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Pie in the sky: a history of the Ontario Waffle

Robert Hackett on the new politics of the 1960s, published in the October-November 1980 edition of Canadian Dimension

Canadian PoliticsSocialism

Waffle leaders James Laxer and Mel Watkins in 1972. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library.

The following essay by Robert Hackett appeared in the October-November 1980 edition of Canadian Dimension. It is the first chapter in a comprehensive history of the Waffle, the movement within the NDP that produced the Manifesto for an Independent Socialist Canada in 1969. Many of the core ideas of the Waffle were first discussed and debated in the pages of this magazine by the very people who eventually emerged as the movement’s leaders. Mr. Hackett is currently Professor Emeritus of communication at Simon Fraser University.


The 1960s witnessed unprecedented political developments in Canada, as elsewhere in the world.

With the death of Maurice Duplessis and the 1960 victory of Jean Lesage’s Liberals, Québec moved from the defensive, traditional nationalism of “la survivance” to the modernizing nationalism of the so-called “Quiet Revolution.” No longer was the Québec government content jealously to guard its cultural and jurisdictional prerogatives while abandoning responsibility for economic development and social welfare to Ottawa, to the Church, and to Anglo-Canadian and American corporations.

The Quiet Revolution marked the end of the comfortable arrangement of Confederation, and the ascension of new class forces, a new consciousness, a cultural, ideological and political renaissance in Québecois society—all of which accentuated and politicized differences between Québec and English Canada. The 1968 victory of Pierre Trudeau and his hard-line federalism and dogmatic anti-nationalism, signified a new rigidity in the federal government’s response to the new Québec. Trudeau’s immediate domination of the “national unity” debate diminished the capacity of English-Canada to hear, let alone understand, the voices of Québec’s neo-nationalism.

Another significant development was the emergence of the “New Left,” and particularly the student movement. The New Left was historically rooted in the end of the Soviet monopoly of radical left politics with de-Stalinization and the invasion of Hungary in 1956, and with the alternative Cuban, Chinese and African models of socialism. Its manifestations were as diverse as the ban-the-bomb movement, the American civil rights movement, and later, the resistance to US intervention in Vietnam, community organizing among the poor, and student demands for the transformation of educational institutions. While it is difficult to characterize a movement as amorphous, heterogeneous and anti-theoretical as the New Left, some common themes emerged: its concern with direct participation as the essence of democracy, its distrust of bureaucratized power and traditional electoral politics, its rejection of both corporate capitalism and bureaucratic Communism, its contempt for the values of middle class consumer society, its overriding emphasis on spontaneity and decentralized direct action (‘utopian activism’), its anti-imperialism, its growing recognition that corporate and political liberalism was a screen for exploitation and repression.

In the US, at least, the New Left tended to reject the organized working class as a potential agent for social change, focussing instead on students, the poor, and ethnic minorities. In Canada, the New Left radicalized thousands of students and young people; it found organizational expression in such groups as the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA), and the Canadian Union of Students (CUS). These organizations were not notably successful; but the New Left unquestionably helped dissolve the ideological conformism of the Cold War years.

A third major development of the 1960s was a resurgence of Canadian nationalism. The process had really started with the 1956 Pipeline debate and the subsequent election sweep of the Conservatives, led by John Diefenbaker, in 1958. One aspect of Diefenbaker’s appeal was anti-Americanism, and his government did indeed take measures (albeit inconsistent and largely symbolic) to distance Canada from the orbit of American foreign and military policy, highlighted by squabbles over Canada’s military role in nuclear defence and in the Cuban missile crisis.

