Halifax Media Co-op

News from Nova Scotia's Grassroots

More independent news:
Do you want free independent news delivered weekly? sign up now
Can you support independent journalists with $5? donate today!

Remember When – The League for Social Reconstruction

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Michiel Horn's The League for Social Reconstruction: Intellectual Origins of the Democratic Left in Canada
Michiel Horn's The League for Social Reconstruction: Intellectual Origins of the Democratic Left in Canada

“The present capitalist system has shown itself unjust and inhuman, economically wasteful, and a standing threat to peace and democratic government. ...[I]t has led to a struggle for raw materials and markets and to a consequent international competition in armaments which were among the main causes of the last great war and which constantly threaten to bring on new wars. In the advanced industrial countries it has led to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small irresponsible minority of bankers and industrialists whose economic power constantly threatens to nullify our political democracy.”

The League for Social Reconstruction, 1932

Prolonged economic crises are breeding grounds for radical ideas and movements. Canada during the Great Depression of the 1930s, one of capitalism’s worst crises, was no exception to this rule.

It was during the grip of the Depression that the predecessor of the NDP, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), would emerge with its labour-oriented, democratic socialist vision, making gains in the polls (Douglas MacDonald won the first CCF seat in Nova Scotia’s legislature in 1939, in the district of Cape Breton Centre) and forming the official opposition in various provinces across the country. Fed up with the two old parties and searching for alternatives, Canadians were protesting at the polls. The CCF, especially the Tommy Douglas government in Saskatchewan, was to have a lasting impact on Canadian life and politics.

But before the CCF and the party’s successes came the CCF’s “brain trust”: The League for Social Reconstruction.

The League for Social Reconstruction (LSR) was founded in 1931 by left-leaning Canadian citizens intent on changing the country’s political landscape. Made up of teachers, students, university professors, labourers, religious leaders, doctors, nurses and others from across the country including the Maritimes, the league committed itself primarily to public education and research, providing the ideas they felt would be needed to transform the Canadian economy. Maintaining at least officially its political independence throughout its decade-long existence, the LSR forged close ties with CCF insiders and made an unmistakable mark on the party and its policies.

The LSR remained a relatively small organization throughout its life. Total membership of the league never topped one thousand people at any one point between 1931 and 1942. The Toronto and Montreal branches were always the most active, although as Michiel Horn notes in his 1980 book The League for Social Reconstruction: Intellectual Origins of the Democratic Left in Canada 1930-1942, many of the LSR’s membership were Maritimers, or were at one time or another residents of the Atlantic provinces. One of the LSR’s founding members, Eric Havelock, was a professor from Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. Another active member, B. S. Keirstead, was a University of New Brunswick professor. One-time league president Jarvis McCurdy was a graduate of Dalhousie University.

The LSR membership was representative of a range of leftist views, but its philosophy was at base democratic socialist; the league’s official view was that nothing less than the replacement of capitalism would be necessary in Canada if a just political and economic order was the goal. They believed that an economic transformation could and would be achieved gradually via an evolutionary process rather than any revolutionary process of change. Along the way, the league was to be a strong voice for improved social welfare and labour legislation, including reforms for old age security, unemployment insurance and public health care.

The key influence the LSR had on the CCF was present from the beginning. Frank Underhill, one of the founding members of the league, was the primary drafter of the Regina Manifesto, the CCF’s powerful socialist programme adopted at the party’s first full national convention in 1933. Many of the Regina Manifesto talking points were lifted directly from the LSR’s own founding document.

Despite the league’s scant numbers, the output of the group was impressive. A primary achievement of the LSR was the publishing of its 1935 book Social Planning for Canada, a 528-page analytical and prescriptive literary landmark of the Canadian socialist movement. The book was a collaborative effort of various league members; at least 19 members contributed, including Dr. Benge Atlee, a Nova Scotian physician. Another book, Democracy Needs Socialism, would also be published later by the league in 1938.

The LSR used royalties from book sales to finance The Canadian Forum, a leftist monthly journal, and to produce and print other cultural and public education materials. As but one example noted by Horn, the league spent funds to reprint an educational pamphlet on cooperatives that had first been produced by the Extension Department of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. Some members completed radio lectures, and others, like Eugene Forsey, were constantly on a speaking tour circuit. Directly lobbying government departments and serving in advisory roles on various provincial and national boards occupied much time and effort of league members.

Eventually the LSR ran its course. By 1942 no active branches of the league were to be found. The war had become a distraction to many members, although mainly the energies of the individuals involved were eventually absorbed into the CCF directly. Following the post-war boom and subsequent rising living standards in the country, many of the LSR’s key figures moderated significantly in their political views.

Perhaps inevitably many of the LSR’s ideas were to become dated; the group's emphasis on the need for economic central planning was a product of the times, when the Soviet Union was still a relatively new experiment. Other ideas however seem as pertinent as ever for the left in Canada, particularly now in the post-2007 financial crash Great Recession era. The LSR’s passionate pleas for fundamental reformations, their insistence on the need for greater income equality, among many other issues, still seem timely.

The League for Social Reconstruction: Intellectual Origins of the Democratic Left in Canada 1930-1942 by Michiel Horn is available through Novanet.

Want more grassroots coverage?
Join the Media Co-op today.
971 words

The site for the Halifax local of The Media Co-op has been archived and will no longer be updated. Please visit the main Media Co-op website to learn more about the organization.