Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Socialism: Refining the Means to Get There

April 1, 1989 -

It's a long way from the 1933 Regina Manifesto's call for the "eradication of capitalism" to Ed Broadbent's recent speech in which he told the faithful:

As we close the 20th century the serious debate about the future here in Canada and abroad is not about the desirability of a market economy. For most thoughtful people that debate is now closed. Market economies have been responsible for the production of more goods and services since the Second World War than were produced in all of previous human history....We New Democrats believe in the market place including private investment decisions, reduced tariffs, private property, the free disposal of assets, the right to make a profit, decentralized decision making. 

Does this mean that Canadian socialism is shedding its traditional ideology? Well, not exactly, but it has obviously dawned on socialists like Ed Broadbent that the old-time, anti-business and anti-market gospel will no longer suffice. Nearly everyone now knows, for example, that nationalizing banks and other businesses will not cure all poverty and usher in Utopia. Perhaps most importantly, socialism has been tried in a number of countries and found not to be the cure-all it once was believed to be.

Redistribution without any regard to the demands of the market and the need for productivity is an obvious recipe for disaster. Many European socialists have even learned to say some nice things about business and the free market. Canadian socialists are faced with a similar reality. One thing is sure, the debate about the future of socialism in Canada will be waged with special urgency in the ranks of the NDP now that traditional socialism appears to be going out of style. The stage is set for a bitter internal struggle between the hardliners and the moderates.

Caplan on the Essentials

Gerald Caplan, one of the gurus of the NDP, and a frequent commentator on public issues, believes he knows where the future of the NDP lies. He's aware that socialism is in evolution, but he is convinced that the NDP should above all stick to its fundamental positions even when they are politically unpopular. And what are some of those fundamental principles without which Canadian socialism would sell out, according to Caplan? He mentions the following: "the right of a woman to choose whether or not to have an abortion is a precondition of women's equality in our society"; "the right to choose one's own sexual orientation seems vital to a free society"; "state executions intrinsically violate all that socialism implies about human development." Furthermore, Canada should withdraw from NATO and oppose the current government's defence policies, says Caplan. (Principle or Pragmatism for NDP?" Toronto Star, March 12, 1989.)

Caplan is convinced that these policies should never be abandoned because they represent the raison d'etre of the NDP. To do so would also be a denial of its past contributions, which were often accomplished despite the NDP's minority position. Caplan advises party activists to "reconcile their proper anti-business biases with economic policies that include the productive aspects of a market economy as an integral component. It is so, after all, in revered Sweden." Yes, you heard it right, revered!

Caplan sees the NDP soldiering on in its struggle for a "more egalitarian and just society." But he is also convinced that refining the means to reach that Utopia is a matter of paramount importance.

What does this kind of rethinking by Caplan and countless others really constitute? Does it mean that socialism is a declining if not dying phenomenon? Should non-socialists rejoice about the continuing predominance of the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties in Canada? Before they do too much rejoicing, it may be helpful to point out that while policies may shift and terminology change, the underlying goals and beliefs of socialism remain very much intact. The essence of socialism is the belief in politics as the route to create a better society, and thus a better human being. On this score, the NDP is the most successful of all the three major Canadian parties, since all of them are, if not consciously committed to, in fact powerfully influenced by this postulate of modern politics. Consider the following:

An Old Ambition

First, the Canadian public domain, in the form of direct and indirect government involvement, regulation and control, including the allocation of an ever-growing slice of the economic resources, has been steadily increasing.

Second, a new concept of equality, as prescribed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in human rights codes, is a powerful tool in building the egalitarian (socialist) society.

Third, politics is increasingly dominated by interest groups, and political parties preoccupied with obtaining power and an extremely short-term, pragmatic view of what is important politically.

Fourth, politics is assuming the character of social engineering, especially as government policies begin to affect directly such essentially non-state areas as education, communications, culture, family life and even sexual orientation.

Finally, the elevation of politics to a new absolute and to a source of meaning and security is directly related to the waning of a religious understanding of life that acknowledges both the reality of divine sovereignty and grace and human imperfections.

Paul Johnson has pointed out that less reliance on traditional socialist policies does not mean that the danger of totalitarianism has disappeared. (See the attached supplement "Is Totalitarianism Dead?") Johnson argues that the collectivist or totalitarian temptation is fed by the urge to build a perfect, Utopian world. He writes: "The particular Marxist variety of it [the drive to secularist perfection] which has been in existence a hundred years or more, can be discredited—and is being discredited—without undermining the phenomenon as a whole....Whatever new forms Utopianism now takes, and however it threatens Christian values in consequence, we can be certain first, that state compulsion will play a part in the new forms, and second, that the forcing of human individuals into idealized state molds will be a salient characteristic." Johnson foresees that the ideological conflict will shift from the economy to such areas as sexual politics, the environment, the arts and race relations. He concludes: "...we can be confident that the radicals will continue to insist that human behaviour can be transformed by the political process and that the state must play the leading role in this transformation."

Those who wish to celebrate the demise of socialism should carefully read what Gerald Caplan writes about its abiding principles. No, socialism is not a dying phenomenon. It is merely shifting gears and refining the means to build the secular city of the future in which man is the measure of all things. It's really a very old ambition.

To paraphrase a well-known saying, the more people talk about changing things, the more they stay the same.

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment