While many radicals would rather not admit it, it’s difficult to talk about a specifically Canadian project of anti-capitalist renewal without considering the role that social democracy plays as either an obstacle to or a potential stepping stone for mass radicalization. As one of the most coherent manifestations of social democratic politics in this country, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has consistently betrayed both its own stated principles and the interests of its supporters: Ontario Premier Bob Rae tore up the collective agreements of public sector workers in order to implement neoliberal reforms, Jack Layton backed a right wing “law and order” agenda. Moreover, high-level social democrats in the union movement have repeatedly sold out working class and popular struggles. But despite these failings, the NDP has managed to maintain the tacit support of a wide range of activists. With a number of provincial elections in the offing, and with the possibility of a federal election around the corner, we decided to take the opportunity to address this paradox.
In the labour, feminist, anti-poverty, student, anti-war, and environmental movements, much of the established leadership and a significant portion of the membership continue to look to the NDP as the only reasonable option for making the changes they seek. This is not entirely unreasonable: in the Canadian context, many important victories for working class people – the right to organize, universal health insurance, unemployment insurance, and old age pensions – were won through a combination of mass mobilization and the legislative implementation of social democratic policies. Although the NDP has never held power federally, measures introduced at the provincial level have occasionally been taken up in one from or another by national, primarily Liberal, governments.
The reforms that we associate with social democracy largely took place during capitalism’s post-war boom. Since then, social democratic policies have been dramatically circumscribed, not just in Canada, but around the world. As an ideological and practical force, social democracy has veered sharply to the right and adopted the basic elements of “the Third Way” approach championed by former British Labour Party leader Tony Blair. This approach involves breaking direct links to working class organizations, rejecting classic social democratic principles, and accepting neoliberal norms in various spheres of social life.
Despite this turn to the right, social democracy remains an entrenched political force capable of subverting and co-opting radical initiatives. It positions itself as a force capable of making concrete gains toward social and economic justice. In Canada, the NDP has recently come out against the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) – even if primarily on nationalist grounds – and denounced the activities of police agents provocateurs at the Montebello protests. Officially, it advocates raising the minimum wage, taxing the banks and big corporations, reducing tuition fees, ending combat roles for Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, and implementing the Kyoto protocol. It positions itself as the guardian of “progressive” Canadian values. These policies make the party appealing to many people. For their part, anti-capitalist activists would find it easier to appreciate these positions if they weren’t coupled to a history of opportunism. For these activists, the NDP is guilty of a parliamentary realpolitik that prevents them from taking principled stands and building social struggles in resistance to neoliberalism.
Radicals have often found social democrats to be an obstacle to building effective, popular, and autonomous social movements. Whether arising from dealings with NDP party hacks, NGO executive directors, or bureaucrats in trade unions or student associations, these experiences have led many anti-capitalist activists away from engaging with organized expressions of social democracy. And while it is understandable, this approach will remain limiting as long as these organizations remain a force to be reckoned with on the Canadian political scene.
Given the prominence of NDP party hacks, NGO executive directors, and student and labour bureaucrats in mainstream social justice organizing, the question of how to intervene within or propose a coherent alternative to their hegemony needs to be addressed and openly debated. Our struggles, whether defensive or offensive, remain vulnerable unless they are consolidated at the level of social organization and political culture. This means that – despite the radical left’s dissatisfaction with the NDP and with social democratic tendencies in the labour, feminist, student, anti-racist, ecology, and anti-war movements – the seduction of social democracy and “lesser evil” electoralism will remain a problem until we can formulate serious alternatives. Although social democracy is organizationally and politically weaker than ever, it remains strong enough to undermine attempts by radicals to build the participatory and transformative alternatives we need.
In order to imagine these alternatives, it is first necessary to chart the decline of social democracy from radical origins to present–day capitulation. Subsequently, we consider and evaluate instances where radicals have tried to engage with the NDP. Finally, we explore the three primary ways contemporary radicals have proposed to deal with the NDP before offering our own thoughts on how to envision left renewal in Canada.
Originally, social democratic movements aimed at more than winning rights for workers and oppressed people. They fought to extend democratic principles to the economy and all spheres of social life. As the “political wing” of the European workers’ movements, social democracy emerged with the rise of industrial capitalism during the 19th Century. Its most powerful expressions came in the late 19th and early 20th Century: in Germany, the mass working class the Social Democratic Party (SPD) became an impressive political and cultural force and enjoyed an international influence.
