In Search of a New Left:
Canadian Politics after the Neoconservative Assault

232 pages,
ISBN: 067085901X

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Waffle Redux
by Gerald Owen

Few people move left in their fifties. James Laxer is one. He has drawn back from the brink of centrism (a mixed, even contradictory metaphor, I know). The whole history of his opinions is unusual, but not just eccentric: not merely off-centre, for he has now long been near the core of Canadian politics.
The title and subtitle of this book express its purpose, but not the greater part of its contents. Considerable chunks amount to being a history of the CCF and NDP, or of Canadian socialism. Fragments of an unwritten spiritual autobiography crop up from time to time. For example, Laxer attributes the strength of social democracy in Canada compared to the United States (a major difference between the two countries) in great measure to social gospel Protestantism, which was, as he says, "most strongly situated in the United Church." This is part of his own heritage and indeed his present life: in his middle age, he is one of the youngest members of a United Church congregation in the heart of bourgeois Toronto. On the other hand, his father was a Communist until 1956, and he says that some NDP and labour leaders "were inclined to see communism as a genetic disorder."
Laxer vividly describes the NDP rally in Toronto addressed by Tommy Douglas in the 1963 election, at Maple Leaf Gardens, and the enthusiasm he and the rest of the crowd felt-partly at what they rightly believed to be the advent of medicare. But his own historical significance is based in his having been one of the leaders of a New Left rebellion against postwar social democracy, against the prevalent thinking in the CCF-NDP of the fifties and sixties.
To this revolt he gives a chapter called "The Waffle: A Children's Crusade". The name that somehow attached itself to the Waffle Caucus was certainly odd, a radical movement with a name that suggests fence-sitting; the association with the futile pied-piper-like movement led by Peter the Hermit is odder. Aged twenty-nine, Laxer shot up out of obscurity to become a strong second in the 1971 NDP leadership campaign; David Lewis won on the fourth ballot; the future party leader Ed Broadbent was well behind. In 1972, the Ontario NDP led by Stephen Lewis presented Wafflers with the choice of disbandment or expulsion. It is not too much to call this a purge.
In concrete terms, the Waffle stood, in contrast to the party leadership, for state ownership in some large degree and for nationalism, especially not but simply economic nationalism. This included objections to "international", that is, continental labour unions, and support for some kind of workers' control in industrial management. Laxer thinks that the labour leaders got scared when the Waffle began to find supporters in unions, and successfully pressed for the purge. The union establishment was evidently accustomed to the idea of a radical element in the party, but wanted to keep control in its own house.
More broadly, one can say (using a cliché), "It was the sixties." At the 1969 NDP convention, Laxer says, "The clash was as visible in terms of lifestyle and culture as it was in the sense of political differences. Young, long-haired and often bearded Waffle supporters could be seen racing from one workshop session to another, being pursued by older, and often paunchy, trade union delegates."< br> After the expulsion of the Waffle, the Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada was formed, outside the NDP. Laxer was one of its three candidates in the 1974 election; they got about one percent of the votes in their ridings. The Waffle soon dissolved. Laxer somehow moved back into the party milieu. For a while he became research director for the NDP federal caucus.
At this point, I should say that though the Waffle had not been aimed against Keynesianism as such, Keynesianism was one of the essential characteristics of the moderate social democracy that the Waffle-and the whole New Left-had been rebelling against. To look at it from another angle, this trait was a key element in the Old Left's membership in the postwar consensus: in the so-called End of Ideology of the 1950s and '60s, when democratic socialists moved away from planning and nationalization. In this new book, Laxer is good on this time; he clearly and vividly describes what he often calls "the golden age of social democracy".
By "Keynesianism", I don't quite mean the teachings of J. M. Keynes: rather, the popularization of these, as adopted by many politicians, journalists, civil servants, and "concerned citizens". Often this has amounted to a one-sided version of what the great economist said: unceasing "stimulative" policies: inflation and government borrowings. In Canada, the NDP became a leading force for this sub-Keynesianism, though neither the genuine economic arguments nor their popularization belong to socialism.
James Laxer is someone who thinks and who observes. His thinking is capable of change. The 1970s were the decade of "stagflation", the combination of rising inflation and rising unemployment that appeared to refute Keynesianism. To him it was clear that this set of received opinions was not for the good of the country or of the party. His freedom from the postwar consensus meant that he had something in common with non-socialist critics of what we might call permanent stimulation.
In 1983, at the end of two years as research director, he wrote a report for the party which argued that international economic forces were making stimulative policies futile, at least for a country the size of Canada. Government debt was a problem, he said. He advocated some mixture of moderate economic nationalism, public enterprise, and industrial strategy: a very mild kind of planning.
The report made a splash in the media at the time, though I believe it has never been published.
