Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History.

McKay, Ian. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2006.

Reviewed by Mauricio Martinez

There’s an old joke (told more or less famously by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek1), that goes something like this: a man thinks he is a grain of seed. He is promptly taken to the mental institution where the doctors eventually convince him that he is not a grain of seed but a man. But, just when he’s apparently cured – convinced that he is not a grain of seed but a man—and permitted to leave the hospital, he comes back instantly, trembling with fear: there is a chicken outside and he is afraid the chicken is going to eat him. “Come now,” says the doctor, “you know full well that you are not a grain of seed but a man.” “You and I know that,” the patient says, “but does the chicken know?”

In a psychoanalytic sense, the joke has some instructive value: it’s not enough to convince a patient that a certain delusion is not “real,” or to make them conscious of their delusion; one must tap into the unconscious itself or the patient will never be truly “cured.” We can probe a bit deeper still; one might say that the joke conceals a certain statement on the nature of reality. The patient, who in delusion thinks he is a seed and in the hospital is convinced that in reality he is a man, emerges from the hospital to the “outside” world, and is immediately thrown back into his delusion. Why? When convinced of the “reality” that he is indeed a man and not a seed, the patient had simply swapped one delusion for another. The lesson? Our conception of reality is always framed by certain “fictions” which sustain that reality. Fictions that are, in many ways, just as arbitrary as delusions.

This problem is also illustrative of a central dilemma of contemporary historical inquiry, namely, “Is that the way things really were, or only how we think they were?” Since its beginnings, history has endeavoured to provide the “definitive” record of a certain historical event – the Second World War, the fall of the Roman Empire, and so on. But more recently – especially since the 80s – many historians have rebelled against that view, the most fervent of them embracing the post-modern view that objective reality as such simply does not exist and never has. Left historians as well have had to come to grips with this problem in their own way.

Case in point: Ian McKay’s Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History. As the title suggests, the book is an attempt to “rethink” the history of the Canadian left, to look at it and understand it in a radically new and innovative way. The book is impressive in how it takes this task of “rethinking” to heart. Billed as an introduction to a multi-volume history of the Canadian left (forthcoming), the bulk of its 217 pages is an amalgam of analytical frameworks and conceptual schemas.

McKay begins by proposing that the experience of the left has always been one of “living and reasoning otherwise.” This “otherwise,” McKay argues, following the Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, is ultimately a “utopian” project – not fanciful or far-fetched, but rather a vision of the future that radically breaks from the thinking and conditions of the present reality.

McKay then borrows from Marx the concept of the “realm of freedom,” a life unconstrained by necessity (which is in fact less a Marxist concept than an Aristotelian one2; Marx’s innovation was to assert that this realm of freedom was only truly possible through the emancipation of social production), and adds to it Gramsci’s notion of “objective possibility.” In short, the experience of the left is precisely in proposing alternative futures of freedom, of real utopia, and to connect these futures to objective possibilities inherent in the present that point the way towards their realization.

So what is the left, beyond the notions of freedom and possibility that it seeks to realize? McKay cautions us against trying to reduce the left to a core “essence,” which is as fruitless as trying to distil a core “essence” of Marx. There have been many ‘lefts,’ just as there have been many ‘Marxes’: “each period, in complex ways,” McKay writes, “makes its own practice of leftism”; “leftists in each period invent distinctive conceptual systems through which they grasp the world,” and each constructs its own “dialect of the general language of socialism.”3

For each generation, or “cohort,” there are many “paths” to socialism; McKay provides eight: “proletarianization,” or general working-class experience, so-called “diaspora leftisms,” Canada’s various national questions, and movements of gender liberation, spiritual awakening, intellectual inquiry, “global awareness,” and finally, generational concerns, such as those of the generations returning from the First and Second World Wars. McKay’s emphasis on a plurality of “leftisms,” each evolving through different paths, is crucial to McKay’s “strategy of reconnaissance,” a way of looking at left history that avoids the “sectarianism” and “sentimentality” that, McKay argues, have plagued histories of the Canadian left for too long. A reconnaissance approach, McKay argues, avoids partisanship and is geared towards new insights, rather than just reinforcing what we already know and believe.

