It is with great happiness that we welcome the reprinting of Ian Angus’ book Canadian Bolsheviks. First printed in 1981, this book details the birth, growth, and eventual Stalinist degeneration of the Communist Party of Canada covering the period from WW1 to the mid 1930s. The party was formed by working class militants inspired by the Russian Revolution and the post-war labour revolt in Canada. They formed a new type of party – a Bolshevik party – the Canadian section of Lenin’s Communist International. Angus provides an excellent antidote to both the Stalinist “official” history and to dry academic histories that see Marxism and Leninism as identical to Stalinism. Most importantly the book details the lessons learned by the early communists while building the most successful revolutionary party in Canada’s history. In the words of Angus, “They have a lot to teach us.”
In 1914, socialists in Canada were split into two main organizations. Based in the west was the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC) and in Ontario the Social Democratic Party of Canada (SDP). Both organized about 3000 members and formally stood on the basis of Marxism.
Initially the SPC held what was known as an “impossibilist” position, rejecting reforms and any links with reformists, and only supporting revolution. While they contained many trade unionists in their ranks their activity was mainly restricted to election campaigns. Union activity was written off as mere “commodity struggles” for division of wealth under capitalism and therefore of no interest to socialists. Despite this initial sectarianism, in 1912 the SPC leadership was taken over by a group of active unionists including Jack Kavanagh, Bill Pritchard, Joe Naylor, and the labour martyr Ginger Goodwin. Under this team the SPC won the leadership of many unions and the BC Federation of Labour. One wonders what they would have to say to the present leadership of the BC Fed after the 2004 betrayal of the HEU hospital workers. The SPC’s change in policy came just in time for them to lead the heroic 1913 miners struggle on Vancouver Island which in turn helped them win the leadership of the whole western labour movement in 1919.
The eastern based Social Democratic Party was not nearly as sectarian as the SPC when it came to cooperating with other groups. However, the SDP was a far more heterogeneous party containing everything from orthodox European Marxists, east European immigrant Marxists on the left , and Anglo Saxon Christian Socialists and labour officials on the right. Another party, that while small would play an important role in later events, was the Socialist Party of North America (SPNA) with about 100 members in southern Ontario. It was even more impossibilist than the western SPC and vowed to “wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labor or avowedly capitalist”. It was initially linked with the Socialist Party of Great Britain but split ties with the SPGB over the issue of labour activity – while the British group preached socialism from the sidelines, the Canadian SPNA decided to join unions and propagandize from within.
World War I
The First World War signaled the destruction of the Second International and its decent into social chauvinism. To their credit the Canadian socialists largely retained a working class position. The SPC immediately released a declaration stating that the enemy of the international working class is the international capitalist class. The SDP issued a similar leaflet a month later with a slightly watered down position. The Social Democratic Party tried to bridge the gap between its pacifist wing and its immigrant eastern European left wing that held a position much closer to Lenin’s call to turn the Imperialist war into a Class war. The war years were tough on the revolutionary movement worldwide and Canada was no exception. A patriotic wave swept the country; union membership was down 18%, and strike statistics were at historic lows. In this situation membership in all parties declined and the SPC had to fight to retain its influence in the unions. The Trades and Labour Congress in Canada went from threatening general strike against war in 1911, to calling for the victory of the allies of Great Britain! However, the experience of war, the labour shortages, and the super-profits of the bosses, allowed the movement to start picking up its head by 1916. What happened next changed the balance of forces decisively.
