Critique of the Montreal Programme

The Constitution Committee of the NDP has presented their proposal for replacing the party constitution’s preamble, which they have been working on since the last proposal failed to be approved in 2011.  Naturally this has a lot of socialists up in arms, so I thought I would offer some of my thoughts in the spirit of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme and Engels’ Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891.  To begin with, let us take a look at the existing NDP Constitution preamble:

PREAMBLE
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. Towards 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.
Already this preamble can be criticized for including no mention of class struggle, exploitation, or capitalism whatsoever.  The only mention of the party’s opposition to capital is in the line “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;”  Certainly in its technical particulars and abstract goals it is very much preferable to the actual policies of the NDP, but it could be clearer about what the obstacles are to the achievement of the party’s goals instead of simply outlining the means by which these obstacles will be overcome.  In any case, as a democratic socialist the Preamble has a lot of resonance with me and it certainly draws a sharp distinction between the NDP and the Liberal Party of Canada.
Now let us take a look at the new preamble being proposed by the Constitution Committee:
Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. New Democrats are Canadians who believe we can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build sustainable prosperity, and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. New Democrats work together to these ends for the sake of our fellow citizens and in the interests of all of humanity.
The existing preamble has the virtue of being very concise.  It says that social, economic, and political progress can only be achieved through the principles of democratic socialism, and then outlines what those principles are.  The opening to this proposed preamble is already far too wordy. It reads like a bad stump speech, not a constitutional preamble.  The first paragraph of the preamble replaces “democratic socialism” with “Canada” as the dominant term.  By replacing a distinctive political ideal with a heterogeneous community the CC find themselves in a predicament of defining what makes the NDP different from rival parties which are no less Canadian than themselves.  They then proceed to offer up a list of bourgeois ideals that take their vintage from the 18th century: “equality, justice, and opportunity” (Notably there is no mention of the one ideal of the French Revolution which came from below – fraternity) and append to these some more concrete policy desiderata, making for an awkward mix of more and less abstract goals.  The only vaguely socialist line here is “We can build sustainable prosperity, and a society that shares its benefits more fairly” as it implies some limits on capitalist expansion and some redistribution of wealth to make Canadian class society more tolerable.
EDIT: Apparently this paragraph was lifted almost wholesale from Jack Layton’s famous final letter.  As moving as that letter was, it doesn’t really belong in the preamble of a party constitution.
New Democrats are proud of our political and activist heritage, and our long record of visionary, practical, and successful governments. That heritage and that record have distinguished and inspired our party since the creation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1933, and the founding of the New Democratic Party in 1961.
If the NDP CC were in fact proud of their democratic socialist “political and activist heritage” they would probably not be in the business of rewriting the preamble to sideline the very heritage which they are supposedly so proud of.  The mention of the party’s time in government is unobjectionable, although also probably unnecessary.
New Democrats seek a future which brings together the best of the insights and objectives of Canadians who, within the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions, have worked through farmer, labour, co-operative, feminist, human rights and environmental movements to build a more just, equal, and sustainable Canada within a global community dedicated to the same goals.
This paragraph seeks to build consensus by outlining the party’s traditional constituency while simultaneously omitting the mention of any of the positive content of these movements.  It is another flight to abstraction.
New Democrats celebrate Canada’s diversity and the deep histories, traditions and aspirations of all of its peoples.
Fair enough.
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.
This is probably meant to replace the “individual freedom” paragraph of the existing preamble and allude to the party’s commitment to abolishing the Canadian Senate. Even libertarians believe in a “positive role” for democratically elected governments, so this is basically an empty statement.
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.
Here is the most controversial paragraph, and the one being cited the most in the news media.  Let us consider it line-by-line.
New Democrats affirm a role for government in helping to create the conditions for sustainable prosperity.
This limp-wristed rhetoric could be interpreted as meaning anything at all.  A public-private partnership (PPP) also affirms a role for government in helping to create “sustainable prosperity” but is by no means a socialist organizational form.  The state is an integral part of sustaining the capitalist system, and has been in every capitalist regime since the dawn of the capitalist mode of production.  The CC might as well have just written “The NDP believe we would make a better ruling party than the other guys.”
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
To begin with a “rules based economy” is terribly vague.  Feudalism was a “rules-based economy” to its core, shall we start declaring guild privileges and sumptuary laws?  Even in its current form, where employees of large finance capital conglomerates are essentially immune to prosecution  capitalism is constituted by the law of value, and so is essentially a “rules based economy.”
The following statement “…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…” (emphasis mine) is terrible writing, and just as theoretically impoverished as the preceding statement.  Who defines the “public interest” and “common good?”  Ask a neoliberal and they will tell you that the invisible hand will address the common good so long as the state provides a “good business business environment.”  Is that what the NDP has in mind?  How are we to know?
Then we come to “…for social and economic justice, and for the integrity of the environment” – principles that any socialist would agree with in theory, but thus far we have received no real definition of what constitutes “social and economic justice.”  Is it “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work?”  Or is it the abolishment of exploitation and the common ownership of property?  Nevermind, the CC has determined that a constitution should consist purely of harmless abstractions.
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.
All mention of socialism (social democratic or democratic socialist) has been removed here and replaced with “progressive” – a sign of how highly they value their “political and activist heritage.”  Perhaps they intend to cozy up to the American Democratic Party.  Who can tell from the hazy mumblings of this half-baked document?
Let us conclude with a quotation from the Communist Manifesto, a document that has the virtue of being rather more to the point:

A second, and more practical, but less systematic, form of this [conservative or bourgeois] Socialism sought to depreciate every revolutionary movement in the eyes of the working class by showing that no mere political reform, but only a change in the material conditions of existence, in economical relations, could be of any advantage to them. By changes in the material conditions of existence, this form of Socialism, however, by no means understands abolition of the bourgeois relations of production, an abolition that can be affected only by a revolution, but administrative reforms, based on the continued existence of these relations; reforms, therefore, that in no respect affect the relations between capital and labour, but, at the best, lessen the cost, and simplify the administrative work, of bourgeois government.

Bourgeois Socialism attains adequate expression when, and only when, it becomes a mere figure of speech.

Free trade: for the benefit of the working class. Protective duties: for the benefit of the working class. Prison Reform: for the benefit of the working class. This is the last word and the only seriously meant word of bourgeois socialism.

It is summed up in the phrase: the bourgeois is a bourgeois — for the benefit of the working class. (Emphasis mine)

It seems that Marx had already prepared a more fitting preamble for the “New Democrats” of 2013 – in 1847.
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One response to “Critique of the Montreal Programme

  1. I always appreciate your honest and dedicated socialist analysis. Although I am not a Canadian, and feel compelled to muddle along with the U.S. Democratic Party, except in rare instances (http://gardenvarietydemocraticsocialist.com/2013/11/06/socialist-candidates-in-the-u-s/), socialists in the “first” world must know and declare who they are clearly. As Billy Bragg sings, “[T]he third world is just around the corner,” at least when a person is in most of the developing world or near a slum in the first world. The third world cannot wait on the first world to make a new world. If socialists in the first world fail to acknowledge and live up to the true challenges of global socialism we are not truly in solidarity with our socialist brothers and sisters around the world. Thanks for your socialist principles and clarity.

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