Lessons from the birth of the NDP

Peter Solenberger

Posted May 21, 2021

This article is a response to questions posed by James Williams in a comment on an exchange between Steve Downs and me over building a mass workers’ party in the U.S. James wrote:

I am more interested in the New Democratic Party in Canada than the Brits. What is the history? Were any of the aforementioned criteria present?

I’ve generally thought that the history of the British Labour Party (BLP) was more relevant to the development of a mass workers’ party in the U.S. than the history of the New Democratic Party (NDP).

When the Labour Party emerged in 1900-1906, Britain seemed more like the U.S. today. It was the most powerful of the imperialist great powers. Germany, Japan and the U.S. were getting to the point where they could challenge it, but Britain was still the apex predator. On the working-class side, Britain had a strong trade union movement with no direct political representation.

After its founding, the BLP grew rapidly and moved to the left. Reflecting its leftward movement, in 1918 it added Clause IV to its constitution:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

In 1922 the BLP displaced the Liberals as the official opposition to the Tories. It has been either the governing party of the official opposition ever since.

In contrast, when the New Democratic Party emerged in 1961, Canada was by gross domestic product number seven in the imperialist hierarchy. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a partner in the NDP’s founding, provided the Canadian unions with an independent electoral nucleus that the British unions lacked and the unions in the U.S. still lack. The unions were less represented in NDP structures than they were in BLP ones, and they were less loyal to the party.

The NDP never caught up with the Liberals. At the federal level it remained a junior opposition to the capitalist parties. At the provincial level it led some reform governments and some neoliberal ones. Bob Rae’s Ontario government of 1990 to 1995 was particularly bad. The NDP seemed more a tale of what can go wrong with a reformist labor party than a tale of how to establish one.

The DSA debate over whether to break with the Democrats and the questions posed by James have shifted my thinking about the relevance of the NDP experience. In this article I’ll try to draw some lessons from its birth. But first some history.

Co-operative Commonwealth Federation

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (Farmer-Labour-Socialist) was formed in 1932 in Calgary, Alberta, by a gathering of socialist, agrarian, co-operative, and labor activists. The founding meeting adopted the Regina Manifesto, which proposed emergency measures to counter the Depression and then pledged:

Emergency measures, however, are of only temporary value, for the present depression is a sign of the mortal sickness of the whole capitalist system, and this sickness cannot be cured by the application of salves. These leave untouched the cancer which is eating at the heart of our society, namely, the economic system in which our natural resources and our principal means of production and distribution are owned, controlled and operated for the private profit of a small proportion of our population.

No C.C.F. Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.

Not coincidentally, the first long-term demand in the draft platform the DSA National Political Committee submitted to the pre-convention discussion is:

A new Constitutional Convention to create a cooperative commonwealth, a truly democratic, socialist republic by and for the people.

In its first federal election in 1935 the CCF won seven seats in the House of Commons. In 1940 it won eight, including one in Nova Scotia, its first success at the federal level outside the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In 1942 the CCF won in the York South riding of Ontario, defeating the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party (PCP). In1945 the CCF won 15.6% of the vote and elected 28 members of parliament.

In 1944 the Saskatchewan CCF ousted the incumbent Liberals, taking 47 out of 52 seats in the provincial assembly. In 1947 Saskatchewan established Canada’s first public hospital care system. In 1961 it generalized the plan to all healthcare with the Medical Care Insurance Act (Medicare). In 1962 Saskatchewan doctors struck to block Medicare and failed. After several years of struggle, Medicare was adopted across the Canadian state.

In 1965 Medicare was adopted in the U.S. in a truncated form for people 65 and up. We’re still struggling to get to where Saskatchewan was 60 years ago.

Canadian politics shifted to the right during the Cold War and the economic expansion of the 1950s and 1960s. That and its electoral success pushed the CCF to the right. In 1956 the party adopted the Winnipeg Declaration, which aspired to reform capitalism, not to replace it with socialism.

Such a society cannot be built without the application of social planning projects; financial and credit resources must be used to help maintain full employment and to control inflation and deflation.

In the cooperative commonwealth there will be an important role for public, private and cooperative enterprise working together in the people’s interest…

The CCF will not rest content until every person in this land and in all other lands is able to enjoy equality and freedom, a sense of human dignity, and an opportunity to live a rich and meaningful life as a citizen of a free and peaceful world. This is the Cooperative Commonwealth which the CCF invites the people of Canada to build with imagination and pride.

This shift made it an appropriate partner for the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

Canadian Labour Congress

The CLC was founded in 1956 through a merger of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) and the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL). The TLC was the analog of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the U.S. The CCL was the analog of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) in the U.S. The merger was the analog of the 1955 founding of the AFL-CIO in the U.S.

The merger required fights in both the TLC and the CCL. These had a political dimension. The TLC had backed the Liberals, while the CCL had backed the CCF. The left won the 1953 TLC convention, opening the way to both the merger and abandonment of the Liberals.

