New Brunswick, home to one of Canada’s wealthiest families, is far from a nexus of left-wing political culture— yet in 1971, a small group of Waffle-aligned activists managed to briefly take over the New Brunswick NDP, before the federal party intervened. Who was involved in this radical takeover of the provincial party, and how did it happen? New Brunswick correspondent Abram Lutes joins Team Advantage to discuss this strange tale involving Trotskyites, entryism, and dueling conventions. Follow Abram on Twitter @abramxlutes.
Webber, Patrick. “Entryism in theory, in practice, and in crisis: The Trotskyist experience in New Brunswick, 1969-1973.” Left History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Historical Inquiry and Debate 14.1 (2009).
Webber, Patrick. “” For a Socialist New Brunswick”: The New Brunswick Waffle, 1967-1972.” Acadiensis 38.1 (2009): 75-103.
Blocker, David G. “‘To Waffle to the Left:’The Waffle, the New Democratic Party, and Canada’s New Left during the Long Sixties.” (2019).
Roberta: Imagine if you’d never experienced the joys of an NDP convention. Come on! What would your life be like? You’d die never knowing that joy.
Kate: I mean, I’d probably have other hobbies.
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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. As part of our effort to establish an Alberta Advantage for every province, today’s episode will be examining new Brunswick’s political history. I’m your host, Kate Jacobson, and joining Team Advantage today we have Roberta —
Kate: Rory —
Rory: Hi there.
Kate: And our New Brunswick correspondent, Abram Lutes, who is an organizer with CUPE and graduate student at the institute of Political Economy at Carleton. Abram — welcome to Team Advantage.
Abram: Thanks for having me.
Kate: So, New Brunswick just had a provincial election. How did that go, and can you give us a sense of what is going in New Brunswick, especially for us folks in Alberta that may not have a lot of context?
Abram: The short of it is it did not go well. The New Brunswick NDP had its worst showing since the NDP first ran in a provincial election in 1962.
Kate: Quite dismal. Of course, correct me if I’m wrong here, but doesn’t the Irving family (who, for the record, is Canada’s eighth-wealthiest family, ranked thirteenth in terms of most extensive land ownership globally, the largest private land owner in Maine and the fifth-largest land owner in America) seem like — oh, I don’t know — the perfect kind of capitalist villain to mount a left-populist campaign against?
Abram: Yeah, that’s all true. In addition to that, they also profit directly from the carnage being wrought in Yemen currently as they purchase and refine Saudi oil for sale in the Canadian market. So, all around, genuine supervillains, and yet we don’t really see a strong left challenge to their more or less complete dominance over the province’s politics and media and general society.
Kate: So, I’m going into this episode with the understanding that New Brunswick is essentially a feudal kingdom/fiefdom that is owned and run by the Irvings. And, to understand the state of the left in New Brunswick, electorally and also otherwise, it’s perhaps useful to take a look at the history of the electoral left in New Brunswick. So, the NDP had one seat in New Brunswick for a few stretches of time: from 1982 to ‘87, they held one seat, and then from 1991 to 2006, they held a single seat in the electoral district of Saint John Harbour. They first ran a full slate of candidates in 1970, and if you look further back, the CCF managed to get 11% of the popular vote in 1944, 6% in 1948, and 1% in 1952. They never won any seats.
Roberta: So, I guess we should talk a little bit about the Waffle since that’s what we want to talk about today, mostly, in the New Brunswick context. And we’ve done an episode before on the Waffle more broadly, but we want to talk specifically about New Brunswick. So, we’ll talk a little bit first about what it was doing centrally — really, in Ontario — and then what it was doing regionally in New Brunswick at the time. So, the Waffle, also known as the Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada, was a New Left movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s that sought to turn the social-democratic NDP into a radical socialist party. It was notable for its socialist and nationalist politics, described in the Manifesto for an Independent Socialist Canada, also known as the Waffle Manifesto, where it singled out the predominance of American foreign ownership and American culture as the principal obstacle to building socialism, and to national unity, in Canada. They argued that socialism could unify French and English Canadians — it would give them a common platform, and it would help protect an independent nation. It was led by Met Watkins and by James and Robert Laxer as well as many others, but most of them were Ontario-based activists and organizers. There was also a very strong contingent in Saskatchewan — and someday maybe we’ll do an episode on that — but the Saskatchewan contingent managed to actually have quite a bit of influence at the provincial level and really did have a say in a lot of political platforms at the time.
Rory: The interesting thing about the Waffle in New Brunswick is it actually managed to briefly take over the NDP there, which then led to the party getting suspended. But, before we get really into that, we’ll talk a little bit about the history of the CCF and the NDP in New Brunswick up until the Waffle takes it over in 1971. Basically, the CCF has generally struggled east of Ontario, with the exception of one riding in the Cape Breton coal fields. In New Brunswick, the CCF was hampered by a pretty anti-labour political atmosphere and a powerful liberal political machine that mostly dominated the province until 1970. The party was also really small and broke, which meant it wasn’t really able to reach a lot of potential supporters. So, after the formation of the CCF in 1933, a New Brunswick section was founded on June 23rd, 1933. The province, particularly in the north, had some of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions in the country, which the CCF thought would make fertile ground for building the party. However, organized labour was also quite weak in New Brunswick, and it didn’t affiliate with the new party, either. So, in the 1939 provincial election, six years after they had formed, they ran a single candidate, who did not win.
Abram: I just want to say that it’s worth noting that the general neglect of the CCF in New Brunswick is reflective of a broader trend within east coast and Maritime left politics. Even the more radical left-wing organizations active at the time — for example, the Communist Party — largely didn’t have a presence in New Brunswick because of the repressive labour environment; but also, many of these organizations were broke, so they, for very prudent fiscal reasons, often focused on Cape Breton because it was sort of the nuclei of labour activity in the Maritimes and didn’t branch out very much because of material restraints.