In preparation for the “final moment of reckoning” when the proletariat would throw off its chains, early social democrats sought to do more than remedy the worst excesses of capitalism (although this was always an integral component of their agenda). Their organizing was geared toward helping to prepare workers and the oppressed for self-rule.
In this context, potentially transformative reforms were conceived as those that increased the collective power of the movement. Entitlement to basic needs, the right to organize and bargain collectively, access to health and unemployment insurance, and other reforms did more than address the immediate indignities of life under capitalism. They also offered protection from the whips of hunger, unemployment, and insecurity wielded by capital. They empowered the movement to push the fight further. After all, it’s easier to enter the ring every day on a full stomach.
Early social democrats thought these kinds of “non-reformist” reforms would eventually require challenging the capitalists’ prerogative to appropriate and allocate the social surplus. According to this perspective, reforms were not merely reformist. They were essential building blocks in the class struggle. They made it possible to envision a society of freely associated producers governed by Marx’s principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”
Or so the theory went. The history of social democratic movements in the 20th Century has shown a steady decline of this conception. As social democrats and their affiliated trade unions won political rights and recognition, a rift emerged between those who thought that socialist transformation could be accomplished by transforming existing political and economic structures through elections and parliamentary measures and those who remained committed to transforming existing relations through social revolution. Seeming to offer a parliamentary road to revolution without widespread bloodshed, the “revisionist” current gained the upper hand. With the socialist parties of the Second International extending support to “their” states during the First World War and the defeat of the wave of struggle inspired by the Bolshevik revolution (often at the hands of reformists), the rift became a gaping chasm.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the divisions between increasingly reformist social democrats and increasingly doctrinaire communists deepened. Each group advanced theories about how the other was just as bad as the fascists. And while communists and social democrats busied themselves with repudiations, they left open a gap through which actual fascism could pass on its rise to power.
Ironically, once fascism had taken power, The Stalinized Third (Communist) International changed tack: under the cover of “anti-fascism,” Communist parties around the world adopted the short-term aims and methods of their erstwhile social democratic enemies. This zigzag culminated with Communist Parties supporting “their own” purportedly progressive bourgeois rulers in countries like Canada. In post-war Europe, the social democratic politics of parliamentary reform were eventually adopted by Socialist and even putatively Communist parties.
Originally committed to the radical transformation of capitalism, by the 1930s social democracy regularly found itself on the wrong side of social crises. During moments of potentially revolutionary confrontation, dominant forces within social democracy have been willing to sell out or crush those seeking systemic change. At its worst, social democracy has fostered chauvinism and nationalist class alliances – a dynamic exposed in various colonial projects and during the World Wars. In recent years, social democrats have abandoned all semblance of an independent working class perspective by promoting neo-corporatist strategies of “national competitiveness.”
In Canada, the history of social democracy is quite distinct. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and CCF- NDP arose from the merger of agrarian radicals, labour-based socialists, and middle class reformers – including radical Protestant social gospel currents. But despite its broad origins, Canadian social democracy never attained the kind of political hegemony within the working class at the national level that was achieved in Europe. In contrast to the European experience, social democracy in Canada was premised almost from the very beginning on anti- communism.
Despite adopting the Regina Manifesto – which called for “a planned and socialized economy in which our natural resources and principal means of production and distribution are owned and controlled by the people” – the CCF collaborated with capital in the suppression of the revolutionary left from the 1930s to the 1950s. CCF elements in the trade unions collaborated with the bosses in purging radical elements from leadership positions. Radicals who won nominations and even seats in parliament were purged from the CCF. The aftermath of the 1930s Depression and World War II saw both the highpoint of social democratic influence in Canada and its final capitulation in the struggle to transform capitalism.
The leading role played by communists in the Depression-era movements of the unemployed, the war-era unionization drives, and the anti-fascist resistance, yielded a situation where mass support for the socialist vision of a better world posed a challenge to the capitalist order. Into this breach stepped social democratic and trade union leaderships that presented themselves as “responsible” representatives committed to fighting for both the “legitimate” grievances of the popular masses and the repression of “dangerous” tendencies in the working class movement.
