Thirty Years – 1922-1952
The Story of the Communist Movement in Canada


CHAPTER EIGHT: Working Class Unity Against Fascism and War


THE NINTH plenum of the party, held immediately after the federal elections in 1935, marked another vitally important turn in the work of the party. The seventh world congress of the Communist International had been held during July and August. At that historic gathering, George Dimitroff, the hero of Leipzig, had analyzed the meaning for all people of Hitler's accession to power in Germany. He had shown how the turn of monopoly-capitalism to policies aimed at fascism and war intensified the need for working-class unity in defence of democracy and peace. The report of the Canadian delegates to the congress was delivered at the ninth plenum by Comrade Stewart Smith, the chairman of the delegation. Quoting Dimitroff's historic report he pointed out that "the accession to power of fascism is not an ordinary succession of one bourgeois government by another, but a substitution of one state form of class domination of the bourgeoisie, bourgeois democracy, by another form -- open terrorist dictatorship . . . Before the establishment of a fascist dictatorship, bourgeois governments usually pass through a number of preliminary stages and institute a number of reactionary measures which directly facilitate the accession to power of fascism. Whoever does not fight the reactionary measures of the bourgeoisie and the growth of fascism at these preparatory stages, is not in a position to prevent the victory of fascism but, on the contrary, facilitates that victory."(1)

Comrade Smith pointed out that "the struggle for peace organized and led by the Communists, for example in France, had been decisive so far in saving the world from war.... The seventh congress of the Communist International repudiated the slander that the Communists would like to see war break out in the hope that it would bring revolution." It called upon all democratic forces to join with the Communists in defence of peace. To the question then being asked by widening circles of workers: "How can fascism be averted in the countries where it has not already come to power?" Dimitroff had announced firmly:

"The first thing that must be done, the thing with which to commence, is to form a united front, to establish unity of action of workers in every factory, in every district, in every region, in every country, all over the world. Unity of action of the proletariat on a national and international scale is the mighty weapon which renders the working class capable not only of successful defence, but also of successful counter-offensive against fascism, against the class enemy."(2)

Stewart Smith proposed on behalf of the Political Bureau that the entire line of the party, all its activities, should be directed to the development of working-class unity. He signalized the unqualified character of the party's proposal for unity by announcing the willingness of the party to support the merging of the revolutionary unions of the Workers' Unity League in the A.F.L. and the C.I.O. In the name of the Political Bureau he declared: "By trade union unity, the working class and the revolutionary movement will lose nothing but will gain much greater strength than ever before. The revolutionary unions were formed solely because in the conditions then existing they were necessary to strengthen the working class. If, now, unity can be achieved then this is in line with the whole purpose and objective of the revolutionary unions and the Communist Party."(3)

The plenum directed the party membership towards a series of new tasks, each one designed to develop the struggle for labor and people's democratic unity all over Canada.

* * *

Following the plenum, every effort was made to eliminate barriers between various sections of the labor movement and united action for peace and democratic progress. The party supported the activities of the Canadian League Against War and Fascism which had recently been organized under the leadership of A. A. MacLeod on the inspiration of the magnificent Henri Barbusse. The party sought united action with workers and farmers on all issues of concern to Canadian democrats and placed no conditions upon its participation in such united actions.

The tactics indicated by the seventh congress of the Communist International corresponded exactly with the situation created in Canada by the militancy of the new and growing C.I.O. and its fight for industrial unionism. It was clear that the path by which Canadian workers could best make gains and strengthen their effectiveness as a class was through trade union unity.

The party concentrated even more energy upon the fight to build the new C.I.O. unions. It would require too much space and it is beyond the purpose of this work to record the contributions made by Communists to the establishment and building of the C.I.O. unions in Canada -- as in the United States. Their work in Canada was typified by our late beloved Dick Steele, national organizer for Canada of the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee, forerunner of the United Steel Workers of America. Dick Steele, with Harry Hunter, Harry Hambleton, George MacEachren and other Communists built up the foundation Canadian organization of what is now the Canadian District of the United Steel Workers.

