Every Provincial or Federal Election in Canada the Left is posed with the same question: how should we relate to the New Democratic Party (NDP)? And should we vote NDP despite the fact that year after year the NDP has moved more and more to the Centre and abandoned its historical democratic socialist and social democratic heritage and principles? I intend to dedicate this blog post and an 1-2 more to thinking through what should be my own position in respect to the coming elections. I very much welcome discussion and debate about this issue because I am still trying to develop my own position and have no fixed opinion on the matter. In this post I will be outlining the approaches that different sections of the Left are taking in respect to the upcoming Federal Elections.
Before I continue I will put my cards on the table: 1) I have never voted despite having been of voting age for quite a while; 2) during the 2011 Federal Elections I was an active advocate for boycotting the elections; 3) I do not think that there is any democratic road to socialism, but am coming to believe that elections may be useful in different conjunctures (I waver on the issue); and 4) I do not think that the NDP is a worker’s party or a socialist party. Indeed, I regard the NDP to be a reformist party, albeit a right-wing variation of a reformist party. Stathis Kouvelakis’ argues a useful definition of reformism in his recent debate with Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers’ Party in the UK, reformism is “a coherent political project that seeks to improve the conditions for the working class and to obtain material and broader gains for that class within the framework of capitalism. It sees a kind of social compromise with capitalism that is partially, but concretely, favourable to the working class … It cannot go beyond capitalism. In a way it would be foolish to ask them to go beyond capitalism because this is not what their project was about. Their project was to build the welfare state and maintain it.” When contrasted to the situation in the 1970’s in Canada, it becomes apparent that the NDP today is to the right of the Liberal Party then, and much further to the right of the historical NDP. Furthermore, it is also clear that the NDP when it has formed provincial governments has regularly repressed workers’ movements and introduced neo-liberal policies. This has only become worse in since the intentionally Blairite turn inaugurated by Jack Layton, but deepened by Thomas Mulcair (Vice Magazine journalist Tannara Yelland has recently written article to this effect, which is available here). Indeed, rather than a social democratic party, the NDP should be regarded to be a social liberal party.
Simultaneously, however, I do not think we can, or should, simply flatten out the reforms being proposed by the NDP and not properly contrast them against the status quo under Stephen Harper. Admitting that there may be marginal improvements being granted by a reformist party does not mean that boycotting elections is not an useful tactic, but admitting that these reforms are possible and IF (and this is a big if) implemented would make a meaningful difference in workers’ lives. Indeed, a small example, I know a number of people who could not have become permanent residents, and subsequently citizens, under Harper’s revised immigration laws, but could under the previous immigration laws established by the Liberals. This is a tangible difference for tens of thousands of people who constitute the “hardcore of the proletariat.”
In this post, I wanted to give my preliminary analysis of the situation in Toronto, which can perhaps be applied with a number of caveats to the rest of Canada. By Canada I explicitly do not include the First Nations. Indeed, I think that the question of Canadian elections has a very different set of implications and stakes for First Nations peoples and movements, which requires us to distinguish between the different tactics that are appropriate in any given context. The rest of the post outline the different relationships that the Left does/can have to the NDP.
Current Situation: In Toronto to large effect there is social peace and the situation is “non-revolutionary.” These are the historical conditions not of our own choosing and as one can tell, the situation is far from excellent and is rather abysmal. I would like to note from the outset that the social movement Left in Toronto is incredibly hard-working and dedicated, and that the analysis that follows is not intended to take away from that. The social movements remain small and weak, but are able to mobilise about 500-1000 people as a broad milieu. In exceptional cases, like the bombing of Gaza or the 2003 protests against the American invasion of Iraq, the latter of which saw mobilisations of approximately 40,000 people on the streets, larger and more popular sections of the city’s populace have engaged in protest. Furthermore, in the main, there is little in the way of street militancy during demonstrations. OCAP and NOII have on occasion used direction action, and have been able to make meaningful victories. However, they, like the rest of the Left, struggle to appeal more broadly to the city’s populace. The trade union movement remains in decline and strike activity low. And there is little spontaneous action on the part of the masses as a whole, except in the case of police brutality (and more recently, from a conservative standpoint, against the new sex education curriculum).
Ideologically within the mass movements, especially the trade union movement, there is a general adherence to social-democratic ideas, although there exists an approximate 400-500 people committed to various forms of Left politics including anarchism, Trotskyism and movementism. Furthermore, the counter-culture remains largely non-revolutionary in character and is divided among numerous different subcultures. Amongst the general population the ideological formation is either a socially liberal financial conservatism, which votes for any of the three bourgeois parties, or a general disinterest in politics. There is little imagination of something else than various forms of capitalism; indeed, it is vital that we not misunderstand a disinterest in politics as a disdain for capitalism, rather, in most cases it relies on a complete tacit acceptance of capitalism.