But concern with the American impact on Canada really gathered momentum in the 1960s. With the death of the liberals’ prince of Camelot, J.F. Kennedy, with the “discovery” of poverty and urban blight, with black and student revolt, Canadians’ image of the US turned sour. The growing barbarism of the Vietnam War was of particular importance, casting American society into a new and more sinister light, sparking in Canada a renewed sense of distance from the US. The anti-war teach-ins brought together a movement extending beyond the New Left. Indeed, making a point about the “colonial mentality” of even political protest in Canada, Mel Watkins has gone as far as to suggest that:

The Waffle was possible because of widespread dissent within the US against the war … The sectarian groups in Canada, whether Trotskyist or CP, and before them the left liberals of the teach-in movement, brought the anti-war movement to Canada … The Waffle, at the margin of the empire, translated that anti-imperialist sentiment of the centre into nationalism.


Moreover, the economic costs of massive US direct investment in Canada were becoming increasingly evident, for example:

  • a large net capital outflow of remitted profits over new investment by the mid-1960s;
  • an impaired capacity for indigenous technological innovation;
  • the extra-territorial application of US trading, antitrust and balance-of-payments policies to subsidiaries of US-based corporations;
  • the “miniature replica” effect: too many foreign firms in the Canadian market reduce productive efficiency;
  • the stunting of the Canadian capital market, because wholly-owned foreign subsidiaries often don’t issue shares to Canadian investors;
  • layoffs, shutdowns, and investment, pricing and export strategies determined by the global plans of multi-national corporations rather than by Canadian needs;
  • the general skewing of the economy towards resource extraction, which provides relatively few jobs, and away from export-oriented manufacturing. Even the Globe and Mail, as early as 1957, said that the processing of Canadian natural resources provided two million foreign jobs; Canada exports employment as well as staples.

Yet Lester Pearson’s Liberal government (1963-68), tied to continentally-oriented big business, did little to face the challenge. Its most significant attempt to do so was the June 1963 budget of the maverick Finance Minister, Walter Gordon. In the face of nearly unanimous scorn from the business elite (“Canadian nationalism! How old-fashioned can you get?” said E.P. Taylor), Gordon’s proposal for a 30 percent takeover tax on the sale of Canadian shares to non-residents survived less than a week. While the Liberals did act defensively to protect financial institutions, communications and transportation from foreign takeover, clearly the main impetus for Canadian nationalism would have to come from elsewhere.

One such source was the intellectual community, a group which sociologist Max Weber has suggested is virtually predestined, by virtue of its special access to cultural achievements, to propagate the “national idea.” Philosopher George Grant’s work Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965) was a landmark. He argued that both the dominant technological rationality, and the interests of the Canadian ruling class served to dissolve the conservative social values which constituted the substance of Canadian independence from the liberal capitalist American Empire. A contribution of similar stature was Kari Levitt’s essay (1968) on “economic dependence and political disintegration” (later published as Silent Surrender: the American Economic Empire in Canada) which sketched the costs of the “new mercantilism” of American-based corporations operating in Canada.

In 1968, a federal task force on foreign ownership, headed by University of Toronto economist Mel Watkins, made a number of policy recommendations, primarily the creation of government agencies to coordinate policies concerning the multi-national corporation and to ensure that export orders would be filled by Canadian subsidiaries of foreign companies, creation of a Canada Development Corporation, and increased sale of corporate shares to Canadians. While such proposals were well within the framework of regulated capitalism, the Report, in its chief author’s words, “was instantly disowned by the Government.”

The nationalist intellectuals did not neglect the cultural front; in December 1968, for instance, Carleton professors James Steele and Robin Mathews initiated a debate on the Americanization of Canadian universities.

Public opinion also moved towards nationalism. In 1969, a Toronto Star survey showed that a plurality of Canadians (43 to 34 percent) still felt that US ownership was good rather than bad; by 1972, the situation was reversed, 47 to 38 percent.

NDP in the doldrums

The Waffle can be seen as both an outgrowth of these movements, and an attempt to deepen the response of the New Democratic Party to them.

