Rethinking the ‘NDP Orientation,’
Some Starting Points for an NDP Debate (1973)
Excerpt from “The Real Record of the Canadian Section: In Reply to Comrade Germain.” by John Riddell and Art Young. International Internal Discussion Bulletin, Volume X Number 16, October 1973.
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.
Some Starting Points for an NDP Debate
a) Is the NDP a "Labor Party"?
The orientation of the LSA/LSO to the NDP is a response to a major problem before Canadian Trotskyists: how to destroy the massive obstacle posed before the growth of the revolutionary vanguard party by the social-democratic leadership of the English Canadian labor movement.
In historic terms, the NDP is a detour for the English-Canadian working class. While the formation of a mass labor party was a historic step forward, the absence of a revolutionary vanguard organization with mass working-class influence permitted the establishment of a labor party which was social-democratic in character.
The first steps by a significant layer of Canadian unions away from their traditional abstention from independent political action took place only in the 1940's. The NDP is an even more recent development, founded only 12 years ago. While it lacks roots in Quebec, in English Canada it is the only mass political organization of the working class. It has some 75,000 direct and 300,000 affiliated members, and receives about 25 percent of the popular vote in English Canada. Its nearest rival on the left, the pro-Moscow Communist Party, probably has fewer than 1,000 active members, and receives an average of less than one percent of the vote in those electoral districts which it contests.
While firmly controlled and shaped from the outset by a social-democratic bureaucracy, whose social base is the bureaucratic layer at the head of the trade unions, the NDP has reflected in its ranks and in its conventions almost the entire range of left political opinion in the organized labor movement. The right-wing leadership is relatively united. But it has faced recurrent challenges from rank-and-file based left-wing oppositions, in which the Canadian Trotskyists have played a prominent and leading role. Their intransigence has led to repeated waves of expulsions of Trotskyist militants.
The LSA/LSO has termed the NDP a "labor party." Its use of the term is based on Trotsky's exposition of the meaning of the labor party demand in America.
In his discussions of the transitional program with comrades of the Socialist Workers Party, Trotsky pointed to three ways in which mass working-class political parties have been constituted. One of these is the formation of such a party by the trade unions, seen for example in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The term "labor party" has been used to describe parties of this type. In the United States, in Quebec, and in English Canada prior to 1961, Trotskyists have raised the demand for a labor party, under certain conditions, to point to the need for the working class and its allies to break with bourgeois political parties and build their own political instrument.
Canadian Trotskyists' designation of the New Democratic Party as a "labor party" emphasizes the NDP's working-class base, and its character as the sole mass political party of the trade unions. The term helps explain the great step forward for the Canadian working class represented by the formation of the NDP in 1961.
Comrade Germain makes no direct comment on the significance of the formation and consolidation of the NDP over the last decade. But he alludes to it when he writes, "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 C.I.O." (P. 27.)
Comrade Germain's comment is correct. The NDP was formed on the initiative of the labor bureaucracy in a period of relative quiescence of the labor movement. But the kind of labor party to which Comrade Germain refers was only one of three possibilities for a labor party projected by Trotsky, in a discussion on the transitional program in 1938. Another of the three variants he mentions describes the New Democratic Party very accurately:
"Then it can be a labor party created in a less critical period, in less turmoil, in rather calm conditions, quiet conditions, with the predominance of the conservative reactionary leaders, with a more or less centralized machine which will keep us out as a party. Then, of course, we continue existing as a party outside such an opportunistic party, and we consider only the possibility of penetrating such a labor party—but as a party we remain outside such a centralized opportunistic labor party." ("Three Possibilities with a Labor Party," The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p. 155.)
Trotsky's definition provides a good starting point for a concrete analysis of the contradictory character of the NDP, and its contradictory and complex relationship to the struggle of the Canadian working class. Comrade Germain's polemic fails to indicate the road toward such an analysis.
b) Critical Support to the NDP?
Comrade Germain expresses no opinion on whether the LSA/LSO is correct to utilize the tactic of critical support to the NDP. The question has international significance, all the more in the framework of the debates over critical support to social democratic parties, and the class character of social democratic parties, which have developed in several sections of the Fourth International, including the British, French and German sections.
The LSA/LSO holds that the tactic of critical support to non-Trotskyist currents in elections is limited to candidates or parties who represent currents within the working class movement, or whose candidature represents a step toward independent working-class political action. There is no principled basis for critical support to candidates of bourgeois political parties, or of class-collaborationist electoral alliances, no matter how these candidates are viewed by the working class. This question has provoked some discussion in the Fourth International: for example over whether we should give critical support to the French "Union of the Left," or to Allende's Unidad Popular in Chile.
