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Debating the NDP

By Ulli Diemer

To: Exchange, Canadian Dimension

I see from the October/November issue that Dimension is still afflicted with the Left's debilitating NDP-addiction. Once again, several articles scrutinize the NDP to determine whether it is moving left, right, forward, backwards, or simply spinning its wheels. Once again, well-meaning contributors offer their sincere opinions about what the NDP should be doing.

As I said in the November 1989 issue (Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves About the NDP) the Left has engaged in these same futile pursuits since 1933, achieving pretty much the same result as a dog chasing its tail. Anyone who in the 1990s still harbours hope that the NDP will change in ways the Left would like ought to join New Democrats Anonymous.

Now that it holds office in three provinces and the Yukon, it is more urgent than ever that we be clear about the nature of the NDP. Activists seeking radical change need to understand that it is fruitless to base their strategies on the assumption that the NDP can be the vehicle for achieving their goals.

The NDP is not, and never will be, a party of radical social change. What it is, is a capitalist party with a mildly social-democratic orientation. It represents a more 'enlightened' model of capitalism in the tradition of the New Deal, Keynesianism, and European-style social contracts, as opposed to the hard right agenda of neo-conservatism, as symbolized by Reagan, Thatcher, and Mulroney. The 'softer' approach which the NDP represents is based on the assumption that the best way to ensure the long-term stability of capitalism is to pay 'fair' wages, keep unemployment relatively low, and provide a reasonable level of social services. The hard right, on the other hand, is willing to ignite widespread discontent and confrontation for the sake of adding another few percentage points to the rate of profit.

The neo-conservative strategy relies heavily on ramming through structural changes which will be extremely difficult to reverse in the event of a change of government. In Canada, this strategy is represented by locking Canada into continental economic structures by means of 'free trade', ripping up the railways and giving the very land they ran on to private owners, 'privatizing' institutions built with public money, shutting down CBC stations - well, we all know the whole ugly depressing story.


Left and the NDP: like a dog chasing its tail

In disgust and anger, voters are turning against the perpetrators and electing NDP governments. Undoubtedly, this is an improvement. NDP governments will at least refrain from committing atrocities on the same scale, and while they are extremely unlikely to act to reverse all the looting and wrecking done by the right-wing governments, they will seek to ameliorate some of the worst effects. Perhaps welfare recipients will get a little more, perhaps money will be found to set up a few additional women's shelters. This may not be much, but it is something. Appallingly, many Canadians are now in such desperate straits that a few extra dollars in their welfare cheques will make a real difference in their lives. The funding of a few more women's shelters will rescue a certain number of women and children from lives in hell.

But while we can be briefly grateful for these crumbs, and apply pressure to demand more, we should not delude ourselves that the NDP will ever move to change the underlying realities of power on which our society rests. It has neither the desire, nor the mandate, nor the base of support, to do so. The records of all previous social-democratic governments, in Canada or anywhere else, are evidence of what such governments are like. Ontario's current NDP government is actually doing less, in many respects, than the previous Liberal administration did during the two years, 1985 - 1987, when it formed a minority government with NDP support.

Rather than pursuing the mirage of the NDP being miraculously transformed into a radical, activist party - a fantasy which has sucked energy out of the left for six decades - we should be relating to NDP governments in the exactly the same way as we would relate to any other government.

By all means, let us pressure them and lobby them. Let us fight for every concession and every victory we can get.

Let us especially push for the greatest possible degree of democratization of decision-making on every level, remembering that democratization has to mean wresting power away from governments, including NDP governments, as well as from corporations. To the degree that we can successfully assert the demand that decisions - economic as well as governmental - should be subject to real grassroots democratic control, we will be achieving lasting gains which future governments will not be able to easily reverse.

But beyond that, we should stop looking to the NDP, in or out of government, to implement our agendas for us. This will never happen. All we will ever get from them is a few modest reforms, and even those will only come if we push them long and hard.

When it comes to fundamental change, we are on our own. To pursue fundamental change, activists in social movements need to get together, without any lingering backward looks at the NDP, and develop common programs and strategies. Then we need to act, independently of the NDP, to achieve them.

In doing this, we should certainly leave the doors wide open for grassroots members of the NDP who want to work with us. But we should firmly close the door on any hopes that the NDP as an institution will ever be a vehicle for achieving real change.




Ulli Diemer
October 31, 1991
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See also: Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves About the NDP.