A rallying cry for a stronger, smarter, class-oriented left

At a time when more and more Canadians seem open to democratic socialism, a new book has arrived that traces the evolution of the country’s mainstream political left over the past 50 years.

Andrew Jackson’s The Fire and the Ashes: Rekindling Democratic Socialism is presented as “part personal memoir, part historical analysis, and part political manifesto.” And it succeeds brilliantly on all three levels.

The small but jam-packed tome, published by Between the Lines, thoughtfully recounts the author’s involvement with the labour movement, the NDP, and left academia. Along the way, it provides valuable insights and urgent recommendations for activists who are committed to building a more just and equitable Canada.

Jackson recounts how he joined the NDP youth wing in 1968 and, during that year’s federal election, attended an “enormously energizing” Tommy Douglas rally in Welland, Ont. A Canadian Dimension subscriber from a young age, he recalls being “totally immune” to Trudeaumania.

While many of today’s young activists seem preoccupied with destroying the relics of the country’s historical misdeeds, those of Jackson’s generation were more focused on building a uniquely Canadian movement that would help change the world.

“In the age of Donald Trump, nationalism has become something of a dirty word,” he writes. “But back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Canadian left were mainly unabashed economic and cultural nationalists, consciously opposed to what was seen as globally dominant American imperialism. This was a civic nationalism that was also internationalist and certainly supportive of struggles for civil rights by racialized workers and the end of colonialism in what was then known as the Third World.”

A former chief economist for the Canadian Labour Congress and past advisor to provincial and federal NDP caucuses, Jackson is now actively involved with the Broadbent Institute.

And while he is full of praise for the Institute’s namesake, he has nothing but scorn for another former NDP leader.

He writes: “Ed’s cardinal rule was, and remains, to never be outflanked on the left, an unfortunate truth that was unfortunately never learned by Tom Mulcair, who, in my humble opinion, will be remembered as a Liberal interloper.”

Interloper or not, Mulcair wasn’t the only federal NDP leader to embrace the political centre.

Jackson laments how the party, like many of its international counterparts, has strayed from the democratic socialist principles on which it was founded.

“Much of the mainstream social democratic movement in advanced economies succumbed to the siren call of neo-liberalism and has paid a political price for abandoning class-based politics and democratic socialist principles since the implosion of the new liberal, global economy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis,” he writes. “A decade of stagnation has worked to the political benefit of the populist right rather than the traditional left.”

Fortunately, Jackson says, leaders like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have renewed interest in democratic socialism by exposing the failures of “third way” Tony Blair-style politics, which he calls a “bastard strand of social democracy.”

His prescription for renewal is as straightforward as it is sensible.

He writes: “In my view, the NDP should shift to the left in terms of its ideological agenda, moving closer to democratic socialism by promoting a much greater government role in the economy, while continuing to fight for a major expansion of public services and redistributive social programs through progressive taxes. Canada does not need two Liberal parties.”

The likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jason Kenney did not win by sticking to the “mushy middle.” Progressive politicians shouldn’t go there either, Jackson says.

“A bold left agenda is an essential part of the battle against the right, which has fed off the discontents of working people while failing to advance any real solution to the stagnation of living standards and rising insecurity.”

The Fire and the Ashes is a concise and convincing rallying cry for a stronger, smarter, class-oriented leftist politics in Canada. It calls for an NDP that is deeply connected to labour, social, and environmental movements, and clearly divorced from neo-liberalism.