Kate: So, looking at the 1939 provincial election: the New Brunswick CCF ran a single candidate who didn’t win. Quite concerned with the New Brunswick wing of the party, the national CCF sent one of its Saskatchewan MPs, George Castleden, to help with organizing for the 1944 provincial election. He reported that CCF penetration, politically, was very uneven throughout the province and quite weak overall; where they did best were urban areas, industries that had significant unionization, and areas with strong cooperative movement. This was where the party did best, but they really struggled with rural areas where they had little support, and this is a really big contrast to the CCF in Ontario and Saskatchewan and the Prairies more generally, where they tended to draw their support from rural areas that had strong cooperative movements. And that goes to what Abram was saying about Cape Breton being a nuclei for radical politics and for left politics for these nascent left parties or movements. As the CCF’s national fortunes rose in the mid-1940s, some of that spilled over into New Brunswick, and in the 1944 provincial election, the CCF runs in 41 out of 48 seats. They capture 11% of the vote and 25% in both Saint John and in Moncton. However, despite this relative success, they were shut out of the legislature — the Liberals win another majority, and they basically chalk this failure to win seats up to a continuing lack of organization, which has been a theme throughout the CCF in New Brunswick, and also not sufficiently distinguishing their platform from the Liberals, who were promising an expansive post-war reconstruction program. And we know, also, that the CCF and a lot of left hypotheses in what would happen post-war really struggle in this era because there was a common understanding on the left in Canada at the time that, after the relative success of planning during the Second World War, that the return to the free market economy would lead to a massive recession — or, at least, to major gaps in how the post-war state would be organized. But, of course, the psot-war state was actually very successful in brokering that famous peace between labour and capital and also constructing a new type of constituent out of some of those previously radical groups. So, I think it’s really important to talk about the ways the post-war compromise was based around an ideal type of worker — white, male, supporting a family, a settler — and that it not only was based around that person, but it also constituted it, and it made that a very specific kind of political force and program that had access to certain mechanisms of the state. That threw a huge wrench in how leftists in Canada talked about the economy and talked about the post-war economy.
Abram: On the post-war reconstruction: particular to New Brunswick, it was kind of the first time that both provincial and federal governments invested in developing the province’s economy. Basically, once the forestry booms dried up and the shipping industry in Saint John was no longer a key node in the British imperial logistics of their capitalist empire, New Brunswick was largely left to rot up until the post-war reconstruction, and so this created a general sense of optimism and upsurge that meant that people in New Brunswick didn’t really feel as inclined to radical politics, whereas the underdevelopment prior to the Second World War probably would’ve made some of the inequalities in the province more apparent, although this reconstruction obviously had mixed results for workers. While it was a general improvement in living standards — through, for example, the electrification of the province for the very first time, through the creation of the public power utility — it also meant the breaking up of some very organic working-class communities in major centres like Saint John. Urban renewal basically took dense communities and broke them up into suburbs, effectively breaking a lot of long-standing organic cultural ties between the industrial working class in those centres.
Kate: So, there were these structural factors that went into the CCF largely being shut out in the 1944 provincial election, and in subsequent elections as well, but there was also some out-and-out red-baiting, threats, things like that. Employers would threaten termination for those who were seen as affiliated with the CCF, and there are many towns in New Brunswick at this time that are essentially company-owned. Media also ran a really massive red-baiting campaign against the CCF during the election, although this, of course, was not particularly uncommon for the CCF elsewhere in the country. Now, despite winning no seats, the New Brunswick CCF was fairly optimistic after the election that they could do better next time, but the next election actually turned out to be a big step backwards in 1948. The party was unable to pay for a secretary, and it ended up being somebody who was volunteering her time. They ran only 20 candidates out of 52 ridings. They didn’t even contest seats where they had done best in 1944. They got 6% of the vote overall and no seats. And, like I said earlier, this is a decline that continued with each election — so, in 1952 when the Liberals were defeated, the CCF got only 1.6% of the vote. They ran no candidates in ‘56, ‘60, or ‘63, and only three candidates were ruin in 1967 for a 0.1% vote share. So, this 1944 provincial election, which isn’t really all that impressive, is a real high mark for the CCF in New Brunswick.
Roberta: I think we can see this broadly, with the CCF during this time, that there’s really a surge that happens 1943 through to 1945, nationally and provincially across the country; but quickly thereafter, as was discussed in terms of post-war reconstruction, the adoption of a lot of CCF policies — like economic planning and a social welfare state — by other parties, by the ruling parties, diminished the support for the CCF, and there was less room for socialist values once capitalism seemed to sort of be reformed or rebounding in the post-war period. And so, across the board, there’s a decline in CCF outcomes — other than, I guess, in Saskatchewan, where Tommy Douglas and the CCF did quite well — but we start to then see a shift towards the formation of a new party and discussions of how to shift political perspectives to fit with this new post-war period. And so, by 1963, we see the formation of the New Democratic Party, which is much more of a labour party than the more socialist CCF had been, with an actual real connection between the labour unions and the party itself. And so, in New Brunswick in 1970, the now-NDP starts to see a slight rebound, managing to run 31 candidates and collect almost 3% of the vote — still not much, but much better than the 0.1% they’d gotten before. This is right before the Waffle takes over the party — which we’re going to talk about in a bit — but some of the main reasons for the CCF’s failure to gain traction in New Brunswick during the 1940s, when it was actually prospering elsewhere, was that: first, it was an Anglo-dominated party, so it was dominated by the Anglophone population of New Brunswick (our, actually, only bilingual province in the country). They didn’t do much to reach out to French New Brunswickers, who were a big part of the electorate; and this is still a huge part of New Brunswick politics today, and you see that play out in lots of different ways. The CCF NDP also lacked money to hire organizers and to advertise their message. This is a period where you have to do a lot of on-the-ground work to do this, and few members were in the party, so how do you build a constituency association without actual members, people that would support the party? As well, there were weak links to a weak labour movement — one of the interesting things about New Brunswick is its lack of a labour movement despite being resource-heavy and despite some of the other organizing features of the province next door in Nova Scotia — but the weak labour movement there limited their connection to the CCF. As well, there’s a strong Liberal Party in New Brunswick at the time that really did pull the CCF votes, especially as they started to support post-war reconstruction and the social welfare state. And then, as we mentioned earlier, there was hostile media coverage; this is not unique to New Brunswick in any way, and one of the ironies of the coverage of the CCF was their red-baiting, as Kate mentioned earlier, given that, in fact, the main organizers of the CCF were incredibly anti-communist for various reasons. So, there was a lot stacked against the CCF and the NDP in New Brunswick at the time.