The Russian Revolution
The events of 1917 in Russia came like a bolt from the blue for the Canadian revolutionaries. “This is it! This is the beginning of the World Revolution!” was the feeling. The Bolsheviks had shown the way and large sections of the Canadian left declared themselves in solidarity with the Soviet government of Lenin and Trotsky. In September 1918 the Socialist Party of North America issued a call to unite revolutionaries to form a communist party in Canada. While being positively received in sections of the SPC and SDP the call for a unity conference was cut across by the government outlawing the left later in 1918. However, Angus details evidence that an underground Communist Party was formed in 1919, uniting the SPNA, the SDP immigrant left, and some followers of anarchism. Such a make up was common for the early members of the Third International who held a variety of leftist positions. As can be seen, expressions of solidarity with Bolshevism are far from being a worked out strategy and platform. They held a detached position to the massive movements of the Canadian working class in 1919. A CPC leaflet distributed during the June 1919 Toronto General Strike began weakly, “The Communist Party of Canada is not opposed to your strike”. They held an abstract and unattractive position and the first Communist Party was eventually shattered by arrests and repression. In the coming years the Communist International would have to battle such ultra-left childishness in its early recruits.
In the west of Canada the political upturn was allowing the Socialist Party to regain a lot of lost ground in the labour movement. The 1918 convention of the Trades and Labour Congress had been dominated by eastern right-wingers and the western socialists were determined to organize against a repeat. The plan to defeat the right crystallized into the Western Labour Conference, held in Calgary March 13 to 15, 1919. The Socialist Party dominated the conference, passing resolutions demanding troops out of Russia, “Proletarian Dictatorship”, and a whole series of General Strike threats. The delegates got a little carried away though, and forgot their initial intention to plan a strategy to beat the right at the next TLC congress. Instead they voted to arrange a referendum to split away from the TLC and form the One Big Union. While the OBU is often portrayed as an anarchist syndicalist union it was in fact launched by socialists who were committed to forming a political party to overthrow capitalism. The OBU was meant merely as an adjunct to the political party. Despite all their radical words the leaders of the western movement had not thought through what concrete tasks were necessary and they were unprepared for the coming events.
General Strikes across Canada
1919 was the most militant year in Canadian labour history. A higher proportion of work days were lost due to strikes in 1919 than any year since. While the Winnipeg general strike is well known, there were also general strikes of varying duration in Calgary, Lethbridge, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Brandon, Fort William, Port Arthur, Amherst, Sydney, Toronto, and Vancouver. In fact the Vancouver General Strike lasted longer and encompassed more workers than Winnipeg. They even had more advanced demands. While in Winnipeg the struggle was essentially for union recognition and wages, in Vancouver the Socialist Party led labour council demanded nationalization, the 6 hour day, and benefits for war veterans. They vowed to continue the strike until their demands were met or the government resigned so their demands could be placed before the voters. However, the Winnipeg events deserve special analysis not because of the demands of the strikers but because of the consequences of the strike.
At its height over 30,000 workers struck in Winnipeg, far in excess of the number of unionized workers in the city. Even the police supported the strike. The strike committee had de-facto control of the city and whether the leaders of the strike liked it or not the strike had posed the question “Who shall rule?” In a true general strike nothing moves, no food, no power, nothing. In this situation the strikers are forced to take on the running of society to ensure that people do not starve. In Winnipeg milk and bread wagons came out with signs “By Permission of the Strike Committee”, a move that expressed the complete inability of the capitalists to rule. Unfortunately the strike leaders, socialist or otherwise, failed to recognize the revolutionary implications of their actions. When the powers that be fired the unreliable police and hired armed thugs to put down the movement, these leaders directed the workers to “Do Nothing” and not come out on the streets. They viewed it as just another economic strike, while the strategists of capital were waging class war. The Socialist Party leaders made no call to coordinate the different strikes across Canada, there was no effort to extend the strike committee’s authority, and no preparations for the inevitable clash with the state. The SPC proved at the most vital time that it had no strategy for revolution. In the end a provocation was organized and the police “specials” attacked unarmed demonstrators killing one and injuring many. The Winnipeg General Strike went down to defeat a few days later. The left had always viewed the victory of socialism as merely a numbers game where eventually the majority of the population would be convinced. However Russia, and now Winnipeg, had proved that the ruling class would not just sit idly by and allow their privileges to be taken from them. To take advantage of the short lived crisis, they needed a new type of party that had learned the strategy and tactics necessary to lead the workers to victory – the defeat of the 1919 Canadian labour revolt led many militants to this exact conclusion.
In 1919 the tensions within the Social Democratic Party reached breaking point. The liquidationist right-wing left the SDP to build the electoralist Independent Labour Party, leaving the pro-Bolshevik wing in control. At this time Maurice Spector, a law student at the University of Toronto, was elected to the executive of the SDP. Another significant group to participate in the founding of the CPC was a group of Labour militants around Jack MacDonald. MacDonald, a fiery speaker, was vice-president of the Metal Trades Council that initiated the June 1919 Toronto General Strike. MacDonald was elected to the leadership of the ILP, but after the party moved sharply rightwards he moved to split away the labour militant base, bringing a group of labour activists with him that included Tim Buck. The attraction of such a well know figure as MacDonald was a major step forward for Canadian Bolshevism.
Canadian Communist Party Founded
The Communist Party Of Canada was founded on May 23rd 1921. The 22 delegates met under strict secrecy at a small farm in Guelph, Ontario. They had a look-out posted on the roof of the barn in case of a police raid. The meeting lasted only a day and was unanimous on all points. They resolved to accept the discipline of the Communist International and adopted a constitution and program. Maurice Spector was elected editor of the CPC’s official paper “The Communist” and Jack MacDonald became party chair. The May convention united the majority of revolutionaries east of Manitoba in a single body; however there was only unofficial representation from the Socialist Party of Canada that was dominant in the west. A debate began within the SPC on affiliation to the Communist International with the anti-labour intellectuals opposed and with the well known Jack Kavanagh, former president of the BC Federation of Labour, leading the pro camp. The intellectuals held the view that the role of the party is essentially educational and that activity in the labour movement would get in the way of giving lectures. The debate dragged on and the decision by the CPC to launch a legal party in late 1921 forced the hand of the pro-Bolsheviks. In December 1921 an appeal was written by the CPC in order to split away the left of the SPC – local after local voted to join the Third International, along with the SPC’s main union leaders. The Socialist Party of Canada had all but collapsed by January 1922, and was disbanded in 1925.
The formation of the Communist Party of Canada made Bolshevism the dominant force in Canadian working class politics. For the first time there was a united socialist party from coast to coast. The CPC took over 90% of the eastern SDP, all of the Socialist Party of North America, and a majority of the western SPC including their trade union base. The party likely had a few thousand members. This fact stands in contradiction to the reformist idea that Marxism is somehow “alien” to Canadian life – it wasn’t until the formation of the CCF in 1933 that there was any significant national competitor for the Communist Party and if it wasn’t for the Stalinist degeneration of the party the CPC may have retained its dominant position.
While Angus does not come to the following conclusion, the history of the formation of the CPC also contradicts the tactics of many groups on the left who believe that by slowly accumulating members at the edge of the labour movement they can miraculously form a mass Marxist party. The history of the CPC shows that, in common with all the other mass parties of the Third International, it was formed through mass splits in the existing working class organizations and not from organizing outside. The political pressures (Russian Revolution, the 1919 labour revolt) encouraged a Bolshevik left wing to crystallize within the workers’ organizations. The experience of the CPC teaches us that under the hammer blow of similar events new mass revolutionary currents will form in the existing workers parties such as the NDP, no matter how bankrupt their current leadership may be.
At the beginning of the 1920’s all seemed set for the growth of the party. Revolutionaries were united as never before and were in a dominant position in the labour movement. In the second part of this review we will see how the CPC learned to throw off its ultra-left immaturity and truly engage the mass of workers. During this period there was not a single major strike without the involvement of the Canadian Communists. However, all this organizing was to lead to crisis as the Communist International was taken over by the Stalinist bureaucracy. The party stopped forming united fronts with all working class tendencies and began isolating itself from the left, labeling other groups as “Social Fascist”. In the following decade all of the original leadership, including Spector and MacDonald, were expelled to be replaced by Stalin’s yes-man in Canada – Tim Buck.
To be continued…
Canadian Bolsheviks can be purchased from the Canadian Socialist History Project.