I met NDP leadership Candidate Nathan Cullen today at a campaign stop here in Lethbridge. Listening to him speak today largely confirmed the impressions I had from watching his debate performances, leaving me with mixed feelings. Cullen comes across as a naturally talented speaker, with an easy charm that has made him easily the most dynamic candidate of the NDP leadership race. This charisma combines with a number of other personal factors to make him an attractive choice for the leadership.
Cullen comes from the town of Smithers in north western British Columbia, where he was a small business owner prior to becoming a federal MP. By Cullen’s own admission, Smithers is a very conservative town, with a large number of evangelical Christians. That Cullen has won three consecutive victories in this riding by progressively increasing margins then is quite surprising and bucks the trend of rural areas going Conservative that has been exhibited in most of the rest of Canada. According to Cullen, he first approached the NDP because he was appalled by the level of racism amongst the town leadership in his local chamber of commerce. Through a series of events (mostly the lack of anyone better for the job) Cullen was then selected as the NDP federal candidate, inheriting an indebted riding association that had been utterly destroyed by the Conservative candidate in the previous election. Cullen then proceeded to bring together a coalition of different oppositional groups to form a counter-hegemonic bloc, and by mobilizing a large number of volunteers was able to win his first election by a thin margin. This counter-hegemonic bloc was comprised of environmentalists, ranchers concerned about water quality issues, fishers concerned about falling stocks, and First Nations people who were tired of being marginalized and who form a significant portion of the electorate in Cullen’s riding. That Cullen was able to build this bloc on such short notice and hold it together over successive elections speaks very well of his skills as a leader.
Since his election, Cullen has become a passionate advocate of the people of his riding in opposing the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which will create no more than a handful of long-term jobs and seriously threaten the natural environment surrounding Smithers, upon which Cullen’s electorate depends for their livelihood. Given that this issue has gotten national attention, and opponents of the pipeline have been harshly attacked by the Harper Conservatives as “radicals” and “enemies of the state” Cullen has achieved a higher profile than he otherwise would have had been able to (See a video of Cullen’s comments on the pipeline here). Importantly, Cullen has been able to articulate a critique of the pipeline on both environmental and economic grounds. This again speaks to his ability to build connections across various fields of struggle, and in so doing construct a powerful counter-hegemonic project.
The notion of “coming together” is the touchstone of Cullen’s politics, and it is both his strength and his weakness. Cullen is passionate about his politics, and it’s hard not to believe that he sincerely believes in the policies he advocates. However this perspective of acting in the “public interest” is a classic example of petty-bourgeois ideology, best described by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
The peculiar character of social-democracy is epitomized in the fact that democratic-republican institutions are demanded as a means, not of doing away with two extremes, capital and wage labor, but of weakening their antagonism and transforming it into harmony. However different the means proposed for the attainment of this end may be, however much it may be trimmed with more or less revolutionary notions, the content remains the same. This content is the transformation of society in a democratic way, but a transformation within the bounds of the petty bourgeoisie. Only one must not get the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within whose frame alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven and earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically.
Thus we have the peculiar character of the NDP itself, simultaneously a “workers’ party” and a party characterized by the atmosphere of an elementary school, complete with “compliment sandwiches” and pious recitations of the motto “sharing is caring,” all under the protective eye of petty-bourgeois schoolmasters. This is the contradiction of the party, torn between on the one hand the fundamentally antagonistic struggle against capital, and on the other hand the perpetual desire for a reconciliation with capital. Needless to say, in recent years the latter tendency has been in the ascendant, readily demonstrated by the character of the leadership candidates in this year’s race – of which Cullen is no exception.
The desire for reconciliation on equitable terms pervades Cullen’s politics. Every disparaging remark regarding bankers is counterbalanced by an effort to reach out to the capitalist class. All differences are seen by Cullen as ultimately illusory, and reconciled in the unity of the nation. On this point Marx remarked:
[T]he democrat, because he represents the petty bourgeoisie – that is, a transition class, in which the interests of two classes are simultaneously mutually blunted – imagines himself elevated above class antagonism generally. The democrats concede that a privileged class confronts them, but they, along with all the rest of the nation, form the people. What they represent is the people’s rights; what interests them is the people’s interests. Accordingly, when a struggle is impending they do not need to examine the interests and positions of the different classes. They do not need to weigh their own resources too critically. They have merely to give the signal and the people, with all its inexhaustible resources, will fall upon the oppressors.
