Gordon Hak, the Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle

By Isitt, Benjamin | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Gordon Hak, the Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle


Isitt, Benjamin, Labour/Le Travail


Gordon Hak, The Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press 2013)

THIS IMPORTANT BOOK examines a vital topic in Canadian working-class history --the political trajectory on the "left coast" of British Columbia from its origins in the 19th century to the present. Hak's approach is moderate and balanced rather than Marxist, evident in his selection, structuring, and discussion of subject matter and themes. To be sure, Communists, anarchists, and other radical activists and currents receive proper attention, but Hak is careful to reach out to the diversity of left perspectives and working-class viewpoints in crafting this survey work.

He traces the history of BC's left from the standpoint of the working class, broadly conceived, with the objective of identifying a movement capable of inspiring and mobilizing a majority of people in a project for far-reaching social and economic change. As a result, Hak's association with familiar protagonists and institutions is necessarily detached, meaning that some readers, particularly those most familiar with aspects of BC's left history, or those who most strongly identify with particular ideologies or organizations, may feel their pet topic has received short shrift. Hak's generous and inclusive approach produces a high-quality work that is accessible to general readers, while providing a valuable contribution for specialist scholars and post-secondary educators. The book is readable and inviting, employing plain language, effective illustrations, and a useful glossary.

A survey work of this scope, given the abundance of prior specialist studies, is a challenging assignment and Hak delivers with competence and finesse. He provides useful original insight on the politics of craft workers and others in the 19th century and traces the trajectory of electoralism from "Lib-Labism" and the pre-World War I Socialist Party, through the various labourist parties of the interwar period, to the ebbs and flows of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the New Democratic Party, immersed in the broader political, social, and economic context. Actors from Knights of Labor to Single Taxers to Wobblies to New Leftists to the Squamish Five are woven into the tapestry.

Hak also situates the British Columbia left in global context, demonstrating how international events--the Russian Revolution, world wars, economic depressions, Keynesian interventions, oil shocks, trade agreements, climate summits, Occupy protests--as well as national factors such as the Reform Party and Idle No More--influenced developments in BC.

To be sure, there are aspects of the book that could be developed more fully, particularly discussion of the relationship between the Left and women, workers of colour, and indigenous people. Specific themes such as the social gospel, the cooperative movement, and working-class culture are hardly mentioned, reflecting the challenges of telling a complex story in a compact and accessible way.

Hak deftly pursues the connection between left politics and union organization and struggle throughout the book, as well as the interplay of radicalism, reformism, and militancy. …

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