Seeking Social Democracy: An Interview with Ed Broadbent

“Coming back to the commitment by the state, instead, I say, we need an expansion of the role of the state through decommodification. This will lead to the real freedom of more citizens, in a way that simple political and civil rights cannot.”

Cover of Seeking Social Democracy: Seven Decades in the Fight for Equality.

Listen to the full interview on the Perspectives Journal podcast, available now on all major streaming platforms.

Perspectives spoke to Ed Broadbent, founder of the Broadbent Institute, former leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, and co-author of Seeking Social Democracy: Seven Decades in the Fight for Equality.

Part memoir, part history, part political manifesto, Seeking Social Democracy offers the first full-length treatment of Ed Broadbent’s ideas and remarkable seven decade engagement in public life.

In dialogue with three collaborators from different generations, Ed Broadbent leads readers through a life spent fighting for equality in Parliament and beyond: exploring the formation of his social democratic ideals, his engagement on the international stage, and his relationships with historical figures from Pierre Trudeau and Fidel Castro to Tommy Douglas, René Lévesque, and Willy Brandt.

From the formative minority Parliament of 1972-1974, to the contentious national debate over Canada’s constitution, to the free trade election of 1988, the book chronicles the life and thought of one of Canada’s most respected political leaders and public intellectuals from his childhood in 1930s Oshawa to the present day.

Ed Broadbent’s analysis also points toward the future, offering lessons to a new generation on how principles can inform action, and how social democracy can look beyond neoliberalism.

The result is an engaging, timely, and sweeping analysis of Canadian politics, philosophy, and the nature of democratic leadership.

Join the Broadbent Institute in Toronto on October 22nd for a book launch event at Toronto Reference Library with Ed Broadbent and co-authors Frances Abele, Jonathan Sas, and Luke Savage. Reserve your seat before it’s gone.

You can order your copy today at This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Clement Nocos: Seeking Social Democracy not only takes a look at your remarkable life as a socialist, but it also engages with your social democratic ideas, formulating your thoughts on political economy in your academic career, while looking at examples of your democratic socialist practice, from your start as a Member of Parliament for Oshawa to Vice President of the Socialist International.

What’s notable, however, is that this book does not resemble a traditional political memoir. It takes on something of a dialectical style between you and your co-authors, Frances Abele, Jonathan Sas, and Luke Savage, who ask key questions about your thoughts and experiences that you respond to in the text. How did your quartet come about to write the book in this style, and how does it lend to elaborating on your thoughts on social democracy?

Ed Broadbent: I make two points about that—one is that I had always thought I would not want to produce an autobiography because there’s a mistake made by authors who do this, and I would be no exception. They get involved in justifying their past actions, or criticizing their own critics from the past, and that’s pretty hard to escape in the traditional format of an autobiography, so I wanted something different if I ever did write about my political past.

Secondly, I always thought if I did write my political memoir, I would want to discuss fundamentally the ideas or values that were reflected in my political past, as opposed to simply the details of the happenings. This possibility became very clear to me, as it did to my collaborators, Frances Abele, Jonathan Sas and Luke Savage, in the format that was originally used by Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt. Snyder asked questions of Judt—both are distinguished historians of ideas—and Judt replied and elaborated on his thinking in the answers.

We’ve attempted to do the same thing in this format, where these three interlocutors asked me certain questions about a particular period of the past and I responded by stating what was involved for me as a social democrat or for the NDP as a party. And that way we got, I think, a crisper, more accurate view of the past than what would have emerged if I just did a traditional autobiography. They’d literally question me and then follow up with questions, so it’s a good method to liven up, I think, the history of the past.

Nocos: In Seeking Social Democracy you dedicate a chapter to this idea of “Ordinary Canadians” and what comes to mind for me typically, is something also known as the working-class, but you’ve stuck over the decades to an elaboration over Ordinary Canadians. You also talk at length about human rights, which you believe are fundamental things ordinary Canadians should have. Who, in your view, are “ordinary Canadians”?

Broadbent: Generally speaking, when I use the phrase “Ordinary Canadians,” which I did for a good part of my political life, it was a straightforward attempt in ordinary language to take into account the thoughts, feelings, aspirations and frustrations of the majority. It was a very broad phrase used by me and I wanted to use the phrase, “Ordinary Canadians” to distinguish those people from those who seek special privilege in the state.

An Ordinary Canadian for me, was someone who is quite content to accept his or her role as a citizen to pay taxes, to work hard, to spend time with family or friends. This person was not the kind that would be seeking special privilege from the state. So there was that other notion in addition to the income distribution of Ordinary Canadians. There was, in my view, a disposition associated with them that made them feel simply good as citizens, going about their lives, and not seeking special treatment or to work around existing rules to get an advantage.

