The Feminist Challenge to
the Canadian Left - 1900-1918

By Janice Newton,
McGill-Queen’s University Press

Reviewed in Socialist Standard,
March 1996,
London, England

Book Review

The Canadian Left from 1900-1918 consisted essentially of the Socialist Party of Canada and the Social Democratic Party. The SPC was the Canadian equivalent of the SDF in Britain at the same time, but there was an important difference. Whereas the SDF had a reformist majority and an “impossibilist” minority (some of whom broke away in 1904 to form the SPGB), the SPC had an impossibilist majority and a reformist minority. The Canadian Social Democratic Party was formed when this reformist minority broke away in 1911.

“Impossibilism” was a term of abuse invented by the reformists in the SDF to describe their opponents. Basically, it was the view that a socialist party should only seek support on the basis of Socialism and the abolition of the wages system and so should not have any programme of immediate demands. It also involved the view that socialism could only come about when a majority of workers wanted and understood it. The task of a socialist party was seen as being educational – with a view to get workers to become socialist then eventually, when there was a socialist majority, winning control of political power – as opposed to advocating reforms to be achieved within capitalism.

However, this refusal to advocate reforms did not mean that impossibilists thought a socialist party should oppose them. On the contrary, it was recognised that any Socialist elected to a parliament or a local council should vote for any measure considered to be in the interest of the working class.

The SPC, for instance, in its platform (which it published in every issue of its paper the Western Clarion and its pamphlets) declared:

The Socialist Party, when in office, shall always and everywhere, until the present system is abolished, make the answer to this question its guiding rule of conduct: Will this legislation advance the interests of the working class and aid the workers in their class struggle against capitalism? If it will, the Socialist Party is for it; if it will not, the Socialist Party is absolutely opposed to it. In accordance with this principle the Socialist Party pledges itself to conduct all the public affairs placed in its hands in such manner as to promote the interests of the working class alone.”

The SPGB adopted a similar position, but in Canada this was not just an academic matter since the SPC did succeed in getting a few of its members elected to local and provincial councils.

Despite reproducing the SPC’s platform in full on page 23 of her book, Newton persists in equating not advocating some reform measure with being opposed to it. For instance, she claims that the SPC was opposed to giving the vote to women and attributes this to the party supposedly being a men’s organisation. But even the quotes she gives from the Western Clarion show that the SPC was not opposed to this measure, but merely that it did not seek support on the basis of favouring it.

She herself mentions that an SPC member of the British Columbia Legislative assembly brought in a bill to give votes to women. She also mentions a debate between the SPC and the Political Equality League on the subject of “Will Woman Suffrage Solve the Economic Problem?” in which the Suffragette speaker complained that her SPC opponent (also a woman, incidentally) wasn’t really opposed to giving votes to women. Of course she wasn’t as the SPC wasn’t. What the SPC was opposed to was the argument that the granting of votes to women would somehow solve the economic problems faced by working class women; in a socialist society women would of course have an equal say with men in the way things were run. As the Western Clarion (as quoted by Newton) put it, “every Socialist, as a matter of course stands for the enfranchisement of women and equal rights for the sexes in every department of life”.

What Newton, as a reformist herself, fails to understand is the logic of the impossibilist position adopted by the SPC. This involved not advocating any reforms to be achieved within capitalism on the grounds that Socialism was the only solution and that absolute priority should be given to trying to achieve it. So the fact that the SPC did not advocate woman’s suffrage is not to be attributed to it being against women any more than the fact that it didn’t advocate old-age pensions is to be attributed to it being against retired people. It sprang from a more general position.

To tell the truth, not only does Newton not understand the impossibilist position (she expresses a preference for the confused reformism, where Christianity and temperance reform were mixed up with some socialist ideas, of the Social Democratic Party) but she is profoundly prejudiced against the SPC. She paints a picture of it as a male organisation composed of lumberjacks and miners who smoked, drank, swore, told dirty jokes, used prostitutes and whose conception of Socialism was one where men would continue to go out to work but where women would be confined to working at home, cooking their meals, washing their clothes, darning their socks and serving as objects of their sexual desires.

Needless to say, this is pure prejudice. No doubt the fact that some SPC members smoked and drank at party meetings would have put off some women (in those days). It is true also that the rhetoric sometimes used – calling on working men to show their “manhood” and stand up to the bosses who were exploiting them – wrongly suggested that the class struggle was exclusively a male affair. There will also have been individual SPC members who were prejudiced against women. But to claim that the SPC’s conception of socialism was a male-dominated one is an absurd fabrication. We have already quoted (re-quoted from Newton herself, in fact) the statement from the Western Clarion to the effect that “every Socialist, as a matter of course stands for the enfranchisement of women and equal rights for the sexes in every department of life”.

So what evidence does Newton produce to back up her case? Her first line of argument is the same mistaken one as over votes for women. The SPC didn’t advocate it, therefore it was against it. Thus Moses Baritz is quoted as arguing against the view that birth control would allay poverty; Newton twists this into saying that he and the SPC were against birth control. Similarly, just because the SPC did not seek support on the basis of sex reform (abolition of marriage, etc.), she claims that this meant it was against this even though the passages she quotes from the Western Clarion make it clear that SPC members had “individual opinions” as to what will happen to relationships between the sexes in a socialist society.

But the biggest distortion comes over the concept of the “family wage”, i.e., a wage paid to a man providing him with enough to maintain a wife and family at home. Newton quotes Kautsky and the Western Clarion to the effect that one of the consequences of the entry of women and children on to the labour market is to exert a downward pressure on men’s wages, since, whereas previously employers were obliged by market forces to include in men’s wages an element to cover the cost of maintaining a family, with women and children earning something too this was no longer necessary. Kautsky and the Western Clarion stated this as a matter of fact (a fact, we would have thought, that can’t be contested). But Newton interprets this as a complaint and as a call to keep women out of the labour market so as to maintain male wages.

Some male trade unionists did take up this position, but not the SPC as can be shown, yet again, by quotes from their literature which Newton herself gives. The SPC stood not for a family wage, nor equal wages, nor any kind of wages but for the abolition of the whole wages system. As the Western Clarion put it in 1910 (quoted by Newton on p. 68) “for the she worker there is only one issue, the destruction of the wages system”. She also records (p. 97) that an SPC candidate in Ontario was called to order by the SPC’s executive committee for including a proposal for equal pay in his election manifesto and “was told he should stand only for the abolition of the wages system”. So how can she claim that the SPC’s vision of the “socialist future” was one where “the working man earned sufficient wages to support a wife and family” (p. 101) and which “would reverse the effects of capitalism on family life, return women to the home and re-establish the male wage earner’s position as head of the household” (p. 155)?

Such patent distortions – there are many others too regarding the SPC – make the book valueless as a contribution to feminist let alone working class history.