This negotiated class compromise integrated sections of the working class into forms of “social citizenship” through minimal guarantees against destitution. Many others, including the vast majority of indigenous and racialized people, remained excluded. Social citizenship and the benefits brokered through the class compromise relied on a patriarchal notion that assumed (and enforced) a conception of the family in which the working man was the head of the household and the legitimate income-earner. Women’s work – both waged and unwaged inside and outside the home – was not rewarded with many of the securities and benefits extended to men. In this way, post-war social democracy became a highly masculinist enterprise.
Within the union movement, this vision of social democracy emancipated “reliable” leaderships from the scrutiny and control of the rank and file with whom they no longer had regular contact. By foregrounding a legalistic conception of the contract, social democracy gave self-reproducing trade union bureaucracies the task of policing their own members. In this context, unsanctioned rank and file activity that could not be turned on and off according to the exigencies of elite negotiation and political expediency came to be seen as a threat. It was therefore discouraged or repressed accordingly.
Despite – or because of – its limited gains, post-war social democracy gave up its commitment to social liberation even more fully than had the parties of the Second International. It contented itself with winning “a place at the table” and effecting reforms within the parameters of capitalist society. These reforms were no longer viewed as springboards to social emancipation but rather as compensation for the daily violence of capitalism to be doled out by a benevolent social-engineering state.
The upshot was that significant sections of the Canadian working class (or at least their children) could hope to enjoy relatively secure employment, home ownership, class mobility through expanded educational opportunities, and the niceties of middle class culture that could be had by way of consumption. In Canada, and in other Anglo-American countries where it remained weakest, the welfare state became the architecture of “legitimate” inequality. It attended to some of the risks of wage dependence even as it reinforced and deepened the wage system itself. Far-sighted capitalists, who feared another Depression and believed that “demand management” could flatten business cycles and sustain high profits, had their own reasons for supporting working class consumption.
Integration of sections of the working class into the production- consumption nexus was made all the more plausible by the global inequalities that arose as Euro-American societies became privileged sites of industrial development while much of the world became locked into patterns of unequal exchange and (neo)colonial exploitation. At the beginning of the 20th Century, these dynamics led Lenin to blame the opportunism of social democracy and the mainstream labour movement on their incorporation into a “labour aristocracy.” By this, he meant that the super-profits appropriated by capitalists in the dominant states – achieved in part through the exploitation of colonies and the domination of world trade – allowed them to “buy off” a layer of the working class movement.
As real as the super-exploitation of colonial labor and the theft of natural resources were, super-profits were also made possible by the fact that, due to the advantages of early adoption of industrial technology, European capitalists were able to sell goods cheaply. Technological innovation enabled industrial workers to produce at a greater output per hour than pre-industrial workshops could manage. By leveraging their increased power at the point of production, key sectors of the Western working class were ablethrough bitter struggle to win higher wages. And, since industrial production meant that the rate of exploitation in the West had actually increased, capitalists were able to afford these wages. The ensuing compromise increased the stability of the capitalist system and encouraged the reformist orientation of the early social democratic movement. Meanwhile, the psychological wages of nationalism included First World workers as citizens in an “aristocracy of nations” that clearly played – and continues to play – a role in maintaining dynamics of racism and global inequality.
Because post-war social democracy in Canada had hitched its wagon to the Keynesian managerial strategies of the post-war boom, the end of the boom in the early 1970s represented a real crisis. This crisis arose in large part because of the global wave of radical movements and anti-imperialist struggles that gained momentum during this period. The US was defeated militarily in Vietnam. Popular demands for social spending and higher wages were on the rise. Throughout the world, extra-parliamentary movements and working class insurgencies raised challenges to capital and entrenched social democratic leaderships alike.
In the context of the sharp rise in global inter-capitalist competition and the oil crisis of 1973, these mobilizations precipitated a new era of conflict. Vulnerable on the fronts of both legitimacy and profitability, the ruling class responded with an audacious counter-offensive. And, since they had traded the principles of transformative reformism for a growing share of a growing pie, social democrats were incapable of mobilizing a coherent response. They sat bewildered as the ruling class unilaterally tore up the post-war “accord” and embarked on the one-sided class war we call neoliberalism.
