The NDP and LEAP - An Old Debate in A New Crisis

by George Hewison

First published by George Hewison in his Political Economy Newsletter, Volume III, Number 6, June 2016

The discussion in and around the recent New Democratic Party Convention has re-ignited very old passions within social democratic circles.

Polemics around the LEAP MANIFESTO at the Edmonton gathering of Canadian New Democrats was only matched by the historic unseating of an incumbent leader, for the very first time in Canadian history. There is little doubt that the LEAP and leadership challenge were related.

Both reflected a search for a way for the party to heal itself after a bruising election setback and move forward. In the end, both LEAP and leadership were tabled for further study: one to a leadership selection a year hence and the other to an internal membership discussion. That since Edmonton, many high profile potential leadership candidates have not reached for the brass ring of the vacant leadership is indicative that the Party is in a period of introspection; and has not yet settled an historical and existential question. Many in the socialist Left have already drawn the conclusion that the Party is over, that it is beyond salvation, and they await something else. Others are stating that, to survive, the Party needs to have a leader and program more in keeping with Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, or return to the promise of the Regina Manifesto and to "socialism".

Reeling under successive defeats in Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, B.C. Saskatchewan, and Ontario, and most dramatically federally, the pragmatic wing of the NDP, grasping for any silver lining, shine the spotlight on Rachel Notley who has the surprising, if unenviable, job of government in the midst of crashing oil prices, a global economic crisis and global warming that is daily pushing fossil fuel off the planet's agenda.

I don't accept the thesis that the NDP is historically done. Nor do I accept that a Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn type could necessarily move the NDP needle much beyond the fate that has befallen more senior social democratic parties of the world, i.e. Germany, France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal 1, etc.

First, while the polls have not been kind to the party since Edmonton, we know that polls are fickle. The NDP can still command the loyalty of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Canadian working people, including the mass of the most politically conscious. And for that reason, writing the obituary for the NDP may be both premature and strategically wrong for socialists.

Second, it is the matter of direction that must come first, and that is the most difficult of questions, because nowhere in the history of social democracy or socialism has this question been handled correctly. So I have a problem with writing a political obituary, much less a coroner's report, before an inquest.

The Edmonton convention made two crucial decisions. It made the less important decision (in my opinion) to hold a leadership contest, believing that with a new leadership, the party could either project a new image or start in a new direction under a new leader. Direction, not leadership-albeit important and related-is primary.

That is where the Leap Manifesto intersects with the important question of the party's direction. After a spirited debate, wise heads decided to put the only possible compromise on the table, or risk fragmenting the party; and overwhelmingly urged the party to debate that Manifesto.

If you'll pardon, I suggest this is the fourth time in the last century and a half that international (and Canadian) social democracy has come to a crucial fork in the road with a much-celebrated Manifesto 2. As with all previous debates on Manifestos, this one can be rancorous as it's about direction, and about one specific, central problem.

That central problem has always been the relationship of how to reform the evils of capitalism while still dealing with the more fundamental question of social transformation; or more bluntly, how to end the political power of capital before it ends us. This question has bedevilled working class activists for more than a hundred years and nowhere have we gotten the calibration right.

So I've felt frustrated while some friends have condemned leadership for lurching to the Centre and the Right (terms that are quite meaningless in a world increasingly dictated by global capital, when the world is viewed from a "class" perspective of a mythical "middle class", whatever that is). I am also frustrated by others who engage in electoral politics with cheerleading tactics more appropriate to an Amway Convention. Neither of these two poles has advanced any strategy for success, electoral or otherwise; and hot tempers and recriminations are no substitute for analysis. I suppose it has always been thus with passions running high, but today the stakes are too high to simply dismiss a political instrument that has taken generations to build, on the one hand, or to passively accept that it is on the right path and needs only to try a little harder to achieve different results, on the other.

The Leap Manifesto deserves a serious look if only because one of the main architects of Leap is the grandson of one of the founders of Canadian social democracy, a former leader of the CCF/NDP. Here is where the social democratic genealogy gets really intriguing.

