You have heard it before – socialism is either dead or irrelevant. Most media outlets wield it as an adjective of criminal proportions while academics state that it is an outdated ideology better suited for the industrial revolution. Even the official party of the working class in Canada, the NDP, has opted to use the term “progressive” wherever possible instead of “socialist”. Although there are concerted efforts and millions of dollars dedicated to making sure that the notion of socialism never enters mainstream consciousness, it will be working class Canadians who show that these efforts are in vain. The spirit of socialism in Canada is alive and well and the recent growing popularity of the late Tommy Douglas is evidence of this.
For those of you not already familiar with the name you have probably come across it when hearing about the “Greatest Canadian” contest being put on by the CBC. In Spring 2004 the CBC asked “who is the greatest Canadian?” and even they were somewhat surprised by the result. Over 140,000 nominations were submitted and it has since been narrowed down to the top 10. Amongst the likes of Terry Fox, David Suzuki and Alexander Graham Bell is Tommy Douglas. Tommy Douglas was a founding member of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, a party that demanded the eradication of capitalism and would later join with labour to become the New Democratic Party. According to the last voting update dated October 20 on www.cbc.ca, Douglas is leading the top-ten pack! On November 29 a winner will be named, but it is important to stress that regardless who wins, the fact that the name of Tommy Douglas resonates in the minds of mainstream Canada shows just how workers really feel about socialism.
The Douglas family emigrated from Scotland to Canada in the early 1900s and eventually settled in Winnpeg, Manitoba where Tommy’s father worked in an iron foundry. It was in Winnipeg where Tommy experienced many events which would have a tremendous impact in shaping his politics – most notably the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike when he was just 15.
Politics was always the main course during dinner in the Douglas house and it wasn’t long until Tommy was elected into the House of Commons as a member of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in 1935 at the age of 31. Nine years later, Tommy went provincial and was elected leader of the Saskatchewan CCF, the same year the provincial election would be held. The CCF campaign was met with hostility from its natural class enemies. Heavy weights such as Imperial Oil and Noranda Mines headed up an anti-CCF committee. A popular department store chain, Simpsons, even offered it’s catalogue mailing system to distribute anti-CCF propaganda. Every major newspaper in Saskatchewan warned against the “communist” CCF destroying the province and mortgage companies even phoned debt-stricken farmers, threatening to foreclose their farm if the CCF won. Nevertheless, on June 15, 1944 Douglas handedly became the first CCF Premier of Saskatchewan and the leader of the first socialist government in Canada. In the next 18 years as Premier of Saskatchewan Douglas reduced the Provincial debt by $20 million, introduced public auto insurance, a sewage system and provided electricity for most households. Most celebrated however was the creation of the first instance of public health care in North America. Tommy went on to play a significant role in the formation of the federal NDP in 1963 for which he was the first leader. The pressure applied by the NDP during his leadership proved to be an integral part in the adoption of a nationwide pension plan as well as universal health care. Tommy would resign in 1971 due to old age and in-party fighting. In 1986 he died of cancer at the age of 82.
As well as being a visionary Tommy Douglas was known for his entertaining political anecdotes. One particular story called “Mouseland” was about a town of mice who kept electing black cats as their government. These cats would only pass laws which benefited cats, such as mouse holes having to be no smaller than a cat’s paw and limiting speeds that mice were allowed to travel so as to making catching dinner easier for the cats. After a few years of this the mice were fed up. Come next election the mice went to polls with unprecedented numbers. The black cats were defeated and were replaced by none other than the white cats. The white cats campaigned on promises to make Mouseland better for all mice but instead, once in power they made all the round mouse holes square so that a cat could fit both paws in. The mice did not know what to do.
They tried everything. They tried electing a combination of black and white cats, even black cats with white spots and white cats with black spots but to no avail. A cat that tried to make the sound of a mouse, nonetheless will still always eat like a cat. No matter which cats were elected the result was always the same – a government by the cats for the benefit of the cats. One day a mouse came along telling all the other mice that as long as those with interests inherently opposed to their own were in power then they would forever be subjected to abuse and exploitation. No mouse could ever truly live under the government of any cat, even a benevolent one. The proposed solution was that mice should have a government made up of mice. This is a fantastic illustration of the capitalist system’s inability to solve the problems of working people, and the need for the establishment of socialism. A Marxist would add that working people will not be confined to parliamentary means to change society. They need only down their tools collectively to seize power – revolutionary change from below rather than above! This is the only way to ensure the new socialist society’s survival amidst all kinds of counterrevolutionary pressure from a capitalist world.
Every one of Douglas’ anecdotes is a way of simply explaining the class relations that derive from a system based on the necessity to maximize profits. Capitalism depends on workers but workers are not in any way beholden to capitalism. Douglas knew this and called on people to demand and fight for things such as public health care, public education, labour rights and a minimum wage. He knew, especially in his early days that the ruling elite does not and cannot accommodate any interest contrary to their own unless forced to do so. Why else would things like child labour and police beating up striking workers be legal? Capitalism depends not just on profit, but on ever-increasing profit. This means keeping costs down through low wages and other attacks on workers. There is a constant fear of being out-competed by another capitalist who has done a “better” job of exploiting the workers. It becomes impossible to afford workers any rights and stay afloat in such a system. We see that this is the case each time an exploitative multi-national chain buys out its competitor, who may be a local mom-and-pop operation, an “ethical” company, or another smaller exploitative corporation that just wasn’t as imaginative in their exploitation.
Despite all of the achievements of Tommy C. Douglas, he was certainly no Marxist. Although well intentioned, Tommy was a reformist. He thought that he could slowly build socialism in Canada by using the bourgeois democracy and building cooperatives. In his later years, Tommy even adopted the ideas of Keynes and decided that capitalism could be controlled and didn’t need to be ended. But history remembers the Tommy Douglas that fought for universal health care, the Tommy Douglas that stood up to big business to help farmers with depression era debts, the Tommy Douglas that vowed to send capitalism into the history books.
Douglas’ political contributions should not in any way be seen just as a historical novelty. All across the country the institutions and livelihood that workers have fought and sometimes even died to establish are under attack. The erosion of labour rights in British Columbia, the attempt to privatize health care in Alberta, the increase of poverty in Ontario and mass unemployment in the Maritime provinces; every one of these attacks is symptomatic of an economic system which, despite having immense wealth, is incapable of supplying everyone with even a somewhat decent standard of living. The attacks are coming from every direction and every worker knows that times are going to get nothing but worse. In the face of these attacks there can be no excuse that the workers do not have institutions to defend them. Membership of labour unions are at healthy levels and the NDP is at its highest numbers in years. Why then, have they done nothing but make empty promises and leave their ranks defenseless? It seems that there is more than enough enthusiasm, the problem is that there is no leadership to accommodate it.
If the renewed popularity of Douglas’ political contribution to Canada shows anything it is that the battle for socialism is still a clear priority for many Canadians. The NDP has always done a good job of paying lip service to the memory of Douglas but the time has come for it to seriously consider the implications of his words. Canada, just like any other market-based economy in the world is irreconcilably mired in a class war. Nothing can hide this and organizations like the NDP cannot ignore their responsibilities in leading that struggle. Time and time again, the people turn to the NDP to lead them and time and time again they are met with compromises, compromises, compromises. The NDP must remember that most of its historical success has been made by being a movement first and a party second. The working class does not hibernate between elections and if anything that is when they are assaulted the most. The leadership of labour and the NDP must put careerism and bureaucratic formalism aside and join the workers in their struggles for concrete demands. The only way these demands can be addressed is by building a genuine socialist movement. If these organizations are unable to learn from history then they are doomed to repeat it. No more apologizing! No more compromises!
NDP to power on a socialist programme!