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Review

Militant Minority: British Columbia Workers and the Rise of a New Left, 1948-1972

By Benjamin Isitt

November 4, 2013

Review By Ron Verzuh

Labour historians have been arguing about the left in British Columbia politics and labour for ages. Now, through a skilful conversion of his 2008 University of New Brunswick dissertation “Tug of War,” University of Victoria scholar Ben Isitt adds his analysis of the province’s often fractious working-class politics and what they might mean today.  

Militant Minority does not explore totally new territory. Historians have been fascinated by BC’s left-labour politics since at least the 1960s work of Martin Robin (Radical Politics and Canadian Labour, 1880-1930, 1968) and Paul Phillips (No Power Greater, 1967), or the 1990s work of Mark Leier (Red Flags & Red Tape, 1995). But these earlier volumes do not fully cover the time period of this welcome new work.

Isitt revisits and challenges some long-held truths and cites some hard facts about the fragile nature of the province’s left from its early Cold War years to its momentary electoral victory in 1972. However, as with any attempt to write contemporary history, the living may take issue with Issit’s facts and arguments, especially those veterans in the ranks of the Anarchists, Maoists, Trotskyists, Marxist-Leninists and social democrats that populate Issit’s volume. To his credit, Issit has courageously leapt into that breach, penning a portrait of the BC left, warts and all.

In some cases, not enough space is devoted to key left events. For example, the historic 1950s Peace Arch concerts that fought back against McCarthyism get only light treatment. In other cases, Militant Minority shines with its full discussion of the left debates that took place outside the Lower Mainland, notably in the Kootenays with their history of electing left politicians and dissenting from party policy.

Through a reading of personal papers and the labour and left press, Isitt shares some amusing anecdotes about the back-biting and clamour on the BC left. One, though not new to labour historians, involves an expletive-filled speech drunkenly delivered by Mine-Mill district director Harvey Murphy, an arch-Communist. The so-called “underpants speech” got Murphy expelled from the labour movement for two years and began what became a major purge of the ‘Reds’ in union ranks.

Tied to the purges were the political fortunes of the CCF-NDP and the Communist Party of Canada and Isitt pays much attention to the details in convention proceedings and press reports (both labour and mainstream). Most interesting are the skirmishes within the CCF between dissidents like Colin Cameron and Dorothy Steeves and avowed anti-Communists like future NDP federal leader David Lewis and well-meaning moderates like Angus and Grace MacInnis.

“[T]he MacInnises, and their allies in the ‘moderate’ faction were no less committed to improving the conditions of BC’s working class,” notes Issit, “but they objected to the strident statements and radical resolutions of the left wing, which they considered harmful to the CCF’s electoral objectives.” [91] With that statement, he captures the essence of what was to guide left debates for the foreseeable future and into the new century, including those in the late 1960s involving the dissident Waffle group. Indeed, some would argue that the same debate rages now on the eve of another BC election in which the NDP has high hopes of regaining power after ten years of Liberal rule.

Like many historians of the left, Isitt concludes that had the labour movement and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation-New Democratic Party not culled its radicals we might have had a more effective and even more voter-friendly platform for resisting the worst corporate excesses that followed the Second World War. As Isitt puts it, “By the 1970s, institutionalized collective bargaining and an institutionalized social-democratic party distanced workers from the locus of economic and political decision-making. Militant agency – their historic weapon against capitalist exploitation – had been paradoxically rendered essential and obsolete.” [203]

A mild warning to the non-academic reader or those not schooled in left ideology: Militant Minority might prove a taxing read with its detailed explanations of the various internecine wars on the left and the book’s over-abundance of footnotes. Academics, on the other hand, will find the painstaking attention to detail of much use.

For now, Issit’s book will dominate the shelves of BC left histories. But hot on its tail is a forthcoming volume by Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs and Globe and Mail reporter Rod Mickleburgh that promises fresh insights into the province’s political past. Hopefully, it will also let some new skeletons out of the BC NDP closet through an examination of the Dave Barrett government that won power in 1972. 

Militant Minority: British Columbia Workers and the Rise of a New Left, 1948-1972

(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 424 pp. Paper. $35.00