The Weakness Unto Death

On March 30th, 2013 Peter Kormos, as close to a socialist as the NDP had left in its ranks of former elected members, died. His death was perhaps an omen foretelling the extinction of the NDP as a party defined by principled commitment to building an alternative to a failed capitalist society. One week after Kormos’ death Thomas Walkom reported that the NDP is debating a constitutional amendment to replace the party’s historic goal of creating a society in which “the production and distribution of goods and services shall be directed to meeting the social and individual needs of people” with a new aim: championing “a rules-based economy … in which governments have the power to address the limitations of the market.” (Thomas Walkom, “NDP on yet another mission quest. Stay tuned,” Toronto Star, Saturday, April 6th, 2013, p. A8).

[Cartoon by Tait]

What is the value of principles? The hard headed political response is: principles have value only to the extent that they inform practice. Since the practice of the NDP has been to manage Canadian capitalism and not address the structural causes of widespread need-deprivation, the vestigial traces of socialist principles in the NDP constitution are worthless, and might as well be removed, for the sake of honest expression of what the party really is.

The hopeful (naive?) philosophical response is: principles have value independent of immediate or short term practice, because they can function as bases of criticism against which the limitations and inadequacies of practice can be measured. The vestigial traces of socialist principles in the constitution of the Official Opposition lend legitimacy to the socialist critique of capitalism. Their presence demonstrates that ‘socialism’ is not exotic, utopian philosophy with no organic basis in Canadian political history. Instead, it is rooted in a set of principles that people already endorse when they support public institutions (health care, education, meaningful work) and which underlie the history of a party which could conceivably form the next federal government.

Alternative to Capitalism?

But human beings have a curious habit of drawing the exactly wrong inference from empirical evidence. Rather than seeing popular support for the NDP as a sign that people are searching for some political vehicle to solve the fundamental problems that the Conservatives and Liberals have not solved, and then seeing this search in turn as a search for some credible alternative to capitalism, and then risking their future on articulating such an alternative (a risk that might be rewarded), the NDP moves further in the direction of becoming just like the failures it aims to oppose. It thus repeats the practice of the British Labour Party, indeed, the whole of European Social Democracy: instead of reading this moment as one to grow by leading the fight against the austerity agenda, it continues “to adapt itself to forces to its right.”

If the NDP does not judge the on-going crisis of capitalism as its best opportunity to build on its recent electoral success by: a) exposing to public view the systemic reasons why capitalism cannot “meet individual and social needs,” b) building a fighting movement against austerity, and c) putting the considerable material and intellectual resources of the party to work to formulate concrete policy alternatives, which d) an NDP government would implement, what good is it?

The problem here is not that the NDP is seeking to win elections. If a genuinely socialist party were to win an election, that would be a tremendous victory, because the power of the state could then be used to impose policies that better serve our shared life-interests. Given that the party would have come to power through legal means, the imposition of those policies would be legitimate according to existing democratic procedures. Opponents would have to openly expose themselves as the anti-democrats they (actually) are. Thus, the problem is not “electoralism” in the abstract.

Rather, the problem is that the NDP is seeking power on the basis of abandoning any principle which is offensive – not to the majority of the Canadian people (who support, at least as regards health care and education, the principle of distribution according to need) – but to capital. The party is not trying to convince people that they are a real alternative to the parties of capital, they are trying to convince capital that they are not a real threat to it.

Hence the utter vacuity of support for a “rules based economy … in which governments have the power to address the limitations of the market.” To call this timid would be too strong. It says nothing at all. What economy is not rules-based? The core problem of capitalism is not that it is not rules-based, it is that the rules according to which investment decisions are made are blind to our shared life-interests. Thus, to affirm as the party’s goal “a rules-based economy” is to demand that which we already have, and which continues to harm ecological integrity, democratic social institutions, and individual life-horizons. Furthermore, no government lacks the power to address the limitations of the market. In 2008 the United States government addressed the limitations of the market by transferring over $700-billion of public wealth to private banks. Tax-credits, tax-reductions, regulatory changes, investment incentives, these are all ways by which governments can and do address the limitations of the market, without in any way addressing the fundamental problem of capitalist markets: they depend upon private and exclusive control over resources everyone needs to survive, develop, and realize their creative capacities to contribute to social life.

Left Opposition to Capitalism

But why should anyone on the left care about NDP constitutional changes, given the fact that the NDP in practice has long ago abandoned even a mildly reformist agenda? The most important reason is that there is no alternative left political organization with the national reach, the number of activists, and the institutional resources to mobilize right now in a politically effective way, against the Harper offensive. Yet, it continually refuses to assume any serious leadership role of a new left opposition to capitalism.

Whatever individual activists might feel locally, no one who is allowed anywhere near a microphone on the national stage is allowed to utter anything more than the usual platitudes of parliamentary opposition. Government corruption and ineptitude? Yes. Structural analysis and critique of the global capitalist economy? No, not even thinkable.

Do we conclude, therefore, that, as in Greece and Germany it is time for anyone in the NDP who in anyway understands or instictively feels that the problem is not the Tories and the solution is not less draconian adaptation to the demands of capital to leave; that the time has come for a new party of the left in Canada? Chris Nineham, reflecting on an analogous problem in the UK, makes an important point in this regard.

“The need for a left electoral project … is an important aim. It is obvious that some kind of left formation is needed to challenge a Labour Party that has signally failed to challenge the politics of austerity. But experience, both here and in Europe, shows that the successful launch of such a venture normally depends on favourable wider developments. Die Linke in Germany and the Front de Gauche in France both came out of the fusion of radical organizations and important splits from social democratic organizations like the Labour Party. Both involved high profile figures as part of that process.” [Chris Nineham, “Its Time to Decide: The Left, Austerity, and the People’s Assembly,” The Bullet, No. 794, April 1st, 2013].

The problem in Canada is that there is no one left in the NDP who could split and take sufficient numbers of people with her or him. Without significant numbers of people, the movement would not be able to generate the sort of dynamic political credibility would require. Without political credibility, it would not be able to attract large numbers of social movement activists, rank and file trade unionists, and ‘normally’ apolitical citizens alarmed at the intensifying attacks on life-conditions. Without those numbers, it would not be able to mount a credible threat to any of the established parties. The (small but real) success of Quebec Solidaire shows that it is possible for left parties to be elected on a principled left platform, but that success also occured in Quebec, in historical-political circumstances quite different from the rest of Canada. If there is someone outside of and to the left of the NDP who could play this role, I do not know who he or she is.

Hence, a new, cohesive, sustainable, and effective democratic socialist party will have to originate some other way.

If Peter Kormos’ death signaled the end of the NDP as a socially oppositional force, does the death of Margaret Thatcher foreshadow the birth of a new one? •

Jeff Noonan is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor, and maintains a blog at He is the author of The Troubles with Democracy.