From its founding in 1961, the NDP had made overtures to Québec’s new assertiveness, ensuring francophone representation in the party’s federal executive, granting formal recognition of Canada’s binational character, and in 1967, formally endorsing “special status” for Québec within Confederation. Nevertheless, the party made little attempt to sell its special status position to an indifferent or hostile English Canada. There was intellectual opposition within the party itself to the position—at the same time as Québecois nationalists were moving towards full-scale independentism.

Nor did the NDP sufficiently overcome the CCF’s anglophone centralizing image to make big inroads in Québec. It failed to expand its core of reliable, active supporters much beyond a group of anglophone Montréal intellectuals, and it could manage no better than its showing in the 1965 federal election—12 percent of the vote, and no seats.

More than the two major parties, the NDP had responded to English-Canadian economic nationalism. During the early 1960s, the party’s economic programme stressed planning and full employment. The 1965 federal convention passed a resolution on “foreign ownership.” However, there was little analysis of its effects on Canadian sovereignty and economic development, and the only concrete proposal was for a government-controlled Canada Development Fund. The resolution was really little different from what the party had been saying for years, and some NDP leaders felt a stronger statement was necessary.

In 1967, a more detailed resolution on “economic independence” was adopted, calling particularly for a “Canadian Capital Resources Fund” to achieve various purposes, primarily the mobilization of Canadian capital for development and research and the retention of savings in Canada. The NDP’s leaders greeted the Watkins Report warmly, and Tommy Douglas drew heavily on it in the 1968 federal campaign. And in December 1968, acting parliamentary leader David Lewis arranged for several “think-ins” for the federal caucus, including discussions on corporate power and economic independence led respectively by Charles Taylor and Kari Levitt.

But by 1969, the NDP was in the doldrums and out of office, even in Saskatchewan. The electoral breakthrough eagerly anticipated in 1961, when the labour movement and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation created the NDP, failed to materialize. A rapid succession of elections had depleted the federal party’s funds, forced the suspension of many of its extra-electoral activities, and denied its activists the opportunity for theoretical reflection in a significantly changing political environment.

This was especially serious in that the NDP’s programme and rhetoric increasingly seemed both stale and vulnerable to partial co-optation by the ruling Liberals (national medicare, portable pensions). Indeed, it was no accident that the party leadership shunned the label “socialist”: its liberal welfarism offered few hints of a structural critique of capitalism as a system. The NDP’s hesitant economic nationalism never extended to an acceptance of the concept of American imperialism, let alone a thorough analysis of its impact on Canada. And both the NDP’s aging federal leaders and its younger stars in the West, such as newly-elected Manitoba Premier Ed Schreyer, seemed out of touch with the radical youth movement.

In the words of one of the sponsors of the Waffle Manifesto, the NDP, “born out of the affluent 50s,” failed to challenge the Cold War assumptions that World Communism was the enemy, that capitalism had solved its basic economic problems, and that all that remained for the Canadian left was to help establish a full-fledged welfare system. “Developments in the 60s,” wrote Cy Gonick, “have rendered this optimism and complacency inappropriate and dangerous.”

Even two NDP “establishment” stalwarts who were to become bitter foes of the Waffle, were moved in early 1969 to comment:

While we indulge in nostalgic illusions, events are passing us by. Last June, the Trudeau thing snatched up a host of vital, radically-minded people and thrust them into politics … They were our kind of people and … we needed them. Instead, they saw us as stuffy, impotent and irrelevant.


Des Morton and John Brewin urged the party to seize its chance to rebuild “with the help of the most profoundly socialist generation of young people this country has ever produced.”

And yet, apart from isolated community organizing projects, radical organizations outside the NDP had little sustained impact in English Canada. SUPA folded in 1967. Many New Leftists were co-opted by by such governmental initiatives as the Company of Young Canadians. And yet, apart from isolated community organizing projects, radical organizations outside the NDP had little sustained impact in English Canada.

The emergence of the Waffle must be seen against this background. To many of its own activists, the NDP seemed sufficiently hide-bound and out of touch to require rejuvenation. And to many radicals outside it, the NDP, with its roots in Canada’s popular classes and socialist traditions, seemed to be be sufficiently progressive, at least potentially, to be a pole of attraction—in the absence of any obvious alternatives.

