The Impossible Dream

The Impossible Dream

With the removal of Thomas Mulcair and a leadership race soon to come, there is renewed energy around Canada’s New Democratic Party. Adding to the excitement, the party delegates voted over the weekend — against the protests of members from Alberta, home of the tar sands — to debate the “Leap Manifesto,” a document with a number of high-profile supporters, including Naomi Klein.

Issued in 2015, the Leap Manifesto was written with contributions from environmental, indigenous, faith-based, and labor activists. It calls for public resources to effect a “just transition” to an environmentally sustainable economy, greater respect for indigenous self-determination, good-paying green jobs, and better public services.

Among its most controversial features within the NDP (and beyond) is its call for a moratorium on pipeline construction and its claim that Canada could be, with proper public investment, completely carbon-free by 2050.

Mulcair’s defeat in the leadership review is certainly something to be celebrated, and the motion to study the Leap Manifesto is a positive step.

Rot Deeper than Mulcair

But it is also unlikely that this represents the beginning of a new NDP. The problems with the party go much deeper than Mulcair, and pose serious questions for activists who may now be contemplating trying to build a more progressive project through it, whether through the Leap Manifesto or otherwise.

Indeed, opposition to Mulcair came not only from the party’s left, but from its right, which was angry that he didn’t sufficiently criticize the Leap Manifesto.

A center-right politician with a track record of publicly praising Margaret Thatcher, Mulcair was trounced in the Canadian federal election last fall by an electorate clearly searching for something outside the now three-decades old neoliberal orthodoxy. Mulcair embraced that orthodoxy wholeheartedly, just as the NDP had long before he came onto the federal political scene.

In fact, the NDP’s shift from its social-democratic roots to supporting laissez-faire capitalism, balanced budgets, free trade agreements, and NATO was presumably central to his decision to join the party in the first place.

It’s worth remembering that, despite the hagiography of him after his death, the leader most heralded as sympathetic to the Left in recent memory, Jack Layton, did more to move the party to the center than any previous leader.

And it was Layton who, with the support of the inner circles of the party leadership, recruited Mulcair to run for the NDP. At the time, Mulcair was the environment minister in the center-right Liberal Party cabinet in Québec, which was led by Premier Jean Charest (himself a former federal Conservative cabinet minister).

Thus, if we’re going to be honest, Mulcair was low-hanging fruit. The principal public face of the party, he was easy to dislike for his conservative views, his apparently hyper-controlling ways, and his extremely wooden demeanor (“he was a good parliamentarian” is really the most anyone can muster in his defense).

But despite the excitement the convention’s outcome has generated among Canadian progressives — many of whom seem to think there’s now meaningful space in the party for more progressive, perhaps even radical, transformation — the rot is much deeper than Mulcair.

It is decades in the making, the product of the party’s history and structure more than that of individual personalities. So before embracing the NDP as a serious left force, Canadians committed to an emancipatory political project need to take a critical look at the party.

The challenges before progressives are enormous. We are all familiar with the grave effects of climate change; worsening inequality; the state’s war on people of color and indigenous peoples; and the inability of either monetarism or Keynesianism to solve global capitalism’s worst crisis since the Great Depression.

On all of these counts, the NDP is woefully outmatched. We need a project that is bold, militant, and creative; the NDP is tepid, scared of meaningful change, and reluctant to think beyond established political-economic strategy. We need hope; the NDP offers pessimism.

Casualties: militancy and bold vision

This isn’t a new problem — the NDP has sought to inoculate itself from movement influence since its founding.

The NDP was formed in 1961 out of a merger between the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) — which had moved rightward through the Cold War — and the Canadian Labour Congress. Affiliated unions, whose leaders had grown more conservative and structures more bureaucratic in the postwar years of labor-capital compromise, gained more formal influence over the new party’s decision-making structures.

The NDP’s political outlook reflected this rightward drift: whereas the CCF’s 1933 founding document, “The Regina Manifesto,” called for the replacement of the “capitalist system … by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated” and for “social ownership” of industry, the NDP — while not completely jettisoning “socialism” — accepted the existence of capitalism and private enterprise, instead calling for its regulation.

