Monday, September 04, 2006

James Laxer is old, cranky, and is bothering me

(Alternate title: The Left's own Nazi problem. Long post ahead!)

The most dangerous thing about the Bush administration - and the neoconservatives more generally - is their desire to see themselves as the last, best hope for civilization. This belief of theirs - and in this group, I include alleged "liberals" such as Michael Ignatieff - is what justifies their abandonment of civil rights, their ceaseless emperor-worship, and their utter, total confusion as to why anyone, anywhere, questions their moral vision. It is also why they are so quick to demonize their critics as appeasers and collaborators - not just because it is useful (if cynical) political language, but because they sincerely believe that someone who criticizes their means (unending war, unlimited torture) also criticizes their ends (the protection of the innocent.)

This belief - this claim to unitary moral clarity - is not the neoconservatives' alone. There are far too many old leftists, it seems, who can't forget the Nazis, either. Enter James Laxer.

Laxer, some of whose books I own, have read, and enjoyed, was born in 1941 and raised by avowedly Marxist parents. I don't use this as a slur in the slightest - rather, I'm trying to illustrate what I believe Laxer's fundamental problems are. While I haven't read Laxer's biography ("Red Diaper Baby") I'm familiar enough with other men and women of his generation that I'll describe some common beliefs. (If Laxer, or anyone, believes I've applied these beliefs to him unfairly, please correct me.)

The left of Laxer's generation, and of his parents generation, was still able - for a short time - to believe that Communism represented truly new, better ways of organizing societies. It was not until the coming of World War II - and Stalin's pact with Hitler - that North American Communists began to abandon that authoritarian state. Of course, the wider breech would happen after Stalin's death and Khruschev's airing of the worst of Stalin's crimes. Later still, the Gulag Archipelago would be the final nail in the coffin of respectable Western Communism.

What's at issue here is not, however, Laxer's view on Stalin, but Laxer's views on Hitler and the right more broadly. One of the heroic myths of the fight against European Fascism is the story of the Popular Front - the coalitions of parties who tried, unsuccessfully, to stem the tide of the Right in Europe before the war. Most important of all in this mythology is the French Prime Minister Leon Blum, France's first Jewish, and first Socialist Prime Minister. Blum tried to keep the French right at bay, to the point of voting against giving Petain the dictatorial powers the Nazis demanded. Other leftists, and other Jews, might have tried to keep a low profile and not risk their own deaths so publicly. Not Blum.

Obviously, the story of the Popular Front is not a happy one. The fascists were not stopped, the war engulfed all of Europe, and the Nazis came dangerously close to victory. Unfortunately, I believe Laxer is under the impression that if only the PF had been more successful - if the Left hadn't been so riven with it's own divisions - that the Nazis could have been stopped. Left out of this belief is the reality that French anti-semitism and anti-communism could not abide Blum or the Socialists in power, and that the divisions within France were at least as great as the divisions within the French left. While too much is made of France's occupation, it is enough to say that the resistance to the Nazis was hardly unanimous.

But if you were, like Laxer, born in the 1940s, and raised on stories of the fight against Fascism (like all children his age, not just the left, were) the lesson is clear: the forces of the Right need to be fought, vigorously, and with as much unity as the left and center can muster. It's an inspring call to battle, every time. Except that it's now been at least three generations since the Nazis were defeated, and it's been almost a full 20 years since Communism began to crumble. To put it bluntly, metaphors from the 20th century - even the mid- and late 20th century - are rapdily losing their utility.

So that why I have absolutely no sympathy for Laxer - and other leftists, my fellow travellers - who write things like this:
... there are times in history when truly reactionary political formations come along. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is such a formation. While thankfully, it is not overtly racist in the manner of the far right parties in Europe, apart from that it shares all of the views and instincts of a far right party. Harper himself, as his speeches and writings reveal, would be very much at home in the Republican Party and in the American neo-conservative movement. To blur the differences between this political formation and a run-of-the-mill liberal capitalist party, as the NDP has done, is a blatant denial of the truth. The Harper government threatens all of the societal innovations the NDP and the CCF before it have inspired.
If Laxer believes this, then - and I wish there were a more charitable way to put this - he's taken leave of his senses. The Harper government exists in the most precarious minority position of any government since Canada's founding. If Harper sincerely tried to take the axe to national health care, the Canadian Pension Plan, or even gay marriage, his government would fall, and the Liberals could ride to victory in the next election. If, that is, they had competent leadership. But more on that in a moment.

The problem with this belief - that Harper presents a new, malignant force in Canadian politics - is that there's precious little evidence for it. Look at their policies: warmed-over Manningism and a barely restrained social conservatism, kept tightly bound beneath the surface lest they alienate Ontario. There's nothing new here - prairie populism and social conservatism are as old as Canada, and they are (temporarily, one hopes) ascendant because of Alberta's recent boom in numbers and wealth. We could try and draw a line in the sand against Harper, but for what? A misguided and mistaken belief that we can stamp out homophobia, racism, or misogyny in the Conservative mind? I've had enough crusades this decade, thank you.

But for Laxer - and too many leftists, it seems - it was a great betrayal for the NDP to run against the Liberals in the last election. Harper is a scary conservative, I admit. But these disillusioned Marxists are forgetting a simple fact - the Conservatives will always be scary. Stockwell Day was far more frightening to me than Harper is. What Harper has that Day lacked is political success. But the NDP can't be asked to unilaterally disarm every time the Conservatives look close to victory. That's what Laxer is advocating for, and all that means is the NDP - indeed, all genuinely progressive parties - should simply disband and their members join the Liberal Party of Canada. This is, needless to say, an absurd position for a man of the Left to take.

This is especially the case when the Liberal Party lacks any kind of competent leadership. Paul Martin - and this needs to be said, along with all the aspersions against the NDP - was one of the most incompetent politicians of his generation. While Chretien was regularly able to surprise observers who thought too little of him - think back to the 2000 election - Martin had the reverse "gift": constantly amazing his supporters with his poor performance. The man led his party to lose seats in the 2004 election, and blithely assumed that his minority government could proceed as if it had won a majority. When the NDP actually - shockingly, in the view of some - demanded some kind of concession for it's continued support, Martin waited until the last possible minute to swallow his pride and accept a deal. When Jack Layton made clear that his support was not unconditional, and that further concessions would be asked for further support (and this is really the least Layton could possibly have demanded) Martin - not Layton - walked away from the ad hoc coalition, and forced the election. Is the NDP required to follow the Liberals in to defeat, because of one old man's petulance?

The response of the Liberal Party to Martin's idiotic self-immolation has been instructive. While a number of progressive candidates are seeking the leadership, the Big Red Machine has swung decisively in support of the neo-imperialist, neoconservative Michael Ignatieff. What possible reason does the left have to support a party whose leaders so clearly want to ignore and abandon the left?

Well, if you believe that Harper is the next incarnation of the fascists, that's reason enough. But such comparisons are as spurious as they are common. Comparing Harper to Bush is just about as un-enlightening. Harper nominally supports capital punishment, the war in Iraq, and eliminating gay marriage. This doesn't just put him in the Republican Party, it puts him squarely in the conventional wisdom of the Democratic Party, circa 2004. But somehow I don't think that comparison keeps Laxer awake at night.

What was lost in all the hullaballoo of the 2006 Federal Election was a very simple fact: Canadians replaced one minority government with another, even weaker, minority government. Harper has shown no great ability to make friends in the other parties, and still the Liberals have supported this government as much as the NDP or the Bloc have. For Laxer to believe that Harper presents a unique and novel challenge to the Canadian way of life, he'd have to believe that not only did Harper have massive public support for his alleged nefarious aims, but that all of the institutions of Canadian governance - from the public service to the Governor General and the Senate - were willing to lie down for him. I've read Laxer before, and I believe him to be an otherwise intelligent and rational man. So it's a total and complete mystery to me how he could believe this. But his writings make it clear that he does, in fact, believe this.

Now, I believe in a certain amount of pragmatism when it comes to voting. I've made no secret of my disdain for the Provincial Ontario NDP, and I believe I've stated before on this blog that in the last provincial election I voted Liberal. Why? Because the NDP have shown no ability to actually win seats for several electoral cycles in Ontario now, and in the last Provincial election Dalton McGuinty seemed to be a genuinely successful candidate who had - importantly, in my view - become more progressive-minded since his 1999 defeat. So I have no intrinsic problem with the idea that the left should, on occasion, support centrist candidates. But the awfulness of the Right is less important, in my view, than two other considerations:

1) Has the center tried to actively appeal to the left? McGuinty did in 2003, Martin staunchly refused to, and the Liberal party machine continues to push their preferred Right-wing candidate, Ignatieff. I have no obligation to vote for politicians who actively disdain my views.

2) Does the candidate - regardless of ideological stance - stand a chance of success? Martin did not, McGuinty did, and so did Jack Layton. That's right - there was only one left-wing party that added seats in the 2006 general election, and that was the NDP. The Bloc and the Liberals both lost seats. Why should NDP voters reward failure?