The founding Wafflers

During the formative stages of the Waffle, its most prominent public figure was Mel Watkins, the economist who had chaired the task force on foreign ownership. By 1969, he had run the gamut from liberal continentalism (he had studied for several years at MIT within the dominant traditions of American economics) through liberal nationalism to socialism. Disillusioned with America’s Vietnam policy as early as 1963, Watkins became involved with the teach-in movement in Toronto, which he found a radicalizing experience. He began to change his ideas on the desirability of the massive American presence in Canada. The student movement sensitized him to the importance of grassroots participatory democracy and the right of communities to control the decisions which affect them.

By 1969, with Walter Gordon no longer in politics, Watkins was frustrated with the federal government’s indifference to the foreign ownership problem. In any case, he no longer found adequate the liberal solutions proposed in his Report. Returning to his earlier intellectual encounters with Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis, Watkins had rejected the ideological assumptions of orthodox economics and the compatibility of corporate capitalism with Canadian independence. Having honoured his pledge to defend publicly the Report for a year after its release, Watkins was ready to work with the new radical group emerging within the NDP.

The Waffle’s other major leadership personality was James Laxer, a young, heavyset, magnetic and articulate graduate student. Educated politically by his father Robert, an ex-Communist who left the party in 1956, Laxer claims to have been inclined towards Canadian nationalism at an early age, as a reaction against both America’s McCarthyist hysteria, and the subordination of the Canadian Communist Party to the Soviet line. Laxer became politically active as a University of Toronto student in the early sixties, but was not attracted by what he perceived as the American orientation of the student left.

Concerned to bridge the widening gap between English and French Canada, Laxer in 1963 organized a Toronto demonstration of several thousand for a “fair deal” for Québec. Although Laxer remained a federalist, he was sympathetic to the Québec nationalist left, and hoped for an alliance between it and English Canadian socialists. The principle of self-determination for Québec, which the Waffle adopted and presented to the 1971 federal NDP Convention, was seen partly as a means to this end.

Laxer had joined the NDP in 1962 but did not become very active in it until 1967 in Kingston, where he met five people who were to help draft the Manifesto and to play prominent roles in the Waffle—Krista Maeots (his eventual wife), John and Pat Smart, and Lorne and Caroline Brown.

This group was influenced by the growing debate on foreign ownership and Canadian nationalism, as it emerged, for instance, in the pages of Canadian Dimension and George Grant’s book Lament for a Nation. One catalytic event was the 1967 Centennial Conference sponsored by Dimension in Montréal on “Canada and the American Empire;” the 150 people attending included the Laxers, other founding Wafflers, and many NDPers who became Wafflers. Some of the discussion papers (by Gad Horowitz and Cy Gonick) first introduced the theme that Canadian independence and socialism were inextricably linked. For two consecutive years, there were seminars on Canadian nationalism at Queen’s University, and the Kingston group met weekly to discuss Canadian political economy. A particular concern of Laxer’s, as shown by his later writing, was the reduction of Canada to a resource base for the US.

As John Smart put it, their analysis was that Canadian politics hinged on Canada’s relationship with the US, and that the NDP was the only party capable of dealing with American domination. They thought it possible to influence the NDP towards nationalism and socialism. However, the Kingston group was aware of some of the difficulties involved.

They had attended the 1968 Ontario NDP Convention, and were struck, not only by the “abstraction” and “political irrelevance” of the discussion, but also by the futility of initiatives from the floor, due to the structuring of the debate by such bodies as the party’s Resolutions Committee. It became obvious that “you couldn’t do anything at an NDP Convention without planning months in advance.” Laxer and his friends left Kitchener determined not to experience that kind of frustration at future party conventions.

