The British Columbia CCF's Working-Class Moment: Socialism Not Populism

By Naylor, James | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

The British Columbia CCF's Working-Class Moment: Socialism Not Populism


Naylor, James, Labour/Le Travail


IN AUGUST 1934, DELEGATES of the Socialist Party of Canada, the dominant of the two affiliates to the British Columbia Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (BC/CCF), returning from the National Convention of the CCF in Winnipeg, lamented that "the Convention was far from being revolutionary, and tended further to the right." The only bright spot on the horizon, they felt, was the small national youth movement that understood the necessity of "forg[ing] an instrument" capable of "the revolutionary transformation of our economic and social system." (1) Throughout the 1930s, the BC CCF was considered nationally as the most left wing of the movement's provincial sections, and the BC CCF itself considered itself to be responsible for providing a revolutionary and working-class anchor to a national movement that seemed, at times, to drift from its socialist moorings. And, for the most part, historians --most recently Benjamin Isitt--have acknowledged the BC CCF's place on the left-wing of the Canadian movement in the 1930s and beyond. (2)

As Robert A.J. McDonald rightly argues, however, there was much in the day-to-day practice and language of the BC CCF that seemed to violate its own self-perception. Indeed, its actions appear not very different, for the most part, than other provincial CCF sections that engaged in socialist education and ran in elections. He argues that was most apparent in the CCF'S breakthrough provincial election in 1933, which he sees as a "populist moment" wherein the frustrations of a broad range of British Columbians in the political system were vented in support for the new and unproven CCF. McDonald's argument goes deeper than this, however. Elsewhere he has argued that the various streams that he identified within the BC CCF, including populism, labourism, and social democracy, are all "variants of liberalism" reflective of the fundamental liberal character of the province's political culture. (3)

The suggestion that the CCF had, at least, populist roots is far from new, particularly on the prairies. In the 1970s, John Conway argued that both the CCF and the Social Credit League in Saskatchewan and Alberta continued that tradition, reflecting the class interests of their shared social base among the agrarian petit-bourgeoisie. Each represented a class-determined reaction to farmers' increased vulnerability in the market place. (4) As Alvin Finkel points out in his incisive and careful analysis of Alberta Social Credit, reading the political programs of these parties directly from their class position fails to explain their political characteristics or trajectories. Moreover, he argues that it is simply incorrect to associate Social Credit specifically with farmers, as urban workers were often no less enthusiastic supporters; the same point could be made, even more strongly, of course, about the CCF. Analyzing these developments requires careful examination of the movements themselves, particularly since they had specific histories and influences. In both Saskatchewan and Alberta, farmers largely abandoned the populism of the foundering Progressive Party, seeking new political solutions to the crises of the 1930s. In Alberta, the CCF fared poorly due to its association with the ineffective United Farmers of Alberta provincial government. In Saskatchewan, the Progressive tradition gave way to a more explicitly socialist movement, one clearly tied to the working-class roots of the national CCF. Indeed, as Finkel points out, the Saskatchewan CCF'S drift away from socialist policies and towards liberalism in the late 1930s and 1940s is best analyzed as a process of electoral socialism (or social democracy) nationally, rather than as a specific feature of a rudderless petit-bourgeoisie in one province. (5)

This debate has little direct bearing on British Columbia since the organized farmers' movement in that province had only the briefest flirtation with the CCF. In 1931, the BC section of United Farmers of Canada established a "People's Party" on a classically populist program designed to challenge the "present vicious and wasteful system of party machine politics. …

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