Ed Broadbent Was a Socialist Because He Believed in Democracy

Canadian socialist Ed Broadbent died last month at the age of 87. Jacobin’s Luke Savage, a friend and coauthor of Broadbent’s most recent book, reflects on Broadbent’s impactful career, his ideas, and his enduring legacy within the socialist left.

Ed Broadbent in 2008. (Matt Jiggins / Wikimedia Commons)

During my undergraduate days at the University of Toronto I stumbled upon an old book of Ed Broadbent’s, The Liberal Rip Off: Trudeauism vs. the Politics of Equality, at a secondhand shop. Published in 1970, just a few years after his first election to Canada’s House of Commons, the Liberal Rip Off runs about eighty pages and deals with various issues related to taxation, corporate power, scientific research, and inflation. Though only a few can possibly have read it during the intervening decades, it quickly became a formative and memorable discovery.

On an intellectual level, I was inspired by its arguments: that the task of the Left is to intervene rather than simply respond, and that the brand of liberalism associated with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, however shiny it might have looked, was technocratic and small-c conservative in its implications; that Canadian elites are too deferential — politically, culturally, and economically — to the United States. It also recognized that the welfare state, while an important achievement, is not enough, that the central problem of liberal societies is the power of corporations over economic life, and that the essence of socialism is democracy.

But I was also animated by the book’s style, which bridged the abstract realm of philosophy and the practical world of politics with ease and achieved intellectual rigor in a way that never diluted the radicalism of its arguments. Insofar as I had encountered ideas like these before, I had never seen them expressed with such clarity or scope of imagination — and certainly not by an elected politician.

A Union Town’s Son

Outside his own country, many are probably only hearing of Ed Broadbent in death. But, as a member of parliament and leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) from 1975 to 1989, he was for several decades one of its most recognizable and widely respected left wing politicians.

On the international stage, he served as vice-president of the once-important Socialist International alongside former West German chancellor Willy Brandt and worked closely with other figures in the movement like Sweden’s Olof Palme and Democratic Socialists of America’s Michael Harrington. As party leader through four elections, he took the NDP closer to power than anyone in the history of Canada’s parliamentary left, and, by the late 1980s, his personal popularity exceeded that of any other national politician. Ed played a pivotal role in debates about Canada’s constitution. Following his departure from the NDP leadership, he went on to serve as the founding president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development before returning for one final stint as an MP in 2004.

Though already well acquainted with his career and his ideas, I came to know Ed personally in the early 2010s. Fresh out of university, and badly in need of something to do, I had the good fortune of being introduced to him by a mutual friend with whom he’d been discussing a still nascent book idea. Without hesitation I agreed to provide whatever help I could, and, from our very first conversation, it was abundantly clear he did not want to write a conventional political memoir. “Common space versus markets,” reads one note taken by Ed in August 2013, followed by others such as “the usefulness of philosophy” and “political ideas and their limits.” An academic and radical intellectual before his election to Parliament in 1968, he was first and foremost concerned with ideas and never displayed the slightest interest in writing a straightforward chronicle of his life or career.

Born into a working-class family in the industrial city of Oshawa in 1936, Ed inherited the egalitarian disposition of a union town, where the struggles of his own neighbors and family against the greed of General Motors had hardwired social solidarity into the local DNA. Coming of age against a backdrop of shared postwar prosperity and labor militancy, he arrived at the University of Toronto in 1955 with the intention of studying political science. Amid the radical ferment of the late 1950s and early ’60s, a broad identification with the social democratic left — beginning with the more moderate kind — seems to have come to him quite naturally. He became involved with the cooperative movement and spent his first year at a residence named for the Fabian socialists Sidney and Beautrice Webb. Soon switching to philosophy, he wrote a master’s thesis on the nineteenth-century British legal theorist John Austin before again switching — this time to political economy — for his doctoral studies in order to work with the brilliant professor and theorist C. B. “Brough” Macpherson.

