It is tempting, when writing about the NDP, to be terribly unfair. It is tempting to judge them against what I wish they were and what I wish the world to be instead of what the NDP actually is: a real-world institution with a structure and a past and at a specific historical moment.
Because there is very little about the NDP that makes me excited. Oh, they are definitely the least evil among the parties that are going to win seats in English Canada this time around. They say some decent things about healthcare. They're childcare plan is probably the okayest of the lot. Their success in forcing a very modest dent in the neoliberalization of the Canadian state in the last federal budget was certainly positive. They sometimes say decent things about stopping secret trials in Canada, too.
But they have "No platform on ending poverty [and] No platform on violence against women or women's equality." Those are pretty huge things to be missing. They have no proposals to scale-back Canada's War Department. They have said nothing about Canadian complicitly in the U.S.-backed overthrow of an elected government in Haiti, or larger role in war and empire. And as far as I can tell, the word "racism" doesn't appear in their platform, or at least not in the two sections to which it would be most relevant, that for "New Immigrants" and that for "Aboriginal Peoples." And there is no recognition that creating the world that their rhetoric claims to want to create -- yes, even the fairly moderate vision of reform represented by the current phase of social democracy -- will take not just votes but long, hard, extra-parliamentary struggle. That makes it hard to take the vision seriously.
They are poised to pick up seats. This isn't a bad thing. I may even get a small, irrational feeling of satisfaction from seeing this happen on January 23rd as I try to find silver linings in the Conservative victory, for all that it won't make a huge material difference to the country's course in the next few years whether the NDP wins 25 or 30 or 35 seats. What I worry is that NDP partisans -- people who identify as "the left" in some sense or other -- will take the wrong message from this modest gain. They might mistakenly conclude that social democracy is in something other than a vast, global crisis with no end in sight.
Unfortunately, I can't take the story all the way back to the beginning. I don't know enough about the origins and struggles of the European social democratic parties before World War One. From what I do know, there was something that seems at this end of history a little bit innocent but still compelling about the spirit of such parties -- a radical vision, an embrace of struggle, a clear idealism, though perhaps unrealistic expectations about what could be accomplished in the electoral arena. But I don't really need to reach back that far because though there were small parties using those words in their names in that period in Canada, it was not until the '30s that our first successful, mass-based, socialist party emerged: the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. It was a joining of existing socialist groupings, workers, farmers, and middle-class left-leaning Christians. It was succeeded in 1961 by the NDP, which resulted from a formal association between the CCF and the labour movement and a deliberate reframing of party and rhetoric to attract the more progressive wing of middle-class liberaldom.
Social democracy in Canada, therefore, came to be in the post-Russian Revolution world, and had its largest impact towards the end of and after World War Two. Popular struggle, the threat of revolution embodied by the mere existence of the Soviet Union (however flawed an example it might have been), and the devastated state of most of the industrialized world outside of the United States created space for changes that left capitalism intact but shifted the experience of it in signficant and positive ways for much of the white working class of North America and Europe. An important vehicle both for struggle by working people and concession by elites were social democratic or democratic socialist parties. The visions of social transformation held by many of the parties in earlier years were gradually weeded out, but there was still space whereby struggle under the banner of social democracy could advance meaningful change, and in which at least some elites would be forced to concede those changes under the threat of worse.
In much of Western Europe, the socialist parties themselves often took power and made changes, or did so often enough that elite parties had little choice but to make similar changes. In the U.S., social democracy was contained as a wing of an elite (and at that time liberal) party, the Democrats, and never had much freedom of action from their liberal superiors in the party. (In the '30s the Communist Party USA could play something of that role, but their days as an effective, independent political force were numbered after the end of World War Two, for various reasons.)
Canada has had a very peculiar pattern. There have been social democrats in Parliament since the '20s at least, but they have never been called on to form a government at the federal level. The pressures and temptations of rule haven't tainted their image of righteous idealism and bureaucratized them, as happened in Europe, and they retained some independence from the liberal wing of the elites, unlike in the U.S. By electoral threat, moral suasion (often piggy-backing on quite separate and autonomous social movement pressure), and occasional short-term support for minority governments, social democrats played a role in changing the Canadian state from its harsh classical liberalism of the '30s and before to something still capitalist, racist, sexist, queer-hatin', colonial, and otherwise deeply flawed, but a little more humane for some segments of the non-elite population.
As partial and flawed as it was, the appeal for some of an opportunity to create real, practical advance was understandable.
We don't live in the world any more, unfortunately. There is no longer the same space. This means that social democratic parties are not able to play the role they used to play -- politically distinct in qualitative ways from elite liberal parties and able to make small and flawed but still real steps towards a more humane world. In the early '70s, neoliberalism began to advance, signalling the beginning of the end of elite toleration of this space. Though it hasn't been total or uniform, rich-world social movements have ebbed since the height of the New Left in the early '70s and especially since the '80s. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, as oppressive and flawed as it was, so did some space for the electoral left in the West to operate.
So you have New Labour in Britain, now an elite liberal party, and quite a neoliberal one at that. A few years ago you had workers in Germany having to mobilize to defend welfare state provisions from a nominally socialist government. You have most of the socialist leadership in France telling their base to vote for an extremely neoliberal European Union constitution and most of their base refusing. Heck, Venezuela -- and this was before the more recent overt socialist and anti-imperialist turns by Chavez -- was treated as a global pariah (especially by the United States) for trying to implement a program that Tariq Ali (perhaps somewhat rhetorically) has compared to the program of the Clement Atlee Labour government in the United Kingdom immediately after World War Two. And here in Ontario at the provincial level, the biggest dose of neoliberalism came from the Harris Tories but the turn in that direction started under Bob Rae's NDP.
I'm not sure that the helpful conclusion here is the Trotskyist one, that the social democratic leadership constantly betrays the working class. They may, but I think it makes more sense to approach the problem in a less accusatory manner. There quite simply is less space for any purely electoral effort to make even incremental progressive change that is novel and that breaks with neoliberal logic. We need to pressure social democrats to understand that the most that voting for them can do now (with rare exceptions) is defend (small) past gains or maybe even only slow their erosion. We need to challenge them to recognize this new reality and decide what they are going to do. Are they happy being a more genuinely "liberal" (less neoliberal) liberal party, as the federal NDP seems to have fallen into, or do they want something more? And if they want something more, they have to accept that supporting, with effort and words and institutional space and money, extra-electoral social movements, including those considerably to their left, is the only way to create space for their electoral efforts to be a bit less futile.
[See also Election Post #1: Caving In and General Analysis, Election Post #2: Can't Tell the Players Without a Program, and Election Post #3: Elite Consensus, Election Post #4: Elite Divisions .]