Where is the Left?

By David Camfield

In a June 13th Toronto Star article entitled “The Silence of the Left” columnist Thomas Walkom asks “Whatever happened to the left?” He goes on to point out that “Capitalism is facing its worst crisis in 70 years, yet the political movement that prides itself on its critique of the economic status quo is, to all intents and purposes, missing in action. Or perhaps missing in inaction.”

Walkom points to the fall in support for social democratic parties like Labour in the UK and the Socialist Party in France in the recent elections to the parliament of the European Union. He acknowledges that in Canada the NDP has just been elected in Nova Scotia for the first time, but correctly points out that “with his promise to balance the budget next year, Nova Scotia premier-elect Darrell Dexter has positioned himself – fiscally at least – to the right of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.”

In the 2008 federal election, the NDP proclaimed its support for balanced budgets (while bank economists talked of the need for deficit spending). As Walkom observes “in Canada, beyond calls for an improved employment-insurance system, the left has had little coherent to say about the recession. The NDP criticizes the government for spending money on the wrong things. It also criticizes it for not spending money fast enough.”

Walkom correctly notes that “the left” – by which he means parties like the NDP — “in what it sees as a desperate attempt to modernize itself – has ended up parroting the old nostrums of those it once opposed.” How did this happen?

After capitalism’s unprecedented three-decade period of sustained economic growth came to an end in the global recession of the mid-1970s, employers and governments launched an offensive on the working class and peasants. This worldwide assault included layoffs and attacks on wages, social programs, unions, workers’ rights, and regulations on capital. Out of these efforts to boost capitalist profits and power eventually came the reorganization of capitalism often called neoliberalism. New ways of organizing work to squeeze more out of workers, privatization, precarious employment (fixed-term contracts, temp jobs and the like) and investment and trade deals like NAFTA became the order of the day. So too did a host of economic policies that bled the people of the Global South.

Social democratic parties accommodated to neoliberalism. In some cases, they enthusiastically embraced it. Parties like the NDP had never opposed capitalism, no matter what rhetoric some of their leaders occasionally used (or what some party supporters believed). They wanted a capitalist society with social programs and other measures that would improve the lives of working people and strengthen the national economy. During the years after World War II, big business parties like the Liberals and Tories in Canada came to share this broad welfare state agenda.

As the welfare state agenda gave way to neoliberalism, social democratic leaderships made their peace with the more brutal form of capitalism that emerged globally. An alternative to capitalism itself was unthinkable to them. So too was any challenge to the power of major corporations. They were committed to playing by the legal and political rules that enshrine capitalist power no matter what party forms the government. They had no strategy other than trying to form governments to administer societies being reshaped by neoliberalism — a process they never challenged.

In Canada, NDP provincial governments in Ontario, BC and Saskatchewan since the early 1990s have demonstrated this clearly. Now that capitalism is seized by a global crisis, the NDP is just as rudderless as the traditional right-wing parties.

The main left alternative to social democracy in the decades after World War II was politics that looked to one or more of the “Communist” bureaucratic dictatorships for a model — Stalinism. But the appeal of this kind of politics (whether in a version that championed the USSR, China or another “Communist” state) was in decline even before the fall of the East Bloc and China’s shift to neoliberalism drove the final nails into the coffin of Stalinism.

But why have the end of Stalinism and social democracy’s move to the right not led to the growth of a stronger left proposing a genuine radical alternative to capitalism?

Walkom writes that “The so-called extra-parliamentary left has fractured into an array of groups focusing on specific issues that range from global warming to racism to anti-terror laws.” Although it’s misleading to suggest that in Canada the left to the left of the NDP was once united and is now fractured, it’s true that today there is no political organization that brings together even a sizeable minority of people who want deep social change.

In part, this is a symptom of the fact that none of the main strands of 20th century left politics (social democracy, Stalinism, Third World national liberation, Trotskyism, anarchist socialism) today have much credibility with people who want to change the world. The global justice movement, whose high point in Canada was the Quebec City protests of 2001, and today’s economic crisis have nurtured anti-capitalist sentiments. But this is not the same as commitment to anti-capitalist politics.

But the problem goes deeper. As Alan Sears has argued in “The end of 20th century socialism?” (in New Socialist 61)the current situation “is not just an organizational low point resulting from a lull in struggles. It represents, at least in the Canadian state outside Quebec, the exhaustion of a particular historical phase of socialist organizing oriented around a specific set of political coordinates (the Russian Revolution), emancipatory projects (full citizenship), regimes of work organization and ways of life for working-class communities.”

As today’s social and ecological crises demonstrate, capitalism is a murderous, destructive system that must be replaced. Building struggles and new movements for social and ecological justice is an urgent task. So too is the nurturing of a new left — anti-capitalist, ecological and committed to liberation from all forms of oppression — that works to build resistance as part of a strategy for transforming society.

David Camfield is an editor of New Socialist.