This degree of ideological commitment and alienation from the NDP establishment was not shared by all the participants in the early manifesto discussions. For Gerald Caplan, a history instructor who had brought Watkins into contact with the Kingston group, the impetus was psychological rather than ideological. He was interested in Third World issues and had spent some time in Africa; upon returning, he found debate within the NDP boring and irrelevant. Nevertheless, having actively identified with the CCF/NDP since 1957, his concern was to help revitalize rather than transform it. Along with trade union employee Giles Endicott, another founding Waffler, Caplan parted ways with the Waffle after the 1969 Convention and became involved in Stephen Lewis’ campaign for the Ontario NDP leadership.

Another of the manifesto group was none other than the party’s current federal leader, Ed Broadbent. A political science professor and newly-elected MP for Oshawa-Whitby, Broadbent was especially interested in industrial democracy. He dropped out after the last of three manifesto meetings, having failed to remove its criticisms of the NDP, and to soften its critique of the American Empire and its stand on public ownership, Québec self-determination, and workers’ control. Determined to produce a strong statement and to identify the left in the NDP, the majority of the participants would have none of it. As one them said, “If we’re going to waffle, I’d rather waffle to the left than waffle to the right.”

The Waffle Manifesto was born.

James Laxer in 1974. Photo by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star.

The Waffle Manifesto

The Waffle actually first emerged from a series of informal meetings held in Toronto, the first one on April 29, 1969. Eleven members of the Ontario New Democratic Party were present including Watkins, Laxer, Caplan, Endicott and Broadbent. By the third such meeting, Laxer had produced what was to be the first draft of the Waffle Manifesto.

The Waffle Manifesto sought to radicalize NDP policy along several fronts. First, its major thrust was to insist on the desirability and inextricability of Canadian in dependence and socialism. It argued that Canada’s cultural and economic survival is threatened by “American control of the Canadian economy,” that the “central reality for Canadians” is the American Empire which is “characterized by militarism abroad and racism at home” and which has reduced Canada to a captive resource base and consumer market.

Indigenous capitalism does not offer a viable route to independence because it is weak and inevitably intertwined with the continental economy, opting for a “junior partnership “with American firms.” There is not now an independent Canadian capitalism and any lingering pretensions on the part of Canadian businessmen to independence lack credibility.”

Thus Canadian independence is not now possible without socialism; and socialism cannot be achieved without independence, because American-dominated corporate capitalism is the main obstacle, and (implicitly) because socialism is not likely to be on the agenda in the US in the near future—thus ruling out a pan-continental leftist strategy.

Second, it is implicit in the Manifesto that socialists can be content neither with the mere regulation of business, nor with the welfare state; socialism must involve extensive public ownership. In a phrase strikingly reminiscent of the CCF’s 1933 Regina Manifesto, the 1969 document declared that “Capitalism must be replaced by socialism, by national planning of investment and by the public ownership of the means of production in the interests of the Canadian people as a whole.” It called for “nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy, such as the key resources industries, finance and credit, and industries strategic to planning our economy.”

However, the Waffle moved beyond the technocratic flavour of the Regina Manifesto by calling for widespread democratic participation in social decision making, particularly in the workplace. Both the European social democratic and the Soviet examples of bureaucratic nationalization made it clear that workers’ control was a necessary adjunct to the collective ownership of the means of production.” A socialist society must be one in which there is democratic control of all institutions which have a major effect on men’s lives and where there is equal opportunity for creative non-exploitative self-development.”

Third, the Manifesto argued that the NDP should view itself, not merely as an electoral party striving for success at the polls, but rather as “the parliamentary wing of a movement dedicated to fundamental social change”; as such, the party should lead or participate in the struggles of workers and community groups. The reasoning behind this position was elaborated before the 1971 Convention in a resolution entitled “Extra Parliamentary Activity”:

Social democratic parties, once elected, have been unable to make fundamental changes in society mainly because they have tried to operate without a base in political and social movements—a base where members have developed a socialist consciousness and are prepared, particularly in periods of crisis, to support their governments against the economic pressures of private vested interests … The NDP’s emphasis on electoral technique must be shifted to the building of a social movement.


