Socialism for today’s NDP, and today’s Canada

Photo by Matt Jiggins

While not a topic without coverage, the question of socialism within the New Democratic Party — and Canada more generally — tends to come in waves. One recent example has come from Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin’s assertion that the NDP must re-embrace socialism, if only to offer strategic differentiation vis-à-vis the Trudeau Liberals.

While a valid argument, I feel the piece itself is light on what a socialist vision from the NDP might look like. In this light, I want to provide what I feel is a basis for socialism that is consistent with the historical outlooks of NDP stalwarts like Tommy Douglas, J.S. Woodsworth and David Lewis.

While we can’t really delve to platform specifics in this piece, a general socialist platform must be based on four broad ideals that — while omnipresent in our society — are deeply contested. Socialists must thus take the concepts of Opportunity, Equality, Democracy and Liberty and package them as part a socialist future that Canadians can work towards together.

Opportunity

From a political standpoint, increasing equality of opportunity is a goal held across all classes, ideologies, regions and ethnicities in Canada. Not only is opportunity a central ethos to a society predominated by settler migrants, but it is held as a bulwark against socialism, with many arguing that as long as everyone has opportunity, we don’t need strong forms of social and economic redistribution because the gains of individuals are rightfully theirs.

But a socialist NDP must highlight the lack of equal opportunity in Canada. Some of this is already being exposed with regards to gender and racial inequality, but we don’t really wrestle with the fact that equal opportunity is incompatible with intergenerational wealth and private systems of enterprise. For those who hold social, cultural,d economic predominance, true equal opportunity is actually an existential threat to their way of life. This leads us to a discussion of equality.

Equality

While discussions of equality can manifest 11 definitions from 10 people, a basic notion from a socialist perspective is that equality and opportunity are largely inseparable; that to have equal opportunity, you need something approaching equality of condition.

Equality of condition is largely ignored in mainstream Canadian discourse, with even the outgoing NDP leader suggesting that — if anything — Canada’s rich are beleaguered with punitively high taxes. But a socialist platform should strive towards a society in which equality, even if not total, is so high that we can avoid entrenched family wealth.

And as with opportunity, equality is impossible under an economy based on private production and distribution. The solution in part brings us to democracy.

Democracy

In terms of a universal franchise, Canada is a democratic society. But democratic socialism goes beyond the ballot box to include mechanisms through which regular people have a substantive say in how their workplaces, communities and economies are run. As it stands, and despite the rhetoric of capitalists, most workplaces are run as autocracies.

To do this, we need a re-conception of property. This doesn’t mean that individual property would be abolished, or that all enterprise would be state-owned. In some cases — as with energy production, finance, transportation, and other major industries — the goal should be public ownership. But in other cases, the focus should be on cooperative ownership between workers. There would also be a place for individuals to have small businesses, based on a self-employment model.

The specifics are beyond our scope here, but as a base socialists must endeavour towards an economy in which democratic ownership, production, and distribution is the chief concern.

Liberty

Ultimately, some might argue that the above ideas infringe on fundamental rights to property. In a sense, they are right, but only within the context of our current society. From a socialist perspective, the right to property beyond personal use only serves to stifle other individuals’ liberty, because property limits the freedom of all people at the whim of those who control it disproportionally.

This is especially the case as we approach an era of endemic technological unemployment: A system that gives a few capitalists unimaginable power while leaving millions with nothing is not one conducive to liberty.

But a socialist society is less concerned with restricting property than it is with proliferating its personal use to as many people as is possible. As it stands, many people lack meaningful ownership in their homes, workplaces, and wider economy. If property is understood to be a key underpinning to liberty, than expanding its access will expand its democratic potential.

To conclude: some of the above is not actionable in the “here and now,” but is nevertheless key to defining a socialist vision for Canada. And while some of this will require constitutional change, all of it is achievable via democratic means.

But even today, an NDP interested in building a socialist Canada can work with the above concepts:

  • It can emphasize strong social programs and free post-secondary education as vital to equal opportunity.
  • It can champion increased income — and wealth — taxation upon the wealthy and upper-middle classes as a means of dulling intergenerational disparity.
  • It can enhance social and economic democracy by proposing new crown corporations and suggesting laws that make forming cooperatives and unions easier.
  • And it can give Canadians liberty from poverty, hunger and homelessness by proposing Charter amendments which include basic material standards of living as rights every bit as integral to a free society as speech and assembly.

The means for a socialist society are before us, but for the public to buy into such ideas, they need a party to champion them inside and outside of parliament. Only the NDP combines the logistical and historical positioning to do so. Salutin is right that the NDP has to re-embrace socialism, but it must cast its eye beyond the horizon of what is now politically possible, even if the glint of a socialist Canada isn’t quite visible yet.

Christo Aivalis is an adjunct professor of history at Queen’s University. His dissertation examined Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and has been accepted for publication with UBC Press. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Our Times Magazine, Ricochet and Rankandfile.ca. He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV and CBC. His current project is a biography of Canadian labour leader A.R. Mosher.