Canadian Marxists and
The impasse of socialist politics across the West has yielded a number of important reflections on the course of working class politics over the 20th century. The most notable of these, Donald Sassoon's One Hundred Years of Socialism, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys's The End of Parliamentary Socialism, and Gerassimos Moschonas's In the Name of Social Democracy, have each had their own take on the end of the Leninism of the communist movement and the accommodation of the parliamentarism of the social democratic movement to neoliberalism and globalization. These texts have each argued, again in their own ways, for a 'third way' socialism that did not juxtapose parliamentary reform and extra-parliamentary revolution, avoided the vanguardism and bureaucracy of both the Leninist and Fabian traditions, sought to advance working class education and activism, and encouraged new forms of democratic administration. This is the tradition of such thinkers as Marx, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Miliband, Williams and Poulantzas. While Canadian intellectuals and activists have been intensively engaged in assessing the future of socialist politics – notably in the journals Socialist Register, Studies in Political Economy and Canadian Dimension, there have been no parallel major studies of the trajectory of Canadian socialism. But the examination of the defeats of the major socialist traditions, and the retrieval and renewal of a socialist 'third way', is on the agenda in Canada as well.
Peter Campbell's prize-winning book, Canadian Marxists and the Search for a Third Way, is a biographical examination of several important socialists who developed Marxist thinking and politics along the lines of the 'third way' in Canada in the first half of the 1900s. In the social circumstances of the barbarism of world war and the blight of economic depression, working class activists faced many urgent political options. Some were inevitably pulled in the direction of pursuing immediate social reforms, and the evolutionary socialism of Fabianism that figured prominently in the formation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in the 1930s. Others were drawn into the orbit of the international communist movement and the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) in the 1920s by the prestige from the successes of the Russian revolutionaries and the discredit of the Second International socialists by their support for war. There were also many attracted to a strand of socialism outside both of these that followed Marx's conception that "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself"(4). Campbell's study of this third socialist tendency stands as a thoughtful counterpoint to the partisan histories of the CPC and its leadership under Tim Buck and the CCF and its equally feted leaders.
Campbell traces this alternative tradition through the lives of Arthur Mould, Bill Pritchard, Robert Russell and Ernest Winch, all immigrants to Canada from British working class background (Campbell does not elide the patriarchal biases of the socialism of the period that kept males at the centre of the movement). Their political commonality is located in their self-conscious study of Marxism and advocacy of working class education and democracy in opposition to Leninism and Fabianism, their base in the trade union movement and shared passage through the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC) from the 1910s-1920s (a party eventually marginalized by the formation of the CPC and the CCF ). These working class intellectuals were also linked theoretically, Campbell contends, through a common position against the revisionism of the Second International, the influence of the Hegelian-Marxism of Antonio Labriola, and opposition to the anarcho-syndicalist position of the Wobblies (an important political force in Western Canada) that trade unions and workers' councils could be the basis for socialism.
The bulk of the book is organized around biographical sketches of the political careers of the four. Winch, for example, was pivotal to the formation of the B.C. labour movement, and supported the use of general strikes to advance political demands, particularly in the crucial period of the labour revolt after World War 1. He remained a central figure on the left of the CCF in B.C. for decades. Similarly, Arthur Mould was an important name in labour circles in Ontario, and in the SPC; he would eventually make his political home the CPC. Pritchard worked as a writer and editor for the SPC and unions across Western Canada, and eventually played a crucial role in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and the One Big Union (OBU) movement. But as the OBU project faltered, he drifted into the CCF and then into socialist activities in Los Angeles. Russell, too, was a central figure in the union movement, the OBU and the Winnipeg uprising. He remained committed to the OBU long after its politics had failed, and ended his career in a variety of social justice efforts for workers. But whatever their individual political trajectories, Campbell argues that they retained an important affinity to the politics of a Marxism of the third way.
The very failures of the SPC and this third way project that led to these individual trajectories is, however, never fully taken up by Campbell. What was it in the organizational traditions of Leninism and Fabianism that allowed their parties to develop into actual political alternatives while Marxists of the third way (as well as the anarcho-syndicalists) fell to the side? When were the gains from workers' education and self-emancipation most evident? How were they organizationally sustained? What are the direct lineages of this socialist tendency in the politics of Canada today?
While there is indeed much to admire in the activism, educational work and leadership of these socialists, their intellectual legacy is also obscure and it is difficult to agree with Campbell's claim that "Canadian Marxists of the early decades of the twentieth century comprised one of the most important groups of thinkers and activists in Canadian history"(4). Marxism as an intellectual discourse had only the most marginal existence in Canada before the 1970s, and with only a few significant contributions, largely found in the postwar writings of Stanley Ryerson, C.B. Macpherson and H.C. Pentland. Paradoxically, Marxism of the third way is now a central modality of social science analysis and cultural critique in the intellectual landscape of Canada, but without the vibrant political practice and movement that gave rise to Campbell's spirited working class intellectuals.
It is disappointing that this admirable text, with its engaged exercise in political retrieval, should conclude with a tangential contemporary theoretical debate on post-structuralism and its challenge to Marxism, rather than engage with the challenges facing working class politics in Canada today. That is the issue so powerfully posed by the lives and failed political project of this group of Canadian socialists. The many important questions not asked about organizational challenges and political legacies is itself a reflection of what the Left in Canada has lost, and that Campbell's essential study has done so much to retrieve from our shared past.
Department of Political Science
York University, Toronto