1542 A class war of words
Dissenting Traditions: Essays on Bryan D. Palmer, Marxism, and History
by Sean Carleton, Ted McCoy, and Julia Smith (editors)
Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2021
$37.99 / 9781771993111
Reviewed by Dennis Pilon
Dissenting Traditions is available for free download as a PDF, or for purchase as a print or ebook, from the AU Press website
I embarked on an undergraduate degree somewhat late, gaining acceptance to Simon Fraser University in 1990 at the age of 25. Up to then I’d lived and worked all over British Columbia, in East Vancouver, Williams Lake, Port McNeil, North Burnaby, Cassiar, Smithers, and Vancouver’s west end, wherever my family or I could find work. The BC I’d grown up in, that I’d experienced, was defined by class. We didn’t call it ‘class struggle’ but that’s what it was, whether the focus was on electoral battles between the Socreds and NDP or just coping with day-to-day indignities at work. For us, election results had visceral impact, fuelling a sense of elated victory with the rare win or, more often, crushing defeat with the many losses. My high school drop-out Dad was pretty good at explaining the practical reasons working class people should support the NDP and it frustrated my parents that more people didn’t get why it mattered. In terms of work, the key descriptors would be ‘exhausting’ and ‘arbitrary.’ After 40+ hours of shift work in mines or driving busses my Dad had little energy or enthusiasm for much else. Work literally drained the life out of him. Dinner conversations were dominated by how arbitrary and unfair management typically was. I lived through two long-term strikes as a child and nothing clears the air of fake social equality quite like a strike. In our small subdivision outside Williams Lake the strike at the copper mine in mid-1970s quickly divided the community street by street, laying bare a social rancour and bitterness previously papered over. Meanwhile my mother struggled to make my Dad’s meagre pay cover the household costs and feed and clothe six kids. Money was always a problem, primarily because there was never enough of it. I spent my early adulthood trying to make sense of all this, reading voraciously and getting involved in different political movements. But over time I came to the view that to really get a sense of the big picture I would have to go to university.
So imagine my disappointment upon arriving on campus to discover that my background and family’s class politics were now considered academically passé. In class after class in the nineties the message was the same: class analysis was reductionist and exclusionary, the working class were a hotbed of prejudice and unworthy of empathy, and attempts to focus discussion on class amounted to an unfair ‘privileging’ of class over other issues and identities. This all struck me as a bit Alice in Wonderland, so at odds was this academic discourse with my practical experience. Eventually I did find the rare academics still interested in class at SFU – Gary Teeple in Sociology, Mike Lebowitz in Economics, Donald Gutstein in Political Science – but the anchor for studies of class at that time at SFU was the History department, particularly classes with Allen Seager, Andrea Tone, and Mark Leier. And it was there that I was introduced to the work of Bryan Palmer, labour historian. The stuff we read from him focused on a different time (nineteenth century Canada) and place (southern Ontario) but what I saw was me: my experience, my family, our class and our collective struggles.
Turns out I was not alone in seeing myself in the work of Bryan Palmer. Dissenting Traditions: Essays on Bryan D. Palmer, Marxism, and History, edited by his former graduate students Sean Carlton, Ted McCoy, and Julia Smith, is a testament to his towering influence over multiple generations of students and a variety of subfields in the academic discipline of history. Contributions to this collection cover the breadth of his academic research, the academic influences on and various responses to his work, and the political commitments animating his choice of topics and style of engagement. The book is basically an engagement with Bryan Palmer’s greatest hits, all the many themes he’s taken up over this long career, from working class culture, to labour organizing and militancy, to contesting the turn to discourse in academe, to the history of communism, to uncovering stories of marginality associated with the night and the poor. But fair warning to lay readers, this is a very academic tome. A considerable amount of space is given over to reviewing the critical reception of Palmer’s work amongst academics over his long career, parsing its often unbalanced, inaccurate and ideological character. However, contra to what might be appearances, this is not just about settling scores. In defending and clarifying Palmer’s contributions, the book reveals how academe is complicit in the broader hegemonic social project of erasing working class experience and class conflict, and why Palmer’s academic output is so distinct, impressive, and important by contrast.
Dissenting Traditions is divided into three parts, excluding the introduction by the editors and an ‘afterward’ penned by Palmer himself. Part I, entitled ‘Labour,’ reviews Palmer’s contributions to the related but distinct fields of labour history and social history as well as his performance as editor of the labour history journal Labour/Le Travail. Aside from covering the content of Palmer’s research these chapters also take up the controversy that has accompanied it. In a chapter focused on Palmer’s contributions to labour history Alvin Finkel notes how Palmer has faced attacks from all sides: from conservative institutionalists, to postmodern historians, to other class-oriented labour scholars. Basically, Finkel points out, Palmer made himself unpopular by being too critical. Too critical? Isn’t critique what academe is supposed to be all about? Sure, on paper. But in practice there are (often unspoken) limits. This issue with Palmer wasn’t so much his rigorous theoretical and empirical critiques of other people’s work (though that wasn’t too popular either) but his insistence on the legitimacy of calling out and contesting different ideological positions. This didn’t go down well in the genteel middle class environment that is academe, where ‘debate’ is often about small differences and operates comfortably within small ‘l’ liberal assumptions.