This sentiment is best demonstrated in Cullen’s proposal for joint riding nominations with the Liberals and Greens. While Cullen’s purpose in proposing this unorthodox, and by his own admission “heretical” measure is clearly to defeat Stephen Harper and his ultra-reactionary government, Cullen’s justifications for this measure are very telling as to the nature of his politics. Tonight Cullen went so far as to suggest that there were no real differences between the Liberal and NDP platforms in the last election, and that had their covers been removed it would have been impossible to distinguish one from the other. If this (clearly erroneous) perspective does not demonstrate the lasting truth of Marx’s words I don’t know what does. As Cullen explained, parties derive from the unity of the nation, and serve a purely functional role in the nation’s historical self-development. Parties do not (heaven forbid!) represent the interests of contending classes but rather only aspects of a metaphysical national unity. This is why Cullen does not see Harper as the zealous agent of the bourgeoisie, but rather as a rogue agent whose connection to that class is much more tenuous. The character of Harper’s policies are attributed almost entirely to his personality, and not seen in terms of his class position.
And yet, no matter how problematic Cullen’s analysis of the situation I believe that he is the best choice for NDP leader. How can this be the case? On a superficial level I can point to Cullen’s charisma, and the vital importance of charismatic leadership to every major advance the NDP has made in its history. There is no reason to expect the next election will be any different in this regard, and Cullen is the most charismatic candidate in the race. On a less superficial level Cullen’s organizing skills and his commitment to grassroots organizing in particular are quite attractive and will serve the party well. However most importantly there is a bit of Jack Layton about Cullen. While Cullen may be absorbed in the delusions of petty-bourgeois ideology, the same could be said of Canadians in general. While leftists protested the depoliticization of Layton’s image, there was a bit of wishful thinking about this response that ignored the significant role that Layton’s “apolitical” character played in the NDP’s great “orange crush” success. Ironically it is Stephen Harper who is the most clearly class conscious politician in Canada, and this is the true content of the accusations that call him “unCanadian” – a point on which Layton was able to capitalize, and on which I have every expectation Cullen will be able to do the same.
My endorsement of Cullen is made with reservations. The ongoing structural crisis of capitalism is widely expected to worsen within the next two years, a prospect that casts a long shadow over Canada with its eye-popping levels of personal debt and shaky real estate markets (These two phenomena of course being intimately related). There is no question that Stephen Harper will not be able to adequately address the crisis, as his response will inevitably follow the failed responses of other pro-capitalist parties in Europe and the USA. It may be that Harper will chart a course between Obama and Cameron, but this is of little significance as the paths both lie well within the well-worn gully of economic failure and stagnation.
When I spoke to Cullen about the crisis he seemed reasonably well versed in its particulars, however he had an almost visceral opposition to the prospect of taking radical measures such as nationalization of banks (This despite the fact that Sweden already has successfully charted the course for a reasonably orderly process of nationalization). Cullen’s reconciliatory politics may be helpful in getting him elected, but once he takes the position of Prime Minister and is forced to stare down the representatives of the capitalist class I fear he will be the first one to blink. While Cullen is certainly not an Obama-like Centristman, and his politics will no doubt focus on equitable reconciliation, the tremendous forces of class conflict that will arise in the coming crisis will likely crush any prospects for such a reconciliation to be realized. Cullen will have to side with either the people or with capital. The near-universal record of capitulation of social democratic parties in the current crisis does not offer much encouragement on this point. Why then choose Cullen? Aside from the point of Cullen’s electability, the sad truth is that there are no stalwart class warriors amongst the NDP leadership who are ready to confront the dark times ahead. A newly class conscious leadership for the oppressed classes of Canada will have to be forged in the fires of bitter class struggle. It cannot be done on a whim when there are no conditions to support it. All signs may point to tragedy for the prospective Cullen government, but he will have to do for now. Remember that Cullen’s political career began because of a lack of anyone better for the job, and lead to a positive outcome won against all odds.
Maybe we’ll be two times lucky.