The very first Manifesto (Communist) was born in a systemic crisis, revealed to the world by founders of social democracy back in 1848. Programmatically, the overall objective was stated quite simply: end capitalism; and it laid down a number of short term goals such as "free education for all children in public schools" and the "abolition of child labour", a "heavy progressive or gradual income tax" and the "abolition of the rights of inheritance", centralization of credit in the hands of the State by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly" over money, "centralization of means of communication and transportation in the hands of the state", " extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State" , and so on, all part of the pathway to ending the system.

These programmatic demands were, by modern standards, pretty tame and were actually conceded from time to time by corporate or social democratic governments over the intervening sixteen decades of experience. There was one other essential point, though, that this particular Manifesto included that bears repeating because it has been forgotten by all stripes of social democracy, revolutionary or reformist:

"When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation (the working class as opposed to capital-my note), the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another."

In a nutshell, authors Marx and Engels saw reforms being pushed by the working class until society reached a tipping point when the conquest of political power by the working class would be inevitably placed on history's agenda; and the power of the capitalist class would be ended. In other words, the struggle for power by two main contending classes would move (dialectically) from the quantitative structural reforms of capitalism to the qualitative complete rout of the capitalist class and involve the liberating transfer of power to the working class.

Mass social democratic political parties were formed with that goal in mind and grew despite conditions of brutal repression3. Marx, exiled to England, spent the rest of his life scientifically probing and expanding on his understanding of the political economy of capitalism, while at the same time guiding the fledgling working class parties in their development.

After the death of Marx, the second great debate over a Manifesto came during another monstrous crisis of world capitalism. It was a thesis, enunciated by one wing of one particular social democratic party (Russian), that concluded, based on their analysis, that capitalism as a social system had reached the end of its usefulness to human development, and was acting as a brake on the society's productive forces and only required a special vanguard organization (party) of the working class to topple capitalism and begin the construction of a new and higher social order, namely socialism.

The leader of that wing (the "Bolshevik" wing, meaning majority in Russian) believed that the carnage of World War I was proof positive of the correctness of his/their thesis; and he/they won the tiny working class of semi-feudal Russia to the idea that their revolution would be the spark to the global defeat of capitalism. Put simply, they told the Russian working class that with a political alliance with the 95 per cent of the population who were peasantry and state power they would nationalize a few banks and industrial trusts, electrify the country, borrow technology from newly-anticipated workers' revolutionary governments in the West to modernize their economy, and embark on building socialism in the ‘Tsarist prison house of nations.' It turned out not quite that simple.

They launched their political project in November of 1917 based on their assessment and sent shockwaves throughout a world tired of war and poverty, including Canada, where many leading social democrats were languishing in jails or concentration camps because they had opposed the War. Winnipeg General strikers passed motions of sympathy and support for the Russian Revolution as did labour groups throughout Canada. Ginger Goodwin, the gifted labour organizer (gunned down by a special constable in B.C. and whose funeral in 1918 was the occasion for the first general strike in Canadian history), has the hammer and sickle carved into his tombstone in the Cumberland cemetery. J.S. Woodsworth, future founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Foundation (CCF), led a strike while he was stevedoring in Vancouver, rather than load weapons for the Canadian army being sent to intervene against the Russian Revolution. Millions around the world were inspired and support for the Revolution amongst class conscious Canadian workers ran high.

But there was a debate even at that time that proved problematic for the revolutionary wing of social democracy. The non-revolutionaries said that Lenin and Trotsky had made a fatal miscalculation on two fundamental points: they had underestimated capitalism especially on the development of capitalism's productive forces; and had over-estimated the all-important matter of "political, class and revolutionary consciousness" of the working class in the developed capitalist countries. After the split, the reform wing moved closer to electoral politics, almost exclusively.

What happened is worthy of many books of analyses, but the short version is that debate within the two competing visions has shaped the future of union and political organization of Canada's working class ever since.

