Those who are regular readers of Fightback will know that we have been at the forefront of fighting for an activist, democratic, and socialist NDP that can give workers and youth a reason to support the party. We believe that this is the way to defeat the corporate parties who, with their big-business backers, will always have more money and media support. We are very happy to report that this vision was overwhelmingly endorsed at the Ontario New Democratic Youth convention in Hamilton, held over the weekend of November 5th – 7th. Unfortunately, some who do not agree with this vision are not prepared to let the democratic opinion of the rank-and-file youth stand.
There is a vulgar view, held by corporate media pundits and the right-wing of the NDP, that the secret to winning elections is by adapting to a nebulous and undefined quantity labelled the “centre.” Anybody diverging from this so-called “centre” is immediately called out for “not being interested in victory,” or “happy to remain principled in opposition,” or some such allegation. This is repeated so many times that it has been elevated to a truism: principle vs. victory! The trouble with truisms is that they never have to be proven. When one looks at the actual facts one gets a completely different story. For example, when the NDP has run on a concrete reform that would make a real difference in the lives of working class people, the party tends to do well. Some examples include Cheri DiNovo winning in Toronto’s Parkdale-High Park riding on a platform to increase the minimum wage, or Thomas Mulcair winning in Montreal’s Outremont based on the NDP opposing the war in Afghanistan. In these situations, principle = victory! On the other hand, once the federal NDP jettisoned the principled positions of opposition to the Afghan war and repealing corporate tax cuts in order to accommodate themselves to a Liberal coalition, NDP support has been in the doldrums. The only conclusion one can take from this is that a lack of principle equals defeat. And when you think about it from the perspective of normal working class people, that is how things should be.
A group of youth in Toronto set out to build a club around the principles of activism, democracy, and socialism. Fightback is proud that some, but not all, of these youth share our vision of socialism and contribute to these pages. These youth found that when canvassing or doing other activity for the NDP they always heard the same reply, “Why do we only hear from you during elections? What is the difference between you and the other parties? How do I know you won’t just jump ship for another party? How do I know that you aren’t just in it for yourself?” These youth resolved to do politics in a different way—going to the youth in working class communities and encouraging them to bring forth their issues to NDP meetings. Amazingly, this approach brought very sudden results and attracted over 30 young activists to the party—people who would never have considered party politics before. The youth were active in the Cathy Crowe by-election in Toronto Centre, they promoted campaigns against the victimization of Toronto transit workers and in favour of free public transit, they had a very enthusiastic summer camp, they made numerous solidarity picket visits to striking or locked-out workers, and all this was made possible by an open, activist, democratic, and socialist approach. These ideas were not forced on the youth; they came from the youth themselves. An activist approach to politics understands that the only way to build enthusiasm is to take on the issues that people care about. The success of the Toronto Young New Democrats (TYND) proves that, and this is a success that could be spread throughout the NDP.
It is a sad fact that grassroots organizing like this has been absent from the NDP youth in Ontario for about a decade. The impression given to those on the outside of the ONDY leadership was that the only activity that was encouraged was working the phone bank during elections. The Toronto youth obviously are not opposed to working on elections, as witnessed by the Cathy Crowe campaign, but if that is all you do then you will receive the same series of discouraging responses detailed above. There must be activity over the issues people care about between elections, and then during elections NDP candidates must be the vehicles for putting the communities’ demands into practice. In the same way that principle is not opposed to victory, activism is not opposed to winning elections. A sharp critique was developed against those who occupy leading positions in the electoral machine, but do relatively little work in non-electoralist politics around issues. The youth asked themselves, “Why would anybody want to put so much time into something that seems so divorced from the day-to-day demands of normal working people and youth? Why would somebody just promote approved talking points and not issues that come from the community, even if they are critical?” The only logical answer is that some people are trying to build up a career for themselves out of politics. This is exactly the thing that turns off workers, and especially youth. The Toronto activists resolved to ground their activity in issues and shun anything that could be regarded as careerism. Some may be upset at this label; we encourage them to go to working class communities and ask people whether they think that any of the main political parties is free of careerism.
