The Canadian Marxist-Leninist movement grew throughout the seventies to become a prominent force on the Canadian left. A number of organizations conducted political work on a national basis with units in all major Canadian cities. The 1980s would prove less friendly to Marxist-Leninists. A combination of external and domestic factors would shatter the movement by 1982 with the two largest organizations, In Struggle! and the WCP voting themselves out of existence.
Both organizations, despite great hostility toward one another, shared a number of factors in their final disintegration:
First was the split within the international Marxist-Leninist movement. Although the predecessor of the Workers Communist Party, the Canadian Communist League (M-L) had been recognized by Peking and the WCP still supported China, there was growing unease at the direction that China was taking. In an article answering readers’ questions about events in that country, The Forge raised concerns about some Chinese domestic policies that reversed many of the gains of the Cultural Revolution. Further, the WCP must have been shaken by the disintegration of many prominent pro-China groups, including the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) in the US and large Communist Party of Germany.
In Struggle!’s proposal to broaden debate among those M-L organizations that rejected the “Theory of Three Worlds” and the new regime in Peking was marked by failure. Both the pro- and anti-Mao factions denounced the proposal for much the same reason: each claimed that there could/should be no discussions with the other. IS! also had problems with the Albanian alternative to Peking. It wondered if the PLA really broke from previous lines within the communist movement that led to introduction of positions like the “Three Worlds Theory”. Many members also wondered if the PLA’s quick recognition of CPC (ML) was really a misunderstanding or indicative of a political line that valued dogmatism and subservience.
In short, a Marxist-Leninist movement that was united in the early seventies around support for People’s China and the Cultural Revolution was now severely fragmented and divided.
The second factor leading to the movement’s collapse was the Quebec national question. Canadian domestic politics was dominated by the national question with the election of the Parti Quebecois to government in 1976. This issue came to a head in 1980 when the PQ held its referendum to negotiate sovereignty-association with government of Canada. In Struggle and the WCP, both with a large Quebec presence, called on people to “spoil their ballot” while many progressive workers and unionists in Quebec called on the population to vote “Yes” despite what many saw as the limitation of referendum question. Thus, the M-L’s, many of whom had cut their political teeth in the left-nationalist movement of the 1960s, were defending a marginal position that left them isolated during the campaign (The CPL was the only organization that described itself as Marxist-Leninist and supported a “Yes” vote). In a vote that saw an 86% turnout, only 1.65% of the ballots were marked “invalid”. The “Spoil your ballot” campaign would later come back to haunt the WCP and assist in its downfall.
The third factor in the collapse was how Marxist-Leninists should relate to broader social movements. Both organizations developed during a period characterized by a combative labour movement and a large progressive student milieu (especially in Quebec). This led to a certain “volunteerism” and dogmatism toward the broader workers and social movements. All that was required was time and effort to make people aware of the programme or “class struggle platform” in order to win the masses. But the situation was different in the early 1980s. The union movement was in retreat during the recession; the pool of progressive people who could be potential recruits had shrunk considerably. Further, both organizations represented a political pole on the left that was not as attractive as it was a decade earlier. (It should be noted that other left tendencies did not grow during this period either). This meant that both groups now had to engage with movements rather than lecture them. This was a challenge because both In Struggle! and the WCP had defined themselves as “vanguards” to one degree or another. Without a change in perspective and tactics these groups lost their reason to exist.
The fourth factor contributing the movement’s collapse was the women’s revolt. Women in both organizations, especially in Quebec, often found themselves relegated to infrastructure tasks or had to juggle child care with being a political activist. This stress led to women to question the male-dominated hierarchy within both organizations and gravitate toward a feminist perspective that wanted to include patriarchy along with capitalism as an equal enemy of the working class. This position went a step further inside In Struggle! when some women started demanding a parallel organizational structure for women. The leaderships of In Struggle! and the WCP tried to accommodate this trend but it was too little too late.
