On September 3 2011, the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP) rescinded the candidacy of Barry Weisleder, who had won the provincial nomination for the riding of Thornhill.
This action generated ripples of controversy amongst left-leaning New Democrats. Weisleder, a party member for over forty years and current chair of the self-styled NDP “Socialist Caucus” has a long and storied reputation as an agitator for state-socialist policies within the NDP, and has often served as a thorn in the side of the party's increasingly centrist leadership.
This is not the first time the NDP leadership has intervened to quash gains made by radicals working within the party's rank-and-file; in October 2010, attendants of the Ontario New Democratic Youth (ONDY) convention in Hamilton voted the “Slate for a Democratic and Activist ONDY” – comprised of a number of Trotskyist and Democratic Socialist activists, largely connected to the Toronto Young New Democrats – into nearly every executive position standing for election. A couple of weeks later the NDP establishment rescinded the results of the convention. New elections, held in Toronto in November 2010, resulted in the activist slate’s defeat. Leftist activists at the Toronto convention noted that the makeup of the audience was heavily weighted towards bureaucratic elements of the NDP and CFS. This second convention produced mixed results; while the NDP establishment conceded TYND’s right to exist, they also ensured that the ONDY executive would be composed of loyalists firmly within the influence of the party's bureaucracy.
These examples bear out the tremendous difficulties in articulating a radical socialist discourse within a party that no longer embodies the legacy of the Socialist/Labour alliance established between the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Weisleder, who has been a steward of the NDP left for decades, belongs to a school of Trotskyism that embraces the “entryism” tactic of organizing revolutionary state-socialist activists within mainstream social democratic labour parties. This tendency zealously defends the so-called “working class composition” of labour parties such as the NDP, and in doing so often fails to recognize how political parties have changed their objective role in the overarching narrative of class struggle.
Traditionally the NDP has been seen as the “official” voice of the labour movement. It is often praised for its role in establishing universal healthcare – a program rightly cherished by ordinary working people. While acknowledging the role played by the CCF/NDP in the drafting of our current single-payer healthcare system, the many gains made by the working class during this period are better understood as reflective of changes in the norms of governance – namely a new social contract between labour, state and business, and the increasing acceptance of state planning and government intervention in the market economy. In Ontario, for instance, it was not so much the NDP, but rather the “Big Blue Machine” of the provincial Tories that brought in the social and economic reforms of the post-war period. With the financial regime of Keynesian economics ruling the day, capitalists were willing to give space for social programs in exchange for the political stability of labour peace. Over the coming decades, as the agenda of the political and economic elites has shifted, the social-democratic reforms of the Keynesian period have come under steady attack by the rise of neo-liberal ideology.
During the 80s and 90s, the NDP found itself at a crossroads. At the time, it still based its electoral program on the logic of state-capitalist policies – a strategy that no longer made sense given the context of a hyper-competitive world market in which states competed to present lower wages and tax rates as incentives to an increasingly globalized capitalist class. In the face of this neo-liberal onslaught, social-democratic parties world-wide chose to abandon their former socialist aspirations and embrace the emergent economic reality. In Canada, this shift has culminated in the NDP's constant obsession over pocket change issues and their complete unwillingness to challenge the international austerity regime that has emerged in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.
The Federal and Ontario NDP's abandonment of their socialist roots echoes the wider historical failure of social democratic electoralism as a vehicle for revolutionary change. The problem with electoralism as a viable strategy stems from the inherent need for political parties to adapt their programs to a perceived “middle-ground”; this rings especially true with regards to the lack of difference in electoral manifestos - whether they come from Social-Democrats, Liberals, or Tories. If working people are ever to win society for ourselves, it will not be by electing political agents, but by building networks and class consciousness within community and labour struggles as a means of asserting our collective autonomy and identity. If you want to be radical and fight capitalism, fight it in your communities, your workplaces and your streets – not in hallow conventions, chasing the halls of state power.