The shifting management priorities of the capitalist state were made evident by a macroeconomic U-turn: instead of valorizing the worker-consumer through “full” employment, public spending, and a wages-productivity-profit trade-off, neoliberal economic policy aimed at reinstating the value (and social power) of money. For state managers schooled in bureaucratic Keynesianism, wage and price controls were the tools first turned to in efforts to combat inflation. When opposition from both unions and employers made this strategy unworkable, state managers settled on a return to liberal orthodoxy – government budget “restraint” and induced unemployment – to discipline working class and popular demands.
New management strategies in production and employment helped to break the power of unions and increase the insecurity of workers. A New Right market populism capitalized on this insecurity and mobilized resentment against “special interest groups” in order to stalemate and roll back gains made by women, people of colour, unions, and the poor. The “globalization” of production furthered efforts to increase profits and discipline labour. Opportunities to produce more cheaply around the world undermined the expectations of workers in the West. At the same time, they helped to lower wage costs and dampen inflation by enabling the import of cheap consumer goods produced in Asia and Latin America. The shifts in manufacturing and the development of truly global production processes generalized the labour conditions that guaranteed European dominance during the 20th century – since the 1970s, the industrial proletariat has doubled in size and is now located primarily in the “global South.”
The crisis of the 1970s signaled the limits of the post-war social democratic project in the First World. After the post-World War II boom came to an end, the Keynesian project of the social democrats was no longer compatible with profit-making. The very reforms underwritten by capitalist growth came to be seen as obstacles to capital accumulation. As such, they were abandoned. Maintaining those reforms would have required fundamental challenges to capitalist control and would only have been possible through mass anti-capitalist mobilization.
Instead, we’ve witnessed the neoliberalization of social democracy itself. Social democrats have retreated from even modest commitments to reforming the capitalist system. They have attempted to gain “credibility” in the eyes of capital by promoting “restructuring” and contributing to the erosion of the modest gains social democrats once claimed as their own. Although Tony Blair’s “New Labour” was the most dramatic example of this process, it gained purchase throughout the world. More than ever, social democracy has come to resemble a “left” expression of the dominant political class.
In times of crisis, the NDP can be counted on to sustain a somewhat milder version of capital’s basic project. NDP governments have been able to implement pro-capitalist “reforms” that under other party governments would have lead to mass mobilization. In this sense, social democracy has earned a place in the constellation of “reliable” bourgeois parties. Should the masses ever get out of hand and reject Liberal/Conservative electoral hegemony, the NDP remains capital’s ace in the hole.
In the years before the neoliberal shift became fully evident, the Canadian New Left engaged in efforts to transform the social democratic heritage and address the contradictions of the soft post-war social order. More recently, modest efforts have been made to reorient social democracy by attempting to infuse it with the spirit of the newest social movements. Like earlier attempts, these efforts have so far failed to transform the mainstream institutions of the social democratic left or establish viable alternatives.
Emerging within the NDP during the late 1960s, the Waffle faction has to date been the only significant effort during the post-war era to transform Canadian social democracy from below. The Waffle brought the spirit of 1960s revolt into the NDP and contested the leadership of the party on a platform calling for an “Independent and Socialist Canada.” It contained an eclectic amalgam of left-nationalists, revolutionary socialists, and a wide layer of “independent” radicals linked to extra-parliamentary social movement activities.
The defeat of the Waffle leadership challenge in 1971 was followed by repression from the party and labour mainstream. NDP heavyweight and trade union leader David Lewis – a man who had cut his teeth purging communists and radicals from the Canadian labour movement in the post-war period – led the early charge. His son, Stephen (best known today as the former AIDS Ambassador at the United Nations) carried on the tradition by expelling the Waffle faction and shutting down the entire NDP youth wing in Ontario. In the Western provinces, where the faction was arguably strongest, Waffle radicals left the party of their own accord.
While Waffle militants engaged in strike support and built links with young rank and file workers, the defeat of the Waffle was tied in part to its distance from a labour movement that had purged radicals after the war and was dominated by conservative “bread and butter” unions. The important changes in the labour movement associated with the massive entry of women into the wage labour force, the unionization of public sector workers, and the Canadian policy shift toward targeted immigration from non-European countries were only beginning to be felt. And though the radicals that left the NDP played an important role in giving these developments a radical edge, these developments came too late to affect the outcome of the Waffle’s struggle within the NDP.
