Backward as Forward: Reflections on Canada’s “Modern” Political Scene

By Christine McLaughlin

Tommy Douglas, C.M. Fines and Clarence Gillis following the 1944 CCF victory in Saskatchewan. Original Source: Saskatchewan Archives Board

Tommy Douglas, C.M. Fines and Clarence Gillis following the 1944 CCF victory in Saskatchewan.
Original Source: Saskatchewan Archives Board

While it is too soon for the historian to comment on the long-term effects of recent changes on the Canadian political landscape, the larger rightward shift is perhaps best evidenced by the federal New Democratic Party’s decision to “modernize” its constitution at its recent convention by “toning down” references to socialism. Pointing to “pragmatic” economic policies that made the convention floor, one MP went so far as to say “the party is growing up.” It is indicative of our own modern times that alternatives to liberal and neoliberal orthodoxy can be so readily cast as anti-modern. This Whig style of history-telling, which presupposes improvement as natural to the passage of time, is not just questionable history; it obscures the many ways history can and does repeat itself, widening the path for us to repeat its mistakes. Framing a political shift to the right as “modernization” is arguably much more suited to Orwell’s 1984 than 2013.

While socialism and capitalism are often posited as mutually exclusive, it is important to note that most twentieth-century political experiments have combined elements of both, from the state-run capitalism of the Soviet Union to the limited social programs implemented in the United States of America, virtually every modern nation-state has combined socialist and capitalist elements to varying degrees.

Neoliberalism in its current form, on the other hand, is incompatible with even the most limited forms of socialism, in that it is based in unfettered free market ideology. The “neo” is something of a misnomer here, in that this political ideology very much harkens back to nineteenth century classical liberalism. Indeed, in the 1930s, when the failure of free market orthodoxy achieved widespread consensus, neoliberalism was used to describe what was then a new form of liberalism, one which promoted a social market economy, where state regulation and management of the economy was viewed as a modern solution to an outmoded economic system. The rise of socialism in this period also played a key role in shifting liberal economic theory to the left.

This was evidenced in Canada by the founding of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1932. Forming the first social democratic government in North America in 1944, its growth in popularity in this decade pulled the Liberal Party of Canada to the left, leading them to adopt many elements of the CCF platform to maintain electoral power.

Of course, the CCF, and its successor, the NDP, have rarely campaigned or governed on pure socialist principles. As some historians illustrate, social democrats in Canada have a storied history of virulent anti-communist thought and action. As Murray Cooke aptly illustrates, the party also has a long history of attempting to redefine itself, subsequently distancing itself from its more radical roots. Ian Milligan’s exploration of past and present CCF and NDP policy illustrates how the party line has shifted over time. Its current policies are much more moderate than those put forward by its founders.

Yet, despite the moderating tone of Canada’s social democratic party over the course of the twentieth century, and its inability to gain electoral power on the federal scene, this third party has had a significant impact on the nation’s political, social and economic culture. In contrast to the two-party system of the United States, where social gains were subsequently much more limited, Canada’s political culture and national identity have been more deeply tied to left-leaning policies and practices. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than with Canada’s system of socialized healthcare, which has become so deeply ingrained in national consciousness that even the most hardcore supporters of neoliberal orthodoxy – in rhetoric if not in practice – the Conservative Party of Canada, must pay continued lip service to this socialist ideal. This is because an overwhelming majority of Canadians continue to believe that human health and well-being should come before personal profit, and that our ability to live a long, healthy life should not be determined by socioeconomic status. This is a form of social ownership in action, and one example of how social democracy in Canada has become part of its national fabric.

Granted, the new preamble to the NDP constitution recognizes its “social democratic and democratic socialist traditions,” but so too is this tradition largely relegated to the past, as the party commits to a future that acknowledges only its  “best…insights and objectives,” leaving quite a bit of room for interpretive flexibility. Gone now are references to social ownership; instead, New Democrats “believe in a rules based economy.” In essence, federal New Democrats have discursively embraced mid-twentieth century liberalism.

Analyses of the long-term effects of this on the Canadian political tradition are best left to future historians. Will this be cast as another plank in Ian McKay’s liberal order framework in Canadian history? Will the Liberal Party of Canada maintain their longstanding adherence to twentieth-century liberalism, or will they revert even further back to the “new” form of nineteenth-century liberalism that has regained increasing global domination in recent decades? Will this be a first step towards returning to a two-party state in Canada?

One fact remains: there is absolutely nothing “modern” about adopting a political ideology that is almost a century old, and which dates back to the same era that the CCF was founded. Framing this shift as “modernization” is an insult to the many people who dedicated their lives to building a real alternative to liberalism in its many forms. It leaves them as the “unperson,” vapourized from the “modern” political record, their history and role in a larger project of modernity erased. It doesn’t get much more Orwellian than that.

Christine McLaughlin is a PhD Candidate in History at York University and Co-Editor of






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4 thoughts on “Backward as Forward: Reflections on Canada’s “Modern” Political Scene

  1. Samuel Wood

    Thanks for this post on the NDP’s own review of history. I wonder though if even the neo-liberals really want to return to the nineteenth-century model. After all, that would mean eliminating many of the subsidies that go to industry and agriculture as well as the implicit guarantees behind banks to big to fail. But perhaps there were subsidies in the 19th century just of structured differently. What do you think? My bet is that they would have been smaller than those presently supporting the “free market”.

    Minor quibble: para 5 – isn’t the NDP “successor” the the CCF?

  2. Christine McLaughlin Post author

    That’s a great point, Samuel. As my reviewer for this pointed out, the Conservative neoliberal discourse is complicated by the interventionist strategy they’ve adopted in practice – he pointed to the economic development plan, particularly in regard to the resource sector, as a good example of this. But they’ve certainly embraced a neoliberal rhetoric, even if this isn’t always realized in practice. Thanks for catching my typo!