The Canadian Seamen's Union was started in Toronto by a group of militant lake seamen, typified by Dewar Ferguson. Under the personal guidance of Joe Salsberg that group of militants reached out to the neighboring ports while they were still in the process of organizing the sailors in Toronto in preparation for the opening of navigation in the spring of 1936. Within a few years the C.S.U. transformed conditions of sailors on the Great Lakes. Before the C.S.U., sailors worked twelve hours per day seven days a week while sailing; the C.S.U. won them an eight-hour day and a forty-eight-hour week. While cutting their working hours per month in half, the C.S.U. raised the monthly pay of lake sailors from $35.00 to $40.00 minimum, with time and a half for all overtime worked over the eight contracted for in any one day. Before the C.S.U. the members of crews were completely at the mercy of vicious, and sometimes sadistic, first mates. Along with improved conditions the C.S.U. established the right of seamen to be dignified and responsible members of the community operating their ship, speaking as a collective through their union committee.

The party developed a powerful campaign among the revolutionary unions of the Workers' Unity League for their affiliation to the A.F.L. and the C.I.O. There was resistance from some of the unions. In some districts millitant workers considered the independence of their unions from the reactionary officialdom of the internationals as an immediate end in itself. In some industries bureaucratic international officers placed onerous conditions upon acceptance of the membership of the revolutionary unions. Some revolutionary trade unionists had become embittered and could not stomach the idea of "knuckling down" to the reactionaries.(4) But, within less than two years, the revolutionary unions were affiliated to the respective internationals -- the self-dissolution of the heroic Workers' Unity League was complete.

The party appealed to the members of the church. It called upon its own members everywhere to combat the lying propaganda by which the capitalist class was building a barrier of prejudice between workers who followed the leadership of the Communist Party and those who followed the leadership of the church.

In French Canada the party led by Fred Rose and the Y.C.L. led by Dave Kashtan had extended their hands with appeals addressed specifically to working men and women of the Catholic faith. Emphasizing the urgent need for united action in defence of the workers, small farmers and urban middle-class people against the effects of the economic crisis and the depredations of the "Trustards," the party and the Y.C.L. had offered loyal and wholehearted cooperation in joint action, without regard to philosophical differences. Following that excellent example from Quebec, the plenum of the Central Committee declared in the name of the party as a whole:

"Equally as in the struggle to develop trade union unity, our party is faced with the task of developing still further the friendly relations that exist between us and large numbers of church people.... There is a widespread misunderstanding at the present time that we ourselves do not always do enough to dispel. Many sincere Catholics believe that the main activity of the Communist Party is to fight the church. This misunderstanding is dangerous to the whole working-class movement. . . . It is a fact that there exists a section of the leadership of the church which tends to support forces making towards reactionary policies. . . . But Catholics, as such, are not against progress; they want progressive social legislation. It is because we ourselves have not sufficiently explained our position in this respect that we permit Catholics and Protestants, members of all churches, to believe the lying slander that the Communist Party is fighting against religious people. By that lie, the enemies of the working class and democracy are able to divert thousands of sincere people away from the struggle for progress."(5)

Enumerating examples of needs and interests shared by all sections of the working class regardless of political opinion or religious faith, the statement of the C.P. reminded members of the church that those common interests "are to be seen in practically all those wants and needs and hopes and fears which are common to the whole working class and which find expression in widespread poverty, unemployment, suffering of infants and fear of the future which comes of the general and growing insecurity of life under capitalism."(6)

One of the greatest achievements of the party during that period was the transformation of its twice-weekly paper, The Worker, into the Daily Clarion. The change was more than a party achievement -- it was evidence of the growth of the united front. As the party declared in its national conference of 1936: "The measure of achievement that the establishment of a daily paper reflects is tremendous. It is not merely a manifestation of the increased strength of the revolutionary movement, but also of the broadening character of the labor movement as a whole. It reflects the fact that revolutionary workers no longer live to themselves in a narrow sect, but live, move and have wide influence in every phase of the labor movement."(7)

* * *

One of the truly historic landmarks in the accomplishments of the party during its fight for unity against fascism through the 1930's was its mobilization of all that was finest in Canadian democracy to support the democratic government of Spain.