From Philosophy to Politics

Among Ed’s intellectual influences, Macpherson easily loomed the largest of all. A liberal Marxist of sorts, Macpherson’s landmark 1962 book, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, was a critical study of the theoretical tradition originating with Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. His own project was to craft a kind of socialist theory that retained the egalitarian elements of liberalism while repudiating the claim that the property relations of a market society represented the true foundation of collective freedom or individual flourishing. Under Macpherson’s guidance, Ed applied a friendly version of the same critique to the thought of John Stuart Mill in his PhD thesis: arguing, in essence, that Mill’s own model of the good society was ultimately incompatible with capitalism and making the case for an alternative theory of “cooperative individualism.”

Before completing the thesis, Ed spent a year at the London School of Economics, where he encountered a second and more improbable influence in the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott — who conceived of politics as a “pursuit of intimations” in which “modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them.” Ed shared neither Oakeshott’s conservatism nor his inveterate aversion to ideological thinking. But he did admire his teaching and became increasingly convinced of the importance of persuasion in advancing a transformative political project. As the historian Alan Whitehorn would later write:

Among the lessons Broadbent took from Macpherson were the importance of class and the need to restructure society to foster the full growth of each individual. From Oakeshott he learned about people’s reluctance to accept change, the fact that it takes time to persuade them to move to a new political position, and the need to respect different viewpoints.

Ed carried this ethos into his political career. Shortly after the NDP’s creation in 1961, he joined and received an invitation to run for Parliament in 1965. However, he chose to focus on his teaching position at the newly established York University and declined. By 1968, spurred by frustration at the meteoric rise of Pierre Trudeau, he won the NDP nomination in his hometown of Oshawa and defeated the Tory heavyweight Michael Starr by a margin of just fifteen votes.

Initially aligned with the moderate Fabian tradition, Ed’s studies pushed him toward a more radical perspective, leading him to draw sharp lines between the socialist vision and the more anemic conception of democracy championed by liberals and conservatives. “For Liberals and Conservatives,” he argued in a 1969 speech, “a society is democratic if three principal requirements are met: (1) all adults have the right to vote, (2) there are periodic elections in which those who want to may compete for political office, and (3) there is the right of all to criticize the government.” “For socialists,” he continued — in a vein that clearly echoed Macpherson — “this view of democracy is inadequate; and it is inadequate because it is incomplete. We agree that any democratic society must have these characteristics. However, we also believe that any society having only these qualities is not fully democratic.”

Legislative Legacy

The principles that emerged from Ed’s early years and education laid the groundwork for a political program that sought to push beyond the Keynesian welfare state by extending public ownership over certain industries while also seeking to transform economic life through new forms of industrial democracy. “We must begin by insisting that in a democratic society . . . all adults should have equal rights in all those institutions which directly affect them,” he argued in his inaugural speech to the House of Commons on September 20, 1968, continuing:

Where authority is delegated, then those to whom it is delegated must be responsible to those over whom they exercise their authority.

In concrete examples . . . this means that in our factories, in our offices, and in our large commercial and financial institutions, legal power must shift from the few on the top to the many below. . . . Management can and must be made responsible to the workers, just as we are responsible to our constituents.

As both a backbench MP and party leader, Ed’s general approach was to present democratic socialism as the solution to practical problems. If the role of a scholar is to interrogate deep structures and assumptions, he wrote in an undated text called Teaching and Practicing Socialism, “in the real world of democracy, one is confronted with people who have problems [and] have little time and little interest in intellectual or moral challenges.” Faced with this dilemma, he believed, the socialist politician could simply react to the world as they found it and offer solutions (“Essentially that of the Democratic party in the US — a dead end for socialists”); argue for a utopia (a “dead end also”), or “attempt to link practical problems with socialist solutions.”