The fifth factor was the scope of the crisis: it dramatically affected both groups horizontally and vertically. The crisis was horizontal in that much of the questioning and rejection of the Marxist-Leninist political project came from rank-and-file members and sympathizers without direction from the leadership bodies. The crisis was also vertical in that many in the leadership bodies were also questioning the political and ideological premises’ of the organizations. The most virulent denunciations of Marxism-Leninism came from Central Committee members of In Struggle! while a group of Central Committee members abandoned the WCP under the slogan “liquidate the 100% reactionary fascist WCP”.
There were, however, a few differences in the way the two groups ultimately collapsed.
In Struggle!’s crisis stretched out over a period of a year with a functioning press and organizational structure which allowed a very public debate and polemic over the future direction of the organization. The WCP because of financial difficulties collapsed overnight with very little of the political crisis being made public.
The WCP membership directed its wraith at the Political Bureau who were suspended from their positions and faced expulsion at the WCP’s second congress. While there was anger at the leadership of In Struggle!, it was never held as a scapegoat for all its problems and it was never suggested that it should be expelled.
Little is known of the fate of the smaller Canadian Marxist-Leninist organizations – most seemed to have folded by the mid-1980s. The only survivor has been the CPC (ML) which continued to support Albania until the overthrow of the PLA. It still exists to this day, now as a supporter of Cuba and North Korea.
|Index of organizations and topics in this section (by alphabetical order)|
|Marxist-Leninist Organization of Canada, In Struggle!|
|Workers’ Communist Party|
Throughout 1980 In Struggle! was becoming increasingly estranged from the international Marxist-Leninist movement with which it had always indentified itself.
Despite launching International Forum as a magazine for debate among Marxist-Leninists, translating and distributing its Appeal to the International Marxist-Leninist Movement, and meeting with other parties and groups, its calls for theoretical clarity and political unity fell on deaf ears. The groups aligned with the Party of Labour of Albania (PLA) refused to even meet with IS! because the PLA recognized the CPC (ML) as the leading party in Canada and groups aligned with the RCP, USA that still supported Mao, but denounced the current leadership in China refused to consider debate with the pro-Albania groups. The RCP-USA and a pro-Albania journal in France openly denounced In Struggle’s proposal. Despite contacting 70 organizations, only three groups – in France, Tunisia and Belgium – were interested in holding an international conference to discuss issues facing the movement.
In Struggle! increasingly began to question why a movement that was always declaring that it was reaching new heights and achieving greater victories was completely marginal or non-existent during the upsurges in Iran, Central America, and in Poland. Further, it was becoming more and more apparent that the international M-L movement was mired in a dogmatism that reduced political line to a series of appropriate quotes from the “classics”. This led IS! to broaden its concept of revolutionary organizations to include those involved in the upsurge in El Salvador and other groups such as the Irish Republican Socialist Party and the magazine Theoretical Review in the United States (which was part of the “anti-dogmatist” trend there).
At home, the 1980 referendum in Quebec absorbed In Struggle!’s time and resources. Its “spoil your ballot” campaign in Quebec was a failure. But the campaign initiated by In Struggle! to build broad-based committees to defend Quebec's right to self determination was successful in the sense that the non-sectarian and democratic methods it used to build the committees gave it credibility among the broader left.
In spring 1980, the IS! Central Committee announced that the organization was undertaking a study of socialism to research why so many previous revolutions had failed. It also began developing a more non-sectarian stance toward other movements – particularly the women’s movement. In Struggle! acknowledged that for a long time it had lumped all women’s groups under the umbrella of “feminism” without making distinctions between various forces within that or the feminist movement itself.
The study of socialism was undertaken in the IS newspaper as “Documents for the criticism of revisionism”. The series was a set of articles the offered sweeping overviews of historical periods which gave it an abstract quality. Also, there was little organization around the campaign which made it directionless. This anti-revisionism campaign helped, however, to underline the highly intellectual nature of its leadership. The new openness towards different political currents and movements meant a lack of direction as IS! seemed to adapt more and more to the mass movements in place of advancing its own programme which was being seen by more and more members as not relevant to day-to-day political struggles.
