The “S” Word (And It’s Not “Slut”)

Layton at NDP ConventionShould the NPD drop the word “socialism” from its charter? That question was to be debated at this weekend’s convention but it was referred instead to party’s executive. Some are also questioning the party’s traditional ties with the labour movement, including how, as a result of those ties, partisans are addressed as “sisters and brothers.”

These discussions brought me back to a business ethics class I had to take in the summer of 1988, a course taught by a woman who ended up becoming my boss two years later. I was the kind of student who didn’t say much in class unless called upon to speak or if I felt very strongly about the topic being discussed. One day, when debating for or against affirmative action in this class where I was the only non-business student (with most business students in my class being politically centre or centre-right), one student opined that imposing such a policy wasn’t good because it was the beginning of a downward spiral towards communism.

As usual, context is everything. First, as hard as I would try, I could never convey the venom with which my fellow student uttered the word “communism.” Second, remember that in the summer of 1988, although cracks in the Warsaw Pact regimes were starting to show, the Cold War was still on, the Berlin Wall was still up, and the Soviet Union was still the other superpower country we had been told was intent on destroying us. As such, the black-and-white dichotomy of “capitalism, good; communism, bad” was still very strongly entrenched in people’s minds.

I flew off the handle. Drawing from notions learnt in Dr. Lake’s mass communication course the previous fall, I went on a diatribe about word bombs and equivocation. I pointed out that communism inherently was not meant to be dictatorial, but that misguided, power-hungry men had perverted the ideas (and ideals) of communism so that the communist regimes that had been implemented had become totalitarian. Where we had begun the course with a study of logical fallacies, I called out my fellow student’s error in logic, if only by using one word incorrectly. If his fear was that affirmative action was not merit-based and was being forced by the state, then he needed to call it that: heavy-handed if not downright dictatorial. While I didn’t agree with this assessment, I could respect it as an opposing point of view. However, the fact there existed many non-communist dictatorial states implied that affirmative action was not “a downward spiral towards communism,” and it had become tedious to hear people present arguments using words whose real meaning they knew nothing about.

That memory brings me back to the NDP and the word “socialist” in its charter. The fact of the matter is that, because the words “communism” and “socialism” have incorrectly been used interchangeably and communist regimes we have seen have turned totalitarian as well, the words “socialist” and “socialism” immediately get equated to totalitarianism. Of course it’s a logical fallacy; however, most people are not politically engaged enough to recognize that it is or even to want to rid themselves of this error in reasoning.

All that being said, by the late 20th century, labour/socialist parties in the U.K. and France as well as the NDP in Canada evolved to espouse the market economy instead of a completely state-directed economy, thus becoming social democratic parties. In short, these parties are no longer purely socialist parties. So my thoughts on the NDP are straight-forward: given that the party is no longer purely socialist and that the word “socialist” is a bomb among a good number of people who aren’t willing or savvy enough to shed mistaken preconceptions about the word, get it out of the charter! That is NOT denying the party’s roots; it’s recognizing the party’s evolution and, I would argue, the evolution of socialism itself.

In his speech closing the NDP policy convention, leader Jack Layton mused about how the average age of MPs in parliament is under 50 for the first time in Canadian history. That’s in large part due to so many MPs in the NDP caucus being in their 20s and 30s. I view this development positively for the NDP: not to say they are ahistorical, but these young MPs are not as burden by the past. As long as they have been alive, the NDP has been a social democratic party, not a socialist one. As such, I believe they are more likely to bring the party fully into the 21st century and that will include forcing this definition to better reflect today’s reality, which is also the reality they’ve always known. Forcing this change is not just putting a different wrapper for the same thing; it’s putting the correct wrapper on that thing, with the added benefit of not scaring away those who attach the wrong meaning behind the old wrapper.