It happened that a delegation of Canadian youth, representing the Youth Congress movement, was in Europe when the generals launched their military revolt against the newly-elected liberal government in Spain. Three of the young Canadians journeyed to Spain to see for themselves the character of the government and of the generals' revolution against it. They saw that it was a liberal government, headed by Senor Azana, a famous liberal constitutionalist. It was elected under the electoral law enacted by the conservative government that it defeated. They saw that it was supported by the overwhelming majority of the people while the rebelling generals were dependent upon aid from Hitler and Mussolini. In September, 1936, the general secretary of the party attended the Madrid discussions in which it was decided to appeal to world democracy to organize support for the Loyalist cause. Immediately upon his return to Canada, the party called for all-out aid to Spanish democracy.

Dr. Norman Bethune, a member of the party in Montreal, volunteered immediately to organize and head a field service blood transfusion unit. A national Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy was organized to sponsor and finance such a unit. The Rev. Ben Spence of the United Church, a prominent member of the Ontario Provincial Council of the C.C.F., was the first chairman of that committee. Its secretary was Norman Freed of the C.P. of Canada. The extent to which united action was being developed at that time is illustrated by the fact that the then provincial leader of the C.C.F. in Ontario, Graham Spry, was one of its vice-chairmen, Tim Buck the other. The committee included representatives of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the International Ladies' Garment Workers, the International Association of Machinsts, the Toronto and District Trades and Labor Council, the Women's League for Peace and Freedom, the League for Peace and Democracy, the Communist Party and numerous other organizations, both reformist and revolutionary.

Stimulated by the drive of Dr. Bethune and enthusiastic labor support, the blood transfusion unit was quickly organized and proceeded to Spain. The story of its work has been told elsewhere, but no history of the Communist Party of Canada would be complete without a tribute to the leader of that unit and those of his staff who served with it in Spain from the beginning to the end. It was their tireless energy, their courage and devotion that saw it through. The unit made medical as well as political history. It demonstrated for the first time in active service the possibility of storing blood and giving transfusions on the battlefield. Dr. Bethune died later, a hero's death, serving with the Chinese Red Army during its war against the Japanese invasion of China.

The other historic achievement of Canadian democracy, under the leadership of the Communist Party during that conflict, was the organization of the volunteer Canadian battalion which fought side by side with the representatives of democracy from all countries in the International Brigade. The 1,283 young Canadians who joined the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion were not all members of the Communist Party or the Young Communist League, but they were all heroes. They covered the name of Canada with glory, from Jarama to the Ebro, in the greatest battles fought against fascism in that war. Half of their number remained after the war, under the warm brown soil of Spain. Mourned by their comrades and their families, at the same time their sacrifice was a cause for pride -- it marked the maturity of true internationalism in Canadian democracy.

* * *

Maurice Duplessis won the provincial elections in Quebec in 1936 and became premier of that province. In March, 1937, he enacted his fascist, Padlock Law. Clearly the victory of the Liberal Party in the federal general elections of 1935 had not stopped the drive of the monopolists to policies of fascism and war. Indeed, as Fred Rose showed in his thoroughly documented booklet, Hitler's Fifth Column in Quebec, Duplessis' victory was part of the pattern of increasingly systematic support of the fascist trend by monopoly-capital. In addition Fred Rose made a startling exposŤ of the growing influence of fascist agents, representing the governments of both Hitler and Mussolini, in high places in Canada. He exposed the scheme by which those agents, the fascist organizations in Canada, big business, and influential Canadian politicians, all cooperated. Later, by calling public attention to the deal then being negotiated in secrecy, he compelled the federal government to take notice of the scheme which would have enabled Hitler to establish a German base on Anticosti Island -- in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence River.

During that period several open fascist organizations were launched in Canada. Some of those organizations were direct and evident imitations or subsidiaries of Hitler's Nazi party or Mussolini's Blackshirts. Such were the so-called "National Party", with headquarters at Winkler, Manitoba, and "The Blackshirts," associated with Catholic youth activities in several localities. Others, e.g., "The National Unity Party," and the fascist paper Unite, published by a subsidiary of the Catholic church in Quebec, were cunningly designed to give the impression of being spontaneous developments. All of the fascist organizations had one thing in common, however: they were lavishly financed from sources outside of their membership and they were cncouraged openly by police and other governmental authorities -- including pressure from army officers upon their rank and file to attend fascist meetings in uniform.

