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Rethinking the ‘NDP Orientation,’ 1973-1975

Between 1973 and 1975, the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvriere carried out an in-depth re-evaluation of the organization’s analysis of and policies towards the New Democratic Party. This was the most complete discussion of the NDP ever conducted by Marxists in Canada.

The Socialist History Project is pleased to publish key documents from that discussion – most of them have not been generally available since they first appeared in Internal Discussion Bulletins over thirty years ago.

In this section:

Others articles may be added to this list over time.

An Overview of the 1973-1975 NDP Discussion in the LSA/LSO

by Ian Angus

From its founding in 1961 (and earlier, in predecessor organizations) the League for Socialist Action had "an NDP orientation," a loosely-defined term that embodied supporting the NDP in elections, encouraging radicals to join the NDP and labor unions to affiliate to it, and urging the NDP to adopt socialist policies. At various times it also meant that LSA members joined the NDP and tried to build left-wing caucuses in alliance with other left-wing critics of the NDP leadership.

The Young Socialists had a similar "orientation" to the NDP and its youth wing, the New Democratic Youth.

The most ambitious attempt to define what the "Orientation" meant and to describe how it had been applied towards the CCF and NDP was Our Orientation to the NDP – as a strategy – and its tactical application, written in 1970 by Ross Dowson, then Executive-Secretary of the LSA/LSO. Although this document was written well before the 1973-75 discussion, it was referred to frequently by all participants. The group Ross Dowson formed after leaving the LSA in 1974 republished it as a pamphlet entitled The Socialist Vanguard and the NDP.

Rethinking the NDP Orientation

As we have noted elsewhere on this website, the 1973 pre-convention discussion in the LSA/LSO was the most extensive in the organization’s history. The organization experienced a three-way division, roughly along these lines:

  • The "United Tendency" headed by Dowson, criticized the Majority for abandoning the view that Canadian nationalism was progressive. We have previously posted documents from that debate. During the pre-convention discussion, the United Tendency said very little about the NDP.
  • The Revolutionary Communist Tendency presented broadscale attacks on almost every aspect of the LSA/LSO’s policies. In several documents, including The Revolutionary Communist Tendency Position on the NDP and Social Democracy and the LSA the RCT said that the LSA’s policy towards the NDP "violates both the most elementary principles of Leninism and the political reality of the NDP itself."
  • Most members of the LSA/LSO rejected both Dowson’s critique from the right and the RCT’s assault from the left. The 1973 Political Resolution submitted by the majority of the Central Committee was adopted by 75% of the delegates to the April Convention.

The section of the 1973 Political Resolution that discussed the NDP did not mention any change in the LSA/LSO’s position on the NDP, and no one seems to have suggested that a change had occurred. But in retrospect it’s clear that the resolution marked the beginning of a reassessment of the "NDP orientation" by the leadership of the LSA.

Mandel Intervenes

The debate between the LSA/LSO majority and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency was the Canadian reflection of a major debate in the Fourth International. In that dispute, the Canadian majority supported the current led by the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, while the RCT was aligned with the IEC Majority Tendency (IMT) which was strongest in Europe. Three weeks before the 1973 LSA/LSO convention, one of the principal leaders of the IMT intervened directly in the Canadian debate with In Defense of Leninism: In Defense of the Fourth International, a document which, among other things, charged that the LSA/LSO’s approach to the NDP was "tail-ending reformism" and a "clear tailist deviation from Leninism."

The author of this document was the well-known European Trotskyist Ernest Mandel, writing under the pseudonym Ernest Germain.

In October 1973, LSA/LSO leaders John Riddell and Art Young (respectively, Executive-Secretary and Organizational Secretary of the LSA/LSO) replied to Mandel in The Real Record of the Canadian Section: In Reply to Comrade Germain. In this section we have posted the two sections of that document that deal with the NDP:

  • Is the LSA/LSO ‘Tail-Ending Reformism’? responded to Mandel’s direct criticisms.
  • Some Starting Points for an NDP Debate summarized issues related to the question "Should Canadian Trotskyists use the tactic of critical support of the New Democratic Party, the labor party formation in Canada? What concrete form should this tactic assume under Canadian conditions?" The political line of this section of the Riddell/Young document was adopted by the Political Committee of the LSA/LSO in the fall of 1973, and by the Central Committee in January 1974.

The Revolutionary Communist Tendency did not wait to read Riddell and Young’s reply to Mandel’s critique. On October 4, 1973 they left of the LSA/LSO and joined the Revolutionary Marxist Group. This split cut off any discussion of the NDP issue between the LSA/LSO and the RCT/RMG until the groups began discussing reunification in 1977.

Dowson Charges Abandonment

But discussion of the NDP continued, in another form. The United Tendency, which had dissolved after the LSA/LSO’s April Convention, was reborn in the fall of 1973 as the Labor Party Tendency (LPT) once again led by Ross Dowson. It charged the majority on the LSA/LSO’s Political Committee with "abandonment of our long standing orientation" to the NDP. As evidence, it cited the 1973 Political Resolution, a series of articles in Labor Challenge dealing with developments in the NDP, and the Riddell/Young reply to Mandel.

The LPT submitted a document, The Subversion of Our Orientation to the NDP, to the January 1974 plenary meeting of the LSA/LSO, and Ross Dowson spoke on behalf of the LPT at that meeting.

Two important reports presented the views of the majority of the Political Committee and were adopted by overwhelming majorities at the Plenum:

  • In Class Collaboration and Independent Working Class Political Action: Some Fundamental Aspects of Our Policy Towards the NDP, Gary Porter set out to "restate a number of the basic concepts which underlie our tactical approach to the NDP." It related the NDP debate to an international discussion then taking place on how revolutionaries should have responded to the Union of the Left electoral alliance in France and to the Unidad Popular government headed by Salvador Allende in Chile. This was the most complete statement to date of the majority’s re-evaluation of the NDP orientation.
  • In Our Tasks in the New Democratic Party Today, John Steele examined recent developments in the NDP, and the LSA’s response to them, within the framework of the analysis Porter had presented the previous day. He focused particular attention on the NDP government then in office in B.C., and on the demand for a women’s ministry. Labor Challenge had described the demand as a "diversion for feminists," a position the LPT characterized as "essentially unprincipled, dogmatic, sectarian and factional."

One month later, Dowson and 17 other members of the LPT resigned from the LSA/LSO and established the Socialist League. The handful of LPT members who remained in the LSA reconstituted themselves as the Transitional Program Tendency and submitted the document Submission on the NDP to the LSA/LSO Internal Information Bulletin. Before that document could be discussed, almost all of the members of the TPT resigned, apparently to join the Socialist League: a slightly-modified version of their document was published by the SL under the title "Against Sectarianism."

Final Statement

Despite the withdrawal of both the RCT and the groups that supported Dowson’s views, the LSA/LSO majority continued to re-evaluate its orientation towards the NDP. An Outline of Our NDP Policy, presented to the January 1975 Central Committee Plenum by George Addison brought that process to a close. It outlined the majority’s analysis of the NDP and the tactics that flowed from that analysis, and it provided a final response to the critique offered by the TPT/Socialist League.

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