Abdication of Opposition: The CCF/NDP and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Canada

Beyond Borders will publish a series of articles on the topic of Neoliberalism and Canada, guest edited by Mack Penner and Nick Fast. Today’s article is the second of their series! Stay tuned for others!

Roberta Lexier, Mount Royal University

In 1956, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) replaced its founding document – The Regina Manifesto – with a new statement of principles. The Winnipeg Declaration – later adopted by the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961 – allowed that capitalism could, if sufficiently restrained by governments, provide equality and justice for all Canadians and, therefore, need not be replaced with socialism. In ceding such important ideological ground, the electoral party effectively abandoned the only parliamentary resistance to capitalism and aided the ascendancy of neoliberalism in Canada over the decades that followed. 

The CCF was formed in 1933 – the worst year of the Great Depression in Canada – as a federation of labour, farmer, religious, intellectual, and cooperative organizations with a radical socialist agenda. The Regina Manifesto, for example, identified “the capitalist system, with its inherent injustice and inhumanity,” as the core barrier to human equality and freedom. It criticized the “glaring inequalities of wealth and opportunity,” the “chaotic waste and instability,” and the “poverty and insecurity” of the “present order” and stated explicitly that “[n]o C.C.F. Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism.” [1] Furthermore, the 1943 monograph – Make This YOUR Canada – presented a methodical and passionate defence of centralized economic planning and “a brazen call to revolutionary change.” [2] “If we can find the resources to produce tanks, bombs and bullets,” its authors argued, “why can’t we find the resources and methods to build homes, schools and playgrounds? The answer is: we can, if we have the courage to refashion our society to serve the interests of all the people.” [3] 

In many ways, the CCF was successful. The centrally-planned (though not especially democratic) economic mobilization required by the Second World War demonstrated the validity of the party platform, and Canadians – unwilling to return to the desperate conditions of the Great Depression – increasingly supported the CCF. It received 15 per cent of the vote in the 1945 federal election, formed official opposition in Ontario in 1943, and was elected as government in Saskatchewan in 1944. [4] To fend off the rising third-party, Liberal and Conservative governments across the country were forced to interfere more broadly in the economy and dramatically expand the social safety net, with programs such as health care, pensions, and unemployment insurance. Canada, as a result, entered an era of unprecedented prosperity and relative equality. [5]

This, however, proved problematic for the CCF. As economic conditions improved, many Canadians accepted that capitalism could, in fact, be reformed rather than replaced and refused to support the overthrow of the system as proposed during the Great Depression. In addition, Cold War anti-communist campaigns consistently painted the CCF as part of a socialist conspiracy to overthrow the state. Opponents, explained one-time NDP leader David Lewis, “threw all the usual poisoned darts at the CCF: regimentation, bureaucracy, dictatorship, communism, Nazism, loss of freedom, loss of initiative, and loss of savings.” As a result, by the 1950s, the party was struggling electorally and decided to “rethink and restate democratic socialist principles” in search of “more relevant goals and methods.” [6]

The outcome of these efforts – The Winnipeg Declaration – attempted to present “modern socialist solutions to modern capitalist problems;” [7] in doing so, it accepts that capitalism is inherent, eternal, and politically neutral and limits the responses available to those struggling to survive in a world driven by profit. While it calls capitalism “basically immoral” and criticizes “[a] society motivated by the drive for private gain and special privilege,” it also promotes a mixed economy with “appropriate opportunities for private business as well as publicly-owned industry.” Inequality and injustice, it accedes, can be solved within the boundaries imposed by the capitalist system if democratically-elected officials “subordinate” – but not eliminate – “private profit and corporate power…to social planning.” [8] It is a far cry from early arguments that democracy and human progress are, in fact, incompatible with capitalism. [9]

Thus, when proponents of neoliberal economic policies began their systematic dismantling of the post-war economic system in the 1970s, there was no competitive political party in Canada willing or able to effectively counter their central claims. Lacking a substantive critique of capitalism, the party was generally limited to seeking small concessions for “middle-class Canadians” and continues to help reinforce the systems, structures, and assumptions of neoliberalism. In fact, rather than representing those traditionally excluded from the political process and critiquing efforts to privatize public resources and dismantle social structures and supports, even NDP politicians and staffers have adopted neoliberal economic policies – including balanced budgets, union busting, corporate tax cuts, and privatization – over the past four decades. [10] 

Ultimately, while the CCF and NDP are not entirely to blame for the rise of neoliberalism in Canada, their abandonment of audacious socialist perspectives allowed unfettered capitalism to reassert its dominance after a period of forced restraint and enabled the slow and steady dismantling of the post-war Keynesian welfare state. With little parliamentary opposition to the “inherent injustice and inhumanity” of the capitalist system, the nation has experienced the return of material conditions remarkably similar to those of the Great Depression and the solutions presented are wholly inadequate to address the inequality and suffering among Canadians. Overall, then, while a strong socialist electoral party might not successfully overthrow capitalism, one is necessary to provide real alternatives and real hope for Canadians.

Roberta Lexier is Associate Professor in the Departments of General Education and Humanities at Mount Royal University. She is a co-editor of Party of Conscience: The CCF, the NDP, and Social Democracy in Canada, out in 2018 from Between the Lines. 


[1] Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, The Regina Manifesto (1933). Available at: https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/the-regina-manifesto-1933-co-operative-commonwealth-federation-programme-fu

[2] Cameron Smith, Unfinished Journey: The Lewis Family (Toronto: Summerhill Press, 1989): 286.

[3] David Lewis & Frank Scott, Make This YOUR Canada: A Review of CCF History and Policy (Toronto: Central Canada Publishing Company, 1943).

[4] Robert Marleau & Camille Montpetit (eds.), “House of Commons Procedure and Practice: General Election Results Since 1867,” House of Commons. https://www.ourcommons.ca/marleaumontpetit/DocumentViewer.aspx?DocId=1001&Sec=Ch25&Seq=11&Language=E (Accessed 2 May 2020).

[5] See, Alvin Finkel, Our Lives: Canada After 1945 (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1997).

[6] David Lewis, The Good Fight: Political Memoirs 1909–1958 (Toronto: Macmillan, 1981).

[7] Desmond Morton, “David Lewis,” Canadian Democrat, Convention 1981.

[8] Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Winnipeg Declaration of Principles (1956). Available at: http://www.socialisthistory.ca/Docs/CCF/Winnipeg.htm

[9] Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, The Regina Manifesto (1933). Available at: https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/the-regina-manifesto-1933-co-operative-commonwealth-federation-programme-fu and David Lewis & Frank Scott, Make This YOUR Canada: A Review of CCF History and Policy(Toronto: Central Canada Publishing Company, 1943).

[10] See, Matt Fodor, “From Traditional Social Democracy to the Third Way,” in Roberta Lexier, Stephanie Bangarth & Jonathan Weier (eds.), Party of Conscience: The CCF, The NDP, and Social Democracy in Canada (Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 2018); David McGrane, The New NDP: Moderation, Modernization, and Political Marketing (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2019); and Abdul Malik, “Jack Layton is the NDP’s third rail,” Canadian Dimension, 1 September 2020.

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