Saturday, February 6, 2010

An American Socialist in Saskatchewan

by Joseph K. Roberts

My father was vice-president of Standard Oil (Indiana), and, like my schoolmate Don Rumsfeld, I was supposed to go on via Princeton to a corporate or government job. Like Rumsfeld, too, by pursuing higher education and exploiting the class privileged American selective service system, I managed to skip both the Korean and wars.

But in the age of the Cold War, McCarthyism and the restoration of corporate control after the Great Depression, my family's plan for me went wrong. The main reason was Hugh Wilson. It was this professor of politics who introduced me to the realities of corporate power and the distortions of democracy. Wilson sent me on to Columbia to Robert Lynd, who in his turn helped me to broaden my understanding of class and power in America.

Studying public law and government allowed me to take classes in sociology, history, economics and law, as well as public administration. Among my formative experiences was a year-long class on social change with Herbert Marcuse. For me, academic work demanded direct action. Wilson had helped found the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, a radical departure from the Cold War-compromised American Civil Liberties Union. I became versed in some of the more pressing First Amendment cases. In the New York of the time, there was also a strong peace movement that opposed nuclear testing.

In my doctoral dissertation, I examined the role of the oil industry in the Suez Crisis of 1956. During this period of academic and political activity, Lynd introduced me to Leo Huberman, who along with Paul Sweezy was the founder and co-editor of Monthly Review. This was the beginning of a critical relationship that has shaped my understanding, my teaching and my perspective to this day.

My wife required fieldwork for her anthropology degree, and, with the aid of a Ford Foundation grant, she chose Sierra Leone -- so, in 1961 we set off for Africa. It was an opportunity to Learn about imperialism firsthand. Britain was then in the process of relinquishing colonies like Sierra Leone--without, of course, abandoning its interests in those places.

Shortly after I returned to the U.S., President Kennedy was mysteriously assassinated. He and his entourage were idols of many American liberals, but for me he was not the enemy, but the escalator, of the Vietnam War.

From Michigan State to the University of Regina

In 1964, I went to Michigan State University to teach. The university's political-science department had established itself as a government contractor in the 1950s, attempting to create an administration in South Vietnam that was Loyal to the U.S. As the war intensified, the university campus saw the birth of an opposition, in tandem with the already vigorous civil-rights movement. At first the environment was distinctly unfriendly, but in the spring of 1965, the first big campus "teach-in" was held at the neighbouring University of Michigan. This served to bolster our efforts at MSU.

In 1965, Hugh Wilson was invited by Dallas Smythe, an economist trained at the University of California, Berkeley, to the newly created University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus, as a visiting professor. Smythe was born in Regina and had been employed in the Federal Communications Commission until the Cold War forced him out. He then got a job in the Communications Department at the University of Illinois. Appalled by the Cuban Missile Crisis, Smythe accepted an invitation to head up the newly created social-science faculty at the Regina campus. Prompted by Wilson, Smythe then called me up and offered me a job.

However tame the Saskatchewan experience with "socialism" actually was, it nonetheless appealed to my need for an environment friendly to creative change. In August, 1966, with a new baby boy in our family, we arrived in Regina. A new university and an alternative tradition of political science seemed to offer greater hope.

My initial intellectual and educational attraction to the Regina job in the 1960s lay in the promise of those who had created the new campus. The decision to upgrade Regina College into a full-scale liberal-arts university was taken by the then NDP government. At the time, Woodrow Lloyd had called upon the faculty and administration not simply to replicate the University of Saskatchewan, but to imagine and create something new to meet the needs of contemporary citizens.

A number of those already on the college staff, together with newcomers from Canada, Britain, India and the U.S., sought to organize instruction in new and different ways. We wanted to bypass the traditional subdivisions of knowledge in favour of interdisciplinary organization and requirements. The subject matter was organized in committees of instruction, rather than departments; the students and secretarial staff had votes in academic meetings; new academic subjects were encouraged; and new instruction techniques were experimented with. People were hired who welcomed the opportunity to try out new approaches.

I had much earlier come to view the field of political science as it developed during the 1950s and thereafter as an ill-disguised apologia for the unfolding American authoritarian state. The more vital democracy of earlier periods, eroded under the suffocating atmosphere of the Cold War, found few advocates in academic political science. The few critical voices were drowned in the chorus of celebration by the many professors who yearned for contracts or appointments in the power establishment. In Canada I was pleased to discover the political-economy tradition to be alive and well. While Reg Whitaker has amply recorded the destructive effects of the Cold War here, I found a less repressive atmosphere and more openness in the social sciences than what I had left behind.

The new university and social-science faculty encouraged an emphasis on teaching rather than a subordination to publishing. And the teaching stressed critical reasoning, the emphasis on analysis of "the tough questions" and the search for meaning within the intellectual disciplines. I found myself rewriting my lectures anew each year. Like many colleagues, I taught the entire range of classes that make up the field of politics, partly because we were few in number, but also because it was a means of remaining conversant with the breadth of the subject. My goal was to promote reasoning and conceptualization rather than simply the accumulation of facts and received interpretations. Relations with colleagues were generally more congenial than what I had experienced in other institutions. During the three decades of my employment, we argued about the unfolding realities and potentialities in the real global situation. And the community of left scholars was national.