Contained in the activity of the Toronto youth is also a reverse critique against the single-issue activism that is prevalent amongst other young activists. Many media commentators have observed that youth are no longer active in political parties; their activism is mediated through environmental organizations, human rights groups, international solidarity campaigns, etc. The idea is that all these separate issues would be far better represented if they were all brought inside Canada’s labour party, the NDP. But to do this we have to break down the divisions—on the one hand single-issue activists have to understand that only by building a party can they make lasting change; conversely, those on the inside have to open up so those on the outside don’t just see the party as a vehicle for those who want careers. We must open up the democratic channels to let these campaigns and activists be encompassed within the party, even if that is occasionally uncomfortable for those with entrenched positions.
There is a caricature of Marxists as always yelling and denouncing everything and anybody. While we have to admit that this is a fair comment against some who call themselves Marxists, it is not the approach of Fightback. We believe in giving praise for steps forward (the minimum wage campaign, demanding troops out of Afghanistan, etc.), and criticism for what we see as steps backward (the proposed Liberal coalition, plans to remove “socialism” from the NDP constitution, etc.). The Toronto youth believe in the same approach; all they wanted to do was put their methods into practice to see how well they work. They wanted to do their best to build the NDP and not start a fight with the so-called “bureaucracy.”
Unfortunately, while the youth did not want a fight with the bureaucracy, sections of the bureaucracy did not feel the same way. The Toronto Young New Democrats had its charter removed for “allegiance to Fightback,” which was declared an alien entity in the NDP. The NDP is a big-tent party, and socialism and Marxism have always been a constituent part of the NDP. The party also includes reformists and liberals. When one looks at the history of the NDP, the most damage has been done by the party’s right-wing, and not the left. Has anyone forgotten the betrayals of Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh? It is true that some (not all) TYND activists support the ideas present in this paper, but when challenged the accusers failed to detail how these were opposed to the NDP. Fightback is in favour of nationalization: the federal NDP constitution calls for social ownership. Fightback fights for free education: this policy has been passed many times at NDP youth conventions. Fightback wants troops out of Afghanistan: need we go on? Fightback is unapologetically Marxist, but this isn’t a policy—it is a philosophy. Democratic Socialism, Social Democracy, and Liberalism are all present in the party. All should be free to put forward their ideas, their policy, and their candidates and allow the democratic process to decide which is the majority view. The removal of charters, disciplinary measures, and expulsions are undemocratic methods used by those who are not confident in their ideas. The irony is that those using these methods are also the ones wrapping themselves in the flag of “democracy”!
The attack on the Toronto youth club also revealed another irony. Rather than intimidating the youth into submission, it encouraged them to fight back and defend the successful organizing they had done. The bureaucratic elements within the party (does anybody honestly doubt that these exist?) have become used to dealing with the left-wing. Whenever a left arises out of the rank-and-file, the party brass take some form of ridiculous anti-democratic measure against this organizing. Typically, this results in hysterical counter-denunciations of the bureaucracy and much hand-waving about how the NDP is dead, followed by the departure of the left for the wilderness. This is what happened to the Waffle and to many other smaller formations. What both the bureaucratic right and the ultra-left splitters ignore is that the bureaucracy is not the party. The rank-and-file is the party, which still has huge reserves of support amongst the wider working class. Unfortunately these reserves go untapped due to the uninspiring policy adopted by the bureaucracy, but that doesn’t mean that they do not exist. Rather than split away, the Toronto youth loudly declared, “We are the party!” Overwhelmingly the youth present at the ONDY convention agreed with this. Rather than isolate the left, the anti-democratic actions served to isolate the right. A series of left-wing resolutions were passed for free education, building the NDP as a mass movement, against the G20 and police brutality, and significantly, for an open and democratic process to party discipline (in direct contradiction to the observed secret and undemocratic process used against the TYND). The majority of the ONDY executive went to the left. The irony is that if the attack on TYND had not happened, the likely result of the convention would have been a mixed bag of policies from all sides and a mix of opinions on the executive. We hope that the right learns that the use of disciplinary, rather than democratic methods, only brings them defeat.
These events have brought much chatter on Internet message boards. One poster, who seemed to have a distinct case of McCarthyite “reds-under-the-bed” syndrome, lamented about how to rid the youth of “Trotskyists who don’t believe in social democracy and who could bring the party as a whole into disrepute.” The fact that the only answer people like this have is to launch a witch-hunt is quite indicative of the problems within social democracy. Firstly, it is not socialism and activism that brings the party into disrepute; it is the perceived lack of principles from careerist liberals like Bob Rae and Liberal-NDP coalitions that undermine the party. When the party has moved so far to the “centre” (in reality, the right) that it is impossible to delineate it from the Liberals, nobody has any reason to vote for it. Secondly, they should ask themselves why were youth, using an activist and socialist model, able to mobilize so many more people than those using the old methods? Could it be that in this era of the Great Recession, youth actually want socialism and activism!?! Maybe if the party tops adopted socialism and activism there would be far more youth attending these conventions. On this basis, the Toronto youth would be more than happy to be in a small minority. All they want is a bigger party that can win gains for working people both on the streets and in elections.
Unfortunately the story is not yet over. The “Administrative Committee” of the Ontario NDP (whoever they may be) has annulled the executive elections on the basis that some of the members were not signed up within 30 days of the convention. This goes against all past precedence of the ONDY conventions and it also goes against the party constitution that allows memberships to be valid when signed by the Provincial Secretary or designate. All of the invalidated youth had their memberships approved at ONDP Provincial Office before the convention, and many were active supporting the party for many months beforehand. Unfortunately, they were guilty of the crime of thinking that activism was more important than bureaucratically filling out membership forms. They made the mistake of naively thinking that everybody would welcome them into the party and want to hear their input. It is not a mistake they are likely to make again!
There is a glaring hypocrisy in the party that the constitution is frequently interpreted one way for the right-wing and another way for everybody else. It is also telling that this membership stipulation and interpretation was kept from the delegates until the very last day of convention. People who wanted to join the party were even denied membership forms! Now, a re-vote is set to occur on 28th November in Toronto. It is likely that any democratic deficit resulting from alleged ineligible delegates will be far outweighed by the democratic deficit incurred by eligible delegates not able to travel to this re-vote. It would be much better to allow the original vote to stand and not allow any more “do-overs” at the behest of those who want to exclude young activists from the party.
The NDP stands at a crossroads. The world financial crisis has destroyed all old assumptions about both economics and politics. Those on the right of the movement are advising people to keep their heads down, take concessions, and eventually everything will go back to normal. But if you read the serious financial press, like the Economist or Financial Times, you will learn that the strategists of capitalism are planning for a decade of austerity. Under capitalism there are no reforms on the table, only counter-reforms and attacks on the standard of living of workers and youth. And yet the right-wing of the movement remains wedded to capitalism! Not only are they wedded to the system, but the only explanation they have for their lack of popularity is that they were not right-wing enough. They think that if only they could ditch the left of the party and break the union link, they would reach the hallowed halls of government. That is what is behind the plot to remove socialism from the federal NDP constitution. That is what is also behind the closed door that young activists face when wanting to join the party. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. They keep moving right, they keep losing support, and they have the gall to blame the left of the party.
The key to victory lies in the other direction. Activism, democratic inclusion, and socialism. There are millions of poor, youth, immigrants, and workers who do not vote because they do not think any of the politicians offer anything different. A socialist NDP would not only get these people to vote, but would get them out on the streets working to win real change. The Toronto Young New Democrats showed in microcosm that this is possible, and the Ontario New Democratic Youth could do the same if given the chance. It is telling that the first act of the newly elected ONDY executive was to send a solidarity delegation to the locked-out Hamilton steelworkers at US Steel. When was the last time the ONDY had done anything like that? If the party decides to clamp down on initiatives like this, then it can say goodbye to any youth activism for another decade—something that will only hurt the party. We say, open the doors wide and let the youth in so they can use their energy to kick out the Liberals and the Conservatives.