H.C. Pentland: Marx and the Canadian Question (1974)



Note: The following is a review by the Canadian Marxist historian, H.C. Pentland, of Gary Teeple’s important 1974 edited collection Capitalism and the National Question in Canada. I present it here not because I agree with all of Pentland’s criticisms — I don’t — but because of the difficulty in accessing this particular piece of writing by Pentland,  a figure whose views should be more broadly studied. Moreover, it’s a piece that makes Pentland’s relationship to Marxism more explicit than seen previously, but also shows where his particular version of Marxism lead him. 

Gary Teeple, ed.
University of Toronto Press

This is an important addition to our historical resources, marking the debut of a new generation of Marxist scholars. Writers of Canadian history have rarely taken a Marxist approach; indeed, most have often appeared reluctant even to mention the word “class”. However, Marxist scholarship has enjoyed a vigorous growth recently, permitting in Canada this substantial group effort — a mark not only of present accomplishment but, presumably, of what may be expected of Canadian Marxists in the future.

The eleven papers in this collection, by eleven authors in various combinations, vary considerably in quality and outlook, and still more in length. There are three long historical studies that demand major attention, and eight shorter pieces concerned with unionism (3), agriculture (1), minority political parties (2), and French-Canada (2).

Longest, and most basic, is Leo Johnson’s “The Development of Class in Canada in the Twentieth Century” which undertakes to trace the evolution of Canada’s objective (Marxist) class structure since 1900. As handicraft and small-scale operations have been displaced by large-scale mechanized methods of production, large portions of the petty bourgeoisie — notably “independent commodity producers” (farmers and fishermen) — have been pushed into the ranks of those seeking wage and salary employment. Thus, capitalism has proceeded, as Marx predicted, to grind small independent owners out of existence, leaving ownership of the means of production concentrated in the hands of a small capitalist class, the rest of us dependent on sale of our labour, and Canadian society quite close to the simple two-class confrontation that socialists have expected — a conclusion that should surprise nobody, but that probably does need a lot of pointing out.

This useful demonstration is marred by a good deal of looseness about concepts. Thus, “industrial capitalism” is never defined, though we are told that it was finally established in Canada by C.D. Howe during the Second World War, or by 1961 at latest. What Johnson appears to mean by it is large-scale capital-intensive production. Equally undefined, though repeatedly used, are the terms “pre-industrial” and “pre-capitalist” which evidently refer, not to a medieval economy of subsistence agriculture, but to smaller-scale methods of (capitalist, industrial) production that are common now.

Johnson more than makes up for this, however, by his full appreciation that he has raised problems, not settled them. Erosion of the petty bourgeoisie and “proletarianization” of the Canadian people has been going on for a long time: why has it not produced more class confrontation in the past, and why does it produce so little conscious proletarian action now? Is it possible that the subjective classes of American sociology, rather than the objective classes of Marx, will forever shackle Canadian workers and deliver them into the hands of capitalist-serving petty bourgeois politicians? Can one ever expect unified, decisive action from a working class deeply divided between a strongly-unionized high-wage sector and another insecure, low-wage group? Such uncertainties drive Johnson, finally, to the proposition that a socialist Canada will depend — at least in timing — on the “effectiveness of socialists in communicating the true state of society around them”. Practicing what one preaches, the present volume is such an effort in communication.

After this exploration of the fundamentals of Canada’s class structure, let us turn to two long essays that, between them, review the course of Canadian history from a Marxist viewpoint. Gary Teeple’s “Land, Labour and Capital in Pre-Confederation Canada” deals with the earlier part. It is marked by a sustained heavy emphasis on inequality, favouritism, monopoly, and speculation in the distribution of land. The correlative is the alleged impoverishment of (immigrant) labour, which is attributed primarily to the obstacles put in the way of acquiring land. These propositions have their measure of validity, but a number of important qualifications are ignored: (1) that severe hardship was a cyclical far more than a perpetual problem; (2) that small men could and (by tens of thousands did) acquire suitable farms; (3) that Irish peasant immigrants, by far the most prominent examples of impoverishment, deliberately avoided settling as farmers; (4) that the Canada Company and some other large holders did contribute substantially to the success of settlement; (5) that expansion of the area under seigneurial tenure, habitant clamour for it notwithstanding, would have multiplied the inequities and the obstacles to rural poverty.

There is one other prominent theme in Teeple’s study: Canada’s perpetual domination by mercantile capitalists. “By the 1860’s, large-scale capitalist production had not developed in Canada, and the creation of a large capitalist proletariat was thereby prevented. As long as industrial capital was subordinate to the interests and laws of the ruling class, there could be no industrial working class…” I do not agree with this reading of the pre-1867 evidence. However, it is more supportable than the propositions that Canada has never been more than a commercial empire of the St. Lawrence (until taken over recently by the American Empire), and has never attained industrial capitalism, which is the thesis advanced with great vehemence by R.T. Naylor in the other (post-1867) historical study, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence.”