The Waffle’s expulsion raised the question of building new political organizations. There was an impressive, if brief, flowering of Trotskyist and Maoist groups and a variety of autonomous social movements. But despite their initial momentum, Waffle-era activists failed to make much headway in this direction. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the important role that these activists played throughout the 1980s – notably in the feminist, peace, and anti-NAFTA movements. However, with the intensification of the neoliberal offensive and the capitulation of the NDP, their battles took on rearguard and defensive postures.
In the aftermath of our most recent cycle of struggle, the question of how to relate to social democracy needs to be posed once again. The idea that the NDP could become a responsive “parliamentary wing” of new movements – an idea promulgated by party brass and oppositional figures in the labour and NGO bureaucracies – has proven to be a mirage. In retrospect, 2001’s New Politics Initiative (NPI) – a scheme that sought to connect the NDP with the new post-Seattle movements – now appears to have been an elitist and top-down “bait-and-switch” operation. Despite the good intentions of many of its participants, the NPI is best understood as an attempt by “loyal opposition” elements in the party to capture sections of the anti-globalization movement for NDP electoralism and strengthen their hand against the “Third Way” drift of party brass. Witness the ease with which the NPI was rolled into Jack Layton’s leadership campaign. And while Layton’s election has been meekly claimed as a victory for the left, this has not prevented him from continuing the NDP’s rightward course toward pro-capitalist liberal reformism.
Abstention, Intervention, and Regroupment
What can we learn from this history and from the state of affairs in which we now find ourselves? Although we don’t feel that it’s our task to propose a specific answer in these few pages, we do think it’s important for radicals to think through and openly debate the question. This is especially important given that future radicalizations, like those of the past, will inevitably force us to confront the question of how to relate to social democracy in concrete terms. Currently, there are three relatively clear positions on the left that propose a way forward.
First, there is the position likely to be most familiar to many of our readers: abstention. For many anti-capitalist activists, there is little reason to engage with mainstream social democratic politics since the best that can be expected is co-optation or betrayal. From this perspective, movements are best served when they guard their independence from social democratic formations – even if common cause can be made around this or that struggle. The general sentiment behind this position is understandable. It can be substantiated with countless instances of radicals having their worst fears confirmed. Nevertheless, this perspective does not address how to deal with the fact that social democratic politics and organizations still enjoy a considerable resonance among a sizeable base that could be drawn into potentially more radical forms of action.
In some cases, radicals have abstained not only from intervening in social democratic organizations but also from areas where social democrats are hegemonic. By eschewing any contact with the NDP, the Council of Canadians, or the mainstream labour movement, some activists’ “anti-capitalism” becomes an abstract position devoid of a strategy to actually build a mass base or challenge capitalist rule. At their worst, abstentionist positions can become a recipe for sub-cultural irrelevance. Because the easiest way for radicals to maintain autonomy is to be free of responsibility to a social base, puritanical abstentionism can sometimes resemble the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand.
Anti-capitalists, whether involved in mainstream labour unions, tenants’ rights organizations, or doing immigrant and refugee support work, face a very different political context. Those activists operate in situations in which social democrats are well-established and have often shaped the terrain. It’s no coincidence that it’s among anti-poverty and immigrant and refugee defense activists in large Canadian cities that we see the combination of abstentionism with aggressive intervention against racism and class oppression. By working on social issues where social democrats have maintained hegemony but delivered little, these activists are well-placed to develop a radical anti-capitalist perspective in opposition to hollow social democratic promises.
Nevertheless, this perspective remains largely unarticulated beyond a politics of refusal and resistance. It remains to be seen what form a coherent anti-capitalist analysis of Canadian realities will take and to what degree such analysis will become rooted in broader struggles. A challenge for any such analysis will be the question of strategic reforms and how victories might be consolidated to strengthen our capacity to continue fighting and connect gains made by particular movements to a larger and more ambitious political project.
Beside the abstentionists, there are those who see intervention in the mainstream institutions of social democracy as an absolute imperative. This position has been especially prominent among organizations coming out of the tradition of orthodox Trotskyism. The interventionists argue that – to the extent that it remains a mass labour-based party (the only one in North America) – any effort to rebuild the left will fail unless it intervenes in the NDP. Consequently, revolutionaries must connect with, radicalize, and ultimately draw rank and file members away from the leadership, which is thought to be considerably to the right of its base.
