Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Review: Rebels, Reds, Radicals

(Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada's Left History by Ian McKay. Toronto: Between The Lines, 2005.)

Yep, that's right. Another book review. Except I'm not sure I feel able to review this one, even to the hasty and informal extent my other book-related posts actually count as reviews.

I ordered this book expecting a work of history, but I believe it is more appropriately labelled historiography -- it is a book about the study of history, not so much about the facts of the past themselves. Given my current work, it is a very useful read, and it has been very thought provoking. I expect that as my own work proceeds, I will read it again, though I'm not exaclty sure how the non-academic, social movement-focused, and fairly idiosyncratic way of approaching "left history" that has grown up in my project relates to the grand vision of this academic though still very accessible and quite well written book.

The book talks about how most efforts to look at left history in Canada are vertical: they take a particular institution, party, or individual and trace them through time. While this can bring to light a lot of useful information, it also tends to result in history that is partisan and sectarian, that passes judgment on its subject in a way that is not necessarily helpful, and that loses sight of the importance of context in shaping ideas and terms and actions and decisions.

For example, one of the interesting-to-me points made by this book was about the CCF: In Communist histories it is portrayed as hopelessly reformist in contast to the valiant and true bearers of socialism, the CP or whatever dissident Communist sect the author happens to belong to. In NDP (the CCF's successor party) histories it is portrayed as equally reformist, though not to attack it but rather to make it fit more comfotably in with the NDP's own politics. But the CCF was definitely socialist, unlike the more deliberately ambiguous NDP, and it had a lot more in common with the CP, despite obvious tactical differences, than either party or their latter-day partisans would want to admit.

I won't try and capture the nuanced, anti-sectarian, and pragmatic vision of "socialism" and "the left" elaborated in the book, but it was very encouraging to me. In fact, though I think of myself as having little time for sectarianism myself, the odd blog-based rant notwithstanding, it challenged me to be more self-critical of the ways in which I allow the legacy of division and difference on the left to cloud my own vision, and to be more active in challenging the tendency to naturalize certain conceptual divisions. A good example for me is the old "reform" vs. "revolution" debate, and the distinction between "social democratic" and "revolutionary" parties -- all of those terms have meant different things at different periods of history, the terms of the debates that happen around them now often have more to do with a distorted vision of the 1930s than they have to do with the current period, and the terms are often mobilized in ways that prioritize posturing rather than actual impact in challenging systems of power.

In outlining his approach to Canada's left history, which he describes as "reconaissance," the author emphasizes the importance of a horizontal rather than vertical approach which considers the broad sweep of social conditions and organizations and institutions in any given era. An important unit in this analysis is the "formation," a conglomeration of organizations and institutions and intelletual tendencies which, for a given period of time, plays a central role in how the broader left movement tries to challenge the dominant liberal structures of the state. He identifies five in Canadian history: the propagandistic socialism of the first two decades of the century; the CP-dominated period from 1919 to 1937; the "radical planism" of the CCF; the anti-hierarchical and nationally-focused leftisms of the New Left, which were expressed with particular importance in Quebec; and Canada's unusually positioned and particularly strong socialist-feminist movement from the late '60s to the early '90s. He hypothesizes the beginning of a sixth such formation via the anti-globalization/global justice activism over the last few years.

There is a lot about this scheme -- and I'm not doing it justice in how I summarize it above -- that I like. But I have my reservations as well. I agree that approaching history primarily by applying the analysis of today as if it were infallible, and as a scorecard which movements of the past can succeed or fail to meet and thereby be judged, is not necessarily helpful. As the author says in an example related to his own experience/identity, it is more useful to understand the conditions leading to the expulsion of gay men from leftist groups in Canada in the '70s in terms of the material and ideological conditions that led to that rather than just dismissing it with labels. While that's true, I am not clear how that is going to be carried through. For example, I can't imagine a left history with aspirations towards completeness failing to treat whiteness and white privilege as central themes to how the left in Canada has evolved, but there is absolutely nothing in the book that makes me think that those things will necessarily be assigned any importance under this framework. They may be, but there's no evidence to suggest it. How will a history that focuses on the formation or formations in a given era that are most successful in creating space for and driving counter-hegemonic activities deal with struggles that are urgent and real but that are completely disconnected from the dominant left, or have a distant paternalistic/oppressive relationship to it?

In any case, I'm keen to see. This book is intended as the first volume in what will probably end up being a fairly massive multi-volume history of the Canadian left by this author, and I will read them eagerly as they are released.

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

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