Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 2


Canadian Bolsheviks

Ian Angus
Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of the Communist Party of Canada
Trafford Publishing, Victoria 2004, pp. 339

THE appearance of a revised and updated edition provides a welcome opportunity to draw Angus’ work to the attention of our readers. It would also be appropriate for us to record our appreciation of and interest in the work led by the same author as Director of the Socialist History Project in Canada (see www.socialisthistory.ca).

The history of the communist movement in Canada is little known. We have the story of Maurice Spector and his overnight conversion (along with James P. Cannon) to Trotskyism, of course. But the only history of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) has been the tendentious writing of the Stalinist Tim Buck. Buck’s Lenin and Canada can still be stumbled upon by the unwary, in the seedier corners of second-hand book dealers. Angus’ first edition contained a extensive demolition of Buck’s misrepresentations and distortions. In the new edition, this material is organised into appendices, which improves the narrative flow.

The origins of the CPC lay in the social democratic parties and in the émigré groups (notably Ukrainians). In this respect, Canada resembled the USA (see Cannon’s The First Ten Years of American Communism), and the most important struggle was to unify the forces. However, Canada was under British imperialist rule, and this led to the vigorous suppression of anti-war socialists during the First World War. German, Jewish and East European émigrés were particularly victimised.

The overthrow of the Tsar of Russia coincided with an upsurge in industrial militancy (which grew out of severe manpower shortages) to give a great boost to the movement. Trotsky’s War and the International achieved huge sales across Canada. The movement became polarised between social democrats who favoured the Labour Party in Britain as their model, and those who identified themselves with ‘the Bolsheviki programme’. Many of the latter organised themselves into the Socialist Party of North America (SPNA) that launched a drive towards a united communist party.

The state was not to sit idle while the workers created a revolutionary movement. In September and October 1918, all the significant left organisations were banned. Fines and imprisonment followed all across the country. Immigrants were subjected to mass internment. Although the workers counter-attacked with strikes, demonstrations and petitions, the movement was seriously impeded by this repression.

The ending of the war and the German revolution of 1919 triggered a revival, with widespread demands for an end to wartime repression and the liberation of the prisoners and internees. An underground Communist Party of Canada came into existence, issuing revolutionary leaflets. Angus provides a fascinating dissection of how this movement came about, and the leading personalities involved.

Despite further waves of arrests, the communists drove roots deep into the rich soil of the working class. There were important mass strikes in several cities during 1919. The defeat of these strikes posed the most central questions of leadership and programme for the workers. The route to unification was difficult, and it took until 1922. By then, however, the communists had organised the majority of the militant workers; Angus estimates it at 90 per cent of the former membership of the SDP. The social democrats were reduced to an ineffective rump. Deep entrists take note!

It is during this phase that the leading characters emerge who dominate the rest of the story – Spector, MacDonald and Buck. Other very interesting figures are also sketched for us, such as Florence Custance and Jack Kavanagh (who later became General Secretary of the Communist Party of Australia and subsequently a Trotskyist). MacDonald was born in Falkirk, where he won his spurs as an industrial organiser. Disappointingly, there is no mention of MacDonald in James D. Young’s new history of Falkirk.

It was Spector, MacDonald and Custance who attended the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, and on their return they completed the liquidation of the ‘underground’ CPC which had been operating through the Workers Party of Canada. Thus in 1924, there emerged onto the political stage the unified, open and legal CPC, when the WPC changed its name.

The communists applied their local version of Lenin’s tactic of seeking to work with the Labour Party. The Canadian Labour Party had been formed by an alliance of trade unions in 1917. It was too amorphous to present problems of programme to the communists, and they made successful moves towards a working-class united front in municipal and provincial elections. In 1923, they took a full and leading part in the creation of a Labour Representation Political Association, which brought them into contact with a wide range of working-class organisations.

During this same period, the communists dug deep into the trade unions. Angus gives us a detailed account of their work, led by MacDonald, among the coal miners of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

The party was less sure-footed through the major period of decline in the labour movement during the mid-1920s through to 1930. Following Lenin’s illness and death in 1923, the traumatic change of line imposed by Stalin – ‘socialism in one country’, ‘social fascism’, etc. – the party remained loyal, swallowing the defeats of the Chinese revolution and the British general strike. They got themselves into entertaining twists in relation to Canadian independence moves, looking through Stalinist telescopes to seek out the ‘progressive bourgeois’.

It was in early 1924 that Spector arrived in Moscow, having observed the defeat of the German revolutionary movement in 1923. Witnessing the style and manner of the Russian Communist Party against Trotsky and the Left Opposition, he decided to do what he could to prevent this being echoed in Canada. Buck attended the Fifth Comintern Congress and came to the opposite decision. Initially, Spector held the ground. The Canadian delegate Moriarty at the Comintern Executive Committee in 1924 was the only one who refused to condemn the Opposition. By 1927, Buck was able to drive the Stalinist line through leadership meetings of the CPC, leaving Spector isolated in his support for Trotsky, while MacDonald concentrated on local matters of organisation.

It was downhill all the way from there. Buck conducted what was in effect a purge of the party, and vigorously pursued the Moscow line on every question. Membership declined disastrously. Spector was expelled, MacDonald later resigned. The small Trotskyist movement was never able to win the influence that the CPC had achieved and thrown away.

The earlier parts of the book I found the more interesting in that they dealt with the historically-specific Canadian factors, and brought out the story of a surprisingly successful communist party. The story of Stalinist erosion of the communist parties has an international dreariness about it.

Ian Angus’ account is well supported by documentary sources at every stage, and his overthrow of the official Buck history is an important contribution to the theoretical rearmament of the class in Canada and throughout the world. We look forward to the eventual publication of his work in progress on the history of the Trotskyists in Canada.

J.J. Plant

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011