But while monopoly-capital and its Tory politicians were fostering "hot-house" fascist organizations, the Communist Party's struggle for united labor action to defend democracy and, peace was arousing broad democratic action. When Hitler sent his warships, the Emden and the Karlsruhe, on a visit to Canada, masses of workers and democratic middle-class people in Montreal and Vancouver joined in the great anti-Nazi protest against the desecration of Canada's territorial waters by those sinister omens of fascism and its plans for war.

* * *

During that period, and definitely related to its emphasis upon united democratic action against the effects of the economic crisis and against the growing threat of fascism and war, the party made its first substantial steps in developing unity with and among important circles of artists and other activists on the cultural front in French and English-speaking Canada. The Progressive Arts Clubs, then the Progressive Theatre movement and the progressive dance groups, were the more evident and the newly organized expressions of that democratic advance on the cultural front, but they were only part of it. During that period, the tireless and long sustained work of comrades typified by Chris Daffef, bore fruit in numerous young artists at or near the top in their professions and in working-class choirs and orchestras which command the respect of the bourgeois critics. It was during that period that Avrom's work started to demonstrate the qualitative contribution that artists and cultural Workers in general can make, both to their art and to the working-class movement, by the complete integration of themselves and their striving for ever-more effective artistic expression in the struggle of the working class and its democratic allies.

Canada's first periodical devoted entirely to the fight for development of a people's culture was launched during that period. New Frontiers could not be maintained then, but the developments in which it played a fruitful part established the basis upon which its successor, the present New Frontiers, carries on.

As part of the general expansion of progressive cultural activities there was an important advance in the cultural work of the democratic mass organizations also. The Ukrainian Labor-Farmer Temple Association, which had organized choirs, orchestras, dance groups, drama groups, sports clubs, etc., in dozens of localities during the 1920's, now gave leadership to other democratic Slavic organizations, and organized inspiring large-scale festivals of folk culture. Their festival at the Mutual Street Arena, Toronto, in 1938, with more than 1,000 participants, was a cultural milestone of national importance. It was recognized as such in the reviews by the art critics of the capitalist press. The Finnish workers also developed their cultural activities on a higher scale during that period. In addition to their local bands, choirs, drama groups, sports clubs, etc., they developed their annual Sports Festival to a great annual national event which has continued to grow. The Toronto Jewish Folk Choir had not then achieved the superlative artistic level for which it is famous today but it, as the several other Jewish folk choirs across the country, became in that period an important factor in the extending battle for a Canadian people's culture.

Equally as important as the quantitative growth of progressive cultural activities during that period, was the two-sided development in which progressive cultural activists became inspired with a new and deeper understanding of the significance of the struggle to develop a Canadian people's culture, while at the same time reaching ever-wider audiences and thereby enriching and leavening the cultural life of Canada today. It is very largely as a result of their work that there is growing at last a recognition of the fact that when an authentic Canadian national culture emerges, it will be more than the culture of the English, French, or any specific national group. It will be richer, more varied than any of them, because it will be made up of the best than can be contributed by each -- French, English, Slavic, Magyar, yes and North American Indian, etc. It Will be a higher culture; historically more advanced than any of its components because it will be synthesized only through consistent struggle to develop a truly Canadian culture in the face of the multi-million dollar outpourings of Hollywood and other cultural abattoirs of United States imperialism. Recognition of that fact and willingness to draw democratic conclusions from it is the decisive test of democratic bourgeois intellectuals of French and English-speaking Canada today. Failure to recognize it, or refusal to be guided by it, can only make cultural work un-Canadian and sterile.

* * *

The party's struggle for united action against the danger of fascism and war brought big changes in the labor movement during that period. We learned by our own experience that the fight for unity is a continuing struggle. In the course of it we improve our own understanding in the process of developing from primitive beginnings.

