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Shaking up the status quo in the NDP

Efforts to radically transform existing social democratic parties are and have been difficult, maybe even impossible

Canadian PoliticsSocial MovementsSocialism

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh announces the 2019 election platform in Ottawa. Still image from YouTube/CBC.

This article is part of a series in which CD editors asked NDPers, current and former, to weigh in on the state of social democracy in Canada, and on Avi Lewis’s recent decision to pursue the party’s nomination in West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country. This is the first component of our coverage in advance of the upcoming federal election in fall 2021.

Assessing Avi Lewis’s run for a parliamentary seat and possible longer term ambitions must be put into context if it has any meaning for the left other than to shake things up a bit. The real question is whether this can be seen as part of a larger effort to radically transform Canadian politics and the New Democratic Party, and whether such a project has any real prospects.

Efforts to radically transform existing social democratic parties are and have been difficult, maybe even impossible. Creating a genuine socialist political party might require at least one component to come from a break from the left of a dominant existing social democratic party, but the foundation of any transformation project needs to include an autonomous or independent organization of socialists, with a base in the working class. As well, there needs to be a real challenge to the social democratic core of the party leadership, parliamentary caucus and establishment.

We can look at previous efforts such as Jeremy Corbyn’s failed project in the British Labour Party, the Bernie Sanders experiment in the United States and earlier efforts to transform the NDP. Corbyn didn’t launch a struggle against the existing party brass and parliamentary caucus and was opposed by the entire political and economic establishment. Efforts to build an autonomous socialist or socialist-inspired movement had only partially been established and had yet to build a solid base within key working class constituencies. Sanders really had no chance to transform the Democratic Party in the US, but, at best, using the primary nomination process, succeeded in carving out a space to create a left social democratic and socialist core of activists and elected officials, and inject a spirit of challenge to the status quo.

The supportive left infrastructure around Bernie such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) had little resonance within many US working class constituencies and remains unclear about its political and ideological orientation (socialist or social democratic), as well as its longer-term party building strategy (transform the Democrats, work towards a ‘dirty break’ or form an alternative party now).

Previous efforts to transform the NDP also failed. The Waffle was really the only project that took on the fundamental ideological orientation of the party at the time and was quashed by Avi’s father, Stephen Lewis. Later projects, such as the New Politics Initiative (NPI)—which never claimed to be a transformative radical left project, but an effort to build along a movementist orientation, based on social movements. One-shot efforts to attract new members only to vote for more radical leadership candidates, such as Niki Ashton, also failed to dislodge the party’s establishment.

The introduction of the Leap Manifesto in 2016, by Avi Lewis, Naomi Klein and others, in the face of the dismal centrist leadership of Tom Mulcair, was a refreshing, but limited attempt to inject set of new ideas into the political discourse—including demands for Indigenous national rights, limiting mining, ending reliance on fossil fuels and pipelines, and a rather progressive set of social and political demands that tied together the need to address climate change and the struggle for social justice. But there was no struggle to have the party adopt it and it was agreed that it would become the object of an ongoing series of discussions. A number of widely touted and well-attended public meetings were held across the country, but it remained independent of any real organizing effort to build an autonomous movement around it, or as a way of fighting for an alternative within the party.

The Leap Manifesto didn’t address critical areas: it stopped short of identifying capitalism as the underlying driving force for the climate crisis and didn’t argue for key structural reforms, such as limiting the power of finance and capital mobility, nor did it call for nationalizations along with democratic planning. The important and positive notions of a just transition and moving to renewables weren’t tied to the kind of rather radical and substantial rethink of the sort of economy we need to have. There wasn’t all that much said, either, about the need to radically transform Canada’s foreign policy. And the substance of the Leap—as positive as it was—remained at the level of creating a less oppressive and environmentally destructive capitalist economy.

In this, it is much like the limitations of the Sanders and Corbyn projects: both argued for important reforms and approaches but fell short of giving their brands of socialism any real anti-capitalist content. While contributing to the popularity of socialism as an idea, and some of the key social democratic reforms that the working class demands (in the US, Medicare for All, union rights, voting rights, wealth taxes), the Sanders movement didn’t necessarily lead to the development of socialists. Sanders always used the example of Denmark as the kind of “socialism” he identifies with.

Fillmmaker and Leap co-founder Avi Lewis is running for the NDP in the next federal election. He secured the nomination for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country in late May. Photo courtesy The Leap/Facebook.

Obviously, the body of reforms that Sanders and Corbyn championed would have been (and with Sanders actively working as the US Senate Budget chair still are) critically important for working people. But in the DSA for sure, many (not all) of those who call themselves socialists—and write for important and excellent publications such as Jacobin—remain fundamentally social democrats. They limit their approach to struggles for legislated reforms and do not build on those struggles and successes and failures, to develop support, new capacities and understanding across the working class, about the need to challenge the system as a whole.

One of the key limitations of a Lewis project is that it works through the NDP. The NDP is a social democratic party and reflects the reality all social democratic parties around the world in this neoliberal stage of capitalism. Unlike the Great Depression and the post-Second World War era, a humane and reformed capitalism is not possible today. There are no real segments of capital desperate to head off more radical alternatives. The driving force of economic life in the current stage of capitalism is the drive for private accumulation in a globally competitive environment. The social democratic model can’t be a central part of the left’s arsenal anymore.

Yet, what of a possible effort to build a real eco-socialist movement inside the NDP (or the Labour Party or the Democratic Party)? So far, there is little reason to predict that Lewis’s project will call for any radical transformation of the NDP along eco-socialist lines. As was the case with the introduction of the Leap Manifesto, he seems to have made peace with the party’s establishment. And that establishment—the elected parliamentary caucuses and the ideological core of the party—will not change without a clear mass movement, led by socialists, inside and outside of the party. This seems not be in the cards.

An electoral project can’t be dismissed

Avi Lewis isn’t the first activist to enter the electoral arena, and engaging in electoral politics is not something to be dismissed. Too much of the radical left’s political focus has been limited in the past decades or so to mass, and all too often symbolic political protests. There remains a segment of left activists who also eschew electoral politics of any kind and embrace movementism of various sorts.

Broadening the fight into the electoral terrain as well as in other spaces and arguing for legislating key reforms and looking to enter the state and transform institutions as much as possible, given the current balance of forces, is not wrong. The issue of course is how to engage in electoral politics and how to combine the struggle to build the mostly disparate working class into a unit that is able to challenge employers, landlords, and capital as a whole. And, of course, there is the issue of what kinds of electoral instruments or parties are most appropriate for moving in this direction. A party of moderate social reform (to paraphrase the late Marxist theorist and politician Ralph Miliband), clearly isn’t the most fertile ground for these kinds of projects.

In sum, let’s not get lost in irrational exuberance. Lewis’s entrance into the electoral arena is a positive move, with a potential to inspire in many ways. I certainly look forward to his efforts and those who will work to build his candidacy and the movement around it. But considering the issues raised by both Lewis’s candidacy and the expectations around it, requires us to look deeper than simple hopes to shake up the status quo in the NDP: they require people on the left to think about what kind of politics we want to build and how to build it in challenging neoliberalism and capitalism itself.

Herman Rosenfeld is a Toronto-based socialist activist, educator, organizer and writer. He is a retired national staffperson with the Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor), and worked in their Education Department.


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