The run-up to the October 2017 vote to replace Thomas Mulcair as leader of the federal New Democratic Party (NDP) has been a pretty pedestrian affair, with uninspiring candidates (Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, Guy Caron and Jagmeet Singh) all making it clear that they have no intention of trying to create any serious difficulties for Canada’s ruling class.
Given its pro-capitalist program and willingness to get into bed with the Liberals at the first opportunity, Canada’s labour party inspires little enthusiasm among class-conscious workers or radical youth looking for serious social change. The position of much of the self-proclaimed “revolutionary” left, including Socialist Action and the International Socialists (IS), is to advocate voting for the NDP regardless of its policies. Neither of these groups has shown much enthusiasm about the leadership contest, though Socialist Action backed Ashton in the previous contest in 2012 and the IS describes her as having a “reputation as the most left candidate” in the race.
Ashton gets more upbeat treatment from Fightback, which professes to be Marxist. Her position as the most left-wing candidate is based on boiler plate reformism: opposition to privatization and “big oil,” and platonic advocacy of public ownership of some key sectors (e.g., banking, health, energy). She would like to raise the NDP’s profile through calls for free tuition, higher minimum wages and expanding social benefits. As a mainstream social democrat, Ashton does not propose encroaching on capitalist property – she would merely like to adjust the tax system to improve federal “revenue streams”:
“We need to re-open old revenue streams and find new revenue streams. One thing we need to do is tax reform. The millionaire and billionaire class must pay its fair share of taxes. We need to close tax loopholes, and double the capital gains tax. Those who are engaging in speculation should pay from the profits they are making. We also need an inheritance tax and to increase the corporate tax rate to 21% – This was the tax rate before Stephen Harper got into power.”
—“Fightback Interviews Niki Ashton,” 28 June 2017
Fightback argues that the embrace of this social-democratic tinkering would be a “victory for the left” that would improve the NDP’s electoral prospects:
“A victory for Ashton would represent a victory for the left in Canada and opens up the possibility of the development of a movement analogous to those sparked by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.”
. . .
“An Aston-led NDP could be a pole of attraction heading into the 2019 federal election.”
—“NDP Leadership: Support Ashton, Fight for Socialism!” 28 June 2017
Fightback’s chief criticism of Ashton seems to be that she is a bit shy about pitching her program of warmed-over capitalist reforms as “socialist”:
“Fightback supports Ashton, but we do not do so uncritically. While she is happy to call herself a socialist, she favours the word ‘progressive’ in most of her public statements. We believe that she would be able to enthuse more to support her, especially radical youth, if she also included the word socialist in her main stump speech. ‘Progressive’ change can mean anything, while socialist change is clear, bold, and hits against the capitalist system that is destroying the lives of more and more people.”
Ashton’s platform does not “hit against the capitalist system,” and she is right not to describe it as socialist. To do so would only promote the sort of illusions that genuine Marxists seek to dispel. Rosa Luxemburg, the great Polish revolutionary, observed that Marxists should help workers distinguish between “the realisation of socialism” and “the reform of capitalism”:
“[P]eople who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.”
—Reform or Revolution (1900)
Fightback’s calls for the openly pro-imperialist NDP to take power “on a socialist program” and its advice to workers and youth to “vote working class, vote NDP,” can only create illusions. There is no growing left wing that is already inside or gravitating toward the NDP for Fightback to engage, so they attempt to bring such a wing into existence by advising radical activists to join the party to help push it to the left:
“We encourage every socialist, and everyone looking for radical change, to join the NDP and vote for Ashton. This can be done for as little as $5 via her website. The deadline to join is August 17th. But don’t stop with just a passive vote - join the fight for socialism with Fightback to build a movement that can change Canada and the world!”
—“NDP Leadership: Support Ashton, Fight for Socialism!” 28 June 2017
Fightback’s leaders are obviously aligning themselves with Ashton in an attempt to build a constituency in the NDP. This sort of small-time reformist hustle has nothing in common with the revolutionary tradition of Lenin and Trotsky to which its leaders lay claim. Fightback’s real politics were starkly exhibited in 2011 when their obituary for Jack Layton soft-pedalled his actual political record and praised “our Party leader.” Their statement not only “salute[d].a fighter who will be missed by millions,” but suggested that Layton’s earlier sub-reformist career provided a “model”: “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” (see “IMT Glorifies Layton’s Legacy,” 1917 No.24).
Since its origins as the Militant Tendency in 1964 (see “Marxism vs. ‘Militant’ Reformism”), the leadership of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) – to which Fightback belongs – has consistently supported the British Labour Party, including during the Tony Blair “New Labour” years of austerity and imperialist war. Today, the IMT falsely claims that “Corbyn has the potential to galvanise a movement based on a bold socialist programme” (“Mass rallies seen as Corbyn Labour campaign takes off,” 16 May 2017) and “transform the Labour Party into a real socialist party” (“Why the RMT should affiliate to Corbyn’s Labour,” 25 August 2017). In fact, Labour is an obstacle to the creation of a “real socialist party,” and Marxist electoral tactics – including critical support to Corbyn’s Labour Party – are aimed at destroying, not creating, illusions in it (see “Election 2017: A Choice for Workers”).
The NDP, like Labour, is what Marxists call a “bourgeois workers’ party” – a party linked to the workers’ movement (via the trade unions) and whose bureaucratic leadership’s pro-capitalist ideology makes it politically subordinate to the capitalist class. While occasionally spouting “anti-corporate” and “progressive” rhetoric, the “maximum program” of the NDP’s social-democratic leadership is administering the imperialist Canadian state on behalf of monopoly capital.
Following the treacherous support that the leaders of the Second International gave to their own imperialist governments in World War I, Luxemburg observed: “social democracy is nothing but a stinking corpse.” Lenin drew the same conclusion:
“The complete organisational severance of this element [i.e., reformism] from the workers’ parties has become imperative. The epoch of imperialism cannot permit the existence, in a single party, of the revolutionary proletariat’s vanguard and the semi-petty-bourgeois aristocracy of the working class, who enjoy morsels of the privileges of their ‘own’ nation’s ‘Great-Power’ status.”
— “The Collapse of the Second International,” May-June 1915
Ashton’s tepid reformism has not inspired much popular interest, so there are few illusions to dispel by putting her to the test of office. The job of revolutionaries is not to seek to breathe life into the “stinking corpse” of social democracy but to work to expose it as a political agency of capital within the working class, which needs a mass revolutionary workers’ party. Fightback has a different approach – it sees the NDP as its natural home, and only aspires to better position the party for electoral success by nudging it to the left.