Friday, July 23, 2010

Republican formations in Canadian history

Some months ago, in a rare moment of inebriated lucidity while stumbling home from the Grad Club, it occurred to me that just because "leftism" wasn't a force in Canada before the 1890s, it didn't preclude the possibility of there being pre-socialist oppositional formations.

By now, it seems that most Canadian historians have digested the basic argument put forth by Ian McKay in Rebels, Reds, Radicals: that the Canadian Left can be understood as a series of related but nevertheless distinct "formations". McKay's formations are broader than just one organization or political campaign. Rather, they encompass a general unifying political ethic, style and some underlying intellectual assumptions. McKay's idea of a "formation" is now much more clear to us courtesy of the first full volume of his history of the Canadian Left. Despite the various competing and often short-lived organizational expressions of leftism between 1890 and 1920, there was nevertheless a general unifying intellectual project summed up as "The People's Enlightenment." This is McKay's "first formation."

But what about the pre-1890 social movements in Canada that were not socialist but nevertheless posed a challenge to the pre-Confederation colonies and post-Confederation state?

Not surprisingly, labour historians have unearthed and published the most on pre-socialist opposition movements. Courtesy of Bryan Palmer, Gregory Kealey and others, we know much about the Knights of Labor in the 1880s, and the Nine Hour Movement of 1871-72 which culminated in the legalization of trade unions courtesy of an opportunistic Macdonald. Much of this research remains very Ontario-centric given the province's "vanguard" role in British North American industrialization. Fortunately, there are important studies highlighting remarkable non-Ontario concentrations of wage labour and working-class organization. McKay himself, in the 1980s, produced important research on the rise of the Provincial Workmen's Association in Nova Scotia's rural coal fields. And then there are the neglected movements, such as the extraordinarily militant Saint John dockers which led a failed general strike in the mid-1870s, a campaign explored in the "lost" thesis of James Richard Rice. As Rice demonstrates, the Saint John dockers, while militant, weren't exactly nice guys. They regularly exercised violence to assert their closed-shop control over the port. Qualitatively more disturbing was the rise of the Workingmen's Protective Association in Victoria in 1878 which, while advancing workers self-activity, placed the end of Chinese immigration at the top of its priorities.

While each of these movements commonly found organizational expression in unions, we should remember that they were often rooted in broader movements, whether the "Nine Hour Leagues" which mobilized entire communities, or the curious Knights of Labor assemblies which appear as a cross between an industrial union and workers council. Such movements in the 1870s and 1880s had differing and often ambiguous attitudes towards electoral politics. It is safe to say, however, that they never broke with the two main parties. This is especially true of the "workingmen's political clubs" which proliferated during the 1878 federal election. They simultaneously advanced workers' self-activity while keeping it within the framework of the two-party system.

What this all points to is a pre-socialist labour movement that could be reinterpreted as a distinct oppositional political formation. A student of labour history might object given the incredible disparities between the Toryism of the 1870s Toronto Trades Assembly, the curious liberalism of the coal miners' PWA, and the enigmatic utopianism of the Knights of Labor. Yet, there is a certain underlying ideology each of these early working-class movements: a conception of the dignity and centrality of labour to society rooted in a widely-held "common sense" found across the Atlantic world. In many ways, this common sense was precisely what Marx would build his own labour theory of value upon, drawing heavily upon pre-eminent political economists, David Ricardo and Adam Smith (and John Locke), who recognized labour as the source of society's wealth.
What I would argue is that there was indeed a "labour republicanism" in Canada, but in saying this, there needs to be some serious revision of how we conceive "republicanism." Canadian historians generally seem quick to equate republicanism with, almost in its totality, the American political ideology of the Republic's first century. Yet, when it comes to this Canadian "labour republican" formation, it is indeed profoundly "American." After all, the Knights of Labor which originated from the United States and in both countries were central to the continental proletarian insurgency reaching its violent peak in 1886. We might even observe the high point of Canada's labour republicanism" as part of a transatlantic wave of working-class struggle if we include Britain's New Unionism.

The point is that there was a distinctly working-class movement which operated outside the intellectual framework of socialist thought (at least in Canada). The reason for the prevalence of republicanism was the prevalence of ideas on offer about labour's relation to society, ideas drawing heavily upon those generated in the French and American revolutions, the European Revolutions of 1848, and distilled through a variety of movements of small farmers, artisans, and wage workers in the Atlantic world. Such ideas were also certainly influenced in a variety of ways (not necessarily positive) by the question of slavery and the transatlantic character of the abolitionist movement, a movement so captivatingly explored in Edward Rugemer's recent book, The Problem of Emancipation.