That some well-intentioned activists are drawn to the NDP, or that the official labor leadership plays a central role in the party, doesn’t make the NDP a party of movements.

Organized labour’s role in the party doesn’t represent a structural space for grassroots democracy or incorporate bottom-up militancy. As we saw with the attempt to build support for Mulcair from some of the leaders of the largest unions (Unifor, CUPE, and the Steelworkers, for example), it often forecloses more radical alternatives.

Mulcair’s ouster doesn’t change that one bit. If history is any guide, the grassroots movement activists who do go into the NDP will meet one of two fates: isolation in a bureaucratized, undemocratic party without any organic link to movements, or sucked into a party machinery singularly focused on election organizing. In both instances, their militancy and bold vision are the casualties.

From its inception, the NDP has been plagued by an undemocratic, anti-activist, bureaucratic leadership culture that leaves little to no space for ongoing debate and political development of its membership. The pervasive anti-activist ethos treats defiance from below with disdain and as anathema to what the party ostensibly stands for (a safe, tightly controlled social democracy wary of upsetting the status quo).

This helps explain the failure of past projects to reshape the NDP, like the Waffle (a New Left effort) and New Politics Initiative (which occurred during the global justice movement). And it is why the Leap Manifesto, and the politics inspiring it, will again fail to meaningfully change the NDP, whether the party leadership, under pressure from the base, concedes to it or not.

Any comparison to the British Labour Party and rise of the Jeremy Corbyn, moreover, is badly misplaced: whatever its warts, the Labour Party is far more democratic than the NDP. A Jeremy Corbyn–like figure in the NDP would get shut down by the Party’s leadership and kicked out of caucus for voting against the party line — long before the upstart had an opportunity to become a genuine threat.

The NDP doesn’t treat independent-thinking members of parliament favorably: step out of line and you get slapped down. Witness the party bigwigs’ removal of MP Svend Robinson from a shadow cabinet position for declaring solidarity with the Palestinians in the 2000s. Or the leadership’s muzzling of the MPs who expressed support for the 2012 Maple Spring student general strike in Québec.

Those at the top of the NDP treat elections as an end in themselves rather than a means — among other much more important means — to win a broader transformative project.

Of course, strictly electoralist strategies don’t work. Left policies and movements — for example, the welfare state and other interventionist economic and social policies, the feminist revolution, the gay rights movement, and antiwar movements — haven’t been rooted in elections, even if their demands have been taken up in important ways in the electoral sphere, but in serious and sustained (and typically confrontational) mass-movement building.

An electoralist institution, the NDP treats people as static, opting to move to where it thinks public opinion is at rather than to stake out principled ground and do the hard but necessary work to win people to this ground.

Towards a new political project

This is a recipe for defeatism, and an incredibly cynical understanding of consciousness (people are who they are and can’t be changed). Transformative projects build, deepen, and transform consciousness through struggle — precisely what the NDP was created to avoid.

Asking the NDP to root itself and its electoral approach in an emancipatory politics is asking it to forsake its DNA. It would require not just adopting a new policy like the Leap Manifesto, or getting more activists to join, but transforming it so dramatically that the party would be unrecognizable — and to do so in the face of an entrenched leadership that has successfully repelled previous challenges.

To those who will respond that building something new is hard, or that perhaps it’s a pipe dream: absolutely, it will be hard; but ultimately not harder — and no less of a pipe dream — than reshaping the NDP. And I’d rather participate in building a truly inspiring politics than resign myself to yet another attempt to transform the untransformable.

A new political project will be built on the shoulders of those movements we see growing around us — against climate change, racism, war, and inequality — and those yet to come. It will develop organic links to these movements, while constructing a political culture that fosters debate, democracy, militancy, and creativity. And it will subordinate electoral politics to movement building.

Some activists aspire to create those very things in the NDP, capitalizing on Mulcair’s defeat and the (very partial) success of the Leap Manifesto. I’m afraid those efforts will, ultimately, come to naught. But my hope is that even as they enter the party they won’t get lost in it — and that, remaining rooted in movements and carrying forward a transformative vision, they’ll be alert to the necessity of building something new.

Todd Gordon is a member of New Socialists and the author of Imperialist Canada and, with Jeff Webber, Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America. This article originally appeared in Jacobin.