Finally, the Manifesto held that Canada is composed of two distinct nations, Québec and English Canada,” each with its own language, culture and aspiration.” As Norman Penner notes, this “was merely a restatement of the founding program of the NDP in 1961.” But the Manifesto went further, arguing that Canadian unity must be based on a free association of the two nations, which “can share common institutions to the extent that they share common purposes.” Hence, unity depends on the willingness of English Canada to struggle against American imperialism; “Québec’s history and aspirations must be allowed full expression and implementation in the conviction that new ties will emerge from the common perception of ‘two nations, one struggle’.” Later, the Waffle explicitly endorsed “national self-determination” for Québec, up to and including the right to independence.

Although not dealt with in the Manifesto (a glaring oversight), the Waffle consistently raised the issue of women’s rights. For example, the Waffle pressed for increased allocation of guaranteed seats for women in party decision-making bodies, to help overcome the social impediments to female participation in politics. The party’s majority often resisted such proposals. Some women saw them as paternalistic; others advanced the liberal argument that individuals should run for party office on their own merits. In its own organizational structures, the Waffle eventually tried to ensure sexual parity as a matter of principle.

The strategic assumptions

Partly due to its own internal tensions and to its ambiguity as the left wing of a social democratic party, the Waffle in its early phases did not spell out, precisely and consistently, its strategy. But some of the strategic assumptions of its leaders can be gleaned from a 1970 article by Gerald Caplan and Jim Laxer. They began with the proposition that “for Canadians who wish to pursue the elusive goal of an egalitarian socialist society, American imperialism is the main enemy.”

The immediate priority for the left, then, is the building of an anti-imperialist movement, rooted “in the organic traditions and culture of popular movements in this country.” They perceived three potential allies in the struggle for an independent socialist Canada: the NDP, the labour movement, and the student movement. But all three must in certain respects be transformed.

The NDP must be made to “understand its position as the parliamentary wing of the larger Canadian socialist movement, and the central national instrument in the struggle against American imperialism.” Although they were no doubt aware that no social democratic party had previously been radicalized in this fashion, they did not consider the task impossible:

In spite of the alienation of the young left from the NDP, certain compelling and unique features in the Canadian political situation make it vital for the new radicals to attempt to radicalize the thousands of New Democrats who make up the only mass left political grouping in Canada. Our location next to the heart of the American empire imperils not only the socialist cause in Canada, but also the very survival of the nation itself. The Canadian left is faced with the imperative of building an anti-imperialist movement … which necessitates the creation of the broadest possible left grouping. Efforts to radicalize the NDP are the logical point of departure in building an anti-imperialist movement.


Moreover, the labour movement had to be “revitalized and extended” through both a “major takeover by unions of management’s present prerogatives,” and a “major takeover by rank-and-file workers of the labour bureaucracy’s present prerogatives.” Laxer and Caplan, while slightly critical of the union leadership, waffled on the question of international unions:

… this is no simple-minded call for the repudiation of international unionism. Only labour’s enemies could seriously demand that Canadian unions voluntarily surrender their resources while powerful American dominated multi-national corporations proliferate in Canada. But Canadian unions (should) maintain power in their own hands adequate to transform their organizations into vehicles for radical social change, with no restrictions on such activities from external forces.


While this position was acceptable to most Wafflers, the issue remained a contentious one for some of them.

The third potential ally, the student movement, must be “de-Americanized.” What they meant is that to be an effective force, it must come to terms with Canadian issues and Canadian radical traditions rather than tagging along after movements in the USA and pursuing issues that originate on American soil.

