Federal Election 2004:

No Choice for Working People

Urging voters to “choose your Canada,” Prime Minister Paul Martin declared that the vote on 28 June will be the “most important election in Canadian history” (Toronto Star, 8 May). But for working people there is no good choice—the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP are all committed to serving and protecting the interests of the tiny layer of multi-millionaires who own and control this country. They differ only over how best to do so.

When Martin called the election on 23 May, he hoped the Liberals could somehow sleepwalk their way to a fourth consecutive majority. But that is not how things have worked out. The stink from last winter’s sponsorship scandal, in which $100 million from a “national unity” slush fund disappeared into the coffers of various Liberal-connected ad agencies in Quebec, has lingered longer than Martin expected. The separatist Bloc Québécois, which has downplayed the issue of independence during the campaign, is enjoying a huge resurgence largely as a result of voter disgust with Liberal corruption and cronyism. In both British Columbia and Quebec, trade unions have recently spearheaded sizeable protests against the austerity measures introduced by Liberal provincial governments.

“Team Martin” wanted to portray itself as the defender of medicare against Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s plans for two-tier health care and tax cuts for the rich. Unfortunately for the Liberals, people have not forgotten that in the 1990s, when Martin was finance minister, he slashed federal medicare funding by some 40 percent while introducing the most sweeping tax cuts in Canadian history, disproportionately benefiting those at the top of the economic pyramid. A week before the campaign officially began, Ontario’s newly-elected Liberal premier, “Dilbert” McGuinty, delivered what may turn out to have been the coup de grace to his federal cousins when he unveiled his government’s plans to simultaneously cut health services while imposing a new, regressive, health insurance levy.

The Liberals’ disarray has made it easy for the Conservative/Reform/Alliance Party to project the image of a responsible and fiscally prudent alternative. Harper, whose chief political credential is having briefly headed the virulently right-wing National Citizens Coalition (a corporate lobby group created in the late 1960s to attack public medicare and other “socialistic” policies) has been evasive about what he intends to do if his party takes power. He has spent much of the campaign disavowing overly candid remarks from various Conservative candidates on abortion, capital punishment and gay rights. The newly “united right” is an unstable coalition between traditional Bay Street Tory moneymen and a veritable Noah’s Ark of “pro-life” death penalty advocates, racists, Quebec-bashers, homophobes, flat-tax cranks and born-again evangelicals.

The chief difference between the two big business parties is one of spin. Team Martin feigns concern about “ensuring equality of healthcare, education and opportunity for everyone,” while Harper’s gang is more explicit about their plans to improve the business climate by reducing overheads (i.e., wages and corporate taxes) and creating investment opportunities through the privatization of healthcare and other social services. Despite Martin’s lip-service to looking after the less fortunate, during the Liberals’ tenure social inequality has accelerated tremendously. The June issue of the National Post Business magazine reports that last year, under the Liberals, Canada’s 500 top companies racked up a record $70.6 billion in declared earnings by “slashing payrolls, reducing salaries, [and] ending product lines.”

In attempting to differentiate themselves from Harper’s Conservatives, the Liberals are making much of their supposed opposition to the unpopular U.S. invasion of Iraq. But the truth is that Canada was the fourth-largest contributor to this murderous crusade, after the U.S., Britain and Australia. Canadian escorts shepherded American warships in the Persian Gulf while dozens of Canadian soldiers, embedded in U.S. and British units, took part in the ground assault. In 1999 the Liberals dispatched Canadian planes to participate in NATO’s brutal assault on Yugoslavia, and two years later, Canada joined the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Earlier this year, some 500 Canadian soldiers were sent to Haiti to prop up a right-wing regime headed by former death-squad leaders, which came to power in a U.S.-supported coup.

The Liberals have been hinting that they are prepared to participate in Washington’s provocative “Star Wars” missile shield program, just as they joined in the “anti-terror” scare after the criminal attack on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001. The Liberals’ Bill C-36, the so-called “Anti-Terrorism Act,” permits prosecutors to arbitrarily suspend the right to habeas corpus and public trials in cases where the defendants are accused of being “terrorists.”

In August 2003 the RCMP’s “Project Thread” rounded up 25 South Asian students in Toronto. Wild tales of an Al Qaeda sleeper cell scoping the CN Tower, Pickering nuclear plant and other possible sites of future terrorist strikes were breathlessly retailed by the capitalist media. It wasn’t long, however, before the racist frame-up began to unravel and the authorities were forced to admit that none of the “suspects” had been guilty of anything more than petty infractions of immigration regulations.

And then there is the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin, who was arrested in September 2002 in New York during a stop-over on a flight returning to Canada from Tunisia. After a two-week interrogation, American officials deported him to Syria where he was held in jail for a year and tortured. He was finally released and allowed to return home in October 2003. The government pretended to be outraged at Arar’s treatment, but it turned out that the reason he was picked up in the first place was because the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had fingered him to the FBI as someone with a possible Al Qaeda connection.

