Vive Le Canada

A Left Look at the Left in Canada
Date: Tuesday, October 04 2005

A Left Look at the Left in Canada

"Rebels, Reds, Radicals", by Ian McKay, Toronto, Between the Lines Press, 2005.

One of the things a reader wants to know from a review is whether the book being reviewed is worth reading. In this case I’d say Yes. Read the book. Moreover, if you vote NDP or are thinking of doing so in the next election, Rebels, Reds, Radicals might help you think through your position. An important quality of the book is that it takes the work of all of the Left seriously and argues it has been key in Canadian political life and history. A refreshing attitude.

That said, the book has flaws in doing what it sets out to do, in the language it uses, and what – sometimes – it considers “socialism” to be. Canadian historians and political scientists have a devastating tendency to use key, important words without full and clear definition or consistency. McKay, just for instance, uses “liberalism” as the hated ideology of ruthless capitalism (which it is). But Canadian liberalism (Liberalism) has to be written about with very careful modification – as we shall see a little later. McKay’s statement is admirable that to be “a leftist” (“socialist, anarchist, radical, global justice activist, communist, social-feminist, Marxist, Green, revolutionary”) (p. 3) means having a belief there is a possibility to live another and better way, lending all the variations a common belief they often deny. The concept though is very bulky and when, later, the “Left” is transmuted into the five or six major formations in Canadian history of what McKay calls “socialism,” a reader says: “Just a minute. Stop.”

Language. Socialism, as distinct from the Social Democracy espoused by the NDP, is a system which rejects Capitalism as the dominant mode of economic organization. In a socialist society the commanding heights of the economy and most major enterprise would – in some way – be in the hands of the people.

A society would be a wonderful one in which (if it were so) equality was expanded, social securities preserved and improved, gays and lesbians genuinely respected, and democracy made more real. But it would not necessarily be “socialist.” All those things might come about in a capitalist society. Just for instance, neither women’s nor gay liberation defines socialism. Hateful as it is to observe (and it is hateful to do so), many capitalists approve of women’s liberation because it can provide cheap female labour – as is the case, for instance, in B.C.’s privatization of hospital and seniors’ home support work in which the pay to predominantly female workers has been savagely reduced. “Release women from the sexist drudgery of the home”, those capitalists say, “so that we can enslave them in the sexist drudgery of exploitative enterprise.”

McKay declares himself gay, shows himself sympathetically informed about gender and sexual equalities, and reveals wide and serious reading of Left Theory. That is both good and bad. The gaining of equality for women, gays, and all the sexual others is a major step. But it has not, despite McKay’s argument, advanced socialism in Canada. Svende Robinson, former MP, did much to gain gender equality. He did almost nothing to advance socialism or the strength of an effective political Left in Canada. His excellent work must be acknowledged. But it must not be confused with what he did not do.

McKay acknowledges the Left seems to be re-gathering in Canada. But he often cites as proof female (and gay, etc.) movement into positions of importance, where, however, no change is made institutionally or in public education. The institutions those people move into remain in a fixed relation to Capitalism in Canada. We await the breakthrough to a growing number of people who say “the system must be changed by greater socialization of the economy and culture.”

If I am correct that McKay romanticizes the national political effect of contemporary “liberations,” I may be correct in suggesting he reveals unconscious colonial-mindedness in two ways.

First, he depends (needlessly) on European thinkers for a place to start: Gramsci, Bauman, Eley. They show McKay is widely read. But they really don’t do much to help say what Canada’s Left is, has been, and might be. Quotes from serious Canadians might be better. Just for instance, Salem Bland (never quoted) in The New Christianity (1920) makes a strong case for working Canadians as the basis of a real democracy. Stanley Ryerson (never quoted) says key things about a real partnership of francophones and anglophones from a socialist perspective in his French Canada (1943). The use of Gramsci’s idea of “hegemony” is very close to the Harold Innis (never quoted) idea of “monopolies of knowledge.” Why not, in Canada, use Canadians grappling with our real society in its struggles?

If the answer is that Innis was a liberal (Liberal), then we come up squarely against “the definition problem”. McKay points (as he should) to Make This Your Canada by CCFers David Lewis and F. R. Scott (1943). That widely read book of the 1940s pushed “Radical Planism” and “the general principle that professionals could arrive at value-free judgements,” and so should be a significant part of any government team.

Both the ideas, however, had been yeastily bubbling in Liberal circles since after the First World War. As Doug Owram cogently argues in The Government Generation (1900-1945), men who came back from the slaughter of that War were determined to have change, and some became close advisors to Mackenzie King. In fact, in 1935 the Journal of Economics and Political Science was launched arguing about “the general principle that professionals could arrive at value-free judgements.” Many took up the cause for such people being attached to government policy making.

Both Stephen Leacock and Harold Innis argued such people would become kept whores (as they have largely become). “Planning” by “experts,” nonetheless, was a hot topic and became significantly influential in Liberal politics.

The Nazis were soon to teach the world, however, that “experts” using “value-free” judgements could work for murderous regimes with inhuman effect. We still haven’t solved the “expert” problem. Heavily degree’d “experts” in organizations like the C.D. Howe and Fraser Institutes flash “value-free” (?) research and statistics before our eyes to show Canada would be superbly more attractive and happy without any social securities and with governments run openly by large private corporations.

The Beveridge Report of 1942 in England called for serious Social Welfare reform, and its influence crossed the Atlantic where consensus was growing that post-War planning was a necessity. Even in the individualist USA, a National Resources Planning Board was in operation. McKay reports Mackenzie King realized in the 1940s that the CCF was leading in the polls. But he knew as well in 1942 that the Conservative Party of Canada made John Bracken leader with a reform platform of state intervention and planning. Then in 1944 the Tommy Douglas first CCF government in Saskatchewan not only employed planning but showed the country how it could be done.

None of that is to say McKay is wrong in what he writes. But my added information shows that the Leftness of the Canadian Left has survived, at least in part, because both the Liberals and Conservatives in Canada were willing to go Left. They were willing to do so because of the nature of the country. More on that a little farther on.

McKay’s good argument that “Radical Planism said, in essence, Canada itself had interests that conflicted with liberal acquisitive individualism” was an argument made before 1943. That was why the Conservative government founded the CBC in the 1930s and the Liberal government anchored it firmly. Because Canada itself had interests….

Those who founded and worked at the core of the Waffle Movement in the NDP from 1969 were motivated by just such a belief. The slogan was “Independence and Socialism” for stark reasons. Without independence from the USA important socialist measures would be impossible in Canada. And without a socialist government there would be no serious move to independence from the USA. Both were necessary because in essence, Canada itself has interests that conflict with liberal acquisitive individualism.

Unfortunately, McKay creates five phases of Canadian socialism which are forced to fit international theories (even though McKay says they aren’t). Socialism in Canada, he says, from 1890 to 1919 was defined as “the applied science of social evolution”. From 1917-1939 it was “revolutionary seizure of power by a working class under the leadership of a vanguard party.” Sorry. That’s wrong.

From 1885 to 1919 socialist directions were largely a development of the Social Gospel. Mackenzie King was a Social Gospeller as were Ralph Connor and Salem Bland and other enormously influential people. What “the handbook” may have said socialism was at the time didn’t make much sense to people like them. Some moved into the Communist Party (founded 1921) from the Social Gospel as A. E. Smith did.

From 1919 to 1939, Canadian socialist directions were revealed in a continuation and modification of the Social Gospel, in battles for the rights of veterans, of unions, of the unemployed, for the adoption of anti-capitalist measures, and for civil rights and social insurance. Behind those actions the threat of a “revolutionary seizure of power” both moved and frightened the power class.

I change the description of McKay’s two first phases because when the Liberals, during the Second World War, began planned social reform, Mackenzie King confided to his growing diary in 1943: “It looks as though I were to have the privilege of completing the circle of federal social security measures which, with the exception of the annuities bill, I was responsible for beginning.” No great trail-blazer, the aging fumbler of 1943 was still the Mackenzie King of the Social Gospel. If a hard-right Liberal like C.D. Howe had been Prime Minister, the story of Canada’s legislated social security measures would be very different.

Liberalism (liberalism) is the evil ogre of McKay’s book. But, in Canada, the word needs much, much more careful definition than McKay gives it.

I am not a Liberal, nor am I arguing Canadians should like any present “liberals,” whether in the Liberal Party or in the party of Stephen Harper, Peter MacKay, and Stockwell Day. I am arguing that in Canadian history all parties, as governments, at times did un-capitalist, “un-liberal” things for Canada’s sake.

By the same token most of the members of the Massey Royal Commission on the Arts, Letters and Sciences (1951) were Liberals. But they were determined to build a non-capitalist base for Arts, Letters, and Sciences in Canada. And – in the long term – they were significantly successful.

