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In Struggle!

Assessment of the Waffle (2): Failure of the marriage: independence and socialism

First Published: In Struggle! No. 240, March 3, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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Doing a systematic and rigourous critique of the Waffle is no easy task. The Waffle was never really a homogeneous group united around a distinct political programme with a correspondingly developed organizational structure. In fact, except for a very small number of individuals around Jim Laxer, most Waffle people gave most of their time and energy and related politically primarily to activites outside the Waffle. They were in the student, women’s, environmental, trade union and other mass movements. And for a very large number of Waffle activists and supporters, the main role of the Waffle was not to develop into anything in itself but to change the NDP.

There are two main reasons why Waffle failed to build a viable alternative that could attract the sustained involvement of Canadian workers and progressives. First, because it tried to wed socialism with nationalism. Second, because its internal functioning was undemocratic and “unstructured”.

Marriage of independence and socialism fails

In his article in the November 1980 issue of Dimension, Robert Hackett documents the polyglot nature of the Waffle. “The most decisive of the Waffle’s ideological contradictions arose from its central political tenet – that socialists and nationalists in Canada shared common agendas (p. 18)”.

Independence and socialism were the central points of Waffle’s line throughout its history. They were its main strength insofar as they quickly drew support from a goodly part of the left-wing of the NDP, people who wanted to fight back more strongly against U.S. domination of Canada. They were its weakness as well because the inherent logic of nationalism leads those who are guided by it sooner or later to set aside the class interests of the working class.

The Waffle’s nationalism repeatedly led it to give priority to those issues on which it would share common ground with the petty-bourgeois nationalist intellectuals, such as American domination of Canadian culture. Indeed, it was led just as surely to concentrate its lire on issues where substantial sections of the Canadian bourgeoisie had interests in supporting the same thing, such as the call for the nationalization of natural resources. Ten years later, one cannot escape the irony of the fact that the main demands raised by the Waffle on this latter point are being defended by an old Waffle enemy, Ed Broadbent (the man who moved their expulsion from the NDP) and to a great extent by the Trudeau Liberals.

The development of society and the economy takes place on the basis of objective laws. You can have all the fine-sounding ideas you want to about mixing socialism with a supposedly progressive nationalism but that doesn’t alter the way reality works. Socialism cannot be accomplished without seizure of power by the working class. Nationalism, on the other hand, is completely compatible with the continued existence of capitalism. The bourgeoisie are past masters at exploiting nationalism when they need it. In an imperialist country like Canada, the bourgeoisie finds nationalism a useful tool in gaining a better vantage point in world markets. As a result, self-described progressive nationalists in all imperialist countries have always ended up despite themselves, promoting the interests of their own bourgeoisie. The record of the Communist parties in Europe since World War Two, and more recently of the Eurocommunists, is eloquent and persuasive in this regard.

In this respect, the Waffle experienced the same failure that others had before it. The most notable predecessor to share the same fate was the Communist Party of Canada, many of whose former members were involved in founding the Waffle. Robert Hackett criticizes the nationalist excesses of the Waffle but he is strongly influenced by the same basic analysis. He concludes his piece with the statement that “much of the Waffle’s economic analysis of dependent Canadian capitalism remains valid” (p. 71). With a viewpoint like that, it is hardly surprising that nowhere in Hackett’s lengthy article is there any recognition of a rather fundamental fact: the Canadian bourgeoisie is an imperialist bourgeoisie and therefore has no progressive side to it.

Organization must serve the goals set

The Waffle’s political line, therefore, prevented it from becoming a viable socialist alternative. The same was true of its organizational line. Hackett points out many examples of how the internal functioning of the Waffle prevented any real democracy. It modelled its structure on the NDP. There was no definite decision-making structure. All effective leadership was in the hands of a small circle of friends around Jim Laxer and his father, Robert. There was no real developed political programme around which the core of activists could build a solid unity. All of these reasons explain the Waffle’s history of constant internal divisions. Things got even worse after the NDP expelled the Waffle. The Laxer clique virtually took over completely, resulting in a string of arbitrary purges of people opposing them.

Again on this point, Hackett’s conclusions are not the stuff which make possible a clean break with the Waffle’s erroneous practice. He rejects without argument any approach to organization resembling the “vanguardist structure” of Trotskyist and Maoist groups. Hackett says simply that any new left formation must have greater political unity than the Waffle did. Yet simultaneously he favours the creation of local socialist committees in the various cities and towns across Canada united politically around positions on immediate issues like giving support to worker struggles, supporting Quebec’s right to self-determination and so on. The local committees would come together in a national committee which would be “able to provide co-ordination and articulation at a national level of socialist analysis and alternatives.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong at all with the creation of local committees on all sorts of specific issues. Indeed, many such coalitions already exist to fight various forms of racism, support the Salvadoran people, and (during the referendum) defend Quebec’s right to self-determination. IN STRUGGLE! has always responded to such initiatives quickly and favourably. We have participated actively and worked to strengthen the committees.

But issue-based local committees which are perfectly appropriate for uniting people to fight on a specific issue for a specific period of time are not necessarily what you need to lead the struggle of the working class up to and including the seizure of political power.

To put it bluntly, can loose issue-based committees deal with the capitalist repressive apparatus and overthrow the bourgeoisie? The mere posing of the question makes the answer evident.

Some people may feel that talking about having an organization able to cope with heavy bourgeois repression is an abstraction in a non-revolutionary political situation such as prevails in Canada today. Perhaps. But the present capitalist crisis is giving rise to mounting rightist movements and a wave of militarism. The capitalists are beefing up their repressive machine considerably. The day may well not be as far off as many might think when the problem of repression will he a lot more concrete and physical than it is for most people now.

Robert Hackett has written an interesting and serious analysis of the Waffle. However, it has important weaknesses and makes a number of political errors on major points. Still, it does serve to provide food for thought that may help to stimulate a very important debate on several issues which are fundamental to the struggle for socialism in Canada.