The NDP and its leader, Ed Broadbent, were not persuaded. Laxer drifted away from the party. He returned to university teaching, with a fair amount of journalism, both on television and in print. Over the next decade, rumours surfaced from time to time about his contacts with the Liberals, some of whom he apparently found more open-minded.
The scene widens.
François Mitterrand became president of France in 1981. He brought in a Socialist government, and adopted inflationary policies. These soon failed-in Laxer's view, for much the same reasons as in Canada: France, though larger than this country, was too small to go it alone. The Socialist government changed course, and became decidedly centrist, as well as decidedly "European".
Inventing Europe: The Rise of a New World Power is Laxer's third latest book; it came out in 1991. Its writing, he says, was "a personal as well as an intellectual odyssey." This hero of Canadian nationalism is clearly praising the European Union for its compromise between national identity and international economic necessity. "Globalization" is something real; sovereignty must now be "pooled". Capitalism and the market are basically accepted. But the capitalism approved of has some characteristics of an older kind, a kind familiar to Elizabeth I, known to historians of economics as "mercantilism". Class struggle is rejected here, along with other "frothy radical and Marxist notions". Laxer speaks favourably of "corporatism": co-operation between the state, business, and labour unions. Airbus-then not associated in our minds with Brian Mulroney-is offered as a model of such co-operation. There is a touch of the radical idea of workers' control in these ideas of partnership and co-determination. While the EU is to be a thorough-going free trade area, in which national government subsidies to industries are to be controlled, all this is to be accompanied by a social charter or social chapter, setting uniform standards on social policy, so that the use cheap labour in some member countries is not made advantageous. Laxer dismisses Mrs. Thatcher's nationalism without anger, as something on the way out. He has moved rightwards with Mitterrand and Jacques Delors, not with the "neoconservatives". He presents the European model as a realism superior to free-market doctrinairism.
Canada is hardly mentioned in Inventing Europe, but we can draw some inferences. On this book's reasoning, the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA are not bad, exactly, but incomplete; in a sense they do not go far enough. The subsidies code called for by the FTA should indeed be negotiated, to "level the playing field", not left in limbo. And there should be a social charter.
Of course, this is an interpretation, which I think I have "read between the lines." Part of my evidence is his next book, False God, in which I believe he is arguing against his own view in Inventing Europe. With whom else could he be debating, when he vehemently argues against any hope that NAFTA could mature into something like the European Union: "simply fantasy," he says. Whose but his own? The United States, Laxer thinks in 1993, is just too devoted to market individualism, and too disproportionately large on this continent. "Globalization" is the false idol of the book's title. Free trade between Canada and the U.S. in some sectors would be all right, in Laxer's view. But in the end Canada must go it alone in the world.
The tone has changed since Inventing Europe; it has become angry.
What happened?
Partly, the Rae government in Ontario. In one Toronto Star column, Laxer complained that Bob Rae had moved from a one-dimensional politics of Keynesianism to a one-dimensional politics of deficit-cutting. But in another column, he in effect complained of Rae's adherence to the views in Inventing Europe: his talk of partnership between government, business, and labour. He lamented "the hopelessness of the Rae's government's desire to make a deal with a business community that has felt not the slightest need to make a deal with social democracy."
This is the core of In Search of a New Left. With the "new capitalism", the "deal" that was reached after World War II is off. The "golden age of social democracy" is no more. The former New Left leader is lamenting the days when Louis St Laurent called the CCF "Liberals in a hurry", when, I suppose, the Liberals were procrastinating socialists. He does not try to revive that spirit; instead he revives the idea of class struggle.
Where does he leave us, then? From the way in which he speaks harshly of "cutbacks" and disinflation, one would think he had reverted to "one-dimensional Keynesianism", with a few radical additives such as controls on the use of capital. On the whole, he vindicates his old rival, the establishment social democrats of the 1950s and 1960s, without sharing much of their hopes. Remarking on the book's title, another middle-aged New Leftist said to me, " `Search' is the operative word, right? Not `finding'." While Laxer accepts the multicultural, postmaterialist sides of today's Left, he is very aware of the difficulties that "diversity" presents to class solidarity.
He may well be right that most earners of wages and salaries constitute the new working class, and that they have different interests from those who control the means of production, and from those whose income comes largely from bonds and stocks. So far, though, class consciousness is missing. A huge majority of Canadians believe they are middle-class.
With Laxer as with today's Left as a whole, the negative, criticizing side is more persuasive than the positive, constructive side. One might think that this state of affairs would favour a quite old-fashioned Marxism with its unprogrammatic economic critique, rather than the heirs of utopian or reformist socialism (such as Laxer).
I would have preferred a more directly autobiographical book, but In Search of a New Left is of the greatest interest to Canadians. James Laxer's views will unfold further, with their curious blend of stolidity and fervour. His next book is to come out in the fall of 1998, Hounds, Hares, & Alley Cats: Class & Politics in Canada-a catchier title than the current one.

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