Notes on 48th Text for Reading Field: Laycock

Canadian History, Week 8

Prairie Oyster, “Canadian Sunrise,” posted to You Tube by PrairieOysterFan 13 April 2009. “your frozen soul … between a rock and a frigid sea running till you’re ragged and tossed, searching for something you think you’ll never find — you find out it was never lost. Crying ‘Give me a sign. Give me a sign’!”

David H. Laycock. Populism and Democratic Thought in the Canadian Prairies, 1910-1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

David H. Laycock begins his study, of the history of origins of political parties and movements on the Canadian prairies, in 1910, a time when populist practice in the prairies began to have a major impact on national politics and political competition in the region. He argues that “over several decades, Canada’s prairie region was the site of concerted and diverse attempts to reconstitute the democratic experience within the Canadian polity.” In his view this was a rich, exceptional, and valuable phenomenon. He asserts, “prairie populists contributed more to Canadian thought about the nature and practice of democracy than did any other regional or class discourse.” He sets out to evaluate and account for the successes and failures, organizational dynamics and political thought, of the various populist movements. He therefore attempts to isolate key ideas and compare and contrast the various ideologies of protest.[1]

Laycock describes prairie protest as having been divided into four distinct approaches to populism and democracy that were most notably evinced by four prominent political formations. The first variant he labels crypto-Liberal — a term coined by W.L. Morton. Cryto-Liberals sought to establish “the logic of the liberal market on the prairies.” The National Progressive party from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, “almost all provincial administrations in the Prairie Provinces from 1905-1944” and T.A. Crerare (president of the United Grain Growers Association), serve as examples. Although they were close in ideology and policy to contemporary Liberals, crypto-Liberals offered a “critique of monopoly capitalism.” Ultimately they do not appear to have been able to sustain enough distance from Liberal objectives to remain distinct.[2]

Laycock’s second populist variant is labeled radical democratic. The United Farmers of Alberta exemplify the stance. He presents them as “distinguished, above all, by a non-British parliamentary, and hence ‘radical,’ conception of democratic representation.” Essentially they were committed to establishing a directly participatory political system. They envisioned grassroots control of delegates to a state institution at the level of existing national political parties in the Canadian political process. Statist structures at the national level were considered as “artificial,” though perhaps necessary evils. Radical democrats regarded the existing system as ‘autocratic’, but thought it could be corrected through ongoing instruction and recall of delegates by the grass roots polity. Laycock finds that ultimately their logic was flawed. He notes that if their program succeeded on the basis of grass roots control, the better, efficient and (wonderfully) self sustaining society thus realized would preclude the need for any grass roots involvement at all.[3]

The third varient (and obviously Laycock’s favorite) he labels social democratic. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation is most clearly representative of this category. Laycock describes social democrats as going beyond liberal democracy in that “a redistribution of economic goods and societal resources (such as education and access to culture) among classes and communities [is effected or sought] to make equality of opportunity reality.” The redistribution is state-enforced and the state may be ‘worker controlled.’ The central point is that social democrats recognized their approach as one of political struggle for social control over the economy. Laycock argues, “Of all the prairie populisms, social democratic populism did the most to identify the character of this opposition, and to present an alternative to it.”[4].

The fourth, and most “peculiar” variant, labeled plebiscitarian, is associated with the Social Credit party. Its adherents regarded plebiscitarianism as the best means of instituting a politically reproducible, socially conscious, democratic, capitalist system. Laycock describes features of the Social Credit political experience as “unorthodox.” In his rendering they are also contradictory. For example, he describes the Social Credit approach as one which “severs the tie between represented and representatives after authorization has been granted” — this, at a time when the state and state institutions were perceived as staffed by persons whose interests were opposed to those of ‘the people.’ A change of personnel would in theory lead to a more interventionist state but, Laycock points out, at the cost of giving up rights valued well beyond what receiving state determined beneficence would confer. Although he appears to be describing a model geared to creating conditions of dependency, Laycock is of the opinion that the “passion for popular democracy” infused the movement.[5]

Laycock distinguishes and qualifies each of the four political variants in terms of six criteria.