Kate: Yeah. I’m really glad you brought that up, Roberta; I think it’s really important to be clear that, just because the Conservative or the Liberal media apparatus uses red-baiting tactics against a group of people does not make those people communists. As we know very well, they’ll use red-baiting tactics on anyone who is even slightly to the left of Erin O’Toole [laughs], so it really has nothing to do with the actual content of your political beliefs.
Roberta: One of my favourite things — sorry, I just wanted to say something about the communists, because we’re going to talk about David Lewis in a little while, and I think it’s really one of the funniest parts about doing the research on the Lewis family that I’ve been doing is that, when you look at the RCMP documents, every single one of them talks about him as an Eastern European Jew and, therefore, a communist. He and many others have said over and over that there’s probably nobody more anti-communist than David Lewis, and yet, because he was on the left, he was immediately painted by the RCMP, and also by the media and others, as a communist. It’s a fascinating discussion of the left that I think we still see all the time, that there’s really no sense of the difference between communists, socialists, social democrats, and everyone gets painted with this same brush — as we’re seeing now in Alberta, of course, everybody’s painted with this communist/socialist/something-or-other that’s happening — when, really, there’s probably nothing farther from the Communist Party than the NDP and the CCF at that time.
Kate: A cool, uniquely Canadian flavour of Judeo-Bolshevism.
Abram: It makes you wonder what the value of left anti-communism really is, because it doesn’t seem to insulate social democrats from being red-baited, and it acts almost as an internal disciplinary mechanism for preventing social democrats, or other left organizations, from really committing to socialism, or even the base-building necessary to advance a lot of social democratic reforms, for fear of being perceived as communist, and yet they’ll get that done to them in the media anyways.
Kate: One thing I’m curious about is the relatively weak labour movement in New Brunswick. Abram, could you give us a little bit more of an idea of the historical conditions that led to this occurring?
Abram: Well, I think there’s a number of factors involved. One, I think, is: the language divide acted as a very powerful impetus for divide-and-conquor mechanisms by employers; so, often, the labour movement was weakened by the fact that it was Anglophone-dominated, and a lot of Anglophone union leadership was comfortable with allowing Francophone workers to remain heavily exploited, unrepresented, and un-unionized as long as their narrow constituency of workers was well-protected. Another part of it is — as you mentioned, Kate — the tendency for a lot of small New Brunswick towns to be company towns. This created a very hostile environment for labour because stakes were very high; people could be evicted if they raised complaints on the job. Just outside of Fredericton, north of it, in Marysville, there is a mill that has been converted into an office, and you can see all of these small brick townhouses all around the mill. Those townhouses were actually owned by the owner of the mill, and he would put the guys (and their families) who worked at the mill — because it was mostly men at the time — into these small nuclear family units right next to the mill so that they could never be late for work because they were only a ten-minute walk away. And they could even be spied on by Pinkertons or higher-level employees to ensure that they were being compliant with the many invasive social regulations and discipline that these town bosses imposed on their workers. So, a combination of a very hostile environment and national chauvinism on the part of the labour movement made it very difficult to create a strong, united labour movement that was interested in organizing the whole working class.
Rory: Damn. Company towns really suck. But anyway, let’s get down to breakfast and talk about the Waffle.
Rory: The New Brunswick Waffle, while inspired by the Waffle in Ontario, emerged largely independently of it. It developed mostly out of a small leftist community developing in Fredericton at the University of New Brunswick. Can you imagine being the, like, half a dozen people at UNB in 1970 coming up with this?
Abram: Left-wing politics at UNB, as somebody who did my undergrad there, is still exactly like this.
Kate: You know what? Good for them.
Rory: Yeah. It’d be a tough road to hoe. Obviously, there was the peace movement emerging — the Voice of Women, anti-nuclear campaigns, anti-Vietnam War movements. Two personalities that loomed large over the formation of the New Brunswick Waffle were a professor, Norman Strax, an American draft-dodger sympathetic to Maoism, and Eustace Mendis, a student Trotskyist organizer. Both men were active on the University of New Brunswick Fredericton. UNB, however, did not have a good reputation among the Ontario Waffle leadership; James Laxer actively discouraged American leftists looking to avoid the draft by going to school in Canada from ever setting foot in New Brunswick, describing the student body as provincial and conservative.
Abram: This is a statement I think is objectively true, but that Ontarians should not be allowed to say.
Kate: This is how I feel whenever anyone shit-talks Alberta. It’s like, you know what, it’s true, but you’re not allowed to say it because you’re from Upper Canada.
Abram: You do not have this lane.
