The remarkable victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party’s recent leadership race was a political earthquake that has shaken British politics to the very core. It marks a definite shift and a total realignment not only in the Labour Party, but also British politics in general. His victory did not come from out of the blue; it reflects the intense discontent and disillusionment in society. With this development one thing has become clear: we are now witnessing the beginnings of a generalized and long-term upswing in the class struggle in Britain.
With the rise of a mass left wing in parts of Europe, and now Britain and the Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States, the Canadian ruling class and political elites are concerned about such a development here. The same economic and social factors that gave rise to the movement around Corbyn also exist in Canada, and the ruling class particularly fears that the growing radicalization of workers and youth in Canada will eventually find an expression in the NDP, something Mulcair and co. equally fear.
The rise of the Left
The victory of the Labour Lefts in Britain reflects the same general process developing throughout Europe – the process that resulted in the rise of Syriza in Greece, the meteoric development of Podemos in Spain, and the sweeping victory of the SNP in Scotland. After decades on the defensive, workers and youth across Europe have announced their willingness to fight back and are actively seeking a way out of the nightmare of austerity and capitalist crisis.
In country after country, class consciousness is leaping forward, in particular following the crash of 2008, which has had an enormous impact on the consciousness of the working class. The resulting radicalization of workers and youth is now finding its initial mass political expressions. This radicalization is expressed in different forms in different nations because of the different historical conditions in which it develops in each country. These conditions are the outcome of the previous stages of the class struggle and the result of the contradictions in the relationship between the radicalizing working class and its mass political organizations.
The radicalized masses now at first encounter and collide with the mass political organizations of the working class and put them to the test – the Socialist, Labour, and Communist parties. Workers and youth, once politically active en masse, must come to terms with these organizations. The major contradiction today is precisely that in nearly every country these traditional organizations have shifted far to the right.
As a result of this shift to the right, their association with austerity, and their open betrayals, the mass organizations have in many cases become direct barriers to the mass political expression of the radicalization of the masses. Historically these traditional organizations would be seen as the first and natural vehicles for the political expression of the working class in their fight against the parties of Capital. After decades of right-wing leadership and betrayals these parties today are often the parties of austerity and have become the organizations which the masses are fighting against, such as Pasok in Greece, PSOE [Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party)] in Spain, and of course the Labour Party in Britain.
In some cases the masses are able to tear down these barriers and transform the organization, such as in Britain with the Labour Party, and in others they had to move around them, creating new mass organizations as in Greece and Spain. As pressure from the radicalization of the workers and youth builds up within society it must find an outlet. If it is able to force open traditional release valves such as the Labour Party it will do so, but if not, the pressure mounts and explodes via new valves, and new political formations such as Syriza and Podemos are created.
In this process, the existing mass organizations are shaken to the core. Whether finding direct expression through these organizations or against them, the intensification of the class struggle and resulting radicalization of the masses stamps its mark on the traditional mass organizations in a process of creation, destruction, and transformation. We have seen the beginnings of a process whereby the mass political organizations of the working class will rise, enter into crisis, fall or are transformed – sometimes with remarkable rapidity, reflecting shifts in the consciousness of the masses. We need only look to Greece where electoral support for Pasok has collapsed over the course of just a few years while over the same period Syriza was catapulted from almost nothing into power.
Canada is not immune to this process. The same political and economic forces that created Corbyn, Syriza and Sanders exist in Canada. This means that the Canadian working class and the NDP will not be immune to these same forces. Though Canada lags behind developments in Europe to a certain degree, it is but one step removed. The future of Canada can be found in countries like Greece, Spain and Britain and we must learn the political lessons from events there in order to prepare and organize for the great events of the future here.
The NDP and the Labour Party
The tremors resulting from the rise of the Labour Left can be felt around the world. Ripples from the shocks in Britain can also be felt on this side of the pond, as evidenced by the response in the Canadian press. The Corbyn victory has gone unnoticed by no one – except, apparently, by the NDP. If this was conspicuous, it certainly wasn’t accidental.
The silence on the Corbyn victory certainly wasn’t because Mulcair and the NDP leadership were unaware of what was happening in the Labour Party. Historically speaking, the Canadian social democracy and trade unions have always looked to their British counterparts as an example, and specifically the NDP has always looked to the Labour Party.
The Labour Party holds a certain prestige internationally for the workers’ movement, particularly here in Canada. The NDP has always looked to the Labour Party, in part because it is one of the oldest workers’ parties with a formation historically similar to that of the NDP, not to mention the historic cultural ties between Britain and Canada and the importance of labour traditions with immigration from the British Isles.
As the tops of the NDP looked to Blair and the “statesmen” in the Labour Party in the 1990s as the way forward and shifted the party to the right (without ever succeeding in completing a Blairite transformation of the party), rank-and-file NDPers will now be looking to Corbyn as a source of inspiration. A collision seems inevitable. This more than anything explains the silence on the Corbyn victory on the part of Mulcair and the NDP leadership. Even the bourgeoisie is aware of this:
“What I notice we do have is a historically socialist party leading in the polls behind an awfully Blairish figure. All New Democrats are highly aware of Labour politics: Labour is their mother, in a way the Conservative and Unionist Party (U.K.) is not to our Conservatives. Although New Democrats may not admit it, the recent unearthing of Thomas Mulcair’s eulogy for Margaret Thatcher must have appalled and sickened many.”
The Mulcair team has been desperate to control the party message during the election campaign à la Harper precisely in order to prove his respectability to the ruling class. He avoids anything that could possibly be construed as “left wing” and anything that might smack of “socialism”. The reality is that in the NDP Mulcair represents the same forces that were just defeated in the Labour Party by Corbyn. In Corbyn’s victory Mulcair sees his own future defeat.
Mulcair and the current NDP leadership would be far more at home in the old “New Labour” of Tony Blair than they would be under the Corbyn and McDonnell leadership. Mulcair and co. know that when the growing radicalization in Canada finally finds a mass expression that it can only mean one of two things. In the one case, should a left arise in the NDP, it can and will only rise in a struggle against the Mulcair leadership of the party. In the other case, if the NDP is tested by the masses and found wanting, a new political formation may arise on the left which can only grow and develop against the NDP under the Mulcair leadership. Either way the victory of Corbyn is nothing for Mulcair to get excited about.
Put to the test
The rise of Podemos, Syriza, the SNP and the Corbyn victory in the Labour Party leadership race reflect deep social processes at work and offer us insight into future developments in the NDP in particular and the Canadian Left in general. One key, defining feature in all cases is how the traditional social democracy was perceived by the masses in relation to austerity. In all these cases the social democracy was rightly seen by the radicalizing workers and youth as being part of the political establishment, at one with the political elites, and as parties of austerity.
These parties were quickly put to the test. Over the course of the initial awakening of the masses in Spain, PSOE was rejected in favour of a new formation. In Greece, the workers first elected a Pasok government hoping to put an end to the austerity of the right-wing New Democracy. As a result of Pasok's refusal to break with capitalism they were forced to implement even more severe austerity measures. This led to the rise of Syriza. In Britain the Labour Party was rejected in Scotland and transformed in England and Wales. All of these events are a reflection of the developing revolutionary mood in society and are being driven by the fight against austerity.
These same forces will find their expression in Canadian politics. We’ve already seen the beginnings of this with the titanic shifts that have taken place in Alberta and Quebec politics. The potential definitely exists for similar shifts in federal politics.
In Alberta, the NDP won the recent provincial election precisely because it was not seen as part of the political establishment. The NDP was untested there - it had never governed (in fact had been nowhere near forming government) and was not associated in the minds of workers and youth with the political elites or hated policies of austerity. This more than anything explains the historic NDP victory in the province. It wasn’t so much enthusiasm for the NDP’s program of modest reforms that led to victory but the fact that the NDP, as well as being viewed historically as the party of the left, was the only party that seemed to stand against the elites, to stand against austerity, and was ultimately viewed as the only party that could offer a way out of the crisis.
The victory of the NDP in Alberta represents not the latter stages but only the very beginnings of the same process that led to the rise of Syriza, Podemos and the Corbyn victory. It is an earlier stage of the process. In Alberta the NDP is in fact being put to the test by the masses. Faced with the low oil prices and a ballooning deficit, the leadership of the party has already started talking about “belt-tightening” (read austerity). As we have explained previously, if the NDP accepts the limits of capitalism it must then also accept the laws of capitalism. That means it must then manage the crisis of capitalism, and this inevitably means imposing austerity on the working class to pay for the bosses’ crisis. This provincial NDP government and the role it plays in the crisis will impact the consciousness of the masses and will determine the relationship of the workers and youth to the party. If the NDP fails this test in Alberta it will eventually be rejected by the masses as they seek other avenues through which to continue the fight back.
The NDP finds itself in a similar position federally, where it too is being put to the test. The NDP has never governed nationally, and in terms of the national consciousness it is not generally seen as part of the political establishment. It is historically the party of the left in the national consciousness, despite the current leadership.
The NDP’s performance in the polls and in the upcoming election will be determined by the extent to which it can maintain this perception. When the party was seen to shift left under Jack Layton during the last election, even if very very slightly, the party shot up in the polls and had its first breakthrough, becoming the Official Opposition for the first time. It was able to capture the fighting spirit and anti-austerity mood in Quebec, in a process that is almost the opposite of what occurred in Scotland.
When the party thereafter tacked right, a process which continued and was deepened under the Mulcair leadership, the party’s support dropped and it lost a series of federal by-elections as well as provincial and municipal votes.
It was only when the party began to announce a series of modest reforms in its platform that the party moved up again in the polls into first place. Mulcair started the election campaign by defending the NDP’s “social democratic roots” and defended the party’s historic links with the trade unions. Mulcair had come out against the hated Bill C-51 and the party program included increased corporate taxes, an affordable childcare program and a $15 federal minimum wage. There was by no means any real talk of socialism but the party was playing, or was at least perceived to be playing, to the anti-austerity and anti-Harper mood and consequently found itself at the top of the polls.
However, things began to change. The higher the NDP climbed in the polls the more Mulcair shifted the focus of his campaign squarely to Bay Street in an effort to prove that the NDP in power would be pragmatic, efficient managers of capitalism. The sole message of his campaign was one of assuaging the fears of the capitalists faced with the prospects of an NDP government. This inevitably meant a shift to the right with the NDP proposing $250 million for an extra 2500 cops, which was followed by promises to balance the budget and to refuse deficit spending (read austerity) along with refusals of tax increases on the rich, not to mention the nauseating removal of NDP candidates who criticized Israel and had been found making pro-Palestinian comments on social media.
The further the NDP shifts to the right over the course of the federal election campaign, the more the masses will come to view it as part of the establishment, as a party of austerity. Should the NDP continue to shift right it will more than likely continue to shed support and stands a good chance of losing the election. It seems likely that this would have an impact on the NDP and trade union rank-and-file, something the bourgeois press even noted:
“You can already see the outlines of a political mini-thriller in this. Mulcair’s NDP is six or eight points ahead in the last polls before our October election. The pundits have the moving truck backed right up to 24 Sussex. But the Conservative get-out-the-vote machine proves itself again, as does the “shy Tory” polling effect. It’s a Harper landslide, bigger than before.
“The recrimination within the New Democratic Party becomes general and open. Why, people ask, did we run to the right of Trudeau? Why did we choose a grumpy Thatcherite to challenge a grumpy Thatcherite government instead of keeping faith with our real identity?”
On the other hand should the NDP, despite itself, manage to win the election it will find itself in a very difficult position. Mulcair has stated that in terms of running a deficit “we are not entertaining any thought of that” and a federal NDP government would balance the budget. Former Saskatchewan finance minister and star NDP candidate Andrew Thomson is on record stating that in pursuit of a balanced budget some cuts are “inevitable” (read austerity). Even if Canada weren’t in recession, how can this mean anything other than austerity?
If the NDP ends up in government and implements policies of austerity, these questions on the nature of the party will be forced to the forefront. In the event of the betrayal of the NDP and driven by the need to fight austerity, the radicalizing workers and youth will seek an avenue for political expression. Whether this radicalization finds expression inside the NDP leading to its transformation, or outside leading to new formations, is absolutely impossible to predict as it will depend ultimately on the immediate factors leading to its rise.
Inevitably, under pressure from the intensification of the class struggle, the growing radicalization of workers and youth will seek a vehicle for political expression in the fight against austerity. As in Europe, Britain and the United States, sharp changes in consciousness and sudden changes in the situation are implicit. We must be prepared to expect the unexpected. What yesterday seemed impossible will tomorrow become possible. Yet one thing is certain - on the basis of the organic crisis of capitalism and the recession, the upcoming election will indeed be a defining event in Canadian politics, especially for the NDP and the broader labour movement.