RM Issue #040403
Jack Layton: the Tim Hortons of the left
Socialism doesn't work: one of the great myths of our time.
by Stan Hister
March 31, 2004
Jack Layton is a phenomenon. The media is abuzz about him. On the left it seems that everybody loves him. He's the only straight guy cool enough to get his face on the cover of a queer mag.
But I think the real story is getting lost in all the hype. Because the real story is this: “Jack” is a political donut. All sugar icing on the outside (or make that maple glaze) and a big hole right in the middle.
What does Layton stand for? He's for “social activism,” he's for “social justice,” he's against “corporate power.” All sweet stuff. Above all, “Jack” is for all things “progressive,” as sweet a word as they come. In fact, Layton wants the NDP to become a big tent for all “progressives,” including the likes of Sheila Copps, David Orchard and even Joe Clark. Wow! That would make the NDP into quite a pastry shop.
But hold on a second. If an ex-Liberal deputy prime minister is now welcome inside the NDP, and even — good gosh! — an ex-Tory prime minister, doesn't this suggest that maybe the NDP itself has become indistinguishable from these parties? After all, implicit in the word “progressive” is a question — progress towards what? Towards the oppressive society that Copps and Clark have spent their careers maintaining and defending?
And if you add to that Layton's recent offer to back a minority Liberal government should that be the outcome of the next election, you're really left scratching your head. I mean, here is Layton routinely denouncing Paul Martin as a corporate robber baron and then he goes and offers to keep this same robber baron in power. What sort of “progress” is that?
But if you try to get some answers from Layton on that score, if you try to pin him down about where his “progressiveness” is meant to lead, his ideas go fuzzy like cotton candy. A good example of this comes up in an interview he did a few months back with two fixtures of the Canadian left, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin.
At one point Panitch says, “We get the feeling that the kind of politics you're engaged in walks around the margins of capital. You're not talking about taking capital away from capital. Is that where we're condemned to be operating — only where capital leaves us some space? Is there a vision beyond that?” Essentially Layton's answer is yes to the first question and no to the second. Of course he doesn't come out and say that. Instead he goes into a spiel about achieving big changes through “a huge number of local actions.”
But Gindin presses him on this: assuming the local action strategy works, all that would mean is that eventually the system becomes dysfunctional, and then “this poses the question of what you will be replacing it with.” Layton's response is pure donut: “If you're on a truthful journey you can't be sure where you will end up in the long term.” I especially like the Zen-like touch about the “truthful journey.” Here you have the leader of the country's major left-wing party happily admitting that he has no idea where he's going. No wonder the media loves this guy.
There's no mystery about what's missing here, about what should be where the hole in the donut is. It's an alternative to capitalism, i.e. a vision of socialism. But it's been a very long time since the NDP even pretended this was on its agenda. When you think of NDP “stars” like Bob Rae or Roy Romanow or Gary Doer, you don't exactly think of New Jerusalems. Even the notion that these guys were trying to “change the system from within” is laughable. They were/are an integral part of the system, as committed to defending it as any Tory or Liberal.
So it's no surprise that such a party has a donut for a leader, since it doesn't have anywhere else to go except wandering aimlessly “around the margins of capital.” But Layton's appeal is broader than traditional NDP constituencies. While the media ascribes the party's rising poll numbers to a left bleed from the Liberals, some of that new support is coming from a good deal further left on the political spectrum, from people who identify themselves with the movements against globalization and the Iraq war, people who've been largely turned off by electoral politics in the past.
What do they see in Layton? “Hope, optimism and energy” — that's how Judy Rebick put it in a report on Layton's riding nomination meeting. A few years back Rebick, along with other well-known activists like No Logo author Naomi Klein, were trying to get the NDP to reinvent itself as a more radical party, but they feel that isn't necessary any more now that Layton's at the helm. “Jack” is big on activism and he's even recruited some activists to run as candidates in the next election. Many of them in turn are aglow about him.