During my graduate work, I had been excited to read S.M. Lipset's Agrarian Socialism. By this time, I had read Marx and embraced the Monthly Review school of analysis. Very quickly, my sociologist colleague Jim McCrorie asked me to lead study groups for the Farmers Union in rural Saskatchewan. This was in stark contrast to the "ivory tower" insulation of the academic world I had formerly known. This new environment allowed me to introduce what I believe was the first Canadian class on the theory and practice of economic imperialism.
I was also welcomed into the company of former premier Woodrow Lloyd and his NDP colleagues, who were then in opposition. One couple I had heard of from earlier civil-liberties struggles in the U.S. was Jack and Maryjo Kinzel, who, with Maryjo's mother Florence James (herself renowned as the creator of the Seattle progressive-theatre project), had fled McCarthyite persecution. Jack became Woodrow Lloyd's communications director.

In my teaching, I found that my students were every bit as alert to the injustices of the time as their American counterparts -- except that many of the Canadians were also socialists. They were also much more experienced in politics. This experience contrasted sharply with the spontaneous, sometimes dramatic action that characterized the American New Left. With the background of the CCF, these young people of the 1960s and '70s strategized through the NDP with the expectation of returning the party to its left populist or socialist roots.

The Waffle Years

In 1968, it seemed important to bring together a small group of left, activist NDPers, independents and Communists to consider how to invigorate the radical tradition of Saskatchewan. Fortuitously, this gathering anticipated what would become the Waffle movement "for an independent socialist Canada."

As a socialist, tenured university professor I was approached to lend my name to what became known as the "Waffle Manifesto." The movement grew rapidly in Saskatchewan, recruiting not just students, but farmers and workers who objected to the rightward drift of the NDP. We were encouraged by the backing we received from party leader Lloyd and one or two of his caucus.

Some of us were even invited by Lloyd to lead educational sessions on contemporary themes for caucus members. His support was manifest at the 1969 national party convention where the Manifesto was presented for adoption by the party. Lloyd stood in support of that motion--but thereby sealed his doom. Within a few months, he was deposed by the Saskatchewan party caucus. In the resulting leadership contest, Waffle candidate Don Mitchell conducted a powerful campaign based on concrete issues like creating a provincial oil company, moving land ownership into public domain and making northern Saskatchewan an autonomous region for Aboriginal self-government.

Together with some like-minded comrades, I was active in creating the platform, parts of which -- like the creation of a Saskatchewan oil company -- were subsequently adopted by the newly elected Blakeney government. It was as close as I ever got to political power.

In 1973, the Saskatchewan Waffle withdrew from the NDP, leaving behind many supporters. Those who left set about studying the history of socialism and its theoretical debates, as well as analyzing the new radical-left formations. Still trying to maintain some kind of progressive momentum, we sought to promote independent socialist trade unionism, and, with the leadership of the Waffle women, built one of the genuine new initiatives, Saskatchewan Working Women. We also fought the NDP adoption of federal wage and price controls, supported progressive Aboriginal struggles and participated in numerous trade-union actions.
And yet, henceforth the Left would be on the defensive, resisting the erosion of democracy and trying to protect the gains that had been won before the rise of militant neoliberalism in the 1970s. Thatcher-Reaganism, free trade and collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism disorganized the Left in Saskatchewan and throughout the Western world.

In the late sixties, at the annual Congress of Learned Societies in Calgary, a room full of faculty from many disciplines and universities gathered to launch a committee for socialist studies. But our resolve failed, despite Stanley Ryerson's repeated insistence that such a committee was needed. It was not until 1978, when Jesse Vorst negotiated institutional support from the University of Manitoba -- and, with his wife Alice, supplied administrative capacity -- that the Society for Socialist Studies was introduced as a bona fide "learned society." Emerging as neoliberalism was gaining momentum, Socialist Studies provided a necessary intellectual home for many in the academic community.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the original objective of an interdisciplinary, left-wing social-science faculty has also been abandoned at Regina in favour of the North American model of discrete departments conforming to professional dictates of legitimacy. As Funding became tighter, the educational idea of providing instruction to the broader community, and not simply the enrolled student body, has also faded from the agenda. The university increasingly resembles a business emphasizing "academic productivity."

And yet, the university still constitutes an environment for the pursuit of ideas and understanding reasonably free for those who feel the need to enquire why things are the way they are. Among all modern institutions, it is the university that retains space relatively free from the forces of conformity and arbitrary authority.

"It is Not Within Our Constitution to Concede Defeat"

In retirement, new opportunities have opened up for me in radical education. By invigorating the Regina branch of the Council of Canadians, I have become part of a broader movement of people that mobilized successfully against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. I was then asked by trade-union leaders to help create a Saskatchewan branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. This new initiative has gone on to generate fine research and to assist a number of local mobilizations. And, within the past two years, thanks to the skill and effort of trade-union and other activists, we were able to launch the Coalition for a Citizen Friendly Regina to build continuing alternatives to the real-estate developer model of municipal life.
Paradoxically, against the broader backdrop of political reaction, my personal life has become brighter. After an unhappy marriage, I have found love with my political comrade, Sheila Smith, a long-term Saskatchewan representative of the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists. During the Waffle era, Sheila played a formative role in creating the NDP Women's Caucus. She also edited Next Year Country and helped to build Saskatchewan Working Women. Since that time, Sheila has toiled to secure "Status of the Artist" legislation and regulations, both in Saskatchewan and nationally on the board of Canadian Conference of the Arts.

Still unrealized for all of us on the Left, however, is the construction of a socialist formation strong enough to dedicate itself to the task of replacing capitalism. In collaboration with comrades locally, nationally and internationally, the struggle for a socialist future continues, we remind ourselves of Gramsci's slogan: "Pessimism of the mind; optimism of the heart." It is not within our constitutions to concede defeat.

Originally published in Canadian Dimension, May-June 2007

1 comment:

  1. Greetings Joe, from Trumpland, where I find my memories of growing up in the 1930's gives a useful perspective, and a sense of urgency.
    ---- Joel Rothschild