In reaction, as recounted in multiple chapters here, those on the receiving end of Palmer’s critiques often spent less time on the substance of his concerns and instead focused on his style of engagement, accusing him of bullying, intolerant behaviour. Everyone contributing to this volume seems to agree that Palmer could be sharp and direct with his commentary but argue that his critique was always fixed on the work, not those who produced it. In a review of his contributions to social history Ted McCoy underlines that Palmer’s method of enquiry was pretty standard history: to uncover and counter dominant understandings of culture, discourse and marginality by showcasing concrete, historical examples that didn’t fit accepted claims about them. But academic engagement with Palmer often spent less time on the facts and his interpretations of them to mount what amounted to thinly (and not so thinly) veiled ad hominem attacks. His polemical interrogation of discourse analysis, Descent Into Discourse, upset the dominant players in the field but failed to produce a compelling response to his key points. For those of us attempting to ward off the evaporation of the material reality of class into language games in the 1990s, the book was essential reading precisely because of its careful treatment of the theoretical and methodological issues at stake (as Chad Pearson makes clear in his chapter on Palmer’s many responses to liberal anti-Marxists in this volume).
In example after example what comes through is that critics just didn’t like Palmer’s positions on class and theory and method and didn’t really want to be bothered responding to them. Academe can sometimes move in a pack-like fashion and those at the forefront of the pack can’t imagine why anyone would want to rehearse old ground and old battles. Class was so yesterday, they seemed to say, today is something else. This ‘fashion’ approach to shifting academic priorities masks an unstated consensus that does not simply disagree with the basic tenets of class analysis but – often through omission – effectively denies that any substantive ontological or methodological issues need be grappled with at all. Compare this to Palmer’s tenure as editor of Labour/Le Travail. As Kirk Niergarth reports in his evaluation of Palmer’s editorial practice, he encouraged debate and regularly featured different academic approaches, including ones critical of his own favoured views and research. As an editor Palmer would appear to have been much more tolerant than his critics gave him credit for.
In Parts II (entitled “Experience, Discourse, Class”) and III (simply dubbed “Politics”) of the collection we start to get a sense of just why Palmer is committed to both a thorough-going intellectual critique of everything and a broad inclusive approach to what the range of debate should consist of. Part of it, as Nick Rogers recounts in his chapter, was clearly the influence of E.P. Thompson: his research, books and intellectual demeanour. Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class was a model for Palmer of how to do critical and creative research on the working class. But as contributions from Greg Kealey, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, and Palmer’s own afterword make clear, Palmer has always been motivated by contemporary political struggles and the role that academic research might play in supporting them. Some of his projects were obvious interventions aimed at a more popular audience, like his analysis of the betrayal of 1983 Solidarity Coalition in BC, or the duplicitous rural strategy of corporations like Goodyear, or the successful anti-poverty politics of groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). But his more academic forays were also about recapturing lessons of radical possibility and working class opposition to their oppression. As John McIlroy and Alan Campbell make clear in their chapter on Palmer’s extensive research on comparative western communist movements, the past has many stories to tell of unfulfilled possibilities and missed opportunities. What we see here is that Palmer’s audience has never just been academics but a broader movement of the intellectual left focused on working class people, in all their diversity. And yes, sometimes his audience was working class people themselves who were looking for analysis to help them understand their world. After all, Solidarity: The Rise and Fall of an Opposition must have been a kind of bestseller; I saw it on the bookshelves of most working class activists I met in the 1990s in BC.
It is perhaps fitting that Dissenting Traditions ends with an ‘Afterword’ from Palmer himself, the pre-eminent polemicist apparently getting the last word. But as Palmer tells it, he never really assumes his word will be the last, his is just an intervention into an ongoing dialogue. That is why Palmer puts so much emphasis on engagement and answering his critics. It is also why so many of his critics misunderstand his contributions. They see his critiques and responses as attempts to shut down lines of enquiry not related to class. By contrast Palmer sees his various responses to both class and non-class-based analyses as efforts to advance the discussion, whatever the focus. He admits he could have been more diplomatic over his career and there has been a discernible mellowing of his own discourse and engagement with rival views over time. But, as this collection demonstrates, the rigour of his engagement and willingness to engage rival views has not flagged. In their closing chapter to the volume Sean Carleton and Julia Smith set out some strategies to see Palmer’s influence, and influences like Palmer’s, remain active in academe. It’s an uphill battle but one that is worthwhile, even if it only amounts to tiny fraction of what goes on at universities. It’s important because somewhere some working class kid is looking for a course that can help shed some light on their own experience.
In 2005 I started a post-doctoral position at Trent University working with Joan Sangster and Bryan Palmer. As post doc supervisors go they were pretty chill, letting me do pretty much what I wanted. But they did ask me to make a presentation at a conference on class they were putting together with the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies. At the event I gave a talk on what I called my ‘residual working class consciousness’ where I recounted the working class influences that had shaped my understanding of the world and politics while growing up in British Columbia in the 1970s and 1980s, things like my great-grandparents’ farming roots, my grandparents’ union and political party involvement, my own parents’ working class jobs and lives. But the curious and confusing thing for me was how the institutions and assumptions that sustained that identity were in the process of fading away just as I became an adult in the 1980s, leaving me disoriented and unsure where I fit in. Oh I tried various things, from political party involvement to LGBTQ activism, but nothing really connected until I arrived at York University in 1996 to do a PhD in their class-oriented Political Science Department with Leo Panitch. I felt like I had finally found a home. Bryan Palmer’s work had been crucial in steering me there and putting me on my own academic path focused on class. Dissenting Traditions is pretty good place to start to understand why.
Dennis Pilon teaches in the Department of Politics at York University in Toronto. His research takes up the historical and contemporary struggle for democracy in Canada, comparative political parties (particularly on the left), British Columbia politics, and questions of identity and representation around gender, LGBTQ people and the working class. He is the author of The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System (2007) and Wrestling with Democracy: Voting Systems as Politics in the Twentieth Century West (2013), as well as co-editor of British Columbia Politics and Government (2009) (with Michael Howlett and Tracy Summerville). Most of his research can be accessed for free on his academia.edu site. He also writes about new music at Poprock Record.
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