Waffling over the Leap Manifesto

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By Jonathan McQuarrie

Sneers extinguish far-reaching ideas. Such was the fate of the recent Leap Manifesto, a document that emerges from the conviction that “Canada is facing the deepest crisis in recent memory.” It’s easier to dismiss an idea that calls for a radical rethinking of Canada and energy regimes, indigenous policy, and social programs than it is to actually engage with the ideas, to actually develop criticisms that explain precisely why radical rethinking isn’t necessary. Banal dismissal is all the easier when one writes for the Globe and Mail, a paper that, for all its considerable merits, tends to slant towards the complacent and comfortable, to people with money and influence. (This is hardly a criticism—we all enjoy being comfortable. But comfort tends not to encourage substantial risk).

Of course, it is too early to write a post-mortem on the Leap Manifesto. It was released just over two weeks ago, and signed by well-known people who will, in all likelihood, continue to advocate for clean, community-based energy regimes. Naomi Klein, David Suzuki, Charles Taylor, and Thomas King are hardly people without audiences. However, like most radical documents, it begins at a disadvantage. Some disadvantages come from economic context—globally orientated trade governed by privately-orientated capitalism has, for all its flaws, created staggering wealth and prompted unparalleled growth in incomes and goods (distinct, of course, from distribution). Frankly, too many people do well by the revenues produced from global capitalism to seriously consider locally orientated alternatives.

The reception of the Leap Manifesto brought to my mind reception of the Manifesto for an Independent Socialist Canada. The latter manifesto, issued by the so-called Waffle Movement in 1969, was spearheaded by Mel Watkins and James Laxer. The Waffle Manifesto, emerging as it did from a Cold War context where the United States loomed large and Canadians of various national stripes fretted about their national identity (cf. Grant’s Lament for a Nation), called for total divestment from the “American Empire.” For the authors, the United States essentially was capitalism, a point the manifesto made clear when it claimed that Canadian capitalists were simply dependent on Americans and that “Capitalism must be replaced with socialism.” Pointing to the “alienating” nature of capitalism, the Waffle Manifesto asserted that a socialist economy would contribute to healing the rift between English and French Canada (indigenous people are conspicuously absent for the modern reader, a flaw common for older socialist critiques that foregrounded class as the terrain of politics). Statist planning of a national economy was presented as a viable alternative to capitalism.

Inevitably, The Globe and Mail attacked the Waffle Movement. In its brief treatment of the manifesto in September 1969, including a general editorial and an authored editorial by George Bain, the Globe hardly concerned itself with the specifics of the, admittedly flawed, manifesto. Laughter and disdain was easier. Assessing how the Waffle movement might achieve any of its aims, the editorial suggested that “Recruits would obviously be wise to start saying ‘I hate the United States’ 30 times before breakfast everyday.” It concluded the editorial with a personal attack on Watkins, calling him “A pettish chap” who would likely go to another part to “sulk” if the manifesto failed to get traction at the NDP convention. Meanwhile, Bain engaged a bit more rigorously with the call for nationalization, recalling parts of the Regina Manifesto that made similar calls. For the most part, he noted that the manifesto would put Canada “out of business,” dismissing out of hand any benefits of local control.

Well and good. The Waffle Manifesto had deep flaws, and the anti-Americanism is patently knee-jerk, if understandable in the context of the Vietnam War and widespread disillusionment of the activities of the global scion of Freedom and Prosperity. The exact operation of a nationalized economy, including questions about who might manage such nationalized firms, are indeed largely left to the imagination. Of course, that may be asking too much of a manifesto. The point is, these specific points were never really addressed.

The Leap Manifesto also leaves open many questions. For instance, the calls for higher taxes on wealthy Canadians leave open questions of capital flight, particularly in an economic climate where wealthy people can easily transfer assets to a more favourable tax regime. Cuts to military spending generate questions about Canada’s role in the world and the importance of international treaty obligations. Whether regions that have heretofore relied heavily on fossil fuel extraction would receive any special subsidies or assistance to help reconfigure their economy also merits thought.

These sorts of questions were not raised in much mainstream media coverage. For symmetry, I’ll stick to the Globe and Mail, though expanding the historical comparison to other papers would undoubtedly be interesting. Firstly, credit is due as the paper did provide an editorial space for Naomi Klein, David Suzuki, Leonard Cohen, Donald Sutherland, and Ellen Page to present a summary of the manifesto’s main arguments. Further, on September 15th reporter Michael Chen offered a relatively neutral overview of the manifesto’s authors and some core aims of the manifesto. He refrained from calling it a utopia.