But activism is another of those donut words like progressive. Activism towards what? In her report, Rebick lavishes praise on Layton for “process,” i.e. how he runs the party, but when it comes to the substance of what she calls his “pretty good politics,” she seems to be bending over backwards to find something nice to say. Thus at one point she claims that Layton “is making a class analysis of the sponsorship scandal,” but all she cites as proof is some banal rhetoric: “The Liberals are lining their corporate friends' pockets ... It's time we broke up this corporate club.” Meanwhile she only mentions the offer to back a minority Liberal government in passing, though by any measure this sort of horsetrading makes for pretty bad politics. But that's one of the nice things about a donut — you can imagine filling the hole with anything you want.
There is a deeper problem here. It isn't just the NDP that is wandering “around the margins of capital” without any alternative to capitalism. The same is true for most of the left. The major activist movements are defined by what they are against — war, globalization — rather than by any positive vision. There are lots of radical left groups who call themselves socialist and often go by-ultra revolutionary-sounding names, but even here socialism is mostly a bloodless abstraction. You'd be hard-pressed to find in any of their material a few pages, even a few paragraphs, spelling out a vision of socialism. And what little there is doesn't get much beyond phrases about “a world without hunger, poverty or oppression” — rhetoric that is indistinguishable from liberalism.
“Expropriate the expropriators” used to be a rallying cry of the socialist left. Now you'd almost have to look up nationalization in a dictionary of antiquarian terms. You'd think we were living in a golden age of capitalism, and not the age of Enron and WorldCom, of Conrad Black and Martha Stewart. Private ownership runs high profile companies like Air Canada and Stelco into the ground, endangering workers, pensioners and whole communities, and yet nationalization doesn't even register a blip on the political radar screen.
Why? Because according to conventional wisdom socialism doesn't work. And therein lies one of the great myths of our time. If the history of the past century — with its two world wars, fascism, holocausts — proves anything, it's that capitalism doesn't work.
This isn't to deny that the first attempt to establish socialism, in a relatively impoverished country like Russia, turned out to be a disaster. But it's also true that the best of the left resisted the bureaucratic degeneration of that revolution from the beginning, which is why the first victims of Stalinism were Marxists. And most of the left, apart from diehard Stalinists, had stopped identifying the Soviet Union with socialism a good half century before it collapsed.
But how convenient for the corporate elite that this one experience should be billed as the litmus test for socialism. By the same logic you might as well bring back colonialism and write off national independence as a bad idea because a lot of ex-colonies have wound up as military dictatorships. The left needs to learn from its mistakes, and the Soviet experience has many bitter lessons to teach, but the last thing this should mean is abandoning the socialist project of ending class oppression.
And yet that's just what has happened. Much of the left has bought into the myth that the world cannot go on living without Microsoft and General Motors and Exxon and the Royal Bank. Politics becomes reduced to small change, to the “art of the possible” as the cliché has it, meaning only what's possible within capitalism. Nowadays the basic way you tell the left and right apart is that we're for raising taxes and they're for cutting them. A great struggle for human liberation is reduced to a squabble over the actuarial tables on an income tax form.
(Or else the struggle vanishes into an amorphous campaign for democracy. More referendums, proportional representation, people's power — this is the sort of politics that Judy Rebick advocated in her book Imagine Democracy a few years back. This isn't a new idea. For over a century it's been the basic message of social democracy: expand the democratic institutions within capitalism and eventually you'll end up with socialism. But the “eventually” never happens. So long as a tiny minority owns most of the wealth — and that's truer than ever today — then democracy is largely a sham, and no amount of refining it is going to change that. Ironically, that's what the name “social democracy” was originally meant to signify — that in order to get real democracy you first had to end the social divide between rich and poor. If you turn that around, all you end up doing is perpetuating the sham democracy that has served the corporate elite so well.)
More than a century ago Oscar Wilde wrote an essay called The Soul of Man Under Socialism. It's still a fantastic read, and gives you an infinitely grander vision of socialism than you'll find anywhere in the contemporary left. One of the key things Wilde had to say was this: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopia.”
The left today has forgotten this important truth. On our map of the world we've replaced utopia with a Tim Hortons.
Stan Hister is a writer in Toronto.