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The Regina Manifesto at 85: More relevant than ever?

It offers a badly-needed vision of a Canada that serves people rather than profit.


The cyclical crises of Canadian capitalism has brought with it a paralysis of Canadian reformism split between the labour movement and the NDP. It is only natural that this has sparked renewed interest in the party’s founding constitution which offered a program for escaping the horrors of capitalism.

But despite the NDP leadership race’s left candidate, Niki Ashton, talking about how the party needs to return to the “bold socialist vision” offered in the 1933 Regina Manifesto—the founding programme of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation—few have discussed what that actually would mean. This is an oversight of some significance, because the Manifesto is remarkable for its painstaking description of what a socialist Canada would look like.

The Manifesto is not perfect. But the interest of radical workers and youth in a document that says no government based in its principles “will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and Put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth” should be encouraged.

With that in mind, it is worth giving the Manifesto a serious look. 85 years on, we ought to consider how it could address the needs of Canadian workers and address the crises facing them under really existing capitalism. The Regina Manifesto still offers a bold way out of Canada’s coming economic crisis of oversupply and under-demand.

In 1933, activists from the United Farmers movement, the Socialist Party of Canada, the Canadian Labour Party and the League for Social Reconstruction assembled in Regina to adopt a vision for a Canada free of exploitation, oppression, poverty and injustice. The Manifesto became the founding constitution of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation which, in 1961, merged with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the NDP.

The Manifesto reads:

The present order is marked by glaring inequalities of wealth and opportunity, by chaotic waste and instability, and in an age of plenty it condemns the great mass of the people to poverty and insecurity. Power has become more and more concentrated into the hands of a small irresponsible minority of financiers and industrialists, and to their predatory interests the majority are habitually sacrificed.

According to Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives economist Armine Yalnizyan, these words describe present day Canada with alarming accuracy.

The Manifesto is also correct in locating the concentration of wealth at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy as the cause of periodic crises which routinely paralyze our economy.

Last week, Statistics Canada announced a 0.1 percent GDP contraction for January, owing to plunging oil and real estate activity. After leading the G7, it expects “a sharp drop off in Canadian economic growth this year as highly indebted households pare spending.” This slowdown follows the largest single drop in housing activity since November 2008, and it puts Canada on track for its third straight quarter of sub-two percent GDP growth.

That bad precedent is just the tip of the iceberg. Canadians’ massive debt will need to be paid back and, with average debt-to-income ratios above 170 percent, it’s unlikely earnings will rise to the occasion. Two weeks ago, the Bank for International Settlements joined the IMF, Moody’s and S&P Global Ratings in warning record-high debt could tank Canada’s economy.

What’s causing the debt crisis? BMO Capital Markets Senior Economist Sal Guatieri told the Financial Post “Households take on more debt simply to compensate for the lack of income growth.” Statistics Canada says the years since 1977 have seen average, inflation-adjusted earnings rise about three percent.

The trend was noted by a leaked Employment and Social Development report which says average incomes remain “too weak to support [the] consumer spending that has historically driven economic growth,” forcing average Canadians to become “increasingly indebted [to support] a relatively modest standard of living.”

Modest standard of living aside, Canadians’ aggregate demand is being pared back and production will likely fall to mitigate losses. That cut in production, in turn, will hinder the ability for workers to buy goods. Worse yet, the cycle will continue.

Much of the left’s response to this trend has been uninspiring. The Canadian Labour Congress, for example, acknowledged stagnant incomes for the majority of Canadians lowering demand drives most of Canada’s economic woes. Its solution, however—returning to pre-1994 public expenditure and labour standards—ignores the trends that drove those attacks in the first place.

Far from strictly a Liberal problem, more than a few NDP governments have been complicit in this “race to the bottom.” That’s because private industry must compete in a global market by lowering overhead costs wherever possible. That means eviscerating labour rights and fighting tooth-and-nail for lower taxes (necessitating austerity) to maximize profits. Any government whose budget depends on private industry must follow suit.

By the logic of the current economic order, there is no returning to the days before austerity. As a result, there’s no way to prevent a crisis.

Fortunately, the Manifesto offers a way out of the “present order.” It commits to putting industry under social ownership, democratic control and subjecting it to social planning.

The five thousand-word document demands industry be placed under the direction of elected planning commissions—made up labour union representatives, economists and technicians—to maximize productivity and ensure workers get a fair share.

This would go a long way to ensuring workers are paid enough to absorb the goods on the market and that the goods are affordable, by increasing their supply.

The resources for doing most of this are available. Last year, the Canadian Press noted Canada’s banks made record profits. Those could be rationally-invested into industry to serve human need, if they were socially-owned and democratically-controlled.

Further, Canada’s industrial capabilities remain under-utilized. Statistics Canada figures show the quarterly capacity utilization rate for Canadian industry is lagging. Last year, the average for the whole economy was 86 percent, following a slow rise from around 74 percent in 2009. Over the last five years. it seldom rose above 80 percent, despite Canada leading the G7 in economic growth.

Investing to use Canada’s currently existing industrial capacity to its fullest potential would cheapen goods and help put people to work. That would mean good things for wages and livelihoods in general.