The third great debate happened around another Manifesto crafted after a meeting in Calgary in 1932 in the midst of yet another enormous crisis of capitalism. That Manifesto was drafted by a disparate and tiny grouping of left and socialist forces who wanted to challenge capitalism and the crisis known as the Great Depression. Many of the Marxists, who had not decamped to follow the Communist Party a decade earlier were increasingly critical of events in Russia and didn't appreciate being called ‘social fascists' and ‘agents of the bourgeoisie' by the Communists; or being blamed for the failure of revolution in the west. Those people were among those who argued over the nature of Canada's future social democratic party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

B.C. Marxists like CCF Member of the Legislature, Ernie Winch, worried that any federation with groups like the League For Social Reconstruction and appeals to farmers and small business would water down the influence of the working class who were a minority demographic in Canada at the time. Eventually pragmatism won out, and the CCF was launched, and electoral success around the Regina Manifesto quickly followed, but the debates over direction never ended. Debate has always been fierce and subjective within all strands of social democracy.

Appeals for renewed unity with the CCF by the Communists , especially after 1935, in face of the Great Depression and the growing fascist danger, resulted in increased, if uneasy, cooperation between the two working class political expressions, as both had a common interest in building industrial unions, albeit from different perspectives. The highest expression of growing unity between the two was reached with the election to the House of Commons of Dorise Nielsen, a labour unity candidate, who supported both parties.

The Cold War largely put finish to ideological rivalry between the CCF and the Communists, as leaders of the CCF eagerly joined the Liberals and the state to roust their erstwhile comrades from influence in the unions, expelling and blacklisting them from membership or holding office, and helping to smash or raid unions with a hint of Communist leadership that they had no hope of changing or controlling. Caucuses were formed for the explicit purpose of ridding labour of any Communist and social change influence within the House of Labour. The link between reform and fundamental social change was ended, with fundamental change pushed to the sidelines. The pragmatic wing of social democracy carried the field, until the upheavals of global capital and neoliberalism of the 1970s, and the final collapse of the Communist experiment in 1991.

Implicitly stated by Justice Ivan Rand in his report on the Ford strike of 1945 was the need for labour to enter into a social contract with capital to leave the system of capital accumulation intact; and in return labour would enjoy union security. The companion piece in the social contract was the development of social security legislation on a wide scale. It was capital's old "carrot and stick" approach noted by Marx a century earlier.

To assist severing the link between reform and fundamental social change, the divide strategy of rewarding the ‘good labour people' and punishing the ‘bad ones', the corporate state launched the Cold War and McCarthyism to purge the last memories of fundamental change from the minds of Canadian working people. Over the years, there have been attempts to keep some kind of linkage between reform and fundamental social change alive, but based on simplistic programs and analyses, the results have not been worthy of the founders of social democracy.

The deal worked out at the highest levels of both the economy and politics was accepted by social democratic leaders within the labour movement and its political expression and tremendous gains were achieved. The CCF Winnipeg Declaration of 1956 enshrined the view of the dominant current within Canadian social democracy and effectively sidelined the earlier Regina Manifesto. "Socialism is gone." But while the employers and their political mandarins were forced to compromise, they always awaited the opportunity to roll back the social contract clock, whether in labour relations or society generally. That brings us to the conundrum of global social democracy today.

That brings us to what may be a historic Edmonton Convention, and a new Manifesto born of what appears to be the greatest crisis of global capitalism, an existential crisis for the human race. That Manifesto has attempted to elucidate the main problems facing humanity by a rapacious system, and the glaring need for fundamental change.

Getting from where we are at present to where we need to go is still the problem. Involving the working class in solving this dilemma remains a top priority. While it didn't effectively happen in the Soviet Union or Sweden, or anywhere else, the raising of political and class consciousness happens, as the early founders of social democracy discovered, in the course of the struggle for reforms, provided those struggles are coupled with a perspective of fundamental change. The moment fundamental change is off the table, capital uses its power to roll us back. Holding on to previous gains, much less achieving new ones, becomes problematic.

The Leap Manifesto is an opening contribution to bridging the gap and putting back on the table a more fundamental challenge to the system. Whether it succeeds will be for future historians to decide. My best guess is that it will succeed if the working class as it is constituted in 2016 begins to debate it and deepen it with a more fulsome analysis of 21st century capitalism, its structure, strengths and weaknesses. And the NDP is wise to be embracing that debate, and a new generation of leadership will follow as a matter of course.

