The Canadian New Democratic Party—the “socialist” party that distinguishes Canadian politics from American in the eyes of red-Tory and left nationalists—balked last week-end at taking the word “socialism” out of the purpose statement of its founding constitution.
With a national election four years away it would have been indecently hasty to formally throw it out at their 50th anniversary annual meeting. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that the party’s parliamentary caucus and future leadership aspirants want to lose the word. Indeed, they long ago stopped calling themselves even hyphenated socialists in public.
During the Cold War, socialists adopted the elongated label “democratic socialism” to fend off red-baiters. After the retirement of Tommy Douglas and David Lewis at the end of the Seventies, they further tempered their message. New Democrat leaders now call themselves “social democrats.” They’ve soldiered on pretending they were carrying the same banner—with the words merely re-arranged. This pretense was reinforced by their leader Jack Layton, when he downplayed the “socialist” issue with the press:
“Some people perhaps feel that the selection of an adjective — one adjective versus another — is a monumental matter,” Layton told reporters at the Vancouver Convention Centre on Sunday, where delegates gave his leadership an approval rate of 97.9 per cent.
“People wanted to try and find a refinement and modernization of the language to capture what our values are. There was no disagreement about the values. It was about the nature of the label, so (delegates) said: ‘Well let’s talk about that some more,’ ” said Layton. “Our opponents may try to paint that as some kind of identity crisis. I think that would be ridiculous.”
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Democratic socialism and social democracy aren’t interchangeable ideas. Turning the noun “socialism” into an adjective, Mr. Layton, is a monumental affair—even if it has already been largely accomplished by subterfuge. “Social” as a modifier to “democrat” only suggests that New Democrats will put a little more emphasis on collective action than traditional liberals. Socialism, on the other hand, offers a comprehensive alternative to a democratically supervised market economy: democratically supervised public ownership and public planning.
Furthermore, socialism isn’t old-fashioned. It’s a relatively new idea that simply hasn’t taken hold in Canada and hasn’t, in practice elsewhere, figured out how to redistribute economic power to individuals and their communities and take it away from technocratic bureaucracies. The idea will persist with or without the hospitality of the Canadian New Democratic Party.
Harper Conservatives will continue to accuse half their opponents of being “socialists.” But the un-moaned passing of the idea in Canada is increasingly apparent. In crass political terms, the atrophy of socialism in the NDP leaves Canada a little blander, less separate from the US and that much closer to a two-party system.
Is turning big ideas into adjectives simply the Canadian way?