Rethinking the ‘NDP Orientation,’
Tail-Ending Reformism (1973)
by "Ernest Germain"
Excerpt from “In Defense of Leninism; In Defense of the Fourth International.” by Ernest Germain. International Internal Discussion Bulletin, Volume X Number 4, April 1973. All the sections of this document that dealt with Canada have been posted here. The entire document can be found at www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/1973/01/index.htm
"Germain" was a pen-name used by Ernest Mandel, a prominent leader of the Fourth International.
14. Tail-Ending Reformism
The position which the LSA/LSO (Canadian section) leadership – and staunch supporters of the minority position on Latin America – has adopted towards the reformist social-democratic party, the NDP in its country, and its position on the October 30, 1972 general elections in Canada in particular, expresses a clear tailist deviation from Leninism. In a leaflet distributed on a large scale before these general elections, we can find the following gems:
“In order to bring about positive changes, we need a party that acts in our interests. The New Democratic Party is the only one that speaks for the majority – the working class and the other oppressed of society. It does not get any support from the E.P. Taylors. In fact, big business hates it. It is financed and supported by working people. It has been built by working people, struggling for a better life.
“The NDP is the only alternative to the status quo in this election. The Lewis attack on the ‘corporate welfare bums’ shows whose side the NDP is on. Because it is a party of the working people, the NDP has been deeply affected by the ongoing struggles of students, women, antiwar activists and other people fighting for a change. Its program includes free tuition for students, US out of Vietnam and an end to Canada’s complicity in the war, repeal of all anti-abortion laws, free community-controlled daycare centres.
“The Liberals and Tories can only block our struggles. The NDP can propel them forward. An NDP victory would inspire and intensify the different movements of the oppressed. A Labor government could win concrete gains for the working people, and open the way for fundamental social change.
“This is why we’ve got to campaign for an NDP government and use the 2.8 million new votes we hold to bring it about.
“The NDP has limitations. Its conservative leadership wants to reform this profit system, not end it. The leadership also sees the parliamentary road as the only way for change, and they sometimes even oppose demonstrations, mass meetings, strikes, etc.
“But you don’t get anything ready made. You can either stand on the sidelines and complain that even our party, the NDP, isn’t what it should be, or you can join the struggle to make it effective. In order to change the world, we must organise to see our needs fulfilled.” (my emphasis – E.G.)
It is true that this astonishing prose is only published in the name of the Canadian Young Socialists, and not in the section’s own name. But the prose of the Canadian section itself is hardly more edifying. Here is what we can ready in its central organ’s editorial on the general elections, entitled For the labour Alternative: Vote NDP Oct. 30!
“The NDP is a class alternative to the capitalist parties. Its election to power promises not only many needed reforms for working people and the poor; not only class legislation aiding the organisation of the unorganised workers and the bargaining struggles of the organised; not only legislation repealing discriminatory laws – but the election of NDP governments to power constitutes big strides in the path that the working class of this country are going to take towards breaking not only from capitalist electoral politics but from capitalism as a system.
“The working class and the oppressed in Canada, organised politically in a Labour Party based on the trade union movement is a powerful potential force against capitalism. Through the NDP, the lessons of the radi-calisation among youth, in the women’s liberation movement, the lessons of the Quebec and Native liberation struggles, are being transmitted to, discussed and debated among the advanced workers of the country. It is through the NDP that the political consciousness of the working class in Canada is being forged and shaped.
“That is what the profiteers and the bosses of this country fear. And that is what socialists support. Vote class. Vote NDP on October 30. Build the NDP.” (Labor Challenge, Sept. 27, 1972 – my emphasis – E.G.)
In a certain sense, the LSA/LSO appeal is even worse than the YS one. For while it prudently leaves out the most extreme pro-reformist formulations of the leaflet, it doesn’t even include the pious reference to the “conservative leadership” of the NDP and its parliamentary illusions. In fact, it doesn’t contain a single word of criticism of reformism and electoralism, not a single word of differentiation from social-democracy!
We are not dealing here with a hypothetical Labor Party, arising from a young rebellious and still partially democratic trade-union upsurge, similar to the one Trotsky projected in the late Thirties for the USA in relation to the rise of the CIO. We are talking about a social-democratic party, with a programme well to the right of even British social-democracy, not to speak of the French and Italian socialist parties. We are talking about politicians who abhor revolution, extra-parliamentary struggles for overthrowing capitalism, and whose horizon is totally limited to that of winning reforms within the framework of capitalist economy and the bourgeois state.
We are talking about people who are 100% in favor of class-collaboration politically, economically and socially. In the best of cases, a coming to power of the NDP would lead to what Trotsky called a miserable comedy, like the first MacDonald governments in Britain. If things go worse, it could lead to big defeats and demoralisation of the working class, if a powerful revolutionary party does not exist to lead the workers’ struggle beyond social-democratic reforms and towards socialist revolution.