Despite the lack of direction during this period, In Struggle! still managed to function. It played a leading role in El Salvador and Central America solidarity work, even sending a journalist to El Salvador for two months and helping organize one of the first work brigades from Canada to Nicaragua in 1980. A fund-raising campaign in late 1980 managed to raise $175,000 and doubled the amount of previous contributions from English Canada (where it had always been weak).
The combination of an international Marxist-Leninist movement in crisis, the challenge of applying its programme to changing conditions and the demands of women members broke into full crisis by the time In Struggle! announced its upcoming Fourth Congress in September 1981. Some on the Central Committee, such as the newspaper editors started calling Marxism-Leninism into question; others on the CC even questioned the validity of Marxism as the crisis developed. In the rank and file rebellion was also brewing: Many women members began adopting a more feminist perspective, demanding that separate leadership structures be created to deal with women’s issues. Worker members complained of feeling left behind by many of the debates. Gay and lesbian members insisted that their demands be heard also. Many complained of a leadership that was too intellectual and divorced from the concerns of members (although there were no calls for their expulsion, as had been raised in the WCP).
There are probably very few other examples of a left organization that put its crisis into full view as did the IS!. The newspaper carried a regular column named “Food for Thought” where anyone could voice their opinion. In addition, a semi-public “Liaison Bulletin” which ran to fifty pages or more was published from the end of 1981 to the congress. Meetings were also held across Canada by IS! about its crisis, including a national conference in Montreal in January 1982.
As the congress drew closer, politically, positions were hardening. On one hand were those who called for an outright rejection of the programme. This camp included the newspaper editors, two members of the Political Bureau who published a paper called “For a more materialist view of history” and a Quebec faction named “Cahiers brouillons” (Rough Drafts Notebook). The left consisted of the Collective of 30 in Quebec and the BC region who wanted to suspend the programme, but maintain In Struggle! as a less dogmatic Marxist-Leninist organization. Other groupings such as the “Majority Consensus” grouping wanted to reject the programme and dissolve the organization in favour of a broad-based democratic socialist grouping. The Democracy Collective suggested rejecting the programme but wanted to wait until a fifth congress to adopt new political positions. The National Women’s Caucus wanted In Struggle! to adopt feminism as an integral part of its politics as a minimal basis of maintaining unity with the organization.
In Struggle’s fourth congress was held in Montreal over the Victoria Day weekend, 1982. Attendance was between 200-300 persons as many members and sympathizers had already left the organization. The Congress adopted resolutions that rejected In Struggle’s organizational structures and past political practice. These resolutions were “Resolution on our intervention in movements of struggle and among the ’masses’” “Resolution on the role and place of intellectuals in IN STRUGGLE!” and another on suspending the constitution. Resolutions from the left factions (BC region, Collective of 30, Group of Four, etc.), one to propose a new basis of unity and another on the women’s question were defeated. The fracturing of In Struggle! was further deepened when 30 women from Quebec supported the document “Autonomy must be learned! Autonomy must be taken! A call to women of IN STRUGGLE!” and left the organization to join the feminist movement. Only the resolution by the Gay and Lesbian Caucus was passed by all fractions in an effort to redress past injustices to its members. After a resolution to reject the programme was passed and with no alternate political orientation to unite the organization, a motion to dissolve In Struggle! passed with 187 votes in favour and 25 against (and 12 abstentions).
After the vote, the Collective of 30 and the BC region along with others got together to create a regroupment network to keep in contact and produce a bulletin. The bulletin came out for a few issues before differences emerged between the BC grouping and the Collective of 30 and the regroupment project ended.
The dissolution of In Struggle! marked the passing of a group which despite its shortcomings was in many respects a unique and independently-minded addition to the Marxist-Leninist politics of the 1970s.
Important decisions by April Central Committee meeting: Questions raised by the struggle for socialism: the effects on our present tasks
In Struggle! prepares for its 4th congress
Foreign experiences in revolutionary organization
Are we going about study in the right way? by a Montreal member
Preparing for IN STRUGGLE!’s congress: When and how YOU can get involved
IN STRUGGLE! women meet: An outburst of grievance, but mostly questioning hope
Is there a place for workers in IN STRUGGLE!
