Canadian Social Democracy Study

         

NDP’s new preamble is just warmed over liberalism
Christo Aivalis

In April 2013, the NDP held its federal convention in Montreal, and while a host of issues were on the docket, none captured the interest of members and the public as did constitutional change. Specifically, tension arose over the alteration of the preamble which, while remaining an affirmation of progressive values, removed provisions promoting social ownership, ending poverty, and asserting that a socialist economy must be predicated around production and distribution for need rather than profit.

Both sides of the debate had valid points: Those demanding change were apt in proclaiming that the constitution must match contemporary goals largely at odds with the old preamble. Those wishing to maintain a commitment to the abolition of poverty and the installation of a cooperative economic order were correct in claiming that the new preamble removed integral commitments that any legitimate social democratic party should hold.

What was lost to a large degree in the discussions, however, was a historical context. Indeed, much more need be said around previous constitutions documents and reformative efforts of the NDP and its precursor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. This includes the Regina Manifesto, the Winnipeg Declaration, and the discourse around the NDP’s formation in the late 1950s.

The Regina Manifesto is a document definitive in its socialism, passionate in its advocacy of planning, ardent in its defence of individual freedoms, restless in its fight against poverty, and steadfast in its desire to see that “no C.C.F Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.”

The 1956 Winnipeg Declaration, then, was a moderating response to the Manifesto, deemed necessary not only because the CCF had failed to capture substantive electoral support, but that the prosperity and Cold War paranoia of postwar Canada meant the Manifesto’s “Depression-era” rhetoric lacked relevance. The CCF was thus adapting to a climate in which capitalism, though still deemed by the party as “basically immoral,” was an accepted reality.

This view would be reemphasized through the New Party, an interim structure created in 1958 by the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress that would become the NDP in 1961. It would have as a central goal the recruitment of “liberally-minded” Canadians, who could be defined as political independents that, while not social democrats, were amenable to forward-thinking social legislation and programs. Thus, the trail from Regina to the NDP was clear: while the CCF would implore farmers, workers, and socialists to build a New Jerusalem, the New Party would target small “l” liberals interested in piecemeal reform. The NDP would be a party containing, and indeed buoyed, by social democrats, but with a policy platform geared towards liberal progressivism.

Where does this leave us today? First, the 2013 amendments, while newsworthy, are not in any significant fashion unprecedented. Indeed, from the 1950s onward, the CCF-NDP has steadily backed away from its desire to transform Canada’s economic and social structure, instead opting to become increasingly amenable to the status quo. The new preamble in no way departs from the party’s historical trajectory.

But that’s not to say that the dissenters are unreasonable in their critique. In reality, the rationale for prior CCF-NDP constitutional amendments was, according to leadership at the time, to better fit contemporary economic realities. This rationale falls apart, however, in our own times. Our economic environment is not one of increasing unionization, low unemployment, and robust growth; rather, the years after the 2008 recession, and indeed the since the mid 1970s, have been a process of rewinding the gains won by Canadian workers and CCF-NDP stalwarts.

If anything, the time is ripe for an NDP reinvigorated with the spirit of the Regina Manifesto, to address the issues of market irrationality, corporate greed, and systemic inequality. Capitalism has not proven itself cured of its terminal illnesses as was thought by CCFers in the 1950s, and Canada is in dire need of an NDP willing to challenge an economic system characterized by its disregard for human dignity, optimism, hope, and love.

One may be naive to expect a reinstitution of the Regina Manifesto in 2013. In fact, it is likely something that the NDP membership and general public would reject. Nevertheless, those persons calling for a definitively social democratic NDP are correct to note that the party has increasingly become a party of the liberal left. If this is the will of the membership, then so be it, but let us not forget that if times of economic prosperity supposedly call out for liberal moderation, then times of economic struggle must certainly call out for democratic socialist radicalism.

We may never make our way back to Regina, or ever make it to the New Jerusalem of which Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth dreamt, but let us not forget that while the new preamble is anything but unprecedented, it is no less untimely.

Christo Aivalis is a PhD Candidate in History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. His SSHRC-funded dissertation deals with Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with the CCF-NDP and organized labour from 1945-2000. He is also an active member of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the NDP.

 

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University of Saskatchewan St. Thomas More College, U of S

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