The Regina Manifesto is Still Relevant

Adopted in 1933, it’s a Manifesto that could be written today
December 1, 2009

During the Depression of the 1930s, the League for Social Reconstruction (LSR), a progressive think-tank, emerged in Eastern Canada, while a new political party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was born in Calgary. The Regina Manifesto and its 14-point program, initially written by LSR academics, was approved by the delegates attending the first full national CCF convention in 1933. Last October, the Saskatchewan branch of the CCPA invited CCPA senior economist Armine Yalnizyan to address its fundraising events in Regina and Saskatoon and speak about the Manifesto and its continuing relevance today. Her address follows.

My first reaction to the opening sentence of the Regina Manifesto, when I first read it recently, was to roll my eyes.

I ask you: does a document that opens with the phrase “We aim to replace the present capitalist system...” strike you as something that is going to be relevant to too many people in Canada or Saskatchewan today?

Here’s the opening paragraph in its entirety:

“We aim to replace the present capitalist system, with its inherent injustice and inhumanity, by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated, in which economic planning will supersede unregulated private enterprise and competition, and in which genuine democratic self-government, based on economic equality will be possible.”

Now, I don’t know if you and your friends get together regularly to chat about how much you want to get rid of capitalism, or how much you wish society was classless, or how nice it would be to end competition and the pursuit of profit without regulation. And when’s the last time you had a casual conversation about the need for of a government of the people (all the people) by the people, for the people? Even if you regularly engage in such discussions, how actually doable does this seem to you today?

So, at first blush, the Manifesto looked like just an interesting piece of quaint radical history. But the next paragraph jolted the reader from this stern but pragmatic tone regarding what must be done to a feisty indignance about why it must be done:

“The present order is marked by glaring inequalities of wealth and opportunity, by chaotic waste and instability, and in an age of plenty it condemns the great mass of the people to poverty and insecurity. Power has become more and more concentrated into the hands of a small irresponsible minority of financiers and industrialists, and to their predatory interests the majority are habitually sacrificed.”

This second passage from a socialist tract written in 1933 could have been written last week. Very few people today would raise an eyebrow at that analysis. It is typical fare in U.S. dailies, and only slightly less common here. Why? Because the status quo today, like in the 1930s, doesn’t work for women, for young families, for immigrants, for people of colour, for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. It’s not working for the planet. It’s not working for more stable global politics.

It’s time to get to the real work of dealing with not just the fallout from this crisis, but what went terribly wrong as we all got sucked up in the myopia of gunning for a booming economy.

So just how relevant is the Regina Manifesto to our situation today?

In its 5,000 words, it offers a pithy critique of capitalism, politics and public policy -- three fundamentals that shape our daily lives – and doesn’t miss a beat in proposing ways to correct blockages to meaningful prosperity for all.

At the heart of the Manifesto’s diagnosis and prescription is a confidence and faith – yes, faith – that we can do better; that the test of doing better is that no one is left behind on our journey towards the abundant life. By “abundant life” I do not mean “abundant stuff.” I mean the stuff of life: freedom from fear and violence, freedom to develop one’s potential.

We have way more stuff than our predecessors did a generation ago. But that’s about it. As a society, we settled. We settled for so little of enduring value from this past decade of blockbuster growth, and in the process privatized the very notion of prosperity.

We consider vast excess at the top normal, and have grown accustomed to hearing that access to the basics – basics like housing, education, savings for retirement or a rainy day – is increasingly difficult to attain for many, and not just the poorest. Scarcity in the midst of excess is not news; but, as we are learning, these kinds of imbalances can’t last forever.

For rising inequality, in good times and bad, is not sustainable economically. It is not sustainable ecologically. And it is not sustainable politically. The growing gap is another inconvenient truth of our era, every bit as threatening to our health, our economy, our future as climate change. As it also was 76 years ago.

I urge those of you who, like me just a few weeks ago, haven’t read the Manifesto yet to so do. Because perhaps its most startling revelation is how much of its “radical” shopping list of “must-dos” actually got done.

Gains that were made

None of the following things that you might take for granted today existed at the time of the Manifesto. Some took decades to achieve, others – like emergency measures to put people to work, or establishing a Bank of Canada -- a matter of months, as there was already a great deal of consensus on the need to do something, and fast.

