NDP’s new preamble is just warmed over liberalism
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
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.