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Review

The Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle

By Gordon Hak

March 6, 2014

Review By Ian McKay

Here is an indispensable book — a mature, well-researched, subtly theorized, and clearly-written guide to the past and present of British Columbia’s left. Writing at a time of perplexity for leftists, predisposed to question themselves almost as much as they critique the society around them, Gordon Hak, interpreting the left as “discourse” (219n), deftly combines labour and political history to argue for the continuing pertinence of the left, “anchored by a critique of capitalism” (203) yet responding in a diversity of ways to the demands of its equality- and dignity-seeking constituents. The author of a now classic monograph, Capital and Labour in the British Columbia Forest Industry (2007) and a scholar whose deep familiarity with the province’s North and Interior enables him to add a fresh perspective to a BC historiography often focused elsewhere, Hak emphasizes throughout this study the left/labour interface. He sees “union action and political action” as the two “cylinders” driving the left forward (112). His analysis of the continuing impact of liberalism is particularly stimulating. Hak travels back to the 1880s in his exploration of working-class liberalism and in his contemporary discussion discerningly notes the extent to which the NDP is difficult to distinguish from a liberal party. Building on his earlier work, Hak brilliantly analyzes the appeal of Social Credit in the 1950s to rural and working-class British Columbians angry about the rise of monopoly capitalism and hence susceptible to populism. His sober analysis of Solidarity 1983 emphasizes how firmly, in the end, most British Columbians adhered to the traditions of liberal capitalism.

Hak’s realistic reconnaissance of this enduringly liberal terrain provides a long-overdue antidote to more romantic celebrations of a putatively revolutionary working class perpetually on the verge of mounting the revolution. Some may feel, with some justice, that he has bent the stick too far, as a certain Russian revolutionary might have put it — that, in barely giving the IWW, the Miners’ Liberation League, the Fraser River rebellion of 1912, the On-to-Ottawa Trek of 1935, and Vancouver occupations of 1938 walk-on appearances on a stage crowded with CCFers and New Democrats, he has presented us with a BC left past deprived of many of its most illuminating moments. Others might feel that, in treating the Communist Party as monolithically “Stalinist” after the late 1920s, he has missed an opportunity to explore the grassroots energies, ethnic diversity, and cultural creativity of the Province’s numerous Reds, both inside the party and outside it. A potential drawback of such a focus on a two-cylinder movement is that it might leave us less open to different “cylinders” — forms of leftism not readily captured by either union action or political action, conventionally defined, but which arise in a host of different (cultural, intellectual, personal) contexts. There are not many painters or poets in this book.

Yet, since almost half the book focuses on the years since 1954, Hak’s insistence on the emergent gap between traditional leftist prescriptions and the views of most working people is a welcome antidote to revolutionary nostalgia and a wake-up call for those who believe, when the left rises again, it will only do so at the cost of a searching, sober, unromantic analysis of its own complicated history. There is a wealth of references in this book, including to a good range of unpublished theses, helpful to scholars who might want to pursue other avenues of inquiry. This accessibly-written book will serve admirably in the classroom — it even comes with a helpful glossary of political terms.   No one interested in the history of the British Columbia or Canadian left should miss it.

The Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle
Gordon Hak
Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2013. 250 pp. $21.95 paper