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Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People’s Enlightenment in Canada, 1890-1920

By Ian McKay

Review By Gary Teeple

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 164 Winter 2009-2010  | p. 122-127

It took a mountain of labour to write this book, but the result is a molehill of meaningful history. This is the second volume of Ian McKay’s planned multi-volume history of the left in Canada, the first being Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History (Between the Lines, 2005). Claiming a dearth of work in this area, McKay has taken it upon himself to begin to write that history. It is not clear, however, that his books do what he thinks they do.

Reasoning Otherwise is a title whose ambiguity points to many of the problems encountered by the reader. McKay wastes no time establishing his “challenge”: with minor exceptions, he states, a history of the Canadian left does not exist, and his task is to begin to write it. Such is the content of the first two paragraphs of the book. There follows, however, no critical review of the literature on the left. There is no attempt to establish the strengths, weaknesses, or omissions of the studies that do exist or to show how his work relates to them. This is no minor oversight: it implies that nothing worthwhile preceded McKay’s work on this subject.

The oversight is all the more striking because the book has no thesis, no argument, no unifying theme. There is no attempt, for instance, to reopen the question and to address the arguments first posed by Werner Sombart in Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? – the seminal work that informed many subsequent studies of the left in the United States (by Michael Harrington, Daniel Bell, William Appleman Williams, among others) and that easily could have framed McKay’s study in Canada.

The reason for this curious omission appears to be twofold. First, McKay dismisses previous writing as “‘scorecard history’ in which the historian assigns stars and demerit points based on his or her present-day politics” (1). Not only does he not give examples of this type of history writing, but also he provides no awareness of the variety of historical methods that might not be so easily snubbed as “scorecard history.” The dismissal is too brazen to be left unchallenged: it is an unsupported flippancy that trivializes the various works that offer different approaches from McKay and that precede his work. It also allows him to escape the difficult task of addressing other arguments and methods.

Second, the approach McKay wants to follow does not require taking a position; it does not need an argument or theme. The method, if one can call it that, seems to be his own invention: “I engage in what I call a mission of reconnaissance” (1). To explain, he provides a straightforward dictionary definition: it is “a preliminary examination or survey” or “the act of obtaining information of military value.” And he suggests that this intellectual scouting is part of the Gramscian “war of position,” which amounts “to recognizing and learning all we can about the ruling regime’s strengths and weaknesses” (1). McKay’s focus, however, is not at all on the ruling regime, an analysis of which does not appear in his book; rather, it is on the Canadian left between 1890 and 1920. Reconnaissance, moreover, is generally carried out with a purpose in mind; it is not merely the gathering of tangentially related yet discrete bits of data, which is what we find in Reasoning Otherwise.

This “reconnaissance,” McKay writes, is “post-polemical,” implying that earlier work on the left is marked by a certain polemic. Again, he provides no evidence of such writing (in fact, Canadian historiography is relatively free of debate); however, if we take polemic to be, at bottom, the making of an argument, then it is something to be welcomed rather than derided. What is a “fact,” after all, outside of a perspective, a logic, a reasoned position? To write history as though it could merely record the “facts” is a questionable endeavour, to say the least; to write history framed by polemic, controversy, and debate is the only meaningful way of grasping the past, not to mention the present.

There is more to the method, McKay insists: “The point of reconnaissance is to provoke a network of focused investigations” (3). But if “focused investigations” are just more “reconnaissance,” then there is nothing to be gained – except more data without meaning. No theoretical framework, no meaning. This does not stop McKay from making some grand claims: “reconnaissance knows itself to be just one step in a cooperative struggle to understand a contested terrain, just one step in the struggle to reclaim left history from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’” (3). He wants to use a “post-polemical” method to fight in a “contested terrain,” to “reclaim left history,” which apparently has suffered as the object of polemics. Seemingly unaware of the contradictions in this position, he then maps out his method for “reclaiming” a history that, earlier, he had said was by and large absent (1).

The practice of “reconnaissance” makes writing history very easy. It reduces it to a set of personal observations that do not need to be defended by argument. At the end of Chapter 1, for example, McKay summarizes his findings through a series of personal observations: “This reconnaissance has found something different.” Following this statement are numerous sentences beginning with the first-person singular: “I see this time and place not as a toxic waste dump but as a freshly planted field.” Ignoring his peculiar imagery, we read two pages marked by a series of personal assertions: “I find not,” “I find,” “I generally do not find,” “I do not see,” “I see,” and so on (76, 77). McKay’s approach allows him to make individual observations and to present them as though they have a greater importance than they would have were they merely his particular views. Beyond these assertions, there is no argument, theme, or framework by which to judge whether or not these observations are meaningful to this “history” of the left.