IN STRUGGLE! must make serious changes by the Newspaper Editor and the Correspondents Editor
Has the newspaper given up being the central organ? by a British Columbia member
“You don’t get the same view of the world from the bottom as from the top” by a Toronto member
Should we agree with everything in the programme? by an In Struggle! member
“The very existence of IN STRUGGLE! is what is at stake” by a Central Committee member
On the April 81 resolution on tasks by a Montreal cell
We need changes and a vanguard party by a BC member
Our view of democratic centralism must change by the National Apparatus Secretary and Workers Movement Journalist
Public forum on unions in BC: Who needs a vanguard party?
Quebec holds its first pre-congress forums
Reject all models by a collective of Montreal members
Should women have a separate leadership and structure by Vancouver sympathiser
IN STRUGGLE!’s first national women’s caucus meeting: ’Struggle to have debates carried on correctly’
The revolutionary movement still does not have a program by a Maritimes member
A contribution to the debate from the British Columbia region by British Columbia members
Clearing up some things about the newspaper by the Political Bureau of In Struggle!
Vancouver forum debates situation in revolutionary movement
Marxism-Leninism has been a dogmatic trend in the revolutionary movement by a Toronto member
’Build a thousand houses, not just one’ The organization of democracy by Halifax members
Reformism is not a “more materialist” approach to the struggle for socialism by the Collective of Thirty
National conference in Montreal, January 30-31: The socialist alternative in Canada
What’s happening in Albania?
To all our readers
At the January 30-31 conference: It’s time for gays and lesbians to speak out by Carole B. La Grenade
I.S.! “socialist alternative” conference: Hundreds debate socialist alternative
I.S.! “socialist alternative” conference: Serious differences over future basis of unity
Statement by IN STRUGGLE!’s caucus of gays and lesbians
Summing up IN STRUGGLE!’s work in the labour movement: a beginning
A critique of IN STRUGGLE’s position on Quebec by the Political Affairs Journalist
What is the nature of the State? by a Quebec member
Wrong tactics and structures or programme itself? What’s behind errors in our union work?
Union work leds to serious questions about programme by the former coordinator of trade union agitation in Quebec
Is MLism rigified or are people clinging rigidly to MLism? by the Editor in Chief and Correspondents Editor
Rigified ideology...or clinging rigidly to the role of ideology? by John Cleveland
A reply from the Maritimes to the BC supplement: “The problem lies in our vision of how revolution will occur here” by the secretary for the Maritimes region
Building a majority consensus for the congress: A proposal by Building a Majority Consensus
A response to Maritimes Secretary: To all comrades in the Maritimes by by the Secretary for British Columbia
We still defend Marxism-Leninism; what’s your theoretical framework? by 3 Regina members
Brief reply to the three Regina members by the Newspaper Director and Correspondents Editor
A feminist criticism of IN STRUGGLE!’s Programme by the National Women’s Committee
Feminist questions about Marxist theory by the National Women’s Committee
Should IN STRUGGLE! be dissolved? by John Cleveland
Our resolution for IN STRUGGLE!’s 4th Congress by by the Gay and Lesbian Caucus
Chronology: the “coming out” of IS! gays and lesbians by by the Gay and Lesbian Caucus
The Group of Four sums up its work
For a debate on fundamental issues by the Group of Four
Beginning to sum-up our international work
Finally, an agenda that makes sense by Members of the Democracy Collective
Will the congress resolve the debate on the programme?by John Cleveland
Building a Majority Consensus: Final congress resolutions by Building a Majority Consensus
The women’s question
Resolution on women and the stand IN STRUGGLE! (as an organization of women and men) should adopt at the 4th Congress
The question of lesbianism and homosexuality
IN STRUGGLE’s perspectives
Resolution on our intervention in movements of struggle and among the “masses”
Resolution on the role and place of intellectuals in IN STRUGGLE!
The constitution should also be set aside
Autonomy must be learned! Autonomy must be taken! A call to women of IN STRUGGLE!
