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As of yesterday, the NDP is no longer a “socialist” party. With a vote at this weekend’s national convention in Montreal, delegates approved a new constitutional preamble which removed all references to the dreaded red menace. This isn’t the first time such a move had been suggested – the late Jack Layton attempted it two years ago, but without much success. This time, however, the party seems determined to prove that it is “ready to govern” by shedding it’s radical baggage in the hopes of capturing a larger chunk of the political “centre”.
This wasn’t the only showdown with socialists at the convention, either. The NDP’s “Socialist Caucus”, a group of party members who advocate for more radical policies from within, made it’s presence felt more than once. They booed speeches from high ranking American Democrats like Jeremy Bird and Joseph Stiglitz (the former Clinton adviser and senior VP of the World Bank), put forward motions on issues like pipelines and held up a large banner protesting America’s drone-bombings in Pakistan. This last move proved quite unpopular, and offending party members were met by security and threatened with the loss of their voting priviliges.
To put this in perspective, the issue has seen a lot of attention at the United Nations of late. They had no such reservations about declaring drone bombings in Pakistan illegal last month. To the NDP, though, it’s an embarrassment in front of their new American friends, who happen to be the warmongering criminals in question.
Seriously, NDP, what the fuck happened?
It’s been a long time since I attended an NDP convention (‘working the door’), far enough back that Clinton was still president. I left the party soon enough afterward. In those days, they hosted saw speakers like John Clarke of OCAP and even a surviving Spanish Civil War veteran at a youth convention. If I’d known then that someone like Stiglitz would soon enough be speaking at a similar event, I would have left even sooner. Even back then, the party was perpetually mortified at the idea of seeming “too radical”, and almost lost party status as a result. Without the willingness to advance any policies too “progressive” for the Liberals (who lived by “campaign left, govern right”), they never managed to offer up a substantially different platform, at least until the Liberal party collapsed under the weight of it’s own success. The rise of the NDP was always tied to the Liberals’ fall from grace, but it remains to be seen whether it can survive a return.
Which leads me to the single biggest flaw in Mulcair’s plan…
His scheme worked. For entire hours yesterday, the NDP convention and it’s rejection of socialism was the biggest story in Canada. The mainstream media finally seemed convinced of their readiness to govern, and it began to look like he might actually have a shot at the Prime Minister’s seat. And then, in the flash, it was gone, as the day’s other big convention came to a close, officially crowning Justin Trudeau as heir to his father’s throne. With a fresh, young and untainted champion, centrist politics are no longer Mulcair’s exclusive domain.
If American politics are any judge, the allure of dynastic politics can be amazingly strong, even in “democracies”. If it worked for bumbling George W. Bush, there’s little doubt it will do wonders for Justin. He’s already been inspiring gossip for some time in the mainstream press, almost to the level of Prince William or Justin Bieber. I’ve avoided mentioning him here, so far, because I honestly hoped he’d go away. Now that it’s clear he won’t, a second wave of “Trudeaumania” can’t be far off.
This must be Mulcair’s worst nightmare. Against Harper, he probably would have won. Against the idol that is Trudeau, though, he risks quickly becoming the villain. His politics of pragmatism are the opposite of inspirational. Trudeau is reviving a disgraced party, Mulcair’s in the process of selling one out. He’s already alienated a considerable amount of the NDP’s traditional support base and established himself in exactly the same mildly-kinda-almost-centre-left territory Trudeau is likely to claim. After his many pro-business stances (pipelines, Mali, etc), there can be no going back, and only humiliation if he tries. There is every possibility that this will be a disaster for the party, but if so, it’ll be a well-deserved disaster.
The next election will put two Liberals in the ring with one Conservative. Because of the way our votes are counted, this puts pretty good odds on Harper from the outset. “Vote splitting” is a very real threat to campaigns thanks to Canada’s archaic election laws, and it’s going to play a huge role. It may even allow Harper another term.
Even as truly radical ideas have made a mainstream comeback for the first time in decades, there’s virtually no (large) parties in the industrialized world left which champion its aims. The anti-parliamentary bias of many recent protest movements doesn’t help, but politicians like Mulcair only vindicate these suspicions. The real left moved on from electoral politics a long time ago, as socialism and statism never mixed well.
