Today’s NDP, Socialism, and the Party’s Legacy

Photo by Matt Jiggins

Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) in recent years has been engaged in internal debates about the party’s legacy, path to victory, vision of society, and role of socialism. In these debates, the ‘moderates’ have carried the day, arguing that the NDP cater to the middle class and small business, becoming in other words a small-l liberal party focused on electability. This was emblemized via the recent overhaul of the NDP preamble, which downplayed socialism, nixed social ownership, and deleted a commitment to the abolishing poverty. But while I respect the will of the party members, and continue to actively participate in the NDP myself, I find curious the simultaneous desire to excise socialist policy and rhetoric while still proclaiming the CCF-NDP’s democratic socialist successes as its own. While the current party is glad to replay Douglas’ Mouseland, celebrate Tommy as the ‘Greatest Canadian,’ say “courage my friends, tis not too late to build a better world,” and do much the same with Ed Broadbent and the Lewis family, we rarely acknowledge that these men led the NDP as unapologetic democratic socialists.

Douglas, for instance, was not one to revel in the supposed wisdom of markets. For him, social and state ownership of key industries and resources was fundamental, relying on small-business tax credits, alliances with the anti-worker Canadian Federation of Independent Business, or praise for Thatcher’s capitalist zealotry would run counter to his vision of a just and democratically controlled economy. While Douglas refrained from rejecting all forms of capitalist production, and did indeed pride himself on fiscal responsibility, he was steadfast in the belief that economic priorities should be driven by democratic institutions. As Douglas stated, “left to the market forces, priorities for investment will undoubtedly be based on profitability which may not…be in accordance with national priorities…What is needed is a national instrument capable of influencing investment timing and priorities in the public interest.”

For Douglas, public ownership was the next evolution of democracy, replacing a system where the “major economic decisions affecting the lives of ordinary people are not made by…the government of this country.” This economic democratization meant building a new society where a planned economy would meet and respond to the needs and desires of the people. As Douglas noted, “if we could mobilize the financial and the material and the human resources of this country, to fight a successful war against Nazi tyranny, we can…mobilize the same resources to fight a continual war against poverty, unemployment, and social injustice.”

David Lewis spoke of how property trended towards undemocratic industrial and political governance, and that while unnecessary to abolish the institution, it would have to be subordinate to democratic planning and ownership. Also key for Lewis was his belief that there could be no legal justice in a capitalist and liberal society diametrically opposed to equality. As he stated, “Equality before the law is an ideal which, in a society riddled with inequality, cannot be achieved… In a society characterized by inequality of income, of living standards, and of status, the tendency of the legal system is to accept and therefore protect existing inequalities.”

Lewis would also argue that traditional conceptions of rights were dominated by the privileges of private property, which needed to be mitigated by recognizing workers’ rights along with the right to benefits for those outside the labour market. He would elaborate by declaring that access to basic standards of living be a right no less foundational than freedom of speech: “The person entitled to welfare and other benefits must have his entitlement recognized as a legal right and the fullest opportunity to enforce that right against arbitrary actions of insensitive, bureaucratic robots. The same is true for a whole host of rights which are developing in society and which must be built into our legal system.”

Also interesting is a 1969 document in which Lewis professed proudly that “I Am A Socialist.” What did this entail? Among other things, it was a commitment to bring about a “society in which this there is not only full equality of opportunities but also equality of condition for all people…from which material suffering, economic want, and the operation of insecurity can disappear.”

Ed Broadbent for his part would often advocate for the building blocks of a “socialist citizenship,” including the right to strike, bargain, and unionize. As he stated, “men should not be required to show cause for the formation of a union. It should be an automatic right, i.e., no stipulated minimum support should be required before a union local can be formed. Unions should exist where working people exist, just as citizens exist where nations exist.”

The result of industrial democracy and other forms of planning, for Broadbent, would be “the eventual passing of a law which will remove all rights of control from those who own companies or who own shares in companies.” In other words, the abolition of capital-producing property, or the prevention of ownership bestowing any actual power. As it was for Broadbent’s predecessors, the economic engine rested not with capitalists or markets, but with socialist planning. In his words, “so-called free market forces—which are never free—have not and cannot solve Canada’s economic difficulties.”

