The Future of the Left

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posted January 19, 2001
I am prompted to the task by two things which happened last week. First, I spent it in China. Second, I was asked to have a conversation on my return on the topic of the future of the left with Charley Gordon, the thoughtful left leaning columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and Macleans Magazine.

This was at the back of my mind as I scanned the pages of the China Daily, an English language newspaper which is circulated to the guiylo (any non-Chinese) hotel residents. I was amused to see the speeches of Jiang Zemin, general secretary of the Communist Party of China. In particular an address he had given to the publicity departments of the government of China exhorting them to, “highlight China’s drive to accelerate its development in the new century”. The amusement emerges from the fact that, according to the Daily, Mr. Jiang went on to pledge “to continue to advocating (sic) Marxism as a guiding philosophy and to constantly arm the whole Party and educate the people with Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory, which are the fundamental ideological bases upon which the Party can unite and lead the people to strive together.”

This statement of the religious aspects of Communism China style contrasts nicely with Mr. Jiang’s main message to the publicists that, “Development holds the key to resolving the difficulties China faces and to ensuring Chinese people’s faith and confidence in the future of socialism and the motherland...and prominence should be given to the campaign of seizing opportunities and speeding up the country’s development”.

Out of these two points of view it is easy to see the pattern that must be followed by the left - well, lets call it the New Left, in Canada.

First recognize that, as Mr. Jiang notes, the important thing is to get development. If the chosen recipe doesn’t produce economic success for the people then you have to change the recipe until it does. In fact, the whole purpose of socialist ideology is to improve the circumstances of the people. And the people will only embrace the ideology if it is seen to work. It is precisely this sort of pragmatism which leads the leader of a political party dedicated to Marxism to operate a government dedicated to expanding an economic system based on capitalism.

Of course, this is in part what he meant by educating the people to Deng Xiaoping Theory. But Deng and Jiang were not the first nor the most successful operators of this approach. Roger Douglas, the inveterate socialist Finance Minister of New Zealand, pulled that country back from the brink of financial oblivion in 1984 by recognizing that New Leftists must seek “Socialist ends with Capitalist means”. And by far the most successful operator of this oxymoronic socialist-capitalism is Tony Blair who Mrs Thatcher has recognized as a more attentive protege than her own John Major.

It almost goes without saying that if there is going to be an effective New Left it has to adopt the economic model of Deng, Jiang, Douglas and Blair. A good introduction can be found in the Fraser Institute book by Gwartney and Stroup – translated around the world into most of the major language groups – entitled,“What Everyone Should Know about Economics and Prosperity”.

The second key ingredient in the recipe for the New Left is to abandon its links to Old Labour. The latter having recently abandoned its links to the Old Left, this may not be difficult. However, because old habits die hard it will take concerted effort to produce a progressive New Left shorn of its love affair with privilege seeking unions. That this is essential however can be seen in the fact that public sector unions are now the most numerous and the only growth trend area. It will be difficult for the New Left to convince taxpayers that it has their interests at heart if trade unions hold the purse strings even if through some political puppets.

Surely it will be a long time before the public can forget the catastrophic consequences of the merger of trade unions and Old Left politicians in British Columbia and Ontario or even Saskatchewan.

Third, the rhetorical aspects of politics are important and the New Left must continue to proclaim the socialist credo. In fact, it will be necessary to do so with greater clarity and exuberance as the (New) Party begins to advocate internal markets in Medicare (like Britain), the end of union and corporate privilege (New Zealand), lower taxes on capital (to match China), the privatization of all remaining government production of commercial services, the elimination of subsidies to producers of culture, the introduction of parental choice in the schools, workfare instead of welfare and tough, unyielding constraints on public expenditure.

It will advocate these changes, like Mr. Jiang, in the full knowledge that such policies will in fact produce the “greatest good for the greatest number”.

Finally, the New Left, like the Old Left will recognize that politics is about power not ideology and its not much fun steering a sinking ship – even if it is a union built, publicly owned ferry. Better to be at the helm of a well functioning vessel with a happy crew and well fed passengers even if there are fewer levers to pull than on the Old sinking variety.

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