  • The first is conceptions of ‘the people.’ In each case it appears ‘the people’ were conceived as an ‘us’ as opposed to a distant, powerful and exploitative them – usually denounced as autocratic and plutocratic oligarchies.
  • The second is ‘participatory democracy.’ It was construed in different ways, for example crypto-liberals saw participation in “narrowly instrumental terms” and preferred “business-like administration,” while radical democrats were obvious enthusiasts of local level associations operating as the movements’ directors.
  • Attitudes towards ‘cooperation,’ the third criteria, also differed – for example in the choice of political partnerships.
  • ‘The state,’ which is the fourth criterion, was conceived similarly across the board in that none of the variants were anarchist, and further, some element within each variant, felt that public ownership of various institutions and industries was desirable.
  • The fifth criterion, ‘the good society,’ was likewise commonly appreciated. Every variant wanted one; it is, after all, implicit in the idea of progress (an understanding of which they also all shared).

None of the variants were particularly clear on what exactly their utopian vision translated to in concrete terms. They did not for example address the question: “how can pluralistic, popular democracy be reconciled with a scientific state?” Such vagueness seems to have been pervasive. Laycock’s observation that Henry Wise Wood of the United Farmers of Alberta “referred to the proposal [of group government] in ways that seemed to assume his audience intuitively comprehended its more problematic features” might have been applied across the board as there appears to have been a great deal of assumption in play. Just as in other realms of ideological discourse, ambiguity seems to have enabled a wide variety of people to adhere to various factions.

  • A sixth criterion, related to the idea of a progressive, therefore necessarily scientific state, was ‘technocratic decision making.’ All the variants propounded a desire to develop a cadre of “the peoples’ experts.” Thus elites of one sort or another would inevitably become ‘closed door’ directors of policy and direction. [Even physiocrats (a system of political economy based upon the supremacy of natural order), are arguably technocrats at the level of asserting opinion as to what constitutes a ‘fact’ as opposed to an opinion.][6]

    Laycock’s extended discussions notwithstanding; there appear to be only two points on which differences regarding the six criteria he evaluates were pronounced enough to be read as distinctive in kind:

    1. whether power should reside wholly at the grassroots or at the leadership level
    2. who to cooperate with.

    At all other points there appear to be differences in degree that fluctuated over time and in accord with changing conceptions of human nature, valuations of community, the centrality of cooperation to any vision, preferences regarding the relationship between state and civil society, perspectives on politics as a dimension of public life, and expectations of progress’ immanence.

    While Laycock’s dense analytical mix is carefully laid out and there is no shortage of useful definitions, or references to other theorists, I suspect that his classificatory system led to the creation of a text that is more pedantic than it might have been. His thesis — that “some neo-Marxist writings on prairie populism” (specifically those which present hinterland response to metropolis as reaction of petit bourgeois producers to exploitation by central Canadian interests), neither “account for the diversity and richness of the opposition,” nor explain why similar phenomena did not occur in other hinterlands – is a thesis that gets lost. Compiling a long list of very fine distinctions establishes the existence of nuance in his subject, but it does not necessarily prove diversity (in the sense of noticeable, incomparability in kind). If Laycock’s intent was to hold with Ernesto Laclau and demonstrate that “while an agrarian petite bourgeois threatened by industrial capitalism is likely to express a populist ideology, it is not the only class likely to do so. Nor is it likely to appeal for change in terms addressing only its own perceived class interests,” then, in my opinion, this is an instance where less might have accomplished more.[7]

    [1] David H Laycock, Populism and Democratic Thought in the Canadian Prairies, 1910-1945. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 3, see also 133.


    [2] Ibid., 60, 23, 67.

    [3] Ibid., 69.

    [4] Ibid., 136, 137.

    [5] Ibid., 232, 266.

    [6] Ibid., 33, 39, 109, 101, 133.

    [7] Ibid., 6, 7, 16.


    “Saskatchewan – Canada’s Rectangle,” posted to You Tube by youandmedia 3 December 2008. Irreverent travelogue spoof : history of prairie socialism and ‘pinko’ farmers and dentists.


    About hallnjean

    PhD in Canadian History
    This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 8 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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