For a New Kind of History: A Reconnaissance of 100 Years of Canadian Socialism

By McKay, Ian | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

For a New Kind of History: A Reconnaissance of 100 Years of Canadian Socialism


McKay, Ian, Labour/Le Travail


THE CENTENNIAL OF CANADIAN socialism is upon us -- in 2001 if one focuses on the creation of the first free-standing pan-Canadian socialist organization, in 2005 if one selects the formation of the first party to attract the support and the votes of thousands of supporters.(1) It is symptomatic of the problem of socialist memory in Canada that this centennial will probably be pretty much forgotten. Some of the reasons for this oblivion relate to the hegemonic neo-liberalism of the late 20th century, which has transformed "socialism" into an epithet. But others of them relate to the strange and inadequate way the Canadian socialist past has customarily been constructed by socialists themselves for use in the present.

Some General Reflections on Methodology and Historiography

What has been most sorely lacking in the writing of our socialist history is an adequate theorization of that project of liberal order that goes under the heading "Canada." No history of Canadian socialism is minimally adequate unless it understands the force of qualification the adjective "Canadian" exerts over the noun "socialism." "Canada" denotes a project of liberal rule in a territory secured by force of British arms and modeled primarily on British and American precedents, a project which became hegemonic in northern North America from the third quarter of the 19th century. Grasping that Canada is a project of deep liberalism is key to a new critical history of Canadian socialism. The innovation is to treat Canadian socialism(s) as a series of relatively autonomous experimental attempts to escape the liberal labyrinth. Before the 1940s, socialists were positioned as the liberal project's most serious and rigorous external critics, who contested its defining characteristics: the epistemological and ontological primacy of the individual, the structuring influence of private property, and the political subordination of the state to its functions of capitalist accumulation and bourgeois legitimation. The real reason for the anomaly of a relatively influential Canadian socialist movement in a continent otherwise quite hostile to a formal socialist politics lies not in the ideological convolutions traceable back to some supposed Tory tinge,(2) but rather to the conjunctural specifics of a new liberal "passive revolution"(3) in the 1940s, whereby a threatened liberal order transformed both itself (into a "new democracy" answerable to its "citizens") and many of its socialist adversaries (into "new democrats" comfortable with Fordism at home and American globalism abroad) in response to an apprehended social insurrection. What arguably set the Canadian experience apart from the American was the coincidence of socialist leftism with the first powerful "independentist" articulation of Canadian nationalism: socialists in Canada became, thanks to the passive revolution, "internal" to the Canadian project. Elements of socialism became central to the myth-symbol complex that legitimates both the existence of the Canadian state-nation and the Quebec state-within-a-state that, at least for the time being, it encompasses.

As Stuart Hall reminds us, hegemonic ideological formation, such as the liberal order in Canada, formulates its own objects of knowledge, its own subjects, is driven by its own logic, establishes its own regime of truth; it evolves its "space of formation" and constantly interrupts, displaces and rearranges its opponents. Relations of power are not, then, monopolized by the state, but affect the entire social body. Yet an ideology's transition to hegemony within the state is decisive, because it allows for the naturalization of particular readings of the social world. In the case of Canadian liberalism, the "liberal revolution" of the mid-19th century would gradually acquire precisely this self-perpetuating character, through a myriad of laws, an array of cultural institutions, and an implied philosophy of "individualism," applied not just to abstract thought but also to such seemingly unconnected realms as religious faith and material life. …

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