The results of the recent provincial election in Ontario must have given cold comfort indeed to Ed Broadbent and the federal New Democratic Party. While achieving official opposition status at Queen’s Park and successfully resisting the Liberal tidal-wave in terms of popular vote, the Ontario NDP failed to capture the imagination of the uncommitted, of disaffected “Red Tories,” or of left-wing Liberals.
Indeed, the members of the NDP caucus that found themselves to be casualties on September 10 were among the new breed in the Party (typified by Bob Rae himself) that has been seeking to consolidate national support for the NDP, as expressed in the popularity polls, by distancing itself as much as possible from traditional ideological sources of NDP strength.
Ironically, it was those candidates with long personal and political roots in the Christian Socialism of the CCF and trade union movement that survived best in the face of the red onslaught.
None of this should really be surprising, because it is no secret that the NDP had had great difficulty in finding a philosophical focus to guide it since the marriage of convenience ( or perhaps desperation) that led to the founding of the party in 1961. Since the first uneasy union of co-operative socialists and militant trade unionists, the alliance has been complicated by the addition of 60’s Radicals, left nationalists, Trotskyists, Gay rights activists, and feminists. It perhaps goes without saying that these various intellectual strands are potentially ( and often actually) quite incompatible.
In a liberal-democratic political culture with pluralistic parties, such diversity can theoretically be accommodated without undue damage to the coherence of the alternative programmes offered to the voters. However, if a policy which is fundamentally alien to the founding principals of a party has come to occupy a central symbolic position in both the mind of the membership and of the public, the end result can only be practical, as well as theoretical, chaos.
A case in point is the NDP “reproductive rights” policy. The process by which the NDP has come to adopt, and has been seen by the public as representing, an unequivocal “pro-choice” position, has been a gradual one. This has masked the fact that the origins of this virtual “abortion-on-demand” stance lie immediately in U.S Radical Feminism, an ideological movement which is in objective contradiction to aims of both the Christian Socialism behind the NDP’s concern for “natural justice” and the “common good,” and the mild left nationalism which has gradually emerged as the cement that will enable the Party to mount a credible federal challenge.
The NDP Establishment’s anxiety for quick electoral success caused it to fail to encourage the development of an independent democratic socialist position on the abortion question taking into consideration contemporary advances in fetology, ethical problems raised by genetic engineering, regional and religious differences amongst Canadians in attitudes to abortion, and historical experience in dealing with movements whose origins lie outside the socialist tradition. Instead, it offered little resistance as the Party step-by step embraced a ready-made enthusiasm for “reproductive choice” of American libertarian-liberal provenance.
As early as 1971, a convention of the federal NDP had endorsed the Radical Feminist principles that abortion is exclusively an individual “woman’s issue” (rather than a collective social issue), and that society has a responsibility to provide facilities or , at least, not interfere with those privately providing facilities, for those wishing abortions. The Independence of the provincial NDP organization and the fact it is provincial constituency associations that carry on a real existence between conventions and elections, meant that it took some time for this policy to percolate down and affect the rank and file. Indeed, the provincial NDP parties set their own agendas in this regard, and during the 1970’s there were a number of organizations of “New Democrats for Life” in various parts of the country.
Perhaps because the liberal contractarian theory of society (and of human nature itself) is reinforced by the situation of organized labour in our culture, the Radical Feminists in the Party found allies amongst certain trade unionists. At the twelfth congress of the Ontario NDP in 1984, the provincial party, following the lead of the federal party and the Ontario Federation of Labour, passed a motion endorsing the efforts of the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics and (in effect) Henry Morgentaler.
A measure of the strength that the Radical Feminist attitude to abortion had been able to develop by this time through this alliance of the Radical Feminist-dominated Women’s Committee and trade unionists (with the co-operation of the Trotskyists) was that a “New Democrats for Life” booth was banned from the convention, and the amended motion which was eventually introduce and passed surprised ands hocked many members of the parliamentary caucus with its extremism. The compromise arrangement that many Ontario New Democrats had thought they had agreed to for the sake of consensus was clearly of no more interest to the triumphant Radical Feminists.
