Thursday, March 17, 2005

Review: Prophecy and Protest

One of the down sides of trying to write the book I'm trying to write under my present circumstances is that I feel I should be reading far, far, far more material on the history of social movements in Canada than I will ever have time to read. The up side of that down side is that I get to read a lot of really cool material on the history of Canadian social movements.

Prophecy and Protest: Social Movements in Twentieth-Century Canada (Toronto: Gage Educational Publishing Limited, 1975) is a work I have just had the pleasure of finishing. It is a thirty year-old collection of essays and book excerpts on a variety of movements that impacted Canada, mostly in the first half of the twentieth century.

I had hoped I would have more time to reflect when writing this little review, because there were some important themes that were, if not entirely new to me, then rediscovered in clear enough form to really make me take notice. For example, I was very much struck by how the social gospel movement in the early 20th century is really the forebearer of populist movements of both right and left since that time in white, English-speaking Canada. At its peak that movement combined an assertive infusion of progressive, socially-minded, even leftist thought into Canadian Christian traditions, while not abandoning an emphasis on personal uprightness and righteousness. The most successful wings of the social gospel at the time were the temperance movement and the women's suffrage movement. Some of those who came out of this tradition were prominent in pacifist and socialist causes, but much of the social gospel movement was still very conservative. A few of the oldest white Canadian-born Christian participants in my project were politicized after the social gospel movement had ebbed but evidently by co-religionists who had been drawn in when it was at its peak. Through these descendents of the social gospel we got the middle-class side of the origins of the CCF and the NDP. Yet the emphasis on personal responsibility, sobriety, conservative values -- not to mention the racism often embedded in the rhetoric such things as the women's suffrage movement, and the championing of Christianity above all other faiths -- are very much predecessors of the false populist movement harnessed in the renewal of social conservatism in Canada since the 1980s.

Anyway. What else did I learn? I learned that the Ku Klux Klan was quite tightly tied to the Conservative Party, at least in Saskatchewan. I learned that in one legendary poll taken in 1944, never to be repeated, a socialist party was the most popular party nationally in Canada. I learned that in the early 20th century Toronto and possibly other cities had official religious institutions with names like "XYZ Socialist Church" and "ABC Labour Church." I relearned that when non-activist academics write about social movements, even when the ways they talk about them do make some sense intellectually, it can be unintentionally hilarious. I learned more about the social credit movement and still find its economic and political philosophy, at heart, incomprehensible. I learned a bit about the history of electoral and movement politics in Quebec in the first half of the century.

The award for most ridiculous statement of the book goes to the editors, who wrote: "While one could not claim that the current movement among Canada's native peoples has an historical tradition as strong as Quebec or English-Canadian nationalism, it nevertheless does have historical roots that have provided an important foundation for the present-day struggle." And if it isn't obvious to you why that is ridiculous then read it again, think about it, and if necessary go away and read some writings by Aboriginal activists.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

1 comment:

Scott said...

Hmmmm...I wrote this post in a hurry. There is some wording, especially in the paragraph on the social gospel, that doesn't feel quite right to me, historically or politically, but I don't feel like taking the time to fix it. Knowing that, please give me some leeway while reading it! Thanks!