The Revolution(ary) Left

  • Stephen Collis
    To the Barricades. Talonbooks (purchase at
  • Gordon Hak
    The Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle. Ronsdale Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Gregory Betts

The left in British Columbia can produce an astonishingly polarized and even demoralizing experience. On the one hand, there is a devotedly bureaucratic side that is procedurally astute, political (thus institutionally-oriented), but neutralized by carefulness and inclusivity. On the other hand, there is a passionately revolutionary side, activist and militant, blindly reactionary, radical (thus anti-institutional), but neutralized by naïveté and exclusivity. I have attended social functions in Vancouver where leftists followed Roberts rules. I have attended far more social functions where leftists shred allies over the possibility of a glimmer of compromise. As Gordon Hak notes, unions strike harder and react more fiercely under progressive governments.

As the two books covered in this review make clear, this duel orientation of the left in Canada dates back at least to the radicalism of the nineteenth century. Hak’s The Left in British Columbia carefully and systematically documents the specific policy ambitions of each generation of leftist activists since the 1880s, from advocating for safe working conditions and a Chinese head tax (to protect industry jobs) to advocating logging the old-growth forests of Clayoquot Sound (to protect industry jobs) and fighting transnational neo-liberalism. He tracks the progress of leftist political engagement, warts and all, culminating in the elections of the New Democratic Party to power in 1972, 1991, and 1996. Given this political focus, it follows that Hak’s book privileges the evidence of leftist political accomplishment in the form of bills and policies that leftists successfully influenced, introduced, or, even implemented. Leftist art and theory in British Columbia are minimized, mostly ignored, but never dismissed.

In contrast to this institutional orientation, Stephen Collis’ poetry in To the Barricades attends to the revolutionary spirit that inspired uprisings from Paris 1848 to Vancouver’s Occupy movement of 2011. Collis mostly avoids gritty details and specific grievances for the feeling of upheaval that leads citizens to the barricades – “sing come the revolution / sing a jubilee for all the revolution / sing come hammer come storm / the revolution will come.” Hak notes that the Occupy movement began with a tweet by Vancouver’s activist ’zine Adbusters. Collis points out that Occupy builds from a long history of resistance that prefigures its transhistorical significance. His poem “La Commune (1871)” presents a list of important dates in French revolutionary history, ending with a meditative note on revolutions in general: “Whatever therefore its fate at Paris / Beginnings can then be measured by the re-beginnings they authorize.”

While both books embody divergent orientations of the left, they also document how these two forces can occasionally combine to produce euphoric, idealistic reactions to policy initiatives. Hak, for instance, documents the revolutionary fervor that animated debates of land tax reform across BC in the 1880s. Similarly, Collis documents the feeling of potential revolution in the calls for tighter investment regulations in the Occupy movement. In both cases, the hopes were decidedly/inevitably disappointed as the “demobilization machines” quickly neutralized the radical dynamic of the policies and spun them to the advantage of the status quo. Even barricades themselves have become a tool of state apparatus. This predictable loss provokes an important question by Collis that haunts both books; “Here we come upon a problem: / what if our rebellion / has been congruent / with the gradual transition / to this more flexible capitalism?”

Both of these books end with the reality of contemporary geopolitics in which, as Hak characterizes it, “Capitalism reigns triumphant”; but these are not two swan songs of defeat. The limitations of traditional leftist methodologies, including failed revolutions and bad policy initiatives, must be remembered and interrogated for both their shortcomings and potential. Hak’s book does important work in cataloguing the very real advances and protections generated by leftist activists, including quotidian banalities such as minimum wage laws, government-run health insurance, and pension schemes. There have been setbacks and mistakes, but solace can be found in work that has made a difference. Collis’s poetry, meanwhile, captures the spirit of the call to arms – one hardened by setbacks but firm in belief. Taken together, they evoke the details and the optimism of the left in British Columbia. They create a sense of a political community that is aware that “revolution’s monument is / emptiness untold” (Collis) but that small victories at the microscopic level of governance can help “steer history in the direction of greater justice in economic and social relations” (Hak).

This review “The Revolution(ary) Left” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 149-50.

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