I still have a lot of friends with the NDP. Solid labour and student organizers, and even that one area politician brave enough to attend my friends’ funerals (thanks, Dave). There’s a strong tradition of organizing there, and for all it’s failings, I’m most angry because I’m sad to see it go. Canada is bursting at the seams right now with anger at Harper, and it’s being all-but-ignored by the only party in an “official” position to speak out. Instead they’re playing politics and schmoozing. If this is what a promotion to “official opposition” means for the party, I have no desire to see what they’ll become if they ever reach power. The last thing we need is another party of business-friendly politicians that treats ideals like costume jewelery.
When the next election comes, don’t even bother to knock on my door. Don’t call me, and don’t dare drop anything in my mailbox. Stop showing up at our events and making statements like “the NDP is the only friend you have”, it only elicits laughter anyway. If you’re going to throw us under the bus in an attempt to get into “the in crowd”, don’t expect to be welcome back when you fail. We actually stand for something, and understand all too well that “winning” which comes at the expense of our principles isn’t “winning” at all.
Almost a year ago, I wrote a rather nasty article about today’s socialist parties. At times, I looked back with a little regret. I’ve got friends in the NDP, and like most, the party tends to fall into the “best of a bad bunch” category. The trends I described, however, were real, and have reached disgusting new depths. And so, it is with a heavy heart that I must again lambaste their leaders, a group who might as well now be known as the ‘far right of the left wing’.
The story of the French “Left” and the Algerian war for independence is something of a historical black eye, to the point where Socialist President Guy Mollet’s visit to Algiers in 1956 is still known as “la journee des tomates” for the hail of rotten fruit he had to endure. Despite some misgivings, French control of Algeria was seen as a necessary precondition of any “socialism” there, and so Mollet (with communist support) opted for a troop surge and widespread use of torture. In the end, this exceptionally brutal war cost them not only control of Algeria (and soon, many others), but also their government (the “Fourth Republic”) itself. There were, of course, a few dissenters – names you might know like John-Paul Sartre, Guy DeBoard and, of course, French anarchists of the time such as Daniel Guerin. For the most part, though, the self-interest of leftist parliamentarians kept them from any Support for this appalling war wasn’t just a betrayal of their “principles” or a horrible strategic choices, it put them squarely “on the wrong side of history”, and both the French left and Algerian population suffered dearly.
Of course, they talk of Algeria, but moderately. In order not to lose face the press growls a little. But it is understood that there shall be no agitation. . . The effect on the working-class — and this is, perhaps, the aim of this policy — is to demobilise it completely. Nothing like the Marseilles dockers strikes or the demonstrations for the release of Henri Martin have developed. The workers are disgusted with the Algerian war but they have been left without guidance or direction. The [Communist Party] is reaping what it has sown — when it needs the masses it no longer finds then) . . . Meanwhile 500,000 young men waste their time, if not their health or their lives in Algeria, the economy stagnates and workers goon short time. And this is the result of this Ballet of the Left, with one partner waltzing smartly off to the right in order to avoid the embrace of the other . . .
– John Paul Sartre (from “Is This The Time“, a critique of Socialist and Stalinist Imperialism)
One might think today’s French socialists would be a little hesitant to try such a thing. Alas, they’re not.
Faced with sagging approval ratings and a lacklustre term so far, France’s new “Socialist” president, Francios Hollande, did something any (dis)respectable politician would do. He started a war. Launching air-strikes and a ground invasion of Mali at the invitation of a government openly run by generals, his government is now doing battle with one of only fifteen countries listed lower than Afghanistan on the UN Human Development Index.
Can we stop calling them “freedom fries” now?
The French socialists, of course, are not alone on the left in their support for this war. Canada’s (still ostensibly socialist) NDP recently sided with Harper on support for the French war effort through, which now apparently includes special forces. This has allowed Harper to talk of a “broad national consensus”, which he states will be necessary if we’re to expand our involvement. This is exactly why I warned about Thomas Mulcair last year. Unlike his predecessor Jack Layton, who routinely questioned Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, Mulcair is using the party’s newly found clout as Official Opposition to welcome the war, thus avoiding any unpleasant parliamentary criticism.