If the Liberal machine fails to annoint their boy-king, and someone other than the repulsive Ignatieff actually leads the Liberal Party of Canada in the next election, even I may consider voting Liberal, if only because a) I agree with many of Laxer's disagreements over the increasing centralization of power in the NDP, and b) I still genuinely find Harper to be, as I've said before, making this country worse every day that he's Prime Minister.

But if the Liberal Party gives the anti-war, socially-progressive part of Canada the finger by choosing Ignatieff, any dream of a popular front against Harper is doomed. Not because of the intransigence of the Left, but because the Liberals will have decided that it's better to fight against the left with the Conservatives than fight the Conservatives with the left. Or to put it in language that Laxer would understand, the Liberals will have sided with Petain and Hitler, not Blum and the Republic.

But as I said, such comparisons are silly.

15 comments:

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

This post is a thing of beauty, and not at all what I was expecting when I clicked on the title over at Progressive Bloggers. I've blogged extensively on this topic in the past, but not nearly so eloquently. I'll definitely be back.

leftdog said...

Excellent analysis. Very useful commentary. I find myself angry at Laxer even though I'd rather not feel that way. He is wasting his wisdom on vain triviality - slamming the NDP for not being what he wanted them to be WHILE ignoring his duty to fight 21st century Right wing insanity and their brand of quasi facism.

James WE NEED YOU (!) in this fight taking a role of leadership!!

Observer said...

Harper nominally supports capital punishment, the war in Iraq, and eliminating gay marriage...it puts him squarely in the conventional wisdom of the Democratic Party, circa 2004

This is quite simply incorrect and casts into doubt all your other analysis.

The vast majority of Democrat bloggers were against the war in Iraq as were a few nominee hopefuls such as Howard Dean who was the frontrunner until "the scream".

There's a famous story about Bill Clinton advising Kerry to come out against gay marriage and Kerry refused.

More to the point Kerry (and Edwards) imploded in the last debate by referring to Mary Cheney (gay daughter of the Cheneys).

Further, every single Democrat blog you care to research was pro gay marriage.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Observer,

Um, whoa. Are you really equating the "conventional wisdom of the Democratic Party" with Democratic bloggers? Come on, now.

Also, Kerry was most definitely against gay marriage. He favoured civil unions, but was opposed to gay marriage. Essentially Stephen Harper's position to a T.

john said...

Observer,

We're talking about Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister and elected representative. I didn't think it needed to be said that I was comparing him with other elected officials (Congressmen and Presidential nominees) not simply "other Democrats." Moreover, referring to the "Democratic Party" as I did is more specific than simply "left bloggers" or even "Democratic bloggers." The Party itself has a platform that it ran on in 2004, and I believe I fairly described it.

Observer said...

Idealistic,

The right wing gloaters know the score:
http://www.rightwingnews.com/john/whykerrylost.php
(it reason number #6 or so)

Or you could ask the actual gay marriage advocates themselves:
http://www.freedomtomarry.org/document.asp?id=2044
As mentioned, it was a very well known anecdote.

who are you gonna believe a sad sack Republican Gov of Massachusetts or your own lyin' eyes?

"Conventional wisdom" would presumably include front runners in the primary, no?
Referencing bloggers is just one datapoint. Also mentioned Howard Dean.

Could have mentioned anti-war Michael Moore campaigning with General Clark. etc.

Observer said...

John,

the Repubs set a trap that worked on Kerry.

They knew he was pro gay marriage and they smoked him. They, accurately, predicted that he'd never come flat out againt the gay marriage bans.

You don't seem to understand the dynamics of what happened.

cdntarheel said...

Hi John,

I understand that the main point of your post was directed at Laxer’s remarks about the NDP, the Liberals and taking on the Conservatives. Laxer’s commentary reminds me much of the types of arguments that I’ve come across criticizing Ralph Nader when Al Gore was running for President. I too disagree such arguments.

However, I would like to note that I take issue with your characterization of Michael Ignatieff. I’ve already articulated my displeasure with the allegations that Iggy is somehow neocon-lite. I do not plan on harping on the issue, but would like to point out that liberal hawks and neocons are as different as the Democrats and the Republicans in the US. Perhaps it’s futile to highlight the flaws in such incorrect political branding, but I guess it’s just an itch I can’t help but scratch.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Observer,

who are you gonna believe a sad sack Republican Gov of Massachusetts or your own lyin' eyes?