1. A Bank of Canada tasked with controlling prices, and to some extent credit, as well as regulating foreign exchange.

2. Securities regulators (though not national, and increasingly unwilling to regulate).

3. Security for farmers through marketing boards and supply management for agricultural products; (at the time, agriculture was the country’s biggest industry).

4. An anti-protectionist, open trade spirit.

5. Co-ops that facilitate producing, consuming and financing, to attain economies of scale and risk-pooling without sacrificing independence or autonomy.

6. Improved productivity and utilization of the factors of production in agriculture.

7. Public ownership of electricity utilities, telecommunications, public transit, and most roadways (though some are now in the process of being privatized).

8. Medicare

9. Unemployment insurance benefits (weaker now than at any time since the 1940s, when first introduced, in its ability to provide automatic stabilization; but possible to fix).

10. Income supports for elderly, disabled, injured workers.

11. Workers’ health and safety boards to regulate standards and provide insurance for workplace injuries.

12. Wage and insurance benefits that vary with family size (until the 1970s for UI, to date for social assistance, children’s benefits).

13. Limitations and reductions in the hours of work.

14. The right to associate for workers, particularly public servants; leading to the ascendance of trade unionism and a highly organized public sector (72%), despite slow decline since the 1980s.

15. Public non-profit insurance, at least in some jurisdictions (public auto, fire insurance, etc.).

16. Emphasis on planning (till the 1970s).

17. A professional public service (until the 1990s an uncontested asset).

18. Development and emphasis on statistics to guide planning and decision-making (Canada one of the best “counting” nations to date, at threat?).

19. A National Investment Board? Well, the CPP functioned as the de facto financial arm of a national investment board by the 1960s -- there was no national planning, just provincial and municipal asks – but it was securitized in the late 1990s.

20. State regulated wages and employment standards, employment equity, equal pay for work of equal value (the 1993 wording in the Manifesto: “equal reward and equal opportunity of advancement for equal service, irrespective of sex”).

21. Shift in public finance from sales and excise taxes to a progressive income tax system, including a wealth tax (which existed until the 1970s).

22. Equal taxation across Canada (at the federal level).

23. Fairer treatment under the criminal law, more humane treatment of immigrants (fewer deportations).

24. “Emergency measures” with legs: Electrification of rural Canada, recreational projects, housing projects, community halls, reforestation, hospitals, libraries, schools.

25. Provide a viable, constitutional alternative to the two “old” political parties so that Canadians had a choice to vote for social reconstruction.

Things That Were Not Achieved

1. No socialization of the banks.

2. No real National Investment Board, as envisioned.

3. No controlled distribution of milk and bread, coal and gasoline (the basics back in the 1930s).

4. No system of licenses to regulate exports and imports (instead of tariffs).

5. No publicly insured dental care.

6. No control over mining, pulp and paper (which, along with agriculture, then made up most of the economy).

7. No abolition of the Senate.

8. No financing of public works through credit, not debt (credit was to have been raised against the collateral of the calculated National Wealth of Canada – not GDP, but our collectively owned assets).


1. Fight no more wars to make the world safe for capitalism; (arguably, Canada stopped doing this, and for a time started demilitarizing and reducing nuclear proliferation, though this has reversed more recently).

2. Create a social justice system that put emphasis on prevention and correction (this has occurred to some degree, but may again be shifting back under the current regime).

What’s at Risk

Potentially everything on that list of gains:

1. Less control over working hours and compensation for the majority.

2. More corporate consolidation, less regulation.

3. Farmers again at risk, except for large-scale agribusinesses.

4. Greater concentration of wealth and power.

5. More politicization of bureaucracy (serving the wants of the powerful first rather than public needs).

6. Less information publicly disseminated (some statistical surveys cut).

7. Access to utilities like electricity, heat, communications, and transportation infrastructures not secure. Declining access to free information, free community recreation and cultural space. Growing numbers of people without access to basics like affordable and quality housing, nutritious food, post-secondary education, child care, health care.

8. Social insurances like Medicare and EI are threatened with devolution in the direction of private insurance models, experience rating (if you use it more, you pay more).

9. Tax reforms that are shifting public revenue collection from an income to consumption base, and increasingly shielding savings and wealth from taxation.

10. Fewer deportations, but an explosion of temporary foreign work permits and a decline in the number of accepted refugees, as well as disregard of the rights of and supports for Canadian citizens (of colour?) abroad.