However, the paper editorial was as breezily dismissive as it was of the Waffle Movement some forty years ago. “Leap Manifesto gets poor marks for timing and content, otherwise fine,” read the editorial headline, mistaking sarcasm for wit. The paper’s prose marked its complacency. The manifesto was “revolutionary (but not in the good sense of the word),” the paper claimed—one must leave a space for good, profitable Creative Destruction, after all. The paper linked the manifesto to Mao and Marx. Is there an easier, lazier way to dismiss an idea for the reader? In 1969, George Bain at least recognized some Canadian strains of socialism, and demonstrated that he had read the Regina Manifesto.

In both cases, political calculus sharply curtailed the discussion that the manifestos sought to create. In both cases, this is partially because of the strategic decisions of the manifesto authors. These documents were meant to inspire political change. The Waffle Movement sought to generate momentum prior to a NDP convention in Winnipeg and generate pressure on the party to shift towards a more socialist position. The Leap Manifesto authors chose to announce it in the midst of our current election campaign, and would have known full well that it would have been swept up in that broader discussion.

In an election, polls are the ultimate signifier of meaning. What would the Leap Manifesto do to Thomas Mulcair, an NDP leader who has been so firm in campaigning from the centre, from assuring skittish voters that an NDP government would be moderate, safe, steady? Who are these selfish pop stars, these vain and reckless public intellectuals who knew full well that an attack on the left would wound their horse in the race? Proving that they had at least read the Communist Manifesto (or, at least, perused the Coles Notes), the Globe editorial board called the Manifesto a “specter” that haunted Mulcair. Pollster Bruce Anderson of Abacus Data put the number of voters who might respond to the Leap Manifesto at around 15%. The greatest political question it generated for him was whether Mulcair could weather the challenge. Ignoring the fact that the Leap Manifesto took pains to discuss economic spin offs, ones that extended to indigenous communities who have so often been neglected by growth, Anderson described the rest of voters as people who “think you can improve the environment and strengthen the economy at the same time.” Putting the question as a binary and confining the concerned party to a distinct minority removes the entire discussion from the political table.

What a dull way to engage with a fundamental debate of our times. It’s reminiscent, though less overtly hostile, of the reactive red baiting faced by the Waffle movement. It’s as predictable as an academic who complains that elections aren’t fought over “real” issues. There is yet time, of course—the election plods on. I’m not particularly optimistic, given the treatment of the TPP during the economic debate. It would be unfair to entirely blame the NDP or other parties—those polls (oh, those polls!) are so close that every party is afraid to make a sharp move. The Leap Manifesto may yet re-emerge after the election, there are indeed strong voices behind it. After all, the Waffle Manifesto shaped Canadian politics for a good two years, until defeated in 1971. It isn’t perfect, it may not even be viable, but it needs serious discussion.

Jonathan McQuarrie is a PhD Candidate at the Department of History, University of Toronto. He tweets about things historical and not at @jrmcquarrie.

2 thoughts on “Waffling over the Leap Manifesto

  1. Carl Stieren

    Indeed, Jonathan McQuarrie wrote a good comparison.

    I too thought that the Leap Manifesto had some obvious weaknesses. Bur on the economic side, I chose “lack of specified funding sources” as rather than Jonathan McQuarrie’s pessimistic term “capital flight.” If we are smart enough to invent carbon credits, we certainly can come up with some other ways to encourage enough capital to get on board with investing in a green economy. When the first round of green investment succeeds, some of the capital that has flown will return, or other capital will take its place.

    As someone old enough to remember when the Waffle Manifesto was written, I think the threat to the NDP was somewhat different then. Then many New Democrats were happy with lunchpail watered-down trade unionist social democracy. The Waffle was to some extent a generational revolt. Today, everyone in the NDP is unhappy with the 2015 election campaign. Some blame Tom Mulcair, some blame the platform. (I would put it as 65% the platform’s fault, 35% Mulcair’s.)

    Unlike the Globe and Mail, I believe the Leap Manifesto had excellent content. The Globe critique did get one thing right: the Leap Manifesto had bad timing – it was the middle of an election campaign, and the NDP had already finalized its campaign platform.

    But there’s an NDP Convention in Edmonton next month. It’s an excellent time to look at the LEAP Manifesto. Why not adopt it and add to it the missing parts – like sources and mechanisms for funding the Green Revolution?

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