Socialists, the NDP and Electoral Politics

Socialists, the NDP and Electoral Politics

Recent months have seen a flurry of debates on the left about the NDP and its leadership campaign—including on the pages of our webzine. In fact, many thoughtful and dedicated activists have committed themselves to supporting and building Niki Ashton’s campaign for leader of the federal party. There is much to be learned from these debates. But there is also a danger that we get so focussed on the ins and outs of the leadership contest that we fail to address larger issues concerning strategies for building the socialist left. This contribution is intended to highlight those issues.

We begin from the position that, because oppression and exploitation are inherent in capitalism, we support politics of revolutionary anti-capitalist transformation. As the New Socialists, we stand in the tradition of socialism from below. We maintain that a genuinely post-capitalist society can only come about through the self-emancipation of the oppressed. Only in this way can a new society of radical democracy and social cooperation be created.

For this reason, we fight for a transformative and participatory form of politics. Unlike the leaders and spokespersons of the NDP, we consider electoral and parliamentary politics to be inherently de-mobilizing, with the focus on personalities, elite manoeuvring, and the state—not the oppressed themselves—as the centre of political life. We understand social democratic parties like the NDP to be fully accepting of this form of politics, to be complicit in de-mobilization of struggles from below, and to be compromised by their devotion to the nation-state, with all its racial underpinnings.

At the same time, we recognize that most of the time in this society, people seeking real social change will gravitate to those institutionalized forms of “opposition” that have meaningful resources—such as NGOs, unions and social democratic parties like the NDP—rather than to the generally marginal forces of revolutionary socialism. And this means we must take seriously what is happening in these quarters and find ways of working with those who are drawn to these organizations.

This is not, as some on the radical left urge, because it is the duty of socialists to work in social democratic parties because “that’s where the workers are.” To insist upon this as an unchanging rule of socialist politics is completely non-historical. Yes, many anti-Stalinist socialists did work in parties like the NDP (or its forerunner, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation) during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. In a period of rising fascism or the isolating years of the Cold War, this might have made good sense. But for the last 50 years, mass struggles on the left have generally operated outside the ambit of these parties, at the same time as these parties have moved more or less persistently to the right. A compelling case can be made that the devotion of precious time and energy today to working within reformist parties actually undercuts the organizing efforts of the socialist left.

Nevertheless, we care about reformist politics principally because masses of people care about them. For this reason, and because of our commitment to mass political struggle, we consider it imperative to consistently work with left-leaning people involved in social reform struggles, even if we don’t subscribe to reformism and even if we don’t join their parties. As Rosa Luxemburg argued in Social Reform or Revolution (1900), for us the most important thing about reform struggles is not their specific objective (as important as those can be), but the ways in which they can develop the fighting spirit, self-organization and solidarity of oppressed people and in so doing can transform confidence and political understanding. Developments such as these are the soil out of which socialism from below politics draw nourishment and vitality.

But there is another crucial reason for taking seriously what is happening in reformist politics: in recent years, we have seen an upsurge of anti-neoliberal sentiments within this milieu. Notwithstanding real shortcomings, specific campaigns by social democratic parties, or by individual reformist candidates, have in some contexts become touchstones for mass sentiments for change. The Bernie Sanders campaign in the US and the Jeremy Corbyn campaign in Britain (including the last British election) are clear cases in point. In circumstances like these, socialists have an obligation to relate in a genuine and non-sectarian fashion to the thousands of activists involved in these campaigns, while also making clear our criticisms of the politics embodied by the parties with which they are associated (the Democrats in the US, after all, are a mainstream bourgeois party and Labour in Britain has a history of squelching militant struggle and operating as an agent of neoliberalism). So, while we celebrate the widespread opposition to neoliberalism expressed in and through these campaigns, we need also to insist on the longer-term importance of building genuinely anti-capitalist politics and organizations.

And this returns us to the question of the Niki Ashton campaign. For socialists today, the key questions ought to be these. First, is the Ashton campaign opening up new spaces for movement-building and political radicalization? In other words, are there new organized spaces in and around the Ashton campaign that have become sites for political mobilization and education? Secondly, does the Ashton campaign have a politically transformative dynamic to it such that it is both doing politics differently and drawing in thousands of people who have until now remained outside party politics? And, finally, is the campaign injecting elements of anti-capitalism into mass politics in creative and exciting ways, i.e. is it creating a much larger left pole within the wider political culture?

From the standpoint of these considerations, we will admit to sizeable scepticism about the decision by many good and serious activists to devote themselves to the Ashton campaign (Of course, given the marginality of the radical left we also appreciate why they might do so in hopes of pushing us out of the fringes of political life.) But fairly soon, the question of the NDP leadership contest will be behind us. At that point, we will be back to the unglamorous day-to-day work of activist organizing and political education. And the questions we have posed above will still be with us. In essence, they boil down to what we need to do to make the radical anti-capitalist left a more meaningful force in workplaces, communities and campuses. There will probably not be any shortcuts here. But there are ongoing struggles and campaigns to which we can contribute and from which we can learn—from the Fight for $15 and Fairness to the anti-racist and anti-fascist organizing that is springing up in one city after another. And as we meet one another in the streets, at the rallies and on the picket lines, we will need to re-dedicate ourselves to mass, militant and participatory social mobilization as the touchstone of anti-capitalist progress. The New Socialists intends to be there, and to continue encouraging the debates and discussions we need to strengthen our movements for revolutionary change.