Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

In Struggle!

Assessment of the Waffle (1): The NDP can’t be changed

First Published: In Struggle! No. 239, February 16, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Canadian Dimension devoted its entire November issue to a study of the Waffle done by Robert Hackett: “Pie in the Sky: a History of the Ontario Waffle”. Hackett’s study is undoubtedly one of the most serious, and perhaps the most complete, pieces of research done on the Waffle since it died out in 1974.

It is no coincidence that there is renewed interest in the Waffle these days. It is getting harder and harder to see what the difference is between the NDP and Trudeau’s Liberals, and many progressive people are looking for a left-wing alternative. And the Waffle was one of the most important experiences of this kind for progressive forces in the past twenty years.

Hackett’s study recounts the story of the Waffle in historical fashion, with many detailed references and facts. His account makes it easy to follow the basic outline of the Waffle’s history, even for readers who have no direct acquaintance with the events discussed. He concludes with a series of 22 conclusions, which we will discuss further on.

Despite its undeniable strong points. Hackett’s research does have two important weaknesses. The first is that it practically ignores the history of the Waffle after its expulsion from the NDP; although this period represents one-third of the Waffle’s existence, only two of the 72 pages in the article are spent discussing it. This is a major flaw, for in his conclusions Hackett winds up proposing a kind of Waffle outside the NDP as an alternative to the NDP today. Given this conclusion, we could have expected a more rigorous analysis of the Waffle’s history outside the NDP.

There is a second weakness in the factual account: Hackett ignores the more radical tendencies in discussing the contemporary context of the Waffle. Readers unacquainted with this period can easily conclude that the Waffle was the best group to come out of the New Left of the 1960s. The Waffle, however, only represented a minority, and not necessarily the best, of the left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was also a radical left that developed alongside, and sometimes in conflict with, the Waffle. Although it did not enjoy the kind of media coverage the Waffle got. it played a much more active role in working-class and popular struggles. This radical left included the larger part of the radical student movement and the women’s movement which was developing rapidly at the time, as well as organizations like the Progressive Workers’ Movement, Canadian Party of Labour, Canadian Liberation Movement, Western Voice, Red Morning, etc., which had already concluded that the NDP could not be changed by working from within it. By examining the Waffle solely in terms of the NDP and ignoring these organizations, Hackett presents a distorted image of the Waffle.

The NDP can’t be made into a socialist, anti-imperialist party

The key conclusion of Hackett’s study is, in his own words, that “the Waffle could not have transformed the NDP into a viable socialist anti-imperialist vehicle, and that the key reason for its failure was the political/ideological orientation, and the organizational resources, of the party’s elite.”

Hackett provides dozens and dozens of examples that illustrate the bourgeois nature of the NDP. In fighting the Waffle, allegedly socialist NDP leaders like the Lewises (father and son),Broadbent and Pitman demonstrated just how far they were prepared to go to reject even the mildest criticism of their bourgeois programme – be it on Quebec’s right to self-determination, the women’s struggle or military pacts like NATO and NORAD.

The Waffle’s history. shows that, despite a few minor defeats, the NDP leadership was sufficiently powerful to prevent its policies from being seriously challenged by its most progressive members. It fought the Waffle with the party bureaucracy’s near-absolute control of daily policy decisions and its close ties with the bourgeois media that allowed it to publicize its positions. It also had various ways of controlling party conventions, from its power to appoint the resolutions committee through to outright intimidation of opposition delegates. Furthermore, NDP parliamentary members were free not to apply policy voted at party conventions. Finally, the bureaucracy of the Canadian Labour Congress and especially of the big American unions could in practice veto decisions they did not like.

Extensive use was made of all these tactics to fight an opposition that was only demanding positions a little more social-democratic and somewhat more nationalist from the NDP.

All this indicates that both the NDP’s basic programme and its internal organization mean that it cannot constitute a real alternative for Canadian workers looking for a solution to their problems. This is the strong point of Hackett’s study. But what about the Waffle itself?

Here Hackett is much more confusing and much less convincing. We will look at what he has to say about the Waffle in an article next week.

* * *

The Waffle

Waffle was the name adopted by a group of the most radical members of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1969. This group came together around the Waffle Manifesto, presented to the 1969 NDP convention. Its two main leaders were Mel Watkins, author of the federal Watkins Report on foreign investment in Canada, and Jim Laxer, a nationalist intellectual from Toronto.

The Waffle Manifesto’s central argument was the necessity of independence and socialism in Canada. It defined socialism as a system based on extensive State ownership and a certain participation by the population in decision-making. It stressed the need to link the NDP to workers’ struggles rather than concentrating exclusively on electoral and parliamentary politics. Lastly, it recognized Quebec as a nation, laying the foundation for the Waffle’s future recognition of Quebec’s right to self-determination, including the right to form an independent State.

Between 1969 and 1972, the Waffle’s basic activity was the work of trying to radicalize the NDP from within. It’won some victories: for instance, it got the 1969 federal NDP convention to adopt a resolution demanding that Canada withdraw from NATO and NORAD. At the following federal convention in 1971, the Waffle’s candidate for the party leadership, Jim Laxer, came second with 36.9% of the vote (the leader elected was David Lewis, representing the establishment of the NDP),

On June 24, 1972, the provincial council of the Ontario NDP adopted a motion prepared by Ed Broadbent and expelled the Waffle. Subsequently, the Waffle remained active until 1974, under the continued leadership of Jim Laxer. It fielded a few candidates in the 1974 federal election, with no success whatsoever. It continued to be active in support of some workers’ struggles, and especially those waged by unions affiliated with the Council for Canadian Unions (CCU). It died out for good in 1974. Some of its members eventually returned to the NDP – for instance, Jim Laxer and Mel Watkins. Others joined the Revolutionary Marxist Group, a Trotskyist organization. Still others joined the Marxist-Leninist movement, including IN STRUGGLE!, in 1975.