First Published: The Forge Vol 7, No 31, September 17, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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A hot topic of discussion among many party members over the past year has been the questions of the party’s attitude towards intellectuals. The reflection has been spurred by many comments and letters from people highly critical of the Workers Communist Party’s approach.
A document taking a self-critical look at the problem was published last December in the party’s internal bulletin.
To find out more about these discussions, this reporter talked with party members about how they see the issue and what changes are in store for the future.
“Putting it bluntly, we have made serious mistakes in our attitude to intellectuals, and this has got to change,” said Ian Anderson, vice-chairman of the Workers Communist Party. “In the past, there was a good deal of disdain for intellectuals and intellectual work that led to strained relations with people in this milieu. And in general, it led us to neglect this important area of work.”
“Often we adopted a closed-door approach to debates with intellectuals,” Anderson continued. “Questions about the party’s positions would be dismissed as irrelevant, or worse still, debate was sometimes simply squashed. Needless to say this sectarian attitude did little to gain the confidence of people who take progressive stands on many issues and share a number of the party’s viewpoints.”
Anderson said he felt the problem of attitude to intellectuals touched broad areas of the party’s work, not only in schools and universities, but also work in the anti-imperialist, trade union, and popular movements.
Overall, in Anderson’s view, “We did not make enough effort to unite with progressive intellectuals and work together around specific struggles where many have long been active. There is much to learn from their experience and expertise on subjects like labour history, nuclear energy and third-world struggles. If we adopt this attitude it will help create a healthy climate to discuss and debate the wide variety of political viewpoints that intellectuals hold.”
A typical and very harmful practice, according to teachers and intellectuals interviewed was to put “labels” on intellectuals who posed questions on such important issues as the historical experience of socialist countries, the role of Stalin or the restoration of capitalism in the U.S.S.R.
“We saw their questions more as a threat than a contribution that could enrich the party’s understanding,” said Henri Lachance, a community college teacher.
“Whether we agree or disagree with someone’s views is not the point here,” commented university professor Richard Desrosiers. “The point is, are we open to debate or do we think we can resolve complex questions with a general declaration of principles or by simply reaffirming the party’s view,”
In the same vein, another professor and contributor to the WCP’s theoretical review October, Michel Pelland, said, “We have been marked by dogmatic conceptions that did not encourage the creative and critical spirit that seeks to advance the frontiers of knowledge, which is what intellectual work is all about.”
“If we want to show that the basic tenets of Marxism remain valid and relevant, then we must develop it and enrich it, said Daniele Bourassa, a writer for October. “Take the example of Frederick Engels when he examined the question of the roots of women’s oppression in his book, Origin of the Family, Engels delved deeply into all the latest research in anthropology to arrive at his conclusions.
“Similarly, we cannot be content just to quote chapter and verse from Engel’s book written one hundred years ago. We have to develop our analysis based on all the relevant, modern scientific knowledge. This is a truly scientific approach,” Bourassa said.
Pelland said that, in the past, party members in universities and colleges had concentrated on union work which is important, but at the same time, paid little attention to people doing progressive research in pedagogy, for example – research that is challenging prevailing ideology and methods in Quebec schools.
Many other examples were mentioned of important research going on in the area of ecology and pollution and studies by anthropologists into the origins of women’s oppression.
Summing up the consequences of these mistaken conceptions regarding intellectuals, Cegep teacher Lise Simard said that “not only has the party not benefited from the skills that these people can bring, but it has also deprived workers who read The Forge of many valuable insights on a gamut of issues which interest them.”
The origin of these mistaken conceptions, party members said, goes back to the early years of the organization.
As a fledging communist movement whose militants came mostly from the student and intellectual milieu, attention was naturally focused on planting roots in the working class. Without this step, party members agree, there could have been no hope of building a genuine working-class revolutionary movement.
However, they explained, it is clear with the wisdom of hindsight that in the process of breaking with prevailing bourgeois ideas and developing a proletarian outlook, there was a definite tendancy to go overboard, and swing to the other extreme.
There is broad agreement that it was necessary for some intellectuals to go to work in factories and on the need to reject a penchant for endless academic navel-gazing, the bane of the intellectual community. But this should not have meant down-grading intellectual tasks or work in this milieu, they argue.
“The idea developed within the WCP that intellectuals could only serve the revolution by denying their education,” said Anderson. “In some cases, people drastically cut back on their reading and study, thinking it ’intellectualist,’ and in some extreme cases, people even unloaded their so-called non-revolutionary books.”
This anti-intellectual attitude is a manifestation of what the Russian communist leader V.I. Lenin called “petty-bourgeois revolutionism” – a non-Marxist conception that must be overcome to advance the party’s work.
The first step in correcting an error is to understand it. Party members interviewed by this reporter cautioned that discussions about our past mistaken conceptions still needed to be deepened in the months ahead. And they expressed the hope that progressives would contribute their views to the on-going debate.
At he same time, changes are already in the works in different areas of the party’s activities.
For one thing, a big push has been, made over the past year in study and development of the party’s positions on the burning issues being debated among progressive intellectuals.
The problems and setbacks in the world revolutionary movement – sometimes called the ”crisis of socialism” – has inevitably engendered skepticism and outright cynicism about Marxism-Leninism in various circles. Many people have fundamental questions about the possibility and even the desirability of socialism in Canada.
Party members don’t want to stand on the sidelines of this crucial debate. Activists in the schools and universities, for example, said that they intend to organize forums and encourage written contributions from people to be published in October, to make the review a poll of reference in the debates.
“We want to open up the pages of The Forge and October to debate the many questions raised by the crisis of socialism and other important political issues in the peace movement, the women’s movement or the Quebec national movement,” said WCP spokesman Ian Anderson.
“And we intend to seek out contributions from progressive specialists whose research sheds light on the danger of nuclear war, the impact of technological change and a whole series of questions of concern to working people today.”