Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Review: Reasoning Otherwise

[Ian McKay. Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People's Enlightenment in Canada, 1890-1920. Toronto: Between The Lines, 2008.]

I struggle on a daily basis with the fact that any act of writing is inherently arrogant -- except for journal-bound confessions destined for no eyes but the author's, the act of writing, whatever its specific substance, contains within it the presumption that someone, somewhere will benefit from reading what is produced. This is true of the most humble and cautious blog post, and the more sweeping and grand the vision for a given writing project, the more presumption it embodies. Yet it is only through authorial risk and impertinence, through the bearer of a pen and a notepad tweaking the nose of that which is big and imposing, that we can come -- maybe, just maybe -- to understand the world in new ways.

Reasoning Otherwise is part of something that aims to be both sweeping and grand: a massive, multi-volume history of Canada's socialist left that seeks to stitch together new understandings and new visions of the historical landscape and turn the assumptions of previous efforts on their ears. This is the first substantive volume, a sequel to an earlier overview and theoretical preamble and antecedent to, as far as I understand it, at least two or three other big books we can look forward to in the coming years. This one deals with the left in the years before the rise of the Communist Party, territory that is not unexamined but that has received less attention in the Canadian context than in most places.

A to-me endearing feature of McKay's method, which he calls "reconnaissance," is that it explicitly refuses the pretense of being some sort of final, authoritative synthesis, but embraces its own incompleteness and semi-conjectural status, and is explicit about "accepting that, on issues big and small, the latest word is not going to be the last word" [2]. Yes, it does feel a touch disingenuous, because whatever caveats McKay expresses this will likely function as a definitive text on the left of that era for at least a generation, but I still have a lot of respect for the acknowledgment that any one effort to tell stories of the past will inevitably be partial.

Reconnaissance involves examining not a single figure or single institution but all of the messiness of the socialist left in a given era -- what McKay calls a "formation," which can encompass multiple, loosely related organizations, individuals, tendencies, parties, unions, publications, thinkers, and activists. It examines what is common through this potentially chaotic mix, as well as the contradictions it contains. It explicitly disavows "ancestor worship" by latter day leftists, as well as uncontextual and polemical put-downs. It tries to understand the discourse and actions of the left of a given era in the context of that era, and examine projects and choices on the basis of what was useful and what was not, in the name of supporting leftist self-reflection in the present day.

There is lots to like about this approach. I like the commitment to nuance and complexity. I like the interest in recreating not just a sequence of events but the feel of the period and of moments within it. I like the somewhat meandering feel the text has in parts. Like I said, I respect the acknowledgment of incompleteness. At the same time, it is perhaps even more important than with more conventional, less ambitious histories to read it with its incompleteness actively in mind. For instance, a key theme throughout the book is the influence of the master-narrative of evolution on all branches of the left in this era, filtered not only through a particular reading of Marx but through an even more powerful influence from a philosopher named Herbert Spencer, of whom I had not previously heard. This observation is an important insight into the "first formation" -- McKay's name for the pre-CPC socialist left in Canada -- and into early 20th century Canadian society more broadly. However, does it really deserve as much weight as this volume gives it? There is no way for me to judge without either tackling primary sources myself or having the opportunity to read other books that take up the same material in different ways, which of course have not yet been written.

In pre-1920 Canada, explicitly socialist organizations were small and few. They were mostly without deep roots in the trade union movement, in contrast with their European counterparts, though there were individuals (like Toronto's James Simpson) and moments (like some of the massive uprisings in Canada's coal fields) that were exceptions. Some called themselves "parties" and some ran candidates in elections, even winning seats from time to time, but they were not the sort of organization we might expect to be attached to that label based on later experiences with social democratic and communist mass-based parties. Their focus was largely educational; they wanted to "make" socialists. A couple of the key parties, especially the Socialist Party of Canada and the Socialist Party of North America, have been (ahistorically) labelled "impossibilist" by other writers -- they adhered quite stringently to "single plank" platforms which insisted that anything less than the full implementation of socialism was a compromise and a betrayal, and they routinely disparaged any struggles with any other goal. McKay reads this as a response to the power of liberal hegemony and its proven ability to reabsorb workers' struggles and workers' candidates into the liberal fold, and argues that, for all that many of the associated pronouncements come across as nothing less than utterly obnoxious to modern ears, this approach helped create space for the formation of a left that had a centre independent of the inexorable gravity of liberalism. At the same time, other groups mixed practical struggles and transformative end goals in ways that resist easy placement in twenty-first century categories. Though famous U.S. socialist leader Eugene Debs did disparage once such mixture by a group in British Columbia as "mixed pickles."

