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Remember When - Social Planning for Canada

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Remember When - Social Planning for Canada

Author: The Research Committee of the League for Social Reconstruction
Published: 1935
Publisher: Thomas Nelson & Sons Limited
528 pages

Hidden away in the dusty corners of Nova Scotia’s university libraries is an old lefty tome of a book called Social Planning for Canada.

The book was first published in 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression. Back then, capitalism appeared to many to be on its last legs. Or so it seemed at least to members of the League for Social Reconstruction (LSR), the authors of the book and so-called “brain trust” of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the predecessor of the modern-day New Democratic Party.

What’s significant about a near 80-year-old text, and why remember it? Social Planning for Canada was, according to historian Michiel Horn, “the most comprehensive attempt by the Canadian left to set out an economic and social alternative to Canadian capitalism”. The book was intended to provide direction out of the Depression, and notably, to be a blueprint for a new socialist economy in the country. Fairly specific in its prescriptions, getting into the details of how a Canadian socialist economy might be organized, Social Planning for Canada was written as an unofficial political and economic playbook for the CCF.

Can the book still be of relevance for Canada’s contemporary anti-capitalist left?

Crisis economics

Living conditions during the 1930s were very poor for the majority of the population in Canada, and the first third of Social Planning is an overview of the various ways in which the economy was failing. The authors argued that the common cause of all of the issues - grinding poverty, inadequate production alongside economic wastefulness, extreme wealth inequality, joblessness, concentrated economic power, speculative finance, environmentally destructive activity - was an exploitive and unjust capitalism.

The LSR believed that the fundamental principle regulating economic production, distribution and service in the country must be human need, not private profit. As the book title suggests, the league to a large extent advocated economic planning, arguing it was the only way to turn things around in the interests of the public.

The final two-thirds of Social Planning offers specific proposals for how such an alternative economy could be organized, and outlines various steps the league thought would have to be taken to make such a transformation possible.

Superseding the profit motive

Socialists of a kind the authors were, although Marxists they were not. The league did still foresee a place for private businesses, but believed they must be a much smaller part of the economy and must co-exist amongst a mix of various forms of public enterprise. With the main exception of agriculture, the authors envisioned the majority of private enterprise being replaced by producer and consumer cooperatives, state trusts, non-profit organizations and municipal and provincial enterprises.

To the extent the LSR advocated government oversight of the economy – a substantial amount – the argument offered up was simple: economic power was already highly concentrated; the control of critical sectors should be in the hands of a democratically-controlled government, not the hands of unaccountable private sector elites.

The authors argued for the direct nationalization of various key sectors of the economy. The banks, much of the transportation and communications sectors, and power generation sectors were of key priority for nationalization in the LSR’s view. The book argues in favor of financial compensation where nationalization of economic assets was to occur.

While there would still be a reliance on markets to a considerable extent, the LSR advocated the creation of a National Planning Commission, which would largely regulate economic production. Responsible to the elected government and Parliament, the task of the Commission would be to develop an annual economic plan, to be approved by elected parties.

Social insurances and a code for labour

Beyond outlining the ways in which economic production might be reorganized, Social Planning also detailed other more immediate means by which Canadian living conditions would be improved. The LSR argued for the creation of a universal national health care system (Canada’s universal Medicare system wouldn’t be written into law for another 30 years) and a national housing strategy. Federal forms of social insurance such as unemployment insurance, sickness insurance, old age income and family allowances were advocated.

Social Planning argued for an expanded and strengthened national labour code that would provide for regulation of working hours, regulation of wages, and the removal of various legal barriers to independent collective bargaining practices. The intent of the code would also be to help establish a genuine “industrial democracy”, declared the authors, made up of independent trade unions and work councils that would have decision-making input within the various forms of public enterprise.

A reformed parliament

Contrary to many other leftist currents of the day, the authors maintained a belief in representative parliamentary democracy, albeit a reformed one; true to the long-standing position of the labour movement, the league believed the Senate of Canada should be abolished. They viewed the Senate as an undemocratic relic that would surely stand in the way of any attempt at substantial economic reorganization. Social Planning outlined a process by which the Senate could be legally eliminated (the restrictive amendment formula for the Canadian constitution at that time had yet to be established).

The LSR believed that an anti-capitalist socialist party would eventually be brought to power through the electoral system, provided enough citizens became aware of the inherent injustices of Canadian capitalism. It is clear that this – the assent of a leftist party to political power - was how the league envisioned the process of economic transformation would really begin.

Notable omissions

Despite the ambitious scope of the book, some important issues were to remain unaddressed. The situation of women in 1930s Canada goes mainly undiscussed; to their credit, the league at least notes their own failure to address this issue in the book’s introduction. To the extent that the socio-economic situation of Canadian women is mentioned in the text however, the language used is regrettably not progressive.

Further, there is virtually no mention of the situation of the aboriginal population, or the relations of the aboriginal population to others in Canada, in the entirety of the book. The question of aboriginal title and treaty rights and how these things might relate to any form of economic reorganization is ignored. This is despite the fact that the writing of Social Planning occurred at a time when conditions for aboriginals were exceedingly bad; it is worth noting that the book was published very near the operational peak of Canada’s now infamous residential school system.

Taking stock of Social Planning for Canada

During its existence, the league’s political positions were criticized from both the left and right of the political spectrum. Conservative elements characterized the LSR as the proverbial great communist threat. Actual Canadian communists of the day dismissed them as bourgeois pseudo-socialists.

Not all of the content of Social Planning will stand up to criticism today. Defects, failures and all however, the LSR’s landmark text is still memorable for its ambitious advocacy of an alternative economics for Canada. The authors went a fair distance to try and answer the perennial question: how might things be organized, if not along capitalist lines?

The unique book is a significant part of Canada’s socialist history, and can serve as a useful reference point for Canada’s contemporary left.
A dusty copy of Social Planning for Canada is available through Novanet.


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You've done well in rescuing

You've done well in rescuing this work from obscurity, Steve, and your balanced analysis of it is most helpful.

It seems worthy of note that while, as you indicate, the CCF's ideas were deemed wild and communistic by the conservatives of the era, nowadays such an assessment could be expected from the mainstream of what passes for the Left in Canada.

Thanks Antoni.

Thanks Antoni.

To the extent anything is of use when trying to form up concrete alternative proposals, I think it will be helpful. If we can't explicate in a fairly practical way how an alternative system might work I feel we will have a hard time convincing anyone that such a system is in fact possible. If a group of people can articulate an alternative though, similar to how the LSR did, maybe the ideas will be taken up.

As mentioned, some of this book won't stand up to criticism today (personally while it seems to me that some amount of heirarchical organization is unavoidable, I do think the LSR relied too much on the idea of state control of the economy); but it can be an important reference point, and source of inspiration.



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