To this end, the Manifesto reads:

Control of finance is the first step in the control of the whole economy. The chartered banks must be socialized and removed from the control of private profit-seeking interests; and the national banking system thus established must have at its head a Central Bank to control the flow of credit and the general price level, and to regulate foreign exchange operations. A National Investment Board must also be set up, working in co-operation with the socialized banking system to mobilize and direct the unused surpluses of production for socially desired purposes as determined by the Planning Commission.

The socialization of the commanding heights of the Canadian economy must follow the socialization of finance. The Manifesto reads, “Planning by itself will be of little use if the public authority has not the power to carry its plans into effect. Such power will require the control of finance and of all those vital industries and services, which, if they remain in private hands, can be used to thwart or corrupt the will of the public authority.”

Capitalists, however, will not sit idly by while a socialist government nationalizes its largest industries.

There is little to the Toronto Stock Exchange besides oil and finance, and public control of the latter means a bold step towards public control of the entire circulation of wealth. So long as the other key industries remain in private hands, the natural interests of Canadian business leaders will be to sabotage the economy and attack its workers and its government.

Image by Editing Modernism in Canada, University of Alberta.

Those industries, as a result, must swiftly be taken out of the capitalists’ hands.

The Manifesto follows this up with a demand for public ownership of communications, energy, transportation, pulp and paper, mining, the distribution of food “and all other industries and services essential to social planning.”

It reads:

Only by such public ownership, operated on a planned economy, can our main industries be saved from the wasteful competition of the ruinous overdevelopment and over-capitalization which are the inevitable outcome of capitalism. Only in a regime of public ownership and operation will the full benefits accruing from centralized control and mass production be passed on to the consuming public.

This system of social ownership and worker management would allow for a labour code that serves workers rather than bosses. The Manifesto says, under capitalism, “the spectre of poverty and insecurity” haunts every worker even though the technical development of industry is enough to provide for every workers’ needs, several times over. This, the Manifesto reads, “is a disgrace which must be removed from our civilization.”

Achieving this includes the freedom of workers to form unions and associations, but also to have such practices promoted by government.

The socialist planning of industry must, the Manifesto states, work to stabilize employment and reduce the number and intensity of necessary hours worked and steadily improve living standards. Public ownership promotes this by allowing for economies of scale to maximize efficiency.

A similar plan is applied to Canadian agriculture. According to the Manifesto, “The prosperity of agriculture, the greatest Canadian industry, depends upon a rising volume of purchasing power of the masses in Canada for all farm goods consumed at home, and upon the maintenance of large scale exports of the stable commodities at satisfactory prices or equitable commodity exchange.”

The document resolves to restore the financial stability of the farmer through the socialization of finance. That would allow for investment to be rationally allotted. It resolves to rapidly increase the production of farm equipment at affordable prices through the socialization of industry, and to adopt a planned system of agricultural development based upon scientific soil surveys to protect its fertility and to better distribute land among farmers.

The last point is remarkable. Despite being written in 1933, this section recognizes that the environmental consequences of industry must be rationally managed. The incorporation of scientific study into agricultural planning to protect fertility and farmers’ livelihoods, and the incorporation of both into the wider socialized economy would allow all working people to plan their production to meet their needs without massive pollution and ecological destruction.

The detailing does not go much further than that, however it is striking that even in thinking about the possibilities of a Canada controlled by working people through a socialist economy, the authors of the Manifesto factored in methods of solving the problems working people face and would face, in the future.

The Manifesto enters rocky territory, however, with its last proposal on agriculture. It suggests “the substitution for the present system of foreign trade, of a system of import boards to improve the efficiency of overseas marketing, to control prices, and to integrate the foreign trade policy with the requirements of the national economic plan.”

On foreign policy, socialist parties have an uneven history. The blatant hypocrisy of those reformists who supported the wholesale slaughter of working men and boys during World War One is well-trod territory. Yet, on this subject, the Manifesto makes the CCF look better than most. Its section on external relations reads:

Canada has a vital interest in world peace. We propose, therefore, to do everything in our power to advance the idea of international cooperation as represented by the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization. We would extend our diplomatic machinery for keeping in touch with the main centres of world interest. But we believe that genuine international cooperation is incompatible with the capitalist regime which is in force in most countries, and that strenuous efforts are needed to rescue the League from its present condition of being mainly a League of capitalist Great Powers. We stand resolutely against all participation in imperialist wars. Within the British Commonwealth, Canada must maintain her autonomy as a completely self-governing nation. We must resist all attempts to build up a new economic British Empire in place of the old political one, since such attempts readily lend themselves to the purposes of capitalist exploitation and may easily lead to further world wars. Canada must refuse to be entangled in any more wars fought to make the world safe for capitalism.

The need for a break from capitalism, internationally, to obtain peace and prosperity is worth highlighting. A socialist foreign policy, based on unity with the global left, is crucial for an export-led economy like Canada’s to survive in a capitalist world.

The Manifesto deserves credit for its outright and direct opposition to imperialism and in its demand for socialist internationalism, based on the unity of the workers of the world.

More broadly, it offers a badly-needed vision of a Canada that serves people rather than profit.

Mitchell Thompson is a writer and journalism student living in Toronto.


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