Monday, August 10, 2009

The NDP: What’s in a name?

Once again, there is agitation among some members of the NDP to consider changing the name of the party. At the party’s federal convention in Halifax, August 14-16, delegates will consider dropping the word “new” from the party’s moniker to have it renamed the Democratic Party.

Brian Masse, the NDP MP for Windsor West, favours the name change on the ground that the current name is dated. The party is no longer new. “Is it another 50 years that we stay ‘new’? Another 100 years?” Masse said to the CBC in an interview.

With all due respect to Masse and others who favour the name change, the proposal has nothing to do with how old an institution can be before it is no longer “new.” The Pont Neuf, completed in 1607, is the oldest standing bridge across the Seine in Paris. Oxford’s New College was founded in 1379. Don’t expect the bridge or the college to drop the “new” from their names anytime soon. The fact is that everyone is proud of these traditional names.

As always when people suggest changing the name of Canada’s social democratic party, there is an underlying political motive. After the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) won only eight seats in the federal election of 1958, party leaders decided it was time to found a new social democratic party, a party with a new outlook, organizational structure and a new name. In 1961, following a three year debate about how to remake Canadian social democracy, a founding convention was held in Ottawa. A number of names were considered and New Democratic Party was the one that was chosen.

During the three year debate about establishing the new party, a principal goal of many activists was to broaden the party to take in people who were referred to as “liberally minded.” The idea was to move the party toward the liberal centre of the Canadian political spectrum. Some delegates favoured calling the party Democratic while others wanted it to be called the Social Democratic Party. New Democratic Party was a compromise. It avoided the name Democratic which brought to mind the party that was in power south of the border under President John F. Kennedy. In the minds of delegates, while Kennedy’s party was to the left of the American Republicans, it was not a social democratic party. And the whole point of establishing the CCF in 1933 and the NDP in 1961 had been to create a social democratic or socialist party that would not simply be an ideological soul mate of the Liberals.

The word “New” in the NDP suggested a new conception of society. The fundamental difference between the societal vision of social democrats or socialists on the one hand and liberals on the other is that the former viewed capitalism as an inherently exploitative social system, while the latter believed that capitalism could be reformed and made more equitable through reforms that made things fairer for all in the footrace of life.

The difference between the NDP and the Liberals, even when the two parties have seemed close at times, has always been about the attitude of the two parties to capitalism. Liberals, and American Democrats, are capitalist to the core. They believe that capitalism is the best system ever conceived by human beings. It can be improved upon, they think. But they cannot conceive of transcending it to establish a new and more fundamentally equitable social order. Social Democrats, however centrist they may be, cling to the vision of a new society which make take many decades to realize, but that remains an essential aspiration.

While they are not likely to say it, those who want to rename the NDP the Democratic Party want to abandon the social democratic or socialist dimension in the party’s outlook. They want to move the party to the centre to have it compete with the Liberals on their own ideological turf.

From J.S. Woodworth, to Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and Jack Layton, Canadian social democrats have held out the hope of creating a new social order in Canada. In the establishment of medicare, something which Barack Obama’s Democrats cannot match because they are too committed to the market system, social democrats have transformed what it means to be Canadian.

We need a social democratic party in Canada. Let’s not play games with phony debates about name changes that are really calls to abandon what the NDP stands for.