Assuming the above transformations to have been realized, what were the means by which Laxer and Caplan envisaged an anti-imperialist movement achieving power and implementing its goals? At times, they displayed elements of a classical Marxist view of the capitalist state, that the state is not “democratic” in a class neutral sense, that the various parts of the state machinery (police, military, judiciary, bureaucracy, as well as Parliament) tend to serve the long-term interests of the capitalist class, and that hence, the working class cannot simply elect a government and through it, transform society.

Laxer and Caplan criticize the CCF, for example, for its exclusively electoral strategy which “reinforced the illusion that all power resided in governments, and obscured the reality that power is distributed, however unequally, among a number of societal institutions governments, churches, schools, the mass media, and above all the corporations.” They reject the CCF’s

… naive conviction that the cumulative effect of selective nationalization plus social welfare measures would automatically produce a qualitatively new society Secure in its chiliastic faith, the central role of property and the realities of power relations could blithely be ignored at worst, vastly oversimplified at best.


But while the Waffle Manifesto does vaguely refer to “constitutional change … based on the needs of the people rather than the corporations” and reflecting “the power of classes and groups excluded from effective decision-making by the present system,” Laxer and Caplan do not find it necessary or desirable in their article to argue for a revolutionary transformation of the State as a precondition for achieving socialism. The strategy they envisage is two-pronged, a “struggle for democracy at the local level” co-ordinated with “winning elections at provincial and federal levels.” So the dichotomy between Parliamentary and extra Parliamentary activity is not one between constitutional/electoral and extra-constitutional/revolutionary forms of struggle.

Article on the Waffle movement and the NDP in the Globe and Mail, Tuesday, August 1, 1972. Photo from Twitter.

Three socialist tendencies

The questions of the liberal democratic capitalist state, and the kind of strategy socialists should adopt in relation to it, divide and perplex the left in most advanced capitalist countries. It is not a problem for those “right-wing” social democrats whose ultimate aims do not extend beyond such reforms as improved social welfare, and economic regulation by the government. Both their goals, and their political practice (Parliamentarism), are within the framework of advanced capitalism.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we must distinguish three tendencies amongst those who do regard socialism as a type of society qualitatively different from capitalism.

The first tendency, left-wing social democracy, generally defines socialism as widespread “public” ownership of the major means of production, and views this goal as attainable through the election of a party committed to it. The state itself is seen as neutral; it can serve socialist ends if it is led by the right party, the right personnel—just as one can fill a bottle with wine instead of vinegar.

Mel Watkins in 1981. Toronto Star file photo.

The CCF’s Regina Manifesto is a classic statement of this position; it calls for fundamental “social and economic transformation” but insists this “can be brought about by political action, through the election of a government inspired by the ideal of a Co-operative Commonwealth and supported by a majority of the people.” The Manifesto immediately added that “We do not believe in change by violence,” thus implying an (erroneous) equation of constitutionalism with peaceful reform. The fundamental transformation of the State (and its constitutional structure) does not necessarily imply violence; and as Allende discovered, the policy of constitutionalism at all costs is no guarantee against it.

Social democrats, even left-wing ones, tend to reject the politics of class struggle, and the necessity of extra electoral political action by the working class. They also reject the Marxist notion of capitalism as a system with its own “laws of motion,” a system inherently characterized by the exploitation of labour and by class antagonisms. Rather, their critique of capitalism hinges on an ethical condemnation of its values and its inequalities, as distinct from what Marxists would consider a scientific analysis of its structural limits and contradictions.

Consequently, left-wing social democracy is prone, on the one hand, to “gradualism,” which in Ralph Miliband’s words, views the achievement of socialism “as a slow but sure advance by way of a long sequence of reforms, at the end of which (or for that matter in the course of which) capitalism would be found to have been transcended.” On the other hand, since they do view socialism as a movement intended to change fundamentally human values, left-wing social democrats tend to be suspicious of an exclusive focus on electioneering, on merely winning votes by appealing to existing mass sentiments. They emphasize the need for education to convert the masses to socialist values. They incline towards what Walter Young has called the “movement” aspect of the CCF/NDP; for them, electoral victories are not the only, or even a sufficient, measure of success.