Naylor fits almost exactly my image of the young Karl Marx — trenchant and provocative, well-read, fertile of mind, eminently self-confident, addicted to striking generalizations, and to tart dismissals of historians who have perceived Canada’s development differently. Typically, he starts with familiar ideas, then stretches them into unverified and often startling new territories. Thus, we have all heard of the first, French, and second, British, empire of the St. Lawrence, which Naylor says was terminated by Free Trade in 1846. The third commercial empire was the one the commercial capitalists set up in 1867, with a British imperial base and —


— with the new government of the Dominion of Canada as its local front and expediter. It was these capitalists who inspired Confederation, the Canadian Pacific, western agricultural settlement, and also the National Policy of tariff protection. Naylor insists that the National Policy could not have been inspired by an industrial capitalist interest, since none of significance existed in Canada before 1878. He rejects, likewise, the view that the growth of American branch plant industrialization was an unexpected fruit of protection, facilitated by a failure of Canadian entrepreneurship. In Naylor’s view, creation of a foreign-owned industry was the intention of “the MacDonald tariff”: Macdonald’s aim was to serve the commercial capitalists, not to build a national economy. “It was a mercantile rather than an industrial protective tariff, designed explicitly to augment the quality of productive factors available to the economy by attracting foreign capital. To the merchant capitalist ruling class, the nationality of the industrial sector was irrelevant…”

Canadian Confederation being a ploy of the ruling class, Naylor views its encroachment on the previously greater autonomy of the British North American provinces as an evil: “Liberal democracy in Canada was thus set back three decades. (!)” Nor does he find merit in the preservation of Canada from absorption into the United States; rather he expresses regret that Canada was not drawn a century ago into “the mass liberal experiment to the south.” This has to do, apparently, with a belief that, “Liberalism is the ideology of the industrial entrepreneur; industrialization breeds a philosophy of laissez-faire. But merchant capitalization works through the state structure to enforce its monopoly position.”

These somewhat misty notions have still other connections. Naylor considers that “finance capitalism” is an outgrowth and continuation of commercial capitalism. This phenomenon, its tentacles now centred in our chartered banks, has perpetually and successfully hindered Canada’s graduation to a more advanced industrial capitalism. This contrasts with Britain, where industrial capitalists were able to take control of the state in the 1830’s, despite the intense hostility of British commercial capitalism, and hold it until 1870 — after which “the old mercantile bourgeoisie in a new (finance-capital) guide” took charge again. The United States followed yet another pattern. There, various forces have kept the deadening influence of commercial-finance capitalism in check, allowing free rein for innovative risk-taking industrial capitalism — and, so, for high tariffs to serve an industrial rather than a commercial interest.

In Canada, the third commercial empire survived as “a branch plant of British imperialism” until the 1930’s when, as the imperial base weakened, it collapsed. It did so just when, in Johnson’s view, industrial capitalism at last became established in Canada. But, to Naylor, there is industry in Canada but no Canadian (owned) industry, and all that happened after 1939 was Canada’s final absorption into the American Empire. Canada has preserved a kind of distinction, though, because “Empires built on direct investment are the highest stage of capitalism.”

This is stimulating stuff. The dogmatism and far-fetched generalizations are exasperating, but must be balanced against the promise that when this author gets his welter of ideas sorted out, and has chiseled them into congruence with the historical evidence, his contribution to scholarship can be very great.

Of the eight remaining pieces, three (by Roger Howard and Jack Scott, R.B. Morris, pseud., and Charles Lipton) deal with the Canadian labour movement, and each in its own way argues persuasively that the movement has suffered great harm from American union domination and must strive for independence. Each essay, I think, is a useful contribution to the understanding of Canadian labour history, structure, and ideology. None, however, shows very clearly how American union imperialism and Canadian resistance to it fit into a Marxist conception of historical evolution.

My unfavourite essays in this book are two on Canada’s “third” political parties, and Bronson’s “Continentalism and Canadian Agriculture.” Bronson echoes both the virtues and faults of National Farmers’ union pronouncements: he decries with appropriate warmth the difficulties under which Canada’s farmers have laboured; but, in searching out the villains responsible, he fires in all directions (at agribusiness, tractor prices, rising land prices, “corporate farming”, “the mercies of an uncontrolled and manipulated market”, and the 1970 Task Force on Agriculture) — an incoherence forced because Bronson (and the NFU) cannot admit that what is really wanted is a return to a supposed age when a farmer could make a good living from a quarter section using inexpensive equipment. Unfortunately, this tends to obscure the threat that “continentalism” may indeed pose to Canadian agriculture, and the role which a militant but backward-looking petty bourgeoisie may play in a Marxist class struggle.

Teeple’s “Liberals in a Hurry” advances a well-worn theme: that the CCF-NDP (most of them, including the Waffle) have not really ben socialists but proponents of a “state capitalism” designed to check monopoly and keep the immorality and inefficiency of capitalism within tolerable limits. No doubt. But the socialist alternative is left very vague: all we get is a tantalizing rejection of such capitalist institutions as parliaments and trade unions in favour of a “direct democracy” about which no details are supplied. Teeple’s strictures would be more telling, too, if he did not perceive the CCF only as “Liberals in a hurry”, but recognized as well the Toy “social organism” component depicted persuasively by Gad Horowitz.