11. Threat to equalization and the nature of fiscal federalism. (Ontario is today a have-not jurisdiction for the first time since Confederation. With petro-nations and petro-jurisdictions around the world poised to be the first to rebound when the global economy recovers, and manufacturing on a long-term decline, Ontario may not regain its status as a “have” province any time soon. That has profound consequences for the nation’s public finances.)

12. Bank of Canada’s role vastly diminished, despite – perhaps because of -- its recent crucial role in stabilizing the economy. For both the public and private sectors, the objective seems to be shifting towards maximizing credit rather than controlling it, or minimizing economic risk.

13. A renewed fear of protectionism, less fair trade.

14. Growing international tensions, riskier geopolitics, risk of war.

It makes you wonder:

Where did progressive politics go?

Well, that begs the question: where did progressive politics come from? Suffice it to name two things that existed in the run-up to the 1933 Manifesto which do not exist today: 1) a series of pre-existing movements which came together to identify a common cause and concrete actions that could advance that cause; and 2) the prevalence of an ethical ideology, particularly the social gospel, which flowed from the dominant backdrop to daily life for progressives and conservatives alike: the Bible and the Church.

Today, progressives have no lack of ideas on how to fix things. What we lack is movement. Any movement. There is no women’s movement. There is no labour movement, to speak of. There is no peace movement. There is no civil rights movement. The anti-globalization movement is gone in the wake of 9/11, and even the environmental movement has lost its impetus. The anti-poverty movement, which saw some faltering beginnings of momentum by 2008, may have been stymied by the recession.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many connected stakeholders and hard workers in all these communities of interest. But there is no movement, no sense of purpose-filled momentum, no sense of shared context that connects one set of activities to another.

That doesn’t mean there is no “movement” in today’s politics. There is, but it is someplace else on the political spectrum. It is a Republican movement. It is a Conservative movement. And it became a movement for practical reasons, emotional reasons, and spiritually-based reasons.

The conservative movement isn’t just the ascendance of neoliberal or libertarian guiding principles. It is a populist movement based on values, emotions, and grassroots organizing.

It does several things vital to movement-building well and, apparently, easily. It raises money. It does constant outreach, not just during elections, but also between elections. It appeals to members from every demographic, and every region. It reinforces messages that make people feel like they are being heard, that their concerns and interests are being recognized.

And it does this organizing with clear, consistent messages targeted at YOU. Not messages based on big problems or policy solutions, but ideas that draw people in like a magnet: you can improve yourself; you know best what’s best for you; governments are corrupt and don’t represent your interests; you are overstretched; taxes are a burden. The overarching desires these messages tap into are freedom and choice.

It is a desire-based, not just value-based, movement. It’s not about good governance, or collective interest. It really is all about me, just like effective advertising.

It works its magic through speaking to one person at a time; not through the promotion of good ideas that can help us all.

What is the relationship between movement and politics?

Even the most politically disengaged citizen has some sort of worldview, some set of values that form a personal ideology. That wellspring informs what people think should or shouldn’t be happening, and will always shape our thoughts more than any loyalty to a party label.

If the goal is a more progressive country, you best get there by building a progressive movement. As the conservative movement shows us, when there is a growing articulation of conservative ideas, every party has to respond to what’s being said most often. Of course, if you succeed in building such a movement, the default party is going to be the party that resonates closest to the ideologies built into the movement: in our case today, the conservatives.

In the face of this deliberate, orchestrated organizational conservative machine, which started back in the 1970s and has taken decades to achieve ascendance, what have the progressives done? Knowing that the game for the past 30 years has been to get people to believe that government is an impediment; that destroying the tax base is a “relief”; and that corporations should be permitted to do whatever they want, regardless of the social or economic cost, because you, too, might get rich; that collective anything is a sham, that it’s all about the individual; knowing that, what have we focused on?

Policies. Public policies. The perfect list of things government can do to improve things. Do you see yourself in this picture?

Who are progressives?

Progressives may well be the people who have been enticed by the conservative movement, because they are being spoken to, directly. Because they can see something in that vision that speaks directly to their experience and desires.

Why can’t we do that?