It was unclear to me, based on the initial overview book for this projected series, how the volumes of actual history were going to tackle race and gender. I had some concern that race in particular would receive less attention than it should. Happily, this is decidedly not the case in Reasoning Otherwise. However, though they are treated seriously and thoroughly, I still have some concerns about the book's approach to each.

I agree with the book's commitment to getting past polemic and point-scoring approaches to left history, and its commitment to presenting nuance and understanding it in the context of the era in which it occurred. A lot of the new-to-me information that was presented in service of building anti-polemical nuance was useful stuff. For example, it counters assertions I've seen made elsewhere that the male-dominated left was largely disinterested in or even actively opposed to women's suffrage. In fact, though the Socialist Party of Canada was not supportive (in much the same way that it was often cuttingly dismissive of, say, bread-and-butter labour struggles), the overwhelming commonsense among leftists, both women and men, was pro-suffrage. As well, though I have heard many times about the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying South Asian would-be immigrants that were the focus of popular hatred and government opposition that prevented them from landing in Vancouver in 1914, I had never heard about the (admittedly atypical and short-lasting) alliance between the folks on the ship and the Socialist Party of Canada. Nonetheless, there were recurring moments when its discussion of race and gender felt actively defensive. That would be a hard accusation to make stick, I'm sure, because there are also plenty of places where the book is very explicit about the ways in which the early 20th century left acted in oppressive ways. But even so, to my eye there were at least some moments where the text came across as more oriented towards defending the distant past from the polemics of the not-so-distant past than towards a nuanced and tough accounting for oppression and resistance around race and gender in the era in question. I don't think that had to be the case.

My discomfort with the chapter on racism included some of that concern but I also found the framework used for discussing race and racism unsatisfying in a more general way. I think to really nail down that dissatisfaction I would need to spend more time rereading and pondering than I am willing to, unfortunately. It has something to do with wanting to see more and different ways of relating everyday racism to histories of colonization; more and different ways of relating to critical race scholarship on historical shifts in the form of racism over time; more clarity on how race and racism limited the imagination and the political projects of white socialists; more exploration of racialization as a historical process, with greater clarity around that era's conflation of race and ethnicity in light of the broader historical trajectories of different; even a single mention of the left's relationship to African Nova Scotia; and probably other stuff. Not that there wasn't lots of useful stuff in there, but even more than the other areas tackled by this text, it felt like there was more to say.

There are other bits and pieces that deserve a brief mention. I was a bit surprised that more attention wasn't paid to the Knights of Labor, who largely preceded the period covered by this book and who weren't explicitly socialist, but whom I had thought were a pretty clear ancestor for worker radicalism in the settler society in Canada. The section on religion and the left was excellent. I liked the discussion of the Winnipeg General Strike, particularly the attention to the show trials that followed it, though I thought a bit more focus on the events of the strike would've been useful for readers who weren't already familiar with it.

My reservations notwithstanding, this is a very important book. And an enjoyable one. McKay could probably have accomplished his goals in fewer pages, but it was all interesting and the writing was clear, showed glints of humour, and shifted effectively among the many different scales and foci of attention. Those of us with an interest in the history of oppression and resistance in North America should read it with some healthy skepticism around its grander claims and in balance with other sorts of histories, but we definitely should read it.

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

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