Thursday, November 21, 2013

Three book reviews

My review of Cherry  Smyth's excellent novel about Jo Hiffernan, a mid 19th century artist,  the muse and model of Whistler and Courbet, appears at a-review-of-hold-still-by-cherry-smyth/

My review of Stephen Endicott's  history of the Canadian Workers' Unity League, Raising the Workers' Flag, is in the current issue of The Monitor (the publication of the Canadian Council for Policy Alternatives.)

Below is my review of  Ian McKay's 2005 book, Rebels, Reds, Radicals:

Queen's University history professor Ian McKay wrote Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada's Left History (Toronto, Between the Lines, 2005, 978-1-896357-97-3) as an introduction to a multi-volume history of the Canadian left. Since its purpose is to provide an analytical framework and conceptual scheme, Rebels, Reds Radicals lacks the engaging storytelling of his subsequent books, including the recent Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (2012).

Convinced that earlier histories of the Canadian left (unnamed) have been "sentimental', "sectarian" and "scorekeeping", McKay aimed for a non-partisan history. Instead of tracing a leftist formation "vertically"; that is, from past to present, an approach which has led to judging past efforts by present-day standards, he subscribes to a "horizontal" approach, examining leftist formations undogmatically, in historical context, looking for common elements.

McKay defines a leftist as someone with a vision of a freer, fairer, more democratic society and a willingness to work toward it. He acknowledges that Canada's left has working class origins, but  also flows from other sources, such as certain ethnic diasporas, Canadian nationalism, the women's movement, gay and lesbian radicalism, Christianity, intellectual inquiry and global awareness. To McKay, a "middle class university student" whose involvement begins with a specific issue and leads to a critique of capitalism is "of the left", and his or her leftism is as "solid and real" as anyone else's. "Little personal acts of resistance...are the inaugural gestures of resistance," he says, and "they are not to be minimized."

McKay applies the thought and terminology of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian political theorist and Italian Communist Party founder who died in 1937 in a Fascist prison. Gramsci believed that capitalism maintained control of society, not just through coercion and violence, but also through developing a hegemony - a culture and atmosphere in which the norms and values of laissez-faire liberalism became accepted by all classes.  Canada, founded in the 1800s at the peak of British laissez-faire liberalism, is a "liberal hegemony." Daily, in the media, we are bombarded with messages about the wonderfulness of our economic and political system.

As well as introducing a new historical approach, McKay addresses big troubling social issues like poverty, the environment, and the transformation of "almost every human activity into a dollars and cents proposition." he urges resistance to liberal hegemony through a "war of position" (challenging policies and changing minds) on a hundred fronts simultaneously. Leftists should be alert for "matrix" events (crises) comparable to the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike or the stock market crash of 1929. Matrix evens call out for "great moments of refusal" on the part of the left, and create moments of truth (supersedure) in which the ugly side of capitalism is exposed.

Consumer choices, which one might think would be minor in the war of position, are highighted:

"We might vow to frequent only family-owned eateries or shop at small independent stores in the downtown core," McKay writes. "We might resolve only to buy from our local organic farmer and boycott all branded merchandise. These kinds of personal decisions capture an authentic, resistant vision of an 'otherwise." They create small spaces of personal critique and freedom...It might begin with small collective acts, such as no-shopping days, or local campaigns to stop the spread of Wal-Marts, but to be truly of the left, it must connect these acts to a larger strategy...It must see every struggle as a partial answer to a much bigger question... How can we live differently?"

Well, and good, to a point, but did Antonio Gramsci, or our own Tommy Douglas inspire others and advance the left through shopping? This passage seems aimed at the middle class student whom McKay addresses earlier. McKay does not understand that lower-income Canadians like Wal-Mart for its one-stop convenience and low prices. His middle class perspective reappears in his discussion of the working class as being just one of many roots of the Canadian left.  Certainly he is right that the industrial proletariat was and is  neither a majority of the population nor united in its support of the left. No one can quarrel with his acknowledgement that workers interests and leftist projects often coincide and overlap, or his assertion that if the left "arrogantly writes of the workers... it misses one of its best opportunities to speak to a wider constituency."  Yet I am not sure if McKay sees the potential in a newer proletariat, the (largely unorganized) minimum wage workers, part-timers, unemployed and under-employed, to whom the left should speak - and listen.  Back in 1937, George Orwell wrote of the "far larger class of office workers and ... employees of all kinds [who] would certainly not thank you if you called them proletarians...[but] have the same interests and the same enemies as the working class. All are being robbed and bullied by the same system." (George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Penguin, 1937.)

In applying Gramsci to Canada, McKay replaces the old left vocabulary with Gramsci's. Instead of "crises" in the capitalist system, McKay writes of "matrix moments." Instead of "epiphanies" or "moments of insight", we have "moments of supersedure" followed by "moments of systemization" (strategic withdrawal.)  Left-leaning readers unassociated with academia may find this terminology tedious. One cumbersome vocabulary has been replaced with another.

Orwell wrote in 1937:

"When the ordinary person hears phrases like bourgeois ideology and proletarian solidarity, and expropriation of the expropriators he is not inspired by them, he is merely disgusted...[Less talk] about the sacred sisters thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and more about justice, liberty and the plight of the unemployed.

Despite these criticisms, McKay has produced a thought-provoking work. At times he seems to be preaching to the choir - or to his middle class undergraduate students - he deserves praise for reminding Canadians that alternatives to the status quo have been and can be imagined..