Hi, I am Jack, and I am a recovering socialist

Canadian New Democratic Party (NDP) held in Vancouver its fiftieth national congress since its foundation. It is presently Canada’s official opposition in the House of Commons, and arguably one of strongest (nominally still) socialist political formations in the Western world. On the agenda, to be voted by delegates, was also a resolution that would change the language in the NDP’s statute, removing any reference to “socialism”. According to some of the Party’s éminences grises, “it is time for it to go”, to paraphrase a former US Vice President (although apparently it will stay for the time being).

Why should socialism (or any reference to it), which is the philosophy and economic doctrine to which the NDP owes its raison d’être, be eradicated from the Party’s official language ? There would be no NDP without socialism, after all.
It is all about “modernizing”, argue proponents of the sanitization, some of them influential voices within the Party itself. After all, they contend, the word “socialism” is at best obsolete, at worst evokes dark memories (from the not-so-distant past) of tyrannic and oppressive regimes, failed economic and social experiments of which history has mercilessly and indisputably disposed.
Its historic ties to a large class of nearly destitute citizens, the proletariat, which de facto no longer exists in the western world [0], confers to the word “socialism” today just about the same relevance as abacus. Insisting with such a denomination is only likely to have the pernicious effect of triggering a knee-jerk reaction on the part of many voters, who will simply never even consider casting a vote for any political formation with “socialism” featured anywhere in its official insignia, platform, slogans — you name it, and that means relegating the Party to the permanent role of “loser”, i.e., opposition.

It is true that, as former socialist parties and movements progressively tone down their opposition to the basic tenets of capitalism, in some cases actually embracing them, they become a viable choice for moderate centrist voters, who in the past may have looked a them with suspicion and fear. Their homologation into mainstream renders them less unpalatable than they once were to corporate power, and credible candidates to take on the role of government. As they strive to achieve that very objective, their leaders studiously attempt to appear and sound increasingly “centrist”, in order to seek the vote of at least part of the right-leaning electorate. They do so while confidently assuming that their own natural left-wing constituency will not desert them, no matter how far to the center or to the right the party moves, for sheer lack of other progressive options (a flawed assumption in most cases).
And when they finally are in charge of government (it happens very rarely), often at the cost of renouncing to, or at least watering down considerably their most progressive stands, their policies are often scarcely distinguishable from those of centrist (if not right of the center) parties. Recent time progressive leaders and parties epitomizing the above trend, are Great Britain’s Tony Blair and Italy’s (once communist) Democratic Party [1].

A popular opinion among progressive voters is that all of the above is inevitable, the only option that non-conservatives have, in the context of a capitalist democracy, of establishing an alternative to permanent right-wing hegemony over government. Thus, it ought not be opposed from within, for any split, in-fighting or division, does nothing but benefit conservatives in the end. A government of “used-to-be-ers”, “reformed socialists”, PINOs [2], no matter how short it falls of fulfilling the expectations of most of its voters, no matter how crippled, wishy-washy and ultimately unaccomplished, remains preferable to a right-wing one.
It is not an unreasonable opinion, but I think it is wrong. And it is not just because I have been a socialist all my life and do not believe that socialism, as a set of ideals, values and goals, is “dead” (or, will ever die) — it is because I think that progressive parties serve a useful purpose to society in the parliament, even if they are permanently at the opposition [3]. And, even if one is willing to cheapen the notion of political success by equating it to the mere pursuit of executive power, it is also my observation that the centrist strategy seldom pays off.

New ideas, or someone else’s old slogans ?
There is nothing “obsolete” about socialism, any more than there is about “conservatism“. I doubt if many conservatives opine that it is time to abandon that label, even if conservatism has evolved through the centuries, and bears little resemblance to early Toryism.
One thing is to say that the economic conditions of poverty and exploitation that led to civil unrest and popular uprising in various parts of the continent over the past century have been largely overcome, and that therefore socialist advocates and activists must be capable of formulating new political strategies and discourses, in order to capture the imagination of voters.
It is common sense that today’s progressive models of societal development should be based on an uncompromising rejection of any form of totalitarianism, on an objective and dispassionate critique of the (so-called) socialist experiences of the twentieth century, and be born out of scientific knowledge and awareness of the main technological challenges that the next generations will face. They should clearly be more sophisticated than Thomas More‘s Utopia, or the simplistic visions based on class warfare, of classic socialist thinkers like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, or even Karl Marx.

That is very different from saying that issues that have existed since our species has been on this planet, such as the dichotomy between private property and public good, universal access to basic services such as health care and education, the preservation of our natural habitat, the commitment of society as a whole (not just of a few philanthropic individuals) to take care of the less fortunate, and the relentless pursuit of peace and unwavering rejection of war — in other words, timeless notions that have always constituted fundamental pillars of the statute of progressive, socialist movements everywhere, should somehow be regarded as “outdated”, and thus safely removed from public debate.
Such contention, difficult as it is to accept when made by those who would never identify themselves as “socialists”, or even “progressives”, rings disingenuous, self-serving and fraudulent when it is made by individuals who have built on “socialism”, and that for which it stands, their entire political careers and campaigns for public office. If these political leaders have run out of stamina or ideas, and no longer can convey effectively a socialist message, they should step down and let someone else give it a try, not stay on with some other message (possibly antithetical to the original one). The job of extolling the virtues of free market belongs with those who have always done it, not those who until yesterday led rallies against privatization of health care.