The Maoist movement and its influence are next to non-existent in all spheres. Indeed, it can be regarded as being within the first moments of life. Whilst the movement correctly identifies the need to organise the hardcore of the proletariat it does not have the capacity, skills or resources to do so. Nor does it have the capacity to mobilise a movement of its own, whether student, worker or boycott. It remains largely removed and absent from any existed large or small social movement, although notable exceptions include the “Defend the TYP” campaign at UofT and the 2015 CUPE 3902-3903 strike. It however, has been able to replicate the basic elements of the Marxist sect life that is characteristic of the city, which is indeed an accomplishment considering the situation a few short years prior, through a regular discussion and study group format. It’s members remain largely centred in the education sector.
Relationship to the NDP: Typically the Left, as small as it is, either has one of the following six positions in respect to the NDP. For the rest of the post I will outline what are the different positions (I have added some initial commentary to each section):
- Entryism: this is the set of tactics broadly derived from Leon Trotsky’s “French Turn,” which argues that the Left should enter into social democratic and democratic socialist organisations (although in some countries like France, Trotskyists have entered into the French Communist Party) – what Fight Back (the Canadian section of the International Marxist Tendency) refers to as the historic parties of the working class – to form factions or tendencies and win over the most advanced workers to the socialist cause (their latest analysis of the elections can be found here). Ideally at some future undetermined date this will cause a polarisation inside the social democratic/democratic socialist organisation, which will cause a split in said organisation and result in the Left forces having increased their relative strength. This logic is evident when keeping Stathis’ definition of the reformist party and its historic goal: “Therefore, those who look to defeat the hated Harper Conservatives need to start organizing now for the next stage of the struggle. The first task is to defeat the Tories, the next task is to defeat austerity. Only a mass movement of workers and youth can counteract the opposition of the bosses and ensure that the positive reforms in the NDP platform are implemented. This movement must necessarily reach both inside and outside the NDP, with the unions playing an important role. Only a mass movement can stop the (potential) NDP government from capitulating to corporate interests and attacking the public sector and the wider working class like Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government.” Furthermore, during electoral season, some entryists try to run socialist candidates wherever possible as members of said historic parties and offer critical support to the party as a whole. Thus, Barry Weisleder and Socialist Action have entered into the NDP to form the Socialist Caucus, which actively supports the NDP in its electoral campaigns, whilst criticising it publicly for having abandoned its “socialist” principles. Barry Weisleder has been able to use this position to gain some publicity for himself and the Socialist Caucus (see a recent National Post article that is heavily based on an interview with him here). Fight Back similarly has typically entered into the Ontario New Democratic Youth in order to win over young activists, and have worked for Linda McQuaig’s campaign given her generally progressive politics. Fight Back has been somewhat successful in winning over some youth NDP members to Fightback. The historical analogy that Fightback rely on was the experience of The Militant Tendency in the Labour Party in the UK. I do not think that this set of tactics is particularly effective at this juncture given the weakness of the mass movements as a whole. Indeed, I do think that at a certain point, it may be necessary split the NDP into a Left and Right-wing, however, I do not think that the conditions for that split exist.
- External Critical Support: This position, often an unstated one, is most commonly adopted by the Left actively involved in the social movements (I would like to point readers to Alan Sears’ recent article, “The NDP: Historic Breakthrough or More of the Same?” for the New Socialist Webzine in which he articulates what I regard to be as the characteristic arguments of this position). In this case, activists vote for the NDP or the Greens (depending on their personal predilections), but do not join either party or work within their structures. Rather, they maintain political autonomy from all the parties, but work with NDP activists and MPs/MPPs on common issues where agreement can be found. These activists typically have no illusions about the NDP and its platform, but regard it to be the least worst of the available options. Many argue that given the fact that the NDP’s strength comes from the trade unions that the NDP remains ostensibly a working class party (they share this argument with the entryists). It should be noted that this is however not a formal set of tactics in the manner of the entryists inasmuch that I know of no case in which an entire social movement or social movement organisation, like NOII or OCAP, that has deliberately agreed upon such a relationship. Given that this position has not been voted for/against, it is not implemented uniformly across any given social movement (indeed, many cannot bring themselves to vote and thus fall into the third position of abstentionism).
- Run against the NDP: This is a strategy typically adopted by the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) or the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada (MLPC), and is their attempt to follow Lenin’s “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.” Given their small size they do not enter into formal coalition with the NDP. Both use the elections as a way of spreading their political message and building political hegemony (see for example the CPC’s commentary on the elections from their recent Political Report here). The CPC in the 2011 elections ran in 20 ridings and was able to gather 2894 votes (which is down by 800 votes from the 2008 elections), which is roughly 0.03% of the vote. The MLPC on the other hand ran in 70 ridings in the last elections, got 10160 votes (which was 1400 more votes than they got in 2008), which is roughly 0.067% of the vote. I must admit that I am not particularly sure how the MLPC is able to a) get more candidates to run than the CPC; and b) more votes than the CPC. Effectively this suggests that – according to Lenin’s reasons for being involved in elections i.e. to measure the mood of the masses – that the CPC is more out of touch with the Canadian working class than the MLPC. I think that the use of elections may become necessary at a certain stage in the class struggle, but that it seems to be relatively ineffective at this stage in the class struggle (to be clear once again, there is no democratic road to socialism, but elections can be used for propaganda purposes when a party has sufficient support).