Using McKay’s approach, the history of the Canadian left emerges as a series of “left formations,” influenced by objective “matrix events,” moments that destabilize the status quo and have ripple-effects within social institutions and popular consciousness. Matrix events (like the Great Depression, for example) are characterized by “moments of refusal” that upset conventional ways of thinking and being; moments of “supersedure,” in which consciousness itself heads forth in radically new directions; and finally, “systemization,” which occurs when society returns to “business as usual.” At this point, left formations tend to retreat into themselves, developing specialized languages and in effect preparing the way for new formations that will recreate the process again on a new political and conceptual terrain.

In response, each formation creates its own conceptual models (i.e. Marxism-Leninism, the Social Gospel, etc.), its own forms of organization (the trade union, the Leninist “party of a new type”), its own forms of education, its own sense of belonging, and so on: its own way of living and thinking “otherwise.” From this understanding of how the left has functioned throughout history, the rest of the book outlines a way in which new models of historical analysis can be formed on McKay’s conceptual basis and generate new knowledge about where the left came from, where it is going, and its relationship to capitalism and the “Liberal Order” that has defined Canada’s consciousness and social institutions throughout its history.

McKay’s book can certainly be lauded for its intent, and it does succeed in breaking with convention and boldly proposing new ways of understanding left history. And most would agree that an understanding of history free from partisanship is a noble aim. And McKay’s “reconnaissance,” given its ostensibly leftist commitment, seems to present itself as more or less politically neutral. But the assertion that such a methodology is free from the sectarianism and sentimentality of previous histories comes across as, in some ways, almost false and self-serving. In his final chapter, “Mapping the Canadian Movement,” McKay takes care to give all of the various “leftisms” (Communists, Social-Democrats, New Leftists, etc.) their due, but does so by tying them to particular historical stages and matrix events: first, the old Socialists (late nineteenth century), then the CPC (1917 – 1945), the CCF-NDP (1945 – 1960s), then the New Left (1960s – 1970s), and ending with the NDP and the global justice movement (1980s to the present day).

McKay ultimately reveals himself as emerging from the tradition of radical democracy, which has gained popularity within the global justice movement and has found its expression within the NDP through the short-lived New Politics Initiative. McKay, consciously or unconsciously, culminates his analysis by describing the new “left formation” of our time as basically his left formation, with each previous one having more or less conveniently departed the historical stage, leaving—at best—residues which will be consciously or unconsciously appropriated by the formations to come.

Much is revealed in McKay’s use of the theories and ideas of the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci. McKay employs a great number of Gramscian concepts, including “hegemony,” “supersedure,” “historic-bloc,” and “war of position.” McKay cautions against interpreting left history in “tragic” or “ironic” terms, but if there is one thing that is tragic or ironic about left history, it is the fact that Gramsci has become the poster-boy for this new radical democratic current. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri state in a footnote to their famous book Empire (by no means an “orthodox” Marxist work, but one that, if you ask me, has some strong Marxist-Leninist undercurrents):

“Poor Gramsci, communist and militant before all else, tortured and killed by fascism and ultimately by the bosses who financed fascism – poor Gramsci was given the gift of being considered the founder of a strange notion of hegemony that leaves no place for a Marxian politics (See, for example, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics [a key text in radical-democratic theory – M.M.]…. We have to defend ourselves against such generous gifts!”4

It is thus telling how McKay adopts Gramsci’s dialectic of “war of position”/ “war of manoeuvre,” tossing out the second in favour of the first. True, dramatic wars of manoeuvre – general strikes, revolts, revolutions – are few and far between in Canada, and gradual, grinding wars of position, leading to more modest structural changes, are more common. But then again, the same goes for most of the world. But it is rather silly to turn vice into virtue and presume – as McKay seems to – that the success of the left, in the past and in the future, should be measured by its ability to penetrate the “crevices of the liberal order,”5 or that “left wing effectiveness in Canada comes down in large part to how skilfully and subtly liberal order is pushed to its definitional limits.”6 Such a one-sided interpretation of Gramsci’s thought leads to an ultimate privileging of reform and glorification of parliamentary opposition, akin to Jack Layton’s 2006 promise that “electing more New Democrats to the house,” would somehow strengthen the left’s position against Harper, or the idea that passing a Private Member’s Bill on the labelling of trans fats is in some way more than a very small part of a wider emancipatory project. (We’re back to the old joke again: “didn’t you know that Gramsci was a revolutionary?” “You and I know that,” the Gramscian says, “but does Gramsci know?”)

