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Would Republicans for socialist change be any stranger?

Steve Gowans

only half-facetiously have I decided that one of the best ways to keep abreast of what's happening in the community of people who actually reject the dominant media view -- that we've all arrived in a golden era of sustained prosperity where all is almost as good as it possibly could be-- is to read the Ottawa Citizen. Had I not been flipping through Ottawa's only broadsheet the other day I probably would have never discovered a chimera called the Socialist Caucus of the NDP. Socialists -- real, live, breathing, shit-kicking (well, maybe not shit-kicking) socialists, who want to work toward the radical transformation of Canada from a capitalist to a socialist society, by which they mean one in which major industry is state owned, and therefore, presumably under the control of the electorate (presumably being here the key word.) And get this: the caucus members are planning a trip to Cuba, where major industry is state owned, (its control, though, increasing exponentially as you climb the ladder of Cuban society from the electorate, to the Communist Party, and then past the Party members to the central committee, and then past the central committee, to the...well, you get the idea.) Planning their trip to coincide with May Day, these unreconstructed socialists intend to witness firsthand the achievements of a workers' society. Unfurl the red banners. The NDP's socialists are coming!

Well, this was too interesting to let pass, so I visited their web site,, and much to my surprise I discovered that the Citizen wasn't having me on. Given the paper's penchant for running stories that would be greeted with scepticism in a kindergarten class (Newly discovered undersea wreck could be Noah's ark) I was half expecting that I was about to be led down the garden path -- but no. Unlike Unicorns, this beast really exists.

Stepping into the foyer of the caucus's cyber home I discovered that I could join a discussion forum. That could be interesting. I might find out how this beast was put together -- the head of a socialist, the tail of a social-democrat, the body of a Third Way liberal? Or was it three parts liberal, one part unionist, and a touch Trotskyist?

Quickly reading the discussion forum rules I stopped cold. "Posts advocating quitting the NDP, the creation of alternate and competitive parties to the NDP, as well, the promotion of candidates running against NDPers are not allowed."

Hmm. Was there some reason forum participants might dwell on these issues?

Probably. All you have to do is skim through the caucus's position on capitalism, socialism, and the NDP, written down in a radical sounding "manifesto," to see that people are going to ask one question over and over: Why are these guys in the NDP anyway? And wouldn't they be happier -- and a whole lot more effective -- elsewhere?

Here's a sampling of the manifesto's declarations:

"The structures of the party must be reformed to render impossible a repeat of the experiences of NDP provincial governments, where the parliamentary caucus is able to act independently of, and contrary to, the wishes of the party's membership and elected executive bodies."

"Never again should the NDP leadership be permitted to abandon the goals and policies adopted via the democratic structures established to empower the party's rank and file. There must be a mechanism for direct re-call of leadership."

"One of the greatest sources of weakness of the party is the totally electoralist nature of its policies and strategies. The party should become an activist organization that participates, on an ongoing basis, in the mass mobilizations and extra parliamentary struggles of the workers' movement and allied social movements. Electoral success for a workers' party is prepared between elections."

"To abstain from, or even oppose extra-parliamentary activity, as the current NDP leadership does, is to condemn the party to impotence."

"Nothing more clearly shows the result of the NDP's lurch to the right and its failure to constitute a political barrier to Canadian neo-liberalism than a survey of the practice of the party's provincial sections."

"Nothing more clearly demonstrated the bankruptcy of the party's current practice than the NDP caucus' craven "me-too-ism" in support of NATO's barbaric bombing of Yugoslavia, and its half-hearted and awkward retreat to a "suspend" the bombing position."

Did I get this right? Didn't these guys just slam the party? So why are they in it?

To become a member of the Socialist Caucus you've got to join the NDP; which means paying dues; which means helping to get all those people whose policies the caucus finds reprehensible, elected. Is there not something just a tad askew here?

All these thunderous proclamations..."the party must be reformed"...."never again should the leadership be permitted"...."the party should become"....reminds me of a bunch of twenty-somethings showing up at a seniors home, proclaiming that the Tuesday night socials must be turned into raves, their manifesto turning on a single appeal: reclaim your youth!

I can imagine the objection: "But we're working for change from within!"

Within what?

Could there be such a thing as Republicans for Socialist Change? Would it be any stranger?