What we're really talking about is reinterpreting pre-socialist Canadian oppositional thought in a firmer Atlantic context; seeing the first labour movement in Canada drawing upon a century-long legacy of radical ideas, ideas generated in what some historians are now calling the era of the "Atlantic Revolutions" spanning 1750 to 1850. For lack of a better term, I'd sum up the driving ideology of the Atlantic Revolution as "republicanism," a very diverse ideology rooted in various national, regional, class and cultural contexts which nevertheless find some common underpinnings. Another term might be "civic humanism." This republicanism, however, was more than just a proto-Marxian labour theory of value/wealth.
One Canadian historian who is engaging the relationship between republicanism and the Atlantic Revolution in the Canadian context is Michel Ducharme. In a recent informative and suggestive essay, "Canada in the Age of Revolutions: Rethinking Canadian Intellectual History in an Atlantic Perspective," Ducharme defines republicanism as being rooted in the "sovereignty of the people (instead of parliamentary sovereignty), the primacy of legislative power of executive power, and the importance of the citizen's participation in the political process." He adds, "It was this republican ideology that bound together all the Atlantic revolutions, at least from 1776 to 1800." This is a useful starting point but misses, I believe, the centrality of the land and labour questions which become critical to the contradictions of both the American and French Revolutions, and later 19th and 20th century revolutions. Without addressing the problem posed by land and labour, we can't see how the common underpinnings of republicanism proceeded in a variety of different directions, producing a complicated array of differing republicanisms between artisans, land-owners, shopkeepers, capitalists, slaves small farmers and wage workers (in their ever-growing concentrations). Beyond becoming a national project of political transformation, republicanism was also an ideology of economic and social transformation, as well as a vehicle for anti-colonial movements.
As some American historians have noted, republicanism has become so broad that it has been deployed to explain everything, thus, paradoxically, explaining nothing. This is only if "republicanism" is taken as an ahistorical ideology. To allow for any analytical specificity, republicanism has to be understood as a unifying and fragmenting philosophy, inherently unstable, especially in an era of revolution. As the the "age of revolutions" accelerated and implemented the transition from a feudal/colonial Atlantic world to one drawing its dynamism upon surplus-producing agriculture and the growing army of collectivized wage workers, the republicanism began to fragment, and its fragments evolve, as new social questions arose to challenge the direction and outcomes of this grand transition.
Appreciated in all its complexity, Canadian historians can begin to get past the idea that "republicanism," in whatever form, doesn't necessarily mean "American" but can be profoundly "British." This allows for an understanding not only of a Canadian labour republican formation spanning 1860 to 1890, but preceding republican formations in British North America. For example, there is obviously a republican moment in the 1830s which culminates in the Upper and Lower Canadian rebellions, and is accompanied by the rise of the Escheat Movement in PEI, and Howe's crusade for democratic reform in Nova Scotia. This formation's success is ambiguous in having failed in its republican praxis but nevertheless placing democratic reforms from above on the agenda. It's worth noting that this formation, which we might say started in the late 1810s with Gourlay's proto-Chartist petition, was in fact accompanied in its most revolutionary phase by the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s, the rise of abolitionism and "Jacksonian" democracy in the United States, and, as Sean Wilentz has argued, the emergence of a "labor republican" movement in the United States.

There is also a second, much more uncoordinated and temporally compressed republican formation. As Britain was passing its most dramatic reform act in history, and the American civil war transformed into a war of competing socio-economic systems, several events of a republican nature occured in British North America during the 1860s:
  • 1863-66: The rise of the Tenant League and 1866 riots on Prince Edward Island
  • 1866-71: The Fenian Raids and the assassination of Thomas D'Arcy McGee
  • 1869-70: The Red River Rebellion and the establishment of Manitoba's Provisional Government
  • 1860s: Widespread support for Garibaldi in Quebec
  • 1865-70: The powerful Anti-Confederation parties in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick
In many respects, this formation appears to be more of an echo of the 1820-1850 movements. Yet, most of them are indisputable as events central to the project of Canadian Confederation. The only truly understudied aspect of this formation is Quebec's solidarity movement with Garibaldi which, if explored, might open up new possibilities in understanding the relations between Quebec and Riel as well as French Canadian nationalism and identity. Even so, this republican formation appears to be the very last "classical" republican movement, hence the extent to which each challenge is eventually defeated by the project of Confederation, often through a process of absorption into Confederation. In contrast, the 1860-1890 "labour republican" formation is quite distinct due to its new class composition and almost unilateral organizational expression in the form of trade unions. Yet, it deploys a theory of labour more republican than Marxian. With the collapse of the Knights of Labor in 1886, the formation went into rapid decline and collapse, but the "labour question" - unlike the land question posed by previous republican formations - was not resolved by Confederation, despite efforts at cooptation and accomodation through efforts such as the 1887 Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital.

Understanding pre-socialist oppositional movements in terms of "formations", we can ask some new questions, questions I hope to address in future posts (and in my thesis). The big question is: what is the relationship between this last republican formation, the emergence of the "labour republican" formation and the project of Confederation? How did the architects of Confederation and operatives of the new Canadian state, in dealing rather successfully with the challenges of the 1860-70 republican formation, understand and deploy new techniques of political stabilization and oppositional "absorption" in confronting the emerging "labour republican" formation? I've already got some tentative answers floating around, the big one being that the National Policy was more than an imaginative electoral platform or an economic program cobbled together in order to please and placate various sectors of capital. The National Policy was not only these things, but also a much deeper and broader project of rule - an attempt to construct a totalizing ideology of national mobilization within "moderate" limits; to carry out a revolutionary project from above, winning the consent of the underclasses but without their dangerously independent activity. And, finally, did the National Policy succeed? Given the labour insurgency of 1886 and the rebirth of French Canadian nationalism following the suppression of Riel's 1885 Northwest Rebellion, the answer ought to be clear.

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