The CLC had a complicated history. A social-democratic faction allied with the Walter and Victor Reuther faction in the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the CIO fought a Communist Party-connected faction, which was particularly strong in the Windsor auto plants. A weird aspect of this was that the social-democratic faction supported the CCF, while the CP-connected faction supported the Liberals.

The social-democrats won, clearing the way for the TLC-CCL merger. In 1953 the TLC and the CCL created a joint committee to explore cooperation and possible merger. In 1956 they merged.

New Democratic Party

In 1958 the CCF and the CLC formed a joint committee, the National Committee for the New Party (NCNP), to explore founding a new social-democratic party. The NCNP spent three years working out the program, policies and structures of the new party. Local New Party committees were formed across the country. In 1961 a convention in Ottawa founded the New Democratic Party. Tommy Douglas, the CCF premier of Saskatchewan, was elected its first leader.

The Preamble to the NDP Constitution affirmed the social-democratic line of the CCF’s Winnipeg Declaration:

The New Democratic Party believes that the social, economic and political progress of Canada can be assured only by the application of democratic socialist principles to government and the administration of public affairs.

The principles of democratic socialism can be defined briefly as:

That the production and distribution of goods and services shall be directed to meeting the social and individual needs of people within a sustainable environment and economy and not to the making of profit;

To modify and control the operations of the monopolistic productive and distributive organizations through economic and social planning. Toward these ends and where necessary the extension of the principle of social ownership;

The New Democratic Party holds firm to the belief that the dignity and freedom of the individual is a basic right that must be maintained and extended; and

The New Democratic Party is proud to be associated with the democratic socialist parties of the world and to share the struggle for peace, international co-operation and the abolition of poverty.

No pledge to eradicate capitalism, as in the Regina Manifesto. The current Preamble to the NDP Constitution is even tamer:

New Democrats believe in freedom and democracy and in a positive role for democratically elected and accountable Parliaments, legislatures, and the governments responsible to them.

New Democrats affirm a role for government in helping to create the conditions for sustainable prosperity. We believe in a rules-based economy, nationally and globally, in which governments have the power to address the limitations of the market in addressing the common good by having the power to act in the public interest for social and economic justice, and for the integrity of the environment.

New Democrats belong to the family of other progressive democratic political parties that govern successfully in many countries around the world. In co-operation with like minded political parties and governments, New Democrats are committed to working together for peace, international co-operation, and the common good of all — the common good being our fundamental purpose as a movement and as a party.

The history of the NDP over the past 60 years has many lessons for revolutionary socialists, mostly about how a social-democratic party adapts to neoliberal capitalism and fails to promote socialism. This raises questions of whether, when and how to intervene, questions beyond the scope of this article.

Lessons from the birth of the NDP

The NDP had, in a sense, two births, the birth of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1932 and the birth of the New Democratic Party in 1961. They’re distinct, the NDP being a joint project of the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress, not just an evolution of the CCF.

The BLP also had, in a sense, two births, the birth of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900 and the birth of the Labour Party in 1906. But the BLP was the LRC with a name change to recognize its success, not a new organization.

The main lesson from the births of the New Democratic Party, like the main lesson of the birth of the British Labour Party, is that to break with the capitalist parties you have to stop dawdling and break.

In the Canadian case, the CCF founders decided that they were done with subordinating the interests of workers and farmers to the interests of capital through the Liberals. The CCF competed with the Liberals and succeeded well enough so that the newly formed CLC chose to join them in forming the New Democratic Party.

We can’t know how events will unfold in the U.S., but an analogy to the birth of the CCF/NDP might go like this: DSA with 100,000 members decides that it’s done with the Democrats, runs against them, and succeeds in some districts. A union revival like that of the mid-1990s inspires another initiative like the 1996 Labor Party. The now-independent DSA, the Greens and the labor left unite to form a workers’ party.

If the workers’ party were social-democratic from birth, it would have the same contradictions that the NDP has, and revolutionary socialists would face the same dilemmas in dealing with it. If the workers’ party were formed on an anti-capitalist basis, like that of the CCF’s Regina Manifesto, much more could happen.

In any case, the first lesson is that to break with the capitalist parties, you have to actually break. DSA is still discussing this.


2 responses to “Lessons from the birth of the NDP”

  1. James H. Williams Avatar
    James H. Williams

    Peter, your article raises a number of questions, but chief among them is, why the rightward drift of NDP (and the European social democratic parties in general)? Iknow, I know Lenin’s explanations about the Labor Aristocracy and the usual explanations about labor bureaucrats, but are these sufficient after all these years?

  2. James Williams Avatar
    James Williams

    Thank you Peter for this detailed and informative response! I think it is important that we in the US learn from the Canadian experiences as we chart our way forward. Your article fills an important gap in my understanding, and I hope it does as well to the Left in general. Here in Tacoma, we are “just down the road” from Canada.