The Common Sense of Socialism

An interview with
Colin Mooers

What can the Canadian experience teach us about building a mass working-class party in the US?

New Democratic Party leader Tommy Douglas at a political rally in June 1968. The Canadian Press

On November 8, the decrepitude of the Democratic Party was on full display. As election returns poured in, it became clear that Donald Trump — buffoon, xenophobe, historically unpopular presidential aspirant — would somehow best the party’s dynastic candidate, Hillary Clinton. Establishment liberalism had utterly failed to thwart resurgent right-wing populism.

In the months since, Democratic elites have largely doubled down on their discredited politics. They’ve formed an often feckless opposition to Trump, while simultaneously fending off challenges from the party’s left and attempting to placate a restive base. For many people, it’s been enough to get them thinking about a wholesale break with the party.

Forming a mass labor party in the US, of course, has long been a fraught enterprise. Nearly every previous attempt to build one has produced catchy slogans (“No to the elephant, no to the ass; Build a party of the working class!”) and not much else.

But the political terrain is shifting. And it’s time to at least start thinking about, and studying, alternatives to the two parties of capital.

Since the Great Depression, the US’s neighbors to the north have had a functioning three-party system, with first the democratic socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and now the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) arraying themselves against the Liberals and Conservatives. What lessons can we draw from these two parties? How have they shaped Canada’s political culture? And what do the NDP’s failings tell us about the historic pitfalls of social-democratic parties?

Author, playwright, and journalist Kurt Hackbarth recently sat down with socialist scholar Colin Mooers, professor of politics and political theory at Toronto’s Ryerson University, to discuss what American socialists can learn from the Canadian experience.


KH

The two-party system has held sway for so long in the US that it’s hard for people to even imagine an alternative. But right across the border, Canada has a three-party system, with the New Democratic Party challenging the hegemony of the Liberal and Conservative parties. What can the US learn from that?

CM

Having a third party, and one that has historically, if not recently, used the language of socialism in its official discourse, has benefited the Canadian political culture. A culture in which a language of socialism — albeit of a social-democratic variety — is an accepted part of the political culture means that it isn’t a dirty word to the average person. You can describe yourself as a socialist and people will generally assume, “Oh yeah, okay, you vote for the NDP.”

It creates a more capacious political culture. It’s just like when you have a strong trade union movement, all sorts of movements beyond the labor movement benefit, because there’s a space for political contestation in terms that aren’t determined by the two mainstream pro-business parties like you have in the US.

We have those in Canada, as well. But at least within the general culture, and certainly at the provincial level, where the NDP has been stronger, there is a decidedly more progressive political culture in all sorts of ways that go beyond party politics.

It opens up a space for different kinds of activism. Historically, the NDP has been formally allied to the labor movement through block voting, which is fairly common in European social-democratic parties. That’s changed now, but for a long time that was the case. Which meant that labor politics were seen as mainstream, or at least not something that went on in the margins.

Having that formal affiliation meant that the labor movement, at least formally, has had a voice in the Canadian Parliament. And that means that other social movements have as well. The women’s movement, for example. Unlike in the US, the women’s movement in Canada grew very much in tandem with the labor movement and the great upsurge in public-sector unionization from the 1960s onward. The first freestanding abortion clinic in Canada was in a trade-union central in Quebec in the late 1970s.

KH

The US and Canada are both federal systems, so although the NDP (and its predecessor, the CCF) hasn’t held power at the federal level, it has been able to innovate at the provincial level. Saskatchewan elected the CCF in the 1940s, and one of the first things it did was introduce a single-payer health care system, which then spread to other provinces and over time became adopted nationwide.

That’s very much in people’s minds in the States right now, because if Trump and the Republicans repeal Obamacare and go after Medicare and Medicaid, the most effective progressive response will seemingly have to come from the states.

CM

That’s right. Tommy Douglas founded the precursor to the first universal health care system in Saskatchewan in 1947, and then in 1966, the federal government introduced the Medicare system, which is founded on the principle of universality. And while it’s still true that doctors operate as independent entrepreneurs, they bill single-payer, which is vastly more efficient than having a thousand little insurance companies as you have in the US, with all sorts of conditions being attached. That simply does not happen in the Canadian system.

That’s not to say that it’s perfect. But in the main, it’s been a phenomenally successful system, so much so that in terms of how Canadians see citizenship, what we call social citizenship — not just a bundle of legal rights but a bundle of social rights as well — health care is seen as a basic citizenship right. That’s fantastically important because that means that one big part of daily life has been removed from the market. It has, in effect, been decommodified.

And that then makes it much easier to have a discussion about whether, for example, banks should be turned into public utilities rather than private entities messing up the economy, as they periodically do. You’ve got a successful example to point to.

KH

I imagine that’s one reason why the American right wing is so violently opposed to a Medicare-for-All system: not only would it marginalize private insurers and Big Pharma, but it could very well change the sentiments of the nation, towards a more social-democratic bent.

CM

It intuitively opens people up to the idea that it’s possible to value certain social goods in a way that removes them from the market and the profit imperative. And that makes it much easier to argue for other things: a universal dental or day care program, for example. You can point to something real and say, “We’ve done this well for fifty years now, so why can’t we do other things?”

Then the arguments aren’t ones of principle, they’re just, “Well, we can’t afford it. It’s too expensive.” Well, when people see big banks being bailed out to the tune of billions of dollars, that’s not a very convincing argument.

KH

The NDP had a big advantage when it was founded in 1961: an alliance with the Canadian Labor Congress. A left party in the US, on the other hand, would almost certainly not have a formal labor link. It’d be starting from scratch.

CM

You don’t necessarily look to the old labor battalions. What are they doing? They’ve been propping up the Democratic Party hierarchy. You look to what’s really moving, and what’s grabbing people’s attention is all of those young workers who are facing a precarious future. Who are the most highly educated, informed, and articulate labor force in the history of the planet.

Clearly, they organize in unorthodox ways, through social media and all sorts of things. But that’s the future. And just like capitalism threw manufacturing workers onto the junk heap, these younger workers are facing the same fate. Automation, not twenty-five years from now but over the next decade, is going to throw even more people into the ranks of the unemployed or the precariously employed.

These are the people that any new party has to reach out to, and make the argument for a new kind of organization that is not separate from their struggles but is a part of them. The Democratic Party is pathetic at that, and the NDP is pretty bad, too.

The big danger for any new party is getting sucked into the electoral-politics holus bolus, when that becomes the be all and end all. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be involved in electoral politics. Revolutionary movements always have. It’s when electoral politics comes to dominate. Then the movements and the struggles outside the electoral arena begin to take second place, and that’s when the distances begin to open up.

Any new party that takes that constituency seriously can make some major headway. The task is not to channel that into some new electoral vehicle as an end in itself, but to build a new kind of third party that is able to organize and feed off of that energy, so people begin to see politics as not narrowly electoral but much more than that.

These are people who are prepared to go out into the streets to protest police shootings and organize these magnificent events like the Women’s March. You always have to be asking yourself: what’s moving, where’s the energy, how can this be organized in a way to strengthen the movement and not just the electoral machine? And that’s a really hard balance.

Unfortunately, the history of social democracy in Canada and Europe and elsewhere has been to become electoral machines and all the other stuff gets tossed into the back seat.

So over time, the NDP has not just lost its credibility, but its capacity to intervene strategically in social movements and struggles. They may come along to demonstrations and hold a placard, but their idea of meaningful political engagement is to say: “Why don’t you get involved in our candidate’s campaign in the upcoming by-election?”

Therein lies the conservatization of social democracy. When it has won power in the last few decades in the Canadian provinces, it has been swept along, rudderless, by the forces of neoliberalism, without having a mobilized base to check it. In Bolivia and other places, they say, “The leaders obey.”

Once you see your role in electoral terms, then a passive base is okay because you only need them to be mobilized at election time. And mobilized means: go out and canvass for us.

I’ve canvassed for the NDP at election time, and it’s a dispiriting kind of anti-politics. You do once in a while knock on a door and get to talk to someone about politics, but by that point the idea is simply: “Please come out and give us the thirty-two seconds it takes for you to put an X on a ballot and then go home.” The ultimate passive citizenship.

But I think there’s another way of doing it which starts with going to the self-activity where it exists. And that’s not to romanticize it and say it always exists and people don’t get tired. There are ebbs and flows to all sorts of struggles. But that’s always your starting point. How to take that and bring it to a higher level of organization?

That implies some kind of party organization. But I hope it wouldn’t take the form of a traditional social-democratic party, because while they may have had roots in those movements that gave them a real vitality at one point in their history, today they’ve lost most of that.

That’s why you’ve seen phenomena like Blairism in the UK. Blair was able to shift the Labour Party to the right in the 1990s because it had become moribund. It had lost its bearings and many of its working-class militants, leaving Labour membership to be seen as little more than a vote at election time.

Arguably, the British Labour Party had much deeper and more solid roots in the labor movement than the Canadian NDP could ever claim. And yet even there, they were swept along the neoliberal tide as so many other social-democratic parties have been.

So how to avoid that? If the project is to form a third party, number one let’s study the history of social democracy, in and out of power, and look honestly at the deficits. If you live in a culture like the US where you’re desperate for some third-party alternative to the two parties of business, then it’s easy to romanticize social-democratic culture. And for some good reasons. But you’ve also got to look at the really profound weaknesses and the way the tectonic shift to the right over the last thirty years has also dragged social democracy in its train, with profound consequences.

If you look at the number of trade unionists in Canada who vote for the NDP, you will not find a majority, far from it. That’s a disgrace, but it’s an outcome of neglecting the issues that matter to that base when in power.

KH

Others would say: why bother starting another party if the Green Party already exists?

CM

As environmental catastrophes and climate change loom larger than ever in people’s minds, why not the Greens? In principle, there shouldn’t be a big problem, but there is, and I think it’s that when people think Green Party, they think green issues only. (And we’ve had the experience in Canada of certain Green Party leaders actually being quite right-wing and saying, “Well, there are market solutions to these issues.”) So the average person, unfortunately, comes to see the Green Party as a one-trick pony that doesn’t address the broad range of politics.

