Roll back the clock 100 years, to a Sunday evening in January 1919.
We’re in the Rex Theatre, a grand 1,000-seat venue at 25 West Hastings St., where a capacity crowd waits to hear J.S. Woodsworth. The topic, according to the socialist British Columbia Federationist newspaper, was “What do we want? Complete overthrow of the system of production.”
Months later, Woodsworth was in Winnipeg, supporting the six-week general strike. And 14 years later he became a founding member and first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor to the NDP.
Woodsworth wasn’t especially radical compared to other CCF factions, particularly from British Columbia. But the new party was the product of strong socialist organizers and a radical labour movement that had been gathering steam since the late 19th century.
The CCF founding meeting saw many of its radical elements marginalized as the party’s founding document — the 1933 Regina Manifesto — focused on reform.
But the influence of the early radicals is evident in its final clause: “No CCF government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning.”
Yet when federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh launched the party’s election platform last month, he ignored this part of CCF-NDP history. Instead, Singh invoked the name of Tommy Douglas, who as Saskatchewan premier introduced North America’s first universal health care program. Singh said “being Canadian” means free “doctor visits” and “hospital care.”
That’s the standard version of Canadian political history, especially seen through the NDP establishment lens — a story of enlightened liberals who periodically deign to legislate health care or Employment Insurance, prompted by New Democrats.
But is that the history of the CCF-NDP? At the very least, it’s a highly selective version, one that highlights the achievements of social democrats at the expense of elements that yearned for a world outside the liberal order.
And Singh’s preference for a defanged history of Canada’s welfare state illustrates his approach to politics.
Singh upholds a very particular legacy: the tradition of NDP moderates allergic to anything deemed too controversially left wing. He’s a direct political descendent of the faction that suppressed left agendas such as the 1969 Waffle Manifesto or the New Politics Initiative in the early 2000s, and removed the “s-word” — socialism — from the party constitution in 2013.
The party’s desperate desire to be seen as moderate is reflected in the shortcomings of the NDP’s New Deal for Climate Action and Good Jobs. The plan presents a timid challenge to free-market orthodoxy (if it’s really a challenge at all), and how different the NDP’s climate plan is from the Liberals’ vision remains unclear.
The NDP New Deal is full of neoliberal concerns like competitiveness, business or consumer incentives and proposes a climate bank that sounds suspiciously similar to the Liberals’ Infrastructure Bank. The plan also omits Singh’s earlier calls to ban fracking and the burning of fossil fuels.
To be clear, the NDP’s New Deal is an important contribution to political discourse. But it’s neither revolutionary nor radically different from the approach taken by a string of leaders, including Tom Mulcair.
The party’s approach remains basically unchanged: hope a new leader can recreate a personality cult, like Jack Layton did, while calculating the most inoffensive concoction of progressive policies possible. (That policy mix does include a bit more government intervention these days.)
Today, figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have reinvigorated electoral politics with a dose of socialism, and they’ve shifted discourse leftwards globally. There’s ample precedent for a similar anti-capitalist left in the Canadian House of Commons.
But the New Democrats instead cling to a “Third Way” consensus-oriented politics, the same ideology that lubricated the left’s descent into decrepitude. No surprise that the NDP continues to poll poorly.
So perhaps it’s time to return to a different legacy within the Canadian left and the party. This isn’t the unfinished work of enlightened technocrats such as Tommy Douglas, but the unfinished dreams of the CCF’s marginalized radicals, whose whispers are evident in the Regina Manifesto’s final clause.
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