The final stage in the assimilation of the Radical “pro-choice” position by the Ontario party came this year with the nomination of Women’s Committee president and prominent spokesperson for the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Committees, Judy Rebick, as NDP candidate in the Toronto riding of Oriole. Rebick, who in 1986 had run unsuccessfully against Gillian Sandeman for provincial party president at the head of coalition of Radicals styling itself the Campaign for an Activist Party, pledged not blur her image as a “pro-choice” advocate for electoral purposes.
There was very little need for her to reaffirm her Radical credentials, however, as she clearly had the blessing of the Party “brass”- her nomination meeting was chaired by Party president Sandeman, she was given a speech of endorsement by Scarborough west MPP Richard Johnston, and she received a telegram of support from federal NDP justice critic Svend Robinson.
Rebick did not do particularly well in the election, running third behind the candidate for the un-popular Tories. Symbolically, however, her candidacy was itself a great victory for the most extreme “pro-choice” forces, signalling as it did the conclusion of a revolution in thought within the Party. For now it can be said, with no distortion, that the NDP has moved from a position of tolerating abortion as an individual moral option, to a position of advocating abortion as a social good.
The result of this penetration of socialist philosophy by an extreme libertarian liberal ethos can be nothing other than confusion and schism. Already many people of conscience in the Party have become inactive, or have ceased association altogether, and NDP municipal and provincial candidates have been hurt at the polls because of the gradual shift of the abortion issue from the periphery of policy concerns in the Party to centre stage.
The Taunt that canvassers often met on the doorstep in the 1970’s to the effect that NDP is “ the party of abortion”, and that could be deflected with reference to Party policy concerning individual conscience, cannot now be really denied.
The implications of all this for the campaign of the federal NDP to present itself as truly representative of national Canadian interests are ominous. Eminent Canadian philosopher George Grant has remarked upon the “confusions” to which the Canadian socialist movement has been perennially subject in two particular regards: the notion that socialism is the “left wing” of liberalism, and the failure of the leaders of CCF-NDP to recognize that any successful socialist party in this country must incorporate a component of genuine nationalism in its thinking.
The NDP’s adoption of an essentially American libertarian- liberal policy on “reproductive rights” constitutes a text-book case of the violation of both Grant’s criteria for success. It is clearly impossible to mount a critique of, or offer alternative to, the dynamic of technocratic continentalist capitalism, if one accepts the presuppositions concerning human nature and meaning of technocratic continentalist capitalism: i.e. the supremacy of the individual will and appetite, and the virtual divinity of technical mastery.
More seriously, the effect of current NDP abortion policy is to deny future debate on this topic within the party and to suggest ( erroneously) that the social discussion of abortion and allied issues is that an end in Canada.
The intellectual source of Radical Feminist “abortionism” is to be found in the “magic politics” of turn-of-the-century political occultists and gnostics such as Margaret Sanger, F. W. Stella Browne and Edward Carpenter, who blended Malthus, Nietzsche and anarchism with revelations of Madame Blavatsky to produce a political religion that was elitist and utterly self-absorbed in its implications. Opposed at the time by Christian Socialists and critical common-sense Humanists in Britain and America, this particular strand in feminist thought was resurrected as part of the Radical revival of the 1960’s.
Unfortunately, just as the point when Canadian democratic socialists have finally been presented with the opportunity to legitimately claim the legacy of Sir John A. MacDonald’s National Policy, Mackenzie King’s industrial democracy, John Diefenbaker’s populist nationalism and Pierre Trudeau’s shrewd independentism, they have been lumbered with a policy on abortion that is philosophically alien, regionally divisive, unprogressive, narrowly sectarian and, in its origins, highly irrational.
Terry Barker is completing a doctoral degree in Politics at Oxford. He teaches Canadian studies at Humber College, Toronto.