Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review: Long Way From Home

[Myrna Kostash. Long Way From Home: The Story of the Sixties Generation in Canada. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1980.]

It might just be that in my self-directed, semi-random adventure through book length writings chronicling Canada's history from below, I have missed it, but it is my impression that very little has been written on the period between 1956 (more or less) and 1968 (more or less). The former year is one logical endpoint for histories of the Communist left in this country, and those that talk about the CCF might end a few years earlier (with the decisive CCF defeat of the CPC for control of the labour movement) or a few years later (with the official affiliation of the CCF with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the NDP). A lot of the New Left stuff -- there is much less than you might expect from any portion of that era, unfortunately -- does not seem to start until 1968 or even a few years after that. I remember reading a couple of books on the history of the NDP, which must have covered some of this era, but I don't think they talked much about social movements. There was also another one on the efforts to pass human rights legislation in Canada, but that ended its story at about 1960 or so.

A big reason for all of this, I suspect, is that not much was happening. Not nothing, certainly -- there's never nothing -- but whatever movement stuff was going on was on a much smaller scale than in that inevitable point of Canadian comparison, the United States, where there was a movement of nation-shaking magnitude whose progress and transmutations quite naturally connected 1954 with 1963 with 1966 and beyond. In Canada, the precursors of the uprisings of women, indigenous people, students, African Canadians, queers, and so on that came to public attention in the late '60s and early '70s were just not so visible. Most books focusing on the history of that particular cycle of struggle in Canada, at least in my experience to date, are really more about the '70s than they are about the '60s, even though most of us would colloquially refer to that cycle as "the sixties."

Long Way From Home is, of course, an exception to this -- the only exception I have yet encountered. In English Canada, the lineage of the organizations that would become the youth-based New Left, whether organized around the identity "student" or around the identity "woman", began in organizing against nuclear weapons. Towards the end of the '50s, the government of John Diefenbaker agreed to contribute a bit of cash towards the defense of the continent from the evil Russkies by buying a weapons system called the Bomarc Missile, which was meant to target any nuclear-armed Commie bombers that might decide to mount a surprise attack by flying over the North Pole. Though Dief later claimed he was not aware of this fact at the time, the system they committed to buying could only be armed with nuclear warheads, even though Canada had not yet decided whether to arm itself with atomic weapons. There was division within cabinet on this question and some fairly significant organizing, including by a group that called itself the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which later morphed into the Sudent Union for Peace Action, a kind of Canadian version of Studetns for a Democratic Society that self-destructed rather earlier than its U.S. counterpart but which nurtured radicals that went on to do other important and interesting things. Though none of my interview participants were central organizers in these campaigns, three or four were involved as participants in anti-Bomarc activity, and many more were involved in later New Left stuff that can trace some lineage to such things. Kostash's discussion of the student peace activism of the early '60s flows quite naturally into her analysis of the more general student organizing around many different questions later in the decade.

Her discussion of the youth culture of the '60s was also fascinating. The combination of her obvious passion for the counterculture with her keen political critique of it was insightful, and the pain that combination has caused her was palpable. It was not a rigorous history, exactly, but more of a rich description of scenes and places and people, of feels and sensibilities. It was notable how many features of the counterculture of that era which were new and distinct and rebellious against previous ways of doing things live on in quiet ways as common expectations within niches organized around the identity "activist" today. This is true of many ideals about what it means to lead a good life, though I have the sense that such things are more optional and not quite as powerfully normative for young progressive and radical people today as they were in 1969. It is also true of features of the standard political ways of work in activist contexts today -- things that Kostash characterizes as innovations of the "sixties generation" but which many of its most dedicated participants were critically rethinking by the '80s, like consensus decision-making and deep suspicion of structures. Despite that critical reflection by the first generation that widely embraced them in the service of social change in Canada, many of them are pretty matter-of-course in movement spaces today. Not quite sure how that happened or what it means. I also enjoyed her efforts to show both the massive influence of the counterculture south of the border as well as the specificities of its Canadian incarnation.

Her chapters on the uprisings of indigenous peoples and women, respectively, in the late '60s were good to see though not the strongest parts of the book. The former had a few interesting case studies in how the federal government coopted radical sentiment -- actually a theme that recurs throughout the book, and one we need to pay attention to -- but felt very partial and fragmentary and not as self-aware as it could have been of its incompleteness and very limited access to the political ground from which the indigenous uprising was occurring. Kostash herself was active in the women's movement and the feel that chapter creates is more consonant with my sense of the bigger picture of what was going on in those contexts, but it has the misfortune of being read today in light of the many works that have been published in the meantime which had the leisure to paint more factually detailed pictures of this particular strand of post '68 movement activity.

Its chapters on both English Canadian and Quebecois nationalisms were useful, particularly since I have read relatively little about either of them in this era. The discussion of English Canadian nationalism is not nearly as critical as I would like, and does not engage with the indigenous anti-colonial or related but not identical anti-racist critiques of such nationalism as a historically central tool for organizing white supremacy in northern North America. Still, I think the book's sympathetic treatment of it has given me a better sense of some of the reasons why left nationalism has such a grip on significant sectors of the anglo left in this country. This insight makes me a little more understanding of how people have arrived at this position, though it gives me no greater sympathy for the stubbornness of the resistance commonly displayed to thinking about it at all critically in the present. (It occurs to me that some sort of critical history of left nationalism in this country might be something to add to my long and unrealistic brainstorming list around the question of 'what next' for my own writing once the movement history stuff is finally complete -- I remember reading about debates within the Communist Party in the '20s that sounded like they had very similar forms, if somewhat different vocabularies, to debates Kostash describes within New Left circles in the late '60s on this topic.) And my knowledge of the francophone left in Canada in that era has been almost nonexistent, despite the fact that it was often more radical and numerically larger than its anglophone counterpart, so I was very grateful for this partial introduction.

This was a lovely book to read because of its passion. For purely selfish and utilitarian reasons I would've appreciated more detail in some areas, and while I am very supportive of its open embrace of the inevitable situatedness and incompleteness of history, I still put the book down feeling, "This is not enough." This is not the author's fault -- she wrote the book she wanted to write, and refused to take on the pretenses of academic historians about what is possible and what is politically appropriate. Rather, it is a consequence of the fact that the rest of the dozen passionate, partial, critical books on Canadian history from below from 1960 to 1970 that should exist, do not. (And if they do exist and I just don't know about them, leave a comment or email me!! :) )

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

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