Federal NDP out to reduce socialist principles in party constitution

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      The federal NDP may emerge this weekend no longer the avowed socialist party of J. S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas.

      It’s a transformation decades in the making, and it strikes UBC academic Maxwell Cameron as barely dramatic.

      The Straight asked the political-science professor about the new attempt to ditch the socialist language of the party’s constitution. New Democrats are holding a three-day convention in Montreal until Sunday (April 14), the same day Justin Trudeau will likely be crowned the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

      “Today, the NDP is a parliamentary party just like the Liberal party,” Cameron said by phone. “Given that that’s the case, giving up the pretence to being something that they’re not is not so painful.”

      The proposed rewording of the NDP’s constitution bears little resemblance to the Regina Manifesto of 1933, the founding document of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, forerunner of the NDP. The manifesto declared that no CCF government will rest “until it has eradicated capitalism”. The first CCF government was elected in 1944 in Saskatchewan under Douglas.

      But the CCF itself evolved in terms of its position on capitalism. Although it maintained in its Winnipeg Declaration in 1956 that “public ownership” is the “most effective means of breaking the stranglehold of private monopolies”, it also recognized the “need for private enterprise”.

      The NDP was formed in 1961, with Douglas as leader. “I would not have said that the NDP was a party…even from its conception…[that] was aimed at a socialist revolution, even by democratic means,” Cameron said.

      The NDP’s constitution declares adherence to “democratic socialist principles” like “social ownership”. The draft wording of the proposed preamble contains none of these ideas. But it cites the NDP’s “social democratic and democratic socialist traditions”.

      In 2011, the party, led by Jack Layton, failed to eliminate its constitution’s socialist language during a convention in Vancouver.

      NDP MP Don Davies said that the reworking of the party’s constitution has been an “ongoing project”.

      “From time to time, parties need to refresh their message, and their challenge I think is to do so while honouring their core principles,” Davies told the Straight by phone.

      Asked about the NDP’s core values, the Vancouver Kingsway MP replied: “Social justice, economic justice and fairness, environmental sustainability, democratic decision-making, and being concerned for the common welfare of all people in Canada and the world.”

      Davies dismissed as “mischief” suggestions that the NDP is moving away from the left and shifting toward the centre or the right.

      Comments

      6 Comments

      Progressive

      Apr 10, 2013 at 5:03pm

      The NDP's right-wing always insists that we need to 'modernize' the constitution in order to make moderate voters more comfortable.

      Yet they don't realize (or don't acknowledge) that the only time the NDP constitution is EVER in the news is when they try to change it.

      What's the point of voting for the NDP if they're just another Liberal clone?

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      More Progressive

      Apr 10, 2013 at 5:38pm

      I couldn't agree more with both 'Progressive" and Maxwell Cameron. The party has been a liberal party for decades not an anti-capitalist one, or even a Social Democrat party since Barrett.

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      James G

      Apr 10, 2013 at 5:58pm

      I am a hard-boiled unapologetic socialist down to my DNA. Even so, I supported Tom Mulcair for leader and also support these changes. Why?

      During the last 30 years, we have seen the disappearance of the Communist block (however disreputable, they were a counterbalance) and the rise of multinational corporations to parity with nation-states and beyond. There are individuals whose wealth exceeds both and who own private islands and armies. Now the international banking industry is dismantling the social protections people rely upon in one nation after another. Iceland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Cyprus ... Canada is not next but don't think we won't eventually be a target.

      Wanting a society that would look similar to Sweden in the 1970s (nearly full employment, very stiff progressive income tax and a lavish welfare state) is not an option at this time, at least not by electoral means and those are the only ones that interest me.

      The one part of the world that is fighting back and winning is South America (excepting Columbia and Chile). The reason is that instead of using the old class basis for political action, they have adopted the 'bloc of classes' model first used in India and South Africa.

      I may not be willing to make the NDP into the new Congress Party in ideology but very much want it to become the 'natural party of government' -- that is, the party that wins nearly every time unless it has made a few errors and needs a time out. At present, it contains mostly the left elements -- the trade unions, the social movements and sometimes the poor along with a mere smattering of small business people and professionals. It can and should grow to be the party that appeals to about 65 per cent of the populace and gives absolutely everyone a voice. That, perhaps sadly, is the safest political vehicle any country can manage against the ongoing storm in international capital. The Tories can't be that because they are the party of international capital and so, no matter how they try to hide it, are todays Liberals and perhaps more so.

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      Stephen

      Apr 10, 2013 at 11:46pm

      In these neo-liberal times, words like modernization and reform have come to mean their very opposite. NDP members are therefore right to be sceptical when the leadership of the party claims it's merely seeking to bring the language of the constitution up to date while remaining faithful to the party's principles.

      The proposed wording makes a gratuitous reference to democratic socialism, referring to it as a "tradition" (a thing of the past), whereas the current wording boldly calls for "the application of democratic principles to government and the administration of public affairs." No less importantly, the new preamble would remove key passages which define and give meaning to democratic socialism: most notably, the primacy of human needs over private profit and the need for social and economic planning to curb the power of monopolistic corporations. The new preamble even dispenses with the goal of abolishing poverty!

      Although the constitutional review began two years ago, the party leadership didn't deign to engage members in a serious dialogue on why it believed its proposed changes to the constitution to be necessary or desirable. Its communications have largely been conducted through the mainstream media, which, given its anti-socialist bent, has predictably greeted the proposed changes as a belated rejection of communism, Stalinism, etc., the Globe and Mail pouring scorn on the NDP's "poisonous roots."

      Since the proposed language empties the constitution of real meaning, one is left with a series of vacuous, uninspired platitudes which, if adopted, would conveniently give party leaders and strategists ample scope to define the goals of the party however they please.

      If passed, the constitution resolution will go a long way to re-making the NDP in the image of the Liberal Party. Since we already have such a party, such a step would narrow the political options available to Canadians and make the NDP redundant.

      I sincerely hope delegates will have the good sense not to make such misguided choice.

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      Socialist, not liberal

      Apr 11, 2013 at 12:01am

      I support the amendment of the Constitution with the proviso that the NDP still claims to adhere to the "social democratic and democratic socialist traditions." Obviously, democratic socialism and social democracy are words interchangeably used. Centre-left should be represented by a social democratic party, not by a liberal party, and the NDP should completely replace the Liberal Party of Canada.

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      RUK

      Apr 11, 2013 at 12:19pm

      The only really alarming thing about the NDP is that they are a party that is wedded to union income. Which is a great source of income, mind you, an honourable source, but when you are in a union and that union has decided for you that some portion of dues must go to the NDP, it does not have the fairness aspect that one thinks that the Left should be more concerned about than the money grubbing we leave to the other side.

      As for socialism, it is a word that, like feminism, has been tainted with gross smears that have been insufficiently rebutted by dithery leaders hobbled by an indifferent, lazy press.

      To me, government ought be providing services that everyone needs to have (not wants to have), and by pooling tax monies, can get a better rate and do the thing more effectively and proper.

      That's socialism. The police, the fire department -- socialism.

      Embrace it.

      However, socialism has come to mean lack of choice, heavy handed intrusive civil servant meddling in personal matters, and abuse of the power to tax. These are of course flaws which describe the accusing side, who must be opposed through reason and wit.

      Naturally, the disappointing response is to reduce socialist principles in the party constitution. Sigh. You people don't even want the power, do you?

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