Okay, here's a transcript of the October 13, 2004 debate, in which the moderator said to both Kerry and Bush: "Both of you are opposed to gay marriage," and Kerry didn't correct him. On the contrary, he said: "The president and I share the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. I believe that. I believe marriage is between a man and a woman." So when it comes to deciding who I'm gonna believe about John Kerry's position on gay marriage, I'll take *John Kerry himself* over an anonymous blog commenter who clearly doesn't know what he's talking about, thankyouverymuch.

As for Howard Dean, he was only a "frontrunner" before any of the actual, you know, *voting* started--and if you think that was all because of the famous scream, think again. The fact is, Dean couldn't translate netroots enthusiasm to actual votes in large part because he *wasn't* part of the mainstream of the Democratic Party, which by Canadian standards is *centre-right*. Howard Dean is not the party's mainstream. Neither is the blogging community.

Look, I voted in that election, and I'm currently co-writing a novel set during that primary, so I know the details of what went on back then like the back of my hand. It's clearly you who doesn't "understand the dynamics of what happened," because DW was entirely correct when he said that the conventional wisdom of the Democratic Party in 2004 looked incredibly like the Canadian Conservatives in 2006. And your penchant for rewriting history is incredibly irritating.

Koby said...

>>>>But the NDP can't be asked to unilaterally disarm every time the Conservatives look close to victory. That's what Laxer is advocating for, and all that means is the NDP - indeed, all genuinely progressive parties - should simply disband and their members join the Liberal Party of Canada. This is, needless to say, an absurd position for a man of the Left to take.

This is not Laxer’s position. Laxer assumes that such tactics work and then he goes on to ask how does the left benefit from such tactics. He never specifically answers it, but it is implied. The left benefits not a lick. At least with regard to the last election, he is right. In once sense, the last election was a major success; the party did gain 10 seats. In another sense, however, this last election was a disaster. The NDP has nowhere near the clout the party under Martin. The NDP sacrificed influence for seats.

What Laxer should have added is this: In previous times the NDP measured success in terms of how many of their policies became accepted by the vast majority of Canadians as good policy. Canada benefited from the latter. No one in their right mind was claim that Canada is a better place because the NDP won 10 more seats than they did in 2004.

The party has lost its way. The NDP no longer sets readily comprehensible bench marks that people can get behind. The fight for a 5 day week, for 8 hour day and for universal health care has been replaced by nebulous claim that they are helping working Canadians. As result, the party has been effectively marginalized by the other major political parties and by a right leaning media. Very few Canadians would be able to say on what issues the NDP stand apart. (Layton’s Afghanistan position is welcome reprieve in this regard. Layton, for once, is setting the terms of debate.)

Two policy proposals: The NDP claim to be a socially democratic party and at least 4 weeks vacation is the norm in every other socially democratic country; so what the hell is taking them so long? It is time they made an effort to keep up with the Jones, that is the Europeans, or drop the socially democratic pretense. They are a generation behind. The same goes for public dental care. The NDP should be saying that if the Germans, Brits and Fins etc etc can do it, so can we.


>>>>The man led his party to lose seats in the 2004 election, and blithely assumed that his minority government could proceed as if it had won a majority.

This is simply not true. Martin did not dither because was a ditherer. He dithered because the opposition parties played him lack as fiddle. From March 2005 onwards, the opposition controlled the agenda and the Liberals scrapped by either through trickery (SSM vote) or luck (Stronach’s crossing). A quick look at the headlines bares this out. The government passed the “NDP budget”. The opposition forces a confidence vote, but fails. Dingwall gate. The income trust scandal. …. The opposition forces another confidence vote and succeeds.

>>>> When Jack Layton made clear that his support was not unconditional, and that further concessions would be asked for further support (and this is really the least Layton could possibly have demanded) Martin - not Layton - walked away from the ad hoc coalition, and forced the election.

This is NDP mythology pure and simple. The NDP’s demands were never meant to be accepted; they were designed to be a political casus belli


>>>> While a number of progressive candidates are seeking the leadership, the Big Red Machine has swung decisively in support of the neo-imperialist, neoconservative Michael Ignatieff.

Give me a break. I have many misgivings about Ignatieff’s Liberal interventionism. Liberals should be cognizant of the fact that he is a potential post 911 Tony Blair, i.e., he is someone that could rip the party apart, but he is no neo con.

>>>> Harper nominally supports capital punishment, the war in Iraq, and eliminating gay marriage.

He marginally supported the war in Iraq? Did you read editorial he wrote for Wall Street Journal editorial? Chr├ętien’s decision to stay out of Iraq was voted on by the way. 53 voted against the government. All were Alliance MPs.

