That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Who owns socialism?

With a shrug and a sigh, the NDP have delayed a decision on whether they are socialist, or social democratic. I shrugged and sighed too – this decision was to be a fascinating moment, and they kind of let that pass.

Sure, it’s only language, and a single word-change at that. But the biggest question seemed to me to be, who was motivating this change? Who do the NDP believe owns the word socialist? Is it them, and so what they do with it is very much their own decision? Or is it the Conservatives, who have appropriated it like a weapon with which to beat Layton up over the next four years?

I remember the 2004 U.S. election particularly well, not only for its result (I’m reminded of Dubya’s victory in the face of total incompetence whenever I contemplate Harper’s new majority), but also for one of the more effective political grenades the Republicans were able to lob – the word liberal. Every chance George W. Bush got to call John Kerry a liberal, he would. He’d sneer it. Liberal. Nothin’ but a fancy-pants liberal.

Now, any dictionary definition of liberalism will correspond pretty well to the philosophies at the heart of every Western democracy, with fuzzy margins, but that simply doesn’t matter in electoral campaigns that are more blunt bludgery than nuanced debate. By taking the word liberal and infusing it with satanic undertones, proud patriotic American liberals were left reeling. Their identity had become illegitimate. They scrambled for words like progressive to try and claim territory that wasn’t tainted, and that mad scramble suited (and suits) the American right just fine.

I always found that a uniquely American problem, but clearly it’s North American all told. We heard Dimitri Soudas bleating End-Is-Nigh-style “socialists and separatists” warnings for the best part of two years as Harperian Ottawa set about its root-to-tip demonisation of all opposition. And so, it’s understandable that the New Democrats may want to adjust to the new reality: the word socialist is passé, problematic, and out of their control any longer. The word belongs to Harper, so just let him have it.

In defense of socialism, though, look to Europe. Socialism isn’t just a single word buried in left-wing party constitutions, it is a word worn proudly, out in front, on campaign buttons and ballot papers. The main French Opposition is the Socialist Party. The Germans pre-Merkel were governed by the Socialist Party. Spain is governed by the Socialist Party, as is Greece and, till lately, lately Portugal. The second largest bloc of European MEPs in Brussels is the Socialist bloc. Even Tony Blair called himself a socialist, and he wasn’t an angstrom further to the left of Michael Bloomin’ Ignatieff.

The right may point to Europe’s woes as the product of all this damn socialism, which is mostly wrong and also besides the point. Modern European “socialism” is really no more radical than anything advocated by Canada’s Liberal Party, or Obamaesque wings of the American Democratic Party. The word doesn’t need cotton padding, because Europeans aren’t cowed by dark nightmares of Young Pioneers, or snooping Stasi, or state management of love lives and sugar intake, every time a socialist takes to the stump. The scare-mongering doesn’t work as well, perhaps because Europeans know what actual authoritarianism looks like – and Ségolène Royal ain’t it.

North America’s left has a greater challenge to manage its identity in the face of a more broadly suspicious media and a more brutalist political class. That’s a reality, and it leaves me torn on the NDP’s big question. I am all for New Democrats doing what they can to get MPs in seats and to encourage steady fundraising, and cleaning up their constitution can be a part of that.

But they must be careful to ensure it is they who define those changes, and they who define their language. Reclaiming language from those who use it negatively may demonstrate greater confidence than reaching for the Thesaurus of Friendly Words. It’s sensible to do what you can to beat back a Right which will inevitably come snarling with accusations of radicalism. But perhaps a reclamation of socialist virtue is still a way to do that.“Socialists? Maybe we are. And here’s what it means.”

Filed under: Canada, International, Politics, , , , ,

10 Responses

  1. Here’s the thing, though: if I had been a delegate at this year’s convention, I would have voted for this resolution, and not to “modernize the wording,” but because a (pre-Third Way) social democratic party is what the party is, and has been for years. You have an international perspective too, so I’m sure you’re aware that socialism actually means something beyond the way conservatives throw it around here to loosely describe any government intervention into anything at all. It refers to a system in which the means of production are in the hands of the people. If you don’t advocate that, proudly and defiantly, you’re not socialist. There’s no getting around that.

    Part of the issue isn’t with the term ‘socialism’, it’s with the term ‘social democracy’. Internationally, there are lots of formerly social democratic parties that no longer are actually social democratic. The UK’s Labour party under Tony Blair certainly qualified for this label, and Germany’s SPD is just as bad, and the Dutch PvdA isn’t much better. But we can’t abandon the social democratic label to the wolves just because there are parties out there who are clinging to it when they have no right to do so. If the NDP were actually a socialist party, I would be fine leaving the wording in, but we’re just not. There are plenty of socialists in the NDP (a couple of whom even sit in Parliament), but the party as a whole hasn’t actually advocated socialism in decades (and perhaps not even then).

  2. polygonic says:

    I suppose it is the mainstreaming of the term socialist in Europe that highlights the difference in how the left organises on each side of the Atlantic. In Europe, “socialism” is a legacy term which is used by parties who are actually social democrats – and many of them very pale social democrats at that! But they’ve attempted to retain an identity as socialists because they view it as a kind of hopeful lode star, and are confident the public (in siginificant blocks) feels the same.

    So, definitely, Labour and the SPD etc. are wrong to think they actually occupy the same ground as the founders of the Socialist International, and they don’t think that. So there’s a hypocrisy there. But positively, they don’t come across as defining themselves through evasive maneuvres away from conservative name-calling.