Naylor’s five pages on “The Ideological Foundations of Social Democracy and Social Credit” is in a somewhat similar vein. It develops, historically, from Naylor’s conviction that the domination and exploitation exercised by the commercial capitalists of the St. Lawrence (not least in the West) has been —

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— the overwhelming influence in Canada’s development to which all else is subordinate. Both the CCF and Social Credit movements were petty bourgeois rebellions against the commercial capitalists. Therefore (take a deep breath) the CCF and Social Credit are essentially indistinguishable. “Modern welfare capitalism” becomes indistinguishable from them, too, by an indeological argument, that, I must admit, I find very strained. He argues that John Stuart Mill’s belief that the laws of distribution were man-made and alterable descended not only to the Fabians but through Hobson to Major Douglas and Keynes, all of these sharing the view that the bourgeois mode of production would be very satisfactory after a little tinkering with distribution.

One of the two essays on French Canada is by Stanley Ryerson, the old pro in this group, and his “Quebec: Concepts of Class and Nation” is presented with his usual erudition and force. Nevertheless, it is more an assertion than a demonstration of Ryerson’s views, and is not without loaded phrases (“the rickety base of the colonial BNA Act”). Ryerson insists that Canada must not be one nation (French cultural and linguistic autonomy being an insufficient concession), but must become a bi-national state with the French-speaking Quebecois as one of its two equal nation-communities. However, Canada must be exactly two, not three or four or ten states — and Ryerson passes lightly over the continuing fragmentation of Canada into sovereign provinces, and the outstanding though far from exclusive contribution that Quebec governments have made to it. To the same end, we must firmly put down a recent heresy, “the pluralistic fig-leaf of ‘multiculturalism’.”

I can only say that I disagree with these propositions and that I think both history and logic (including Marxist logic) weigh against Canada’s chance of survival as two (or ten) nations, against requiring exactly two cultures and “founding races”, against insisting that 25 per cent of us must have a one-to-one relationship with the other 75 per cent, and so on. These ideas seem to fit, rather, with a conception of French Canadians as a doubly-exploited “ethnic class”. However, Ryerson devotes a valuable (and difficult) portion of this essay to examining, and rejecting, the simple identification of class and ethnic groupings. But he suggests that class divisions in Quebec are subject to a complex colouring by ethnic influences. In the course of this discussion, he also opens up a very large question by asserting that “national differences’ pre-date capitalism.

In a second, highly analytic essay on French Canada, “Social Classes and National Ideologies in Quebec, 1760-1970”, Gilles Bourque and Nicole Laurin-Frenette also direct their attention to the notion of “ethnic class” and deny that such a phenomenon exists. Rather, the various manifestations of French-Canadian nationalism that have appeared have been so many masks for petty bourgeois interests. An urban petty bourgeoisie routed its old rural counterpart in the Quiet Revolution, but split in 1964 into the “neo-capitalists” entrenched at present in the Liberal Party, and the “technocrats” who established the Parti Quebecois. These groups want workers to vote for them, but have no intention of letting their parties become genuine working-class instruments, or endangering their accommodations with the big capitalists. Someday, Quebec workers may acquire their own proletarian-nationalist ideology which, these writers say, will also have to be a revolutionary ideology, calling for the overthrow of the local petty bourgeoisie (a more senior French capitalist class is never mentioned), the “colonialist Anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie”, and the “American imperialist bourgeoisie”. The authors show no shred of interest in a unity of Canadian workers, French and English, but rather rely for this formidable struggle on “the North American proletariat as a whole”, notwithstanding the unequivocal characterization of United States’ unionism as reactionary in this very volume. In sum, despite its appearance of detached analysis, this essay is confined in its concern and its understanding to a French-Canadian society.

* * * *

In his Introduction, editor Teeple made a heroic attempt to weave these essays together into a unified analysis and to establish its relevance to the Canadian scene. Even his ingenuity, however, cannot still the criticism that, while Capitalism and the National Question in Canada says a good deal about capitalism, there is little about the National Question — and that little about the National Question in Quebec, not Canada. This may reflect the difficulty that Marxism has had, after its original emphasis on the universality of class, in finding a suitable role for nationalism. Canada seems to offer a good laboratory for Marxists who want to make an advance on this front; but it cannot be said that they have made striking headway in this book. If anything, we are left more uncertain than before how shared class interest and conflicting national interest enter into the relations between workers in Canada (Quebec) and those elsewhere.

It has to be said, also, that the application of Marxist tools is rather limited and awkward in a number of articles in this volume, and the findings frequently inconsistent with each other (as the editor puts it, “Not all the contributions would agree…”). This is not to suggest that this effort has not been worthwhile, but that in future publications, Canadian Marxists have room to be more selected, sophisticated — and agreed. As it is, the authors could devote another volume to debating among themselves their varying interpretations in this one.

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Pentland, HC. “Marx and the Canadian Question.” Canadian Forum 54 (January 1974): 26 -28. Print.