While it’s true that Broadbent was not averse to compromise or short-term pragmatism, appeals to popularity for him could not interfere with the drive towards democratic socialism: “We believe in equality not because it’s popular. We believe in liberty not because it’s a winner. We believe in social ownership not because of the polls. We believe in these because they are right, we must never forget it.”

But what do all of these statements mean for understanding today’s NDP? I feel it shines light on a few key issues. First, the discrepancies between past leaders and the current party shows a real historical tension within the NDP, where socialists are vaunted as individuals and symbols, but only after sanitized of their socialism. So while we celebrate Douglas, we fail to grasp and apply his endeavour to fully transform politics and economics as we know it. But one might ask: if Tommy is recognized as the ‘greatest Canadian,’ and he was right about so many things, why do his institutional descendants not explore more earnestly democratic socialism?

To a certain degree, the issue is that the contemporary party honestly believes they are carrying forward the legacy of Douglas, Lewis, and Broadbent. The NDP is, in the words of a new scholarly work, “remaining loyal,” to their ideas, even as the presentation has changed. To a certain degree they have a point, the NDP has intertwined socialist concepts and vocabulary to justify increased representation, rights, and affirmative action for women, racialized peoples, GLBTQ* individuals, and First Nations. We are all better for this rhetorical and practical update. But it seems to me that the party has not remained loyal to questions of economic democracy, planning, and equality - concepts integral in the formation of the CCF-NDP.

In the end, the NDP has to face up to a key tension in electoral politics. Everyone wants to win while sticking to core principles, though the former with the latter is not always possible. But when the NDP has effectively excised social ownership, economic equality, and anti-poverty in an appeal for votes, we have to ask: if we ever win power, how much different will Canada be for it? I get a sense that the long term vision is not one of socialism, or even Scandinavian models of social democracy. And if the NDP doesn’t defend socialist principles against public opposition as it did civil liberties, gay marriage, and gender equality, who will? The only way the left can advance its own position is if it introduces those ideas into the public, making them palatable to increasing segments of the population. We can do that in part by claiming not just Douglas’ crusade for Medicare, but his fight against capitalist forms of production and distribution.

Further to the point, many NDPers would hold that regardless of public opinion, some ideas must be non-negotiable: civil liberty, abortion access, gay rights, First Nation sovereignty, opposition to war; these are things the CCF-NDP have gone to the wall to support, even as a majority once felt women deserved less pay for equal work, that the War Measures Act was appropriate, and that Japanese Canadians deserved interment. On such factors, the CCF-NDP has proven to be correct. Why then, must we abandon socialism for electoral suitability even as we stood for all those other unpopular principles?

Since we in the party hold Tommy in such high regard, we might ask what he would say about winning votes and members by straying from the party’s historical mission. In his own words from the early 1980s:

If I could press a button tonight to bring a million into this party, and knew that those people were coming in for some ulterior motive but they didn’t understand the kind of society we’re trying to build, I wouldn’t press the button because we don’t want those kind of people.


The message might not be as cheery as Mouseland, but it’s more poignant, applicable, and challenging to the current party’s direction than anything else. The question remains: do NDPers want Tommy’s legacy of democratic socialism, or are we content being yet another small-l liberal party in a political landscape full of them? I don’t feel we can have it both ways.

This recent election has only illuminated the relevance of the NDP’s relationship to its own history and legacy. The party has maintained strong positions on issues of civil liberty, gender equality, and minority rights, and has suffered in the polls because of its principled defense of women who choose to wear the Niqab. But the abandonment of socialist rhetoric and principles has not delivered the government the NDP so craves; rather, it allowed Trudeau to disingenuously adopt a progressive image and become the focal point for voters desiring change. The NDP’s liberal turn, then, has done little but restore life into the Liberal Party.

In my view, what the NDP needs is a combination of its existing social progressivism with a recommitment to the principles of economic democracy and a healthy skepticism of capitalism. This, and not electoral opportunism, is the enduring legacy of the democratic socialist tradition in Canada.

Christo Aivalis is an Adjunct Professor of History at Queen’s University. His SSHRC-funded dissertation examined Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP from 1945-2000. His work has been published in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Our Times Magazine, Active History and Rankandfile.ca. He is a dedicated activist within the NDP, various labour bodies, and municipal Governance, while also being an expert source for multiple media venues, including the Toronto Star and CBC.

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