As a social democratic party, the NDP has a pro-capitalist, bourgeois program. This fundamental characteristic has led Leninists to refer to social-democratic parties as "bourgeois parties," reserving the designation "proletarian" for parties with a revolutionary Marxist program.
At the same time, the NDP, like other social-democratic parties, is a current within the labor movement. Its leadership is a petit-bourgeois bureaucratic layer whose base is the trade-union bureaucracy. Its composition, in terms of membership, financing, and voting base, is working class and rooted in the union movement. Representatives of affiliated unions, moreover, have a commanding voice in party councils. As a party which is working class in its composition and social base, the NDP stands in contradiction to the parties of the bourgeoisie. Its contest against these parties, to use Comrade Germain's phrase, "takes the objective character of a class confrontation." (Quatrieme Internationale, mai-aout 1973, p. 59.) This decisive characteristic has led Leninists to speak of the "working-class character" of parties like the NDP, to refer to them as "parties of the workers movement" or as "workers parties."
The analysis of the NDP as a party of the working class is the principled basis for critical support of the NDP.
Comrade Germain warns us against leading 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'!)" (P. 27.)
The passage draws an equal sign between the character of the reformist leadership of the NDP and the character of the party. It glosses over the contradiction between the petit-bourgeois character of the leadership and the working-class composition of the party. Comrade Germain agrees, we assume, that the NDP is a party of the working class movement, in terms of its composition, its social roots, and the historic roots of its social-democratic leadership. The Young Socialists leaflet-writer, in attempting to popularize this concept by terming the NDP "a party of the working people," chose a poor formulation. Nonetheless the phrase attempted to express a correct and vital idea: the difference between the class character of the NDP and the parties of the bourgeoisie.
c) Does Critical Support Help Win the Vanguard?
Comrade Germain proposes some criteria to enable us to judge whether critical support is an appropriate tactic. He tells us that Lenin specifies that the task of critical support to social-democratic candidates "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 conquest. He underlined that before setting upon that course, it is imperative to assemble, steel, and educate the vanguard." (P. 27.)
It would seem from this that the tactic of critical support is appropriate once the revolutionary vanguard has completed the process of assembling and winning the "vanguard," and after it has constituted itself as a party with some degree of mass influence.
The LSA/LSO has evolved its position on a different basis. First, we do not see how any "vanguard" can be assembled, educated or steeled in Canada today except in struggle against social-democratic reformism. This means not only propagandistic critiques, but the active engagement of the revolutionary organization in the struggle against the NDP bureaucracy unfolding in the NDP and the other mass organizations of the labor movement. Critical support of the NDP is a correct tool for this job.
We are very small. We cannot yet contest directly against the NDP for the adherence of the majority of the workers. These facts are added arguments in favor of the tactic of critical support, not against it, as Comrade Germain seems to say. The smallness of our forces makes critical support of the NDP all the more useful in this state, in seeking the road to the masses, and educating advanced workers and radicalized youth in principled Leninist politics.
Comrade Germain's criteria might be interpreted as signifying that the tactic of critical support to mass working-class parties is wrong during a period when the main party-building orientation is "winning hegemony in the vanguard." Such an interpretation would lead to precisely the wrong conclusion about how small revolutionary organizations should go about winning the support of the most advanced layers of youth and worker militants.
Comrade Germain does not state the source of the quotation from Lenin. In the one passage in Left Wing Communism to which it might refer, Lenin calls on British Communists to unite their four weak parties into a single Communist Party, on the basis of the principles of the Third International, before proposing an election agreement to the Labor Party. (Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 431, English edition.) If this is indeed the source of his reference to Lenin, then Comrade Germain has taken Lenin's specific advice for British Communists in 1920 and converted it into a general formula for Trotskyists today in all countries. In so doing, he substitutes the word "vanguard" for the word "party.")
d) Why the LSA/LSO Opposes Entrism Sui Generis
"Then, of course, we continue existing as a party outside such an opportunistic party, and we consider only the possibility of penetrating such a labor party — but as a party we remain outside." In these words, Trotsky describes the framework for the present orientation of the LSA/LSO to the NDP. This orientation consists of critical support to the NDP as the mass political party of the English Canadian labor movement. It is not an "entry" into the NDP. It entails the work of a portion of LSA members ("fraction work") inside the NDP, and an orientation of intervening in the politics of the NDP and the labor movement through independent activity outside the NDP: independent propaganda, independent mass campaigns on particular issues, and all the public activity of the LSA. Thus we intervene in the politics of the NDP both within the NDP, within the unions, and from the outside. The balance of the different sides of this work depends on the political conjuncture. Its aim is not to build a centrist or left-centrist current in the NDP. Its aim is to increase the working-class influence and build the cadres of the Canadian Trotskyist movement.
