Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Soul Searching on the Left

September 1, 1994 -

So now let's think the unthinkable, talk the untalkable, correct the uncorrectable....No labels. Just provocative thought. Let's avoid special-interest thinking like feminism, environmentalism or a whole host of other "isms."
—Pat Lorje, "Reclaiming the NDP's Moral High Ground," The Globe and Mail, August 16, 1994

 

The disarray of the left in Canada is now overwhelmingly evident, and the symptoms are incontrovertible. They include the decimation of the national New Democratic Party at the polls in last year's federal election, reducing the number of members in the parliamentary contingent from 43 to a mere nine. This crushing defeat caused the NDP's loss of official party status, no longer entitled to a number of important perks.

Three NDP provincial parties form the government (in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario), but the euphoria of electoral victory quickly evaporated with the painful realization that governments are severely hamstrung in putting socialist ideals into practice. The surprising victory of the Ontario NDP in the 1990 election, first celebrated as a major breakthrough for socialism, has turned sour with devastating results for the current government. Opinion polls indicate that the Bob Rae government has sunk to a low of 14 per cent in public support.

Disillusionment

Most embarrassingly, the previous strong ties between the Ontario provincial NDP and the mainline labour unions have become unravelled over the government's attempts to control spending and reduce wage costs. Prominent labour leaders have denounced the government for breaking promises to the unions and betraying the socialist faith. Recently, newspapers reported that 500 angry trade unionists tried to interrupt a fund-raising dinner for Premier Rae in Windsor by forcing their way into the banquet hall. Forcibly barred from entering the hall, Sid Ryan, head of the Ontario section of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, accused Rae of being a Judas to the labour movement: "It's a sad indication of the government that four years after we elected them, we are on the outside," he lamented (emphasis added).

What has further aggravated the Left's misfortune is a widespread loss of faith in all governments. It's not so many years ago that "political pilgrims" would return with glowing reports from the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, and other outposts of the workers' democracy. Still more disheartening, even democratic versions of socialism are in trouble, after running into the wall of economic reality and the limits of human and institutional competence. The welfare state seems to be in retreat everywhere.

Yet there are those who continue to clamour for an interventionist state and divide the world between the righteous and the unrighteous. The former deny that debts and deficits are a problem, insisting they are merely a pretext used by the latter to call for drastic restraints in public spending at the expense of the poor and needy. Such a simplistic division makes for stirring speeches and a sense of moral superiority, but it does not contribute one iota to finding solutions for our difficulties. In fact, it aggravates those difficulties to the detriment of everyone, especially those who are genuinely in need of a social safety net.

Dissension

Canada's traditional Left is now torn between those who want to cling to the old-line, hard-nosed socialism and their moderate cousins who argue for a more "rightward" tilt. The outcome of this conflict is hard to predict, except that it will be bitterly fought. Bruce Livesey presents a telling description of the way the division within the Canadian Left is affecting the labour movement (Labour Times, July 1994). He describes this rift as a crisis in social democracy, not only in Canada, but around the globe. Livesey writes that many social democratic parties have become indistinguishable from their right-wing counterparts. In the process, they have sold out the labour movement, causing a crisis of confidence within trade union ranks. As Livesey sees it, the choice is either to muddle along as best they can with a compromised NDP, or face up to a thorough-going reexamination of social democracy. His verdict clearly comes down on the side of the traditionalists:

Indeed, it is glaringly evident that social democracy is bankrupt, incapable of contending with the ongoing crisis in capitalism. The NDP, like other social democratic parties, is not interested in removing capital's firm grip over the economy. Until they move to do so, the corporate sector will continue to hold the upper hand. Without being able to control capital, labour will never be able to eradicate joblessness, poverty and social inequality. 

This call to the faithful is echoed by Bob White, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, in what can best be described as a shot across the bow, published in The Globe and Mail two days before Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy released his discussion paper on the overhaul of Canada's social safety net. White dismissed those who call for getting Canada's spending under control as "false prophets." He argued that Canada's social safety net is stingy, incomplete, and in dire need of more money. White's prescription: "We need strong social programs and an economy that is controlled in the public interest." (One suspects that "controlled in the public interest" means a radical socialist restructuring of Canadian society.)

Over against the radicals in the trade union movement are the moderates who do not favour close ties between labour and the NDP. They are more pragmatic and in some instances reject the idea that labour and management are class enemies. Thus the argument between radicals and moderates within the labour movement continues and will get worse as difficult decisions are confronted.

