On the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of the Waffle
James Laxer during the 1971 federal leadership convention.
June 24, marked the 50th 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 Lewis leadership.
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 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.
The Waffle's high point came during the 1971 federal leadership convention when the then relatively unknown James Laxer stunned the party as the Waffle nominee by taking the leadership vote to a fourth ballot and getting nearly 37% against the establishment candidate David Lewis.
In what would set the tone for decades of anti-democratic, nepotist and anti-left behaviour by the NDP leadership to follow, in 1972 ONDP leader (at the time) Stephen Lewis -- who went on to be a dilettante favourite of the Canadian establishment while pretending always to be a progressive -- would do his daddy David's dirty business and engineer the expulsion of the Waffle from the party at a meeting of the Ontario Provincial Council.
In Orillia, Ontario on June 24, 1972, the ONDP’s Provincial Council voted to order the Waffle to either disband or to leave the NDP.
The stunning cowardice of this on the part of the Lewis clan and their sycophants was evident to pretty much anyone who was not a party hack at the time. Its consequences were deep and far reaching. There is little doubt that it not only drove a generation of social activists out of the party but that it also made the party template into the paranoid, centralized, leadership driven one it is to this day.
In a CPAC interview in 2012 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 governments.
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 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 had us believe would be an understatement.
It is also worth remembering that while Layton and the NDP may have "won" opposition in 2011, it was Stephen Harper and the Conservatives who actually won a majority leading to fours years of the most right Canadian government in the post-war era.
And that was in 2012.
What happened since then?
The NDP was catastrophically defeated in 2015 losing opposition status as the Liberals leapfrogged over them to win a majority. This happened after the federal party under Tom Mulcair ran on what was without any doubt the most right wing platform in the party's history. The party then lost more seats and went down in the popular vote in 2019. While 2021 saw a slight rebound, but it was very slight.
Apparently history and voters have not been quite as kind to Stephen Lewis' "legacy" as he would have wanted.
In a less fanciful sense, a 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.
Fifty years after the expulsion, however, the direct legacy of the Waffle is a mixed one. Many of their ideas, such as gender parity in governing bodies, have become fairly mainstream in NDP and social democratic circles. Nationalization of industry and resources remains almost entirely anathema to the party. One can make a very good case that due to globalization the Waffle's brand of left Canadian nationalism is a fairly dated concept.
Yet the one aspect of the Waffle's legacy that has been shown time and time and time again is that its failure to take the reigns of the party and the establishment reaction against it were no anomaly. Rather it was the sign of things to come.
The Waffle not only failed -- nobly, yes, but still failed -- but every single attempt to imitate it has failed more. No left faction or movement within the NDP has posed anywhere near the threat to the leadership that the Waffle did. No other left leadership candidate came as close to winning the leadership as Laxer.
There have been a number of utterly futile attempts to turn the party left -- including some I have been personally involved in -- but chronicling them would be akin to adding another few hundred pages to the adventures of Don Quixote.
Amusing perhaps, but a waste of time. Tilting at windmills.
There are many aspects of the Waffle that are worth considering but, despite the delusional attempts of "entryists" and leftists within the party to claim otherwise, the idea of anti-capitalists or socialists taking over the party from within is not one of them.
The NDP and its provincial counterparts are far more right wing and wed to capitalism than they were in 1970. The NDP has capitulated to right wing narratives in ways that make David and Stephen Lewis look good.
Had the last fifty years since the Waffle been spent building a serious anti-capitalist alternative to the NDP, socialists in Canada would be far ahead of where they are now. The Green Party prior to the catastrophe of Annamie Paul's leadership stands as evidence that persistence and diligence can pay off even within the limitations of our "democracy". Countless articles and "think pieces" have been written by alleged academics engaging in mental masturbation calling for a new party that end up going nowhere while any real attempts to build something are relentlessly attacked or ignored.
It is not too late however. Regularly I see people who know we need a new socialist or anti-capitalist party outside of the NDP. Many anti-capitalist stalwarts are already fighting for a new society outside of it including in formations like Québec solidaire.
The best way we now can honour the Waffle is by acknowledging the primary lesson it taught us. Under no circumstances are the careerists and power brokers whose family compacts have controlled the NDP since the Waffle era going to allow any kind of activist, grassroots or left takeover.
If we want to see a triumph of the socialist politics and the ideals of the Waffle we need to act outside of and in opposition to the NDP's capitulation to bourgeois liberal politics and the sooner left activists in the NDP realize this the closer we will be to starting a new and truly interesting chapter in the anti-capitalist struggle in Canada.
*In the spirit of full disclosure, James Laxer & Krista Maeots are the parents of the author of this article!
Please note that this article uses large parts of two of my previous articles On the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of the Waffle - rabble.ca and The Left Chapter: Fifty years later it is time to acknowledge the Waffle was wrong