The Islamophobia and shredding of civil liberties that has accompanied the creation of “ Fortress North America” is aimed, in the first instance, at immigrants and minorities, but it also poses a deadly danger to the entire left and labor movement. “Terrorist activity” is defined in such a way that it can include mass picketing, direct action protests and anything else that might disrupt “business as usual.” The government has also created a list of “terrorist” organizations, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which Canadians cannot legally support. This is aimed not at preventing “terrorism,” but at suppressing political dissent and bulwarking neo-colonial clients. The labor movement has a vital interest in exposing the “War on Terror” for the anti-democratic hoax that it is, and vigorously defending immigrants, refugees and others unjustly caught up in its clutches.

NDP—a Bourgeois Workers’ Party

The New Democratic Party is unlike the Liberals and Conservatives. It is what Marxists call a “bourgeois workers’ party”—a party that is based on the trade unions, the mass organizations of the working class, but has the pro-capitalist ideology of the union bureaucracy. The NDP is therefore organizationally independent of the capitalists, yet completely politically subordinate to them. While capable of occasionally spouting “anti-corporate” rhetoric, depending on the audience, the NDP aspires to nothing more than smoothing down some of the rougher edges of the predatory, dog-eat-dog system of capitalist competition.

In 1990, when the NDP came to power in Ontario, it was promising to tax the corporations and expand social programs. These pledges were soon ditched as Premier Bob Rae went on to impose the infamous “Social Contract,” which ripped up union contracts and rolled back public-sector wages. Rae’s government also jacked up tuition fees, jailed postal workers for picketing “illegally” and launched a PR campaign targeting “welfare cheaters.” The cowardly refusal of the labor bureaucrats to organize any serious resistance to these attacks emboldened the more belligerent, anti-union elements of the ruling class and paved the way for Mike Harris and his “Common Sense” reaction.

The scandal-plagued NDP governments that held power in B.C. throughout most of the 1990s also displayed a propensity for scapegoating the poorest and most defenseless members of society. The NDP introduced an unprecedented three-month residency requirement for welfare recipients. In the summer of 1995, the social democratic government dispatched 400 Mounties to Gustafsen Lake to besiege a group of native protesters seeking resolution of long-standing land claims. In 1999, the NDP government howled for the internment of “illegal” Chinese immigrants who were intercepted off the coast.

During its time in office, the B.C. NDP managed to shift the entire political spectrum far enough to the right for Gordon Campbell’s Liberals to get elected on an austerity program. The current NDP governments in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are ardent proponents of balancing budgets through closing hospitals and scaling back social programs. They too are preparing the way for a more aggressive brand of “neo-liberalism” when the patience of the NDP’s traditional base is exhausted.

Today Bob Rae has turned in his NDP card and is pursuing a lucrative career as a Bay Street lawyer, while Ujjal Dosanjh, the last NDP premier of B.C., is running for the Liberals in this election. It’s hardly accidental that these are the type of careerists who inevitably float to the top of Canada’s social-democratic party.

Class Collaboration as ‘Pragmatic Realism’

Early in the campaign Layton created a minor flap when he observed that Martin’s cuts to social housing programs contributed to the increased death of homeless people on Canada’s streets. While proposing a few petty reforms, like an inheritance tax on estates over $1 million and a marginal increase in corporate taxes, Layton has played down any intention to redistribute wealth in favor of stressing that his priority is balancing the budget.

In an attempt to give the NDP some traction in Quebec, Layton came out in favor of repealing the reactionary Clarity Act, with which the Canadian government asserted its “right” to set the conditions for Quebec’s independence. All but two NDP MPs voted for the legislation when it was adopted in 2000 and pressure from influential NDPers, including Alexa McDonough (the party’s former federal leader) and Lorne Calvert (Saskatchewan’s NDP premier), soon had Layton “insisting that repealing the Clarity Act isn’t on his radar screen” (Toronto Star, 11 June).

The Clarity Act is a denial of Quebec’s inalienable right to self–determination. Quebec is a nation and if the Québécois wish to leave Canada, socialists must unconditionally support their right to do so. If the Canadian bourgeoisie were to attempt to forcibly retain Quebec, it would be the duty of every class-conscious worker in English Canada to defend the Québécois by every possible means, including protests, political strikes and, if necessary, military assistance.