That’s what the movements that came together to write the Regina Manifesto did. The delegates who came together were backed up by tens of thousands more people who were engaged, enflamed, energized with a purpose that related directly to their day-to-day lives. The very coming together of these movements created momentum and a sense of daring confidence that they could change things. The farmers' unions, the industrial unions, the women’s movement, the peace movement, settlement workers -- they all came together to say the system is not working for us, in so many ways; the status quo is not good enough, and embroidering the edges won’t do the trick; let’s completely reorganize the way the system works; and here’s how we should do that.

Some people think that we can’t change the status quo because there just aren’t enough unemployed people today. (Not enough that they come into contact with, anyway.) Perhaps people don’t feel a need to disturb the comfortable, they say, because, after all, we’re all so much more affluent in comparison to the 1930s. Perhaps that list of social gains which came in the wake of that meeting in Regina in 1933 -- that list now at risk -- has made us too comfortable as a society.

Does real change have to wait till we risk it all?

Hardly. Poll after poll shows that, irrespective of political preference or region, Canadians and Americans alike are longing for a movement that will articulate their concerns that corporations have far too much power, that the middle class is being squeezed.

What we need to do is speak to people where they are, and tap into the values they hold at the very same time as more conservative values. Values of fairness and pragmatism; of the shared need for sustainability and security; meaningful opportunity for each and every one of us, particularly the next generation; and time to enjoy life, not just work.

What have we learned from this recession? Not much. The recovery may be just around the corner – or not – but nothing fundamental has happened to reduce the volatility in the financial markets, the lack of regulation, the excess in compensation for some and downward pressure on wages and benefits for the majority. In short, there is no more security, nor even ready acknowledgment that, without the government, we’d be in the soup.

The Great Recession just evolved into the Great Bailout, and in the blink of an eye the conversation went from out-of-control investors and financial markets to workers against workers, fighting over who gets paid too much or has too rich a benefit or pension package. The class struggle of yesteryear turned into an internecine war.

What have we learned from the past?

Those with a plan get things done. Politics get pushed, to the right or the left, because of movements. Movements need people. People turn to movements because their story is reflected in the worldview, which often includes faith/belief/ideology, not just -- or even primarily -- policies.

Transformative change takes decades. And history comes in long waves. We may be on the cusp of a new wave today. If we get organized, perhaps we can hasten its advance. But, fast or slow, change will come.

Where do we go from here?

Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The Arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

At least in the developed nations, our lives are without question more full of promise and potential and genuine well-being than those of our forebears 200 years ago, 100 years ago, even fifty years ago. Every century has had its challenges and upheavals, and every generation its leaders.

The folks who signed the Regina Manifesto in 1933 were not only leaders; they were confidently astride the long arc of the universe towards justice, and they knew it. In part, their confidence came from something many progressives today are not comfortable with: their thirst for greater justice was not just economic or social, but faith-based.

Progressives today, as then, seek greater economic and social justice. Thomas McLeod’s book about Tommy Douglas was called The Road to Jerusalem. Success then, as now, is measured by the journey, not where we end up. What we have today is not the New Jerusalem, and we can’t make progress if we are only looking behind, fighting to protect what we have.

So how do YOU see the new goals for progressives of today?

Moving ahead requires not just a sense of where we are trying to get, but some re-calibrating of how we are moving. We’ve got a job to do: to fill ourselves and those we wish to attract with a sense of confidence and clarity, but also a way that integrates the “me” and the “we.”

The challenge for progressives today is not primarily about the “politically correct” recipe for moving beyond recession to a broad-based recovery. The challenge for progressives today is to take on a more profound, status-quo-challenging analysis, and tackle those troublesome parts of the status quo that are transforming us individually, and as a society – the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us; climate change that is fed by our addiction to plenty and more; and imminent demographic shifts, the like of which we have never experienced.

All are nudging us towards a new economic paradigm, a slow-growth paradigm. We have no lived experience of dealing with our problems without growth – it’s easier to deal with things when you can’t count on more, rather than divvying up what you have differently – and it promises to usher in a wave of much more raw politics, politics filled with harsh and clear trade-offs. Things are about to get a lot more pointed and direct. Like it or not, we are about to embark on a new politics...and, just like in 1933, most of what ails us can all be traced back to the nature of capitalism.

Given those realities, I am thankful to be part of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the most broadly-based progressive think tank in the country. And I am thankful to be here in Regina, in a community that was the cradle of a new politics, that understood that politics are based on movements, and movements are based on engaged citizens.

(Armine Yalnizyan is a senior economist with the CCPA.)