If there’s one conclusion which can be reached from the examples above, it’s that opposition to this kind of militarism tends to fade as these parties get closer to power. It’s a lesson we’ve learned too many times from parties of all colours, only to continue hoping that next time, things will be different. These are necessary sacrifices, we’re told, if the party is to survive and thrive. What few stop to ask is: what good is a party that can’t or won’t stand by their principles if ever they should actually find themselves in a position to make the changes they talk about?
A politician is a politician is a politician, I suppose. And they wonder why people are so cynical…
This kind of thing almost never goes unnoticed. “Left” or “right”, everybody loves to hate hypocrites. Anybody who was previously irked by the moralistic tone is going to seize the opportunity to single it out, as will anybody who previously agreed. Both the National Post and Socialist Worker seem to be taking particular delight on in the domestic politics behind this war. Beyond the sectarian warfare, though, is the effect on those who aren’t hardened warriors in those battles. For most, the entire affair is just one more reason to avoid politics altogether. If this was only a problem for “politicians” I wouldn’t have much problem with it, but as these parties bring a lot of radical imagery into their marketing campaigns, they tend to cast a lot of suspicion on grassroots organizers as well. This is what Sartre means when he talks about completely demobilizing the working class.
Politics needs to be more than a fashion statement on behalf of groups vying for power. If the ideas put forward by parties are no less superficial than the colours and mascots of football teams, then why bother ‘getting off the couch’ at all? Many people, if not most, already feel this way about “politics” in general, and that’s a big part of the reason Canadians and Americans are so famously disinterested. At what point do we stop shaming people for being “apathetic” and “ignorant”, and admit that their feelings aren’t exactly baseless.
In the face of the biggest upsurge of “leftist” beliefs since the 1960s, the “parliamentary left” is instead taking a hard turn right. While this gives me a lot of hope for the future of social movements, it doesn’t exactly encourage me to vote. Attempting to get ahead in a battle of ideas by becoming more like those you oppose may win a few supporters in the short run, but over the longer term it starts to resemble surrender. I must admit, this leaves me confused – why join a socialist party if you honestly don’t think “the masses” have any appetite for socialist ideals?
It’s hard to know how “the masses” would react if confronted with a clear, honest and concise explanation of “socialism”. It’s been so long since anybody’s had the guts to say such a thing publicly that it’s hard to guess. One poll last year found “socialism” with triple the approval rating of Congress. Another poll in 2010 found that 42% of Americans thought the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was taken from the Bill of Rights or other founding documents. Keep in mind, that’s America. We may never know how such an election would go, since these positions just aren’t being articulated by anybody who might conceivably win an election. Then again, given the history of states which actually attempted “socialism”, that might be just as well. Either way, I’m not holding out a lot of hope for parliamentary activism.
Last weekend on the streets of Toronto I saw what might be the largest demonstration I’ve attended since Quebec City in 2001, and it was only one of a great many in the few weeks alone. With or without politicians, the revolution is going ahead. The incredible and unprecedented wave of demonstrations which has swept the globe over the last few years has been almost entirely disconnected from traditional parties, and it’s not hard to see why. Just as Obama crushed our hopes that Democrats might be less interested in dropping bombs on Muslims, Hollande and Mulcair are showing that “socialist” politicians can be just as big a disappointment. Thankfully, as Bookchin reminds us, there’s a lot more to politics than statecraft.
“Sell-out”, depending on who you talk to, it’s a slur or a sin, but not something anybody wants to be called, especially in any kind of radical circles. The term “sell-out” is a nasty one, either a slur or a sin depending on who you ask, so it’s with a heavy heart that I use it here. The wikipedia entry on “selling out” states this perfectly for the context and makes perfectly clear why the term applies perfectly.
In various political movements (usually communists and anarchists), a “sellout” is a person or group pretending to adhere to a genuinely pro-working class ideology, only to follow these claims up with actions directly contradicting them, often (whether actually or implicitly) supporting capitalism. Equally it could be utilised by supporters of parties for persons that subsequently formed coalitions with those they seemed to oppose, such as the Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg’s coalition with the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.
“Selling Out” – Wikipedia
Defining “socialism” isn’t quite as easy. It’s a subject I’ve dealt with before, and one I’m sure will come up again (I hope…). Broadly defined, socialism refers to various ideas which seek to collectivize capital in the hands of “the people” – an incredibly wide range of ideas spanning two centuries and many ideologies (communism, anarchism, social democracy, market socialism etc). More specifically, in common usage, “socialist” has come to suggest something more moderate than “Communism” but more radical than progressives and liberals, though there’s lots of overlap. It’s an incredibly charged term which means about as much as a $10 “Rolex” from a New York street vendor, but then, so are most in politics.
Which socialists am I talking about? The socialist parties. All of them.
This isn’t to point a finger at millions of well-meaning members and supporters, but it’s time to stop pulling punches when it comes to their “leaders”. Too long has the rest of the left “looked the other way” when it came to the failings of our own parliamentarians, perhaps out of a naive hope that we might one day be among them. Even a quick skim of the world news over the last week shows a few too many examples. This isn’t just an issue of making concessions in tough times, these are fundamental ideological shifts which betray a growing set of structural problems.
In Canada, this is of course most visible within the NDP, our official social-democrats. In the race to succeed the late Jack Layton who made unprecedented gains in the last election, one figure stands out more than most: Thomas Mulcair. Perhaps most notorious for his support of Israeli militarism, he’s a former Quebec Liberal and seems to be gaining the support of many of Canada’s richest financial elites. like Anthony Munk (Barrick Gold) and Gerald W. Schwartz (Canwest, Onex). Given the near-demise of the Liberal Party over the past few elections, this kind of attention was to be expected, but as Mulcair leads in some polls, this does not bode well for the party.
To the south, Latin America has been witness to a grand experiment over the past decade. Led by the likes of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, or Rafel Correa in Ecuador, this “Bolivarian revolution” has now swept several countries. Chavez in particular has been extremely vocal in his opposition to American imperialism abroad and determined in his reforms at home. Looking closer, though, cracks have appeared. Indigenous regions in Bolivia have been rapidly losing faith after battling plans for a new highway cutting through their lands. In Ecuador, indigenous movements have lost patience over similar moves in favour of oil and mining development. Chavez himself has a much better reputation when it comes to the rights of poor and indigenous peoples, though this comes as a result of the gifts given by his “petroleum socialism”, which has in recent years nationalized oil companies and begun work on Venezuela’s colossal heavy oil (tar sands and oil shale) deposits and corresponding pipelines
Then there’s Europe, for years the shining example of prosperous and successful “Euro-Socialism”. Today, they lead the world more in embarrassing “Socialist” failures. There was the defeat of Spain’s Socialists last year, abandoned by a nationwide radical movement opposed to the austerity programs it attempted to impose. Then there’s Greece, still being torn apart by austerity programs pushed by the ruling PASOK (social-democrats) and paramilitary support from the KKE (parliamentary Communists) and PAME (militant communist unions) against raging protesters. This week in France, Socialists sided with Sarkozy’s plans for Roma (“gypsy”) internment camps, perhaps the single most terrifying example here. Across the continent the ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation) is catching heat for their complicity in the austerity programs. And what can be said of Britain? As the above-quoted Wikipedia entry states, Nick Clegg has pretty much come to define “sell-out”.
I could list other regions, or examples from these. China’s communists would be an obvious choice, Nepal’s (former) Maoists or Cuba’s post-Castro reforms. America, of course, doesn’t really have a socialist movement (at least, not one in any position to “sell out”) and there’s really never been anything “socialist” about Obama (no matter how much he might have sold out).
There is an undeniable pattern here. It isn’t just a trend toward making concessions on economic issues in “tough times” – the social aspects of these trends, especially against Roma, indigenous or Palestinian people are utterly atrocious. The environmental implications are terrifying (particularly from Mulcair or the “Bolivarians”). In this context, the international drive toward austerity measures certainly isn’t surprising (though disappointing), it fits perfectly. While these leftist parties might have been the last line in defense against this international agenda, it’s fairly clear that they’re far more interested in their status as political parties than any alleged “leftist” beliefs.
I write this not to lament the death of the parliamentary socialist movement, but to issue a warning to those just beginning. As those involved with the Occupy movement and others like it debate whether to get involved in parliamentary parties or start their own, it’s important to take a look decades, even centuries down the road. Problems like these can’t arise without a tremendous amount of support and success. To sell out, you must have something worth buying, and that takes time to build. The size and clout of parties like the NDP set a tempting example for those groups and movements just starting out, and it’s only human to assume that one’s noble ideas or nature will prevent the same mistakes.