In order to break substantial sections of the base away from the leadership, it is necessary to engage in common struggles and debates with NDP members, up to and including raising principled opposition within the party. Despite the resolute pragmatism of this perspective, the interventionists’ argument that this work must be carried out from within the NDP – because “that’s where the class is” – bears sad testimony to the fact that, in a collective sense, the radical left enjoys few organic connections to the working class and to oppressed communities. And though it still contains a significant number of politically active union members, the working class and the oppressed are no longer to be found in mass numbers within the NDP.
The small group Socialist Action established the NDP Socialist Caucus in 1998 and remains the predominant presence within it. It is the only socialist group in recent memory to have openly and consistently maintained a permanent presence inside the party. To date, its results have been limited. The Socialist Caucus has yet to build any considerable base within the NDP. Despite this impasse, it has put forward socialist candidates for NDP leadership – the first time scoring a respectable 15% of the vote before polling a mere 1.1% in a second run against Jack Layton. The principle problem with the Caucus is that, by calling for activists to do organizational work to build the NDP, they risk reinforcing illusions about parliamentary politics and detracting from the development of other political capacities on the left.
Despite this shortcoming, the interventionist perspective gains some credibility when one examines the regional and centre-periphery dynamics of Canadian left politics. The largest Canadian cities are each able to sustain a diverse ecosystem of left organizations and political movements. Although they remain small, numerous anti-capitalist organizations operate in each city. Mid-size cities are able to maintain a much smaller range of anti-capitalist organizations. In even smaller cities and towns, there are often no functioning anti-capitalist groups. In those contexts, leftists (especially those operating outside of the student milieu) find themselves drawn toward the only local “left” group with any infrastructure and capabilities – usually the NDP. For activists in major cities, it is important to recognize how, for those in small towns, working with or within the NDP can be a logical step when trying to avoid political isolation. We should not presume that these activists have failed to recognize that the social democratic imaginary constrains struggles in important ways.
This kind of engagement is likely to remain attractive to many people until radical movements break out of their current geographical confines. The lack of (non-indigenous) radical alternatives outside of large urban centres is exacerbated by the understandable decision that many young activists from small towns make to move to the closest big city with a radical scene as soon as they can. Radicals who have followed the same process in reverse and “gone back to land” while maintaining their political sympathies have often found it difficult to maintain their activism. Both decisions highlight the difficulty – but also the necessity – of challenging social democratic hegemony over progressive politics in these places.
The difficulty of the interventionist perspective is further highlighted when NGOs enter into direct negotiation with the government for funding in order to provide social services and programs. Many social movements in Canada have sought institutional status in order to engage in such negotiations more effectively. However, as they have maneuvered for government funding their power to mobilize has been limited by accommodation to a social democratic framework. While government support and funding can be vital to community health, social movements with radical roots have all too often jettisoned their commitments to social change in the process of becoming bureaucratized.
This dynamic was evident in BC when the provincial student movement subordinated itself to the NDP in the mid-1990s. While the entire country mobilized against tuition fees in 1995, BC student leaders placed their hopes in a much-needed tuition freeze promised by the soon-to-be-elected provincial NDP government. Once the NDP was in power, CFS-BC was not only unwilling to criticize them, but also refused to enter into coalitions with social movements organizing against the NDP’s regressive changes to welfare benefits and their introduction of the anti-poor Safe Streets Act. Because the CFS had undermined mobilizing capacities, the BC student movement was unable to resist the subsequent Liberal government’s rescindment of the tuition freeze.
In opposition to the interventionists (and in contrast to the abstraction of the abstentionists), a growing number of radicals have begun arguing that the main task is to regroup in new political formations to the left of the NDP. While some small socialist and anarchist groups might proclaim that they already constitute such alternatives, we think that this perspective must involve something other than linear growth along any established course. This “regroupment” perspective was the rationale behind Rebuilding the Left and the Structured Movement Against Capitalism (RTL/ SMAC) initiatives in 2000. Groups oriented toward these projects have tended to suggest that intervention in the NDP is largely fruitless; not only has the NDP shown itself to be beyond hope of being transformed, but the organic connection between the party and its traditional base has been so weakened that there are now possibilities of building mass radical political formations outside of the party.