That brings us to the perennially interesting organization in Canada, the Communist Party of Canada, characterized by the endless bad press it gets. “The Party” (as Left veterans call it) was the most significant force of all Left organizations from 1921 well into the Depression of the Thirties. To say it ruined its own potential is to forget that Global Capitalism was in total conflict with all effective “socialisms.” The Communist Party of Canada did also – there is no doubt – shoot itself in the foot. Adhering too much to Moscow/New York dictates, it made “foreign” decisions for Canada. Reading from texts that presented “the correct [though shifting] line,” it often preached what listeners didn’t want to hear. It described a place, Canada, that Canadians often didn’t recognize. Its concept of the violent overthrow of the State was silly in the circumstances. Its rejection of Christianity (religion) – the opiate of the people - was downright suicidal, allowing passionate speeches from influential Canadians against “the Godless Communists.”

That last folly, in fact, scars the Canadian political landscape to this hour. Rejecting religion, it rejected some of the best, most dedicated Christian (and other religious) Canadians and made their adherence to the party impossible.

Somehow the NDP seems to have picked up a kind of “snotty secularism” from the Communist Party, as if religious people have to be suffered but are really very tedious. As a result wonderful, energetic, visionary Christians (and other religious people) have been bent and crippled and crushed and packaged until they can fit into the narrow corporate totalitarian parties of so-called Christian fundamentalists: Preston Manning, Stockwell Day, Peter MacKay, and Stephen Harper.

In the late 1980s I went to a fiftieth anniversary celebration for Canadians who fought with the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion against the Fascists in Spain. It was held in East Vancouver’s Ukrainian Hall. A large number of the people in the audience had been loyal members of the Communist Party of Canada, working for a New Day, dreaming of the possibility of living another way. They were still – fifty years later -the salt of the earth, ordinary Canadians wanting a good planet.

Something of their caring and dedication may be found in two Canadian novels of the time – both largely avoided in Canadian educational institutions as “bad novels.” One is Ted Allan’s This Time a Better Earth (1939) set in the Spanish Civil War. The other is Irene Baird’s Waste Heritage (1939) about the march of the unemployed from Vancouver, by boat to Vancouver Island, and down the Island to Victoria and the legislative buildings. Cut off in sales by the Second World War, the novel was published simultaneously in Toronto, London, and New York, and was soon followed by publication (translated) in Paris.

Baird’s depiction of Hep, the Communist Party organizer – never fully named as that – is, finally, so understanding that she was accused of being a Communist. She made clear she was no such thing. But visiting the soup kitchens, meeting the marchers, and travelling with them to Victoria, she was not going to lie about the effective core of organization that lay behind their protest. Nor was she going to report falsely the brutality of “the forces of order.” Both are excellent novels. Waste Heritage cries out to be translated onto film.

The second sign of McKay’s colonial-mindedness is found in his attitude to the U.S.A. He speaks of it critically occasionally. But he doesn’t mark it as a chief and continuing force involved in preventing socialist measures in Canada.

First, he accepts uncritically and confuses the influence of the so-called "New Left," characterized by the Student Union for Peace Action. It was not only modeled on U.S. formations, it imbibed their anarchist directionlessness and self-indulgence. McKay quotes Myrna Kostash (A Long Way From Home, Toronto, James Lorimer, 1980) writing that those activists tended to draw their analysis in “very broad strokes as though SUPA inhabited a meta-society in which the categories of action, violence, class and power applied not to any particular social place but to all places.” (p. 85)

Kostash is describing what both the good and bad do in the U.S.A. It is a characteristic of that imperial power. (The U.S. is presently taking a meta-social idea of “democracy” to Iraq.) McKay doesn’t say the huge U.S. anarchist individualist influence that flooded into Canada demeaned Canadian issues and thrust U.S. concerns to the forefront. I was on platforms with SUPA people and Canadian Union of Students people – who, incidentally, were sometimes U.S. students studying in Canada. After they had spoken and it was my turn, I would say: “Now we will speak about Canada.”

For McKay “the leading anglophone theoretical journal of” the New Left which was practicing the concept of “youth politics” was Our Generation, a dedicated anarchist publication. In 1970 the press of that journal published a book called The New Left in Canada. The U.S. influence is marked everywhere. In the Introduction the editor writes that “influenced by the American new left the term ‘participatory democracy’ quickly entered our vocabulary….” The book contains contributions from six central people across the country and apologizes that a seventh, a U.S. professor in New Brunswick, was unable to complete his contribution.