Nocos: You also talk at length about human rights which you believe are fundamental things Ordinary Canadians should have. How exactly are human rights important to Ordinary Canadians?

Broadbent: They have absolutely crucial interest in human rights, particularly in the human economic, social and cultural rights. It’s taken as a given the liberal heritage of political and civil rights, but they can also see that this in itself is insufficient for a good life. You can have all the political freedom that the state can provide, but if you do not have a healthy situation, if you do not have a well educated foundation to be able to exercise those rights, then they’re not meaningful.

So, to give meaning to political and civil rights in the first place, Ordinary Citizens need economic, social, and cultural rights. The freedom that came from the welfare state, particularly in that period from 1945 to 1975, was the great emancipation for the working-class in Canada and elsewhere. During this period, we took advantage of the security that comes from good pensions, universal health care, access to higher education, and, in a number of states, well provided housing. So, you have the range of social and economic rights, on top of political and civil rights, that made a real difference in the lives of Ordinary Canadians. And without these social and economic rights, life indeed, would continue to be rather barren for the Ordinary Citizen.

Nocos: In the book, you chronicle the struggles you found as NDP leader in trying to develop Canada’s industrial democracy and industrial strategy. You might say among the social democratic left today, that there has been something of a revival in industrial strategy, or industrial policy, as a tool for gearing economic transformation towards a Just Transition.

You also talk about corporate power as well and how it’s grown in the past thirty years in Canada. I think that if any industrial policy is to be considered, that corporate power needs to weaken, and in places with long traditions of industrial policy, corporate power is somewhat checked under a coordinated market economy system, akin to what’s seen in European advanced capitalist economies.

These coordinated market economies see an institutional arrangement between corporate power and labour power and government that’s able to facilitate industrial policy I think far-more effectively.

To that end, what is Industrial Strategy and industrial democracy in your view, and how does this relate with calls for green industrial policy today?

Broadbent: To begin with your question, to what extent are workers entitled to have a democratic say in the corporate structure? This question was raised over the past hundred years with specific reference to the state, where the answer became very clear that for men and women to develop and indeed to flourish at all, they ought to have the political right of electing their own representatives and having access to the state and having representatives of the state responsible to them. That’s what responsible democracy is all about.

We’ve also had over the past 100 years the question raised, that if accountability is expected from those having power and state, why should it not be expected of those who have power in the corporation? For most people, the centre of power most influential on their lives on a day-to-day basis, is some form of corporation. Most work for some kind of corporation large or small, and it’s that entity, as much as the state, that ought to be accountable to the men and women over whom this power is being exerted. So the principle of industrial democracy really is a democratic principle.

This applies to corporations and not simply left with reference to the state, and once you begin that, I’m tempted to use a very vulgar phrase, that sh*t hits the fan, and the toughness of that situation will come out. If the leadership is determined, they will be breaking some corporate traditions in order to make it feasible, or practical to be talking about industrial democracy. In the earliest years of the trade union movements, there is a claim that the powers that were being demanded by the unions were the prerogatives of management. That in fact had been the case, and what the democratic demand was all about was democratizing these so-called prerogatives and making them the claims of the people as well as the claims of capital on the other end.

The men and women who make these demands for example, to have a committee of workers running parallel to, or part of, the board of directors of a company in the concern of making new, major investments, or changes in corporate structure by absorbing another company or by selling out to another company—these decisions should involve workers directly affected, and not just corporate interests. Therefore, the workers themselves, In different countries and different industries, ought to shape what form of say or control they will have in such decisions in the future.

The pace of change and the aspects of change should be determined by the workers themselves, and will vary from country to country, from one region to another, but the principle should remain clear that workers have to get beyond what they now have in terms of breaking down the prerogatives of management, and have new says. The structure for this is in Germany in the corporate participation of co-determination. This is one illustration of what can be pursued, but it’s only an important one. The principle itself is something that we should be working for in Canada, and of course, the people that must determine this are the workers themselves.

Nocos: You spend a great deal highlighting your internationalist work, building solidarity with socialists around the world as Vice President of the Socialist International during its heyday, and as President of Rights and Democracy—an international organization at arms-length with and funded by the Government of Canada. This was especially a time to serve in the SI under the presidency of former German Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt, and it was through that tenure I learned through the Broadbent Institute’s friends at the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, who I like to think of, in a way, as a grandfather to the Broadbent Institute, that you earned something of a legendary status among social democrats internationally.

During the neoliberal apogee of the 1980s, you existed in the world quite uniquely as a North American socialist.

I honestly do not think that most Canadians know you for your work in international affairs and diplomacy, and so this was a particularly interesting chapter for me. From calling for democracy in Nicaragua, to relations with Fidel Castro, and working closely with the legendary Willy Brandt, it’s clear that you believed in internationalism for socialists, but why did you feel that this was important?

Broadbent: The context is important, and during this period, you’re quite right in singling out the importance of Willy Brandt—a man that I have immense respect for. He saw his role after leaving the Chancellorship in Germany to bridge the gaps, he saw often between the authoritarianism of the USSR on the one hand, and the rabid ideological capitalism of the United States on the other.

And what he wanted to show to the world was that there was another political option that rejected both of these outcomes, and that was social democracy or democratic socialism—choose the label—he used both interchangeably, as I do.

This became particularly important in the politics of South America and even more practically relevant in Central America where, at the local level, battles were being fought out literally using military means often because of the repressive regimes. And the objective was to establish a beachhead for a social democratic state. This turned out to be, I am inclined to say utopian, but it turned out to be not a success. For example, the Americans were hostile to almost any formulation of social democracy. Even in the battles that were being waged in Central America, they were only willing to accept, under immense pressure, a traditional liberal democratic state. But no, social and economic rights. That was the American position on one hand.

And then, of course, the folks under the influence of the Soviet Union were interested in establishing a beachhead of radical authoritarian structures. These were thought to be unacceptable by social democrats like Willy Brandt and myself. So we attempted to aid and facilitate development of a social democratic party, whether it was Guatemala, Nicaragua or El Salvador, but it was very difficult, indeed. To avoid the extremism that was promoted directly by forces outside of Central America.

Nocos: And it’s also through that anti-democratic tendency that we see the decline of the Socialist International since your tenure as Vice President, and existence of the Progressive Alliance, made up of breakaway members of the SI, which does not hold the same internationalist esteem as its predecessor. Do you still think there’s hope or need for progressive internationalism today?

Broadbent: I think there is a great need for it, but the road ahead, to pursue another metaphor, is quite rocky indeed. There was a time, when Brandt was the president of the SI, there was widespread consensus even about what the initiatives of the SI globally should be all about. This is particularly true in the politics of Central America. But there’s by no means such a consensus today. This in part is, due in my judgment to the emergence of Blairism, and Tony Blair is a political figure in social democratic parties.

He, along with Gerhard Schroeder in Germany promoted a view of social democracy that was almost indistinguishable from the capitalist party alternatives. By this, I mean, they accepted too much, the role of the market. The market was something that these conservative, or right-wing, social democratic parties had a worship of and their continuing use of market mechanisms including an elimination of a lot of public policy initiatives, and turning them into joint ventures with the private sector or simply relying on the private sector exclusively, abandoned social democracy in effect. Social democracy came into being as a political movement concerned with the well-being, indeed, the emancipation of the class of working people.

Under Blair, in an international leadership role, many, but by no means all, social democratic parties came to accept almost the complete domination of the market in terms of the organization of their own societies. This led, willy nilly, to serious ideological disputes within the SI. And I think the fallout since Brandt’s death has been due to this right-wing move of the SI that for many parties was not acceptable. This led to conflict and a lack of coordination for a system of global politics that would differ from the status quo.

Nocos: An excellent resource I found in the back of the book was a collection of speeches and editorials that really lend to your rhetorical evolution as a politician and intellectual. It’s very interesting to trace this evolution from a lecture you gave at York before 1968 on the nature of political theory, to your NDP convention speeches as leader of the party, to the Broadbent Principles of Social Democracy.

What do you hope readers would learn from following along this section of the book?

Broadbent: What I would hope it would illustrate is that there’s some flexibility in social democratic thinking and that the basic values of trying to build a society that’s not overwhelmed by market mechanisms, that has a big role for the state apart from the market, that it’s a road that necessitates different judgments at different times. They’re unexpected occurrences that have to be dealt with and there’s no magic formula that will meet all circumstances.

What I learned I think in my political life is that you have to be sure of rock solid values like the commitment to equality and the commitment to non-market mechanisms like the decommodification of a number of aspects of life. Healthcare, life in the arts, job security—these aspects of life should not be marketized. That the goal of a social democratic party ought to keep those values in mind and apply them in different circumstances. But the outcomes will vary. Just as the outcomes of the historical situation itself varies.

If the speeches and other material at the back of the book have any utility whatsoever, they should be Illustrations of an attempt of a social democratic point of view to make real progress. And what should be copied is not the detail of the speech in question, but of the method or philosophy that’s behind it.

Nocos: What I also found interesting was an original 1986 draft of an opinion article submitted to the Globe and Mail that listed a number of transgressions by the United States against Nicaragua, even before the Iran-Contra scandal was revealed. Was this full article ever published before the book, and why include it in Seeking Social Democracy?

Broadbent: I don’t know if it was ever published or not. That’s why it was put in there in that form. I think it was requested of The Globe at one point but whether it was printed, I don’t know and we didn’t have time to check carefully enough before publication, but we thought the ideas in it were important to get into this book.

What’s in it is the documentation of U.S. involvement in the politics of virtually every country in Central America and, almost invariably, and in a negative way, stretching the Monroe Doctrine all around the continent to get in place regimes that they would see to be quite sympathetic to their own set of political priorities.

This is very harmful, indeed, to the development of these smaller countries to the south of us. And it was important for many of us to try to create alternative approaches such as Costa Rica. Costa Rica has no military—just a police force, but no armed forces, and managed to produce two social democratic parties.

Some of us had hoped this could become a pattern throughout Latin America, but even this form democratic socialism was unacceptable to the US. They were, during the Reagan years in particular, very prone to using force to stop this from happening. So, what was happening there as a consequence was that on the one hand there was some emphasis by groups on an approach that originated in the USSR, and then they’re confronted by an American reactionary approach on the other hand. So, it was difficult to get into this mix a democratic socialist alternative.

But that’s what we were trying to achieve in that article that was critical of the US and its early Nicaraguan policy, and stood as an example of what I thought was going on throughout the region. Nicaragua, we all know after the Sandanista’s got power, became very repressive and anti-democratic, but there was a stage before that happened. In the earliest stage of the overthrow of the old regime in Nicaragua where the U.S. as well as social democratic governments in Western Europe, and Canada had cooperated and put persuasive pressure on the newly-elected, reformed Nicaraguan government, it could have well remained democratic. But as it turned out, in part because of outside pressure, but by no means entirely, the regime became quite repressive. However, before this occurred, if the US had shown more of an open attitude, there was some reason to believe a ,ore Democratic outcome for Nicaragua could have been achieved.

Nocos: To wrap up, you nearly end the book with the age-old leftist question: “what is to be done?” in a postscript entitled “The Good Society”–a throwback to your dissertation on the democratic impulse of classic political economist John Stuart Mill. From your dissertation to the conclusion of Seeking Social Democracy, your hope is for a collectively-owned economy that avoids exploitation to realize the good society.

You then end the book by highlighting again West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and his historic struggle against the Nazis during his exile and then during his return to political life in Germany, contending with both denazification as well as East Germany.

Brandt’s struggle certainly reflects the struggles social democrats face today, but still, what do you think is to be done to realize the good society?

Broadbent: What is to be done is to inform a replica of what was done in the period following the Second World War, before this economic reaction set in with the Thatcher and Reagan period beginning around 1980. Prior to the reaction of these two leaders, one in the UK and one and the other in the U.S., there had been great progress made in the 1945 to 1975 period for ordinary people in many countries, in Western Europe and North America.

The coming of social and economic rights, radically changed their lives. This was a profound alteration of the course of history, whereby ordinary citizens experienced a commitment on pensions, healthcare, housing, and employment insurance. All of which became not just aspirations but rights of citizenship, so for a glorious period from 1945 to roughly 1980, these rights flourished in their development particularly in Europe, Canada and the Rust Belt interior in the United States.

But along came the Thatcher and Reagan movement to leave it deliberately and consciously. They set out to destroy or roll back social democracy, while it succeeded. And so, from 1980 on in particular, almost to the present, but in particular into the crash of 2008, it was a rollback of the democratic state, and many of these rights were taken back.

So, my view would be that they have to be fought for again. You have to re-establish, instead of going on with, as the right wing would have it, the so-called free speech movement associated with the convoys. It’s anything but free speech, but it’s speech that’s optimally about taking away, not only functional civil rights, but speech that would take away in particular social and economic rights as well.

Coming back to the commitment by the state, instead, I say, we need an expansion of the role of the state through decommodification. This will lead to the real freedom of more citizens, in a way that simple political and civil rights cannot. And so, the battle of the future, as it was in the post-war years, is for the establishment of social and economic rights more broadly. That is to say, more decommodification, more emphasis on tax reform, to achieve a greater degree of equality.

Get your copy of Seeking Social Democracy, available now by ECW Press.

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