Most impressive demonstrations of the breadth of the united front achieved in that period were the great May Day parades and meetings. The parades, starting from various points, e.g. Riverdale Park, Dufferin Park, Stanley Park, marched across the city to converge at the University Avenue and College Street entrance to Queen's Park. On May Day, 1938, there were 22,000 marchers in the combined parade. The united front character of the demonstration is illustrated by the fact that the Rev. Ben Spence of the C.C.F. was regularly the elected chairman of the United Labor May Day Committee and Norman Freed of the Communist Party was, with equal regularity, elected secretary. United action in the trade union field was developed to a greater extent than at any time previously. The president of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada (P. M. Draper) cooperated closely with the leading Communists in the trade union movement, joining whole-heartedly in their aim to secure a wider measure of Canadian autonomy. The rise of the New Democracy Movement, headed by W. D. Herridge, marked the high point of the movement that had developed looking to unity of all democratic forces in Canada. The thesis around which W. D. Herridge sought to unite the various groupings of the labor and farmer movements was expressed in the following, from his programmatic speech made to the young Conservatives:

"Scarcity in the midst of plenty is becoming an affront to the intelligence of the man on the street....
"To gain power, fascism makes trade unionism the public enemy. To retain power, fascism must destroy democracy in this modem form....
"When fascism comes into power, trade unionism goes out....(8)

The attitude of the Communist Party towards the New Democracy Movement was stated by the eigth national convention of the party on October 8-13, 1937, as follows:

"We, in common with all progressive people, welcome the sentiments expressed by W. D. Herridge in the address from which these quotations were taken. We will do all in our power to enable him and democratic elements in both capitalist parties to implement the anti-fascist position that he, there, sets forth."(9)
"A powerful people's movement could compel King to impose special taxes upon the 'runaway' Canadian millionaires.... It could arouse the people against the scheme to give the C.N.R. to the Holt, Beatty, Bennett interests.
"A wide popular movement could secure a comprehensive Dominion home-building scheme which would provide employment and eliminate slums. It could secure a Dominion government rehabilitation fund to enable impoverished farmers to put their farms on an efficient producing basis.... It could influence King to establish friendly relations with the democratic government of Spain and to render aid to that beleaguered democracy. It could help to establish full trading relations between Canada and the U.S.S.R. . . . it could unite the great mass of the Canadian people of all shades of political opinion in its demand for the repeal of the Military Service Act."(10)

Unfortunately, however, the national leadership of the C.C.F. prevented any organized, democratic front at that time. Frightened by the increasing participation of C.C.F. members, the top leadership insisted upon the withdrawal of C.C.F. representatives from all such activities. Graham Spry, the Ontario leader, withdrew from the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. Prof. Underhill, one of the top "brain-trusters" of the C.C.F. leadership, announced that "the revolution is definitely off." The C.C.F. leadership did not decide on the basis of Prof. Underhill's analysis to disband; instead they decided to make their policies conform more closely with the aims of Canadian imperialism. They re-directed C.C.F. activities along the path which led in September, 1939, to the situation in which J. S. Woodsworth, alone, voted for the principles stated in the program of the C.C.F. against the government's proposal to take Canada into war. All the rest of the C.C.F. group voted with Canadian imperialism against the founder and leader of their own party.


(1) Reports and Resolutions, Ninth Plenum Communist Party of Canada, November, 1935.

(2) Reports and Resolutions, Ninth Plenum C. P. of C., p. 13.

(3) Reports and Resolutions, Ninth Plenum C. P. of C., p. 34.

(4) The outstanding and most regrettable example was the great Jim MacLachlan. Jim disagreed with the idea of reuniting in the internationals. He fought against it even to the length of quitting the party to the building of which he had contributed so much.

(5) Towards a Democratic Front, Tim Buck, p. 32.

(6) Towards a Democratic Front, Tim Buck, p. 36.

(7) The Road Ahead, Report to Eleventh Plenum, p. 75.

(8) Quoted in Monopoly vs. the People, 1932. p. 32.

(9) Monopoly vs. the People, p. 32.

(10) The Road Ahead, Report to Eleventh Plenum, C. P. of C., 1937, p. 29.