Sunday, May 15, 2005

Review: From Protest to Power

(From Protest to Power: Social Democracy in Canada, 1900-Present by Norman Penner. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, Publishers, 1992.)

I am continuing to devote as much of my work time as I can to reading material necessary for my social movement history project, so the current flurry of book reviews on this site is likely to continue.

From Protest to Power is a brief history of social democratic politics from the independent labour efforts early in the century, through the "ginger group" in the federal Parliament of the '20s, the CCF starting in the '30s, and the NDP from its founding in 1961 until the writing of the book in the early '90s.

I found this book to be disappointing. I understand the utility of books that are short and accessible, and given the number of books I feel I'm going to have to read over the next year I'm not objecting to some of them being something other than massive academic tomes. But fewer than 150 pages of text did not feel adequate to treat ninety years of complex and important history. Moreover, the book occasionally repeated material and it was sometimes hard to understand the logic behind the jumps in the narrative. Given that the author has written a number of major works on the history of left-wing political movements in Canada over the years, all of this is quite disappointing.

The book was still interesting. It definitely filled in factual gaps in my knowledge of the CCF-NDP's fate over the years, though I'm not sure it added much to my analysis of social democracy in Canada.

It is interesting that this book was written at a high point for Canadian social democracy. The NDP held three provincial governments and its highest seat total to date in the federal Parliament, and the Parti Quebecois (Quebec's social democratic and also separatist party) governed Quebec. Ontario, B.C., and Quebec had anti-scab laws on the books. Since this time, the fate of social democracy in Canada and in the world (outside of South America) has declined significantly, largely due to the inability of most social democratic parties to come up with a convincing way of responding to the neoliberal onslaught of the intervening years. The NDP has not gone down the road of total capitulation, like New Labour in Britain, but it has still yet to find a path forward that goes beyond promises to be a bit more humane than the Liberals or Tories. As I was reminded on multiple occasions by a Communist collaegue in the Hamilton peace movement, the efforts to transform the provincial level of the state in Ontario along neoliberal lines began not with the election of the Mike Harris Tories in '95, but slightly before that when Bob Rae's NDP was still in power. Despite all of that, it is possible that the party may make some gains this year: they may retake the provincial government in B.C. in Tuesday's election, and once the teetering Paul Martin Liberals finally fall, they are poised to do moderately well federally.

Anyway. We'll see. In the meantime, I'll be keeping my eyes open for more insightful and in-depth material on the history of social democracy in Canada.

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

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