But far more than the use of Gramsci, which is not particular to McKay by any means, it is the use of the phrase “Canada’s Left History” that ought to be rendered problematic. McKay admits that left formations usually come with an attendant “internationalist” or “world” outlook, but shouldn’t the historian of Canadian left history have a world outlook as well? For example, shall we view the decline in prominence of the CPC after 1945 as its effective exit from the historical stage, or rather as its effective relegation to a frontier outpost of a global movement that was, in many respects, just gaining steam? Or, for that matter, why is it that the left has never been in power in Canada? McKay suggests that the reasons are intrinsically Canadian: a “Liberal order” that co-opts and digests leftist energies, blunting their revolutionary edge, and smoothing over the contradictions of the capitalist system.

But capitalism, at least since 1492, has always been a world system, and could it not be said that beyond the primary contradiction of capitalism – the intrinsic contest between workers and capitalists – there exists a secondary contradiction, that of imperialism – between imperial countries and colonial or neo-colonial countries, in which all classes in the imperialist countries benefit – that distorts, or better, refracts, the primary one? (“Didn’t you know that Canada’s history has been shaped by imperialism?” “You and I know that, but does Canada know?”)

Again, we are faced with the very contradiction between the subjective position of the historian and the objective “reality” that the historian seeks to describe. McKay’s reconnaissance, which aims to describe events in some ways “as they really are,” in all of their apparent complexity and plurality, removes the subjective element, and as such is ultimately untenable. Like, how, in light of the recent re-founding convention of the Young Communist League last March, are we to interpret the decision to disband the YCL in 1991? Was the decision to disband an example of colossal hubris and even an absurd arrogance (to put it mildly)? Or maybe it was just a “formation” that had had its day and no longer served any historical purpose. (“You and I know that,” the YCLer said, “but does the YCL know?”)

“But, oh,” the reader might object, “you are really just a partisan, sectarian and sentimental!” You bet! And card-carrying! And, in fact, I would rather live in a world full of partisan histories where the CPC is described in vitriolic, dismissive, or otherwise irreverent terms than one that lauds its contributions while at the same time maintains a cynical distance from it as a relic in a museum. A cynical distance that is everywhere in our popular ideology, where nobody believes in Santa Claus yet you would be hard-pressed to find a public place without a Christmas tree in late December. “Yes, it’s a religious ritual, but I don’t really believe in it.” You and I know that, but does Christmas know? One thing about having a partisan viewpoint is that there’s just no denying the ignorance of chickens.



[1] - Slavoj Zizek, in a talk entitled “The Ignorance of the Chicken, or, Who Believes What Today?” April 12, 2006, posted on the Critical Inquiry website, I have to thank and credit Dr. Zizek with the inspiration for the tenor of this review.

2 - “Aristotle distinguished three ways of life (bioi [bios theoretikos, the life of contemplation, i.e. the philosopher; bios apolaustikos, the life of art and pleasure; and the bios politikos, the political life – M.M.]) which men might choose freedom, that is, in full independence of the necessities of life and the relationships they originated. This prerequisite of freedom ruled out all ways of life chiefly devoted to keeping one’s self alive – not only labor, which was the way of life of the rule of his master, but also the working life of the free craftsman and the acquisitive life of the merchant.” See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd. ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1958] 1998, 12.

3 - McKay, 35.

4 - Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire. New York: Harvard University Press, 2000, 451, ff. 26.

5 - McKay, 79.

6 - McKay 84