IMT Glorifies Layton’s Legacy

Fightback’s ‘NDP Family’ Values

The following letter was sent to Fightback, journal of the Canadian section of the International Marxist Tendency.

26 August 2011


Your 23 August obituary praising NDP leader Jack Layton, “our Party leader,” graphically illustrates the distance between Fightback (and the International Marxist Tendency) and the Trotskyist tradition you claim to represent. While we had no wish to see Layton lose his battle with cancer, Marxists do not prettify his political record. He was a reformist social democrat, which is to say a political agent of the capitalist class within the workers’ movement.

You do at least object to the “near cult of personality around the Party Leader” and note that “negative…developments occurred during his tenure.” In describing Layton’s “biggest mistake,” you write:

“In the winter of 2008, with a Harper minority government and a weakened Liberal Party led by Stéphane Dion, Layton negotiated a deal that would bring to power a Liberal-NDP coalition government to replace Harper. As Fightback wrote at the time, this would have been a massive blunder. If it had gone through, it would have saved Canadian Liberalism from collapse, and absolutely discredited the NDP in the eyes of a population seeking change. The federal NDP would have been part-and-parcel of the austerity regime that the Liberals would have implemented (the same austerity currently being reigned over us by Mr. Harper). At the time, we called for Jack Layton’s resignation to prevent a coalition from being formed. Such a development could have led to the destruction of the NDP as Canada’s labour party.”

While correctly denouncing an NDP alliance with the Liberals (the traditional ruling party of the Canadian bourgeoisie) as “class collaboration,” your critique was posed essentially on the level of tactics, rather than principle. This was evident in your proposal for an alternative, less overt, arrangement with the Liberals:

“If they [the Layton leadership of the NDP] had stuck to principle and opposed the Conservatives’ attacks on workers and women, without entering into any deals with the capitalist parties, there would have been huge optimism in the country. The majority is indeed opposed to Harper, but the coalition has no redeeming features. The NDP could then have worked to impose conditions on a minority Liberal government to benefit the working class. If the Liberals were not willing to meet these demands then they would have worn the responsibility and the NDP would be in a prime place to replace them.”
—4 December 2008,

Under David Lewis’s leadership the NDP propped up Pierre Trudeau’s minority Liberal government from 1972 to 1974 with just such an informal bloc, or “corridor coalition.”

In your statement on Layton’s death you seek to sanitize the NDP’s record on Canadian imperialist participation in the occupation of Afghanistan:

“At the 2006 [NDP] federal convention in Quebec City, almost all of the convention delegates supported a strongly worded resolution calling for all Canadian troops out of Afghanistan. Jack Layton also rose to speak in support of the resolution. Unfortunately, the party bureaucracy aimed to water down the content subsequently. Despite this, the majority of working-class Canadians came to see the NDP as standing for ‘Troops out now,’ especially in Quebec. Layton won the moniker of ‘Taliban Jack’ for his anti-war stance from the corporate media and deserves praise for not backing down. This is a lesson to future NDP leaders not to bend to corporate pressure.”

This obscures the fact that the NDP agreed, in principle, to the occupation of Afghanistan from the outset. Alexa McDonough, Layton’s predecessor, told parliament that “on behalf of my party and caucus colleagues I indicated publicly on Friday that the New Democratic Party was prepared to support the government’s commitment of Canadian troops as part of the United Nations sanctioned stabilization force” (Hansard, 19 November 2001). In 2006, Peter Stoffer, the party’s critic for Veterans’ Affairs, said, “I support the mission and the troops in Afghanistan, and so does our party” (Toronto Star, 15 April 2006).

Fightback claims that Layton “deserves praise for not backing down” on the 2006 call for withdrawing troops from the combat mission in Afghanistan. But the truth is that the NDP did “back down” two years later as part of the deal Layton engineered with the Liberals, as you noted at the time (“NDP-Liberal Coalition: A Complete Sell-Out,” 2 December 2008, Deputy party leader Thomas Mulcair spelled it out clearly: “The NDP is putting aside its differences that have existed historically with the Liberals on such issues as Afghanistan” (Toronto Star, 9 December 2008).

Also missing from your salute to Layton is the fact that only a few months ago, in March [2011], the NDP parliamentary caucus unanimously endorsed the participation of the Canadian military in NATO’s “humanitarian” attack on Libya. After returning to the House of Commons as leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in June, Layton once again led his entire caucus in joining the Tories and Liberals in voting to extend the Libyan mission. Only Elizabeth May, leader of the petty-bourgeois Green Party, voted against the extension (AFP, 15 June [2011]).

Your statement not only “salutes…a fighter who will be missed by millions,” but claims that Jack Layton “represented a path towards social justice.” You even suggest that his earlier political career as a social-democratic municipal politician can serve as a “model” for the future:

“People will sorely miss Jack Layton but the struggle continues. We shall have to go on in the fight against Harper’s austerity without him. We should all cherish Jack’s roots of activism and social justice, from his days in Montreal and Toronto City Council, and let it serve as a model for our party’s future. On this basis the conservative agenda can be defeated and the hopeful and optimistic world that Jack envisioned can be built.”

While formally critical of the notion that “change could be achieved purely through parliamentary manoeuvres,” you pose the “fight for power” in parliamentary reformist terms:

“With the vision of power on the horizon, the cracks and divisions within the Party are set to become ever clearer. Federal Conservative minister James Moore made an astute observation at the convention in Vancouver. He said, ‘Half the party wants to be Liberals, the other half wants to be socialists.’ Layton was able to keep the two wings of the party unified. With Jack’s passing, who is now going to be capable of assuming that role? In times of change and crisis, this task becomes nearly impossible. The NDP cannot go in two different directions at once. And with the prospect of coming to power in the middle of the capitalist crisis, a path must be chosen. There is no room in the ‘centre.’”

Fightback’s “revolutionary” strategy of calling for the pro-imperialist NDP to take power “on a socialist program” is an expression of social-democratic political appetites. You claim that the NDP “is a party of tens of thousands of workers and youth, with a set of ideas that answers their demands and aspirations,” but ignore the fact that the party won its record 103 seats in the May [2011] elections on the basis of a platform that was so rightwing that Layton himself was reportedly at a loss to explain how it differed in substance from that of the Liberals.

Chantal Hébert, one of the more astute commentators on Quebec politics in the English-Canadian media, observed that much of the NDP’s appeal in Quebec was to people “craving a governing alternative to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.” She points out that far from attempting to present a pro-working class alternative, Layton sought to appeal to voters in Quebec as a champion of class collaboration, i.e., an alliance with the Liberals:

“In the last election, the fact that Layton was the biggest cheerleader of the aborted 2008 Liberal-NDP coalition—a concept whose popularity endures to this day—gave him a lift in Quebec.”
Toronto Star, 25 August [2011]

Instead of telling the simple truth about the supposed breakthrough in Quebec, you write approvingly that “Jack Layton rightly deserves credit in leading the NDP to its current all-time high”:

“It is a terrible tragedy that Jack Layton will not be able to enjoy the success that he helped to build for the NDP. Despite his mistakes, one thing is very clear: there were few people who battled so courageously and tenaciously for social justice than Jack Layton. We extend our deepest condolences, not just to Jack’s personal family, but to the wider NDP family and the Canadian labour movement that have been deeply shaken by this blow.”

Your willingness to assign “credit” to Layton for expanding the NDP’s parliamentary caucus through a campaign that openly embraced the notion of a potential coalition with the Liberals signifies that, regardless of whatever tactical differences you may have had with “Jack,” you identify with him as the head of the “NDP family” to which you belong.

Yours for socialist revolution,

Jordan Briggs
for the International Bolshevik Tendency (Toronto)