Canadian nationalism figures prominently in the NDP campaign. Sometimes it has a “leftist” coloration, as when Layton has attacked Harper and Martin for their willingness to consider participating in the Bush administration’s reckless Star Wars initiative. But the NDP has also been attacking the Liberals from the right, echoing Harper’s complaints about supposed military underfunding:

“As Liberal Finance Minister, Paul Martin enacted deep cuts to the Canadian Armed Forces, whose women and men were already suffering from low salaries and substandard housing.”
— “Jack Layton on peacekeeping and national defence,” NDP statement

Revolutionaries say, “not one person, not one penny” for the Canadian military. Layton has a very different policy and has seized the opportunity of the current election campaign to disavow the NDP’s long-standing formal advocacy of unilateral withdrawal from NATO in favor of somehow “transforming” this imperialist military alliance into a force for peace and happiness.

In 1999, in the midst of the imperialist propaganda barrage about “poor little Kosovo,” the NDP’s parliamentary caucus supported NATO’s criminal attack on Yugoslavia. The NDP dissented from the U.S.-led assault on Afghanistan in 2001, but only on the grounds that it should have been carried out by the United Nations. Today, instead of simply calling for all imperialist troops out of Iraq, the NDP advocates a UN fig leaf for the U.S.-led occupation. This is particularly grotesque in view of the fact that the 1991 war against Iraq was conducted under the flag of the United Nations, as were the starvation sanctions that killed well over a million Iraqis during the subsequent decade.

The link between nationalism and class-collaborationism is made explicit in the NDP’s protectionist economic policy:

“Canadians are hard-working people and our businesses can compete on the world stage. But unfair trade deals and a Liberal government that’s consistently shown it won’t stand up for our softwood, steel, auto and film industries has hurt too many Canadian workers, communities, and businesses. It’s time we stood up for ourselves, protected our workers from attack and used practical solutions to create better jobs and more jobs right here at home.”
—“Jack Layton on defending Canadian jobs from attack,” NDP statement

The idea that the exploited and their exploiters have common interests is poison for the working class. Canadian bosses are the main enemy of Canadian workers, just as American and other “foreign” workers are their main ally. It is “our” business barons who are slashing wages, cutting jobs, gutting benefits and busting unions. Recognizing this simple fact is the only basis for launching any serious struggle to defend the gains of the past or to win new ones.

The class-collaborationist illusions pushed by the trade-union bureaucracy are mirrored in the NDP’s eagerness to participate in a coalition government with the Liberals. Ten days before the election was even officially called, the National Post (13 May) reported:

“A formal coalition is unlikely, Layton says. But he reminisces fondly of the two-year pact negotiated with the Ontario New Democrats in 1985, which kept the Liberals free from non-confidence votes in exchange for policy concessions.”

In the first few days of the campaign, Layton was signaling the NDP’s willingness to prop up the Liberals if it got the chance. The Toronto Star praised the NDP leader’s “businesslike” demeanour and noted how the party has shifted subtly to the right over the past decade:

“[T]he NDP leader has turned in a surprisingly disciplined performance, light on antics, heavy on ‘positive’ tone, as he puts it. He always appears dressed up, in crisp, businesslike suit and tie, as if he is just headed over to Bay St. to make a deal. It’s not exactly the image of a New Democrat politician.
“It is also a mark of Layton’s image success in this campaign that few critics have jumped upon him when he’s dared to speculate about NDP conditions for participating in a minority government.
“In 1993, then-leader Audrey McLaughlin was crucified for musing about this scenario....
“It was defeatist, unsportsmanlike, the critics opined.
“Times—and leaders—have changed. Now when Layton talks about his conditions for propping up a Liberal minority, such as demanding a pledge for instituting a system of proportional representation, the NDP leader is viewed as a pragmatic realist.”
Toronto Star, May 27

An NDP coalition with the Liberals would effectively suppress the contradiction between its pro-capitalist policies and its working-class base— the NDP would assume responsibility for the Liberals, thus functioning as an open agent for capital and renouncing, for the duration of the parliamentary bloc, any pretense of representing the independent interests of the working class.

NDP’s ‘Marxist’ Loyalists

Given the NDP’s history of betrayal, overtly pro-capitalist program and eagerness to participate in a coalition with the Liberals, there is obviously no reason for class-conscious workers to consider casting a vote for them in this election. Yet a variety of supposedly Marxist organizations insist that socialists have a duty to vote for the NDP regardless of its record or program simply because, as the party of the trade-union bureaucracy, it has an organic link to the working class. Several years ago, Abbie Bakan, a long-time left social democrat and leading member of the International Socialists (IS), offered the following explanation for her group’s chronic NDP loyalism:

“…for socialists the criteria for this vote are not based on trying to win seats in parliament. Nor are they based on the program these parties advocate. Instead, this tactic is taken because a vote for a labour party is a vote with the working class, with all its mixed ideas.
“In Canada today, where the NDP exists as a serious political alternative (which is in virtually all elections except provincial elections in Quebec), socialists should call for a vote for the NDP. But it is important to do so critically.”
The ABC of Socialism, p 50

While freely admitting that working people have no illusions in the NDP’s willingness or capacity to seriously resist capitalist attacks, Bakan is still calling for votes to the NDP in this election:

