Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: Seeing Reds

[Daniel Francis. Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada's First War on Terror. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010.]

We need more books like this -- histories of social change in Canadian contexts written for lay audiences and with an eye to contemporary relevance. Smooth, lively writing and a good eye for the right level of detail and the right kind of illustrative digression make the book a pleasant, easy read.

The focus is Canada's version of the Red Scare, the panic about immanent revolution (which at least in part was a product of elite efforts to stoke fears of revolution they knew to be unlikely in order to achieve political goals) in the aftermath of the First World War and the revolutions in Russia. The trauma of sixty thousand Canadian war deaths, rising prices, stagnant wages, too few jobs, and the sense inspired by events in Russia and elsewhere even in those without Bolshevik inclinations that things really could be different if ordinary people only made it so did indeed lead to a bubbling discontent. Many leaders of workers' organizations and left-wing parties did not hesitate to use strident language. Rather than respond to grievances, elites and the Canadian state chose a mixture of stalling (nominally to investigate, in some cases) and repression. Mechanisms of censorship, spying on its own population, and nationalist and nativist demagoguery built to support the imperial war effort were extended and expanded to crush the aspirations many ordinary Canadians had for better lives and more than a few had for a new order that would ensure better lives. From its roots during the war to the crushing of the Winnipeg General Strike (which marked the defeat of the labour movement, with the exception of the coal fields, for more than a decade), this book traces that story.

Francis' telling of it draws out a number of features that continue to be politically relevant today, even if the text does not go quite so far as to connect all of the dots itself. For instance, though it doesn't frame it in quite this way, the book presents a very clear example of how liberal-democratic institutions and patterns of thought, which proclaim their universality and their commitment to freedom, are never really universal and can only adhere to the pretense by defining some people and groups as outside the bounds of worthiness. So, for instance, certain ethnic groups and people who held on to anti-war ideas were excluded from the bounds of people deserving dignity and due process during the war, and a slightly different constellation of ethnic groups and people on the left were excluded immediately after. (The blending together of the racialized caricature of the Slavic 'Other' with the elite hatred of radical left politics was striking and gross.)

The book also illustrates without quite making the point as directly as it could that excluding people from the nation is just as much about the exertion of power over groups still considered inside the nation as it is an exertion of power over those excluded. Rhetoric and repression that directly targeted certain ethnicities and the radical left for censorship, surveillance, and in some instances arrest was not just about defining those groups as dangerous outsiders, but was also about maintaining the power of Anglo elites over those workers and others who retained their real (if subordinate) status in the national community.

I was also struck by the efforts at knowledge production by elites during this crisis, and the ways in which that informed (or didn't) their other actions. They went to great efforts to place police spies in groups, to gather information from informants, and to generally treat anyone not content with having their lives organized into violence and suffering by dominant social relations as inherently worthy of suspicion and surveillance. Yet despite all of that effort, their attempts to build grounded, accurate knowledge about discontent and dissent rarely produced accounts that really captured the essence of what people were feeling, saying, and doing. Nonetheless, this knowledge was still used as a basis for making strong statements (whether in covert communication with other powerful people or in attempts to shape the public discourse) and taking strong (repressive) remedies.

I would argue that this was because elites and state institutions weren't actually interested in accurate knowledge in the way that such a thing might be understood in the context of a sensitive, nuanced ethnography or a sympathetic movement history. They weren't really interested in how people would've understood their goals, motivations, capacities, and analyses themselves. Elites and high-level state functionaries were interested, rather, in how it affected them.

