The impossibilists by Peter Newell


Author: Peter E. Newell

ISBN: 1847483232 – ISBN13: 978-1847483232
Published: 11 June 2008 by Athena Press Ltd (Ingram Book Distribution in USA)

Acheter/Buy: UK (£7.91) or France

Description by the editor:

Formed in January 1905, the Socialist Party of Canada’s anti- reformist, anti-statist revolutionary platform led to ideological disputes with rival socialist groups and even arguments within the Party itself over what it stood for. Peter E Newell’s absorbing and thorough account of the life and times of the Socialist Party of Canada charts the Party’s pre-history in the 1890s, when the availability of translations of the works of Marx and Engels fuelled the radicalism of such figures as Daniel De Leon. It also covers the early years of the twentieth century when, with the merger of like-minded Provincial socialist parties, the SPC was founded. In the present day the party remains a beacon for socialists worldwide for its refusal to compromise its passions and beliefs.

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2 Réponses to “The impossibilists by Peter Newell”

  1. lucien Says:

    Review in Socialist standard (september 2008):
    The SDF in Britain was a reformist organisation with a revolutionary minority (which eventually broke away). The Socialist Party of Canada was the opposite: a revolutionary party with a reformist minority. Formed in 1905 as an amalgamation of parties from the different provinces of Canada, it sought to be « impossibilist », i.e. not to seek reforms of capitalism but to advocate only the capture of political power for socialism.

    However, it couldn’t avoid the reform issue as it won a few seats in elections. It therefore had to decide what these elected socialists should do. Inevitably (and sensibly) it decided that they should use their position not just to propagate socialist views, but also to try to « advance the interests of the working class and aid workers in their class struggle against capitalism ». The trouble was the SPC’s councillors had not been elected by socialist votes alone but, precisely, as people workers considered would stand up and speak for them. When the reformists broke away from the SPC in 1911 (to form the Social Democratic Party of Canada) the SPC’s three British Columbia legislative assembly members left to join them. One, Charles O’Brien in Alberta, stayed. One of his speeches in the legislature was published as a pamphlet (which can be found at ), but he lost the next election.

    The similar position taken up by the SPGB on this issue was undoubtedly influenced by that of the SPC (even though a minority of SPGB members disagreed, arguing that Socialist MPs should never vote for any reform measure). The Canadian party probably also influenced the SPGB’s policy of writing « Socialism » across the ballot paper when there was no socialist candidate standing. This was already being advocated in 1903 by the Socialist Party of British Columbia.

    On another issue the very early SPC took up a position that was never that of the SPGB. The editor of its paper, the Western Clarion, E. T. Kingsley, argued that the trade union struggle was not part of the class struggle, but only a « commodity struggle ». This was not the view of all SPC members many of whom were active unionists. Later, some were to be jailed for their part in organising the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Other SPC members were instrumental in founding the One Big Union in 1919; which was not, as its name might suggest, a « syndicalist » union as the SPC was always strongly insistent on the imperative need for the working class to win control of political power before trying to change society.

    Like the SPGB, the SPC had no hesitation in opposing the First World War from day one – and the SPC, with some 2000 to 3000 members would have been ten times bigger than the SPGB – but the Russian Revolution unhinged it. The members of the party’s Dominion Executive Committee took the view that the working class had won control of political power in Russia in November 1917 (even though they recognised that socialism could not be the outcome, conditions not being ripe for this). This was a view shared by most members; which made them an easy prey for Bolshevik propagandists who deliberately set out, on orders from Moscow, to win over the SPC. They did not succeed, as a referendum rejected the 21 conditions laid down by Lenin for affiliation to the Third International. Those in favour of this then formed the Workers Party which many former SPC members joined (including the future Leader of the Canadian Communist Party, Tim Buck, who had even also been a member of the short-lived Socialist Party of North America whose declaration of principles Newell mentions was based on that of the SPGB). The SPC staggered on for a few more years but disbanded itself in 1925.

    Newell records all these events, basing himself on secondary sources which he usefully summarises.

    In 1931 some former members of the SPC decided to reconstitute it, accepting as its platform the object and declaration of the SPGB. There has been some controversy as to whether the new SPC was a continuation of the old. Newell argues that it was, even though other ex-SPC members went into the Communist Party and various Labour parties. Most of the members of the new SPC had been members of the old one, including a former editor of the Western Clarion and a former member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. However, two other ex-members more well known on this side of the Atlantic – Charlie Lestor and Bill Pritchard – got involved in reformist politics and did not become impossibilists again till they left Canada, the one for Britain and the other for the US.

    The new party was much smaller and had far less impact than the old SPC, but it continued to publish a journal (the present one is Imagine) and to contest elections (the last in 1978). Newell describes not just the SPC’s external activity from 1931 but also its internal life and controversies. These happened and shouldn’t be disguised, but a whole chapter on an organisational dispute in the 1960s, which raised no question of theory or policy, is possibly too much in a « brief profile ».

    Newell’s book is not just a chronicle of events. It also covers such matters as reforms, religion, Russia, war, trade unionism and so also gets across the socialist case as well as bringing together historical research.



  2. “Socialisme mondial” au Québec « La Bataille socialiste Says:

    […] de The impossibilists: A brief profile of the Socialist Party of Canada de Peter Newell (2008) traduit par nos […]


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