George Hewison is a lifelong union organizer and former officer of his union, the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union on Canada's west coast. He embraces political and social activism in the interests of social justice and fundamental social change. He believes in the power of working people, who, if given the proper tools, can change the world. One of those tools is a deepening understanding of how our society is put together. He has been the recipient of many important lessons, both positive and negative, from veterans of Labour's struggles stretching back decades. He has spent most of his adult life sharing those lessons with others.

For a number of years, he has also engaged in a study of the political economy of capitalism, including its current iteration, and conducts discussion groups with interested folks who share his desire to understand and explain the complexities of the social, economic and political world around us. He continues a tradition of combining working class activism with the power of song and continues to tour and perform extensively. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


1 Syriza in Greece, and many others are among the most recent casualties.

2 Actually the second manifesto was Lenin’s April Thesis.

3 The Communist Manifesto was read aloud by the prosecutor in the German Social Democratic Party treason trials leading to prison terms and exile for many of its leaders.

4 With the assumption that such unity would isolate Right social democratic leaders and always be led by Communists as the vanguard.

5 The working class is a completely different class in terms of skills, diversity and complexity in 2016 than the working class of 1916 and/or the 'industrial proletariat' that Marx talked about. But it still does not control the commanding heights of the economy and the means of producing, owning and distributing wealth. The modern working class, like its ancestors, has that same main feature that it must contract out its power to labour to an employer in order to survive.

Welcome!

This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic alternative to neoliberal capitalist policy and practice. The primary result is a work by Charles and Karen McFadden of seven chapters, grouped under the title, Towards a Green Social Democratic Alternative to Capitalism available here in pdf and html formats.

Below under the heading What’s New can be found the most recent materials posted on this website, including opinion pieces, book reviews, articles and selections from the 2017 edition of the main work.  For the interest of new and returning visitors, new materials will be included quarterly.

What's New

NEW & REVISED

Authors' Preface

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

6.0 The socialism we need against the "socialism" of the 20th century

6.8 Additional concerns about 20th century variants of "socialism"

6.9 The people united!

7.1 Policy alternatives and political movements to advance them

OPINION

Charles and Karen McFadden, Is revolutionary transformation on the agenda

Charles and Karen McFaddenHumanity on the Brink

Charles and Karen McFaddenMovements of Resistance to Movements for System Change

Charles McFaddenTranslating Green Principles into Education Policy and Practice

Charles and Karen McFadden, The Role of Revolutionaries in the Labor Movement

REVIEWS

Charles McFadden, The People United for a More Just Sustainable Future

Karen and Charles McFaddenCan emergent early 21st century neo-fascism be defeated without coming to grips with late 20th century restructuring of capitalism into a global system

Karen and Charles McFaddenA Dominant Capitalism or a Sustainable Environment? Why we can't have both.

US CORNER

William I. RobinsonThe Crisis of Global Capitalism and Trump's March to War

William I. RobinsonTrumpism, 21st Century Fascism, and the Dictatorship of the Transnational Capitalist Class

CANADA CORNER

George HewisonWINNIPEG 1919 & THE COLD WAR

George HewisonArt Manuel - "Unsettling Canada

George HewisonThe NDP and LEAP

RECOMMENDED

Albert Einstein, David Swanson, Jill Stein, Chris Hedges, William I. Robinson, and others Selected articles for Winter 2018

FEATURED WORK

ECONOMICS

1.7 The dynamics of capitalism as a system and the limits of single issue reforms

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

3.1 The challenge of a moribund economic system

3.7 Public banking: A cornerstone of a green social democracy

4.7 Economics and culture

6.5 Using the non-market economy as an opportunity to begin moving beyond capitalism

HISTORY

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

2.0 Theoretical Perspective: Defining Green Social Democracy

2.5. Socialism and green social democracy in historical materialist theory

4.3 Culture in historical perspective

5.1 Contrasting a green social democratic world with the currently prevailing, but challenged neo-liberal one

6.2 Socialism and capitalism as coexisting social systems

LABOR

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

5.7 Defeating neo-liberal capitalism: The role of social movements

7.3 Justice: Creating a just society, based on the right of all to a dignified, secure existence

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Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) applies to all work posted on this website except that which appears with authors whose last name is other than McFadden, in which case standard copyright should be assumed to apply.