All the contributions excoriate capitalism and imperialism but are very thin when it comes to setting out real action necessary to confront both of those forces. In fact, in the society of Canada, the people of the New Left refused serious alliance with the real Canadian struggles. Contributor to the book for Ontario is Philip Resnick who writes “The New Left in Ontario.” Resnick articulately describes a number of the forces “youth” must face. He writes that the “increasing domination of Ontario universities by American personnel and content is a reflection of Canada’s colonial relationship to the United States.” That is perhaps, symbolic of the heraldic positions New Left people took without putting their money where their mouths were. For not many months earlier, James Steele and I presented a paper, soon published in the 1969 Close the 49th Parallel, etc in which we dealt with the degree to which Canadians were being closed out of their own university and cultural institutions and replaced with others, a high percentage of whom were from the U.S.A.

When we had finished our presentation, and the question period began, an angry member of the audience rose and said we were “sentimental nationalists” obviously the poor tools of the capitalist class, and so on. The speaker was Philip Resnick. Steele and I and the others who fought for Canadians and Canadian curriculum were influential in obtaining positions for many people like Resnick. He found a place at the University of British Columbia, rose in the ranks there, and never (that I ever heard of) lifted a finger to fight for the hiring of Canadians to Canadian universities.

McKay remarks that the “Waffle has yet to receive its due in a major historical study”. He is correct. The same may be said for the much smaller Canadian Liberation Movement and, indeed, for the whole, larger movement that was unconsciously announced with the launching of the Canadianization movement at Carleton University in December of 1968.

The movement that began with the election of Jean Lesage in Quebec in 1960 had a parallel in anglophone Canada, beginning, perhaps, with the aborted Walter Gordon budget of 1963 and the Watkins Report on foreign ownership in March, 1968.

In a sweeping generalization we might say that almost all of the movements that erupted in those years had a leftward trend. Certainly the early independence formations in Quebec, as Ian McKay observes, often had very strong left theory as basis – all quietly cut off with Rene Levesque’s melding of forces and creation of the Parti Quebecois. But even his reformulation possessed (and still possesses) a Social Democratic core.

In anglophone Canada any attempt to deal with foreign ownership required state intervention – as time proved. The forces pushing for action all knew that, and so the ambiance of the New Left which “inhabited a meta-society”, so well described by Myrna Kostash, was virtually useless. The Waffle was born into its own Canadian society – at that moment laden with the rhetoric of U.S. anarchist individualism – but the Waffle core was not New Left – read Jim Laxer’s article in Close the 49th Parallel etc.

One of the on-going internal battles of the Waffle was against the New Left and towards clear, measurable solutions to Canadian problems from a socialist perspective. McKay misreports.

I remember working out the meaning of culture in Canada from a socialist perspective and giving a strong, carefully worded presentation at a very large Waffle meeting in Hamilton, Ontario. When I finished, a man rose in the audience, declared himself an international anarchist and ridiculed the ideas I had presented and the idea of Canadian solutions.

Canada has always received ideas from foreign countries, but McKay’s claim that they all have been good and easily Canadianized is disturbingly naïve. It suggests a too ready warmth for the desiccated, single-issue, small faction, individualism that marks U.S. social action, and – in its larger formulations – marks U.S. imperialism and the active influence of U.S. imperial policy in Canada.

David Lewis presents a dramatic example. He is depicted against a background of his early Marxism, a somewhat surprising presentation. Both Lewis and his hand-picked successor, Ed Broadbent, actively championed U.S. unionism in Canada. That force worked against national labour solidarity. It worked against progressive unionism in Canada. It drained funds – irretrievable – from Canadian workers and chapters. And it collaborated with employers, often forcing bad agreements on Canadian workers. (And to some extent it still does those things.)

In Ed Broadbent’s acceptance speech as leader at the Winnipeg convention, he rose only once to passionate expression. That was in defense of U.S. unionism in Canada. In his treatment of the Left Ian McKay says nothing about the long battle for Canadian unionism, and the political effect of U.S. unionism’s ideas upon the Canadian worker.

His view of leftward forces in Canada and their belief in the possibility of “living otherwise,” of creating a better society, has much in it that is attractive. But his baggy and loose idea of what socialist forces are permits him to embrace uncritically forces that may have been more destructive in Canada (and remain more destructive) than he is willing to record. His presentation of Canadian Left history needs serious attention and repair.

[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on October 5, 2005]

This article comes from Vive Le Canada

The URL for this story is: