Sean Carleton, Ted McCoy, and Julia Smith
In 1844, a young Karl Marx outlined a vision for a new publication that would serve as a “gathering point . . . for the really thinking and independent minds.”1 Taking aim at what he saw as socialists’ misguided and futile efforts to predict the future, Marx stressed the importance of the dialectic and Kritik, or criticism; he believed that new ideas could only be generated by critiquing old ones. Thus, he wrote, “if the designing of the future and the proclamation of ready-made solutions for all time is not our affair, then we realize all the more clearly what we have to accomplish in the present—I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.”2
The work of Bryan D. Palmer, much-indebted to Marx, is similarly infused with a commitment to critique, not simply for criticism’s sake but as part of building theoretical frameworks and political movements for radical and revolutionary social change. For nearly fifty years, Palmer has written about the history of labour, working people, the dispossessed, and revolutionary politics, critiquing the status quo to develop new ideas and avenues for change and emancipation, fearing neither his own conclusions nor conflict with others who would disagree. He stands in the company of such historians as E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Eugene D. Genovese in the dissenting tradition of advancing socialist and Marxist politics through scholarship. None of this is an easy path. Palmer’s work reveals a life dedicated to the difficult task of understanding the past—in all of its contradictions, victories, and failures—and imagining alternative futures.
This volume explores the old and the new in Palmer’s historical work. It addresses his intellectual origins in Marxist, and specifically Trotskyist, theory and connects them to the path he has charted as a groundbreaking voice of “the new labour history.” In connecting the old and the new, Palmer has also worked toward the goal of connecting multiple contexts. This is among the most important elements of his work: bringing together histories of working people, labour organizing, Communist politics, social history, and the real possibilities (and failures) for revolutionary change. This collection adds to that project by bringing together multiple areas of Palmer’s career for discussion and debate. It includes the works of his contemporaries, his sometimes critics, and some of the students he has mentored over his career. The essays are organized roughly along the trajectory of Palmer’s research interests: from his labour history of the mid-1970s to his most recent publications on poverty and Communist politics in the late 2010s. Some essays bridge multiple areas to explore Palmer’s approaches to social history and discourse theory, and his contributions to multiple areas of research through Labour/Le Travail.
It is important to begin by historicizing the historian. For Palmer, the political and professional have always been animated by the personal. We make our own history, as Marx reminds us, but not in conditions of our own choosing, and this was certainly the case for Palmer.3 After coming of age in the heady days of the late 1960s and being schooled in New York’s radical left political circles, for Palmer, debate and dissent have always been important tools of education and activism.
Bryan Douglas Palmer was born in 1951 in London, Ontario, a medium-sized, working-class Canadian city with suburban characteristics. He grew up in a version of the 1960s that was not yet radical or revolutionary. Palmer’s upbringing bred a rebellious spirit as well as a curiosity for history and critique that would shape much of his life. “Brought up in a house without books,” Palmer later wrote, “by parents whose educations were either truncated by dropping out of high school or being streamed into practical, gendered employment and living in what could have been considered a suburban retreat from any traditions that connected the present and its antecedents, my privileging of the historical was not so much learned as it was resourced, held as a kind of antidote against what I came instinctually to regard as a barren, philistine upbringing.”4 Increasingly interested in oppositional politics and the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, he got involved with a radical study circle affiliated with the Canadian Party of Labour. After finishing high school, Palmer enrolled at the University of Western Ontario, but he was drawn more to the exciting politics of the New Left than to presentations in lecture halls. After a year of university, Palmer dropped out and travelled south to New York City, hitchhiking his way into the “tested waters of dissidence.”5
It was through activism, then, not the academy, that a young Palmer encountered “theories and texts as well as mobilisations and movements” of a revolutionary flavour.6 In New York, he immersed himself in “late-night study and affinity groups,” worked in one of the city’s bookstores, and argued “with all manner of leftists” in the radical educational experiment known as Alternate U.7 As Palmer later reflected, “Spirited, informed, passionate, sometimes angry, discussion was always comradely . . . Oppositions clarified positions.”8 In these circles, Palmer read Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Gramsci, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, but also historians such as W. E. B. Du Bois, E. P. Thompson, and C L. R. James. In post–May 1968 New York, Palmer frequented East Village bars with comrades and debated everything from anarchism and Maoism to Trotskyism, often with history as a frame of reference to guide discussion. Engaged and ruthless critique was not only welcomed, it was expected.