  3. Well, it very much depends on which European country you’re talking about whether ‘socialism’ is perceived as a net positive or a net negative, so if you really want to make the claim that “in Europe” the social democratic parties view socialism as a hopeful lode star, I’m going to have to respectfully argue that you’re mistaken. The German SPD, for example, never uses the term unless they’re criticizing the former German Democratic Republic (or its legacy party within current-day Germany, die Linke), and it certainly isn’t seen as a good thing. But even if some Third Way social democrats in Europe are still calling their parties socialist in a legacy sense, my response to that is to say that they’re misusing the term as badly as the conservatives are here.

    What it comes down to for me is this: ‘Socialism’ means something specific, not something general like either the misusers of the term among the conservatives here or the centrists in some European countries are sloppily pretending it means. And if you stick to the actual definition of the word, the NDP is not a socialist party, no way no how. So change the wording already, because it’s just freaking misleading. I am actually one of the New Democrats who has no problem at all with real, literal socialism, but even I think this should have been done years ago.

  4. polygonic says:

    That’s all fair enough. By “in Europe” I’m really using parties that belong to the S&D group in the European Parliament, representing the left across 27 states. Some use “Socialist,” some “Social Democrat,” etc etc, and the main point for me is not which they choose (because, in practise as you say, none of them advocate nationalising means of production across the board), but why do they choose it? What is Party X trying to convey about itself?

    Of course the NDP is a social democratic party in practice, and it’s sensible wording to use – go for it. My worry is that they are having this conversation at a proper level for the first time only now that they have big votes to protect. That they should have done this years ago, as you say, is quite probably correct. But the debate is now, and it provokes the question – has the surge mainstream compelled a softer, more centrist tone? Would they even be debating this if they’d won just 30 seats on 2 May?

  5. I still don’t think you can make the generalization you made about all (or even most) of the S&D group, but I suppose that’s an argument for another day. My real argument is that if you think the NDP is suddenly taking a “softer, more centrist tone,” you haven’t been listening to them very closely for years and years. The bizarre part about this election for longtime New Democrats was that they were doing and saying exactly the same things they’ve been doing and saying for years, with the same leader even, and suddenly everybody started listening. The people who want to change this wording are doing so because they want it to reflect what the party actually advocates, so that they can better convey that message to the rest of Canada.

    The part I don’t understand about this is why more of the real socialists aren’t cheering this on. I mean, surely no one knows that the NDP is not socialist better than an actual socialist? I suppose the ones who want to work within the party to try and achieve socialism are more interested in deluding themselves into thinking they’re actually part of a socialist party they are in being accurate. The ones who consider themselves too far left for the NDP do seem to agree with me about changing the wording, though, as well as about why.

  6. The “seem to agree with me” link didn’t show up, so here it is again: http://www.edmontonjournal.com/word+vocabulary/4991887/story.html

  7. polygonic says:

    Thanks for that link, and for making your case. To me, the question of which route NDP chooses or doesn’t choose is actually secondary, but I get your position, and broadly agree that “social democratic” makes good sense. That is fine.

    The question I’m trying (ineffectively?) to resolve is about who is control of defining political identity. Who owns it? You’ve got a text-book definition of socialism before you. It spells out socialism comprehensively, in indelible black-and-white, as authored and handed down by the noble revolutionaries of yesteryear. You take it and measure it against a contemporary party’s action in policy areas A, B, and C.


    Whether a party actually obeys socialist tenets or not is distinct from why it seeks to retain (or shed) the socialist label. European members of the Socialist International fail any litmus test for on-the-ground Marxism. North Korea and the Congo call themselves “Democratic.” China calls Tibet “Autonomous.” Harper calls himself a fiscal conservative. It’s all “inaccurate,” as you say. So why do they do it? Are they dim? Have they not been alerted?

    Probably not. Rather a mix of sheer tribalism (that irrational aspect to politics) and a particular savvy in appealing to a constituency and cultivating a persona.

    Socialism is interersting as a persona, because some misuse it to compliment themselves, while others misuse it to insult an opponent. That it’s being misused is not my question. My question is about whether the very meaning of the word is deviating from the text-book through this struggle for definition. It’s lifting off the page and into the world of living language, and there, who will own it? The Champagne Ségolènes who wrap themselves in it, or the U.S. Republicans who wield it like a club? What do the NDP anticipate, and how are they participating in that tussle, and why?

  8. What the NDP anticipate isn’t any sort of puzzle; it’s right out there for all to see. Did you see Pat Martin’s speech at the convention? They know that their Conservative opponents have been calling them socialists for years, and that these cries are only going to get louder as the party has more success. As things stand, the Conservatives can point at the dictionary definition and then again at the NDP constitution, and the NDP have basically made their argument for them, so why make it that easy for them? It’s an easy fix precisely because it doesn’t require the party to change any of their policies to make them social democrats. They are social democrats.

    I mean, if the NDP’s preferred policies actually were socialist, the reaction to that kind of attack would (I hope!) be very different, but since they’re not, why would the party want to burden themselves with a wording that’s not true anyway?

  9. (Since it didn’t show up in a different colour, Pat Martin’s speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7OO-mUh3W8)

  10. Yep! The Cons did a great smear job making those 2 words to be dirty words, another dirty trick and putting the 2 words together makes socialism seem even worse.
    I get your point. Too many Canadians have no understanding of socialism other than it’s very close to communism.
    The NDP, the Libs and Greens could unite and take something from the Cons that they dropped/lost anyhow, and call themselves Progressive Democrats.

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June 2011

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