The Impossiblists

October 19, 2009 at 12:35 am (Uncategorized)

The Socialist Party of Canada is arguably the oldest socialist organization in Canada. I say arguably because although the organization was established in 1905, the party disbanded in 1926, only to re-establish itself in 1931. The new organization contained some of the former members, but its politics were now more closely aligned with the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a group the SPC had once had strong disagreements with. Even today, within the organization, the  debate continues as to whether the SPC is a reboot of the original SPC or a  new start.

Nevertheless, the SPC’s contribution to socialist politics in Canada is usually forgotten after the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 and the founding of the Communist Party in 1921. But that’s pity because the organization is worth learning about, if only as a counterweight against the Leninist tradition.

Peter Newell’s book, The Impossiblists is a good place to start. It’s probably the best book ever written on the subject. The SPC began in in the impossibilist tradition. Essentially, within the Marxist movement in the latter part of the 19th century, there emerged two trends: the  possibilists,  who sought a betterment within the capitalist system eventually expecting this would lead to the transformation of the system into its opposite socialism. (eventually however, the possibilists  made their peace with the system,  and exist today in social democratic movements.)  The Impossibilists,  however sought socialism. they rejected all reforms and argued that only socialism could make such reforms permanent. The most famous exponent of this tradition is the Socialist Party of Great Britain

The Canadian party was quite influential. It elected members to provincial  legislatures in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba, and its members were influential in the unions.  The party’s most important moment was during the Winnipeg General strike where several  members of  the party played important roles on the strike committee (and several went to jail for it). The defeat of the strike and the founding of the Communist Party of Canada is 1921 proven insurmountable for the party

Newell’s book provides an amazing account of these early years and is easily the best account written. However, the book is not without its flaws.

There’s a general tendency to insist the SPC was right at every turn. Now it’s a partisan text of course, and thus forgivable to show the party as right overall, but to admit no mistakes makes the reader suspicious. The only thing where the party seems to go wrong is in the sometimes bitter factionalism.

It’s impossible too not to notice the change in focus after the SPC’s refounding.  In the SPC mark I years, the emphasis was on the party’s interaction with the world. True, the book details fights within the party, but the narrative was focused on the outside world. In the second part, the narrative changes to what was happening inside the SPC. The SPC’s influence declined and so the party had less of an impact on the outside world, but instead of detailing how the party deals with this, Newell writes things like, between 1965 and 1970, there wasn’t much socialist activity in Canada. A similar claim is made for the years before the second Iraq war, when Newell reduced socialist activity in Canada to the SPC’s distribution of several hundred(! ) leaflets and an appearance on a radio programme. Despite the fact the SPC published a French journal, the October Crisis and the War Measures Act aren’t mentioned.  In fact, a lot of things that the party might logically have commented on aren’t mentioned.

A curious reader would also have to search for how the SPC’s programme of using the ballot to elect a socialist governement which would then introduce socialism might be put into practice. Newell rarely explains these ideas,  although the party’s programme is reproduced.

Lastly, it might be because Newell lives in England that he was unable to always consult first hand materials, but when you list a Time Life History of Canada as a source reference, doubt appears over other areas. 

As I noted earlier, this is probably the best book written so far on the organization. a huge number of names and events left out of history are re-written into the record. It’s well worth a read. The narrative is crisp and there are lots of interesting details; however, the superlative book on the SPC is still waiting to be written.


The book is available from the Socialist Party for $12.

The SPC’s review of the book appears in their journal Imagine, Winter 2009. (on the SPC site)


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