Rory: So, Strax is famous for staging the largest occupation in UNB history against student ID cards being required to access the library, which he correctly identified as a form of soft privatization that would prohibit the public from accessing the University’s extensive library resources without first having to pay up. He was also involved in the Canadians in Struggle for a Democratic Society (the CSDS), which was modelled after the American Students for a Democratic Society. As kind of a main leftist organization in a small city, it attracted members from a wide range of groups. To quote Patrick Webber, who is a historian who we are drawing on a fair bit for this episode — he sad, quote, “CSDS represented an assortment of radicals united around a mutual but vague anti-capitalist and countercultural ethos,” end quote. So, it became a draw for people who had anti-capitalist and radical politics, who in many cases probably would engage in deep sectarian struggles against each other if they lived anywhere else. The CSDS was known for its direct action tactics inspired by the New Left, such as occupying Officer’s Square — a greenspace in downtown Fredericton — and turning it into a “People’s Park” to protest police curfews. By 1969, there emerged a political schism within the group as a small group of Trotskyites tried to initiate a “permanent revolution.”
Abram: As you do.
Rory: I’m not entirely sure what they trying to do with a permanent revolution in this, but…
Abram: Just make the revolution more permanent.
Rory: And then the CSDS split over the idea of joining the Waffle. So, Strax himself did not actually join, but his combative approach to politics influenced his followers, who became invested in the New Brunswick Waffle.
Abram: Unlike the Strax-influenced group, the Mendis group, New Brunswick Socialists — and, later, Fredericton Young Socialists — had a more traditional approach, focusing on advancing socialists in various institutions and aligning with organized labour. Mendis received political training in British-occupied Sri Lanka and in the UK through various Trotskyist organizations before coming to Canada for studies. He embraced entryism into the NDP wholeheartedly, very much inspired by the classical Trotskyist incident of entryism, the French Turn. Trotskyites often embraced entryism believing influence over a social democratic party would help them reach the workers and transform their political organizations. However, the New Brunswick NDP was not a mass party.
Kate: I think it would be worth, here, defining some of the terms that we’ve been using in this section for our listeners, because these might be terms that are familiar to you if you’ve been around the left for a while, but they’re not familiar for everyone, and they’re also used by different people in different ways. So, to start off with, broadly defined: when we’re talking about Trotskyists or about Trotskyist groups, what are some common elements that they have and tactics, or ways of doing politics, that they participate in? When we’re talking about entryism, what is that as a political strategy?
Abram: So, I would say Trotskyism, broadly conceived, is a strain of socialist and communist thought largely inspired by Leon Trotsky, who was a participant in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution who disagreed with Stalin after Stalin became the dominant leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; he disagreed with Stalin and was eventually purged from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Trotsky developed a theory of revolution and the trajectory of socialist societies, basically arguing that the USSR was not an ideal socialist society under Stalin and that it had generated into a bureaucratic worker state. So, the idea of Trotskyism is how to make a socialist revolution while avoiding this degeneration, and this informs their approach to doing politics on the ground. In many ways, they avoided the mainstream communist parties after they became more closely aligned with Moscow, and so, looking for a political home that would allow them to reach large numbers of workers, they were drawn to, essentially, joining larger social democratic parties, getting into key roles within them so that they could connect with workers, spreading a more revolutionary message, and then either taking over that socialist party and turning it into a revolutionary party or splitting and taking a significant amount of people and resources away from that social democratic party to form a new revolutionary party. And that’s what is broadly called entryism.
Kate: So, my big issue with entryism — somewhat generally, but in this case more specifically in the case of the New Brunswick NDP — is that the New Brunswick NDP was not a mass party. It was not actually a party that had significant roots or relationships with workers, with working class or other oppressed communities, or even really had relationships with organized labour. It’s a tiny party and, as we’ve mentioned, organized labour in New Brunswick is quite weak. So, there’s sort of this tension that exists where it’s like, “We want to take over this party so we have access to its resources,” but they’re putting their resources into taking over this party that, in and of itself, is not really giving them access to more resources or to more influence in terms of politics.
Rory: Yeah, that’s kind of the point of entryism, is that, by taking over a larger party that has this mass base, it allows you access to that to be able to do bigger, more radical political things, but taking over a tiny party that doesn’t have that kind of defeats the point of entryism. But, conversely, it also made it much easier to do entryism on the New Brunswick NDP because they were so small and weak; and, as we’ll get to a bit later in the episode, there’s the really interesting question about what happens when they are kind of successful in taking over the party? How do they respond to that?
Abram: Just to emphasize how much they New Brunswick NDP was not a mass party: when Mendis and his group of other socialists centred around Fredericton started to get interested in doing entryism in the NDP and getting their members to join the NDP and get them promoted to positions, they started putting out an inquiry — where is the NDP organizer? Where is the NDP riding association? And it turned out that the NDP in Fredericton, in the whole Fredericton, was one guy. It was an older Scottish gentleman who had retired and just happened to have an NDP paper membership because he was a Labour Member Party member back in Scotland and the NDP was the closest thing to a Canadian Labour Party in his mind. So, there was no infrastructure, no base whatsoever, to enter and take over in the classic entryist framework.
Roberta: It’s kind of funny because, when were prepping this episode, we had a piece talking about the challenge of the New Brunswick Waffle compared to Ontario or Saskatchewan where the challenge for New Brunswick was that the NDP wasn’t very strong, and it wasn’t very established in the province, and so the Waffle basically had to build the party to then take it over. But what a weird concept [laughs] — it’s this weird kind of paradox of this entryism into something that is not a mass party by any stretch of the imagination, is that in order for this tactic to actually do anything, you first have to build a party and then take it over, which seems kind of silly. Why not just make your own party that’s its own thing? It’s a very strange process they go through in New Brunswick, and it’s quite different than what’s happening in Ontario or Saskatchewan where the NDP was actually quite established.
Kate: And I think it’s worth pointing out here, too, that I think it’s a fair argument to make that the reason the New Brunswick Waffle has success — and by “success” I mean being able to actually take over the NDP for a certain period of time, unlike Waffles in other parts of the country that faced extremely strenuous opposition to any of their involvements in the party (they eventually get kicked out of the NDP) — is because the NDP simply did not care that the Waffle was running the New Brunswick party.
Rory: Well, they didn’t care at first, but then they got pretty mad about it. In fact, the Waffle in New Brunswick becomes kind of a model for what will happen to the Waffle in other parts of the country.
Roberta: But I think Kate makes a really interesting point there — absolutely, Rory, that happens long-term, but in the short term, it was actually kind of a good thing for the NDP. I mean, the Waffle builds up a bunch of riding associations, especially in Fredericton and in the Saint John area, and they really build up these constituencies and riding associations that can be used later. I mean, it’s this weird process that’s going on where there’s no NDP infrastructure at all — this group comes in to try and radicalize the no infrastructure that exists, builds some nice infrastructure, brings in a bunch of members, and then the party’s like, “Oh, crap, this is far too radical for us — we’d better figure this out.” So it’s this weird process that’s going on in New Brunswick.
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Kate: And I’m so glad you brought that up, Roberta, because that is actually a really clear encapsulation of what is, for many people, still the argument they use against leftists or socialists participating in the NDP in any way right now, because the argument is that what happened to the Waffle in New Brunswick will happen to you if you try to participate in the NDP. You might be trying to use the NDP to push a certain candidate or a certain line or a certain style of doing politics or to have access to their resources, but the NDP will use the time and the effort that you put in and the way that you or your comrades have built up the NDP, or have built up a part of it, and they will recuperate it for their own ends. And that is very much the core of the argument against socialists or leftists being involved in the NDP, and this is still something that leftists in Canada think and discuss and talk about all of the time, right? It’s not an issue that is resolved with the New Brunswick Waffle by any means.
Abram: On this topic of entryism: on the one hand, yes it seems like an opportunity — you have all of this political space to build up something that might actually resemble a socialist alternative, but it was a challenge in the sense that, I think, in many ways, the choice of what would become the New Brunswick Waffle to pursue entryism was largely a failure of political imagination; and, really, it was a decision that was reached based on, “Well, what else are we going to do?” So, if you look at the debates between the Mendists, Trotskyists, and the CSDS people, the CSDS people are much more skeptical about doing entryism into the NDP, and what Mendis basically says to them is, “Well, what else are you guys going to do?” I mean, hindsight is 20/20, but because there was no real thought about “What does an independent socialist organization, what does a workers’ party, look like?”, everybody sort of reaches a consensus that is like, “Well, it might as well be the NDP.”
Roberta: And I think it’s important to point out that the Waffle in New Brunswick, for its entire existence, was divided by these two tendencies: on the one hand, the Trotskyites, and on the other hand, the non-Trotskyites, or the CSDS group. And one of the interesting things, I think, to point out, and that’s relevant in general on the left, is that the political differences were actually quite minimal between the two groups. It was really a difference around the issue of tactics; the Trots really wanted to be part of the party and be in this entryism piece with the other groups being willing to push a little bit more. And the reason I mention this — I think it’s useful to remember that often, on the left, the differences aren’t over political ideology, necessarily, but over tactics. It’s often about, “How do we get to this ideal society of equality and justice?”, and the difference is often about the tactics of getting there, not the endpoint, which many would agree on; not all, of course, but many would agree on.
Kate: And I think it’s really important that you brought that up because so often, when you start getting into the minutia of: you’ve got the Trots and the non-Trots, and this group and that group, people will often throw their hands up in the air and say, “Why does any of this matter? Why can’t we all just get along and build socialism or build a better future?” And I think we should be honest about these differences that we have politically with one another, because it turns out that trying to radically change society and build an entirely new and different society with entirely new and different social relations and modes of production is extremely fucking difficult and, although there are a lot of really amazing historical successes and failures from a variety of different tendencies and movements, I don’t think it’s fair [laughs] to say that these differences don’t matter and that they can be put aside. And people are coming into real conflicts, and they do matter in terms of how people are actually carrying out political struggle. So, I know it can be really tempting, when we start talking about Trotskyists and whatever, to just roll your eyes and say, “Oh, it’s the left doing sectarian infighting again,” but the reason that sectarian infighting exists on the left is not just because people on the left are annoying — although they are — but because there are real differences in terms of the tactics people want to pursue, and the left, in general and at this time period as well, was very small and had a limited amount of time and resources, so the process of making decisions about where to put those time and resources is naturally going to be very politically fraught.
Abram: Yeah, and I think, too, that, because there are actual, substantive tatical differences on the left in Canada, I think people will even get different lessons out of this episode. For example, I am one of those people who doesn’t think that engaging with the NDP is particularly useful, and I’m sure there are other people that would disagree with me. In my political work, I encounter people of both stripes, and I appreciate it a lot more when we can be honest about where we’re coming from rather than pretend that we’re all exactly on the same page and not really discuss what common ground looks like, substantively, in terms of base building and organizing.
