Book: Ian McKay, Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People’s Enlightenment in Canada, 1890-1920
Publisher: Between the Lines, Toronto
Publication date: 2008
How to Think Differently in the Face of Confounding Chicanery
?In my eyes this book will find its place by generating new conversations and debates . . . as a means of reimagining the past of the left, and anticipating its future. This is indeed an urgent task as we debate not just the characteristics of this particular formation of the left but the future hopes and prospects of those that are yet to come.?
Ian McKay, from the introduction, Reasoning Otherwise
My home province just elected an NDP government. Until now Nova Scotia has never had a socialist government despite a feisty working populace, labour issues galore, and its role as the spawning grounds of some of the most brilliant and persuasive minds in Canadian socialism.
What was the holdup? Whereas Reasoning Otherwise may not directly answer that question, reading about the journey from the social reform movements of the late nineteenth century to the Winnipeg General Strike and its aftermath goes a long way toward helping us figure it out.
McKay traces the development of socialist thought in Canada through a number of channels, asserting that without Marx, Darwin, and the Darwin-inspired Spencer, the first formation may have looked markedly different; the influence of these thinkers convinced many that socialism was not only inevitable but scientific, that its attainment would be as necessary a part of Homo sapiens evolution as the ability to walk erect.
This careful study of the first socialist formation in this country reveals the movement as being amazingly multi-faceted, crossing gender, class, and religious lines. Although there were tensions between Christian socialists and those who believed that real socialism naturally prohibited belief in God, there does not appear to have been much rancour between these two; the perceived necessity of the proposed solution supplanted differences in the rationale behind it.
The main thing that united the left was a resistance to the way of thinking perpetrated against them on every hand by a liberal capitalist order that was just as ingenious back then as it is today in cloaking greed and cruelty in the splendid robes of freedom, individualism, egalitarianism, and family values.
The galvanizing circumstances that drove many to socialism?child labour, perilous working conditions, extreme poverty, and employers? utter lack of remorse?were ugly enough in themselves to sweep aside any illusions about the liberal order. What Leacock referred to as ?the elephantiasis of individualism? was presented to the masses as something great and marvellous at best and disarmingly benign at worst.
The people weren’t buying it. The title of the book refers to the importance of the process by which large numbers of people were persuaded to question the propaganda of the reigning order. Today’s socialist will delight in reading about factory workers who in their few leisure hours greedily devoured the latest books on socialist thought and enthusiastically participated in debates in the press. Publications like Western Clarion and Cotton’s Weekly served as sounding boards for both intellectuals and ordinary folk to voice both their pain and their resistance.
?This cohort of socialists,? writes McKay, ?loved to dissect the hypocrisies, shallowness, and misrepresentations of the capitalists and their liberal apologists. Beneath the liberals? pious pronouncements about individualism, their pathetic self-help books, and their pompous self-serving speeches could be found the barely concealed facts of exploitation and repression.?
In the end the movement was doomed by poor public relations (railing against God and religion and in favour of free love alienated much of the working class), misguided utopianism, a dependence on a scientific socialism independent of historical patterns, and a tidal wave of negative propaganda from a government determined to maintain a capitalist democracy at all costs.
This is no misty-eyed nostalgic romp; McKay writes openly of the sexism, classism, and racism that plagued the left during those years and to which many on the left were obviously blind. In retrospect we can see how socialism has taken on more humanist values in response to the changing of the lens through which we view social problems.
This is all good to know. For the next time.
Reasoning Otherwise manifests six of The Mindful Bard’s criteria for books well worth reading: 1) it confronts existing injustices; 2) it renews my enthusiasm for positive social action; 3) it gives me tools enabling me to respond with compassion and efficacy to the suffering around me; 4) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; 5) it stimulates my mind; and 6) it poses and admirably responds to questions which have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
The Bard could use some help scouting out new material. If you discover any books, compact disks, or movies which came out in the last twelve months and which you think fit the Bard’s criteria, please drop a line to email@example.com. If I agree with your recommendation, I’ll thank you online.