Confusion

Meanwhile, the debate is raging within the party itself, continuously spilling over into the labour movement, and vice-versa. This has given rise to socalled "chastened socialists" who call for a re-examination of the NDP's traditional bias for state control and against a market economy.

Pat Lorje, NDP member of the Saskatchewan legislature, threw down the gauntlet to her fellow socialists in a spirited talk at a recent party gathering. Ironically, her appeal for a rethinking of the socialist ideal contains a telling conundrum. On the one hand, she insisted that all the shibboleths of the NDP need to be looked at in a fresh light and with a willingness to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Thus she argued that the NDP's traditional emphasis on universality, an ever-expanding social safety net, protectionism, multiculturalism, and similar tenets of the socialist creed need to make way for more flexible and practical alternatives. Instead of adamantly opposing the free market, the new enlightened socialism should include respect for it with a view to establishing a productive merger between the government and the market economy.

But she prefaced her plea for a less doctrinaire socialism with her personal credo:

I believe passionately in social-democratic values and ideals. But, equally passionately, I do not believe that there is one single, time-immemorial truth. I'm always suspicious of people who insist they have the one and true blueprint for a good life. 

Insofar as she took issue with the hidebound ideology rampant in her party, one cannot find fault with her. But she nevertheless committed herself to a position that is absurd, and it's the kind of absurdity that bedevils all of our attempts to pull together the various strands of our nation into a coherent national existence. For Ms. Lorje cannot have it both ways. She cannot simultaneously believe "passion-ately" in social democratic values and equally "passionately" believe that there is no abiding truth. (For an excellent commentary on Ms. Lorje's remarks, see Ted and Virginia Byfield's "Orthodoxy" column in Western Report, September 5, 1994.)

In a nutshell, Ms. Lorje's position boils down to the modern belief that there is no truth. Each of us can pick and choose among an endless array of options to decide what we consider to be the truth for us. Thus something is true for me because I believe it to be true, which is nonsense. Truth is based on reality, and reality is not self-created but created by the One who transcends reality—God.

To deny the existence of abiding, "time-immemorial" truth is to deny that there is one standard by which we can discern right or wrong. In other words, we no longer have any basis on which to build a just and free society. That's how we land in the morass of nihilism. The only way we are then able to maintain social cohesion is through force.

Courageous leaders, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, and Mother Theresa, have warned us that a society that cuts itself off from the truth cannot survive. Their words are powerful reminders that truth is the only soil in which goodness, justice, fairness, beauty, love for neighbour—including honouring the virtues and accomplishments of previous generations and safeguarding the legacy we leave to future generations—can flourish.

An alternative vision

The turmoil and divisiveness within the political Left in Canada is but a localized version of the turmoil and divisiveness now gradually spreading throughout our entire society. The political Left deserves special attention because it is clearly driven by a radical secular faith in the ability to save ourselves by creating the good society. It entails a totality vision of life, a messianic confidence in the redeeming character of the state, and the hope for a future kingdom of peace.

Those who do not share the socialist faith, whether it be the radical traditional or the moderate pragmatic kind, have no reason to gloat over the turmoil within that camp. Nor should they build on the various nonsocialist alternatives that are presented to us, unless the latter are firmly rooted in the humble awareness that God is the source of truth. Without a true awareness of the human condition, the disarray now present among socialists will continue to spread its poison widely. Our first requirement, therefore, is to heed the counsel of those who insist that a just society can exist only within the bounds of truth and virtue, or not at all.

The main question (which now devours all our energies) is not which adjustments we shall make in our political and economic relations, important as they are in their own right. The most pressing issue before us, on which the future of this nation depends, is whether we have the wisdom and spiritual stamina to rise above the nihilism and relativism that now threatens to engulf us all.

One principle that today's intellectuals most passionately disseminate is vulgar relativism, "nihilism with a happy face." For them, it is certain that there is no truth, only opinion: my opinion, your opinion. They abandon the defense of intellect. There being no purchase of intellect upon reality, nothing else is left but preference, and will is everything. They retreat to the romance of will.

But this is to give to Mussolini and Hitler, posthumously and casually, what they could not vindicate by the most willful force of arms. It is to miss the first great lesson rescued from the ashes of World War II: Those who surrender the domain of intellect make straight the road of fascism. Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is la feroce volanta. It is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs. It is to make a mockery of those who endured agonies for truth at the hands of torturers.

—Michael Novak, "Awakening from Nihilism" (First Things, August/September, 1994)

 

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