Because “reconnaissance” is not a method, but rather a seeming justification for picking and choosing whatever people, texts, and events McKay wants to examine, it raises questions about what constitutes valid methodology and what comprises history. It is the absence of method parading as method that characterizes McKay’s approach. And, in the end, it is the absence of a history of the left that characterizes Reasoning Otherwise and that reveals the emptiness of his method. We are given a clue as to the depth of his understanding of history writing in the first lines of the book: “When I embarked on writing this book … I thought it would be a rather easy job. I would just generalize on the basis of all the histories that we have” (1). But these histories, he says, do not exist. For that reason, we are saved from his generalizations as history, only to be treated to a “reconnaissance” of the field. In the end, we get history as anecdotes, book reviews, empty generalizations, brief biographical sketches, superficial commentary, and rhetorical flourishes.

McKay’s writing style is commensurate with his invented methodology, that is, it is descriptive. “Reconnaissance” provides no analysis worthy of the name. There cannot be analysis without a thesis; – what he provides is a stream of reports and accounts of theories, individuals, parties, movements, and trade unions – all examined superficially and descriptively. The style, as a consequence, is impressionistic, discursive, chatty, and journalistic, interspersed with assertions and broad generalizations accompanied by little or no evidence. For the most part, the book is written as reportage.

McKay’s concepts lack the rigour necessary to write meaningful history. Perhaps the closest he comes to having a hypothesis is the concept of “Canadaas- project,” to use the expression that appears in his essay entitled “The Liberal Order Framework” (2000). In Reasoning Otherwise, it appears as “Canada as a liberal project” (518). It is this “project” that the “left” under scrutiny resisted and to some degree reshaped. But what is a project? The term was widely used in Britain in the 1990s, but its use has since fallen away, probably because it is so lacking in precision. A project implies a directing force, but this is identified only as “a state.” It also implies a goal, purpose, and strategy, but these are left vague: “a vast archipelago of societies, nations, and communities … [is] brought together but loosely by a state designed to implant and enforce classical liberal conceptions of liberty, equality, and property” (518). This appears to be the project, which I take to be the creation of a marketplace society. But this development has a long, staged, and strife-ridden history. And so, if it is to be meaningful, the concept of project can hardly be left, as it is, at this level of abstraction.

Those who struggled against this “liberal project,” the left, are the subjects of the book. McKay defines a leftist in Canada as “anyone whose words and deeds can be plausibly connected with these four key insights – into capitalism’s injustice, the possibility of more equitable democratic alternatives, the need for social revolution and the ability to see the “preconditions of this social transformation” in the contemporary world (4). Again, the level of abstraction makes this concept effectively useless. On the one hand, it embraces divergent and contradictory views, bringing together Marxists; anarchists; religious, utopian, and secular communitarians; social gospellers; and followers of Owen, Ruskin, Spencer, and George, among others. What they have in common other than a certain opposition to the status quo is unclear. Their respective analyses of the system and proposed solutions are so different as to make their abstract commonality meaningless in any practical sense. The real issue is why a given period gives rise to these different analyses, forms of resistance, and proposed solutions. To lump them all together as the “left” and to treat them as if they constituted a commonality is to allow only the most general conclusions to be drawn. McKay’s definition of the left, moreover, does not include social democrats, red Tories, or others who are opposed to the extremes of market capitalism and on the left of the political spectrum, albeit not interested in revolution.

There is another problem with McKay’s definition of the left: it is not consistent. We have the above definition on page 4, but on page 5 we have another. “Left formations” he writes, are “engaged in pushing forward left ideals of equality, democracy, and freedom championed since the 1790s.” Unfortunately for McKay, the left of the 1790s became the right of the industrial era; these “left ideals” of the 1790s are bourgeois ideals, left of the monarchical/feudal camp, but they embody the ideals of the “liberal project” (to use McKay’s term). It is true that their expansion to include the rising working class was the subject of many struggles, but these ideals have nothing to do with the ideals of nineteenth and twentieth-century working-class opposition to marketplace society.