All this is ABC for any Leninist, and any supporter of the Fourth International. Obviously, it is ABC for the leadership of the LSA as well. Why then do they write the exact opposite of what they believe on these questions? For “tactical” reasons? Is it part of Leninist “tactics” to hide the truth from the workers (leave alone the radicalised vanguard whom you can’t fool for a minute, and who don’t believe that reformist rubbish anyway)? Where did Lenin ever advise revolutionary socialists and communists to call social-democracy an “alternative” to the bourgeois status quo? Where did he ever say that big business hates social-democrats (does British capital “hate” Wilson, not to mention Roy Jenkins)? Did Lenin ever say that a social-democratic government would open up “the way for fundamental social change”? What is this strange animal anyway, supposedly different from a socialist revolution, in the epoch of imperialism? Did Lenin ever consider that political class consciousness grows inside the working class through a strengthening of the reformist mass parties? Isn’t it a serious deviation for a revolutionary socialist to seriously write that the election of a reformist government, which will manage bourgeois society and capitalist relations of production like all its counterparts have done since 1918, “constitutes big strides in the path of the working people ... towards breaking ... from capitalism as a system”? What has any of this in common with Leninism?
Of course, our criticism does not imply that it would be incorrect for Canadian revolutionary Marxists to call upon the workers and other oppressed layers of society to vote NDP. Lenin taught us to support social-democratic candidates in elections under certain conditions “like the rope supports the hanging man.” He specified that this task poses itself especially when it is a question of winning a majority of the workers to a communist party which has already set itself upon the road to such a conquest. He underlined that before setting upon that course, it is imperative to assemble, steel and educate the vanguard. And he specifically lay down the conditions for denouncing reformism which had to accompany any such electoral support, lest it lead the masses closer to the reformist fakers, the labor lieutenants of capital (to whom our comrades in Canada now refer to, for shame, as “the party of the working people”!) instead of helping them to free themselves from reformist illusions and traitors:
“If we are not a revolutionary group, but the Party of the revolutionary class, if we want the masses to follow us (and unless they do, we stand the risk of remaining mere tallers) we must first help Henderson or Snowden to beat Lloyd George and Churchill (or to be more correct: to compel the former to beat the latter, because the former are afraid to win); secondly, help the majority of the working class to become convinced by their own experience that we are right, i.e., that the Henderson’s and Snowden’s are utterly worthless, that they are petty-bourgeois and treacherous and that their bankruptcy is inevitable; thirdly, bring nearer the moment when, on the basis of the disappointment of the majority of the workers in the Hendersons, it will be possible with serious chances of success to overthrow the government of the Hendersons at once ...
“... The Communist Party should propose to the Hendersons and Snowdens that they enter into a ‘compromise,’ an election agreement, viz., to march together against the alliance of Lloyd George and the Conservatives ... while the Communist Party retains complete liberty to carry on agitation, propaganda and political activity. Without the latter condition, of course, no such bloc could be concluded, for that would be an act of betrayal; the British communists must insist on and secure complete liberty to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens in the same way as (for fifteen years, 1903-1917) the Russian Bolsheviks insisted on and secured it in relation to the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens, i.e., the Mensheviks.” (V.I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, Coop Publishing Society of Foreign Workers, Moscow 1935, p.84.)
“If I as a Communist come out and call upon the workers to vote for the Hendersons against Lloyd George, they will certainly listen to me. And I will be able to explain in a popular manner not only why Soviets are better than parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (which is concealed behind the signboard of bourgeois “democracy”), but I will also be able to explain that I wanted to support Henderson with my vote in the same way as the rope supports the hanged – that the impending establishment of a Henderson government will prove I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will accelerate the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens as was the case with their friends in Russia and Germany.” (Ibid., pp.86-87.)
In other words: while Lenin posed as a condition for a call to vote labour the simultaneous denunciation of their leaders as worthless, petty-bourgeois and treacherous, moving towards inevitable bankruptcy; while he called upon the British Communists to use the hearing they could get from Labour workers to make communist propaganda in favor of workers democracy and Soviets, against parliamentary and reformist illusions, the Canadian section of the Fourth International, while calling on the workers to vote NDP, abstains from any such revolutionary propaganda, and indeed increases the hold of reformism upon the workers by presenting things as if a “fundamental social change” and “breaking from capitalism as a system” could be conquered by the masses through an electoral victory of the NDP. How, under such circumstances, these same masses could be capable of breaking with reformism after their experience with the bankruptcy of an NDP government, and how they could be won over to revolutionary Marxism remains a mystery.
The trend of the electoral policies of the LSA/LSO is clear. It can be summarised in one formula: tail-ending reformism.
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