After a year in New York, Palmer returned to Ontario to complete his undergraduate degree. Upon graduation, he returned to New York and enrolled in graduate studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton under the supervision of historian Melvyn Dubofsky. While completing his PhD, Palmer connected with other Marxist graduate students in the United States studying history. Academic Marxism, however, proved more muted than the fiery movement debates to which he had become accustomed. At first reluctant to align himself in published work with Marxism, Palmer instead focused on studying working-class history. This environment, one that mixed intellectual debate and discussion about labour history and the politics and poetics of working-class life from a Marxist perspective, significantly shaped Palmer’s personal and professional trajectory.
Recruited by the left and trained as a historian by academics attuned to historical materialism, Palmer set out on a career committed not only to interpreting the world but, through ruthless criticism accented by historical analysis, changing it. This commitment and its influence is the subject of this volume. The contributors comment, in varying ways, on Palmer’s work and its influence, discussing and debating his contribution to various dissenting traditions. As Alvin Finkel writes in the opening chapter, Palmer is a prolific, influential, and controversial figure in the fields of left and labour history. The volume of his contributions underscores the “prolific.” He is the author of fourteen monographs, twenty-nine chapters in edited volumes, thirty research notes and review essays, and fifty journal articles. Palmer’s work has been translated into multiple languages. Between Simon Fraser University, Queen’s University, and Trent University, he supervised nearly eighty graduate students. Palmer has also been instrumental in building the field of labour and working-class history, both through his own work and his stewardship of the journal Labour/Le Travail, where he served as English-language book review editor from 1981 to 1997 and editor from 1998 to 2014 and again from 2016 to 2017.
It is also true that Palmer has been controversial: debate and disagreement are central themes that run throughout this collection. Palmer’s scholarship has been at the centre of historical and theoretical debate in Canada, Britain, and the US for more than forty years. In Canada in particular, Palmer has often been regarded as a source of objection within the profession. He has faced ongoing opposition to his Marxist analysis of the past, and has often stood on his own against attacks on historical materialism. As his flourish for debate and engagement has shown, Palmer has never needed anyone to defend his positions; however, this volume honours his scholarship and commitment to dissent, debate, Marxism, and socialist politics. This collection contains contributions from his colleagues, contemporaries, and former students—some of whom have followed Palmer’s path, and some of whom have carried forward the same debates, both political and historical, that run throughout his work. Together, the essays in this volume offer an important and timely engagement with Palmer’s scholarship, and an opportunity for new scholars to investigate the positions advanced by his research and to consider accepting the challenge of his politics.
Part 1 of this volume includes essays that discuss Palmer’s approach to what was called “the new labour history.” This was a designation both accurate and derisive, a debate that is highlighted in Alvin Finkel’s chapter on Palmer as a labour historian. Finkel positions Palmer as part of the new labour history, emerging from the 1970s as the bearer of approaches to understanding labour and the working class that generated significant debate and opposition. He traces Palmer’s contributions through the splintering of the field, as Canadian and American history matured in the 1980s and grappled with the incorporation of discourse analysis and the reification of language. Palmer was at the centre of each of these debates, and Finkel’s analysis of the fallout is a helpful primer for understanding Palmer’s contributions to Canadian labour historiography.
A chapter by Ted McCoy begins on the same terrain as Finkel but explores Palmer’s contributions as a social historian. McCoy argues that while Palmer was charting a new course in labour history, his methodologies and conclusions were concurrently expanding the horizons of social history in Canada and internationally. The chapter re-examines Palmer as a social historian and connects his labour history to his later works on discourse and marginalities and transgression.
Kirk Niergarth concludes the first section with a different perspective, positioning Palmer as historian and editor through an impressionistic and quantitative analysis of his multiple roles with Labour/Le Travail. This view is essential to understanding Palmer in the context of the historical profession in Canada.