So far, fractures between the unions and the NDP have only taken the form of opportunistic moves to the right, as demonstrated by Canadian Auto Workers’ President Buzz Hargrove’s embrace of former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin during the last federal election. Recently, elements of the CAW leadership have moved beyond “strategic” voting by openly endorsing the governing Liberal Party in its Ontario re-election bid.
The reformist forms of class and trade union consciousness fostered during the post-war ascendancy of social democracy are in profound crisis. The NDP’s current orientation toward the Kyoto Protocol and eco-capitalism as the endgames of ecology, and to “progressive” urban planning as the frontier of the social question, suggest a very different kind of class project from the one upon which social democracy was founded. The NDP has become increasingly indistinguishable from the left wing of the Liberal Party. Whether this represents any kind of “last straw” remains to be seen. The regroupment perspective has the merit of not over-estimating the strength of social democracy’s bureaucratic leadership or underestimating the appetite for radical political alternatives at the base. However, both the failure of the Rebuilding the Left initiative to gain much traction and its ultimate demise suggest that processes of regroupment may require new conditions for success.
These conditions may not be far afield. Canadian class and political relations are in transition. Traditional forms of political representation, identity, and imagination are in crisis. The face of the labour movement has been transformed in important ways. For the first time, women workers make up more than half of all trade union members. That this has as much to do with the decline of unionization in traditional industries as with organizing breakthroughs in service sectors dominated by women, racialized and immigrant workers, and young workers, shouldn’t distract us from the important challenges and opportunities that these trends highlight. The potential for labour movement renewal prompted by the radicalization of “new” working classes should not be underestimated.
Before being sold out by social democratic union bureaucrats, the 2004 strike by Hospital Employees Union (HEU) workers in opposition to the restructuring of the healthcare system in British Columbia provided a glimpse of this potential. As a union primarily composed of women of colour (many of whom are immigrants and refugees), the Liberal government’s privatization scheme threatened the job security and wages of an already marginalized work force. However, the mobilization did more than address the right to negotiate and unionize; it addressed the racism and sexism of underpaid work, primarily done by women of colour in the health sector. After the Liberals pushed ahead with their restructuring plans, other unions and social movements were quick to declare their support and solidarity with HEU workers. The buzz in the air was for a “General Strike” to force the government to back down. Although the leadership distanced itself from the upsurge in union radicalism and eventually sold out the struggle, that year’s May Day march was led by thousands of militant HEU workers.
The HEU experience suggests that, in order to be effective, union strategies have to move beyond top-down forms of “social movement unionism” and seriously embrace cooperative efforts to organize with workers struggling under the new conditions of employment. They will also have to involve overcoming the labour movement’s traditionally dismissive or charitable approach to unemployed, under-employed, and poverty-stricken sections of the working class. Most importantly, union activists must develop coherent autonomous bases and links across unions so that they can avoid being “sold out” by conciliatory bureaucrats. Although workplace struggles must remain central to anti-capitalist initiatives, the renewal of a radical politics must also involve efforts to mobilize beyond the workplace. People are not simply defined and motivated by their place in the system of capitalist production, but also by their social positions as women, immigrants, youth, regional and municipal residents, etc. A “for-itself” conception of our many struggles will enable us to build a base and organizational cohesion amongst broader layers of affected people.
Which is to say: our efforts must be connected to new forms of political organizing that can overcome the inherently limited perspectives, particularisms, and pessimisms fostered by local experiences of sector and locale. Genuinely political organizing, where antagonisms can be sharpened and clarified, enables us to make links between different centres of radicalization and activism, including struggles over welfare, housing, and minimum wages, anti-war and international solidarity work, immigrant and refugee defense, indigenous solidarity and anti-racism, and attempts to rebuild a grassroots feminist movement.
We need spaces that can foster open political discussion and debate; we need to find the means to overcome sectarianism and clique politics. Finally, we need spaces where new forms of radical theory and practice can emerge alongside and in dialogue with one another. However difficult and taxing this project may seem, political defensiveness has run its course. We can no longer afford to be pragmatic. The degeneration of traditional social democracy confirms that being genuinely realistic means demanding the impossible.