Rory: Jumping back a little bit more to the history of what was happening starts to really illustrate this idea of entryism. By 1970, at the 1970 provincial convention in Fredericton, is when the New Brunswick Waffle officially launches, and it’s also the same time that the New Brunswick NDP is planning to make a full-fledged effort to compete in provincial politics. It planned to run a full slate of candidates in Anglophone ridings in the fall election of that year and try to seriously challenge the traditional parties. A number of Wafflers then got elected to the provincial executive positions, and the Waffle presented some resolutions such as a $2 minimum wage, limits on media ownership, creation of Crown corporations for the resource sector, women’s liberation. And these were all adopted by the delegates, and a Waffle resolution regarding industrial democracy received tepid support and was sent to the executive for further study — which is a very classic NDP move — and a resolution to adopt the national Waffle Manifesto was defeated. As we mentioned earlier, the 1970 provincial election was, while a sort of increase from previous elections, still a big disappointment — they got less than 3% of the vote — but the New Brunswick Waffle did continue to organize afterwards, both in New Brunswick and nationally. They supported Jim Laxer’s run for the federal leadership in 1971, and they assisted union drives across the province, which brought more members into the party. So, they are growing the party. This meant that other members of the New Brunswick NDP began to take notice, and by early 1971 you start to see a conflict over party policy, particularly the decriminalization of marijuana, which led to calls for resignations from both sides. It was eventually resolved, but the divisions were really starting to emerge.
Abram: It’s worth noting that the NDP was so cut out of the French-speaking north at this time that Francophones looking at what was happening at the 1971 convention felt so alienated from the NDP that they went and, a year later, started their own party, the Parti Acadien, which was explicitly modelled on the Parti Quebecois. So, the absence of actually reaching the French-speaking north actually led a lot of the space on the left to be taken up by French nationalist politicians.
Roberta: In fact, that’s not that different from today, as well [laughs], where you see such a major division between the French and the English electorally in New Brunswick. And there’s still major divisions that are happening, and the NDP never really made good inroads into the Francophone community, either in Quebec or New Brunswick, for various reasons often related to nationalism and the role of national unity. But it’s a complicated history in New Brunswick, especially, and if anybody’s ever interested in political divides, especially on linguistic grounds, New Brunswick’s a fascinating case study. But the Waffle had really big plans for the 1971 provincial convention. They had planned to run a full slate of candidates for executive positions and to present their manifesto for approval by the membership. Their manifesto, titled For a Socialist New Brunswick, “… presented an uncompromising assault on the political and economic status quo in the province.” (That’s what Patrick Webber says.) It called for socialism to unite the, quote, “oppressed and exploited” in the province and to defeat the forces of capitalism. It’s important to point out, I think, that it’s really a lot more radical than the Ontario Waffle manifesto. This one calls for state-directed socialism, workers’ control and industrial democracy. It promoted nationalization of the entire economy without compensation — love it. It celebrated co-operatives for being “anti-capitalist”; trade unions were identified as the primary agents of social change, and women’s liberation was really at the forefront in this manifesto. And I’ve written elsewhere about how the original Waffle manifesto did not include women’s liberation, but it was added later; but, by the time the New Brunswick group writes their, women’s lib issues are really key, there. So, it’s quite a radical document, and they take it to this provincial convention planning to have this passed. However, this is where we start to see the fun of the Trotskyites and their role in politics in general [laughs]. The Trotskyite members of the Waffle were told by their bigger external organization, the Younbg Socialists, that they couldn’t participate in the convention, so most of the Waffle representatives who showed up in 1971 were the non-Trotskyites — so, this separate group within the Waffle. The Trotskyites are not allowed to be there, so the only ones showing up for the convention are the non-Trotskyite wing of the Waffle.
Rory: The Waffle manifesto itself, however — to the surprise of both supporters and opponents — was accepted by the delegates with a very narrow vote of 41 to 40. Anti-Wafflers saw the manifesto as transcending the limits of social democracy; they called it “totalitarian.” Nine labour delegates left the meeting in protest, soon followed by others, which meant the convention lost quorum and was postponed for approximately a month. Both sides were convinced that they would win the day when the convention re-convened.
Roberta: I just want to jump in here because I think this is the most hilarious thing. I just think about how many provincial conventions I’ve been to, and the idea that they would suddenly lose quorum and have to reconvene the convention in a month — whatever, however much time later — thinking about this controversy, it’s so ridiculous but also enthralling. All these people show up at this convention and then they have to end it and reconvene it later. It’s just hilarious to me.
Abram: This political farce would actually repeat itself again in about 2016 when the youth wing of the New Democrats in New Brunswick tried to pass a very progressive youth wing constitution under its Blairite leadership of Dominic Cardy, and a similar quorum fiasco happened that rendered the meeting null, basically to prevent the young NDP from passing this very progressive constitution. Similarly, it was postponed by one month; so, terribleness all around.
Rory: First as tragedy, then as farce.
Kate: The NDP sure do love choreographing those conventions, eh?
Rory: I mean, they should honestly just adopt what the leadership do where they just let the membership pass whatever wild and awesome resolutions they want and then just ignore all of it.
Kate: And they’re like, “That’s so cute, that’s so good for you, but we will be doing our own thing.”
Abram: And then have a big party!
Rory: The NDP actually has to get all their staffers out on the floor to hustle to stop whatever mildly progressive policy, like free tuition or whatever, from passing.
Kate: Please. It’s a make-work program for unemployed union staffers.
Rory: I love when staffers just talk and talk and talk at the mic about nothing because there’s some spicy resolution further down the list.
Roberta: Conventions are lots of fun. You should all go to one someday just to experience the joy of all this stuff. It’s so hilarious.
Kate: I don’t know — going to an NDP convention was what really put the nail in for me of, like, “This is what we can do with the NDP.” I went to one NDP convention, and I was like, “This is all a giant and colossal waste of time.”
Abram: So, those opposed to the Waffle manifesto sent a request for assistance to the federal party. The suggestion was made to suspend the convention and provide the federal party time to work with the different sides towards a resolution. The Wafflers rejected this idea. The next proposal was to convert the convention to a provincial council meeting, which would have less representation. The Waffles demanded the convention go ahead as planned for 16th of October, 1971. At the same time, the Waffle officially split between Trotskyite and non-Trotskyite factions. The split came over each group’s willingness to wage battle with the rest of the party, with the Trotskyites concerned they would all be kicked out of the NDP if they remained confrontational. The re-convened convention was a disaster.