Favoring the last approach, Ed took up ideas like the provision of low-interest public mortgages. During the oil shocks of the early 1970s, he played a key role in forcing the Trudeau Liberals to establish a nationalized energy company. As party leader, his signature policy was an industrial strategy that sought to expand Canada’s manufacturing capacity while reducing the power of American capital over its economy.

Throughout the tumultuous constitutional negotiations of the early 1980s, he championed the cause of Canada’s feminist movement and was instrumental in securing a crucial clause recognizing indigenous rights. In his capacity as vice-president of Socialist International, he was persistent in his criticism of the Reagan administration’s repressive foreign policy and engaged in a cordial (though occasionally tricky) dialogue with Cuban president Fidel Castro.

The NDP’s support grew steadily and, by the end of late 1980s, polls suggested it was on the cusp of forming a national government. However, in the 1988 election, despite winning a record forty-three seats, the NDP fell short of a victory. The decisive issue — whether Canada would sign a free trade agreement with the United States — ultimately favored the Liberals, who opposed the deal in 1988, but later expanded it upon forming their own government a few years later.

It was the tragedy of Ed Broadbent’s career to ascend to the leadership of the NDP just as the gale of neoliberalism was beginning to sweep through Western democracies and as Canada’s politics increasingly shifted focus from economic to legal and existential issues. Taken for granted in the postwar decades, the welfare state itself was suddenly up for debate, while the power of American corporations was further consolidated under the trade deal he so passionately opposed — even, ironically, as he led his party to its greatest ever electoral success.

Seeking Social Democracy

The project that became Seeking Social Democracy: Seven Decades in the Fight for Equality — coauthored by myself, Jonathan Sas, and Frances Abele and published just three months before Ed’s death — very easily might never have come into being. When his wife, the brilliant Marxist theorist and historian Ellen Meiksins Wood, fell ill with cancer, the book he’d envisioned in 2013 was indefinitely shelved, and the whole idea sat dormant for years. That it finally came to fruition is, among other things, a testament to the remarkable energy Ed possessed until virtually the end of his life.

Having first known Ed through his ideas, it was something more than special to collaborate with him on a book about them. He was astonishingly humble for a former national leader and had a personality that was every bit as democratic as his politics. As an interlocutor, he was warm and generous, and always welcomed debate when his own point of view was challenged. Significant disagreement between the four of us, however, rarely occurred — and, in a way that was profoundly comforting, we shared many intellectual reference points thanks to a common grounding in the socialist tradition.

Ed was a toddler during the Great Depression and graduated from the University of Toronto more than fifty years before I did. As a young politician, he had quite literally bumped elbows with MPs born during the nineteenth century, but the generational differences that came out were typically those of language or emphasis rather than fundamental conviction. Having formed his politics in the 1950s and ’60s, he took care to distance himself from all things utopian — something I’ve rarely felt the need to do as a child of the neoliberal 1990s. Anti-Stalinist writers like Arthur Koestler thus had a formative importance for him that they have never had to me. As a former politician he was understandably more concerned with the practical challenges of realizing a socialist project and had the steadfast ideological patience and discipline that only comes with age and experience.

Belonging to a generation of left-wing politicians forced to operate within the ever more suffocating parameters imposed by the neoliberal revolution, Ed was also compelled to grapple with mass media in a way his predecessors never had. His first campaign as party leader was also the first to be mediated primarily by television, a medium whose influence only grew in subsequent elections.

Despite having lived through all of these changes, however, I believe that Ed Broadbent’s basic moral and political commitments remained remarkably consistent. From his entry into politics to the very end of his life, he was a populist intellectual who believed passionately in the power and dignity of the common person and saw the worlds of philosophy and social science as inextricably linked to a greater modern struggle for freedom and equality. In what would turn out to be Ed’s final interview on national radio last fall, host Matt Galloway asked, “Do you still consider yourself a socialist?”.

Having given detailed answers to every other question, here Ed’s reply consisted of only a single word: “Yes.”