|James Keir Hardie was an early democratic socialist, who founded the Independent Labour Party in Great Britain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Plaque recording the location of the formation of the British Labour Party in 1900. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Social Democratic political parties around the world were established with the radical intention of transforming (by non-violent means) our entire economic, social and political systems.
Most declared their intention to redistribute income on a more equal basis, by using such measures as public ownership of (to quote the British Labour Party programme) “the commanding heights of the economy”, through creation of a welfare state to support lower-income people, progressive taxation, backing unionism and a whole raft of other measures that could be gathered together under the rubric of “socialism.”
Most of these parties were established and at first led by the working class, or the unions, but it has been a common experience that by the time these parties succeeded in gaining office, they had jettisoned most of their original policies.
The British Labour Party was founded by the unions in 1900; their first taste of power came in 1924, when Ramsey MacDonald became prime minister with the backing of the Liberals. This government granted recognition to the Soviet regime in Russia; the Geneva Protocol for security and disarmament (approved by the League of Nations Assembly on Oct. 2, 1924) was initiated; and they averted threat of violence in Ireland, all positive measures for the time, but the government fell eventually and Labour did not take power again until 1929. Macdonald was not up to dealing with the global depression, so he formed a national government in which only two of his Labour colleagues were willing to serve. As a result of this betrayal he was expelled from the Labour Party, but he continued as Prime Minister, essentially leading a Conservative government, until 1935.
Macdonald was a working class politician --- he left school at the age of 12 --- but he is generally held in left-wing circles to have fallen or “the embrace of the duchesses.” Similarly, the Labour parties of New Zealand and Australia were at first led by working class politicians who obtained their political education in the union movement, but eventually, like the British party, they came under the control of a university-educated elite that was only too ready to accept the negative view of socialism propagated daily by the capitalist-owned press. And so the great retreat from socialism as an objective began , working through such figures as Attlee, Bevin, Gaitskell, Crosland, Healey in Britain, Curtin in Australia, and Fraser in New Zealand.
These parties could still be classified as “of the left”, but they have all fallen far short of their original support for socialism. For example in Canada, no one would ever describe the various NDP governments that have ruled provinces from time to time as “socialist”; rather, they have been moderate reformers, concentrating on good and honest government.
I remember interviewing both M.J Coldwell, and T.C. Douglas when they were in their political prime, and the impression they gave me was they would rather drop dead than allow the word socialism to pass their lips.
However, at the federal level, the continued existence of the NDP has proven to be of major importance to Canada as a nation: they have kept alive in the everyday political discourse notions of equity, fairness, and so on, that are common to the social democratic view of the world in a way that they do not exist in the federal politics of the United States.
This is not something that anyone should jettison lightly by agreeing to subsume the NDP with the Liberals in some sort of Lib-Dem arrangement, such as a merger. On the other hand, there is not that much difference between the policies of the New Democrats and those of the more liberal elements of the Liberal party, so in the current crisis --- which is to get rid of Harper and his Conservatives --- it is certainly within reason to propose some kind of electoral pact that would result in the majority opinion within Canada from taking power after the next election. It has been proposed that such a pact could have as its centrepiece a joint agreement that electoral reform should be part of the committed platform.
I don’t think those of us who still believe in a real socialism as a desirable future need worry that we would lose too much: after all, the current programme of the NDP cannot be called socialist, and it would still be open to real socialists within the party to continue to struggle for a toughening and sharpening of their welfare and public interest policies.
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