Manitoba History: Review: Ian McKay, Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People’s Enlightenment in Canada

by Henry Trachtenberg
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 65, Winter 2011

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Every now and then a remarkable book about some topic in Canadian history is published. Although not above criticism, Ian McKay’s masterful tome Reasoning Otherwise, the eagerly anticipated, enthusiastically received, and thoroughly impressive first volume of an expected trilogy, is such a work.

In this massive study of social, intellectual, working-class and political history, McKay describes and analyzes what he calls the left’s “first formation” in Canada from 1890 to 1920, a period in which “a distinctive and multifaceted socialist movement established itself as a permanent presence” (p. 1). According to McKay, a left formation is “an analytical term used to describe a specific constellation of parties, people, issues, and texts” united by its own “distinctive interpretation of an overriding political objective—that of reasoning and living otherwise” (p. 5). (These words, also forming the book’s title, are taken from the slogan of Prairie socialist William Irvine.)

Compared to the 1920s and 1930s, when the Communist Party and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation were established in Canada, the earlier period has received considerably less attention from historians. McKay, a Professor of History at Queen’s University and one of Canada’s pre-eminent historians, is to be commended for “rescuing” the first formation and demonstrating conclusively that it was neither isolated nor ineffectual, but was alive and flourishing, and shaped the Canadian experience in subtle and powerful ways.

Reasoning Otherwise is a considerable expansion of McKay’s 2005 book, Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History, published by the same independent Toronto press, Between the Lines. That book, in turn, was based on McKay’s seminal article, “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History,” published in 2000. Building on the concepts he advanced earlier, in Reasoning Otherwise McKay utilizes the post-polemical methodology of critical reconnaissance of the Canadian left’s complex array of different individuals, small groups, discussion circles, cultural associations, craft unions, and publications from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. In employing the reconnaissance concept, the author adopts the analysis of creating a new culture of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, who analyzed the success of liberal democratic states in resisting the workingclass revolt after the First World War. For McKay, then, reconnaissance is a “political act of research” intended to awaken people to “little explored realities” and to “provoke a network of focused investigations,” entailing acceptance that “on issues big and small, the latest word is not going to be the last word” (pp. 1–3).

The book is well organized, combining thematic and chronological chapters. After his introduction on reconnaissance and his subject’s resistance to what he calls a hegemonic “liberal order,” McKay offers the reader detailed analyses and interpretations starting with socialism, which he sub-titles the “revolutionary science of social evolution,” founded on the arguments of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin (surprisingly) and, quite unexpectedly, the Darwin-inspired Herbert Spencer. The wide-ranging and dramatic influence of these thinkers convinced many members of Canada’s first formation that socialism was not only inevitable but scientific, and that its attainment would be as necessary a part of man’s evolution as the ability to walk. Subsequent chapters concern the emergence of the first formation in the 1890s, and then the questions of class, religion, women, and race. Throughout his narrative McKay emphasizes the important role of evolutionary thought in socialist and left analyses and the significant place that religion occupied in the debates and discussions of leftist commentators from 1890–1920. While the author is sympathetic to the individuals and groups of the first formation, he writes candidly and in great detail of the unattractive and, by today’s standards, reprehensible classism, sexism, and racism that permeated the Canadian left. McKay concludes Reasoning Otherwise with two chapters on the Winnipeg General Strike and its aftermath.

There are some problems associated with definition. While socialists and other leftists rigorously criticized and condemned capitalism in the period under review, they did so using such terms as “wage slavery” and “plutocracy,” and not McKay’s “liberal order,” to refer to their nemesis. Moreover, despite McKay’s carefully crafted definitions of a leftist and socialism (p. 4), the author is not consistent in limiting the left to socialism, because throughout the text he uses the words “left,” “leftist,” “socialism,” and “socialist” interchangeably, and his analysis of the left includes anarchism, and occasionally labourism, sometimes contrasting both with socialism (pp. 112, 131).

McKay, a Marxist, is concerned in Reasoning Otherwise not only with an analysis and interpretation of the past, but also the present, through a change of society to attain a socialist future (p. 10). As such, he is open to the charge of presentism—indeed, he states his embrace of present-minded arguments (p. 3)—or romantic or even wishful thinking as he links historical findings to contemporary political concerns and current struggles.

Readers of Manitoba History may be most interested in the Winnipeg General Strike chapters. Some of McKay’s interpretations and conclusions can be challenged here. The author’s perspective on the Strike (it began on 15 May, not 25 May, 1919, p. 459), which he calls the “great rebellion” (pp. 505, 474) and “a revolution” (p. 491) and suggests was similar to the Paris student and workers’ strikes in 1968, is that it was only partially economic in nature, because the strikers had both “scientific and educational ambitions” (p. 491). This view is commonly accepted by the Marxist working class, and not by more traditional labour historians. McKay asserts that in the “high diction” of the Canadian left, the Strike became “a symbol of heroism” in which the strikers “created an event unlike any seen before in North America” (p. 495). That is debatable since the Seattle General Strike occurred a few months before Winnipeg’s. It is also questionable to characterize the strikers, who wished to achieve the practical goals of union recognition, collective bargaining, and higher wages (recognized only as partial factors by McKay, pp. 463, 466) as “democrats” and “seekers after the truth,” and their opponents, many of whom, as McKay himself states (p. 460) were “middle-class professionals and businessmen,” as “autocrats,” “philistine attorneys and book-burners” (p. 495).

For McKay, the Strike was a “hegemonic challenge to the existing political order,” as well as the climax of first formation socialism where, in “a landscape of repression,” thousands of men and women “struggled to find a new path to the realm of freedom,” and, in so doing, “dared to reason and to live in the bright clear air of the people’s enlightenment” (p. 495). Just as this interpretation may be problematic, so too is the assertion that the trials of the Strike leaders were “show trials” akin to the infamous Moscow trials of the 1930s. Also debatable is the contention that William Pritchard “stood about as much chance of acquittal as did [Nikolai] Bukharin in Moscow in 1938” (p. 505). McKay himself acknowledges that charges were stayed against J. S. Woodsworth and that Fred Dixon (pp. 501–505) was acquitted (so was A. A. Heaps). Similarly, the author argues that the trials, which occurred ex post facto, were “pre-emptive strikes against an emergent realm of enlightened freedom” in which “authoritarian liberals” turned on Winnipeg’s leftists the “same strategies of violence and exclusion they had earlier used on the Komagata Maru in 1914 and would later perfect in the violent repression of the On-to-Ottawa Trek in 1935” (p. 499). This neat linear progression is questionable.

These concerns do not diminish the overwhelming strengths of Reasoning Otherwise. One need not be a Marxist or other leftist to appreciate McKay’s description and analysis of the Canadian left from 1890–1920 or the voluminous research in primary and secondary sources on which they were built. The book does not have a bibliography, but the scholarly apparatus employed throughout, including the 86 pages of endnotes and 24-page index, is daunting. Although the author states that his reconnaissance is “several steps down the ladder of comprehensiveness from a polished and final synthesis” (p. 1), this book is the benchmark for, and definitive work on the topic. For his monumental effort McKay very deservedly won the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize from the Canadian Historical Association for the best book published in Canadian history.

McKay can be assured that his hopes have been met, that Reasoning Otherwise will persuade readers that the “vanished world of left politics in turn of the century Canada is a fascinating and exciting field of study” and will generate “new conversations and debates” as a “means of reimagining the past of the left” (p. 11). His wish, however, that the book will anticipate the left’s future and the “future hopes and prospects of those [formations] that are yet to come” (p. 11), remains to be realized.

Page revised: 17 August 2016