This past June 24, marked the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of the Waffle from the NDP.
The Waffle, (actually the Movement for an Independent Socialist
Canada), for those who do not know it, was a grouping of socialists,
nationalists, feminists and activists that was formed in 1969 within the
NDP. It was, broadly speaking, led by James Laxer* and Mel Watkins.
The Waffle was ahead of its time in many respects. In one instance,
spearheaded by Krista Maeots*, the Waffle was the first group to
propose the notion of gender equity within the governing structures of
the NDP. Even though it was only proposed in a limited form, it was
opposed and voted down by the party hierarchy, including the eventual
The Waffle also fought for the nationalization of much of Canada's
resource sector and American-owned industries, sought to fight
continental economic integration and sought to work towards a radically
socialist Canadian economic and social strategy.
Beyond that, whatever the movement's failings may have been, the
Waffle also represented the attempt of a new generation of socialist
activists to have influence and a voice within the country's established
socialist party. It expressed and advocated the idea that members of a
socialist party should be allowed to, and have a right as members to,
question the party leadership, the leadership's ideas and to dissent
vocally and democratically.
After Laxer, a relatively unknown 29-year-old university lecturer
won a very surprising 37 per cent of the vote for the leadership of the
party against its standard-bearer establishment candidate, David Lewis,
the reality that much of the membership of the party was seeking new
directions and strategies, became a threat that the party's first family
felt it could not ignore.
In Orillia, Ontario on June 24, 1972, the ONDP's Provincial Council
at the behest of ONDP leader Stephen Lewis, David Lewis' son, voted to
order the Waffle to either disband or to leave the NDP.
in an interview on CPAC
(the full part about the Waffle starts at 14:00 approximately, while
the Rebick-Lewis part begins at 17:00) during a special dedicated to the
history of the NDP, Stephen Lewis, after a segment showing Judy Rebick
stating that the expulsion of the Waffle had been a serious and hugely
damaging error on the part of the party leadership, essentially takes
credit for the entire future "success" of the NDP, both in Ontario and
everywhere in Canada, by having pushed the Waffle out.
He claims that what Rebick says is not only "palpably wrong" but
that "history has proven her wrong" and lists a, to be blunt, rather
short number of "victories" after June 1972, culminating with Jack
Layton and the federal NDP becoming the official opposition 39 years
later as if the two events are directly related, an obviously specious
and ridiculous claim.
With all due respect to Lewis' attempt to preserve his legacy within
Canadian social democracy, what he leaves out, rather notably, are the
NDP's many defeats over those 40 years, as well as the broader defeat
of the social democratic idea itself during the same time.
He fails to note that after the relative federal NDP success of 1972
came the defeat of 1974 that saw his own father lose his seat in
parliament. While implying the expulsion of the Waffle resulted in the
ONDP becoming opposition in 1975, he does not mention that they fell
back into third place in 1977 and he himself resigned as leader. While
raising the Rae victory of 1990 and the victory of the NDP in B.C. in
the same year, he, needless to say, does not bring up how those years
in government turned out, nor how any of the limited reforms these
governments introduced were later dismantled by reactionary successor
He entirely ignores the wilderness years of the 1990s, the reduction
of the party to single digit popular support at that time, the loss, in
1993, of every single federal seat in Ontario, etc.
More significantly, of course, is that Lewis does not note at all
that over that same period Canada has witnessed the dramatic rise of
neo-liberalism as our country's governing ideology and that in every
single meaningful respect Canadian unions, workers and the poor have
undergone a relentless retreat in their political power and rights with
the dismantling of the post-war "compromise." Economic inequality is
far higher then in 1972, corporations are less regulated and have more
power than they did in 1972, free trade and continentalist economic
integration succeeded, we now live under the most right-wing federal
government in modern Canadian history, and, from a left-wing
perspective, the "programs" that the NDP runs on, provincially or
federally, such as they are, reflect this retreat fully.
If Rebick was "palpably wrong" as proven by "history," it is
difficult to see how. To say that the legacy of the Waffle's expulsion
might be more nuanced than the Long March to victory that Stephen Lewis
would have us believe would be an understatement.
