Saturday, May 28, 2005

Review: The League for Social Reconstruction

(The League for Social Reconstruction: Intellectual Origins of the Democratic Left in Canada, 1930-1942 by Michiel Horn. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.)

Since I graduated from McMaster University with a degree in biochemistry, the bulk of my productive activity has involved dealing with information and ideas, and producing articles, reports, radio shows, other media -- and now a book -- from progressive or radical perspectives. In other words, I'm a relatively privileged guy with aspirations both to radical politics and to doing intellectual work of various sorts.

The League for Social Reconstruction is therefore, in terms of identity if not in certain important aspects of analysis and focus, the story of at least one strand of my predecessors.

The League is characterized by this book as the first organization of radical intellectuals in Canada. I would be inclined to qualify this definition more carefully, because, for example, a centuries-ago coffee klatch of Mohawk matriarchs hanging out and engaging in informal theorizing about what to do about those uncivilized white folk wreaking havoc on The People would seem to me to qualify as both "radical" and "intellectual," as would lots of other oppressed people strategizing about their own liberation. But the LSR certainly seems to have been the first radical political organization of people whose place in the Canadian capitalist state/market was specialized intellectual work.

The LSR was a group mostly comprised of middle-class professionals, and was founded in 1932. Only a minority of participants were academics, and only a tiny fraction of Canadian academics ever showed any interest in getting involved, but a majority of the leading figures in the League fell into that group. The brutal impact of the Depression on the Canadian people, as well as the refusal of Canadian political and business elites to do anything resembling the New Deal in the United States, helped catalyze its formation. The group was partially modelled on the Fabian Society of earlier decades in Britain, and its purpose was to study and popularize ideas of democratic socialism in Canada. As Horn writes, "The LSR's ideas show Fabian, Marxist, Guild, and Christian socialist and reformist liberal influences as well as insights gained from domestic sources, especially the agrarian radicals of the prairie West."

The League was indepdenent of but very much intertwined with the CCF, Canada's first democratic socialist party of national scope, which was formally slightly younger than the League but which had roots in working-class labour and socialist politics that were much older. For the decade of the LSR's existence it served as the CCF's informal "brain trust." It was primarily LSR intellectuals that drafted the Regina Manifesto that was the founding document of the CCF. J.S. Woodsworth, the founding leader of the CCF and a sort of embodied spiritual centre to the democratic left in the Canada of that era, was also honourary president of the LSR. Frank Scott, one of the LSR's founders and core members, became national chair of the CCF in 1942, and the LSR's David Lewis became national secretary of the CCF in 1938 and years later was leader of the federal NDP while his son Stephen was leader of the Ontario NDP.

Along with strategic advice for the CCF, the LSR produced quite a few pamphlets and a few books. Most of these were too academic to acquire much attention from the bulk of the population and too simplified to get any acclaim as contributions to socialist theory beyond Canada's borders, but Social Planning for Canada, published in 1935, was treated with some seriousness by European and American socialists. But over its decade of existence the LSR produced many of the ideas that, through their popularization by the CCF and later the NDP, went into Liberal and Conservative Party platforms in the post-WWII years to create the imperfect Canadian version of the welfare state. Of course many other ideas could not so easily be adapted to the cause of liberal reform, in particular the nationalization of large sections of industry as well as the neutralist approach to foreign policy favoured by the League until after WWII had actually begun. The LSR's highly centralized vision for a future socialist Canada and lack of sympathy for the national aspirations of the Quebcois was one of the factors that ensured that its presence in Quebec never extended beyond anglophone intellectuals in Montreal.

Despite feeling a sense of connection with the LSR folks on one level, on many other levels the organization seems to be from a totally different world in both positive and negative ways. Michael Albert of ZNet has, in many essays and articles, decried the tendency of the left today to avoid having much in the way of vision. This the LSR had aplenty: They knew what they wanted and they knew how they wanted to get there. To modern libertarian socialist eyes they are shockingly naive, however. Their faith in centralized planning (as opposed to the participatory planning suggested by Albert and Robin Hahnel) is quaint. Their top-down, party-centric vision for how change happens is neither realistic nor liberatory. Their complete lack of awareness of the obstacles that a socialist party would inevitably encounter to the complete socialist transformation of the state once they were elected, both in terms of extraparliamentary violence by capitalist forces within Canada and economic and military intervention by the United States, is hard to believe (and a bit frightening). Their understanding of political consciousness and its transformation as being primarily intellectual in nature, and that all you need to do to bring about radical social change is skillfully articulate good ideas, should also make heads shake. And, as is not unexpected of privileged leftists, particularly from that era, their attention to race, gender, and sexuality was minimal, and in fact nonexistent for the last. Yet despite many facets of analysis that I would never want to replicate, and a basically uncritical relationship to the implications of their own privilege, there is still something inspiring about the League members' principles and their commitment to taking action to create radical change.

An interesting aside: At least two figures in the League had connections of interest to U.S. readers. Prominent LSR member King Gordon eventually left Canada and became editor of The Nation in the United States. And the LSR president in 1939-40 was Louise Parkin, sister of Claud Cockburn, who was father of Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch and Patrick Cockburn, who does some good reporting from Iraq. And on the Canadian side, David Lewis' grandson is Avi Lewis, who has done some good progressive media work in his own right and is married to famous lefty author Naomi Klein.

Anyway, I hope I will again be able to increase the amount of time spent directly in organizing and activist activities as L gets older, but I know that the biggest part of my time will continue to be about ideas and words and media and so on -- that kind of work interests me and animates me, and I have the space and the privilege to try and do it in radically meaningful ways. Unfortunately, I am continually searching for what those ways might be. And although this book is interesting, if sometimes excessively attentive to mundane detail, and a significant chapter of left history in Canada, unfortunately it does not do much to help me in my own wrestling with the role of intellectual work, both analytical and creative, in creating a better world.

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

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