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Maybe it’s time for the NDP to return to socialism

The party should look to its roots not out of nostalgia, but out of sheer opportunism based on empirical evidence

Canadian PoliticsSocialism

Photo by Matt Jiggins

There’s been a strange summer-long silence from the NDP. Last week, after the near terror event in Strathroy, they should have been vocal on Bill C-51, the terror bill. The Liberals looked paralyzed and the Tories had their hard line. The NDP should own this, it was their only winner last election. But they went quiet. Then there’s the strange case of their leadership race. What leadership race?

Perhaps they’re perplexed. That can be good. Time to reevaluate. For 50 years they tried to get away from their socialist origins. Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair peddled “social democracy.” It sounded like a dog whistle for “not socialists.” But what you aren’t won’t take you far. Nor will saying you’re the only really nice, altruistic people around. It sounds smug and manipulative. Last spring’s Leap Manifesto was an attempt to reset, but it felt like a gimmick to revive a fading product: a rebranding exercise.

Maybe it’s time to go back to Coke Classic, by which I mean socialism. I don’t say this out of nostalgia, it’s sheer opportunism based on empirical evidence. Because, consider the recent, shocking revival of the term.

Bernie. He says he’s a democratic socialist and always was. It should’ve sunk him when he ran for mayor in Vermont in 1981, but he went on to Congress, the Senate, then hijacked this year’s Democratic presidential race and exacted a partly “socialist” platform in return for supporting Hillary.

Corbyn. Very old-fashioned leftist, without Bernie’s personal appeal (God, I miss him). Corbyn’s a postwar Atlee or Nye Bevan British socialist. But he’s moved his party and many beyond it. Even for a clear relic, “socialism” has been a plus.

Hillary. Hold the guffaws. Her sole contribution to political jargon has been, “It takes a village.” It’s not her coinage but she adopted it. That sounds to me like another way to say socialism.

I offer this hesitantly. I’m not a party person and have never been a “strategist.” But recuperating the term, instead of trying to avoid it, could provide a hair of the dog that bit you (I don’t really know what that means but it sounds close to what I’m trying to say). Take it or leave it. I’m lexically fascinated, however, by what’s behind this unexpected resurrection of the word itself, long after it was buried.

Everyone seems to agree that, as time passed, Cold War slogans and epithets lost their potency. If you’re under 35 now, they simplify mystify—or amuse—you. Polling confirms this. Young Americans now rank socialism above capitalism. Why? As the opprobrium faded, socialism may simply have seemed like a more intriguing term. Worth a look at least. Even appealing. But I’d like to add another perspective.

The young today know the economy may never let them own a detached home, or even a car, and they’re making peace with that. When you turn 16 now, you don’t immediately run to get your learner’s permit. That’s a sea change from earlier times.

What do they care passionately about? Connectivity. If they had to choose between a house (and car) or the Internet, there’d be no hesitation. I’m not restating the messianic claims made 25 years ago about some revolutionary transformation of human nature due to the Internet. But I do think there’s been an anthropological shift in the baseline of what counts as normal, day-to-day human experience.

Till now—since forever—one of the ongoing, always underlying human states of being was aloneness, out of which you stepped often into social contact and then back again. Society was never absent but you weren’t surprised to slide in and out of solitude. I don’t mean anything romantic; just nobody around at the moment and that’s fine.

Now the default state is connectivity. People don’t disconnect as they move from home to work or just dart out to the store. They, especially the young, are always connected. They wake in the middle of the night and check where their friends are. They don’t panic if they go offline (adults more so than youth, I’ve found) but what’s normal is connectedness. I’m being descriptive here, not evaluative.

I think you could call this a socialist predisposition—in the simple sense of social. But it opens people up to something called socialism, whatever you or they want it to mean.

NDP, call home.

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.


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