1990s >> 1996 >> no-1105-september-1996

Book Review: ‘The Impossibilists – Selections from the Press of The Socialist Party of Canada and One Big Union, 1906-38’

Landed with Tony Blair!

‘The Impossibilists: Selections from the Press of The Socialist Party of Canada and One Big Union, 1906-38’. edited by L Gambone (Red Lion Press £4).

It is easy to forget that before the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in June 1904 there had already been in existence the Socialist Party of British Columbia, founded in 1901, but having an organised existence going back to 1895. The early history of this, our companion party in Canada, is brought to life by the re-publications of a volume of reprinted articles from the Western Clarion, the SPC’s first journal, as well as other journals of the period which came out of this broadly impossibilist tradition.

A few words are in order about this term “impossibilist”. It emerged, of course, as a term of political abuse. Socialists who stood for the end of capitalism and no compromises along the way were seen to be demanding the impossible. Interestingly, before anyone ever used that word there was another term which was popular: possibilism. The so-called possibilists emerged in France in the early 1880s, and they were the reformists, tired of trying to bring about socialism and nothing less, who imagined that the best possible option would be to chip away at the edifice of capitalism bit-by-bit, reforming it until it looked like socialism. Over a century has passed since these undoubtedly sincere people embarked upon their futile course and everywhere reformist gradualism has ended in the most abject failure. A hundred years of demanding “the possible” or “something now” has landed the Labour Party with Tory Blair! So, if we who refuse to settle for anything less then real socialists are impossibilists, perhaps it is time for our fellow workers to be rather more practical and demand “the impossible”.

The articles which are reprinted give modern readers a good flavour of the clarity of analysis and vision of our early North American comrades. Warren Atkinson’s Western Clarion article of 1906 exhibits prescient recognition of the capitalist nature of so-called public (i.e. state) ownership; Rab’s 1918 article on dialectical thought is as relevant today as ever it was; John Tyler’s 1919 Red Flag article deals with the myth of the Bolsheviks’ “socialist revolution” (as do others in the volume), and there is also material written by Charlie Lestor during his “One Big Union” period—before he joined the SPGB. Article after article in this volume leaves the reader saying “they were right all along”. And there is no shame in consistency when it is attached to validity and honest principles.

Gambone provides a useful, though incomplete, bibliography at the back, and there is a basically sound introduction, only marred by the biased sulkiness in the brief reference to the current Socialist Party of Canada. Small though it may be, at least it still exists as a relatively active party, which is more than can be said for the other movements mentioned which have expired in the course of the century. Has it ever occurred to Gambone, and those like him who celebrate the revolutionary past of the SPC/SPGB tradition while deriding its present existence, that history is of little use unless it teaches you what you should be doing now? For anyone who has come into contact with our ideas in recent years (or recent decades, for that matter) this is an invaluable guide to a hitherto under-publicised part of our past.

Steve Coleman

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