Political parties are traditionally viewed as an “evolution” of movements and struggles, out of the precarious world or direct action and grassroots organizing. Examples like these call into question whether that’s really the case. Can “change” really happen because a new group of leaders implement a new set of policies? Or are the those who attempt it more likely, in the end, to be changed themselves?
The word “socialist” is getting a lot of press these days. This past weekend, it captured national attention after a big debate at the NDP’s national convention in Vancouver. It seems many wanted to remove the term from the party’s official constitution, to give the party a more moderate image and hope to attract voters. The convention voted otherwise, and so for now, they’re still “socialists”. Since the NDP’s stunning win of over a hundred seats in the recent Federal Election, this was probably inevitable, but it does raise a lot of questions.
As long as I can remember, the moderate left has been possessed with a kind of paranoia about not being seen as “moderate enough”. This kind of fear kept the NDP in the shadow of the Liberals for years, as they simply copied out all the best parts of the NDP’s (watered down) platform. This gave the NDP the illusion of being next to useless – why vote for them when the Liberals are promising all the same things, and might actually win? The NDP’s recent success has as much to do with the implosion of the Liberals as it does with the (very real) leftward shift of Canadian opinion, and Layton knows it.
This is a big part of the reason I haven’t worked with the NDP in a very long time. Not only is this strategy self-defeating, it borders on outright dishonesty. And the ultimate result, either way, is that nobody on the “organized left” is willing to actually argue a “leftist” position. When this happens, centrists and “right-wingers” win by default, and the population at large is left without any radical alternative.
The next part of the story comes from Europe, where established “Socialist” parties are taking a beating. In Spain and Portugal, ruling Socialists have lost recent elections over the outright disgust of Spanish society over their handling of austerity measures, whom either voted Conservative (Spain) and Centrist (Protugal) or refused to vote and took to the streets and squares instead.
What does “Socialism” mean when a ruling Socialist party is willing to push austerity cuts on the population on the behalf of EU and IMF? Not a whole lot. And despite the very clear dislike of capitalism present in the new wave of European radicalism (particularly in Spain), not a whole lot of it is using the “S-word”.
The final part of this story comes from our neighbours to the south, the Americans. We’re all familiar with the culture of red-baiting, and absolutely over-use of terms like “socialist” (eg. “Obama is a socialist”). In spite of all this, a recent poll of Americans showed that even if you use the dreaded s-word, a surprising number are all for it. Only 53% of Americans believe capitalism is “the best system”, about half that are unsure, and about 20% said socialism. Among young people, it’s nearly even, with 37% saying capitalism, 33% socialist and 30% undecided. Pretty startling numbers if you believe Fox and CNN reflect “America”.
Since Reagan, Republicans and others have repeatedly attacked many parts of “the government” – schools, public services, health care etc – as essentially “socialist”. Unfortunately for them, those are the parts of the government that people actually like and tend to rely on. The predictable backlash has been that people really aren’t all that scared of the idea anymore, especially if the alternative is Reagan-style “big government” (more cops, prisons, armies and corporations).
Like so many other terms in modern politics, “socialism” has been used and abused to the point of meaning almost nothing. The 20th century left socialists with a legacy of failure in nearly every arena of statecraft – from the autocrats of China and Russia to moderates of the west. And while there’s clearly a demand for an alternative to capitalism, socialism in general seems far less clearly defined than it did a century ago.
If there’s a future for socialism, it’s going to have to be a lot more grassroots. The dream of a workers’ state has proved absolutely unworkable in nearly every form. With all the general strikes and popular uprisings in the last year, there hasn’t been much in the way of a “party” rising to lead, especially a socialist one. Perhaps, though, with the death of the (dreadful) notion of a governing party which can make all our dreams come true, the actual issue of workers controlling production can be discussed.
If the word “socialism” won’t do, how about syndicalism? Or mutualism? “Economic democracy”? Open-source? Autonomist Marxism? Or (gasp) anarchism? What does it take to get a serious discussion of an economy that isn’t run by government bureaucracies or investors and profiteers? We’ll probably never again be able to use the term “Soviet” (worker’s council), and if many corporations get their way the term “co-operative” will become just as tainted. Whatever words we use, it’s that idea that matters.
“Liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” – Mikhail Bakunin (Marx’s famous anarchist adversary)