Guess what ? I am not voting for you anyway
The recent federal election saw the NDP surge to an unprecedented 30% of popular consensus. Although that did not translate into a majority of seats in the House of Commons, the NDP is now the official opposition, having left in the dust a Liberal Party (LPC) seemingly in disarray. Underlying such an impressive showing, was the NDP’s effectiveness in syphoning votes of (mostly left-leaning) electors in the province of Québéc away from the Bloc Québécois, as well as from the LPC throughout the country. The failure of winning an outright majority may well lie in the decision of many a dissatisfied LPC supporter to vote for the Conservative Party, rather than for a “socialist” formation.
In the opinion of many, therefore, if the NDP is to make a credible attempt to overtake the Conservatives and become the government at the next election (in four years), or at least make its role of opposition permanent, it needs to present itself as the moderate force to which Canadians tired of Conservative government should turn. This must be done quickly, before the LPC regroups, for under the guidance of a new leader it may well rebound, reclaiming its role of major centrist force and erasing most of the gains made by the NDP in 2011. In other words, it is not its supposed “obsolescence” the problem — “socialism” must be taken off for mere political opportunism pragmatism, the same pragmatism that induces many NDP activists to regard a possible merger with the Liberals something to “think about”. Yes, it is all about winning elections, nothing else.

Many who think that “socialism” should go, accuse their opponents within the Party of making a “big deal over words”. Of course, the opposite is true. They are the ones who think that mellowing the language may sway someone who would otherwise express a preference for the CPC. In fact, it is downright bizarre that one would think of making changes of this kind, right after achieving the best electoral result in the Party’s history, with the word “socialism” still prominently displayed in its statute.
But, aside from that, do these strategies really work ? In other words, is the migration toward the centre of the political spectrum rewarded by the electorate ? In my opinion, no.
Take for instance the former Italian Communist Party (PCI), now Democratic Party (at some point it was Democratic Party of the Left — clearly much too bolshevik still). Three decades of compromise, rejection of socialism and drift toward the centre, have resulted in a change from 35% of the votes (1976), to 33% (2008). During this time, the PCI — turned PDS — turned DS — turned PD has undergone repeated scissions, and suffered a hemorrhage of votes to its left, as members and voters became progressively fed up with its increasingly centrist character. Ironically, in the meantime the bulk of electors who would not even consider voting for the PCI, pretty much have continued to regard the PD as “communist” and remain steadfast in their opposition to it — even as hammer and sickle are gone and “socialism” (never mind “communism”) has been expunged from the Party’s manual. Its political opponents successfully campaign against it by portraying its leaders as a bunch of camouflaged socialists, who may have abandoned insignia and logos but not their “true identities” (pretty much as the CPC will do in Canada, regardless of whether the NDP makes the above cosmetic change or not). So, ideals are compromised and elections are still lost. I think this is a recipe for disaster. But, hey, what do I know.

Notes

[0] Its almost complete extinction has largely been due to social and economic transformations promoted and advocated by movements and leaders openly referring to themselves as “socialist”.

[1] Right-wing, conservative parties, on the other hand, need not worry about that, as they have a way of remaining “mainstream” pretty much no matter how far to the right they drift, how radical or anachronistic their positions may be. Clearly, television and printed media, whose owners are seldom of socialist extraction, have a lot to do with that.

[2] Free adaptation from Michael Moore’s RINO (Republican In Name Only). Just replace the R of Republican with the initial of your favorite political group (e.g., Progressive).

[3] A culture that turns the political process into some kind of competition, and brands minority parties as “losers”, is one of which the sooner we dispose, the better. Besides bad politics, it fosters ugly, stadium-like confrontation among people holding different opinions and it is not conducive to useful discourse.

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5 Responses to “Hi, I am Jack, and I am a recovering socialist”

  1. Ian Says:

    Agreed. Good post.

    Although I think there is value in leaving room for the LPC merger since many Grits are pure opportunists and will jump ship to join the winning team, and, provided that doesn’t contradict NDP values, we should let them.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    I blame the increasing use of “socialist” as a pejorative by our neighbours to the South.

    Is it too late to reclaim the word? Would “Socialism: there’s nothing wrong with it, MoFos” be a workable NDP slogan?

    • Massimo Says:

      Well, maybe that is the way to go. Other possibilities which would make for some fine bumper stickers:
      “Damn right, I am a socialist !”
      “Socialist on board”
      “Jesus loves you — sure you can love a socialist !”
      “My kid is an honor student and I am a socialist — coincidence ? I don’t think so”
      “Have you hugged a socialist today ?”
      “Socialists for Palin”

      On tee-shirts:
      “I am socialist and I get laid”
      “Six-pack socialist”
      “You are staring at socialist boobs”
      “Treat me right left, I am a socialist”

  3. GMP Says:

    What Cath said — socialism has been irreversibly vilified. The word is beyond salvation in the US. Most people in the US don’t distinguish between socialism and communism anyway, and end up imagining being sent to a gulag at the thought of government-sponsored healthcare.

    I don’t know about Canadian politics, but I agree with Massimo’s main premise based on my experience in the US. In the US, going from left to center does not bring any new voters who were initially right of center; you just end up losing the voters farther on the left (right wing always votes according to the party line; left wing gets disillusioned easily and then ends up not voting at all).

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