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New Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath ‘Winks’ Left

[by Barry Weisleder/April 2009]

Two wings of the party establishment squared off in an eight-month-long battle that culminated in the election of Andrea Horwath as the first female Leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party on March 7. Leftist pressure at the Hamilton Convention Centre was evident too, and registered some progress. The leadership ballot was a mail-in and e-vote affair, open to all members. Only about 11,500 of 24,000 members participated.

Horwath, 46, the NDP MPP for Hamilton East and a former local city councillor, winked to the left, but steered firmly to the centre. She stressed her working-class roots, her protest coalition organizing experience, and the need for labour law reform. She enjoyed the support of the Steelworkers’ union, CUPE Ontario, the Catholic Teachers’ federation, and the Ontario Federation of Labour tops.

The runner up was Peter Tabuns, MPP for Toronto Danforth, who had the backing of the Lewis clan, that of former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent and other conservative elements of the party hierarchy. Tabuns advanced a pro-market green technology perspective, which attracted some youths and the latte crowd, while obscuring Tabuns’ anti-labour record as former boss of Greenpeace Canada.

Gilles Bisson, MPP for the far north riding of Timmins James Bay, the most openly pro-business, ‘tough on crime’ guy, and a Cabinet accomplice of the infamous NDP Social Contract and Bob Rae-days, came a distant third. Michael Prue, MPP for Toronto’s Beaches East York riding, an advocate of more democracy in the party, more money for municipalities, and putting an end to public funding for Catholic separate schools, ran a disappointing fourth.

During the campaign Prue evolved to the left. He embraced some policies of the NDP Socialist Caucus, arguing that 50 per cent of convention time should be devoted to policy debate, and that to prevent steel and auto producers from closing, public ownership should be utilized. On this basis, the SC extended critical support to Prue. He dismayed his supporters after the first ballot, however, by endorsing Bisson. Few of Prue’s voters followed his example.

The Ontario New Democratic Youth at its convention on Nov. 22 voted to endorse Tabuns. Prue was a close second choice of the ONDY; the others were far behind.

The leadership race was a kind of low-key, long-distance sideshow, occurring in the shadow of the unfolding global capitalist crisis. Devastating job losses in forestry, auto, and steel dominated the news. Ontario alone lost over 180,000 good jobs since the summer. Horwath was best able to tap into concern about this, using language that seemed to challenge the system.

In her nomination speech, Horwath said, “Look at the difference a year has made. The middle class is disappearing and the working class is largely unemployed. We could accept this and adjust. That’s what the other parties say. But adjust to what? Growing unemployment lines and growing food bank lines? Adjust to this growing discrepancy? Adjust so that those who stole our money can get more of it? We refuse to adjust!”

Despite these defiant words, she offered no commitment to keep industries operating and jobs alive, no pledge to make the rich pay. She just reiterated NDP demands for better employment insurance access, job re-training, protection for pensions, and state subsidies for ‘responsible’ businesses. All of Prue’s opponents denounced his call for a debate on religious school funding, but Horwath’s position was the most intolerant. She decried Prue’s proposal as “the politics of division” and a diversion—rather than recognize party democracy as a valid issue, alongside chronic education under-funding, a class-biased tax regime, and NDP hypocrisy towards a variety of non-funded religious denominations.

As usual, the convention was a tightly orchestrated affair. Less than four hours were allocated for debating and voting on policy resolutions during three days.

Despite many obstacles, the NDP Socialist Caucus rose to the occasion, tapping into an emergent anti-capitalist sentiment. It was better able than in recent years to force an open debate on social ownership of the economy and public school funding. The SC had a strong and positive presence amongst the over 1000 delegates, alternates, and observers at the gathering.

SC supporters in riding associations, youth clubs, and affiliated unions filled the convention book with submitted resolutions on a wide variety of topics. These included: raising the minimum wage to $16 per hour; eliminating post-secondary tuition fees; reducing the work week without loss of pay or benefits; improving welfare, social housing, food safety, and employment equity, as well as calling for production of all-electric vehicles; a boycott of apartheid Israel; and for building the NDP as a mass party with more labour, visible minority, and grassroots community affiliates.

Socialist Caucus militants successfully appealed at a Resolutions Committee hearing to bring its most radical motion—calling for social ownership of the commanding heights of the economy—to the floor, where, after a lengthy debate, it received the support of nearly 40 per cent of the delegates present. Indeed, it might have passed were it not for a last-minute, demagogic speech by OFL President Wayne Samuelson.

On the Catholic school-funding issue, the party establishment decided not to risk defeat with a strictly stand-pat policy. In the face of aggressive campaigning for change by an alliance of educators, civil libertarians, secularists, and SC supporters, the party brass felt the need to proffer a compromise. It proposed an internal task force to study the question and report within a year. This carried handily, with most observers noting that any officially sanctioned discussion of change in this controversial area amounts to a big concession by the party brass.

With all the talk about socialism, the ‘s’ word increasingly sprouted in the speeches of the Leader candidates and other prominent figures. But policy clung closely to the pro-capitalist line, despite more vocal opposition than usual. Adopted resolutions, emanating from the top brass, offer: “a lifeline of credit to the auto sector”, tax credits for investors, “buy Ontario” and “buy Canada” protectionist policies, employment insurance reform, and “more stimulus” spending, with job guarantees to be required of state-aided firms.

In response to the announced shutdown of U.S. Steel Co. operations in Ontario, an approved ‘emergency’ resolution proposed to “explore alternatives”. Peter Leibovitch, Vice-President of the Steelworkers local at Stelco Lake Erie Works, revealed to a hushed assembly that the original resolution of the submitting Steel local included a call for nationalization, but this was deleted from the version that came to the floor.

Ironically, due to insufficient debate time, and time squandered in procedural disputes and referrals, establishment resolutions calling for a higher minimum party membership fee, and more stringent requirements to prioritize motions in advance, did not get to the floor for a vote. Setbacks like these, along with the defeat of Tabuns, put a long face on more than a few party hacks by the weekend’s close.

Party leftists, on the other hand, were smiling. Socialist Caucus candidates for the Ontario NDP Executive won significant support—for vice president positions, SC candidates got 29 and 20 per cent of the votes cast by delegates; for two at-large executive officer posts SCers won about 27 per cent; and for president, 14 per cent.

Nearly 900 free copies of the SC publication Turn Left were snapped up. Two SC public forums at meal breaks attracted over 25 and 35 delegates respectively, notwithstanding a poor venue and heavy competition from other events held at the same time. Dozens of delegates signed up to join the Socialist Caucus. Party members purchased over $200 in literature and buttons at an SC display table.

Conspicuous by their absence were supporters of the new leftist Ginger Project and the Fightback group (save for one press seller). The left-reformist Socialist Project commented on the convention, after the fact. An assessment written by two academics, published in the SP e-bulletin The Bullet, misinterprets the outcome as a possible ‘turn to the working class’ or ‘to the left’, while at the same time it strongly discourages any involvement in the NDP. It even counterposes the “theoretical, organizational and cultural alternative” of “the socialist left”, that comprises mere dozens or at best hundreds of radicals, to the ONDP’s 24,000 members and 740,000 voters, which it ludicrously seems to discount.

On March 5, Ontario Conservative Leader John Tory was defeated in his personal bid for a seat in the Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock by-election by Liberal Rick Johnson. This means that the provincial Progressive Conservatives will be embroiled in a battle to select a new leader, at least up to June 27, while the Ontario Liberal government continues to sink under the weight of the economic depression and its feeble prescriptions. This gives the NDP, and its youthful leader, an opportunity to seize the time, to project a dynamic, critical, and comprehensive alternative.

When the bourgeois media, including putatively left-of-centre Toronto tabloids like NOW magazine and Eye Weekly, bemoan the “conventional”, lunch bucket, ‘stuck-in-the-past’ NDP, they are really gnashing their teeth at the resilient, proudly working-class nature of the party and its strong ties to organized labour. It is precisely those characteristics, plus indispensable (though still elusive) socialist policies, that are increasingly relevant as humanity confronts the deepening crisis of global capitalism.

Soon we shall see how far Andrea Horwath is prepared to move in the direction of socialist solutions, now so urgently needed.

The Definitive Fidel

[by Barry Weisleder/March 2009]

If you are interested in the life of Fidel Castro, his role in the Cuban Revolution (now in its 50th year), and in many major events that shaped the second half of the 20th century, this is the book you have long awaited.

“Fidel Castro, My Life—with Ignacio Ramonet” (Penguin Books, 2008, 723 pages) is the exhaustive autobiography that Fidel is just too busy to write. It is based on 100 hours of interviews by the editor of the Paris-based magazine Le Monde Diplomatique. Ramont was also an organizer of the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and founded the NGO Media Watch Global.

From a veritable marathon of recorded discussions, spanning December 2005 to February 2008, emerges a very extensive, thoughtful, frank, and fresh account of a truly epic life. And since he meticulously checked the text for accuracy, up to November 2006, it is fair to say that this book records the definitive Fidel.

Are you curious as to how the son of an affluent sugar-cane and livestock farmer became a revolutionary firebrand? From Jesuit college grad to guerrilla warrior to revered socialist statesman, this book traces every critical step.

How Fidel became a Marxist, his first internationalist experiences, why the raid on the Moncada Barracks mis-fired, his recruitment of and collaboration with Ernesto Che Guevara, the landing of the Granma rebel expedition, the ensuing struggle in the Sierra Maestra, and how the rural and urban insurrections converged to overthrow the Washington-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista—it’s all there, in gripping detail.

Read the inside story behind the so-called Cuban missile crisis, the Mariela boat people and the infamous U.S. Adjustment Act (which hypocritically blocks Cuban emmigration), the controversial law on capital punishment, Cuba’s enlightened policies on AIDS, the rights of gays, lesbians and transexuals, the battle against racism, the impact of the break up of the USSR, the rise of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, worldwide economic and environmental crises, and today’s generational transition in Cuba’s leadership.

Castro talks about his role in peace talks between the insurgent FARC and Colombia’s authoritarian President Uribe, his efforts to save Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez from the April 2002 right-wing coup—and the prospects for fair trade, under the auspices of ALBA, to end the stranglehold of foreign capital and its institutions over Latin America.

“My Life” celebrates Cuba’s remarkable achievements in health, education, sports, biotechnology, ecology, and most of all, its aid to national liberation struggles from Algeria to Bolivia to Angola.

The discussion of Cuba’s defeat in 1976-77 of the military forces of apartheid South Africa (Operation Carlota, named for the female leader of the 1843 Cuban slave revolt) is particularly moving. At the same time, the book does not dodge hard questions about internal corruption, economic failings, ‘dissidents’, hijackings, and the ravages of neoliberalism on Cuba and the world.

Fidel acknowledges many problems that beset his nation, but insists on placing them in historical context. Four hundred years of colonial exploitation carves a deep scar into a society. In response to so-called human rights critics, he points out that in Cuba there is no torture, no disappearances, no second-class health care or inferior education, no homelessness.

After all, this is a many decades’-long record that cannot be matched in Latin America or the world, not even by the U.S. and Canada—now sinking under the weight of social cuts and post-9/11 ‘extraordinary rendition’ and secret trials.

The text reveals a prodigious mind with an encyclopedic grasp of dates, places, and personalities. It shows an erudite Castro, a lion of a man disciplined by his experiences in struggle, and governed by enduring principles: honesty, integrity, dedication to public service, and self-sacrifice.

It is not surprising to find a very strong ego inhabiting one who has had to withstand daunting obstacles and withering criticisms (to say nothing of hundreds of CIA-sponsored assassination attempts) as those faced by the Cuban comandante. His loyalty and devotion to ideals, including a passionate rejection of inequality, injustice, and oppression of all kinds are Castro’s exemplary strengths.

He is a self-made revolutionary—a novel kind of Marxist-pragmatist. This unique political strain is a distillation at least partly due to the degeneration under Stalinist policies of the Communist International, and with it the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), its Cuban affiliate. It is also a byproduct of the organizational weakness of the dispersed and persecuted continuators of scientific socialism, whose ideas could not perforate all the thick walls built of lies and distortions.

Castro’s Marxism reveals a persisting practicality. If you are looking for great theoretical penetration and sharp precision in dealing with the key problems of the modern workers’ movement, you may be disappointed. He offers no systematic explanation for such ignoble phenomena as Stalinism, fascism, and the collapse of socialist democracy.

He steers away from the grand questions of working-class strategy. He doesn’t discuss the reformist ‘stages’ theory of revolution promulgated by the Stalinists, or related ideas of class collaboration with liberals in government. These notions are starkly counterposed to the strategy of Permanent Revolution (put forward by Leon Trotsky), which preaches working-class political independence, alliance with the rural poor, and non-reliance on the domestic bourgeoisie.

Indeed, this was the path of Castroism in practice. The first successful socialist revolution in the Americas would have been impossible without it.

There is the spectacle of the Cuban PSP joining the cabinet of Batista in 1940. Fidel expresses regret at this, blaming the PSP’s lack of autonomy inside the degenerated, top-down Comintern. He refers to ‘strategic errors’, without specificity, and without pointing to analogous problems throughout the world Stalinist movement. He declines to examine the revolutions betrayed, and the revolutionaries purged and executed to consolidate the power of a tyrannical and historically regressive faction.

Castro cites ‘errors’ by Stalin, Mao, Tito, etc., as if mere ‘errors’ could account for powerful material forces and their devastating social consequences. Ramonet poses scores of pertinent questions on an array of topics, but he does not probe those lacunae of theory, strategy, and programme.

On the subject of Gorbachev’s reforms (perestroika) and their relevance to Cuba, Castro replies, “Stalinism didn’t occur here; in our country, there was never a phenomenon of that nature—the abuse of power, the cult of personality, statues and all that sort of thing.” Well and good. But it begs the question: Why did it happen in the USSR?

Ramonet asks about the “hegemonic” and repressive behaviour of “pro-Soviet Communist parties”. Fidel responds that he is “not one of those people that criticize historical figures who’ve been satanized by world reaction”.

Then he goes on to say, “So yes, in the Soviet Union, because of its traditions of absolutist government, hierarchical mentality, and feudal or whatever culture, a tendency towards the abuse of power emerged, and especially the habit of imposing one country’s, one hegemonic party’s, authority on all the other countries and parties.”

Given Cuba’s diplomatic betrayal by Khrushchev during the October 1962 missile crisis, Castro could hardly be mute on the harmful effects of hegemonism. Yet his explanation for its roots fall rather short of a rounded materialist one.

For a man who prizes and possesses so much knowledge, it is surprising how little Castro has to say about the major innovations of Marxist theory in the 20th century, such as the theories of workers’ bureaucracy, fascism, and revolutionary crisis. Perhaps this is due to his proximity to, and later his alliance of convenience with the PSP and with the USSR’s rulers.

Is it this reality that interposed such a political gulf between himself and Trotskyism? Castro states that Che, who famously denounced the ‘stages’ misconception and vigorously opposed Stalinist economic methods, never mentioned the ideas of Leon Trotsky to him. Is that possible?

Fidel’s discussion of a number of bourgeois state leaders and arch-capitalist politicians tends to dwell on personality traits, divorced from their policies, separated from the class interests and the nature of the state and other institutions they inhabited. While diplomacy and after-dinner etiquette have their place, they are no substitute for analysis and principled leadership in a perilous world.

It is completely understandable that the revolutionary leader of a small country so close to the imperial behemoth would seek always to find allies and avoid isolation. Still, Castro’s accolades for FDR, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton seem to go overboard. Implied are illusions in the chief war party of imperialism, or at least in the so-called liberal Democrats who try to mask the rapacity and barbarity of their system.

Will the socialist revolution in Cuba survive capitalist encirclement and hostility? Castro remains firm, and at the same time is realistically frank: “The Yankees can’t destroy this revolutionary process, because we have an entire nation that’s learned to handle weapons, an entire nation that despite our errors, has such a high degree of culture, knowledge and awareness that it will never, ever again allow this country to become a colony of theirs.”

“But this country can self-destruct, can destroy itself … if we are not capable of correcting our errors” (referring to “theft” and “diversions’ of funds, and the enrichment of a few during the ‘special period’ that followed the collapse of the USSR).

The answer, which speaks to the question of future leadership, Fidel provides with his customary passion and clarity: “There will be greater and greater participation, and we will be a nation of a holistic, unified general culture. [Jose] Marti said, ‘Being cultured is the only way to be free.’ Without culture, freedom is not possible.”

To this, let us add that the extension of the socialist revolution across Latin America today is the best hope for the realization of that prescription, for Cuba, and for the world.

“Fidel Castro, My Life” is a worthy substitute for an autobiography by the life-long leader of the healthiest revolution on Earth that has overthrown capitalist minority rule. As the leading architect of the Cuban workers’ state, as its mentor and now eminence-grise, Fidel deserves the deepest admiration of the world. This book amply shows why.

It provides excellent subject and explanatory notes, a detailed chronology of Cuban and world events (1926-2007), and dozens of historically significant photos. It closes with Fidel’s retirement from public office for medical reasons, indicating that his active participation in the ‘battle of ideas’ continues.

If you have any doubt, read “Reflections of Fidel”, the comandante’s regular column in the Cuban daily press, translated and reproduced on countless websites worldwide. But don’t miss out on the inspiring and comprehensive context provided by “Fidel Castro, My Life”.