“The electoral success of the NDP in the current election will not bring about major changes through Parliament that benefit workers’ lives. In fact, the history of the NDP when it has formed provincial governments shows the opposite tendency. The NDP is notorious for implementing cutbacks and attacks on unions that give a green light for employers’ offensives.
“So voting in this election won’t put an end to capitalism or the threat of war.
“But getting the chance to kick back against the Liberals is an opportunity no socialist should miss.”
Socialist Worker, 2 June

The idea that the way to “kick back against the Liberals” is to vote for Layton, who openly proclaims his intention to keep them in power if he gets the chance, is almost too idiotic for words. It is a policy that can only serve to create illusions among any leftist workers or radical youth who are fooled by IS claims to represent the tradition of Marx and Lenin.

While frequently rationalizing electoral support to the NDP on the grounds that it is a part of the workers’ movement, the IS has a record of entirely disregarding the class line and offering electoral support to various popular “progressive” capitalist formations, from South Africa’s African National Congress, to the Green Party in British Columbia (see Socialist Worker, 4 October 2000). In Zimbabwe, IS supporters actually ran as candidates of the bourgeois Movement for Democratic Change which pledged to implement the IMF’s program of neo-liberal austerity! (See 1917 No. 23.)

Socialist Worker (28 April) has already declared Ralph Nader to be “the only candidate worth voting for” in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The IS leadership is not particularly concerned that in 1984, when employees of Nader’s Multinational Monitor attempted to unionize, he fired them (see Washington Post, 28 June 1984). Marxists are distinguished from fake-socialists like the IS by their recognition of the centrality of the class line—i.e., the necessity for working people to organize themselves independently from all wings of the capitalists—big or small, “left” or right. But for the leaders of the IS there is only one “principle”—if it is big, tail it.

The IS is the largest, but not the only, group of “Marxist” NDP loyalists. Socialist Action, the tattered remnant of the United Secretariat in English Canada, has been buried in the NDP for years in a sterile bid to congeal a “Socialist Caucus” capable of nudging the social-democratic labor traitors a bit to the left. The supporters of L’Humanité, who are affiliated with Ted Grant’s Workers International League, are pursuing a similar project in and around the NDP’s moribund youth group. Their forlorn hope to see the, “NDP to power on a socialist program” is reflected in a rather peculiar pamphlet, entitled “Best of Manifestos,” incongruously combining Marx and Engels’ world-historic 1848 Communist Manifesto and the muddled Fabian-socialism of the 1932 “Regina Manifesto,” the founding document of the NDP’s forerunner, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

‘The working class and the employing class have nothing in common’

The former Moscow-loyalists of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) and the ex-Maoist Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) are both fielding candidates in the election. But neither of these Stalinist-reformist campaigns comes even close to approximating a program of working-class political independence. Instead of proletarian internationalism, they both push crude, undiluted bourgeois nationalism. The CPC is concerned with preserving the “sovereignty” of the Canadian bourgeoisie:

“The very future of the country is threatened, as NAFTA, the proposed FTAA and other ‘free trade’ deals accelerate the U.S. domination of Canada. Moves to ‘harmonize’ Canadian foreign, immigration, resource and military policies with the U.S. are further undermining what’s left of our sovereignty.”
Platform of the Communist Party, Federal Election 2004

CPC(ML)’s electoral vehicle, the “Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada,” is campaigning under the slogan: “Who Decides? We Decide! Annexation No! Sovereignty Yes!” A 26 May statement by the Marxist-Leninist Party Youth calls for, “taking up the challenge to build the kind of political party in Canada which will empower all Canadians and release their initiative to take up their own nation-building project.”

Canada is an imperialist country with its own fully-developed ruling class which wields its state apparatus as an instrument for the oppression and exploitation of working people at home and abroad. The Canadian ruling class has all the “sovereignty” it can use. It is the willing partner—albeit a weak, junior, one—of the American imperial colossus to the south. The Maple Leaf patriotism and brainless “nation-building” schemes advanced by these Stalinist reformists means they are not worth considering as any sort of electoral alternative.

The central function of bourgeois elections is to mask the fact that under capitalism the tiny handful of privileged social parasites who own and control the means of production effectively dictate the conditions of life for everyone else, particularly for working people, who must sell their labor-power in order to survive. There is only one historical alternative to the misery and irrationality of capitalism—socialism, i.e., an economic system in which production is determined by human need, rather than private profit. To open the road to the socialist future it is necessary to construct a mass, revolutionary workers’ party capable of leading all the oppressed and exploited in struggle to expropriate the capitalist class. Such a party can only be forged on the basis of an uncompromising struggle for the complete political independence of the working class from the bosses and their political agents. For, as the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World put it 99 years ago: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”

—International Bolshevik Tendency
18 June 2004

Posted: 22 June 2004