In the same paragraph, the definition of a “left formation” is cast so broadly as to defy meaningful use. This becomes obvious when McKay writes that what unites this “constellation of parties, people, issues and texts” is “an overriding political objective – that of reasoning and living otherwise”(5). It is from this expression that he derives the title of the book, but it is so general that it provides no sense of specific content. Presumably, it would include all those who are not supportive of the liberal status quo. The phrase “reasoning and living otherwise” borders on the meaningless; without giving it some specific content, it is both vacuous and banal.

“Leftism” is another problematic concept. I assume it means a generalized set of ideas belonging to “leftists.” However, just as the concept of leftist is so general as to be only marginally useful, so, too, is the concept of leftism. This seems to be confirmed when McKay writes: “An inclusive narrative of a given moment of leftism in Canada can be written in terms of the major figures, parties, currents, texts, and debates” (9). It appears that leftism, for McKay, is simply a compilation, in any given era, of all the ideas on the left. If nothing else, he here tells us how he will write his history of this “moment of leftism.” We are subjected to numerous vignettes of the lives of a few selected thinkers/ theorists, and short descriptions of their ideas, but we get almost nothing to relate them in a meaningful way to the political economy of Canada or to a coherent view of the development of this elusive left.

Chapter 3 is concerned with the question of class. At the end of this long section, we know little else other than what a few individuals or organizations said about class at the time. There is nothing to allow us to assess the significance of class in the ideas or actions of the people, parties, or movements examined; there is nothing on the import of class in political or union organizing; and we learn nothing about the era’s changing class structure.

Chapter 4 is concerned with “the religion question,” but there is no attempt to assess this question or to determine why it arose and its significance to “left formations” at the time. There is simply a series of descriptions of various commentators’ positions, during that period, on the left’s attitude towards religion. We have no clear picture of the nature of the issue.

Chapter 5, which addresses “the woman question,” provides no sense of the actual social, legal, political, and economic plight of women at the time. There are reviews of books and articles, and many pages of individual stories, but disparate reviews and anecdotes do not leave the reader any the wiser when it comes to determining the nature of the “problem” in general or to determining just how representative those stories actually are. Similar comments may be made about Chapter 6 on “the race question.” We learn nothing about why the race question became the issue that it did or what race meant in those times.

The last two chapters – on the First World War and the Winnipeg General Strike (and subsequent trials) – follow the same pattern. There is no review of the literature, and the text rests on biographical sketches, anecdotes, and unsupported generalizations and commentary, offering no significant analysis of the political economy of the day.

At the beginning of Reasoning Otherwise, McKay asserts that a comprehensive history of the Canadian left does not exist and that this book will contribute to its development. After more than five hundred pages of his skipping and jumping over a wide range of materials without the guidance of a thesis, we arrive at the end. Despite the labour entailed, this book, unfortunately, does not help to fill any gaps. The better part of it is made up of synoptic descriptive reviews of the work of certain figures on the left in the period, chosen without a stated rationale and without an overarching argument.

One looks in vain for more of what generally comprises the left and its activities – that is, for chapters or sections on the labour movement, strikes and the struggle for labour legislation, the women’s suffrage movement, the questions of living wages and work conditions, business cycles, state repression, and so on. One also searches in vain for a review of extant studies that focus on the Canadian left between 1890 and 1920 – a task necessary to establishing what has yet to be done – not to mention a rationale for these dates.

Instead, Reasoning Otherwise provides us with data – masses of detail – without criteria for assessing any of it. McKay graces the approach that produces this collection of data with the name “reconnaissance.” It is paraded as a novel historical method but appears to be but a pretext for a personal and arbitrary selection of data vaguely pertinent to the history of a poorly defined left in Canada. History, however, is not a mass of data; rather, it is a series of events that must be given coherence by the historian, and, for this, an argument is required. McKay has given us over five hundred pages without an argument.

If most Canadian history is about the status quo, it would be good to have an antidote in the form of a history of resistance to the mainstream. This book is not it. From the banality of the title to the empty claims for his method to his mere assemblage of data, Ian McKay has failed to write what he thought he was writing. In the end, Reasoning Otherwise provides nothing of a history. Fittingly, it ends with a platitude.

PDF – Book Reviews, BC Studies 164, Winter 2009/10