  3. Barry

    NDP’s slide to the right sparks socialist opposition
    by Barry Weisleder

    Despite the move to water down the reference to socialism in the Federal New Democratic Party Constitution, the word remains, as does the working class nature of the party. Indeed, socialism is still both a very lively topic and an active movement within the NDP.
    The party leadership certainly pushed hard to limit debate and to re-shape the party in its own image. But socialists had a higher profile at the NDP convention in Montreal, April 12-14, than in recent years.
    To be sure, the convention was a kind of love-in for NDP chief and Leader of the Official Opposition in Parliament, Tom Mulcair. Appetite for the perks of government office fueled a wave of opportunism and attracted an array of party boosters and young career-seekers.
    It was the biggest-ever NDP federal convention. Over 2000 delegates registered. Typically, about 1200 were on the convention floor to vote on motions. Despite media hype about the inevitability of the NDP choosing to ‘moderate’ its message, and the high cost of a delegate’s credential (up to $400), it was surprising to see the extent of the support for the radical left.
    Twenty-eight per cent of the delegates present for the election of NDP Treasurer voted for Socialist Caucus candidate John Orrett.
    Sixteen per cent voted to retain the constitution preamble, with its call for social ownership of the economy, with its insistence that “production and distribution of goods and services be directed to meeting social and individual needs” and “not to the making of profit.”
    The Socialist Caucus received massive mainstream media coverage for its initiatives and policies. SC spokespersons were frequently interviewed by CBC, Global, CTV, CPAC, Sun Media, Huffington Post, La Presse, Toronto Star, National Post, Globe and Mail, and others.
    SC floor interventions, firstly to amend the convention agenda in favour of providing more time for policy debate, and later, to alter a resolution on ‘pipeline safety’ to include opposition to any new pipeline construction, failed to get sufficient traction. But another SC referral motion produced a high point for the left.
    Etobicoke Centre youth delegate and Youth for Socialist Action chairperson Tyler MacKinnon argued for a party campaign to abolish all post-secondary tuition fees. He called for solidarity with movements demanding an end to fees and a halt to the police repression they faced in the streets of Quebec in 2012. Tyler’s motion carried, but only after a delegate demanded a ‘standing count’, which showed over 60 per cent in favour. While the referred (amended) resolution did not come back to the floor for approval, the vote registered a stinging rebuke of the party establishment.
    Delegates and observers showed a keen interest in socialist ideas. They snapped up over 1,100 copies of the glossy, full-colour SC magazine Turn Left, and donated over $200 to support it. They spent another $200 on individual copies of Socialist Action newspaper, as well as associated radical buttons and booklets.
    A bright orange banner proved to be a lightening rod for protest against the pro-capitalist party tops. The Socialist Caucus displayed a wide cloth anti-war slogan on the concourse Saturday morning, and again at lunch time. It galvinized opposition to the invitation of guest speaker Jeremy Bird, National Field Director for the U.S. Democratic Party who headed President Barack Obama’s re-election bid in 2012.
    The banner proclaimed, in English and French, “Stop Obama’s Drone Wars”. Scores of supporters, notably South Asian and visible minority delegates, defended it in the face of persistent efforts by officials to remove it. SC comrades and other delegates held their ground against threats of all kinds, including that security personnel and police would be asked to intervene. The three-hour stand-off backfired on the party brass who were seen as petty control freaks by the bemused national media.
    It wasn’t the only example of undemocratic measures deployed by party controllers. They allowed no display booths on site, except for the social democratic Broadbent Institute, and a group of party authors promoting a book. Participants witnessed the stacking of the Persons With Disabilities Caucus, one of many equity-seeking group meetings, with non-disabled voters who arrived just moments prior to its election of reps to the Federal party executive and council. Was this just to defeat an SC candidate?
    A top party bureaucrat temporarily ‘lifted’ this writer’s delegate credential for being one of dozens booing Jeremy Bird when the latter was introduced on stage. National Director Nathan Rotman reversed himself when MP Niki Ashton, who had addressed the SC forum on Friday evening, protested his punitive move, and after the mass media got hold of the issue. Rotman did not apologize for exceeding his authority, so more nonsense in this vein can be expected.
    Most of the resolutions adopted at convention were strictly non-controversial. Indeed, many passed unanimously. These included: putting a halt to tax havens, promoting farm commodity supply management, reversing cuts to employment insurance, enshrining a pro-active pay equity regime in law, and providing more predictable funding for VIA Rail.
    SC resolutions (on pipelines, corporate trade deals, Iran, Palestine, public ownership of banks and industry, Quebec self-determintion, etc.), some submitted by multiple district associations, were ranked so low they would not be debated. Even the issue re-prioritization panels on the Friday morning were stacked deep by pro-establishment delegates.
    Tellingly, a resolution on the rights of sex workers, submitted by a Vancouver district body, made it to the floor, but was referred to federal council for more study by MP Libby Davies, ostensibly to avoid ‘a divisive debate’, a move that disgusted many progressive activists.
    The Socialist Caucus held three public forums at the Convention Centre during meal breaks. The topics were “Quebec and the NDP, and Why Quebec Students are in the streets again”, “The Fight to keep Socialism in the NDP Constitution”, and “Canadian Military intervention in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean – Where does the NDP stand?”. The meetings attracted 30 to 70 delegates. Thirty-six people signed up to join the socialists at the convention. A similar number applied to join the leftist caucus via the inter net.
    With a general election expected in 2015, delegates gave Mulcair a 92 per cent approval vote. The 8 per cent who nonetheless voted for a leadership review can be considered the hard core base of the SC, with support for the organized left reaching 20 to 30 per cent for certain initiatives and candidates. This is not inconsiderable, if projected across an NDP membership of 120,000 country-wide.
    Overall, the NDP continues on its liberal policy course. Justin Trudeau, who was crowned Liberal Party Leader in Ottawa that same weekend, mocked the direction of the NDP towards his own Bay Street-backed party when he referred to it as a case of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
    To be sure, the new pro-market preamble is a setback to labour and the left. But the NDP, which was never socialist, has not changed its stripes. It remains a labour-based reformist party to which millions of workers look. It is still the only game in town for independent working class electoral/political action. And within that game, socialism is very much a player, looking for reinforcements from the social protest movements, and from the leftist political sidelines.

    Opposing the attack on Socialism in the NDP
    The floor debate on the amendment to the NDP Constitution was terminated on Sunday morning after only four speakers, two pro and two con. This farcical short circuit meant that most of the arguments against the change were not heard, including the following one:
    The amendment must be rejected for three reasons. It is undemocratic. It is unprincipled. And it obscures our roots.
    Nearly two years ago, in Vancouver, where convention delegates spurned the attempt to remove socialism, party officials promised extensive consultation and debate. What happened? Nine days before convention this amendment was foisted upon us. Apparently, the consultations did not extend beyond the backrooms.
    Principles belong in a constitution. But it’s hard to find any principles in this text. Oh, it says we are for “a society that shares its benefits more fairly”. It says we “believe in freedom and democracy”. Could it be any more vague? Is this the party of Tommy Douglas or Justin Trudeau?
    The new text doesn’t talk about the real world. It doesn’t mention the widening gap between the super-rich and the 99%. It doesn’t relate to a world still reeling from economic depression, at risk of environmental disaster, and on the brink of nuclear war.
    The amendment offers platitudes in place of solutions. It calls for “a rules based economy”. But what about the rule of big business? What about empowering the majority to run the economy so that production can be democratically planned to serve human need rather than private greed?
    The closest this feeble statement comes to proposing a strategy is its promise “to address the limitations of the market”.
    Well, sisters and brothers, I ask you this. When Barrick Gold poisons the lands of indigenous peoples in Canada or Peru, is that just a limitation of the market? When luxury condo towers crowd the waterfront while thousands are homeless, is that just a market glitch? When Big Pharma robs medicare, when RBC outsources work to depress wages, when the right to strike exists – except when workers try to use it, is that just a market error? When banksters and bosses stash their cash, and replace factories with casinos, is that just a flaw in an otherwise benevolent system? Or do all those things, in fact, reveal the very essence of capitalism?
    One of the most popular NDP MPPs ever, Peter Kormos, never shied away from naming the enemy, and he never hesitated to call himself a socialist. The same was true for Dan and Alice Heap. Svend Robinson famously called capitalism a rabid dog that should be put down. Tommy Douglas said our goal is “public ownership and development of our basic resources in the interest of all”.
    New Democrats want a constitution that has goals that inspire us to rise above ourselves. The motion before us is a sham. Let’s defeat it. Let’s keep the principle of social ownership at the heart of the NDP.

    Reasons to amend the Convention Agenda in favour of more time for policy debate, instead of a pro-war regime guest speaker

    Chair, I move that the Convention Agenda be amended by re-allocating the time on Saturday, 3:45 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. to policy debate.
    Sisters and brothers, from across this huge country we have come to set a course for the NDP, to discuss and adopt policies in the interests of working people, and to continue the struggle for social justice. Sadly, less than half of the plenary time of convention is devoted to policy debate by our grassroots delegates.
    It would be a shame to squander precious convention time by hosting an election strategist for the American political party responsible for delivering trillions of dollars to Wall Street and the Pentagon, and filling America’s jails with Blacks, Latinos, Arabs and Muslims.
    Party officials made this mistake in Halifax in 2009, and they’ve done it again. It is an insult to the founders of the party, and to all of its activists, to import and feature an apologist for the pro-war, pro-corporate bail-out Obama administration in Washington.
    Saying Mit Romney was worse than Obama, does not make Obama a friend of the working class or oppressed minorities. Obama’s “gift” to workers and the poor is austerity, and an “economic draft” that perpetuates U.S. military occupation and drone wars around the world. In 2000, the Pentagon had less than 50 drones. In 2010 that number was 7,500 – an increase of 15,000 per cent.
    We don’t need Jeremy Bird, Obama’s National Field Director and re-election strategist, to lecture NDPers on the virtues of the American bi-partisan political system. If delegates want to hear a Bird, they can tweet him.
    The NDP and labour are not here to take instruction from the political hacks of the White House. But we do have some good advice for our American sisters and brothers, for our dear American fellow workers. Follow the example of the NDP. Form an independent political party based on your unions. Break with the Democratic Party, the grave yard of every progressive social movement since the days of Lincoln. Fight for a Workers’ Agenda. Join us in the effort to put an end to capitalist recession, to wars and environmental destruction. Together, let’s create a global cooperative commonwealth.

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