In Struggle! No Longer Exists [Resolution of the 4th Congress]
A congress of confusion by Jacques Saintonge
A [4th] Congress summation from some B.C. sympathisers
For the reconstruction of a revolutionary organization
Proposal adopted at the May 24 meeting
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Nearly 3,000 people attended the Workers Communist Party (M-L)’s first rally in October 1979. Given this impressive turnout, the future must have seemed bright for the leadership, cadre and sympathizers of the newly founded party. In only four years it had expanded across Canada and its huge Quebec base made it one of the largest M-L organizations in North America.
In 1982, the WCP’s principal rival, In Struggle!, dissolved and the former wasted no time in gloating over In Struggle’s demise. In a tone that was typical of the arrogance that defined the party and its predecessor, the Canadian Communist League (M-L), a Forge article concluded “...we are convinced that Marxism remains the fundamental instrument for defining, developing and applying a revolutionary orientation. As far as we are concerned, the disappearance of In Struggle in no way contradicts this position, it confirms it.” A letter in the next issue of the paper criticized the “triumphalism” of the article and noted that many WCP militants were asking the same questions that were raised during In Struggle’s final crisis. The WCP would not exist by the time its second congress rolled around.
The Marxist-Leninist Caucus, a group that emerged briefly from the wreckage of the WCP, dates the beginning of the Party’s crisis to the summer of 1982 when the Political Bureau had to revise its political report from an overly optimistic tone to one that recognized increasing divisions in the Central Committee and membership that questioned the monolithic, male chauvinist and sectarian character of the party. This questioning was reflected in a change of tone in following issues of The Forge. Articles questioned sexist language in the paper. In even a more surprising turn around, the paper started printing articles from competing political groups and even ran, in its opinion column, an article from a nuclear disarmament activist questioning the concept of a Soviet “superpower” more dangerous than the United States. This would have been unheard of a year before.
The straw that broke the WCP’s back was the Quebec national question. The WCP had adopted a “Spoil Your Ballot” position in regard to the 1980 referendum. This position alienated it from many working class supporters who had been won to the party for its militant trade unionism. Most militant workers in Quebec generally supported independence, and despite the limitations of the referendum question, many felt that it was a first step in Quebec being able to determine its future. A WCP activist in the Quebec Federation of Labour said: “We looked ridiculous calling on people to spoil their ballots…while 99.9 per cent of the workers, especially in the QFL, were in favour of voting ‘yes’”. Issues around the national question was further exacerbated when members later found out that the membership of Political Bureau was English-speaking (the “McGill Anglophone Clique”) when the majority of the membership was French speaking.
This combination of a divided leadership, a membership pushing for change and further revelations of a heavy-handed “security committee” that acted as an internal police force caused mass resignations and supporters to leave the orbit of the party. When the WCP launched a fund-raising campaign in summer of 1982, the response was only a fraction of what it had hoped to raise. This was especially damaging since the party had always had a low dues structure and relied heavily on fund-raising to cover costs. The Forge dropped from being weekly to publishing sporadically. Its second to the last issue in December was a black and white four-page newspaper.
By the end of the year, the membership of the party was in open revolt. In a special Quebec region meeting of the party, members acknowledged its errors around the 1980 referendum and supported an autonomous Quebec wing with its own press. Delegates also turned their fury against the Political Bureau whom they blamed for the sectarian and dogmatist stands that so long defined the WCP. The expulsion of the leadership was an agenda item for its next congress.
The WCP decided at its second congress in January 1983, to continue as a broad-based revolutionary organization rather than a vanguard party – but diminished membership and finances resulted in a final issue of The Forge but nothing thereafter as the WCP melted into history.
Urgent appeal for financial aid
Norman Bethune Bookstore in Toronto closes down
Opening the doors to an understanding of socialism by Andre Noel
Debate on the Quebec national question: Discussions underway
Debate on the Quebec national question: Serious errors of chauvinism in WCP
The crisis of socialism poses fundamental questions by Daničle Bourassa
WCP in Quebec holds crucial conference
Delegates adopt a new basis of unity
Other propositions on the future of the WCP
Rehabilitation of two expelled party members
Different opinions expressed
The final issue of The Forge
Elements of a Sum Up of the WCP by the Marxist-Leninist Caucus
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