Seeds of Canadian radicalism

Issue: 124

G Francis Hodge

Ian McKay, Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People’s Enlightenment in Canada 18901920 (Between the Lines, 2008), £26.87

Ian McKay begins Reasoning Otherwise with the frank acknowledgement that there exists little published scholarship relating to the development of the Canadian left prior to 1914. The book is a first attempt to make up this lack. McKay describes his method as a “reconnaissance” of this history, rather than an attempt to polemicise or judge. By this McKay means both a preliminary survey of the ground and an attempt to gain information about an enemy. He does not pretend to have written a definitive argument, but rather sees Reasoning Otherwise as “one step in a co-operative struggle to understand contested terrain”.

The Canadian left prior to the First World War was neither homogeneous nor united. McKay describes this “first formation” of the left as a milieu of many different small groups, discussion circles, cultural associations and craft unions. These groups often knew little of each other. Coal miners in Nova Scotia likely knew little of what loggers in British Columbia were doing. Groups were often further divided by language and ethnicity. What these groups had in common, however, was a package of ideas derived from the social sciences of the 19th century. Socialism was seen not as a mystical utopia but as a scientific possibility, even probability.

Marx’s labour theory of value, which holds that all wealth is the creation of human labour, was a key for these “first formationists”. Also central to the thought of these early leftists was the notion that social progress and socialism were part of a Darwinian process of social evolution. Just as humanity had physiologically evolved from earlier species, these early leftists held that socialism was a natural evolutionary progression from class society.

Though these early socialists have been dismissed simply as positivists or vulgar Marxists, McKay does not do so. He sees them as a product of the Victorian and Edwardian world, shaped by positivist science and Eurocentric nationalism. He stresses that many of Marx’s writings were not yet available in Canada. Though the first formationists were indeed guilty of misusing the ideas of natural science in their theorising of human society, McKay argues that they were “doing original and important things in Canada with an unavoidably abbreviated ‘Marx’ whom they often read with discernment and adapted with intelligence”.

However, McKay does not ignore their failings. He points out that many of them assumed the existence of different “races” and some of them felt that some races were inferior to others. He highlights the deterministic cast of much of their thought but points out that a great deal of science at the time was still described in deterministic language. The acceptance of probability over certainty as a useful way to frame scientific theory was “as yet unconsolidated”.

McKay, then, sees this first formation of left politics in Canada as “not a toxic waste dump” of mistakes and shoddy theory, “but a freshly planted field” that laid the basis for a more organised, united and coherent left politics after the First World War. He also argues that what some might construe as the greatest weakness of this early left—its looseness and lack of coherence—was in fact a strength. This allowed it to withstand state repression and survive to lay the basis for the fighting left that emerged during the 1920s.

Readers are given some opportunity to decide for themselves how true this contention might be in the chapter on the month long Winnipeg general strike that took place in the summer of 1919. The chapter makes for gripping reading. The strike was described by Antonio Gramsci as part of an international revolutionary movement of workers at the time and “a bid to install a soviet regime”. McKay presents this material in as neutral a fashion as possible, attempting to show both what he considers the strengths of these early leftists in Winnipeg and their shortcomings. However, the reader looking for an analysis of the lessons of the strike will have to look elsewhere.

That said, McKay does an excellent job of situating the emergent Canadian left of the early 20th century in a wider context of political developments in Britain, the United States and Europe. Though the language used is occasionally ponderous or overly academic, Reasoning Otherwise is nevertheless an excellent resource for anyone interested in left politics before the First World War, whether in Canada or internationally.