And why bother trying to seize control of a party dominated by groups implacably opposed to socialism? Why not just create a new party -- a socialist, radical party, committed to extra-parliamentary activism, with structures in place to keep the party under the control of the grassroots? Here's the choice: hold your own rave or try to convince the old folks that they should be holding raves that you can join.

Are these guys like all those left-leaning Democrats in the US who just can't abide the idea of abandoning the Democrats, long after the Democrats abandoned them? Or are they like teenagers who don't want to get a job to save for a car but figure they can get a Firebird by convincing dad to buy one for himself and lend them the keys?

Ah, but there will be another objection: The last thing we need on the Left is more sectarianism.

True, but if the caucus doesn't think the NDP is on the Left (and they don't), how could breaking with the NDP fracture the Left? Isn't there a greater danger that part of the Left could be stifled inside a right wing party whose sole remaining connection to the Left is the memory its name evokes? What better way for the neo-liberal Juggernaut to roll on than to put the opposition into a room where it can issue innocuous but revolutionary sounding manifestos to itself. Can't you hear the party elite? "My God, are these people out of touch, or what? I guess, every party has its loose cannons, and we're not going to be outdone. Just don't let them get the keys to the car."

Nothing, it seems to me, could be more enervating than to channel the efforts of people who are working to address the roots of persistent problems like poverty, unemployment, war, inequality and political alienation into electing the NDP's neoliberals, hoping that someday the party might return to its roots. Rather than wasting time trying to convince the party elite to pursue another course, maybe the left wing of the party should be advocating socialism outside, rather than pointlessly, within the NDP.

You could do worse than to suggest that the kinds of decisions today's NDP makes can be traced to a desire in the highest reaches of the party to avoid a certain kiss of death at the polls: being ridiculed and scorned in the press. And since the press is controlled by the people who own and control the economy, avoiding the press’ scorn means not trampling too vigorously, if at all, on established views. Which is pretty well another way of saying that the NDP, like any other party that needs to curry favour with business and the press to get elected, is not controlled by the party's grassroots (something the Socialist Caucus acknowledges) and never will be in a process dominated -- not by the cogency of one's arguments or political heritage or what's right and good or by what people want -- but by money.

Maybe the Socialist Caucus clings to the NDP as Coke might cling to its brand. If you want to sell a lot of soft drinks you need a widely recognized name. One with, what marketers call, sound brand equity -- and the NDP has that: a widely recognized brand that means something to Canadians. Not something favourable to a lot of them, but something at least. The best chances for success, it would seem, might be found in investing the existing brand with its original meaning. Kind of like old Coke.

And there may be a lot of merit to the idea. The leadership of the party says that by moving to the right, in say, offering tax cuts to propitiate "tax-weary" Canadians who are demanding lower taxes, that it's simply moving toward the main stream. Except the mainstream isn't here defined as the mainstream of Canadian society, where, in fact, calls for tax cuts are rarely heard above concern over the gashes taken out of social programs, or hope that social programs will be restored to full health even if it means higher taxes. Instead, mainstream means the mainstream of established political opinion, as defined by the mainstream press, reflecting the views of mainstream Bay St. Mainstream is escaping the ridicule of William Thorsel, the Globe and Mail's editor. Mainstream, in fact, is not mainstream at all.

Doubtlessly, a socialist-leaning NDP could resonate with Canadians, but -- and yes, this is paradoxical -- its chances of being elected in socialist guise are as slim as the chances that Stockwell Day will soon be invited to join the Shrinking Violets' Society. Elections are marketing battles, in which policies matter little, and personalities, character, visibility, and the prowess -- and resources -- of the marketing emince-grises who run the campaigns -- matter most.

And there's another branding issue. Socialism, not its commitment to egalitarianism and democracy, but the name itself, filled with innumerable dark suspicions by decades of hostile propaganda, doesn't sell in Canada.

Change domination of the political process, of the press, of the bureaucracy, and ultimately of parliament, by business, and a socialist caucus in the NDP might make sense.

But until then I'm betting that the chances of Noah's Ark resting on some sea bed somewhere are better than the chances that the Socialist Caucus -- a group whose presumed radical orientation might lead it to examine the reasons why the NDP has lurched to the right, and then, to come to grips with those reasons at the roots -- will pull a socialist rabbit out of the NDP hat.

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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