, the decision by the party to scrub its constitution of any reference to socialism — save for a token mention of “social democratic and democratic socialist traditions” — means only that its words have finally caught up with its actions.
Like other socialists, I consider this a depressing development, but not a particularly momentous or surprising one. It is the direction of the party’s long-term evolution that I find unfortunate, rather than the recent symbolic amendment which is only a symptom. True, I have never voted for the NDP or any other notionally socialist or socialish party at the federal or provincial level. For my own reasons, I have always chosen to prioritize my environmentalism over my socialism (although the two are not exactly as separable as this statement implies). But it nevertheless has been — or rather, would be — a comfort to know that there is some party in Parliament still willing to fight the good fight long after it has ceased to be fashionable.
Socialism is a notoriously pluralistic ideology, composed of adherents both scientific and utopian, revolutionary and evolutionary, authoritarian and democratic, statist and libertarian. (Many of them attack one another with a hatred and vehemence leftists seem only to display towards their own kind.) Certainly not every socialism necessarily represents an advance over every capitalism, but by exploring beyond the free market horizon, we are at least offered a chance to expand democracy from the political realm to the economic and to embrace a mode of production that does not require infinite, ecologically destructive growth for its very survival.
Capitalism means economic rule either by elites or by impersonal “laws.” Socialism, potentially, means economic rule by all who are impacted by the economy — workers, consumers, communities at large.
Canada’s New Democrats have survived their version of the UK Labour Party’s “Clause IV” fight, and they undoubtedly believe themselves to be more electable as a result. They may be right. But their slow, lumbering move to the centre also represents a surrender in the battle of ideas, leaving the country poorer in the process.
Who will take up the cause now?