And I think therein lies a larger issue: what’s the matter with resuscitating the language of socialism? Do we need to be embarrassed about this? Clearly not! All the evidence from the US election suggests that large constituencies would identify themselves as socialists, given half a chance. I think the time is right to revive the language of socialism, not in some high-falutin’ academic way, but in exactly the way that someone like Sanders was able to connect and describe himself as a socialist in a completely unembarrassed way.

For so long on the Left, we’ve been on the defensive, we’ve learned to be ashamed about openly stating what we stand for. That’s probably the most profound thing that we’ve lost in the long decline of working-class politics of an older sort: what my friend Alan Sears calls the “infrastructure of dissent,” when people’s lives were built around not just their politics, not just who they voted for, but who they associated with — the bicycle club, the chess club, the dance club . . .

All these things seem a little quaint now, but it meant that people had a shared worldview and not just a party to vote for. And that was based on real organization. Presses, publishing houses, poetry series, literary series, the Left Book Club that existed in the UK for many years. People were sharing and self-organizing.

Now maybe that’s gone forever with the Internet and all of these niche areas of interest, but the Sanders phenomenon belies the idea that you can’t mobilize tens and hundreds of thousands of people around a militant social-democratic political platform — and where you can see the glimmer of something like a new infrastructure of dissent. Something that doesn’t rise and fall with the ebbs and flows of electoral politics but is a kind of sustenance, the thing that sustains people through the hard ups and downs of any struggle.

That’s part of building a new political organization, one that sustains people and is connected to the real-life struggles they’re engaged in, be it the Fight for 15 or whatever. One that fosters a sense of community and belonging, which is so important to sustaining a genuine socialist political culture.

Suddenly it becomes common sense that socialism isn’t a dirty word, that it makes perfect sense of the world — it’s all about a shared belonging and a deep, structured community that people are living. So it’s not some abstraction when you start talking about, “Well, actually we could make this better if we nationalize the banks or if we do this and that,” and therefore it becomes a shared common sense.

We’ve lost that. And the task of any new political party is to take that part of it seriously — as seriously as any electoral politics. Because electoral politics alone will end up in technocratic, bureaucratic manipulation, and a dry, uninteresting approach to movements and culture, if it doesn’t have that vital connection.

KH

A final question. It’s a daunting enough task to build a progressive party. But it’s a whole other thing to make sure it stays progressive. We’ve talked about some of the ways: building a party culture that embraces new forms of militancy and activism, and doesn’t allow itself to become a bureaucratic, technocratic carcass. How else can you speak to that?

CM

The basic structural problem is that when most social-democratic parties have formed governments, they’ve just formed governments. There’s a difference between holding government and holding real power.

The state is a complex apparatus: in the US, you have a massive security state, where whole arms like the Defense Department are beholden to defense contractors. There are large aspects of the state that no elected government is in control of.

If you’re a party that’s not just tinkering around the edges of the economic system but is trying to bring about a real profound change to that system, can you imagine the blowback that you are going to get? The campaign that any elected government would have to face, not to mention the behind-the-scenes machinations and subversion?

There’s a long history of socialist governments trying to move in that direction and being sabotaged or subject to a coup. The problem for social democracy in power, then, is that the whole ground has shifted and they found themselves, where they have won office, holding legislative power in a state apparatus which is shifting rapidly to the right. And they’ve been pulled rather than pulling in the opposite direction.

That forces anyone thinking about a third party to say: what kind of party? What are the first principles of this new party, aside from everything else we’ve said? Is it going to be a party that’s dedicated to managing capitalism in some way, or just being better than the pro-capitalist parties at managing the system — which usually means you have to screw your own constituency. Or do we have a vision of bringing about a genuine transformation of state power? And that’s not a question you can dodge, because it will come back and bite you one way or another.

This is, like Gramsci said, trench work, but we always have the end goal in our sights and minds, because if you lose sight of that, then you just adapt to whatever constraints the system imposes upon you. And you become a third party of capitalism, claiming to be better managers, although you can’t even make that claim anymore — unless you have some kind of transformational vision or aspiration, and debate and discussion.

People will run up against those barriers as soon as they do try to make a change, even though they might not have thought that a radical change was necessary in the first place. Once they come up against those barriers, then their thinking begins to transform. And if you’re a socialist and believe that that has to be part of the perspective, then you don’t call those people out. You say, “Let’s try this and see how it works,” because you want people to draw these conclusions from their own experience.

That comes back to the foundations of having the kind of party that is engaged in those struggles, because that’s where people learn most quickly. You don’t have to tell anyone on a picket line, or most African Americans, that the police are part of the repressive apparatus of the state. They know that from daily experience.

So raising that experience to a level of politics is a key part of the process. But you’ve got to start with some basic principles and not fudge them and say, “Oh, we’ll sort that out later,” because usually it’s you who gets sorted out. The sorting out happens to you rather than the other way around.