Part 2 places Palmer in a different set of debates and links him to historical questions about experience, discourse, and class. Palmer’s relationship to Edward Thompson comes into full view through a deeper understanding of both historians. Nicholas Rogers writes an expansive chapter that directly connects Palmer to Thompson, a link that makes explicit what has always been implicit in Palmer’s work: Palmer is the author of two books about Thompson and has cited his influence in multiple places. Rogers analyzes the connection between their methodologies and conclusions about experience and agency in working-class history.
A chapter by Chad Pearson explores an area of Palmer’s scholarship that has been contentious and intensely debated but not critically analyzed. Questions about postmodernism and the linguistic turn animated Palmer’s engagement in the historical field in the late 1980s and early 1990s and thrust him into the spotlight of an international debate about the changing shape of historical scholarship. Palmer was a dissident voice in this moment, captured best in his work Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History published in 1990. Pearson revisits the debates at the centre of questions about history and postmodernism, and he argues that Palmer’s voice helped to define the limits of institutional liberalism in US history in particular.
The final chapter in this section is by Palmer’s collaborator, journal co-editor, and long-time friend Gregory S. Kealey. Kealey brings some personal context and insight into his collaboration with Palmer and uses this as a springboard into a new consideration of the connections between Palmer and Thompson around questions of the state, surveillance, and spying.
Palmer’s work as explored in the essays of part 3 will be of value to people seeking left political alternatives to North American social democracy. Palmer’s scholarship reveals a multitude of alternatives and oppositions, from his work on the legacy of E. P. Thompson, to his historical research on the revolutionary politics of American Communist James Cannon, to the direct action of modern anti-poverty struggles in Toronto. Palmer writes the history of the working class in principled terms, and this often involves setting his sights on the uncomfortable realities of failure. As Finkel also notes in the volume’s first section, Palmer’s teleology gives him the ability to critique the working-class cultures he writes about—including their misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and tacit acceptance of imperialism. These are important points, for they position Palmer’s work in an ongoing debate about how different oppressive contexts are so frequently connected.
An essay by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin explores the ways in which Palmer’s historiography connects to working-class politics in Canada. Panitch and Gindin examine the often-contentious debates in which Palmer engaged, and of which he was sometimes the subject, throughout the changing directions of Canadian history in the 1980s and 1990s. They reveal the implications of holding and defending positions in the study of working-class history and comment on the legacies of struggle and dissent that define Palmer’s work and politics. A chapter by John McIlroy and Alan Campbell addresses Palmer’s place in Communist historiography. The authors critically examine and build on Palmer’s important work in this field as they analyze the development of Communist politics in the United Kingdom and the United States. The essay is complemented by two other pieces that connect different political contexts. Sean Purdy’s chapter looks at the immediacy of working-class politics through an analysis of the 2013 June Days protests in Brazil. Like Panitch and Gindin, Purdy contrasts working-class politics with the forces of neoliberalism and confronts the realities of political struggle and failure.
The volume concludes with an essay by Sean Carleton and Julia Smith that explores strategies for rebuilding Canadian working-class history. As several contributors point out, there are fewer people teaching and studying labour history than in previous decades and this presents a substantial challenge. Carleton and Smith argue that the field can be revitalized by returning to some of the old positions adopted and advanced in previous decades by scholars such as Palmer. Returning to class analysis, building institutions, teaching labour history, and engaging the public can help ensure Canadian working-class history continues to thrive in the twenty-first century. Engaging with Palmer’s scholarship and exploring his contributions to various dissenting traditions, as this volume does, is an important part of that project.
The last word goes to the subject of this volume. In the afterword, Palmer reflects on his life and scholarship and discusses their dissident dimensions. He also responds to his critics and to the chapters in this collection, and he comments on old and new directions in Marxism and historical practice. True to form, Palmer’s words are ruthless and revelatory, and he, like Marx, would have it no other way.
- 1. Karl Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 12.
- 2. Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism,” in Tucker, Marx-Engels Reader, 13; emphasis original.
- 3. Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Tucker, Marx-Engels Reader, 595.
- 4. Bryan D. Palmer, “Introduction,” in Interpretive Essays on Class Formation and Class Struggle, vol. 1, Marxism and Historical Practice (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 1.
- 5. Ibid., 2.
- 6. Ibid.
- 7. Ibid.
- 8. Bryan D. Palmer, “Becoming a Left Oppositionist,” Canadian Dimension 39, no. 5 (September/October 2005): 58.