The vicissitudes of the class struggle have on occasion obliged Trotskyist groups to carry out entries into mass parties, in which they have given up part of their public face for a short period. But as a rule, the political independence of the revolutionary movement, which Lenin insisted on as a condition of the tactic of "critical support," finds expression in concentrated efforts to strengthen the public face of the Trotskyist movement: its press, its meetings, its headquarters, its independent intervention in its own name in the class struggle. These are the means at our disposal for public expression of our line of revolutionary criticism of the social-democratic and Stalinist misleaders.
It is ironic that Comrade Germain should attack the Canadian section for lacking such political independence vis-a-vis the NDP. The Canadian section has centered its work on the building of a strong public face of revolutionary Marxism, including during the hard days of the 1950's. The successes of this line contrast with the disastrous record of entrism sui generis in Canada. ("Our Orientation to the NDP," by Ross Dowson, in IIDB Vol. VIII, No. 6, sets down a record of the struggle of the Canadian section against this erroneous line, as it was applied in Canada.)
More relevant material for the discussion of the need to maintain an effective public expression of revolutionary Marxism could surely be found in the experience of the many sections, in Europe and elsewhere, which did carry out entrism sui generis over a period of almost two decades. In contrast to the approach of the Canadian section, this approach entailed, among other things, closing down or drastically cutting back the public work of the sections. The Canadian section substantially increased its forces during the 1950's and early 1960's. European sections, practicing entrism sui generis, lost valuable opportunities and cadres through their entry experiment.
An examination of this experience is all the more pressing since the IEC Majority Tendency has asked the Fourth International to approve and underwrite entrism sui generis, as part of the line of the European perspectives resolution.
e) The Real Debate in Canada
Comrade Germain's document, submitted for publication three weeks before the April convention of the Canadian section, bore little relationship to the discussion under way in Canada, a discussion which of necessity dealt with the real policies of the LSA/LSO, rather than with its imaginary "errors."
The Political Resolution, adopted by a 75 percent majority of convention delegates, described the work of Trotskyists in the NDP in these terms:
Canadian supporters of the IEC Majority Tendency, organized in the Revolutionary Communist Tendency (RCT), vigorously contested this perspective. The RCT held that the "NDP has a minimum implantation in the proletariat as a party.... Its hold over the loyalty and consciousness of the masses is extremely weak," and predicted a coming split between the leadership of the party and the trade-union leadership. Rising working-class militancy would soon break free of the NDP framework. The majority believed this to be mere wishful thinking. It is not likely that the social-democratic obstacle, like the walls of Jericho, is about to crumble before our eyes.
The RCT also proposed that instead of striving to build a broad class-struggle opposition in the NDP, the LSA/LSO should establish only "fronts for revolutionary intervention" to regroup revolutionary elements in the party. In the majority's view, the issue was whether the programmatic intervention of the LSA/LSO, in the NDP and elsewhere, should be adapted to "the concerns of the vanguard" in the sense of being limited to revolutionary propaganda to narrow "vanguard" layers, or whether it should be based on the objective needs of the class as a whole.
The LSA/LSO has used many vehicles to attempt to intervene in the rank-and-file struggle against the NDP leadership, and to lead it with our program. As well as fraction work inside the NDP, these include working in the unions in favor of their affiliation to the NDP, and to build opposition in them to the NDP leadership; building independent campaigns, like that against the Vietnam war, which can rally support of the NDP ranks and put maximum political pressure on the NDP leadership; and independent initiatives in the name of the LSA/LSO. An example of the latter is the Canadian section's campaigns in municipal elections, which are normally uncontested by the NDP in Canada — campaigns which not only provide an example of effective revolutionary agitation in a broad arena, but which help generate pressure on the NDP leadership to alter its "non-partisan" stance in civic elections.
All this, of course, has been vigorously contested by the Revolutionary Communist Tendency. Applying the European Perspectives Document to Canada, it finds the present work of the Canadian section in contradiction to an orientation to English Canada's miniscule "revolutionary vanguard."
The leaders of the IEC Majority Tendency have yet to indicate formally and openly whether they consider that the RCT's rejection of the LSA/LSO's NDP orientation is correct. When they speak on this question, they should explain why they were unable to perceive earlier the "error" of policy which the Canadian section has pursued since before the reunification of 1963.
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