Communists and the NDP

by David Lethbridge

I want to start with a quotation from Louis Althusser:

“The union or fusion of the workers’ movement and Marxist theory is the greatest event in the history of class societies. Beside it, the celebrated great scientific-technical ‘mutation’ constantly resounding in our ears is, despite its great importance, no more than a scientific and technical fact: these events are not of the same order of magnitude. ... This union is not an established fact but an endless struggle with its victories and defeats. A struggle in the union itself. With the 1914 war: the crisis of the Second International. At present: the crisis in the international Communist movement.” (Marx’s Relation to Hegel, 1970.)

The crisis we find ourselves in today is at the same time both similar and different from the crisis to which Althusser alluded. In 1970, the crisis had to do with the struggle within the Communist movement over reformism, which was hiding under the cover of “theoretical humanism,” and which had repercussions throughout the international Communist movement.

The crisis for us, in Canada today, is a crisis that involves the historical trajectory of social democracy; the politics of the NDP; the relation of the working class to both social democracy and the NDP; the relation of the Communist Party to social democracy, to the labour movement, and to the working class. This many-sided crisis has repercussions for the way the Communist Party works in many areas, including the Party’s work within the mass movements.

The place to begin is with the concrete material conditions of the working class. It is no longer the case that the working class has nothing to lose but its chains. Very clearly, over the last century, the material wealth of the working class in Canada (and the imperialist nations as a whole) increased substantially: at least until the mid-1970s. This increase in material wealth is certainly the result of mass action on the part of the working class in terms of wringing concessions from the exploiting class. The real threat of revolution, both at home and abroad, forced the bourgeoisie to deal with the workers’ demands.

While it may be true that the working class remains “dependent and excluded from political power” – as stated in the Thesis – it can be argued that, unfortunately, this has hardly been disturbing to many members the working class. Given the pervasive and all-embracing character of bourgeois ideology, the working class as a whole has been led since birth to believe that such dependence and exclusion from power is the natural course of things, and to believe that the existent relations between classes is natural and inevitable. And, at least in Canada and the US, working people have been taught that there are no classes, in any event. Furthermore, individualism, as a distinct aspect of bourgeois ideology, constantly attempts to teach working people that it is possible to work their way up in the capitalist system, and holds out the twin false promises of individual and collective prosperity.

Social democracy – whether left-wing or right-wing – expresses this same bourgeois ideology. It suggests that through step-by-step increases, the material conditions of the working people can constantly improve. For a relatively long period in Canadian history, social democracy has played the role of hand-maiden to imperialism. It has acted in the role of, on the one hand, “managing” the workers’ demands and “managing” the concessions wrung from the capitalists, while on the other hand preventing the fundamental social change and popular extension of democracy that socialism would bring about. In that sense, social democracy has always served the bourgeoisie very well.

Furthermore, in Canada, unlike in Italy or France for example, no alternative to the left of social democracy has seemed viable to the working class as a whole. Socialism has been painted by both capitalists and social democrats as inevitably authoritarian and murderous.

In the period between the end of World War II and at least the mid-1970s, the increasing material wealth gained by the working class, and the absence of widespread concrete privation, meant that the class struggle was fragmentary and largely dormant. (The significant exception here was the near-global explosion of counter-cultural and revolutionary activity of the late 1960s and early 1970s, predicated in North America largely on non-economic factors: it is worth noting in this context that both Gramsci and Althusser pointed to the relative autonomy of cultural and ideological factors in the class struggle.)

At the same time, imperialism’s consistent neo-colonialism allowed it to extract wealth from South America, Africa, and Asia. By materially, financially, and militarily supporting fascist regimes, in short through exporting fascism, the ruling class was able and willing to provide concessions to the working class at home. So that, despite some degree of real political repression, the Canadian working class has benefited materially and financially from imperialist policy, having the further effect of dampening working class militancy and class consciousness.

The situation has clearly begun to change, and has been changing for some years. The concessions that had been wrung from the ruling class have been reversed. Real material privation has begun to spread. It has become clear to increasing sectors of the working class that social democracy is no longer working. It has further become clear that the NDP has moved further and further away from a social-democratic direction, to the point where it is mirroring bourgeois policies. Working class alienation from the NDP, from social democracy, and from the political process as a whole, has left a political vacuum which continues to expand.

Under these conditions, if the Communist Party remains largely invisible or is perceived as little more than a slightly-left version of the NDP, or if it is seen as reformist or inconsequential or as a defeated tendency, working class anger, resentment, and militancy will go elsewhere. It will go to the right, as it has done in considerable numbers over the last decade. Some sectors of the working class have been seduced by the Reform party; others have been seduced by neo-fascism, as the global experience of the 1990s is proof. All of which benefits the ruling class mightily.

Only by offering a distinct and open and militant alternative to social democracy, and the NDP in particular, can we ever hope to draw the working class to us, or to infuse the class struggle with class consciousness and a desire and a pressing need for socialism. Such a position requires that we step up our criticism of the NDP and of social democracy as a whole, while simultaneously arguing within the organized labour movement for more militant positions and more militant action. Not for nothing has the Central Committee of our Party put out the call that our Party must be seen and it must be heard.

Unfortunately, the structure of bourgeois politics in Canada may appear to have us trapped. It is undeniable that the NDP provincial governments will ultimately always betray the working class and stand in the way of socialism. They have done so repeatedly and increasingly in the contemporary period. On the other hand, it is equally undeniable that an NDP government is preferable to a Liberal, Conservative, or Reform government. Open criticism of the NDP, then, would have the obvious effect of making center-right governments more likely. Therefore we are trapped. Or so it would appear.

What to do? Accept the consequences of the trap. Break the trap by moving our propaganda and agitation to the left. Accept that in the short-run we may lose some allies in the organized labour movement, and that in the short-run we may well have to endure center-right governments. But in the long run, our Party and the working class as a whole will benefit from being more open and more left. Nothing other than hard and open struggle will break the deadlock that we find ourselves in with social democracy and draw the working people to socialism. The only alternative is to accept the status quo, which is to adopt a centrist, and ultimately defeatist line in the class struggle.

Of course, this is a delicate thing. If the Party takes an open position too far to the left of the majority of the labour movement, we will not attract them. If we take a position that is too centrist, we will not attract them. The art is in finding the position that will draw more and more members of the labour movement towards class consciousness. But in the end, only by taking a consistent and militant left line can we demonstrate our Party’s true uniqueness and thus draw increasing sectors of the labour movement closer to our policies and to a socialist future.

The opportunity to make such a change in our own tactical direction may be right now, given the NDP’s quick march to the right, and the moral and political bankruptcy of social democracy throughout the world. In the 1930s, as Comrade Palme Dutt demonstrated conclusively and in much detail, social democracy played an active and conscious role in helping fascism to achieve state power. As imperialism lurches towards ever more fascistic policies, social democracy may yet play that role again.

I believe that it is time that we took the same road that Lenin once took when he realized that social democracy had collapsed irretrievably under the weight of bourgeois ideology. He struck out at them forcefully, and forged a new road ahead towards socialism.

In short, either we are a revolutionary party, or we are nothing.

Spark! #13-14, pp. 11-14