Volume 50, Issue 3: Summer 2016

Rebel Youth offers depth but lacks dimension

  • Rebel Youth: 1960s Labour Unrest, Young Workers, and New Leftists in English Canada

    Ian Milligan

    University of British Columbia Press, 2014

Many readers of this magazine will remember April 1971. Some attended the New Democratic Party convention where, after four ballots, David Lewis defeated his Waffle opponent, James Laxer.

The Waffle, struggling to push an old-line social democratic party to the radical nationalist Left, was guided by a 1969 Manifesto authored by a dozen advocates of an independent socialist Canada, six of whom were Queen’s University history department graduate students and their spouses. Wafflers also took aim at the established international-union affiliated labour bureaucracy, criticizing it for eschewing militant class struggle politics.

Canadian Dimension was something of a house organ of this Waffle group. Over the course of the years 1969-1972, unmistakable Waffle New Leftists like Laxer and his economist-turned-agitator sidekick, Mel Watkins, CD editor Cy Gonick and a spirited contingent of women (among them Krista Maeots, Kelly Chricton, and Varda [Burstyn] Kidd), were given a rough musicking by the NDP establishment, one component of which was a hardened lot of trade union tops. They regarded these New Left Wafflers as a “cancer” that needed surgical removal from the New Democratic body politic. Promising “lessons in gutsmanship,” they delivered no less. Controlling party podiums, figures like Steelworkers’ boss and NDP-insider Eamon Park adopted a dictatorial and bureaucratic proceduralism to stifle critics, including young Waffle feminists who wanted policies relating to women redrafted. Cries of “Seig Heil” rang out in protest, but they were drowned in a deafening, orchestrated chorus of Solidarity Forever.

There are but faint echoes of this division in Ian Milligan’s recent account of youthful dissent and labour unrest in the 1960s and early 1970s.They tend to get muffled as Milligan loudly declares “the 1960s were labour’s decade in Canada.”

Rebel Youth is ordered by two claims. The first is that the explosion of defiant youthful anti-authoritarianism in the cultural arena, rebellious uprisings of young wildcat strikers in 1965-1966, the rise of New Left opposition and protest, and young radicals’ support for a series of 1969-1972 strikes need all be understood as “aspects of a single youth phenomenon.” This can be sustained up to a point, as long as culture trumps politics, and appearances take precedence over purposes.

The second claim is that the New Left, looking for a path out of the confusing swirl of 1960s politics, opted for Marxism and its understanding of the working class as the fundamental agent of social change. This clashed with some of the foundational premises of New Left thought, such as C. Wright Mills’s admonition to jettison what he called a “labour metaphysic.” That such a New Left orientation to the working class happened is true, as far as it goes, but Milligan addresses how this unfolded one-dimensionally.

With his eye on the labour movement and its struggles, Milligan introduces briefly the campus struggles announcing the arrival of a Canadian New Left in the mid-to-late 1960s. He then outlines the youth-led wildcat strikes of 1965-1966, springboarding into a discussion of New Left-supported class struggles in the 1969-1973 years, the better known among them being those of Canso fishermen on the east coast and battles that erupted at Brantford’s Texpack and North York’s Artistic Woodworking.

There is less that connects these two “moments” of class struggle than Milligan suggests. An argument could be made that they were actually quite different. The wildcat wave mostly occurred in the relatively well-remunerated, solidly-organized Fordist sector. It featured young workers defying recalcitrant employers, labour bureaucracies and government agencies of mediation and regulation, taking trade union entitlements for granted. In contrast, the 1969-1972 strikes addressed by Milligan largely involved poorly paid resource workers, women and immigrants, many fighting their way into the trade union movement. Where young rebels came into play in this later period was as a cast of university-educated supporters: 1965-1966 was a class upheaval, struggling to break out of corporatist containment; 1969-1972 was a rising of the marginal working class that became an education for New Left agitators.

Milligan is primarily interested in this pedagogy of the rebel youth. He identifies a cohort of New Left activists who eventually cast their lot with the trade unions. By the 1980s, this group had nailed down positions of authority and influence within the labour movement, occupying posts as organizers, staff representatives, and research directors. This animates Milligan’s claim that the 1960s lived on in later decades because a “professionalized stratum” inside the trade unions kept the flame of youthful radicalism alive.

The approach and argument are not wrong; but they are one-sided. Milligan validates a particular trajectory by raising to prominence those who came to work within the House of Labour, while bypassing somewhat others who took a different path. Not all New Leftists who cast their lot with the working class and its struggles opted for employment within the trade unions. Some chose instead to build a revolutionary Left. This was not a minor differentiation.

Milligan is particularly weak on the organizations spawned by the New Left, however brief their time on the political stage. New Leftists who played key roles in nascent parties like the “new communist,” Maoist-inflected En Lutte/In Struggle or the Trotskyist Revolutionary Marxist Group are given short shrift indeed. Milligan regards such bodies as guided by “Old Left ideology,” writing them, wrongly I think, out of the history of the New Left. The Waffle, in Milligan’s view, was not even “a New Left organization per se,” although just why this position is taken is inadequately explained.

Much of the meaning of the New Left seems understated in the process. Something has been lost to what E.P. Thompson once designated “the enormous condescension of posterity.” A history of ostensibly “blind alleys” and “lost causes” is obscured by an attraction to success and survival.

The Artistic strike, Milligan notes in an awkward phrasing that summons up separations of the struggles of the past and the commentary of the present, “became an opportunity to fight the system and act out the Marxist sociology of the time.” Acting out having taken place, belief that “a revolution was around the corner disappeared.” New Leftists were graduating into “regular” jobs. “At some level,” Milligan concludes, “people do grow up.” The struggles of the “dispossessed,” supposedly a cornerstone of original New Left activism, are dubbed by Milligan “nebulous,” never mind that the proletariat, by definition, is dispossessed. Such New Left folly as organizing among Indigenous peoples or the poor, in Milligan’s view, could have no long-term purchase on transformational politics. Trade union involvements, however, led inexorably to “permanent change.”

My point, to be absolutely clear, is not that trade union work is somehow inevitably compromised. On the contrary, it is pivotal, and the New Left turn to the working class and its organizations was vitally important. But the question is how such work within the labour movement is conducted, and what limits or extends specific kinds of involvement.

Milligan provides little if any scrutiny as to how or why New Leftists, working in paid and appointed positions in the trade unions, might have found themselves constrained and even changed, in their being and in their consciousness. Was their material relationship to the kinds of labour officialdoms that both orthodox Marxism (Old Left) and critical 1960s thought (New Left) identified as a brake on root-and-branch social transformation of any consequence?

Rebel Youth gives us an important part of the history of the 1960s and 1970s. It recovers much and helps to restore labour’s centrality to a rebellious decade. But this depiction of Labour’s New Left is something of a “one-dimensional man.”

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