- Abstentionism: This is the other default position of a sizeable section of the Left. These Leftists, like those who advocate for critical support, are active in social movements and are knowledgable about the flaws of the NDP and the Green party, and regard both parties to be too conservative to vote for. Indeed, they deem voting for the NDP as being too radical a compromise of their own politics and feel like voting for the NDP shuts down discussions about other possibilities for political action. Instead, they argue that rather than focus on the electoral circus that happens every four or so years one should critique all three mainstream parties for being anti-working class parties; when asked state that they have no intention to vote for any of the parties given their records in government and the poverty of their political programmes; and in their actions and critique of the NDP emphasise the need to build a strong working class movement apart from the electoral process. They, like the boycott and spoil-your-ballot advocates, tend to de-emphasise the significance of the reforms being proposed by the NDP. I am quite sympathetic to this position.
- Boycott: This is a strategy that has been most heavily promoted by the Revolutionary Communist Party (Canada) and the small groups of workers, feminists and students that they have organised into committees/movements that generally follow their line (their latest issue of The Red Flag available here is dedicated to this issue). This argument is a stronger version of the abstention argument. Pointing to the fact that a large section of the working class is not involved in the electoral process, which the RCP(Canada) regards as a “passive boycott,” they call for an “active boycott” of the elections. They point to the fact that all of the mainstream parties are in fact bourgeois parties and have programmes that offer little to the working class and effectively maintain the status quo. Indeed, unlike Alan Sears, they adopt the other conclusion that he mentions but seems to dismiss: “unless we conclude that it has been so transformed by neoliberalism that it no longer has any meaningful connection to working-class resistance.” Furthermore, the RCP(Canada) and their allies argue that the NDP’s proposed reforms are largely inconsequential for a number of reasons, thus dismissing them altogether. The RCP(Canada) thus prefer to use the elections as a propaganda tool to promote revolutionary politics through the promotion of an “active boycott.” This “active boycott” is supposedly materialised in the building of either the boycott committees in neighbourhoods or the individual organisations that support the RCP(Canada) (like the Revolutionary Students Movement, the Proletarian Feminist Front, and the Proletarian Revolution Action Committees) on the basis of a revolutionary politics. In the case of the boycott committees in neighbourhoods these are supposed to the very nascent beginnings of dual power in the neighbourhoods. In the case of the latter, they are ideally able to attract workers, feminists or students, who have already arrived at a radical politics – the so-called “advanced” – and organise them into said mass organisation. The boycott call is also used by many supporters and sympathisers of the RCP(Canada) to draw a line between themselves and the rest of the Left, and often results in members accusing other members of the Left who do not agree with them about the efficacy of boycotting the elections of being softly pro-imperialist or as “liberals pretending to be radicals.” I think that the boycott tactic can be useful, however, it needs to be organised within a very carefully delineated set of limits (for example, I strongly disagree with the use of the boycott position as a way of demarcating themselves from the rest of the Left, especially using the morally charged language just cited; nor do I think that boycotting elections is a break from bourgeois legality). This is something that I will discuss at greater length in the next blog post.
- Spoil your ballot: This is a position that is pushed by the International Bolshevik Tendency (their position paper on the recent UK elections offers in broad strokes their analysis for Canadian elections as well. It is available here.) They argue that the working class should not vote for the NDP because it is a bourgeois party, and the reforms being offered are unsubstantial, like the abstentionists and the boycott advocates. However, unlike the abstentionists and the boycott advocates they argue that workers’ should go and spoil their ballot. They argue that there is little difference between abstention and boycott, and that any results from either is quickly drowned by the sizeable section of people who do not vote for a variety of reasons (including not having time to vote, being too lazy etc). Indeed, going and spoiling one’s ballot becomes a clear protest vote inasmuch that the person has gone to the trouble of going to a voting centre and spoiling their ballot. Furthermore, they pointed out that the spoiled ballot is then counted as such and is a clearer marker of levels of protest with the bourgeois options. If in areas where they organise there is significant growth in spoiled ballots then they can gauge their relative strength in a given area. Indeed, if there are sufficient spoiled ballots it may even suggest that the working class is ready to run a proper communist candidate in a given riding. I think that this strategy also makes a lot of sense.
Having given a very preliminary analysis of the conjuncture in Toronto and outlined the different positions that the Left has with the NDP in the next post I wish to deal with the question whether one should boycott the elections or not. I wish to dwell on this approach because of my own endorsement of this position in the past. Indeed, I really want to think through a) whether or not voting is actually a break from bourgeois legality; b) the reforms being proposed by the NDP are as inconsequential as suggested by the abstentionists, the boycott advocates, and those in favour of spoiling their ballot; c) what are the conditions necessary for an effective boycott campaign; and finally d) whether a boycott campaign should be used as not only an organising tactic for organising unaffiliated radicalised workers, feminists and students, but also as an example of demarcating oneself from the rest of the Left.