The purge of 1972 pushed out intellectuals, much of the party's
youth (in fact, shockingly and tellingly, its youth wing was not
allowed to reform until 1988), many of its radical feminists and began
the final shift of the party away from its origins as a party that
sought to be the expression of an ideological idea and popular
socialist movement towards a party that has become fixated on its own
power and whose ideas are dictated by short-term political goals and,
at present, preventing the reemergence of the Liberal Party as a
contender for government. While the Liberal Party richly deserves its
developing status as a marginalized and irrelevant boutique party of
the centrist elements of the middle classes, this last goal would be
more laudable if there was any meaningful programmatic and ideological
differences between the two parties that were not now matters of
Ultimately political movements and their electoral wings seek to
change society and the civil discourse. Political parties seek to win
elections. These are not at all the same goal.
The NDP, to a large extent, has become driven by pollsters and places
great emphasis on soaring but empty rhetoric meant to inspire without
the need to really say much. The Obamaesque qualities of Layton's
entire 2011 federal campaign were centred around tightly managed sound
bites seeking to hammer home two or three points that have been chosen
from a minuscule election "platform" for a variety of demographic
Shortly after the "victory"of the NDP in becoming the official
opposition, the then National Director, Brad Lavigne, went on CBC to
"We've been absolutely fixated on making sure that we run a
first-rate campaign with a strong message, and we knew that message out
there was, 'Ottawa is broken, it's time to fix it. It's time that it
works for families to get things done.'
We attached that to the right demographics in the right ridings
across the country, and the great thing about tonight is that the
growth is everywhere. It's in Atlantic Canada. New seats in
Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Throughout Ontario and the West."
The problem with both this sentiment, and the notion of Lewis that
his and the NDP's actions in 1972 are somehow farcically justified by
the winning of opposition status, is that, sorry to point out, the
Conservatives actually won the election in 2011.
While the NDP may be ahead in the polls now, and while they may yet
win government, the damage that will be done by the Tories over the
coming majority mandate is becoming very clear, and, given the political
history of the last 40 years, and given the propensity of the centrist
"left" to seek to adopt the mantles of moderation and of eschewing
radicalism, there is little hope that much of this damage will be undone
in any serious way without the re-emergence of forces either within or
outside of the NDP.
It would seem, using Stephen Lewis' bizarre logic, that the end
result of June 24, 1972, given that Layton actually lost the election,
was Stephen Harper. There is no refracted glory to be had here.
In a less fanciful sense, the real legacy of the expulsion, and one
that is demonstrably clear, was the creation of an NDP culture that
deeply distrusts it own membership and that has taken power within the
party from that membership and given it over to a handful of people that
consists of the leader and his or her entourage of bureaucrats, and
sycophantic "yes" people.
In the wake of the purge, as already noted, the party disbanded its
youth wing and disbanded the entire New Brunswick NDP. It pushed out a
generation of activists and created a party environment that was
inimical to many social activists. This remains true.
In the ONDP right now we have a party that violated its own
constitution to ensure that a convention would not occur prior to the
last election, that declared elections within its own youth wing that it
did not like null and void and promptly, on entirely specious grounds,
invalidated them, and that even went so far as to deny to the Toronto Star
that policies passed by the ONDP's membership existed at all! (My
favourite part of the article is the hilariously Orwellian claim by the
ONDP representative that some membership resolutions "are out of date
the moment they're passed")
Federally, the last campaign was notable for its tremendously
centralized messaging. The platform contained nothing of substantive
value and this can be quickly determined by reading it.
It bears no resemblance at all to either the ideas of the membership
as a whole or even to the ideas of the NDP that the Lewis' led.
Uniformity of opinion within the caucus is total, in an outward way,
and we have an NDP Opposition led by an MP from Quebec that has refused
to take a stand on the greatest upheaval to hit his province in a
generation. Nor has he allowed his large and neophyte Quebec caucus,
some of whom were students prior to the "Orange Crush," to do so.
On the whole it would seem that the party within the party was and is the leadership itself.
*In the spirit of full disclosure, James Laxer & Krista Maeots are the parents of the author of this article!