Elevate Difference

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

Turn-of-the-century Canadian Leftists built the foundations for later thought and organizing, but their stories have largely gone untold. In his efforts to change that, Ian McKay writes not a great book, but a necessary and useful one in Reasoning Otherwise. Given that he describes his methods as reconnaissance, "several steps down the ladder of comprehensiveness from a polished final synthesis," he would likely see the compliment in that evaluation.

After an introduction in which McKay describes his method's theoretical grounding in such detail that most non-specialists will want to skim through it, the book proceeds through another eight chapters. Each forms a foray that begins with the retelling of an important incident in Canadian leftist history. McKay then uses a variety of discourses—historical, philosophical, sociological, and literary—to weave that anecdote into a consideration of broader issues and trends.

The first two incursions of Reasoning Otherwise should have been folded into one. "Socialism: The Revolutionary Science of Social Evolution" examines the use early Canadian socialists made of social evolution and the writings of Herbert Spencer. McKay's nuanced consideration creates the intellectual basis on which later chapters rely. "The Emergence of the First Formation in Canada, 1890-1902" provides a more practical base, beginning with a meeting in 1901 which "mark[ed] the first time in Canada that homegrown radical and socialist organizations got together to merge simple local clubs and units into a more complex interprovincial body." It then tells the stories of important Leftist figures who attended this meeting, followed by a consideration of the challenges attendees faced in and posed to the established liberal order. Divided from the first chapter's ideas, however, this part of the book lacks focus.

Each of the following four chapters revolves around a single issue. That "The Class Question" comes first reflects the notion (extant then and now) that socialism should center on socioeconomic issues. Here, McKay shrewdly uses conceptualizations of class as a golden thread to explore the complicated history of Leftist parties and organizations during the period.

"The Religion Question" focuses on Christianity though other spiritualities, such as Theosophy and Buddhism, make brief appearances. McKay considers divisions between Christian denominations and compares different versions of the social gospel. In so doing, he shows an appropriate level of respect for Christian socialists without ignoring criticisms made by their contemporaries.

The most problematic chapter, "The Woman Question," comes fifth. The title itself, while using the terminology of the day, marks it as different: woman is not equivalent to class or religion. It fails to describe the contents of the incursion accurately, as McKay includes both Leftist homophobia and the construction of socialist masculinity within the chapter. Discussing the former under the heading "The Woman Question" rather than "The Sex Question" inaccurately implies that socialist feminists bore the greatest responsibility for such discrimination.McKay more successfully addresses "The Race Question." He considers not only how white-dominated socialist movements made alliances with other racial groups, but also how fragile those alliances were. He does not ignore the role of racism and the construction of Whiteness within the Left.

After the questions, "War, Revolution, and General Strike" describes how Leftist takes on these issues, along with socialist parties and individuals, transformed during the era of World War I. A description of how The Great War led simultaneously to repression and a second flowering of the Canadian Left concludes with the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. This leads directly into the show trials which, in the final chapter, McKay uses to bring the book to a conclusion that does not pretend to be the last word on the subject. While not a perfect examination of Canada's turn-of-the-century Leftists, _Reasoning Otherwise _does achieve its author's end. McKay begins the process of filling a gap in the historical scholarship with careful thought and a style that is, for the most part, accessible to non-academic readers.

Cross-posted with Gender Across Borders

Written by: Elizabeth Kate Switaj, August 17th 2009