A second tendency, at the opposite end of the left wing spectrum, is the Leninist model of “insurrectionary politics.” Briefly, adherents of this current argue for the necessity of smashing the existing State machinery through armed struggle, and replacing it with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and for a tightly-organized vanguard party to achieve such ends. While not averse to participation in electoral politics for tactical purposes, they regard the Parliamentary road to socialism as a dangerous cul-de-sac. They place relatively less emphasis and value on immediate reforms—except “to press for reforms which they (do) not believe to be attainable, as part of a ‘politics of exposure’ of capitalism.” In Canada, this current has been incarnated by the Communist Party (CPC) prior to 1935, as well as by various vanguardist sects today. Its historical paradigm is of course, the 1917 Russian Revolution.

A third current is that which Miliband labels “Marxist reformism.” In common with insurrectionism, and in contrast to social democracy, this school accepts the Marxist class analysis of capitalism and the capitalist state, the labour theory of value, etc. It has a long-term view of the advance towards socialism, as a process of “class struggle on many different fronts and at many different levels; in this sense, it remains quite definitely a politics of conflict.” But unlike the insurrectionary model, “ this is a politics of conflict … conducted within the limits of constitutionalism defined by bourgeois democracy, with a strong emphasis on electoral success.” This need not mean exclusive concern with electoral politics:

Reformism is also compatible, both theoretically and practically, with forms of struggle which, though carried on within the given constitutional framework, are not related to elections and representation—for instance, industrial struggles, strikes, sit-ins, work-ins, demonstrations, marches, campaigns, etc., designed to advance specific or general demands, oppose governmental policies, protest against given measures, and so on.


Nor does it necessarily imply the subordination of the party’s goal of socialist transformation to the exigencies of electoral politics or the achievement of immediate reforms—although both are real temptations.

Historically, such a position has been represented perhaps by the Socialist Party of Canada (one of the components which created the CCF in 1932), by the CPC in recent decades, and by modern Eurocommunism. Marxist “reformism” has been put to the test only once by the ill-fated government of Salvador Allende in Chile.

While they did not crystallize until the Waffle’s impending rupture with the NDP forced debate on fundamental questions of socialist strategy, all three tendencies were present within the Saskatchewan and Ontario Waffle. The left social-democrats either remained within or eventually returned to the NDP; the “insurrectionists” often joined or created small Maoist or Trotskyist groups; and the “Marxist reformists,” in Ontario at least, constituted the mainstream of the Waffle after it left the NDP. The question of the state was one of the major cutting edges in this process of division and clarification—but the lines of differentiation were incipient from the Waffle’s formative stages.

It must be noted that the debate was not entirely between abstract social democratic and Marxist conceptions. The specific nature of the Canadian state was in question: to what extent does it serve the interests of an independent Canadian, as distinct from the American, capitalist class? Enhancing the powers of the existing Canadian state to the benefit of the former at the expense of the latter, could be a progressive step. Jim Laxer, who has expressed agreement with the general Marxist analysis of the capitalist state (as articulated by Miliband), argued that the Canadian state should be both strengthened and transformed: “It is in the interest of Canadian socialists to resist any decline in our national sovereignty and to demand that the state serve as an instrument for setting alternative social priorities, based on … human need rather than profit.”

But in political practice, choices must often be made, and in Cy Gonick’s view, “in the crunch, some Wafflers would insist that the Canadian state—so long as it did not serve the interests of American imperialism should be supported irrespective of the fact that it serves the interests of Canadian capitalists as against Canadian workers. In practice they were accused of regarding Canada as an oppressed class vis à vis the US—thereby substituting nation for class.”

In the view of some radicals, Waffle theorists too readily argued that unique Canadian conditions invalidated general Marxist precepts.

Robert Hackett is a retired professor of communication at Simon Fraser University and co-author of Journalism and Climate Crisis.

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