Rory: When October 16th rolled around, you basically had two duelling conventions. The non-Wafflers held their provincial council, and the Wafflers had a full convention. What happened was nobody could really figure out what was happening and what decisions had been made, and appeals were made to the federal council for assistance. The federal council then decided to suspend the New Brunswick NDP until it could hold a proper convention. The non-Trotskyite Wafflers were outraged because they saw this as a violation of provincial autonomy within the party and began calling for the formation of a new party. The Trotskyites, however, were worried that they would be purged from the party as a whole and lose connection with the working class, so they tried to convince the others that they should respect the authority of the federal council. So, a few attended a meeting to decide the future of the New Brunswick Waffle in November of 1971, which allowed the Trotskyist faction to pass a motion acknowledging the authority of the federal council and agreeing to attend a new convention, while the others accepted the decision and simply agreed to leave the Waffle. Another provincial council was held in November of 1971, and they agreed to purge the Waffle leaders from the membership. A month later, the New Brunswick Waffle just dissolved.
Abram: The suspension of the New Brunswick NDP as a result of the Waffle had some interesting effects on the groups involved. The threat of a radical takeover of a provincial wing of the NDP persuaded the New Brunswick labour movement to take a more active role in the party. This would finally grant the party enough resources to actually contest elections, and the New Brunswick NDP won their first seat in 1982. However, they had trouble keeping and expanding from there and currently haven’t held a seat since 2005. For the Trotskyists, it caused a split within their overall organization around the theory and practice of entryism. They had successfully done entryism in the NDP, although on a very tiny party that had no real connection to the working class, which defeated the point of doing entryism rather than maintaining an independent organization. And, when faced with the feds suspending the provincial wing, they simply capitulated to try and avoid expulsion, throwing away all the gains they had made with the hope that preserving themselves in the party was more important. In larger provincial NDP wings like BC or Ontario, entryism had never come close to any sort of party power, so these issues had never come up. The debate over the experience then fractured the League of Socialist Action, Canada’s most important Trot group.
Kate: What’s really interesting to me, that I’ve been thinking about throughout both researching and recording this episode, is that this episode with the New Brunswick Warffle, the NDP, the early 1970s, it really introduced a major dynamic that exists on the left, broadly speaking, in Canada, and one that I don’t think — even though this is a great podcast — that we’re really going to resolve through this podcast, and certainly not through this episode of the podcast. It’s basically this dynamic of: should you work within institutions that you know and that have a historical track record of taking the energy of radicals and taking the work of radicals and re-purposing it for their own ends and that don’t actually have any truly radical aims (and certainly not any socialist ones, and certainly not any revolutionary ones)? And the reason I say that this is a major dynamic that continues to show up is: this is something that people still wrestle with, strategically. This is also an event that basically happens on the Canadian left, just with different players. A really good example of this, I think, is the Leap Manifesto, where — this is 2015, you have a really good example, it’s a very similar thing. The Leap Manifesto contains radical ideas; it is very similar in its approach to party establishment as the Waffle manifesto and very similar to the Waffle Manifesto in that it’s very attuned to the political and cultural climate of the time and the political and cultural milieu of its supporters. They try to get the Leap Manifesto, and ultimately do, have it be successful on the floor of an NDP convention, and it is extremely controversial — it causes a really big split within the party, it gets flogged in the media using all these red-baiting things, using the emerging new narrative that doesn’t exist in this case of the destruction of the Alberta oil sands — but it definitely is a really similar dynamic. I feel like it is almost like a video game that just re-skinned [laughs] what happened with the New Brunswick Waffle and then updated it with new characters, and that’s the Leap Manifesto in 2015. We’ve got the whole situation with the Greens and their leadership election. This is something that has not been resolved, and I will be really honest and say I don’t know what my official take on this is, and it is a dynamic and a contradiction where I am not totally sure where I stand, speaking only for myself here. I’ve participated in electoralism in the past. Some of it I regret, some of it I don’t; I think it was a really useful political project. I’m not interested in doing it right now, in where I live and in the political work I do, but I’m not sure I’m going to feel that way forever, depending on where I live and a whole bunch of other factors. It’s not something I know if, right now, I’m willing to close the door on forever, but it’s something that is a real, major point of tension, and I think it would behoove more people to be really honest about where they stand on it and to also welcome conflict with other people on the left about whether or not we should do it, because it is the only way a) you will sharpen your own opinions, and b) that we will actually develop coherent strategy and tactics as a group.
Abram: As a number of us have said on this episode before, entryism is a strategy — so, when we talk about entryism, we have to talk about whether or not it works. A lot of times, people who are very committed to entryism will say things like, “Well, the NDP” — or, in other places, the labour party or the socialist party — “is the weather-vane of the working class,” which means that it is, while problematic, rooted in working-class communities and is a useful indicator of where the working class’ general orientation is politically, and so we have to be involved with them. And so the question we have to ask, when looking at situations in Canada, is: is this true for the NDP or the Greens? And, interestingly, I don’t think it was true for the New Brunswick NDP at the time of the Waffle. It’s certainly not true about the New Brunswick NDP today, and I’m not sure that it’s true about the Green Party of Canada. While, certainly, there have been examples of successful entryism — socialists, communists, and other revolutionaries have gone on to lead large mass parties and national liberation movements through, basically, an entryist tactic into larger organizations — I’m not necessarily sure that those conditions exist in any of the center-left parties in Canada today, and that’s something that anybody who wants to engage with entryism, whether they support or oppose, has to seriously look at and analyze.
Kate: Absolutely. I’m really glad you brought that up, Abram, because that is the root of my current reluctance to engage in any kind of electoral work in Alberta — I don’t think the NDP participates in a meaningful way in working-class institutions or in working-class life, so it does not seem, to me, a meaningful vehicle through which to organize the working class or to organize other oppressed communities.
Rory: I think it’s important, though, as well, to engage with why entryism as a tactic and a strategy is appealing, and that’s in part because creating an independent socialist organization that can exercise some degree of power — defined broadly, not just electorally — is very, very hard, and the appeal of entryism is that, wow, there could be a very good leadership candidate in some future leadership election for the NDP, or what we’ve seen with the Greens. And the appeal is that they have platforms, they have membership, they have money and other resources, and, often, the way that a liberal democratic society is structured to do politics is: the only acceptable avenue is to do electoralism. Also, not to denigrate winning elections — there is a degree of power that you can exercise if you win government; I mean, obviously, with all the limits on what you can do as the government of a capitalist state, but there’s still real power, nonetheless. And that’s the appeal of entryism, and I think the question that really has to be asked is: is it really a successful tactic for you to be able to do entryism on a social democratic party and push it left and then win power and then do stuff? And I think the answer to that is: not really?
Kate: I think the main issue here is that a lot of proponents of entryism incorrectly conceive of social democratic parties like the NDP as empty vessels that can basically be filled with any group of people, or taken over by any group of people, rather than institutions with entrenched power structures, alliances, loyalties, power relations. They’re not just an empty box, and whoever gets the most people in the box gets all of the resources in the box — it is way different to be a socialist organizing within the NDP than to be an establishment candidate organizing within the NDP. That sounds really obvious to say, but I think there is a misconception that, even if you, as a leftist candidate, were somehow able to assume control over the NDP, that means you would have access to all of the resources that the NDP currently enjoys — which, for the record, are not really a lot at the moment, but some of those resources are going to be actively hostile to you, and they will become actively alignned against you. They’re not just something you can pick up and use like a tool.
Roberta: And I think one of the important things that this episode and this Waffle discussion in New Brunswick exposes is the different tactics that are required for social change. My perspective is that we need electoral politics, but it can’t be the only form of socialist activity because, clearly, we can see there’s really no socialism in electoral politics currently. And so my theory of politics is always that we need people in all sorts of components of civil society — so, we need people on the inside, we need people on the outside, we need all these components. And I think the other part is that we’re running out of time on lots of different issues, in particular around the climate emergency; is there really time for us to build a new movement, a new party, something that can actually manipulate the levers of power that really can handle some of the larger structural change that’s going to be required for us to survive on this planet and for us to not destroy every single natural thing around us? I’m always torn on this question, and I think political power is really important — I think that it’s necessary to somehow find control of those levers of power to be able to do things like socialist economic planning and other sorts of processes — but it can’t possibly be the only strategy that we use. Electoral politics only work if they’re pushed by social movements, by others, and I think this divide between Trots and others that shows up in the Waffle really demonstrates how difficult it is to unify around one theory of change and figure out how to actually create a better world for us all.
Abram: We’ve used the phrase “an independent socialist organization” in this discussion, and I think one of the things that is scary when you talk about an independent socialist organization — at least for a lot of people — is that the inevitable trajectory of an independent socialist organization is to talk about party building, and by “party,” I just mean some sort of broad, mass, national political entity that can coordinate the various sectors of struggle, both electoral and non-electoral. And I think the process of creating that kind of entity on the left for Canada is something that people are inexperienced about and are afraid of becoming politically marginalized by attempting to do. Certainly, there’s examples where it hasn’t worked — I mean, Syriza was supposed to be the saviour of Greece as a new left-wing party, and it didn’t work — but I think, if you look at the political left in Europe and Latin America, for example, where the left is much stronger, what you can see is two things: left organizations are more willing to walk away from social democratic parties when they don’t service their interests, and you als0 have, in many places, stronger orthodox communist parties, and I think those two dynamics do lend themselves to a more effective organizing space for the left in other countries.
Kate: One thing I want to be really clear on, here, is that we’ve talked both about entryism and electoralism, and — at least as far as I understand it — those are actually really different strategies, and I want to be clear about the differences between them even though, of course, they are related in some ways. Entryism is the idea that, through participating in a specific political party — in Canada, generally understood to be the NDP — you can take it over and turn it into a different type of party, or at least mobilize its resources for left-wing, radical, or socialist ends. Electoralism, to me, is just participating in electoral politics in some way. And there’s a lot of different ways this could occur. This could be running candidates for the school trustee board. This could be using the NDP ballot line in a very specific way. This could be trying to participate in a referendum. This could be running candidates under an independent party. And, of course, electoralism, when people talk about it, generally people are saying, “Electoralism is when you use elections as your primary or exclusive vehicle for change,” and I honestly don’t think elections are a political terrain we should totally cancel out and never participate in, but certainly, electoralism is very different from entryism, and entryism is definitely very different from just participating from elections in any type of political way, and I want to be really clear about that. Abram, thank you so much for joining us for this episode of The Alberta Advantage. If people want to know more about you and your thoughts and your work, where should they go?
Abram: You can follow me on twitter at @abramxlutes.
Kate: Amazing. On behalf of everyone here at The Alberta Advantage, thank you for joining us for another episode of the podcast which is about every province in Canada now. An Alberta Advantage in every home and every province and, eventually, territory. Take care out there, and have a good one. Bye, everyone!
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Kate: If you liked today’s episode, you should check out the Harbinger Media Network, featuring shows like Tech Won’t Save Us, where radical urbanist, Jacobin contributor, and Newfoundlander Paris Marx offers a critical perspective on technology and society, pushing us to demand better tech and a better world. Find out more about the Harbinger Media Network and the entire cross-country line of podcasts at harbingermedianetwork.com.
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