Stephen Harper: “We should have been there shoulder to shoulder with our allies. Our concern is the instability of our government as an ally. We are playing again with national and global security matters.'' (Canadian Press Newswire, April 11, 2003)

He was nominally against gay marriage? Come again? Did I miss something during the months and months of debate?

>>>> What was lost in all the hullabaloo of the 2006 Federal Election was a very simple fact: Canadians replaced one minority government with another, even weaker, minority government.

In terms of seats, this is true. However in every other respect it is false. As I said above, the opposition set the agenda. This time around the opposite holds true. The Conservatives propose something and if the Liberals or Bloc get uppity the Conservatives threaten a confidence vote and the Liberals and Bloc quiver in the corner. This is marked contrast Martin’s government. All the talk was about survival. It seemed absurd that Martin would threaten a confidence vote.

john said...

Koby:

I used the word "nominally" simply because we have to judge him by his statements, because I don't have some magical crystal ball to look in to the guy's soul - I'm not Bush.

As for NDP mythology: The conditions were that Paul Martin actually enforce the provisions of the Canada Health Act. If asking a government to enforce the law is a "casus belli", as you put it, then the govt deserves to go even more than I thought.

Koby said...

I used the word "nominally" simply because we have to judge him by his statements, because I don't have some magical crystal ball to look in to the guy's soul - I'm not Bush.

Come again. We have to reserve judgment in ascribing a position to someone because we can never truly see into their heads. Look if it quakes like a duck and walks like a duck it’s a duck.

“As for NDP mythology: The conditions were that Paul Martin actually enforce the provisions of the Canada Health Act. If asking a government to enforce the law is a "casus belli", as you put it, then the govt deserves to go even more than I thought.”

I will refer to you to your buddy Lobster Thermidor. http://lobsterthermidor.blogspot.com/2006/08/crisis-in-ndp-part-ii.html
“Secondly, the Health Care negotiations between Layton and Dosanjh. After perusing the contents of their correspondence, I must agree with Dosanjh that these ‘negotiations’ were doomed to failure from the start. Layton wanted an election, and he wanted to enter it by claiming he alone would defend medicare. Layton’s initial letter outlines the demands of the NDP. Firstly, he asks that transfer payments be used to force provinces to comply fully with the CHA. In response, Dosanjh raises concerns about retroactively altering an agreement that was made with the provinces just a few months earlier. The Minister of Health was rightly concerned that this would reignite regional tensions, admittedly not a problem for the NDP which has only ever won a single seat in Quebec.
Secondly, Layton wanted the federal government to put a stop to cross-subsidies for physicians working in the public and private sectors. On this point, Dosanjh agreed, as noted by Jack Layton: “there are elements of the Government’s response on this issue that would merit further discussion -- but not in the absence of a serious response on the other issues we have put to you.” The third and fourth demands are just rewordings of the first: “greater accountability in terms of the use of federal health transfers” and “failure on the part of provinces to abide by these rules will result in the holding back of Canada Health Transfers until the province can prove they have been met.” These were met with the same concerns as the first one, that such conditions would have to be negotiated with the provinces. But Dosanjh said he was open to negotiations in person, along with Health Canada officials and Paul Martin. How did Jack respond? He released an open letter to the press, before delivering it to Dosanjh, saying “We have given it a try. You have responded. With this letter I regret to inform you that in our view, on this key test of whether the Government has a real desire to make the present Parliament work, we must regretfully conclude that there seems to be none.” What a load of crap.”

Anonymous said...

You know what bothers me more? People peddling the Iraq war and many more like it to "spread democracy", Bush doctrine of preemption, the weaponization of space, revising torture and curbing civil liberties as being the new political center in Canada!

LeGioN said...

Stephen Harper is the most impressive Prime Minister from the Conservative side of politics. Far from scary we need him.

Anonymous said...

It concerns me that we so easily condemn communism and fascism and praise the "democratic" system, when I must ask where Cuba would be today without a communist government to bind and direct its population under seige for 50 years by its good neighbor the United States (back in the hands of the American underworld no doubt). If communism is such a provably failed system how did Norfth Viet Nam armed with little more than sticks and stones defeat the most powerful military force in the world and is now rebuilding a country that its enemy attempted to "bomb back to the stone age". And if a fascist dictator in Iraq was so evil why are 500 to one million Iraquis counted as war dead and millions more starving, thirsting for water, fleeing their demolished homeland now under a system devised to avoid the very forces that have crushed this oldest and once most successful of the Eastern states. We supporters of the democratic system have to learn not everyone will be grateful for our attempts at their conversion (not the least, Mr. Harper and his anonymous backers).