You see, when we create knowledge, we always have some standard with which we judge what to include, how to assign priorities, and how to determine accuracy. In the case of elites during the Red Scare, developing an understanding of movements and dissidents that truly captured the movements' and dissidents' actions and experiences of the world simply was not the priority. Yes, state institutions gathered some kinds of raw data that bears a superficial resemblance to the raw material for a good ethnography -- detailed accounts of public meetings, for example -- but their organizing principle for assessing relevance and 'accuracy' was the ability of the knowledge thus generated to preserve the current order and/or their own power. This meant that the pressure to get things right applied to much different things. Of course it wasn't simple, and different elites within various security, military, and policing circles had different understandings of how to gather information and produce knowledge, but this was basically how things worked. And what this meant is that priorities in generating knowledge about discontent and dissent -- priorities that informed what was gathered, how it was weighted and evaluated, and how the huge holes were filled with supposition -- leaned towards overestimating risk and to recommending courses of action that would repress (in ways often violating the kinds of justice and fairness valorized in the liberal self-conception) any kind of challenge to elite power and not just things that could in an abstract sense be judged as existential threats to the liberal order as a whole. This is why many conclusions drawn by elites in this crisis look so ridiculous from this end of history, when we compare them with knowledge produced from a standpoint that is actually interested in finding out what those dissatisfied with Canadian society were doing, saying, thinking, feeling on their own terms.

All of this is also a lesson for how we should relate to elite, fear-driven campaigns today. The book draws the comparison with the so-called "war on terror" but is just as relevant if not more so to the smaller but still significant attack on those opposing the G20 in Toronto last year. In these cases, just like 90 years ago, elite accounts, whether they are produced by state practices or appear in the dominant media, generally have only a tenuous connection to lived experiences on the ground inside movements and communities. Yes, there is an element of deliberate lying by ranking cops and politicians and pundits to shape the political environment and crush dissent, but there is also a big part of it that is genuine on their part and that is based in widely diverging standpoints and approaches to knowledge production between them and ordinary people in movements and communities. (Which I don't say to excuse them, but rather in the hopes that it might lead us to more productive strategies for countering them.)

All of this raises another issue about how you write history about this kind of elite attack on movements and dissent. In the case of the Canadian Red Scare, there really was no immanent threat to the dominant liberal order in Canada. As much as both militants and reactionaries saw signs of revolution around the corner, each for their own reasons, cool evaluation from a distance shows that this just wasn't the case. In practice, I think the book is quite right in its not-quite-explicit position that for all the fiery rhetoric from some radicals, the bulk of the action on the ground was, in practice, needs-based in a way that could have been satisfied by reforms within the context of the dominant liberal order (and was, in later decades) rather than requiring repression for the preservation of that order. This neglects the unpredictable ways that movements can grow and radicalize, but even so I think it is a reasonable assessment of where things were at as the repression hit.

But one outcome of emphasizing such an analysis is that it ends up downplaying the challenge to the liberal order that did exist and that could indeed have become a to-the-root challenge if it had been able to grow. I don't think the author meant to do that. I'm not even sure how to avoid doing it without either rhetorically playing into the hands of latter-day reactionaries who would applaud the anti-labour repression from nine decades on or producing an account that comes across as rigidly ideological and alienating to the bulk of readers who, for better or worse, understand the world in terms sympathetic to the liberal order and other elements of the status quo. The trick is to find ways that are accessible and not alienating in which to communicate that, even if revolution was not exactly looming, the post First World War movements were a threat to the dominant order. They were just not quite the kind of threat elites claimed to fear, a threat five minutes from guillotines, at least not at that point. Moreover, it was a good thing that they were a threat. We want to threaten existing social relations, given how they organize violence and suffering into so many lives. We want elites to fear us. We want them to recognize that even if their heads are safe (because, really, who cares about their heads), their power is not. We want to recognize the good work of our predecessors in making elites fear that real change might be coming, even if our vision for that threat and for the better world to which it might lead is much different than the leading militants of that era. We must do this even as we make the basic point that this book makes so successfully with its somewhat different framing -- that elites behaved in rash, unjust ways in the face of justified discontent, that they were more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with the everyday needs and desires of ordinary people, and they went to a lot of ridiculous, repressive lengths to act on their selfish concerns. And that they'll do keep doing similar things under similar circumstances today if we don't stop them.

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

No comments: